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The Qur’an in Context 

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 By: James Byrne

To Muhammad’s companions the revelations given to him must have been a great source of strength.  They were men with their backs to the wall, fighting for their very survival.  At the battle of Uhud they nearly failed; those deployed to guard the rear of the force turned back to count the spoils.  Muhammad’s leadership alone saved them from defeat.  The revelations given to Muhammad gave them courage: this was the turning-point. Without these revelations they would have vanished into history, and nothing more would have been heard of them. 

If you read the Qur’an in your mother-language, the tongue in which you were brought up to understand the world, you can understand the hard place in which this text was wrought.  You can understand the constant reference to the difference between us and those who encircle us: ourselves and our enemies.  You can understand the starkness of the writing; the punishments given to the traitor — crucifixion, the severing of hands and feet — and you can understand the promises given to the faithful.  Both paradise and hell are influenced by the harsh geography of the place as well as Muhammad’s unforgiving character.  For the faithful, a land of cool waters, shade, and beautiful women.  For the traitor, a solitary burning under the desert sun and eternal torture. 

The Qur’an is a scripture for those with their backs against the wall. 

The non-muslim reads it as an account of bigotry under harsh circumstances, distant in time.  The Muslim reads it as the epic of courage and the saga of heroism and faith.  This account is spoken by the Creator of the Universe.  It is recited unerringly by his Prophet.  Every word has as much relevance now as it did then.  The sense, and the demands that it makes, are unaltered and unalterable.  The text refers to this world, here and now, this moment. 

That’s the difficulty.  The Word of the Creator is the basis of life itself, and makes its context rather than existing within a context.  A humanly-written text can be examined dispassionately, from a distance.  The Word of the Creator should have no internal inconsistencies: a humanly-written text is likely to be inconsistent.  As it happens, the Qur’an has many inconsistencies.  Muhammad himself was aware of this.  Scholars attempt to solve these by invoking the doctrine of abrogation (literally, ‘a calling away’) whereby later verses lie over, and replace, earlier ones.  Interestingly, the earlier verses are often milder than the later ones.  This doctrine of abrogation is not really satisfactory, and, however one were to wish it otherwise, begins to assign a quality to the Creator, who should be without qualities.  And it is not a pleasant quality: it is deceitfulness.  

The eternal Word of the Creator, in being the literally truth for all time, should be scientifically valid.  A humanly-written text would be expected to reflect the state of knowledge as it stood during its time.  The Qur’an is unashamedly of its time.  The Creator made everything that exists — the visible cosmos — in a few days.  Living things were made outright.  Evolution of life — now beyond serious dispute — is not considered. In the Qur’an the Heavenly Council is located above the stars, the stars are darts for warding off evil spirits that might approach too closely and the moon is above them.  The earth is flat, and both the sun and the moon run across it.  The Creator sees to it that these luminaries do not collide. This is the standard mythology of the ancient world (and a strange one, actually: anyone who has seen a lunar eclipse would be certain of a spherical moon, and would surely make a good guess at a spherical earth: but perhaps there were religious vetoes on this style of thinking.  But these vetoes should not have troubled the Creator.) 

The Eternal Word, in being literally all-encompassing, should be available for every human being to read, for him or her to live a life by.  An ancient arabic text would be written in the arabic of its time, a form which is more a guide to memory than writing which stands alone.  In fact, scholars tell us that the Qur’an can only be properly understood in the language in which it was written.  No translation, they say, can be accurate.  We pause, and consider this.  Does it seem that yet more qualities are being given to a Creator who should, if infinite, be without the shackles of quality?  Well, it does seem like that.  It means that we can communicate with the Creator only through the mediumship of language, and one that is not our own.  Every language has mannerisms and colours, which intincts [dyes] all that is said in it, and any vision of a Creator, seen through the eyes of one language alone, must have its qualities assigned.   

