Ways to read Qur’an

These are the axioms I have taken when reading Qur’an:

  1. God is Love: Infinite Mercy.
  2. The Qur’an is Words of that Love.
  3. The “you” addressed by the Qur’an is you, the reading/reciting subject.

Axiom 1 is fundamental to me, personally. I don’t recognize any Love except Love.

I don’t recognize a God of Anger, Fear or Hatred. Even as a facet/view/Name/manifestation. These qualities are separate from God: and, in their separation, they are illusions, mara, psychological, illusory aspects of the human condition.

Axiom 2 means that surface interpretations have to be abandoned, in favour of other, non-standard readings.

For example, the punishment of God needs to be re-read: the image of entire cities that are punished for their injustices/sins, the idea of eternal hellfire for individual souls. These things make no sense from a Loving God. The implication must be that the Qur’an is referring to aspects of the self — components our being/our reading.

Axiom 3 is another way of saying: the book is to be read as referring to you, reading it.

To put it in sci-fi terms, it renders the book a trans-temporal virtual reality.

Comprehending historical context is important, but not in the sense of “extrapolating” incidents from Muhammedean times into now (e.g., the battle of Badr to be extrapolated as the general principle of fighting for justice).

In the place of extrapolation, we propose past life flashback — or, to put it in Arabic, shahada, witnessing. Witnessing is in contrast to the unknown (ghayb) past, which is brought to you, not through actual re-living of incidents, but always through the carriage of archetypes that summarize where you’ve been and who you once were (because only archetypes, forms of life, are carried with you from one body to the next). (And when we say body, we mean body in both the biological sense, but also bodies of understanding, or even the matter of signs on a page.)

These are tidings of the unknown (ghayb) which We reveal to you. You did not know them nor did your people before this. So be patient; the end is for the pious. (11:49)

Alternative axioms

In the past, I’ve been confronted with how implausible my reading appears to Muslims. More recently, I’m starting to doubt the plausibility myself: acknowledging (immodestly) the creativity of the Tailor’s re-reading, but also acknowledging the authenticity and indigenous rights of the standard readings found within the religion of Islam.

For me, the most appealing of these more mainstream readings of Qur’an are to be found within the schools of Islamic Sufism.

Within these schools, plausible readings of (for example) God-as-punishment, God-as-wrath are admissible, because Islamic Sufis (I suspect) do not admit Axiom 1. Their Allah is more than “just” Love: their Allah, rather, encompasses all the Names, including punishment, wrath and so on. While complete in Mercy (the Creation is Infinite Mercy to us), Allah has theophanic manifestations into our reality, into the text of Qur’an, in infinite forms, guises, aspects: including Fearfulness, as Punisher, as Wrath.

For the Sufi (as I understand), everything is a theophanic manifestation of Allah, because everything is Allah. Everything, “good” or “bad”. When we see an army slaying civilians, that is a theophanic aspect of Allah as Al-Mumit, the destroyer. When your wife is giving birth to your child, that is a theophany of Allah as Al-Muhyiy, the giver of life.

The implication of this view of God is that all readings of Qur’an are admissible: it’s literally a relationship to the different Names. Its wild shifts from Mercy to Wrath (and everything in between) are to be taken as theophanies of the Names: as the Word of Multiplicity (of Everything), of course the Qur’an will have this schizoid character. In particular, when you read Qur’an’s shariah in a “literal” way as a blueprint for social justice, that’s a theophanic relationship to Allah as Az-Zahir, the outer Truth. When you approach Qur’an as a treasure trove of metaphor and allusion to deeper realities, that’s a theophany of Allah as Al-Batin.

While appealing, I’m too much of a Christian Gnostic to accept this view of God. For me, there is a fundamental disconnect between the True, Single, Higher Love and the Attributes of Material Creation. “My” God would rather sacrifice Himself on a cross to save humanity for its sins, rather than manifest Himself as an Army, a murderer, a natural disaster, etc. To be more specific, I accept the manifestation of Love in these forms, but not as a straightforward theophany, but rather as a Divine crucifixion within matter. When an army kills: that’s God’s Logos crucified upon the cross of Al-Mumit. It’s not God’s expression suddenly shifting in theophanic flux: it’s a tragedy of Light’s misprison within matter. Love in such surplus of Love that it entraps itself in it’s own Mercy: God “misstepping” (temporarily, temporally).

