The Holy Quran
The Quran is the guide to life, this life and the next, for a billion people. It is the most completely read book in the world and likely in world history. Muslims know the Quran with unmatched devotion. Unlike other scriptures in the Abrahamic tradition – the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament – the Quran presents itself as the direct word of God, revealed by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, and the fulfillment of all previous revelations. Muslims can recite long passages from memory, some capable of reciting all 114 Suras.
The challenge for non-Muslims is to read the Quran for purposes other than prevailing political controversies. It does no good, for example, to read the Quran to discover how much it matches modern western orthodoxies regarding women’s rights. Would reading the Hebrew Bible be productive if we read to decide how far that scripture disappointed our current sensibilities about homosexuality or peace between nations? What if we approach the Quran in a friendly manner, assuming that the devotion, respect, passion, and love accorded this book over so many centuries signals extraordinary intrinsic worth and an opportunity to expand our understanding of God’s Truth and what it means to be human?
Although the Quran stands by itself, it helps to understand its historical context. Muhammad was born in 570 A.D. in Mecca into the Hashemite clan of the powerful Quraysh tribe. Although Muhammad was born to a family of merchant princes, his father died when the Prophet was an infant and his mother died during his early childhood. A paternal uncle raised him, and he became an able and respected businessman. At age forty, and finding no solace in the idol worship of his tribe, Muhammad retreated to a nearby cave to meditate during the month-long celebration of Ramadan. Emerging from a deep meditation, he was accosted by the angel Gabriel who demanded that he “recite” what the angel revealed to him. That recitation, carried on over more than twenty-two years (610-632 A.D.), is the Quran. Muhammad’s heavenly assignment produced a revolution in Arab history. His early preaching in Mecca, condemning idolatry gathered converts and brought first suspicion and then hostility from the Quraysh. Muhammad and his community fled to Medina, and found there a few brother Muslims but also hostile Arabs and a Jewish community whose alliances proved treacherous. The Muslims were victorious in a series of battles in which their fighting spirit and intensity won victories against great odds. In a few short years, Muhammad and his numerous converts returned to Mecca in triumph. One of the signs the Quran celebrates of God’s Truth are these improbable triumphs inspired by Muhammad’s faith and single-mindedness.
The Quran includes 114 Suras, or steps; however, their arrangement is complicated. The Suras are of unequal length — from Sura 2, which comprises almost one-fifth of the entire work, to Suras of three lines of verse. The longer Suras are made up of sections which change subject abruptly. Some Suras represent Muhammad’s earliest days in Mecca and others his later embattled days in Medina; some are meditations, while others focus on law-giving and organizing a new society.
The Quran, however, is not organized to present historical progression. It is not a history book but a revelation from God of what is required of us. It helps to understand the Quran as having three faces: (1) the longer and later Suras setting legislation and treating practical matters such as business investments and contracts, property rights and inheritance, and legal process; (2) several Suras telling stories, usually re-interpretations of Hebrew Scripture (The Sura “Joseph” is the most extensive); and (3) visionary verses – in an impassioned voice carried by propulsive rhythms and sonant music. The Quran carries its readers from the practical to the mystical, from witnessing a contract to witnessing our embattled lives, from the glory of the beginning to the grandeur, terror, and rapture of the cataclysmic end.
The Quran warns those who refuse to understand God’s requirements. The tone is urgent, often vengeful. Gabriel commiserates with his Prophet because so many refuse to grasp this revelation. The Hebrew Bible, Gabriel notes, is riddled with confusion and half-told stories. What can we expect from a compendium of texts from different times and places, many authors, and an unclear account of God’s law? In addition, the Hebrew Bible, so focused on ritual and legalisms, muddles God’s message in inconsequential detail. These complications lead in turn to theological wrangling, burying God’s requirements under scholarly and schismatic argumentation, serving the pride of commentators rather than God’s Truth. According to the Quran, it is no wonder the Jews strayed from God’s purposes when their scriptures lack authority and precision.
