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How I learned to open the Qur’an

Deacon Ian Punnett –

Last week, my kid was packing up some books that he was not going to bring with him on his next move. On top of the pile was the Qur’an from an Arab studies he took as a college sophomore. I held the Qur’an, saw that it was an English translation, and asked my son if I could keep it. I studied parts of the Qur’an in a comparative religion class I took when I was in seminary, but I have never owned a complete one until now.

I’ve always been interested in the commonalities between Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. I remember writing a paper in seminary suggesting that Pilgrim women would feel far more comfortable with the moderation and modesty of most modern Muslim or Orthodox Jewish women than they would most modern Christians. Conversely, except for the beer drinking (potable water was often unreliable), in dress, in family structure, in societal outlook, a hijab-wearing Muslim woman might have blended in nicely with the religiously persecuted founders of the Plymouth Colony.

But I also recalled from that same class that Muslims observed specific purifying rituals before reading the Qur’an, so I made a point to not open the book until I cleaned up. To be honest, I do not think I have ever washed my hands with intention before reading a Bible. I would think nothing of reading the Bible with dirty hands, but I do come from a Christian tradition that calls us to cleanse our minds through prayer before reading the Bible. That was all that I could recall from that religion class, though, so I decided to check the internet for what I should do next before opening the Qur’an.

On a WikiHow page, How to Read the Qur’an, however, I learned that a cleansing prayer was Step #2 in Islam as well! “A’udhu Billahi Minash Shaytaanir Rajeem” (I seek refuge in Allah from Satan, the cursed). While it would be common to end my Christian prayers with “In the name of Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” this WikiHow page said that I should conclude my prayer before opening the Qur’an with Step #3, “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim” (In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful).

But just when I thought everything about my inaugural Qur’an opening was going so smoothly, Step #4 on WikiHow threw me a curve: “Gently open the Holy Qur’an by using your right hand.” First of all, since it was an English translation and the binding was on the left, using my right hand to open the book would be awkward unless I flicked the cover up with my right thumb. Secondly, Step #4 reminded me of the confusing messages that Muslim cultures communicate about left-handedness in general. I write with my left hand, just as I would hold a fork or pass a bowl with my left hand, but I have been told by Muslim friends in the past that Allah only makes people two ways: Right-handed or Wrong-handed.

And then I got to wondering what the Bible had to say about left-handedness too. So I opened my Bible (with my left hand), and I was reminded right away. In the first book, Genesis, the right hand is considered the hand of strength and the hand of fellowship; throughout the Bible, the righteous are promised the seat “on the right hand of God.” Prejudice against lefties:  Just one more thing the two great religions have in common?

Undeterred, I will be reading the Qur’an and sharing my insights in columns ahead. Who knows? If I keep practicing these simple steps, maybe I’ll get so good at reading the Qur’an that Donald Trump will try to deport me. I’ll keep you posted.

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