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Some pleasing buts but often so baffling that its claim to be clear is ironic
on 13 June 2009
I read this book cover to cover; ok, I speeded up in places when the text became overly repetitive and tedious. My review is not based on whether this is a good or bad translation - I don't know Arabic and can make no comment on the fidelity of the translation to the original. I remain puzzled why it is claimed that the Koran is not really translatable. This is in itself curious as it is odd that God would chose to communicate Himself through a people whose language was incapable of proper translation. Is the literary form of the text more important than the content of the text? It should be noted that the translation is old fashioned.
There is a mixture of styles - the shorter verses are cryptic and soothsayerish/prophetic (and more satisfying poetically) whilst the largest (older?) verses tend to be more labored and repetitive. The book is highly referential and does not really stand on its own. The numerous repeats of the Moses and Noah stories, Abraham and Isaac, Sodom and Gomorrah are in my view frustratingly incomplete unless one knows the comparator texts in the Bible. Thus, as narratives, the Koranic texts can be unsatisfactory and are often baffling. In fact, because there is no real sequential narrative, one often ends a sura thinking what was the point of that. Typically, the story will begin: "has this story come to you" and the the tale will be narrated. It does not really matter what order you read the suras.
Hell and its accompanying graphic punishments appear in practically every sura and are told with a kind of relish. The text is replete with violence and aggression and goes so far as to prescribe violence against the unbelievers. I know this is controversial as there is another sura which prescribes no compulsion in religion. As with all religions, the text needs to be interpreted. But, it seems to me that, to say that that Islam is a religion of peace requires considerable nuancing and explaining and disregarding of key texts and perhaps even the tone/gist of the text as a whole. The text also engages in considerable anti-Jewish/Christian polemics - God has no son, there is no Trinity, Jesus was not crucified, the Jews broke their covenant etc etc etc.
Textually, there are contradictions for which Muslim scholars prescribe the rule of abrogation. Because, for muslims, the text came direct from God through Gabriel and through the messenger, such rules are needed to explain the inconsistencies. The apparent tendency of God to contradict himself (i.e. abrogating earlier verses), manifesting His absolute transcendence, means that rational discourse with followers of Islam may be difficult. For muslims, God is not Logos - the Word did not become flesh. God can do as He pleases. Nevertheless, respectful dialogue must be actively pursued in the interests of peace.
The impression one gets from reading the book is: well there are some good bits (the names of God for one, encouraging people to be virtuous etc, poetic bits about God's transcendence) and there are some bad bits: prescribing the slaying of people. The granting of privileges (not accorded to other believers) to the messenger is puzzling and is in contrast to other religions where the religious founders/prophets, far from giving themselves special privileges, set themselves up as paragons of virtue by denying themselves. The latter makes one inclined to consider that some verses have been specifically designed to satisfy the messenger's needs at a particular point in his career. Western readers will have difficulty with such things as prescribing violence, laxity in marriage laws, polygamy, and permitting sexual relations with one's female slaves (never mind having slaves in the first place!) Aside from the fact that the messenger is granted privileges, it is disturbing that in one sura it is said that those who annoy God and his messenger will be cursed and punished!
One comes away baffled by the lack of clarity as to how Islam stands on the Old and New Testaments - the messenger borrows heavily from the Torah and seems to respect it - likewise he respects Jesus, Mary etc but their function in the Koranic text is simply not explained. Thus, one is left with the question: why are they in the text? The references waft in and out without any explanation - the story of Zachariah is a case in point. He just appears and disappears without any meaning to his appearance in the text. Jesus is born of a virgin and he will come at the end of time. But, what was Jesus' message and why is it not the messenger who was born of a virgin and who comes at the end of the time? Leaving aside, of course, that the tone and content of the Koran contradicts the tone and content of the gospels, what is the purpose of these other religious figures in the Koran? They appear like stage props.
The overall impression that this is a derivative text (reference to the Torah, echoes of the gospels/Gnostic writings etc)) for the Arabic peoples to give them a religious foundation in believing that God is One, to get them away from polytheism and to give them a sense of unity. They are thus given a foundational story, heavily leaning on the stories of the Jews but at the same time distancing themselves from Jews and Christians with much polemic. The question is why do Arabs need a new text at all - what is wrong with the Torah? (their leaning towards a rules based approach makes them, at first sight, more inclined to follow the Law than the gospel?) The answer given in the text is: schism of the Jews and Christians (and misinterpretation by the Jews) but given that Islam immediately enters into schism itself following the death of the messenger, this is hardly credible.
A possible problem with the text is that it is the work of one man with his limitations and frailties (note, this is not what the muslims believe) and with his own style of communicating. Whilst there is a big difference between the earlier and later suras, that difference is not so sufficient as to remove the monochrome nature of the work. There is a metaphor, the Oneness of God is so absolute in Islam that He gives his message through One man in One historical context. In the Bible, God is One but he is also constituted in relationships of community, thus He gives his message through many persons in a multiplicity of literal forms (history/facts/mythic tories/love poetry/prayers/gospels/letters/apocalyptic literature/wisdom literature) in different historical conditions and finally reveals Himself in his Son. In other words, the Bible is a work immersed in relationships.
I write this review, as a believing Christian, conscious that in my own scriptures (the Old Testament), violence abounds. But, as a Christian, I profess that the Bible is inspired, not that every single word is the exact word of God. Our explanation of the violence in the Old Testament is not to propose a rule of abrogation but the the violence reflects that God is being mediated through man complete with real historical warts and all. This inevitably leads (as in the Torah where violence is plentiful) to man spinning sacred myths (God's wrath) to justify man's propensity towards evil and sacred violence. For Christians, this myth of God's sacred violence is dispelled by Christ.
Would I recommend this book to anyone? Yes, I would recommend it to anyone of good will who wishes to know what muslims believe. I would specially recommend it to a a religious person of whatever persuasion, so that any tendency to relativise religious beliefs is dispelled.