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Book Review: The Qur’an

December 14, 2011

The Qur’an seems to fascinate people. For Muslims, it is the supreme source of knowledge and wisdom. For Bill Maher it is a “hate-filled holy book“. Given the current climate, there are presumably quite a few people who regard it with suspicion if not outright hostility. So, naturally, it seemed like it would be a good idea to read it.

The first problem that you run into when reading the Qur’an is that it’s in Arabic. As the introduction to my English translation says

“The Qur’an was the starting point for all the Islamic sciences: Arabic grammar was developed to serve the Qur’an, the study of Arabic phonetics was pursued in order to determine the exact pronunciation of Qur’anic words, the science of Arabic rhetoric was developed in order to describe the features of the inimitable style of the Qur’an, the art of Arabic calligraphy was cultivated through writing down the Qur’an, the Qur’an is th basis of Islamic law and theology … the entire religious life of the Muslim world is built around the text of the Qur’an”

The Qur’an is, or at least seems to see itself, as the third part of a great theological trilogy beginning with the Old Testament and continuing with the New Testament. Like the concluding part of any trilogy, it inspires strong emotions in those who enjoyed the first two parts but don’t like the direction taken by the third (perhaps because of a change of director, or because it features an army of small furry creatures). In this instance, the main objections seem to come from people who felt that the Old and New Testament were a conceptually perfect pairing and didn’t need anything adding (actually, some of these people seem quite happy to stick solely to the Old Testament).

The circumstances in which the Qur’an were produced are perhaps better known than those which gave rise to the Bible but are not without their mystery. At the time, most people in the Arabic world were polytheists with a chief God “Allah” and a number of secondary Gods. A man called Muhammad, who was given to periods of quiet meditation in a cave near Mecca began to receive revelations of Qur’anic verses (the first was in 610 CE). Over a period of 23 years he had many such revelations, witnessed by others, during which he would recite new verses. These were memorized by his growing band of followers, but were not collected systematically in a book until just after Muhammad’s death, although individual written records were made at the time. Thus, we can perhaps be more confident of the authenticity of the text in the Qur’an than we are of the Bible, where determining the original text is an insoluble problem. The word Qur’an means “reading” or “reciting” – reading the Qur’an aloud was and still is an important aspect of Islam.

The book is divided into 114 sections, called suras, ranging in length from a sentence of two, to about 20 pages. Each one is, I believe, a separate revelation. Unlike chapters in the Bible, they do not purport to be any kind of chronological account of anything, each one being a self-contained message. Also, they do not appear in the Qur’an in the order in which they were revealed – Muhammad eventually arranged them into the “correct” order. Because the book is ostensibly written by God, it refers to “We” and “Our” (meaning God’s) and speaks of Muhammad or “The Prophet” in the third person. This means that references to “you” are ambiguous – God could be talking about Muhammad or he could be talking about people in general. In Arabic, this distinction is clear from the choice of words, but to represent this in English the translator has had to disambiguate some of the references by explicitly adding the target e.g. “This is a Scripture which We have sent down to you [Prophet] so that …” – one example of the problems of not being able to read it in Arabic.

Each sura has a name, usually derived from a word or reference in the text of the sura, and each is divided into verses, called ayas. These may be referenced in a style similar to the Bible e.g. 32:15 is the 15th verse of Sura 32 (“Bowing Down in Worship”).

Muhammad’s revelations of a single God didn’t go down well with the polytheists of the time, which led to friction between them and his followers, and this is explicitly referenced in the developing text. Indeed, some of the suras represent God’s answers to questions Muhammad had about the problems his community (or he) faced and thus they ought to be interpreted in the correct historical context. So, an injunction such as “Kill them wherever you encounter them, and drive them out from where they drove you out, for persecution is more serious than killing.” (2:191) is not a general order to kill unbelievers, but answers the question of whether it is lawful to fight back if they are attacked in the sacred precincts of Mecca. The previous verse makes it clear that they are only to fight in self-defence and warns them “…do not overstep the limits: God does not love those who overstep the limits.”

The questions I had about the Qur’an were broadly as follows:

  1. What is it all about?
  2. How is the Muslim God different from the Christian God?
  3. Where does Islam lie on the scale of “religion of peace” to “fight the infidels”?
  4. What does Sharia law actually involve?

What is it all about?

