This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

NOTICE:
This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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7.3. The Koran

The miracle of Islam

The original commission given to Muhammad was to ‘recite’, and this he did, for the word al-qur’an from which we derive ‘koran’ means simply ‘a recitation’.

The Koran is composed of 114 chapters, called surahs, arranged in order of decreasing length. The one exception to this rule is the first chapter, which is shorter and which pertains to daily prayer.

The words that compose the surahs came to Muhammad through Gabriel, piecemeal, over the span of twenty-three years, and Muhammad is said to have had no control over the time and place of this ‘inspiration’. When the words came, his followers wrote them down or memorized them to record later.

Here we must again refer to what is often said: that the Koran is to Islam what Christ is to Christianity. This is offered as a correction to what might seem more intuitive but incorrect, which is to compare Christ to Muhammad.

Just as Christ is the ‘created logos’ and incarnates the Uncreated Logos, so also the created Koran is but the incarnation in history of the Uncreated Koran.

If the Semitic scriptures ranging from the Old Testament through the New Testament and arriving at the words given to the Prophet through Gabriel, we can speak of a single Book, acknowledged and embraced by Muslims, but with some very significant qualifications, first and foremost that only the Koran is perfect. Thus, we find the Koran presents itself much in the same way that the New Testament was presented to the Old: as its fulfillment:

“We made a covenant of old with the Children of Israel…you have nothing of guidance until you observe the Torah and the Gospel.”[1]

It is this single Book that Muslims have in mind when they include Christians, Muslims, and Jews as ‘People of the Book’. But again, it is only the Koran that is perfect: “This is the Scripture whereof there is no doubt.” Only the Koran is had in its perfect form and uncorrupted, the Christian scriptures being seen as wrought with discrepancies such as the differing accounts that occur throughout the Gospels. Thus, the Old and New Testaments contain the truth, but in a partial form, those errors introduced in transmission to be corrected by what is contained in the Koran.

[1] Koran 5:70, 68.

The Koran in translation

The first thing to be said about the Koran, which can be said of any scripture but is perhaps exemplified here, is that content and container are inseparable: its lyrical style, which is not an accessory but is essential to its meaning and the reason for its explosive power, cannot be conveyed in translation. The word ‘koran’ itself means ‘recitation’ and the command given to the Prophet was to ‘recite’, and so we must realize that the Koran was first and foremost vocally expressed.

This is why Muslims prefer to teach the language in order to provide access to the text, rather than translating their book into any and every tongue. And when translations do proliferate, disappointment follows. The stark contrast in response between Western readers of English translations of the Koran and that of the Arabs who heard it and still hear it in the original cannot simply be dismissed as a matter of taste but must be acknowledged as evidence that the language matters and that, to use our earlier way of putting it, the content cannot be removed from the original container (Arabic) and placed in another (English) without being disfigured. Or to use a different analogy, if the message is like a seed, it is one native to Arabic soil and can only really be seen by situating oneself in that context: if instead we try to transplant the message into English, no fruit is produced, because the seed cannot germinate.

Translation destroys scripture due to the fact that scripture is crystalized revelation, and it occurs by necessity in one language and not another, and once it occurs, it is set: it cannot be dissolved and then re-crystalized in another tongue.

There are still more difficulties, however, that are faced when we approach the Koran from without. Language is one of them, as was said above, but mentality is still another. Suffice it to say that just as scripture is revealed in a certain language for a reason, this reason is that language is the vehicle of a certain human type. Vocabularies are not equivalent, and one cannot really learn a language without also being enculturated. Certainly it is possible to memorize the mechanics of a tongue to the extent that you can ‘communicate’ in the street with locals and order food in a restaurant, but that is not the same thing. This is what we mean when we say someone is ‘speaking my language’ in the sense of a meeting of minds, and minds cannot meet unless they are able to identify with one another. We have pressed this point elsewhere, so won’t press it again here.

