Is the Koran a Literary Masterpiece?

Is the Koran a Literary Masterpiece?

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In my last piece for Crisis [see comment below], I emphasized the importance of casting doubts on Islamic beliefs just as we cast doubts on Soviet Communist ideology during the Cold War.With that in mind, let’s talk about the Koran. It’s the fountain from which the ideology flows. It is quoted incessantly by terrorist leaders and imams alike, and it provides the motivation for both armed jihadists in combat fatigues, and cultural jihadists in business suits.

So it would seem logical for those threatened by Islam to cast doubts on the Koran. If the Koran came to be seem as a man-made fabrication rather than a direct revelation from God, the prime rationale for jihad would dissolve. Since the authenticity of the Koran rests on a very fragile foundation, the case is not difficult to make.

One would think, therefore, that Western governments would have teams of experts working on the matter ’round the clock. More to the point, one would think that Christian theologians and scripture scholars would be applying all their skills to a historical and textual critique of Islam’s “holy” book. For one thing, scripture is their area of expertise; for another, Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world. And most of that persecution is at the hands of Muslims who claim that the Koran provides justification for their deeds.

Assuming that these experts are chomping at the bit, just waiting for a little direction, here is a suggestion: focus on the literary quality of the Koran. Why? Because, other than an occasional lyrical passage, the Koran doesn’t have much in the way of literary quality. Yet, its literary quality is the main argument for the authenticity of the Koran. “Who else, but God,” ask Muslim scholars, “could have written such an inimitable masterpiece?”

Certainly not Muhammad. He is traditionally (and conveniently) considered to have been illiterate. Muhammad was merely the conduit through which the divine revelation was passed—or so Muslims believe. Actually, they don’t have much choice in the matter, since the Koran has already issued an “I-can-beat-any-book-at-the-bar” challenge. Sura 2:23 says “If you doubt what we have revealed to Our servant [Muhammad], produce one chapter comparable to it.” The challenge is repeated with slight variations in several other verses.

But to anyone who has actually read a literary masterpiece—say, something by Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or Dickens—it’s an astonishing claim. There are many striking passages in the Koran, but for the most part it is tedious, repetitive, and didactic. Don’t take my word for it. Here are some scholarly observations:

His characters are all alike, and they utter the same platitudes. He is fond of dramatic dialogue, but has little sense of dramatic scene or action. (C.C. Torrey, The Jewish Foundation of Islam, New York, 1933, p. 108.)

The book aesthetically considered is by no means a first-rate performance … indispensable links, both in expression and in the sequence of events, are often omitted … and even the syntax betrays great awkwardness… (Theodore Noldeke in Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., Vol. 15, pp. 898-906.)

And here’s a more recent assessment by Thomas Bertonneau:

How to describe it? The prose is unadorned, utilitarian, banal, and prone to use the imperative tense until one tires of the ceaseless exhortation.

All of which is a sad commentary on God’s ability to express himself—assuming, as Muslims do, that God wrote the Koran.

But it’s not just the mind-numbing repetition and the eye-glazing prose. The deeper problem is that the Koran just doesn’t hang together. It’s almost completely lacking in chronology, continuity, and—for want of a better word—plot.

This lack of coherence may explain why the Koran is arranged arbitrarily, with the longest chapters coming first, and the shortest coming last. Apparently, the compilers of the book gave up on trying to give it any rational order. As one of its translator’s notes, “scholars are agreed that a strictly chronological arrangement is impossible.”

The Koran’s lack of sequence and continuity extends to the stories within it. The Koran borrows heavily from stories in the Old Testament, invariably gives them a new twist, but fails to do justice to them. The narrator will often break off in the middle of a story to tell another story, or to provide a lengthy commentary that is, at best, tangentially related to the story, or he will interrupt the story with a description of the beauty of creation, or—more often—with a description of the fires of hell. Examples of masterful storytelling are not difficult to find. Try The Arabian Nights, The Brothers Grimm, or the short stories of Leo Tolstoy or Jack London. Just don’t expect to find anything remotely comparable in the Koran. As Professor Bertonneau notes, “The compiler of the Koran lacks any talent for storytelling…”

But, according to Islamic teaching, “the compiler of the Koran” is none other than God himself. Yet, hardly any of his stories are fully developed. Indeed they are more like story fragments—a series of unconnected episodes dropped at random into the text. In addition, the characters are so poorly developed that they are practically interchangeable. Unlike the characters in the Bible stories, they lack personality.

