Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reading the Koran

I have been trying and failing to read and understand the Koran. Some
would have it that it can only be understood in its original language,
but that can't be true—I can read the bible and make sense of it, so
why not the Koran? Others say, don't try to make sense of it; read it for
its poetry. Poetry always gets lost in translation—unless a poet does the
translation,and even then. So far as I know, no poet has translated the Koran.

The trouble with this book is that there is no there there, no narrative, moral
or theological logic; only the logic of the strictly local politics of
Mecca and Medina—that it to say, essentially random vicissitudes in a
struggle for power in a remote corner of the world, largely insulated
from outside influences which went on for many years. Each sura (is
that the right word?) was composed not as part of a developing strain
of thought but in response to some particular event. There is, no
doubt an overall logic of some sort in this supreme fiction, but it is
not available to ordinary readers; only to those who have committed
the whole thing to memory. Hence the enormous authority of those who,
having committed the book to memory are able to devote their lives to its

For 1500 years, the catholic church wielded similar authority; but then
the bible was translated into vernacular languages and ordinary people
were able to read it for themselves, with, naturally, violent consequences.
The Church shattered into many different churches with radically
different ideas about sanctity and salvation and that, more or less,
was the beginning of modernity in the west. No similar 'reformation'
is possible for Islam because it is impossible for ordinary people to
challenge the authority of the Imams and Mullahs. So, for example,
Muhammed had very liberal ideas about the rights of woman but if the
guardians of Islamic gospel choose to ignore these teachings—and they have—
there is nothing that ordinary people can to do to force the relevant texts
out into the arena of public political discourse. Or so it seems to this
largely ignorant outsider.


  1. Some years ago, Carol and I and two friends met once a month. We read the complete Bible and the complete Koran, over a period of years. The Koran felt like an angry work, with verses about cutting off hands and feet on opposite sides. There have been some different translations of these verses:
    Religions evolve, as all things do. The Talmud undid the death penalty in the Old Testament, for all intents and purposes. In the meantime, Iran has banned Valentine's Day.

  2. You state that you can make sense of the bible. I find that hard to believe. Consider this passage:
    Luke 8:18 Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him.

    Now tell me what it means... The fact is that if you are Roman Catholic the meaning has always already been provided. The authority for any meaning is vested in the tradition and "the chair" of the papacy. On the other hand if you are Protestant the authority for its meaning rests upon the reading of the text (and) this entails hermeneutics. I know that you know this I have read several of your articles and your bio. What I don't understand is why you have put aside what St Augustine said in his work "on interpretation." That is, "One must commit the entire bible to memory prior to interpretation." The part can not be assimilated until the whole is digested. (which he drew from his days as a Manichean)

    No text is interpreted having an authority to appeal to: And there are multiple ways to approach every text:
    The ancient four fold: 1.Literal 2.Moral 3.Mystical 4. Prophetic
    We also have the Figurative, Symbolical and Historical

    Every interpretation, every understanding and every meaning has a filtering lens... Can you really make sense of the Bible....?

    suggest a reading of Gadamer or Heidegger.

  3. Thank you for your most intelligent and perceptive critique. Timely, too: I've just been reading A. J. Jacob's account of his thoughtless and, to me, reckless, attempt to take the Bible literally and live accordingly for one year. (This is the guy who set out to read the Britannica from A to Z so that he could write a book about this experience. This next project of his is a also a stunt, with the same object in mind: to write a book and make a profit therefrom.)

    I don't know if you noticed, but I quoted not long ago (or rather misquoted) the lines you have challenged me to explain, on my blog. I thought I understood them to mean what they seem to mean: that the poor can expect to become poorer and the rich richer. Maybe I was wrong; maybe this is parable, like that of the mustard seed, whose inner meaning is different from what it seems to mean on the surface.

    I don't think I deserve to be castigated quite so harshly for thinking that, compared to the Koran, the Bible (or rather large chunks of it) can be read and understood by ordinary people, without the help of priests or hermeneutic specialists. Wasn't that what the Reformation was all about?

  4. I cannot speak to the issue of what the Reformation was about. For my purpose is to be your common-man, just an everyday, ordinary run-of-the-mill reader. I claim no specialized knowledge. Have you met others like me? All I know is that I know nothing. I shall not push my lantern into stranger’s eyes. What I am you construct.

