The Koran

Also spelled “Qu’an” or “Quran”) Translated by N. J. Dawood

“Muslim” has been defined as one who believes in God and, thus, is “a Believer in Islam”. At a time when Believers in Islam comprise 1.6 billion or 23% of the world’s population (Wikipedia) and are spreading throughout the world with stunning rapidity, and the rate of their propagation being half again greater than Westerners’, they are clearly a major force on our planet, and Westerners need to become familiar with their beliefs and culture.   As President Bush said days following "9/11" (the aerial destruction of The World Trade Towers on 11 September 2001, by planes commandeered by Muslim terrorists),  the terrorists who engineered and executed that attack do NOT represent the  majority of the Believers in Islam, but, rather, a splinter group of fanatics.  All Westerners surely want to believe that.  Al Qaeda ("the base"), a Muslim splinter-group formed by the late Osama Bin Laden, is believed to have orchestrated the attack.  Not long after that great tragedy, I read the Holy Koran (Koran) from cover-to-cover, twice, using different translations (one made in the 1950's and one done after 9/11), to make sure that I gave proper respect to the Muslims' scripture.

Like the Christian Bible (Bible), the Koran offers a recitation of the word of God, but, in  the Koran's case, as spoken by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad or Mohammed (with many variant, anglicized spellings) (570-632 C.E.). (Interestingly, the same Angel is said to have spoken to Joseph Smith, directing him to form the Church of Latter Day Saints or Mormon Church.)  Westerners need to read The Holy Koran (Koran) and reach their own conclusions.  Muslim scholars and most Muslims tell us that Mohammed was illiterate, rendering his writing even more miraculous.  (See free-minds.org.)

As with the Bible and most ancient texts, there are multiple and quite variant versions. (Wikipedia counts twenty.)  After perusing several, I concentrated on the version that seemed most authentic and popular, as translated by a devout Muslim, N.J. Daywood (an Iraqi scholar who is best known for his translation of the Koran, who moved to England in 1945 and formed a publishing company), and first published his Koran in 1959 and reprinted it (often revised) every few years since, my version being dated 2003, but is likely very close to the version published in 1959.

The Koran is comprised of 114 “suras” or chapters, most of which are very short, some only being a paragraph or two, the longest being about 20 pages and most averaging several pages, which appear to have been sermons given by the itinerant prophet, Muhammad. It is predominantly written in the third person singular, as if the speaker is said to be God, but, occasionally, Muhammad wrote it in the first person singular, using his own words. Daywood characterizes the Koran as “the finest work of Classical Arabic prose”. (Students of Dickens, Shakespeare, Hugo, Cervantes, Mitchell, the Russians, and possibly even the Arabs own much renowned Shi’a Muslim-polymath-philosopher-poet, Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), who authored the sublime Rubiat of Omar Khayyam), might beg to differ.)  To be fair, Arabic, in the 7th Century, when Muhammad recorded Gabriel's words, was a language effectively devoid of vowels (and, even today, often minimizes them), which rendered it more like the Egyptian’s Sandscrit; that is, lines that look more scratches than words to Westerners.  It is devoid of metaphors, similes, or descriptive passages and offers predominantly dialogue at a rudimentary level, as books aimed at the masses must be.  It is not long, approximately 150,000 words, or roughly one-quarter of the 600,000 to be found in the Christian Bible, which, in turn, is dwarfed by the Hindu scriptures.

As with all books, it is helpful to know the basics about its author and his/her mileau, be he a spokesman for an angel or simply speaking for himself. In his Introduction, Daywood informs us that Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570 C.E., spent his early years traveling with caravans of traders, and, at age 25, married a rich widow some 15 years his senior. When Muhammad was born, the Arab world, devoid of today’s oil riches, was pagan, nomadic, illiterate, in abject poverty, comprised of fiercely feuding tribes and clans, and was desperately in need of leadership. Enter Muhammad, who was raised by his grandfather, a lad with a quick and acquisitive mind. As with Moses and many other spiritual leaders, Muhammad’s literacy is debated extensively on the Internet, although the consensus holds that he was illiterate, as above noted. Regardless, whether written or only spoken, and however much revised by copyists, editors, translators or patent revisionists, the Koran is attributed to him, all 20 versions that we can now find.

