When God wrote the “mother of a book,” He apparently forgot to outline. As a result, there is no beginning, middle, or end to the Koran. As N.J. Dawood, one of its translators, admits, “scholars are agreed that a strictly chronological arrangement is impossible…” Instead, the Koran is arbitrarily arranged according to the length of its chapters with the longest coming first and the shortest, last. Accordingly, the Koran skips back and forth between accounts of Jesus, Moses, Joseph, Abraham, and Noah as though all these figures lived in some kind of time proximity instead of being separated by hundreds, even thousands of years. Besides the strange juxtapositions of the stories and persons, you can add in the fact that, with a few exceptions, none of the stories are fully developed. They are more like story fragments. And the logical transitions between episodes are often missing. As the great Koran scholar Theodor Noldeke pointed out, the extended narratives of the Koran are lacking in “indispensable links, both in expression and in the sequence of events…and nowhere do we find a steady advance in the narration.” One is reminded of Mark Twain’s joke that Fenimore Cooper broke all the rules of literary art, including Rule One, “That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere,” and Rule Two, “that the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it.”
In response, Muslim apologists say you should think of the Koran more like a body of sermons than as an organized book. But even on this level the Koran lacks coherence. When you listen to a sermon you expect that the end of it will usually have something to do with the beginning of it. This is quite often not the case with the Koran. If you think there ought to be some logical connection between paragraph one and paragraph two or between paragraph two and paragraph three, you are obviously stuck in the linear mode of thought, and you’re not ready for the Koran. Better practice on some James Joyce first.
If you are the Lord of the Universe, apparently you are under no obligation to connect your thoughts. Thus the Koran often seems like a giant game of “Mad Libs” in which unrelated parts are arbitrarily dropped into the narrative. Or, if you prefer a more elegant explanation, here’s Professor Malcolm Clark, author of Islam for Dummies: “The Qur’an is like a montage of different images or a kaleidoscope in which different elements recur but in different arrangements.” That’s one way of putting it. Another way is this: “a confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement; most crude, incondite, insupportable stupidity in short.” That’s historian Thomas Carlyle’s description of the Koran—and he was fairly sympathetic to Islam.
However you try to explain it, you would think that God could make a better effort. If you believe that the Koran is dictated by God you have to account for the fact that the Author of Creation seems to lack the literary touch—that is, the knack for storytelling, sequence, composition, and drama that we expect in accomplished human authors. Yes, there are beautiful passages in the Koran, but as an exercise in composition it would not pass muster in most freshmen writing courses. Muslims rankle at perceived insults to Allah, but isn’t it a major insult to Allah to attribute to him such a “confused jumble” of a book?
Did God write the Koran? Considering what’s at stake, this is not a time to shy away from the question. The truth concerning the circumstances of the Koran’s birth is much more consequential for the world’s fate than any revelations about the circumstances surrounding the birth of President Obama. Is it provocative to ask the question? Yes, but then, nowadays, anything and everything short of a complete submission to Islam is considered provocative by many Muslims. Besides, contrary to the sensitivity watchdogs, tough questions aren’t usually asked simply for the purpose of provoking anger. Believe it or not, tough questions are often intended to provoke thought.
It’s not just Muslims who need to rethink the Koran, but all those non-Muslims who, without knowing anything about it, still believe the Koran ought to be accorded great respect. The Southern Command guidelines for military personnel not only mandate wearing clean gloves when touching the Koran, they also require that the Koran be handled in a “manner signaling respect and reverence.” “Handle the Koran,” state the guidelines, “as if it were a fragile piece of delicate art.” “Fragile?” Yes. Maybe the Southern Command brass have it right, after all. Handle with care. And don’t drop it. It’s brittle.
William Kilpatrick’s articles have appeared in FrontPage Magazine, First Things, Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Jihad Watch, World, and Investor’s Business Daily.
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