INITIAL OBSERVATIONS ON THE KORAN: EXHORTATION, REMONSTRATION, AND REVISIONISM.
On a trip to Toronto a while back, I was at a used book store and immediately sought out the religion section, being the hopelessly practicing Roman Catholic boy that I am, and always interested in finding out about other world religions.
At the time, I was in the process of ploughing through my New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which my now dearly-departed mother had given to me as either a birthday or Christmas present many years before. I being the typical Catholic had chosen not to make the effort to read the Good Book cover to cover, as my mother had surely hoped I would, thus confirming the age-old adage that the Bible is the all-time Best-Seller in the world, but the one which is the least-read!
So at some point, in the wake of my mother’s untimely passing in 2008, after a long illness, and after my own spiritual re-awakening and re-discovery of the practice of my faith in the wake of my recovery from addictions and a mental-health condition, I had decided to take my courage in both hands, quite literally, and to read the Bible cover to cover, even if it was to be a very painful and arduous undertaking.
I say this, because I’d attempted this feat some years before, when, being little-initiated to the Sacred Scriptures save for what was read aloud at Sunday Mass and quoted in the public domain, I’d attempted to quite literally begin at Genesis Chapter 1, verse 1, with ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…’, and to try and plough my way all the way to the ‘666, number of the Beast’ stuff in Revelation that just about every 40 something lad my age had heard about, having grown up on a steady diet of Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath records, on top of the usual Yes, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Stones, Beatles, and so on as a teenager and young man.
I quickly ran into a brick wall called the Book of Leviticus which is the third book of the Old Testament and part of the so-called ‘Pentateuch’, or ‘first five’ books of the Bible. I couldn’t believe just how dry and legalistic it was. So I was learning all about how Jews were to do the ritual slaughter of animals, where to spread the blood on the altar, what was clean and unclean, etc, etc…
There were no cool stories of Kings and Queens and prophets fighting epic battles in the name of God and fighting evil-doers and Godless pagans and heathens. It was painfully-boring. Where was the action? It was like I’d bought a ticket to a Hollywood action movie only to find out that the time-lapse in between the shoot ‘em up scenes was way too long, and my attention span was starting to wander badly.
So I’d given up on that venture for some time and hadn’t picked up the Good Book since, until one day, while speaking on the phone with my sister, she recommended that I start by reading the New Testament instead, seeing that it was the word of the New Covenant, having fulfilled the Old, and that it was shorter. Also, she told me sagely, that the stories were more relevant to modern-day living as a Christian, and the vocabulary less dry and heavy.
I tried that, and had a lot more success with it. This also corresponded with my beginning work at my local Parish, where I’d worshiped almost my whole life, taking the job of secretary, and coming into contact with the Parish Priest on a far more regular basis both inside and outside work hours. We ended up having many long theological discussions about the Bible, what was in it, as well as current and previous debates which had raged in the Church throughout history.
I spent most of my bus rides coming into work 3 days a week ploughing through the Old Testaments, which still wasn’t easy after having filled myself with the wisdom of the New Testament’s easier prose. But I noticed that there was plenty of blood and gore in the Old Testament to keep my interest piqued, not to mention that of any potential metal-head who was looking to the Bible for some excitement, in the hopes of eventually being enlightened by the Spirit along the way.
Growing up I’d always heard about teenagers reading the Bible so as to try and find the racy parts that dealt with human sexuality, such as the Song of Solomon or the Song of Songs, there being quite a dearth of pornographic literature in the old days, where one only had the Bible or maybe some of your parent’s old National Geographic magazines lying around to peek at the pictures of naked African tribeswomen with the saggy boobs.
However, much to my surprise, the Bible was also full of very violent stories of wars, genocides, even gang rape, sodomy, even one guy getting offed by a warrior while he was having a bowel movement in the out house, the very gory description being given of his entrails and feces oozing out of him after he’d been disembowelled as he sat there trying to have his daily constitutional!
But through it all, I always got the overarching impression that all these stories, whether they were real, legendary, allegorical, metaphorical, parables, myths, or whatever, always had a moral to them regarding obeying the One True God and doing what was within my power to discern His will for us and to try and obtain the power to carry it out. I came out of the whole 1360+ page experience very much with the impression that God wanted me to know that He exists, that he wants me to praise Him for his great glory and power, and for all the blessings and mercies that he’s bestowed upon humanity and that above all, he wants us to love Him as he has loved us and he wants us to obey his commands.
