A Critical Look at the Koran
“May Allah accept this from me.”
“I’m doing it in the name of Allah.”
“To establish Islamic law—Allah’s law on earth.”
The above are statements made by would-be and successful jihadists to explain their motivations for planning or executing acts of terror in America. Jihadists in other parts of the world say much the same thing. Where, then, do they get the idea that this is what Allah wants them to do?
Jihadists usually cite the Koran as the source of their motivation. For example, Terry Lee Loewen explained his planned jihad attack on Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport last December as follows:
I don’t understand how you can read the Qur’an and the sunnah of the Prophet and not understand that jihad and the implementation of Sharia is absolutely demanded of all the Muslim Ummah.
So how can we disabuse terrorists and potential terrorists of the notion that Allah wants them to kill infidels? The obvious place to start is with the Koran. We can’t say, however, that there is absolutely no warrant in the Koran for killing unbelievers, because there patently is. “When the sacred months are over slay the idolaters wherever you find them” (9:5) is typical of many similar verses. According to a content analysis conducted by the Center for the Study of Political Islam, 24 percent of the Medinan verses of the Koran are devoted to jihad. Or, as Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud once declared, “Allah on 480 occasions in the Holy Koran extols Muslims to wage jihad.”
The you-should-read-the-Koran tactic won’t work with those who actually have read the Koran. What else might work? Another tactic is to try and convince would-be jihadists that they are misinterpreting the Koran—that it should be interpreted in a more spiritual and peaceful way. But here again we run into a problem. Since the eleventh century, a consensus has existed among Islamic scholars that the “Gates of Ijtihad” (or interpretation) are closed. Calling for new interpretations is tantamount to rejecting centuries of Islamic tradition.
Some small sects, such as the Ahmadiyya community, do interpret the Koran in a symbolic rather than literal way, but they are considered as heretics by mainstream Muslims and they are often the target of persecution. More importantly, Muhammad, whose example is considered definitive by Muslim authorities, did not interpret the command to wage jihad in a figurative way and his victims did not die figurative deaths. The Center for the Study of Political Islam’s content analysis of the Sira (Muhammad’s biography) shows that approximately two-thirds of it has to do with fighting. Part Three, which covers the Medinan period of Muhammad’s life, is particularly instructive in this respect. Its five hundred pages are taken up almost entirely with descriptions of battles and raids.
In short, the jihadist interpretation of the Koran is strongly supported both by the text and by the example of Muhammad. Why should they give it up when they have so much evidence on their side? Jihadists have been highly successful in recruiting Muslims to the cause precisely because they can demonstrate that warfare against unbelievers is a scriptural duty.
Trying to convince current and potential jihadists that the Koran should be interpreted in a peaceful way is an uphill jihad. Is there another way of addressing the issue? Well, yes, there is. Moreover, to paraphrase the ubiquitous ad copy, this one weird trick can save you hundreds of fruitless arguments. The other—largely untried—alternative for disabusing jihadists of jihadist notions is to discredit the Koran entirely. If the whole thing is a man-made fabrication, what does it matter what verse such-and-such says? If Muhammad made it all up, why waste your time in weighing the peaceful suras against the violent ones?
This argument is not often made because if you make it you will be attacked not only by Muslims but by non-Muslims as well. The latter will go after you with charges of divisiveness, insensitivity, bigotry, hatred, and whatnot. That, however, doesn’t diminish the strength of the argument. The Islamic edifice rests on the belief that God wrote the Koran and transmitted it via the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad, who merely recited it to his followers. If that’s not true, then only a fool would rush into battle for the sake of Allah and the promised paradise. Take away the divine mandate to subjugate unbelievers, and you take away the rationale for Islam’s war against the world.
