Understanding The Koran
by Bill Warner (June 2008)
Have you ever heard someone say: “What we need is a new translation of the Koran.” What they really mean is that we need a Koran we can read and understand. The difficulties of reading the Koran are notorious and common.
The Koran is repetitious and chaotic. Who do you know who has read the Koran and says that they understand it? The muddled chaos is passed off as profoundness. The confusion is proof of the Koran’s deep wisdom. Right. But, if the Koran were handed to an English teacher, it would receive an F as a grade. And as it turns out, the translation has almost nothing to do with the problem.
CHRONOLOGY: Imagine that you are an English teacher or an editor and the Koran manuscript landed on your desk. You would not ask for a better translation.
Your first step would be to put the document in order. That turns out to be almost trivial. Your Koran from the bookstore has the long chapters up front and the short chapters at the end. The correct time order of the chapters is well known to scholars. Anybody with access to the Web can download a version of the Koran and use any word processor to produce a Koran in the right time order.
This is the crucial first step. When you turn the page of the Koran, you advance in time. The first step produces a chronological Koran.
CATEGORIES: The next problem you face in preparing a readable Koran is deciding how to break up the suras (chapters) into topics and paragraphs.
How do you break it up into topics and paragraphs? The Koran is filled with stories that allow easy categorization. The story of Moses is easily recognized as a topic. Then there are the endless repetitive Arabic stories of Thamud and others. But there remains a lot of verbiage that is not a story. How should it be arranged into topics?
The stream of violence that runs throughout the Koran gives insight into its structure. The violence is not random, but turns out to have a internal order to it. Take Hell, for instance. If you highlight the violent references to the unbelievers, you will find that there are five elements that accompany the violence:
A description of the threat or violence
Whom is threatened
What they did to deserve the violence
How they are wrong
Words from Allah to support his messenger, Mohammed
I call this structure the Koranic Argument. The argument is that the kafirs are wrong, Mohammed is right and violence will come to those who deny him.
The Koranic Argument is a natural organizational element of the Koran. The verse is useful but it does not allow analysis of ideas and thought. After all, a verse is usually just a sentence. People who use individual verses to prove anything about the Koran would never turn around and analyze Kant or Marx on the basis of sentences. No, you want to analyze thoughts, and a sentence is too small a unit for critical, systemic thought. The Koranic Argument allows easy textual analysis of thought, ideas and theme.
As a measure of the importance of Koranic Argument, consider:
Number of times Koranic Argument is used2
Percentage of text devoted to the Koranic
The Meccan Koran can be divided into three phases. At first Mohammed only told those who were close to him about his message in private teachings. Then he publicly taught Islam in public teachings. The third phase in Mecca took place during the intense resistance of the Meccans.
In the second and third phases of the Meccan Koran, some of the ancient tales from Arabic lore and the Jewish literature are of the Koranic persuasion category since they have the same structure in distant time. In the second phase, 20 of the ancient tales are also Koranic persuasion. In the third phase there are 12.
This data mirrors the history of Mohammed’s life. In the Meccan religious phase, the violence took the form of threats of punishment that were to occur after death in Hell. Or the mentioned violence was in ancient history, i.e. the Pharaoh being destroyed because he would not listen to Allah’s prophet, Moses. In Mecca the Koranic violence referred to the far future or the distant past. However, in Medina, there is less talk about Hell, and much more physical violence against political enemies. The action of jihad replaces the rhetoric of the threat of punishment.
Approximately two thirds of the Koran of Mecca is devoted to the Koranic Argument of “listen to Mohammed, the prophet of the only god, Allah, or you will suffer eternal torture in Hell.” When Mohammed achieved political power, the religious threats became political reality. The Koranic Argument of religion in Mecca became the political practice in Medina.
Approximately 51% of the Medinan Koran text is about jihad and verbal threats directed against Jews, non-Muslims and hypocrites (half-hearted Muslims). The Koran of Medina is 10.8% Jew hatred in nature. By comparison, only 6.8% of the text (measured by paragraphs) of Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kamph is anti-Jewish.
