tml> Biblical Ethics and Islam
  1. Introduction
2. The Bible on its own terms
3. The Koran on its own terms
4. Contrasts between the Bible and the Koran
5. Holy War in the Bible, Jihad in the Koran
6. Christian expansion, Islamic expansion
7. The ministry of the Prince of Peace
8. Questions from the audience
   
Biblical Ethics and Islam

Love of Hard Questions Seminar #220
21 April 2002
3. The Koran on its own terms


Okay, let’s take a look at the Koran on its own terms, and let me begin by reading the first surah. Now, “Koran” is a word that means recitation. Muhammad says beginning in 610 when he was 40 years old, and he says he had some of these experiences in the caves before that, but when he became public about his religion; he spoke about the angel dictating to him these recitations.

Now Muhammad himself was illiterate. That’s not a negative, he’s an exceedingly intelligent man. But he was raised an orphan, his father died probably before he was born, his mother died when he was age six. He lived briefly with his grandfather, very unhappy, went over to his uncle, and his uncle took wonderful care of him. But by the time he was six or seven, he had no opportunity in that orphanage status to learn to read and write, and only a minority learned to read and write in ancient Mecca in the late sixth, early seventh century. But he was very bright intellectually, orally, tremendous skills.

And so the Koran, he claims that the Koran, and Muslims claim the Koran was written in Arabic from eternity in heaven and delivered through Muhammad at this time. This raises many interesting questions, okay, but it is an automatic dictation or recitation, and when read, it’s meant to be recited. So the Koran does not have a chronological order to it.

The first surah is seven verses, and it gives a flavor of the whole Koran, and surah is another word for recitation. We could call it a chapter. So we could say that the Koran has 114 chapters. The second surah is the longest, and the rest go to the next longest down to the shortest, so from surah two to 114 they go from the longest to the shortest, but the first surah is seven verses that gives an opening clarion cry to the whole Koran.

So the same way, or in a somewhat parallel way I will say that the whole Bible is defined by Genesis 1-3: creation, sin, and redemption. It identifies everything that follows. So the first surah identifies the themes of the entire Koran. And let me read to you the first surah.

“Al Fatihah, The Opening. Al Fatihah, The Opening. In the name of Allah, most gracious most merciful. Praise be to Allah, the cherisher and sustainer of the worlds; most gracious most merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, thine aid we seek. Show us the straight way, the way of those on whom thou hast bestowed thy grace, those whose portion is not wrath, and who go not astray.”

Now, let’s look at a couple of factors here. Hold that in abeyance for a moment, we will come back to that in just a moment. I want to read to you another brief segment from the second surah, exceedingly brief, the 251st verse. “By Allah’s will, they routed them: and David slew Goliath: and Allah gave him power and wisdom…” I’ll just stop right there.

But let me read to you the commentary by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, who has translated the Koran. Now interestingly, a lot of Muslims will say the Koran cannot be translated purely. They will say you have to learn Arabic itself, otherwise you can’t understand the Koran. Now notice how that is the opposite of the theology of the incarnation. The word became flesh and dwelt among us so we could understand his word in our terms, but the Muslim view of the Koran is we have to come to Arabic terms, which they claim is the eternal language.

Now having said that, they still translate Arabic into English, but a lot of Muslims in the Arab world really disdain this practice and they say it cannot be purely done. But Abdullah Yusuf Ali is one who’s done it, and this is one of three translations that is regarded as the finest from Muslim standards.

But let me give you his commentary on David and Goliath here. He says the following, “Note how the whole story is compressed into a few words as regards narration, but its spiritual lessons are dwelt upon from many points of view. The Old Testament is mainly interested in the narrative…” and that’s an accurate statement, that’s why I said the Bible begins with story or narrative. “…which is full of detail,” he’s right, “but says little about the universal truths of which every story is a parable.” I disagree with him. His final sentence here, “The Koran assumes the story, but tells a parable.”

Now what’s interesting here about the Koran, is it assumes a story, but Muhammad did not know the full story. Now here you’re going to have a difference between Muslims, and Jews, and Christians, okay. The Muslim is going to tell you that the Jews and Christians, and this is also in the Koran, were bad stewards of the Bible, and they perverted it and polluted it, and therefore its written text is not trustworthy.

And so when the Koran comes through Muhammad, it’s existed from eternity, it’s a true story, and anything of Biblical history that differs is overwritten at that point. And so therefore what Muhammad delivers in his singular delivery supercedes everything that precedes it. Here a Muslim will say that it existed, and Muhammad’s knowledge does not involve itself. Here I say Muhammad’s knowledge is important. And that’s a point of disagreement. Because you and I biblically, those of us who are Christian, we have an understanding of history and eyewitnesses. And Muhammad as a young man, was really much more honorable than most of his peers. Blood sport was a sport. They actually had wars to kill each other for the fun of it, this is how tough it was in Arabia in the Seventh Century.

And it really goes back to the fulfillment of the prophecy of Ishmael. His hand will always be against his brother. And Muhammad actually was aware of that before he knew he was a descendant of Ishmael, and he didn’t know he was a descendant of Ishmael until the Jews told him. But he knew of the fact that the Jews had their prophet, as he understood it, Moses. The Christians had their prophet, as he understood it, Jesus. But the Arabs did not have their prophet. So he basically fashioned himself into their prophet out of a nationalistic unity, that’s what started his whole understanding.

