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02 January 2010

Reading the Qur'an in the dark

"Sebastian Faulks' Qur'an remarks are symptomatic of a very British, blissfully self-assured ignorance"

Analysis of readers comments on the above Guardian Cif post by Ziauddin Sardar 27 August 2009 - See full post here

90% of the votes on comments are against Mr Sardar’s sweeping criticism of Sebastian Faulks.

Sample chart

This is based on the first 75 of a total of 426 comments. This is a very high total for a Cif thread and indicates the great interest in this issue. A detailed analysis is given in the table below.
Readers CommentsVotes for Comments
Strongly For1114.72594.6
Strongly Against4154.7478084.0

Many commenters responded with strong and pointed criticism of what Mr Sardar himself had to say. This is represented by the following quotes from a few of the most popular comments.

…. if Islam has created such wonderful societies and is so open-minded, how come there are millions of people from Islamic countries rushing to migrate to the Western countries?

Dear Graun: Enough already. Please publish a separate edition for your islamic readers and spare everyone else the tedium of features like this.

[Ziauddin Sardar said] “Given "the barrenness of the message", how could it motivate the believers to develop science and learning, promote reason and experimental method, establish universities and research-based hospitals, and advance philosophical inquiry?”

If it was the Koran that motivated believers to do all this how come it doesn't do the same in modern Islamic nations?

… [ZS said] “He read a single, bad translation.”

Ah, yes. As usual the problem lies in the translation. Could Allah not spare a messenger to send to non-arab speaking nations?

How come it's always a 'bad translation'. …. How come Proust, Conrad, Machiavelli, Trollope, you name it, can be translated and understood perfectly by millions despite their complexity and subtelties, yet only Arabic speakers can 'get' the Qur'an? A mystery indeed.

[ZS said] “Given "the barrenness of the message", how could it motivate the believers to develop science and learning, promote reason and experimental method, establish universities and research-based hospitals, and advance philosophical inquiry?”

Isn't just as true to say that the Arabs conquered the classical world and classical civilisation just continued, albeit transformed and invigorated? You can hardly claim that Islam was responsible for these things when they were already in existence. The parts of the Islamic world that didn't contain advanced civilisations prior to Islam remained (and remain) pretty backward.

The Koran may say that Faulks is entitled to his opinion.

But everyone knows full well that its adherents would not, hence the hasty 'apology'.

…. Mr Sardar plays the ever popular 'missed in translation' card which all Muslims seem to use when they can't quite give a clear answer in relation to valid criticism of the Koran.

Next, he assumes that anyone who finds fault in Islamic teachings must be ignorant of said teachings. This again is a popular card to play.

…. Regarding the scientific and literary achievements during the "Islamic golden age", well, it's very un-politically correct to say so, but many of the advances were carried out by non-Muslims living in Islamic societies. This was due to their ability to explore methods that Muslims could not due to religious constraints….

I'm afraid to say Sebastian Faulks is right. Islam is barren as far as the Koran and great literary achievement is concerned.

… the Quran is a disappointment for anyone looking for a good story, well told. That wasn't Mohammed's purpose. He assumed his listeners were already familiar with the camp-fire stories of the Jews and Christians and bolted on his own creed.

…. it is notable that the achievements Zia ascribes to the Quran of Mohammed all took place outside of Arabia (now Saudi Arabia and Yemen) in countries that were already literate, highly civilised and had intellectual traditions going back thousands of years.

In the case of Arabia, cradle of both Mohammed and the Quran, it apparently had no effect at all. The caliphs couldn't shift out of there fast enough to the rich Chrisitan, Jewish and Zorastrian civilisations of the north.

…. [ZS said] “If Faulks finds the Qur'an "a depressing book", so be it. The Qur'an itself says he is entitled to his opinion.”

A pity that so few extremists share your reading of the Quran isn't it? Because we all know he will need police protection for a while.

…. [ZS said] “If the Qur'an has "no new plan for life", how come it laid the foundations of one of the great civilisations of the world?

