Monday, November 21, 2005

an introduction to the Koran

This paper is actually based on the book Understanding the Koran by Mateen Elass. For a more thorough treatment of this topic, I encourage you to purchase his book, which is available through Amazon. At any rate, I hope this paper proves helpful to many.


A Brief Introduction to the Koran
by Troy Cady

The writings of the New Testament and those of the Koran are similar in length. You’ll find passages referring to Abraham, Moses, Noah, Joseph, Jonah, and Isaac in both. Even the figure of Jesus looms large in the Koran. It has been said that Christians are a “people of the book.” The same could also be said of Muslims. Many Christian doctrinal statements include a sentence like the following: “We regard the Scriptures to be divinely inspired, inerrant in the original writings and the final authority for faith and practice.” That same statement, if used in reference to the Koran, could also be included in a summation of Islamic belief. In fact, it could be said that both Christianity and Islam would regard such a statement as of primary importance. That is to say, this tenet is foundational in nature.

Because of their passion for the Bible, it is understandable that Christians would have intimate knowledge of the New Testament. In light of its centrality, many Christians commit to memory the names of the books of the New Testament. They even memorize select treasured verses and whole chapters. It is no surprise that Muslims do the same with respect to their holy book. Primary school students are encouraged to recite key portions from memory. The average “man on the street” may be heard reciting well-known phrases in everyday conversation, and one may see portions of the Koran displayed in art, architecture and even bumper stickers in Islamic countries. In fact, the oldest university in the world requires its students to be prepared to recite the entire Koran from memory to qualify for graduation, and there are some Muslims who make it their profession to recite any portion of the Koran on demand for special occasions such as funerals and weddings. Such persons are regarded with great respect in the Islamic world.

Islam is quite possibly the fastest growing religion today. As Islam spreads in what may be considered the “Christian” West, it is highly important that Christians generate a compassionate understanding of Muslims and their beliefs. The recent riots in France between Christians and Muslims underscore the importance of this. In order to live side-by-side in major cities like Paris (or Madrid) in relative peace, Christians must understand the religion of their neighbors. In light of the importance of the Koran in Muslim belief and life, generating such an understanding of Islam’s people requires generating an understanding of Islam’s book.

And here lies the problem, the issue which this essay addresses: Christians know very little about the Koran--and many Christians know nothing at all about it. But to understand the Koran is to understand Islam; and to understand Islam (if one does so in a spirit of empathy and love) is to build important bridges--bridges that could spell the difference between peace and war, quite literally.

Hence, some important questions must be addressed. Where did the Koran come from? What are its origins? And what may be regarded as texts of high import in the Koran? And how does the Koran compare to the Bible? What differences may be noted, and how can those differences help Christians enter into meaningful “dialogue” with Muslims? It is to these questions we now turn.

The origins of the Koran
“There is one God Allah and Muhammad is his prophet,” say the Muslims. Christians often fail to understand the importance of Muhammad in the Muslim religion. This is because they tend to view Muhammad through a Christian lens. “Sure, maybe he was a prophet, but so what?” Christians think. “Christianity has its prophets, too: Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Samuel, Jonah, Jeremiah and Nathan.”

But, to accurately understand the way a Muslim sees it, the Christian needs to take off his or her Christian glasses and put on a pair of Muslim glasses. True, the Koran refers to biblical prophets but (to a Muslim) Muhammad is special, unique, the highest prophet.

Why is this? Because Muslims believe the words of the Koran came to humans through the following channel: from God to the angel Gabriel; from Gabriel to Muhammad; from Muhammad to the world. In some instances, God’s words spoken through Muhammad were memorized by his listeners and then later recorded in written form; in other instances Muhammad’s words were recorded instantly. In either case, the key link in the chain is Muhammad.

It is important for Christians to note that Muhammad is more than just “one among many prophets”; he is, in fact, the sole prophet through whom God gave the words of the Koran. No other prophet can claim authorship. And with the death of Muhammad, no other prophet rose to take his place. The words of God to humanity began and ended with the life of Muhammad.

