Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Koran or Quran

Two incidents in Morocco got me thinking about reading the Koran. The first incident was with our guide, Hassan, in Fes when the topic of Moses and Abraham came up. Hassan expressed surprise to learn that both were in the Bible. I was surprised by his surprise, given the significant amount of his interaction with Christian tourists, and was intrigued to find how Moses and Abraham are presented in the Koran. Hassan also talked about his desire to do the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. He said that once you do the Hajj you add that to your name, so for example, he would be called Hajj Hasan. The second incident was on our third day traveling with our driver, Aziz, while we were in the midst of a long drive. He asked if we believed Jesus was a prophet or a God? Judy responded that as Christians we believed Jesus was a God. Aziz, obviously primed, played a talk from his cell phone explaining why Jesus was just a prophet. The talk went on for about 20 minutes, then afterwards Aziz asked us what we thought about what we'd heard and whether we would think about becoming Muslims. This was jolting to me for several reasons. It breached the boundary between driver and client and it was perhaps only the second time since my Mormon missionary days that I have been evangelized. However, during the remainder of our drive that day we asked Aziz about other Islamic topics, including, why Muslims don't eat pork and Muslim attitudes about women. Aziz found these topics addressed by the same person and we probably listened to an hour or more of this type of discourse. All of this got me intrigued to learn more about Islam.

After an internet search for the best translation of the Koran, which is written in Arabic, I purchased a translation by A.J. Arberry which is claimed to best convey the "impression made on Muslims by the original." It covers about 700 pages, but the pages are loosely packed and have wide margins. It is divided into 114 chapters, called suras, and each chapter is divided into verses, called ayat. For comparison, the New Testament has 7,956 verses and 138,020 words. The Koran has 6,236 verses and 77,439 words (just a little less than the four gospels plus Acts which has 83,207 words). Each chapter of the Koran has a title, derived either from a name or quality discussed in the text, or from the first letters or words of the chapter. Except for the first chapter, titled "The Opening," which is only seven verses, the chapters are pretty much arranged from longest to shortest. Chapter 2, "The Cow," has 286 verses and covers all or portions of 42 pages. Chapter 114, "Men," is six verses and covers about a quarter of a page. While writing this post, I found an internet version of the Koran that I like, The Noble Quran. It has an index that allows a quick click to the text of each of the 114 chapters, each verse is numbered and set apart from each other verse, and insertions into the text in parens ( ) give helpful information for greater comprehension.

Chapter 78, The Tiding
My biggest surprise has been how little doctrine is found in the Koran. It seems primarily devotional, for praise and worship, like Psalms. Large portions made little sense to me, not surprising given my lack of cultural and doctrinal background. But even when discussing familiar topics, the language and structure is more poetic, not my strong suit. The parts I found most interesting were those that dwelt with familiar figures, like Abraham, Moses, Noah, Lot and Jesus, or the few places that did deal with doctrine I have some awareness of. I'll briefly share some of those parts. I find that the translations I have looked at vary greatly. Sometimes I feel like the Arberry translation I used is better at catching the rhythm and poetry of the Koran, but is less clear in conveying the meaning. It also does not clearly delineate the verse numbers, making it very difficult to find specific references. So below I use a number of different translations and sometimes even combine portions of different translations that I feel convey a clearer meaning.


"The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, is only a messenger of Allah...And say not, Trinity. Desist. it is better for you. Allah is only one God. Far be it from His glory to have a son." (4:171)

"Allah will say: 'O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah?' He will say: 'Glory to Thee! never could I say what I had no right [to say]...Thou knowest what is in my heart, Thou I know not what is in Thine. For Thou knowest in full all that is hidden." (5:116)

"The Jews say, 'Ezra is the Son of God': the Christians say, 'The Messiah is the son of God.' That is the utterance of their mouths, conforming with the unbelievers before them. God assail them! How they are perverted! They have taken their rabbis and their monks as lords apart from God, and the Messiah, Mary's son - and they were commanded to serve but One God; there is no god but He..."(9:30-31)

"And for their saying: We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the messenger of Allah, and they killed him not, nor did they cause his death on the cross, but he was made to appear to them as such. And certainly those who differ therein are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge about it, but only follow a conjecture, and they killed him not for certain: Nay, Allah exalted him in His presence." (4:157-158)