Well because it didn't for one thing. For another, the Quran is only part of the Muslim message.

Because the Quran is so lacking in moral or legal teachings Muslims had to supplement it with the Hadith and the Sira. Given they had no guide in the Quran they had to collect all the things people could remember Muhammed saying and doing and use them as a guide for what Muslims should do.

Besides, essentially this "civilisation" …. was built on the ruins of the Greek and Persian worlds the Arabs conquered. That was the foundation.

…. [ZS said] “Given "the barrenness of the message", how could it motivate the believers to develop science and learning, promote reason and experimental method, establish universities and research-based hospitals, and advance philosophical inquiry?”

Well it didn't motivate anyone to do any of those things either. Most of it is modern apologetics. More to the point scientists do not need the Quran to want to study and teach.

…. [ZS said] “I would be the last person to suggest that the text of the Qur'an is easy. It does require some effort and research.”

Which is a nice way of saying he [Sebastian Faulks] is right. There is no translation anywhere in the world that shows the Quran to be anything other than what Faulks said it was. Good literature does not require research and effort. The main reason, I think, for Muslim scholars to forbid translating, as they tend to, is to maintain the aura around the Quran that evaporates if someone actually reads it.

…. [ZS said] “He seems to have skipped the abundant statements detailing what constitutes moral and ethical behaviour: distributive social justice that encompasses all spheres of human activity”.

So have I. Where are these precisely?

…. [ZS said] “And he overlooked something that would have benefitted him greatly: the Qur'an's frequent advice to be humble and acknowledge the limitations of one's own understanding and insight.”

Yes. He should stop thinking. He should avoid his own opinion. He should be humble and accept the Wisdom of the Tribe.

…. “since this book has been effectively instrumental …in moulding the destinies of Islamic societies”

Which goes a long way to explaining why North Africa, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Pakistan and a number of former Soviet Republics are currently in the state they're in.

You cannot base a 21st century society on something written by people who thought the world was flat, the stars were conscious celestial beings and mental illness was caused by demonic possession. That goes as much for the Bible or any other religious text as it does for the Koran.

…. [ZS said] “If the Qur'an has "no new plan for life", how come it laid the foundations of one of the great civilisations of the world?”

Fairly easy question.

Islam was imposed by violence, war, conquest, genocide and the virtual wiping out of other religions and philosophies (Buddhism in India, for example). No onehas the right to criticise the Koran in Muslim countries, on pain of death.

…. At the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations in Geneva, it is no longer possible to criticise the barbarity of sharia since the Muslim countries, with the help of Russia, China and other, non-aligned countries, voted a motion against the "defamation of religions" (ie of Islam; other religions are "defamed" daily in Muslim countries, as everyone knows).

Since the Koran is filled with compassion, justice and tolerance - could you please raise funds for a chain of radio stations to broadcast this good news in Pakistan and Afghanistan, beamed especially to 17-year-olds being trained to blow themselves up to kill innocent people so that they can go to paradise, and to Taliban who flog young women for wearing trousers.

Oh, and to Iran, to stop 16-year-old girls from being hanged for a love affair, or youths for being gay. Your message, welcome enough in the Guardian, would be more useful over there.

…. I couldn't care less about whether the koran (or the bible or any other religious text) has 'literary' merit or not - they are evil, destructive weapons in the hands of deluded people. I would be a happier man if your book and all the others had never existed. You contaminate the world with your noxious doctrines.

There are many factual mistake [in the ZS article] ….

…. Jalal Uddin Rumi, a poet of Afghanistan-Persia was not a Muslim as such, he was inspired by the Bhakti( Devotional) sachool of India, with Sanskrit poet Jayadev as the best example.

…. Similarly much of the so-called Islamic architecture were developed first in India, copied then in Central asia, Persia and Arabia. All the most ancient architecture, which The west calls today Islamic, are in India, not in Saudi Arabia or Iran or Iraq or Spain.

