Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Religion Revealed

Just when worry was yielding to fear about putting that final touch on my Christmas list, a new translation of the Quran hit the bookstores just in time.

To prepare oneself for reading the Quran, keep in mind:

  • Unlike the Old Testament, It does not tell the history of a faith

  • Unlike the New Testament, it is not the biography of a particular prophet

  • It neither narrates Mohammed's life, nor Islam's rise

  • The Quran's 114 chapters (suras) are arranged by length, with no regard for chronology or theme

  • Sura titles typically have nothing to do with their contents

That's good to know, although how it will help the ever present credibility issue is less certain.
The Quran itself states that its verses have multiple meanings, some of which are unfathomable to human beings and known only to God. And yet, in both style and content, the Quran is unique among scriptures.
And yet? Huh? That is a an odd way to say "Clearly", as a preface to a statement of the obvious, which turns aside the sentence that really should be there: "Clearly, in both style and content, it serves as an example of concoction, not revelation."

Since the end of the 7th century, when the Quran became canonical in its current form,
It was believed that translating the Quran into any other language would violate the divine nature of the text. Translations were done, of course. But to this day, non-Arabic versions of the Quran are considered interpretations of the Quran. Unless the original Arabic verses are embedded on the page, it cannot technically be called a Quran.
How odd, that Allah in all his all knowing powerful perfectness, was monolingual. Of course, specific revelation is scarcely unique to Islam, nor is the failure of Muslims to wonder if the very specificity of the revelation renders the whole project suspect.

The consequence of this Arabic purity has been to put the revealed text beyond inspection for the vast majority of Muslims who cannot read Arabic, just as Christians before Gutenburg had no first hand knowledge of what the Bible said.
That is now changing. Over the last century, the Quran has been translated into more languages than in the previous 14 centuries combined. A great many of these translations have been done not by Muslim clergy but by scholars and academics, by Muslim laity and non-Muslims, and, perhaps most significantly, by women.
Unsurprisingly, Arabic words can have multiple, or even contradictory, meanings. Think of "cleave". Consequently, translations into another language (or, for that matter, exegesis even within Arabic) can have a lot to do with the eye and mind of the beholder.
Take the following example from Sura 4:34, which has long been interpreted as allowing husbands to beat their wives: "As for those women who might rebel against you, admonish them, abandon them in their beds, and strike them (adribuhunna)." The problem, as a number of female Quranic scholars have noted, is that adribuhunna can also mean "turn away from them." It can even mean "have sexual intercourse with them." Obviously, which definition the translator chooses will be colored by whatever his or her preconceived notions are about a husband's authority.
Now, there may be words within English that could, within context, be open to this degree of interpretation. Offhand, I can't think of any; cleave certainly would not qualify.
The new crop of Quran translators are brushing aside centuries of traditionalist, male-dominated, and often misogynistic clerical interpretations in favor of a more contemporary, more individualized, and often more gender-friendly approach to the Quran.
And, along the way, finally pitching any notion that the Quran is, in fact, Revealed verbatim right into the bulging dumpster of failed religious ideas.

In apologetics speak:
they are not only reshaping the way Islam's holy book is read; they are reinterpreting the way Islam itself is being understood in the modern world.
Translated from Orwellian to English: They are making it up as they go along.

The Book of Mormon's genesis is sufficiently recent so that all who are not Mormon are able to correctly identify it as fabricated where it wasn't plagiarized.

Just as with the Quran, the contents of which were essentially passed on by WOM until 50 years after Mohammed's death. The mists of time blur its status as a work of ad hoc fantasy and self glorifying delusion. However, that is no excuse for anyone to take it seriously; that millions think it gives their religious concoction warrant to rule the world should be a matter of widespread hilarity.

Maybe that will be the unintended consequence of humans compensating for Allah's monolingualism.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

It seems hard to reconcile 'abandon them in their beds' and 'have sexual intercourse with them' within a single paragraph.

I think you are too generous to allow that the Koran was written down with 50 years of Mohammad's death. Many scholars seem to think the elapsed time was more like 200 years.

I have never been concerned to understand 'what the Koran says' any more than 'what the Bible says,' on the grounds that believers do not themselves attempt to do this.

They cherrypick bits and pieces, and a 'folk scripture' arises, this, not some written text, influences their behavior.

Arnold Kling, the high school economics teacher, had a post at his blog a while back about popular understanding of various economic ideas.

His thought applies to any text. The 'version' people think they understand and then act on really is pretty far from whatever the original says.

It is easier to derive people's understandings from their actions than their actions from their supposed understandings.

I suppose Freudianism is the classic example for Americans.

November 27, 2008 12:18 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I've always said that you could build a religion around any random text, even the Passaic Yellow Pages. Religious texts are not used to discern divine truths so as to act on them, but to add the imprimature of divinity to subjective "truths" already arrived at. Its as if you traced your daily wanderings on paper, and then later claimed that the paper was the map that guided you through the day.

November 27, 2008 7:21 AM  
Blogger David said...

Heck, people have even done it with The Origin of Species.

November 27, 2008 8:04 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I think you are too generous to allow that the Koran was written down with 50 years of Mohammad's death. Many scholars seem to think the elapsed time was more like 200 years.

The article I cited said 50 years. IIRC, that sounds correct for the Quran. For the Haddith, though, 200 years is about right.

I have never been concerned to understand 'what the Koran says' any more than 'what the Bible says,' on the grounds that believers do not themselves attempt to do this.

Then you need to finish reading "The End of Faith."

I think it is completely valid to understand what the Quran says, precisely because believers cherry pick from its contents.

Many, of not most of the proponents of Prop 8 in California supported it because of what the Bible says. It is beside the point that nearly all of those proponents' notion of the Bible amounts to folk scripture. Part of that scripture demonizes a group of people. Assume those passages had never been in the Bible, or even their opposite was in the Book instead (Something along the lines of "Be kind unto them, for they are a test of your mercy upon those who I afflicted.")

Don't you think that would have made a difference?

Similarly with the Quran's rantings about the Ummah vs. dar al harb (or whatever the Quran calls the "house of war"). Or apostates, or women, etc.

The folk scripture arises from the written text, because of that it very much matters what the written text says.

I'll be Salmon Rushdie, among a long list of others, would agree.


Done what?

November 28, 2008 8:58 PM  
Blogger erp said...


It's hard to know sometimes what's off topic, but I couldn't resist commenting on "Dune."

A long time ago, a friend's rave review and the fact that was a big thick paperback caused me to take "Dune" on a trip to Europe -- I thought it would last me for the three weeks we'd be away.

I did finish it because there were no other options written in English, but I still marvel that people with options read more than a couple of pages and I'd recoil with horror at the thought of watching the movie.

November 29, 2008 7:20 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Well, I agree the text started the trouble, but there's bad stuff Muslims do that doesn't come out of the Koran or hadith.

Infibulation. Honor killing of girls.

The infibulation apparently is African savagery. The honor killing of girls is Arab, done by Christian Arabs as well.

Both of these seem to leak into Islam-as-practiced.

Your example of Prop 8 is almost, but not quite, the same. The people who went to the Bible on Prop. 8 didn't go to the NT.

November 29, 2008 11:50 AM  

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