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Reading the Bible and the Koran   (Protagoras, February 4, 2008)

In which Protagoras reads the Koran, the Old Testament and the New Testament, but not necessarily in that order, and what he finds or fails to find.

Let me agree explicitly at the start to what will probably be said of this essay: that the sacred books are not the whole story. The conduct of followers is critical. Whatever is in the New Testament, devout Christians staffed the Inquisition, hunted witches, burned heretics, engaged in the Atlantic slave trade, fought the European Wars of Religion. There is much more to be said if one is comparing religions by conduct, and it will be a very sad story. As Jesus is reported to have said, 'By their fruits ye shall know them'. I once heard the story that at a Baptist convention, the speaker said with passionate pride that they were the only Christian sect never to have engaged in persecution. After the applause died down, he carried on '...Because we never had the opportunity'. That sad story, and the similar stories of the conduct of other religions' followers, is, however, not the subject of this particular essay. This essay is about reading scripture.

The Western non-Muslim student who comes to the New Testament after being familiar with the Old, realizes fairly soon that he is in a different world, and when he later reads the Koran, may have the sense that the world of the Koran is recognisably the world of the Old Testament, though one from which many important features seem to have vanished. This is an impressionistic essay, so let me simply mention a few of them that strike one.

In the Old Testament we find passages which express the human condition in the face of the inexorable in ways I have not discovered in the Koran. Ecclesiastes for example:

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;
while the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:

in the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,

and the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of music shall be brought low;

also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:

or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity.

Notice the phrases. 'the clouds return after the rain', 'desire shall fail'. 'the grasshopper shall be a burden'. The pitcher, and the wheel at the cistern, shall be broken. Whoever wrote this had a sensuous perception of the emotional meaning of physical things in extreme times as they are seen and felt by those living through them.

We find elsewhere in Ecclesiastes, and throughout the Old Testament, feelings about these matters, and about the dispensations of the Almighty, which are foreign to the Koran. In the Koran, Allah is to be revered and feared and his works accepted, and that is pretty much an end of the matter.

In the Old Testament, God is to be feared and respected, but we often come across expressions of regret and distress at his works and creation. Mysterious are thy ways Oh Lord, and Thy designs past finding out. We come upon fairly open dissent at times, also. Moses famously does not live to see the Promised Land on account of his rejection of God's command. He is not condemned by the narrator for this rejection, though God punishes him. Job, it is clear, is treated unjustly. The view of God is very different. It is not exactly critical. But it is rather a 'warts and all' view.

From the Song of Solomon:

Stay me with flagons,
comfort me with apples:
for I am sick of love.

How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!
This thy stature is like to a palm tree,
and thy breasts to clusters of grapes.
I said, I will go up to the palm tree,
I will take hold of the boughs thereof:
now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine,
and the smell of thy nose like apples;
and the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved,
that goeth down sweetly,
causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak.
I am my beloved's,
and his desire is toward me.

The thoughts and the images echo down the centuries, to Baudelaire, 'Ces grappes de ma vigne'. We find no equivalent to this direct expression of delight in the physical in the Koran, and in the first little extract from the Song, we are including a wider range of human experience than ever finds expression in it. Men are told in the Koran that women are their fields, 'go then, into your fields as you please'. Its not, perhaps, quite the same thing.

As we move our comparison into the New Testament, the sense of things not found increases. There is much in the Koran about punishment and the rewards appropriately meted out to the iniquitous. What we do not find is this, as the Authorized Version puts it:

Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them. And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him.

But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord.

And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

[paragraphed by author]

Adulterers are being stoned today in Saudi Arabia; young girls are publicly hanged for offences against chastity in Iran; honor killings are common in the Muslim world. I keep reading and looking for 'Neither do I condemn thee', but its nowhere to be found. In fact, in the Hadith (though not in the Koran to my knowledge) there are numerous accounts of the Prophet himself ordering stonings for adultery or other sexual irregularities. The woman involved is usually stoned. Sometimes the man is only flogged.

In the Hadith, it seems to be ordered with reluctance and after delays. On one occasion the Prophet regrets an escaper from stoning had been recaptured. If they had let him go, God might have touched him. But stoning is ordered, the stoners are not condemned even by implication. There is a telling moment in the Hadith where the Prophet orders some Jews to carry out a stoning, after they pretend that the law requiring it is not in the Old Testament, and are proved to be concealing that it is. This, if you like, was an opportunity for 'he who is without sin', which was not taken. In the New Testament, there is much tension between the Law of Moses and Jesus' teaching, and generally, Jesus' teaching is represented as a new direction. There is no such tension or break with a past, other than a polytheic past, in Islam. There has been no Protestant Reformation. But earlier, there has also been no equivalent of the reforming departure from the Mosaic Law that the New Testament represents.