The Christian Scriptures are similarly derivative, the four Gospels having been written decades after the events by authors who depended upon hearsay and fables. Worse yet, the New Testament commits a grievous error in asserting the divinity of Jesus (’Isa). God requires no anointed intermediaries; in the Quran’s view, such a claim sins against logic. When God wants something done, He speaks and it is done. Islam reveres Jesus as a prophet who grasps God’s Truth and explains how to know Him. A brilliant teacher, Jesus clarifies the confusion of Jewish laws and rituals and exposes those who exalt themselves in God’s name. Still, Jesus offers only a clouded account of God. The Quran, in contrast, delivers God’s Truth directly in a single, coherent expression. Gabriel conveys what God wants us to know; Muhammad, recites what he has heard; and humankind finally knows what God wants and how the drama of our lives is fashioned.
Gabriel reports God’s anger at those who deny the validity of this final revelation. Allah spoke to the Jews and then to those who became Christians. Yet, when a perfect rendition of those marred messages is finally offered to humankind, Jews and Christians, in their pride and confusion, reject it. They ought to welcome this complete revelation, but instead they mock it and plot against its messenger. The Quran’s anger is directed especially to the “People of the Book,” as the Jews are called. Jews resent that this final revelation is brought to the Arabs and not to God’s chosen people. The Jews have become disputatious, specializing in elaborate evasions from the simplicity of God’s demands. Gabriel provides amusing accounts of these evasions and promises fierce retribution against those who lawyer with the dictates of the Almighty. Tribal arrogance, the need to maintain the clerical power structure, and individual pride at the skill of disputation make these people incapable of grasping simple truths. Jesus’ teachings simplified the 613 laws of the Sinai revelation to two – love God and love your neighbor. The Quran identifies a single commandment – “Submit” (in Arabic, “Islam”).
The Quran’s account of Abraham and Isaac/Ishmael dramatizes this confrontation. Gabriel reminds us that Abraham was not a Jew since the Jewish nation had not been constituted. Abraham was a man of desert peoples, chosen and tested to exemplify the simple truth of Man’s relation to his Creator. Demanding the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s dearest, God insists that Abraham submit. Man must have, even against all calls of mind and heart, complete faith in God. This one command reveals the core truth, without which all else is insignificant. Was it Isaac or Ishmael who was to be sacrificed? The Quran remains oddly mute. Ishmael was Abraham’s firstborn, according to the Hebrew Bible, and ultimately the progenitor of the Arab peoples. Gabriel reminds us that – correcting the tribal tilt of the Hebrew Bible – Ishmael was also beloved and that father and son joined in constructing the Kabah, the house of prayer still standing in Mecca at the center of Muslim devotion. The Quran reveres both sons as prophets, teachers, and the father of nations. Gabriel corrects this tribal privileging and makes God’s choosing a proof of a universal rather than a proprietary plan for revelation and salvation.
The later Suras, from Muhammad’s Medina years, express dismay and disappointment at the refusal of the Jews to embrace this new revelation from their God. Not only had they rejected Gabriel’s message, but they joined the enemies of emerging Islam to crush it. The hostility expressed by Gabriel towards this betrayal seethes with contempt. Muhammad’s military response to the defection of the Jewish community of Medina was to slaughter all the men and send the women and children into slavery for violating agreements and siding with Muhammad’s enemies. Gabriel recalls that the Jewish people were always ungrateful and ready to retreat into idol worship. For the Quran the Golden Calf incident expresses all that is wayward and dishonorable in humankind. Even with Moses to lead them and after witnessing numerous miracles, the Jews embrace idolatry. Gabriel recalls the harsh response of Moses and the mass slaughter of those who turned their backs on God. These objects of God’s special care consistently failed the test of holiness and honor. God’s redemption of humankind surely required a different approach.
While the Quran holds Islam to be the true religion, the new message teaches tolerance towards those faithful to God as their traditions portray Him. Some Jews have kept faith with God, maintained humility, and resisted the allure of power and riches, have satisfied their obligation to the poor and distressed, and have kept to their devotions with a pure heart. Some Christians have resisted schismatic theologizing and the idolatry of God in a human figure; they, too, observe the essential truths of submission to God and service to ones fellows. Even in these deformed scriptures, God’s Truth shines through for those who see properly.
