By AYDOAN VATANDA, NEW YORK
After carefully reading the Quran and examining it based on his many years of study, a leading American theologian has concluded that via the holy book God is speaking to all human beings around the world, a voice that, in his astonishing book, he said he tried to transmit to readers and students, as well to himself, to deepen his understanding.
Professor Walter Wagner’s fascinating book “Opening the Qur’an” is definitely a bewildering and inspiring book, not only for the non-Muslim and English-speaking readers, but also Muslim readers.
Wagner “opens” the Quran by offering a comprehensive and extraordinarily readable, step-by-step introduction to the text, making it accessible to everyone who is interested in Islam and Islam’s holy book.
Wagner is adjunct professor of theology at Moravian College and Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books, including “After the Apostles: Christianity in the Second Century.”
In an exclusive interview with Sunday’s Zaman, Wagner told of his extraordinary journey to the Quran and its message and spoke in detail about the impressive book he said he wrote for himself. However, what he particularly explained during the interview were the similarities in the way that God approached people in different holy books and how prophets are described in them. He says: “I think what we share is that there is one God who calls us to be obedient to this one God — that this God calls us to create a community of faithful people who are dedicated to doing the will of this one God, the worship of this one God. There is more in common along these lines.”
At first your work focused on early Christianity, particularly the time of the Apostles, so how did you get inspired to write a book about the Quran?
The book has come out of my own teaching for a little more than 20 years. I think I am just beginning to understand the Quran. But actually, because of the relationships between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we come together, not only in some areas about theology and our culture, but also we come together in terms of our histories.
There have been times in which we have bumped heads and other times in which we have clashed with weapons. But we have also come to worship the same God. And in doing that, there should be, out of my own teaching experience, a way to try to understand another religion, which takes effort. For a teacher it takes effort [to teach], but the one who learns the most is the teacher.
So the book has come out of my own teaching experience and I have been very fortunate to have experiences with Muslim men and women as well, particularly with the Turkish community in the last seven years. One of the driving forces of the book was to explain all of this to myself and then to others, particularly in this important time where we must understand each other.
So, can it be said that you actually wrote this book for yourself?
Yes. You will find that authors have voices. Those of you who are Muslim may know who is speaking in the Quran. But who is speaking in this [Wagner’s] book? Sometimes it’s an academic voice; the professor speaks. Sometimes it’s a personal voice. The use of even the “you” pronoun, where I have to make decisions about what I think, and sometimes it will also be a “we” voice. What can “we” say together and what are the differences and what can the resemblances be? So yes, I try to speak in those voices.
Interesting. So let me follow up by asking, what was the “voice” that came to mind when you were reading the Quran? Who was speaking?
I believe the Quran is an inspired book. I believed that God has inspired many persons and many prophets and messengers and within the Quran it is the voice of the Holy God who speaks to us — the voice of justice and peace, the voice of speaking about human beings who need to live together in peace and also to work together for the rest of the world. So yes, that was a voice, which I heard, and a voice, which I then tried to transmit to readers and students, as well to myself, to deepen my understanding.
I’m not sure whether you read Arabic, but it is likely you focused on translations. Could you tell us about your methodology? How did you work? How did you study?
Perhaps as a non-Muslim, reading the Quran for the first couple of times is a bewildering experience. For those of us who come from a biblical tradition the expectation is that it is going to read like Genesis, Exodus or the Gospel of Mark; it’s going to have a storyline. Yet you have pieces that are in sections, which are knitted together into a whole. It takes several readings, ponderings and plenty of head scratching to understand. But I guess the first step is to not be discouraged. The first suggestion is to read it from the back to the front, to try and understand the prophet — peace be upon him. It also takes reading not only the Quran but also what others have said.
So tell us about the similarities between the biblical tradition and the Quran and afterward please tell us about some differences.
I think the fundamental difference, without going into the 30 biblical characters which are shared, would be the issue of the nature of the Bible and the nature of the Quran. One of the things I think, and Muslim students I have had would testify to this, would be that we are operating sometimes with the same language and the same words, but we are also operating with different principles, with different assumptions and we need to clarify those assumptions.