The Koran has two references to Jesus bringing to life a clay bird as a youngster, an event from the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas. First, in 3:49, "And will make him [Jesus] a Messenger to the Children of Israel [saying]: 'I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, that I design for you out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, and breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by God's Leave...'" Second, "When God said, 'Jesus, Son of Mary, remember My blessing upon thee and upon thy mother, when I confirmed thee with the Holy Spirit, to speak to men in the cradle, and of age;...and when thou createst out of clay, by My leave, as the likeness of a bird, and thou breathest into it , and it is a bird, by My leave..." (5:110)

Eating Pork

"These things only has He forbidden you: carrion, blood, the flesh of swine..." (2:173)


"O believers, when you stand up to pray wash your faces, and your hands up to the elbows, and wipe your heads, and your feet up to the ankles. If you are defiled, purify yourselves; but if you are sick or on a journey, or if any of you come from the privy, or you have touched women, and you can find no water, then have recourse to wholesome dust and wipe your faces and your hands with it. God does not desire to make any impediment for you; but He desires to purify you, and that He may complete His blessing upon you..." (5:6)


Moses is mentioned more in the Koran than any other person and there is even proportionally more detail about his life than any other person. Many events from his life are narrated, but conspicuously missing is his receiving the ten commandments. The Moses portions of the Koran were probably my favorite.

"...We did send down the Torah to Moses, therein was guidance and light, by which the Prophets, who submitted themselves to God's Will, judged the Jews. And the rabbis and the priests too judged the Jews by the Torah for to them was entrusted the protection of God's Book, and they were witnesses thereto." (5:44)

"Moses...observed on the side of the Mount a fire. He said to his household, 'Tarry you here; I observe a fire. Perhaps I shall bring you news of it, or a faggot from the fire, that haply you shall warm yourselves.' When he came to it, a voice cried from the right bank of the watercourse, in the sacred hollow, coming from the tree: 'Moses, I am God, the Lord of all Being. Cast down thy staff.' And when he saw it quivering like a serpent, he turned about retreating, and turned not back. 'Moses, come forward, and fear not; for surely thou art in security. Insert they hand into thy bosom, and it will come forth white without evil; and press to thee thy arm, that thou be not afraid. So these shall be two proofs from they Lord to Pharaoh and his Council..." (28:29-32)

"And We (God) brought the Children of Israel over the sea; and Pharaoh and his hosts followed them insolently and impetuously till, when the drowning overtook him, he said, 'I believe that there is no god but He in whom the Children of Israel believe; I am of those that surrender.' 'Now? And before thou didst rebel, being of those that did corruption. So today We shall deliver thee with thy body, that thou mayest be a sign to those after thee. Surely men are heedless of Our signs.'" (10:90-92)


Muhammed is mentioned by name four times in the Koran. Three of those passages refer to him as the Messenger. For example, " the Messenger of Allah and the last of the Prophets." (33:40) The fourth refers to his messenger role: "But those who believe and do righteous good deeds, and believe in that which is sent down to Muhammad [the Koran], for it is the truth from their Lord, He will expiate from them their sins, and will make good their state." (47:2)

Muhammad received the first revelation of the Koran in 609 CE, at the age of 40. He was in spiritual contemplation in a cave on Mount Hira, about three miles outside Mecca, when the Angel Gabriel appeared to him in the form of a man and said, "Recite." Muhammad responded, "I am not a reciter." Gabriel then embraced Muhammad so hard that he could endure it no longer, at which time Gabriel released him and said again, "Recite." It played out the same way two more times, except that the third time Gabriel went on to recite what is now a portion of chapter 96 of the Koran, which reads in part: "Recite: In the Name of thy Lord who created, created Man of a blood-clot. Recite: And thy Lord is the Most Generous, who taught by the Pen, taught Man that he knew not. No indeed; surely Man waxes insolent, for he thinks himself self-sufficient." (96:1-7) Muhammad then recited all of the words back to Gabriel and Gabriel left him. Muhammad left the cave for home and was half way down the mountain when he heard Gabriel above him say, "O Muhammad, thou art the Messenger of God, and I am Gabriel." Muhammad looked upward and saw Gabriel filling the horizon and Gabriel repeated the same message again.  (Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, Martin Lings, pages 44-45, hereafter "Life of Muhammad")
On an internet search for the best books on Muhammad, this was at the top of most peoples list. 
Muhammad received more revelations from Gabriel over the course of 23 years until shortly before his death. Those revelations now make up the Koran. Here is a list of the chapters of the Koran in the order they were received and whether the revelations were received in Mecca or Medina (Muhammed moved to Medina in 622). The earlier revelations are shorter, so tend to be toward the end, and they contain more repetition and rhyme.

