« Bozo and Jesus Debate the Issues | Main | One Verse in the Qur'an »

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).


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 4, 2008 9:42 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Bozo and Jesus Debate the Issues.

The next post in this blog is One Verse in the Qur'an.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.35