Why is the Koran preoccupied with its own credibility?
Every now and then you hear calls from critics of Islam for Islam to reform itself—for mosques and madrassas to teach against the Islamic doctrines that inspire terrorists. A dramatic example of this demand occurs in the film Fitna when Geert Wilders invites Muslims to tear the offending pages out of the Koran. In one scene you can hear the sound of tearing pages in the background.
If thy page offend thee, pluck it out? The only trouble with this sort of recommendation is that it assumes that there is enough positive material in the Koran and other foundational documents to form the basics for a reformation. But is there?
According to Moorthy Muthuswamy, an expert on political Islam, “61 percent of the Koran talks ill of unbelievers or calls for their violent conquest and subjugation, but only 2.6 percent talks about the overall good of humanity.” Hmmm. Seems as though that would amount to an awful lot of offending pages.
It’s a similar story when you turn to the sira, the biographies of Muhammad. Take the earliest of these, the one written by Ibn Ishaq. Of the 130 short chapters which detail the life of Muhammad after his arrival in Medina, over 70 are about raids, battles, and assassinations or else they are about preparations for raids and battles, division of spoils, odes upon battles, names of those who fought, etc. According to a content analysis done by Bill Warner of the Center for the Study of Political Islam, at least 75% of the sira is about jihad. These are inconvenient facts for those who hope Islam can be reformed. No matter how reform-minded you may be, it is difficult to come up with a symbolic interpretation of the Koran’s numerous calls to make war on unbelievers, since that was literally what Muhammad did.
So, rather than encourage Muslims to remove the violent and hateful parts of the Koran, it might make more sense to encourage them to renounce it in toto. The “good” parts of the Koran are so bound up with the “bad” parts that trying to separate them is an impossible task. Besides, there is no warrant in Islamic tradition for picking and choosing. Islamic authorities say that the Koran given to Muhammad is a replica of the original which is inscribed on “imperishable” tablets in heaven. And, just for the record, “imperishable” beats “set in stone” by a wide margin. Talking of reforming Islam by re-interpreting the Koran is like talking about reforming a marble statue. Some things don’t lend themselves to reformation.
Of course, asking Muslims to totally reconsider the Koran is no piece of cake, either. It’s a hard sell, to be sure. But then, none of the “soft” sell solutions appear to be working. Over the last decade or so we’ve tried:
- The democracy solution (which has led to numerous Islamist victories at the polls)
- The secular solution (the belief that Muslims would happily exchange burqas for bikinis)
- The assimilation solution (the belief that, given the chance, Muslims would prefer to blend into the multicultural soup)
- The appeasement solution (once Muslims see that we’re willing to give them everything they ask for, they’ll be satisfied and will stop making demands)
All these solutions assume that Muslims suffer from a sense of inferiority over their religion and culture. That may have been true fifty years ago when Islam appeared to be going nowhere, but now that Islam is on the move, the opposite is true. Muslims feel a sense of superiority about Islam. Faced with a choice between the best that the secular West has to offer, and the splendor and certainty of the Koran, they choose the Koran. Therefore, any adequate response to the threat from Islam has to be based not on shoring-up the self-esteem of believing Muslims but on breaking it down. The most direct way to do this is to shake their faith in the Koran as the revealed word of God.
You may counter that it’s nearly impossible to change deeply held beliefs, but, as I maintained in a previous piece, history demonstrates time and again that deeply held beliefs are not nearly as deeply held as they appear. What happened to the deeply held beliefs of the devotees of Zeus and Jupiter? What happened to the deeply held beliefs of the Millerites, Rappites, and Shakers? And, more recently, what happened to the deeply held beliefs of European Christians? It’s ironic that our society which is so committed to change, nevertheless insists on the unchangeability of other people’s beliefs. It’s one of the legacies of multiculturalism that we have come to believe that our own culture is infinitely malleable, while simultaneously believing that non-Western cultures are infinitely immutable. And since we think Muslim beliefs can never be changed, we never suggest that they ought to be changed.
It’s decidedly in the interest of non-Muslim societies to cast doubts on the Koran. Having said that, I disagree with the idea that simply exposing the violent or hateful messages of the Koran is enough to discredit it. Maybe God really does hate unbelievers. It’s much more to the point to raise doubts about the divine authorship of the Koran.