…. The so-called Arabic mathematics are nothing but translation of Indian mathematics, as several Indian mathematicians weree invited by the Khalifas of Baghdad to bring their books, which were translated into Arabic. Later Al Beruni, and Iban Batuta( from Tunisia) travelled to India to search for mathetical and scientific texts and translated these.

…. The writer never mentioned the sad history of The Koran iself. Is this the right Koran, because we all know after the death of the Prophet Mohammed, his mortal enemy Yazid, King of Seria, invased Mecca and Modina, killed every known relatives of the Prophet, proclaimed himself as the New Khalifa, rewrote both The Koran and Hadith( the biograpghy of the Prophet), invaded country after country to create a reign of terror.

Thus, which Koran is the authentic?

…. According to Islamic tradition there were a large number of Mohammed's revelations in circulation, the caliph Othman was obliged to have a standard version created and any variants destroyed.

The survival of the Sanaa manuscripts offers an intriguing window into this period:

Has ZS come in and responded to the comments on his article? I've only skimmed the thread, .... others have provided superb comment that comprehensively refute his lazy argument.

…. If CiF is really interested in 'progressing the debate' it really should get its writers to participate and test their argument against the better comments.

"He read a single, bad translation" The automatic defense to anyone who points out inconvenient facts about the Koran. And in case the "bad translation" excuse is getting long in the tooth, the lazy wretch didn't even bother to read it "properly".

Seriously, is there any "good translation" of the Koran? Somehow, the Koran is deemed untranslatable with any accuracy into any other language.

…. No doubt Mr Sardar is the 'friendly' and 'benign' face of Islam. Understanding of Faulks' bad mannered voicing of his opinion, forgiving, urbane and educated - yet still unreservedly supporting the importance of a book that is being increasingly used to radicalise disenfranchised people against our way of living, engendering racial, and cultural hatred of what is vaguely known as 'the west'

What Mr Sardar neglects to remind us of, is that there is no debate with Islam, no interpretation - no chance of reformation, or of enlightenment. It cannot be questioned - and Islam, by its very accurate name, is simply submission - without question.

…. Debating whether Islam was the great 'light' of the world through the middle ages is pointless - it isn't any longer - and hasn't been since the Ottoman empire banned the use of the printing press, because it wasn't around when Mohamed walked the earth.

Mr Sardar isn't interested in the fact that his religion is being hijacked by fanatics and death cults - he is more concerned about scoring intellectual points ….

…. Since Allah dictated the Quran in Arabic, it is the duty of all Muslims to read the Quran in the original language -- even if .. they don't understand a single word of what they are reading. Translations are only tolerated for the evangelisation of non-Muslims.

When non-Muslims criticise the Quran for any reason -- for its contradictions, its cruelty, its misogyny, or lack of compassion -- it is the habit of Muslim apologists like Ziauddin Sardar to argue in defence that the translation was bad. One might of course call this disingenuous.

…. [ZS said] "How could the mere "rantings of a schizophrenic" produce ... the multicultural society of Muslim Spain ..."

What multicultural society?

The existence of a Muslim kingdom in Medieval Spain where different races and religions lived harmoniously in multicultural tolerance is one of today's most wide-spread myths.

Faulks was quite right in his conclusions about the Quran and quite wrong to apologise for them, but his caution nicely illustrates the nature of Islam and the intemperate reaction of its adherents to criticism of their faith.

Islam is a regressive force in the present world; the civilisation you allude to was not because of the Quran but in spite of its draining anti intellectualism. The Persian philosopher you quote held that failing to apply reason to Quranic verses rendered them worthless.

… So that we can see how misunderstandings of the Koran have arisen, could Mr Sardar give an example of a passage from a "bad translation" of the Koran and an example of how it show be translated?

This is the Muslim jurist Ibn Abdun writing from Seville in AD1100 ...

"A Muslim must not act as a masseur to a Jew or Christian; he must not clear their rubbish nor clean their latrines. In fact, the Jew and the Christian are more suited for such work”

I suggest you read 'Why I Am Not a Muslim' by Ibn Warraq. He points out the fantastic claims that the quran is the final and unalterable word of god, as delivered to an illiterate merchant in 7th century Arabia.

