Can outsiders understand a religious tradition not their own?

This question fascinates me.  I wrote an essay on this very question when I was studying at Trinity College Dublin’s Irish School of Ecumenics.

For example, can a Christian scholar of Buddhism ever truly understand the sublime, mysterious and endless depths of that religion if she herself is not Buddhist?

Can he grasp the constructs of an entire worldview if he is still an outsider of that belief system, even if an historian and scholar of it?

So when I saw Lesley Hazelton‘s TEDX Ranier talk titled On Reading the Koran, I was intrigued.  In 9 1/2 mere minutes, Hazelton tackles a book that is easy to misquote, the Qur’an, and describes her journey as “an agnostic Jew reading someone else’s holy book.”

Punctuated by descriptions that evoke rolling laughter every 3 minutes or so, her story about her journey through the Qur’an is packed with insights.  Among them:

  • She, as all who read someone else’s holy book, was at times “disconcerted by its otherness.”  In my opinion this is one of the most important things to acknowledge, to name your own perspective and situatedness as you approach the text
  • the Qur’an is incredibly easy to misquote, and often it is described in the “highlighter version” (proof-texting) by both Muslim fundamentalists and anti-Muslim Islamophobes
  • the musicality of the Qur’an is meant to be heard moreso than read, felt moreso than analyzed, as she learned years ago in the Sinai desert when she listened to Bedouin elders reciting hours-long narrative poems from memory
  • People overlook how the Qur’an often describes God as subtle…”The whole of the Koran is altogether more subtle than most of us have been led to believe”