Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Quran (1): A Few Thoughts at a Time

Michael Lumish

It takes a certain kind of true arrogance for a non-Muslim to hold forth in public on the Quran while sure in the knowledge that his understanding of this highly important religious document is paltry.

Nonetheless, I am willing to share my initial impressions. It is not as if I have not read the Quran, and some commentary on the Quran, in previous years, but this year I am taking a bit more of a methodical approach and hope to expand my understanding of the Muslim book in, at least, some modest measure.

It is believed among the believers that the Quran was written by Allah in Paradise before there was anything else. The Quran was composed by Allah in Arabic because Arabic is, in fact, the very language of Allah. Arabic is, thereby, considered a language holy above all others.

In this way, it is believed by the devout that the original religion of mankind is Islam. Islam is the First Religion. Islam is the source of both Judaism and Christianity, which corrupted the Original Word of Allah.

Thus, Adam and Eve were Muslims.

Moses was a Muslim.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all Muslims.

Many Palestinian-Arabs, of course, would have you believe that Jesus was the "First Palestinian Shaheed" and, therefore, a Muslim.

And so forth.

{This, by the way, remains puzzling to most westerners who cannot quite wrap their brains around the idea that, despite the fact that Muhammad was not born until the latter part of the sixth-century, Islam could nonetheless somehow antecede both Judaism and Christianity.}

The function of the Prophet Muhammad was to restore the original faith via transmitting the Quran as received via the Angel Gabriel in the early seventh-century, which is why he must be the Final Prophet. Allah sent down bits and pieces of the Quran over the course of many years until the document was a complete and precise copy of the original. The truly devout insist that the Arabic version of the Quran as we receive it today is precisely the same Quran as offered to the world by Muhammad and offered to Muhammad by Allah via Gabriel.

The next thing to note about this very interesting religious document is its lack of narrative. The Bible is a book of stories and, needless to say, the New Testament documents the story of Jesus Christ, but the Quran holds little coherent narrative structure, which is part of the reason that it so inaccessible to those of us who did not grow up with it.

Before I get into an exposition of the actual text, however, I need to address three likely criticisms from the get-go. The first is that the Quran can only really be understood in the original Arabic and therefore any interpretations of the document derived from translations must, by necessity, be distortions. This is, of course, not an entirely unreasonable objection because, indeed, any non-Arabic reader who approaches the Quran in say, Tagalog, will undoubtedly come away with a somewhat different sense of the book then would an Arab from Karachi.

This is inevitable, however its significance only goes so far. One may get a different feel for the broad resonances of the Quran in translation, but this does not mean that the translators are incapable of accurately portraying sentences and paragraphs in other tongues. The objection is often raised when non-Muslim critics - such as, say, Robert Spencer - point out some of the more violent passages in the book. When I begin my actual criticisms of the text in forthcoming segments I will point out specifics.

The second objection that is generally raised when non-Muslim critics of the Quran point to some of the more violently objectionable passages is that the material was taken out of context, often with the implication that it was done so in a largely malicious manner. I have no doubt that in many cases this is true. However, it should also be noted that the book is pretty thin on context to begin with. Because there is so little coherent narrative structure there is, by definition, very little context. Also, of course, there are certain passages wherein the meaning is quite clear, context or no context. I will point out specifics of this, too, in future segments of this series.

Finally, it is often noted that the Hebraic Bible is at least as violent as the Quran, if not considerably more so. This also is true. Yahveh, much like Allah, is a hawk-nosed, dark-eyed, swarthy desert diety with a long black beard and a mean disposition. The difference is that the Hebraic Bible is descriptive in its violence, whereas the Quran is prescriptive in its violence.

The Bible says, "This happened."

The Quran says, "Do this."

And that makes all the difference in the world.

