The Koran

Review by Edward Tanguay
May 25, 1997

I find holy books fascinating because of the amount of influence they have and because of the way they have helped shape the physical and theoretical world we live in. As holy books are some of the most referenced texts in the world, an interdisciplinary education is not complete without a knowledge of these texts themselves and the relgious systems which they support.

I began reading the Koran with almost no previous knowledge of the text and little knowledge of Islam. A helpful text by Stefan Braun introduced me to some of the concepts within Islam such as the difference between Schiites and Sunnis, and to some of the basic concepts surrounding the Koran such as the fact that Mohammed was followed by four caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali at which point a disagreement split Islam into various groups.

Foremost, I was surprised to so many names and events in the Koran which were familiar to me from the Old Testament: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Ismael, Isaac, Moses, Jesus, Mary, "David and Goliath" and the Garden of Eden story; parting of the Red Sea, and the story of Joseph were all mentioned. I was surprised to find Adam and the family of Abraham and the line of biblical prophets including Jesus to be included in Islamic lineage:

Verily above all human beings did God choose Adam, and Noah, and the family of Abraham, and the family of IMRAN, the one the posterity of the other: And God heareth, knoweth.

. . . and Jesus, Mary, and the Apostles. . .

Remember when the angel said, "O Mary! Verily God announceth to thee the word from Him: His name shall be, Messiah Jesus the son of Mary, illustrious in this world, and in the next, and one of those who have near access to God;
And he shall speak to men alike when in the cradle and when grown up; And he shall be one of the just."
She said, "How, O my Lord! shall I have a son, when man hath not touched me?" He said, "Thus: God will create what He will; When He decreeth a thing, He only saith, 'Be,' and it is."
And He will teach him the Book, and the wisdom, and the Law, and the Evangel; and he shall be an apostle to the childen of Israel. "Now have I come," he will say, "to you with a sign from your Lord: Out of clay will I make for you, as it were, the figure of a bird: and I will breathe into it, and it shall become, by God's leave a bird. And I will heal the blind, and the leper; and by God's leave will I quicken the dead; and I will tell you what ye eat, and what ye store up in your houses! Truly in this will be a sign for you, if ye are believers. And I have come to attest the Law which was before me; and to allow you part of that which had been forbidden you; and I come to you with a sign from your Lord: Fear God, the, and obey me; of a truth God is my Lord, and your Lord: Therefore worship Him. This is a right way.
And when Jesus perceived unbelief on their part, He said, "Who will be my helpers with God?" The apostles said, "We will be God's helpers! We believe in God, and bear thou witness that we are Muslims." (Sura 3)

I do not quite understand how the apostles were seen as Muslims unless the word "Muslim" in Arabic means apostle or perhaps it was the belief of the time (600 A.D.) that those who followed Jesus were actually Muslims, but simply had not the chance to experience the next prophet Muhammed. In any case, it seems that the Koran views the family of Abraham as Muslims:

Abraham was neither Jew nor Christian; but he was sound in the faith, a Muslim; and not of those who add gods to God. (Sura 3)

This seems to be one of the breaks from the Christians, however, that one should not "add gods to God." The Koran seems to suggest a common history of Christians, Jews, and Arabs, yet call for a break in the future:

O believers! take not the Jews or Christians as friends. They are but one another's friend. If any one of you taketh them for his friends, he surely is one of them! God will not guide the evil doers. (Sura 5)

Infidels now are they who say, "God is the Messiah, son of Mary;" for the Messiah said, "O children of Israel! worship God, my Lord and your Lord." whoever shall join other gods with God, God shall forbid him the Garden, and his abode shall be the Fire; and teh wicked shall have no helpers. . . . The Messiah, son of Mary, is but an apostle; other apostles have flourished before him; and his mother was a just person: they both ate food. Behold! how We make clear to them the signs! then behold how they turn aside! (Sura 5)

Throughout the Koran as in the above quote, the first person plural "we" is used to refer to God, the speaker. This use seems ironic in that one strong message of the Koran is that there is indeed only one God, yet the "we" makes it read as if there were a type of committee which brought down the laws. Perhaps this is a translation issue, or perhaps the "we" is used as a royal "we". I have been told that this use of plural self reference by God can also be found in the Old Testament.