Muhammad came under the influence of Jewish and Christian scholars and became impressed with monotheism and the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible. Yet, like Aristotle and many protégés, in time, he discredited his teachers to claim his own pedestal; he accused the Jews of corrupting the Scriptures and the Christians of worshipping Jesus as the son of God, although Jesus had expressly commanded them to worship none but Him (God), which Muhammad quotes in The Koran. (Interestingly, the Catholics agree with Muhammad on point.)

Muhammad preferred his interpretation of “the true religion” as preached by Abraham. This was “Islam” – a noun loosely meaning “surrender” or absolute submission to the will of God. His followers are alternately called “Believers in Islam” or “Muslims” (sometimes spelled “Moslems”).  (The word “muslim” is the active part of the Arabic verb aslama, meaning “I surrender”.) Like the founders of many faiths, Muhammad stated that he received his divine revelations from God, through the Angel Gabriel.  He received these revelations in 610 AD/CE, the first being during Ramadan (the month of spiritual retreat, which antedates Muhammad). Above all, similar to Western religions, he rejected idolatry and worshipped one omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient God.

The Koran, which literally means “recitation”, is “The Bible” of the Islamic faith. Ancient Arabic is surely daunting to translate verbatim into English or into most other languages today. The official version of it was presented in 656 C.E. by one of his successors and is claimed to be Muhammad’s work.  These challenges of accuracy are compounded, of course, by the fact that the “original” texts no longer exist (as is the case with virtually every document written before Gutenberg gave us the printing press c. 1450 C.E.). Regardless, The Koran attempts to reveal Muhammad’s recitation of the Angel Gabriel’s revelations to him. Like the Bible, there is no chronology to the chapters; they are presented, more or less, inexplicably in the order of length, from the longest to the shortest, and the endless repetition may deter those lacking enormous fortitude.

The text is comprised of a series of apparent sermons, many paraphrasing portions of the Christian Bible, and excerpts are apparently read at the Muslims’ Friday Noon services. The Islamic faith (similar to the Hindu and Buddhist faiths) does not have “ministers” or other organized priesthood to hold forth at their services; as Muslims refreshingly view same as interfering with their direct communication with God.

The Koran, like the Christian Bible, contains no rules for the administration of any church, leaving that to those who organize “churches” (i.e., the “caliphs” or descendents of Muhammad) and who administer the services and Mosques. The subtitles, beginnings and endings of the chapters, as well as large chunks of the text of each, tend to repeat other chapters, and the vocabulary is understandably rudimentary, as it is intended for its originally illiterate followers.

The first sentence of the Koran is, “This book is not to be doubted,” -- a premise very similar to that urged by Christian clergy as to the Christian Bible.  (Such dogmatism may have the reverse effect.)  The Koran proceeds to pay tribute to all Christian prophets from Abraham to Jesus (and especially the former), and it makes constant references to the Christian Bible, especially to the Old Testament, and presents paraphrases of Moses’ Ten Commandments and The Beatitudes (from the Sermon on the Mount) as rules for Muslims. This was surely a contribution to the nomadic Arabs who were then pagans or simply without morality.  Muhammad gave them rules. He saw Jesus as another prophet, like St. Peter, the apostles, Abraham, Moses et al. – and himself.  Like the Christian Bible (as noted in the footnote in my essay, In Support of Religion), The Koran preaches mercy and kindness on the one hand and murder on the other, and the latter is the most disturbing part of The Koran.

