The Koran is universally accepted by Muslims to be the infallible Word of God as first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel fourteen hundred years ago. Its 114 chapters, or surahs, recount the narratives central to Muslim belief, and together they form one of the world's most influential prophetic works and a literary masterpiece in its own right. Above all, the Koran provides the rules of conduct that remain fundamental to the Muslim faith today: prayer, fasting, pilgrimage to Mecca and absolute faith in God.
In terms of mechanics and style translation, I much prefer the Penguin Classics version for arranging things topically rather than scattering, say, the requirements for Halal all over the book. If you're an atheist, please don't buy this solely for the sake of giving it a 1 on some online review forum.
I’m an atheist, but I did rate the Bible five stars without reservations and meant it. Not only because it’s essential reading given it’s sacred to 2 billion Christians, the largest world faith, not only because it is one of the oldest writings, giving us an insight into the origins of what it means to be human, but because, in essence, the Bible is not a book--it’s a library--a collection of great poetry and stories.
The Koran is different. Both on Goodreads and Librarything we’re forced to give the authorship of any works held as sacred as “anonymous” but from both a secular and religious point of view that just isn’t accurate. In the case of the Bible, the books in it all have traditional ascriptions. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible are believed by the faithful to have been written by Moses, the other books are usually named after their purported authors. From a secular point of view, although scholars might dispute authorship, it’s like the case with Homer. Many scholars believe that the Iliad and the Odyssey were written 300 years apart, but we give the traditional authorship as Homer for both because it’s convenient and we don’t know better. Jews and Christians alike don’t believe the Bible is written by God--the faithful believe it’s inspired by God, so from both the believing and skeptic point of view the authorship of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is “various.” It’s different with the Koran. Mohammed’s claim is that he was reciting the direct word of God as given him by the angel Gabriel. So from the point of view of the believing Muslim, the author of the Koran is God. But for a nonbeliever like me, it’s obviously by one man--Mohammed--who lived from 570 to 632 AD. And judging this book by a secular standard, no I can’t see it as equal to the Bible.
Now, I recognize I do have handicaps evaluating this book. Atheist I might be, but growing up in America I was raised in a Catholic household, educated in Catholic institutions, and surrounded by a dominant Christian culture. I had to take catechism to receive Communion and take classes in Religion to graduate my high school and college. It meant I had a cultural context and familiarity with the Bible well before I ever decided to read it cover to cover. I didn’t and don’t really have that with Islam. For a believing Muslim, reading the Koran in translation as I did means I didn’t really read the Koran. Remember, Mohammed’s claim is that he was reciting the word of God--in Arabic.
But The Koran just didn’t appeal to me, even comparing it to other sacred texts. It’s pretty rambling and unstructured, really a collection of sayings of the Prophet. It’s composed of “suras,” 114 verses on various subjects, and traditionally not ordered thematically, although that’s an order imposed in Dawood’s popular translation, which I own. The longest sura, “The Cow” runs to about 30 pages in my paperback edition but the rest are about ten pages at the longest, and many suras consist of only a few lines. It’s not unlike Confucius’ Analects in that structure. Although while the Analects expressed a philosophy too authoritarian for my tastes, at least it only claimed to simply be derived from his own wisdom and that of previous sages--not the word of God, and it eschewed the supernatural. And goodness knows the God of the Bible can be wrathful and misogynistic, but The Koran? There’s this fairly obscure sura, Number 111, known as “Fibre” cursing Mohammed’s uncle who opposed him:
May the hands of Abu-Lahab perish! May he himself perish! Nothing shall his wealth avail him. He shall be burnt in a flaming fire, and his wife, laden with faggots, shall have a rope of fibre round her neck!