The overall impression was that those who disobeyed God generally didn’t have a very good outcome, especially if great power and responsibility had been entrusted to them and that they’d abused of that power for personal gain. A reading of both books of Kings bears that out quite eloquently, I should say.
So it was with great trepidation that I began my adventure through the Koran. I didn’t know what to expect. First of all I had to find a reliable and accurate English-language version of this sacred book. As things would have it, my foray to the used book store in Toronto proved to be very fruitful. I found a version called ‘The Koran Interpreted’, by one A.J. Arberry, a noted scholar in his day, who’d done a lot to break down the cultural and linguistic barriers and prejudices which existed in the pre- 20th century western world regarding Arab-Muslim society and religion. Arberry’s translation, according to the preface of the book itself, point to the man and his work being a significant contribution towards intercultural and interfaith understanding in the first half of the 20th century.
The Koran itself is some 758 pages long and is divided into two sections, each divided further into other sections known as ‘Suras’, which are a form of semi-poetic prose, all of which seems to be quite suited to a very triumphalistic, and sometimes shrill-sounding praise of the monotheistic God. It is meant by its tone, it would appear, to be very glorious and pious in its delivery and appears to be designed to be recited out loud in the Mosques to the masses of assembled faithful and driven repeatedly into them like triumphalistically-pious dogma and doctrine to be adhered to unswervingly and unfailingly by those who choose to submit to its tenets.
Islam, after all, means ‘voluntary submission to God’, and in no way is meant to imply a co-relational interface of equals whereby the believer is in some sort of communion with the Almighty. Either you submit to God in Islam or you don’t. The Koran is very clear about what it calls the ‘unbelievers’. They are to be subjugated or killed. There is to be no mercy for them if they do not believe in God.
However, the Koran constantly repeats that God is ‘all merciful, all compassionate’, ‘all knowing, all seeing’, and makes full allowance for those who convert and decide to believe in God. But the unbelievers are essentially toast. There is constant mention of ‘Gehenna’ the place of eternal fire and damnation, which, in ancient times is believed to have been an ancient place outside the walls of old Jerusalem where some pagans or Apostate Israelites sacrificed their children by fire. It has also been speculated for some time that it was a place where heaps of rubbish were kept burning so as to act as a place to cremate the dead, although this hypothesis has since been discounted.
In any case, the reference to Gehenna is definitely a metaphor for ‘Hell’, where the unbelievers will go upon their death whereas the believers will go to a place ‘beneath where rivers flow’.
I’m more than halfway through the Koran now and I’m finding it quite an interesting read. Not quite what I expected. There are few cool stories as such told of David slaying Goliath, or Judith getting all dolled up and getting the Assyrian King hammered, then using his own sword and chopping his head off while he was passed out drunk.
The only time the Koran seems to make reference to stories are in reference to pre-existing Biblical stories related to Abraham, Moses, Joseph, Jesus and Mary. The Koran falls all over itself saying that Jesus was not God the Son, even though he is often referred to as the ‘Messiah’ in the text.
I get the impression that those who wrote the Koran had a definite message to peddle, based on what we believe was divinely-revealed knowledge. Apparently, God spoke directly to the Prophet Mohamed, while he was in an exalted state, over a long period of time, through the intermediary of the angel Gabriel. His words were subsequently recorded by his followers, who watched over him when he was in these states of euphoric exultation. Some of the original Koran was recorded onto parchment, other parts even scribbled onto pieces of tree bark; for fear that the prophet’s words would be lost.
As for the words themselves that the Koran speaks to the reader, be they written by Mohamed or his followers, I’m sure they were divinely-inspired at the outset in some way, shape or form. But just how exactly did Almighty God reveal himself to Mohamed and why has there been this contradiction in what was revealed to him and to the Apostles?
What I can say is that the Koran too exhorts its followers to obey God and to be subject to Him. It also admonishes all those who stray from obedience and submission to do God’s will, so there is quite a resemblance to the message of both the Bible and the Koran.
After going more than half the way through, I’m not quite sure what the rest of the book has in store for me, but something tells me that it well may resemble the contents of the first half. My foray into a used book store in Toronto may have initially been somewhat innocuous, but it has since revealed itself to be rather instructive in the realm of the comparative and contrasting study of religion and faith.
I’m still the hopelessly practicing Roman Catholic that I always was, but now I have a better understanding and appreciation of another of the three monotheistic religions which have descended from Abraham, our father in faith.