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251. Contemplation (IV)

About ten years ago, I decided to read the Koran for the first time. I had read the Bible before; and, since then, have read it through once silently and once out loud—so I have become quite familiar with it, although, as I discovered, I had really been grounded in it quite well as a child; the stories were almost all familiar to me. The Koran came as a surprise to me, for what I expected was that it would be the Bible, slightly expanded. I took the biblical model: the Jewish holy texts, plus Christ—the completion, in Christian terms. I expected that the Muslims had done about the same; they would take the Bible—plus the New Testament—and add Mohammad’s testimony to the whole.

If I had stopped to think for a moment, I would have realised that this was unlikely. Mohammad transmitted the Koran as a single revelation; it would be unlikely that he would repeat the whole of Jewish and Christian scripture before he arrived at his revelation. The Koran, when compared to the Bible, is a very sparse book: the Bible is the book, by which I mean it includes history, genealogy, fables, proverbs, songs and poetry, prophecy, laws, and revelation—all life is there. It meanders about to make its points; it is definitely a narrative of a people, the Hebrews—and of a man, Jesus.

While the Bible is comprehensive, the Koran is total. The Koran is one man’s complete revelation; it does not collect fables and genealogy and it does not really feature a narrative as such. Jesus had his words recorded by his followers; but Mohammad produced the Koran himself, from his own lips as it were. Compared to the Bible, the Koran is a very smooth work; and this is because the Bible is somewhat patched together: various accounts were excluded and added over the centuries, and, more importantly, various authors contributed to the Bible; even the final sections on Jesus were produced by four different men, four slightly different takes. The Koran, one man’s vision, feels smooth and consistent: it speaks in one voice, the Bible speaks in many—and this is in keeping with Islam’s strict monotheism.

For Muslims, the Koran’s significance is less its messages—for Christians exegesis of Christ’s parables represents the faith’s bedrock—and more the poetic potential inherent in the work. “The Koran” means “the recitation”: its power as a religious document derives from its poetic recitation in Classical Arabic; although the King James Version provides beautiful verse, poetry is not integral to Christianity as it is with Islam; it is the way of the desert nomad, his rich speech and one God. The Bible is multivocal, the Koran is monovocal: there is one man, Mohammad, in the desert; and in the desert there is one God: it is clear out there, since everything is so sparse.

The Koran reflects Mohammad’s position: a politico-military leader; unlike Jesus, Mohammad was very definitely a prophet armed. As I read the Koran, I realised that while statecraft and law appear in the Bible, these are incidental—and certainly almost irrelevant for Christ’s message. The Koran, by contrast, could—and, indeed, does—serve as a law book and constitution for a state: it is possible to rule by the Koran alone, and since it was produced by a politico-military leader it is possible to govern in Mohammad’s style.

The Koran is really a sparse, efficient, and contained little poem—it is nowhere near as long as the Bible. It is a little poem that is also a constitution; as if George Washington were a religious poet who composed the Constitution in Middle English verse. For those of us used to Christianity, it is somehow less spiritual and more practical; and yet this simple, efficient book may, year by year, come to govern us Europeans more and more—for it is a total faith, a total political system; and it brooks no rivals.

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