Thursday, June 15, 2017

What is "the Word of God"? A Quaker and Sufi Perspective

Quakerism and Sufism both draw a clear distinction between the words of God (found in scripture) and the Word of God (which is experienced inwardly).
During a recent controversy involving a bigoted Christian preacher from Gainesville, Florida, who created an international uproar by threatening to burn Qur’ans on 9/11, a prominent Muslim spiritual leader named Maher Hathout attempted to calm the troubled waters by telling the Islamic community in Los Angeles that it is impossible to burn the Qur’an.

“The Holy Qur’an is the Word of God,” he explained in a sermon delivered on Layatal Qadr, the holiest night of the holy month of Ramadan. “The Qur’an exists eternally in Paradise and cannot be destroyed. You can burn paper and ink, but not the Word of God. Anyone who thinks he can burn the Qur’an is deluded and should be pitied. So we should react not with anger or violence, but with something better, as the Qur’an teaches us.”

Hathout’s interpretation of what constitutes God’s Word corresponds very closely to the Sufi and Quaker view, except that mystics would add that God’s Word exists eternally not only in heaven, but also in the hearts of those who love God.
There are many ways to conceive of holy scripture—as a rule book, a guidebook, or as a signpost pointing us to the Source from which Truth flows eternally.
Fundamentalists and legalists tend to see the scriptures as a rulebook, with precise directions on how to live one’s life. Liberals tend to see scriptures as a guidebook, with first-hand testimonies of those who have walked the spiritual path and left behind a record of their experiences to help guide us on our way. Mystics tend to see scripture as a signpost, pointing the way to what brings us unspeakable joy and energy and life. Mystics also tend to see the scripture as having multiple levels of meaning while literalists want to reduce interpretation to one authoritative meaning—their own.
For Sufi commentators, the Quran is not a rulebook, but a vast sea of interpretive possibilities, as deep and rich as God or life itself. As Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali writes in Jawahir al Quran:

I will rouse you from your sleep, you who have given yourself up to recitation, who have taken the study of the Qur’an as a practice, who have seized upon some of its outward meanings and sentences. How long will you wander about the shore of the sea with your eyes closed to its wonders? Was it not for you to sail through its depths in order to see its amazing things, to travel to its islands to pick up its delicacies, to dive to its bottom and become rich from obtaining its jewels? Don’t you despise yourself for losing out on its pearls and jewels as you continue to look only to its shores and exoteric aspects (quoted in Krista Zahra Sand’s Sufi Commentaries on the Qur’an).

The view of scripture as something mysterious and vast, like the ocean, is also found among early Friends. As George Fox grappled with the scripture, he discovered that its stories and images were a part of his interior life. In his Journal, Fox wrote: “The natures of dogs, swine, vipers, of Sodom and Egypt, Pharaoh, Cain, Ishmael, Esau, etc.; the natures of these I saw within, though people had been looking without.” Fox affirms that we all carry within us these archetypal images and stories, some of which are deeply disturbing. Fox draws comfort from the fact that these images can help us to relate to people who spiritual condition is profoundly different from our own. Fox uses the image of the ocean to describe the vastness of this mysterious inner world:

I saw, also, that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that also I saw the infinite love of God, and I had great openings (Journal, Chapter 1).

This spiritual approach to scripture has seemed threatening to fundamentalists, literalists, legalists and the political powers-that-be since it opens up virtually infinite possibilities for interpretation and for understanding the Divine.  Sufis and Quakers have both faced persecution from those who are wary of venturing into the “Ocean of Light” lest they drown in the “Ocean of Darkness.”   More will be said later about how Sufis and Quakers became the target of those who demand clear-cut dogmas and creeds. 

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