A Westerner Reads the Koran

A Westerner Reads the Koran

by Thomas F. Bertonneau

Introduction

The Western layman approaching the Koran for the first time must experience something like befuddlement. Supposing that the layman possesses a good education, including knowledge of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and the core classics of the Greek and Roman worlds, the Koran will strike him as something like the opposite of that with which he enjoys familiarity. Take the Bible’s Genesis: It deals in straightforward narrative, as do its Near Eastern precursor texts such as the Babylonian Creation or Enuma Elish. The very opening words of Genesis invoke the concept of a beginning, which implies in advance both a middle-part and an end. The same is true of the Greek poet Hesiod’s account of the generations of the gods — Elemental, Titanic, and Olympian — in his Theogony. After Hesiod explains his own function as an interpreter of the lore concerning these things, he launches into his genealogical story whose episodes follow one another in comprehensible sequence: Once again, a beginning, a middle-part, and an end. In much the same way, the New Testament follows the Old Testament so that, taken together, they constitute a unified tale. The events in Homer’s Odyssey similarly follow in a comprehensible way the events in Homer’s Iliad. The essential seriality, as it might be called, of Western narrative and exposition contributes mightily to their seriousness and comprehensibility. Both the Old Testament and the New also sort out their chapters so as to keep non-narrative prose separate from narrative prose. This consideration helps the reader. To whomsoever compiled the Koran these principles meant nothing. The Koran lards non-narrative exposition into its narratives — promiscuously and confusingly from a readerly point of view. A properly chronological narrative can, by a difficult labor, be reconstructed from the Koran’s chapters or surahs, borrowing the history of prophecy from the Old Testament, but the naïve Western reader who proceeds from one surah to another will encounter no orderly arrangement of episodes such as he might expect in the Bible or Homer.

The Koran bears some resemblance to a little-known category of quasi-Western literature that appeared in the Greek-speaking parts of the divided Roman Empire in the centuries that historians label as Late Antiquity. The literature of the Third through the Fifth Centuries was largely religious and it was also competitively religious as sects and heresies of various kinds metastasized and proliferated. The Bible familiar to modern Westerners had already been codified and enjoyed wide dissemination. The Greek classics were still known to educated people. Classical High Culture still existed, and by the Fifth Century Nicene Christianity had established itself as the majoritarian religion of the Empire. The sectarian pamphlets of the time, which constitute the little-known category referred to above, urge the causes of the multitudinous competing faiths, many of which belong to Gnostic religiosity. (Definition to come)

A great cache of such documents came to light in the late 1940s and goes by the name of the Nag Hammadi Library, after the Egyptian town where archeologists discovered it. One characteristic of the pamphlets in this collection is their parasitic relation to established texts, especially to the canonical Testaments; another is their implacable hostility to the established Scripture and its interpretation. The word Gnostic describes the common attitude of the sectarian writers, which is one of absolute conviction and certainty, first, that the faith of the established Church is corrupt and false, and second that the writer has been vouchsafed by the Supreme Deity with a type of knowledge concerning these matters that is self-guaranteeing. Gnosis refers to a type of secret revelation unavailable directly to the mass of people, who must trust the claims of the illuminatus if they want to participate in or benefit by it.

Being parasitic and competitive in the extreme, the radical religious pamphleteers of Late Antiquity made use of literary reversal. In almost any item from the Nag Hammadi collection, the pamphleteer will retell an episode from the Old or the New Testament, but in a way that inverts its salient symbols so as to appropriate that story in a new overarching narrative with a meaning opposite to that of what it appropriates. A recurrent trope of the Gnostic pamphlets is to retell Genesis in such a way that the Creator-God becomes a malicious secondary deity who, jealous of the super-deity who created him, creates the physical universe in order that he might appear as the One True God to its inhabitants. In some of the Gnostic literary reversals, Jesus appears not as the son of the Genesis deity, but of the super-deity, and he comes to abolish the false creation conjured to salve his own pride by the lower-order, jealous deity. The pamphleteers never retell their borrowed stories straightforwardly, but their writers break them up and reorder the episodes seemingly at random. They also mix narrative with homiletics and commentary, making neither the story nor the non-narrative component easy to follow. Scholars remark that being difficult to understand and using a plethora of quasi-philosophical and quasi-theological terms — into the use of which one requires initiation — belonged to the appeal of the Gnostic sects. Acquiring the neologisms reinforced, as it does today in cultic recruitment, a peculiar us-versus-them, a radical inside-outside, mentality. The language of the radical sects might be Greek, Coptic, or Syriac, and the pamphlets reflect this, but even the Coptic and Syriac texts borrow Greek terms.

In the paragraphs that follow, I want to undertake a reading of the Koran’s first surah, known as “The Cow,” according to the disciplines of literary exegesis and comparative literature that I studied during my graduate-student tenure in the Program for Comparative Literature at UCLA — from which I earned a doctoral degree in 1990 for a dissertation on the anthropology of the modern epic poem. Thanks to the luck of my having attended school and college in the decades before the dumbing-down of American education had established its trend, I am familiar with a broad range of literature and philosophy from Antiquity through the Medieval Period right down to the Twentieth Century. I regularly teach a course in Greek and Latin literature in translation. I am the author of more than a hundred scholarly articles and of an equal number at least of essays on cultural topics for a lay audience, several of which have appeared at Gates of Vienna. Normally, I avoid the grammatical first person, but in the present context I want to make known my background because it will be relevant in assessing the plausibility of my comments and the legitimacy of my point of view. My criteria are, precisely, Western; criticism is a Western practice. A long tradition exists in the West of scrutinizing sacred texts to see whether they can survive the investigation of their coherency and consistency. Plato criticized Hesiod and Homer; beginning in the Eighteenth Century, writers of the Enlightenment brought the critical apparatus to bear on the Bible. There is no equivalent in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament of the Bible, to the first sentence of the Koran: “This book is not to be doubted.”

