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.