For this rereading of the Koran, I read the A. J. Arberry translation. All quotations below are from that version.
Scholars, politicians, theologians, Muslims and non – Muslims, etc. debate the meaning of the words in The Koran. A look at the way in which this book and other Islamic texts are interpreted by different individuals and groups reveals an amazing diversity of practices and views. Some argue that the Koran is a book of peace and tolerance. Others use it to justify violence and the oppression of others. There are theological disputes that are complex. Both Muslims and non - Muslims have joined in on the discussions. There is a tendency for folks to label interpretations that they do not agree with as “not real Islam”. This argument seems like it is designed to stifle communication and disagreement and to whitewash what are undeniably troubling verses in this book.
It is common to hear folks tell non - Muslims not to draw their own conclusions about the Koran and to “ask a Muslim”. However, an examination of what Muslims throughout the world have to say about this text reveals vast disagreements. Listening to the views of Muslims is vitally important and useful, but it is not the end of the discussion.
I am not going to explore the entire cornucopia of views out there. Instead I am going to paint a picture of my interpretation of this book. Of course I am no expert. But I am capable of reading and drawing my own conclusions. With that, I believe in examining my own conclusions and questioning them based on the views of others, both Muslim and non - Muslim is necessary.
I read the text of The Koran as a particular viewpoint that describes the Universe. Like many other philosophical and religious works, it is an interpretation of reality. It is an attempt to make sense of the world in which we live in.
The ubiquitous underlying message behind this book is that both Old and New Testaments are the word of God. In fact, a large percentage of the Koran consists of a retelling and commentary of Bible stories. There is a particular emphasis on the destruction of cities and their inhabitants. It is repeated over and over again: the people of various cities and regions were sinful and who ignored the prophets, they brought destruction on themselves. The stories of Lot, Noah and others are referred to numerous times as the text continually to come around to them again and again.
Jesus, who was the product of a virgin birth, was an important prophet but he was not the Son of God. The concept of the Trinity is specifically referred to. Many words are devoted to refuting it. At the same time Jesus is praised as an important prophet.
It is important to understand the Koran’s view of Christians and Jews. The text refers to both groups collectively as “People of the Book.”
There is another group mentioned, They are referred to as unbelievers. A simple Google search reveals that there is debate over who should be included as unbelievers. The term clearly refers to people who are neither Muslims, Christians or Jews. But does it also include Christians and Jews? In other words, does it also include People of the Book?
The text treats unbelievers and People of the Book very differently. Thus I conclude that they are distinct groups without overlap.
Christians and Jews are usually talked about with some respect,
“some of the People of the Book are a nation upstanding, that recite God's signs in the watches of the night, bowing themselves, believing in God and in the Last Day, bidding to honour and forbidding dishonour, vying one with the other in good works; those are of the righteous.”
Unbelievers are talked much more negatively. In fact, the text is venomous towards them. Over and over again the text lays out the horrible punishment that they will face on the day – of - judgment. The below passage is very typical,
"And thou shalt see the sinners that day coupled in fetters, of pitch their shirts, their faces enveloped by the Fire, that God may recompense every soul for its earnings; surely God is swift at the reckoning."
When not burned in fire the Non – Believers are exposed to boiling water,
“And those who disbelieve — for them awaits a draught of boiling water, and a painful chastisement, for their disbelieving.”
Muslims are instructed to not even associate with unbelievers,
"Let not the believers take the unbelievers for friends, rather than the believers — for whoso does that belongs not to God in anything”
The text seems to be somewhat obsessed with unbelievers They are mentioned scores of times, usually in similar ways to the above.
A question arises, does this text require that Islam be forced on everyone? A famous quote seems to answer that question clearly,
"No compulsion is there in religion. Rectitude has become clear from error."
However, another passage, which refers to adultery seems to contradict this,
"And when two of you commit indecency, punish them both; but if they repent and make amends, then suffer them to be"
A Google search indicates that there is some dispute in regards to the above words. Some translations specifically call for flogging in the case of adultery. Either way, this is a demand for punishment for cases of adultery. How does this reconcile with the earlier passage that admonishes no compulsion in religion? It seems that the text is specifying that no one should be forced to be a Muslim, but the rules of as specified in The Koran be enforced throughout society, through coercion.
So much has been talked about the Koran and women. There are multiple passages that clearly declare that men are superior to women. From inheritance to court cases, women receive less benefits, less credibility and less respect then men.
Ultimately, men are to rule over women and may use violence to control them as the below passage indicates,
“Men are the managers of the affairs of women for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property. Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for God's guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them. If they then obey you, look not for any way against them; “
Obviously, there is no place for the above in a free and equitable society.
There are certainly positive moral points about this work. There are numerous admonitions to be charitable. There is a lot of talk about war, but Believers are usually urged to only wage it defensively. Infanticide, particularly involving girls, was a practice that was apparently widespread in the region in Mohamed’s time. It is mentioned at several points and is condemned and forbidden.
The Koran is a rich work that is well worth reading. It sometimes encourages its adherents to act ethically. However, it also urges Believers to engage in immoral activity. As I have illustrated above, it is no guide to morality.
Of course The Koran is a complex work. I have oversimplified it in the above commentary. A survey of both serious scholarship and more casual interpretations illustrates a wide range of interpretations. Some of these opinions are not congruent with the views that I have expressed above. Thus, while the above the above is analysis of the Koran not an analysis of Islam as a whole. With that, in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, repressive regimes do use some of these morally untenable beliefs to oppress people.
The theocrats in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran not withstanding, many folks who call themselves Muslims would likely take issue with the above interpretation. Many would disagree with my take on this text. In the end, I urge everyone to read this book and draw their own conclusions.
Islam is a vitally important force operating in our world. Despite various interpretations of this book, The Koran is the basis of a belief system that billions of people follow. A reading of this text is vital for anyone who wishes to begin to understand Islam.