Chapter 53, verses 4-11, allude to that first visit from Gabriel: "This is naught but a revelation revealed [the Koran], taught him [Muhammad] by one terrible in power [Gabriel], very strong; he stood poised, being on the higher horizon, then drew near and suspended hung, two bows-length away, or nearer, then revealed to his servant that he revealed. His heart lies not of what he saw.."

I like the following story because it shows Muhammad was not beyond reproach from God. Muhammad was speaking to one of the leaders of the Quraysh, a non-believer and someone he had wanted to connect with, when a recent convert who was blind approached him and asked Muhammad to recite some of the Koran to him. Muhammad told the blind man it was not a good time and asked him to be patient and wait. The blind man persisted and Muhammad finally turned away from him. Shortly afterwards Muhammad received this new revelation: "He [Muhammad] frowned and turned away, because the blind man came to him...As for him who thinks himself self-sufficient [the Quraysh leader], to him you attend; What does it matter to you if he will not become pure. But as to him who came to you running and is afraid [of Allah and His punishment], of him you are neglectful and divert your attention to another..." (80:1-2, 5-10; Life of Muhammad, page 66)

The Koran

One of the meanings of the word "Koran" is to recite which fits in well with Gabriel's first revelation to Muhammad mentioned above. The Koran makes reference by name to itself about 70 times. For example, "God has bought from the believers their selves and their possessions against the gift of Paradise:...that is a promise binding upon God in the Torah, and the Gospel, and the Koran..." (9:111) Further,  "Say: 'I follow only what is revealed to me from my Lord...And when the Koran is recited, give you ear to it and be silent; haply so you will find mercy." (7:203-204)

Muslims believe the Koran was written by God and Gabriel was merely reciting to Muhammad that which had already been written. This was alluded to in the first revelation which said God taught by the pen. Someone asked Muhammad about the pen. Muhammad responded, "The first thing God created was the pen. He created the tablet and said to the pen: 'Write!' And the pen answered: 'What shall I write?' He said: 'Write My knowledge of My creation till the day of resurrection.' Then the pen traced what had been ordained." (Life of Muhammad, page 46) The Koran refers to this heavenly Koran as the "Mother of the Book" (13:30) and the "glorious Koran, in a guarded tablet." (85:21-22).


The Bible recounts the story of Abraham and Sarah. Sarah offered Abraham her hand maiden, Hagar, so that Abraham could father a child. Hagar bore him Ishmael. Later, Sarah bore a son, Isaac, and Sarah then wanted Hagar and Ishmael to leave. They were guided to what is now Mecca where Ishmael was about to die of thirst. Hagar stood on a nearby prominence to look for help. Then she rushed to another prominence for the same purpose. She went back and forth between these two prominences seven times. Meanwhile, Ishmael, laying in the sand, cried out to God. An angel called to Hagar and told her not to be afraid, "God has heard the boy crying...Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation. Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink." (Genesis 21:17-19) This well was known as Zamzam. Abraham later visited Hagar and Ishmael in Mecca and God showed Abraham a site, near the well of Zamzam, where the Kaaba, a sanctuary, must be built and how it should be built. Abraham and Ishmael then built the Kaaba. The Koran states: "We [God] appointed the House to be a place of visitation for the people, and a sanctuary...We made covenant with Abraham and Ishmael: 'Purify My House for those that shall go about it and those that cleave to it, to those who bow and prostrate themselves.' And when Abraham said, 'My Lord, make this a land secure [Mecca], and provide its people with fruits, such of them as believe in God and the Last Day.' ...And...Abraham, and Ishmael with him, raised up the foundations of the House." [2:125-127]).

