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January 5, 2011

Noah's other Son-A book review 'Bridging the gap between Bible and the Qur'an'

We live in a time when the geographical boundaries separating the followers of different religions are fast becoming more imaginary than real. The world is a dense network of borderless connections in which cultures, peoples and religions become ever more intertwined. The pressure this creates tests more than our tolerance: it demands that we promote peaceful coexistence and understanding across boundaries.

Granted, every religion has some exclusive claim as part of its core identity. Even so, there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions. This is a valuable and enriching experience; but to savour it, we need to get to know more about each other’s faith. Such mutual awareness and respect is especially appropriate for the three great monotheistic religions that trace their beginnings to the faith of Abraham. But it is not a simple task, because in our time the ‘House of Abraham’ is in turmoil.

The intensity with which “Islam” has become a political cover for much that is not at all religious has created a truly imperative need for better understanding of each other, as the war unleashed 10 long years ago has morphed into an open ended-war wreaking havoc on Muslim lands, killing hundreds and thousands of innocent people and causing untold sufferings. The casualty rate among the young soldiers dragged into this battle from NATO countries is a sad commentary on the moral compass of their leaders, who ignored so many voices warning them against launching this war. It has generated tension, inflamed passions and polarized nations.

Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever. As a species, we must embrace the oneness of humanity as we face global issues like pandemics, economic crises and ecological disaster. At that scale, our response must be as one.

Harmony among the Abrahamic faiths in particular has become an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence in our world. From this perspective, mutual understanding among these traditions is not merely the business of religious believers: it matters for the welfare of humanity as a whole.

To bring some sense to the post 9/11 madness, inter-faith dialogue intensified in many countries. Mostly, however, it was confined to intellectually elite circles, who already knew that Christianity Judaism and Islam are not monolithic blocks confronting each other. Rev. Brian Arthur Brown in his recent book, Noah’s Other Son observes; “To judge all Muslims by standards set by Osama bin Laden is as mistaken as to judge Christians by the Crusades or the Ku Klux Klan, or to judge Judaism only on the basis of violence in Hebrew scriptural accounts of the invasion of Canaan, or the Israeli incursions into Palestinian refugee camps...” 

Collaborative, inquiring encounter among Abraham’s many heirs needs to move beyond the narrow focus of the interfaith dialectic. It needs to be at home in the broadest of educational enterprises, in debate and discussion among citizens, civil society groups and governments, and with politicians and prominent Canadians speaking against prejudice and misinformation. That is truly our Canadian calling.

Such ventures would assist in diluting the media’s “free floating hostilities’ so aptly described by Edward Said.

‘Noah’s Other Son’ is a faithful discourse rooted in the Scriptures to ‘bridge the gap between the Bible and the Qur’an.’ Written with much sensitivity and insight, Brown’s message to the followers of the three Abrahamic faiths is to teach a different view of the other than that which has characterized their indoctrination in the past. The author encourages Christians and Jews to ‘live as if they believe their own scriptures’ and ‘Muslims to move beyond reciting the Qur’an to an understanding of its depths.’ There could hardly be any disagreement with such advice.

In Muslim societies in which religious identity is strong, the language of the Qur’an is the dominant normative discourse. Because it has such cultural power, some will use the Qur’an in a manipulative fashion, while others will sincerely try to be guided by its message. It is impossible to prevent the Qur’an from being “used” to justify bad behaviour. Shakespeare wrote that ‘the devil can cite scripture for his purpose’, and this is as true of the Qur’an as it is of the Bible, which has been used at various times to justify everything from the enslavement of Africans to the subjugation of women to the forcible expulsion of indigenous peoples (and in our time, also the Palestinians) from their lands.

The title of the book refers to Noah’s deviant son, Canaan, who refused to board the ship at the time of the Flood. Despite his father’s plea he went his own way and met his fate along with the other disbelievers. The author characterizes the ‘Other Son’ as: ‘Those who will not listen are Canaan’s modern brothers and sisters and the warnings about their fate should be heeded in the fields of the environment, material possessions, and religious extremism, whether in fundamentalism or atheism’. 

