Read some of the responses UNC freshmen wrote on their required reading assignment this summer, APPROACHING THE QUR’AN: THE EARLY REVELATIONS by Michael Sells. The book is a collection of translations and commentaries on the short chapters or suras of the Qur’an. It includes a compact disc recording of reciters chanting some of the suras:
While listening to the CD accompaniment to APPROACHING THE QUR’AN, images of a distant landscape took form. I pictured the lands that gave birth to the Qur’an, an ancient desert civilization not too far removed from my own Jewish ancestry. The Semitic language, precise formation of words, even chanting, and profound message easily translated across the two cultures and millennia.
The book’s introduction brought forth many similarities between Judaism and Islam. The core monotheistic tenet of Islam resonates with my own faith. Other similarities attested to the close history of Jews and Muslims. Many words in Hebrew and Arabic bear close resemblance and meaning, for example zakat, a “pure offering” in Arabic, and tzedakah, often translated as “charity” in Hebrew but meaning more closely “righteousness.” Each word implies the importance of giving one’s self to others. The kinship between Islam and Judaism was further cemented when I listened to the reading of the suras. The Arabic recitations evoked many of the same emotions I feel when I hear prayers or pray in Hebrew.
There is a calmness and permanence that the recitations create. Both Arabic and Hebrew are ancient languages that attest to a long history and a sense of holiness. The words possess longevity and an innate power. The sounds are lulling, hypnotic and powerful, and they permeate all the senses. The vibrations of the syllables and the harmonies of the words create a total religious experience for the listener. In synagogue, the recitation of a prayer or the reading of the Torah in Hebrew creates a much more profound experience of body, mind and spirit, as with the recitations of the suras in Arabic.
For me, the text and the sounds of APPROACHING THE QUR’AN bridged the gap between two of the world’s religions.
Charlotte, North Carolina
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In many instances in life, society is forced to deal with decisions that reflect its character and standing. Sept. 11 united all Americans, but it also left many citizens asking countless questions about the Islamic faith. In APPROACHING THE QUR’AN, Michael Sells provides a great perspective and vivid description of the foundation and teachings of Islam. In his interpretation of the 90th sura, Sells unites both the outer world of nature and the equally harsh internal world of faith.
In the sura entitled “The Ground,” the reader faces the realization that many of the elements that represent everyday life also depict a higher level of struggle that marks one’s faith. In the translation, the sura begins with a description of what seems to be ordinary, common ground. In retrospect, the reader begins to understand that this ground is not ordinary, but it is the ground and land of God. In the extensive description one begins to understand how this land is representative of God’s holy and gracious body. To desecrate or demoralize this turf would mean doing the same to one’s faith. Thus, the struggle of protecting and sanctifying the ground is a reference to the continuous struggle of one’s moral obligation of sanctifying religious beliefs.
Moreover, Sells continues his extended metaphor between nature and faith by describing a vision that epitomizes both. Sells translates: “Did we not endow him with eyes lips and tongue and guide him to the two high plains[.] And yet he did not climb the steep pass” (8-11). After reading such a vivid description of the gracefulness and utter magnificence of nature, one begins to understand how nature parallels one’s faith. The plains symbolize the obligation that one has to his faith. Without his faith, the steep pass would be impossible to climb, but since there is a strong presence of faith, one does not even have to worry about the climb. Due to his respect and gratitude to his faith, God chooses to place man on this natural wonder. In retrospect, one can plainly see how the world of nature is directly linked to the inner world of faith.
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When is the nature of man’s innermost soul revealed? When are his actions least tainted by the motivations of ambition and mundane concerns? What deeds should be used to measure one’s goodness? These are the questions answered in sura 107, “The Small Kindness.” Here, it is not men’s grand deeds, acted out for all to see that affect judgment, but instead it is actions as small as “[failing] to urge the feeding of one in need.” In other words, it is not one’s time in the limelight that determines the nature of his soul but his day to day living and commonplace decisions. It is the choices between generosity and greed, between compassion and indifference that will determine the direction of one’s soul. By assuring men that judgment will be determined by the smallest decisions, the Qur’an transforms the distant, intangible concept of the day of moral reckoning into a concept with an immediacy that should count in every choice. No longer is judgment predestined or based on token acts of goodness; instead it will come as a product of one’s tiniest everyday decisions.
