Rechecking My Ambitions

Two years of semi-weekly writing, 57 posts written, two-thirds of the way through the Quran, 29 suwar down and…

…85 suwar to go.

Okay, sorry for reusing that joke, but it is a real weight on my mind these days. I walked into this Quran project blind and unprepared. I tried preparing, but what can I say? Like getting a Skittle in a bowl of M&Ms, Google choked on my sudden interest in this niche of Quran scholarship and didn’t know what search results to feed me. I went into this project terribly unaware of the effort it would require of me and just how slow the project would go. By my original thought, there are 114 suwar in the Quran, and if I went through those at roughly a weekly pace I would get through them all in a little over two years.

Two years later I still have at least two years of work ahead of me, and I’m afraid it is growing degrees more frustrating and joyless. So what should I do?

Sources of Frustration

When I couldn’t find any resources about the friendliest way to start reading the Quran, I opted to take the cold dunk and really record my fresh experiences and reactions. I thought this blog would be more like a journal and a space to process the information. That worked for the first surah, and then was never possible again. I just didn’t expect how dense and disunited the content of each surah would be. It is like opening the last box you packed when moving. Other boxes were labeled “dishes,” “bedroom,” “bookcase,” and then that last box was just the “everything else.” You can’t summarize the contents in a meaningful way, let alone assign them to conventional places, so you just have to examine and sort each item as you pull it out. A lot of the items turn out to be pieces of something else and you have to search for their complementing parts in order to understand what you’re looking at and what to do with it. By the time I’ve unpacked a surah and gone through this process, what I’m writing is way past being young impressions and has become a very developed set of opinions.

This constant formation of opinions has snowballed and left me with a general hangup. At this point, I have pretty developed opinions of the Quran BUT I cannot voice most of those opinions without a complete experience of the entire book. I cannot even say I have experienced a representative sample of all the content. Because of the way that the Quran is arranged, I have no experience with the chronologically first 38 suwar of Muhammad’s ministry (excepting Al-Fatihah). That is a sizable chunk of Muhammad’s ministerial timeline and it’s very possible that the themes and needs of the Quran were very different in that era. I won’t start accumulating experience with those early suwar until I start approaching the nineties of the Quran’s suwar order. So going back to my “everything else” box analogy, I cannot give my thoughts on the nature of this box I’m unpacking because there’s a whole strata at its bottom that might surprise me.

So when someone asks me for my thoughts on the Quran, I cannot speak for the whole experience and still have to present myself as some sort of novice to the topic. And I won’t get to that strata for another year! Two years is too long to read a book and still not be able to have a full opinion.

Drains on My Joy

There has been through this investigation some strong bursts of joy. While the Quran is not always a pleasant document to read, it is nonetheless very interesting to read, and interesting things give me joy. I love the Arabic language, and it is a great ride parsing the Quran’s text and mining my reference books to delve the connotations of its chosen words. It’s fun finding the cognates between Arabic and Hebrew that enrich my study of the Bible as well. Then there’s all the history I’ve been introduced to and all it’s morays. Islamic history is very much a history-told-by-the-victors, and it’s interesting to read its propaganda, its times of honest shame, its conflicts and accomplishments. The Islamic world encompassed and bordered so many other intellectual countries that the West had no access to for centuries, and so studying it also teaches you more about the larger world. And I love the study of religion. Religious beliefs and practices are so deeply part of the human experience, regardless of one’s theology, so that exploring religion reveals a lot of the patterns of human thought and behavior. It is all deeply interesting, and interesting is my joy.

But that joy is getting smothered. Geeks need a geekdom to interact with, and I have been unable to either find or establish one. Ideally, I’d love it if my project started a lay interest in the Quran. But I get it, my blog posts are long and the subject is so different that it takes effort to get into. Several of my friends follow along and lend their ears to my conversation at times and for that I am incredibly thankful. By and large, however, when someone asks me what I do with my blog and I respond that I study the Quran, conversation quickly veers away. If the conversation doesn’t veer away, it sometimes turns to the other person instructing me in the hearsay they’ve accepted about the Quran, whether pro or anti. Since I’m talking through direct experience, and invariably they’re talking through hearsay, the conversation can only die (and uncomfortably at that).