So, who was Muhammad?
We could begin our exploration of the Koran, therefore, with an exploration of Muhammad’s life. Muhammad was born in Mecca in A.D. 570. He was orphaned at the age of 6 and cared for by his uncle, who was a merchant. While still a boy, Muhammad accompanied his uncle on at least one trip to Syria. There he was probably exposed to Christianity and Judaism for the first time. While still in his twenties Muhammad married a wealthy widow named Khadija. Some years later, at age 40, Muhammad began receiving visions and hearing voices.

He had been accustomed to taking spiritual retreats, but these visionary experiences were unique. At first, he grew extremely troubled by this and thought he might be possessed by a demon, but his wife and his cousin put his mind at ease. After that first vision, a considerable amount of time passed before receiving other visions. Wondering why God was silent, Muhammad began to worry that God had forsaken him during this time. He grew increasingly depressed and contemplated suicide. He was prevented, however, from doing so through the words “arise and preach” spoken to him by an angel. With his response, Muhammad’s prophetic career had commenced.

At that time Mecca was a polytheistic city, so Muhammad had a special message for its residents: get rid of all idols and worship the One True God, Allah. Given the fact that Mecca’s economic and social structures were based on their religious beliefs, one can understand why Muhammad’s message was met with apathy and even resistance at first. In fact, for the first ten years Muhammad continued to preach this message in spite of the city’s persistent opposition.

Some time later, however, Muhammad met a small band of travelers from a town that was about 200 miles to the north of Mecca called Yathrib. These men became convinced of Muhammad’s message and vowed to spread the word in their hometown. Within two years, Muhammad’s following there grew from six to seventy. Jealous of his success, some men in Mecca conspired to kill Muhammad. With that, he fled to Yathrib on June 20, 622. This is called the Hijrah (which means “flight” or “migration”) and this date marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar.

During his stay in Yathrib, several significant things happened. First, there were three Jewish tribes living in Yathrib who opposed Muhammad’s claim that he was a prophet of the One True God. Muhammad secured his position through banishing two of the tribes and killing off the third. Second, Muhammad continued to receive words from Allah and the Islamic faith grew in strength. Third, Muhammad renamed the city Medinat al-Nabi (which means “the city of the prophet”). Later, this was shortened to the currently familiar name “Medina”. Fourth, a new social unit began to emerge called the ummah (which means “the community”). And fifth, it is here the word “Muslim” had its origins, as followers of Muhammad gladly considered themselves “the submitters”.

From the time Muhammad left Mecca to the time of his return, less than ten years had passed and his following had grown strong enough in Medina to now firmly establish Islam as the sole religion of today’s pivotal Muslim holy city.

Digging Deeper
Christians would be tempted to, at this point, critique the Muslim story. But, even if one were to do so in a spirit of fairness and civil integrity, with a genuinely reasoned and open-minded approach, one would miss the more important matter at hand: to understand the story through Muslim eyes, to enter into loving solidarity with those of a differing mindset. In light of that, let’s continue to look at the story of Muhammad and the origins of the Koran from the Muslim perspective.

To begin with, it is important to note that Muslims intimately link the Arabic language with the holy book itself. This is because Muslims believe the Koran existed in the spiritual realm in the Arabic language before it was transmitted to Muhammad piece by piece through the angel Gabriel over the course of Muhammad’s lifetime.

Given the belief that the Koran proceeded from God to Gabriel and then from there to Muhammad, it is understandable that Muslims would show interest in the agency of transmission from one source to the other. Of particular interest is the question of whether the holy book eternally existed in Arabic before it was entrusted to Gabriel or whether the holy book was originally written in a different language (in which case Muslims believe Allah translated the original book into Arabic before passing on a perfect copy to Gabriel). In either case, the moment a perfect copy of the Koran moved from Allah’s hands to his messenger’s—that moment--is understandably worthy of remembrance. Indeed, the month of Ramadan builds towards the commemoration of this event, called “the night of power”.

In light of beliefs regarding the Koran’s pre-earthly state, Muslims do not regard translations of the Koran into other languages as authoritative. Rather, they would consider such copies “interpretations” at best, and, in some instances, they could even be regarded as “corruptions”. (It should be noted, however, that translations containing the Arabic text adjacent to the alternate language would receive the Islamic “stamp of approval.”)

Given the importance of the Arabic language, it makes sense that Muslims the world over are required to recite the Koran in Arabic (in spite of the fact that some Muslims may not even speak Arabic or understand what they are saying).

