Monday, January 16, 2017

My Thoughts on The Koran

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. 


Stephen said...

The most plausible explanation for the Koran's alternating views on outsiders that I've heard is that the Koran's surahs were issued at different times throughout Muhammed's career as a prophet-ruler, and that when they were living in peace he encouraged it, and when they were threatened by outside forces he admonished circling the camels and drawing lines between Us and Them.

Fred said...

Brian Joseph,

The Koran is much like the Bible in this respect. It is a large, complex, and sometimes contradictory work. By picking and choosing, one can get support for almost anything one wants to postulate. And, I suspect, even the Devil can quote the Koran.

Mudpuddle said...

you're probably performing a major public service by posting about the Koran... tx... but, in the age of quantum physics and geology, it's difficult for me to take medieval madness very seriously, except in cases of personal survival, when they're coming at me with pitchforks, for instance...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephen - If I recall Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses addressed the issue of Mohamed changing the Koran based upon circumstances.

With that, if The People of the Book are not the same group as the unbelievers, then I think that the text is fairly consistent when it concerns both groups. Perhaps weather of not they were considered the same group, changes with the circumstances.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Fred - Though it is indeed large and complex, and sometimes contradicts itself, I found the Koran to be much more cohesive then the various books of the Bible.

Brian Joseph said...

You made me laugh Mudpuddle :)

Though I do not believe that The Koran is a reflection of reality, I am so fascinated with ideas.

RFD@15037 said...

When Mudpuddle says "medieval madness," I think he says it all. Unfortunately, the madness persists. Nevertheless, I am impressed by your thoughtful and careful posting and analysis. You leave me wondering about the value of religious texts and zealots. Perhaps we would be better of if everyone should put aside all intermediaries and zealotry and seek "God" in his own way. But I guess I am being naïve and contradictory, especially as I must confess to being a Christian malgre lui who has little patience for most other Christians.

Fred said...

Brian Joseph,

I agree. The Bible's wide-ranging material is what makes it a much better work of literature also. The Koran is much more single-minded and focused than the Bible.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian! Thanks for a delightful review. I've read the Koran and I was wondering what your approach would be. I can say you pretty much nailed it.

I do know that, according to a Muslim friend of mine, one cannot TRULY understand the Koran unless it is read in Arabic. Muslims practice reciting whole passages of the Koran by memory, even those who don't understand Arabic.

The irony there is that the majority of Muslims don't know Arabic and so must read translations of the Koran as well.

Take care!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon.

I have also heard that about the Koran. I think that it is likely true to a point. I think that is true of a lot of translated literature.

That is very ironic that most Muslims cannot read it in the original form either.

Have a great week!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks R.T. I wish that people did not take these books as guid to morality either. With that, I think that there is a lot of worthy morality in The New Testament. Though I am an unbeliever. As literature and as historical documents, I do find these books fascinating.

The Reader's Tales said...

Hello Brian!! I am impressed. First of all by your open-mindedness, then by your intellect. I admire people who are trying to learn and understand other cultures and religions. A big bravo from the bottom of the heart. :-)

Violet said...

I've only read the Dawood translation of the Koran, which I think is very beautifully done. I tend to read religious texts in their historical and cultural context - the world was obviously very different when the Koran was written.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - Reading these books from a historical and cultural context makes a lot of sense/

With that, I believe that approximately one billion people believe that the Koran still has relevance as a description of reality an as a guid to morality. Thus I think that it also makes sense to look at it as such.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much A Reader's Tale. I think that it is important to listen to diverse views even when we disagree with them.

HKatz said...

Understanding the connection between the book and people's actions is essential - the parts they choose to downplay or emphasize, or how they put a spin on one passage or another. I'm glad you acknowledge that, and respect that you grappled with this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila.

Since so many people believe this book to be the absolute truth, I think that we need to consider in terms of the impact that it is having on the world.

Caroline said...

I don't think I will ever read the Koran but I also haven't read the Bible.
I suppose it's particularly tricky, in both cases, to know what is really meant as the translations are, to some extent also interpretations. At least, older versions with no annotations.
That said, I enjoyed your post. I makes me want to read more about religions again.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - The translation issue is a real one. With that, though I relied mostly upon the Arberry translation I did consult some others for critical passages.

Maria Behar said...

Outstanding post as usual, Brian!

I was surprised to read, in your excellent commentary on this book, that it contains many of the same stories that are included in the Bible. How interesting! Of course, Mohammed's take on these stories is probably not the same one espoused in the Bible. I see, though, that there is a similar prevalence of violence in both the Bible -- especially in the Old Testament -- and the Koran.

I was not at all surprised, however, at the quote which advocates the beating of "disobedient" women. Both the Bible and the Koran are, without a doubt, misogynistic books.

As in much of life, there are no all-good or all-bad things to say about both of these religious texts. Although I've never read the Koran, and have only read parts of the Bible, I would venture to say that they both contain admirable ethical standards that should be emulated, as well as unethical ones that should, instead, be avoided. Certainly the beating of women is disgusting. In the Bible, adulterers were to be stoned. And I can never forget God's order of the slaughter of the firstborn of Egypt, just because the Pharaoh refused to let the Hebrews leave the country.

In the final analysis, I think that the practice of "cherry-picking", which is so decried by Christian fundamentalists as an approach to the Bible, is actually a valid one when reading not just the Bible, but any religious text. I totally believe that such texts are a combination of divine and human inspiration.

