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Questioning the Koran

Posted By William Kilpatrick On June 28, 2010 @ 12:04 am In FrontPage | 297 Comments

At the Guantanamo Naval Base prison, American military personnel are required to wear gloves when touching the Koran. It’s the perfect metaphor for our official culture’s obsequious behavior toward Islam. Terrorists the world over cite the Koran as the motivation and justification for their terrorist acts, yet journalists and government officials reflexively jump to the Koran’s defense whenever it seems to be implicated in terror. Instead of thinking, “Hmm, let’s take a closer look at that book,” they assure us, on no evidence, that the terrorists have misunderstood the Koran.

Considering that large chunks of the world are sliding into the Islamic camp, it may be time to take off the gloves. We don’t have the luxury any longer of living by pre-9/11 niceties such as “we must respect religious differences”—a formula which has come to mean that we mustn’t even look into them. On the contrary, you respect differences by taking them seriously. And if the Koran is the motive force behind Islam’s militancy then the Koran deserves serious examination, not perfunctory gestures of esteem.

“Why bring religion into it?” you may ask. Well, because religion is what it’s all about. Sincere Muslims believe that God wants the whole world to be subject to Islam. They’re free to believe that, of course, but it would be very much in the interest of non-Muslims if they stopped believing it. If an unbeliever refuses to submit to Islam, Allah requires that his head be separated from his body. In light of this, it seems only reasonable that unbelievers should start thinking of ways to separate Muslims from their faith. We have a—shall we say, vital—interest in encouraging Muslims to reflect critically upon the facts of their faith. We can help them to do this, not by telling them we have deep respect for their religion, but by telling them we have deep misgivings about it.

So, the argument that the Koran is of divine origin, and therefore deserving of unquestioning obedience, ought to be challenged. And it ought to be challenged frequently and persuasively with the intention of forcing Muslims to at least entertain some doubts that God had anything to do with the composition of the Koran.

Let’s pass over the awkward fact that there were no witnesses to the revelation except Muhammad himself, and go on to look at what Muslim apologists say in defense of the Koran. The traditional belief is that the Koran, which was given to Muhammad in installments, is a perfect replica of a mother book which has existed eternally in heaven. According to apologists, the proof that God composed it is that it is a work of perfection, a literary masterpiece written in an inimitatable style. Thus, doubters are challenged to produce even one sura comparable to it (10:38). In a nutshell, only God could have said it so well.

Well, let’s see. Here is sura 81:20:

I swear by the turning planets, and by the stars that rise and set; by the night, when it descends, and the first breath of morning: this is the word of a gracious and mighty messenger…

That’s pretty good. So is sura 51:1:

By the dust-scattering winds and the heavily-laden clouds; by the swiftly-gliding ships and by the angels who deal out blessings to mankind; that which you are promised shall be fulfilled…

If the whole Koran were written to this level you might have the makings of a case for its divine authorship. But for the most part—at least for the Western reader—it falls short of other great literature. Much of it is tedious, repetitive, and didactic. While it’s true that a lot is lost in translation, how much could have been lost from: “Prophet, we have made lawful to you the wives to whom you have granted dowries and the slave-girls whom God has given you as booty: the daughters of your paternal and maternal aunts who fled with you; and any believing woman who gives herself to the Prophet and whom the Prophet wishes to take in marriage.” (sura 33:50). No matter how skillfully translated there is not much literary punch in such passages.

Of course, many readers also find parts of the Bible to be tedious, repetitive, and didactic. But this is less of a problem for Christians since they don’t claim that the Bible is a word-for-word dictation from God. For Christians, the literary merit of scripture is not a crucial issue. Still, the Bible does have considerable literary merit. Many passages in the Old Testament soar above the Koran—the Psalms, the scene of the dry bones come to life described in Ezekiel (Eze. 37), the Lord answering Job out of the whirlwind (Job 38), the temptation scene in the Garden of Eden, the vivid prophecies of Isaiah. And there is nothing in the Koran to compare with the moving scenes in the Gospels. So, if you hold to the God-dictated-it school of Koran defense, you have a problem. To put it bluntly, why can’t God write as well as human authors such as David, Solomon, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?—not to mention Homer, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy.