To Christians the Quran’s teachings will appear overly engaged with this world. The New Testament envisions an imminent apocalypse. Jesus assures his listeners that some will see the coming of God’s Judgment. Why bother with family and children, with property and inheritance, when this world will soon melt away? The New Testament, therefore, establishes few practical laws for society while both the Hebrew Bible and the Quran see the necessity of regulating behavior in this sinful and distorted world. The Books of Moses specify rules governing marriage and property and settling disputes, as well as dietary laws and regulations of personal hygiene. The Quran does the same.
Gabriel insists that ritual observance is secondary to devotion to God. God requires fasting during the month of purification. However, if you are sickly and fasting would harm you, God is Merciful and never wishes us to injure ourselves. God sees no problem in our succeeding in this world, so long as pursuit of wealth does not detract from our obligations to treat others compassionately and submit to God in all things. The Quran denounces those who live solely for riches, but wealthy people can earn paradise as readily the poor. Similarly, the Quran teaches that God does not require abstaining from sexual intercourse during the month of purification. Our sexual desires belong to God’s plan; denying this nature does nothing but harm us. The law of retaliation also illustrates Islam’s practicality. If you are done an injury unjustly, you must retaliate; otherwise you will harbor bitter feelings that damage you.
The David and Goliath story figures prominently in revising codes of peacefulness. David exemplifies the victory of faith over fear; most would avoid the dangers of war, either to be injured or to injure others. Rather than belittle this human feeling, the Quran argues instead the occasional need to relinquish peacefulness to defend the community. Submission requires overcoming fear and embracing David’s faith that God protects pious warriors. The Quran demonstrates psychological realism and accommodates human nature to God’s demands.
While these accommodations may blur some certainties, the Quran draws sharp lines in critical matters. Only by submission to God do we fulfill our nature, give our lives meaning, and shape our community. Willfulness, pride, and subjection to this world’s temptations will otherwise destroy us. I recently asked a Muslim friend, a young woman, how the Quran benefits her, and she identified four items: the Qur’an (1) makes me feel safe knowing that others around me have received moral instruction to control their sinful desires; (2) helps me recognize sinful thoughts in myself and protects me against my acts and thoughts that would disrupt my soul’s peace; (3) gives me confidence that this turbulent world leads to the next world where everything is in harmony (this helps me keep my soul in tune); and (4) keeps me safe in the loving embrace of Allah. God’s demands, while not easily met, are not complicated: “Those that have faith and do good works, attend to their prayers and render the alms levy, will be rewarded by their Lord and will have nothing to fear or to regret” (p. 41). * Like Jesus’ simplification — Love God, love thy neighbor – Islam’s demands are straight-forward.
The Quran, nevertheless, foresees dangers everywhere. Its harsh tone in many verses reflects a realistic assessment of human waywardness. The pious community is beset by enemies. In his earliest days, Muhammad confronted idolaters. The Quraysh had introduced stone deities into the Kabah constructed by Abraham and Ishmael. Instead of one God who transcends understanding, idolaters prefer golden calves. In contrast, intellectuals cannot resist complicating God’s message in the pride of their own wit and willfulness. The priests resist relinquishing their powers and privileges in the service of a God they have made useful to them. Hypocrites seem pious, but defy the holiness of their public faces in their devious hearts. Jews resent God’s messenger, offended that God would announce Himself to others. Worst of all apostates recant their devotion to Islam, usually for political or social convenience. Gabriel foresees the dangers of schism, where God is forgotten in the cacophony of proud adherents to specialized interpretations. Gabriel assures Muhammad that disbelievers have already been cursed by God and that nothing can change them. Like Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened, God has tricked these enemies into false confidence. The Quran addresses those whose faith needs strengthening to face Islam’s enemies.
To counter these threats, the Quran assaults those who breed confusion. The Quran contains severe warnings and delicious mockery: its literary brilliance is in conveying this harsh disfavor and joyful condemnation. The Quran resembles Dante’s Inferno, not only in depicting hell’s fearful torments but also in vividly depicting the behavior that earns the damned their eternal pain. The Quran has long been noted for its poetic excellence. When Gabriel challenges those who doubt the Quran’s authenticity to emulate its literary excellence, this is no empty boast. The poetic achievement shines particularly in the earliest Suras from the Meccan period. My own favorite is “Clots of Blood”; any of the last twenty Suras demonstrate the Quran’s poetic economy and vivacity. But the Quran’s literary excellence is more than sound and rhythm; its visionary imagination and Gabriel’s triumphant voice shine everywhere.
