The Koran (Penguin Classics)

The Koran - N.J. Dawood, Anonymous This is a must-read whether you’re an atheist, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan--whatever. Followers of Islam number one-and-a-half billion people--they’re the second most populous faith in the world and their impact on history has been profound. I believe that anyone that doesn’t read the Jewish and Christian Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads (sacred to 900 million Hindus and among the oldest written works) and at least try to get their message is going to be handicapped in understanding the world around them. Christians should also be interested in how the Koran incorporates stories from the Bible: Adam, Noah, Jonah, Mary and Jesus--they’re all in there. (Although I prefer the stories in the original source.) I’m an atheist, but I did rate the Bible five stars without reservations and meant it. Not only because it’s essential reading given it’s sacred to 2 billion Christians, the largest world faith, not only because it is one of the oldest writings, giving us an insight into the origins of what it means to be human, but because, in essence, the Bible is not a book--it’s a library--a collection of great poetry and stories. The Koran is different. Both on Goodreads and Librarything we’re forced to give the authorship of any works held as sacred as “anonymous” but from both a secular and religious point of view that just isn’t accurate. In the case of the Bible, the books in it all have traditional ascriptions. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible are believed by the faithful to have been written by Moses, the other books are usually named after their purported authors. From a secular point of view, although scholars might dispute authorship, it’s like the case with Homer. Many scholars believe that the Iliad and the Odyssey were written 300 years apart, but we give the traditional authorship as Homer for both because it’s convenient and we don’t know better. Jews and Christians alike don’t believe the Bible is written by God--the faithful believe it’s inspired by God, so from both the believing and skeptic point of view the authorship of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is “various.” It’s different with the Koran. Mohammed’s claim is that he was reciting the direct word of God as given him by the angel Gabriel. So from the point of view of the believing Muslim, the author of the Koran is God. But for a nonbeliever like me, it’s obviously by one man--Mohammed--who lived from 570 to 632 AD. And judging this book by a secular standard, no I can’t see it as equal to the Bible. Now, I recognize I do have handicaps evaluating this book. Atheist I might be, but growing up in America I was raised in a Catholic household, educated in Catholic institutions, and surrounded by a dominant Christian culture. I had to take catechism to receive Communion and take classes in Religion to graduate my high school and college. It meant I had a cultural context and familiarity with the Bible well before I ever decided to read it cover to cover. I didn’t and don’t really have that with Islam. For a believing Muslim, reading the Koran in translation as I did means I didn’t really read the Koran. Remember, Mohammed’s claim is that he was reciting the word of God--in Arabic. But The Koran just didn’t appeal to me, even comparing it to other sacred texts. It’s pretty rambling and unstructured, really a collection of sayings of the Prophet. It’s composed of “suras,” 114 verses on various subjects, and traditionally not ordered thematically, although that’s an order imposed in Dawood’s popular translation, which I own. The longest sura, “The Cow” runs to about 30 pages in my paperback edition but the rest are about ten pages at the longest, and many suras consist of only a few lines. It’s not unlike Confucius’ Analects in that structure. Although while the Analects expressed a philosophy too authoritarian for my tastes, at least it only claimed to simply be derived from his own wisdom and that of previous sages--not the word of God, and it eschewed the supernatural. And goodness knows the God of the Bible can be wrathful and misogynistic, but The Koran? There’s this fairly obscure sura, Number 111, known as “Fibre” cursing Mohammed’s uncle who opposed him: May the hands of Abu-Lahab perish! May he himself perish! Nothing shall his wealth avail him. He shall be burnt in a flaming fire, and his wife, laden with faggots, shall have a rope of fibre round her neck! That’s the sura in its entirety. Sounds pretty petty and vindictive for the word of an eternal, just, benevolent God. There’s also the infamous “Verse of the Sword” taken as a justification for Jihad: Slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them. (Sura 9:5 “Repentence”) I read things like that and I couldn’t help but think of Jesus urging people to forgive their enemies and turn the other cheek. Or of passages in the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching speaking of the futility of war or that it’s the person without virtue who is consumed with exacting vengeance. There may be countless references in The Koran to God’s mercy and compassion, but that’s not the spirit I read in it reading it cover to cover. Never mind that a man shall inherit twice as much as a female (Sura 4:11 “Women”) and the testimony of a man is worth that of two women. (Sura 2:282 “The Cow”) Given the world we find ourselves in, I actually wanted to find much good in The Koran. But, even knowing the vagaries of translation and interpretation, I can’t read this book and and honestly claim my overall impression was in any way positive. And on Goodreads, at least, one star means "didn't like"--so if I'm going to be honest in my ratings, that's the one that fits.