Reading the Koran: Introduction and Sura 1

Islam is a hot topic in the West, with opposition to organisations like ISIS and a growing distrust by many toward those of the Islamic faith. Organisations like the BNP, the EDL and UKIP are quick to point out the alleged problems caused by Muslims. But it is easy to forget that not all Muslims are the same- I say easy to forget, that’s only really true if you only see people based on what box they tick. Muslims generally are as opposed to extremists as non Muslims are. The Muslim Council of Great Britain is always amongst the first to condemn actions by militant Muslims, but this tends to be ignored by the right wing press and political groups- it’s difficult to demonise an entire group of people when many of those same people actually agree with you. It is also common to see the Koran criticised as an evil book, the religion as misogynistic, and the culture as backward. But similar accusations have been leveled at the Christian Bible and faith too. Islam does not have a monopoly on distasteful attitudes. It was big news in the UK recently that we will have our first ever female bishop, which may be a step up but is hardly something that sets the church up as a bastion of feminism. And let’s not forget the number of court cases that crop up regarding Christians refusing to serve homosexuals.

This isn’t meant as a slur against anyone of any faith, Christianity isn’t the problem, some Christians and their interpretation of it are, but, let’s not shout about the apparent sexism in Islam when the “civilised” Christian West still has a long way to go. You don’t get a congratulatory pat on the back just for being a little less of a bigot – again, not all Christians, and please dont interpret this as me attacking that religion. But I wonder how many people who demonise Islam have actually read the Koran? Generally speaking, I don’t think you need to have read every holy text ever to decide you do not believe in God, but if we’re to criticise an entire religious group it then does require doing at least some basic reading. Although there have been a lot of ways to interpret the texts of any religion, which is why the Phelps clan in the US can call themselves Christian just as validly as the liberal minded Christians who paint very liberal and accepting murals on Edinburgh Churches.Mural_2

I have never read the Koran, indeed I don’t speak or read Arabic and apparently a fair bit is lost in translation meaning I will never really be able to fully understand or read the book as intended. But I want to at least give it a go so I can gain a better understand of just what Muslims believe and see how much of it is really as distasteful as some say.

Having read much of the Bible I am appalled at a lot of the Old Testament. Genocide happens, slaughter happens, incest happens, rape happens, and all manner of things unpleasant to out modern more liberal way of life would turn many peoples stomachs- fortunately very few take the Old Testament as a literal book of history and fact. What I’m saying is, even if the Koran is as bad as people may think, Islam still wouldn’t have a monopoly on troubling holy texts. So over the next year I plan to read through the Koran. There are 114 Suras, or chapters, and I hope to get through a couple a week- though the first few- with the exception of Sura 1 – are so long that I would likely only manage one a week to begin with.

I want to try and read through the book as best I can, I may need to contact people- scholars, religious people- to work out some of what is being said or meant, but considering how much of a hot topic issue Islam is right now, I think reading the basis of the religion can only be a good thing. I intend, or hope, to be even handed and not inflammatory. As such I will be avoiding using images of Muhammad. I may not have an issue with pictorial depictions of historical people, but I know many Muslims do, and I don’t foresee a need to actually include images of Muhammad – call it self censorship if you wish, I prefer to think of it as not intentionally being an ass. Of course, it is only fair to state from the outset that as an atheist and sceptic I think it unlikely that the Koran will convert me any more than the Bible did, but hopefully it will give me a greater understanding of a group of people who are demonised in modern society. Of course, I am also not likely to be in full agreement with all of what is said, much like the Bible I do expect to find some distasteful things considering the time in which it was written and clearly the extremists must have got the ideas from somewhere, and I’m not going to shy away from pointing that out. But I don’t intend to be insulting or intentional antagonistic.

Where necessary I will fill in historical information, later it will be worth looking briefly at the history of Muhammad to put the Suras into context. But I don’t know at this stage how much additional historical reading will be required, it could be a couple of weeks between write ups. There is also the issue of translation. Aside from Arabic being hard to translate, there are also differently worded versions that have the same jist but worded in very different ways. I already noticed this when I wanted to quote from Sura 1, searched out a quote online and noticed it was very different to the one I have in my book. Therefore a note on the version I will be using. I will be reading the translation by J.M. Rodwell, first published by Everyman books in 1909. This modern version is published by Phoenix books, copyright 1994.

Also, each Sura starts with “In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful” and are not ordered in a linear manner so we are likely to be jumping around a fair bit.

Sura 1.
As some of the Suras are fairly long, I wont usually be posting them in their entirety, but instead taking quotes. Sura 1 is different as it is very short.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

 Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds!
The compassionate, the merciful!
King on the day of reckoning!
Thee only do we worship, and to Thee do we cry for help.
Guide Thou us on the straight path,
The path of those to whom Thou hast been gracious;
With whom thou are not angry, and who go not astray

There isn’t really a great deal to say here is there? It’s certainly not as grand as the opening to Genesis but does something that Genesis doesn’t. Genesis is instantly concerned with how powerful God is- from Genesis 1.1 (NIV): “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. Right off the bat the Bible/ Torah are telling us of Gods might instead of Gods personality. A small, but interesting difference. Here, Islam talks about how much God cares, that he is not angry with them and that they will not stray from him – from the very beginning God is described as good. Granted, it starts with calling him Lord of the Worlds, but generally is more interested in showing God as compassionate and merciful. Now many might not see any of the Abrahamic Gods as compassionate- no matter how you shape it, God wiping out all life but for a bunch of animals and 8 people on Noahs Ark is about as far from a merciful God as you can get.

Whether the God we will meet in the Koran shows himself to be merciful and compassionate will remain to be seen as we read through, but for now, if this was all I knew about Islam, I could be forgiven for thinking “this doesn’t sound too bad”. I do query a few things however, such as what exactly are the people crying for help from? At this stage and in this part of the world many people were nomadic, towns were not necessarily huge places and Christianity is only just starting to flourish, the Roman Empire has all but collapsed. It’s likely more a general sense that many religions seem to have that they naturally need help from a deity as opposed to anything else. There were conflicts sure but generally it seems just a standard call out to Gods. Throughout history, people have been asking Gods for help in various matters, making sacrifices to them and taking pilgrimages.

Sura 1 is a tiny chapter, but establishes from the outset the idea within Islam that God is good and merciful, concerned for the people who worship him rather than showing off his abilities to create a universe from nothing. I have no real idea yet what direction things will go in as I proceed through the Koran, but as a starting block I am not taken aback or angered in any way. Of course, it is too short a section to make any real judgements and I can’t really say much more.


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