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January 4, 2008

The Qur'an

On December 7, 2007, I finished reading the Koran for the first time. I had heard it was a classic of literature, written in the purest and most beautiful Arabic. Frankly, I was expecting to read a work of some power and majesty, given that Islam has over a billion adherents. What I found surprised me.

The Koran is derivative

I was surprised to find very little narrative or poetry in the Koran. Most of the characters it mentions are lifted from the Hebrew Bible (for example, Noah, Job, Abraham, Lot, Moses, Pharaoh, Jonah). Their stories are briefly retold, but there is little original narrative (for one of the few exceptions, see 18:60-99). The main point in each story is that a righteous prophet was rejected by evil men and later vindicated, just as Muhammad felt righteous, rejected, and sure to be vindicated (see 35:4, 25-26).

Little is new in the Koran other than the claim that Muhammad is God’s true and final prophet. The idea of one sovereign God comes from the Hebrew Bible. So does the claim that he created heaven and earth in six days (32:4) or the command to abstain from pork and blood (2:173). The portrait of God as merciful to his people and harsh toward unbelievers, hypocrites, idolaters, and reprobates originates, once again, in the Old Testament.

The Koran is repetitive

I was surprised at how uncreative the Koran is. Paradise is always described the same way—a garden with rivers, fountains, plenty to eat and drink, silk garments, gold jewelry, and beautiful, good-natured virgins to serve as brides (for example, 2:25; 3:195; 4:57; 5:85; 29:58; 30:15; 31:8; 35:33; 37:40-49; 38:51-54; 43:70-73; 44:51-54; 55:54-56). Hell is also described over and over again using basically the same words. It is a burning hot place where nineteen cruel angels pour boiling water down your throat or burn off your skin only to replace it with new skin to burn so you will continue to feel the pain (4:56; 8:50; 10:4; 11:106-107; 40:70-72; 48:13; 55:43; 56:41-56; 74:26-31).

The righteous are those who believe in God, who believe Muhammad is his messenger, who believe the Koran comes directly from God, who do right by widows and orphans, who give alms, and who pray regularly (9:71-72; 23:1-10). The damned are those who do not (5:85-86; 10:69-70; 33:64-66; 43:74).

The same language is used incessantly to rehearse a litany of warnings and threats. Sad to say, the Koran is boring.

The Koran is defensive

Purportedly, God is the speaker in the Koran, and Muhammad has memorized what God said so he could recite it for others to copy down (3:7; 6:155; 12:2, 111). Throughout the book, however, one has the distinct impression it is Muhammad putting words in God’s mouth (see, for example, 33:28-34 where God lectures the prophet’s wives or 33:50-52 where God tells Muhammad with whom he can have sex).

I was surprised at how defensive the Koran is. Obviously, Muhammad was under constant attack and felt the need to have a ready reply to whatever his attackers might say. Among the most interesting parts of the Koran for me are the passages where God quotes Muhammad’s detractors and then tells him how to reply to them (for example, 10:37-38; 11:12-13; 34:3; 43:30). I can hear them calling him a madman, an imposter, a liar, a charlatan, and so forth. I can hear them challenging him to show them a miracle, to show them how God has blessed him by making him rich, or to prove conclusively that what he is saying is true. I can hear Muhammad’s defiant retorts (for example, 5:17-18; 43:23-24).

Because the prophet is so often on the defensive, the boasts and promises of the Koran often seem hollow and insecure. The Koran constantly makes assertions that Muhammad and his followers confirmed by military conquest rather than by reason or by miraculous signs.

The Koran is corrosive

Even for believers in Muhammad and Allah, the Koran is brutal. Thieves must have their hands cut off (5:38). Disobedient wives can be beaten (4:34). Adulterers are to be given 100 lashes (24:2). God’s deterrents are vicious, and since these directives come directly from Allah by way of Gabriel, the angel of God, they are not subject to amendment as far as devout Muslims are concerned.

The Hebrew Bible contains a few imprecatory psalms where the poet calls down curses on his enemies, but the Koran feels like one long imprecatory rant. The warnings and threats—to believers and unbelievers alike—come fast and furious.

