Qur’an in Context
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.
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.
Qur’an is a scripture for those with their backs against the wall.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?’
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.