Blesok no. 36, May-June, 2004
In the Beginning, There Were the Holy Books
Kenneth L. Woodward
He was a pious family man, a trader from Mecca who regularly retreated into the hills above the city to fast and pray. In his 40th year, while he was praying in a cave on Mount Hira, the angel Gabriel spoke to him, saying, “Muhammad, you are the Messenger of God,” and commanded him to “Recite!”
Muhammad protested that he could not—after all, he was not gifted like the traditional tribal bards of Arabia. Then, according to this tradition, the angel squeezed him so violently that Muhammad thought he’d die. Again Gabriel ordered him to recite, and from his lips came the first verses of what eventually became the Qur’an, regarded as the eternal words of God himself by some 1.3 billion Muslims around the world.
Until that moment, 13 centuries ago, the Arabs were mostly polytheists, worshiping tribal deities. They had no sacred history linking them to one universal god, like other Middle Eastern peoples. They had no sacred text to live by, like the Bible; no sacred language, as Hebrew is to Jews and Sanskrit is to Hindus. Above all, they had no prophet sent to them by God, as Jews and Christians could boast.
Muhammad and the words that he recited until his death in 632 provided all this and more. Like the Bible, the Qur’an is a book of divine revelation. Between them, these two books define the will of God for more than half the world’s population. Over centuries, the Bible fashioned the Hebrew tribes into a nation: Israel. But in just a hundred years, the Qur’an created an entire civilization that at its height stretched from northern Africa and southern Europe in the West to the borders of modern India and China in the East. Even today, in streets as distant from each other as those of Tashkent, Khartoum, Qom and Kuala Lumpur, one can hear from dawn to dusk the constant murmur and chant of the Qur’an in melodious Arabic. Indeed, if there were a gospel according to Muhammad, it would begin with these words: in the beginning was the Book.
But since the events of September 11, the Qur’an and the religion it inspired have been on trial. Is Islam an inherently intolerant faith? Does the Qur’an oblige Muslims to wage jihad—holy war—on those who do not share their beliefs? And who are these “infidels” that the Muslim Scriptures find so odious? After all, Jews and Christians are monotheists, too, and most of their own prophets—Abraham, Moses and Jesus especially—are revered by Muslims through their holy book. Listening to the rants of Osama bin Laden and other radical Islamists, Jews and Christians wonder who really speaks for Islam in these perilous times. What common ground—if any—joins these three “Peoples of the Book,” as Muslims call their fellow monotheists? What seeds of reconciliation lie within the Qur’an and the Bible and the traditions that they represent? Does the battle of the books, which has endured for centuries between Muslims and believers in the West, ensure a perpetual clash of civilizations?
The Qur’an does contain sporadic calls to violence, sprinkled throughout the text. Islam implies “peace,” as Muslims repeatedly insist. Yet the peace promised by Allah to individuals and societies is possible only to those who follow the “straight path” as outlined in the Qur’an. When Muslims run into opposition, especially of the armed variety, the Qur’an counsels bellicose response. “Fight them [nonbelievers] so that Allah may punish them at your hands, and put them to shame,” one Qur’anic verse admonishes. Though few in number, these aggressive verses have fired Muslim zealots in every age.
The Bible, too, has its stories of violence in the name of the Lord. The God of the early Biblical books is fierce indeed in his support of the Israelite warriors, drowning enemies in the sea. But these stories do not have the force of divine commands. Nor are they considered God’s own eternal words, as Muslims believe Qur’anic verses to be. Moreover, Israeli commandos do not cite the Hebrew prophet Joshua as they go into battle, but Muslim insurgents can readily invoke the example of their Prophet, Muhammad, who was a military commander himself. And while the Crusaders may have fought with the cross on their shields, they did not—could not—cite words from Jesus to justify their slaughters. Even so, compared with the few and much quoted verses that call for jihad against the infidels, the Qur’an places far more emphasis on acts of justice, mercy and compassion.
Indeed, the Qur’an is better appreciated as comprehensive guide for those who would know and do the will of God. Like the Bible, the Qur’an defines rules for prayer and religious rituals. It establishes norms governing marriage and divorce, relations between men and women and the way to raise righteous children. More important, both books trace a common lineage back to Abraham, who was neither Jew nor Christian, and beyond that to Adam himself. Theologically, both books profess faith in a single God (Allah means “The God”) who creates and sustains the world. Both call humankind to repentance, obedience and purity of life. Both warn of God’s punishment and final judgment of the world. Both imagine a hell and a paradise in the hereafter.
