Posts Tagged ‘The Qur’an’

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations

November 22, 2022

     I have long been intrigued by this Roman emperor who was also a philosopher. His meditations are rather hard to read in these modern times, because of the style of writing way back then, and also the need for quite comprehensive notes to explain so many points and references, even to someone with a reasonable classical education. I have been listening to a good Librivox recording, which has made them rather more approachable and accessible; they seem to have been designed for listening, in a similar way to the Qur’an which is intended for recitation rather than reading.

He enjoyed an extremely powerful and privileged position, in the years before the Roman Empire became so large as to be unmanageable; he clearly had the luxury of unlimited undisturbed time to think, to philosophise and presumably dictate his thoughts to his slave… He comes across as a thinker, someone wise, but also someone endowed with large amounts of common sense. He reflects on the purpose and meaning of life, and its counterpart, the inevitability of death, and how a mortal can face and come to terms with that necessary eventuality. Nothing new there, we may think, but here is one of the first to try and articulate a response. And it’s interesting that he continually returns to this particular issue a number of times; I found myself thinking, here is a man – an emperor, but still a man, and aware of this – who is at some level wanting to understand and to rationalise his fears: for me, this made him more human, somehow.

He’s also interested in the nature of the universe, fate and resignation, and his position is that the gods determine everything…

At some level, he’s interested in the same things that I spend a fair amount of time wondering about. There are wisdom writings in most religions and cultures, and some are rather more accessible than others. I’ve found that with the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, there’s an awful lot of chaff and not much wheat to glean once the tribal histories of the Jewish people, their wanderings and the misdeeds of their kings are stripped out. And although the Qur’an doesn’t spend as much time on history, is is very repetitive, as a book originally designed for public recitation will inevitably be.

The Wisdom books of the Bible, on the other hand, I have always found attractive and thought-provoking, and as I’ve read more widely I’ve come to realise that they contemplate similar notions to, and say the same things as did Confucius and the Buddha, and various Greeks and Romans, and Marcus Aurelius joins them. For my money, the orientals are rather too enigmatic – again, it’s a different mode of expression that it’s harder for us to tap into. The Greeks and the Romans are a lot more straightforward, in acknowledging that there are things they don’t understand, there are powers above and beyond us, that we humans are limited in what we can do and mortal. And they have no sense of there being a life after death either. For me, the jury is out on that one, but increasingly I do think that the idea of a hereafter is part of the attempt of religion to comfort us in facing the awful and inevitable end.

In a nutshell, if you’re a fan of the Preacher, aka Qoheleth, aka Ecclesiastes, you’ll probably enjoy Marcus Aurelius.

Guidère: Au Commencement était le Coran

May 8, 2018

61lnfOoUoKL._AC_US218_This is a very useful little book, and it’s a shame that things such as this don’t seem to get written in English. I’ve been interested in Islam for a long time, and have read fairly widely in what is available, and up until now Karen Armstrong‘s book Islam: A Short History has been the best thing I’ve come across.

This book is written by a Western expert; it’s very clearly written, and carefully balanced, taking no sides, but clarifying much that might seem obscure and mysterious to the ordinary (non-Muslim) person who tries to keep up and understand, without offending – I hope – anyone in the process. There’s a very wide scope: various schisms in Islam are explained, as are the various different versions of the Qur’an, its history, and various changes and alterations which have occurred. I even understood fully the controversy about the Satanic Verses for the first time (I did read the novel, and found it unremittingly tedious, I’m afraid).

Guidère explains the different currents in Islam and in Islamic jurisprudence; he clarifies the past and shows how it operates in and affects the world today. The complexity of the various rules (and various interpretations of them) regarding sexual behaviour, and the covering of women’s bodies, are examined.

He also points out that much of the knowledge which he is sharing is not widely known in the Muslim world, and it is very clear that there are real dangers for Muslims who would like to read, explore, analyse and challenge; to a considerable extent the Qur’an is a book imprisoned in its past, and he finds this sad.

For me, the most interesting thing I learned about was the concept of abrogation or annulment. This was new to me, the idea that one injunction that had been divinely revealed in one place in the book was annulled and superseded by another one that was revealed later. There’s a certain (human) logic to this, but then by the time Guidère explains the concept and exemplifies it, he has already made clear how much is unknown and uncertain about the compilation of the Qur’an, including when various parts of it were given to Muhammad. So, in short, what supersedes what?

Developing greater understanding of the complex issues that shape and trouble our world is a necessary and valuable enterprise: this book helps do that.

