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Quaker Theology #14

A Quaker Perspective on the Qur’an and the Bible

By Anthony Manousos

George Bernard Shaw once observed that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. It could also be said that Christianity, Islam and Judaism are three religions separated by a common religious heritage. The three great monotheistic faiths all claim Abraham as their common spiritual ancestor. They ascribe to many of the same religious narratives and honor many of the same prophets. They worship one God who is the ruler of the universe. Nonetheless, acrimonious and sometimes bloody disputes have arisen among these self-styled "children of Abraham."

During our current age of religious conflict, scriptures are cited to justify everything from war and terrorism to peace making and social justice. It is important for people of faith, as well as for skeptics, to have a basic understanding of what the Bible and the Qur’an actually say and how they are being interpreted from a variety of theological/philosophical perspectives.

In this essay I will explore some of some areas of controversy regarding the Bible and the Qur’an, including the nature of God ("Do Muslims, Jews and Christians worship the same God?"), how these scriptures were composed, and how the ambivalence towards war and peace found in these texts reflects the different levels of spiritual development. I am not trained as a biblical or qur’anic scholar, but I have had scholarly training in English literature and have read the Bible and the Qur’an for many years on a daily basis as part of my spiritual practice. I have also written a pamphlet about "Islam from a Quaker Perspective" and pondered what scholars have written about both these scriptures.

In this essay I will sum up some of what I have learned and offer some reasons why Friends and others who care about peace making in the modern (or postmodern) world would do well to increase their scriptural literacy by reading both the Bible and the Qur’an.

I realize that many unprogrammed Friends, like many Americans, are "biblically illiterate." Hence the Quaker joke:

What do Quakers from Friends United Meeting [the branch of Quakers known for being mainstream Christians] bring to their bible study class? Answer: A Bible and a cup of coffee.

What do liberal, unprogrammed Friends bring to their bible study class? Answer: a cup of coffee.

Joking aside, there are signs of growing interest in the Bible even among liberal Friends. Friends General Conference, the national gathering of liberal Friends, has bible studies in each of its Gatherings and publishes some of the talks given by speakers at these events. Another hopeful indication has been the recent publication of the The Quaker Bible Reader, a collection of essays by Friends from different branches of Quakerism. I was also encouraged to learn that some Meetings (such as Orange County Meeting here in California) are making an effort to study the Qur’an.

As a Quaker interested in peace making and spirituality, I see three primary reasons to study the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic scriptures:

1) Knowledge of scripture helps us to be more clear and effective when we dialogue with "people of the book," i.e. Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Such knowledge is essential if you believe (as I do) that interfaith dialogue plays an important role in post 9/11 peace and reconciliation work.

2) Scriptural literacy helps us to discern when people are misusing their scriptural tradition either out of ignorance or because of a political agenda. Americans have been described as "Christ-haunted" and "biblically illiterate" which is sad but true, and a source of many problems in today’s world. Many Muslims and Jews also lack direct knowledge of scriptures, either their own or those of other faiths; they rely instead on second-hand opinions that sometimes create misunderstanding and mistrust. To counteract ignorance and religious prejudice, we need to study and to share what we know to be accurate and true about the scriptures. Early Friends knew their scripture intimately and did not hesitate to argue against what they saw as "errors." George Fox was knowledgeable enough about the Qur’an to quote it authoritatively when writing a letter to the Sultan of Turkey calling for humane treatment of sailors captured by the Turks.

3) The Bible and Qur’an are sources of genuine spiritual wisdom which, if read with discernment, sensitivity, and intelligence, can help transform our lives. Friends were among the first Christians to recognize divine wisdom not only in the Bible but also in the Qur’an.

It is no easy task to become scripturally literate or to "read the scriptures in the spirit in which they were written" (to use the Quaker phrase). It takes many years of study, and a willingness to keep as open mind as well as a critical spirit.

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