Of Possible Interest

My essay A Westerner Reads the Koran appears at the Gates of Vienna website.  In it, I offer a type of reader-response critique of the second surah of the Koran.  That surah bears the title “The Cow,” which possibly entails a rather oblique allusion to the episode of the Golden Calf in Exodus or, as a scholarly footnote suggests, to a passing reference to an occasion of heifer-sacrifice overseen by Moses, as recounted in Numbers.  I offer an extract:

The Western layman approaching the Koran for the first time must experience something like befuddlement.  Supposing that the layman possesses a good education, including knowledge of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and the core classics of the Greek and Roman worlds, the Koran will strike him as something like the opposite of that with which he enjoys familiarity.  Take the Bible’s Genesis: It deals in straightforward narrative, as does its Near Eastern precursor texts such as the Babylonian Creation or Enuma Elish.  The very opening words of Genesis invoke the concept of a beginning, which implies in advance both a middle-part and an end.  The same is true of the Greek poet Hesiod’s account of the generations of the gods – Elemental, Titanic, and Olympian – in his Theogony.  After Hesiod explains his own function as an interpreter of the lore concerning these things, he launches into his genealogical story whose episodes follow one another in comprehensible sequence: Once again, a beginning, a middle-part, and an end.  In much the same way, the New Testament follows the Old Testament so that, taken together, they constitute a unified tale.  The events in Homer’s Odyssey similarly follow in a comprehensible way the events in Homer’s Iliad.  The essential seriality, as it might be called, of Western narrative and exposition contributes mightily to their seriousness and comprehensibility.  Both the Old Testament and the New also sort out their chapters so as to keep non-narrative prose separate from narrative prose.  This consideration helps the reader.  To whomsoever compiled the Koran these principles meant nothing.  The Koran lards non-narrative exposition into its narratives – promiscuously and confusingly from a readerly point of view.  A properly chronological narrative can, by a difficult labor, be reconstructed from the Koran’s chapters or surahs, borrowing the history of prophecy from the Old Testament, but the naïve Western reader who proceeds from one surah to another will encounter no orderly arrangement of episodes such as he might expect in the Bible or Homer.

19 thoughts on “Of Possible Interest

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  3. “Under abrogation any contradiction among the surahs must be resolved in favor of the later surah; a later surah, supposing a difference, invalidates an earlier surah. As there are numerous discrepancies among the surahs, the Western reader can only conclude that the Koran is a self-contradictory text.”

    It’s a shame that abrogation has become Catholic doctrine since Vatican II under the name “development of doctrine”, but at least this contempt for logical consistency didn’t happen until after the West’s formative years.

    • Yes. The words of mine that you quote, despite their reference to the Koran, describe leftwing judicial activism to the proverbial T.

  4. A Muslim apologist might say that the fact that the Koran lacks a clear narrative or argument structure is a sign in its favor. All those other works were created, partial revelations written by men for men and thus conforming to the literary conventions agreeable to men, but the Koran is supposed to be the uncreated core dump of the divine intellect so naturally makes no sense to us. Or the Koran is like popping the hood of your car and looking inside. There is an intelligibility to what’s in your car, but not the human intelligibility of a story or explanation (unlike a book about cars).

  5. The Koran describes itself as uncreated and eternal. The “eternal” part would seem to mean unchanging, but abrogation is change. I could never grasp the complexity of a modern, computer-controlled automobile engine, but I’m fairly sure that the V-6 in my new Impala is not continuously modifying itself while I drive!

  6. I’ve only dipped into the Koran, but the parts I’ve read seemed very much like what people who have never read the Bible think the Bible must be like. It was a lot of instructions on how to be a good Muslim. Parts of the Old Testament is like that (Leviticus), and the Puritans tried to read the whole Bible as if it were the Koran, but the difference between the books are more striking than any similarities. As you say, the Bible is ultimately a story, whereas the Koran is something more like an owner’s manual. This isn’t a criticism. There are times I wish our instructions were clearer.