Lastly, the style of the Koran is unique in such a way that even if linguistic and mental barriers are overcome, it must not be approached in the way one would approach other scriptures, Hindu or Christian. It comes off as incoherent, as if the ‘plan of the work’ were never really set down ahead of time. Those most familiar with the Christian scriptures are familiar with a presentation that is first and foremost historical: the Old Testament is an account of a people, and is rarely doctrinal in a direct sense. We typically draw doctrine from the Old Testament by observation and by surmising the lesson from the narrative. This is somewhat true of the Gospels as well, which offer ‘first hand accounts’ of Christ’s life. They present his teachings, sure enough, but through the eyes of witnesses. We say that it is ‘the Word of God’ but if so, it is the Word of God speaking in the third person about himself.

When we come to the Koran we are thrown offguard because not only does it deal with historical and narrative details very loosely, but it spends much of its time in direct doctrinal mode. Moreover, when Muslims claim that the Koran is ‘the Word of God’, it is a bit more obvious via the style: the Koran is presented as God Himself speaking in the first person.

Everything that has been said regarding the difficulties faced by outsiders when they approach the Koran is true in the opposite direction, and we would expect Muslims to offer corresponding complaints about the Old and New Testaments: they do not take the form of God speaking directly, they dwell on insignificant historical details, etc.

Sacred language

In the same way that Latin is the liturgical language of the Catholic Church, so also is Koranic Arabic the liturgical language of Islam. However, the obvious difference being that for the Koran, it remains in the original form given, preserved from the moment it was ‘recited’ by Muhammad, hence the meaning of the word koran, ‘recitation’. Latin, on the other hand, is given its status by the authority of the Church and its traditional development, and was not, of course, the original language spoken by Christ or used to record the New Testament. This does not denigrate Latin, since it is the authentic function of the magisterium to decide when and if a language is an acceptable vehicle for its Holy Scripture, but the difference would, to a Muslim, be important. The Koran, they would say, is truly found in its original, ‘revealed’ form.

Emphasis on spoken form

The Koran was originally a oral phenomenon and not, like much of the New Testament, the result of letter and written accounts that only later rose to the status of scripture. What the prophet said was, of course, written down, but we were not given the Koran in its collected, organized, written form for some twenty years after the death of the Prophet, during the caliphate of ‘Uthman. It was then that the complete text was copied and manuscripts dispatched to the four corners of the Islamic world. These copies that would become the definitive originals for later texts, but it should always be remembered that what is ‘definitive’ is what was spoken, and the pure Koran must always be envisioned as a spoken message, and the physical book merely as the support and vehicle of the message. If we seem to be making a strange distinction it is only because Western people, being somewhat enamored with the concept of literacy, may find it very difficult to imagine a Koran existing among a people who could not read, much less write, and it is difficult to show how it is possible that a religion could thrive without each and every believer having a copy of the book for their Sunday school study groups.

It is also important to remember the primacy of spoken Arabic in the case of the Koran because it is in the ‘hearing’, and not so much the reading, of the revelation that the barakah (something close to ‘grace’) of the text is conveyed. Imagine, for example, the reading of a transcribed Gregorian chant in Latin, as opposed to the hearing of it in a Cathedral. The difference is everything, and the sense of hearing permits mere words, even when the hearer does not understand the language, to be transported in the direction of transcendence. Thus, it is the mental content of the Koran combined with the very real eloquence of the spoken form of the text that imparts the meaning.

Levels of meaning and interpretation

The most sublime meaning contained in the Koran is known to God alone, but there are various other levels of meaning to which man has access.

A primary division is between the outward meaning (tafsir) and the inward (ta’wil), and Islamic tradition has provided commentaries from both points of view. There is, further, a developed science of numeric symbolism that corresponds to the Hebrew Kabbala, called here jafr.

Barring certain fundamentalist interpretations that are by no means representative of the mainstream, all of these levels are considered important for an understanding of the Koranic text.