During Ramadan, people often don’t complete their reading (with understanding) of the Qur’an, it is common to regularly fail in contemplating the entire set of surahs. Instead they focus on other aspects of the fast, like cutting back on sin, being kind to family and strangers, remembrance of tawhid, being less materialistic, campaigning for charity etc. Very worthwhile Muslim activities. But with the Qur’an running in the background, not in the foreground.
This is strange, because Ramadan is a celebration of the Book’s reception. Ought it not be in the foreground?
But the Qur’an is not an easy book to read during your fast — and by read, I mean read with some attempt to understand its signs (by utilizing a translation, irrespective of whether indirect into English first or a “direct” translation into your own head if you know Arabic).
Almost all the Muslims I know (I don’t know that many, admittedly) do not read the entire work, preferring to dip into selective reading of passages they find appealing. Many also recite the Arabic (or participate in taraweh) without considering the meaning at all — with, I’d hope, the consequent baraka of the ritual experienced.
A reason for this is that the Qur’an, on a whole, is not an immediately uplifting or inspiring document. The Qur’an doesn’t immediately make us happy. And so a Muslim seeker would be forgiven for not following the prescription that an entire cycle of its reading be completed during the Holy Month … particularly with some attempt at “understanding” that we’d expect to be implicit in that prescription.
2. Compare and contrast exercise
Compare and contrast the following two texts:
with the translation
My heart has become able
To take on all forms.
It is a pasture for gazelles,
For monks an abbey.
It is a temple for idols
And for whoever circumambulates it, the Kaaba.
It is the tablets of the Torah
And also the leaves of the Koran.
I believe in the religion Of Love
Whatever direction its caravans may take,
For love is my religion and my faith.
Qur’an, Surat al Hijr:
with the translation
These are the verses of the Book and a clear Qur’an. Perhaps those who disbelieve will wish that they had been Muslims. Let them eat and enjoy themselves and be diverted by hope, for they are going to know. And We did not destroy any city but that for it was a known decree. No nation will precede its term, nor will they remain thereafter. And they say,”O you upon whom the message has been sent down, indeed you are mad. Why do you not bring us the angels, if you should be among the truthful?” We do not send down the angels except with truth; and the disbelievers would not then be reprieved. Indeed, it is We who sent down the Qur’an and indeed, We will be its guardian.
The former is uplifting: if you buy into its sentiment, at a purely emotional level, not an intellectual one, you will feel free, released from the burden of belief, you’ll be reminded of how close the Love is to you.
The second piece, whichever way you cut it, is not uplifting, it’s scary. It’s a fearful Semitic God lying in wait, under the sands of those deserts, waiting for the next city to fall into sin, ready with His constant threat to destroy. It’s consolation to those who swear allegiance to Him, that those who disbelieve are going to “get it” soon enough. It’s a reassurance to the Prophet (and to the reader who wants to believe in Islam) that this is not a lunatic rant, that he/she is not mad in their relationship to these words (but implicated therein is an admission that the words might at least be misread as vindictive lunacy!).
There is also the question of boredom: the Qur’an doesn’t make the reader happy due, not only to its often threatening tone, but, more often than not, can also put the reader to sleep with its enumeration of law.
Consider the following
Allah has thus enjoined you concerning your children: A male shall inherit twice as much as a female. If there be more than two girls, they shall have two thirds of the inheritance; but if there be one only, she shall inherit the half. Parents shall inherit a sixth each, if the deceased has a child; but if he has no children and his parents be his heirs, his mother shall have a third. If he has brothers, his mother shall have a sixth after payment of any bequest he may have bequeathed, or debt. You know not whether your parents or you children are more beneficial to you. But his is the law of Allah; He is Wise and All-knowing. (Qur’an 4:11)
and compare to the “Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975” of the British Government:
Application for financial provision from deceased’s estate. (1)Where after the commencement of this Act a person dies domiciled in England and Wales and is survived by any of the following persons:— (a)the wife or husband of the deceased; (b)a former wife or former husband of the deceased who has not remarried; (c)a child of the deceased; (d)any person (not being a child of the deceased) who, in the case of any marriage to which the deceased was at any time a party, was treated by the deceased as a child of the family in relation to that marriage; (e)any person (not being a person included in the foregoing paragraphs of this subsection) who immediately before the death of the deceased was being maintained, either wholly or partly, by the deceased; that person may apply to the court for an order under section 2 of this Act on the ground that the disposition of the deceased’s estate effected by his will or the law relating to intestacy, or the combination of his will and that law, is not such as to make reasonable financial provision for the applicant.
From superficial perspective (the obvious perspective), the main inspiration a Muslim might get from the Qur’an legislations is that Muhammed’s revelation was one that brought order, fairness and social cohesion to a formerly unruly group of tribes — and the political hope that similar reversals of fortune might come to, for example, countries in the third world. But the humanist/secularist is equally inspired by the UK’s legal system as a potential template for reform of corrupt regimes.
Admittedly, this is a kind of happiness and inspiration. But it isn’t direct or emotional: the immediate reaction to a list of laws is either boredom (in the case of normal people) or academic/political/legalistic interest (in the case of particularly nerdy personalities).
