By Roy Oksnevad
A Muslim friend of mine, in desperation pleaded, “Roy, if only you would read the Qur’an, it would become clear to you.” He desperately wanted me to become a Muslim. I would meet with him weekly to help him with his English, and soon our English classes revolved around religion.
In our area there were several Qur’an distributions along with bus and billboard campaigns to get non-Muslims to read the Qur’an. The narrative I have heard from converts to Islam is that when they heard the Qur’an recited they heard the beauty of it and became a Muslim. The belief is that the Qur’an is so beautiful that anyone reading it will recognize its wisdom and clear message and become a Muslim. But is this the reality?
When I speak in churches, I will occasionally ask how many people have attempted to read the Qur’an. The follow-up question is if they read even parts of the Qur’an what their impression after reading it was. Most people were unable to finish it and found it frustrating to read since there didn’t seem to be a flow of content.
The Qur’an is clear about its message that God is one and the creator of all that is. Mankind tends to wander and associate created begins with God. God sends prophets and scriptures as reminders to call forgetful humans back to exclusive worship of God. Those who reject these reminders will burn in hell. When it comes to narrative stories in the Qur’an, it assumes that we don’t need the whole story for we already know it. The starting point is usually clear but the significance of the details is often a mystery.
The Qur’an’s Claim
The Qur’an is said to be a clear proof, reading purified pages containing correct scriptures. It also claims to be in clear Arabic: “Lo! We have revealed it, a Lecture in Arabic, that ye may understand” (12:2; 14:4; 65:11; 44:58; 16:103). The claim is that the Qur’an is in clear Arabic so the people could understand it. Yet, the Islamic scholar Al-Suyuti has noted 275 non-Arabic words in the Qur’an and Western scholar Jeffery has identified 118 foreign words.
When the Arabs accused Muhammad of inventing the Qur’an, two such responses are: “Then bring ten surahs, the like thereof, invented, and call on everyone ye can beside Allah, if ye are truthful!” (Surah 10:13) and “Say: Verily, though mankind and the Jinn should assemble to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce the like thereof though they were helpers one of another” (Surah 17:88). There is a polemic defense of Muhammad and the originality of the Qur’an that runs through the text giving the idea that it has divine and miraculous origins. Also see 2:23; 8:31; and 17:88. Islamic teaching is that the Qur’an is Muhammad’s miracle both in eloquence and subject-matter.
However, this claim does not meet reality. The theologically trained Iranian Ali Dashti states, “Non-Moslem scholars have found numerous grounds for questioning the intelligibility and eloquence of the Qor’an, and Moslem scholars have concurred in so far as they have found that the Qor’an needs interpretation.… Not only the misarrangement of the contents in the ‘Othmanic recension but also the language of the Qor’an present difficulties.” (Dashti, 1985, p.47-48).
Challenges to overcome
There are numerous challenges for the non-Islamic scholar to overcome in reading and understanding the Qur’an. First, most readers come with the presupposition that it is chronological. The Qur’an is arranged with the longest surahs at the beginning and the shortest ones at the end. The shorter ones are the earliest ones. Even within a surah there can be verses from a different time period.
Second, the Qur’an has no narrative framework, meaning the surahs are placed together without any apparent concern about content, and even within each surah the topics and tone fluctuate abruptly and without warning. In one verse God will be talking about himself in the third person and in the next he will suddenly switch to the first person plural.
Third, the vocabulary will be unfamiliar to the novice reader of the Qur’an. Islamic names and terms unfamiliar to non-Arabic speakers are found throughout the book. Examples are Isa for Jesus, al-Quds for Jerusalem, hanif for monotheists like Ibrahim (Abraham), to only name a few. However, there are some words and passages which were apparently unintelligible to the readers during Muhammad’s time. For example, Surah 100 has a footnote that the first 5 verses are unclear. It seems that in Surah 101 the words “Clatterer” and “Pit” (Arberry) or “Calamity” and “–” (Pickthall), “Clamour” and “bottomless Pit” (Ali) were unfamiliar to Muhammad’s audience so the text must give a definition of the word, but not all translations come close to the same interpretation. Brown points out, “that a good part of the language of the Qur’an was foreign to them.” (Brown, 2009, p. 75).