That’s the sura in its entirety. Sounds pretty petty and vindictive for the word of an eternal, just, benevolent God. There’s also the infamous “Verse of the Sword” taken as a justification for Jihad: Slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them. (Sura 9:5 “Repentence”) I read things like that and I couldn’t help but think of Jesus urging people to forgive their enemies and turn the other cheek. Or of passages in the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching speaking of the futility of war or that it’s the person without virtue who is consumed with exacting vengeance. There may be countless references in The Koran to God’s mercy and compassion, but that’s not the spirit I read in it reading it cover to cover. Never mind that a man shall inherit twice as much as a female (Sura 4:11 “Women”) and the testimony of a man is worth that of two women. (Sura 2:282 “The Cow”) Given the world we find ourselves in, I actually wanted to find much good in The Koran. But, even knowing the vagaries of translation and interpretation, I can’t read this book and and honestly claim my overall impression was in any way positive. And on Goodreads, at least, one star means "didn't like"--so if I'm going to be honest in my ratings, that's the one that fits.
In terms of Arabic grammar, rhetoric and style, this would be the perfect book. To this day, it is well known that the best chance of becoming as fluent as a native Arabic speaker, none is more highly recommended than the Koran.
One thing I was shocked by is the repetition. I couldn't believe how many times the story of Moses was retold! However, many people who have read it many times tell me that every time they read it they find new meanings, something which, as a book lover, is very intriguing to me.
What I loved the most about it was its cryptic surahs. There are some which appear to be completely rhetorical, but upon closer inspection you uncover a meaning to it. My favorite one is (unfortunately I can't remember the Surah it came in) when it says, 'Thulumat fawqa thulumat', which roughly translates into 'darkness over darkness'. It sounds grim at first, but to me it sounded simply beautiful, and after a bit of study, one interpretation I found was that it was referring to two different things: the ocean and a woman's pregnancy. Sounds strange? Well for the ocean it was referring to the impenetrable and unimaginable darkness found in the deep sea, which obviously in those days no one could experience and had any idea about. The particular way it was described alluded to layering, and this was later attributed to the different currents and undercurrents in the ocean.
As for the woman's pregnancy, another thing which was almost a complete mystery in those days, it was meant to describe, according to the interpretation, the layers inside a woman's belly during pregnancy (excuse my horrible descriptive qualities!), meaning the placenta etc.
I just thought that comparing the two to each other was incredibly beautiful and sounds so poetic in arabic, the only disappointment I feel is that not everyone can appreciate it in its true language, and unfortunately, the English translations aren't very beautiful.
The suras themselves are almost stupifyingly opaque, especially in Arabic. It's like reading Pythic oracles on steroids. Most of the teachings were already being practiced, so they were easily adopted. For example, Arabs already dressed modestly, did not eat pork, and worshiped the god Allah, whose symbol was a crescent moon, at the Kaaba, in Mecca.
The Koran adopts the Judaic God. Like Jews and Christians, it proclaims "there is no other", while filling a pantheon with angels, devils, and other lesser gods. Monotheism remains a myth.
The compilation is poetically similar to other works available in Arabic, although almost no contemporary writings survive. The "stories" clearly track Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin and Greek translations, even of some of the Apocrypha.
The word "Islam" means "submission" (not "peace"). The concept of Peace is not invoked in the Qu'ran as a practical way of life. There is no "turn the other cheek" but it doubles the "eye", and does frequently appeal to God's mercy. The Prophet is a warrior, and more blood is on his hands than on all of the Christian apostles combined. However, there is much less slaughter in the Koran than in the Old Testament / Pentateuch. And it is a Testament to moderation in comparison even to the Romans.
Like the Pentateuch, the Koran is recited as if of history, but it is of almost no historical importance. The Koran is functionally a Torah-Gospel, invoked by many, read by almost no one, and understood by none.
I read the Koran because so many people claim it is the reason for Islamic actions against Western society; and even more claim that terrorism and other extremism is a perversion of the Koran. I definitely side with the latter after reading the Book. The message is that God will punish the unbelievers; the role of the believers is to let them be.