If the Qur’an is the literal Word of the Creator, surely it must have brought about an immense amount of good to the world during the fourteen centuries of its existence.  On the other hand, a humanly-written book, made long ago for exhortation in a time of strife, if used as a complete guide to a life (both of a person and of a state) surely would be likely to result in misery and suffering.  Let us look at this.  The text of the Qur’an is built round the essential division of us and other, ourselves and our enemies.  So inherent in the text is this notion that, where no enemies exist, they have to be created to fulfil the scripture.  The text had to be directed offensively.  Invasion after invasion followed, and a “civilisation” was built on plunder and slavery.  The invasions were brutal: the Qur’anic distinctions between believer and non-believer was enforced.  The extirpation of innumerable local customs was both methodical and brutal.  Christians and Jews were forced to convert or become inferior citizens.  Zoroastrians and Hindus were not so fortunate.  For them it was flight, conversion or rape, slavery and death.  This is not fantasy.  One can read the Muslims’ own accounts of their deeds during the expansion of their empire.  And they were acting by the letter of the Qur’an.  Who knows how many were killed in the name of Allah?  One hundred million?  Probably more.  Those who use the argument that ‘these events happened in the past’ should consider that they happened in Europe — Armenia — in our parents’ time, and are even happening now in Sudan.  Even in totally Islamic countries the distinction between self and enemy — so essential to the integrity of the Qur’an — continues to govern.  Muslims are killing Muslims in Algeria.  But I don’t want to dwell negatively on these events.  What I would like to ask is this: would they have happened had the Qur’an been the literal and timeless Word of the Creator?  It is a legitimate question to ask.  If the history of Islam is the work of the Divine Word, then it gives the Creator further, and very sinister, qualities. 

If the Qur’an is the literal dictate of the Creator, then believers should be happy and prosperous and Islamic states should be a reflection of heaven on earth.  If a divisive human text, then believers must have the faults of other men and women, and Islamic states be poor and backward — unless, of course, the Creator gains yet another quality: that of having no particular favour for the believer.  In fact, after the initial successes, and after the wealth of the physical and intellectual plunder of the East had run out, Islamic countries began to lapse into stagnation.  To be sure there was poetry, but the best of it was at the very edge of orthodoxy, and there were great discoveries in mathematics, particularly algebra, following the import of the Indian system of number, but innate religious conservatism prevented the spark of new thought from catching fire and these feats were made despite Islam and not because of it.  It was Europe, not Islam, which benefited from the writings of Ibn Rushd — Averroes — and his circle of Islamic philosophers under the Almohade caliphs of El Andalus.  It is probably no exaggeration to say that the foundation of the European Renaissance was laid on the thinking of Muslims like these.  A debt is acknowledged.  But Islam ignored new thinking to its detriment, and it does so still.

 

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A belief-system is a little like a map.  It is a schematic representation of various aspects (though not the totality) of an external world.  Ordinary, everyday people use their map to read the real geography of the territory through which they pass, revising it in the light of evidence and experience.  Islam cannot do this: the untouchable status of its text inverts the importance of world and map.  The map is eternally true, yet the earth, distressingly, does not fit it, and so must be altered.  This earth-moving work is arduous.  Not only does the believer have to contend with the earth’s changing of its own accord: he must also contend with all the changes, which the unbeliever is making through an evidence-based science.  As time elapses, the less accurate becomes the terrain (compared with the enduring accuracy of the map) and the more difficult the task.  Actually, like the scripture itself, it becomes eternal.  

The more rigid the frame of thought, the more strain.  One day the fracture must come.  This is half-apprehended at the back of the mind. 

We are asked not to rely on translations of the Qur’an.  Yet translation is useful in the reading of even those texts with which one is familiar.  Translation can strip away the embroideries of form, the unnecessary poetry so pleasing to the ear, leaving the content exposed but available.  Paradoxically, translation sometimes makes the author’s will easier to see.  With a change of form, hidden aspects of a writing can gain prominence.  And, too, when we read in translation we do not have to rely on experts’ subtly-directed exegeses on texts we don’t understand.  The content of a translated writing can be all too direct.  For centuries the Christian Church kept its scriptures hidden from its people: the real reason for this was that its actions were against the whole tenor of its scriptures.  Islam, for a different reason, wishes to keep the Qur’an hidden from believers.  Its reason is equally clear: the Qur’an is self-evidently a writing of its time.  It would never cross any open mind that the Qur’an might be the eternal dictate of the Creator. 

I would say to anyone — Muslim or non-muslim — who has had the courtesy to reach this point: read the Qur’an in your own language.  Several versions are available on-line.  See for yourself that the secular and the religious translations do not vary that much.  The content is accessible. Compare version with version (but bear in mind that some proselytising versions water down the hand-lopping and wife-beating verses) and ask yourself, honestly: ‘Is this a code I want to live by, now, or is it a piece of writing from centuries ago, put together during a desperate time of conflict and land-hunger?’  

If you hear a scholar say: ‘to read the Qur’an in translation is to take it out of context,’ you may reply: ‘No, it is you who have wrenched it from its context.  It belongs within the context of the seventh century CE, in the context of a land of tribal feuds, alliances and treachery.  That is the only context in which it stands.’  The Qur’an is indeed literal.  The banality of its paradise and the insistence of its hell have human psychology, time and place — temporality itself — written all over them.  It is human.  All too human. 

 

‘I must live by my own system, or I am enslaved by that of another man.’ —William Blake.

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