An Unfair Comparison (abridged)
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 Christian Bible but not the Koran, I assumed it was like the Bible with stories from the past with God taking center-stage occurring at a specific time and place; stories brimming with morality lessons and instruction from God about how to get along and how He should be worshipped. 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 the same authorship – God – 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. 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 leaves very little room for spiritual or intellectual growth.
The Bible, the King James Version, is about 791,328 words, more than 10 times the number of words in the Koran. It 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.
Allah’s revelations of what the biblical prophets said and did must, by necessity, be much shorter than the biblical accounts, the Koran being approximately one tenth the length in words of the Bible. The Koran does, however, provide details not found in that holy book.
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 Allah at Mecca and to visit with his wife’s former servant Hagar and their son Ishmael.
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 Koran, on the other hand, 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 C.E. (C.E. for Common Era and B.C.E. for Before Common Era is used instead of the familiar A.D. and B.C. because of their overtly religious tone). Unlike the Bible, Islam's core religious text 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 Allah.
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, ending with the following verse.
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 just to get an overall idea of what Allah has to say on any given subject. This may be a part of Allah’s plan.
Allah’s plan notwithstanding, reading the Koran with a view to appreciating what this god has to say requires patience and dedication. This prerequisite commitment in time and effort may also 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, for the uninitiated 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 verses is that Allah will deal with two different subjects in the same verse, or appear to do so, such as in verse 2:189. Allah begins this verse by first telling His Messenger 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.
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 Islam's holiest book.
Biblical epics are a favourite of Allah. He obviously enjoys repeating the parts which He considers important over and over again, usually with small but significant differences.
The meeting between Moses and Pharaoh is one such story that is told over and over, with many variations on what actually took place. This may also be due to the way the verses were collected, with different people having different recollections of what Allah revealed to His Messenger.
For the believers however, every memorizer’s recollection of what they heard God’s Messenger convey as being a revelation from Allah is accurate to the letter – the contradictions not withstanding. Every revelation stands on its own as having been revealed independently to the Prophet Muhammad by Allah, via the Archangel Gabriel, and repeated word for word by the Prophet and remembered word for word by his followers and later compiled word for word by the transcribers of the Koran.
The Koran, for the believers, is the literal Word of God therefore there was no mistake in its transmission or transcription. To question this perfection is to challenge dogma, a capital offence.
Western scholars have described the Koran in less than flattering terms:
British historian Thomas Carlyle: “a confused, jumble, crude, incondite, endless iteration…”;
Edward Gibbon: “as toilsome a reading a 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 (by a factor of ten); 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.