My A-Z of reading: A is for Audiobook

October 10, 2016

(An occasional series)

I was very sniffy about audiobooks when they first came out; I couldn’t see why one would want to listen to someone reading a book rather than read it oneself. And, listening to text read aloud takes so much longer than reading it silently to oneself. I suppose I couldn’t visualise situations where I’d make use of audiobooks.

Then I ended up with a drive to work for a number of years, half an hour each way. As I grew older, I tired of listening to news bulletins, and Radio Three’s programming became less and less attractive. I came across a reference to the librivox website somewhere and began exploring, downloaded a favourite novel or two, and never looked back.

I discovered Naxos Audiobooks, too: higher-quality, commercial recordings of real favourites like Sherlock Holmes, Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Paradise Lost. And, now that I’m retired, and regularly go off for solo driving adventures, I can listen to a lot more. Since I can actually ‘read’ a book whilst driving, I can get through more books than previously, which is clearly a good thing.

I choose carefully. Sometimes it’s difficult and obscure stuff that I’d probably get a headache actually reading – The City of God by St Augustine, or JosephusWars of the Jews are a couple of examples. Here, the text does come at you more slowly, so you have time to think about it, and it doesn’t matter if you miss a bit because you’re concentrating on the road; it’s not quite the same as skim-reading, or skipping pages. Other times, it’s old favourites I have loved for years; I can never tire of any of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and the Naxos recordings are first class. The familiarity is there, so I can concentrate on different aspects of the stories. Occasionally it’s something completely new, perhaps impossible to track down in print: there is some wonderful travel writing, and some gripping personal accounts of service in the Great War available from librivox.

And this is where I get something I’d never imagined I would, before I got into audiobooks. Particularly if the recording is a good one (and not every librivox one is), it’s possible to listen out for nuances of style, a writer’s particular vocabulary, how s/he constructs sentences. Yes, you can do this with a printed book, too, but it’s a lot easier with an audiobook. Reading the Qur’an, for instance, I found pretty challenging, but listening to an English version was much easier, because that holy book was written to be recited… And listening to Milton’s Paradise Lost – another stunning Naxos recording – I can sink into the beauty, the complexity of the verse, the breadth of the vocabulary, the invented words, the rhythm. Truly magical.

People of the Book (2)

August 21, 2016

I’ve read the Bible several times; basically, the Old Testament is the Jewish scriptures, the ‘old dispensation’ that was superseded by the advent of Christ. It’s a curious hotch-potch of very different things, and is also pretty violent in places. I have always liked the stories I first came across when very young, the stories that, sadly, children do not seem to meet any more at school, from the five books of Moses: Adam and Eve and all the subsequent tales, Noah, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and lots more. And if you wonder why children should meet these stories, it’s because they are part of our cultural heritage and historical past: though we may no longer be a Christian country, those beliefs and stories have inescapably shaped our world, and we need to know them.

But then, there’s the strangeness of Leviticus, with all the minutiae of Jewish ritual observances, and all the marauding and battles and infighting in the books of Samuel and Kings and elsewhere, which I find very tedious and tiresome and not very edifying at all.

The prophets I find weird, basically, full of gloom, warnings and threats, admonishing wayward people in a very similar manner to some of the rather hectoring passages in the Qur’an; basically telling people that if you don’t do what you are told, you will meet a sticky end. Thus have people been oppressed by religion through the ages…

For me, the best parts of the Old Testament are the various Wisdom books, which are confusingly known by a variety of different names, and some of which are also excluded from the Old Testament by Protestants and Anglicans, and labelled apocryphal, whatever that bizarre judgement and appellation might actually mean. But certain of the books, such as Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus are philosophical, reflective and capable of speaking to us across many centuries; the Psalms are often beautiful, poetic although somewhat repetitive: when I studied the poetry of Walt Whitman at university, I learned that his poetry is modelled on the Hebrew poetic style, which involves repetition which isn’t quite repetition: something is changed, modified and perhaps extended as part of the repeating, so that there is a gradual, accretive effect. It can be tiresome, but when it works it is quite beautiful, in a way totally unlike our Western styles of versification.

In some ways I find it curious the way that the New Testament is tagged onto the end of the Old. I know it’s meant to be the fulfilment of many of the earlier prophecies, an extension or replacement for what went before, and so we need to know what there was before. There is such a difference in tone and also in structure. There are five narrative books – the Gospels and Acts, then all the epistles to the new churches, then the weirdness of the Revelation, and that’s it. And by and large it’s free from violence and warfare, apart from the Revelation.