For Muslims the Quran — every word, every letter, where things are placed — these are all given by God. That is not the case for Christians and the Bible. Christians do not give special attention or reverence to one particular language. We are comfortable with translations. I am comfortable with manuscript variations, with different accounts of the same story. While Muslim students may come and say “what is it really?” As a Christian I am not bothered by different versions. But as a teacher I must be careful to explain this to my Muslim students and learn from them about their approach to in turn explain this to a non-Muslim audience.
We share so many prophets yet our expectations of them are different. We can gain from difference, though, by trying to understand what the “intention of the account” is. I think what we share is [the belief] that there is one God who calls us to be obedient to this one God — that this God calls us to create a community of faithful people who are dedicated to doing the will of this one God, the worship of this one God. There is more in common along these lines. Perhaps a major difference, though, is along the lines of what a messenger is, what a prophet is. In Islam among the things a prophet would be, first not only would they be inspired, but also to be perfect. It seems to from my experiences with my Muslim students, when they read the Bible, they would say about David committing adultery and murdering, for example, that this would be reprehensible to a Muslim. To them the question would be “how could you follow someone who is such a sinner?”
Can you please tell us about how Jesus, Prophet Muhammad and others are portrayed in the holy books of Christianity and Islam? What are some similarities and differences?
My Muslim students always surprise their Christian classmates by saying that in order to be a good Muslim “you have to believe in Jesus.” Jesus was born of a virgin. He performs miracles, he feeds, he heals, he raises the dead, and he is called Messiah and will come again at the end of the age to be part of the judgment. He was a teacher; he had disciples and called on people to follow the way of God. So these are some of the similarities of the portrayal of Jesus in the Quran. You will notice that I left out crucifixion and resurrection because those are the key differences [between Christianity and Islam].
In regards to some of the others, like Moses for example, the Quran speaks about traditions that Jews have had. Part of what you have in the Quran you would find in early Jewish writings, so when the Quran speaks of these things, there is a connection. I would say not a contradiction, but a connection. And as I understand it in my simple way, Moses came and set up governmental structure and Jesus is the one who came and gave a spiritual meaning [to people] without any political agenda. Christians would later add that component. But Prophet Muhammad comes and he is the one for Islam who has both the “earthly side,” you could say, and the spiritual side and brings them together. Both of these prophets are coming from the same tradition of a God who loves and cares for the world, so must you.
How have you been impacted by your study of the Quran? Has it changed your life in anyway?
I think that amongst one of the very important ways that it did is that I have come to understand Islam and the Quran in terms of prayer; there is a profound sense of the holiness of prayer and that a life can be framed by prayer. My little understanding of Islam has led me to recognize that it is a religion that is grounded in the theology of creation. This to me has tremendous ethical ramifications and when I look at others I recognize that they too are God’s representatives to care of the world.
Can you please talk a little bit about the structure and narrative of the Quran?
Well, I attempt in the book to deal with the structure and I use the idea of “the straight way.” I see what God has given, and in the Quran and also in the Old and New Testaments, he has given a pathway, a pathway from the beginning of the world or of a person’s life to “the destination.” For example, in the construction of a road, when you go out there and see the workers digging in the road, they just don’t start putting the asphalt right on top of the dirt. You have to have a proper foundation. And I think that foundation is what the Quran is, yes it is the road, the science of the Quran. You have to have a foundation and that means you have to go deeper into the Quran than what seems to be on the surface.
If you just take the Quran or the Book of Leviticus or some other sacred literature on the surface, you might be able to answer one of my pop quizzes. You need to see that there is depth, and that the depth is a spiritual depth about the entirety of God’s plan for the world. It’s God who laid out the road. Once you understand it as the outline and as the essence, you then begin to understand the structure of who is being addressed in this set of stories. Where are the transitions? What is the reasoning behind it? What does this point to? It will point to the one God, to the structure of a life, a community and individuals. Then you will understand why there are divorce issues, why there are family law issues. This is the stuff of regular life. How do you find God in the midst of your daily life? And then as you progress, who are the persons who can inspire, and who are the persons and the tendencies that you should avoid?
We know there is criticism in Western circles about the way that women are portrayed in Muslim societies. So could you tell us about how women are portrayed in the Quran?