I.

That the Koran consists of a patchwork of borrowings and allusions has long been known. Chronologically, it is a post-Classical or early medieval text originating in the Arabian milieu of the Saudi Peninsula. The Arabian lands remained largely outside the influence of Hellenism, although the neighboring Syriac lands did participate in Hellenism. The Syriac people of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Centuries were Christians, but of the Monophysite rather than of the Greek Orthodox persuasion. Monophysite Christianity established itself in the Saudi Peninsula alongside Arab paganism and Judaism. It comes as no surprise then that fragments and motifs from the Old and New Testaments, and even from paganism, appear in “The Cow,” the very title of which is an allusion although a somewhat ambivalent one to the Old Testament, specifically to Numbers. Some way into “The Cow,” the Koran records a conversation between Allah, Moses, and the Hebrews. Allah, speaking through the angel Gabriel to Mohammed, and using the first person plural or “We,” reminds Mohammed that he once reminded Moses of the Abrahamian covenant and demanded that the people make to him the sacrifice of a cow. Moses passes along the news of this demand to the people. They mock him and behave with recalcitrance, quibbling about the details: “Make known to us what kind of cow it should be.” Once they have wheedled all the details out of Moses, and having rounded up a qualifying specimen, “they slaughtered the cow.”

The Penguin edition of the Koran, which is my source, declares in a footnote that, “Numbers 19 refers merely to a sacrificial ‘cow’; it contains none of the verbal exchange in this surah.” The passage, in other words, is a kind of riff on an obscure reference in one of the rather more obscure books of the Old Testament.

In the full text of the first surah of the Koran, the episode of the cow, from which that surah takes its name, has only a shaky context. One must search for its motivation. One of the themes of the first surah is idolatry, a great anathema in Islam. Under the presence of that theme, any reference to a cow should immediately take on added significance. In Exodus, readers encounter the episode of the Golden Calf. Moses has climbed the mountain to receive the law from God, leaving Aaron in charge of the people. The people in their confusion revert to their pagan customs. They convince Aaron, who fears the mob, to let them construct an idol in the form of a Golden Calf to which they then make human and animal sacrifices. When Moses returns, what he sees appalls him, and he orders the execution of those who fomented the lapse, although he spares Aaron. Given that Islam vehemently opposes idolatry and given that the first surah of its founding book takes the wickedness of idolatry as a major theme, one wonders why “The Cow” makes no direct reference to the Golden Calf, but instead spins out an elaboration on a decontextualized detail from Numbers. One possible answer has to do with the kinship of the Koran with the religious pamphlets of the Greek and Syriac worlds of Late Antiquity: A stubborn and maniacal insistence on one’s originality and priority. To take over the Exodus story of the Golden Calf would indebt the Koran too obviously to Hebrew lore, so the reference, although it necessitates itself, must be made as indirectly as possible. Islam contends that the Koran is “uncreated.” The surah called “Ornaments” asserts that, “It is a transcript if the Eternal Book in Our keeping, sublime, and full of wisdom.” One finds similar claims in the Gnostic booklets: The story of Creation in Genesis is actually, so the claim purports, a later, false account, concocted to bamboozle people and alienate them from the true faith and salvation; but this account is the prior, true account, and this pamphlet restores it to circulation. In this way what knows itself to be belated and unoriginal attempts to convince an audience that it partakes in primordiality, to its own benefit.

Titles mean something to a Westerner. Genesis is a Greek word for the origin of something. When a Westerner opens Genesis for the first time and reads in sequence about the ex nihilo creation and the drawing forth of Adam from the clay and the making of Eve from Adam’s rib, he remarks the correspondence between the title of the tale and the contents of the tale. The foregoing paragraphs will have made it plain that in the Koran — or at least in its first surah — no such correspondence exists. In the Penguin edition, the reader must deal with five pages of text before he comes to the actual episode of the heifer-sacrifice, which takes up about one page, and which is followed by a discussion of unbelief or infidelity. It remains unclear how the episode of the heifer-sacrifice correlates with the theme of idolatry. The heifer is not an idol, but a living creature; and Allah is apparently pleased with the offering. The story therefore validates animal sacrifice.

Slaughtering animals remains important in Islam. Muslims slaughter animals ritually for feasts such as the Eid during Ramadan. The Arabian pagans practiced animal sacrifice and so did the Jews during the two eras of the Temple, but only at the Temple and not after the destruction of the second Temple. Perhaps the point lies in the way that the people at first react to Moses. Their initial insouciance belongs to unbelief. The theme of unbelief jockeys with the theme of idolatry to provide the focus of “The Cow.” But more than unbelief, the real theme would appear to be the absolute difference between believers and unbelievers and the perniciousness of the latter.

The first line of “The Cow,” as earlier noted, reads, “This Book is not to be doubted,” a statement on which the recurrent sortition (definition to come) of the Koran founds itself. The main voice of the Koran, hence also of “The Cow,” purports to be God’s own, which the English translation in the Penguin edition couches in the first person plural or “We,” invariably capitalized. Sortition refers to the separating out of one category from another. The god of the Koran, hence also of its first surah, reveals himself as obsessed with sortition — with separating the faithful from the unfaithful and in vilifying the latter. The second sentence of “The Cow” reads: “It [that is, the Koran] is a guide for the righteous, who believe in the Unseen and are steadfast in prayer; who give from what We gave them; who believe in what has been revealed to you and what was revealed before you, and have absolute faith in the life to come.” The fourth and fifth sentences of “The Cow” read: “As for unbelievers, it is the same whether or not you forewarn them; they will not have faith. God has set a seal upon their hearts and ears; their sight is dimmed and grievous punishment awaits them.” Several paragraphs ensue that involve the condemnation of people who claim to believe but keep secret reservations in their hearts. Thus: “There is a sickness in their hearts which God has aggravated… God will mock them and keep them long in sin, ever straying from the right path.”

