Insights into the Quran
At the heart of the Islamic religion is the Quran, which translates “recitation.” For the Muslim, the Quran is the Book of Allah himself and this is why each verse starts with: “Allah said…”
An uncreated and divine book, it contends that it contains all knowledge to the extent that all other things are insignificant, including scientifically proved miracles which “smell the devil.” The apostate Renan concluded from this: “The liberals who defend Islam do not know it. Islam is the indistinguishable union of the spiritual and temporal realm; it is the reign of dogma; it is the heaviest chain which humanity has ever borne.”
The Quran, so it is said, was entrusted by the Archangel Gabriel to Muhammad on the “night of the revelation” in the grotto of Mount Hira. Afterwards, not unlike Moses, Muhammad came down to the valley and gave the revelation to his auditors, who wrote it down gradually from his teaching.
The Quran is written in Arabic and, although it pretends to be clear and exhaustive, the intellectual leaders very quickly interpreted it and produced commentaries, namely, the Sunna (sentences drawn from the life and teaching of Muhammad) and the Sharia (Islamic legislation).
It would be difficult to exaggerate how much the Quran has influenced the formation of the Muslim mind. It has given birth to many historical and linguistic studies. It has turned Arabic into a world language, the lingua franca of all Muslim peoples, not unlike what Latin had been in the Middle Ages for Christianity. By presenting the Islamic community as the divinely chosen people, the Quran has flattered and unified the “believers.” The Islamic world view has been molded by the Quran, and this alone explains the uniformity of its lifestyle despite the innumerable ethnic backgrounds.
The Front Page
The book is written in a sententious style and invites the reader to reflection. It concentrates the attention on God’s power and His unceasing intervention in the government of the world, where nothing happens beyond His command.
The Quran is divided into 114 chapters called Suras. These Suras are divided into verses totaling more than 6,000 verses of unequal length. Strangely enough, the Suras are classified in decreasing order of length. This means that the text is without logical order and any given teaching is found in various places, and the same Sura carries a variety of disconnected themes. A specialist, Father Bertuel, explains that, prior to any study, we need to reconstruct the chronology of the Suras: 90 primitive Suras are from the Meccan era and the 24 others from the later period of Medina. The absence of chronology proves a real challenge to getting a grasp of both the history and meaning of the text.
The ritual and liturgical prescriptions, dealing with prayers and the pilgrimage, as well as the social and penal laws are described in the Medinan period. By contrast, it is in the earlier Suras of the Meccan that we find a description of the Quranic dogmas.
The Quran presents itself as the definitive revelation which has corrected and supplanted the other “religions of the Book,” that is to say, Judaism and Christianity. Muhammad is called “the last of the prophets,” meaning that he is the only one admitted by Islam and none will appear after him. But even the term “prophet” needs to be nuanced, since Muhammad, a mere messenger of God, confesses his ignorance of future events and made no pretence of defending the revelation against early contradictors.
When delving into the content of the Quran, we see that Muhammad started his mission with a clearly monotheist dogma, to which he associated eschatological views: the last Judgment, but also the cataclysm which would befall on the unbelievers. Allah is the only and unequaled Master of all things. He alone created out of nothing the world in six days and “breathed the spirit into man.” Yet Allah the Creator has little to do with the Christian God, who is a merciful Father to man, and Muhammad openly rejected the mystery of the Holy Trinity of one God in three Persons, and he calls the Christians polytheists.
The Quranic Christology is characteristic and has been largely influenced by the apocryphal Christian literature. Christ—Isa—is called “son of Mary,” Mary being confused with the sister of Moses. He was born of a virgin and has worked many miracles from the cradle—a surprising affirmation when Muhammad confesses that he made none. Christ is the “Messiah, the Word, and the Spirit of Allah.” Yet Muhammad rejects Christ’s divinity and never conceded the mystery of the crucifixion. A simple mortal man, Christ died, but the death on the cross is an “illusion,” a Jewish legend, and the Christians too are wrong for giving the Messiah the title of “son of God.”
