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Reading the Qur'an in the dark

Sebastian Faulks' Qur'an remarks are symptomatic of a very British, blissfully self-assured ignorance

Ziauddin Sardar, Thursday 27 August 2009 22.00 BST

Alas, poor Sebastian Faulks! First he annoys the Muslims by declaring, in a Sunday Times interview, that the Qur'an is "the rantings of a schizophrenic" with "no ethical dimension". Then he upsets the Islamophobes by apologising. The poor sod has been hit by a self-inflicted double whammy.

There is, however, nothing new about Faulks' comments. It has, sadly, always been thus. If he overstated "in order to make a point more clearly" he ended up uttering standard judgment of western civilisation from Dante to Amis.

Frankly, the "offence" does not bother me. If Faulks finds the Qur'an "a depressing book", so be it. The Qur'an itself says he is entitled to his opinion. What concerns me is the monumental arrogance on which such judgments are made. They assume there must be only one the western way for things to be. If the Qur'an is a religious text then it must be like the Bible; otherwise it is worthless. If it is a literary text then it must resemble the work of a western novelist, otherwise it is "very disappointing" and "one-dimensional". The complex, multilayered religious and literary texts of other cultures can only be viewed through a single, monochromatic lens.

If Faulks had given a moment's thought to his position, a plethora of basic questions would have emerged. If the Qur'an has "no new plan for life", how come it laid the foundations of one of the great civilisations of the world?

Given "the barrenness of the message", how could it motivate the believers to develop science and learning, promote reason and experimental method, establish universities and research-based hospitals, and advance philosophical inquiry? How could the mere "rantings of a schizophrenic" produce philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, the multicultural society of Muslim Spain and the architecture of the Blue Mosque? If the Qur'an has no artistic merit, how did it inspire the poetry of Nizami and Iqbal, the masterpieces of Rumi and al-Attar, and the music of Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan that is all the rage in certain western circles?

Clearly, a writer distinguished by "a capacity for breathtaking research" and "driven by the need to understand and an instinct to discover something new for his readers", as the Sunday Times interviewer puts it, has no conception of the platitudes he serves up so lavishly.I would be the last person to suggest that the text of the Qur'an is easy. It does require some effort and research. But what did Faulks' "breathtaking" research amount to? He read a single, bad translation. He thought it was unnecessary to consult his Muslim friends. But he did not even bother to read the poor translation properly.

He seems to have skipped the abundant statements detailing what constitutes moral and ethical behaviour: distributive social justice that encompasses all spheres of human activity. He ignored the repeated injunctions that roundly condemn oppression, the denial of the rights of others, whoever they maybe, whatever their beliefs. And he overlooked something that would have benefitted him greatly: the Qur'an's frequent advice to be humble and acknowledge the limitations of one's own understanding and insight.

Faulks told the Guardian that he was disappointed his "overstatement is taken out of its heavily nuanced context", but the controversy will do no harm to the publicity cause for his new novel, A Week in December.

It is supposed to be a state of the nation report, an epic novel that "holds up a mirror to our broken times". Therefore, it is de rigueur for the cast of characters to include a well-educated but idealistic young Muslim terrorist struggling with his British identity. As a British Muslim who has reflected long and hard on my own identity, I have come to a clear conclusion. Through a broken mirror one will inevitably see only darkly, imagining distorted figures whose ideas, motivations, belief and their relation to actual Islamic sources will be incomprehensible. As a man of letters of our time, Faulks does not disappoint. His literary diagnosis of the Qur'an suggests he is blissfully triumphant in his self-assured ignorance. He has no idea of what he does not know.

Consequently he has nothing new to bring to any reader on a subject that demonstrably exists well beyond his grasp. In this, his book is as accurate a reflection of the state of the nation as one could hope to encounter.

In offering his unqualified apology to "my Muslim friends and readers" for anything that sounded "crude or intolerant", Faulks concludes: "Happily, there is more to the book than that." If only there was evidence he had allowed that possibility when reading the Qur'an, we would have shifted the state of the nation in a more positive and mutually comprehending direction.


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