Sunday, October 17, 2010

Book Review: A Simple Koran

A Simple Koran: The Reconstructed Historical Koran edited by Bill Warner (2006) [The subtitle appears to have changed to "Readable and Understandable" and the number of pages increased from 393 to 410.] Produced by the Center for the Political Study of Islam.

I came across this version of the Koran (aka Qur'an) while cruising blogs and decided to read it. According to the editor, its goal is to make the Koran accessible to non-believers. A standard translation is difficult to follow because first, many passages concern events whose details are in separate texts (the Sira, Mohammed's biographies, and the Hadith, scholarly traditions). Second, the Koran is arranged in the order of longest chapter to shortest, i.e. neither in the order Mohammed originally recounted them nor in the order of the events they were related to! The historical order is known however and the editor(s) have attempted to make the Koran readable by reintroducing this order.

I tried to get the story of the original arrangement of the Koran straight and it appears that there are many versions of this kicking around. According to A Simple Koran, the Koran was re-arranged by Uthman (the 3rd caliph) 20 years after Mohammed's death, after which Uthman himself burned all the original materials he had gathered. According to the hadith Uthman was asked to prepare a definitive Koran after differing recitations caused arguments (while assembling Syrian and Iraqi troops for a war against Armenia and Azerbijan). There were written Korans and Korans recited from memory. The memorized ones were inconveniently disappearing in various wars. The differences among the several versions were minor (e.g. difference in word choice or in the relative importance of different prayers). This is somewhat controversial, but I think if there were more substantive differences that Uthman ultimately suppressed there would have been major Koranic schisms. Uthman gathered the written and memorized versions, had Zaid compare them and correct in Mohammed's Qurayshi dialect where conflicts existed, arrange them and send out the new official copies. Uthman then ordered any extant materials burned (omg burning Korans!) and returned at least Hafsa's original, which was later burned by her heir. I have not yet found an independent confirmation that there was a Koran with historically ordered chapters before Uthman. I don't know if Uthman re-ordered the chapters or simply maintained the already a-historical ordering from the oral tradition. The Encyclopedia Britannica online tells a version of all this and contains the following (unreferenced) statement: "According to traditional Islamic authorities, the ordering of the chapters also was revealed to the Prophet and is not an ad hoc arrangement made by later scribes, as is claimed by many Western scholars." (The longest to shortest ordering even has a plausible explanation. You could imagine that Mohammed's followers upon hearing each new revelation, simply added it to the front of the existing revelations. This would aid the task of memorization as well as give rise to the longest to shortest ordering since Mohammed's earlier revelations were shorter and later ones longer. And how could there be a doctrine of abrogation, if there wasn't at least an approximate historical order?) It seems more likely to me that Uthman didn't significantly reorder the Koran because that would have made the task of re-memorizing it a pain and given rise to other schisms. Mohammed was after all dead and the doctrine was not supposed to be altered.

This background issue aside, the motive of A Simple Koran is clear: make it readable. It attempts this by re-ordering the chapters to match the events in Mohammed's life and by including explanatory biographical chapter introductions and intervening passages. In this respect it succeeds. I found it quite readable, boring during the long repetitive sections on certain themes but fascinating when historical events were juxtaposed with Koranic declarations in rapid succession. I doubt I could have stuck it out or made sense of it without the backdrop of the events in Mohammed's life that the passages related to, like proselytizing in Mecca, caravan raids, forming alliances with Jews in Medina, marrying his daughter-in-law, etc.

With regard to the editing, I have a couple complaints. The explanatory passages explicitly reference the Sira or Hadith. At first I thought they were direct quotes, but then realized they were paraphrased. Further on I realized that some weren't even paraphrased. They were editorial opinions. So its not always clear who's speaking in the non-Koranic sections of the book. There's also the lack of clarity I discuss above regarding Uthman's reording of the Koran and how the editors ordered this one, which is not spelled out sufficiently (e.g. how is it that sura 6 first shows up on page 110 and last on page 220?). I suspect the chapters were simply separated according to whether they were revealed in Mecca or in Medina and then arranged thematically within each of those broad time periods. Lastly, I understand that the Arabic Koran is very poetic. The translation used in A Simple Koran is not. How the translation was done or selected is not discussed by the editor. Robert Spencer (in the course of defending Pamela Geller) discusses differences among translations. I quote his discussion here to give you a flavor of how different translations can be.
... the great scholars A. J. Arberry and Richard Bell. Both are indeed great scholars, and the integrity of their Qur'an translations cannot be impugned. I have loved Arberry's for many years, and wrote this about it here several years ago:

For years I have liked Arberry's for its audacious literalism and often poetic English. Compare, for example, 81:15-18:

فَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِالْخُنَّسِ الْجَوَارِ الْكُنَّسِ وَاللَّيْلِ إِذَا عَسْعَسَ وَالصُّبْحِ إِذَا تَنَفَّسَ

...Pickthall: "Oh, but I call to witness the planets, the stars which rise and set, and the close of night, and the breath of morning..." Arberry: "No! I swear by the slinkers, the runners, the sinkers, by the night swarming, by the dawn sighing..." Shades of the Symbolists. Arberry gives a hint of how the book sounds in Arabic, in which it is full of beguiling rhymes and rhythms.

Arberry's is an outstanding and accurate translation. Arberry, however, was not a Muslim, and accordingly his translation is not often used by Muslims, and when a non-Muslim cites it or other translations written by non-Muslims (such as N. J. Dawood's excellent edition for Penguin), Islamic apologists tend to dismiss it with the palpably false mystification that a non-Muslim cannot be trusted to render the Qur'an accurately or adequately. Thus in order to take that rhetorical weapon out of their hands, I generally use translations written by Muslims and for Muslims in my work, and these are the ones generally also used and cited by Muslims themselves.

