Drawing by TheLob
It is wrong - and dangerous - to believe literal truth can be found in religious texts
Human beings, in nearly all cultures, have long engaged in a rather strange activity. They have taken a literary text, given it special status and attempted to live according to its precepts. These texts are usually of considerable antiquity yet they are expected to throw light on situations that their authors could not have imagined. In times of crisis, people turn to their scriptures with renewed zest and, with much creative ingenuity, compel them to speak to their current predicament. We are seeing a great deal of scriptural activity at the moment.
This is ironic, because the concept of scripture has become problematic in the modern period. The Scopes trial of 1925, when Christian fundamentalists in the United States tried to ban the teaching of evolution in the public schools, and the more recent affair of The Satanic Verses, both reveal deep-rooted anxiety about the nature of revelation and the integrity of sacred texts. People talk confidently about scripture, but it is not clear that even the most ardent religious practitioners really know what it is.
Protestant fundamentalists, for example, claim that they read the Bible in the same way as the early Christians, but their belief that it is literally true in every detail is a recent innovation, formulated for the first time in the late 19th century. Before the modern period, Jews, Christians and Muslims all relished highly allegorical interpretations of scripture. The word of God was infinite and could not be tied down to a single interpretation. Preoccupation with literal truth is a product of the scientific revolution, when reason achieved such spectacular results that mythology was no longer regarded as a valid path to knowledge.
We tend now to read our scriptures for accurate information, so that the Bible, for example, becomes a holy encyclopaedia, in which the faithful look up facts about God. Many assume that if the scriptures are not historically and scientifically correct, they cannot be true at all. But this was not how scripture was originally conceived. All the verses of the Qur'an, for example, are called "parables" (ayat); its images of paradise, hell and the last judgment are also ayat, pointers to transcendent realities that we can only glimpse through signs and symbols.
We distort our scriptures if we read them in an exclusively literal sense. There has recently been much discussion about the way Muslim terrorists interpret the Qur'an. Does the Qur'an really instruct Muslims to slay unbelievers wherever they find them? Does it promise the suicide bomber instant paradise and 70 virgins? If so, Islam is clearly chronically prone to terrorism. These debates have often been confused by an inadequate understanding of the way scripture works.
People do not robotically obey every single edict of their sacred texts. If they did, the world would be full of Christians who love their enemies and turn the other cheek when attacked. There are political reasons why a tiny minority of Muslims are turning to terrorism, which have nothing to do with Islam. But because of the way people read their scriptures these days, once a terrorist has decided to blow up a London bus, he can probably find scriptural texts that seem to endorse his action.
Part of the problem is that we are now reading our scriptures instead of listening to them. When, for example, Christian fundamentalists argue about the Bible, they hurl texts back and forth competitively, citing chapter and verse in a kind of spiritual tennis match. But this detailed familiarity with the Bible was impossible before the modern invention of printing made it feasible for everybody to own a copy and before widespread literacy - an essentially modern phenomenon - enabled them to read it for themselves.
Hitherto the scriptures had always been transmitted orally, in a ritual context that, like a great theatrical production, put them in a special frame of mind. Christians heard extracts of the Bible chanted during the mass; they could not pick and choose their favourite texts. In India, young Hindu men studied the Veda for years with their guru, adopting a self-effacing and non-violent lifestyle that was meant to influence their understanding of the texts. In Judaism, the process of studying Torah and Talmud with a rabbi was itself a transformative experience that was just as important as the content.
The last thing anyone should attempt is to read the Qur'an straight through from cover to cover, because it was designed to be recited aloud. Indeed, the word qur'an means "recitation". Much of the meaning is derived from sound patterns that link one passage with another, so that Muslims who hear extracts chanted aloud thousands of times in the course of a lifetime acquire a tacit understanding that one teaching is always qualified and supplemented by other texts, and cannot be seen in isolation. The words that they hear again and again are not "holy war", but "kindness", "courtesy", "peace", "justice", and “compassion".
Historians have noted that the shift from oral to written scripture often results in strident, misplaced certainty. Reading gives people the impression that they have an immediate grasp of their scripture; they are not compelled by a teacher to appreciate its complexity. Without the aesthetic and ethical disciplines of ritual, they can approach a text in a purely cerebral fashion, missing the emotive and therapeutic aspects of its stories and instructions.
Solitary reading also enables people to read their scriptures too selectively, focusing on isolated texts that they read out of context, and ignoring others that do not chime with their own predilections. Religious militants who read their scriptures in this way often distort the tradition they are trying to defend. Christian fundamentalists concentrate on the aggressive Book of Revelation and pay no attention to the Sermon on the Mount, while Muslim extremists rely on the more belligerent passages of the Qur'an and overlook its oft-repeated instructions to leave vengeance to God and make peace with the enemy.
We cannot turn the clock back. Most of us are accustomed to acquiring information instantly at the click of a mouse, and have neither the talent nor the patience for the disciplines that characterised pre-modern interpretation. But we can counter the dangerous tendency to selective reading of sacred texts. The Qur'an insists that its teaching must be understood "in full" (20:114), an important principle that religious teachers must impart to the disaffected young.
Muslim extremists have given the jihad (which they interpret reductively as "holy war") a centrality that it never had before and have thus redefined the meaning of Islam for many non-Muslims. But in this they are often unwittingly aided by the media, who also concentrate obsessively on the more aggressive verses of the Qur'an, without fully appreciating how these are qualified by the text as a whole. We must all - the religious and the sceptics alike - become aware that there is more to scripture than meets the cursory eye.
· Karen Armstrong is the author of The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism