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Sep 12 2010

In Which I Tell You About That Time I Read the Koran

George has this habit of making me think.  Last night, he voiced every thought I wish I had the eloquence to voice on the whole Koran-burning-pastor kerfluffle.  If you haven’t read it, go now and do so.

Sums it up rather wonderfully.  And then, there’s his promised response, Protesting Xenophobic Ignorance.   Yes!  That’s how it’s done!  Counterpoint to useless drivel, beautifully-delivered, and without hyperventilation.  Now, if only the religious folk would learn how to react so productively, we might have a dialogue going, and might even enjoy doing it – even when we point and laugh at each other.  Far better than overheated threats of violence and/or howls of “Help!  Help!  I’m being repressed because these people don’t agree with me!”

So, that, together with PZ’s take, pretty much sums up my feelings on the matter.  Besides, if the First Amendment’s to mean anything, some outrageous idiot has the perfect right to burn mass-produced copies of a book on their own property.  Hell, Christians do it to Harry Potter all the time, and I sincerely hope they’ll do me the same favor.  Might I suggest marshmallows with that religious frenzy?  Seems a waste of a good fire otherwise.

Anyway.  Due to the fact I had to be at work for twelve fucking hours today, I missed the whole Koran-reading thing.  That’s not to say I haven’t read many bits of the Koran, and actually appreciated several.  I’ll cannibalize anything for inspiration, thee knows.  Back in the days when I had a desk, I used to have the self-same edition George was reading sitting by the computer.  When I got blocked, I’d have a good flip through its pages until something caught my eye.  And I thought I’d share some of those moments for Day-After-Read-a-Koran Day.

Wanna know how an atheist finds inspiration in religious literature?  Then read on.  There’s even some religious conflict!

Ah, good, the gang’s all here.  Shall try not to bore you.

I have one completed novel under my belt, written when I was mightily annoyed at the soggy knights-in-tarnished-armor being trotted out as antiheroes at the time.  Alas, it’s set close to the end of the series I intend to write, so its dawn upon the world stage shall have to wait.  In medias res is one thing, but that would be taking the concept a bit far.  Because I write horribly out-of-sequence, and furthermore needed to know where things ended up in order to know where they should begin, I jumped to events arising out of that novel, and ran into two characters I’m going to enjoy foisting upon the literary stage someday.  One is the main evil human dude, and then there’s his accomplice, who practically worships him.  Worships for a good reason, as this passage from the Koran so eloquently captures:

From Daylight:

By the light of day, and by the dark of night, your Lord has not forsaken you, nor does He abhor you.


The life to come holds a richer prize for you than this present life.  You shall be gratified by what your Lord will give you.


Did He not find you an orphan and give you shelter?
Did He not find you in error and guide you?
Did He not find you poor and enrich you?

When I stumbled upon that, it led to much fruitful exploring of the relationship between these two characters, and the conflicts and plot twists that arise from it.  And yes, our poor dear worshiper was literally plucked from an orphanage by a lord – in this case, a Duke – which is why that passage caught my eye.

I have a short story collection planned, to be entitled Cautionary Tales.  The stories span the time and space of my story universe, which is a lot of territory.  What binds them together is the theme of mistakes, hence the title.  And wouldn’t you know it?  The Koran has the perfect title quote:

Cautionary tales, profound in wisdom, have been narrated to them: but warnings are unavailing.

I’ll take it!

There’s some fantastic end-of-days-doom-and-destruction bits in the Koran, ripe pickings for the dire stuff.  I have an entire sequence built around three quotes:

The Cessation

When the heavens shall be stripped bare, when Hell shall be set blazing, when Paradise shall be brought near; then each soul shall know what it has done.

The
Cataclysm

…each soul shall know what it has done and what it has failed to do.

The
Cessation

Whither then are you going?

Now, you’ll just have to trust me that these fragments work wonderfully well in context, because right now the context is in dire need of a good revision.  But the three perfectly capture a person balanced on the edge of a critical decision, and I love them for that.