The Quran’s depictions of sinners in hell are seasoned with malice and glee at their come-uppance. They “will burn in fire. No sooner will their skins be consumed than We shall give them other skins, so that they may truly taste the scourge” (4:56). When the sinner awakens into the terror of the next world, he realizes his dreadful mistake: “when he called for help, every hardened sinner came to grief. Hell will stretch behind him, and putrid water shall he drink: he will sip but scarcely swallow. Death will assail him from every side, yet he shall not die” (14:15-16). Gabriel assures us: “we will call them to account in company with all the devils and set them on their knees before the fire of Hell: from every sect we will carry off its stoutest rebels against the Lord of Mercy. We know best who deserves to be burnt therein” (19:70).
Triumphant vengeance motivates these lurid descriptions and the gleeful anticipation of justice served:
The hour of Doom is drawing near, and the moon is cleft in two. Yet, when they see a sign, the unbelievers turn their backs and say: “Ingenious sorcery!”
They deny the truth and follow their own fancies. But in the end all issues shall be laid to rest.
Cautionary tales, profound in wisdom, have been narrated to them: but warnings are unavailing.
Let them be. The day the Crier summons them to the dread account, they shall come out from their graves with downcast eyes, and rush towards him like swarming locusts. The unbelievers will cry: “This is indeed a woeful day!”
[An account follows of the warning signs sent to the generation of Noah of the impending flood.]
This We left as a sign, but will any take heed? How grievous was My scourge, and how clear My warning!
We have made the Koran easy to remember: but will any take heed?
[The city of] ‘Ad, too, did not believe. How grievous was My scourge, and how clear My warning. On a day of unremitting woe, We let loose on them a howling wind which snatched them off like trunks of uprooted palm-trees. How grievous was My scourge, and how clear My warning!
We have made the Koran easy to remember: but will any take heed? (The Moon, 54: 1-23)
The moon cleft in two is a shocking image, like Othello’s cosmological disorders portraying his catastrophe. The deft sketch of the unbelievers’ disdain, depicted in a brief gesture and contemptuous phrase, and the narcissism of preferring their own fancies, followed by the irony of “wait and see what that will get you” show literary skill. “Let them be” is brilliantly terse – No need for rescuing unbelievers; their fate is sealed. The sketch of damned souls awakening on the Judgment Day is comic, in that Dantean way, as is their cry of dismay, “This is indeed a woeful day,” the decorous equivalent of “Oh, shit!” The repeated antiphonal phrases build to a terrific crescendo: “We have made the Koran …” and “How grievous was My scourge ….” The Sura, “The Moon,” is simply one instance of Quranic wit and literary power.
Much of the force of the Quran’s argument is poetic. In addition to terrors of hell for unbelievers and lush gardens for the faithful, many signs of God’s blessings anchor the Quran’s argument. The proof of God’s existence requires no theological casuistry: “In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alteration of night and day; in the ships that sail the ocean with cargoes beneficial to man; in the water which God sends down from the sky and with which He revives the earth after its death, dispersing over it all manner of beasts; in the disposal of the winds, and in the clouds that are driven between sky and earth; surely in these there are signs for rational men” (2: 164-165). “It was He that gave the sun his brightness and the moon her light, ordaining her phases that you may learn to compute the seasons and the years” (10: 5). “This present life is like the rich garment with which the earth adorns itself when watered by the rain We send down from the sky. Crops, sustaining man and beast, grow luxuriantly; but, as its tenants begin to think themselves its masters, down comes Our scourge upon it, by night or in broad day, laying it waste, as if it did not blossom but yesterday. Thus do We make plain Our revelations to thoughtful men” (10: 23-26).