To say the Koran is sectarian and menacing is a huge understatement. Of course, it is one thing to be spiritually threatened with hell after death. It is another to be physically threatened with death in this world just because you are bound for hell in the next. Although God is the one delivering the threats against the infidels, you definitely have the impression He would be happy for his faithful to make good on them even before the afterlife begins.

I suppose it is comforting to a good Muslim to have assurance he is on the winning side, to know that God will be merciful to him and merciless to unbelievers. It is equally comforting for Muslim men to know they are superior to women (2:223, 228; 4:34). But from the unbeliever’s vantage point (or the woman’s), the Koran contains nasty threats that are both serious and ominous. In the hands of true believers eager to be God’s avenging instruments on earth (see 3:151, 157-158; 4:95, 100; 5:33; 9:5, 29, 111, 123), the Koran can easily become incendiary.

Long story short, the Koran is a disappointment. As an unbeliever (in Muhammad), I found little wisdom or uplift there, in other words, little reason to believe. If you doubt what I say, read it for yourself.

Note: The sura and verse references given above are to The Qur’an, trans. By M. A. S. Abdel Haleem (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

January 8, 2008

One Verse in the Qur'an

I admit I did not read the Koran in the original Arabic. But I didn’t read it in English either. The only copy I owned was a French translation (Le Coran, trans. Kasimirski, Paris: Garnier-Flamamarion, 1970), so I read it in French. Later, as I started writing my review of the Koran, I realized I needed to reference an easily available English translation since my readers would probably not have any access to or understanding of the French translation I read.

To my surprise, the numbering of the verses in my French translation did not precisely match the numbering in the English translations. I wondered why. Even more shocking was that many interesting verses I had underlined in the French translation did not say the same thing in the English. Sometimes a verse was hardly recognizable because the meaning had so radically changed.

Consequently, I did a little checking into these matters. Here is what I found.

The numbering of the verses is different because there are two systems of numbering. Up to the 1930s, western scholars of the Koran used the numbering found in an edition of the Koran by Gustav Flügel, Corani Textus Arabicus (1834). This numbering system has been supplanted by the one used in what is called the Standard Egyptian Edition (1928). Hence, older translations use the old numbering system while more recent translations use the newer official system.

The marked difference in the translation of certain verses is a thornier issue. Although I don’t read Arabic, I do read a bit of Hebrew, which is a related Semitic language. I know that translating the Hebrew Bible is more difficult than translating the Greek New Testament because of the nature of the Hebrew language.

We simply don’t know for sure what certain ancient Hebrew words actually meant in their time because these words occur only once in the Bible, and the context gives no clear indication as to what they might have signified. Outside the Bible, there are no other ancient Hebrew texts from which to draw further information. Furthermore, questions about spelling, verb tenses, poetic syntax, and idiomatic usages create uncertainty in various places.

All of this applies to medieval Arabic as well. As one scholar has written, “Despite its repeated assertions to the contrary, the Koran is often extremely difficult for contemporary readers—even highly educated speakers of Arabic—to understand.” I take it that, for the average Arab, reading medieval Arabic is a bit like reading Chaucer in the original would be for the average American, or even worse. What is more, the Koran alludes to stories and events that seem to have confounded even the earliest Muslim scholars.

To illustrate what I mean, I have chosen part of one verse in the Koran, sura 4:34a (new system) or 4:38a (old system), to serve as an example. The differences in translation are striking, and I wonder if this is owing to the obscurity of the language or to the controversial content.

In the tenth edition of The Glorious Quran by Muhammad Pickthall (Des Plaines, IL: Library of Islam, 1994), the verse reads as follows: “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend their property (for the support of women). So good women are obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded.”

Here’s how N. J. Dawood’s translation, The Koran with Parallel Arabic Text (London: Penguin Books, 2006), goes: “Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them.”

In The Noble Qur’an (1993), a translation published in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, one reads, “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend (to support them) from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient (to Allah and to their husbands), and guard in the husband’s absence what Allah orders them to guard (e.g., their chastity, their husband’s property, etc.).”

