Daily Archives: October 22, 2009

Reading: The Qur’an

I finished John Medows Rodwell’s translation of the Qur’an on 22 October 2009.

I suppose it’s inevitable — if unfair — for the Western reader to compare the Qur’an with the Bible. Unfair because the latter is the work of an entire civilization, written by dozens of authors in three languages over a period of a thousand years. One could hardly expect the Qur’an, a single book by a single author, to approach the Bible in scope or depth, and, sure enough, it doesn’t. Muhammad’s book is endlessly repetitious, returning again and again to the same narrow family of themes: the infidels who treated God’s messengers as liars, the folly of joining gods with God, the flames of hell, the shaded gardens beneath which the rivers flow, and so on.

The comparison is also unfair because, if the Bible is greatest story ever told, the Qur’an doesn’t really tell a story at all. Familiar stories, some biblical and others not, are often alluded to and sometimes summarized, but never properly told. If the Bible often seems to tell stories for their own sake, the Qur’an tends to be more interested in the moral — which is almost always the same. The people of Noah treated God’s signs as lies, so God drowned them. The people of Lot treated God’s apostle as a liar, and God rained stones on them. Pharaoh treated God’s — well, you get the idea. There are a few stories which the Qur’an expands in an interesting way, though:

  • In Sura 12, Jacob goes blind with grief over the loss of Joseph and later perceives him by smell. (“I surely perceive the smell of Joseph: think ye that I dote?”) This recalls Jacob’s younger days, when he deceived his own blind father, partly by means of smell, and passed himself off as Esau.
  • Aaron’s golden calf — which in the Qur’an is actually the work of one Samiri, Aaron being guilty only of not preventing him — is not a dumb idol, but is animated by some occult power and lows. When Moses returns and demands, “And what was thy motive, O Samiri?” Samiri’s reply is, “I saw what they saw not: so I took a handful of dust from the track of the messenger of God, and flung it into the calf, for so my soul prompted me.” (Sura 20)
  • Solomon appears (in Suras 27 and 38, for example) as a magician, able to command the winds and the satans and to understand the speech of birds and ants. This aspect of Solomon, the butterfly-who-stamped Solomon, doesn’t really turn up in the Bible.
Conspicuous by their absence are the 72 virgins we hear so much about. The houris of paradise are mentioned often, but the number 72 doesn’t come from the Qur’an. Nor is there much of a focus on martyrdom or smiting the infidels. There’s a bit of “slay them wherever ye find them” in places, but overall the Qur’an is less militaristic than some of its modern-day adherents would lead one to believe. One passage did jump out at me in connection with 9/11, though: “And who shall teach thee what Hell-fire is? It leaveth nought, it spareth nought, blackening the skin. Over it are nineteen angels. None but angels have We made guardians of the Fire: nor have We made this to be their number but to perplex the unbelievers” (Sura 74). Could that be the reason the al-Qaeda guys chose to use 19 hijackers?

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Filed under Islam, Scripture