Sunday, 23 October 2011

A Review of the Qur'an

The Qur'an is not an easy book for a modern Western reader.  When the British Muslim writer Ziauddin Sardar took up the project of blogging the Qur'an for the Guardian, the journalist Madeleine Bunting wrote:
I admit it, I find the Qur'an a difficult book. I've tried repeatedly over the years to read it and failed.... I just don't understand any of it - the language, the characters, the structure, and I can't see any narrative thread.... I think it's a pretty common experience across among many non-Muslims.... There were a couple of occasions when I began to feel my cultural limitations were becoming a real liability. The first was at an elite conference of the great and good when I found myself caught in a conversation between a cabinet minister and one of those establishment figures who really run this country. Both had managed to put the Qur'an at the top of their weighty summer reading lists and both admitted, with some regret, that it had left them horrified.... The second occasion shortly afterwards was when I explained to a room of Muslims that I had found the Qur'an hard to read and even harder to understand - I knew that I had really shocked the room, one elderly lady was completely bewildered by my comments - to her, this was a book of great inspiration and comfort. What was I missing?
An American atheist blogger is more trenchant:
Ok, so I finally finished reading The Qur’an. It took entirely too long. Just a little over 3 weeks. I suppose the fact that The Qur’an is basically the same things said over and over again didn’t help matters. It was just plain boring. It may sound disrespectful, but it’s absolutely true. The Bible was at least much more interesting with the whole storyline and plot.... One would be hard pressed to find a publisher today who would even take a second glance at The Qur’an, had it been initially published today. You can’t just write the same things over and over again and expect it to sell.
I don't entirely agree with this.  At its best, I find that there is something subtle and appealing about the Qur'an's literary style.  At worst, yes, it can be dull and repetitive.  The style seems broadly consistent throughout, though there are some noticeable differences, notably the divide between the suras revealed in Mecca, which are simpler and "purer" (and some of which have a strikingly "primitive" appearance), and the later ones revealed in Medina, which have more legalistic content.

The Qur'an does not set out a linear narrative, like, say, the Court History of David in the Hebrew Bible or the Gospels in the New Testament.  Nor are its contents arranged in the order in which they were produced or clearly categorised on any particular principle.  Instead, the text has the form of a variegated stream of revelations bound together by a small number of overarching themes.  The units of revelation comprise, amongst other things, affirmations about God, historical narratives and exemplars (including some from the Bible and extrabiblical tradition), warnings and exhortations, ethical injuctions, legal principles, statements by Allah to Muhammad and prayers to Allah himself.  The same principles and stories recur repeatedly.

It is easy to see the variegation of the text as a lack of coherence.  Classical Islamic scholarship readily accepted that the Qur'an was not a coherent work (though this notion has been challenged more recently).  In the West, Edward Gibbon famously criticised the "endless incoherent rhapsody of fable, and precept, and declamation, which seldom excites a sentiment or an idea, which sometimes crawls in the dust, and is sometimes lost in the clouds".  There is something in this, but I am inclined to think that it misses the point.  This is not a text that is intended to be read through as a book in one's study, starting at the beginning and finishing at the end.  The reader does best if she lets the text, or selections of it, wash over her like a flowing river, as in an oral recitation.

It is well known that Muslims claim that the style of the Qur'an is both inimitable (though there is a Christian website which collects attempts at imitation) and incapable of representation in translation.  It is said:
For those who can read the Qur'ān in Arabic, the all-pervading rhythm which, in conjunction with the sustained use of what may be called rhymed prose, creates in many sūrahs a spellbinding effect that is impossible to reproduce.
The translation that I used was the classic version by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall.  This has a "scriptural" style and vocabulary, but I suspect that it is not all that close to the poetry of the original.  It reads vaguely like a kind of King James Bible transplanted to the Arabian desert.  This may be apparent from passages such as this:
Glorified and Exalted be He above all that they associate (with Him). He sendeth down the angels with the Spirit of His command unto whom He will of His bondmen, (saying): Warn mankind that there is no God save Me, so keep your duty unto Me. He hath created the heavens and the earth with truth. High be He Exalted above all that they associate (with Him).... And Allah's is the direction of the way, and some (roads) go not straight. And had He willed He would have led you all aright. He it is Who sendeth down water from the sky, whence ye have drink, and whence are trees on which ye send your beasts to pasture. Therewith He causeth crops to grow for you, and the olive and the date-palm and grapes and all kinds of fruit. Lo! herein is indeed a portent for people who reflect. And He hath constrained the night and the day and the sun and the moon to be of service unto you, and the stars are made subservient by His command.... And He it is Who hath constrained the sea to be of service that ye eat fresh meat from thence, and bring forth from thence ornaments which ye wear. And thou seest the ships ploughing it that ye (mankind) may seek of His bounty and that haply ye may give thanks. And He hath cast into the earth firm hills that it quake not with you, and streams and roads that ye may find a way. And landmarks (too), and by the star they find a way. (16.1-16)
Apparently, it has been attempted to translate the Qur'an into rhyming English prose.  The result is rather pleasing in its lyricism, although its structure and rhythms have a resemblance to the distinctly secular genre of rap.

