“Uncertainty touches the best of what is human in us”: Q&A with Lesley Hazleton

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In her luminous TEDxRainier talk, Lesley Hazleton, a writer and “accidental theologist,” described herself as “a tourist” in the Koran, and shared her discovery of the musicality, ambiguity, and depth of a text known by name to billions, but read intimately by far fewer. We met Lesley by phone and asked her to share more of her impressions on the Koran, as well as her insight on faith, poetry, fundamentalism, and their relationship to Islam.

You describe yourself in your TEDx talk as an agnostic. Some people see agnosticism as wishy-washy indecision. What does it mean to you?

Ah, but that wishy-washy hang-dog I-don’t-know-ness is not agnosticism at all. That’s just evasiveness. Real agnosticism is a solid intellectual position. It’s a recognition of human limitation. A position of great integrity (okay, you can accuse me of hubris right here!) And a fine safeguard against the inhumanity of certainty. Unless you are under the illusion that the bearded old man up on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is anything other than a visual metaphor, no matter how divine his musculature, you really have no idea exactly what God might be. When the issue is God, or the Divine, or whatever term you want to use, we’re talking about something that is by definition beyond human comprehension. It is the ultimate unknowable, and that’s its grandeur. That’s the whole point! [laughs] So to argue about the existence or the nonexistence of God is absurd — very humanly absurd, but absurd all the same — since it can be neither proved nor disproved. There are times, I think, when most of us get what I call a glimmer, maybe an intimation of something larger. But to go from intimation to certainty — that’s really presumptuous. As an agnostic, I acknowledge the limitations of my knowledge. I’m not saying “I don’t know” so much as “that is unknowable,” at least by me. It’s a position of inquiry rather than belief.

Does that make you a non-believer?

On my blog, The Accidental Theologist, which I describe as “an agnostic eye on religion, politics, and existence,” one commenter wrote: “I can’t believe you don’t believe in anything!” (Actually, she used capital letters and lots of exclamation marks, but please don’t reproduce that…) And I was a bit shocked by that comment until I realized that it’s true, I don’t believe in things. I may believe that this thing or that is so. But this is just another way of saying “I think that,” or “I feel that,” or “Perhaps,” or “Maybe.” It’s an attitude toward exploring the world, always aware of how easy it is to project what one already thinks into what one sees. This is where the former psychologist in me comes into play, I guess — though in fact I’m not sure there’s any such thing as a “former” psychologist. Just as lapsed Catholics remain deeply involved with Catholicism — the novelist Graham Greene is a wonderful example — so too being a psychologist informs how you see the world, no matter if it’s no longer your profession.

So when it comes to faith…

Well, let’s put it this way: my faith is in inquiry. I try to see as much of what’s there as I can, rather than seeing only part of what’s there in order to find confirmation of what I already think. That way of seeing — looking for confirmation — is far too common, especially when it comes to religious texts. It’s a search for certainty, and a flight from uncertainty. So if you are threatened by paradox, and if you do not have a feel for metaphor, and if uncertainty drives you crazy, then fundamentalism is for you. But then that, to me, is essentially anti-religious. Because as I see it, the essence of religious experience lies not in dogma but in poetry: in metaphor, in paradox, and yes, in uncertainty. That is, I think doubt is essential to faith. If you take a leap of faith, it really is a leap, a leap into the unknown. But if you’re absolutely certain about it, if you are convinced you are in possession of The Truth — the kind that inevitably comes with that capital “T” — then there’s no element of faith involved. You’ve simply closed your mind to thought. Real faith is admirable because there’s a humility, a vulnerability to it. In much the same way you place your faith in a person, you can never be absolutely sure. This is what we mean by trust, and it strikes me as wonderful. Where certainty terrifies me, uncertainty seems to me to touch the best of what is human in us.

Why did you set out to read the Koran in the first place?

