THE KORAN – A TWO-DIMENSIONAL BIBLE: My Experience of Reading the Holy Book of Islam
This is not the first time I’ve tried to read the Koran, but it’s the first time I have read trough the whole thing from cover to cover. I bought my copy of the Koran about ten years ago, mostly to look at what it has to say about the Bible and Christianity. So I especially hunted for those passages about Jesus and stories that also appear in the Bible.
In trying to find those passages, the first thing I noticed about the Koran was how jumbled up it appeared to be in its arrangement of content. Creation did not come at the beginning; Jesus was mentioned in various passages throughout. The second thing that struck me was how strongly the Koran attacked orthodox Christian belief, particularly the idea of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. In that, the Koran seemed to me to paint a grossly false picture of Christian belief, as if Christianity were a polytheistic religion (“Accept me and my mother as two gods beside God”).
As for the theology of the Koran, it seemed to be a step back—back from the New Testament into more or less Old Testament theology.
With the help of some secondary literature, I then went into greater detail in comparing Allah to the God of the Bible. My conclusion was that, whereas the God of the Bible is both transcendent and immanent, both infinite and personal, the Koran puts a much greater emphasis on the transcendence of God and not as much on the personal nature of God. Allah is everything and nothing, more cunning than the most cunning and at the same time more just than the most just. Everything said about him falls short and is inaccurate. Though many Christian theologians think that ultimately this is also true of the God of the Bible, orthodox Christianity sees in Jesus the Unknowable having broken into the world of the knowable.
In line with that, I also noticed that the Koran pictures the relationship between God and humans mostly in terms of Master and slaves/servants, whereas Christianity provides the additional picture of God as Father who relates to us as his children. Hence Islam is a religion of submission, whereas Christianity is one of a relationship and co-workmanship with the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Considering this strong emphasis on the supremacy, lordship, unknowability, and absolute One-ness of Allah, I wondered whether it had any influence on the political structure of Islam (that is, submission to one strong political ruler).
And, speaking of politics, another point that struck me was that Islam has been a political religion right from the beginning. Whereas a case can be made for Jesus having been a pacifist, no such case is even remotely conceivable for Mohammed. Whereas the early Christians had a clear separation between Church and State, faith and politics—until Constantine in the fourth century brought the two together—the early Muslims were a political force from their early days. That, for me, raised the question of whether a predominately Islamic country could ever achieve a separation between religion and politics. In Christianity, the possibility of such a separation is built into the very foundation of the religion; in Islam, I found it much harder to see such a possibility.
Thus far a few of my thoughts ten years ago. Since then, I have developed a much greater appreciation for the positive contributions of Islam in world history, and I applaud it for helping Europe out of the Dark Ages. I have also become more critical toward my own Christian upbringing and am less eager to defend the Bible against the Koran. That helped me to approach the Koran much more open-mindedly this time than ten years ago.
Nevertheless, the Koran did not come away favorably in my reading. Perhaps, unconsciously, I am still too prejudiced against it, and of course I cannot read it in the Arabic original. It might well be that the original is much better than any translation, although such a view is also a rather convenient safeguard against any criticism of the Koran by non-Arabic speakers. I have no reason to doubt that the original Arabic is much more poetical and beautiful than any translation, but I do doubt that it has much more content than is translatable into another language. Some of the nuances might be lost, but certainly the Arabic Koran cannot have huge amounts of content that is completely undetectable in a translation.
I will therefore venture a critique of the Koran, even though the critique is only based on a translation. Here it is, and I won’t mince words.
Put the Bible through a meat grinder, take out a few spoonfuls, stir it together with some later traditions, stick it in the oven to bake, and then serve it with a lot of assertions that this is the best meal on the planet. Voila!, you have the Koran.
I know such a description might be offensive, but I am just trying to honestly say how I experienced my reading of the Koran. To put it a bit less offensively, I felt that the concepts and characters in the Koran were two-dimensional compared to the Bible. One of the things I appreciate about the Bible is its humanity. You meet dozens of three-dimensional characters who develop ideas over centuries. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, the Judges, Samuel, Saul, David, Salomon, Elijah, Elisha, Jonah, Daniel, Job, Jesus, Peter, Paul—whether or not one considers them historical or (partly) fictional, they are all uniquely human and wonderfully three-dimensional.
By reading the Bible, I mostly meet people—people from various epochs and with at times vastly different views. Take Absalom’s story and the last days of King David, for instance. It is so many-layered, the motives of the characters so complicated and conflicting, that they are either historical or excellent fiction. One cannot help but feel with Absalom’s rage at the rape of his sister, and yet one doesn’t wish for his rebellion to succeed. One cannot help but feel with David’s fatherly heart, and yet one hopes that he doesn’t sacrifice his whole kingdom to it. One can understand David’s general Joab and his frustration with the king, as well as his deed of killing the rebel, at the same time as one cringes at how he killed so quickly the one whom the king loved so dearly. For each character, sympathy mixes with antipathy. The story is neither a comedy nor a tragedy, and yet it contains both many tragic and joyous elements. It is bitter-sweet, like real life.
Even the patriarchs of Israel seem quite real. Only think of how an otherwise respectable character like Abraham is pictured as riddled with fear, doubt, and weakness. Or Jacob, that cunning yet lovable schemer, a pathetic coward of nevertheless unbendable willpower—a truly convincing character.