I’ve noticed that most religious texts have bits and pieces which, when polished and placed in a new setting, sparkle very prettily.  And in historical context, some of the less-beautiful bits can shine as well.  Take this one:

When the sun shall be darkened,
When the stars shall be thrown down,
When the mountains shall be set moving,
When the pregnant camels shall be neglected,
When the savage beasts shall be mustered,
When the seas shall be set alight,
When the infant girl buried alive shall be asked
for what crime she has been slain,
When the records of men’s deeds shall be laid open,
When the heavens shall be stripped bare,
When Hell shall be set blazing,
When paradise shall be brought near,
Then each soul shall know what it has done.

My Islamic Civ professor noted that in ancient Arabia, it was terribly common for female infants to be exposed.  No value in a girl.  Mohammed frowned on that practice.  She explained that, as repressive as the Koran seems toward women, it was actually a vast improvement over how women were treated in those days.  She also taught Women’s Issues, so although I haven’t fully explored the context myself and a quick read through Wikipedia’s entry suggests a mixed bag, I’ll provisionally take her word for it.  That’s not to say Islam hasn’t stagnated and even backslid in the women’s rights department – it has, and rather severely.  But at least the Koran advised that murdering babies just because they’re not your preferred gender isn’t a righteous practice.  I’ll grant it that.

(Not surprising that Mohammed showed a wee bit more respect toward women than the culture at large tended to at the time.  His first wife was a businesswoman, and one gets the impression she wouldn’t take any shit.  He certainly didn’t risk having multiple wives until she was safely dead.  From what I’ve read of her, I wouldn’t have fucked with her, either.)

The above-quoted passage led to the religious conflict I enticed you with.  A long, long time ago in a workplace far, far away, I’d gone a bit wild with my new color printer and made up a couple of pages to hang at my desk.  One contained that passage; another contained a few quotes from the Tao Te Ching (chapters 2 and 14, if you’re interested), and a third a poem by Neil Gaiman .  During a hiring frenzy, before they ordered new cubicles, it came to pass that we had to share desks: one early and one late person per desk.  And a mystery materialized: when I came in every afternoon, my lovely little hangings were all crooked, and they were developing new tack holes in their corners.  ZOMG WTF??

A coworker explained that when my deskmate came in, she’d spend the first few minutes of her shift busily removing the art from my half of the desk, and the last bit of her shift putting it back up willy-nilly.  So I left her a note: please stop doing that.  Next thing I know, I’m in a conference room with the call center director, my supervisor, and the deskmate, who is slathered in crosses.  She’d called the meeting because she just couldn’t take it anymore.  Those icky horrid quotes from other religions threatened her Christian faith.  She babbled on and on about how very scared they made her.

Oh, yes, you may laugh.  I couldn’t.  I was staring down the barrel of some serious management-power.  After a few moments of stunned silence, in which my supervisor watched me with attentive interest, the call center director looked vaguely worried, and the deskmate looked like she was about to shit herself in fear (sheet-white and shaking she was), I finally said, “So why don’t you just bring in your own poster to cover them up?  You can even use magnets.  There’s a metal strip up there.”

My supervisor nearly passed out.  She’d been holding her breath, you see, because if she’d breathed, she would’ve been screaming with laughter.

The next day, I came in to an enormous, gawdawful Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul poem dangling over my offending art.  Management pulled me in later to advise just how very grown up and diplomatic I was, and thanked me for finding an equitable solution for all.  And yes, we all giggled a bit.  Well, the whole situation had been patently ridiculous.

To this day, if there was one text I would gladly burn, it would be that horrific offense against poetry.  But as I hadn’t bought the poster myself, I refrained from taking it outside for a smoke, though every literature-appreciating coworker begged me to.  That thing caused more angst in the call center than my little bits ever had.  If I ever run across a copy of it for sale, it is Bonfire Day at the Hunter household. 

Bring marshmallows.  I’ll pony up the chocolate and graham crackers.  For it is written, “When life hands you mass-produced ‘literature’ actually worth burning, make s’mores.”

*Update: See this post on Mohammed and Women’s Rights for a good discussion as to why historical context doesn’t mean jack diddly in the modern context.