Some observations…

A Western reader looks for seriality, coherency, symmetry, logic, beauty in the image, and the presence of a discernible morality. Just to count by pages, what does the reader stumble across in the first ten pages, say, of “The Cow”? There are two pages of sortition, some sentences of which the previous paragraph quotes; one page recounting how Allah subordinated the angels to man and how Adam gave names to the things of the world; one page recounting the story of the heifer-sacrifice; three more pages of sortition; and one page discussing the principle of abrogation. “The Cow” takes up the first thirty-two pages of the Penguin Koran. The remaining twenty-two pages show no more apparent organization than the first ten but merely extend its lack of a discernible pattern. In Western story telling or Western argumentation, the reader expects the beginning to motivate the middle-part logically, and the middle-part to motivate the end, also logically. Logic consists in a description of, or a prescription for, consistent exposition, one part of which concerns the establishment of categories. Establishing categories requires criteria by which one genus might be distinguished from another. “The Cow” establishes categories — in the sortition, already mentioned, of those who have submitted and those who reject the creed — but it supplies no criteria for them. The sortition can therefore only be arbitrary, a matter of who has power over whom in any given moment. The principle, if that be the word, of abrogation is not merely illogical; it annihilates logic because it annihilates seriality.

More on abrogation…

“Any verse We abrogate,” Allah announces, “We will replace by a better one or one similar.” Most Gates of Vienna readers will understand the notion of abrogation, but in case anyone did not, a brief explanation would be useful. Insofar as the Koran as a whole has a principle of construction, that principle, once again using the word loosely, is arrangement by length of the surah, with the longest coming first and the shortest coming last. This type of plan obscures the chronological order of the surahs, but abrogation refers precisely to chronological order. Under abrogation any contradiction among the surahs must be resolved in favor of the later surah; a later surah, supposing a difference, invalidates an earlier surah. As there are numerous discrepancies among the surahs, the Western reader can only conclude that the Koran is a self-contradictory text. Supposedly “uncreated” and “eternal,” it nevertheless announces that it has altered its own meaning — something that can only happen under the sign of time or historically. And if the Koran were historical, it could not be eternal. The ontology, so to speak, of the Koran, as revealed in “The Cow,” corresponds to the cosmic ontology, as envisioned by Islam. In Western theology, which incorporates a cosmological element, once God has created the cosmos, he is bound by his creation. Allah, however, being all-powerful, can alter creation at will. A rational cosmology could arise on the predicates of Genesis, but not on the basis of the Koran.

II.

The relentless sortition in “The Cow” belongs to a clannish, tribal, or radically sectarian mentality in whose purview whatever lies within the collective is absolutely and good and immune to criticism and whatever lies without it is toxic and evil. The theme of sortition connects itself by an internal logic, to which the text itself is oblivious, with the dichotomy of the pure and the impure. Sortition functions under such a dichotomy cathartically. To remain pure, the in-group must constantly be on watch for the appearance or intrusion of impurity, which it then must ruthlessly expel. The first surah of the Koran takes its name from an episode of animal sacrifice that pleases Allah. Expulsion — which can take the form of ejection from the community at one end, or of lynch-mob homicide at the other — belongs among the standard gestures of sacrifice. “The Cow” is replete with calls for the violent treatment of the unbelievers. That is to say, “The Cow” is replete with calls to murder in order to show respect for Allah and sustain the purity of the in-group.

Of those who stand accused of offering revelatory books of their own that would compete with the Koran, Allah declares, “Woeful shall be their fate, because of what their hands have written, because of what they did.” Elsewhere the first surah informs its readers that “truly, those who commit evil and become engrossed in sin shall be the inmates of the Fire, wherein shall they abide forever.” Elsewhere again, “Whoever is the enemy of God, His angels, or His apostles, or of Gabriel or Michael, will surely find that God is the enemy of the unbelievers.” “The Cow” gives believers explicit permission to exercise “retaliation… in bloodshed.” It urges jihad when it states that “fighting is obligatory for you.” It judges that “idolatry is more grievous than bloodshed.” Its final words are “Give us victory over the unbelievers.” “The Cow,” in other words, sanctions violence against the out-group, which, because the in-group/out-group distinction is never purely spatial, provides a ready source of sacrificial victims spatially internal to the community.

The Introduction to this essay remarked on a kinship, possibly remote, but not necessarily so, between the Koran and the radical sectarian pamphlets of Late Antiquity, which it characterized as Gnostic. One of the longest enduring types of Gnosticism was the religious movement whose followers called themselves Manichaeans after their founder, Mani, who, anticipating Mohammed, claimed to be the last and supremely authoritative prophet of God. Mani was a Persian of the Second Century; familiar with a variety of religions, including Christianity, he freely appropriated from them the parts of his synthetic creed. Thus Manichaeism contains Christian motifs, Greek philosophical motifs, Jewish motifs, and motifs from many other sources. From Zoroastrianism, Mani adopted the cosmological motif of dualism. Now dualism posits that the universe divides itself into two territories: Half of it falls under the dominion of an evil spirit and the other half under the dominion of a good spirit or True God. The two divinities battle one another over through eons of time although the True God enjoys the knowledge of his predestinated triumph whereupon he will make whole the world. Such a dualism belongs to Gnosticism generally. One finds it, for example, in the convergent cosmologies of the Nag Hammadi Library. The dualism of the Manichaeans is odd, because it will issue eventually in a monism and is teleologically, in the triumph of the True God, a type of monotheism.