For example, the USC-MSA's popular and useful online reference site now disingenuously entitled "Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement" offers three Qur'an translations by three Muslims: Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, and M. H. Shakir. All of these are flawed in various ways. Shakir's depends heavily on Pickthall's and Ali's. Ali's is the most transparently apologetic whitewash: in Qur'an 4:34, the verse enjoining the beating of disobedient women, he has "beat them (lightly)," although "lightly" does not appear in the Arabic. Both Ali's and Pickthall's are written in a stilted pseudo-King James Bible English that frequently cloaks in obscurity passages that are hair-raising in Arabic.

...even the best, most literal translation of the Qur'an does not give the full flavor of some phrases and passages, since the general English reader will not be aware of their precise theological significance in Islam. For example, the phrase "strive in the path of Allah," which appears in numerous places and various permutations in the Qur'an, refers in Islamic theology specifically to fighting hot war, with weapons, not metaphorical verbal conflict or some other kind of conflict. But unless one is reading along with commentaries, this phrase will look more like a pious exhortation to be more religious than a call to take up arms.
A Simple Koran's translation of the passage quoted by Spencer is (from page 23):
81:15 It does not matter that I swear by the planets that rise and set, and by the night as it slips away, and by the dawn as it brightens.
Enough with the editorial and translation issues though. What about the meaning of the Koran itself? My focus in reading it was on peace and tolerance. According to George W. Bush, "Islam is peace" right? (The verse Bush quotes in the linked press conference, 30:10, means: those that reject Allah will come to an evil end. This is his support for the assertion that Islam had nothing to do with 9/11?)

The Koran has early passages from Mecca, when Mohammed was powerless and had few followers, and later passages from Medina, when Mohammed commanded a considerable army of followers ultimately expanding into all of the Arabian peninsula.

In the early Meccan chapters, Mohammed spends his time trying to gain converts, convincing them that Allah is the only god, that Mohammed is a prophet, that he's not a bad story teller, that he's not just making it all up or insane and most of all that anyone who doesn't believe Mohammed is going to burn in hell and drink boiling water for eternity.
52:7 Truly, a punishment from your Lord is coming, and no one can stop it. That day heaven will heave from side to side, and the mountains will shake to pieces. Woe on that day to those who called the messengers liars, who wasted their time in vain disputes.
52:13 On that day they will be thrown into the Fire of Hell.
52:45 Ignore them until they meet the day when they will swoon with terror
This is the tolerance of the Koran, repeated in many early and some late passages. Basically, the Kafirs (unbelievers) are going to hell, don't bother with them, god will take care of them. When people speak of tolerance, I don't think this is what they have in mind. Its akin to the tolerance of the christian fundamentalist who screams that AIDS is God's punishment for homosexuality. Its not an outright call for murder, but neither is it a positive affirmation of another persons right to make decisions for themselves. The 'tolerance' of the Koran is 'bide your time until they're punished.' In the later Medinan chapters, when Mohammed has significant military power, he takes matters into his own hands. The assasinations, raids, beheadings, and wars of aggression against non-believers are numerous (an incident about once every other month according to statistics in one of the appendices).

What about peace? Turns out peace is something muslims get when they reach heaven, along with the virgins there to please them. It is a greeting only among muslims. Peace as a state of mutually renounced aggression is not granted from muslims to non-muslims.
56:88 As for him that is brought near Allah, he will live in pleasure and repose in a Garden of Delights. If he is one of the people of the right hand, he will be greeted by others of the right hand with, "Peace be with you."
56:92 But those who mistakenly treat the prophets as deceivers, their entertainment will be scalding water, and the broiling of Hellfire.
This binary distinction between muslims and non-muslims, as opposed to some standard of what is moral and not moral, runs very strongly through the Koran. To believe is to be moral. To disbelieve is to be immoral. Believers, no matter how despicable, get to go to heaven. Non-believers, go to hell, period. Believers should not take friends amongst non-believers. Its better to marry a believing slave, than a non-believing free woman. A believer should never intentionally kill another believer (do U.S. military recruiters ask about this when signing up muslims?). One of Mohammed's favorite 'proofs' that Allah is the only true god is that such and such a town didn't believe it and got wiped out.

The Koran is an extremely repetitive insistence in Allah and Mohammed's status, demand to believe backed up by threats, command to wage war, with a couple stolen stories from the Old Testament poorly retold, and little moral guidance save some statements on how to treat wives, slaves and loot.

I'm glad I've read it and recommend A Simple Koran if you want to read the Koran and are worried about understanding an official translation. But if I had to do it over I would have spent my time reading a good biography of Mohammed that quotes the Koran extensively (the same center has another volume translating the Sira) or perhaps even a history of Islam that covers its wars from Mohammed's day to the present. Regardless of your approach, I do recommend educating yourself about Islam.


  1. Off script references... non-chronological sequencing... For a moment there, I thought you were blogging about "Pulp Fiction".

    Seriously, great post. Link forthcoming.

  2. Thanks. Its a hard book to get your head around. As are most religious tracts I guess.

  3. Shane, another public service. Dude, you need to get paid, thanks for blogging about this.

  4. Great post. Thanks for doing this.

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  6. Shane, I finally did the same kind of thing. I posted my analysis in three parts.

    Part 1

    Part 2

    Part 3

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