About a week before Terry Jones hit the news, I started to read the Qurâ€™an.
This is an imperfect venture if there ever was one. Not knowing the original Arabic, Iâ€™m relying on an English translation. Because the book is difficult even for scholars, I should probably be using commentaries. If I fuss with these â€œshouldsâ€ and imperfections, however, Iâ€™ll never do it. So I pick up the holy book of my Muslim friends and struggle along.
While Iâ€™m not terribly far in, some things are already becoming apparent. The language is masterful, even in English. Many of the concepts also appear in the Bible: Godâ€™s justice and mercy, the imperative to care for the vulnerable, warnings to unbelievers. The text is sprinkled with pithy wisdom that stops me short and commands my attention. Reading it appears to feed my soul.
What a shame to burn something like that.
But what do reading the Qurâ€™an (and similar practices) have to do with dialogue? They deepen dialogue in at least two respects.
First, a large part of dialogue involves listening with an open heart. We tend to think of this in terms of face-to-face listening: I grab a coffee with a Muslim friend and listen while he explains his faith to me. But this listening gets even deeper when we immerse ourselves in what the other is immersed in. Think of it as the difference between tolerating your spouseâ€™s passion for opera, attending Carmen with her, and taking an opera appreciation course.
Second, as weâ€™ve discussed before, one great way to break through our stereotypes of a particular group is to spend time with members of that group. We get to know them even more intimately when we experience the things that make them tick. Letâ€™s say you believe that all French hate Americans. Then Jacques shows up at work one day and befriends you, which throws serious doubt on your stereotype. What finishes it off, though, is visiting Normandy and enjoying a warm welcome from everyone you meet.
Itâ€™s the difference between listening to others andâ€”however temporarily or imperfectlyâ€”entering their world.
This is not an either/or thing. Even when we enter their world, we will need their help to fully understand whatâ€™s going on. Though Iâ€™m reading the Qurâ€™an on my own, Iâ€™ll eventually need the insight of scholars to interpret the sometimes baffling text. And of course, time and energy and other commitments inevitably constrain us from immersing ourselves in every other personâ€™s life, in every other culture, at this level.
But imagine what would happen if all of us did this with even one person, or one groupâ€”especially a group we see as our adversary. How much could this advance the cause of peace?