I first read the Qur’an (English translation) as a non-believer. I wanted to better understand the religion my wife ascribed to, for even though I was not an adherent myself, I did want to be a good husband, a tolerant husband.
One word perhaps best describes the tone I perceived in the Qur’an in my unbelief: anger. The God described in the Qur’an seemed angry, vengeful, full of wrath. God was upset with humankind, demanded subservience and obedience, threatened punishment. It seemed to me there was only one thing God wanted: for us to be afraid.
There are a few different ways I find I can interpret that experience, looking back on it now. One possibility is that I myself brought those preconceptions about God to the text when I read it, ideas about God still leftover from my Christian upbringing, the Old Testament tales of God instructing the Israelites to wipe out whole peoples, the New Testament stories of God striking down Ananias and Sapphira for lying, many a preacher pounding the pulpit while talking about hellfire and the wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Another possibility: what I was perceiving was in fact the truth. That God is a vengeful dictator, and we are meant to do nothing but cower in fear of his mighty wrath.
It turns out, however, that a better explanation is to be found in the Qur’an itself, with its many references to the fact that a “seal” of sorts is placed on the eyes and ears of disbelievers, so they cannot see the truth before them. While I am still grappling with this idea and endeavoring to understand why God uses this technique, I believe it to be true.
Because the next time I would read the Qur’an would be as someone who was approaching his Creator in belief. And with that simple change of orientation, the Qur’an struck me in a wholly different way.
The God as revealed in the Qur’an is the Most Merciful, the Most Beneficient. He loves and blesses humankind, He comforts during hardship, with difficulty He brings ease. It’s all there, plain as day, in that same Qur’an which struck this unbeliever as an angry text.
Does God get angry? Of course He does. Does a husband get angry when his wife is insulted? Does a mother get angry when her children are mistreated? God’s anger is just. It is a righteous response to the way some of His creation choose to use the freedom He entrusted them with.
A hiker is walking in the woods when he encounters a full grown bear. The bear rears up on its hind legs and roars at the hiker. The hiker is terrified, and from his perspective, this is simply a beast who would delight in tearing him limb from limb.
But the bear is a mother, and her vulnerable cub is nearby. When the cub sees the mother bear behave in this way to the hiker, the cub probably feels a sense of “fear” at the sheer might and power of that mother bear… but the cub feels protected, in a way that poor hiker cannot possibly understand.
Metaphors like this require great care when talking about the Almighty. I am not suggesting God is a bear, or God is a mother, or anything of the sort… any more than the Prophet David was suggesting that his Lord was a literal shepherd.
But if we can use this metaphor as a tool for learning… I like to think of it that when I read the Qur’an as an unbeliever, I was participating in the bear story as the hiker, with the hiker’s sense of terror. And when I read the Qur’an as one seeking to believe, I was participating in the bear story as the cub – in fearful awe, but knowing I am protected.
The Qur’an continues to deepen my spiritual connection to my Creator. But the Qur’an did not make me believe. Belief is a choice, a simple first step in the direction of God. His guidance, that very Qur’an, takes over from there.