02.18.2015 _____________________

Feb. 16 — To the Editor:

I welcome and accept Mr. Robert Barth’s praise — and challenges. (“I respect Azzi but he cherry picks his Quran quotes,” Feb. 10).

Mr. Barth is not the first to reflect assumptions similar to those of Orientalist critics of Islam on one side, by terrorists who wrongly justify their actions by deceptive use of Scripture on another side, and by Islamophobes on yet another side, namely the cherry-picking of Qur’anic verses — ignoring what comes before and after, both scripturally and historically. By imposing a literal, rigid interpretation of verses to achieve a predetermined outcome — they misunderstand all Scripture.

To begin, if one wants to read scripture, or even an OpEd column, one must be willing and able to discern between metaphor, allegory and nuanced text and be able, as in the case of the Qur’an, to appreciate Islamic hermeneutics. Contextual understanding is not dependent on belief in the hereafter but it certainly affects ability and willingness to read and comprehend critically.

When I quote Isaiah, I don’t feel obliged to quote the whole Book of Isaiah. When I quote Luke, I don’t quote all of Luke, nor do I include Matthew, Mark and John. When I quote from Qur’an, I don’t feel obliged to quote all 114 Surah (chapters) to make my case: I count on the curiosity of readers to discern my intent.

While Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the literal word of God it doesn’t mean that it’s to be read literally — a truism in all scripture. The need to be intentional in discerning meaning is found in Qur’an 3:7: “He it is who has bestowed upon thee from on high this divine writ, containing messages that are clear in and by themselves — and these are the essence of the divine writ — as well as others that are allegorical. Now those whose hearts are given to swerving from the truth go after that part of the divine writ which has been expressed in allegory, seeking out [what is bound to create] confusion, and seeking [to arrive at] its final meaning [in an arbitrary manner]; but none save God knows its final meaning.”

Note, too, that the Qur’an’s message was revealed not just for “Muslims” — adherents of Islam but to all “muslims,” all believers in the One God. Further, many of the revelations revealed in Medina while the first Islamic state was in formation served purposes distinct from earlier Meccan revelations. The revelations do not abrogate each other — together they form a complex tapestry of guidance, wisdom and love bestowed upon humankind by our Creator.

Sometimes scripture is tough to read: Whether it’s Deuteronomy 20:16-18 where God orders the Israelites to “not leave alive anything that breathes… completely destroy them …” or Vince Lombardi telling his defensive line to go out there and rip the head off a Chicago Bears quarterback, the use of hyperbole is a millenniums-old rhetorical device, spiritual and secular, designed to focus followers in ages past where competition was ruthless and elements unforgiving.

In Luke 12:49, did Jesus literally mean, “I came to cast fire upon the Earth; and how I wish it were already kindled?”

I don’t think so.

In the Book of Revelation (NRSV 9:4-6), where readers are offered imagery of “[The evil locusts] (who) were told not to damage the grass of the earth or any green growth or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were allowed to torture them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torture was like the torture of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them,” does everyone take it literally?

I don’t think so.

When Barth refers to Qur’an 7:38 as though it had some relevance to the immolation of the Jordanian pilot he fails to reveal the context that 7:38 refers specifically to the punishment sinners will endure on the Day of Judgment if they’ve been responsible for leading others astray — and it further affirms that such punishment is God’s purview, not man’s.

Intellectual cautions are relevant to both believers and non-believers (Quran 3:7).

Alan Lightman writes, “… Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves…”

I lovingly claim “the whole ball of wax” of what Mr. Barth calls “my irrational belief system.” I’m not so arrogant to assert I understand it all but I do know that each fajr, dawn, brings renewed awareness of the Beloved, of things greater than myself that help me humbly understand who I am — a part of the family of humankind —a family that includes us all.

I believe God has set before us what I believe quantum physicists defines as an “Event Horizon,” a horizon beyond which we cannot see — but which many believe exists — a place not in contradiction to science — just a place yet unseen and unknown — a place beyond that seen by light, unrevealed to us in our fallible, moral condition.

For physicists “things” beyond the Event Horizon are real. They must be imagined, but their existence is sure.

For believers, also, “things” beyond the Event Horizon are real. They must be imagined, but their existence is sure.

Robert Azzi

This letter appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.

Comments Off on Literal Reading of Scripture Won’t Reveal Truths