Although it’s difficult to get a hearing for it, the argument itself is surprisingly easy to make. That’s because Muslim apologists have set themselves up for a takedown by establishing an impossibly high standard of evidence. What proof is there that God wrote the Koran? Well, there’s the circular argument, i.e., we know that God wrote the Koran because that’s what the Koran says and we know the Koran is truthful because God wrote it. For many Muslims, that settles the matter. However, Islamic scholars long ago realized that something more was needed. And the main argument they developed is that the Koran is such a piece of perfect, nonpareil prose that no one except God could have written it. As I say, it’s a hard case to make because although there are some arresting passages in the Koran, there are also plenty like this:
Prophet, We have made lawful for you the wives to whom you have granted dowries and the slave-girls whom God has given you as booty; the daughters of your paternal and maternal uncles and of your paternal and maternal aunts who fled with you; and any believing woman who gives herself to the Prophet and whom the Prophet wishes to take in marriage. (33:50)
Maybe it sounds better in Arabic, but one suspects that, however translated, this piece of legalese is still going to read like a passage from a textbook on contract law. Christians and Jews should be able to sympathize with the plight of the Muslim apologist. How would you like to be stuck with the task of defending those so-and-so-begat-so-and-so passages in the Bible as examples of incomparable style?
Furthermore, the literary shortcomings of the Koran are not limited to pedestrian prose. The author, whoever he was, also had little sense of composition, continuity, character, dialogue, or drama. Don’t take my word for it. Here are some scholarly observations:
His characters are all alike, and they utter the same platitudes. He is fond of dramatic dialogue, but has very little sense of dramatic scene or action. The logical connections between successive episodes is often loose, sometimes wanting; and points of importance, necessary for the clear understanding of the story, are likely to be left out. (C.C. Torrey, The Jewish Foundation of Islam, New York, 1933, p. 108)
The book aesthetically considered is by no means a first-rate performance…indispensable links, both in expression and in the sequence of events, are often omitted…and nowhere do we find a steady advance in the narration…and even the syntax betrays great awkwardness…. (Theodor Noldeke in Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., Vol. 15, pp. 898-906)
The Koran is strikingly lacking in overall structure, frequently obscure and inconsequential in both language and content…. (P. Crone and M. Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Muslim World, Cambridge, 1977, p. 9)
As I wrote two years ago:
If you believe that the Koran is dictated by God, you are faced with the difficulty of explaining why the Author of Creation seems to lack the literary touch—that is, the knack for storytelling, sequence, composition, and drama that we expect in accomplished human authors. Yes, there are beautiful passages in the Koran, but as an exercise in composition, it would not pass muster in most freshmen writing courses.
The purely human origin of the Koran is further suggested by the very human defensiveness displayed by its author. He never tires of reminding his audience that the Koran is a genuine revelation, not a fake one. This obsessive concern with the Koran’s authenticity is exhibited on almost every page. Here is a small sampling:
This Koran could not have been devised by any but God. (10:37)
This is no invented tale, but a confirmation of previous scriptures…. (12:112)
This Book is beyond all doubt revealed by the Lord of the Universe… Do they say: “He has invented it himself”? (32:1-2)
When our clear revelations are recited to them they say… “this is nothing but an invented falsehood.” (34:43)
As I say, these assertions about the authenticity of the revelation appear over and over. Far more space is allotted to vouching for the genuine nature of the revelation than to telling what the revelation is. But what sort of author feels compelled to tell us ad nauseum that his word is not a human invention? It’s not likely that the Author of all Creation would be so insecure about what he had written. On the other hand, a man who had invented it all himself would have good reason to be defensive. Muhammad, however, also realized that the best defense is a good offense. Thus, as the Koran repeatedly reminds its readers, the surest path to hell is to doubt “Our revelations.”
In insisting that the Koran is the verbatim word of God, Muslims are stuck with the task of defending a second-rate literary production as though it were Shakespeare, Homer, and Dante all rolled into one. If they have been largely successful in so defending it, it is because not many want to challenge them on the point. Of course, some of this reluctance is due to the fear factor. For instance, scripture scholar Bart Ehrmans, who has been outspoken in his criticism of Christianity, has admitted that he wouldn’t apply his skills to the Koran because he values his life too highly.
