The Koran, translated from the Arabic by J.M. Rodwell
In reading and reviewing a book like this I find myself at a great disadvantage in at least two respects. For one, I cannot help reading this book critically as an unbeliever with no particularly positive feelings for Islam , rather than reading it reverently as Muslims do. In addition, I am reading this book in translation, rather than in its original Arabic because I am not literate in Arabic, another disadvantage, as this book is nothing if not strongly pro-Arabic in approach. For what it’s worth, this translation has a certain grandeur about it, reading much like a King James Version of the Koran, and that is probably about as good as it is going to read to a Western audience, and the translator doesn’t appear to have any particular agendas except doing his best to translate the material in a form that is comprehensible for Western audiences. Although this book is definitely not up to the standard of the Bible in terms of great reading material on a genre level, much less in terms of spiritual value, it is still a book worth reading at least to understand at least something of the nature of Arabic thought, as terrifying a matter as that can be.
In a bit over 400 pages, this book contains 114 Sura (some sort of chapters or books) that are organized with the longer ones towards the beginning and the shorter ones towards the end. The translator includes the title of the chapter, which usually appears in the first few verses of the sura, as well as the length of the chapter and whether it was written in Mecca or Medina. Many of the longer suras drag on interminably, and there is frequent repetition as well as the feeling that there is a lot of context that is not being included in the material. There is also a lot of material there that is hostile to Jews in particular, and at least some that is hostile to the belief that God has offspring, which rather makes it difficult for Muslims to understand the purpose for the creation of mankind in the first place to serve as the future sons and daughters of God. Mohammed shows himself to be extremely concerned about issues of angelology and eschatology, especially in the early suras, and there is a strong feeling that the author found himself rather stressed out about the difficulties of ruling a community in the midst of opposition and the feeling of treachery within.
In fact, Mohammed comes off far better than many contemporary Muslims for all of his flaws and shortcomings and his woefully incomplete understanding of both the Judaism and Christianity he sought to emulate and supersede. He shows a genuine respect for women and a concern that men would attempt to take advantage of women and deny them the protections of generosity as well as the benefit of the doubt, and as an orphan he shows himself deeply concerned with justice and kindness towards orphans as well. The Koran appears like a conversation of sorts, involved in polemics against other Arabs of various religious beliefs as well as against Jews and Christians, and it also appears to have a great deal of wisdom being laid down for a nascent community of people who are struggling to figure out how to live. Whatever one’s problems with contemporary adherents, and whatever issues its style and disorganized organization presents to the readers, this is certainly a book that is well worth reading. One may not understand all of its layers, but at least it gives a sense of the sort of beliefs that Muslims have about themselves and their world.
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