How do Quakers “love thy neighbor”? For Michael Birkel, it meant crossing religious boundaries to have meaningful conversations with his Muslim neighbors.
There is within Islam a sacred saying called a “hadith,” in which God is speaking and God says, “I was a hidden treasure and I desired to be known.” This was one of the motivations of the act of creation itself. “I was a hidden treasure and I desired to be known.” If that desire— that deep desire—is imprinted on the very fabric of the universe, then our coming to know one another across religious boundaries is a sacred task and a holy opportunity.
Reading the Qur’an as a QuakerConversations About the Qur’an
So I traveled among Muslims who live from Boston to California, and I just had one question for them: would you please choose a passage in your holy book and talk to me about it? The result was a series of precious conversations, because what they brought to the conversation was their love for their faith, for God and for the experience they had of encountering God’s revelation through the Qur’an.
The Experience of Reading the Qur’an
One of my Muslim teachers told me, when I asked him, “what is it like to read the Qur’an?” and he said it’s this experience of overwhelming divine compassion. You feel yourself swept up into this divine presence where you feel so loved that nothing else matters. Any other desires you had in the world just disappear. You are where you want to be. At the same time, you feel this overwhelming sense of compassion for others. And he told me if you don’t feel that, you’re not reading the Qur’an.
A Diversity of Voices
I spoke with Muslims from many places that are within the spectrum of the Islamic community. I spoke to Sunnis, I spoke to Shiites, I spoke to Sufis, I spoke to men, I spoke to women. I spoke to people of many ethnic heritages. If there’s one thing I learned, it is that whatever you think Islam is, it’s wider than that.
One imam—who was by 39 generations removed a descendant of the prophet Muhammad himself—spoke to me and said that for him, one of the jewels of the Qur’an was this notion that you do not repel evil with evil. You drive away evil with goodness. And if you drive away evil with good, then you find that the person whom you regarded as your enemy can become your friend.
Another Muslim teacher taught me that according to the Qur’an, when we hear about good and evil, our task is not to divide the world into two teams—here are the good guys, here are the bad guys—but rather, our inclination towards evil is found in every heart and that is where the fundamental conflict resides. This to me sounded very close to the message of early Quakers.
Encountering the Qur’an as a Non-Muslim
I believe that for a non-Muslim, encountering the Qur’an for the first time might be perplexing. You might imagine being parachuted down into the book of Jeremiah. There you land: you don’t know the territory, here are these prophetic utterances (which is how Muslims see the Qur’an) and in Jeremiah they don’t always have names attached to them. They’re not in chronological order and they’re not thematically arranged. I believe the Qur’an can read like that to a newcomer. That’s why I think it’s valuable to read it in the company of persons who have been reading it their whole lives.
What is it like to read someone else’s scripture? I think it’s quite possible that it can change you in ways that I can’t predict for any reader, except to say that it will make your life richer. It will make your life better to know this. I am not a trained scholar of Islam. I did some preparation for this project, but mostly what I did was go out and talk to my neighbors, and it changed my life. And so I would like to encourage anyone who’s hearing these words to go out, cross religious boundaries, talk to their neighbors, because your life will be changed too.