    • There is a booklet by Berdyaev, I don’t know whether an English language translation exists, called “On the perfection of Christianity and the imperfection of Christians” part of witch I think clearly and nicely exposes some of the differences between Christianity on the one side and Islam (and not only Islam) on the other.
      Berdyaev writes:
      “It is usually indicated that the representatives of other religions – Buddhists, Muslims, Jews – in a better and more zealous way keep the vows (or fulfill duties) of their religions. It is also indicated to the fact that people, who completely disbelieve, moreover atheists and materialists, are often better then the Christians, are more loyal to the ideals of their lives, and are more ready to sacrifice. In effect, all the inconsistency of many Christians, all the spiritual uncleanness is contained in the fact that they do not fulfill their Christian vows but fail and distort them.
      Likewise, according to the lack of spirituality in Christians, it is judged upon the reaches of Christianity and about the unbalance of these reaches. But how is it possible to evaluate Christianity according to the lack of spirituality in Christians, if the Christians themselves are being reprimanded for the incompetence and unbalance in their Christian spirituality? Isn’t then clear a contradiction of such a way of thinking!
      If the members of other religions are better than the Christians, if they complete the vows of their religions more zealously, this is because the vows of other religions are easier to complete – because of the extraordinary spiritual highness of Christianity. This means, for example, that it easier to be a Muslim than a Christian, because if the Christian would be as is the Muslim, who is set as an example for the Christian, than he would be a very bad Christian, a Christian that does not fulfill the vows of Christ.”

      • That is well put. I have certainly heard people say that Christians are more lax and disappointing than the faithful of other religions. Sometimes this is just slander. Sometimes it is because they live among Christians, and so are familiar with Christians of all types. And sometimes it may be that they see the problem that Berdyaev explains here.

      • My other spiritual counselor Rene Girard said over and over in different ways that the point of Christian Revelation is not to make life easier — quite the opposite — but to make it better. That goes well with Berdyaev’s incisive paragraph.

      • Dr. Bertonneau:

        My other spiritual counselor Rene Girard said over and over in different ways that the point of Christian Revelation is not to make life easier — quite the opposite — but to make it better.

        I once heard Paul Harvey say on his radio show that ‘even if Jesus Christ wasn’t the Savior of the world, his teachings and precepts are still the best way for people to live; that if everyone would strive to live by them, the world would be a much better place.’

        I took it at the time that that was something of a common theme of Harvey’ s on his radio show, but I wasn’t an avid listener so I couldn’t say one way or the other.

        About 30 years ago one of Ellen G. White’s books came into my possession. I don’t recall the title off the top of my head, but it was a fairly sizable volume containing maybe 500 pages or so. Seventh Day Adventism always struck me as sort of fringe and looney, but I recall reading from that book White’s admonishment that if you’re not being persecuted for your faith and are having an ‘easy’ time of it, then you’d best better do some serious introspection and reassess your commitment to Christ’s teachings. That admonishment has stuck with me all these years.

        In any case, it seems to me that Girard and Harvey, and even White, were all right in what they said on those particular points. Christian precepts are hard to live up to. Persecution of one form or another (or just plain ol’ ridicule) is very often the result of merely striving to live up to them.

        Jesus got to the heart of the matter of spiritual impurity, and as such merely to look upon a woman with lust in your heart is counted as adultery; being angry with someone without a cause is tantamount to murder, and so on. That’s tough medicine, brothers, but in the spirit of Girard and Harvey, if we would all strive to live by those precepts, the world would be a much better place than it is. Indeed, I should think the world a much better place to live certain persons do strive to live by those precepts. Pretty sure I wouldn’t care to live in a world in which Christians did not exist. The only analog to such a world that I can think of is a super max prison. Which must be like Hell on earth, albeit certain persons confined to such environments likely prefer to be confined to such environments. But I digress. Good discussion.

  7. ‘…the Koran is something more like an owner’s manual.’
    It is a manual for those who wish to own what they do not,
    along with authorisation to kill and steal to achieve this.
    ‘This isn’t a criticism.’
    Why not?

