Anyone who’s ever spoken to a stranger, or read a newspaper, or even browsed the search results on Google knows that people tend to have different viewpoints from one another. These viewpoints don’t have to be radical in any sense; oftentimes they’re minute enough to go unnoticed in most situations. The farther one ever gets from their own circle of comfort, however, the more varied and strange these ideas come to seem, changing with the location, race, creed, or sexuality of the people who hold them. When this happens, it’s not too uncommon to see conflict emerge, spurred on by distrust and misunderstanding between two ways of life.
Now more than ever, the same seems to be true for America. During a time when matters of identity are the cause for great change and conflict, the American populace seems more prone to fear and confusion than ever before, often resulting in quick judgments that villainize entire demographics and drive wedges between the people of this nation. Perhaps, most of all, this holds true for the Muslim citizens of America, who still bear the brunt of America’s suspicions in a post-9/11 world.
Seemingly the greatest cause of fear among many Americans over their Muslim neighbors is the misrepresentation Islam receives in the news. During this month of Ramadan, an important holiday which already brings Muslims into the public eye, there have already been two attacks in the U.K. and one in Iran, following other strikes like the devastating attack set up in Kabul this May. These only add to the already extensive lists of terror attacks perpetrated in the name of radical Islam, more than reported enough on in the news every other day. With this seemingly uniform image of Muslim-perpetrated violence, it only seems natural that the American people would come to a hostile view of the religion and its practitioners as a whole.
There was a time when I felt similarly about the Muslims who lived in my city, for much the same reasons as many other Americans. Growing up in a New York still very much recovering from the events of September 11th, 2001, I only ever saw a world where Islam was reviled or viewed with suspicion by the people who lived with me. There was never a time when the United States wasn’t at war with some Islamic nation or group, and every other day the news was reporting on some attack committed overseas or on our soil. With only images of violence being presented to me as a child, it was more than easy to fall into a fearful opinion on the Muslims who would sometimes pass me on the street.
Anyone who’s lived among Muslims, however, knows that Muslims aren’t inherently dangerous in the least, nor are they a uniform group of people. As I grew up, I came to realize that they’re comprised of a vast array of races and sects, revolving around different versions of the same basic creed, and attracting all walks of life. In retrospect, this shouldn’t have been logistically surprising; Islam far exceeds any other religion, even the Christian faith, in terms of its spread rate. Studies have estimated that based on rates of reproduction alone, it will be the largest religion on the planet by 2060, meaning there will inevitably be adherents of the faith in every country, of every ethnicity and position in society. Still, the images that pervade international, western media portray Muslims as a monolithic demographic, and it wasn’t until I was finally old enough to grow close to the Muslims who I went to school with that I really began to question the message I had been fed my entire life.
If media is the means by which Muslims are misrepresented or otherwise villainized, then perhaps the simplest way to humanize and engage them is to turn to the oldest form of media surrounding them: their holy book. I was apprehensive about buying my first copy of the Qur’an, perhaps expecting some awful proof that my prior assumptions on Islam had been correct. I may even have been a bit afraid that the book might do the opposite, and captivate me to the point where I’d be drawn into the religion myself. After reading the first two Suras, however, I was relieved to find that neither was true. The Qur’an wasn’t some pamphlet on violence and holy war, nor was it a brainwashing, captivating work of ecstatic and religious fervor. I was surprised to see that, on many levels, it was indistinguishable from the Bible in its values, favoring a means by which people chose to follow the faith instead of being forced or drawn into it.
The More I read, the more I realized how important it was that I had decided to pick up the book in the first place. I suddenly had the context for the many rituals and behaviors of the people I knew in my day to day life, behaviors which had beforehand confused me and may have even frightened those who were less familiar with them. I had ample proof, as well, to stomp out any suspicion I had for the religion being inherently wrong; nothing in the book ever exceeded the violence found in the Old Testament, and some of its values, including its treatment of those outside the faith, sometimes surpassed the tolerance I had learned Christianity espoused when I grew up in the faith. There were even, on occasion, times when I found a line o two which ended up inspiring me and changed the way I thought about matters. In the end, the Qur’an brought me closer together with my Muslim friends, and changed my outlook on the world from something frightening one of increased unity among all peoples, emphasizing the shared values even different faiths can have.
The Qur'an's influence in this matter shouldn’t be surprising; In fact, it’s been one of the Book’s defining traits from nearly two millennia. It has sold billions of copies in the fifteen hundred years since it was first recorded and has formed united civilizations from once disparate and bitter rivals. Its initial inception alone led to the unification of the warring Bedouin tribes that plagued the Arabia of Muhammad’s time, a testament to the power of unification, and not of senseless violence, that it has had for countless people over the last few centuries. Even after the splitting of the faith into its two largest factions, the Shia and Sunni sects, it never threw away this power to draw in and change the peoples it made contact with into friends and citizens of the Ummah (or Muslim global community).