Although Islam declares itself resolutely the most absolute of all absolute monotheisms, it bears the traces of something like the Manichaean dualism. Manichaeism and Monophysite Christianity might indeed have exercised formative influence on Mohammedanism at its formation. (Some scholars have postulated that the realm of the geographical origin of Islam was not Saudi Arabia, but Persia; and others that Islam was originally a militant breakaway branch of Monophysitism.) Islam translates the Manichaean theological dualism, in which two deities compete for dominion over the cosmos, from the heavenly to the earthly realm, where it reproduces itself in the globally reaching in-group, out-group distinction. The very notions of Dar al Islam, or the House of Submission, and Dar al Harb, the House of Conflict, qualify as Manichaean, if merely in their starkness. Moreover, although “The Cow” proclaims that the gods of the idols are non-existent, the attitude towards the gods of the idols that it prescribes (implacable hostility and the justification of expunging violence) lends to them a certain reality. Another element of Gnostic cosmology is the idea that the cosmos once constituted a Paradisiacal Monad called the Pleroma or Fullness, but that due to the envy of the lesser god, the Pleroma became fragmented. Against this background “The Cow” yields an interesting claim: “People were once but one community,” but when false prophets appeared, that unity broke apart.

As the Western reader reads and then re-reads “The Cow,” the constant obsession with the anthropological division — the in group, out-group duality — becomes something like a sign of constant crisis within Islam present from the beginning. Sacrifice, as the brilliant thinker René Girard has shown in his studies of myth and the Bible, always responds to a pervasive sense of crisis. When a sect or creed repetitively announces its great strength, as the prose of “The Cow” and of the Koran as a whole does, the reader grows suspicious that such boasts design to conceal a deep sense of weakness. Thus when, in “The Cow,” Allah declares that “there is no compulsion in religion,” one thinks right away that the demand to submit furnishes an instance of compulsion. When apostasy falls subject to capital punishment, one is definitely in the realm of compulsion. The style of the New Testament, by contrast, conforms to the canons of persuasion; and this reflects the influence on it of Greek rhetoric and logic. An informed Western reader cannot help but remark the difference. Jesus did not say, “Slay them wherever you find them” or “drive them out of the places from which they drove you.” Nor did Jesus say, “If anyone attacks you, attack him as he attacked you.” Allah, speaking through Gabriel to Mohammed, and Mohammed in composing the Koran, said these things. Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek.”

The Western reader, once again, looks for beautiful images whether in expository prose or in narration. “The Cow” not only bereaves itself of beautiful imagery; it is more or less bereft of imagery, period. How to describe it? The prose is unadorned, utilitarian, banal, and prone to use the imperative tense until one tires of the ceaseless exhortation. Only the recurrent invocation of the Hellish fire in which the infidels and apostates shall burn forever exempts itself from the general absence of imagery. The text dwells on the implacability of divine punishment. A remarkable contrast comes to mind. In the Gospel of John, famously, the mob of self-righteous men has arrested an adulterous woman, likely a prostitute, in flagrante delicto. The mob seeks from Jesus the rabbinical sanction to carry out the Deuteronomic punishment — to stone her to death. Jesus tells them, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” In shame, the crowd breaks up and the men wander off, humiliated. The Gospel never interests itself in the details of the sexual act, which remain private. One of the ugly aspects of Koranic prose in “The Cow” is the authorial obsession with the sexual act and related matters. “Women are your fields: Go, then, into their fields whence you please.” That admittedly qualifies as an image, but hardly as a beautiful one. “Keep aloof from women during their menstrual periods and do not approach them again until they are clean; when they are clean, have intercourse with them whence God enjoined you.” That is not an image; it is an injunction. It has nothing to do with the Gospel of Love.

Further observations and summing up…

“The Cow” consists mainly in endless repetitive injunctions and exhortations; it is almost entirely prescriptive. One finds in it no arguments, but only commandments, almost always under the implicit threat of condign punishment for trespass. A few stories, borrowed from the Bible, mostly from the Old Testament, intersperse themselves among the injunctions and exhortations. The compiler of the Koran lacks any talent for storytelling, so that the episodes impress the reader — the Western reader, at any rate — as being obscure and poorly motivated. Perhaps it is in line with Islam’s iconoclasm that images absent themselves from the prose, which comes across as barren, rather like the deserts where the Bedouins roamed. Indeed, the injunctions and exhortations extend into a formless distance like the dunes of the Mojave or the Sahara. I could not help but think of some lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Waste Land”: “Here is no water but only rock / Rock and no water and the sandy road / The road winding above among the mountains / Which are mountains of rock without water.” Even the grammar of the Koranic prose in “The Cow” must strike a Western reader as confused. In tribal, oral fashion it switches from the first person plural, the Royal We, to the second person plural of direct address. It reverts to the third person plural in describing the unbelievers. One has constantly to re-read to remember who is saying what to or about whom.

I have tried to record for my readers the reactions of a Western reader to a radically non-Western book. I have brought to bear as best I can my knowledge of religious developments in the gestation-time of Islam. I am indebted to books on Islam itself and on Islam and the West by such as Robert Spencer, Guillaume Faye, Emmett Scott, Dario Fernandez-Morera, and many others. The Western mind has taken its stamp from three thousand years of literacy beginning with the Greek innovation of the alphabet, based on the consonantal script of the Phoenicians. Western thought is linear — logical. Western story telling conforms to a type of logic. Supposing a variety of Western literacy that encompassed only the primer, the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer, it would nevertheless have internalized the characteristics of linearity, of an implicit logical precedence, and a sense of imagery. What about a variety of literacy that encompassed only the Koran? It would not internalize such characteristics because those characteristics are absent from the text. In the case of a non-literate condition that focuses on the Koran but knows it only through recitation and memorization — the structure of the mentality would be even more minimal. The Koran declares. In the Gospel, Jesus speaks in parables, which invite the reader to supply his own answers to lofty question. The Koran grants no such autonomy to Muslims. They must submit. Parabolic thinking has no place under the sign of submission. Very likely thinking has no place under the sign of submission. Reading the first surah of the Koran attentively and line by line has been for me something of a shock — and at times deeply appalling and depressing.

