Category Archives: Islam

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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Muhammad vs. Paul on slavery

I’m still reading the Qur’an. I found this passage on slavery.

God maketh comparison between a slave the property of his lord, who hath no power over anything, and a free man whom We have Ourselves supplied with goodly supplies, and who giveth alms therefrom both in secret and openly. Shall they be held equal? No: praise be to God! But most men know it not (16:77).

Compare this with the familiar line from Paul’s epistle to the Galatians:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (3:28).

At first glance, Paul seems much closer than Muhammad to our modern ideas about freedom and equality, but I’m not sure that’s really the case. Paul’s point is not that all people should be made equal, but that in God’s eyes they already are — that the question of whether a person is Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, is simply not important. Paul’s writings make it very clear that he saw no need for Greeks to be made into Jews, and I suspect that he would likewise have seen no need for the slaves to be set free. Abolitionists can argue that if all men are equal in the eyes of God we ought therefore to treat them equally in society, but Paul’s writings could just as easily be used to dismiss slavery as a non-issue.

Muhammad, on the other hand, seems to be enthusiastically endorsing the institution of slavery, praising God that the slave and the free man are not held equal. I think there are two ways of reading his statement, though. Is God saying that slavery is appropriate because men are not equal, or is he saying that men are not equal because slavery exists? Under the first reading, the message is: “Should all men be held equal and equally deserving of freedom? No! Some should be free and others should be slaves.” The second reading would gloss the same passage thus: “Should we pretend [as Paul does] that being a slave is just as good as being free, that the slave and the free man are in fact equal? No! Being free is clearly better.” The latter reading is supported by Muhammad’s focus on the ability to give alms as the distinguishing feature of a free man. If a free man is better able to do good and serve God than a slave is, the natural conclusion is that it would please God if every man were free. Muhammad clearly thinks that his point about slaves is a controversial one (“most men know it not”), and, given that he is clearly familiar with Christian teachings and often argues against them in the Qur’an, I wonder if this passage might even be intended as a direct response to Paul’s feelgooderism: No, Paul, slaves are free men are not to be considered equal, and all men will not be equal until all men are free.

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Thoughts on the Qur’an, mostly from Sura Al-An’am

I’ve been reading the Qur’an. I’m about a quarter of the way through John Medows Rodwell’s English translation.

It’s pretty slow going for the first several suras, an impressive portion of the text being devoted to endlessly repeating that believers will go to paradise and infidels will burn in hell. The fourth sura offers this charming description: “Those who disbelieve Our signs We will in the end cast into the Fire: so oft as their skins shall be well burnt, We will change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the torment. Verily God is” (here even Muhammad seems to realize that the customary epithets “compassionate, merciful” would sound odd and opts instead for) “mighty, wise!” (4:56) This, astonishingly, is presented as a just punishment for the crime of failing to believe something — not for doing wrong, but for being wrong, for having incorrect opinions. As the Qur’an makes clear in repeated rhetorical questions, its author can imagine nothing more wicked. Now I understand why Muhammad says not to make friends with unbelievers; knowing that your friend is having his skin endlessly burnt off and replaced might interfere with your ability to properly enjoy paradise.

But I already knew that about the Qur’an. Everybody does. Here are a few interesting bits — all from the sixth Sura, it turns out — which I didn’t know about before:

It is He who taketh your souls at night, and knoweth what ye have merited in the day: then He awakeneth you therein, that the set life-term may be fulfilled . . . (6:60)

I suppose this might be talking about death, judgment, and resurrection — but the bit at the end about awakening so that the set life-term may be fulfilled makes me think that it’s talking quite literally about sleeping and waking up, saying that God takes our souls during sleep and returns them to us when we wake up. I find that interesting because it reminds me of an argument used by Sam Harris in a debate with Andrew Sullivan, who found it difficult to believe that his consciousness would simple cease at death.

Presumably, you don’t find it hard to accept that you didn’t exist before you were born, so why is it so difficult to believe that you will cease to exist after you die? . . . Or imagine dying in parts: what if you had a stroke that damaged your visual cortex-where would your faculty of sight be thereafter? If a priest said that your visual self had gone on to heaven before you, would you believe him? . . . There is simply no question that brain damage can cause any of us to lose the specific faculties that constitute our conscious selves. Why is it so hard to imagine that we can lose all these faculties at once?

Or consider the analogy of sleep: each night you fall asleep and surrender your subjectivity to oblivion. You . . . awaken each morning without any sense of having lived for most of the night. You already know, therefore, what it’s like for your experience of the world to cease. Is a permanent cessation really so difficult to imagine?

Harris’s series of analogies doesn’t actually prove anything. Instead it relies on the listener’s judgment, on his subjective sense of what is absurd. The believer always has the option of biting the bullet and saying, for example, “Why, yes, in that case I would believe that my visual self had gone to heaven before me.” Mormonism does this when it comes to our apparent nonexistence before we were born, insisting that, yes, we did exist before birth, that each human soul has always existed and is co-eternal with God, but that memory of the “pre-mortal life” is erased or suppressed at birth. The Qur’an seems to be doing the same thing with sleep, taking the idea of the afterlife to its logical (if absurd) conclusion. Consciousness seems to cease at death, but in fact the soul lives on in another world; therefore, if consciousness seems to cease temporarily during sleep, it stands to reason that in fact the soul has temporarily gone to another world. I’m not sure that this is what the Qur’an is saying — a lot obviously depends on matters of translation and interpretation — but if it is, it offers an interesting new take on the familiar prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”

This next line is one I had read before, when, many years ago, I was studying stories about Abraham from various sources (a study that culminated in my discovery that the Mormon Book of Abraham was a transparent hoax and my subsequent resignation from the Mormon church). The “he” in this passage is Abraham:

And when the night overshadowed him, he beheld a star. “This,” he said, “is my Lord:” but when it set, he said, “I love not gods which set.” (6:76)

I love that line. It has a certain Nietzschean grandeur, at least in this translation. One can’t help but notice, though that Abraham’s reason for concluding that the star is not a god is based on ignorance. The star didn’t really “set” or fall or cease to shine; all that happened was that the earth rotated until it was no longer in Abraham’s line of sight. A more astronomically literate prophet might have found in this a metaphor for the true God: If He sometimes seems to be absent, it is only because we have turned away from Him.

One more passage that caught my eye:

Revile not those whom they call on beside God, lest they, in their ignorance, despitefully revile Him. (6:108)

This comes surprisingly close to the Golden Rule and “Judge not lest ye be judged.” It would have been nice if Muhammad had pursued this line of thinking a little further and come up with “Murder not the infidels for disbelieving in your God, lest they, in their ignorance, murder you for disbelieving in theirs.” — but, in fairness, I shouldn’t assume he didn’t until I’ve finished his book.

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