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Surveying the Koran

by Brian Peters

I fear that I may have committed a subversive act, perhaps even an act with national security implications; yet if confession is good for my problematic soul, I must admit it. I read the Koran.

I was careful about scoring the contraband volume. I used a major city book source away from my home, paid in cash, and wore gloves. Despite precautions, I suspect that my name is on one of those lists my enlightened but concerned government is keeping, and that I'll be called for questioning soon. I'll go quietly, certain they're acting only for the collective good, based upon priviledged knowledge beyond my understanding.

Still I'm selfish enough to enlist all of you as co-conspirators, in the desperate hope that there may not be jails enough to hold us all -- consider that as you decide whether to read further.

The translation I read is by A.J. Arberry, and published under the title The Koran Interpreted, copyrighted 1955. I chose it because Professor Arberry was more concerned than most with the elegance of the English language result he produced, and that's utterly important to me in translation -- I'm a partisan of the New English Bible for the same reason.

Many devout Muslims regard the Koran -- at least in its original Arabic format -- as a faithful transcription of the word of God, as revealed to and spoken by the prophet Muhammad ibn Abdallah, between approximately the years 610 to 632 C.E. The divisions of the book, called Suras, are roughly arranged from longest to shortest, numbering 114 Suras in total. Sura is most often translated as "chapter," but some part of the character of the writing, at least as I perceive it, might be better expressed by calling each division a psalm.

The Suras are not in the chronological order of their revelation, nor are they patterned to build one upon the other in some "114 lessons to understanding Islam" sense. Instead they are each, in some ways, complete unto themselves -- a "song of the whole of Islam as seen on this day" sort of feeling is the closest I can come to it.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I began reading it, and I struggled a great deal, especially in the early going. The Koran has gathered a fearsome and bellicose reputation in Western popular culture; it somehow provides the foundation for a repressive and intolerant theocracy in Iran, and provided the basis for an even more violently repressive and violently intolerant former government in Afghanistan. In the immediate aftermath of the suicide hijackings of September 11, 2001, many among the American news media referred to the discovery of copies of the Koran among the abandoned belongings of the hijackers as a sort of shorthand to explain the hijackers' violent motivations; somehow the Koran was simultaneously the cornerstone necessary to support their edifice of rage, and a book so suspicious that it had to be left behind so it would not alert airport security.

I didn't find those things as I read the Koran. Instead I found a book that begins each Sura with the words (in English translation), "In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate." But I remained on edge waiting for the wellspring of "hatred as advertised" that surely had to follow.

The first Sura, which is the most notable exception to the rule of arrangement by length, is among the very beautiful:

In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate

Praise belongs to God, the Lord of all Being,
the All-merciful, the All-compassionate,
        the Master of the Day of Doom.

Thee only we serve; to Thee alone we pray for succor.
        Guide us in the straight path,
the path of those whom Thou has blessed,
not of those against whom Thou art wrathful,
        nor of those who are astray.

Shorn of its context, it could read as naturally as an old testament psalm, or as a part of Paul's letters, or as a proclamation of Moses -- as stern, but as hopeful, as any of those. In churches using responsive readings, it could be used on any given sabbath without a single question raised.

I read for the broad sweep of the words, and for the phrases that might leap off the page, since I read, this time at least, without much feeling for the context and traditions that would serve as a focus in more familiar writing. And I read expecting to find the passages that would explain the seeming second-class citizenship of women in radical Islam. I couldn't find them either.

I did find this:

Men and women who have surrendered,
believing men and believing women,
obedient men and obedient women,
truthful men and truthful women,
enduring men and enduring women,
humble men and humble women,
men and women who give in charity,
men who fast and women who fast,
men and women who guard their private parts,
men and women who remember God oft--
for them God has prepared forgiveness
        and a mighty wage.

For its time and place, it seems a remarkable statement of equality, and unlike the first Sura, I cannot imagine so bold a statement of inclusion being made by either the old testament prophets, or the new testament evangelists.

In fact, the conspicuous use of phrases including women as co-equals in faith appears so often as to be a minor theme of the book as a whole.

The major theme is no longer controversial. The Koran seeks to bring monotheism -- the worship of a single God (al'Llah) -- to the Arab community, and specifically to displace the "faith of their fathers" in multiple local and lesser deities. The Koran is straightforwardly, and perhaps surprisingly, uninterested in displacing other traditions of a single God. Such earlier revelations are to be honored, and are equally valid, the Koran suggests, provided their people remain true to those revelations and do not err toward idolatry. More than that, the Koran makes quite clear that these earlier revelations speak of the same God.

Surely We sent down the Torah, wherein is
guidance and light; thereby the Prophets
who had surrendered themselves gave judgment
for those of Jewry, as did the masters
and the rabbis, following such portion
of God's Book as they were given to keep
and were witnesses to....

        And We sent, following
        in their footsteps, Jesus
        son of Mary, confirming
        the Torah before him;
        and We gave to him
        the Gospel, wherein
        is guidance and light,
        and confirming the Torah
        before it, as a guidance
        and an admonition
        unto the godfearing.
So let the People of the Gospel judge
according to what God has sent down
therein. Whosoever judges not
according to what God has sent down--
        they are the ungodly.

I concede, as I must, that attempting to understand Islam by reading the Koran is to ignore a great part of the faith as actually practiced, much as would be true of trying to understand the Jewish faith by reading the Torah, or of trying to understand the Christian faith by reading the Bible. That may be in contradiction to the great mythology of faith, but it's very much in accord with actual practice. Consider the Bible in Christianity, for example. Its presence is ubiquitous -- people hold their hands over it and swear upon it, they thump it, they waive it, they profoundly profess it, they even stuff it in motel drawers everywhere, but they scarcely ever read it. Nor, if they did so, would they find the great bulk of everyday religious practice in it. The architecture of church buildings and the structure of church services are entirely missing. Ditto the statements of faith and the celebration of holidays, let alone the dates of those holidays. The hymns didn't even make the Apocrypha, and the arcane and much debated rules of religious hierachy don't merit a footnote.

Still, I find a great deal of beauty and profound thought in the Bible, as I do in the Koran. Both can justify, in the minds of some, actions and policies that I regard as indisputably evil, but both can inspire as well. That's the nature of a profound thought, and the way I prefer to regard both books -- as profound and inspiring.

A.J. Arberry said it much better, half a century ago, and it's a thought worth repeating:

Though half a mortal lifetime was needed for the message to be received and communicated, the message itself, being of the eternal, is one message in eternity, however heterogeneous its temporal expression may appear to be. This, the mystic's approach, is surely the right approach to the study of the Koran; it is the approach that leads, not to bewilderment and disgust -- that is the prerogative of the Higher Critic -- but to an ever deepening understanding, to a wonder and joy that have no end.


©2002 by Brian Peters

Brian Peters lives precariously between a river and the great midwestern prairie on the low-rent side of a limestone bluff. He is the Web Designer for Slow Trains.

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