Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Qur'an: Notes from a First Reading

Acknowledgment. I am grateful to Amy Peikoff, JD, PhD (, for organizing the Koran Reading Group (KRG). It ran from May to September, 2011; it met, for a nominal fee, weekly for an hour on audio through Webinar and in emails through Google Groups; and it achieved its goals: to do a slow, scheduled reading of the Qur'an and Robert Spencer's commentary on it, especially noting passages used by jihadists today to justify their attacks on non-Muslims. KRG also fulfilled my individual purposes: to become acquainted with the Qur'an as a whole and to learn Islam's view of reason and mysticism, as stated or implied in the Qur'an.

Definition. The Qur'an is the holy scripture of Islam, which is the religion of submission to the one, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God whose final apostle was Muhammad. Muslims believe that God revealed every word of the Qur'an to Muhammad, who then recited the revelations to his followers, who in turn recorded them in their memory and in individual writings.

The Early History of the Qur'an. Following are the major milestones in the development of the Qur'an. Unless specified otherwise, all items come from "Muhammad," Glasse, CEI. (See Bibliography at the end.)

570 -- Birth of M. in Mecca, near w. coast of Arabia. (p. 279)

590? -- In Syria, on a caravan trading expedition, M. meets a Christian monk who tells M. that M. is a prophet. (p. 280)

605? -- M. has visions. (p. 280)

610 -- M. receives his first revelation, in a cave near Mecca. (p. 280)

632, March -- M. receives his last revelation, three months before his death. (p. 284)

632-656 -- Under the direction of the first three caliphs (Abuu Bakr, 'Umar, and 'Uthmaan), Muslims (such as M's secretary, Zayd ibn Thaabit) collect and sort written copies of M's recitations of individual revelations. ("Koran," CEI, p. 230) The edited collection, an artifact of human action, is the Qur'an, developed, Muslims believe, by God at the beginning of time.

The Organization of the Qur'an. The Qur'an consists of 114 primary divisions, the suras (chapters). The compilers of the Qur'an generally arranged the suras by length, with the longest suras first. Each sura, in turn, is divided into verses of one or more lines. For example, Sura 110 ("Help") has three verses. As usual, after the first line, God speaks to Muhammad:

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

1. When comes the Help of God, and Victory,

2. And thou dost see the People enter God's Religion in crowds,

3. Celebrate the Praises of thy Lord, and pray for His Forgiveness: For He is Oft-Returning (in Grace and Mercy).

The italicized line at the start is one of the standard invocations. In the last line, the translator and commentator, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, inserted the words in parentheses to make explicit the meaning he thinks is implicit in the Arabic text.

The Style of the Qur'an. The Qur'an is poetic, but the lines have variable lengths and meters. The text is sometimes austere and emotive, but often repetitive, bombastic, and authoritarian.

The Muslim View of the Qur'an. Muslims believe the Qur'an is perfect theologically, doctrinally, historically, and poetically. No one, Muslims believe, can evaluate it by an external standard; the Qur'an is the standard of judgment, says Muslim scholar Cyril Glasse, "Koran," CEI, p. 228.

The Philosophy of the Qur'an. A philosophy, even in implicit form, is a set of fundamental principles about: the nature of reality (metaphysics), how we can know that reality (epistemology), what we should do (ethics), and how we should relate to each other in society (politics). Philosophical detection reveals the philosophy of Islam as presented in the Qur'an.

In the Qur'an, the metaphysics of Islam is supernaturalist, positing the existence of (1) an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, most merciful, most gracious, and vengeful being, who is otherwise ineffable, who has knowledge not available to man through man's limited faculties, and who created man knowing ahead what each individual will do, yet holding the individual -- not his Creator -- responsible for failure; and (2) two worlds, this natural world, which manifests God, and the other world, the world of heaven and hell, which is the world of the hereafter, that is, the world in which the souls of dead men continue after life on earth.

In the Qur'an, the epistemology of Islam is mystical. The Qur'an rarely acknowledges the existence of reason, and, even then, only by implication and in truncated form. The Qur'an implies that reason is impotent to develop an ethics that will guide man not only for this life but for man's efforts to secure a happy life in the supernatural realm. Man needs mysticism to gain knowledge of what to do. The forms of mysticism appearing in the Qur'an are many: faith in God; revelation from God to man; reading "signs" of God in nature or in miracles; and others. (Quranic mysticism will be the subject of the second post in this series).