The Quran requires us to be grateful for God’s bounty in creating our lives, the life around us, and a rich setting for our spiritual drama. What argument does a sensible person need, more than the following: “By one of His signs He created you from dust; and, behold, you became humans and multiplied throughout the earth. By another sign He gave you spouses from among yourselves, that you may live in peace with them, and planted love and kindness in your hearts, ..”? Among other signs, Gabriel notes “the diversity of your tongues and colors” and “lightning, inspiring you with fear and hope, ..” (30:19-24). God blesses us with these natural phenomena, but also with the poetic imagination to understand what they tell us about His purposes: “It is God that drives the winds that stirs the clouds. He spreads them as he will in the heavens and breaks them up, so you can see the rain falling from their midst. When He sends it down upon his servants they are filled with joy, though before its coming they may have lost all hope” (30: 48-49). The rain refreshes the earth, but its theatrics address us in spiritual communication, God’s message to our struggling souls. The rain is a gift, and so is the power to grasp the metaphor and make spiritual use of it.
Gabriel’s assurance of resurrection is no less poetical: “Does man think he will be left alone, to no purpose? Was he not a drop of ejaculated semen? He became a clot of blood; then God formed and molded him, and gave him male and female parts. Has He no power, then, to raise the dead to life?” (75: 39-40). If resurrection is a miracle, so is our existence to begin with. We emerge from an immense darkness, so why suppose this will not happen again?
Western readers struggle with the Quran. The poetry is too fervent, and the narratives imprecise and scattered. The Quran seems disorderly. The revelations it recites, however, are each complete in themselves. Neither the mind of God, nor the events that prompt these revelations can be tamed by the literary demand for historical or logical coherence. Those who shaped the Quran resisted imposing order upon the ineffable. Ordering the Suras merely by inverse length defies the impulse to impose our parochial sense of meaning.
There is, however, another problem with our narrative expectations. Hebrew Bible stories contain complex moving parts. The stories of Joseph and his brothers, or the biography of King David, unfold over many pages, with clear characterization, motivation, and rises and falls of plot. The stories are embedded in history, carefully located in time and place. We begin in the beginning, the skein of time and consequence unfolding reliably. Christian gospels offer a biography of Jesus and the arc of a powerful story. The Quran, although containing some extended narratives, resists this architecture.
Gabriel assumes we know the previous scriptures. The Quran adds details to familiar stories; some are consequential, as in the accounts of Abraham and Ishmael, and others add intrigue to stories we know, as in Potiphar’s wife’s assault on Joseph, or infant Jesus teaching from the cradle. However, these narratives try our patience and resemble intrusive commentaries. Even Joseph’s tale, seems rushed and incomplete. The Quran’s intent is too urgent for story-telling. Cosmic lessons have no time for story-telling. God writes with ink that fills the seas many times over, but the point is to get to the point – submit to God, say your prayers, perform good works, and fear the day of reckoning.
Quran stories share a common plot: unbelievers mock God’s warnings and then pay a terrible price for their arrogance. Noah’s story figures prominently. God chooses Noah to warn the people of the impending flood; the people respond with derision; the flood, then, takes them by surprise and drowns them for the sins. Unbelievers think they are clever, but God is far more clever than they can imagine and entices them to their destruction. The joke is on those who think they are so funny. Devils lead them into sin, often usury and accumulating riches; narcissistic, they mistake their fancies for God’s Truth; hewing to tribal conventions (Plato’s cave of illusions) deafens them to God’s message; and pride in their own intellect allows them to imagine they can construct their own laws of life – this plot of come-uppance, the shocked discovery they have been wrong about what matters most, provides the story-line. The Quran has one story to tell, the story of urgent warning.