So part of that you can’t fault, wanting to have a people be unified if they’re your own people, but how he went about it is another matter. But he really was more respectful in a chauvinistic and bloody culture than many of his peers. What he did for a living early on in life was, he protected caravans as they would come down from Medina and cross over to Mecca through the desert. There was a lot of banditry, a lot of robbing of the caravans, and so Muhammad made a living protecting them as a soldier. He once protected a caravan that was run by Khadija, a very wealthy, exceedingly wealthy widow.

Some traditions say she was 40 years old and he was 20, but I’m more impressed by those traditions or those resources that say she was about 25, which back then was very old, because the average male in Arabia got married by 17, and the average female by 15. And the average life span probably was only in the 40s anyhow, so she was considered a little bit older. She married him as a result of him having protected her, and he came into all this wealth and it gave him a lot of time. It didn’t make him lazy, he was a hard worker the whole time, but in his caravan experience he met a lot of Jews and a lot of Christians.

The problem is the Christians he met were Nestorians and Monophysites. I won’t go into details of their theologies, except they both had complementary, contradictory, wrong understandings of the Trinity. In fact, some of the Nestorian idea was a tri-theology or a tri-theism, God the Father, God the Mother, and God the Son. And this is what Muhammad was exposed to, and he thought that Christians were schismatic and were polytheists at a certain level. So he rejected them on those terms.

The Jews, two types of Jews he ran into, particularly up in Medina. They were the generally orthodox who took very good stewardship of the Torah and were looking for the Messiah still. And then there were the Cabalistic Jews, who had gotten into various occult religions. Well, in between the Jews and the Christians whom he met, he got pieces of the story but only pieces, only orally. But he also got pseudepigraphal writings, that’s Greek for false writings. The Gospel of Thomas is one of the most famous. The Gospel of Thomas talks about when Jesus got upset with a playmate and called down lightning on him to destroy him, that’s the Gospel of Thomas for you. Also in the Gospel of Thomas, it talks about Jesus once taking some clay, fashioning it into a pigeon, and blowing the breath of life into it and it flew away. That’s in the Koran, and Muhammad got it from these false writings.

In fact at one point, he was orally very quick, at one point he thought that Mary the Mother of Jesus was also the sister of Moses. And do you know why he thought that? In Hebrew, the word for Mary is Miriam, and he didn’t know the two Miriams were two Miriams. And when he was discussing that one time, I think with a Jew if I remember correctly, he was corrected and said oh no, no, you’ve got it confused. There’s two Miriams and Muhammad goes, oh, I knew that and explained his way beautifully out of it within three sentences. So this was the skill of the man orally. There was a real charisma to his person.

What he did was he, in wanting to unify the Arabs, he searched to see if there’s any Arabic tradition looking for messiah or prophet and he found there was none. And so basically, and this is my assessment, he took a well-known male deity, Allah, who had two or three consorts. It traces back to the Sumerian moon God and there’s all sorts of archaeological evidence for this, but does anyone know the crescent with the star, what that refers to? That is a Sumerian moon god with his consort, Allah and Alhot [phonetic].

And so it traces back just. Just like Paul redeemed a poem to Zeus, to the Greeks and applied it to the true God. So he took the one, Muhammad did, who looked like a singular God to go against the polytheism of Mecca. The Kaaba, the Black Stone, which they still have today. And there’s a whole history of why that’s still there, but it was changed from an idol of 365 gods to an idol of one god, because they had 365 deities and they worshipped one a day for the whole calendar, the moon god and so forth.

And so what we have is we have Muhammad having these partial exposures, and he pulls together stories, a little bit here and a little bit there, but he knows nothing of the rich text whatsoever. He only knew a few miscellaneous stories out of all the Torah and out of all the New Testament writings. And when he tried to convince the Jews that he was their Messiah, they pulled out the Torah and said no, you’re not, and he ended up killing them all, but that was a little bit later down in his life, killing or driving them into exile from Medina.

But the point of observation is this, Muhammad did not know the historical text. And in sharia Islamic law, in those countries where they impose it today, you are not allowed to read the Bible. In fact, they won’t even allow you as an American soldier to have a Bible on Saudi soil unless it’s--do you know that President Bush was not allowed to have his, President Bush the senior, was not allowed to have his Thanksgiving service during the Gulf War until he went off to the aircraft carrier in international waters? So this is what sharia or Islamic law is all about.

So here’s my honest question, okay, how can a westernized, to some extent, Muslim say that the Old Testament is mainly narrative, the Koran assumes a story but tells the parable, how can they assume a story they don’t know and they don’t let people hear? And so this is a great contrast in terms of the definition of history and accountability of history. And from the point of Muhammad on forward, through the Hadith, through the traditional writings, they have a full interest in history, but they discount any history that precedes Muhammad himself. And so there we have a challenge. How do we communicate with this difference of interpretation?

NEXT
  1. Introduction
2. The Bible on its own terms
3. The Koran on its own terms
4. Contrasts between the Bible and the Koran
5. Holy War in the Bible, Jihad in the Koran
6. Christian expansion, Islamic expansion
7. The ministry of the Prince of Peace
8. Questions from the audience