Book Review: The Koran

UnknownHaving enjoyed great success with his first book, The Bible, God followed up (after a gap of centuries; writer’s block?) with The Koran.

I am cognizant that Muslims hold the book sacred. But all ideas offered in the public square should be subject to critical examination. This does not mean disrespecting people holding the ideas; the issue instead is what others should think. Thus, after reading it, I present my objective review of The Koran.

Muslims consider it God’s (Allah’s) word, transmitted to the prophet Mohammad, over two decades. Mohammad preached it but wrote down little or nothing; followers compiled the book after his death. It’s not a sequel to The Bible; indeed, a very different book. Whereas The Bible was written mainly in the third person, The Koran is mostly in the first person, with God directly addressing the reader (or hearer). images-4And while The Bible is full of narrative story-telling, The Koran is mainly exhortation. It does rehash some biblical stories, like Noah, Joseph, and (especially) Moses*, but only in disjointed bits and pieces interspersed among other matter.

We are often told the book’s poetic language (in Arabic) is beautiful. I can’t say; I read a translation by N.J. Dawood (Penguin edition) and if there was linguistic beauty it didn’t come through. But I will say the book could have used a good editor. It’s way overlong, completely disorganized, and numbingly repetitive.

The Koran sets forth a lot of rules, such as for inheritance and marriage; but unfortunately doesn’t deign to explain any rationales for them, so they come across as rather arbitrary. A widow must wait four months and ten days before making the scene again. Four months might seem reasonable, but why the ten days? God doesn’t tell us.

Curiously, while stating that some verses have precise meaning, the book does acknowledge opacity in others, whose explanation unbelievers will maliciously demand – “But no one knows its meaning except God.” (3:8) (It’s a mystery, you see; just get with the program.)

images-5Christians may be pleased to see some praise of Jesus as a prophet; but the author denies paternity, saying “God forbid” he should have had a son. And while The Koran does talk a lot about treating others fairly and kindly, it certainly doesn’t incorporate Jesus’s message. Turn the other cheek? No – “If anyone attacks you, attack him as he attacked you.” (2:194) And “Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it.” (2:216) And “If you do not go to war, [God] will punish you sternly.” (9:39)

Religion of peace? I  think not.

But mainly the author pounds away relentlessly on two basic themes: (1) how great he is; and especially (2) unbelievers are “evil-doers” who will be punished severely.

images-6As to the first, he claims omniscience and omni-potence; he knows all, and can do anything. It’s mostly braggadocio; much more telling than showing. He insists he is greatly to be feared. “Fear God” is repeated endlessly. And yet he also repeatedly says he’s merciful and forgiving; it’s even okay to break his rules, if you have a reasonable excuse.

But the one thing he’s unforgiving about is unbelief. This he hammers on so compulsively – unbelievers will get “woeful punishment,” “grievous punishment,” etc. – that he can’t go very long without bringing it up, sometimes irrelevantly while talking about something else. images-3“Unbelievers will be punished” – that’s The Koran in a nutshell. It’s kind of bizarre, really, con-sidering all the awful atrocities people commit – the “foulest deeds” can be forgiven, if you fear God – while he positively obsesses over disbelief. This is “thought crime” par excellence. In a rational appraisal, surely a mere personal belief (or disbelief), even if mistaken, cannot be the most heinous of human crimes.

Joe Schmoe

Joe Schmoe

I’m not a trained psychiatrist, but all of this smacks of a monumental insecurity complex. Why else the unrelenting assertions of his greatness and power, the “Fear God” refrain, and especially the fanatical concern over people’s belief? Why even create a book like this? Why would he care? If omniscient God knows he exists, and can smite anyone with a finger flick, what difference does it make whether Joe Schmoe believes it? If God is so great, we humans would be as vermin to him. Sane people don’t obsess over whether termites believe they exist and fear them.

Of course, The Koran was given through Mohammad as God’s mouthpiece. And if God’s obsession with disbelief makes no sense, it would have made perfect sense for Mohammad, who was literally fighting a war to put his new religion across among a skeptical people. In fact, The Koran sometimes acknowledges how hearers scoff at what Mohammad is saying; the answer (again) is that they will burn. Mohammad’s role also explains, of course, all the book’s exhortations to battle.

