An Unfair Comparison
We have not sent before you any Messenger, but We revealed to him that there is no god but I; so worship Me.
Like most non-Muslims who are familiar with the Bible but not the Koran I assumed it was like the Bible. I was wrong. I never expected the Koran to be so different. Not only different in the way it presented its message but how different the message was. Both the Bible and the Koran claim God as the author; nonetheless, the two books are poles apart. Virgil Gheorghiu in his insightful, admiring biography of the Prophet Muhammad and his time, La vie de Mahomet, explained the difference this way (my translation).
The Christian Bible, the Old Testament portion, is mainly about hope; the New Testament is about love – the Koran is about neither! The Koran is all about loyalty, absolute, unquestioning, blind loyalty to one God.
This unequivocal demand for absolute, blind, unquestioning loyalty would not, in and of itself, be a problem if the God of the Koran did not come across to the lay reader as such a vain, cruel, controlling, vengeful deity who damns the unbelievers at every turn. Nobody holds a grudge like Allah holds a grudge. With such a god, it should not have come as a surprise that instead of finding in the Koran edifying, uplifting text full of noble sentiments for the ages, I found mostly, what I consider, petty preoccupations with organizing every aspect of a believer’s life not worthy of a god. Of course, what I consider petty preoccupations, a believer might expect no less from a deity, even if such worldly concerns and attention to the minutia of daily life leave very little room for spiritual or intellectual growth.
The Bible covers a period of more than a thousand years and contains a cast of thousands. For such a monumental work it is surprisingly well ordered. The Koran is the inspiration of just one man, from revelations he maintains he received from God over a period of just twenty-three years, between 610 and 632 A.D. Unlike the Bible it is somewhat disorganized. There is no timeline. The only allowance given to any kind of order is the sequencing of most of the 114 chapters from longest to shortest.
Because no attention appears to have been given to arranging the chapters and verses in some kind of chronological order, you often get answers to questions that have yet to be asked. For example, in Chapter 9, Verse 114 we are told that Allah refused Abraham’s plea that he forgive his father for not believing in Him.
9:114 Abraham asked forgiveness for his father, only because of a promise he had made to him; but when it became clear to him that he was an enemy of Allah, he disowned him. Indeed Abraham was compassionate, forbearing.
The actual request made by Abraham, and the promise made is revealed ten chapters later.
19:47 [Abraham] said: “Peace be upon you. I will seek forgiveness for you from my Lord. He has, indeed, been gracious to me.”
The lack of a timeline, the apparent haphazard manner in which many of the revelations appear to have been collected and compiled means a lay reader has to read the entire Koran carefully just to get an overall idea of what God has to say on any given subject. Doing more than a cursory reading of the book requires patience and dedication. This prerequisite commitment in time and effort may explain why the Koran remains very much a mystery for non-Muslims. Adding to a lay reader’s woes, chapter headings, which appear to be based on catchwords within the text, are almost useless as an indication of the content. The longer chapters in particular are a challenge with Allah, in the words of Justin Wintle author of History of Islam, “jumping from one subject to another in a sort of unfurling stream of supra-consciousness”, i.e., a consciousness or awareness that is beyond our understanding.
Another difficulty in interpreting some revelations is that Allah will deal with two different subjects in the same verse such as in Revelation 2:189. God begins this verse by first telling Muhammad what to say when asked about the timing of the pilgrimage to Mecca and ends it with a warning about entering a house via the back door.
2:189 They ask you about the crescents (the new moons) say: “They are times fixed for mankind and for the pilgrimage.” It is not righteousness to enter houses from the back; but the righteous is he who fears Allah. Enter then the houses by their front doors; and fear Allah that you may prosper.
And then there is the not insignificant irritant of Allah, like the child who wants to always be the center of attention, interrupting every narrative to shout “Look at me, look at me, see how great I am.” God, with His Koran, gives new meaning to the term omnipresence.
Those who are familiar with the Bible, both the Old and New Testament, will have a small advantage when it comes to getting a handle on the Koran. This is because the foremost stories from the Bible have found their way into the Koran. Biblical epics are a favourite of Allah. Someone obviously enjoys repeating the parts which capture the imagination over and over, usually with small but significant differences. These variations may be due to the way the verses were collected, with different people having different recollections of what God allegedly revealed to Muhammad.