But even in the days before academicians became aware that a slip of the tongue might result in a shortened life span, scholars of Islam, particularly Christian scholars, were often reluctant to criticize Islam. Islam, after all, was an Abrahamic faith, and it would be bad manners to question the foundations of a fellow religion. Thus, Christian scholars of Islam such as Montgomery Watt (1909-2006) and Louis Massignon (1883-1962) tended to put the best possible face on Islam while minimizing its faults.
Some, like the atheist Muslim apostate Ibn Warraq, have attributed this uncritical attitude to a fear that the kind of critical analysis that would prove fatal to Islam would also inflict a death blow to Christianity. According to Warraq, “They recognized that Islam was a sister religion, heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian ideas; and Christianity and Islam stood or fell together.”
There is probably some truth to this. One does sometimes detect a “We religions have to stick together” mentality among professional dialoguers. However, at this point, this attitude probably has more to do with twenty-first century concerns over sensitivity than with fears that if you start digging around the foundations of Islam, the whole Christian structure will come tumbling down too. Though Christianity has been hurt by various modernist assaults, it has withstood the critical-historical investigation in admirable fashion. In fact, it has successfully used the tools of textual analysis and historical evidence to its own advantage.
Islam would not fare so well in the face of a similar examination. Which once again brings up the question: why not subject it to the same rigorous standards? Dialoguers and scholars currently spend a lot of time ferreting out little nuggets of compatibility between the Koran and the Bible. But what’s the point of establishing the common ground between a real revelation and a fake one? There are many commonalities between the Book of Mormon and the Bible as well, but Catholic scholars don’t show much interest in trying to reconcile the two books—and wisely so.
If Islam weren’t such a militant faith, it would probably be best to take an attitude of live and let live. Unfortunately, live and let live is not what the Koran is all about. Although a great many Muslims manage to ignore its harsher mandates, the violent injunctions are still there and they beckon to those who seek to devote themselves fully to Allah’s commands.
Consequently, it’s not just Islamic terrorists that need to be feared, but also Islamic theorists and theologians. They provide the ideological fuel which powers the terror machine. It’s important to take out the terrorist, but in the long run, it’s more important to take down the terrorist’s ideology. And that, by necessity, involves a deconstruction of the Koran. If that measure seems much too drastic, consider the alternatives—a slow-motion capitulation such as is now happening in Europe or a bloody war, once it finally dawns on the civilized world that it must resist.
Up to now, Islam’s status as a religion has provided it with a sort of diplomatic immunity under which it has literally gotten away with murder. Thomas Jefferson said “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” But when your neighbor’s religion tells him it’s okay to break your neck and enslave your children, it might be prudent to expose that religion and its holy book to the light of serious examination.
All of this leaves aside the tricky question of who should bell the cat. Whose job is it to say that the Koran has “100 percent man-made material” written all over it? That question requires an essay all to itself, but one observation seems in order here: it should most probably not be the pope or any other prominent churchman for the obvious reason that authoritative Church statements are the most likely to invite retaliation against Christians living in Muslim lands. This is a job for lay men and women provided they have the requisite skills, and for secular critics and scholars as well as Christian ones. The more, the better.
Bart Ehrmans has excused himself from the task of applying his scholarship to the Koran on the grounds that he values his life. That seems like the soul of pragmatism, but it’s a very short-sighted kind of pragmatism. The larger question is not whether he values his own life, but whether he values the lives of his children and the future of his society. If the Koran remains unchallenged, the jihad will continue to spread, and there will come a day when we will wish we had contested the Koran while we still had the freedom to do so.
(Photo credit: Courtesy of Shutterstock.)
William Kilpatrick taught for many years at Boston College. He is the author of several books about cultural and religious issues, including Psychological Seduction; Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong; and, most recently, Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West. Professor Kilpatrick’s articles on cultural and educational topics have appeared in First Things, Policy Review, American Enterprise, American Educator, Los Angeles Times, and various scholarly journals. His articles on Islam have appeared in Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Saint Austin Review, Investor’s Business Daily, FrontPage Magazine, and other publications. His work is supported in part by the Shillman Foundation.