The Koran asserts, at various points, that the book itself is such a marvel that no human could have produced any of it. I would say it’s so uninspired and uninspiring that no god could have produced it. imagesJust like The Bible, the book can be understood only as the self-interested work of its very human authors, not of some deity who, if he did do it, would be absurd. To believe he’s behind these books is an insult to God.

* At least Joseph Smith, in the Book of Mormon, made up new stories.

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20 Responses to “Book Review: The Koran”

  1. Pierre Lagacé Says:

    As someone who was baptised when he was a few hours old, I have been reflecting a lot about my religion and that of others.

    A lot of things don’t make sense.

    One makes sense.
    Love thy neighbor…

    This should be simple enough for all to understand.

  2. The Leather Library Says:

    great review, a thoughtful and honest analysis. Great!

  3. rationaloptimist Says:

    Pierre, not all neighbors are lovable. I would say you needn’t love them — just leave them alone. If everyone did at least that, the world would be a much better place.

  4. Pierre Lagacé Says:

    Loving neighbors was a figure of speech. I had neighbors who I disliked immensely, but in my immense wisdom left them alone. Sometimes you can win them all by just loving them and helping them.

    IMHO… your post was great.

  5. Gregg Millett Says:

    “Book Review” — I love it. I’ll take it off my “need to read” list.

  6. anon Says:

    As a Muslim, first, I want to thank you for attempting to read the Quran. It is a difficult book and if you have read all of it–then I commend you. Some of the Arabic words in the Quran are “concept-words” and are defined in the Quran itself—however, this aspect is often lost in translation. Also, like Hebrew, Arabic has a “root-word” system which adds depth of meaning to the words—this too is lost in translation—it is one reason why sacred texts are difficult to understand.

    For example—the translation “fear of God”—In Arabic the word is “Taqwa” and the nearest English word would be “awe” but it would be understood in the Arabic as—“love of God coupled with the fear of disappointing God”. The person who has “taqwa”/love of God is a “Mutaqeen”—a concept word often translated into English as “Believer”. This concept-word is defined in the early verses of Surah 2. Another concept-word defined in Surah 2 is “Kaffir” which is often translated as “unbeliever”—but actually means—one who rejects truth after knowing it out of ungratefulness—the word was used in pre-Islamic times to denote “farmer” because its meaning is “one who covers up with dirt”—and symbolizes a person covering up truth (self-deception) for convenience.

    The stories from the Torah are brief as you noted—this is because they are trying to make an ethico-moral point—which is different from the purpose of these stories in the Torah—which are for “remembrance”—the most important objective of Judaism. The most important theme—and one on which all ethico-moral principles are based is called Tawheed in Islam.

    I

  7. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thank you very much for providing a serious, temperate, and informative response. I realize that my view of the Koran would be considered offensive by some Muslims. Obviously, translation is an issue. But in any case, the book looks very different to one who comes to it with no preconceptions, as opposed to someone brought up in the religion educated to consider it divine. The same of course is true regarding Christians and The Bible.

  8. anon Says:

    I appreciate that your response to the Quran was honest and questioning.

    “consider it divine”—that may depend on the definition of “Divine”—if Divine is understood as God/God-like, then No, For Muslims to consider it “divine” would go against the core belief of Tawheed . (Tawheed=Unity). On the other hand, if “divine” is understood as sacred—then yes, the Quran is sacred(respected.)

    The translations—of the Quran are considered “Tafsir” (exegesis) and not the Quran itself—because the bias of the translator comes through. Usually Muslims read the Quran with Tafsir (exegesis) because historical context is important in understanding the meaning and purpose of many of the verses. (such as the battle-verses you mentioned—the ethico-moral principle is that human beings must not be passive in the face of oppression and injustice—but must always strive towards liberty, justice and equality, even if this means a battle in order to defend it. The Quran came over an approx 20 year period and events that occurred during that time are addressed…..)

    Repetition—As you mentioned, there is a lot of it. The Quran was initially meant to be heard not read—so it uses imagery and juxtaposition to create an emotional response in the listener. (for example, images of paradise and hell come consecutively and the contrast aims to create a shock response in the listener)

    It is important that Muslims read the Quran in the best possible context and meaning so that it is not misused for harm. (However, non-muslims will not have any use for the Quran so how they read and understand it is upto them)

    Thankyou for giving me the opportunity to explain some aspects of the Quran.