The content of the Qur'an is consistently delivered in much the same distinctive, elliptical, enigmatic style.  The Qur'an is not an analytical text in the western tradition which is to be read primarily for its propositional content.  Even where there are narratives, they are characteristically allusive: the point is not for the reader to concentrate on their details or to think too precisely about exactly what is being described.

This isn't to say that the Qur'an is necessarily an easy or a pleasant read, but that is because of the content rather than the style.  The content is often disturbing, and is presumably intended to be so.

The book has essentially two subjects.  The first of these is God, Allah.  It is repeatedly affirmed that Allah is one and that he has no partners in his godhead - this is the central Islamic doctrine of tawhid, which may be roughly translated as "monotheism".  He is all-powerful and all-knowing.  He is merciful and kind, but also wrathful and severe in punishment.
Unto Allah belong the East and the West, and whithersoever ye turn, there is Allah's Countenance. Lo! Allah is All-Embracing, All-Knowing. (2.115)

Say: O Allah! Owner of Sovereignty! Thou givest sovereignty unto whom Thou wilt, and Thou withdrawest sovereignty from whom Thou wilt. Thou exaltest whom Thou wilt, and Thou abasest whom Thou wilt. In Thy hand is the good. Lo! Thou art Able to do all things. Thou causest the night to pass into the day, and Thou causest the day to pass into the night. And Thou bringest forth the living from the dead, and Thou bringest forth the dead from the living. And Thou givest sustenance to whom Thou choosest, without stint. (3.26-27)

And with Him are the keys of the Invisible. None but He knoweth them. And He knoweth what is in the land and the sea. Not a leaf falleth but He knoweth it, not a grain amid the darkness of the earth, naught of wet or dry but (it is noted) in a clear record. (6.59)

Lo! Allah! Unto Him belongeth the Sovereignty of the heavens and the earth. He quickeneth and He giveth death. And ye have, instead of Allah, no protecting friend nor helper. (9.116)

He it is Who showeth you the lightning, a fear and a hope, and raiseth the heavy clouds. The thunder hymneth His praise and (so do) the angels for awe of Him. He launcheth the thunderbolts and smiteth with them whom He will while they dispute (in doubt) concerning Allah, and He is mighty in wrath. Unto Him is the real prayer. Those unto whom they pray beside Allah respond to them not at all, save as (is the response to) one who stretcheth forth his hands toward water (asking) that it may come unto his mouth, and it will never reach it. The prayer of disbelievers goeth (far) astray. And unto Allah falleth prostrate whosoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly, as do their shadows in the morning and the evening hours. (13.12-15)

There is none in the heavens and the earth but cometh unto the Beneficent as a slave. Verily He knoweth them and numbereth them with (right) numbering. And each one of them will come unto Him on the Day of Resurrection, alone. (19.93-95)

Hast thou not seen that unto Allah payeth adoration whosoever is in the heavens and whosoever is in the earth, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and the hills, and the trees, and the beasts, and many of mankind, while there are many unto whom the doom is justly due. He whom Allah scorneth, there is none to give him honour. Lo! Allah doeth what He will. (22.18)

And cry not unto any other god along with Allah. There is no God save Him. Everything will perish save His countenance. His is the command, and unto Him ye will be brought back. (28.88)

