Monday, September 13, 2010

Qur'anathon Day 1: An Introduction and The Opening

Twice a week I'll be offering my thoughts and opinions on the Koran. If you'd like to follow along with me, or just want to refer to the Chapters (or "Suras") I'm discussing you can read along using this online resource. The translation I'm reading is by Tarif Khalidi, and while I've only read a fraction of it I can already recommend it.

Today's post is meant to hopefully give all of us a little background information on the Koran itself, before touching on The Opening - a short, poetic invocation that precedes the first Sura of the text. Thursday's post will focus on the first several ayat (or "verses") of the first Sura.

The word "Koran" (alternatively: Qur'an, Kuran, Quran, Coran...) means "recitation." Muslim believers (if Wikipedia and other online sources are to be trusted) believe that the Koran serves as the "verbal book of divine guidance and direction for mankind." It is named "The Recitation" due to the belief that the Koran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad through the oral recitation of the angel Gabriel over "a period of approximately twenty-three years." Muhammad then dictated these revelations to his "companions," who memorized them and eventually committed them to the written word - supposedly "shortly after [his] death."

Interestingly, and unlike the Christian tradition, there seems to be little disagreement among scholars over which "version" of the Koran is the "correct" version, since Caliph Uthman ibn Affan's order to preserve an official, standardized text appears to have resulted in an admirable degree of continuity and sameness between whatever competing versions exist.

One of the most striking features of the Koran - immediately evident even to my untrained eyes - lies in its nonlinear structure. Unlike the Torah or the Bible, the Koran makes no attempt to present an accounting of events in a linear, "historical" manner. We do not begin at "The Beginning." In this way the text presents itself as being without beginning or ending - a choice that pleases me immensely and that makes manifest in the structure of the text the sort of all-encompassing divine power that the body of the text purports to convey.

The Koran begins with "Basmala," an Arabic phrase meaning, depending on the translation "In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful," or (in my translation) "In the name of God, Merciful to all, Compassionate to each!" and each of the Suras (except the ninth, apparently) follows this pattern - an invocation to the God who gifted this book to mankind. I find the Arabic phrase beautiful to the ear and the eye - a poetic word that encompasses an impassioned statement.

Today's posting focuses solely on The Opening - a short prayer that's quite lovely:

"Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds:
Merciful to all,
Compassionate to each!
Lord of the Day of Judgement.
It is You we worship, and upon you we call for help.
Guide us to the straight path,
The path of those upon whom Your grace abounds,
Not those upon whom anger falls,
Nor those who are lost."

Lovely, right?

I'm especially fond of the phrase "Lord of the Worlds." I assume this refers to the "worlds" of the heavens, the earth, the "underworld" and perhaps the various planets known to Islamic society at the time of the Koran's writing (this is pure conjecture on my part). I'm also fond of the way in which the The Opening immediately and unambiguously asks to be kept from the path of "those upon whom anger falls." The Opening gives the sense of a man's longing for a peaceful heart and peaceful path to walk upon.

Islam has a reputation among certain peoples as being a "violent religion," but this Opening would seem to refute such an easy labeling. Such a designation strikes me personally as ignorant/disingenuous - not because some practitioners of Islam are not violent, and not because (I assume) there are passages in the Koran that I will discover to preach violence, or seemingly condone it, but because EVERY religion shares these qualities, and yet we lend to religions such as Christianity or Judaism an implicit understanding that the actions of radicals and the radicalism of some portions of these texts do not reflect on the entirety of a religion or its adherents.


  1. The Opening is nice, isn't it? I thought the juxtaposition within it was really interesting - how the first lines emphasize compassion and mercy and then reminds readers that they're also dealing with "The Lord of the Day of Judgement." Then it invokes some nice imagery about grace and a peaceful path, only to end the opening by mentioning "those who are lost." One of the most interesting things to me about Christian scholarship is how God is often defined in terms of contradictions or oxymorons, and it looks like that might show up here as well.

    And yes, one of the first things that struck me as well was how ahistorical the Koran is. On one hand that seems to make it much more accessible (I'm assuming there are going to be far fewer sections than the Bible that contain the word 'begat'), but it also makes me much more wary of what I'm reading. The Bible has context built into it, so even if you don't know much about it's original historical context, you sort of learn it on the way. With the Koran, though, I feel much more adrift, and it's tough for me to know how to approach it without having a more detailed knowledge of how Arabic society functioned and thought when Muhammed was receiving his revelation. It's hard to know exactly what to make of poetic phrases like "the straight path" or "those who are lost" when you don't know if it was a new concept or if meant something very specific to people before the Koran was written down.

    As a religious text, it can certainly be read and enjoyed in its own right, and those phrases can be read in a purely poetic or spiritual light. But I wouldn't be surprised if at some point during the Koranathon I go off and desperately search for some good English-language commentaries.

  2. Well-put as always, Katie. My translation gives some suggestions as far as "background reading" goes. I'm sure I'll seek at least one of those books out. If it's any good I'll recommend it here.

    And yes, contradiction is something that seems prevalent in depictions of the God that appears in the Bible, the Torah and the Koran. This becomes immediately evident as soon as you dive into "The Cow," the first Sura, but you're correct that those contradictions are present here in The Opening as well. A God of infinite compassion who will send unbelievers to Hell is a God that I'm fascinated by, and want to understand more about. I'll be writing about this more tomorrow.