‘Anyone concerned with what’s happening in our world ought to spend some time reading the Koran.” Andy Rooney, the famed CBS commentator, gave this advice shortly after 9/11, as did plenty of others.
His suggestion makes intuitive sense, given that the terrorists themselves say they are acting on the basis of the holy scripture of Islam. Accused 9/11 ringleader Muhammad Atta had a Koran in the suitcase he had checked for his flight. His five-page document of advice for fellow hijackers instructed them to pray, ask God for guidance, and “continue to recite the Koran.”
Osama bin Laden often quotes the Koran to motivate and convince followers.
Witnesses report that at least one of the suicide bombers who tried to assassinate Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf last month was reading the Koran before blowing himself up. Hamas suicide videotapes routinely feature the Koran.
And lots of non-Muslims have, in fact, been reading the Koran. In the weeks after September 11, the book’s largest publisher in the United States reported that sales had quintupled; it had had to airlift copies from Great Britain to meet the demand. American bookstores reported selling more Korans than Bibles.
All this, incidentally, was music to Islamist ears. Hossam Gabri of the Islamic Society of Boston, a group tied to a terrorism funder, considers non-Muslims trying to understand the Koran “a very good development.”
BUT READING the Koran is precisely the wrong way to go about understanding “what’s happening in our world.” That’s because the Koran is:
Profound. One cannot pick it up and understand its meaning when nearly every sentence is the subject of annotations, commentaries, glosses, and superglosses. Such a document requires intensive study of its context, development, and rival interpretations.
The US Constitution offers a good analogy; its 2nd Amendment consists of just 27 words (“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”) but it is the subject of numerous book-length studies. No one coming fresh to this sentence has any idea of its implications.
Complex and contradictory. Contradictions in the text have been studied and reconciled over the centuries through extensive scholarly study. Some verses have been abrogated and replaced by others with contrary meanings. For example, verse 9:5 commands Muslims not to slay pagans until the sacred months have passed and verse 9:36 tells Muslims to fight pagans during those same months.
The casual reader has no idea which of these is operational (in fact, the latter is.)
Static: An unchanging holy scripture cannot account for change over time. If the Koran causes terrorism, how does one explain the 1960s, when militant Islamic violence barely existed? The Koran was the same text then as now.
More broadly, over a period of 14 centuries Muslims have been inspired by the Koran to act in ways aggressive and passive, pious and not, tolerant and not. Logic demands that one look elsewhere than an immutable text to account for such shifts.
Partial: Holy books have vast importance, but do not create the immediate context of action. Reading the Bible in isolation gives limited insight into the range of Jewish and Christian experiences over the millennia; likewise, Muslims have read the Koran differently over time.
The admonishment for female modesty meant one thing to Egyptian feminists in the 1920s and another to their descendants today. Then head coverings represented oppression and exclusion from public life. Today, in the words of a British newspaper headline, “Veiled is beautiful.”
Then, the head-covering signaled a woman not being a full human being; now, in the words of an editor at a fashion magazine, head-covering “tells you you’re a woman – you have to be treated as an independent mind.”
Reading the Koran in isolation misses this unpredictable evolution. In brief, the Koran is not a history book.
A history book, however, is a history book. Instead of the Koran I urge anyone wanting to study militant Islam and the violence it inspires to understand such phenomena as the Wahhabi movement, the Khomeini revolution, and al-Qaida.
Muslim history, not Islamic theology, explains how we got here, and hints at what might come next.
The writer is a historian, director of the Middle East Forum, and author of Miniatures.