“The Small Kindness” is applicable not only to mundane action but also to worship. Those who perform prayers without considering how they pray or the implications of those prayers are cursed, for their faith is but “a display” and they would “hold back the small kindness.” The Qur’an establishes a concept of moral reckoning, the Day of Judgment, in a way that emphasizes the weight of even the smallest action and compels men to live in the present with a constant thought of its repercussions in the afterlife.
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Sura 84, “The Splitting.” addresses the dichotomy between the external physical world, which will fall away into nothingness on the day of reckoning, and the internal world of one’s personal faith, which represents the true reality.
The sura opens with a description on the day of reckoning of the splitting of the heavens and unfolding of the earth. These symbolic acts of physical destruction serve to describe both the transient nature of the earth, as compared to the eternal nature of Allah, and the dissolution of all things that had seemed certain to those who ignore the faith and focused on the material world. In contrast to this external world, doomed to destruction, the internal world of humans, their consciences and convictions, will be the true and enduring legacy of each life.
Verse 15 claims, “His lord could see into him” in reference to one who ignored his moral obligations, indicating that even this private internal world of faith cannot be hidden from Allah on the day of reckoning. The speaker continues by swearing on various elements of the external world, that which all people can see and believe, that this reckoning will illuminate the internal world while shattering the confines of the familiar physical world. The image of transcendence, “Horizon upon horizon you will rise,” lends a spatial dimension to the transience of the earthly realm and further confirms the eternal nature of Allah, who transcends all boundaries of time, physical place and human understanding.
The sura offers hope of redemption to those who “keep the faith,” who will receive “recompense unending.” Only through rejecting the pursuit of external goals such as wealth and property, and working to purify one’s internal values and personal devotion to Allah, can one truly reach the divine and eternal.
Raleigh, North Caroilna
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I came to college because I don’t know everything. I don’t know what career I should pursue, I don’t know my feelings on country music, and judging by the clock right now, I don’t know how to manage my time. But I am not here to be given answers. I do not expect nor hope to be instructed on whether or not country is a creditable genre. I am here because college is about choices.
The Carolina Summer Reading Program is designed to give us a sense of the diversity of views and customs that we will encounter in the college setting. Further, in introducing new ideas, we are forced to start devising our own, and I believe that is the heart of the college experience.
In the wake of 9/11, more than just college students began asking questions. A whole country cried out in anger and fear, searching for answers that were not there. Unfortunately, many blamed the entire Muslim community. Because they have unfamiliar customs. Because they wear strange clothes. Because they are different.
I don’t know why so many innocent people were killed. I don’t think I ever will. But what I am discovering is how very little we know of Islam, and that concern can be addressed.
I whole-heartedly support the University’s selection of Michael Sells’ APPROACHING THE QUR’AN: THE EARLY REVELATIONS for this year’s summer reading. To combat bigotry, we must develop an understanding of other cultures, learn where their customs originate and what significance they hold in everyday life. Those who refuse to read the book because of its message or content remind me of the petulant five-year-old who insists that she hates broccoli. I just want to sigh, “How do you know? You haven’t even tried it!”
Over the past several months, I have developed great pride in my school for making a stand and carrying through their decision, and I believe I shared the majority opinion. At my reading discussion group, the no-penalty-if-you-don’t-show-up discussion group, almost every student came. Moreover, all but two chose to read the book.
The general sentiment was that students were interested in Islam. Not to convert, but simply to make sense of the attacks and the media portrayals and our own emotions. I think we all had trouble believing that one billion of the world’s population is evil. We wanted to reconcile these doubts with a reliable source. But sadly, the overwhelming reaction to the book was disappointment.
APPROACHING THE QUR’AN is a scholarly text. It is a study in linguistics, and it surveys the historical context of the Qur’an. That’s about it. Sells makes no attempt to explain modern Islamic customs, to relate their everyday life. That is not the purpose of his book. So we went about it with false hopes, and it was like trying to visualize present-day American life by reading only the Declaration of Independence.
To settle my feelings of disgruntlement, I plan to read Marianne Alireza’s AT THE DROP OF A VEIL, the personal account of a Californian woman who moves to Saudi Arabia with her new husband in 1945. I feel that this more intimate approach will be more insightful than the textbook-like APPROACHING THE QUR’AN.
Then again, if that textbook had answered more questions, I might have asked fewer questions myself.
Cary, North Carolina