As sacred texts, however, the Bible and the Qur’an could not be more different. To read the Qur’an is like entering a stream. At almost any point one may come upon a command of God, a burst of prayer, a theological pronouncement, the story of an earlier prophet or a description of the final judgment. Because Muhammad’s revelations were heard, recited and memorized by his converts, the Qur’an is full of repetitions. None of its 114 suras, or chapters, focuses on a single theme. Each sura takes its title from a single word—The Cow, for example, names the longest—which appears only in that chapter. When Muhammad’s recitations were finally written down (on palm leaves, shoulders of animals, shards of anything that would substitute for paper) and collected after his death, they were organized roughly from the longest to the shortest. Thus there is no chronological organization—this is God speaking, after all, and his words are timeless.
Nonetheless, scholars recognize that the shortest suras were received first, in Muhammad’s Meccan period, and the longest in Medina, where he later became a political and military leader of the emerging community of Muslims. As a result, the longer texts take up matters of behavior and organization which are absent in the shorter, more “prophetic” suras that announce the need to submit. (“Muslim” means “submission” to God.) The Qur’an’s fluid structure can be confusing, even to Muslims. “That’s why one finds in Muslim bookstores such books as ‘What the Qur’an says about women’ or ‘What the Qur’an says about a just society’,” observes Jane McAuliffe of Georgetown University, editor of the new Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an.
Like the Bible, the Qur’an asserts its own divine authority. But whereas Jews and Christians regard the Biblical text as the words of divinely inspired human authors, Muslims regard the Qur’an, which means “The Recitation,” as the eternal words of Allah himself. Thus, Muhammad is the conduit for God’s words, not their composer. Moreover, since Muhammad heard God in Arabic, translations of the Qur’an are considered mere “interpretations” of the language of God’s original revelation. “In this very important sense,” says Roy Mottahedeh, professor of Middle Eastern history at Harvard, “the Qur’an is not the Bible of the Muslims.” Rather, he says, it is like the oral Torah first revealed to Moses that was later written down. In gospel terminology, the Qur’an corresponds to Christ himself, as the logos, or eternal word of the Father. In short, if Christ is the word made flesh, the Qur’an is the word made book.
The implications of this doctrine are vast—and help to explain the deepest divisions between Muslims and other monotheisms. For Muslims, God is one, indivisible and absolutely transcendent. Because of this, no edition of the Qur’an carries illustrations—even of the Prophet—lest they encourage idolatry (shirk), the worst sin a Muslim can commit. Muslims in the former Persian Empire, however, developed a rich tradition of extra-Qur’anic art depicting episodes in the life of Muhammad, from which the illustrations for this story are taken. But for every Muslim, the presence of Allah can be experienced here and now through the very sounds and syllables of the Arabic Qur’an. Thus, only the original Arabic is used in prayer—even though the vast majority of Muslims do not understand the language. It doesn’t matter: the Qur’an was revealed through the Prophet’s ears, not his eyes. To hear those same words recited, to take them into yourself through prayer, says Father Patrick Gaffney, an anthropologist specializing in Islam at the University of Notre Dame, “is to experience the presence of God with the same kind of intimacy as Catholics feel when they receive Christ as consecrated bread and wine at mass.”
Why then, does the Qur’an acknowledge Jews and Christians as fellow “People of the Book,” and as such, distinguish them from nonbelievers? Contrary to popular belief, “the Book” in question is not the Bible; it refers to a heavenly text, written by God, of which the Qur’an is the only perfect copy. According to the Qur’an, God mercifully revealed the contents of that book from time to time through the words of previous Biblical prophets and messengers—and also to other obscure figures not mentioned in the Bible. But in every case those who received his revelations—particularly the Jews and Christians—either consciously or inadvertently corrupted the original text, or seriously misinterpreted it. On this view, the Qur’an is not a new version of what is contained in the Bible, but what Jane McAuliffe calls a “re-revelation” that corrects the errors of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Readers of the Bible will find in the Qur’an familiar figures such as Abraham, Moses, David, John the Baptist, Jesus and even the Virgin Mary, who appears much more often than she does in the New Testament, and is the only woman mentioned in the Qur’an by name. But their stories differ radically from those found in the Bible. In the Qur’an all the previous prophets are Muslims.
Abraham (Ibrahim), for example, is recognized as the first Muslim because he chose to surrender to Allah rather than accept the religion of his father, who is not mentioned in the Bible. Neither is the Qur’anic story of how Abraham built the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s holiest shrine. Abraham’s importance in the Qur’an is central: just as the Hebrews trace their lineage to Abraham through Isaac, his son by Sarah, the Qur’an traces Arab genealogy—and Muhammad’s prophethood—back through Ishmael, a son Abraham had by Hagar.