Praise be to Allah, unto Whom belongeth whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth. His is the praise in the Hereafter, and He is the Wise, the Aware. He knoweth that which goeth into the earth and that which cometh forth from it, and that descendeth from the heaven and that which ascendeth into it. He is the Merciful, the Forgiving. (34.1-2)
The second subject of the Qur'an, which pervades the text, is that of the afterlife.  It is affirmed again and again that Allah will judge humankind and that he will reward pious Muslims and condemn unbelievers to hellfire.  The orientalist Arthur Jeffery said:
It has frequently been pointed out that eschatology forms perhaps the dominating interest in the Koran. One cannot read many pages without coming upon some thing referring to the future joys of believers in Paradise or the sufferings of unbelievers in Hell, or threats of the awful judgement of God to be meted out to unbelievers. The thing seems to have been an obsession with Muhammad.
There is no getting away from the fact that hell and damnation figure considerably more frequently in the Qur'an than heaven and salvation.  The formulaic phrase "painful doom" ('adhaabin aliym) is a key one in the text.  The following is a small sample of the countless hundreds of passages that deal with death, judgement, heaven and (especially) hell:
Lo! those who disbelieve, and die in disbelief, the (whole) earth full of gold would not be accepted from such an one if it were offered as a ransom (for his soul). Theirs will be a painful doom and they will have no helpers. (3.91)

Lo! Those who disbelieve Our revelations, We shall expose them to the Fire. As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment. Lo! Allah is ever Mighty, Wise. And as for those who believe and do good works, We shall make them enter Gardens underneath which rivers flow - to dwell therein for ever; there for them are pure companions - and We shall make them enter plenteous shade. (4.56-57)

As for those who disbelieve, lo! if all that is in the earth were theirs, and as much again therewith, to ransom them from the doom on the Day of Resurrection, it would not be accepted from them. Theirs will be a painful doom. They will wish to come forth from the Fire, but they will not come forth from it. Theirs will be a lasting doom. (5.36-37)

These twain (the believers and the disbelievers) are two opponents who contend concerning their Lord. But as for those who disbelieve, garments of fire will be cut out for them; boiling fluid will be poured down on their heads, whereby that which is in their bellies, and their skins too, will be melted; and for them are hooked rods of iron. Whenever, in their anguish, they would go forth from thence they are driven back therein and (it is said unto them): Taste the doom of burning. Lo! Allah will cause those who believe and do good works to enter Gardens underneath which rivers flow, wherein they will be allowed armlets of gold, and pearls, and their raiment therein will be silk. (22.19-24)

Lo! Allah hath cursed the disbelievers, and hath prepared for them a flaming fire, wherein they will abide for ever. They will find (then) no protecting friend nor helper. On the day when their faces are turned over in the Fire, they say: Oh, would that we had obeyed Allah and had obeyed His messenger! (33.64-66)

A similitude of the Garden which those who keep their duty (to Allah) are promised: Therein are rivers of water unpolluted, and rivers of milk whereof the flavour changeth not, and rivers of wine delicious to the drinkers, and rivers of clear-run honey; therein for them is every kind of fruit, with pardon from their Lord. (Are those who enjoy all this) like those who are immortal in the Fire and are given boiling water to drink so that it teareth their bowels? (47.15)

When the heaven is cleft asunder,
When the planets are dispersed,
When the seas are poured forth,
And the sepulchres are overturned,
A soul will know what it hath sent before (it) and what left behind.
O man! What hath made thee careless concerning thy Lord, the Bountiful,
Who created thee, then fashioned, then proportioned thee ?
Into whatsoever form He will, He casteth thee.
Nay, but ye deny the Judgment.
Lo! there are above you guardians,
Generous and recording,
Who know (all) that ye do.
Lo! the righteous verily will be in delight.
And lo! the wicked verily will be in hell;
They will burn therein on the Day of Judgment,
And will not be absent thence.
Ah, what will convey unto thee what the Day of Judgment is!
Again, what will convey unto thee what the Day of Judgment is!
A day on which no soul hath power at all for any (other) soul. The (absolute) command on that day is Allah's. (82.1-19)
The emphasis on hellfire and on the damnation of unbelievers is a striking and consistent feature of the book.  It is more disturbing than the incriminating quotes that are commonly cited by critics of Islam - the verses about killing unbelievers, beating one's wife, and the like.  The Qur'an, as critics often say, is a very violent book, but this is not because Allah incites its readers to commit violence - it is because he threatens them with it.

Some scholars have claimed that the text of the Qur'an was already in existence, in one form or another, by Muhammad's time, while others have claimed that it wasn't constructed until many years after his death (and, indeed, it seems to be generally agreed that some process of compilation and editing took place in the course of the book being put together in its current form).  Yet I find it difficult to believe that the text evolved over a long period of time or was written by committee.  Both the style and the content of the Qur'an convey the immediacy of Muhammad's own time, and indeed of his own life.