He addresses the foriegn vocabulary of the quran, varient versions and codifications from Nafi of Medina (AD 737) to Al-Kisai of Kufa (AD804). The stylistic weakness of the quran as pointed out by Noldeke, verses missing and verses added.

Abrogation of passages within the quran, you wouldn't expect this many self-contridictions from god now would you. The Muslim concept of god and god's weaknesses and so on.

By the way I too am an ex-muslim.

And yet again we see the absurd spectacle of a man who believes his precious ancient book of scribblings represents the word of Allah almighty having the temerity to accuse another man of "monumental arrogance".

You have to shake your head at the infinite self-blindness of such people. Oh - and you have to keep calling their silly damned books out and not apologising for it.

How many times do we have to listen to a Muslim .. telling us that we misunderstand how wonderful and civilised the teachings of the Qur'an are, whereas their time would be much better spent telling the same thing to the ignorant, murderous, misogynous, bigots who carry out their vile acts in the name of Islam?

Both the article and the comments from muslim apologists on this thread are illuminating. The total lack of any display of critical thinking regarding both the text and the traditional account of its compilation is depressing.

Instead all the traditional and well-worn tropes about a mythical Andalusian paradise, the flowering of "islamic" science and third grade translations of what "islam" means are trotted out regardless of the number of times these have been successfully challenged.

…. There is, in the apologist camp a total refusal to engage with those in muslim countries who step outside the straitjacket of thousand-year-old traditions and attempt to reappraise the Qur'an and the early islamic tradition in the light of modern scholarship and suffer the consequences for doing so. Yet more irony given the predeliction of those same apologists for waving "islamic" scientific achievements in the face of western critics.

If it really were a question of xenephobia or western-imperialism hiding behind the criticism of islamic beliefs and practice why has every academic attempt at reappraisal been met with such violence and vitriol?

The Qur'an was a relevent book when it was written by man 1300 hundred years ago. It is a valuable insight into the minds of the primitive people that lived through those times. We should only really treat the Qur'an as an interesting historical tome now because human knowledge and morality have advanced so much since it was written.

…. In particular the koran.. seems particularly questionable, especialy as Allah seems to have spent rather a lot of time interfering in petty domestic matters just to make Muhammhed's life easier.

And it breaks my heart how many women go through insufferable treatment for what is their one and only life on this earth, on the basis of that one man's word. And any of those women don't even realise they are being subjugated to men's desires, and will stand up for practices such as FGM.

…. Anyone would think the Quran is all about peace love and understanding! This article is unadulterated propoganda showing a wilful blindless to the horrors embedded in amongst the medieval rantings, not least penalty of death on becoming a kaffir (that's what got Salman into trouble).

Of course there are nice bits. But then too much molten blood and pus gets overwhelming for even the most evil sadist.

So we have yet another Muslim whingeing about someone making negative comments about their so called holy book. Ziaudden Sardar manages to compound his hyper sensitive bleating with a patronising remark about Faulks reading a bad translation.

…. I have read the Koran too. I don't know if it was a good translation or not. But what I do know is that reading the Koran made me feel ill. The unremitting hatred and violence was nauseating.

…. the moderate Muslims like Ziauddin only quote the early verses eg 2.256 no compulsion in religion; but the Islamic fundamentalists go for the newer 8.39 wage war till only worship is for Allah only on the whole planet, and they are right because the Quran does say that Allah can change his mind and the newer verses aborgate the older ones (in that case why bother leaving them in?).

I must admit I'm a little surprised by the negativity of the guardian readership given that it is generally a newspaper for the lefties.

But on the other hand, Mr Sadar probably deserves the bagging. Making the frank assumption that Faulks is in some kind of 'blissfully self assured ignorance' does smack of profound arrogance. Especially as the probability of a real live talking angel from the furthest reaches of the Universe bothering to visit a bloke in a cave is exactly zero.

Perhaps Mr Sadar is both arrogant and stupid.