In this system, man’s acts are so dependent on God’s almighty power that human freedom and responsibility is reduced to nothing. Therefore, God has predetermined man’s eternal destiny for good or evil.
The eschatology is the work of the Meccan Suras. One finds the affirmation of a future life, of the resurrection and the general judgment, of an eternal heaven but of a temporary hell, a teaching drawn from the Talmud.
The soul is immortal but the meaning of soul—nafs—is unclear. It seems to mean the principle of life and of blood rather than a spiritual principle. This is an important point which can account for the overly material paradise which Muhammad’s revelation offers to these “souls.” Indeed, here the early Suras of Mecca speak of paradise, similar to the Talmudic vision of Eden, in very sensuous terms. In accordance with the sensual taste of the Meccan population, it mentions the eternal virgins and adolescents, to the great embarrassment of the Quranologues. Unlike the Christian creed, nowhere do we find a belief in the beatific vision of Allah. Finally, if the resurrection of the dead is omnipresent, Islamists have not solved the enigma around the lot of the souls of the dead prior to the resurrection of the bodies.
Another thing which arrests the Western mind is the treatment of woman. About a seventh of the Quran deals with punctilious prescriptions related to her. She is relegated, as in the Talmudic tradition, to a category beneath man, who may marry several wives and repudiate them for the least motive. However, this inferiority of woman deserves to be nuanced, since converts from Islamism have explained that the culture of Islam is a covert matriarchate. The wife and daughter is nothing indeed, but the mother of a boy is supreme! Besides the role of woman in society, there are other Jewish practices still essential to Islam, like circumcision and the ablutions.
From what we have seen of the practices and the Quranic creed, we see a great resemblance with the position of Judeo-Christianism, and of Manichaeism particularly, in light of the denial of Christ’s divinity and crucifixion. Moreover, the personality of Muhammad greatly resembles that of Mani, the third-century Gnostic whose works were translated in Arabic in the eighth century.
A Largely Enigmatic Book
Despite its pretense to be written in a clear Arabic language, the Quran remains today in large part a book closed to Islamologues. A recent study explained that much of the obscurities are due to the fact that the Quran rests on a Syro-Aramaic basis, which language was unknown to the early interpreters, who often stumbled across words unknown in Arabic. This, coupled with defective punctuation and historical losses, accounts for the misinterpretations of earlier writers. This is why, to this day, despite the multiple researchers who have dedicated their life to it, at least one quarter of the Quran remains to be properly understood and deciphered.
Another issue is that the Quran is not available in translation, which is seen as a betrayal of the “sacred text.” A mere translation will not be considered authentic to the average Iman. This explains also why most “believers” are ignorant of everything about their own book. Said Mondher Sfar (Le Coran est-il authentique, Sfar éditions, 2000): “The modern Muslim today is ignorant of everything about the Quran, as he is ignorant of everything about Muhammad, if you except the mythical clichés which he takes in as historical data. The sacredness which surrounds the Quranic text is a quasi physical obstacle to understanding and discovering that it contains senses which are not those recognized by the orthodoxy and that it has a story which the early Muslims have arranged in their own way to prevent us from better understanding it today.”
Since it is necessary, in order to speak with Muslims, to be familiar with their objections to true Christianity, a missionary among Muslims must study their doctrine. But if there are today numerous Christians well versed in Islamic studies, there are very few whose thinking is not preconditioned by the indifference to religion inculcated by the last Council (Nostra Aetate, §3). This new teaching has killed the missionary spirit. It has also led many Catholic specialists to approach the Quran as if it were a book revealed by God, or to explain it with the Muslim tradition, the hadith, written to clarify the Quran.
It is urgent to apply to the study of the Quran a healthy critical method, which has successfully been applied to the Bible. This would allow the formulation of intellectually rational hypotheses about the creation of the sacred book of the Muslims, and therefore of the entire Islamic culture. Helping Muslims free themselves from their arbitrary or unfounded convictions could indeed be the result of Quran studies, but only if they themselves are free of Islamic prejudices.