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al-quran3

“Only a sense of duty could carry a European through the Qur’an” – Thomas Carlyle.

So, I finally got around to reading the Holy Qur’an (Dawood Translation, published by Penguin World Classics), having previously only browsed through it for selected passages about selected subjects. Given my political orientation, this was a necessary undertaking, and one I should have performed long before now. I can only plead laziness and lack of time as a defence.

So what’s my ‘review’?… In short, this book is 500 pages of intimidation. By that I mean that little can be gathered from the text beyond the fiery destinies of those who doubt it.

The Quran takes so long in telling us the penalty for doubting its claims that it forgets to tell us much about what is supposed to be believed. Sentences like “do not be like the unbelievers’ or ‘do not be like the doubters’ appear in every surah, sometimes 4 or 5 times a page. The descriptions of hell, the penalty, are primitive and cartoonish – lots of fire, despair and random agony (incidentally, why is it only fire that is used to torture the condemned? Why not ice, chili peppers or acid? It seems rather lazy).

Makkah is repeatedly advertised as a place worth visiting, something contradicted by most modern travel writers. The battles of Muhammad are relayed in obsessive detail. Women – those wicked, vagina-bearing sirens –  are rightly taken down a few notches, implored not to leave the house or fraternise with (male) friends.

A very brief and ambiguous passage outlaws (or seems to outlaw) gambling and the consumption of alcohol. I can understand how this has produced different interpretations over the centuries. It is far from clear and seems only to apply to getting drunk rather than drinking in moderation. Had its later interpreters been more liberal, I think this would have made for a very different Muslim culture, possibly a more philosophical one.

Violence is a strong theme in later chapters. The battles local Muslims fought in the years before the revelations are described (if they went well) as a proof of God’s mercy, or (if they went badly) as an indictment of the believers’ moral character.

Poetically, the text is not without merit. The descriptions of paradise are occasionally sublime. Epicurean promises of dark-eyed women serving opiating beverages in a celestial garden remain undeniably appealing and almost seem French in their worldly lust.

I felt no compulsion to reread any chapters. Fifty pages into the book is enough to get to the essence of it – a crowded circus of psychological bullying and desert superstition, lacking in moral nuance and philosophical depth.

I must emphasise how bafflingly repetitive the Qur’an is. This quality came as a real shock to me, even though I had developed a scattershot knowledge of the text many years before. After finishing a couple of Surahs, the paragraphs had me flicking back to past chapters to check if there had been a printing error. “Haven’t I just read this?” – “This is familiar” – “Move on to something new!”

500 pages (the penguin translation is just under) is rather short for a holy text. That – I suppose – is a positive. Good marks are also given for the fact there is no racism in the book, or at least beyond occasional anti-Semitic seeming phrases (in fact, these are plagiarisms from the Bible, so not ‘hateful’ in the modern sense).

All the way through the volume, I tried to keep in mind that this book dominates the thought of over a fifth of the human population. That is both staggering and unfortunate. When the words were originally scraped onto animal bones under a sweltering Arabian sun, the authors must have realised they were interfering with world history. As to their moral responsibility, that depends wholly on whether they believed in what they were inscribing or, like ancient Dan Browns, whether they merely wanted attention.

What will be the final destiny of the Qur’an? It seems possible that it will still be believed after people stop believing in the Bible (a grave literary injustice, but one that is backed by the unstoppable tide of demographics). As to the very distant future, the age of AIs and robots, I don’t believe it has the strength to withstand science indefinitely.

In the meanwhile, burning this book is stupid. The best way to undermine it is simply to expose its content.

D, LDN.

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