The New Testament continues the humanity of the Old Testament. At times, we even find in it a kind of realism that we know from modern novels. The account of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman is a good example of this. The story begins with Jesus realizing that the Pharisees were keeping count of the baptisms that he and John performed, adding that in actuality his disciples, not Jesus, did the baptizing. The Pharisees had posted the score that Jesus was ahead, turning him and John into rivals in the eyes of the people. Not desiring to be seen as a rival to John, Jesus leaves Judea and goes back to Galilee. On his way there, he passes through Samaria and comes to a Samaritan village called Sychar. It borders the field that Jacob is said to have given to his son Joseph. The well at the village is reportedly the same well that Jacob had dug. Jesus, worn out by the trip, sits down at the well. It is noon, and the sun is hot. His disciples, in the meantime, go to the village to buy some food for lunch. Now while Jesus is sitting there, a Samaritan woman comes to draw water. She is neither politically important nor socially comical; she is an ordinary sinner whom the Gospel writer takes utterly seriously. He records Jesus remarking to her, “Would you give me a drink of water?” Since Jews usually would not be caught dead talking to Samaritans, the woman is taken aback and asks, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” A conversation then ensues which is a very realistic dialogue such as we find in modern novels. After a while, his disciples come back, and the text makes note that they are shocked. They cannot believe he is talking with that kind of a woman. No one says what they are all thinking, but their faces show it. The woman takes the hint and leaves, in her confusion leaving her water pot.
Or take Peter’s denial of Jesus and his subsequent repentance. Here we have an ordinary fisherman in a very realistic, and yet deeply tragic, scene. He is a tragic figure from a low social background (something unknown to Antiquity) and a hero whose heroism arises out of his weakness. Such a bandwidth of human experience did not exist in the literature of the time.
Not to mention Paul. After having read his letters quite a number of times—“a turbulent mixture of petty detail, personal complaint, practical advice, and lyrical rapture,” as C. S. Lewis described them—I almost feel that I know Paul personally. Through his writing, I have met this passionate individual from the first century.
After reading the Koran, on the other hand, I felt that I had met no one. Not even the Prophet. He, too, remains two-dimensional on the pages of his book.
And of course the wonderful literary variety of the Bible is missing in the Koran. Even a non-theist, I think, can appreciate the erotic love poetry of the Song of Solomon, or the existentialist musings of Ecclesiastes, or the poetic dialogue of the Book of Job, or some of the teachings of Christ, or the descriptions of the Roman world in Acts, or the fascinating images of Apocalyptic literature. For anyone who likes literature, there is something worthwhile in the Bible, because it is a richly human book—or rather a library of books.
In contrast, the Koran is purported to be the work of one person with one goal who believes that everything in it was dictated to him by one angel. (I know there are scholars who question the traditional view of the origin of the Koran, but that’s beside the point here.) The result is predictably poor from a literary point of view. Great literary critics such as Erich Auerbach had a lot to say about the Bible (see his book Mimesis); I doubt he would have had equally much to say about the Koran, even if he had set his mind to it.
Over and over again, the Koran keeps repeating the mantra: “Believe Allah and his Prophet, and you shall enter paradise. If you do not believe Allah and his Prophet, you will burn in hell into all eternity.” But believe the Prophet about what? Well, believe him about believing him. To me, there seemed to be very little content to the actual revelation; the revelation mostly consisted of admonitions to believe the revelation.
In that way, one might compare the Koran to a lecture in which the speaker is introduced by a long-winded person who keeps telling the students over and over again that they should listen to what the speaker has to say. He talks about all the wonderful things that will happen to them if they listen to the speaker, and of all the horrible things that will happen if they do not listen to the speaker, on and on and on. Eventually, the speaker gets up, lectures for five minutes, sits back down, and then you have another barrage of admonitions that you should believe in the authority of the speaker, and woe to you if you question him.
Those who question the speaker are the infidels, and boy, with what frequency the Koran mentions the infidels! This makes Islam an extremely self-conscious religion, defining itself primarily by contrast to those who do not believe. No wonder, then, that the Koran has so little content to it. Its main purpose is not for study, but for meditation and prayer—to keep telling yourself: “I’m part of the club, I’m part of the club. I’m not like those on the outside, those who are damned. I’m in, I’m in; they are out, they are out.”
Of course you have this “I’m in, they are out”-mentality in many religions and even non-religious ideologies. The Bible is no exception in that regard. And I certainly do not wish to advocate complete relativism in which every opinion is just as good as any other. If you do genuinely believe something to be true, you necessarily believe that others are wrong. But the Koran seems to me on the extreme side of a rather unhealthy form of self-affirmation.
I am still glad I have read the Koran from cover to cover at least once, since it’s such an influential book. But it will probably be at least another ten years before I read it again.
Entry filed under: Bible, Islam. Tags: Absalom, Allah, Bible, C. S. Lewis, Christianity, David, divine revelation, Erich Auberbach, God, Islam, Jesus, Koran, Literature, Mohammed, Muhammed, New Testament, Old Testament, Paul, Peter, Qur'an, religion, Samaritan woman, Trinity.