For the believers, however, every recollection of what Muhammad conveyed as being a revelation from Allah is accurate to the letter—the many contradictions notwithstanding. Every revealed truth communicated by God’s Messenger to the Messenger, the Archangel Gabriel (except for Moses to whom He spoke directly), standing on its own, perfectly rendered word for word by the Prophet who forbade their writing down, and remembered, word for word, by his followers and later impeccably compiled, word for word, by the transcribers of the Koran. To question this perfection is to challenge dogma, a capital offence.
One man’s perfection is another’s jumble.
British historian Thomas Carlyle: “a confused, jumble, crude, incondite, endless iteration…”; Edward Gibbon: “as toilsome a reading as I ever undertook; a wearisome confused jumble.”
Richard Wright, author of The Evolution of God, offers a more circumspect appraisal of the Koran when comparing it to the Bible.
There is no denying the Koran is unlike the religious text westerners are most familiar with, the Bible. For one thing, it is more monotonous. The Bible, is a cornucopia of genres: the cosmic mythology of Genesis, the legal and ritual code of Leviticus, a multibook national history of Israel, the plaints and alarms of the prophets, the pithy self-help and deep reflection of the wisdom literature, the poetry of the Psalms, the gospel profiles of Jesus, the mystical theology of John, the early church history Acts, the apocalyptic visions of Revelation and Daniel and so on.
As to the violence in the Koran compared to the Bible, Wright writes:
The Koran is a shorter book than the Bible; pound for pound, it no doubt features more exhortations to violence. So if you ask which book is “worse” in terms of belligerence, you might say that qualitatively the Hebrew Bible (and hence the Christian Bible) takes the trophy—thanks to that unrivalled embrace of genocide in Deuteronomy—but that quantitatively the winner is the Koran, at least in terms of the frequency of belligerent passages, if not in absolute numbers. And if, on top of the verses espousing violence in the terrestrial world, you add verses gleefully envisioning the suffering of infidels in the afterlife, the Koran wins the quantitative competition more decisively.
How the Bible Came To Be
The oral histories that comprise the first books of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) were probably written more than a thousand years after the events described took place. How do we know this?
“There is no reliable record” according to Thomas Cahill, “of written Hebrew before the tenth century B.C.” the principal language of the Hebrew Bible. That is well after the “resettlement of the Israelis in Canaan after their escape from Egypt.” Therefore, according to the author of The Gifts of the Jews, “this means that the supposedly historical stories of at least the first books of the Bible were preserved originally not as written text but as oral tradition beginning with the wonderings of Abraham and ending with the resettlement of Canaan under Joshua. What we are reading are oral tales, collected and edited for the first (but not the last time) in the tenth century [BCE] during and after the kingship of David.”
How the Koran Came To Be
10:37 This Qur’an could never have been produced except by Allah. It is a confirmation of that [which was revealed] before it and an exposition of the Book. There is no doubt about it. It is from the Lord of the Worlds.
God communicates with His Messengers via revelations: immutable facts communicated to a mortal by a god.
42:51 It is not given to any mortal that Allah should speak to him, except by Revelation or from behind a veil. Otherwise, He sends forth a Messenger who reveals by His Permission whatever He wishes. He is, indeed, All-High, All-Wise.
42:52 That is how We revealed to you (O Muhammad) a Spirit by Our Command. You did not know what the Book is nor what is Belief; but We made it a light, by which We guide whomever We wish of Our Servants. You will surely guide unto a Straight Path;
Gabriel – Messenger to the Messenger
The contents of the Koran, according to the Koran, were delivered by Gabriel, God’s Messenger to the Messenger during often impressive private meetings, two of which are described here.
53:1 By the star when it goes down,
53:2 Your Companion (Muhammad) has not gone astray or erred, 53:3 And he does not talk capriciously.
53:4 It (the Qur’an) is only a Revelation being revealed, 53:5 Taught him by a mighty one (the angel Gabriel),
53:6 Possessed of steadfastness. And so he arose,
53:7 While he was on the highest horizon;
53:8 Then, he came closer and hovered around;
53:9 Coming thus within two bows’ length or closer.
53:10 Then (Allah) revealed to His servant what He revealed.
53:11 The heart did not deny what it saw.
53:12 Do you then dispute with him (Muhammad) concerning what he saw;
53:13 He has indeed seen him (Gabriel) a second time;
53:14 By the Lotus Tree of the outermost limit.