  9. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thank you. As for battle verses, my blog readers know I’m no pacifist, and I do endorse fighting for liberty and justice. However, such was not the battling the Koran concerned itself with — rather, the war of Mohammad and his followers to spread their religion. And unfortunately, it’s a fact that a significantly disproportionate share of the modern world’s violent conflicts involve Muslims, and a lot of it is basically religious conflict. Not good.

  10. ninasusan Says:

    Enjoyed reading your perspective. I’m sure there are many you will anger…take shelter…they will fight even though they don’t want to fight

  11. anon Says:

    May I take your response as an invitation for further dialogue?
    if so…….
    “…battling the Koran concerned itself with”—
    1)There are non-Muslim historians that differ from your view—Such as Fred Donner, Richard Bulliet, Karen Armstrong…and if you want a Muslim perspective of our History there is Khalid Blankenship. Donner, Bulliet and Blankenship have (free)lectures on net (videos) of this topic.
    2) If you closely examine the Quran verses in Arabic—they differ from your view as well….Please allow me to explain briefly……
    You mentioned 2:194—the “battle verses” in this section begin with verse 190-195. They (194 in particular) are concerned with a pre-Islamic practice of forbidding war during the pilgrimage (The Kaba in Mecca was a place of pilgrimage for many outlying tribes and communities)—so the Quran in 194 mentions the prohibited months and that if the Meccans attack during this time, the Medinians are allowed to defend themselves. At the time of this Surah, the Meccans were attacking the Medinian community in several battles—624 CE Battle of Badr, 625 CE, Battle of Uhud, 627 CE Battle of the Trench—which all culminated in the Peace treaty of Hudaibiya–628 CE.
    I am reproducing a Yusuf Ali translation of verse 194 and giving an opinion on other verses for consideration.
    Surah 2 verse 194

    194 The prohibited month for the prohibited month,- and so for all things prohibited,- there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, Transgress you likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.

    The verses before and after verse 194 provide some context—

    193–And fight them on until there is no more Tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah; but if they cease, Let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression.

    Note:—the Arabic word used here is “deen”(translated above as “justice”)—often translated in other translations as “religion” but in Arabic means a way of life based on ethics, morality, and justice.

    195 And spend of your substance in the cause of Allah, and make not your own hands contribute to (your) destruction; but do good; for Allah loves those who do good.

    Note: the people are reminded of charity and doing good even as they prepare to defend against injustice. This is because “worship”(Arabic–Ibadah) is understood as “good actions” and in Islam good intentions and good actions are the path to salvation.

    Conflicts involving Muslims—There are many opinions….
    Robert Pape has a book Dying to win as well as a website that shows research about suicide attacks. His research (with evidence) shows that these attacks are politically motivated. It also shows that Muslims are not the only ones involved—nor are they the largest group.
    Many of the conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan have been direct wars or proxy wars involving the West—therefore, one might propose that the “West” has a violent ideology/nature?
    identity conflicts—many conflicts do involve religious identity—but there are also conflicts involving ethnic identity, national identity or racial identity. Identity conflicts are not unique to Muslims. (not excusing it—identity conflicts are not right—only offering a different perspective for your consideration)

    I could explain more—if you have further questions/comments…..

  12. rationaloptimist Says:

    The “West” — and democratic nations — do not go looking for violent conflicts with nations that are bothering nobody. Such nations don’t fight each other. All war in the modern world is down to undemocratic regimes and they way they behave. A highly disproportionate number of remaining undemocratic regimes are in the Muslim world, and they are the causes of a highly disproportionate number of the world’s violent conflicts. Is it just a coincidence that these nations happen to be Muslim?

  13. anon Says:

    “The “West” — and democratic nations — do not go looking for violent conflicts with nations that are bothering nobody.”
    —It may appear this way—but “bothering” is subjective and the West most certainly goes readily to war when it feels it is to their benefit. They also use ideology (democracy) as justification (though the actual benefit may be elsewhere—such as resources) —a couple of examples of going to war “for democracy” are Vietnam and Iraq. In proxy wars—they create “bother” so others go to war on their behalf (Afghanistan is one of many examples) Then there are the covert wars beginning with South America but also in other geographical areas—the overthrow of democracy so that “Western” puppets can implement west-favored policies…….