It is true that the verses of John above are perhaps apocryphal - though probably with as good a pedigree as some of the Hadith or indeed much of the New Testament. They are referred to by both St Augustine in about AD 400 and Eusebius in AD 325, the latter ascribing them to an author in a document no longer surviving, but dated to around AD 100. Like the Hadith however, they represent a view of the religion embodied in social practice. There is a real difference on this matter both in what the two founders are reported to have said, and in what their followers have actually done.

It is an interesting subject of comparison, that in many places it is clear that the Koran is prescribing how men specifically shall regulate society as a whole. There are frequent instructions on how to treat 'your women', which women are 'lawful to you', and so on. It was perhaps the same approach that led Qtub to reproach the Americans with making 'your women' into cocktail waitresses. Now, the Biblical texts are certainly not written by women for women, but they have in many places what feels like a completely different and more inclusive apapproach, and one which goes well beyond how to treat 'your women'. We find nothing in the Koran which parallels the book of Ruth, told explicitly from the point of view of the woman protagonist (and perhaps written by her), and the views of named women in the Old and New Testaments are vivid, drawn from life, seen from within, as when Rachel weeps for her children 'because they were not'; and they're rendered from a point of view quite different from that of the man whose women they are.

The Koran also appears to be a guide to social practice in a society where family structures relate very differently to political life than in the West. The clan or extended family is a key institution. It is often the extended family, not the immediate relatives, which commits honor killings. The individual is to a considerable extent ruled by the extended family rather than by the state. The state does not protect the individual from the clan, but leaves the clan to enforce morality upon him or her. Let us suppose that the passage from John dates, as it may, to several hundred years after the other parts of that gospel text. We can regard it as a necessary step in the adaptation of the law and the prophets to a very differently organized and distinctively Western society, one in which one has no more rights over the conduct of his nephews and nieces or grown children than over any other citizen. Whereas in England today, devout Muslims, with the approval of their community, believe themselves to have the right and the duty to punish their unchaste adult daughters and nieces by a death which is sometimes preceded by gang rape. It probably encourages the others.

Nor do we find this:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

In the Koran the greatest thing is generally to, in the words of the Old Testament, smite the Amalakite hip and thigh. Perhaps only belief ranks higher. Charity, or love, is in rather short supply, and certainly not the greatest of things.

Perhaps the difference is time and place. The Koran seems to have as its base the regulation of behaviour in a desert society, and to have been composed in a short period of time. The revelation was given in under 20 years. The Christian Bible seems to have been the result of accretions of sacred writings over a much longer period, some occurring under the Roman Empire, a decidedly urban civilization, and to have changed its message during the period. The one regulates conduct, the other does so too, but it is also concerned with religious feeling and its nuances. Salvation is only partly a matter of conduct, it is also importantly an inner matter.

In the Koran, the believer is promised 42 virgins if he dies in martyrdom. In Job (and most interestingly, also in the Anglican Burial Service) we find this:

For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:

And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God:

Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me.

Never mind anything else: I shall see God with my own eyes. We are in a different world, and we are recognisably in the same one, or a close relation, in John, where the word is made flesh.

While lacking an encylopediac knowledge of Islamic literature, I also doubt greatly that one finds any equivalent of this in post Koranic Islamic writing:


Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
And make a suit unto Him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancel th' old.
In heaven at His manor I Him sought:
They told me there, that He was lately gone
About some land, which He had dearly bought
Long since on Earth, to take possession.
I straight returned, and knowing His great birth,
Sought Him accordingly in great resorts--
In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts:
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
Of thieves and murderers; there I Him espied,
Who straight, "Your suit is granted," said, and died.

In the Shiite tradition, there is a culture of martyrdom and memory of the sufferings of Hussein. But what we have in Herbert's poem is something quite different. That relationship to the saviour who suffers, and while he does so directs his thoughts and understandings to the supplicant, is quite different.

To read and to compare as I have done, not exhaustively, but systematically, is not to be convinced of the essential similarity of all great religions, but of essential deep differences between the Judeo-Christian and the Islamic traditions. Their different views of what is right or wrong, what feelings matter, how men and women should relate to each other, the role of the individual and of the family and society, the nature of sin and the role of punishment, how we should speak of and think of God and His creation. If you think its all basically the same, pick up the Koran in a modern translation. Read the New Testament alongside it.

Now see what you think. Is Sharia really coming from the same place as the Sermon on the Mount, or St Paul's remarks about Charity, or what Jesus is reported to have said and done when confronted with the opportunity for endorsing stoning?

I think not, and whichever you prefer, I doubt you will either.

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