The Quran’s humor is surprising, given its grim message. The story that provides the majestic Sura “The Cow” its name, for example, is amusing. God requires the Israelites to sacrifice a cow and Moses makes the request. However, leading Israelites – wealthy, and devious, and expert at lawyering — are reluctant to lose the cow. To delay, they request several specifications – a great absurdity, given the request’s source. What kind of a cow, they ask; what color, they query; but which one exactly, they ask, does “your God” demand? Only after Moses outwits them do they relent and, in humiliation, perform the sacrifice. Sometimes the humor lies in an ingeniously apt detail. God, for example, does not miss one atom of what occurs in this world, not the weight of a single date pit. Literary wit appears also in wise sayings: “Each soul is the hostage of its own deeds” (74: 44); “For every soul there is a guardian watching it” (86: 4); “The life of this world is but a sport and a pastime” (47: 36); “He whom God guides is rightly guided; but he whom He confounds shall find no friend to guide him” (18: 17); “Many are the marvels of the heavens and the earth; yet they pass them by and pay no heed to them” (12: 105); “Do not be led by passion, lest you swerve from truth” (4: 135). These crisp sententiae, appealing to the imagination, make wisdom memorable.
Enjoying the Quran requires something other than the comforts of sustained narrative. The Quran demands hyper-alertness appropriate to its urgency. Because its format is episodic — with shards of narrative, bursts of poetry, richly evocative sayings, deft depictions of things unseen, the thunderous voice of God’s angel, and sweet evocations of this world’s beauty (each erupting unexpectedly) — the reader must weigh every word and never relax into the dreamy pace of stories. Time is not a moment in a narrative but always right now, right here, with the message sharpened to awaken us from earthly slumber.
Urgency, defiance, gleeful anticipation of the undoing of others is the continuing message. Sadly, the embattled circumstance of the original Muslim community continues to produce mayhem and catastrophe today. While there are comments supporting tolerance – “Believers, Jews, Christians, and Sabeans – whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does what is right – shall be rewarded by their Lord; they have nothing to fear or to regret” (2: 62) –others promote violence against those who resist the one true faith – “He that chooses a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted from him and in the world to come he will surely be among the losers” (3: 86), and “Slay them wherever you find them. Drive them out of the places from which they drove you” (2: 191) – as well as the many aggrieved statements identifying Jews as the enemy of Islam. The Quran insists on recalling the old bloody challenge to Islam’s message, and today that ferocity fuels fundamentalist mayhem. The destruction of Christian churches and of Ahmaddiyah mosques in Indonesia is only another dark chapter in violence and intolerance. The deadly confrontation of Sunni and Shiite drowns the Arab world in blood. As with other faiths, Islam has failed to overcome what the Quran most fears; that heresies and wrangling over theological differences will lead to bloodshed.
While the Quran serves poorly as a guide to peace, the Hebrew Bible also reflects an embattled history and a call to violence. If anything, the Hebrew Bible, because of its narrow ethnic focus may present greater problems and has justified violence in the past and today. The Bible’s Tower of Babel tale depicts human diversity as a curse; the Quran praises God for having created many human tongues and colors.
The West attacks the Quran for its treatment of women. True, in apportioning rights and legal remedies, the Quran differentiates between men and women. However, we should recall that the Quran emerged when women had no such rights anywhere. Women are to receive a lesser portion in inheritance; however, they do have a right to property. They can divorce their husbands. They have status in judicial matters. They are protected from abuse, both physical and emotional. And most important, the Quran enforces a code of modesty on men and women that protects both from violence to others and one’s self. None of these provisions existed in the United States until well into the twentieth century, and in some matters, not even today. Also, the Quran protects women while avoiding the puritanical strictures that haunt Anglo-Saxon societies. Sex is a joyful gift of God and comfort to both men and women – “… they are a comfort to you, as you are to them” (2: 187). The attack by pornographic cultures upon Islamic modesty is ignorant and hypocritical.
The Quran guides the lives of a billion people and has a treasured place among classic works that explore our nature and our fate. Here Jacob and the Angel wrestle again. Do we become victims of our lusts for power and pleasure? Will we be led into confusion by our narcissism, our endlessly inventive fancies, and the pliability of our intellects? Or will we accept the challenge to struggle for God’s Truth, for pure souls and healthy communities? The Quran reminds us that there are countless ways to squander God’s blessings, and this struggle, this Jihad, can be won only by fortitude and fierce attentiveness.
* The quotations are from N. J. Dawood, The Koran, Penguin Classics, 1993. Muslims do not consider a translation to be their holy book but instead an interpretation. The Quran exists only in Arabic. This does not differ from the outlook of orthodox Jews for whom the Hebrew Bible exists only in Hebrew.