One important aspect of the Koran is that it was written in Arabic. It was mentioned many times that the Koran is a word of God sent down in Arabic so that it can be read by the people who only understood Arabic:

But before the Koran was the Book of Moses, a rule and a mercy; and this Book confirmeth it (the Pentateuch)--in the Arabic tongue--that those who are guilty of that wrong may be warned, and as glad tidings to the doers of good. (Sura 46)

Above all , the Koran is a warning. It is a warning that if you do not believe in God, the only God (strange that my English copy based on the translation by J.M. Rodwell did not mention the word Allah), you will go to hell. The main themes seemed to revolve around "fear me if ye are believers," "God beholdeth your actions," "do not add Gods to God," certain laws pertaining to the community: marriage, divorce, general behavior ("kill no game while ye are on pilgrimage"), and quite a bit regarding the end of world. I was surprised by the lack of parables in the Koran. You have the story of Joseph and a parable here and there such as the spider:

The likeness for those who take to themselves guardians instead of God is the likeness of the spider who buildeth her a house: But verily, frailest of all houses surely is the house of the spider. Did they but know this! (Sura 24)

but for the most part, it sticks to general language. It is also not chronological so that you do not get a developing story (the Suras [chapters] are ordered according to their size, not time).

I discovered some poetic images such as:

The East and the West is God's: therefore, whichever way ye turn, there is the face of God: Truly God is immense and knoweth all. . . . Sole maker of the heavens and of the earth! And when He decreeth a thing, He only saith to it, "Be," and it is.

Verily your Lord is God who hat made the heavens and the earth in six days--then mounted His throne to rule all things: None can intercede with Him till after His permission: This is God your Lord: therefore serve Him: will ye not reflect?
Unto Him shall ye return, all together: the promise of God is sure: He produceth a creature, then causeth it to return again--that He may reward those who believe and do the things that are right, with equity: but as for the infidels!--for them the draught that boileth and an afflictive torment--because they have not believed.

. . . and toward the end, especially Sura 55 and 56 and after 78, the text reads more like poetry:

When the sun shall be folded up,
And when the stars shall fall,
And when the mountains shall be set in motion,
And when the she-camels shall be abandoned,
And when the wild beasts shall be gathered together,
And when the seas shall boil,
And when the souls shall be paired with their bodies,
And when the female child that had been buried alive shall be asked
For what crime she was put to death,
And when the leaves of the Book shall be unrolled,
And when the heaven shall be stripped away,
And when Hell shall be made to blaze
And when Paradise shall be brought near,
Every soul shall know what it hat produced.

Yet the Koran has as its direct goal to deliver to the reader a direct message:

WE have not taught him (Muhammad) poetry, nor would it beseem him. This Book is no other than a warning and a clear Koran,
To warn whoever liveth; and, that against the infidels sentence may be justly given. (Sura 36)

You have to remember that the Koran was written in Arabic and was meant to be recited (Koran means recital) as a warning to the people. In its recited form in its original language, I am sure it is a powerful work, in fact I read that those who become Moslems usually also learn Arabic so that they can read the Koran in its original.

Reading the Koran has set off many questions in my head about the text and its relationship to the Islamic religion. What is the Moslems' relation to the Koran? How to the various demoninations of Islam view and use the Koran?

Verily We have made this Koran easy and in their own tongue, that thou mayest announce glad tiding by it to the God-fearing, and that thou mayest warn the contentious by it.

A Book whose verses (signs) are made plain--an Arabic Koran, for men of knowledge;
Announcer of glad tidings and charged with warnings!

Now have We set before man in this Koran every kind of parable for their warning:
An Arabic Koran, free from tortuous wording, to the intent that they may fear God.

Edward Tanguay

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