    I can tell you that as a mere ‘common’ reader I do see interesting patterns emerge as I read your blogs. For example, your musings frequently contain references to some world-changing event, a wistful judgment about the inability of the masses to appreciate a certain form of art, a sophisticated kind of art that only you know about through your specialized training. I goggled the word mimetic. I think it said Plato and Aristotle were the first to call this practice of copying nature, representation art. But I got to thinking, what makes the movies not art? Don’t movie makers copy nature, copy human actions? It seems to me the questions you pose are naïve and self justifying.

    In this same essay it is you that give voice to frustration and dissatisfaction not the common reader. Your essays are framed to set you up as an expert. And yet you condemn other experts. “Other experts will say I am wrong” etc. You might say, “O dear common reader I protest. How is it that you see me setting myself as an expert?” And so I respond: every essay you write is set side by side with your educational credentials. As a common-man I am forced to recognize your superior ability to make judgments on my behalf about what is truly art. Was art always art or was it felt as the sacred. Have humans always gone to museums to experience the aesthetic: the beauty, the picturesque, the sublime?

  5. Where do I say that movies are not art? Where do I set myself up as The Expert? Am I really such a monster of egoism as you make out?

    I have tried, in each of my postings, to live up to the idea of a scholar that I quoted (from a little book written by Samuel Johnson) in my profile. You are telling me that I have failed—though you are not very specific; you seem to be referring to several different essays and accusing me of sins that I don't remember committing. You say, "your musings frequently contain references to some world-changing event, a wistful judgment about the inability of the masses to appreciate a certain form of art, a sophisticated kind of art that only you know about through your specialized training." How or where did you get this idea? May I make a suggestion? If you wish to continue this conversation, could we do it via email?

  6. I do not speak to your ego. You make of me what you want. I am a common-man, an ordinary reader, who read a blog. I did not know that you consider your blog a forum for scholarly publications. I used the word ‘expert’ because I thought the word was equivalent to the word “scholar”. I suppose I did not know the difference. Would you explain this to me? I was under the impression that 21st century scholars publish their work in a forum that allowed other experts to judge the quality of their work.

    Perhaps I have been wrong to read your blog the way I do. Can you teach me to read correctly? I would like to know the correct method so that I may read the Bible or the Koran. If I misinterpret your text then I know that I must be messing up the god’s messages.

    Let me see if I now understand you, it is your claim that you are practicing scholarship under the guidance of what a character named Imac said in Samuel Johnson’s book, History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. This guy Imac was born in the kingdom of Goiama, at no great distance from the fountain of the Nile. And he had a father who was a wealthy merchant, who traded between the inland countries of Africk and the ports of the red sea. Imac’s father was honest, frugal and diligent, but of mean sentiments, and narrow comprehension: he desired only to be rich, and to conceal his riches, lest he should be spoiled by the governours of the province.”

    Ok by me. However, I looked up the word ‘scholar’ and using the 21st definition it suggests knowledge gained in a single discipline. But you do blog-scholarship on all the disciplines that I know exist. Using Johnsons standards that would be ok. In your Tuesday, Dec 22, 2009 blog, Science and the Modern World: The Trouble With Physics. You transition easily from physics, to history, to mathematics (string theory) to religion, you even throw in Marx. You provide me, an ordinary reader, with a solid unified understanding of how the modern world works. That is, you leave the impression of someone that is trying to hold the center together. Find out how things work. Your blog-scholarship is concerned with unification and your writing gives the impression that you cannot understand why Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Picasso, Joyce, Frost, Proust, Stevens, Stravinsky, Berg wrote about fragmentation. I think I understand why you titled your blog: Modernity and its Discontents? Interesting interpretation anyway.

  7. You're right, I'm not a real scholar; a real scholar writes for other scholars and published his work in refereed journals. I'm only an amateur, a retired English prof. and not a very distinguished one at that, who was looking for something to do and started this blog in which he could write about stuff that interested him. He had started out as a mathematician and a philosophy major but decided he wanted to to be able to teach English Lit. and earned his doctorate in that field.

    So I am a generalist with a little learning in a several areas of inquiry, including the history of science. I take is as a very great compliment when you say, "You provide me, an ordinary reader, with a solid unified understanding of how the modern world works. That is, you leave the impression of someone that is trying to hold the center together."

    I don't think I ever said or intended to say that I couldn't understand why the great modernists wrote about fragmentation; what I've been trying to do is understand why they did.

    I am glad to make your acquaintance and hope we can stay in touch.