Axiom 1 essentially curtails the modes of reading we might obtain from Axioms 2 and 3. It renders implausibility the only avenue, in many cases.

We can, of course, (personally) retain Axiom 1 and abandon or Axiom 2 in exchange for plausible reading: but the implication would necessarily be to read Qur’an as misprison — again, a route taken by some Gnostics in relation to Torah (remnants of that Doctrine are still found within mainstream Christianity, in the idea of two covenants and the division between Torah’s Elohim and Gospel’s Father).


8 thoughts on “Ways to read Qur’an

    1. I read “hell/fire” as a purging of aspects of the self — negative things, like attachment, illusion and so on. I think “bits” of our selfhood die every moment (and across lifetimes as well), and are thrown into that fire. But the true self is what emerges from that process.

      I believe that Yawm Al Qiyama is both an “ongoing” reality and also a “final” destination. It’s like a limit — all life in the world is limited and can only be comprehended with respect to that Day.

      But that, inasmuch as the self/soul exists, its true individual aspect is admitted to gardens, while its negative accumulation is discarded and “burnt off”.

      Basically that’s an implication of my belief that God is Love — and there are Adamic soul fragments within each one of us, which return to that Love in the end. So, from an individual perspective, I can’t accept punishment of any “real” aspect of our selfhood — only of the “illusory” bits.

  1. My understanding of christian gnostics was that they thought of the material world as evil, and rather it was the opposing neoplatonists that insisted upon the Good in all.
    In any case, both solutions can answer the charge of the problem of evil so I don’t know if there’s a need to choose.

    1. Ah, yes, you’ve hit on my somewhat idiosyncratic reading of early Gnostic scripture.

      Delete “world” from what you just wrote and exchange it with “Qu’ran/Torah” and then my characterisation stands. I’m specifically reflecting on how “far” I go with the Qur’an — not about the world or even the problem of evil in the world, only in the Qur’an itself. (Gosh, the world would be an even bigger problem, wouldn’t it?!)

      Do I continue to a) treat it as fertile ground, denying the pragmatism of Islamic historical contextualization or b) accept it as a document with an historical context and, therefore, by my axioms, something of a prison for Truth. Either way, I’m reading, either way, I’ll be relating to the text … but do I continue to read as a Gnostic, somewhat unsympathetically, or as a Sufi, in complete sympathy?

  2. Well, I am also curious to know the answer to that question. Perhaps the answer rests on how much ontological weight you want to give to the quran-as-book compared to the quran-as-world.

    1. Well, as you might have followed in my recent Ramadan posts (though they are not really very self-explanatory) — I certainly distinguish between the Book and the Qur’an (as recitation). The Book is almost part of the Godhead, while the Qur’an is much more “of the world”. I believe one flows into the other (downwards). But it gets confusingly self-reflexive because both Book/Womb and Qur’an/World are terms positioned within the Qur’an/World — so how can I really know the Book/Womb?

      And what happens when my Qur’an/World appears barren? I think I arrived at an answer that has temporarily satisfied me — in the last post on Zakariyah (and then Mary) … At least I believe Zak faces exactly this problem we are discussing.

  3. Hazrat Inayat Khan tells the following story – Every person creates his own heaven and hell. A disciple once asked his murshid, ‘Pray, Murshid, let me see heaven in a vision.’ The murshid said, ‘Go into the next room, child, and sit and close your eyes and you will see heaven.’ The mureed went into the next room and sat in meditation. He saw in his vision a large area but nothing else. There were no rivers of honey and seas of milk, nor bricks of ruby, nor roofs of diamonds. He went to his murshid and said, ‘Thank you, Murshid. Now I have seen heaven, I should like to see hell.’ The murshid said, ‘Very well; do the same again.’ The disciple went into the next room and sat in his meditation, and again he saw a large area, but nothing in it, no snakes, no fire, no devils nor cruel animals, nothing. He went to the murshid and said, ‘I saw an area, but again there was nothing in it.’ The murshid said, ‘Child, did you expect that the rivers of honey and the seas of milk would be there, or the snakes or the fire in hell? No. There is nothing there; you will have to take everything from here. This is the place to gather everything, either the delights of heaven or the fires of hell.’

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