I’ve had trouble searching the internet for other Quran scholars who are taking explorative/academic approaches. Something I don’t want to do with this project is make it satirical. Some of the other blogs I’ve found examining the Quran have been intensely satirical and hostile. I get it, it’s a normal gut reaction to something that’s as different and makes as big of claims as the Quran. Still, that reaction is also deeply insensitive to the millions who hold this document dear. They also trend towards bigotry. The blogs that I have found vivisecting the Quran are usually anti-religious; they aren’t so much into observing religion as they are into ridiculing and condemning it and their approach is predisposed towards drawing the worst conclusions. That does not give a fair view towards what these scriptures are trying to accomplish. I’d hope that religious authors such as Christians would proceed with more respect and sympathy, but they generally approach the topic more argumentatively, and sadly their conclusions often betray bigoted expectations too. I don’t want to endorse those views and thus haven’t made company with those blogs.

A while ago I searched the communities on Reddit. One was the Muslim community, which I was incredibly nervous to get into given my skepticism of the Quran’s claims. It’s not that I’m scared of Muslims, per se, but rather that universally scary category of “people on the internet.” One does not walk into a fervent internet fandom and level a criticism, and I could observe in that community a fervent fandom with its inevitable internal policing of ideas. The Reddit community that I did actually try was the ex-Muslim community. That forum is marvelous for supporting those who leave Islam (lots of global ex-Muslims face real hostility and danger for their apostasy) but was not so great for revisiting the Quran with tempered skepticism. Responses there were full of bitterness, and lots of the responses to my posts made strong assumptions about my self-declared outsider perspective. Rather than read my content, they condescended to instruct me in really basic information I already knew. (Like, come on, I know the Quran’s Arabic is an archaic dialect.) So, I was not a good fit for that community.

So, again, I understand why people would not grow interested in the Quran. But in my loneliness in the topic, I’m also in danger of becoming embittered by just how much apathy I’ve encountered. This is an important book, after all, and neglecting it risks neglecting a people who we are increasingly coming into contact with. The Quran is a book that has been extensively studied through the lens of hero-worship. If no one participates in a critical view of it, then the only dialogues about it will be hero-worship. The only dialogues that then remain for its opposition will be the demonization of those who hero-worship it.

New Plan

So, how to remedy this:

First, and most simply, I’m going to read to the end of the book and journal my first impressions. It should take me little more than a week, there is so little left to read in terms of word count. I’m not going to blog my impressions, just write them down in a notebook. I’ll keep writing blog posts in the plodding sequential order, but I’ll be able to factor experience with the entire Quran into my opinions. That alone will alleviate a lot of my frustration. Two-plus years is just too long a time to read one book.

Second and more ambitiously, it’s time to start moving my joys into the realm of academia. This seems the most promising realm in which to discuss the qualities of the Quran as a piece of literature. If geeks on the Quran exist anywhere, then surely they will be in academia. Unfortunately, academia has a paywall, and I’ve got to figure out how to enter it efficiently. My self-taught Arabic is a little inconsistent. To fill those inconsistencies, I might have to place in a lower class and endure the redundancy of reviewing things I already know while picking up that which I don’t. I could take that redundancy if only it wouldn’t cost me academic prices. So perhaps my first move needs to be crunching through my (old old) Arabic textbooks with which I’ve been teaching myself, so that I can do better in placement tests and save money there.

So my Quran series as it is will continue on as it has been. What I’m aiming to change is the work I’m doing behind the blog. For all the time and work I’ve put into this thing, it’s time for me to start building a little more formal authority on the topic.

One thought on “Rechecking My Ambitions

  1. Fr. Hugh Feiss October 25, 2019 / 2:22 pm

    I happened on twoponnyposts today on facebook, which I seldom visit. Your latest post is superb. I think your new strategy is a very good one. i studied a couple of surahs in translation when I taught a class on a book about Mary in Christianity and Islam. That is all the time I could give the Qu’ran then. I don’t think people are disinterested, they just can’t make a study like you are making or even become competent to comment of what you write and think. I am very glad that someone of your intelligence and decency is doing what you are doing. I think it will bring results somehow. Getting into a academia to find interlocutors is probably a good plan. I wonder if you couldn’t get scholarship funding. If you can read in Arabic that should count for quite a bit. I would’ve to sit in a seminar you conducted on the Qu’ran for non-Arabic speakers. Onward. Blessings. Fr. Hugh

    Liked by 1 person

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