As described above, it consists of 114 suras, each written as if dictated by God. Reading it is consequently a rather odd experience. For example, you don’t get arguments from Muhammad arguing for the existence of God, you tend to get God himself instructing Muhammad on what to say:

“Say [Prophet], ‘Just think, if God were to cast perpetual night over you until the Day of Resurrection, what other god than He could bring you light? Do you not listen?’ Say, ‘Just think, if God were to cast perpetual day over you until the Day of Resurrection, what other god than He could give you night in which to rest? Do you not see? In His mercy He has given you night and day, so that you may rest and seek His bounty and be grateful.'” (28:71-73)

This gives a weird, peering-behind-the-curtain aspect to the whole thing, or maybe it’s like breaking the fourth wall.

It’s not chronological, and it is actually quite repetitive with very similar looking arguments for God’s existence cropping up in a number of places, usually along the lines of the one mentioned above (which I do not find terribly persuasive). There are frequent reminders that God is omniscient, but also merciful:

“Remember that God knows what is in your souls so be mindful of Him. Remember that God is most forgiving and forbearing” (2:235)

…is a fairly typical example. We are often reminded that God “has full knowledge of everything”. There are many tantalising glimpses of paradise, usually described something like this:

“…Gardens of lasting bliss graced with flowing streams. There they will be adorned with bracelets of gold. There they will wear green garments of fine silk and brocade. There they will be comfortably seated on soft chairs. What a blessed reward! What a pleasant resting place!” (18:31)

In addition to the depictions of paradise, the Qur’an is also at pains to point out the world of torment awaiting those who disbelieve (often translated as “evildoers” which amused me slightly in the light of GW Bush):

“For those who defy their Lord We have prepared the torment of Hell: an evil destination, They will hear it drawing in its breath when they are thrown in. It blazes forth, almost bursting with rage. Its keepers will ask every group that is thrown in, ‘Did no one come to warn you?’ They will reply, ‘Yes, a warner did come to us, but we did not believe him. We said “God has revealed nothing: you are greatly misguided”.’ They will say, ‘If only we had listened, or reasoned, we would not be with the inhabitants of the blazing fire,’ and they will confess their sins. Away with the inhabitants of the blazing fire!” (67:6-11)

God seems to take quite a delight in describing the misery and humiliation of those who are condemned to hell, and often reassures Muhammad that he’ll have the last laugh as the sinners realise there’s no escape for them. He doesn’t like disbelievers, which can be deduced from the fact that the entry in the index of my translation for “disbelievers” is the longest entry, longer even than that for Muhammad and about twice as long as that for believers:

“disbelievers: activities known to God; condemnation; sometimes permitted; amazement at the Resurrection; arguments rejected; arrogance contrasted with God’s pride in his creation; arrogance linked with those of previous generations and of Satan; attempts to oppose God and Muhammad futile; and believers; belittling of the Qur’an; challenged as to their questioning of God’s power over them; claims that a true prophet would be wealthy denied; claims about goddesses and angels refuted; classification; condemnation; abandonment by God; those who lead others astray; consignment to Hell; denial of the Day of Judgement; destruction; because of their rejection of the truth of the Qur’an and the resurrection; disobedience, contrasted with the obedience of creation ordained by God; disputes between the oppressors and the oppressed at the Day of Judgement; disputes in Hell; eternal torment; eventual punishment; as evildoers; fate delayed by God until the Final Judgement; as examples to those who disbelieve currently exhorted to believe; failure to see the significance of God’s signs; fate; on the Day of Resurrection; foolishness in denying the Resurrection; and God’s revelation; good actions outweighed by bad faith; hearts hardened by God; judgement; lack of belief in God as creator; lack of success in war dictated by God; life in Hell compared to the believers’ bliss in Paradise; misconceptions regarding revelation and Muhammad’s nature; nature known by God; not to be helped by believers; obduracy; prayers ineffective; punishment [20 entries!]; in the afterlife; for barring believers from Mecca; contrasted with the rewards of believers; on the Day of Judgement; inevitability; for opposition to God and Muhammad; of previous generations, seen as a warning to disbelievers in the present; shown in the story of Moses; reactions on the Day of Judgement contrasted with those of believers; reactions to the giving of the Scriptures; record held in their left hands at the Day of Judgement; rejection of prophets and punishment; relations with God; reminded of the fate of previous generations of disbelievers; repentance; response to God; rewards; scoffing met with punishment at the Day of Judgement; guided by own desires; stubbornness and mocking of God’s revelations; terror at the Day of Judgement; as those who are not in God’s light; to be left to God’s judgement and not to Muhammad’s preaching; to be left to their own devices; torturers condemned; unjust nature”

In the light of this, it’s rather hard to take the edict “There is no compulsion in religion…” (2:256) seriously (though it goes on to suggest that, actually, believing in God is a jolly good idea).

How is the Muslim God different from the Christian God?

