Sunday, 18 February 2007

Approaching the Qur'an

After attempting to read Saiedi's book Logos and Civilization and being forced to give up, I went looking for my next read. I needed something that would feed me spiritually and not leave me feeling like I'd strayed into an unfriendly wilderness. Yesterday, I read a good description of how I felt reading Saiedi's book and how I feel when I read much Baha'i secondary literature. The TV reviewer in the magazine, New Zealand Listener, was complaining about the marketing strategy of New Zealand's state-owned broadcaster and the way it presents the news. Her comment captures how I often feel when I read what Baha'is have written about the Faith:

"All most of us want is to get [the news] from a place that treats us like grown-ups rather than trying to brainwash us into submission." (February 17, 2007, p 71)

In my view, the cause of this didactic style in Baha'i secondary literature is that writers are focused on selling the Baha'i message rather than on sharing the beauty of the message as it is reflected in them. We are each responsible for ourselves only - on the health of our personal relationship with Baha'u'llah and on our character and deeds. We are not responsible for how others react to the message. Therefore, it's not our business to try and manipulate others to believe. And besides, doing this isn't the most effective way to influence them. "Man is the supreme talisman." Each one of us, as a believer attracted to the Blessed Beauty, is the magnet that will attract others. Our experience of attraction is what sells the message.

And so I began reading the book Approaching the Qur'an. The Early Revelations (Oregon: White Cloud Press, 1999), introduced and translated by Michael Sells. It's a good example of the sort of book that Baha'is should be writing. It's fabulous. Michael Sells appears to be one of those clever academics who can use his academic knowledge to reach ordinary people. There's no underestimating the challenge of what he has taken on with this book. He is trying to introduce the Qur'an to ordinary Westerners, who have no idea about it apart from impressions they've picked up from cultural prejudices. This is the situation the Baha'is face when trying to tell Westeners about the Faith. It's worth them examining a book that meets this challenge successfully.

In the book, Michael Sells makes it clear that he is not trying to convert people. All he is trying to do is give Western readers an idea of why the Qur'an is loved by millions of people. He explains that, in the Arabic, Qur'anic language is beautiful and poetic and has "sound visions" (p 16).

"In Qur'an schools, children memorize verses, then entire Suras. They begin with the Suras that are at the end of the Qur'an in its written form. These first revelations to Muhammad express vital existential themes in a language of great lyricisim and beauty. As the students learn these Suras, they are not simply learning something by rote, but rather interiorizing the inner rhythms, sound patterns, and textual dynamics - taking it to heart in the deepest manner." (p 11)

Sells points out that these sound visions cannot be found in current English translations of the Qur'an. "What the person who learns the Qur'an in Arabic experiences as a work of consummate power and beauty, outsiders can find difficult to grasp, confusing, and in most English translations, alienating." (p 11)

What is Michael Sells doing here? He's communicating to his readers the beauty he has found in the Qur'an as a result of his ability to read it in Arabic. His enthusiasm is contagious and when you read what he has to say, you want to examine the Qur'an in the new ways he opens up to you. You want to share with him in this wonderful thing that he has found.

Sells translates the early suras, trying to capture in the English something of the power and visual beauty of the Arabic:

"No translation can fully capture this sound vision. The translation here attempts to bring across the lyricism of the hymnic passages, a lyricism comparable to that of the Psalms or passages from the Upanishads. In the Qur'anic context, the lyricism is related to the use of oaths involving a key set of what the Qur'an considers 'signs' (aayas), clues to the mystery of reality. These signs include the patterns of day and night, male and female, odd and even, singular and plural. The Arabic construction for these oaths can be translated in a number of ways. I have used the phrase 'by the,' as in Sura 89:1-5:

By the dawn
By the nights ten
By the odd and the even
By the night as it eases away
Is there not in that an oath for the thoughtful mind" (p 16)

And so it goes on. The book contains full translations of suras 1 and 84 to 114. Sells gives the reader many insights into the Qur'an that help Baha'is understand Baha'u'llah. Perhaps I'll quote some more in my next message.