“Read in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created — created man out of a germ-cell!
Read — for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One who has taught (man) the use of the pen — taught man what he did not know.”
Qur’an 96:1-5 (Asad)
I’m inspired to write this week because of a convergence of recent incidents that reminded me how uninformed most Americans are about the Middle East and Islam, and how much that keeps us from seeing and doing the right thing in the Middle East, especially in Palestine and Israel — and how that jeopardizes our strategic interests.
Iqra. Read. The first word in God’s Revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad.
Iqra. Read. Revealed to illiterate Muhammad.
First there was my friend Richard, scholar and respected Ph.D in his field, who asked for comments and suggestions on a bibliography on Muslim-Christian interfaith relations that he had written for his university press. Its content shocked me: It was so totally Orientalist, so almost totally dependent on Western, non-Muslim sources, that it was useless as a document to help further understanding between two communities. Further, it failed to introduce his Christian audience to Muslims, to the very people with whom they hoped to enter into dialogue.
Wow, I thought, if Richard can’t get past his own preconceptions on Islam and Arabs in order to further dialogue, how can ordinary Americans — or secretaries of state, or presidents — know what to think.
I suggested, among others, Tarif Khalidi’s “The Muslim Jesus,” which illustrates the love and esteem Muslims feel for Jesus, believed by Muslims to be a great prophet, second only to prophet Muhammad; Muhammad Asad’s “The Road to Mecca,” the journey of an Austrian Jew who converted to Islam; Tayeb Salih’s “Season of Migration to the North,” a post-colonial novel about identity and belonging and one of the greatest novels of the 20th century; Reza Aslan’s “No god but God,” which I love because it illustrates what Arabia was like before Islam, describes the struggles of the early Muslim community and shows how Islam is related to Judaism and Christianity; and my list ended with Amin Maalouf’s “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes,” which describes what it might have been like to be a Levantine Arab when the crusaders arrived.
“Call thou (all mankind) unto thy Sustainer’s path with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in the most kindly manner.” Qur’an 16:125 (Asad)
Almost concurrently, I read an absurd column that criticized Secretary of State John Kerry for reading Aslan’s, “No god but God.” That criticism resonated because not long ago fundamentalist Muslims criticized a college professor for adding that same book to his syllabus — on the grounds it was disrespectful to Islam.
The criticism also rankled because implicit was a suggestion that Americans, even diplomats, shouldn’t make any effort to know anything about the non-Amero-centric world except through that written by Amero-centric writers in support of Amero-centric conceits.
I remember when Harvard Dean Henry Rovosky, speaking in favor of a core curriculum for undergraduates in the college, said at a dinner one night, “Undergraduates don’t know what they don’t know.”
We must all constantly remind ourselves of all we don’t know. A hadith of the Prophet Muhammad states: “If anyone travels on a road in search of knowledge, God will cause him to travel on one of the roads of Paradise. …; The learned are the heirs of the Prophets, and the Prophets leave (no monetary inheritance), they leave only knowledge, and he who takes it takes an abundant portion.”
I’m drawing on Islamic inspiration this week because these are the thoughts that first came to mind as I engaged my friends and companions. There are comparable lessons from other prophetic traditions — perhaps they will be first in my mind next week.
I don’t expect readers to agree either with me or with the scholars — or even with the prophet Muhammad. I don’t expect readers to travel to China for knowledge, nor do I expect them to embrace Arabs, Islam, Reza Aslan or me — I don’t need hugs. What I want readers to embrace is the concept that in order to have a functioning global order based on principles of freedom, social justice equity and dignity we need to know what the other is thinking, even if that makes us uncomfortable.
It’s not about agreeing. It’s about understanding. It’s about knowing.
Those comments reminded me of the anti-Obama protester in Portsmouth who, while displaying a photograph of President Barack Obama holding a copy of Fareed Zakaria’s book, “The Post-American World,” said he “believes Obama wants to be just another equal power in the world.” What nonsense.
Americans should aspire to have an informed electorate — to tolerate an uninformed citizenry, fearful of the Other, is dangerous, strategically and intellectually. Fareed Zakaria, who, sadly, has been found to have plagiarized some work, is too establishment for my taste — but I read him — we all should. It is the president’s job, the public’s job, and our job, to try to understand multiple points of view.
Yesterday, I wrote an encouraging note to a worried friend, one deeply conscious of issues of justice and occupation, who is traveling, as President Obama soon will, to Jerusalem. She is concerned that her traveling companions are not prepared to challenge existing mythologies about the Levant, are not prepared to see beyond Mark Twain, beyond the Bible stories, beyond the American/Israeli exceptionalist narratives about the conflict with Palestinians.
She is concerned that they are not well-read.
She will visit the Western Wall and Yad Vashem. She will see the Dome of the Rocks and the Mount of Olives and she will meet Israeli academics, entrepreneurs and strategic analysts.
She has already met a Palestinian, because she read a poet on my reading list:
“You stole my forefathers’ vineyards
And land I used to till,
I and all my children,
And you left us and all my grandchildren Nothing but these rocks.”
— Mahmoud Darwish
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.