It was an essential part of the research for the biography of Muhammad I’m now writing. In the past, I’d read the Koran several times the way I described early on in the talk, almost casually (though with cigarettes instead of popcorn). But last year it was a matter of integrity as a biographer that I read it as seriously as I could, because these are the words that we can be most sure Muhammad spoke. It’s a matter of faith whether you consider them directly the words of God or you think them inspired by the idea of God, but since most of them were written down while Muhammad was still alive or very shortly after his death, we can be reasonably sure he spoke them. All the other statements we have from him — in what’s known as the Hadith, or the reports on his words and practice — weren’t written down until later, anywhere up to three or four generations after his death, just as the words of Jesus in the Gospels weren’t written down until two or three generations after his death. So the Koran was, to my mind, the closest I could get to Muhammad. Lots of motives have since been ascribed to me, some wonderful and some not so wonderful, but my real motive was research: the attempt of a biographer to bridge fifteen centuries and come as close as I could to the man himself.

You spoke about the musicality of the Koran in your talk, and it seemed very similar to poetry’s most fundamental building blocks: rhythm, tone, and the intrinsic ambiguity of words. I was curious: what role does poetry play in your own life?

I once had an ongoing argument about poetry at Yaddo, the writers colony in Saratoga Springs, where four of us would go on these long walks — three poets and me, the non-fiction writer. And inevitably we’d get into these discussions of what constituted poetry. They tried to persuade me that if my prose were broken into lines, it would read as poetry, and I’d say “No, no, poetry’s on a different level altogether, it’s a different way of thinking.” But though I write prose, I can’t imagine living without poetry. Without T.S. Eliot, for instance, or the metaphysical poets. I like that word metaphysics: literally, beyond physics. Because it seems to me that there is no real sense of religious experience — of metaphysics — without poetry. That is, without metaphor. Religion at its best is metaphor. And this is why fundamentalism is not only so dangerous, but also so dull. It dulls the mind. It insists on the literal. It dumbs down the sense of the holy. All the great religious texts are poetic, which is why they resonate in the mind, why they’ve grasped the human imagination for so many centuries. They reverberate through our cultures. Think, for instance, of how William Tyndale’s version of the Bible, the King James, is part and parcel of western culture, of how many classic book and movie titles it’s provided, for a start. And yet line by line, it isn’t a great translation. The original Hebrew is limpidly simple and lucid, while the King James is almost archaically complex. But it has an enormous beauty and poetry of its own. Basically, Tyndale rewrote the Bible into his concept of what it should be, into a sixteenth-century European music and grandeur, and he did it so well that for most westerners, Tyndale’s bible is the Bible. The Koran hasn’t found its Tyndale, though A.J. Arberry made a valiant effort, so English-speakers don’t have a parallel sense of its poetry, which is one reason it’s so easy to misrepresent it. If you can’t feel the poetry — if you ignore the metaphors and are deaf to the music and the allusiveness (not elusiveness, allusiveness) — then you’re stuck with a ghastly, deadening literalism.

Why did you use the word “tourist” in your talk? The French word étranger comes to mind–a stranger, a not-belonger. Is that what you were referring to?

In a way, yes. My agnosticism turns out to be a very interesting perch from which to look at the volatile interplay of religion and politics, which has always fascinated me. It places me both inside and outside at the same time. And sometimes it places me in a profound existential dilemma. Right now, for instance, this agnostic Jew has just spent the last two weeks trying to fathom, in words, the pivotal gnostic moment of Islam, which is the night on Mt. Hira when Muhammad received the first Koranic revelation. This is one of history’s central mystical moments. It is beyond explanation, yet it has to be addressed. So I’ve been trying to put into words what I know cannot be put into words. I’ve been trying to understand what I know is beyond understanding. It’s almost an absurd thing to even try, and yet I feel I must in order to bring it over to non-Muslim western readers, who are of course whom I’m primarily writing for.

How did you come to speak Arabic?

I lived in Jerusalem for thirteen years, working as both a journalist and a psychologist, and in the late seventies, took off and wandered around the Sinai for a year. I love the high desert, and one of the many anomalies of my life is that I now live contentedly — to my astonishment — at sea level in rainy Seattle. I spent a lot of time with the Beduin in that year in the Sinai, and then got very involved in the issue of Beduin land rights in the Negev, so I picked up Arabic as I went along. I was never fully fluent in it, though, and it’s gone by now. You need to live inside a language to keep it alive in your head, and for the past thirty years I’ve lived in the United States — that is, inside English.

