Revelations and Generalizations
In the Name of Allah,
the Compassionate, the Merciful
114:1 Say: “I seek refuge with the Lord of the People,
114:2 “The King of the people,
114:3 “The God of the people,
114:4 “From the evil of the slinking whisperer [Satan],
114:5 “Who whispers in the breasts of people,
114:6 “Both jinn and men.”
Both jinn and men. That is it, the last verse of the Koran. What a read! What a revelation! What is a jinn? It is a spirit that inhabits another dimension. There are good and evil jinns. The caricature of the genie is probably based on this creature of the Koran.
When I decided to read and study the Koran with the intention of writing about it, I was determined to get a Muslim’s interpretation, one that could only be viewed as favourable to Islam. I also wanted a translation that was easy to read and understand.
The edition that seemed to satisfy these requirements was a translation by Majid Fakhry, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the American University of Beirut. In the translator’s own words, “We have tried to express ourselves in a simple, readable English idiom.” Publishers Weekly wrote of Fakhry’s notable accomplishment that it “succeeds in expressing the meanings of the original Arabic in simple readable English.”
My goals in reading the Koran were diverse. At the top of my list was gaining an understanding of what makes this book so special; to understand what makes the religion based on its content attractive to so many; and yes, to satisfy my curiosity about what God sounds like, or more accurately, reads like. I also read the Koran in the hope of dispelling prejudices and apprehensions I had developed after reading about Islam from authors—devoted Muslims, most of them—who had nothing but praise for Allah and His “perfect religion.”
In my books on the Koran, I prefer letting Allah and His Messenger, the Prophet Muhammad, speak for themselves, offering only an informed layman's opinion or expert’s explanation where I feel it is warranted.
When Fakhry‘s crisp translation is not sufficient, it is Moududi I most often turn to. Abul A’la Moududi’s (also spelt Maududi) [1903-1979] credentials as a pre-eminent Islamic scholar are impeccable: journalist, theologian, Muslim revivalist, Islamist philosopher, and first recipient of the King Faisal International Award for his services to Islam and Islamic studies. Of the more than 120 books he wrote, he is most famous for his magnum opus, The Meaning of the Qur'an.
The Koran is the book upon which the Taliban, the Islamist fundamentalist movement that ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, based their concept of God’s government on Earth. The Taliban, like all believers, are required to at least attempt to commit to memory the entire Koran. Believers are also expected to accept Allah’s Revelations in their totality without question. This has not been my approach in presenting my impressions, as a former Catholic, now an agnostic, upon first reading the Koran.
As an unbeliever, I hope I can safely express my opinions about the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad, although nothing is certain. It is an unfortunate fact of life that authors who choose to write about the Koran or the life of the Prophet must tread carefully lest believers perceive their writings as an insult to Allah or Muhammad. I hope that I have achieved that fine balance of respect and critique, if such an equilibrium is even possible when Islam is the topic.
Translations of the Koran are usually called interpretations because believers claim that only the Arabic version can convey the true meaning of God’s words. If you can’t read the Koran in the original, they say, you are bound to misinterpret Allah’s words. Do they have a point or is this just a pre-emptive rationalisation, a ready excuse for some of the frightening revelations contained within the Muslim Holy Book, revelations that may leave unbelievers wondering if these are the words of God or those of His nemesis?
The Koran is written in verses or ayats, therefore it is true that you cannot appreciate the rhythm and rhyme that only the original can convey; however, any good translation will be able to communicate the original meaning of the poet’s words, and the meaning of these words is what should concern us.
An English translation of the Koran adds up to about 77,700 words, the approximate size of a standard 300-page book. This is a book, Allah reveals, in which you can study “whatever you choose.”
68:35 Shall We consider those who submit like those who are criminals?
68:36 What is the matter with you; how do you judge?
68:37 Or do you have a Book in which you study?
68:38 Wherein there is whatever you choose.