REPETITION: Once the Koran is placed into the right chronological order, the next step is to group together all of the similar repetitive material. One of the most tiresome things about the Koran is the endless repetition. The story of Moses is told 39 times.
Once the Koran is categorized, the similar topics can be grouped together. This greatly simplifies the understanding and ease of reading. When similar topics are grouped, it becomes easy to skip over them and not feel like you are missing anything. It also allows the reader to see the small changes in the stories.
When the stories are grouped, another thing really stands out. Allah was no story teller. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Not one story in the Koran can stand on its own. There are always missing pieces. Even the Joseph story, which is the best in the Koran, is incomplete.
CONTEXT: There is one missing piece to Koranic puzzle. The missing piece is Mohammed. Only Mohammed makes the Koran make any sense. Take as an example:
Koran 59:5 Allah gave you permission to cut down some palm trees and leave others intact so as to shame the wicked [the Jews]. After Allah gave the spoils to His Messenger, you made no move with horses or camels to capture them [the Jews], but Allah gives His messengers power over what He chooses. Allah is all-powerful.
If you are reading along, this verse just jumps out at you without any context. Why is Allah suddenly talking about palm trees? The answer is that Mohammed attacked the Jews and part of his jihad was to destroy their economy by cutting down their date palm plantations.
If we take and weave Mohammed’s life into the Koran, then the Koran has a context and all of the mystery is gone. What is interesting is that by weaving Mohammed into the Koran, we have reproduced the original Koran. It unfolded as needed by Mohammed. His life is integral to the Koran.
When Mohammed’s life is integrated into it, the Koran becomes an epic story that ends with the triumph of political Islam.
AN HISTORICAL TEXT: The Koran is a precise historical record of Mohammed’s political campaign. The repetition shows it to be a history of Mohammed’s campaign in Mecca. The Meccan Koran is an record of Mohammed’s attempts to convince the Arabs of the superiority of Islam. Imagine that as a reporter you followed and recorded a candidate over the course of his campaign. You would hear the same story again and again. Repetition is the best way to convince the public. Witness the repetition in any ad or PR campaign. It is not enough to say it once. You must say it again and again.
The Koran was delivered by Mohammed to the Arabs. And like any other campaigner, he repeated the same stories and arguments. The Koran faithfully records his political campaign. The Koran of Mecca is an exact description of what took place in the intellectual and political sphere. Koranic Argument is a recording of actual events of debate and argument. In many cases, there are actual quotes of Mohammed’s opponents.
The Medinan Koran chronicles the exact history of the rise of Islamic political power. The Koran is both a religious text and a political/historical text. The Koran contains an intimate and exact view of Arabian history. As a political/historical text, the Koran can be viewed as a biography of Mohammed.
SUMMARY: The Koran can made to be simple to understand by using:
Chronology—putting the verses in the original historical order.
Category—the method of grouping verses around the same subject. There can be discussion about which categories to use, but the Koranic Argument method of categorization produces the simplest text.
Context—using Mohammed’s life to give the circumstances and environment of the text.
With the analytic tools of Chronology, Category and Context, the Koran becomes a clear and simple text. The CCC analytic method most closely duplicates the historical words spoken by Mohammed.
The classical method of presenting the Koranic text is based upon the length of the chapters. It starts with the longest sura and ends with the shortest sura. It is an arbitrary method of presenting the words spoken by Mohammed. It has failed to produce a text that can be easily understood. (It is my opinion that the Koran, Sira and Hadith were deliberately made difficult to understand.)
In scientific philosophy the term, Occam’s Razor, refers to the principle that the simplest theory that will explain the facts is the best theory. Using the criteria of Occam’s Razor shows that Chronology, Category and Context is the best method to reveal the meaning of the Koran. No other method produces clarity, hence, CCC is the best method of organization of the Koran and is superior to the standard Koran text.
The CCC method was used by the Center for the Study of Political Islam to produce the Simple Koran and the Abridged Koran.
Bill Warner is the director of CSPI and the spokesman for politicalislam.com. He recently took part in a symposium devoted to the reform of the Koran.
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