This turns out to be simple to answer – no different at all. The reason I described it as the “third part of a trilogy” is because God is the same and makes explicit reference to things that he did back in the Bible, mostly involving smiting the unbelievers, and usually repeated several times. The story of Moses throwing down his stick and it turning into a snake occurs at least 5 times (7:107, 20:19, 26:32, 27:10, 28:31). Iblis refusing to bow down when ordered to by God crops up multiple times as well (2:34, 7:11, 15:31, 17:61, 18:50, 20:116, 38:74).

Yes, God is still the vain megalomaniac we know and love from the Old Testament. He makes it clear to Muhammad that he (Muhammad) is the latest in a line of prophets:

“In matters of faith, He has laid down for you [people] the same commandment that He gave Noah, which We have revealed to you [Muhammad] and which We enjoined on Abraham and Moses and Jesus: ‘Uphold the faith and do not divide into factions within it'” (42:13)

…and he likes to remind him of the fates of those civilisations which failed to heed the warnings (see quotation from 67:6-11 above).

Where does Islam lie on the scale of “religion of peace” to “fight the infidels”?

This is a hard question to answer. As with the Bible, the Qur’an says a great many things, which is grist to the mill of those people who like to take things out of context, re-interpret and impose new meanings on them in ways which were not intended by the author. I have already mentioned the case of “…kill [unbelievers] where you encounter them”, a statement which would be easy to use to demonstrate an inherent violence in Islam if one chose to ignore the context (I only have the word of the translator about the context surrounding this statement, it is possible therefore that other authorities would interpret it differently).

Another example is the so-called “sword verse” which begins:

When the [four] forbidden months are over, wherever you encounter the idolaters, kill them, seize them, besiege them, wait for them at every lookout post;…

…which seems pretty damning, but it continues…

…at every lookout post; but if they repent, maintain the prayer and pay the prescribed alms, let them go on their way, for God is most forgiving and merciful. If any one of the idolaters should seek your protection [Prophet], grant it to him so that he may hear the word of God, then take him to a safe place for him, for they are people who do not know.(9:5)

Again, context is important – the idolaters mentioned in this passage are a specific group of people with whom Muhammad and his followers had skirmishes. However, it’s easy to see how passages such as this could be interpreted either by non-Muslims to suggest that Islam is a violent religion or, indeed, by Muslim clerics to suggest the same thing.

On the other hand, the Bible certainly speaks approvingly of wholesale slaughter of people who weren’t God’s “chosen people”, which one might interpret as tipping the wink to Christians who have a mind to spreading Christianity by force, and history furnishes us with examples of those who have sought to do that [crusades, Spanish inquisition]. I think that ultimately, people will read into both books the messages they want to hear – liberals will insist that the religions are forces for good and emphasise the importance of morality and kindness, whereas reactionaries will conclude that they have a divine duty to wage holy war on the unbelievers.

Of particular interest is the question of whether there are, in fact 72 virgins, as a reward in paradise for martyrs. I must confess that on reading it through I failed to spot a reference to 72 of anything. However, there are certain passages which seem to be broadly in the right area, such as this one which describes the fate of two of the three classes into which people will be divided on the Day of Judgement:

On couches of well-woven cloth they [the people closest to God] will sit facing each other; everlasting youths will go round among them with glasses, flagons, and cups of a pure drink that causes no headache or intoxication; there will be any fruit they choose, the meat of any bird they like; and beautiful-eyed maidens like hidden pearls: a reward for what they used to do. They will hear no idle or sinful talk there, only clean and wholesome speech.

Those on the Right [the second best class], what people they are! They will dwell amid thornless lote trees and clustered acacia with spreading share, constantly flowing water, abundant fruits, unfailing, unforbidden, with incomparable companions. We have specially created – virginal, loving, of matching age – for those on the Right, many from the past and many from later generations. (56:15-40)

Needless to say, for the remaining people (those on the Left) it doesn’t end well. For those interested, this article from the Guardian and the video on this page provide further details.

What does Sharia law actually involve?

As mentioned, the Qur’an forms the entire basis for Islamic life, including the system of “Sharia” law. Since the Qur’an doesn’t cover every possible situation, presumably there has been quite a bit of extrapolation and interpretation by generations of Islamic scholars to flesh the teachings out into a comprehensive system of law.