In the Qur'an, the ethics of Islam is altruist, that is, focused on The Other not oneself as the primary beneficiary of one's actions. In the Islam of the Qur'an, in the supernatural realm, The Other is God; in the natural realm, this world, The Other means society, especially family, but also the ummah, the Muslim community, including the needy.

In the Qur'an, the politics of Islam is theocratic, that is, supporting a government that implements God's ethics. The Islamic political system, shown in the Qur'an in incipient form under Muhammad's reign, is a direct inference from the central Islamic principle, the doctrine of unicity: one God, one message, one set of rules for living for all individuals, everywhere, and at all times.

Sura 1, the first chapter of the Qur'an, is unusual in being a short chapter at the beginning of the Qur'an and in being spoken by God's worshippers not by Muhammad or God speaking through Muhammad. Sura 1 suggests the first three elements of the philosophy of Islam.

1. In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

2. Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds;

3. Most Gracious, Most Merciful;

4. Master of the Day of Judgment.

5. Thee do we worship and thine aid we seek.

6. Show us the straight way,

7. The way of those on whom thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.

Supernaturalism is shown by the invocation of God. He has created this world on earth and another realm of heaven and hell. God did more than create this world back in time; readers of the Qur'an learn later, that God also sustains the world from moment to moment and can change it at any time. Mysticism is suggested here, by implication, in that praising God requires faith in God's existence and nature, and explicitly in that God's followers must have faith in His Word, worship Him, and seek His aid for humans in this world. Altruism is implied in the focus on God, who will tell us how to live ("the straight way"), which includes our duties to others, as Muhammad explains in later suras.

Conclusions. From reading the Qur'an, I have reached two conclusions. First, Islam's holy scripture, which is essentially a collection of ad hoc sermons, is written in such a way that it makes Islam one of the "cafeteria" religions. (Two other examples are Christianity and Judaism.) A reader can easily pick elements to fit his already formed approach to life, and ignore or downplay contradictory elements. This is why some Muslims can be personally pacifistic and others can be at war with the infidel world around them.

Second, Islam is definitely a religion, which is a mystical worldview consisting of a metaphysics, an epistemology, an ethics, and a politics -- all meant to apply universally, that is, to everyone, everywhere, and at all times. Islam is not an ideology, which is an application of a universalist worldview (religion or philosophy) to a particular milieu for the purpose of developing a strategy suitable to changing current society. It is also true, however, that Islam's holy scripture, the Qur'an, shows Islam's model man, Muhammad, engaged in political action in the form of warfare, negotiation, deception, enslavement, and execution of opponents. Those and other elements shape the various Islamic ideologies active today.

As presented in the Qur'an, Islam is a rotting log from which various ideological mushrooms grow. All are poisonous, some more quickly than others.

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at


Ali, Abdullah Yusuf, editor, translator, and commentator,The Qur'an: Text, Translation and Commentary, 3rd ed., Elmhurst (New York), Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, Inc., 1938 (1934, 1st ed.), 1862 pages. Muslims I met at Portland State University, Oregon, in 2000, recommended this translation and commentary. Robert Spencer also recommends it as an acceptable translation and mainstream commentary. Approximately one-third of each page is Arabic text, one-third is English translation, and (in small type) one-third is footnotes that explain the meaning of items such as place names; provide background information; and interpret the often terse and confusing verses.

Glasse, Cyril, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, New York, HarperCollins, 1989, 472 pages. (Later editions are called The New Encyclopedia of Islam). The entries vary from a single paragraph to several pages; they include cultural, theological, and historical terms. Aids to readers include photographs and maps. The author is an articulate Muslim familiar with Western criticisms of Islam.

"Revelation Order of the Qur'an," (in the address, "revealation" is the site creator's misspelling). This Muslim site presents the most widely accepted Muslim view of the proper traditional order of the chapters and verses. The site then lists the 114 suras in chronological order, the sequence, Muslims say, in which Allah sent the suras down to Muhammad.

Spencer, Robert, "Qur'an Commentary," Spencer is a Christian activist and opponent of jihadist Islam. He summarizes the Qur'an, sometimes verse by verse, explains implications of some of the texts (for example, on jihad), and helps the reader integrate the disorganized elements of Islam in this holy text. In this commentary, Spencer generally describes rather than evaluates. He does not critique any element of Islam that also appears in Judaism and Christianity -- for example, supernaturalism, mysticism, and altruism.


  1. Great post, Burgess, as always. Thoughtful and informative.

  2. thank you for collecting and sharing your thoughts


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