{Fair disclosure: I am significantly influenced by Robert Spencer in my understanding of this material. I recognize, of course, that for many people this is sufficient reason to disregard anything further that I might say on the matter. To such people all I can say is that if you wish to be fair then you need to give the man a fair hearing. He has video discussions all over youtube on the topics of Islam and the Quran and he very clearly knows what he is talking about. The man can recite Sura and Hadith directly off the top of his head... He's also pretty funny, by the way.}


  1. Judaism is ab initio. Everything else isn't even a commentary, it's opinion about a commentary.

    There are almost no primary sources of the Christian bible that aren't written in Koine Greek. Few common people had any facility in Koine Greek as it was the language of learning. It was hundreds of years before even a Vulgate Latin translation was attempted.

    And let's be clear, up until the time of Henry VIII you could be put to death for attempting a vernacular translation of the Bible.

    I know less about Quran but interlinear publications lead me to believe that at its core it's an esoteric compilation in an Arabic not commonly or understood even at the time. And there appears to be three different source streams - all considered legitimate of when and how the text was compiled. Whereas the hagiography of Mohamed himself says that he spoke or recited it to others and it was not until 20 after his death that is was written down.

    So other than stating definitively that the Koran is entirely self contained by definition a divine document which has never been altered there's no way to know what it's supposed to say, word for word. Like any holy book it means what we generally believe it to mean, more or less, until someone comes by and says its not.

    But the key point here isn't even what it says or what it says it says, it's that on its face the Koran cannot be discussed or dissected or interpreted. It is what it is. And there is a small clericy of experts who's job it is is to pass subtle explanations on to each other about what this phrase or clause or noun means. But for everyone else, there are the pillars, and that is it. In many madrassas world wide Koran it taught today by brute force rote memorization. No thinking is encouraged.

    1. One of the questions that I am toying with is whether or not it is reasonable to consider Islam to be within the Abrahamic tradition?

      With Judaism and Christianity there can be no doubt because the lineage is direct.

      The Koran, on the other hand, is filled with Biblical bits and pieces that Muhammad would have picked up second-hand from the Jews on the Peninsula.

      This makes for a very thin claim to lineage.

      Furthermore, the God of Abraham is God the Father, but this cannot be said of the entirely transcendent Allah. In the Bible the Hebrews now and again encountered the Lord in some aspect. Adam and Eve in the Garden. Moses via the Burning Bush. And, of course, in Christianity the Son of God is present among men.

      In Islam, however, the deity is entirely remote and nothing resembling fatherly qualities. Yahveh might be a dictatorial father who is not afraid to break out the strap, but the character of Allah is closer to that of a dictator.

    2. In so far as ANY sect can claim lineage I suppose so. Bahai is sort of Islam, mostly. And there's few weird strains of Judaism as well. I guess the Protestants figured out branding better than anyone since pretty much if you can 'Jesus' you're good to go. From snake handlers to 7th Day Adventists and everyone else they all get to call themselves 'Christian' even if they hate each other. To me it's hard to understand how THEY draw the line. Who decided that LDS "Goes too far - those people are damn weird !!" But Jehovah's Witnesses are ok?

      Maybe it's not for us to decide. About 15 years ago I suggested that what the Muslim world needed was its own Protestant Reformation. Now I'm not sure. I don't know as you can cure the deficiencies and problems with Islam by splitting off various factions beyond the ones we already have. I'm not sure the Protestant Reformation improved Christianity or Catholicism as a result. So now priests can marry, have sex and say the liturgy in the vernacular while presiding over divorces in much the same way the Catholics sold indulgences?

      A bit like Hank Hill telling a Christian rocker "You're not making Christianity any better and you're making rock worse".

      At this point I think that discussing what "Islam IS" is no more productive than day, trying to get at a more liberal tolerant peaceful version of Shinto or Buddhism. And both of THOSE religions of peace are guilty of all sorts of carnage too.

      I suspect that in different circumstances Mohamed's religion would have sunk like a stone. But for the ocean of blood and mayhem it wreaked for hundreds of years, no one would have heard of it.

    3. Oh, believe me, I have no intention of endeavoring to promote some sort-of Islamic reformation. They had one in the 18th century resulting in Wahhabism.