The difference in storytelling ability between the author of the Koran and the authors of the Bible is most in evidence when we compare the Koran’s story of Jesus with that found in the four Gospels. The contrast between the two Christs is startling. The story of the life of Jesus as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John has been justly called “the greatest story ever told.” Even those who don’t accept the divinity of Jesus recognize him as perhaps the most extraordinary man who ever lived.

And the Jesus of the Koran? Well, the most charitable thing to say is that there is simply no comparison. There is no comparison because the gospels tell a story and the Koran doesn’t. The Koran can’t very well tell the story of Jesus because the main character is largely missing from the narrative. After some promising passages about his birth, Jesus puts in very few subsequent appearances. Moreover, when he does appear in the pages of the Koran, Jesus bears little resemblance to a real person. He is an entirely one-dimensional figure.

In his attempt to portray Christianity as a life-denying religion, the poet Algernon Swinburne described Jesus as the “pale Galilean.” But if you’re looking for a real pale Galilean, look up the Jesus of the Koran. Indeed, he’s so pale, so lacking in substance, that he could be mistaken for a ghost. In a half dozen or so places in the Koran, he appears out of nowhere to utter some cryptic pronouncement or other, and then disappears again into the ether. The Jesus of the Koran is a pale creation indeed. You can’t even call him a “pale Galilean,” because there’s no mention of Galilee in the Koran—and no mention of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, or Jericho. Peter? Pilate? Herod? Judas? Mary Magdalen? They’re not there either. The wedding feast at Cana? The Sermon on the Mount? The Last Supper? Nope. The Koran’s “account” of Jesus is devoid of context. There is no setting, minimal description, and very little detail. To borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there, there.”

The Jesus of the Gospels is a recognizable human being. The Jesus of the Koran is more like a disembodied voice, somewhat reminiscent of the phantom-like Jesus who appears in the Gnostic Gospels. Why then did Muhammad include Jesus in the Koran? Most probably because he saw the New Testament account of Jesus as a threat to his own self-promotion. If what the gospels say about Jesus is true, then there is no need for another prophet or another revelation. So whenever “Jesus” is mentioned in the Koran, it is almost always for the purpose of establishing that he was just a man (e.g., 4:171, 5:17, 5:75, 5:116-117).

The Koran is supposedly a revelation, but the only new thing it reveals is that Muhammad is the prophet of God. The Koran doesn’t really add anything to our knowledge of God that is not already present in the Old Testament. It mainly serves as a vehicle for establishing Muhammad’s status as a prophet. Although Muhammad is mentioned by name only four times, he is mentioned on almost every other page as “The Apostle,” “The Messenger,” or “The Prophet.” Next to Allah, he is the main character.

All this attention to “messaging,” however, is—to return to our main theme—at the expense of the Koran’s literary quality. Once again, the Koran has precious little to say that hadn’t already been said by other prophets. But having established himself as a prophet, Muhammad had to keep the revelations coming in order to maintain his reputation as God’s final messenger. This helps to explain the constant recourse to repetition: repeated admonitions to “obey God and His Apostle,” repeated curses at those “who doubt Our revelations,” and repeated threats of hellfire for unbelievers—and all expressed in more or less the same boilerplate phraseology. It’s as though Shakespeare was so taken with the phrase “to be or not to be” that he repeated it on every other page of Hamlet.

The Koran a literary masterpiece? Here’s what historian and essayist Thomas Carlylehad to say about the book:

I must say, it is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook. A wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement; most crude, incondite—insupportable stupidity in short!

Contrary to what one might assume, Carlyle had no animus toward Muhammad. Indeed he considered Muhammad to be one of the great men of history, and included him in one of his most notable books, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History. One the other hand, Carlyle was also an astute literary critic who had a preference for the natural over the artificial. He could not very well ignore the patchwork nature of the Koran.