Abdul Mattalib, Muhammad's paternal grandfather, was responsible for feeding and watering the pilgrims to the Kaaba and levying a tax on them. He spent lots of time at the Kaaba, sometimes having a couch brought to the northwest side of the Kaaba, over the tombs of Hagar and Ishmael, where he would sleep at night. One night he had a vision and was told to dig for Zamzam. By this time the well was covered over and lost to memory. Abdul followed the directions given him in the vision and uncovered the well. He was thereafter given the added responsibility over Zamzam as he already had charge of watering the pilgrims. After both of Muhammad's parents died, his grandfather raised him for two years until his own death. During that time, Muhammad spent lots of time at the Kaaba with his grandfather. As his grandfather was dying, he arranged for Muhammad to go live with another of his grandfather's sons, his uncle, Abu Talib. (Life of Muhammad, pages 7-11,27-28)

The Koran, in a chapter titled "Pilgrimage," says: "And when We [God] showed Abraham the site of the House [Kaaba]: [saying] 'Associate not anything [worship] with Me [none has the right to be worshiped but God], and sanctify My House for those who circumambulate it, and those who stand up for prayer, and those who bow, and make prostration; and proclaim to mankind the Pilgrimage [the Hajj]. They will come to you on foot and on every lean camel, they will come from every deep and distant mountain highway, that they may witness things that are of benefit to them and mention God's Name on appointed days, over such beasts of the flock as He has provided them [for sacrifice]. Then eat thereof and feed therewith the wretched poor. Then let them complete the prescribed duties for them, and perform their vows, and circumambulate the Ancient House.'" (22:26-29) Kaaba means cube and its four corners are towards the points of the compass. The most holy object at the Kaaba is a celestial stone given to Abraham by an angel. Muhammad taught that it "descended from Paradise whiter than milk, but the sins of the sons of Adam made it black." The black stone was built into the east corner. (Life of Muhammad, pages 1-3) The circumambulation of the Kaaba is symbolic of Hagar's seeking help for her dying Ishmael.

"And when Abraham said, 'My Lord, show me how You will give life to the dead.' He said, 'Why, do you not believe?' 'Yes,' he said, 'but that my heart may be at rest.' Said He, 'Take four birds, and twist them to thee [and cut them into pieces], then set a part of them on every hill, then summon them, and they will come to thee running." (2:260)

There are two references in the Koran to Books of Abraham: (1) "This is in the former Scriptures, the Scriptures of Abraham and Moses." (87:18-19); and (2) "Nay, is he not acquainted with what is in the Books of Moses, and of Abraham who fulfilled his engagements" (53:36-37). Muslim scholars believe these are references to a lost scriptures. (Wikipedia, Abraham in Islam)

Islam is sometimes referred to as the "religion of Abraham" (2:135)


I've mentioned that I read the Koran to a number of people and at least two have asked me about the verses of violence, or the verses of jihad. I wasn't really looking for those kinds of verses when I read, but in general I did not feel it was any more violent than the Old Testament, or even a number of passages of the New Testament. Historically, the Christians have been much more war-like than the Muslims.The Christians have a very poor record for their treatment of the Jews, for their treatment of the Muslims and Jews during the Crusades, and even the treatment of the eastern Christians by the western Christians. Even the Mormons have their Danites and Mountain Meadows Massacre. I don't really have much interest in this aspect of the Koran, but provide a link to the 164 jihad verses in the Koran and the verses of violence in the Koran.

Compilation of the Koran

The revelations were received by Muhammad orally and Muhammad and his followers memorized them. Within a few years after Muhammad's death, the first caliph, Abu Bakr, directed that the revelations be collected into a hand-written book. Zayd ibn Thabit was directed to head that task. Zayd contacted men who knew the Koran by heart and also reviewed portions that had been written down on parchment, palm-leaf stalks, thin stones and animal bones, such as the shoulder blade of the camel. The third caliph, Uthman, started to notice pronunciation differences as Islam spread. Zayd was called upon again, this time to destroy variant forms of the revelations so that there was only one standard copy of the Koran existed. 

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this represents a lot of research. I learned a lot! I'll be interested to see if any Muslims come across your "review" and comment.