This ability to make friends of enemies and make peace with dissimilar cultures lies in the Qur’an’s attitude of acceptance and compassion toward the faiths which surrounded it at its conception. It regards and cities on various occasions the stories of both Judaism and Christianity, religions which Qur’an regards with healthy amounts of both reverence and criticism. Its relationship with the two religions, as well as those cultures which adopted them, provides keen insight into both the way Muslims try to emulate the practices of those cultures, and the detailed and philosophical reasons it has for differing with them, all while maintaining peace despite the difference which lie between it and foreign systems of belief. It is, in essence, a guide not just for Muslims on how to live, but for non-believers on how to understand and co-exist with the Ummah that cohabits the world with them.
But there are many reasons why one might argue against reading the Qur’an. Perhaps, they might object, it’s a matter of time; most Americans struggle to read the Qur’an, as it differs drastically from the Bible and Torah in format and means of conveying its message, so the average, working class American might not afford to spend time studying its pages. It might also be argued that the average citizen already knows enough about Islam by looking at the crimes of those overseas and in our own states, and thus a detailed reading of what inspires those criminals would have no real effect upon their opinion. Finally, it might even be said that the Qur’an is simply an inconsequential book; like other holy texts, it was written for a people who lived long ago and thus has no real place or bearing in the modern world.
The Qur'an, of course, is neither time-consuming, nor exemplary of terrorists, nor inconsequential in the slightest. It’s significantly shorter than the New Testament, meaning it would take less time to read than many evangelical Christians’ favorite books of the Bible. It also presents not a series of Stories, like in the Bible and Torah, but a number of sayings and guiding phrases, much like the Books of Proverbs and Psalms, which have always been singled out and published on their own due to their easy readability and length. This means that one could easily read the entirety of the Qur’an in a week or less if they simply put some effort into it, effectively learning the entire basis of a world religion in less than seven days.
Furthermore, the Islam isn’t defined by those who follow it, nor are the criminals who wage war in its name representative of it. It stands on its own as the basis of many ideologies but underlining a single, massive community, most of which is incredibly peaceful and devoted to following Islam in a nonviolent manner. If you were to read the Qur’an in its entirety, it would quickly become apparent where Islamic extremists diverge from the book on crucial matters which define the lifestyles of most Muslims. It would also elaborate on and provide countless reasons as to why most Muslims are so peaceful and accommodating (other than the fact that they’re just like any other group of people in their preference for peace over violence). The Qur’an stresses peaceful living alongside citizens of all walks of life, and to read it is to truly understand the lengths to which the book goes to make this clear.
Finally, the Qur’an is anything but unimportant. The very existence of the extremism so many Westerners are terrified of is proof to the power it carries, albeit in its darkest and most perverted form. It may even be more influential than the Bible in a number of ways; most Americans are surprisingly inept when it comes to their biblical knowledge (recent surveys have shown that Atheists and Jews tend to know more about the Bible faith than Christians themselves, excluding the Mormon faith). Muslims, on the other hand, are still devoted in the extreme to their beliefs; most of the billions of Muslims across the earth practice Ramadan in its entirety, and arduous and month-long ordeal which strains the body and truly tests their faith. In most Muslim-dominated countries, there is even emphasis placed on the memorization of the entire Qur’an; people who are able to do so, known as the Hafiz, are highly regarded, showing not only their devotion to the study of their religion but also the societal importance such practices and devotion still carries. To read the Qur’an even once, then, allows any literate person to glean a set of truths that define a still very relevant community of people.
All in all, the importance of the Qur’an for many people will simply be a point of discussion. It likely won’t convert anyone who isn’t already interested in doing so, just as it didn’t convert me. It will, however, enlighten them to some extent on the humanity of Islam and the means of its surviving for so long. It will remove the mask of mystery and malevolence which surrounds the Muslim community, allowing people to see past the actions of a few extremists and peer into the deep, rich heart that has allowed Islam and all its followers to flourish in a beautifully unique culture. Perhaps, with enough time, it may even help to end the veritable witch hunts that have so often left Muslims both domestic and abroad feeling isolated and unwelcome in the western world.Even if it does none of these things, it will open the door to a more knowledgeable American community, letting us glimpse, at the very least, the values which are shared regardless of nationality or religion. Future generations may look back and see the reading of the Qur’an in Western environments as the beginning of even greater learning experiences, ones which may just draw together otherwise unrelated and uncommunicative communities of people. Where once we saw Muslims as something to be feared, knowledge and understanding will take us to the best of all possible realities; one where our children can walk past followers of a dozen faiths without batting an eye.