“This Koran could not have been devised by any but God… If they say: ‘He invented it himself,’ say: ‘Bring me one chapter like it.’” Thus says sura 10:37-38 of the Koran. The first thing you notice is the defensiveness. It’s exactly the type of thing that one who had invented it himself would feel compelled to say. And this is only one example. The author of the Koran never tires of reminding his audience that the Koran is a genuine revelation, not a fake one. But would the Author of Creation need to interrupt his narrative every 15 pages in order to assure his audience that it is not an invention? To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Methinks the prophet doth protest too much.”

The next thing you realize is that it’s not true. Any fairly literate person could produce dozens, if not hundreds, of chapters from existing fiction and non-fiction that surpass any chapter in the Koran. You don’t have to be a literary critic to notice the many problems with the claim that God wrote the Koran. Almost any book you pull from your shelf is—from the standpoint of composition and coherence—better written than the Koran. If God wrote the Koran, why does he display so much defensiveness? Why does he endlessly repeat himself? Why can’t he get his chronology straight? Why does he lack the literary touch—the knack for storytelling, continuity, composition, and drama that we expect to find in accomplished human writers?

Did God write the Koran? The question is bound to raise anxiety levels all around. Would it make Muslims feel uncomfortable? Hopefully, yes. We should want them to feel uncomfortable—uncomfortable to the point that they are forced to entertain doubts that God had anything to do with the composition of the Koran.

Considering what’s at stake, this is not a time to shy away from the question. If the Koran is the chief motivating force behind Islamic aggression, then the Koran should not be above discussion. Rather, Muslims should be encouraged to reflect critically upon the facts of their faith.

The doctrine that God wrote the Koran is untenable on many counts. Muslim scholars have painted themselves into a corner with the argument that the Koran is a literary masterpiece of unmatched perfection. Non-Muslims, if they value their own survival, ought to take advantage of the weakness of this indefensible position. The fact that in recent years the Koran has been largely shielded from such an inquiry is an indication of how much cultural ground has been ceded to Islamic beliefs. Christian scholars, theologians, and apologists have much lost ground to recover. They should not let the claim of the Koran’s divine authorship go unchallenged.

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One comment on “Is the Koran a Literary Masterpiece?

  1. Losing Their Religion


    From time to time, readers of my articles will ask: “What do you want to do—go to war with 1.7 billion Muslims?” The question implies that any criticism of Islam will force the members of this “peaceful religion” to respond with massive violence.

    More or less the same argument was used during the Cold War. A great many people, including some of my relatives, took the view that we (the U.S.) shouldn’t say or do anything to upset the Soviets, otherwise all hell would break loose. Yet when one president challenged the Soviets over Cuba, and another challenged them to tear down the Berlin Wall, the end result was not the end of the world but the end of the Soviet Union.

    For the record, I have never advocated going to war with 1.7 billion Muslims, although I have from time to time stressed the importance of having a strong military and being willing to use it if necessary, and—of equal importance—conveying that willingness to potential enemies.

    For the most part, however, my emphasis has been on winning the culture war with Islam using cultural rather than military weapons. If Islam wins the culture wars—and currently it is winning—it won’t need AK-47s, mortars, and nuclear warheads. There aren’t any Islamic armies in Europe, but many parts of Europe are slowly submitting to Islam precisely because post-modern Europeans lack cultural confidence. Lacking it, they lack the will to resist.

    How do you fight a culture war? Well, primarily with the conviction that you’re right and they’re wrong. This doesn’t require chest-thumping and flag-waving, but it does require firmness, resolution, and will-power. It also requires a willingness to undermine your opponent’s convictions. The Cold War victory came about in large part because Communists lost faith in their own ideology. They also lost it, in part, because of various economic and diplomatic pressures applied by the West.

    In a similar way, the West and its non-Western allies should aim to weaken the faith of Muslims. This may sound like a cruel thing to do, and if, as some say, Islam is the moral equivalent of Christianity and Judaism, then it would be a cruel thing. However, if Islam is a cruel and oppressive system, then a weakening of the system would benefit many, if not most, Muslims.

