Thursday, 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?

4 comments:

  1. Rodwells is not the best translation.

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  2. Which English Qur'an would you recommend instead?

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  3. William John TychonievichOctober 28, 2009 at 7:45 AM

    I read the 2001 Phoenix Paperback edition of The Koran translated by J. M. Rodwell around five years ago. I kept it at work and read it while eating my two sandwiches and piece of fruit each evening. It took me several months to complete it this way. I didn’t pay as much attention to detail as it appears you have, taking no notes whatsoever, but I do remember certain things about it which impressed themselves on me at the time.

    But first of all, let me say that, as far as Super Theology and omnitheism are concerned, comparing the Koran to the Bible is oxymoronic because the Koran is part of the Bible. There is only one monotheistic religion and it has three main sects, each with its own testament. The Judaic Torah plus various chronicles, prophesies, and apocrypha are the Old Testament. The Christian gospels, acts, epistles, and revelation are the New Testament. The Islamic Koran is the Last Testament, just as Mohammad is the Last Prophet; you know, the last until Elijah’s return. The Jews accept the Old Testament but reject the other two, because both of them direct prophetic criticisms at the Jewish religious practice which the Jews find intolerable. The Christians accept the Old and New Testaments as scripture but reject the Last Testament, because it directs prophetic criticisms at the Christian religious practice which the Christians find intolerable. The Muslims accept all three testaments as scripture, and all three of monotheism’s greatest prophets, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad, as such.

    I think the Koran’s essential value, for anyone who wants to deal with monotheism on its own terms, is the cold eye it casts on Christianity several centuries after that sect of monotheism’s ascension to its counterintuitive status as Official Religion of the Roman Empire. As I remember it, Mohammad allows that both Judaism and Christianity are capable of attaining Paradise for their practitioners, but that it would be extremely difficult for them. I think he says that the most souls either of these two religious practices could get into Paradise is twenty thousand, based I imagine on the 144,000 final total. Unfortunately, there’s no prophet after Mohammad to cast the same cold eye on the religious practice he founded, after its development and institutionalization, that the Koran casts on the other two practices. Until the return of Elijah, that is.

    If you were to compare the Old Testament with the New Testament you would have the history of a people compared with the story of a man who subsumes that history and people into his life and death. The Last Testament stands outside this history and this story, yet applies them and the unitary divinity they proclaim to the religious practice of people who also stand outside the milieu of the Christian Bible. I think the best way to view the Koran from within that milieu (i.e., from a Western perspective) is as an extension of and riff on the Book of Revelation. Both use military metaphors extensively to speak of karmic forces, and neither can be interpreted literally without disastrous results. Add to this Super Theology’s thesis that Mohammad is an avatar, or reincarnation, of Jesus Christ, and therefore, metaphorically at least, the Second Coming of Christ, and you have a stronger, more palpable, linkage between the two works.

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  4. William John TychonievichOctober 28, 2009 at 7:52 AM

    Several places in the Koran it states that there are only two things one needs to accept, affirm, or believe to be a Muslim: 1) The God of Abraham is the one and only God, and 2) there will be an End of the World with a Resurrection of the Dead and a Last Judgment. Beyond that, as I remember it, one is simply to continue whatever rituals and prayers one is already practicing and one is a Muslim. Did you notice this? Does this not suggest the lines along which a possible reconciliation among the three sects of monotheism might occur?

    Though the Koran states that a Muslim must be prepared to fight and kill for Islam, it also quite clearly states, if I remember correctly, that doing so should always be the absolute last alternative and only undertaken in cases where Islam is actually in danger of destruction, suggesting (again if I remember correctly) that it would often be better to die for Islam rather than to kill for it. Did you notice anything like this?

    The Koran invariably refers to Christ as Jesus, son of Mary. According to “The Everything Mary Book,” Mary holds a more prominent and vibrant role in the Koran than in the New Testament, and this certainly was my experience. I remember specifically reading about baby Jesus rebuking kids who were disparaging Mary for her unwed pregnancy, informing them in no uncertain terms that his mother was a virgin. There are also several stories and details about Mary in the Koran which do not appear in the New Testament but which are paralleled in various apocryphal gospels. My take on Mary in the Koran: the Goddess lives!

    Of extreme interest to me was the Koran’s stance re Christ’s crucifixion. It tells us we can accept the New Testament’s version of this event as long as we realize some kind of substitution took place. This is always interpreted as indicating someone other than Jesus was crucified in his place and therefore he didn’t resurrect from the dead, something else which appears in some apocryphal gospels. But I found this passage of the Koran very vaguely worded, with the substitution unexplained and not specifically stated in the terms of its interpretation. Super Theology, as you know, also maintains a “substitution” took place during the crucifixion of Christ, when Jesus tells the Beloved Disciple to behold Mary as his mother and Mary to behold the Beloved Disciple as her son. In essence, this was a transfer of the mantle of Messiah from Jesus to John, making Jesus himself the Messianic substitute. Since the Koran has no qualms about the Resurrection of the Dead on Judgment Day, it shouldn’t have any problems with Christ’s resurrection, but it was obvious by Mohammad’s time that this aspect the Jesus scenario was being applied by Christian Theology in a gravely erroneous manner which grievously imperiled the karmic necessities of its followers.

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