Rev. Brown’s optimism is instructive; "I hope to illustrate how much the West and the world as a whole can learn from the Qur'an, "I do this in hopes that Muslim lay people will be inspired by these techniques." It invites us to study together the substance of the stories from the three traditions of "Abraham's dysfunctional family."

The book opens with a special event held at a United Church Lansing, Toronto, after 9/11, with participants from the three Abrahamic faiths. The call (‘prologue’) was to converge on the common denominator rather than focus on the differences. The author graciously acknowledges that many insights he has included in this book come from his friends of other faiths.

In the commentary on the post 9/11 period, the author takes a cautious stand. He considers that “the solution is not found in charging American soldiers or politicians with war crimes....” Renowned British playwright and Nobel peace prize winner (2007) Harold Pinter has a different take on this. Describing the invasion of Iraq as “an act of blatant state terrorism” he calls for the arraignment of Bush, Cheney and Blair before the International Criminal Court, declaring: “How many people do you have to kill before you qualify as a mass murderer and a war criminal? One hundred thousand? More than enough, I would have thought!”

Both Christianity and Islam derive their set of beliefs from their revelations, the Bible and the Qur'an, yet we find that they disagree on a number of areas. The author takes us on a different flight path by selecting certain passages and prophets’ stories from the Bible and corroborating them with the Qur’an through the lens of a meticulous researcher. However, the prophets and other stories in the Qur’an are thematically complete and coherent. Their main message is that God has always sent prophets or pious men and women to call others to the worship of the One God and to act with righteousness. From Christian and Jewish perspectives, however, the stories are missing many of the details included in biblical narratives of the same figures. The Qur’an for example, does not mention Mary’s marriage to Joseph, or the flight into Egypt. In relating the story of Noah, the Qur’an mentions the ark, but does not mention the details of its construction or the composition of its inhabitants.

In Noah’s Other Son, the characters and events from Biblical times are seamlessly connected to the leaders, ‘celebrities’ and people of influence that have shaped human civilization in more recent times, for better or worse.

The case for freedom of speech

Among other topics the author touches upon the caustic subject of Salman Rushdie and his Satanic Verses, declaring him to be a ‘world leader in the quest for freedom of speech.’ This frightening feature of the debate which developed around the Rushdie affair has been the willingness of so many literary intellectuals to defend the Western fortress of free speech in unconditional terms without ever pausing to inquire why that fortress was erected in the first place, and which values it was designed to defend.

My own overriding impression is that the novelist is making use of the ambiguities and uncertainties of fiction to disguise a deliberate attempt to defile the most precious sanctities of Islam in a language which is simultaneously wounding and obscene. Rushdie supporters have failed to understand that the contemptuous disrespect which they have shown for the sanctities of others in the name of freedom of speech is itself repressive and destructive.

One of the particular failures of Rushdie supporters in their response to the campaign against The Satanic Verses has been their reluctance to recognize how important the element of assent and trust is to any liberating use of obscenity – whether in literature or in life. The Muslim objection to the obscenity of the language Rushdie uses in relation to Islamic sanctities stems from the feeling of many Muslims that a sacred area of their own identity has been violently broken into and deliberately defiled.

The supporters of free expression (in this instance, of Rushdie) might profitably reflect on how they would react if a novelist used their spouses for artistic subject matter and fictitiously portrayed them as unfaithful, criminally immoral and totally lacking in integrity. Such an approach to the Rushdie affair is useful, I believe, precisely because it conveys the intimacy of the feelings of hurt and violation which many Muslims felt on the publication of Rushdie’s novel.

Rev. Brown’s commentary on numerous issues confronting the contemporary world includes other points which seek to demonstrate the relevance of Scriptures as a rich source of lessons that need to be heeded to heal the wounds of our times.

The author tries to appeal to a broad audience, making Noah’s Other Son a useful addition to the comparative literature that has widened the world’s understanding of the Bible and the Qur’an.

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M. Elmasry

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