Thomas F. Bertonneau has been a college English professor since the late 1980s, with some side-bars as a Scholar in residence at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, as a Henri Salvatori Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and as the first Executive Director of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. He has been a visiting assistant professor at SUNY Oswego since the fall of 2001. He is the author of over a hundred scholarly articles and two books,Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities (1996) and The Truth Is Out There: Christian Faith and the Classics of TV Science Fiction (2006). He is a contributor to The Orthosphere and the People of Shambhala website, and a regular commentator at Laura Wood’s Thinking Housewife Website. For his previous essays, see the Thomas Bertonneau Archives.

62 thoughts on “A Westerner Reads the Koran

  1. I think I’ll stand up for Gnosticism.
    When you grow outside of religious beliefs, and then in adulthood trying to understand how everything is arranged, and see this injustice and imperfection around, then perhaps Gnosticism will be a good description of the model of the world order on the third planet from the sun.
    And Gnosticism is not as primitive as Islam. And I think that this primitive troglodyte ideology is not worthy of this analysis, which was made in the article.

    • There are different varieties of Gnosticism. The many documents of the Nag Hammadi Library, for example, differ greatly in their coherency. Some have a mythopoeic grandiosity while others are muddled and incomprehensible. The Gospel of Truth, attributed to one Valentinus, possesses a degree of philosophical plausibility. Its author has obviously immersed himself in Plato’s cosmological and epistemological dialogues. One can reject the Gospel of Truth while still respecting it, but elsewhere in the Gnostic literature, the vilification of anything not Gnostic tends to extremes. It is the opposite of persuasive.

      You are right, of course, about the startling primitive character of Islam, but Islam’s primitive character does not exempt it from exhibiting Gnostic traits, which I believe it does.

      I cannot agree that Islam is “unworthy of analysis.” On the contrary, to the degree that one takes a stand against it, one is obliged to understand it as much as possible, and undertaking a critique of its central book is one way of doing that.

      Gnosticism is not merely irritation over the perceived imperfections of existence; as one of its preeminent scholars, Hans Jonas, has argued, Gnosticism is “anti-cosmic.” It wants to abolish Creation, which it regards as intrinsically evil.

      I thank you for taking the time to glance at my essay and to post a comment.

      • Please forgive me – I am a barbarian in religion and philosophy (just the gods created me so that Islam makes me particularly disgusted).
        But as far as I understand Gnosticism – God, usurping our planet – Satan. Allah – is Satan / Yaldavaoth.
        (Or the fiction of mad Mohammed, as a version)

        • There is nothing to forgive, I assure you. I find Gnosticism fascinating. I have studied it for twenty-five years, at least. There is a whole shelf of books in my library on the topic and I take them down frequently to read a chapter or two. I am glad that Gnosticism did not prevail over Nicene Christianity, but I understand its allure. It might interest you to know that both Christians and Pagans criticized Gnosticism. One of the books of the Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus is entitled “Against the Gnostics.” Calm heads on both side of the Christian-Pagan split found Gnosticism suspect. A good place to begin a study of Gnosticism is with Hans Jonas’ book. It is a scholarly study directed at a lay audience. You could content yourself with the Introduction alone, which will tell you a good deal about the subject. Thank you again for commenting.

          • How interesting: It turns out that I downloaded this book in my electronic library three years ago. I still have not read it.
            But for me Gnosticism is a certain attitude, as in Lindsay’s book A Voyage to Arcturus.
            Let’s hope that this world is not so terrible as the Gnostics describe it.

    • Like the author I also believe this primitive unethical ideology should be analysed and brought to public. Many non-Muslims, and specifically Westerners, do not know what monster they are facing.

      I play online games and this enables me to find confused young Westerners and penetrate their channels. We usually discuss game and strategy but there’s always time for other kinds of talks. They really don’t have any idea what a scrambled text Koran is. They have no idea what sort of supremacist ideology it is. I do my best to draw young people’s attention to such things, but most often I just can ring a bell; they don’t want to listen and over time I have learned to be patient. Someday someone must tell them, and I believe articles like this are gold.

    • Did I write “pace,’ rather than “place.” If so, I apologize for the typo. Th Baron is an excellent editor, but I am a sloppy, two-fingered typist, and I am the worst possible proof-reader of my own prose. The writers V. S. Naipaul and Guillaume Faye have written extensively about the mentality fostered by Islam’s narrow focus and ceaseless incantation of its prayers and invocations. I recommend Naipaul’s Among Believers.

      • Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey is (imo) the best of V.S. Naipaul’s work. He is a superb observer. I first read it back in the 80s, before Islam was on the average person’s radar (including me) and before it became infamous in the West for its parasitic predations on other civilizations.

        https://amzn.to/2LeQc1v

        At the time I was struck by the sense of futility he described in Islamic cultures.

        Incursions into the West would not have been possible had the welfare state with all its attendant oppressive political correctness not come into existence. Now we have a culture where the worst sin is not pride or avarice or sloth or lust. Instead, everyone is truly frightened of being shunned as a “racist” or as “intolerant”…even if those “sins” require one to abandon friends who are found guilty of such mortal transgressions.

        It’s amusing when atheists claim to be free of religion’s strictures. Their own vaunted doctrines – e.g., anthropogenic global warming – are every bit as unquestionable and oppressive as any medieval sinner’s fears of damnation. The Scientism driving the dogmas of today’s True Believers is no more amenable to Reason than were the fears of Hell so aptly depicted by medieval artists and writers.

