Why I Read the Qur’an This Yom Kippur

by Bob Schwartz

Qur'an

There comes a time on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, when the official proceedings pause. In the space between morning and afternoon services, lunch on a fast day not being an option, some people engage in group discussions of matters biblical and theological. A sort of hungry High Holy Days Torah study.

This year, I read the Qur’an.

At Yom Kippur services, the Book of Jonah is read. I made that the topic of my High Holy Days blog post, writing that Jonah is a tale we tell to the youngest children, as if, literally, a five-year-old would get it. In fact, Jonah is unique among all Old Testament prophetic books, and may be one of the most variously interpreted texts in the Hebrew Bible. So if you or that five-year-old think it is the simple story of obedience to God and the power of repentance, you might think twice.

Then a few days later, it was reported that an Iranian psychotherapist had just been hanged for, among other things, misinterpreting the Qur’an and insulting the prophet Jonah. For those unfamiliar with the Qur’an, many of the major figures of the Bible—Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jesus, and others—make appearances there. Sometimes it is a quick mention, but they are important links in the chain leading to Mohammed. Jonah among them.

This then became for me the Yom Kippur of Jonah. The Book of Jonah is so short, four brief chapters, that it can be read in minutes. While I have read many of the suras (chapters) in the Qur’an, I had never focused on the role of Jonah.

My interest in Qur’an began years ago with an extraordinary 3-volume set, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by Professor F. E. Peters. Peters is one of the leading scholars on the shared foundations of these faiths, and this work offers parallel scriptural excerpts from each on a range of themes. I was well-versed in the Bible, Jewish and Christian, but had never read a single word of Qur’an. This began my still-ongoing attempt to fill that gap.

Literacy and familiarity with Abrahamic scriptures—reading them, being aware of structure and content, knowing some of the theological and interpretive issues—might run from 0 (no knowledge) to 10 (comprehensive knowledge). On that scale, many if not most Jews would probably score a 2 for the Hebrew Bible (maybe higher if limited to Torah and assorted familiar books of the Tanach), 0 for the New Testament, and a negative number for the Qur’an, that is, a studied and sometimes antagonistic ignorance. No blame for any of that, though we hope that those who engage in discussion or offer opinions about them might do it with some measure of knowledge.

The sura Jonah (Yonus) in the Qur’an is not what a non-Muslim might expect. Jonah is mentioned only once in it at verse 98:

If only a single town had believed and benefited from its belief! Only Jonah’s people did so, and when they believed, We relieved them of the punishment of disgrace in the life of this world, and let them enjoy life for a time.

The next verse of the sura encourages the Prophet (Mohammed) to be patient in waiting for unbelievers to come around:

Had your Lord willed, all the people on earth would have believed. So can you [Prophet] compel people to believe?

The more familiar biblical story is found at verse 139 of the sura Al-Saffat (37). As with many of the Qur’an’s recaps of these stories, it is very condensed:

Jonah too was one of the messengers. He fled to the overloaded ship. They cast lots, he suffered defeat, and a great fish swallowed him, for he had committed blameworthy acts. If he had not been one of those who glorified God, he would have stayed in its belly until the Day when all are raised up, but We cast him out, sick, on to a barren shore, and made a gourd tree grow above him. We sent him to a hundred thousand people or more. They believed, so We let them live out their lives.

It isn’t clear from the reports how the psychotherapist, who was leading a Qur’an study, insulted Jonah. It is true that much of official Islam “discourages” unorthodox translation and interpretation (in some cases with fatwas, imprisonment, and death). It is also true that translators, scholars, and teachers have continued to push the boundaries anyway, shaking up the tradition and risking it all.

If you have an interest in seeing what the modern generation of Qur’an translations reads like, see M.A.S. Abdel Haleem’s The Qur’an: A New Translation (2005)
(from which the above excerpts are taken).

Don’t wait until next Yom Kippur. You don’t even need a holiday, Jewish or Christian. If you are of the non-Muslim Abrahamic persuasion, or even if you’re not persuaded at all, have a look at the Qur’an. You may believe in many respects besides religious—historical, social, cultural—that the Bible is one of the most important books in the world. You may also have to admit that in its impact, the Qur’an is its equal.

We hear regularly about how there are people killing for the Qur’an, or at least for their often misguided interpretations of it. Remember that there are also those trying to correct those interpretations, and they are dying for it.

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