A Westerner Reads the Koran
by Thomas F. Bertonneau
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.”
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.”
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.
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.