        • Radical doctrines converge. Radical, puritanical liberal-modernism therefore begins to resemble Islam in its rigidity and narrowness, in its righteous militancy and in its imperviousness to logical or evdientiary contradiction. The similarity of radical liberal-modernism and Islam to some degree explains why they have forged an alliance.

          • Think how important it was for our little paleo hunting tribe on the savanna to all believe the same thing and behave similarly. A scream or grunt or howl could have given our position away to the enemy. A sexual contact or random wandering in another food zone could have brought death to all in the tribe. We had to desperately protect our food and water and our women and kids to survive. Heretics were lethal. Everyone had to mind the chief.

            Islam is forever stuck in this ancient behavior.

    • It is truly amazing (and depressing) how the liberal West, which has nothing but contempt for its own traditional religions and their holy books, buys into Islam’s book-fetishism regarding the Koran. It has struck me now and then that making a fetish of the physical copy of a supposedly eternal book is, itself, a type of idolatry.

  2. “Reading the first surah of the Koran attentively and line by line has been for me something of a shock — and at times deeply appalling and depressing.”

    Sums it up.

    • Having read so many, equally bad, “scholarly” papers in various “scholarly” journals over the years, I have perhaps immunized myself somewhat against banal language and maniacal arguments. Nevertheless, the reading-experience in the case of the Koran is a truly demoralizing one.

  3. “It’s a depressing book. It really is. It’s just the rantings of a schizophrenic. There is also the barrenness of the message. It has no ethical dimension.”
    Sebastian Faulks

    “When I have time, I must put it into German so that every man may see what a foul and shameful book it is.”
    Martin Luther

    https://libertygb.org.uk/news/book-reviews-koran

  4. Very interesting. I liked especially the comparison with gnosticism. But I’d have thought that Islam would derive (in so far as it has a Christian base from which to derive) more from Nestorianism or Arianism than from Monophysitism.

    • These matters are extraordinarily complicated and not a little esoteric. The differences between these offshoots of Christianity are subtle. As I understand Arianism, in it, when Christ incarnates he gives up his divine part and becomes wholly human during his time on earth; he is only restored to his divinity after his death of the Cross. The Muslim attitude to Christ might have its origins in the Arian view. On the other hand, Monophysite Christianity was a strong presence in the region where Islam emerged. I recall reading a book, badly translated from the German, that argued the thesis that the Koran originated in a Syriac-Monophysite lectionary and that linguistic problems in the Koran could be explained by Arabic misunderstandings of Syriac vocabulary items. I apologize for not being able, at the moment, to recall the title of the book or its author’s name. Thank you for taking the time to read the essay.

      • IIRC, that was one of the theses in a book on our sidebar. Atrociously titled, What the Modern Martyr Should Know: Seventy-Two Grapes and Not a Single Virgin: The New Picture of Islam is a translation from the German; the author didn’t choose the title, it was decided by the publisher who claimed it would “sell better” in English with that silly title. I had several email exchanges with him about this.

        https://amzn.to/2mdulfX

        TFB, here is a 5-star review by someone who read both the English and German versions of the book:

        https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R2NRBR1HPZYDY3/

          • Another book along the same lines is “Syro -Aramaic Reading of the Koran : A contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran ” by someone writing under the pseudonym Christoph Luxenberg (his name might mean “destroyer of myths” according to wiki). It was written in German but there is an English translation 2007. Its a very difficult book requiring a knowledge of a host of languages and scripts but its subject matter is compelling. Thank you for this deeply interesting and informative article.

  5. Excuse me, dear author, but something is amiss.

    [1] You refer to “the Koran’s first surah, known as “The Cow”” but
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Baqara
    says that “The Cow” is the *second* surah of the Koran.

    [2] You also refer to “the first sentence of the Koran: “This book is not to be doubted.””. But in an online search of Quran 1:1 (which would be the first sentence of the Koran) to 1:5, I find no such statement.

    Please clarify.

    • In the Penguin edition, “The Cow” is the first of the surahs. It is preceded by a short “Exordium,” but the “Exordium is not, itself, one of the surahs. Your argument will be with the editor of the Penguin edition, not with me.

    • In the Penguin edition, again, the first surah is “The Cow,” and the first sentence of the first surah is, “This book is not to be doubted.” I am not an Islamologist. I have deferred to Penguin. What else am I to do?

    • Two copies of The Koran as translated by N.J. Dawood (first in 1956, revised five times including 1990) and published by Penguin Books as “Penguin Classics,” wherein the fifth revision purports to use the traditional sequence of surahs, shows “The Cow” as surah number 2 following “The Exordium.”

      “This Book is not to be doubted.” shows up as the third line of “The Cow” after two standard lines of worshipful honorifics.

  6. As the article mentions, there are some thoughts that Islam was formed during the end of the Sassanian Empire in Persia.

    I wonder whether today’s Persians will be the first to begin to discredit Islam and therefore set in motion a gradual undoing of the religion’s stranglehold over the region. The Mullahs’ regime is falling apart, and Islam cannot deal with continual poverty and the human thirst for knowledge and assertion of individuality, not whilst the rest of the world races ahead.

    • In his fascinating book, In Search of Zarathustra (2003), Paul Kriwaczek teases out a hypothesis about the real meaning of Shah Reza Pahlavi elaborate celebrations in honor of the ancient Persian Empire during the final years of his reign before the Mullah-regime sent him into exile. Kriwaczek, admitting that much of his hypothesis is speculation, nevertheless believes that Pahlavi wanted to de-Islamize Iran by restoring Zoroastrianism. The Iranians, despite the imposition on them of Islam, have for centuries stubbornly gone on celebrating pre-Islamic holidays and occasions.