53:15 Close by it is the Garden of Refuge.
53:16 As the Lotus Tree was covered by that which covers it;
53:17 His gaze did not shift nor did he exceed the bound.
53:18 He saw some of the Great Signs of his Lord.
At the beginning of Surah 44, The Smoke, Allah intimates that He sent the whole thing in just one night.
44:1 Ha – Mim.
44:2 By the Manifest Book.
44:3 We have sent it down on a blessed night. We were then admonishing.
44:4 Therein, every wise matter is determined,
44:5 As a Command from Us. We have been sending forth revelations, 44:6 As a Mercy from your Lord. He is indeed the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.
44:7 The Lord of the heavens and the earth and what is in between them; if you only believe with certainty.
That “blessed night” in Verse 44:3, is “the night of Power”; if we only knew what it is.
97:1 We have sent it (the Qur’an) down on the night of Power.
97:2 If only you knew what is the Night of Power.
97:3 The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.
97:4 The angels and the Spirit (the archangel Gabriel) descend thereon by the Leave of their Lord with every Command.
97:5 It is peace, till the break of dawn.
Then again, in the following revelation, God said it took a month.
2:185 The month of Ramadan is the month in which the Qur’an was revealed, providing guidance for mankind, with clear verses to guide and to distinguish right from wrong. He who witnesses that month should fast it. But if anyone is sick or on a journey, [he ought to fast] a number of other days. Allah desires ease and does not desire hardship for you, that you may complete the total number [of fasting days]; glorify Allah for His Guidance, and that you may be thankful.
And still in another revelation, Verse 17:106, it was sent piecemeal. Based on what we know, that is how it happened.
17:105 We have revealed it in truth, and in truth it came down; and We have sent you (Muhammad) only as a bearer of good news and a warner.
17:106 It is a Qur’an which we have divided into parts that you may recite it with deliberation, and We revealed it piecemeal.
17:107 Say: “Believe or do not believe in it. Surely when it was recited those, who were given the knowledge (the People of the Book) before it, fall down prostrate on their faces.”
17:108 And they say: “Glory be to our Lord. Certainly the Promise of our Lord is fulfilled.”
17:109 And they fall down upon their faces weeping, and it adds to their humility.
In response to an unbeliever who would believe only if Allah would send down the Koran all at once, God explains why He sent it in stages, and that whoever asked that He deliver it all at once risk being dragged on their faces into Hell.
25:32 The unbelievers say: “If only this Qur’an had been sent down on him all at once.” That is how We wanted to strengthen your heart with it and We have revealed it in stages.
25:33 They never bring you any simile but We bring the truth and a better exposition.
25:34 Those who are mustered on their faces in Hell; those are in a worse position and are more wayward.
Some surahs were transmitted whole on different occasions during a homily that some listeners did not care to remain to hear until the very end.
9:124 Whenever a Surah is revealed, some of them would say: “Who of you has this one increased in faith?” It has increased the faith of those who believe, and they rejoice.
9:125 But for those in whose heart there is a sickness, it will add disbelief to their disbelief, and they will die while they are unbelievers.
9:126 Do they not see that that they are tried once or twice every year? Yet they neither repent or take heed.
9:127 And whenever a Surah is revealed, they look at each other [saying]: “Does anyone see you?” Then they turn away. Allah has turned away their hearts, because they are a people who do not understand.
Where the original and eternal Koran, in Arabic no less, can be found:
43:3 We have made it an Arabic Qur’an that perchance you may understand.
43:4 And, indeed, it is in the Mother of the Book, with Us, lofty and wise.
85:21 Yet, it is a glorious Qur’an, 85:22 In a Well-Preserved Tablet.
The First Written Version
The first written version of the Koran was begun during the reign of the first Caliph (first successor to the Prophet Muhammad) Abu Bakr. He was prevailed upon to create a written record of what was revealed by God to Muhammad after 70 of the most prominent memorizers were been killed during a rebellion against Islamic rule in southern Arabia. Until that time, it was felt there was no need to put anything in writing because of the tradition established by the Prophet that the Koran should be committed to memory not written down, a tradition that endures to this day.
