John Updike: Quranic Exegete
His essays and reviews, however, are something else. I read them often, usually in the NYKer and NYRB. One of his essays of many years ago I clipped and saved and consider an anthem, a well-stated, thoughtful argument for the members of the clerisy or literati to make their public speaking engagements few and instead devote their views to the written word.
Updike’s latest book, however, “Terrorist,” a book that I most likely will rush to not read, features a Muslim male whom Updike says he treats fairly and sympathetically. But what brings this event to my blog is Updike’s statement quoted in the NYT. It goes like this:
"A lot of the Koran does not speak very eloquently to a Westerner. Much of it is either legalistic or opaquely poetic. There's a lot of hellfire — descriptions of making unbelievers drink molten metal occur more than once. It's not a fuzzy, lovable book, although in the very next verse there can be something quite generous. . . . Arabic is very twisting, very beautiful. The call to prayer is quite haunting; it almost makes you a believer on the spot. My feeling was, 'This is God's language, and the fact that you don't understand it means you don't know enough about God.' "
Updike is not an initiate of the Quran, by his own admission. He has not learned Arabic and, therefore, depends on one of the three dozen or so translations readily available, translations that range in accuracy, elegance, and ideological pressure as far as one can imagine. So, we may safely and fairly say that Updike is not a devoted or even intermittent student of the sacred scripture. But what begs the question is this: why would a man of obvious intelligence make a public statement about the Quran’s appeal (or lack of) to the Western reader? The Quran is Semitic in language and, one may say, its élan. So if the Quran does not appeal to the Western reader (a floater of some vague Judeo-Christian-Hellenic soup), then certainly biblical literature would have a far worse time at it, given its age and setting in a less "historical" time than the Quran’s advent.
But let’s consider content, like the all-important salvation narrative, for example: the New Testament rests on human sacrifice and the Old Testament draws much attention to the privilege of pedigree, a godly and chosen ancestry. These are two notions that are directly at odds with Western “rationalist” philosophies and egalitarian paradigms that led to many a revolution in western Europe and, ah, the Colonies.
Drinking molten brew is an interesting example that came to Updike’s mind, but it works against his statement of Western appeal. Horrific as the Hell passages are in the Quran, we must go beyond integument and distill the facts: the inmates of Hell and the dwellers of paradisal gardens are in their “circumstances” that logically follow a path that is consistent with Western social and political diktats of individual responsibility, that deeds (“works” in certain theologies) mean something, a meaning that transcends any kind of advantage and one-time salvation utterance. Deeds are known to be bad, good, and various shades of gray. Punishment is a deterrence, as we understand it and as it is presented: whether molten fluid or lethal injections.
The ordering principle and highest truth of life, in the eyes of the Muslim and her Book, is the existence of God, His oneness and incomparability, and humanity’s constant state of return to Him. But ordering principles have always had problems surviving without a path, an identifiable and sometimes ritualistic way in which the subscribers of the Principle decide to take. In other words, Truth (in human trust) requires something to do, something that brings meaning and definition to one’s day. The human creature has an inner, abstract world and also an outer organic “body” that functions in space and time. It makes no sense that revealed religion would neglect the latter and speak only to abstract sciences and heady discussions (popular in freshmen dormitories), especially when both aspects are God's creations and part of the Plan. It is implausible to expect belief to survive internment in the heart with no external “visible” signs. This is a paradigm that fits squarely in the modern Western understanding of human deeds, their place in the dynamic (whether atheistic, secular, or religious) relationship between cause and effect, and accountability. We may want to remember when we used to make the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, that it meant something more than gooey feelings, but a responsibility that has exterior signs.
The Quran’s total revolution against the autocracy of the Makkan elite was a revolt against a tribalism and a powerful statement for inalienable rights and, in many ways, human agency. The Quran upholds human individual agency, that each individual has access to God, His scripture. No clerical bureau to move through, no idols to lavish with honey, but a one-on-one prayerful and direct proximity to the All-Holy, regardless of race or affluence. If one denies the existence of God, one cannot deny the upholding of human individuality and agency that the Quran instills. These are, to some degrees, Western values, or they became so.
So much can and must be said about the appeal of the Quran to the Western reader. But let me conclude with a rough argument that I admit lacks rigor. It’s only an observation: The leadership of the Muslim community in this country is now made up more of converts who came from sundry backgrounds but who found an overpowering appeal in the Quran that led them to pursue it and Islamic scholarship.