The Muslim defense
Christians may wonder, “How do Muslims know Muhammad ‘got it right’ when he spoke what he heard from Gabriel to other humans at a later time? Perhaps Muhammad forgot some things or perhaps he made some errors.”

To this, the Muslim would possibly say, “The angel Gabriel spoke with such eloquence that the words of the original heavenly Koran were perfectly etched on the heart and mind of the prophet. From there, the very words of Allah were spoken to mankind.”

In further defense, some Muslims would point to the fact that Muhammad was an uneducated man. A book as perfect as the Koran could not have been invented by such a man. Its literary perfection testifies to its heavenly origin.

Indeed, Muhammad himself utilized a similar line of reasoning. Some of his critics challenged his claim as prophet of Allah. “Prophets perform miracles,” they contended. “So, show us which miracles you have performed,” they demanded. Muhammad responded by saying the Koran itself was his miracle and his critics were silenced.

This is because the Koran is, indeed, a book of high literary achievement. Let's look now at a sampling of some key Koranic texts to observe this.

Some important texts
Some years ago, a coalition of Christian ministries was preparing a religious education curriculum for the former Soviet Union. Knowing that the opportunity to introduce a group of people that had been previously atheistic, and largely ignorant of the basics of the Christian faith, they endeavored to present what was the most pressing material of the Bible. Through gathering the advice of other ministers in North America, they compiled a list of what were deemed “The Top Forty Chapters of the Bible.” These texts were considered to be of such import that they were given top priority in communicating the essence of Christian belief. Granted, the whole Bible is important, but these chapters particularly stood out as “theologically weighty.”

We could look at the Koran in the same sort of way. If a Christian were to ask a Muslim, “What would you consider the most important parts of the Koran?” these texts would warrant mention.

Sura (that is, “chapter”) 1 occupies a central place in the five daily prayers. It is the only portion of the Koran that is directly addressed to Allah. Hence, to pray rightly, Muhammad says, is to pray the Fatiha (which means, “the opening one”). It says:

In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful.
Praise be to God, the Lord of the universe,
the Compasionate, the Merciful,
King of the day of judgment.
You [alone] do we worship, and to You [alone] do we cry for help!
Guide us on the straight path,
the path of those to whom You are gracious,
not of those with whom You are angry, nor of those gone astray.

If we find in Sura 1 the most important chapter in the Koran, we find in Sura 2:255 the most important verse. It reads:

Allah! There is no god but He, the Everlasting One. Neither slumber nor sleep overtakes Him. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. Who can intercede with Him except by His permission? He knows what happens to His creatures in this world, and what will happen to them in the hereafter. And they will never compass anything of His knowledge except that which He wills. His throne extends over the heavens and the earth, and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them. And He is the Most High, the Most Great.

The Sufis are a mystical branch of the Islamic faith. As such, these verses from Sura 24 are meaningful to them:

Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth.
The parable of His light is as if there were a niche
and within it a lamp;
the lamp enclosed in glass;
the glass as it were a brilliant star, lit from a blessed tree,
an olive, neither of the east nor of the west,
whose oil is well-nigh luminous,
though no fire touched it.
Light upon light! Allah guides to His light whom He wills.
And Allah sets forth parables for mankind, and God knows all things.

Those Muslims who are more “superstitious” would take comfort in Sura 113:

Say: I seek refuge with the Lord of the dawn,
from the evil of what He has created,
and from the evil of darkness as it spreads,
and from the evil of those who practice witchcraft, who blow on knots,
and from the evil of the envier when he envies.

Reading these Suras, even the most dedicated Christian would have to admit that similar words could be found in the Bible.

How is it, then (in light of the similarities) that Islam and Christianity take widely divergent paths? The key to this answer could be found in Sura 112. This Sura is oft-quoted by Muslims as an argument refuting the truth claims of the Christian faith. In particular, it attacks the notion that God the Father could have a Son. As such, it strikes at the heart of the Christian faith. It says:

Say: He is God, the One and Only;
God, the Eternal, the Absolute;
He does not beget, nor is He begotten;
And there is none like unto Him.

Note especially the third line of the chapter: “He does not beget, nor is He begotten.” Heavy emphasis is placed on this line by the Muslim apologist.