Fourth, when reading the Qur’an it sounds at times like a one-sided conversation. The Qur’an is largely inaccessible without the professional help of scholarly interpreters. Its narratives are elusive, its instructions devoid of context, and much of its vocabulary opaque. In other words, the details of the Qur’an are inexplicable apart from input from the hadith and sira (biography of Muhammad) and then commentaries (tafsir).
Fifth, interpreting the Qur’an at face value is not that simple. For instance, within the short 23 year span of Muhammad’s revelation, the issue of wine-drinking is addressed. In Paradise there will be water that doesn’t grow stale, milk that doesn’t sour, and wine for the delight of the drinkers (47:15). Then in 2:217 alcohol is considered bad; in 4:46 Muslims are told not to come to prayer drunk; and finally in 5:92 Muslims are encouraged to avoid alcohol. Synthesizing these three passages the questions we are left with are: Are there times when drinking wine is tolerated and others in which it is prohibited? Did God intended to replace earlier commands with later ones? There needs to be context for these statements. If it is the latter, then 16:101 is the context for abrogating the previous declarations. There is a lot of discussion as to which verses are abrogated by which verse. It isn’t straightforward and there is great division in the Muslim community on this practice.
Sixth, The Qur’an contains sentences which are incomplete and not fully intelligible without the aid of commentaries.
Muslims and the Qur’an
The Qur’an is not necessarily thought of as conveying a message, which is the way contemporary readers come to the Qur’an. Muslims tend to experience the Qur’an or reverence it as a holy object. It is an object of devotion, a thing of beauty, and a nexus of spiritual power. Therefore they memorize it without understanding it, use various verses to help with exams at school, read it during Ramadan for its blessings and power, and enjoy listening to it in Arabic for its rhythmic sound, not necessarily or primarily for its discursive meaning. Fragments of the Qur’an are used as amulets to ward off evil or place in an unguarded building for protection from thieves. The Qur’an is considered such a sacred object that riots and killing mobs are assembled when someone is accused of publicly defacing the Qur’an.
Muslims and Christians often take verses out of context to prove a point. Last month’s newsletter highlighted how Muslims quote only part of Surah 5:32, ripping it out of its context to prove that Islam is a religion of peace (see here https://commanetwork.com/dig_deeper/quran-condemn-violence-non-muslims-closer-look-surah-532/). Christians will rip the following verse Surah 5:33 out of its context to prove that Islam is a violent religion. Always go back to the text and read it in context. Then go to the encyclopedic hadiths and sira (biography) of Muhammad to find the context of the verse. Then go to commentaries (tafsir) to see how the passage in question is interpreted. Let us not continue to malign Muslims through the misuse of the Qur’an to somehow show the superiority of the Christian faith. Let us point people to Christ, who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
Resources to help you
Brown, Daniel W. A New Introduction to Islam, Second Edition. West Sussex, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2009.
Carimokam, Sahaja. Muhammad and the People of the Book. Xlibris Corporation, 2010.
Dashti, Ali. Twenty-Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammad. Boston, MA: George Allen & Unwin, 1985.
Elass, Mateen. Understanding the Koran: A Quick Christian Guide to the Muslim Holy Book. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004.
Ghattas, Raouf and Carol B. Shattas. A Christian Guide to the Qur’an: Building Bridges in Muslim Evangelism. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2009.
Gilchrist, John. The Qur’an: The Scripture of Islam. Claremont, South Africa: Life Challenge Africa, 2003.
Rahman, Fazlur. Major Themes of the Qur’an. Minneapolis, MN: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1994.
Ibn Warraq. The Origins of the Koran: Classic Essays on Islam’s Holy Book. Amhurst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998.