      Oh, joy.

      Besides, that is not up to me. I'm a Jew, not a Muslim.

      No, I just want people to understand the nature of the religion of Islam.

      Judaism is a religion of law and, in this way, is a worldly religion.

      Christianity, despite the behavior of Christians, is a religion of peace because this what Jesus preached.

      Islam is a religion of submission to the will of Allah.

      It is supremacist and totalitarian to the core and people need to understand this.

      I think that it says something profound about the religion that it advocates a form of punishment in which the hand (or arm) is chopped off and the foot (or leg) is chopped off... from opposite sides of the body.

      In a sense, that is all that I really need to know about the faith and the believers.

  2. For thousands of years, anti-semites have been telling us what the Torah and Talmud say and mean. The response is that we get to decide what our holy books say and mean, not them. If you want to know what some Muslims think, here you go

    1. Interesting blog.

      Thanks for this, joseph.

    2. Most, I would say nearly everything that any non Jew has had to say about Talmud is 100% made up. In the last 10 years we had the first nearly complete English translation of 'most' of the Babylonian Talmud and it took 40 years to complete. The only access to Talmud is in the language it exists. I doubt there are 1 in 10 million people with a fluency in Aramaic, biblical Hebrew as well as a few marginal notes in Greek who are not or were not at some time Daf Yomi students in Yeshiva or at a rabbi's elbow. It's unlikely that a Jew hating Muslim, Nazi lunatic would do that or figure out a way not to be discovered as such. That's the great thing about making insanely wild claims about something few people can verify - few people can verify it.

      And BTW, the most 'popular' edition is a Soncino published tome that runs to 67 volumes none of which is indexed.

  3. Please read this-pro-Israel article:

  4. Before you study Islam, perhaps you should study Judaism. "Dictatorial father" is just weird. A dictator doesn't brook dissent. Abraham argues with God, Moses argues with God, Noah is not a Patriarch because he doesn't argue with God. There is a famous Talmudic teaching wherein the Rabbis tell God that the Torah was give to the Jewish people, isn't in heaven and therefore the Rabbis, not God, decide what it means. The important distinction between Christianity and Judaism is that, for normative Christianity, there is a break between God and mankind from the fall of Adam which is repaired through the life and death of Jesus. There is no such break in Judaism, there is a constant and immediate I-God relationship. Islam also rejects the notion of a break and sees the relationship between God and mankind as not needing an intermediary. Also, while the Koran has many Christian stories, it rejects the notion of a corporeal God. It adopts the theology of Judaism which sees God as beyond human understanding and without form or substance. Islam, therefore, is much closer to Judaism than Christianity is and is closer to Judaism than to Christianity. By the way, Spencer doesn't think that Mohammed actually existed. This doesn't trouble me at all, since I believe Judaism started with a local warlord named David and that Jesus never existed, but I was wondering about your thoughts on the matter.

    1. My thoughts on which matter, exactly, Joseph?

      As for the dictatorial, yet fatherly, nature of the Hebraic God, it strikes me as undeniable. He is dictatorial, but in a manner that does not preclude discussion or argumentation.

      But, still, at the end of the day, within the Jewish tradition, the Word of the Lord is final.

      Moses handed down the Ten Commandments, after all, not the Ten Suggestions.

      In any case, I think that we are probably closer on this particular interpretation than might be initially apparent.

      As for "the break between God and mankind" you are obviously correct.

      Christianity is meant to heal that rift, whereas neither Judaism, nor Islam, even recognize such a thing.

      And while this may be true, I do not know what kind weight or significance to give it, beyond a simple acknowledgement.

      My purpose in highlighting the difference between God the Father and Allah the Dictator is because it is one central way in which the differences between the faiths stand in stark and meaningful contrast.

      As for this question of what the corporeal nature of Jesus suggests about the differences between Christianity versus both Judaism and Islam... I think that for the moment I will remain agnostic in my judgment.

      Food for thought, however.

      Thank you.