Though Sura 112 presents us with a fundamental difference between Islam and Christianity, we could look at many other texts in the Koran to observe even more significant differences. We shall therefore turn to other instances of divergence as we compare Koranic references to characters that also appear in biblical references. By noting the differences in the records, we shall come to understand Islam and the Koran more deeply.

Noah in the Koran
There are several references to Noah in the Koran. Piecing the testimony together, we note several similarities and differences.

Similarities in the Koran, as compared to the biblical text include:
• The cataclysm of the flood
• The gathering of two of every kind of species, male and female
• The construction of the ark
• The saving of Noah’s family (most of them, see below)

Some chief differences, when compared to the biblical record, include:
• A record of Noah warning the people to worship Allah alone
• The rejection of Noah’s message by the people
• Other believers, besides Noah’s family, also board the ark
• One of Noah’s sons refuses to believe and does not board the ark. Instead, he flees to a mountain. Of course, he dies in the flood. Later, however, Noah pleads with Allah to have mercy on his son, but Allah refuses to show mercy.

Abraham in the Koran
In the Koran, there are four stories told concerning the life of Abraham. Two of these stories have biblical parallels and two do not.

In the Koran we find a record of the biblical story in which Abraham receives two heavenly visitors who bring news to Abraham concerning the conception of his son and then carry on their way to bring destruction upon Sodom and Gomorrah. Among other differences, it is significant to note that Sarah, upon hearing the news of her promised pregnancy, does not laugh (as is recorded in the Bible), but rather cries out and strikes her face. Sarah’s reaction, on the other hand, features prominently in the biblical account because Isaac’s name means “laughter.” Further, in the Koranic account, as the messengers take their leave to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleads with them, but they reply that the matter has already been decided. In contrast, the biblical record portrays Abraham pleading with God himself after the visitors leave, and God, in his mercy, grants Abraham’s request that, if ten righteous persons can be found, he will, indeed, spare the whole city.

In the Koran we also find an alternate account of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, but details differ from those of the Bible. To be sure, the Koran follows the general biblical storyline and in the end Isaac is not sacrificed. There is even a “replacement” provided for Isaac, but in Christian thought much emphasis is placed on the substitute of the ram and much is made of the parallel between Christ, the perfect lamb, our Substitute, and the ram of Isaac’s story. In comparison, there seems to be little importance ascribed to this detail in Islamic tradition.

Another story concerning Abraham in the Koran seems to derive its inspiration from the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the biblical book of Daniel. The Koranic story involves Abraham preaching to his father and his countrymen. They resist Abraham’s message and decide to kill him by throwing Abraham into a fire, but Allah causes the fire to be cool and safe for Abraham.

Space is lacking within the scope of this essay to mention the fourth Abrahamic reference in the Koran. Moreover, we will not explore other interesting comparisons concerning the Koran’s account of the lives of people like Joseph, Moses, Jonah, Elijah, Elisha, Adam, Cain and Abel, Job, Saul, David, Solomon and John the Baptist. It may prove helpful, however, to gain a larger perspective regarding the Koran’s relationship to the Torah and the New Testament, as well as the Islamic perspective on what it deems history’s greatest prophets, including Jesus.

The Big Picture
The Bible ascribes the title “prophet” to only a handful of people when compared to the Islamic view. Islam teaches there have been no fewer than 124,000 prophets throughout history, but very few were given writings to pass on to humanity. Those who were called by Allah to especially pass on writings are given the title “apostle”, in addition to their status as prophet. The “apostles” include:
• Adam
• Seth
• Enoch
• Abraham
• Moses
• Jesus
• Muhammad

According to Islamic thought, the story goes that, between Adam and Abraham, no fewer than 100 “books” had been given by Allah through these special prophets to humanity. But, alas, these books were lost and never recovered. This is of no consequence, however, since the Koran contains in essence all that was lost. As far as Moses and Jesus goes: Muslims teach that Moses was given one book (the Torah) and Jesus was given one book (the New Testament), but the Jews and the Christians allowed corruptions to taint the original texts. If the Koran (the one book that was given to Muhammad) has similarities to the biblical text, that is because both the Koran and the Bible originally came from Allah; but if there are differences, that is because the Jewish and Christian scriptures have been inaccurately transmitted. The only reliable source of Allah’s words to humanity may be found in the Koran.