    Inducing a loss of faith in Islam? This might seem to belong in the “impossible dream” category. It may seem impossible, but consider that it has already happened—and not that long ago.

    Historian Raymond Ibrahim provides a lucid account of the Muslim world’s loss of faith. It was never a complete loss, but due to the influence of European colonial powers, many Muslims lost their confidence in the Islamic way. It began, writes Ibrahim, with the invasion and subjugation of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798. Subsequent conquests and colonization by European powers convinced many Muslims that Islam was no match for the West. The obvious military, technological, economical, educational, and political superiority of the West created doubts about Islam’s claim to be the supreme way of life. Thus:

    Muslims … began to emulate the West in everything from politics and government to everyday dress and etiquette. The Islamic way, the Sharia, was the old, failed way. Thus during the colonial era and into the mid-twentieth century, all things distinctly Islamic—from Islam’s clerics to the woman’s “hijab,” or headscarf—were increasingly seen by Muslims as relics of a backward age, to be shunned. Most “Muslims” were Muslim in name only.

    Yet, just when it appeared that Muslims were finally breaking free of Islam, Islam came back with a vengeance. Like that last lash of the Balrog’s whip which drew Gandalf back into the monster’s realm, Muslims were drawn back into fundamentalist sharia Islam.

    However, that’s another story for another time. Let’s focus instead on the earlier lapse of faith when Islam was losing its hold on the Muslim world. Are there any lessons for us? Can Islam be defanged again? The essential point to keep in mind is that the Islamic world has already suffered a loss of faith. It’s not far-fetched to think that it can happen again. On the other hand, those who think it impossible to induce a loss of faith among Muslims will never try. This also holds for those who think such a strategy is too dangerous or too politically incorrect. They will gain nothing because they will venture nothing.

    Let’s address the objection that it’s futile to hope for such a profound transformation in belief. Many people believe that deeply rooted beliefs are nearly impossible to change, but, in fact, history is full of examples to the contrary. For instance, in a relatively short period of time, the Civil Rights movement managed to overturn what were thought to be deeply held racial prejudices. Although prejudices still linger in America, practically no American today would accept the legitimacy of segregated buses, water fountains, and lunch counters that was once taken for granted in the Jim Crow South.

    Another example? Forty years ago, Ireland was often cited as one of the most Catholic countries on the planet. The faith seemed as deeply rooted in Ireland as a faith could be. Yet, in recent years, the Irish have decisively voted against the Church on the issues of homosexual “marriage” and abortion. In short, a great many Irish appear to have jettisoned their “deeply-rooted” faith.

    Therefore, it’s not inevitable that the Muslim world must remain deeply committed to Islam. As the history of the past century demonstrates, Turks, Egyptians and Iraqis are just as capable as the Irish of watering down their deeply held beliefs.

    Having established that it can be done, the next question is “should it be done? Do we have any right to attempt to undermine deeply held beliefs? This is probably the key question for many in the West. After decades of immersion in relativism, multiculturalism, and moral equivalence, many adults are afraid to challenge the shallowly held beliefs of their three-year-olds, let alone the deeply held beliefs of the “sacred” other. If the only value you admire is tolerance, then it will be practically impossible to challenge and resist Islamic beliefs and practices that run counter to Western values. Yet, at the present moment, “challenge and resist” is exactly what we must do.

    Why can’t we just take a “live-and-let-live” attitude to other religions? Well, in the case of most religions, this is probably best. The trouble is, Islam is not a live-and-let-live type of religion. It’s more of a convert-or-die type (or, to be completely accurate, convert, pay the jizya, or die).

    The reason we can’t take a relaxed view of Islam is that Islam is an aggressive religion. However James Bond-ish it may sound, the mission of Islam is to conquer the world for Allah, but—to reiterate a point that is often missed—not necessarily by force. I can’t remember the exact figure, but the Saudi government has spent a staggering sum over the last few decades on the building of mosques and madrassas all over the world, and on the preparation of imams and teachers to staff them.

