Around one in four of the people on the planet, including 2.7 million Britons (and one in eight of my fellow Londoners) identify as Muslim. There is huge variety within Islam and between individual Muslims, but one thing everyone agrees on is the primacy of the Qur’an.
Like it or not, this 7th century work is one of the most important texts of our time.
I’m a humanist and a secularist. I think there should be a level playing field when it comes to religion and belief, where everyone is free to believe and practice what they like – provided it doesn’t affect the rights and freedoms of others – where the State is neutral, and where no religion or belief group has special privilege. Half the people in Britain now say they’re non-religious – and that includes a number of ex-Muslims – while forms of faith that are more fervent than traditional Anglicanism, including most varieties of Islam, make up an important share of the remainder. Making that work peacefully is a challenge. Humanising “The Other” by getting to know people is probably the most important thing we can do to help. But so is separating fact from myth and prejudice. So I’ve decided it’s time to read the Qur’an.
I expect to find: not much in the way of narrative, repetition, things that don’t make sense to me, contradictions, things I find pretty offensive, especially about unbelievers, women and homosexuality, and things that help me understand why Muslims consider it inspirational (as well as a translation can).
While there is some dispute about the history of early Islam, as a humanist I’m 99.99% confident that the Quran is a human creation and was not dictated by an angel called Gabriel. I know what the traditional view is, but apart from the fact that it originated somewhere in Arabia in the 7th century, I don’t know for sure who actually originated it, or who set the apparently non-chronological order of the verses, or whether the differences between the original versions and the version we have now really were as minor as they are claimed to be, or why a text supposedly delivered from God isn’t perfectly clear and consistent in its meaning.
But what matters is the text as it exists, along with the narrative about it, whether or not they’re historically accurate.
The mainstream Muslim view seems to be that, to gain a correct understanding of the Quran, you have to have a scholarly understanding of the language and the context in which each section was created. Contradictions are overcome by the rules of abrogation – some chronologically later verses trumping earlier ones – and, in some schools, by claimed sayings of Mohammed (Hadiths) trumping Qur’anic verses.
I’m aware that a massive literature of interpretation has been built up over the centuries, and it’s still going on. Attempts to give benign interpretations to sections of the text that clash with 21st values are, of course, very welcome. But who is to say which interpretation is “true”? Literalists such as the Salafis – including IS – don’t have that problem, but then find themselves, and those they interact with, stuck with unvarnished views from 7th century Arabia. A more pragmatic view is taken by some progressive Muslims, who believe the text is divinely inspired, but recognise that Mohammed was human and a man of his time, so the text cannot be considered perfect. In their view, it’s a starting point, not a finishing point.
I’m not an academic and am not going to put in unlimited time. So all I can do is read the text as I find it and accept that there will be things I fail to understand, or misinterpret. If I have the energy, I can find more background on specific points later. But I do want to get through it.
In common with the majority of present-day Muslims, I don’t understand Arabic. Rather than struggle with a translation into old-fashioned, hard-to-read English, or one that came from a contentious position, I wanted one in modern English, done by a reputable objective academic. Having looked at the reviews, I’ve gone for the translation by Tarif Khalidi, first published in 2008.
In reading it, I’ll aim to adopt a positive attitude, looking for good stuff, as I know that I’ll tend to home in on things to be outraged about. So here goes. Watch this space to see how I get on….