  8. The Qur’an as we know it is likely a compromise-redaction from the outcomes of the civil wars. What was collected were pericopes from within and without the mu’min community intended to be universally binding on both the believers and the whole of the Muslim state; which is why most of the surahs read as if they are rhetorical-tags of one faction over another (to commission a surah as some of the caliphs surely did was another way of expressing that ‘me and my boys are in charge now’.) A tiny portion of it probably does date back to Qutham (Muhammed) but I imagine the man and his message were prophetic only in the same, attenuated sense that one would consider extending that title to Joshua or Constantine. He was probably more like an archaic-patriarchal figure from an antique community of believers which shared in a pan-semetic milieu which had all but died off at that point and the surahs from his era are probably the quirat of those old beliefs .
    The Greeks were probably right in chronicling that the warrior-prophet was in charge of two communities initially, a Jewish one and an Arab-Abrahamic one but the dividing line was probably more like a sort of para-judaism/a strain of apocalyptic judaism long in dialogue with one another than one along a definitive Issac/Ishamel axis.
    I think we can glean this in the text, however faint, and it all but disappears with the influx of incorporating others into the raiding camps, conquests and civil wars. I also don’t think Quathem was all that aware of Christianity when he initially set out, but probably had to (or his followers had to) engage it as they went along. It’s why the Qur’an so easily adopts such large chunks from the Christian biblical and extra-biblical milieu while also remaining rather aloof to those traditions [despite the best efforts of revisionists to place Islam within a Christian context (or the much fabled Jewish-Christian tradition) earlier than the conquests.] The same may be true of the broader currents of 7th century Judaism and what remained of antiquity.

  9. The irony is rich. Gnostic metaphysics centers around a False God subverting the pure Creation of the True God, and Gnostic doctrines are written as pugnacious derivatives of original revelatory Scriptures. Evil cannot create, only deform and destroy.

    • Eric Voegelin saw in the liberal-modern dispensation precisely what you so clearly see in Gnosticism, which is why he characterized modernity as Gnostic. And very plausibly so, in my judgment.

  10. In the full article you mention the topic of Jesus’ parables. It is very interesting how much work the reader has to do with regard to them. Fundamentalists must just ignore them or, more likely, pretend they have an entirely straightforward meaning that all must agree about; in which case, why bother using parables at all?

    Jewish law, I have the impression, not knowing much about it, is a series of injunctions about how to act – the Koran too. Christianity, by contrast, seems much more organic; the “living word” perhaps – appealing to right hemisphere intuition as well rather than just plain as day instructions and imperatives. (And no, I haven’t forgotten about the ten commandments).

    • The parabolic style is opposite to barking out orders: It generously assumes the ability of the ordinary person to think his way to a distinction between good and evil, right and wrong. As JM Smith wrote above, Christianity shifts an enormous responsibility to human beings, to the challenge of which they mostly fail to rise.

      • I read your article at Gates of Vienna with great interest. Thank you for this contribution. Though Islam is not particularly representative of the area I am engaged with professionally (East Asia), I have at times been moved by curiosity to learn more about it, and picked up a copy of the Koran (the same Penguin edition you cite). Reading it–or, rather, attempting to read it–I immediately encountered things I had not expected. Among those are the non-narrative (or anti-narrative) style you mention, but even more than that I was surprised to see the way familiar Biblical figures and stories were recast in such a jarring manner. I was in graduate school at the time, and asked a Muslim student I knew what kind of textual history or background such accounts had. He had struck me more as secular than pious, so I was taken aback at his indignant response: “There is no textual history! The Koran was revealed perfectly, down to the very word!” At any rate, I’ve never been able to get past the first few surahs.
        I never encountered such problems when I have read Buddhist sutras, many of which I find very engaging. And many of the sutras also make use of parables, like the parable of the burning house in the Lotus Sutra. Not all non-Western texts are as unreadable as the Koran. But I had never considered the possibility of the Koran’s connection to Gnosticism, or of how that might have contributed to the extreme insider-outsider divide one sees in Islam. Maybe I’ll try again to read the Koran with that in mind.

  11. @Roger. Buddhism, especially the Mahayana School, is partly a Greek invention; many of the Buddhist monasteries in Central Asia were Greek-speaking. This is why Buddhism was known and studied in Alexandria within a century after the death of Alexander. Buddhism might well belong to the West. Mahayana Buddhism is as close, I would say, to Christianity, as Neo-Platonism.


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