A Dialogue on the Koran

is what we are all about

Even if ISIL were defeated, there is no guarantee that the threat posed by those who share their ideology would be eliminated.

This is why a broad range of initiatives is so important, including training of local troops, blocking sources of financing and weaponry, intelligence sharing, humanitarian aid and refugee resettlement, and the promotion of peace, good governance, institutional reform, mutual understanding of cultural differences, and job and educational opportunities for local youth.

Ronald Crelinsten, associate fellow with the Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria. December 9, 2015

It's not enough! The world desperately needs an honest discussion about Islam, starting with an unfettered dialogue on the Koran, if we are to allay the fear of the other and foster a trust in the other that is sadly lacking and a reason to fear that the worst is yet to come.

Without such a discussion, every initiative proposed by Dr. Crelinsten is doomed to failure.

Not a New Idea

Before the first Malaysian blasted into space (the first Muslim in space was Prince ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud of Saudi Arabia) on board a Russian rocket in October 2007, on his way to the International Space Station, serious questions as to how Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor was going to perform the mandatory five daily prayers had to be answered.

One hundred and fifty Islamic scholars, scientists, and astronauts were brought together and arrived at a consensus as to what was practical and desirable under the circumstances.

The Malaysian Ulema (scholars of the Faith e.g. Islamic scholars) dared to look at the Koran in a new light, the light from a sun that rises and sets every 90 minutes.

That was a good start, but if we are to put an end to the carnage in the name of God and stop what Sam Harris calls the draining of the light, the discourse needs to be as profound as the Islamic philosophers of a bygone age were tellingly brave enough to initiate.

Between the 8th and 10th century, when Islam was in its infancy, there emerged an Islamic school of thought largely influence by Plato and Aristotle and which became known as Mu’tazilism or Philosophy of Rationalism or simply Islamic Philosophy.

The motives of the translators [of Greek works in science and philosophy into Arabic] and their patrons, the ['Abbasid] caliphs, may have been partially practical; medical skill was in demand, and control over natural forces could bring power and success. There was also, however, a wide intellectual curiosity, such as is expressed in the words of al-Kindi (c. 801-66), the thinker with whom the history of Islamic philosophy virtually begins: 

We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth from whatever source it comes to us, even if it is brought to us by former generations and foreign people. For him who seeks the truth there is nothing of higher value than truth itself.

A History of the Arab People, Albert Hourani, Harvard University Press 1991, p. 76

Mu'tazilites argued that verses of the Koran should not be taken literally and that human reason was more reliable than scriptures.

The leaders of the believers of the time, the most noteworthy being Caliphs al-Ma'mun, Mu'tasim Billah and Wathiq actively supported this sensible open-minded interpretation, allowing it to thrive, until dogma reasserted itself with a vengeance and revelation again smothered reason.

Few dared challenge the return to orthodoxy and risk Allah’s recommended punishment for heresy, made plain in His handful of revelations about what Pharaoh intended to do to his magicians for switching allegiance after witnessing Moses' superior magic.

20:71 He (Pharaoh) said: “Do you believe in him before I give you leave? It must be your chief who has taught you magic. I shall then cut your hands and feet on alternate sides, and I will crucify you upon the trunks of palm trees, and you will certainly know whose punishment is sterner and more lasting.”

It may not be a coincidence that most of Islam’s substantial contribution in the field of astronomy and mathematics for example, was from this period when Mu’tazilism was accepted by the Caliphate as a legitimate Islamic school of thought.

How could it have been otherwise, when a literal interpretation of the Koran places Paradise just above the clouds held up by invisible pillars anchored to a flat earth, with meteorites being stones thrown by angels to stop the jinn (from which we get our concept of the Jinni) from flying up to Paradise and eavesdropping on Allah’s conversations.

Heaven - The Nuts and Bolts

Allah and the Ptolemaic Universe

Excuses and What Matters

If a dialogue is to foster trust, non-believers must have a meaningful role which will only be possible if more of them actually read the relatively short book and don't have to depend on believers to tell them what it is all about, as happens today.

The Koran is a small book by holy book standards, at about one tenth the words of the King James Bible.

The most common excuse given for not reading the Koran is that it is just like the Bible, so why bother.

The Koran does borrow extensively from the Hebrew Bible, the story of Moses being a favourite of Allah, with what you might consider minor deviations from the Yahweh revelations (if you ignore inconsistencies of time and space e.g. the bad Samaritan of the New Testament is part of the exodus from Egypt and it is he, in one retelling of the story of Moses, who convinces the Israelites to build the golden calf).

Moses v. the Bad Samaritan

Finding inspiration in the Old Testament is one thing; berating at every opportunity the essential message of the New Testament is quite another. In The Koran, Allah vehemently denies just about everything that makes a Christian a Christian including that Jesus died on the cross, with His most vociferous denunciations aimed at Christians who claim that Jesus is His son.

In the Gospels, one man’s pain and death will save countless generations from an eternity in agony; in the Koran, which is in many ways the antithesis of the Gospels, one man’s passing discomfort, that of the Prophet Muhammad, will bring about the exact opposite.

The next most repeated excuse for not reading the Koran is that, unless you can read Arabic you are bound to misinterpret Allah’s message, so better let experts, Islamic religious authorities mostly, tell you what the Book is about. This would explain the widely held view among non-Muslims that the Koran is mostly about peace and love and getting along, which it definitely is not!

Allah’s message is surprisingly easy to understand, Islamic scholars’ warning about leaving the Koran to the experts notwithstanding. Even Allah is of the opinion that His instructions are easily understood. Allah praising His Book and His skill as a poet in the Book:

11:1 [This is] a Book with Verses which are elaborately formulated and clearly expounded from the Wise, the All-Aware.

And He is absolutely correct. What is hard to understand about a verse such as the following:

5:38 As for the thieves, whether male or female, cut off their hands in punishment for what they did, as an exemplary punishment from Allah. Allah is Mighty and Wise.

Translations of the Koran are usually called interpretations because of the claim that only the Arabic version of the Book can accurately convey the true meaning of God’s words. If you can’t read the Koran in the original, Islamic scholars and religious leaders say, you are bound to misinterpret Allah’s words.

Do they have a point, or is it just a pre-emptive rationalization? A pre-emptive excuse for some of the frightening and appalling revelations contained within the Muslim Holy Book; revealed truths that may leave some unbelievers wondering if it is God’s words they are reading or those of his nemesis.

The Koran is written in verses or ayats, therefore it is true that you will not be able to appreciate the rhythm and rhyme that only the original can convey; but any good translation such as the one by Majid Fakhry on which Pain, Pleasure and Prejudice is largely based will be able to communicate the meaning of the poet’s words and the meaning of the words is what we should all be concerned with.

Children and the Koran

Bernard Payeur