TCS Daily


On Not Getting the Koran

By Lee Harris - May 12, 2005 12:00 AM

Yesterday that recently vanquished cliché, the Arab street, returned to remind us that there are some things that even the most enlightened Westerners don't get about Muslims -- their fanaticism about the Koran. Newsweek, which had only a few months ago been jubilantly celebrating the new People Power rising up in the Middle East, apparently ran an article in which it was alleged that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, in order to annoy the Muslim inmates, had deposited copies of the Koran on or in the toilet bowls of the prison facility. There was even a rumor that a copy of the Koran had been flushed down the toilet. The result has been the savage outbreak of violence and turmoil in Afghanistan that the American-backed Afghan government says it is completely unable to control or to manage. President Bush has been burned in effigy, and the streets -- those ancient Arabs -- are once again teeming with angry mobs demanding Death to America.

Now how many Afghanis subscribe to Newsweek? Certainly not enough to create much of a crowd, which plainly indicates that word of the alleged desecration was quickly spread by human beings running to tell each other of the enormity that had just come to their attention, just as, on 9/11, all of us immediately got on our telephone and began to call all our friends about the disaster unfolding. Yet, long before the invention of the telephone, the internet, the radio, or the telegram, human beings have figured out ways to diffuse information -- or, in many cases, misinformation. For example, early in the French Revolution, a rumor spread that troops were coming to massacre the peasants, though no one was quite clear whose troops these were; the panic that ensued flashed across rural France virtually overnight. It was as if everyone had hastened to warn his neighbors of the impending catastrophe -- a catastrophe that turned out to be wholly illusionary, and yet remains known as the Great Fear.

The rumor that Americans had desecrated the Koran clearly must have traveled through Afghanistan in the same way, and is certainly doubtful that there is now even the remotest corner of Afghanistan and indeed even the Muslim world that will not have heard this rumor by the time this article will appear on your computer screen.

What long term impact, if any, will it have? That is anyone's guess. But one thing is certain -- if we hope to play any role in the Muslim world other than the Great Satan, it behooves us to comprehend why this particular report could bring about such a catastrophic response. This, after all, is precisely the kind of event that often acts as the fatal spark that ignites spectacularly pointless and bloody conflagrations.

In the Sepoy rebellion, for example, the supposedly faithful Sepoy troops mutinied against their British officials because it was rumored that the new shell casings were a combination of pork, an abomination to Muslims because of the pig's alleged filthiness, and beef, an abomination to Hindus because of the cow's alleged sacredness. Was the rumor true? Not at all. Is the rumor true about Korans being flushed down the toilet? It really no longer matters. Many Muslims will believe it because it fits into their model of the world: How else would you expect infidels to treat the Koran? We Westerne infidels have never understood the Koran, and we have never appreciated it -- and against these accusations of Koran disparagement, we in the West can only plead guilty as charged.

The Koran has always been the great stumbling block to any Western understanding of Islam. The Koran means so little to us, and so vastly much to them. We cannot, to be frank about it, comprehend their admiration, not to mention, their abject adoration of the Koran understood as a book. Compare it to Homer or the book of Genesis, or the Gospels, or the great Hindu epochs, and you will be bowled over by the difference. Thomas Carlyle once made the comment that only a high sense of duty could carry a Western reader from the first Surah to the last.

But it is not as a book that Muslims regard the Koran -- that is our first misconception. It is in itself a holy and sacred object, like the cross to the Christians or the American flag to the patriotic and red-blooded among us: you don't mess with it. It is not to be trampled on, or stuck in a toilet. It is the great visceral connector that makes all Muslims feel that there is a community between them. It was the one thing that Muslims could agree not to squabble about. It was the miracle by which all the differing Arab tribes could be united. Other peoples, notably the Jews, the Christians, and the Zoroastrians had their books; it was now the turn of the Arabs to receive theirs -- though theirs would supercede the previous editions of God's Word, much in the same way that a new and up-to-date physics text renders those from an earlier era obsolete.

The Koran, however, differed radically from other sacred books. They were inspired by God, but the Koran was the very word of God, and in the language that God clearly spoke when he was by himself, namely, Arabic. Islam would never have been such a challenge to the earlier faiths if it had claimed to have discovered a new god; but it didn't. It claimed to be centered on the same god of the Jews and Christians -- only the Koran represented this god correctly.

Mohammed insisted that any conflict between the new revelation and the previous ones could only have arisen through the accidental or deliberate misinterpretation of God's word by Jews and by Christians. Thus Islam was born flinging a challenge into the face of both Jews and Christians. It claimed to understand the Jewish and the Christian God better than the Jews and the Christians understood Him; and it was this extraordinary claim that explained the common medieval interpretation of Islam as a Christian heresy -- which is why the often politically incorrect Dante put Mohammed in the pit of hell reserved for schismatics and heretics.