The Koran repeatedly beseeches “believers” to convert “unbelievers” or infidels to “the true faith”, and to do it by whatever means is necessary.  Consider the following examples:

“[S]lay the culprits [unbelievers] among you” (2:54); “Idolatry is more grievous than bloodshed” (2:188) “Fight against them [unbelievers] until idolatry is no more and God’s religion reigns supreme” (id); “[R]ich recompense” and “gardens of eternal bliss” shall be given to those who “should die or be slain in the cause of God” (4:67, 9:17)); “Believers show discernment when you go fight for the cause of God” (4:92); “The believers who stay at home [and don’t fight to convert infidels] are not the equals of those who fight for the cause of God” (id); “The unbelievers are your inveterate foes” (id); “Believers, when you encounter the infidels on the march, do not turn your backs in flight…[lest you] incur the wrath of God” (8:5); “Slay the idolaters wherever you find them” (9); “Make war on them until idolatry shall cease and God’s religion shall reign supreme” (8:30); and, as comfort to those troubled by murdering strangers, he advises, “It was not you, but God who slew them” (id); and, finally, “If they repent, allow them to go their way” (9).

[All quotes from The Koran, N. J. Dawood Translation, as re-printed and revised in 2003, printed in England by Clays Ltd., St. Ives, plc and Penguin Classics.  All emphases above are supplied.]

These sentiments appear throughout The Koran; it seems clear that Muhammad intentioned to encourage forceful conversion and bloodshed to spread “the true religion”, and, indeed, according to Wikipedia, for the final ten years of his life, he led his followers (a veritable army by Wikipedia estimates numbering 10,000), “subduing tribes and cities of the Arabian peninsula”, including Mecca in 630 C.E., practicing the violence that he preached. “The Muslims declared that its raids were justified and that God gave them permission…Some nomadic tribes decided that it was in their best interests to ally with the Muslims. They accepted Islam, subsequently destroying their own cult figures and shrines.” See Wikipdedia at .wikpedia.org/ wiki/Military¬_career_of_Muhammad. Also, see The Early Islamic Conquests by historian-Fred Donner. (Some historians aver that the Jews used similar violence to take their "promise land" (Israel) after Moses urged them to do so, and, of course, the Christians' did much the same in their Inquisition from c. 1100-1800.)  Muslims assert that their Islamic wars were fought only in self-defense, but the Koran seems to encourage initiating such conflicts. (See quotes above.) The caliphs who succeeded Muhammad exponentially expanded these military conquests throughout the East and into Europe. Make no mistake: Religious zealots have often tortured and murdered men, women and children with impunity, all “in the name of God”, to earn their place in Paradise. Some of today’s Muslims (the “fundamentalists”) appear to be throwbacks to those in Muhammad’s army, as they rely on a literal reading of this ancient and militant text. However, there are many Islam’s (and versions of The Koran, as with all bibles and other texts), and myriad “orders” or splinter groups of Islamists, including those not inclined to violence, leading to the concept of “good Muslim, bad Muslim”.  The violent segment of Muslims seems likely to be a very small percentage of Muslims, but only they know.

Apart from simplistic paraphrases of The Commandments, the Golden Rule, etc., The Koran urges other, less appealing admonitions, such as:

“Let not believers make friends with infidels” (3:25, 4:135); and “Believers take neither Jews nor Christians for your friends” (5:47).

Unbelievers, he averred, “shall burn in Hell forever” (suras 13, 14, 18, 22, etc.); there shall be no “usury” (interpreted today as “interest”) (2:275) and no eating of pork (5); no wine or gambling (5:82), but some Muslins drink; believers shall give “one fifth” of their earnings to God (i.e., to Muhammad in his lifetime and thereafter the closest Islamic collection plate) (8:41); no homosexuality (26:166); he advised men to have no more than four wives (but he allowed himself eleven). Consistent with Christianity, he was a male supremacist, saying,

“Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other…Good women are obedient…As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them…and beat them.” (4:34)

“Women should guard their private parts” (24:31, 33:59), which has led to the custom of veils, masks, long gowns, etc. He provided that men could divorce a woman by a public proclamation and would owe them only a small portion of their assets. It was/is impractical for working women (laborers) to wear veils; so they don’t; as a result, veils became a badge of distinction, indicating that the woman’s husband was sufficiently wealthy that she didn’t need to work; thus, some Muslim women enjoy wearing such garments. The cornerstone of The Koran is “the five pillars of Islam”: (1) absolute faith in the one God; (2) prayer five times a day (facing Mecca); (3) “almsgiving” (20% to the local mosque); (4) keeping the Fast of Ramadan (no daytime eating for the month); and (5) an annual pilgrimage to Mecca (in white garments, while not shaving or cutting one’s hair or harming any living thing or vegetable).