Raised a Catholic, I know the gospels pretty well, at least in terms of the stories. Coming back to them many years later, I notice how they have different foci: one presents Jesus as a worker of wonders and miracles, another emphasises his teachings and preachings, another reminds us as often as he can how Jesus is fulfilling all those Old Testament prophecies. So we get several different portraits of the man. There is overlap and difference, and, if one digs into detail in the way Geza Vermes does, for instance, then there are also plenty of contradictions and inconsistencies. And yet, there is clearly a very powerful story, of a thinker who offered a different way of living, and of looking at the world and life, a teacher with something revolutionary to say to people, who offered hope then and for many continues to do so now… and then there is the story of what happened after his death. I have to say that I cannot believe in a virgin birth or a resurrection from the dead, but that lack of belief does not diminish for me the power of the ideas and the message.

Unravelling the truth about what really happened is very difficult because so little was written, and a long time after the events; we have no way of knowing what was suppressed or destroyed. Clearly his followers thought his message was worth keeping alive; when we get onto St Paul and his epistles, I do begin to wonder: here’s an interloper almost, someone who wasn’t there and who never knew Jesus and yet who issues all sorts of edicts and instructions, who interprets and glosses, for his own purposes; I’ve always been uneasy with almost all he wrote, and that’s without looking at the misogyny. And the Revelation is just seriously bonkers; for my money it makes most of Hunter S Thompson’s wilder ravings seem positively normal and balanced… All in all the Bible is a curious book to place at the centre of a religion; I find the Catholic balance between scripture and tradition, or the Quaker one between scripture and the workings of the Spirit rather more convincing and comforting…

Wisdom & Spiritual Texts

September 30, 2014

I haven’t written about my response to spiritual writings before, as it’s quite a challenge. But they are a part of literature, alongside anything else that people may feel them to be…

I’ve read the Bible at least three times through, and have found myself liking it less and less each time. It’s a vital part of our Western cultural heritage, and underpins many of our values. I have always liked the old, familiar Old Testament stories, and have felt saddened that today’s children are unlikely to be familiar with them – as a teacher I found myself having to explain an awful lot of references in literature. I find a great deal of the Old Testament to be full of violence and warfare and cruelty. Some of the psalms I find beautiful, many repetitive. And yes, I know about that style of writing. I am most drawn to the Wisdom books of the Old Testament (those which Protestants assign to the Apocrypha) – Ecclesiastes, Sirach, Wisdom, and the like; these texts most resemble the calmer thoughts of Eastern spiritual texts. But the language is often quite sexist, and demeaning to women. So the texts are of their time, and some sects choose to rephrase them in ‘inclusive’ language; I’m not sure about doing that to any text…

I like the gospels for their familiar stories, and for the ideas in them, Jesus as a teacher with a new and challenging message in his times, and ideas which can still have relevance for us today. I’m also interested in the very different agendas the different evangelists have when telling their stories. Paul’s epistles I have always found hectoring, dull and sexist; they are of their time. Recently I have been interested in the epistle of James. And the Revelation I have always found deeply disturbing and disturbed.

Overall, I think that if a God had meant this collection of texts to rule all aspects of our lives, then s/he would have made a rather better and more coherent job of it.

The Qur’an I have become more interested in recently. It’s hard to read, though I’ve managed once; as I understand it, it is meant to be recited, and I have found it much more accessible through a recording (librivox again, if you are interested). I’m also aware that the Qur’an is in Arabic, and that in any other language it’s actually only a ‘version’. I’m astonished at how much overlap there is between stories and characters in the Bible and the Qur’an, although that is perhaps not so surprising when I recollect where in the world both texts originated. Like the Old Testament, it’s full of threats, warnings and dire punishments for those who stray from the right path, but to me it has also a stronger emphasis on a God who cares for and about his people. I have to admit that my knowledge and understanding of it is very limited, but I can see why it is venerated and respected by its followers, in ways in which the Bible does not seem to be.

I have also read the Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu, The Analects of Confucius, and Marcus AureliusMeditations, which I include under the heading of ‘wisdom and spiritual texts’, although their status seems rather different. To me they are focused on what I would call ‘right living’, which I think is very important, maybe paramount; they focus on suggestion rather than command, and they do not threaten dire consequences if one does not follow them: maybe they presume intelligence and benevolence in their readers as a starting-point? They are enigmatic; they demand slow and close reading and re-reading. They certainly do not suggest that to live well, or contentedly, is an easy and straightforward task, although they do think it is something for the wise to strive for. as I have grown older, this approach is one that I have gradually come to agree with.

I hope I have not offended anyone with my musings, but this is my blog and these are my thoughts.

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