At the moment, Islam is the main boogeyman in the US, invoked by politicians and pundits as a pernicious force bent on taking over America. To that end, a number of politicians are seeking to bring in laws explicitly banning Sharia law. It’s actually quite ironic that the religious right has taken against Sharia law as they have, for there are a number of laws that I imagine they’d embrace enthusiastically if they were put forward as some kind of “Christian contract with America:

“Cut off the hands of thieves whether they are man or woman, as punishment for what they have done – a deterrent from God: God is almighty and wise.” (5:38)

“If any of your women commit a lewd act, call four witnesses from among you, then, if they testify to their guilt, keep the women at home until death comes to them or until God shows them another way. If two men commit a lewd act, punish them both; if they repent and mend their ways, leave them alone – God is always ready to accept repentance, He is full of mercy.” (4:15-16).

According to the index, “lewd act” is a reference to homosexuality. I can think of at least one Christian commentator who could get behind that one.

Having said that, one of the more notorious tenets of Sharia law is that, allegedly, a woman who is raped is deemed to have committed adultery unless she has four witnesses to prove otherwise. I’ve been unable to find the basis of this, though I did spot this intriguing passage:

“As for those who accuse chaste women of fornication, and then fail to provide four witnesses, strike them eight times, and reject their testimony ever afterwards: they are the lawbreakers, except for those who repent later and make amends – God is most forgiving and merciful” (24:4-5)

…so it looks like, if anything, the burden of proof is the other way around. It’s possible that there’s been some creative reinterpretation along the way, or maybe I’ve missed something.

Men are permitted to have multiple wives up to a limit, but will be pleased to hear that slave-girls do not count towards the total.

You [Prophet] are not permitted to take any further wives, nor to exchange the wives you have for others, even if these attract you with their beauty. But this does not apply to your slave-girls. God is watchful over all (33:52)

Some edicts seem objectionable to modern sensibilities such as this, when dealing with the recording of contracts:

Call in two men as witnesses. If two men are not there, then call one man and two women out of those you approve as witnesses, so that if one of the two women should forget the other can remind her. (2:282)

The introduction mentions this passage and points out that given the custom of the times, in which financial business was handled exclusively by men, this is sensible advice since women would have had less experience of the process. So although you can accuse the whole system of being patriarchal and unfair, this passage should not be taken as deliberately offensive, it’s actually only accidentally offensive.

There’s also the vexed question of a woman’s “charms” and those to whom they may be displayed. For the record, the list runs as follows:

…they should draw their coverings over their necklines and not reveal their charms except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their womenfolk, their slaves, such men as attend them who have no desire, or children who are not yet aware of womens’ nakedness; they should not stamp their feet so as to draw attention to any hidden charms. (24:31)

To its credit, there’s quite a lot of emphasis on fairness in everyday dealings. Muhammad is described in the introduction as a “respected businessman and peacemaker”, hence advice like this:

“Honour your pledges: you will be questioned about your pledges. Give full measure when you measure, and weigh with accurate scales: that is better and fairer in the end. Do not follow blindly what you do not know to be true: ears, eyes, and heart, you will be questioned about all these.” (17:34-36)

“Give full measure: do not sell others short. Weigh with correct scales: do not deprive people of what is theirs. Do not spread corruption on earth.” (26:181-183)

God is also capable of leniency (somewhat surprisingly):

“You who believe, eat the good things We have provided for you and be grateful to God, if it is Him that you worship. He has only forbidden you carrion, blood, pig’s meat, and animals over which any name other than God’s has been invoked. But if anyone is forced to eat such things by hunger, rather than desire or excess, he commits no sin: God is most merciful and forgiving.” (2:172-173)

Summary

As with the Bible, the Qur’an is an interesting book and the world would probably be a better place if more people read it dispassionately and critically (if only because it would save us from people arguing about things they believe to be in it but which actually aren’t). Chris Morris has an amusing anecdote about his dad’s-army-side-of-jihad comedy Four Lions, one of the characters in which is based on a BNP man he encountered while researching the film, who read the Qur’an out of curiosity and “accidentally converted himself“. So far I’ve not found Islam any more or less compelling than Christianity having read the holy books of both, but I feel fractionally more knowledgeable.

My final feeling is that there is a grave error being committed, or so it seems to me, when people decide that their entire lives are to be governed by words written down many centuries ago. The idea of a bunch of people in the modern world choosing to base their worldview around bad science fiction or intercepted radio transmissions from another civilisation would seem quite foolish. Yet people happily put their faith in texts which are equally remote from modern-day reality and refuse to surrender their dogmatic beliefs, preferring to go through huge contortions to make them fit the facts. Maybe someday we’ll grow out of religion, but as long as people prefer to surrender their capacity to make moral judgements to texts like the Qur’an and the Bible (and –  coming next to complete the religious trilogy –  the Talmud) it won’t be any time soon.

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