As with Christ, Muhammad’s followers believe that he ascended into Heaven, and, as with Christ, they know the exact spot at which this miracle occurred in 632 C.E. Thereafter, during the years from 635-650, Islam was forcibly imposed upon much of Europe and Asia. Since then, it has continued to spread via migration and is now the fastest growing faith in the Western World, due in large part to the rate at which they propagate. Wikipedia estimates that the word’s faiths are roughly 33% Christian, 23% Muslim, 15% Hindu 6% Buddhists and the rest other.  According to www.telegraphco.uk, Muslims will outnumber Christians in Great Britain by 2035.  At that point, at the election booth, they presumably will be able to adopt Sira or Muslim Law as the law Great Britain.

When Muhammad departed (like Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus), he left no rules or mechanics for his succession; so his followers chose to elevate, by consensus rather than by a formal vote, a local leader as “caliph” (which means successor). In Islamic society, the religious and political leaders are generally the same person; so, the local caliph is a form of King.  If they hold elections, they still elect their religious leader. Since many men wish to be the ruler, there have been endless internal regional wars, which were very similar to the medieval wars that typified the feudal system in Europe; indeed, Muslim society was very similar to feudalistic Europe from 600-1500 or so. Iran, Iraq, etc., were once “Persia”, a much larger country, but, just as Christian churches have devolved into  countless Christian sects under the dominion of a local evangelists, squabbles among caliphs have led to the many countries that have emerged.  Today, the palaces of the local caliphs are often four times the size of mosques, which tend to be larger than the largest Christian churches. Like Khomeini, Hussein et al, caliphs generally rule with the iron hand of an omnipotent ruler who answers to no one. When America attempts to force democracy down the Arabs’ throats, it violates Muslims' basic religious beliefs and is thus repugnant to many.

Dawood’s translation of The Koran has been widely heralded: “Across the language barrier, Dawood captures the thunder and poetry of the original.” (The Times) What “original” has the reviewer read and what translation? And where, pray tell, is their any “poetry”?  Such praise seems a curious attempt to dissuade fundamentalist Muslims from attacking the reviewer. After reading every word of it (as I have Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. scriptures) with an open mind and fervently searching for something redeeming, this reader was unrewarded, uninspired, and concerned for the world’s welfare.

Regardless, The Koran enables us to better understand one-quarter of the world’s population; so, it is essential to read it, but, as spiritual inspiration or literature, it remains a Gothic conundrum.  Mercifully, there are many Islamic splinter groups who do not follow The Koran literally, and are quite peaceful, but I have seen no statistics as to the percentage of radical fundamentalists who subscribe to the letter of it. Of greatest concern, perhaps, is the absence of public renunciations of terrorist acts by Muslim leaders.  In Western law, such silence is held to be acquiescence or quiet agreement.  Regardless, contrary to the flat denials of some, The Koran seems to repeatedly urge violent removal of “unbelievers”.  You must read it and formulate your own view.  Violent Muslims see their violence as self-defense, as did the Christians in the epoch of Inquisition (c. 1100-1800 C.E.), but, whether justified or not, “unbelievers” need to be alert to the aggression that the Koran’s words seem to foment and to guard themselves accordingly.  Disregard this one man’s interpretation, please, and begin your education on point by reading The Koran cover-to-cover for yourself.

I support all peaceful religions, as they bring comfort to their followers, and that includes all peaceful Muslims.