Eteraz, he of the fiery disposition, has found his way out of the cave. Not content to sit and watch the shadows on the wall and claim them as his reality, our friend has walked out into the daylight, pointed at The Book, and demanded that the words contained therein be examined on their own merits, not by the literalism that plagues his fellow religionists.
It takes and strength and courage to struggle past the barriers of fundamentalism and concrete thinking.
One of the charming aspects of Eteraz’ blog is his fund of childhood stories. They have an immediate appeal, both in his description of his devout childhood’s lost faith and his naughty escapades — e.g., diverting the money given to him for religious instruction into more compelling acquisitions, like toys and candy. Christian boys have done likewise since time immemorial: coins destined by parents for the collection plate went instead to candy or Cokes, sustenance for the long walk home.
Eteraz has a checkered spiritual past. Like many college sophists, he wandered awhile in the thickets of atheism before returning to his spiritual home. This meander in the desert probably did him good. It usually does.
As outsiders, we can’t pretend to understand Islam. However, we can peer at its essentials and see in them some of the universals that enspirit all religious impulse. And we can see in Eteraz’ struggles with the limits of his scripture our own wrestling with the Pentateuch (for some) or Paul’s epistles (for others).
For Eteraz, the contradiction arose between his own lived experience and what he heard his fellow Muslims say. In particular, he took issue with the declaration that Jews are apes and pigs. These were not the Jews he knew.
I have a lot of respect for the Jewish tradition (whatever that is). To me, it is Moses and Maimonides and Spinoza and Marx and Levinas and Buber and Brandeis and Derrida. I have taken in as much Bellow in my life as I have Bukhari (the hadith scholar). As much Itzhak Perlman as I have Rumi.
Thus, like any religious pilgrim, Eteraz began his journey through his scripture, trying to make sense of the description he was hearing from respected Muslim leaders: Jews are apes and pigs.
On the grapevine I heard that Shaykh Tantawi, head of the Al-Azhar University, the purported fount of Sunni learning, had made public statements about the Jews being descendents of apes and pigs. I then found confirmation that other leading Muslim scholars were propounding this view, including none other than the designated Imam of the Holy Kaba in Mecca: Shaykh Sudais (who strangely weeps through his entire prayers).
How to extricate himself from this hermeneutic tangle? Eteraz found his solution in Shakespeare, that is, in metaphor and allusion used to elucidate a numinous reality. Looking carefully at the Koran, he found this:
2:65 for you are well aware of those from among you who profaned the Sabbath, whereupon We said unto them, “Be as apes despicable!”
Here Eteraz was on firmer exegetical ground.
That “as“ I knew quite well: “So am I as the rich, whose blessed key can bring him to his sweet locked up treasure” said Shakespeare. It was the “as” — the blessed “as” — of metaphor! I rejoiced a hundred times over. A metaphor means that the finality of language is absent. Being “as” something is not the same as being something. Could it be that the Quran was engaged in metaphor-making? If references to apes and swines were metaphors, it meant that the people being referred to had expressed the qualities of an “ape” and the qualities of a “pig.” Given the fact that in classical Arabic an ape was someone impulsive and a pig was someone stubborn, the metaphors seemed almost innocuous (Especially since in all languages animals are used as referents for certain qualities. Once we could learn what qualities classical Arabic invoked when referring to those animals, we could understand what the metaphor was referring to.
How many Christians, caught between their knowledge of physics and Genesis’ explanation of the Big Bang — the Biblical story being a rather pedestrian account when compared to the modern scientific faith concerning our cosmogony — have given up at this point? What they don’t see is that Genesis is explaining the how only in order to get to the why. Physics doesn’t deal with why, it merely posits how the heavens go, while Genesis ponders how to go to heaven.
Eteraz’ struggle was much the same. How to reconcile what he read in the Koran and what was written in his heart? His reliance on metaphor was fragile, and he knew it. So this time he decided he “was not reliant upon any authority except that of my God given reason. Suddenly I started to see patterns in the Quran that further cast light on these questionable (and certainly questionably used) verses.”
He went to his mother with the translated verses, but she merely shrugged. A friend tried to comfort him by pointing out that at least apes and pigs shared genetic material with human beings. As I said previously, Eteraz is intelligent. He also has the instincts of a bulldog. Giving up on outside help, he got a copy of the Koran translated by Leopold Weiss, a Jew who converted to Islam and became Muhammad Assad. It was Assad who permitted Eteraz to reconcile scripture and experience.
Most importantly, Eteraz exhorts us to refuse the easy temptation of abstraction and theory. As he notes,
Anti-semitism is rife in the Muslim world. It is rife in European Muslim youth. In Iran and Pakistan. Muslims have to take accountability for this. They have to excavate and upturn their tradition to rid it of the stranglehold of the maulvis who do not have the intellectual facility, or interest, to assure that Islam conforms to its humanistic impulse. Free it from those who turn metaphors into literalism.
He is absolutely right when he says,
The Jews are the most persecuted race on the face of the earth. Yet, that has not stopped the Jews from extending a helpful and supportive hand to all other races. I freely admit that part of the impetus in writing this article has been the friendship of Jewish people such as Annie. In my opinion, no people have had more moral clarity than the Jews. While Muslims are free to disagree with Jews upon matters of politics and policy, they must not compromise their integrity, nor compromise the humanity of the Jews.
Jesus said we must love our God with our whole heart, our whole mind, and our whole spirit, and that we must love one another as we love ourselves. Eteraz rightly points out:
God gave reason to the Muslim; it is the Muslim who has forgotten what he possesses. Almost seems at times that some magician has said to the Muslim “Be you stone.”
In the Hebrew scripture, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt (or stone) for looking back during her hurried journey away from Sodom’s destruction. Eteraz’ use of this metaphor of stone is apt in the case of Islam vs. Modernity. If Islam cannot find the required intellectual and spiritual humility to look forward, rather than being stuck in an illusory past, it will fossilize.