Posted by: Dawud Israel | December 5, 2019

A Muslim Book Review: The Year of Living Biblically

Imagine someone in our era living an entire year according to the rules and details of the Bible – Old Testament and New Testament. This is the premise of this book which journals a Jewish New York comedian’s attempt at living the Bible to every minute point. 

This is one of my favourite books. The combination of life-experiment, religious sitcom-like humour, and search for spirituality are the best parts of this read. I heard of this book, but only after watching two episodes of the TV show by the same name, did I feel the book might be a worthy read. The author is a man who went through the whole Encyclopedia Brittanica so he’s already more committed than any observant believer I know and likely erudite enough for his thoughts to matter. The writing quality is excellent too (his word-selection as an example, when he comes home his son Jasper is eating pineapple ‘wedges,’ not ‘slices.’

As a Muslim I’ve benefited by A.J.’s courage. Surely, if an agnostic can sport a very lengthy beard and dress in all-white than certainly so can I as an observant Muslim (granted, New York is home to many zany individuals).

There are a few insights I realized Muslims may have imported from the Judaic tradition (hearing from Muslims to separate milk and meat by a few hours as “You are not to boil a young goat in the milk of its mother” p. 69) – and separate the eating utensils that touched them. Or the historical point I heard one or two Muslim scholar say, that the human race started out as vegetarian, up until Noah who was the first to eat flesh (p. 307). Some Christian imports would be sola scriptura which is the Protestant idea of interpreting scripture yourself without mediation. This is essentially motto of Wahabbism and I have heard one Muslim scholar compare the two systems of belief.

A verse that likens Moses to a house and Jesus to the builder of a house. 265

After reading this book, I also appreciate how much more workable, manageable, realistic and down-to-earth Islam is compared to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yes, Islam has its challenging high-notes; Hitting the pre-wash button in the washing machine, istinja of dog hairs in the Shafi’i madhhab, and the rituals of Hajj and Umrah. OK, not that challenging. But because we have a well-documented living example in the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace and blessings be upon him) life we have reference points for almost all aspects of living. Also thankfully, there isn’t as much sexual lewdness in Islamic tradition as their is in the Bible. And in Islam, the spiritual lessons are not as confusing or ambiguous. And Islam is not as confusing on its literalism. Islam is not as wide in what is open to interpretation and there are set boundaries to interpretation. Islam is definitive. Wara (pious cautiousness), Bid’a (innovation without a basis in Islam) and ijtihad (interpretation) keep Islam jogging through the centuries. Nowhere does Islam lose its “do-ability” – except, only due to its adherents’ willfulness, or lack thereof.

The agnosticism pervades this book. The constant wrestling with faith. The lack of clarity of who is God. Even outright blasphemous statements (“It sounds strange to say it, but in the Bible, God is on a learning curve.” p. 268). No clear aqida / theology is elucidated in the manner for example Surah al-Ikhlas or 99 Divine Names in Islam. It makes one grateful for Islam. Alhamdulilahil ladhi at’amana, wasaqana, waj’alna min-al Muslimeen – Praise be to Allah Who has fed us and given us drink and made us Muslim.

By the 6-8 month mark of the one-year experiment, the man is genuinely searching for guidance. Does he find it? Not on his own terms nor where he expects it. That happens over and over again. The closest he comes to a divine spiritual experience is a hypnotic snake-handling church sermon where he lets himself go, that is until, his mental defences activate.

Other peculiarities in the book did confound me. The number of trips to synagogues are few. Little mention of friars and nuns is made. We get the average priest, but he does not bite into the raw spiritual tradition of those who commit their entire life to the Judeo-Christian God. We are stuck with the conservative and liberal dichotomy, the evangelical and the progressives, the orthodox and the zany. The populist Judaism and populist Christianity. Not the upper echelons of believers nor anything aside from middle-class religion.

I couldn’t help but feel at times the author wanted to explore Islam a little – the only Abrahamic faith excluded from his thesis. Or even explore other religions to get the full human dimension of religion. But alas. The author does make the passing mention of Muslims – almost inconveniently or accidentally. Maybe he feared criticism from his family – just as he was fearful of his extending family responding to him associating with his eccentric uncle.

But I can’t help but wonder if the book was “A Year of Living Quranically” how would it have gone?

