(dedicated to my Eastern Orthodox friends whose communion has had to suffer uncountable offenses from Islam)
This review is hard to write. I’m really not qualified to write it. I would be hesitant in accepting the word of an outsider who read briefly of the Bible and then offered his “critique” of it. Complicating this even more, technically I did not even read the Qu’ran. I read a translation of it (Dawood). On a humorous side bar, throughout my reading of this I had this scene in my head (and no, I don’t watch Family Guy. It is a filthy show, but this clip is funny)
Mohammed claims that earlier revelations are corrupted. This presents the reader with a problem: Part of Mohammed’s claim is that Allah sent prophets (Moses, Jesus, etc) to the people (57:26; 2:136), but for one reason or another were rejected. On one hand we are told that the Quran’s revelation is in line with previous revelations (which assumes some sort of verifiable standard) but we are also told that the previous revelations are corrupted, which renders any verification moot. The problem is that he doesn’t show us these extant mss copies where we may see the corruptions.
The problem is exacerbated when Mohammed tells these communions to accept him because he is in line with previous revelations (10:94). If previous revelations are corrupted, then on what basis may we trust his message? Why should we be held accountable for not listening to previous prophets if our only access to these prophets is corrupt?
There is a certain charm in the Quran. I enjoyed it in the same way I enjoy reading Middle Eastern fairy tales. Despite some tendentious repetition and non-sequiturs, there are some interesting and amusing parts. A case in point is the Qu’ran’s view of paradise. One cannot help but smile at the repeated references to “heavy-breasted,” dark-eyed girls and that man’s “vigor” will be sufficient for the task at hand (and contrary to popular opinion, I only saw the Qu’ran list 70 virgins, not 72). The Qu’ran even specifies that these girls were not defiled by jinn (think: genies). Given that this view of paradise is likely a projection of Mohammed’s desires (or those of his followers), pace Feuerbach, one must wonder if 7th century Arabian man struggled with constant problem of genies’ defiling of virgins. (And there might even be some substance in that point. In the TV-drama “The Devil’s Mistress,” which takes place in Stuart England, a nobleman, upon hearing a rumor that his wife copulated with the Devil during her teenage years, began to accuse her of various things related to it. We expect such silliness in ancient man. It’s startling to see it in post-medieval European man, too) This isn’t a snarky point: throughout the Qu’ran one is struck by the fact that genies are a persistent theme.
There are other eye-openers, such as the passage noting where Alexander the Great discovered the mud pit into which the sun sat on a daily basis.
I understand some can critique the Bible for “brutal parts.” Fair enough. Some commentators will defend it by saying “This was part and parcel of ancient daily life.” I guess that’s true in a sense. When we read the life of the prophet, we are tempted to brush away the unsavory parts by saying “such was Middle Eastern culture then” (and likely now, too; Does Surah 4:25 still apply today in Middle Eastern cultures?). I do not think that line can work, though. One of Mohammed’s wives(!) caught him having sex with a Coptic slave girl. (Surah 66:4; this action is not explicitly stated in the Surah, but most Muslim scholars consider it authenticated by true Hadiths. We then have a subsequent revelation from Allah which justifies Mohammed’s actions. The implication is clear: even Mohammed’s own time and culture would not justify such an action outside of divine warrant. If they would not casually justify such an action, on what grounds does Western liberalism do so?
The Sword of the Prophet
Does Islam promote violence? More specifically are the violent texts in the Qu’ran seen as normative in Islamic praxis? To make the critique even more difficult, can one condemn the violent texts in Islam without also condemning Christianity by the same standard? I think we can.
There are numerous violent texts in Islam, but we will only focus on one: The Surah of the Sword, Surah 9:4-5: “When the sacred month is over slay the idolater wherever you find him.” Is it fair to blame Muslim violence today based on this text, and by implication Islam, in such a way that doesn’t also blame the book of Joshua as causing Christian violence? Part of the difficulty is that the Qu’ran doesn’t have anything like a narrative that would alert the reader that some details don’t apply in the same way as they once did (e.g., Yahweh’s orders to Joshua concerned specific tribes and was not an invitation to world-wide slaughter). Does this Surah apply today? Historically, Islam has not been embarrassed by it. In Samuel Huntingdon’s memorable words, “The borders between the Islamic world and the non-Islamic world are always violent.” Islam has historically interpreted and practiced as though this text were still binding.
The elephant remains in the room. An objector could grant that the Christian story has a change of praxis between the Book of Joshua and the Sermon on the Mount, but the fact remains that Christians have behaved violently based on readings of certain Biblical texts. That cannot be denied. Some Protestants and most Catholics (at least the important ones in power) have behaved this way (the same Council [IV Lateran] that codified transubstantiation also required that Jews be ghettoed in certain parts of the city. What kind of reasoning allows transubstantiation to stand today, but not the anti-semitic parts of the Council?). One could say that they are acting inconsistently with the life and message of the Messiah, whereas Muslims are acting consistently with the life of Mohammed and his followers: Mohammed personally led raids on caravans and was caught having sex with slave girls (Surrah 66; her name was Mariyah). Islam expanded exponentially over the next few centuries and not by peaceful missionary endeavors.
Is the book worth reading?
Absolutely. We need to be informed about others’ faiths and sacred texts. It is common courtesy and improves our ability to speak intelligently in the forum. Parts of the book are laborious, but some parts are quite interesting. Oddly enough, and this might seem incongruous with the above review, I think the book effectively captures the spirit of its age. One can easily imagine Arabic warriors singing and chanting surahs as they charge into battle.
As to more specific critiques, the reader is encouraged to look elsewhere. Others have done a more capable job.
The follow texts helped with this review:
Huntingdon, Samuel. The Clash of Civilizations.
Trifkovic, Srdja. The Sword of the Prophet. Regina Press.