Jesus in the Koran
Interestingly enough, Jesus features prominently in the Koran, and it is with these observations that we shall conclude our introduction to the Muslim holy book.

First of all, it is surprising to note that Muslims believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. In fact, Muslims also regard Mary (called “Mariam”) in high regard. Indeed, in Sura 3 we find a special story about Mary that recounts how Hannah, Mary’s mother, dedicated her to the service of God. Besides the biblical parallel regarding the prophet Samuel’s birth in the Old Testament, we could also note a Muslim concern for Mary’s purity not unlike the Roman Catholic concern addressed by the doctrine of Mary’s “immaculate conception.”

Further, we find Jesus performing many miracles in the Koran. There is evidence of his healing and resurrecting powers. One miracle, however, which does not have its exact counterpart represented in the New Testament, does seem to have an interesting parallel with the biblical account of the Last Supper. In Sura 5 Jesus asks God to send down a banquet table from heaven. The answer to Jesus’ request comes with this warning: “Verily I am sending it down to you, so whoever of you disbelieves afterwards, I will punish him in a way in which I will not punish anyone else in all the world.” Christian scholars note the language of seriousness attached to this “table” and draw the connection to early Christian instructions regarding the gravity of the Lord’s Supper.

We also find Jesus in Suras 3 and 5 performing a miracle that has parallels in early Christian apocryphal literature. Specifically, this miracle involves Jesus forming a bird out of clay and then giving it life.

It is also interesting to note that Jesus, according to many Muslims (but not according to the Koran) will one day return to earth at the end of time. He will even reign over all humanity and through his rule Islam will be finally established.

But, in spite of the Muslim respect for Jesus, there is one crucial difference. Sura 4:171 summarizes this difference:

Christ Jesus the son of Mary was no more than an apostle of God, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in God and His apostles. Say not ‘Three’: desist. For God is one God. Far be it from Him that He should have a son!

Further, Sura 5:119-20 portrays Jesus himself as denying he claimed divinity with these words:

And behold! God will say, “O Jesus, son of Mary, did you say to men, ‘Take me and my mother as gods besides God?’” He will respond, “Praise be to God! It is not fitting for me to say what is not mine by right. If I had said it, Thou wouldst have known it. Thou knowest what is in my heart, but I do not know what is in Thy heart. For Thou knowest in full all that is hidden. I never said to them anything except that Thou didst command me, ‘Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.’”

In light of this, it is not surprising to note that the Koran also attempts to “set the record straight” with regard to Jesus’ crucifixion. Sura 4 claims Jesus was rescued before suffering death.

Nevertheless, Jesus (alone) is given the following titles in the Koran: Messiah, The Spirit from God and The Word of God. Given the fact that these terms are antithetical to the correctives cited above (regarding the portrayal of Jesus in the Koran as mere prophet), Christian scholars conclude that Muhammad had heard these terms, but failed to understand their significance.

The conclusion of the matter
We’ve noted many similarities between the Bible and the Koran that could only be described as striking in nature. Christians would think, therefore, that they could “build bridges” to Muslims through simply sitting down with them and comparing the Christian version of the story with the Muslim version. But such an approach fails to take into account, for example, the Muslim belief that there will be similarities between the Koran and the Christian scriptures, but (where those similarities cease) the Koran is a more reliable source. The Christian could then try to convince the Muslim that the New Testament is more reliable than the Koran, and could even provide “reasoned” arguments why this is so, but, in the end, both the Christian and the Muslim would no doubt be left with the feeling that their discussion is getting nowhere.

While that approach may be well-intentioned, the only sure way Christians may build bridges with Muslims (and, indeed, with anyone) is through the path of love. But the way of love is the way of understanding, compassion, empathy and solidarity. The way of love requires one to see things from the other’s point of view. As Christians who preach the gospel of transforming, sacrificial love, the responsibility falls to us to take the first step towards identification with the Muslim. Hopefully, this paper has helped all of us to understand Muslims, Islam and the Koran better. And hopefully, through understanding, we will be able to love better.

(Note: this material was derived from the book Understanding the Koran by Mateen Elass. For a more in-depth study, I recommend reading his book. This paper was adapted from his book for two reasons: 1. To give a brief introduction to the topic for those who may not have time to read his entire book; and 2. To whet your appetite for more.)

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