      I have a small connection to Iran that might come as a surprise to my readers. Some years ago I was the extramural dissertation-director of the very first doctoral thesis approved by the faculty of the Graduate Program in Foreign Languages and Literature of the University of Tehran. My student struck me as a rather modern and westernized person, but these things are difficult to judge based only on emails and Skype sessions.

      • There are lots of misconceptions about this country, both domestic and abroad:

        – Foreigners think all the residents are deranged people who shout and burn US flag on the streets with an AK_47 in their hands. LIE: MSM broadcasts only selected scenes. There are some radicals who do that at will. Others are a organised by “Committee of Slogan”; a total of 200,000 people who get salaries just to appear in front of TV and shout.

        – Both Foreigners and Domestic people (Except a few) think all these people are Iranians. LIE: only 5% do have any kind of kinship with Iranians. The rest are Yemenis (30%), Caspians and other Semitic groups (30%), Mongolians(14%), etc. If you call all these people Persians, and treat everyone the same, it is your fault caused by incorrect nomenclature, not mine.

        – Both Foreigners and domestic people are convinced that all these people do have a background in Zoroastrianism. LIE. Just briefly: Zoroastrianism was invented by Medes, and only Medes were Zoroastrians. Later Persian royalty adopted that and probably some Caspians converted but that’s all. Amards were never Zoroastrians, they still do have their ancient calender and ceremonies. My tribe, Deylami, were never Zoroastrians and suspicious of those odd additions of Mr Zartushtra to the old religion. (Apparently my tribe does have a wiki page in English under name “Daylamite”- you will notice a few things if you search). Parthians were never too, they even never bothered to mention the name of Zartushtra in the extensive history books they wrote. And finally Yemenis had their Arabic pagan religions.

        Apparently someone, who has all the above misconceptions in the head and no knowledge of history, recently has added a new misconception that Persians are the originators of Islam. I will not take that insult and hope for the day truth prevails.

    • I agree with your conclusions about Islam. What keeps it alive is its ability to form parasitic relations with evolved civilizations via extreme brutality, and its internal injunction that “apostates” from Islam must be killed.

  7. 1. Unfortunately, Prof Bertonneau has his suras mixed up. The Cow is not the first sura but the second.

    2. I think it’s possible that he is crediting the creators of the Koran with more devious intelligence than they actually had. Taking the simplest explanation, is it more likely that Mohammed, who only had to keep one step ahead of primitive tribesmen, deliberately obscured the Golden Calf story to claim a superior source of information or that he only had a garbled version of the Jewish and Christian scriptures? He thought that Mary was the third part of the Trinity didn’t he?

    Likewise, I read somewhere that it is not unusual for suras to be named after unimportant events mentioned in them so I doubt whether it is worthwhile looking for some important representative theme. We don’t know how the suras got their names. I suspect they only acquired them during the transcription process after Mohammed’s death, perhaps used as a memory hook by the scribes trying to distinguish between a growing pile of documents.

    Likewise with the (to our minds) senseless ordering of the suras, roughly longest first but by no means consistently. Perhaps the scribes just numbered them as they completed them with the more recent ones being dredged up from people’s memories first. Come to that, perhaps that explains why the later ones are so short!

    • Mohammed was not the author of the Koran. He was illiterate and told his followers not to write anything down. Literacy, like art and music and laughter, was not something he valued.

      I don’t remember how many generations passed before the Koran was compiled but it wasn’t during his time.

      • Sorry, I do have this only in a German version.
        https://img1.picload.org/image/dlrioggw/likhf_najf.gif

        Basically the first “Quran” was written down during Muhammeds lifetime.
        On stones (called Zurar), fragments of leather or bones, palm leaves and so on.
        Those writings were purposely destroyed in the year 653.
        The second Quran was compiled and written down under the first Caliph Abu Bakhr (643) and the second Caliph Omar.
        It also was purposely destroyed, in the year 668.
        (…)
        Todays Quran was compiled and standardized in the year 1924 in Egypt.
        The oldest complete version of a Quran is belived to date back to 1002, and is kept in the Tareq Rajab-Museum in Kuwait.

        • Well, you would be very kind to inform us on the sources of “Mohammed”s biography, the dating of different events that pepper “early islamic history”. The long rag on this theme in the Wikipedia cites no less than 100 “sources” with the only historical sources Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Haitham, writing 100-200 years after the presumed death of Mohammed.

    • Once again, “The Cow” comes first in the Penguin Koran. Whether it is first, second, or some other, it is so like all the others that it is typical without reference to its ordinal position. If “The Cow” were not the first surah, what would the first surah be?

      • Al Fathia (the Opening) is the first Sura.
        Al-Baqara (the Cow) is the second and longest Sura.

        Al-Baqara consists of a wide variety of themes and was reveled during the time in Medina (those Suras mostly deal with Islamic rules and laws).
        Being a later revelation she has more significance and weight then earlier revelations or Suras (ie. from Muhammeds time in Mecca).

        This principle is called Abrogation of Suras (Arabic: Naskh).

          • Maybe, but since I don`t own this edition…
            The Al-Fatiha has a special role as a sura, since all other suras are sorted from the longest to shortest.
            With al-Baqara being the longest.

            So clearly al-Fathia has a special status in this regard (also in its content). Maybe it`s a topic of Ilm al-Quira`a (Islamic teaching about correct Quran rezitation)?

      • If anyone like Mohamed ever existed, the first “revealed” sura would be the so-called “Al-Alaq” that although presumably first in time is 96th in the consequence. The “first” in order is a brief prayer that many innocent “kufar” have to endure day and night as it is repeated no less than 17 times (in many countries and places – terrible Arabic howling through the loudspeakers of minarets and mosques).
        It is a brief prayer: “Praised be God, Lord of the Universe, the Beneficent, the Merciful and Master of the Day of Judgment, You alone We do worship and from You alone we do seek assistance, guide us to the right path, the path of those to whom You have granted blessings, those who are neither subject to Your anger nor have gone astray.”