You noted in your talk that the Koran is only the Koran if it is in Arabic. Can you speak to that claim, and also to the idea that Arabic and the Koran are inextricably linked?

This is one of the tenets of Islam, and previously, I’d thought it was just that — an item of faith which there was no point trying to understand. But now I have a sense of why this is so. The Koran says again and again that it’s “a message from God in your own language, in pure Arabic,” and you get the very strong feeling while you read it that there was a thirst for it — that while God had spoken, as it were, to the Jews in Hebrew and to the Christians in Greek, now it was the turn of the Arabs, and that the Arabic of the Koran would be as central to the formation of Arab identity as the Hebrew of the Old Testament had been to the formation of Jewish identity. Here was God speaking directly to the people of Mecca and Medina, in a shared frame of reference, telling Muhammad what to say: “Tell them that…” “Remind them of this…” “Let them remember that…” The impact in creating a sense of collective Arab identity was immense.

Since 9/11, we hear the word “jihad” a lot. What is your impression of the idea of “jihad” from reading the Koran?

Generally, when the word “jihad” or some grammatical form of it is used, it’s in the sense of struggle — the struggle to come nearer to God. It’s an internal struggle: to be the best person you can be, the best Muslim you can be. Most of the time that any kind of warfare is involved, other words are used. But sometimes they get confused, and that should come as no surprise. The Koranic revelations were not instantaneous; they were spread out over a period of twenty-two years, and so they include contradictions. But how could that possibly be surprising to anyone who has ever read, say, the first two chapters of the Bible, which give mutually exclusive accounts of the creation of men and women? Either they were created together on the sixth day as in Chapter One of Genesis, or Eve was created out of Adam’s rib as in Chapter Two. So the Bible starts with a stunning contradiction. What I find especially interesting here is that the Koran is subjected to tests of consistency and morality that are rarely applied to either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. For instance, the violence in the Book of Deuteronomy is ignored by most devout Christians and Jews. They simply skip over the sections that call for annihilating whole peoples. If you want to analyze the Koran on the basis of the Geneva Convention, then the least you can do is analyze both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in the same way. I guarantee you will be shocked. These are ancient texts. They are not twenty-first century models of peaceful coexistence. So there is a lack of context in the current political discussion of Islam, a lack of willingness to look at Jewish and Christian traditions in the same light. As a result, Islam is being singled out and demonized. The vast majority of Muslims worldwide do not support terrorism or radical fundamentalism, and see it as a distortion of Islam. Highly respected Islamic leaders have condemned terrorism again and again, calling it anti-Islamic, but their condemnations never make the news, precisely because they challenge accepted stereotypes. The power of stereotypes is that they’re easy. They require no thought. They’re kneejerk reactions. So there is the absurd assumption that over a billion Muslims worldwide endorsed a terrible act of terrorism committed by eighteen people on 9/11, even though those eighteen people were acting in clear violation of the faith they so vehemently declared. Yet when a fundamentalist Christian kills a doctor providing legal abortion, do we then say that Christianity endorses murder? When the Vatican protects pederasts, do we then say that Catholicism advocates child abuse? When Bible-spouting Jewish settlers in the West Bank shoot Palestinian farmers, do we then say that this is a principle of Judaism? So there are two possibilities here: either we stereotype equally — equal rights for stereotypes, you might say — or we do our best to abolish them. On all sides. And that starts with confronting the basic ignorance and laziness of thought behind them.

Many Americans–and many lawmakers I would argue–know very little about the culture of Islam. What are some of the largest misunderstandings about Islam that need light shed upon them?

First, the image of Islam as one huge monolith, which ignores the vast range of opinion and interpretation within Islam, and the opposition of the majority to the extremist minority. Second, the persistence of this meme that there’s a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and “the West,” an idea that doesn’t stand up to any kind of serious analysis. To start with, so many westerners are Muslim, and then, as Eliza Griswold showed in her recent book The Tenth Parallel, where Islam and Christianity really do clash is in neither the Middle East nor the West but in Africa — a clash that’s really about power and money, not faith, which is being manipulated for political and economic ends. Basically, there is no clash of religions in principle. We talk about the Judeo-Christian tradition, but it’d be more precise to call it the Judeo-Christo-Islamic tradition. The Koran emphasizes that it’s renewing the message of the Torah and the Gospels, rephrasing and reapplying it in a different cultural context. So instead of seeing Islam as something radically different from Judaism or Christianity, I think we need to be able to see it as most Muslims themselves conceive of it: as a continuation of Judaism and Christianity.

