Monday, 24 August 2009

The Koran: not a patch on the Bible

Sebastian Faulks is in trouble. The Daily Mail has identified him as the next Salman Rushdie after he made a few disobliging comments about the Koran in an extended interview with the Sunday Times:

“It’s a depressing book. It really is. It’s just the rantings of a schizophrenic. It’s very one-dimensional, and people talk about the beauty of the Arabic and so on, but the English translation I read was, from a literary point of view, very disappointing.

“There is also the barrenness of the message. I mean, there are some bits about diet, you know, the equivalent of the Old Testament, which is also crazy. If you look again at those books of the law, Leviticus or Deuteronomy, there’s a lot about who you are allowed to sleep with, and if a man had lost his testicles he wouldn’t enter into the presence of God, that is just terrible. But the great thing about the Old Testament is that it does have these incredible stories. Of the 100 greatest stories ever told, 99 are probably in the Old Testament and the other is in Homer. With the Koran there are no stories.

He's a brave man to put it in quite such direct, indeed brutal, terms, but Faulks's experience is a common one. Many non-Muslims feel they ought to take some sort of look at the Koran, because Islam is in the news a lot, or because it's an important part of world culture that everyone should know about, or because they've heard it's full of inspired poetry. And the vast majority, in my experience, are distinctly underwhelmed. They assume they're going to find a profound, immortal classic of spiritual wisdom. Instead they find things like this (from Sura 9, which I selected entirely at random from an online Koran):

(This is a declaration of) immunity by Allah and His Apostle towards those of the idolaters with whom you made an agreement.

"9.2": So go about in the land for four months and know that you cannot weaken Allah and that Allah will bring disgrace to the unbelievers.

"9.3": And an announcement from Allah and His Apostle to the people on the day of the greater pilgrimage that Allah and His Apostle are free from liability to the idolaters; therefore if you repent, it will be better for you, and if you turn back, then know that you will not weaken Allah; and announce painful punishment to those who disbelieve.

"9.4": Except those of the idolaters with whom you made an agreement, then they have not failed you in anything and have not backed up any one against you, so fulfill their agreement to the end of their term; surely Allah loves those who are careful (of their duty).

"9.5": So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

I mean, if you hadn't been told it was a great sacred classic, you wouldn't guess from passages like that, would you? It may well read better in Arabic; the poetry, in the original, may well be, as is often claimed, a thing of matchless beauty. But it plainly doesn't translate; and that, in itself, reduces its claim to be a message for all times and peoples.

Not everyone who looks into the Koran finds it a disappointment, of course. There are some who become converts, and others, like Tony Blair, who wax lyrical (though largely, perhaps, for effect) about its manifold beauties and moral greatness. Blair once said ("with great humility") that "the most remarkable thing about the Koran is how progressive it is" and that it was "far ahead of its time in attitudes toward marriage, women, and governance". But that kind of talk merely makes you wonder how much of the Koran he had actually read. (From a Muslim point of view it's also rather patronising, since it gives the Koran marks for being "progressive" and "ahead of its time", as though it could be judged by the yardstick of a New Labour manifesto. Whereas orthodox Muslims believe that the Koran is from God, and for all time.)

I've read the Koran, or tried to. In bits, or rather fits and starts. It's boring all right - worthy of Mark Twain's criticism of the Book of Mormon, which he compared to "chloroform in print". Hence one of Faulks' criticisms, the lack of stories. I can understand why a writer would be disappointed by that, certainly when compared with the Old Testament, parts at least of which were written by people who understood the principles of plot, narrative and characterisation. The books of Samuel, which tell the story of King David, offer a masterclass in storytelling - though, conversely, they have very little religious content.

Actually, there are stories in the Koran, but they are told allusively; it is assumed that the reader already knows them, or knows of them, and they are there to illuminate the religious message, not to entertain. It's a religious book, after all. It is perhaps the presence of good, well-told stories in the Bible, rather than their absence from the Koran, that is unexpected - or would be if they weren't so familiar. The Bible moulded our culture, and so formed our expectations of what a holy book is or ought to be that we take it for granted. But it really is a most peculiar assemblage of writings, many of them scarcely "religious" at all.

The Old Testament is better understood as the surviving collected works of an entire culture - ancient Israel - than as "a holy book". It has a bit of everything: stories, poetry, hymns, archaic laws as well as that unique style of declamatory moral philosophy developed by the prophets. God's in there, all right, but only because of his abiding and inexplicable fascination with the Jews. Some of it is beautiful, some of it horrifying, a few passages baffling or simply deranged. A personal favourite is Isaiah 36:12:

But Rabshakeh said, Hath my master sent me to thy master and to thee to speak these words? Hath he not sent me to the men that sit upon the wall, that they may eat their own dung and drink their own piss with you?

The New Testament is different: a collection of evangelistic materials produced by the followers of a new religious movement at the time of the high Roman Empire. But even that isn't the type of holy book that the Koran aspires to be: the direct utterance of God. Assuming that the creator and sustainer of the universe has a message for mankind, and wants to convey it as directly as possible (Mohammed being a mere mouthpiece) then it's only to be expected that he wouldn't waste time on creating distracting storylines and great characters. Its rhetorical, repetitive style is, perhaps, less surprising in a holy book than the Bible's occasional flourishes of literary brilliance.

But Faulks is on rather stronger ground when he is unimpressed by the Koran's moral message. Blair may have been impressed by its "progressiveness", but there's very little in it that wasn't already expressed, more cogently, by the prophets of ancient Israel more than a thousand years before. There's certainly nothing comparable with the deep, properly thought-through work of Aristotle's ethics or (let's be generous) some of the church fathers. Faulks says:

"It has no ethical dimension like the New Testament, no new plan for life. It says ‘the Jews and the Christians were along the right tracks, but actually, they were wrong and I’m right, and if you don’t believe me, tough — you’ll burn for ever.’ That’s basically the message of the book."

A crude summary, perhaps, but not an inaccurate one. Pope Benedict got into trouble a few years ago for quoting a Byzantine emperor who said more or less the same thing: what has Islam brought that is new - apart from violent jihad, that is? Many of the one-liners attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are radical, surprising, shocking, many-sided. Even if you don't agree with him you have to admit that he can make you think. Ditto St Paul (though I've rarely agreed with anything he said). The Koran, by contrast, seems to be designed to stop people thinking, to forestall even the possibility of debate. The New Testament wants to persuade you; the Koran wants to bludgeon you into submission. Morally, it represents a massive step backwards. For the Arabs of the sixth century, it might have been an advance (or it might not; I'm not sure, but I suspect women had a rather better time in Mecca when it was pagan). But by comparison with what the Judaeo-Christian and Classical pagan traditions managed to achieve (over a much longer period of time, it is true) it is intellectually meagre, morally uninteresting, derivative, repetitive and distinctly second-rate. Of course it is. That isn't to deny the achievements of Islamic civilisation - on the contrary, one of the wonders of history is the way in which they managed to erect such a rich, intellectually vibrant culture upon such unpromising foundations.