Review of “The Koran,” translated by N. J. Dawood
I read this book as part of my political philosophy reading, so this review is not a commentary on Islam, which uses The Koran as its sacred scripture. First, let me say that the Penguin Classics version was recommended as the best translation, and it is very good. It is written in prose with excellent grammar and punctuation (I wish mine were as good as the translator’s) and is very easy to read. It also has brief footnotes for some vague references in the text. I got the impression that the footnotes were taken from early non-Koranic documents that were contemporaneous with the Koran. There is also a nice introduction that explains how The Koran was written about twenty years after Muhammad introduced the first chapter, which was to be recited after the oral tradition of the Arabs. Unfortunately, the chapters are not arranged in chronological order but from longest to shortest, although there are a few that are out of order.
It is apparent that the chapters were meant to be orally transmitted. Many of the paragraphs contain (or end with) phrases like, “In God let the trusting put their trust,” as if they’re intended as memory aids. Furthermore, the chapters are repetitive and most of the content is presented in the first chapter (32 pages), and then repeated selectively in subsequent shorter chapters. The text explicitly states that the words were given to Muhammad by God, so the text is written as if by God; however, the third person (both singular and plural) tense is used almost exclusively. The translator did a good job with the dialogue, however, so it’s easy to understand who’s talking most of the time.
This book belongs on a political philosophy reading list because it is obvious (at least to me) that it was intended as an exhortation to political action. It could be treated as a primer on how to motivate a group of people to unite and improve their political situation. The first objective, which is a recurring theme, is to fit The Koran into the lineage of the Torah and Gospel, thus legitimizing it as a continuation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Stories from the Torah (first five books of Old Testament) are told from a unique perspective that would be understood by the original audience. A second objective is to delegitimize other religions, which is done by pointing out doctrinal errors made by the Jews and Christians and the egregious misunderstanding of the idolatrous Arabs (who apparently had a pantheon of gods). A third political objective is to use a carrot-and-stick approach: a heaven filled with physical pleasures is promised to true believers; while eternal fire (and many other explicitly described tortures) is promised to those who don’t believe that The Koran was given to Muhammad by God (the angel Gabriel was God’s intermediary) and do as Muhammad instructs. These three political objectives are woven into a convincing narrative that doesn’t demand perfect behavior (God is compassionate and forgiving), but only belief.
The explicit message of The Koran is peaceful. For example, believers are exhorted to be patient and tolerant of unbelievers and not argue with them, after sharing the warnings contained within The Koran because the unbelievers will pay for their misdeeds on the day of judgement; however, it sends a mixed message. There is one reference to cutting off the heads of unbelievers; and several battles are referred to (but not described) between the Muslims and the unbelievers (the people who lived in Mecca exiled Muhammad and then fought several battles with the Muslims). It is easy to imagine how a strong political leader (like Muhammad) could convince his followers that they were the “hand of God.” In fact, there are many references to who can legitimately avoid joining battle and who cannot. These “rules of engagement” address the fourth objective of The Koran – to show what must be done to achieve the overall goal of uniting the Arabs under one political authority. That the narrative spans twenty years, by which time the Muslims had already established control over (and forcibly converted) the population of Mecca, indicates that The Koran is a political guide for future generations to follow rather than simply a spiritual record of the origins of Islam.
The Koran is a masterpiece of political philosophy that has proven itself as a practical guide to unifying disparate peoples across great distances. In the space of twenty years, Muhammad transformed the Arabian Peninsula into a unified territory and, after his death, the Arabs created an Islamic empire that stretched from Spain to India and transformed the world. There aren’t very many political philosophies that can make that claim. For example, Islam rose from a small sect of believers following a madman (from The Koran) to reach its golden age (during the Abbasid Caliphate) in less than two centuries, whereas Christianity required three centuries just to be accepted within the Roman Empire and another four centuries to convert Europeans to its beliefs. I mention this only to illustrate the effectiveness of The Koran as a political tool, whereas older scriptures like the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Gospel had to be seriously compromised to serve political purposes (e.g. the Crusades).
I will finish this review with a personal observation. While I was reading The Koran I felt myself enthralled by the tempo of the text as it interwove exhortations to believe, threats (and promises) of the resurrection, and the carefully retold biblical stories I was familiar with from my childhood. This book is a remarkable merging of what I see as a powerful group indoctrination technique (The Koran was and still is shared orally in public spaces) and a simple and fair (for its day) code of personal conduct.
This is a powerful book with a very spiritual message, but I can’t recommend it unless you want to get a sense of what it means to be a Muslim.