Here are quotes and paraphrased bits from the book. Many parts are paraphrased in my own words. I comment on them in italics

Difficulties of Religious life

    • “Hate the sin not sinner – like saying love Jesse Jackson except fact he is black.” p. 263. A little bit of an exaggeration, but the point is a a less than 100% form of love. 
    • “OCD and rituals reinforcing each other” p. 148 – repetition, taxonomy, fixation with im/purity  p. 148. For me germophobia and purity blending into one another resulting in dry skin. 
    • “Lashon hara evil tongue eventually butt heads with treating wife well who wants to gossip.”  p. 158.
    • (Paraphrased) Utilitarian rationalization for stealing Starbuck straws: amount of pleasure outweighs the couple of cents it’ll cost Starbucks. Or in the end helps out struggling straw industry. Stealing internet to make myself a better person and learn about God so its ok.  p. 139.
    • Cafeteria Christianity – pick and choose like a buffet p. 327 everyone practices cafeteria religion – key is choosing right dishes  p. 328. We have Muslims saying the same thing of the deen being a buffet – but what they meant was it was large.
    • Stop looking at Bible as self-help book Not about joy or meaning or make sure son not evil. Prayer as a therapy session vs. quick prayer in busy day? The second better because only for God. Sacrificing my time for the higher good. I’ll become a more selfless person. A better person. And then I realize: I’m back to self-help again. I can’t escape it.  p. 208. The only command is deen with ikhlas – the side benefits are what we often prioritize but should not. 
    • Saying fudge instead of f-word can’t help but smile because too folksy. I say mother faaaaajr. 

Useful ideas for Muslims to take note of in this book: 

    • Zagat guide to aid orgs or Charity Navigator website. A Muslim guide to sadaqa would be useful ! 
    • no using smiley face emoticons p. 104. Some ulema do not use emoticons or smiley faces.
    • Clean Flicks – rental services that sanitizes Hollywood films  p. 131 Clearplay which filters content out of movies – backfire because so focused on whats being filtered out imagine things that are worse than if had just watched it  p. 134. For films, I utilize Kids-in-Mind so I am aware of how inappropriate the film may be. Nonetheless, for Muslims we are discouraged from watching films as it is ghafla – heedlessness – and many believe sinful.
    • stealing straws from Starbucks – I can rationalize almost anything p. 113. Freeloading is a form of theft in a sense, and due to Muslim generosity, we usually do not say anything.  
    • stealing wifi signal  p. 113. Likewise, the theft of the intangible…what we view on a network affects the meta-data so others on that network will see ads for what we are searching or shopping for online.  
    • Rev. Billy Graham before he arrives at a hotel has his room swept for potentially tempting images  p. 130. Very much in the vein of Saudi Arabia.
    • ‘To me going to pray is like going to do a hundred thousand dollar deal’ Mr. Berkowitz says  p. 250 The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) compared spiritual rewards to red camels and mountains of gold.
    • Mental whac-a-mole of controlling thoughts. An apt metaphor
    • Playing cards made of gelatin  p. 203 Darkness upon darkness – often time we find we try to make a questionable thing halal and in doing so, find it was haram or questionable in another way
    • Elton Richards: negative words as verbal pollution. Thoughts get lazy, “Well, we’ll never make it out into the world so why even bother!”  p. 157 Some say our words never actually disappear but keep echoing in the air and atmosphere
    • Matthew 5:27-8 on committing adultery with her in heart p. 286 There are hadith that speak to all organs and soul of the body committing zina – adultery
    • Recite a paragraph of Bible you memorize when tempted by a woman p. 287. And Do not objectify and focus on woman as a person or think of her as your mom. p. 288 There are more effective ways prescribed by sufis and ulema to fight temptation

Comparing the Abrahamic Religions:

    • tithing of giving away 10 percent of income. Zakat is 2.5 % of wealth – so often doesn’t even apply to poor
    • Puritans can’t go to church with unseemly haste or on too showy a horse. Muslims should not run to mosque but walk because they are considered in prayer while walking if the prayer has already started.
    • On the divine dwelling more easily in text than images – text allows for more abstract thought, more of a separation between you and the physical world, more room for you and God to meet in the middle. p. 106 The first words of the Qur’anic revelation is ‘Read!’ or ‘Recite!’
    • Purification by finding a red heifer: unblemished, never plowed a field, sacrifice, burn it with cedar wood, mix ashes with water. Jews need it to build Third Temple and be pure from contact with dead and for Christians for messiah to arrive. p. 190 We Muslim can do nothing to change the End of Time. Its purely in the Creator’s Control. But this verse reminds me of the Qur’anic verse with Moses and his people looking for a red heifer to sacrifice and how they put difficulty on themselves when any calf would’ve sufficed. Also, Muslims have much easier rules of purification. 
    • 7 angels will sound 7 trumpets at the End of Time Israfil alone with trumpet in Jerusalem and is ready to blow his trumpet
    • Praying on behalf of others – intercessory prayer p. 127 story of 1902 coronary artery bypass patients – patients who knew they were being prayed for actually had more complications than those that didn’t. “If I’m sick enough people are praying for me, I must be in really bad shape.” p. 128 Muslims also have intercessory prayer where the angel says ameen and to you likewise. But we Muslims always pray for each other regardless of in good health or not.
    • “Can you imagine the mockery he [Noah] must have received from doubting neighbors?” p. 152 – Coincidentally, the Qur’an and Hadith tell us all about that mockery!
    • Rabbis tell them to put on shoes – right foot first, then left, then tie left shoe then tie right shoe p. 142 serious religious micromanagement. freedom from choice – structure and stable architecture of religion – no longer overwhelming and paralyzing with too many options p. 142 Shulchan Aruch every small thing is defined with rules – going to bathroom outside face north south, not east/west. p. 143. Muslims likewise, put the right shoe on first and take off left but this comes from the practice of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and is optional for reward. Likewise, using the bathroom, we should not face the qibla – direction for prayer knowingly.
    • Jewish peoples would sacrifice fruit, grain, incense, goats, oxens, turtledove, rams, lambs — very often, due to sin, death, birthday, holidays, but was only allowed at the Temple so happens no longer. Now Jews only do kaparot – live chicken – in front of you. We Muslims still do the sacrifices but only with animals and it can be done everywhere. Even on the airplane tarmac !
    • Messianic age: “Money will grow on trees. And clothing will also grow on trees. And the sand will be like candy. Everything will be provided for, so all we have to do is study Torah all day.” p. 163 When Jesus defeats the Antichrist Muslims say that the fruits will be so large that people will use them as houses to eat and live in.
    • Psalms urging them to rise at midnight and praise God p. 88 Jewish most spiritual time of day is midnight to eight. p. 221. Muslims likewise have tahajjud prayers in the mid of the night or last one-third of the night. 
    • Listening is key theme in the Scripture – Shema – Hear O Israel — p. 242. Islam is about Reciting but also we ‘Hear and Obey’. 
    • Bible is anti-winking – coercing the winkee at being part of little cabal p. 205. The Qur’an mentions the hypocrites winking before doing something malicious against the Prophet peace and blessings be upon him.
    • Judaism has slogan – deed over creed – emphasis of behaviour follow rules of Torah and eventually come to believe. Evangelical Christianity says must first believe in Jesus then good works naturally follow. p. 257 Islamic scholars say Islam is in between the two extremes of Christianity and Judaism in all its aspects; we must believe and act. Some non-Muslims do the acts and then somehow faith does come. But in no way are we discharged from belief and righteous actions and it is the right intentions that make the deed acceptable to God for not all deeds are accepted by God. 
    • Abraham getting guests veal, cakes and milk p. 303. The Qur’an also talks about this how he rushed to bring forth a roasted lamb for two guests that turned out to be angels.
    • 19th century rabbi in Lithuania who would tell students to do ridiculous things to break their ego p. 305. A similar method of spiritual training as Sufis have used for past 1400 years, telling their students to sit on garbage heaps to break their pride. Only then do spiritual openings come.
    • ‘Cannot be my disciple until hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters even own life cannot be my disciple.’ (Luke 14:26) p. 290. This is juxtaposed against the hadith that a Muslim does not love the Prophet (peace be upon him) more than his family, loved ones and even himself.
    • When you give alms, sound no trumpets before you p. 272. Islamic speaks of the reward of secret charity being greater than open charity and The Qur’an says do not hurt people after charity by reminding them of the charity you gave them.
    • Speak in new tongues, pick up serpents and drink deadly thing and it will not hurt them Mark 16:17-1 p. 294. This is a miracle also in Islam of the poison that did not kill the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him.

Crying out for Islam

At many points in this book there are question marks that point out the incompleteness of the Judeo-Christian tradition despite its lengthy history as if God deliberately left a … (ellipses)

    • Christians say the allegory of the Good Samaritan that rescues is Jesus.p. 219 It is as if he is saying ‘think outside the box and look at the outsiders’ and the ultimate outsiders were the Ishmaelites.
    • “But my friends the Bible means exactly what it says. If God wanted it changed, He would have had the prophets change it.”  p. 297 Why yes! God did send another Prophet!
    • “If you insist that God revealed himself only at one time, at one particular place, using these discrete words, and never any time other than that – that in itself is a kind of idolatry.” p. 329 A perfect stepping stone and reasoning leading to Islam!  
    • Bible may have not been dictated by God, it may have had a messy and complicated truth, one filled with political agendas and outdated ideas – but that doesn’t mean the Bible can’t be beautiful and sacred. p. 316. Well then, how much more sacred is a revelation if that scripture is dictated by God! 

By the end of the book I did really feel the author has shown how incomplete the Judeo-Christian tradition is and how Islam fills in the gaps. Islam is much more coherent and internally consistent. 

Alhamdulillah for Islam. 

Subhanaka Allahumma wa bihamdika ash-haduana la illaha illa Ant astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk, ameen. 

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