First, I think it is important to understand that men and women are equal before God. Men and women are responsible for their own ultimate destinies. A woman can find her way to the hellfire just as easily as a man. A woman can find her way into heaven as easily as a man. There is a profound theological, religious equality. There are social distinctions in the Quran and the West doesn’t like to hear that. The distinctions [between men and women] are that there are some physical aspects in terms of muscle power and responsibility. I can remember accidentally being part of a marriage counseling session when I was going to see an imam in upper Manhattan. I thought I had an appointment with him, and they told me to sit down while he was talking to a brother and sister who were trying to get her husband to do the right thing. The imam was very clear. He simply said the Quran says it’s the husband’s responsibility to make sure that the family is supported. There should be no deadbeat dads in Islam. It is the wife’s responsibility to help raise and build up the family. If there are going to be any jobs outside — that you will negotiate. There is a negotiation of equality in a marriage contract.
And then who takes care of widows? It should be the sons. I think in the West this is not usually seen; there’s an assumption that a widow will have to be on her own and take care of herself. There is much more of a sense of community in the Quran. When a marriage takes place and there’s difficulty between husband and wife, it can be settled when you bring in the family. You are joining people together in a community. There ought to be a community build on compassion, love and justice. I think the Quran speaks to that. What happens culturally — that cultural bubble that we live in — can be so influential and sometimes it’s justified by some religious text pulled out of context. We can do that as easily as not.
I think there is another stereotype concerning Islam and verses about jihad in the Quran. So how do you think we should interpret the verses about jihad?
There are different interpretations in Islam. It becomes an issue of historical context. For example, when was the “sword” ayat [verse] revealed, and under what context, and how do you deal with that? Does the sword ayat aggregate all the other ayats? I think it’s important if you know the root for “jihad” simply means “exertion” or “struggle.” I say it to my students: “It’s jihad. You have to reason and use your head.” Sometimes students are less willing to struggle to use their knowledge. But out of the 35 or 36 mentions in the Quran of the root for jihad, only about five deal with the military. What you have is kital, struggle for God. The Quran obviously is not a “turn the other cheek” book. It comes out of struggle and war, out of the struggle the community had in order to survive.
In the Quran and in Islamic tradition, there is no mistreatment of prisoners. No mistreatment of noncombatants. You don’t use napalm against people who have pistols. You do not mistreat the environment. You don’t do what Saddam Hussein did upon his withdrawal from Kuwait in 1991 and burn the oil fields. You don’t destroy. You fight only until the enemy surrenders or you have an armistice.
When we look at countries in the Middle East and North Africa that were colonized by Western countries for many decades, do you think the justification for the misinterpretation of these verses is due to colonization? Was it a reaction to the West?
Yes, I think that’s an accurate description. I think you are kind in your description, in that the Western (you can throw in the Soviet Union) justification was that we have the right way and we’re going to impose this way because we know what truth is. I always get suspicious of people — my academic field is heresy — because you always find that when you take a legitimate position and drive it to an extreme, that’s dangerous. And if you have injustice being done sometimes it is justified by a cross or by a Marxist approach or whatever it might be. That is a distortion of the religion, whether it’s the crescent and the star or the cross. I think that what we don’t know is the history of what can be called the Middle East, whatever that might be. We romanticize the Crusades in the West; we turn Crusaders into comic book characters. We have no understanding of the real politics and the relationships.
And my last question, can you tell us a little about the feedback you have received so far on the book? Has there been criticism from the Muslim community or Christian circles?
I can answer that more easily about the Christian circles. By and large, those people who are looking for peace and understanding like the book. Those people who believe that only they have the truth and the truth is one way and everybody else is damned include me amongst the dammed. They have been vocal to say that in some minor circles. There are those who think, and this holds for anybody that gets involved in interreligious dialogue, that there is risk involved.
I think I use an anecdote at the beginning of the book, I was teaching a class on Introduction to Islam to college students and I had a Pakistani student who was furious with me. He felt that since I was saying positive things about the Quran that I must convert and he was appalled that I wouldn’t. In the same class, I had a young lady come up to me and say “when are you going to expose Islam as the work of the devil?” And so there you are in between the two, but then you have others who come and say to you that this has been a good adventure. I am now learning about others. But I have found on the part of Muslims, and maybe it’s just the ones who speak to me, but I have found that they say “thank God you are speaking about this.” I believe that there needs to be what I call “hinge people,” people who can swing between the two sides and maintain their own integrity.
Courtesy Of "Today's Zaman"
Opinion Maker depends on readers’ support. Please help us continue by contributing directly.