Learned westerners have said some unkind things about the Koran. The historian Edward Gibbon called it an “endless incoherent rhapsody” that “seldom excites a sentiment or an idea.” Thomas Carlyle said it was “as toilsome reading as I ever undertook; a wearisome, confused jumble.” Even Huston Smith, a scholar known for his dogged sympathy toward the world’s religions, allowed that “no one has ever curled up on a rainy weekend to read the Koran.”
And these observations were made decades ago, before Islamic radicalism burgeoned, provoking a search for its roots. Since then, some have opined that those roots lie in the Koran—that what coherence the book has is pernicious, encouraging intolerance, even belligerence, toward people other than Muslims.
There is no denying that the Koran is unlike the religious text westerners are most familiar with, the Bible. For one thing, it is more monotonous. The Bible is a cornucopia of genres: the cosmic mythology of Genesis, the legal and ritual code of Leviticus, a multibook national history of ancient Israel, the plaints and alarms of the prophets, the pithy self-help and deep reflection of the wisdom literature, the poetry of Psalms, the gospel profiles of Jesus, the mystical theology of John, the early church history in Acts, the apocalyptic visions of Revelation and Daniel, and so on. The Bible came from dozens of different authors working over a millennium, if not more. The Koran came from (or through, Muslims would say) one man in the course of two decades.
Suppose the Bible had been composed by only one of its authors. Suppose it was all the work of the prophet Hosea, a man possessed by a sense of how badly his people had strayed from the right and the true, a man intent on warning of the dire consequences that would ensue. What kind of book would the Bible be then? A book like the Koran. Or, at least, about a third of the Koran; Muhammad didn’t spend all his time in apocalyptic prophet mode, as we’ll see.
Or suppose the whole Bible had been written by Jesus. Not the Jesus of the Bible—not the Jesus who took shape in the century after the Crucifixion as the gospel adapted to its competitive environment. Rather, the Jesus who, so far as we can tell, was the real Jesus: a fire-and-brimstone apocalyptic preacher who warned his people that Judgment Day was coming and that many of them were a long way from meriting favorable judgment. Even more than a book by Hosea, this book would have the flavor of the Koran. Jesus and Muhammad probably had a lot in common.
Indeed, at times Muhammad may have been more like Jesus than Jesus—that is, more like the Jesus of story than was the Jesus of history. Jesus is reputed to have said, “Turn the other cheek” and to have preached the story of the good Samaritan as a parable of interethnic harmony. But, as we’ve seen, he probably didn’t do either of these things. Neither did Muhammad, but he does seem to have said some fairly pacific things, and to have urged religious tolerance: “To you your religion, and to me my religion.” On the other hand Muhammad also said some less pacific, less tolerant things. Such as: “When ye encounter the infidels, strike off their heads till ye have made a great slaughter among them.”
If you read the Koran from start to finish, these shifts in tone, from tolerance and forbearance to intolerance and belligerence and back, will seem abrupt and hard to fathom. One solution is to read the Koran in a different way. Like the Bible, the Koran isn’t organized in the order of its composition. Just as tracing the development of Israelite theology meant keeping this fact in mind—remembering that the second chapter of Genesis was written long before the first, for example—understanding the evolution of Muhammad’s thought requires reordering the Koran.
The Koran consists of “suras”—chapters—that reflect oral proclamations by Muhammad. They are arranged, roughly speaking, from longest to shortest. Yet Muhammad’s earliest proclamations tended to be short and his later ones long, so if you want to read the Koran in chronological order, you’re better off reading it backward than forward.
Better still is to read it neither backward nor forward, but somewhere in between—in the actual order of its composition. While there’s no way to reconstruct that order exactly, most scholars agree on roughly where the different suras fit into Muhammad’s life. To read the Koran in light of this consensus—moving from earliest suras to latest ones—is to watch Muhammad’s career, and Islam’s birth, unfold. This is the key to seeing how the Koran, like the Bible, came to encompass wild fluctuations of moral tone.
Understanding the conditions that gave rise to the Koran’s tolerance and intolerance, forbearance and belligerence, doesn’t reconcile these themes. But it is a step toward understanding how later Muslims tried to reconcile them, and how Muslims today are influenced by them.
According to Muslim tradition, the revelation of the Koran to Muhammad began when he was forty, around the year 609. He was in the habit of retreating to a mountain for contemplation. One night, he had a vision. A glorious being appeared and conveyed a message from Allah along with the instruction to share it. (“Recite!” is the opening command of the sura that according to Muslim tradition is Muhammad’s first revelation.) Like the biblical Jesus, and like shamans over the ages, Muhammad emerged from seclusion with a mission. In the final two decades of his life he would again and again receive these divine revelations, and he would share them with others—first with a small band of devotees, later with a larger audience.
The Koran describes the glorious being—the angel Gabriel, apparently—coming within “two bows’ length” of Muhammad, after which Gabriel “revealed unto His slave that which He revealed.” At this moment, the Koran tells us, Muhammad’s “heart lied not (in seeing) what it saw.” Maybe not, but this is not a question we are in a position to address. A question we should address before proceeding further is: Does the Koran lie in reporting what Muhammad said? Whatever the inspiration for Muhammad’s subsequent utterances, is the Koran a reliable guide to them?
The Koran has a better claim to that status than the gospels have of being a reliable record of Jesus’s sayings. Parts of it may have been written down during Muhammad’s life, perhaps under his supervision. Almost certainly some of it was being written down shortly after his death, and many scholars believe it was essentially complete within twenty years of his death. Of course, twenty years is plenty of time for distortion—even wholesale fabrication—to set in. Still, two factors make a fair degree of fidelity plausible.
First, beginning in Muhammad’s day, Koranic verses seem to have been ritually recited in Muslim communities. Second, the Koran is particularly amenable to retention via recitation; in the original Arabic, much of it rhymes, at least loosely, and is rhythmic.
The contours of the Koran also suggest authenticity. By the time of his death, Muhammad had gone from being a monotheistic prophet, preaching in the largely polytheistic city of Mecca, to being the head of an Islamic state with expansionist tendencies. And in the years after his death, the Islamic state expanded rapidly. If the Koran were mainly a post-Muhammad concoction, you would expect it to mainly reflect the needs of the rulers of such a state. Yet, as we’ll see, most of the Koran consists of the kinds of things you would say not if you were a powerful political leader, but if you were a freelance prophet frozen out of the local power structure. And the smaller fraction of the Koran that seems keyed to the needs of an expanding Islamic state would, for the most part, make sense as the sayings of Muhammad himself in the final years of his career, when he had segued from prophet to statesman.
Still, no serious scholar believes that the Koran is wholly reliable as a guide to what Muhammad actually said. Indeed, ancient sources outside the Islamic tradition raise the possibility that on one key theme—Muhammad’s attitude toward Jews during the final years of his life—the Koran may have been amended, or at least creatively interpreted, after his death.
We’ll look at this question two chapters from now, when it becomes relevant. But first let’s stress the sense in which it doesn’t matter. As we’ll see, even if one phase in the Koran’s shifting attitude toward Jews reflects post-Muhammad amendment, the pattern we’ve seen in this book so far will stand: tolerance and belligerence, even when conveyed by the lofty language of scripture, are ultimately obedient to the facts on the ground.…