By Nermeen Mouftah
(November 10, 2009) – I attended my first Reading Abrahamic Scriptures Together (RAST) session in September 2008, during the first month of my doctoral studies in Islamic religion. RAST is a group that meets twice a month to read and discuss a theme or figure in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qur’an. A friend of mine had invited me because my research at the time explored the story of Abraham and Hagar, the mother of Abraham’s son Ishmael, in early Muslim literature. Since then, RAST sessions have changed the way I read the Qur’an.
Typically, ten to 15 people–a diverse mix of Christians, Muslims and Jews–sit around a table in the dining hall at the University of Toronto to reflect upon and grapple with Abrahamic scriptures. The group selects a theme to explore–which ranges from Moses to dreams, from same-sex relationships to fasting–and we take turns reading aloud from a pre-selected passage of scripture pertaining to the topic.
Then the litany of questions begins: Is there a shared root for the word “repentance” in Hebrew, Greek and Arabic? Who is Yusuf and how is his story different from Joseph’s? What saves Jonah–knows as Yunus to Muslims–from the belly of the whale?
As a graduate student overwhelmed with seminar readings and research papers, RAST became an important space for me to develop my personal relationship with the Qur’an. While reading my scripture with other Muslims, as well as with non-Muslims, I found myself realising that my own reading of the Qur’an was changing.
I discovered new questions to bring to the Qur’an that were born out of my encounter with the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. By turning to the other scriptures as a novice reader, I was able to bring myself back to a state of textual innocence with the Qur’an–at moments consciously, and at others involuntarily. It was a challenging, humbling and sometimes terrifying experience. Although I was reading in a group, I felt more alone in making sense of the texts. I could no longer rely on what Qur’anic interpreters had to say: I needed to make my own sense of the scripture as I read it alongside the others.
I wondered how other readers were affected and set out to explore the impact of scriptural reasoning on Muslim interpretations of the Qur’an by talking with Muslim RAST members. Perhaps surprisingly, rather than being inspired to take a greater interest in other religious texts, my Muslim peers became more curious about the Qur’an, and began to place a greater emphasis on their own personal interpretations.
Over and over again, the students I spoke to explained that RAST made them more inquisitive about the Qur’an. They describe the distinguishing feature of their reading as a longing for intimacy with the text and a desire to make meaning from it, independently of a Qur’anic commentary or an imam. At the same time, by encountering what is shared across the scriptures, as well as where there are differences, readers are forced to re-evaluate what is distinctive and personal about their own scripture. It is an exercise in making meaning.
I believe that the Qur’an is itself a part of this dialogue between the scriptures, as it makes references to previous revelations and situates itself as carrying on the monotheistic tradition. RAST is more than a forum for multi-faith dialogue; it offers participants the opportunity to encounter scripture and contemplate their relationship to it. It is the task of today’s readers, believers and non-believers, to make sense of the scriptures together, collectively participating in the interpretive process and individually discovering what impact this has on our faith.
* Nermeen Mouftah is a doctorate student studying Islamic religion at the University of Toronto. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).