A Unitarian Universalist reading of 4 Qur’an verses

At the beginning of this month, Unitarian Universalist ministers received an email from a colleague in Gainesville, FL regarding what he and other clergy in the region were going to do on September 11th and 12th in response to the threat of a congregation there burning the Qur’an.  They were requesting that passages from the Qur’an be read in our congregations as an act of solidarity with Muslims across the country. Given the other waves of violence and protests against Muslims,  I chose to do so.

I did not give much, if any, of an exegesis on the passages other than a brief introduction as to why I was going to read from the Qur’an.  Afterwards we took a moment of silence to remember, honor, pray for those families who lost loved ones on 9/11 and the losses committed since that date. My reading from the Qur’an these passages caused a bit of uncomfortableness in the congregation.

If I have any concern about the Unitarian Universalist faith in general, it is that we tend to be of the  LOGOS persuasion and not of MYTHOS in how we read and listen to scriptures of any ilk.  We do the very thing we accuse the Fundamentalists of doing and that is reading the words literally. Where Fundamentalists embrace the literal meanings of the words of scriptures, we reject them and do not go any further to a mythos reading.  By reading these sacred texts in a logos method, we fail to grasp the deeper meaning of the words and lose the richness that could deepen our spirituality.

Philip Pullman, author of the trilogy His Dark Materials, refers to Karen Armstrong’s description of mythos and logos reading in her book The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2001).   Pullman writes: “Mythos deals with meaning, with the timeless and constant, with the intuitive, with what can only be fully expressed in art or music or ritual. Logos, by contrast, is the rational, the scientific, the practical; that which can be taken apart and put together again; that which is susceptible to logical explanation.”

Once after reading what I thought was a very moving and touching story with profound meaning, a member of the congregation came up afterwards to tell me how the story was illogical because the such and such actions should have been taken instead to fix the problem. Fixes which would have resulted in the story itself from not occurring.  The person completely missed the point of the story because he focused on the logos of the words instead of the mythos of the words. If people state that Unitarian Universalist congregations are not spiritual enough, I bet one of the things they are referring to is our inability or lack of struggle to embrace the mythos of life.

The four verses of the Qur’an I read were the following and I offer an exegesis as to how I read these texts:

1. Love of God: “Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him).” (Aal ‘Imran 3:64)

Another translation reads:  Say “O people of the Scriptures (Jews and Christians): Come to a word that is just between us and you, that we worship none but Allah (Alone), and that we associate no partners with Him, and that none of us shall take others as lords besides Allah. Then, if they turn away, say: “bear witness that we are Muslims.”

This verse to me is about honoring our highest ideals (God) and remaining true to them.  We have common ideals, common values. Let us find what these values are between us.   At the time of this writing, this was an appeal for inclusion and harmony between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

But I want to also look at the phrase “surrendered unto Him.”  We all surrender to something that is greater than ourselves. And so I hear these words and I ask what have I surrendered to—willingly? Begrudgingly?  It might not be some lofty ideal but something rather basic like systemic oppression or my daily grind.  Does that surrender free me or enslave me?  The Muslims suggest that by surrendering to their highest ideal (god) they are freed.  That’s what they proclaim when stating, “Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto him).” It may sound paradoxical that in surrendering ones self one is freed.  By freely surrendering themselves to their highest ideal (god) they are the ones in control rather than a begrudging surrender of defeat.

I am reminded of the scene in the movie Gandhi where the Indians are trying to shut down the salt mines.  They are lined up and walk to the gate only to be struck down, brutally wounded and dragged out of the way.  This happens again and again. These brave men fighting an injustice surrendered to their fate of being struck down.  They did so willingly because the future end result would outweigh any pain and sorrow that might happen at the hands of the British. They were in control not the British.  I ask the question again, what have we surrendered to—willingly or bitterly?

2. Love of Neighbor: “It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believeth in God and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the prophets; and giveth wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer, and to those who ask, and who set slaves free.” (Al-Baqarah 2:177)

Another translation reads:  It is not Al-Birr (piety, righteousness, and every act of obedience to Allah) that you turn your faces towards the east and west (in prayers); but AL Birr is (the quality of) the one who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the Angels, the Book , the Prophets and gives his wealth, in spite of love for it, to the kinsfolk, to the orphans, and to the poor, and to the wayfarer, and to those who ask, and to set slaves free.

It is not our rituals that make us righteous or people with piety but rather what is in our hearts and the actions that issue from our hearts.  This is about creating justice, equity, and compassion (our second principle) in all human relations. This is about those highest ideals that we want to remain true to and the people who inspire us to emulate them in living in our day to day lives the charge to practice hospitality and generosity to others.

3. A Common Word: “Say: We believe in God that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the  tribes and that which Moses and Jesus received, and that which the prophets  received from their Lord. We make no distinction from any of them, and unto Him  we have surrendered.” (Al-Baqarah, 2:136-137)

Another translation reads:  Say (O Muslims), “We believe in Allah and that which has been sent down to us and that which has been ssent down to Ibrahim (Abraham), Ismail (Ishmael) Ishaq (Isaac), Ya’qub (Jacob) and to Al-Asbut (the offspring of the twelve sons of Ya’qub), and that which has been given to Musa (Moses) and Isa (Jesus), and that which has been given to the Prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and to Him we have submitted (in Islam).”

I read this as sharing a common history by revering the same teachers.  We have as one of our sources the “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”  This verse states that Muslims also share this as one of their sources for their faith.  Even though our faiths are very different, theirs is a creedal faith and ours a covenantal faith, we have this source in common.

4. “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a
female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other). (Al-Hujurat 49:13)

Another translation reads: O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female; and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another.

This refers to the creation story but it is slightly different than the Genesis story.  The creation story in Islam states that the universe was created from a single entity which God split apart to create the heavens, moon and sun, and earth.  It fits the big bang theory.  While the story as in the Genesis story states the world was made in six days, the term used for days in this story appears elsewhere in the Qur’an with different meanings in terms of length. So six days in the Qur’an is best understood as six different periods of possible varying length.  The importance of this verse also being read by other faith traditions on September 11 is not the creation aspect but rather the intention that humanity was made to know one another points towards peaceful co-existence.  And since evolution teaches us that we evolved somewhere in the bowels of Africa, we are of one common ancestry.

May we learn to read with both logos and mythos skills and thereby able to see beyond the surface where our differences lie and embrace our mutual humanity.  Blessings,