This view of Islam has not been in vogue for some time now, and yet, if we are to grasp the initial impact of Islam on the world, we must be quite clear what made Islam so scandalous to those far distant generations of Jews and Christians, who were presented with no choice but either to abjure their own religion and convert to Islam, or else dismiss the proclaimed new revelation of the Koran as an outright fraud.

Nor was this the only stumbling block posed by the Koran. For the Koran does not claim simply to have been inspired by God, the way that Jews and Christians have traditionally interpreted their scripture; rather it is understood as having been quite literally dictated by God, word by word. Or, more precisely, Arabic word by Arabic word.

By this I don't mean that Allah reveals his Word and that this Word is then encoded into Arabic, as it might have been encoded into any other language; I mean that, according to Islam, Allah's Word is itself Arabic. The Koran is co-eternal with Allah; it always existed, and always will exist; and it has always been in Arabic.

This stands in profound contrast to the Christian concept of inspiration as symbolized by the Feast of the Pentecost in The Book of Acts. Here we find an explicit recognition of a God whose Word may be equally well expressed in a multitude of tongues, so that no particular language can be singled out as the language of God Himself. Divine thought transcends all human language, and yet can be articulated in all human languages.

This is a difference between Christianity and Islam that is often overlooked by those who claim that both religions are equally universalist in their scope and aim. For while it is true that both religions have historically claimed a revelation that had universal import, the Christian religion has always been indifferent to the language in which this revelation was expressed. The Holy Spirit, according to Christianity, does not speak to us in his language, but always in ours.

But a God who only speaks Arabic can hardly be universal in the same sense as the Christian God. Yes, it may become universal if everyone forsakes his own native language in order to speak Arabic; but just how universal is a God who is that much entrenched in the ethnocentric particularism of a small sect of nomadic desert tribes? Not to mention the surprising coincidence, that the ruler of the universe should be a native speaker of their language.

Conversion to Christianity, on the other hand, meant taking on a new faith, but it did not mean learning a new language or a new culture. The great Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, is perhaps the supreme example of this truth. Sent to China to convert the heathens, Ricci began by dressing like a Chinese mandarin and learning the Chinese language until he was proficient in it. Then he went among the upper class of the Chinese, introducing them to tantalizing toys from the West -- like the telescope; and, little by little, began to speak of his own faith, although always by stressing points of resemblance between it and the Confucian ethics of those whom he wished to convert, and at no point demanding a confrontation between his beliefs and those of his Chinese hosts.

Protestant missionaries always made sure that the Bible was translated into whatever language was spoken by their appointed flock, even when the language was found only among meager tribes in the interior of Africa. But the Koran was by its very nature untranslatable. Indeed, at one time it was strictly forbidden to translate it, or to possess copies of such translations.

It may legitimately be asked how a person like myself, who cannot read Arabic and who cannot appreciate the beauty of the Koran's poetry can make any authoritative claim about it. But who is in a better position to judge of the prose of the Koran than someone who cannot read Arabic, and who must rely upon translations into my native language. I cannot read Hebrew, either, but that in no way keeps me from admiring the basic prose narrative that constitutes the story of Joseph and his brothers, or that of the Exodus. A good story is a good story in whatever language you wish to translate, and nothing proves this more than the immense success in the West of the collection known as The Thousand and One Nights.

But the Koran breathes nothing of the spirit of that imaginative extravaganza. In comparison the Book of Mormon might have been written by Stephen King.

This complete lack of visceral sympathy with a book that Muslims regard as co-eternal and uncreated, existing at the same ontological level as God Himself, is nothing that we Westerners can overcome, no matter how hard they try to empathize. Yes, many of the moral injunctions of the Koran are uplifting and noble, but the truth is that we Westerners have acquired our tastes in sacred literature from some of the world's most fabulous storytellers, and our expectations have been set high. It would be like asking a man who loved Beethoven's symphonies to gush over a Muzak version of Pepsi jingle.

If I have offended anyone, including Karen Armstrong, I sincerely apologize. But we cannot continue to pretend to venerate what we have no interest in, or sympathy with. Yet, precisely because the Koran is worlds away from us we must always proceed with great caution in dealing with it. For Muslims, dissing the Koran is the hot button of all hot buttons. It is what flag burning is to a construction worker. The proper procedure for dealing with those who insult the Koran is not to investigate the matter in more detail, but to riot in the streets until those who have insulted the Koran have paid the price for this transgression -- and as Salmon Rushdie could tell you, if he stopped attacking the United States for a moment, is that blasphemy against the Koran is a crime that is only suitably punished by death.

Meanwhile all we can do is to watch and wait helplessly as the rumor of the Great Insult spreads through the Muslim world, and hope that it is not the harbinger of that vicious form of People Power called mob fanaticism. Pundits and schoolmarms may work hard to try to vanquish clichés -- but clichés have a surprising life to them, often because, I suspect, they are the most convenient method of referring to a persistent and nagging reality that, like the cliché itself, simply won't go away, no matter how many times we tell it to depart from us. It sometimes seems as if reality never learns.

Lee Harris is the author of Civilization and Its Enemies.

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