Boreal and Religion

About a Dialogue on the Koran

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.

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 that of 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.

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.

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 get to know what is in the relatively short book and don't have to depend on clerics to tell them what it is all about, as happens today.

The most common excuse given for not reading Islam's core religious text is that it is just like the Bible, so why bother. It is not like the Bible, not only in length at about one tenth the words of the King James Bible but in it's message which damns both the Jews and the Christians; the first for denying that Muhammad was a Prophet of Allah and the latter for claiming that God shares power with a son.

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!

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.

You seldom here a Christian minister say that unless you read the Bible in the original Hebrew, Greek or Latin you will misunderstand the message. Yet, this is the argument that is made by clerics to discourage non-Muslim adults who have not mastered Arabic from reading a translation of the Koran whose message they expect children to grasp.

The Khatmi-Qur’an is the ceremony to recognize and celebrate a child’s first full reading or mouthing of the Koranic text, usually by the age of seven, under the tutelage of its mother.

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.

This site has much to say about the Koran, the Prophet Muhammad and Islam, more than a million words. It is a good place to start learning what the religion is all about and joining in a much needed discussion.

Bernard Payeur