    It is natural that the history we are taught in schools favors the particular national narrative…everyone prefers to be the “good-guy” after all. But…may I suggest a look at history through a non-western perspective?……..

    Undemocratic regimes—I do not favor dictatorships/military rule. I think ALL human beings have the right to choose their destiny–whether it be the course of their own lives or the course of their nation. I also believe that ALL human beings gravitate towards social constructs that gives them autonomy and empowerment—it is human nature. Therefore, any form of governing that strips people of autonomy and empowerment will automatically create resistance in that society. (—and therefore conflict)
    However, even with democracy, many of these regions (both Muslim and Non-Muslim—in the “non-west”) will have some conflict—This is because much of the non-west was colonized. One of the policies the west implemented was “divide and conquer” in which enmity between different ethnicities was fostered in order to use one group against the other for political and power advantage. In some countries–an “ethnically other” were imported so as to create enemy groups—maps were often redrawn to include the ethnical other….etc (identity conflicts)

    If we as human beings are to strive for justice, we need to change our paradigm from an us=good/you=bad dichotomy to one that sees all humanity as family with their rights and dignity respected……

    There are many “reasons”/justifications for conflict—some may be propaganda others may be genuine—but conflict is not unique to a particular group of humans—it is widespread among humanity—given a choice between resolving a difference/problem through conflict or through justice—there will always be some among us humans who will choose conflict.

  14. frank S. Robinson Says:

    If all nations in the world were democratic — and by that I mean democratic in culture, not merely holding elections — there would be no wars. Democratic nations do not go to war against each other. All wars have bad, undemocratic government at their root. And, sorry to say, Muslim nations seem to have a particular problem in this respect. Look at Egypt, trying to outlaw a major segment of society (the Muslim Brotherhood). An insane incitement to violent conflict.

  15. Bumba Says:

    Hats off for reading the entire book. I’ve tried a number of times and couldn’t get very far. I’ve never understood the need to praise God so excessively. If He is really so omnipotent, why would praise from mere mortals have any effect? I guess it doesn’t cost any money to cajole and flatter Him. It’s a feeling of inferiority – and feelings of jealousy too – that underlies a lot of religious “fervor”.
    Still, the major religions have had some positive effect. They’ve built some fine mosques and temples, the Vatican art collectiion, etc.

  16. frank S. Robinson Says:

    And tortured and murdered millions. But, yes, the art and architecture are nice.

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  18. Anonymous Says:

    errr…Just No ! – immature arrogant spiel . Who are you – an elderly erudite professor of comparative religion ? ( no I thought not – LOL ) – go play Nintendo please .

  19. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thanks for your intelligent response.

  20. Louis Prefers Anonymity Says:

    Sadly, intelligence is not a guarantee of sentience. The Koran does contain many references to homicide against nonbelievers and disparaging references to women, these facts cannot be disputed or dismissed by interpretive or translation explanations. ISIS has not reinvented Islam, they are practicing slavery, kidnapping and human sacrifice of nonbelievers within a historical context. Look back to the Barbary Wars for context as one example of the continuity of violent behavior within Islam (American ships and seaman held for ransom).
    I very much enjoyed the blog, particularly Anon’s thoughtful comments and analysis, however he is wrong about ” ALL human beings gravitate towards social constructs that gives them autonomy and empowerment—it is human nature.” We are a herd species and we follow leaders, usually groups of men as leaders who have the authority to impose nasty consequence on individuals who don’t cooperate and war against other countries so they can get more stuff (money, land, resources, whatever). Nazi Germany is a good example of this dynamic, so is Islam, so is the Military Industrial complex in the USA and other countries.
    The Koran is not at fault, we need to evolve beyond a herd species and that requires going beyond the assumption of sentience, but the practice of sentience. Members of Islam can only stop the violence when they are willing as individuals to admit there is a problem, but that is dangerous and requires great courage because it can get you killed. Similarly, the USA will only stop exporting war and the weapons of war for profit when citizens admit there is a problem and demand a shift in corporate culture from greed to kindness.
    There will always be violence within a group or herd dynamic where people follow men exclusively as leaders. More women in positions of power is needed and a greater expectation on individual choices.
    there should be no war and poverty and as a family we should be reaching for the stars, not killing each other.
    Sadly, intelligence is not a guarantee of sentience.

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