This is a bold statement for a relatively short book where boundless repetitions occupy space that could, perhaps, be put to better use. Take away the reiterations and the restatement of the same accusation ad nauseam, such as that of worshipping or associating other gods with Allah, and the Koran would be the length of a novella at most.
The Koran is made up of 114 chapters; when referring to these, I use the Arabic transliteration (conversion from one alphabet to another) of chapter, which is surah. Each surah is further divided into verses, a term I have chosen to retain over the Arabic transliteration of ayat.
Despite its brevity, the Koran is somewhat disorganized: there is no timeline and 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, readers often receive 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 to forgive his father for not believing.
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.”
There are 6,346 verses in the Koran if you include the 112 unnumbered Basmalahs, the formulaic invocation “in the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful,” which appears at the beginning of every surah except the first and the ninth. I refer to passages by the surah and verse numbers—for example, 2:282 is Chapter 2, Verse 282—or by the surah’s name and verse number: The Cow, Verse 282.
A verse can be just a few words or more than 200 words long, such as the aforementioned; the longest verse in the Koran addresses the virtue of good bookkeeping practices and why, when it comes to transactions involving money or chattel, women cannot be trusted.
Just a few editorial notes before we get down to business and let God speak for Himself. All quotes from the Koran are from Majid Fakhry’s interpretation unless otherwise indicated. Text added by Fakhry within a quoted verse to improve understanding is enclosed within square “[ ]” parentheses or brackets. Other clarifications by Fakhry, including footnotes, are enclosed in round “( )” brackets.
On rare occasions, you will find italicised bracketed comments within a verse: these are the author’s, usually included to identify someone whom Allah does not explicitly name and, when it is not evident to the casual reader, whom He is informing when having Muhammad respond to questions and observations. Any underlining for emphasis is also my doing, not Fakhry’s. I hope Majid will forgive my use of the more familiar Koran instead of his preferred spelling, Qur’an.
Where warranted, verses are accompanied by the Prophet’s recorded sayings or descriptions of actions, called hadiths. (Ahadith, often used to indicate the plural form of hadith, is not used herein.) Hadiths, of which there are more than ten thousand, are hearsay evidence collected approximately 200 years after the Prophet’s passing that describe Muhammad’s words and deeds, including the silent approval of actions performed in his presence. An authentic (sahih) or good (hasan) hadith, i.e., one that can be traced to a legitimate witness, passed down via of chain of reliable transmitters, is usually considered a legal precedent so long as it does not contradict the Koran.
Sunni Islam gives credence to the hadiths collected by six men (al-Bukhari, Imam Muslim, At-Tirmidi, Ibn Majah, Abu Dawood and An-Nisa’i), with the largest, the al-Bukhari collection, considered the most authoritative of the “six canonical collections.” Imam Bukhari (d. 870) is said to have gathered over 600,000 hadiths, of which 7,275 are considered authentic. The Koran and these “hadith collections” inform every facet of a believer’s existence.
When you encounter ‘say’ followed by a colon in a revelation (with no other qualifier, e.g., “they say” or, on rare occasions, “you said”), assume this is Allah directing Muhammad.
All quoted verses have been carefully reviewed to ensure that Fakhry's interpretation has been faithfully rendered. Many verses, such as 44:43-44, must be read together to form a complete sentence or thought; therefore, do not assume a typographical (typo) or grammatical error if a verse does not end with the expected punctuation.
44:43 The Tree of Zaqqum (the Tree of Bitterness) will certainly be
44:44 The food of the sinner.
Some of the quoted verses from Fakhry’s interpretation of the Koran have no end quotations due to lesser-known rule of English grammar. If a quote is more than one paragraph long, i.e., verses, opening quotation marks (“) appear at the beginning of each verse but closing quotation marks (”) are only required at the end of the complete quotation.
All translations consulted are from recognized Islamic scholars of the Koran. Reference to content in other books in this series is usually in the form: (see Book Title: “Chapter,” Boreal Books).
Finally, expect the occasional overlap with verses in other books in this series. This is unavoidable 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.