Wednesday, September 28, 2005

How to read

Brandon, always interesting and always Sirius, has some light to shine on both the breadth of the Muslim community and on how to read a religious text:
There is the further absurdity of going around and telling people that they're reading their own holy book incorrectly. It would make sense if the problem here were ignorance of the actual text of the Qur'an itself, but that's clearly not the problem. Indeed, there is no problem here at all except a made-up one. The meaning of any holy book is not how any Tom, Dick, and Harry think one can read the book, but how the religious community itself orders its own reading of the book. In Sunni Islam, the interpretation of the Qur'an is communal, not individual; the authority on what the Qur'an means is the consensus that builds up over time. It is a slow, hard way of reading a text, since your own reading is never complete until by the slow process of dialogue, prayer, and debate it passes into the community and comes back to you for further consideration. People who make the sort of argument noted above [ignoring convention and context] are not contributing to the interpretation of the text; it is almost as if a bunch of yokel fingerpainters were going about making snide remarks about how real painters were trying to avoid facing up to the messiness of paint. They are trying, somewhat irrationally and entirely arbitrarily, to foist a crude and fundamentalist mode of reading on people whose style of reading is much more sophisticated. The proper response to such people is: If you are incapable of reading books written for grown ups, perhaps you shouldn't read them.
Ouch. I like his point, however - and am glad to hear that there is such a tradition in Islam. I have always thought that one's bearings are hugely important in both reading and logic. In logic one has to assent to the terms and definitions before one can evaluate the argument itself. In reading, one has to have a sense of the context of any text. That means you need to know:
  • Who is author? Other writings by the same author can help us narrow the possibilities of what was intended.
  • What type of text is it, and what are its conventions? What do other texts in this form assume about the interplay between form and content?
  • Who is the intended audience? Can we make an educated guess? What would they most likley assume?
I don't participate in quoting verses because it is near senseless to compare different types of documents by different authors and read them as if they were written in a literal sense for twentieth century joes. 'God is the author' does not get around the objections. Of course God is the author of the book (and everything else too). He chose to use person X in a certain place and time, also to use a certain document style (conventionally or not). To overlook such details is disrespectful.

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