This is a fascinating topic, and one that I would like to touch upon in my blog, MindSpirit Book Journeys, as well.

Thanks for your fascinating insights!! :) :) :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

Indeed, there are a lot of bad things in both the Old Testament and The Koran. The devaluing of woman in both works is striking.

I believe that based on our standards, there is much more bad then there is good in both books.

I find the New Testament to be more good then bad, but I think that it is not a complete guide to morality.

Have a great weekend!

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,
Thank you for presenting your interpretations or impressions of this book. Like the Bible, it is quite complex and difficult to understand at times. (My experience with it is limited to my high school social studies classes.) It's interesting that a large part of the Koran consists of a retelling and commentary of Bible stories.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Understanding The Koran is indeed a difficult task.

Many people who are unfamiliar with it are very surprised that it relies so heavily on The Bible.

thecuecard said...

The text sounds pretty contradictory, but I guess a lot of religious texts are. If it's no guide on morality, then not sure how it can be helpful. Maybe I'm too secular to see its various merits.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I am as secular as one can get :) I think that at the very least The Koran is very important in understanding history as well as the one many people who believe this to be an accurate description of the Universe.

Stefanie said...

I'm glad I was finally able to read your post! Very interesting and thoughtful. It seems that just like Judaism and Christianity, the text can and is interpreted in so many ways. For all three of those religions it can be read for the good or for the radical and destructive. There are plenty of passages in the Bible and the Torah that say men are in charge of women. It's what we do with the texts, the stories, that matter I think. Do we use them to make the world a better place for everyone? Or are they used to grab and hold power over others?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie - In regards to The Koran and The Old Testament, I am very glad that millions of people interpret them as books that encourage good. This is despite the fact that I think there are more unethical things then there are ethical.

James said...

Once again I am impressed by your thoughtful and careful posting and analysis. In my reading of the Koran I was impressed with the stories of the Old Testament prophets that were included in the book, but dismayed by some of the other aspects you have highlighted.
I find the views on women especially troublesome as well as the violence directed toward the "unbelievers" that can to easily be put to nefarious use by those who seek to do so.

The Bookworm said...

Fascinating post and topic Brian. I've never read the Koran but have read passages from the Bible. I don't agree with everything in the Bible, but I do find some passages and quotes a source of comfort at times. Many of the ideas and thoughts in these ancient texts can be outdated however, especially in regards to women.
Thanks for your respectful and interesting post on the Koran.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James.

Without a doubt, this book can be used to justify horrendous behavior.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - These books to provide comfort for many. Indeed much of the morality is outdated and should not be applied.

Kate Scott said...

Fascinating analysis. I would like to read the Koran myself. In fact, I would like to read the Koran back-to-back with the Bible (which I first read straight through a few years ago) for the sake of comparison. I think it's good to engage in a critical and compassionate reading of any religious text. I am a Christian but I would be lying if I said there is nothing truly disturbing in the Bible or that certain contradictions within the text are easily explained. I think ultimately what any believer (Jew, Muslim, or Christian) takes away from a text has a lot to do with what he or she puts into it. If you come at it with hatred toward women, you will inevitably find justification for it. If you are looking for a reason to care for the poor, you will find that as well. Anything can be used for good or evil.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kate. Thank you also for stopping by.

Without a doubt there are many interpretations of the religious books. Some emphasize the good things while others emphasize the bad. With that, I think that the text has meaning that an objective reader can try to pull out and interpret.

Unknown said...

Good effort! But I don't think there is much point in reading the Quran by itself.

Unlike the Bible, there is a lot of importance placed on the Arabic of the text. Therefore rather than producing a work like the King James Bible in English, all such translation attempt to make very literal translation and this produces a scant work which fails to convey much of the context required.

"They are referred to as unbelievers."

Just this example. The Quran was a direct response to the Pagans of Arabia at that time and they are referred to as "Mushrik" [Pagans, Idolators]. Much of the "venom" is directly aimed at them. When disbelievers are generally meant then Quran uses the word "Kafir". And to specify Christian and Jews, another term is used.

If someone removes this context then clearly a lot is lost.

- -

West actually has quite a deep and varied [critical] scholarship over Islam. I think most of the prestigious Western universities have a "Middle Eastern" department. It is probably much better, for interested non-Muslims to study Quran in light of that.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Amin.

I think that the issues that you raise are true to some extent for all ancient text. There are obstacles in translation, there are obstacles of time, there are obstacles in culture. I would call my reading of The Koran "middlebrow". It is not scholarly. It is attempting to read it as best as I can and interpreting as best as I can. There are limits to this kind of reading. With that, much of the discourse and writing that is going on in the opinion pieces. blogs, public opinion television programs, is more or less on this level. Many Muslims, professors, journalists, Ex - Muslims and others are participating. A percentage of these folks have clearly read the text in its original version. It also seems that many Muslims are more or less following such a "middlebrow" approach. Such an approach is having a profound affect upon the world.

Scholarly approaches are important. Furthermore I think that scholars should chime into these everyday conversations. They should help clarify as well as add their opinion.

I also think that a good translation goes well beyond the literal and should impart real meaning. It is possible that the translation that I have read dis not do that. I did try to find the best one that I can find.

I may have not explained my reading of the text above but my understanding about the different groups mentioned matches your explanation.