    Islamic mosques, schools, activist organizations, websites, and governments (Turkey, Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are the best examples) are working 24/7 to spread Islam. As a simple matter of self-defense, non-Muslim societies ought to work to counter this forward momentum—if not by calling Islamic beliefs into question, at least by making the case for their own.

    Fortunately, almost no one is a complete relativist. Most people could see the importance of undermining Nazi ideology during World War II. Likewise, most of us feel that it’s legitimate to challenge the deeply held beliefs of racists. During the Cold War, our government, in collaboration with other governments, sought to discredit Communist ideology, and the Vatican at various times has challenged both Nazi and Communist ideology.

    How to Undermine Belief in Islam

    Assuming that one is willing to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of one’s opponents, the next question is how does one do it? Although fundamental changes can sometimes occur as a result of slow “evolutionary” processes, it’s usually the case that someone is working hard to create the changes. The rapid erosion of faith in Ireland was not the result of random mutations and natural selection. It was the result of a deliberate campaign to undercut the influence of the Catholic Church (aided, admittedly, by a series of scandals within the Church in Ireland). Likewise, the secularization and Westernization of Muslim countries in the last century was not a matter of chance. For example, Ataturk in Turkey, and the Shah in Iran launched highly successful campaigns for minimizing the influence of Islam on the populace.

    Obviously, the West has no direct control over any Muslin nation as did Ataturk and the Shah. On the other hand, the West had no direct control over the Soviet Union or its Eastern European satellite countries, yet it managed to wage a successful campaign to discredit Soviet communism.

    Embarking on such a campaign requires planning, and planning requires thinking. During the later stages of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan and Pope St. John Paul II worked together to undermine communism. Both men had thought long and hard about communism, so that both had a clear sense of their opponents’ weakness, and a clear sense of what had to be done and how far they could go.

    That clarity was missing during the Obama administration in regard to Islam, but there are signs that it is now returning. On July 22, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a positively Reaganesque speech on Iran policy at—where else?—the Reagan Library. Speaking to an audience that included many members of the Iranian-American community, he outlined a plan to “deny the Iranian leadership the resources, the wealth, the funds, the capacity to continue to foment terrorism around the world and to deny the people inside of Iran the freedom they so richly deserve.”

    Significantly, he used the word “campaign” six times—twice to describe the Iranian regime’s “campaign of ideologically motivated violence,” and four times to describe the administration’s “diplomatic and financial pressure campaign to cut off the funds that the regime uses to enrich itself and support death and destruction.”

    Again, significantly, he also indicated that the desired changes need not take forever: “I always remind those who think it’s not possible or think the time horizon will be measured in centuries not hours, I always remind them that things change.” Moreover, he pointed out that people with a plan will know how to take advantage of “disjunctive moments … when things happen that are unexpected, unanticipated.”

    Pompeo’s address shows a thorough understanding of Muslim/Middle-Eastern respect for strength, but it goes beyond that. While the campaign he outlines is mostly diplomatic and financial in nature, he also pays attention to ideology. His talk has a cultural/religious component—one that takes particular advantage of Iranian dissatisfaction with the mullahs and ayatollahs. During the recent mass protests in Iran, a number of slogans were aimed at religious leaders—for example, “The people are paupers, while the mullahs live like gods.” In his speech, Pompeo refers to “intolerant, black-robed enforcers.” He also reveals that a number of ayatollah’s (who “seem more concerned with riches than religion”) have become fabulously wealthy. For example, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei “has his own personal off-the-books hedge fund…worth $95 billion, with a B.”

    This is not a direct criticism of Islam, but it does serve to weaken trust in the guardians of the religion which, in turn, often leads to a weakening of faith in the religion itself. Catholics have some experience of this phenomenon. Studies have shown that the fall-off in church attendance following the revelation of the priestly sex abuse scandals was greatest in those areas hardest hit by the scandals (e.g., Massachusetts and Ireland). But, if one cared to make an issue of it, anecdotal evidence suggests that imams and mullahs are far more prone to abusive behavior than Catholic priests.

    In my next article, I’ll talk some more about how the West can undermine the ideological convictions that fuel jihad. My focus will be on the fragility of the Koran, and why Catholics are especially well-situated to expose it.

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