Megan B Rice loves reading. She started a romance novel club on the instant messaging platform Discord and posts book reviews on TikTok. Last month Rice, who is 34 and lives in Chicago, used her social media accounts to speak out about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
“I wanted to talk about the faith of Palestinian people, how it’s so strong, and they still find room to make it a priority to thank God, even when they have everything taken away from them,” she said in an interview.
Some Muslim followers suggested she might be interested in reading the Qur’an, Islam’s central religious text, for more context on the faith. So Rice, who did not grow up religious, organized a “World Religion Book Club” on Discord, where people of all backgrounds could study the Qur’an alongside her.
The more Rice read, the more the text’s contents aligned with her own core belief system. She found the Qur’an to be anti-consumerist, anti-oppressive and feminist. Within a month, Rice took the shahada, Islam’s official profession of faith, bought hijabs to wear, and became a Muslim.
Rice is not alone in wanting to experience the Qur’an. On TikTok, young people are reading the text to better understand a religion that’s long been vilified by western media, and to show solidarity with the many Muslims in Gaza. Videos under the hashtag “quranbookclub” – which has a modest 1.9 million views on the app – show users holding up their newly purchased texts and reading verses for the first time. Others are finding free versions online, or listening to someone sing the verses while they drive to work. Not all the people reading the Qur’an on TikTok are women, but interest overlaps with the #BookTok space, a subcommunity where mostly female users gather to discuss books.
Zareena Grewal is an associate professor at Yale who is working on a book about Islamic scripture and religious tolerance in American culture. She said that this TikTok interest wasn’t entirely unprecedented.
After 9/11, the Qur’an became an instant bestseller, though at the time many Americans purchased it to confirm biases they held about Islam being an inherently violent religion. “The difference is that in this moment, people are not turning to the Qur’an to understand the October 7 attack by Hamas,” Grewal said. “They are turning to the Qur’an to understand the incredible resilience, faith, moral strength and character they see in Muslim Palestinians.”
That’s what made Nefertari Moonn, a 35-year-old from Tampa, Florida, pick up her husband’s Qur’an. Moonn considered herself spiritual, not religious, and described her husband as a non-practicing Muslim. “I wanted to see what it was that made people call out to Allah when they stared death in the face,” she said. “Seeing passage after passage resonated with me. I began to have such an emotional attachment to it.”
Because of this, Moonn also decided to take the shahada, becoming a Muslim revert (a term some Muslims prefer for joining the religion).
“I can’t explain it, but there’s a peace that comes with reading the Qur’an,” she said. “I feel light, like I came back to something that was always there and waiting for me to return.”
Misha Euceph, a Pakistani American writer and podcast host who studies progressive interpretations of the Qur’an, has held her own Qur’an Book Club Instagram series since 2020. She says certain themes in the text align with the values of young, left-leaning Americans.
“The Qur’an is full of nature metaphors and encourages you to be an environmentalist,” Euceph said. “The Qur’an also has this anti-consumerist attitude, the sense that we’re all stewards of the earth who shouldn’t establish an exploitative relationship with the world or fellow human beings.”
In the Qur’an, men and women are equals in the eyes of God, and Rice and other TikTok converts say their interpretations of the text back up their feminist principles. It also engages with scientific explanations for creation, with verses in the Qur’an covering the big bang and other theories.
“Usually, we’re so used to the religious community combating science,” Rice said. “Now I’m seeing a religion embrace science and use its holy texts to back it up.”
Sylvia Chan-Malik was in graduate school after 9/11 amid a surge in hate crimes against Muslims and xenophobic language used in the media. “I was very interested in what was going on, comparing it to the history of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor,” she said. “I started to look into it on my own, meeting actual Muslims, and I was floored when I did my homework on Islam.”
Along the way, Chan-Malik converted to Islam. She’s now an associate professor at Rutgers University whose research focuses on the history of Islam and Islamophobia in the US. “I had a very similar experience to what’s happening on TikTok now,” she said. “At the time, I wondered why the people I met who were Muslim were so different than what I heard in the news. I’d never experienced such a vast disconnect between popular perception and the truth.”
Grewal, the Yale professor, believes that people often begin reading texts hoping to back up the worldview they already have. “Just as racist people are looking for verses to confirm their racial biases, people on the left are looking to this book to confirm progressive messages,” she said. “Every scripture is complex and invites multiple readings,” and TikTokers “are coming to the text looking for what they hope to find”.
Growing up in the shadow of 9/11, Rice said, she rejected Islamophobia and discrimination that made targets out of Muslim Americans. “As a Black woman, I’m used to the American government spreading harmful stereotypes that lead to misconceptions that people outside of my community have on me,” she said. “I never believed the stereotypes that were spread about the Muslim community post-9/11, but it wasn’t until I started reading the Qur’an that I realized I sort of internalized those misconceptions, because I believed that Islam was a very severe or strict religion.”
Reading the Qur’an began as a way for Rice to show empathy for Palestinians trapped in Gaza. Now, it’s become a major element of her life. It doesn’t have to be that revelatory for everyone. “I would say that it doesn’t matter what your religious background is,” she said. “You can grow empathy for someone by learning the most intimate parts of them, which includes their faith.”
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