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Thursday, October 21, 2010


I just wasn't up to my four mile walk this morning, so instead I spent some time reading the Qu'ran. Or rather, I spent some time reading an English translation of the Qu'ran, just as yesterday I read an English translation of Revelation. It was legitimate for me to read Revelation in translation, because what interested me was the impact of the text on American Fundamentalist Christians, almost all of whom also read that and other books of the Bible in English translation. But devout Muslims insist that the Word of God ought only to be read in the original Arabic, which of course I cannot do. I find the King James translation of the Bible inexpressibly beautiful, but then I am in general entranced by the language of English authors of that period -- Shakespeare, Donne, et al. I have read that those fluent in Arabic find the Qu'ran very beautiful, simply as Arabic, and I am certainly prepared to believe them, but I can make no independent judgment of its literary merits on the basis of the translation I am reading [nor can I, of course, of the literary merits of the Old or New Testaments in their original languages].

Starting at the beginning, with the first Sura, I have read only a bit -- as far as verse 121 of the Second Sura [if that is the correct way to refer to passages in the Qu'ran.] That appears, in my translation, to be no more than 2% of the entire text, so obviously I have a long way to go. Three things strike me, as a lay reader, in my initial engagement with the text. First, the religious sentiments and doctrines seem virtually indistinguishable from those of the Old Testament: Monotheism, the admonition to love God [Allah is, I believe, the Arabic word for God, not in any sense God's name], the promise of paradise for those who love God and punishment for those who do not, the warnings to those who fall away from the true faith, and so forth; Second, the moral injunctions are benign and unexceptional: deal honestly with others, do not turn away those who are in need, honor your father and mother, and so on; and Finally, and I suppose most unexpected for a truly naive reader [which I cannot truthfully say I am, after half a century teaching the history of Western philosophy], the incorporation into the doctrine of Islam of the Old Testament traditions -- the Creation, the temptation of Adam, God's covenant with Moses, the line of the Old Testament prophets, and even the prophetic status of Jesus.

Save that the language, at least in English, is different, and hence would be recognized as not biblical, I venture to guess that Fundamentalist Christians could easily mistake many passages in the opening Suras for biblical passages with which they were unfamiliar -- passages from the Prophets, I should think, not from the narrative portions of the Old Testament.

What, if anything, is the significance of this initial engagement with the Qu'ran? Hard to say. It is not anything like what the hysterical anti-Muslims in America imagine, but then I could have figured that out without ever looking at the Qu'ran. I have yet to get to the passages in which specific dietary, sexual, economic and other prescriptions and proscriptions are laid down. My guess is that they will be as absurd and objectionable as the corresponding passages in the Old Testament [Leviticus, anyone?] Surely the most striking difference between Islam and either Judaism or the primitive Christianity of the New Testament is its universalism. In this respect, Christianity in its earliest form is, I think, a halfway point between the tribalism of Judaism and universalism of Islam.

Well, the sun is up and the day has begun, so perhaps I should check the latest pre-election polls.


David Pilavin said...

"Allah is, I believe, the Arabic word for God, not in any sense God's name"

Indeed, Maimonides and other Arabophone Jewish scholars use the term freely when referring to the God of the OT.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you. I was unaware of that, although I am not at all surprised.

Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

When I was in grad school, one of my colleagues was a politically left Muslim who did his dissertation on Edward Said. I once asked him where I should start if I wanted to learn something about Islam. He urged that I should definitely NOT start with the Qur'an. Rather, he suggested "A History of the Arab Peoples" by Albert Hourani. He argued that Hourani's book would help to contextualize the Qur'an, thereby rendering it a good deal more accessible to those engaging with Islam for the first time. I picked up a copy of Hourani's book and have found it quite helpful.

Brenda said...

I've read Hourani's book and and agree that it's accessible, and thought provoking about how "People of the Book" deal with their book over time.

Marinus said...

In any case, it misrepresents every one of the Abrahamic religions (and probably all the other ones as well) to concentrate on their holy texts. People (Protestants especially) often say that the Bible is the sole source of their Christianity, but they can't really mean it, or are deeply mistaken. Just as the Trinity is not a feature of the Bible but of the long history of the practice of Christianity (and the same for many, many parts of the religion), so in Islam the Qu'ran is a very much incomplete picture of the religion, to be filled out with the hadith (sayings of the Prophet), the pronouncements of the Prophet's companions and later imams, etc.

Prof Wolff, you're right that people are very often unable to differentiate between bits of the Qu'ran and bits of the Bible, and not only for the early bits of the Qu'ran. I once got quite a bit of discussion going among my friends on the quote (from 5:48): "Had God pleased, he would have made you one nation, but His will is to test you by what He has given you; so compete in goodness." It took a while for the Christians to realise that it's not from the Bible.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I have actually taught Hourani's book, in a seminar on Ideological Critique [as background for Said's Orientalism.] I founf it enormously helpful. I couldn't agree more that one needs to know a very great deal to come to an appreciation of a major religion, but I still think it is not a bad idea to look at the Qur'an.

It is also true, as I have said before, that although I am an atheist, I am a Protestant in sentiment.

Mohsin said...

Curious... which translation you are using?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It is a text i.e., Arabic], translation, and commentary, first published in 1934. The translator and commentator is Abdullah Yusuf Ali. I have absolutely no idea what its status is in the field of translations. The publisher is Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, Inc., New York. The translators snarky comments on his predecessors [in many languages] are worh the price of the book by themselves. The volume, which runs to 1862 pages, has an attractive Green and Gold soft cover.

Anyone out there a scholar who knows about such things?

David Sucher said...

"... It is not anything like what the hysterical anti-Muslims in America imagine, "

After reading two percent.

I have no opinion about the Koran as I have not read it at all; but what would you say if someone offered an opinion on any politically-charged issue - the value of Marx -- after reading two percent? Would you not snort?

It's clear that both you and I would like to learn that the Koran is benign, so we can sneer at hysterical anti-Muslims. Perhaps the only difference is that I would not do so after reading only two percent.

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

I hear that the Old Testament is pretty genocidal. I haven't read any of it. I think I can make up my mind about the hysterical anti-Jews independently of it.

The same goes for the hysterical anti-Muslims.

We don't judge people by the contents of the book they claim to believe in.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

But you MUST read the Old and New Testaments. How can you possibly plan for a life as a philosopher without doing so?

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

I'll read it once I have (or if I ever have) tenure.