Contrast these three translations with that of The Qur’an by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem (Oxford UP, 2004): “Husbands should take good care of their wives, with [the bounties] God has given to some more than others and with what they spend out of their own money. Righteous wives are devout and guard what God would have them guard in their husband’s absence.”

Consider the same verse in Al-Qur’an: A Contemporary Translation by Ahmed Ali (Princeton UP, 1993): “Men are the support of women as God gives some more means than others, and because they spend of their wealth (to provide for them). So women who are virtuous are obedient to God and guard the hidden as God has guarded it.”

The French translation I read says (in my own rather literal translation), “Men are superior to women because of the qualities by which God has raised the former above the latter, and because men use their goods to provide for women. Virtuous women are obedient and submissive; during their husbands’ absence, they carefully guard what God has ordered [them] to preserve intact.”

Which of these translations most accurately conveys the true message of the Koran? I leave it to you to decide, but I personally suspect it is the one that sounds the most medieval and the least politically correct.

January 12, 2008


One of the most gripping news stories of 2006 was the murderous assault on ten Amish girls at the West Nickel Mines School in Pennsylvania. Five of the girls died from their wounds, and the murderer, Charles Roberts, killed himself.

What was most dramatic about this senseless slaughter was the reaction of the Amish community. Dozens of Amish neighbors attended Charles Roberts’ funeral on October 7, 2006. They hugged the killer’s widow and other members of his family. Later, they donated money to the widow and her three children.

This demonstration of Christian forgiveness was inspired by Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44-45), and to forgive as we wish to be forgiven (Matthew 6:12). Their attitude was shaped by the command to forgive seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22) and by the words of Jesus on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Their refusal to retaliate or seek revenge came also from the teaching of Paul who wrote in Romans 12:19-21, “Never avenge yourselves but leave it to the wrath of God.” “To the contrary,” Paul continued, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” Their willingness to forgive moved the watching world as much as the tragedy itself.

Contrast this with a recent statement by presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to the effect that Iranians who harass American warships in the Persian Gulf should be prepared to see the gates of Hell. What relation does that statement have to the teaching of Jesus? I suspect that those who fear Huckabee will let his religion determine his thinking are, in reality, quite wrong. Would that true Christianity did influence his thinking!

Forgiveness, in a real sense, is refusing to harm someone who has harmed you. It is impossible to forget a major offense, but it is possible to do no harm in return. As my friend Rusty McLen says, “Forgiveness means I am going to trust God to deal with that person.”

Sadly, those who don’t believe in God are basically forced either to retaliate themselves, to somehow reconcile with the offender, or to ignore the offense (that is, if offense is such that the law won’t intervene on their behalf). They have no God to relieve or rescue them from the pain of rage, resentment, and recrimination.

From a Christian point of view, to forgive and forget is telling the devil, “I am not taking that hurt back. I am not giving you a foothold in my heart.” Forgiveness understands that what someone does to us is not the ultimate issue. What hatred, anger, and bitterness do to the human heart is the big issue.

“Hatred and anger are bonding emotions just like love,” McLen explains. “They form a chain that is attached to a stake of offense. That chain of bitter resentment limits your range of motion if it is wrapped around your neck. Forgiveness is cutting the chain as close to the neck as possible.”

Forgiving does not mean we won’t try to protect ourselves against further hurt, just as “forgetting“ an offense is not really the absence of memory. But forgiveness does recognize that, long-term, an unforgiving spirit within us typically creates more risk of further hurt than did the original source of harm. As someone has said, “Refusing to forgive is like taking poison and waiting for someone else to die.”

The Amish community suffered grievously from that unprovoked attack, but it understood the wisdom of Jesus. To the extent the Amish Christians internalized the teaching and example of Jesus, to forgive and comfort was the natural thing for them to do. As Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:9, "Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing."

Forgiveness is the only remedy for human history; it is a blessing to which Christians are called.

About January 2008

This page contains all entries posted to Trite but True in January 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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