3. The Tailorite character of Qur’an
And so people often don’t complete their complete reading (with understanding) of the Qur’an, picking and choosing rather than contemplating the entire set of surahs. And instead they focus on other aspects of the fast, like cutting back on sin, remembrance of tawhid, being less materialistic etc. With the Qur’an running in the background, not in the foreground.
Let me summarize the Tailorite character of the Qur’an. Why is this relevant? Because the Tailorite has no problem reading and re-reading the Book from cover to cover. Because the Tailorite extracts something new each time, an engagement of reading that yields, cycle after cycle, infinite bounty.
There are four tenants of the Tailorite approach to Qur’an:
- You must approach the Qur’an with the certainty that Allah is Love. Unconditional Love. Allah is not spiteful, does not order us to kill or hurt or punish anyone. Allah does not want war, even in self-defence. Allah does not bring a threat of eternal punishment for people who do not accept Islam.
- You must approach the Qur’an with the certainty that Allah is not boring. Allah does waste our time defining blueprints for better societies: that’s the job of Caesar, Karl Marx, Barak Obama or David Cameron (it’s an ongoing and very necessary job and politicans sometimes get it right, sometimes wrong) — but it isn’t something Allah prescribes.
- You must approach the Qur’an with the certainty that it is the Eternal Word of Allah. But that it is Divine software downloaded onto 7th century flesh-hardware known as Muhammed (the man).
- You must approach the Qur’an with the knowledge that you are Muhammed, reincarnated. When the Qur’an addresses “you” in the singular, it’s God addressing your Muhammedean aspect. When it addresses “you” in plural, it’s addressing the “other” aspects of you that are operating around your soul.
Anyone who is not certain of the above two points is not a Tailorite Sufi (and may find the Qur’an difficult to complete with translation this Ramadan). That’s neither a good nor a bad thing, it’s just a categorization of a term followed by a situated opinion.
The implications of being a Tailorite Sufi are to be found throughout my writing. Again, they are neither good nor bad. I was having dinner with a group of apostates yesterday, and someone asked me “Do you believe in the Qur’an and the Prophet?” My reply was: “I don’t believe in the Qur’an and the Prophet, I have a relationship to the Qur’an and Prophet.”
The Tailorite relationship is not one of belief in Qur’an — it’s one of productivity in iqra (recitation). The logical implication of my emotional experience of Love.
Now, returning to the question of whether Qur’an should make us happy. It will not make us happy, directly. In fact, it ought to make us sad.
The problem of happiness is in the downloading process:
- Love is transmitted into the hardware of matter. Love is imprisoned within the broken signs of the cosmos. Love is therefore locked within matter. We read (all signs, not just Qur’an) to unlock that Love (baraka). The Qur’an that you hold in your hands is matter, and the Love that generated it is imprisoned within its tropes of violence, legalism, threats, discomfort and boredom. Sometimes only a radical re-reading (such as the one I am giving right now) is the best way to release that Love. When you feel hurt — say, reading a threat in Qur’an — the Qur’an itself is in a state of hurt, the “Real” Qur’an is crying out to you in hurt, that’s God’s Love hurting because there is Love trapped within that threat: and only you can release it at that moment by re-reading. It’s an intimate relationship between you the reader and the trapped Light of Love.
- Primordial failure to directly communicate (and the implications of that failure) are the story of the Qur’an, it’s the character of the Qur’an and of Muhammed (by any measure, his revelation was a failure — his family split and in fitnah, his daughter denied her inheritance, murdered his own followers, a Qur’an whose Truth was broken and scattered to politics the moment it was uttered). The Muhammedean revelation was always self-aware of this failure, it was prophezied throughout … but the failure is also the means to eventual (indirect) communication, one that we are on the cusp of bringing to a “new people”.
- At the same time, the Qur’an is, from a literary perspective, absolutely, immediately ironic, in a way that ibn Arabi or any other Sufi has failed to be. Let me put it this way. Why did God choose 7th century Arabic tropes of threat and legalism upon which to run his software of Love? Because Love is always run on a karmic hardware of suffering, of misprison. Even the ibn Arabi poem, which appears (superficially) to be pure Love incarnated in explicit words: is embedded within broken signs that still require Love to be unlocked — the “heart”, “kaba”, “gazelle”, “pasture”, “torah” of the poem are also tropes of misprison, of Love in transmission, temporarily locked in these signs, still requiring re-reading in order for Love to be unlocked. It’s not a song of ecumenical peace — it’s an electronic circuit. That’s the danger of such poetry, it fails to explicitly, immediately register the (necessary) failure of God’s initial communication act, it fails to register the shattering of that communication, the ironic misprison of Love’s broken communication attempt, into the languages we speak today. The Qur’an is the stronger poem in this regard, a deconstructed Torah of tropes each ironic performative utterances of gnostic self-prison (and potential gnostic escape). The Qur’an’s character is of a prison that ironically displays to you escape, encoded within its own bars.
And that understanding of Qur’an, occasionally, has made me happy in my sadness.