        It seems successfully copied from some Monophysitic Prayerbook and the Penguin editors most likely had their reasons to start the Quran with the “Cow” which is really an excellent example of the Quranic “style” – eclectic, inherently controversial and in many places – simply senseless. Monotonous muttering of perseverating curses and invocations to kill, interspersed with mutilated caricatures of Jewish and Christian images or prequranic myths.

    • By the way, I am perfectly willing to stand corrected since the ordinal position of “The Cow” has no effect on my comments concerning it. I remark, however, that neither of the two commentators who say that “The Cow” is not the first surah has said what the first surah is. Here is the “Note to the General Reader” in the Penguin edition of the Koran: “It is recognized that reading the surahs in their traditional sequence — as presented in this translation — is not essential for an adequate understanding of the Koran.” Thus the Penguin edition purports to give the “traditional sequence” of the surahs and in it “The Cow” comes first.

      Is there a subtle difference between the “traditional sequence” and some other, primordial sequence that I am missing? It is an open question. I would like to know.

        • By the way, this is what Wikipedia says about Dawood’s attitude to the Koran:

          “He greatly admires the Koran’s eloquence and powerful rhetoric (describing it in his introduction as “not only one of the most influential books of prophetic literature but also a literary masterpiece in its own right”), and his translation endeavours to do justice to both.”

          In which case he didn’t do a very good job. What little I’ve read of Dawood shows the Koran to be in equal parts boring, rambling, repetitive and vicious, just like all the other translations.

          What is it with these people who fall under the spell of the accursed book? Timothy Winter (ak something or other) is a convert and an influential academic at Cambridge. This is what he wrote in his conversion account:

          “…the Koran, that ‘shy bride’, would take years to unveil herself. At the outset, she seemed to dazzle me with her unworldly strangeness, and the purity of her ego-less diction”.

          On the other hand Schopenhauer provided the most succinct view I know of:

          “…this wretched book was sufficient to start a world-religion, to satisfy the metaphysical need of countless millions for twelve hundred years, to become the basis of their morality and of a remarkable contempt for death, and also to inspire them to bloody wars and the most extensive conquests. In this book we find the saddest and poorest form of theism. Much may be lost in translation, but I have not been able to discover in it one single idea of value.”

          • I noticed similar remarks about Dawood’s translation on the back-cover blurb of the Penguin edition. Dawood himself writes in his introduction of the “music” and “poetry” of the Koran’s prose. My thoughts while reading “The Cow” were the same as yours.

    • The later ones are short because they are poems and probably not all of them said by Mohammed. For example sura 114 (I believe it’s 112 in Sunni Korans available to you, but not quite sure) is written decades before Muhammed. At least one source says so, but unfortunately the name of the author and the book escapes me. I will announce this if some day I find out.

    • I missed the reference, but here it is in Dawood’s (Penguin) translation: “And when you slew a man and then fell out with one another concerning him, God made know what you concealed. We said: ‘Strike him with part of it.’ Thus God restores the dead to life and shows you His signs, that you may grow in understanding.” This passage follows immediately the conclusion of the episode of the heifer-sacrifice, but I failed to notice their connection. The “it” in the phrase “part of it” apparently refers back to the immolated animal, but I can find no mention of filling the hide with gold.

  8. Regarding the picture..
    https://img1.picload.org/image/dlriaiar/manchester.jpg
    Ian Hopkins, police-chief of Manchester receives a Quran commentary of the Islamist mastermind Sayyid Abul Al Maududi as a gift.
    Maududi propagates Jihad and the destruction of all non-Islamic forms of rule and government.

    Shortly after this event Manchester became the scene of a terror attack, during a concert of Ariana Grande (May, 22. 2017).
    Leaving 23 persons dead and 512 wounded (the total number of victims was officially published only in October!).
    Most of them youths and children who attended the concert, the youngest was 8 years old.
    Ian Hopkins vehemently propagated a policy of inclusion and multiculturalism (ie. Jihad-denial).

    • Yes, and if your browser has the capability of reading and displaying the “title” attribute in an image tag, you can point your cursor at the photo and receive a precis of the same info.

      • Well, almost. 😉
        He didn`t receive just a Quran, but a very specific Quran commentary.
        “Towards Understanding Quran” by Sayyid-Mawdudi

  9. Long ago when I was young I was into Gurdjieff and other sects of ‘hidden knowledge’. This is the broader meaning of Gnosticism – those who are told they are ‘special’ and are given ‘special knowledge’ because they are superior enough and discerning enough to join whatever cult. As a traditional Latin Mass Catholic I was FREED of my accursed ‘specialness’. Islam is a crude sort of gnostic ‘specialness’ for the Arab mob.

    • Gnosticism is far more in the nature of an attitude — “aren’t we special” or “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” — than a content although the content always takes its peculiar flavor from the attitude.

      Normality and freedom go together. The war on normality, whether waged by liberalism or its ally, Islam, is a war on freedom.

  10. “The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death”, Leviticus 20:10 (NKJV). The adulteress in the New Testament, was a married woman, not a prostitute.
    The Cow is the second sura in my Koran translation too.

  11. From “Modern Martyrs etc.”:

    “The Prophet’s favorite wife, Aisha (612–678), reported that she had kept some verses under her bed, and that they were later eaten by a goat.”

    Lol. “The dog ate his homework”. It’s probably apocryphal, but hilarious nonetheless.

  12. I never understood how even the myths -about- (not -in-) that book would even remotely fit together. There is talk about earlier verses and later verses, and only being able to recognize which is which makes abrogation possible at all. On the other hand this story is circulating about a big mess, a goat eating some verses and analphabets sorting whatever was left by length because it was the only thing they could discern. Meh.

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