What would you say to someone who claims that at its very core, Islam is a religion of violence, vengeance and extremism?

The same thing that I’d say to anyone who says that about Judaism or Christianity. Look, it’s been argued by the “new atheists” that religion is evil because so much evil has been done in its name. But you could just as well argue that love is evil because so much evil is done in the name of love. It’s what you do in the name of religion that matters. Religion can always be manipulated. It can always be simplified to the point of travesty — made literal, deadened, fossilized, carved in stone, dehumanized. But it doesn’t have to be. Now I want to stress that what I’m going to say here is hugely simplistic, but perhaps one could say that there are two major ways to be religious. One of these is to expand the sense of self in awe, and wonder, and gratitude, and humility. The other is to close oneself in behind high walls of absolute certainty and righteousness. The one expands your sense of the world and other people. The other circumscribes it, using dogma to wall off the “believers,” whatever faith they profess, against the rest of the world. These are two rough trends of religious personality, and clearly, agnostic though I am, I’m with the former. The latter is so narrow-minded, so absolutist, that at its extreme, it can easily lose all sense of humanity. It’s a travesty of what both Jesus and Muhammad preached. In fact I can’t imagine that either man would be anything but utterly dismayed at some of what is being said and done in their names today. I can point to an enormous amount of good done in the name of religion — to liberation theology and the social justice movement, for instance — so I can’t explain violent fundamentalism by saying that religion is at fault, just as I can’t explain Samuel Johnson’s definition of patriotism as “the last refuge of scoundrels” by saying that nationalism is at fault. Though there again, I’m agnostic [laughs], and much prefer internationalism.

So can you imagine a path that will bring peace to the Middle East?

I can’t right now, but that just means I have a limited imagination. We can start, though, by getting rid of the image of doves fluttering all over the place and everybody falling onto each others’ shoulders and calling each other brother and sister. Peace is far more mundane than that. It’s the absence of war. It’s people not being killed. It’s the willingness to live and let live. And that will do just fine. There’s no love lost between Germany and England, but they’re at peace after two utterly devastating wars in the first half of the twentieth century. There’s even less love lost between Israel and Egypt, but their peace treaty has lasted thirty years, despite all provocation. It’s nobody’s ideal image of peace, but however uneasily, it’s lasted. So let’s think in terms of pragmatic, real-life peaceful relations, which once seemed as impossible for both England and Germany, and Egypt and Israel, as for Israel and Palestine right now. True, I can’t see how the Israel-Palestine conflict can be resolved, but here’s the thing: if I stop believing that it’s possible, then I help make it impossible. If I lose faith in the possibility of peace — and I use the word ‘faith’ advisedly — then basically I’m aiding and abetting the creation of a self-fulfilling prophecy of conflict. I’m yielding to despair. And this I refuse to do. Almost a definition of despair is that you can’t imagine yourself into the future. It’s a lack of imagination. We have to be able to imagine a future, and work towards it.

Can you tell us a bit more about the book you’re writing now, the biography of Muhammad?

It’s always tricky to talk about a book while you’re still writing it, since it hasn’t taken full shape yet. But while there have been several excellent books about Jesus as a revolutionary thinker committed to social justice, there’ve been no such books about Muhammad, at least for the non-Muslim reader, and I think seeing him from this point of view is long overdue. Above all, I want to get a real feel for him as a person, and to emphasize the astonishing narrative arc of his life. I’m using the earliest biographical sources as well as modern scholarship, and combining them with an interdisciplinary approach — history, cultural anthropology, psychology, Middle East studies, and of course comparative religion — all of which I hope allow me to see him more fully, with a fresh eye, not as an iconic figure but as the complex man he really was.

— Q&A conducted and transcribed by Kevin St. John

Lesley Hazleton’s TEDGlobal talk has been posted. Watch it here »