Muslim apologists do have an answer to such quibbles. They say that you can only appreciate the true beauty of the Koran by reading it in Arabic. Okay, then, maybe when you read, “We will put terror into the hearts of the unbelievers” (2: 226) in the original Arabic it sounds like something out of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyan.” But there is another problem which goes beyond the sound and sense of words. Whether or not the Koran is lacking in stylistic perfection, it is certainly lacking in coherence. And you don’t have to speak high Arabic to notice it.

When God wrote the “mother of a book,” He apparently forgot to outline. As a result, there is no beginning, middle, or end to the Koran. As N.J. Dawood, one of its translators, admits, “scholars are agreed that a strictly chronological arrangement is impossible…” Instead, the Koran is arbitrarily arranged according to the length of its chapters with the longest coming first and the shortest, last. Accordingly, the Koran skips back and forth between accounts of Jesus, Moses, Joseph, Abraham, and Noah as though all these figures lived in some kind of time proximity instead of being separated by hundreds, even thousands of years. Besides the strange juxtapositions of the stories and persons, you can add in the fact that, with a few exceptions, none of the stories are fully developed. They are more like story fragments. And the logical transitions between episodes are often missing. As the great Koran scholar Theodor Noldeke pointed out, the extended narratives of the Koran are lacking in “indispensable links, both in expression and in the sequence of events…and nowhere do we find a steady advance in the narration.” One is reminded of Mark Twain’s joke that Fenimore Cooper broke all the rules of literary art, including Rule One, “That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere,” and Rule Two, “that the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it.”

In response, Muslim apologists say you should think of the Koran more like a body of sermons than as an organized book. But even on this level the Koran lacks coherence. When you listen to a sermon you expect that the end of it will usually have something to do with the beginning of it. This is quite often not the case with the Koran. If you think there ought to be some logical connection between paragraph one and paragraph two or between paragraph two and paragraph three, you are obviously stuck in the linear mode of thought, and you’re not ready for the Koran. Better practice on some James Joyce first.

If you are the Lord of the Universe, apparently you are under no obligation to connect your thoughts. Thus the Koran often seems like a giant game of “Mad Libs” in which unrelated parts are arbitrarily dropped into the narrative. Or, if you prefer a more elegant explanation, here’s Professor Malcolm Clark, author of Islam for Dummies: “The Qur’an is like a montage of different images or a kaleidoscope in which different elements recur but in different arrangements.” That’s one way of putting it. Another way is this: “a confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement; most crude, incondite, insupportable stupidity in short.” That’s historian Thomas Carlyle’s description of the Koran—and he was fairly sympathetic to Islam.

However you try to explain it, you would think that God could make a better effort. If you believe that the Koran is dictated by God you have to account for the fact that the Author of Creation seems to lack the literary touch—that is, the knack for storytelling, sequence, composition, and drama that we expect in accomplished human authors. Yes, there are beautiful passages in the Koran, but as an exercise in composition it would not pass muster in most freshmen writing courses. Muslims rankle at perceived insults to Allah, but isn’t it a major insult to Allah to attribute to him such a “confused jumble” of a book?

Did God write the Koran? Considering what’s at stake, this is not a time to shy away from the question. The truth concerning the circumstances of the Koran’s birth is much more consequential for the world’s fate than any revelations about the circumstances surrounding the birth of President Obama. Is it provocative to ask the question? Yes, but then, nowadays, anything and everything short of a complete submission to Islam is considered provocative by many Muslims. Besides, contrary to the sensitivity watchdogs, tough questions aren’t usually asked simply for the purpose of provoking anger. Believe it or not, tough questions are often intended to provoke thought.

It’s not just Muslims who need to rethink the Koran, but all those non-Muslims who, without knowing anything about it, still believe the Koran ought to be accorded great respect. The Southern Command guidelines for military personnel not only mandate wearing clean gloves when touching the Koran, they also require that the Koran be handled in a “manner signaling respect and reverence.” “Handle the Koran,” state the guidelines, “as if it were a fragile piece of delicate art.” “Fragile?” Yes. Maybe the Southern Command  brass have it right, after all. Handle with care. And don’t drop it. It’s brittle.

William Kilpatrick’s articles have appeared in FrontPage Magazine, First Things, Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Jihad Watch, World, and Investor’s Business Daily.


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