Quran So Far Away


I’ve now read through the Quran, mostly using this translation. I know it’s really only considered authentic in Arabic, but I can’t read that language. Discussing Islam can be kind of awkward, especially because the amount of Islamophobia in the Western world. Antisemitism is still rampant as well, but it’s different, which is probably why that isn’t considered a phobia. Every religion (every major one, anyway) has its dangerous extremists, and it’s hardly fair to judge all the followers by them. I can be pretty critical of religion, but I try not to extend that to criticizing its followers, unless they’re actively doing something harmful. Just as a book, the Quran is kind of boring and repetitive. Over and over, we’re told that Judgment Day is coming, that believers will go to Paradise where there are streams of running water (probably more important to a desert people than to other societies), and disbelievers would burn in Hell. It also keeps challenging those who don’t believe to write better surahs. I’m not sure if this means better stylistically, more accurate, or what; but I don’t think it would be too hard to come up with something better edited. I believe the Quran was released in parts, which is probably a factor in why we keep getting the greatest hits over and over again. From what I know of the culture in which Muhammad grew up, the Arabs of the time were mostly polytheists, although there were some Jewish and Christian communities in the area. Allah was already the name of a god, and likely associated with the Judeo-Christian one, but also presumably worshipped together with other deities. As such, Muhammad constantly reiterates that Allah has no partners.

A lot of the ideas in the Quran are taken directly from the Bible, with pretty much every important figure considered a prophet and reinterpreted to have been Muslims. Since the term just means “one who submits,” I guess that’s accurate as far as it goes. There’s also a fair amount of stuff from Jewish and Christian legend that isn’t in the Bible, like Abraham’s rebellion against his father who made idols, King Solomon having been a sorcerer who could summon demons, and Mary’s back story from before she married Joseph. Jesus is said to have been an important prophet who was born without a father, but not Allah’s son, and that the crucifixion was essentially fake. The idea that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross bears some resemblance to the Gnostic Gospels. It’s often thought that Surah 5 refers to Mary as part of the Trinity, but it’s not entirely clear. Maybe she should have been, as that whole thing is kind of a boys’ club. There’s also a weird reference to Jews thinking Ezra was the son of God, and whether that’s a misinterpretation or the belief of one specific Arab Jewish community of the time, I couldn’t say. Another strange passage talks about Jews being turned into apes for breaking the Sabbath. The whole thing with the Satanic Verses in Surah 53 is that Muhammad was initially tricked by the Devil into speaking favorably of pagan goddesses, but later changed the relevant passage. There does seem to be some nod to Arabian folk religion in the inclusion of the jinn, being made from smokeless fire, some of whom are believers and others deceivers.

One of the jinn, Iblis, became Satan when he refused to bow to the newly created Adam, and decided to lead humanity astray instead.

Iblis is also sometimes referred to as an angel, however. I believe the first time I came across the name Iblis was in Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings, which simply uses the name as that of the ruler of the jinn, not as the Devil.

The violent aspect of Islam, that of jihad or holy war, also seems pretty specific to Muhammad’s own time. What I’ve seen is that he and his followers were driven out of Mecca, but later returned to conquer it, and then launched campaigns against other tribes. There are references to angels assisting Muhammad’s forces in battle, and something in Surah 105 about an army attacking Mecca with war elephants, only to be defeated by a bunch of swallows.

I suppose it’s convenient to speak of divine intervention during battle, as during the heat of fighting, it’s difficult to be aware of everything. On the other hand, armies sometimes win battles against the odds, and saying God is on their side makes it awkward if they lose a later one. Another oddity in the Quran is that the faithful are not only supposed to be served in Paradise by eternally virginal women, but also by handsome boys, as seen in Surah 76. The book condemns homosexuality elsewhere, but does it become okay after you’re dead? I have to wonder about these magical servants anyway, whether or not they’re intended to be sexual partners. Do they have free will? Do they want to spend eternity serving others, or do they have no choice? Are they being punished for something? Or are they essentially automatons?

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