The Qur’anic Moses (Musa) looks much like his Biblical counterpart. He confronts the pharaoh, works miracles and in the desert ascends the mountain to receive God’s commandments. But in the Qur’an there is no mention of the Passover rituals, and among the commandments one of the most important for Jews—keeping the Sabbath—is absent. Obedience to parents is stressed repeatedly, but as in the Qur’anic story of Abraham, disobedience is required when parents are polytheists.
As a prophet rejected by his own people, the Qur’anic Jesus (Isa) looks a lot like Muhammad, who was at first rejected by the people of Mecca. He preaches the word of God, works miracles, is persecuted and—what is new, foretells his successor: Muhammad. But the Qur’an rejects the Christian claim that he is the son of God as blasphemous and dismisses the doctrine of the Trinity as polytheistic. The Crucifixion is mentioned in passing, but according to the Qur’an Jesus mysteriously does not die. Instead, Allah rescues him to heaven from where he will descend in the last days and, like other prophets, be a witness for his community of believers at the Final Judgment.
What Muhammad may have known about the Bible and its prophets and where he got his information is a purely scholarly debate. The Qur’an itself says that Muhammad met a Jewish clan in Medina. He even had his followers bow to Jerusalem when praying until the Jews rejected him as prophet. Some scholars claim that Muhammad had in-laws who were Christian, and they believe he learned his fasting and other ascetic practices from observing desert monks. But Muslims reject any scholarly efforts to link the contents of the Qur’an to the Prophet’s human interactions. They cherish the tradition that Muhammad could not read or write as proof that the Qur’an is pure revelation. It is enough for them that Islam is the perfect religion and the Qur’an the perfect text.
That belief has not prevented Muslim tradition from transforming the Qur’an’s many obscure passages into powerful myths. By far the most significant is the story developed from one short verse: “Glory be to Him who carried His servant at night from the Holy Mosque to the Further Mosque, the precincts of which we have blessed, that we might show him some of our signs” (sura 17:1). From this Muslims have elaborated the story of Muhammad’s mystical nighttime journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, where he addresses an assembly of all previous prophets from Adam to Jesus. Yet another version of this story tells of his subsequent Ascension (mi’raj) from Jerusalem to the throne of Allah, receiving honors along the way from the prophets whom he has superseded. For Sufi mystics, Muhammad’s ascension is the paradigmatic story of the soul’s flight to God. For many Muslim traditionalists, however, the journey was a physical one. Either way, its geopolitical significance cannot be ignored because the spot where the ascension began is Islam’s third holiest shrine: the Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
In Islam’s current political conflicts with the West, the major problem is not the Muslims’ sacred book but how it is interpreted. Muslims everywhere are plagued by a crippling crisis of authority. The Qur’an envisioned a single Muslim community (the umma), but as subsequent history shows, Muslims have never resolved the tension between religious authority and Islamic governments. When Islam was a great medieval civilization, jurists learned in the Qur’an decided how to apply God’s words to changed historical circumstances. Their fatwas (opinions) settled disputes. But in today’s Islamic states, authoritative religious voices do not command widespread respect. Like freewheeling fundamentalists of every religious stripe, any Muslim with an agenda now feels free to cite the Qur’an in his support. Osama bin Laden is only the most dangerous and obvious example.
But the Qur’an has its moderate interpreters as well. Since September 11, brave voices scattered across the Middle East have condemned the terrorist acts of killing civilians and judged suicide bombing contrary to the teaching of the Qur’an. Returning to the text itself, other scholars have found verses showing that Allah created diverse peoples and cultures for a purpose and therefore intended that the world remain pluralistic in religion as well. ” The Qur’an,” argues Muslim philosopher Jawat Said of the Al-Azhar Institute in Cairo, “gives support and encouragement to sustain the messengers of reform who face difficult obstacles.”
America, too, has a core of immigrant and second-generation Muslim scholars who have experienced firsthand the benefits of democracy, free speech and the Bill of Rights. They think the Qur’an is open to interpretations that can embrace these ideals for Islamic states as well. Islam even has feminists like Azizah Y. al-Hibri of the University of Richmond Law School, who are laying the legal groundwork for women’s rights through a careful reconsideration of the Qur’an and its classic commentators.
It is precisely here that the Bible and the Qur’an find their real kinship. As divine revelation, each book says much more than what a literal reading can possibly capture. To say that God is one, as both the Qur’an and the Bible insist, is also to say that God’s wisdom is unfathomable. As the Prophet himself insisted, God reveals himself through signs whose meanings need to be deciphered. Here, it would seem, lie the promising seeds of religious reconciliation. Humility, not bravado, is the universal posture of anyone who dares to plumb the mind of God and seek to do his will.
Published at Newsweek – MSNBC, on Monday, 2 February 2002
© 2002 Newsweek, Inc.