After 9/11, many Americans became interested in Islam. Thinking that the "Islamic Bible" -- the Koran -- is a work of religious and spiritual enlightenment cognate to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, many are curious about exactly what it says. Unfortunately, there are significant hurdles for Westerners who attempt to tackle the Koran itself. Reading the Koran cold is like walking in on two strangers in the middle of a conversation about a subject you know next to nothing about. The Koran is considered dense, recondite, confusing, boring and downright weird by most non-Muslim readers delving into it without a great deal of background information and context.
The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Koran is not about the Koran per se; it is about Islam. It is impossible to fairly summarize or explain the Koran as a freestanding work to a Western reader without referencing two other sacred texts of Islam: the Hadiths ("Haditha" is Arabic), which are canonical compendiums of the traditions and sayings of Mohammed, and the Sira, which are "official" biographies of Mohammed. That is why most of this CIG book is actually not about the Koran per se, but about the Hadith and Sira. That is problem number one.
Problem number two is that this CIG book is basically written as a lowbrow polemic positing the superiority of Islam over the other Abrahamic (and world) religions. Most Moslems believe that the Koran is a copy of Allah's exact words transmitted to Mohammed via the Angel Gabriel. Unlike mainstream Christians, who believe that the Holy Bible is the inspired word of God, most Muslims believe that the Koran is a verbatim copy of "heavenly tablets" (a la the Ten Commandments) directly written by Allah himself and dictated to Mohammed -- hence "koran" means "recitation" in Arabic.
All of the foregoing is presented as self-evident Truth by the authors, who even go into a disputational textual analysis of the New Testament to prove that it is a "corrupted" text (a Koranic precept). The co-author, Brandon Toropov, a recent Muslim convert from Christianity, has a website that makes the same attacks on the New Testament. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem deconstructing the sacred texts of any religion. In fact, I'm all for it. My beef here is that the authors use the linguistic, historical and other scholarly tools of biblical higher criticism against the New Testament, but when it comes to the Koran, all such inquiry is strictly verboten and beyond the pale. This is the same inverted Islamic logic that allows the leaders and clerics of Saudi Arabia, for example, to defend their "right" to ban all infidel religions and influences, houses of worship, Bibles, crosses, etc., from Arabian territory, while demanding Americans and Europeans (also known as "Crusaders") never question any religious dogma re the Koran or Mohammed.
Scholars of the Koran who attempt to objectively analyze the Koran as literature routinely face death fatwas (death warrants from religious authorities). That is why the few non-Islamic scholars in the field have to use pseudonyms. The authors of this CIG volume do not provide the lay reader one iota of academic non-religious perspective in their summary of the Islamic holy book. Hence, this book really is pure da'wa, a tool of non-violent proselitization (there are two ways to spread Islam, one is Jihad, via warfare, the other is by word-of-mouth persuasion, da'wa). Thus, in the final analysis, I would probably recommend -- with a few notable reservations -- this work as a textbook for junior high-level pupils at English-speaking Sunni-Islamic religious schools.
This book does not deal at all with many all-important issues, such as the 1400-year-old Sunni-Shi'a sectarian divide. This CIG book was written by two normative-Islamic Sunnis, from a purely Sunni perspective. Would it be fair to non-Christian readers to have a CIG introductory book on the Old Testament written by two Catholic clerics with an analysis lifted whole from their catechism? That, in effect, is what the authors have done here.
When the authors deal with hot-button issues, such as women's rights (basically -- by contemporary Western standards -- females are second-class subjects by divine fiat) or the rights of apostates (none whatsoever), the authors' points and arguments devolve into pure twaddle. For example, under normative Shari'a (Islamic law, based on the Koran and Hadiths) penal law, an apostate must be put to death. Thus, it is perfectly okay to convert to Islam, but one leaves Islam on pain of death, as was recently illustrated in Afganistan. How do the authors justify this? They have the chutzpah to compare apostasy from Islam to being a traitor to one's country, a crime worthy of capital punishment even in the U.S.! In other words, even the authors admit in so many words that they do not consider Islam a religion of personal conscience, as almost all non-Muslims -- whether Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, animists, pagans, polytheists, atheists, panthiests, or agnosic (in other words, everyone but Muslims) -- nowadays beleive.
As to women's rights, the Wikipedia entry under "Stoning" notes that the criminal law statutes of Iran, which are in turn totally based on the Shari'a, prescribe the exact size of stones to be thrown at adultresses during lapidation (death by stoning) -- they can't be too big, because the condemned sex-criminal will die too quickly, and they can't be too small, because death may take too long.
Yup, the devil is in the details of Koranic-Shari'a law, details completely airbrushed out from the Complete Idiot's Guide to the Koran.
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If you want more than pabalum, more than sugar-coated Islamic propaganda, order A Simple Koran: Readable and Understandable, recently published by the Center for the Study of Islam (CSPI), WHICH CONTAINS EVERY WORD OF THE KORAN, translated into modern, middlebrow/"newspaper" English, along with a reader-friendly chronological ordering of the chapters, context provided by commentary, and references to the Hadiths and Sira to give meaning and perspective to the Koranic text. Alternatively, An Abridged Koran: Readable and Understandable, by CSPI, is likewise available from Amazon.com.