Bill Warner and Professor Muthuswamy say that a “scientific” content analysis is the best way to discredit the Koran. I think they are on to something, but instead of counting up the number of times “jihad” is mentioned, it might be more useful to count up the number of times that “Allah” sounds like an insecure preacher trying to establish his credentials as a prophet. You don’t have to do an actual word count to notice that certain themes pop up over and over in the Koran. One of the first things you notice on opening the Koran is that one of the chief preoccupations of the Koran is…the Koran. Read a few suras at random and you will quickly see that the Koran is extremely defensive about its own credibility.
Is the Koran an authentic revelation? It claims to be. In fact, it claims to be so again and again.
In sura 11:13 we read, “If they say ‘He (Muhammad) has invented it (the Koran) himself,’ say to them, ‘Produce ten invented chapters like it.’”
In sura 12:12 we read “this is no invented tale, but a confirmation of previous scriptures…”
Sura 32: 1-2: “This book is beyond all doubt revealed by the Lord of the Universe…Do they say, ‘He has invented it himself?’”
Sura 46:8: “Do they say he has invented it himself…let them produce a scripture like it.”
And so on. The Koran is full of admonitions about its own authenticity. Hardly a page goes by without some reminder that it is a genuine revelation, not a fake one. While allowances can be made for statements of this nature appearing here and there in a holy scripture, there are literally hundreds of such passages in the Koran. One of the first things a Western reader encounters upon opening the Koran is what seems to be a defensiveness about its own origin. The very first sura after the Fatiha begins with the words, “This book is not to be doubted.” By contrast the first words of Genesis are, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The author of Genesis has his mind on God and his creation, the author of the Koran has his mind on his book. True enough, there are plenty of passages in some Old Testament books where the author asserts the divine authority for what he has to say (“Thus saith the Lord”), but in the Koran the issue of authenticity is almost the central preoccupation. Turn at random to any page in it and there’s a good chance you’ll find an admonition about the truth of “Our revelations” and the fate of those who disbelieve in them. If you happen to have a Koran handy you can check this out for yourself. Go ahead. I’ll wait. It won’t take long.
Ordinarily, when someone tells you over and over that he’s telling the truth, you begin to have your doubts. The more he protests the truth of what he’s saying, the more you’re inclined to disbelieve. You get the same feeling after reading “this Koran could not have been devised by anyone but God” for the umpteenth time.
The self-consciousness of the Koran’s author is all the more apparent when you compare it to the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John do not engage in constant fretting about whether or not their account seems to be made up. They have something to report and they simply report it. And when Christ speaks, you never get the sense that he is second-guessing himself. One of the things that people found most remarkable about Christ was that he spoke with such authority.
It may be an exercise in futility to try to convince any significant number of Muslims that their foundational document is a man-made fabrication. But, even supposing that were so, there is still a benefit in conducting a close examination of the Koran. One thing you find is that there are striking differences between the Koran and the New Testament. That’s something Christians need to learn or relearn, because it serves as an antidote to the enervating multicultural message that all religions are the same—and therefore, as Robert Spencer puts it, “basically equal in their ability to inspire good or evil.” Another thing you find if you dig into both texts is that the Christian revelation stands on a much firmer historical and rational footing than the Koran. Christopher Hitchens claims that the Koran and the New Testament are pretty much alike—both of them fabrications. Well, maybe…but, if so, the New Testament would have to be judged a much more skillfully executed fabrication than the Koran. It has the ring of truth. The Koran, on the other hand, rings rather hollow. Why is that important to know?—because success in resisting Islamization depends a lot on confidence, and right now the West is profoundly lacking in what Mark Steyn calls “civilizational confidence.” It might make a difference to our confidence if more people came to realize that their own foundational revelation has far more the look of the real thing.
Moorthy Muthuswamy worries that Westerners won’t undertake a deconstruction of Islam because the mode of analysis would undermine their own faith. As he sees it, “Some of the arguments used to question the religious foundations of Islam…can also pose difficulties for other faiths, including the majority religion in America.” Yes, to some degree perhaps, but they are the kind of difficulties Christians need to wrestle with if they are going to firm up their faith, and move beyond the intellectually flabby condition into which many Christians have fallen. There is a test of resolve coming. When Christians are put to that test they had better know what they believe, why they believe it, and why it is worth defending. It would also help if they knew what they are up against…before they find out the hard way.
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.