To understand the motives and goals of Islamic jihad terrorists, one good place to start might be to explore what they themselves say about why they’re doing what they’re doing, and what they want. That in turn will lead you to the Qur’an (or Koran), the Islamic holy book. The jihadists quote it frequently and portray themselves as those who are following “pure Islam,” the genuine article as it is taught in the Qur’an and Islamic tradition. So in the course of my work explaining the jihadists’ objectives, I’ve quoted the Qur’an a great deal – and hardly a day goes by without my being accused of “cherry-picking” violent passages, and quoting them “out of context.” Meanwhile, the Council on American Islamic Relations and other Muslim groups say that in order to understand the true, peaceful Islam, we should read the Qur’an.
So over the course of the next few months, I’m going to read it, and discuss it in a series of columns. All of it. Not “cherry-picked” or “out of context.” The whole thing, beginning to end. Some of you may be familiar with David Plotz’s series on Slate, “Blogging the Bible.” This series will be similar to that one, but rather than just write about what I think or feel about a certain passage, I will, unlike Plotz, refer to commentaries – all Muslim ones – on the Qur’an. I’ll try to explain how mainstream Muslims who study the Qur’an will understand any given passage, and what its import might be for non-Muslims.
You’ll need a Qur’an. Here is a good Arabic/English text. In traditional Islamic theology, the Qur’an is essentially and inherently an “Arabic Qur’an” (as the Qur’an describes itself repeatedly: see 12:2; 20:113; 39:28; 41:3; 41:44; 42:7; and 43:3). Its meaning can be rendered in other languages, but those translations are not the Qur’an, which when no longer in Arabic is no longer itself. Some Muslim scholars even claim that the Qur’an cannot be fully understood except in Arabic, but the blizzard of translations made by Muslims for Muslims who don’t speak Arabic (who are the great majority around the world today) as well as to proselytize among non-Muslims belies that claim. Here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.
The Qur’an is, according to classic Islamic thought, a perfect copy of a book that has existed eternally with Allah, the one true God, in Heaven: “it is a transcript of the eternal book [in Arabic, “mother of the book”] in Our keeping, sublime, and full of wisdom” (43:4). The angel Gabriel revealed it in sections to Muhammad (570-632), an Arabian merchant. Like Jesus, Muhammad left the written recording of his messages to others. Unlike Jesus, Muhammad did not originate his message, but only served as its conduit. The Qur’an is for Muslims the pure Word of Allah. They point to its poetic character as proof that it did not originate with Muhammad, whom they say was illiterate, but with the Almighty, who dictated every word. The average Muslim believes that everything in the book is absolutely true and that its message is applicable in all times and places.
This is a stronger claim than Christians make for the Bible. When Christians of whatever tradition say that the Bible is God’s Word, they don’t mean that God spoke it word-for-word and that it’s free of all human agency — instead, there is the idea of “inspiration,” that God breathed through human authors, working through their human knowledge to communicate what he wished to. But for Muslims, the Qur’an is more than inspired. There is not and could not be a passage in the Qur’an like I Corinthians 1:14-17 in the New Testament, where Paul says: “I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius; lest any one should say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any one else.)” Paul’s faulty memory demonstrates the human element of the New Testament, which for Christians does not negate, but exists alongside the texts’ inspired character. But in the Qur’an, Allah is the only speaker throughout (with a few notable exceptions). There is no human element. The book is the pure and unadulterated divine word.
Allah himself tells him this, in the Qur’an itself: “This is a mighty scripture. Falsehood cannot reach it from before or from behind” (41:41-2). It is “free from any flaw” (39:28). In short, “it is the indubitable truth” (69:51). Allah, speaking in a royal plural that does not, according to Muslim theologians, compromise his absolute unity, proclaims that “it was We that revealed the Koran, and shall Ourself preserve it” (15:9). But reading the Qur’an is not always easy. Since so much of it consists of Allah speaking with Muhammad, it is often rather like listening in on a conversation between two people you don’t know, talking about events with which you were uninvolved. Even though a surprisingly large amount of what the Qur’an says is said more than once, still often the reader can’t figure out what’s being said, or why, without reference to Muslim tradition.
Also, it has no overarching narrative unity, although there are smaller narrative units within many chapters. With the exception of the brief first chapter (sura), its 114 chapters are arranged from the longest to the shortest. In the longer chapters, stories are told, laws are given, and warnings to unbelievers are issued, but in them and throughout the book, there is no chronological or narrative continuity. The shorter suras, meanwhile, particularly those near the end of the book that run only a few lines, are poetic and arresting warnings of the impending divine judgment. When I first read the Qur’an and began studying Islam in late 1980 and early 1981, those poetic suras captured my imagination to the extent that I continued reading deeply into other Islamic texts.
I’ll refer to Islamic traditions when necessary, as well as to traditional commentaries, to shed light on various passages. And by the end of this journey, I believe we will see more clearly what makes the jihadists tick – and also perhaps understand what we can and must do to resist them.
This will be a weekly feature — to be posted every Sunday at Jihad Watch — with within-post updates as warranted. I intend this to be a participatory exploration of the Qur’an — a two-way conversation. Thus I welcome feedback and criticism in the comments section, in e-mail correspondence, and on other blogs, and will answer questions and respond to the most thoughtful comments, criticism, and challenges.
Next week: chapter one, the Fatiha, the most important prayer in Islam.