A former scribe of Muhammad by the name of Zayd ibn Thabit, on Bakr’s insistence, gathered the recollections of what Muhammad had said were revelations from God. Paper, a Chinese invention, had just made its appearance in Arabia and may have been used for the first time by ibn Thabit to write them down. He gave his pages (there is some disagreement as to whether it was paper or parchment) in no particular order to Umar (Bakr’s successor) who gave them to his daughter and widow of the Prophet, Hafsa, for safekeeping.
Umar was assassinated and succeeded by Uthman [644-656], who, upon hearing that his armies were reading from different versions of the Koran ordered that all collections of verses, except for the version kept under Hafsa’s bed—which he asked Thabit, with the help of three men from Muhammad’s tribe, to revise—be burnt (see appendix The First Korans for the relevant hadiths).
The version commissioned by Uthman, was actually completed during the reign of his successor, Ali [656-661] many years after Muhammad’s death and is most often referred to as the Uthman Codex. The earliest copy in existence of the Codex, dated approximately 150 years after Uthman’s death can be found in the library of the 16th century Khast-Imam Madrassa in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Despite the very human origins of the written Koran, the Book, as mentioned earlier, is regarded by believers as being beyond reproach and every word God’s definitive last words. The Koran is meant to correct errors and reiterate what God said in the Torah; to validate or repudiate, writes Justin Wintle, “Christo-Judaic beliefs and experience.” The Koran came after the Bible and for the believers this, and God’s claim to have created a book without defects, is all the proof they need that the Koran is the more accurate record of the events and personalities that both books purport to describe.
39:28 We made it an Arabic Qur'an without any defect that perchance they might be God-fearing
Needless to say, Thabit’s first attempt at compiling the Koran from the recollections of surviving memorizers was bound to elicit different recollections of the same event, such as the more than a dozen accounts of the Moses and Pharaoh encounter. He may simply have included them all in the pile of papers stashed under Hafsa’s bed to be sorted out later.
It was obviously not sorted out during the review commissioned by Uthman. In any event, it would have been next to impossible for Thabit’s committee of four to ascertain which recollection was the most accurate and may explain why many different account of what was said remained in the final version. Also, if you are a believer, it is quite possible that for God, varying recollections of what Muhammad revealed was in the Koran are all true and just His way of making a point. Better for all concerned to include all variations and let future scholars sort it.
Revelations in duplicates, triplicate, quadruplicate, quintuplicate… are possibly the strongest evidence that Muhammad was indeed illiterate; that in the twenty years or so in which he delivered God’s Revelations, he had only his memory to depend on.
29:48 You did not recite before it any book or write it down with your right hand. Then the negators (sic) would have been in doubt.
If Muhammad could not refer to previous written orations to avoid repeating himself or telling a different version, then it was not only the believers remembering the same things differently as to what he preached, but the Prophet himself who added to the confusion.
At the end of the Surah Al-Ahzâb (The Confederates) Allah reveals that He first offered the Koran – my understanding of “the Trust” in Revelation 33:72 – “to the heavens, the earth, and the mountains” but only humans were “ignorant” enough to accept it; a Freudian slip perhaps?
33:70 O believers, fear Allah and speak in a straightforward way.
33:71 He will set right your deeds and forgive you your sins. Whoever obeys Allah and His Messenger has won a great victory.
33:72 We offered the Trust to the heavens, the earth, and the mountains, but they refuse to carry it and were afraid of it, but man carried it. He has indeed been unjust and ignorant.
The punishment for babbling while reading the Koran:
41:26 The unbelievers said: “Do not listen to this Qur’an, but babble in reading it, that perchance you might win.”
41:27 Truly, We shall make the unbelievers taste a terrible punishment, and We shall reward them for the worst of what they used to do.
41:28 That is the reward of Allah’s enemies, the Fire wherein they shall have an eternal abode, as a reward for that they used to repudiate Our Signs.
Biblical vs. Koranic Accounts
Some Bible stories in the Koran tend to become Mecca centric with biblical heroes such as Abraham making near impossible treks across the length of the Arabian Peninsula to pay homage to God at Mecca and to visit with his wife’s former servant Hagar and their son Isma`il.
Of course, none of these visits are mentioned in the Bible and there is no historical or archaeological evidence of major biblical figures crossing the deserts of Arabia to spend time in Mecca which, at the time of Abraham, if it existed at all, would have been nothing more than a nomadic settlement.
The Romans maintained, in the first century, a garrison at the port of Jeddah just about 50 miles from Mecca and catalogued much of the area without mentioning Mecca, but they did take notice of Medina.