Muddy sources….

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Trying not to be a hypocrite1 I am reading the Koran front to back in a couple of translations. I got my first mildly annotated one a few days ago, Majid Fakhry’s An Interpretation of the Qur’an. The cover states that it is “endorsed by Al-Azhar,” the quasi-Rome of Sunni Islam. But within the first 50 pages I started to get really frustrated, the text is just muddled, and the footnotes that clarify what’s going on really seemed stretched and arbitrary to me (basically, there are things like the use of the word “people” twice in a sentence, with the first “people” footnoted as “means Jews” and the second one “means polytheists”). So I picked up What the Koran Really Says, an anthology of scholarly articles edited by Ibn Warraq, and the first chapter dealt with some philological issues, and loe and behold, the footnotes aren’t muddled, that’s the best you can get out of some of the passages. Warraq notes that in one passage a given word can mean “hide” or “revealed,” and it depends on the context, but how you figure out the context is anyone’s guess because there isn’t much to go on (sometimes they get out of this by appealing to early Islamics scholars or hadiths that assert that X means X2 in passage Z, that is, authority of person and not the text). The first chapter of Warraq’s book is readable online, you should check it out.

Anyway, I’ll be reading the New Testament soon after I get done with the Koran (I have just reread the Pentateuch), but from where I stand right now my skepticism about the determinative power of texts is getting stronger, not weaker.

1 – That is, I have expressed skepticism about textual roots of particular religious or cultural traditions, but now I am going to attempt a deep and close full reading of the texts under question.

42 Comments

  1. Well, shouldn’t you learn arabic and read it in the original? ;)

  2. classical arabic.

  3. got that. Was the first chapter you were refering to the one on Amazon? 
     
    reading those first few pages of Warraq’s book makes me wonder how anyone in Arabic countries ever efficiently communicates. And yes, I know other countries (like Japan) have multiple layers of communication, but not to the point where speakers of the same language cannot comunicate in the same geographical area.

  4. my impression is that the polyglossia of the arabic “language” is pretty extreme. the other extreme would be “languages” like serbian or croation which are nearly intelligible dialects, or the many turkic languages. 
     
    in any case, the fact that arabs have to manoeuver in such a linguistically variegated environment must add some overhead to social function. not that they are alone, swiss german is always spoken but never written from what i gather, but if you read warraq’s chapter you will note that the situation with arabic is out of control (a friend of mine whose father spoke the palestinian dialect once mistakenly told some saudi friends that he wanted to have sex with their wives after tea, when he meant to say something like he’d like to thank their wives for the tea).

  5. I’ve been told that in (traditional) China if you tell a man that his wife is beautiful, it’s the equivalent of saying that you’d like to have sex with her. The polite thing to do is to ignore the wife if she’s present, while assuming that she’s listening. Communications to her can be routed through the husband, as her response will be. Despite their lack of public presence, Chinese wives are more likely to be full partners in the family business than American wives are, and often enough the wife is the real boss and the husband only the front. 
     
    Whereas if you are introduced to a man’s daughter and say that she’s attractive, marriage is a possibility.  
     
    Regarding texts: one of the most influential Bibles among fundamentalists, the Scofield Bible, is essentially an occult schismatic interpretation emphasizing the prediction of the future through hidden signs. All mainline denominations reject this interpretation, but it’s tremendously influential anyway, especially via radio and TV freelancers.

  6. I want to hear how that friend’s story ended Razib.

  7. razib, 
     
    When you read the New Testament, I hope you will keep in mind my take on it: that Jesus was essentially teaching a plan for escape for a people trapped in servitude, promising that complete surrender to unqualified servitude on the part of the lowly, and fruitful investment of capital on the part of the lucky few in a position to do so, would lead to an overthrow of the established order of servitude, ie, freedom and justice. To make this palatable to his listeners he promised a heavenly reward after death for those who didn’t live to see the day, an innovation in Jewish thinking, which, up until that time was a thiswordly religion with no otherwordly interests. 
     
    In other words, like some of the other world religions — Hinduism, Buddhism — he was making a virtue of necessity, it being understood that there was simply no practical escape from the condition of servitude at that point in historical development: classes were necessary for the existence of complex societies, complex societies were necessary for reasons of military defense, and the only feasible form of the relationship between the classes was one of domination and submission.  
     
    Certainly, every civilization we know of without exception was structured like this. But whereas the religions of India accepted this order as an eternal fact — promising at best a higher status through the process of reincarnation in the next life for those who performed their karmic duty in this one — only Christianity plotted to overturn the established order in the indefinite future. 
     
    Of course this interpretation of Christianity was not the orthodox one, either in ancient or modern times. Nor could it be, since to proclaim openly such ideas would have led to political suppression. Yet the message is there between the lines in both Jesus (the parables especially) and Paul, and one can detect an appreciation of this take on the Christian religion in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, especially in England, starting with Francis Bacon, and followed by any number of other hints in the memoirs, speeches, songs, and sayings of countless other groups and individuals. 
     
    Of course there is plenty of evidence to show that this was by no means ever the dominant interpretation of Christianity at any “orthodox preacher” of Christianity at any point in history. But that is not necessarily dispositive: what the poor peasant believed in his heart, or the early proletariats laboring under the influence of Methodism, rarely corresponded to the official party line — “accept the Lord Jesus as you personal lord and savior, and you shall have forgiveness of sins and eternal life.” Look rather to the Battle Hymn of the Republic as sung by the troops in the line.

  8. Mabruk Razib for your heroic undertaking.  
     
    Have you considered the possibility that the Quran is confused nonsense?  
     
    Regarding Testaments, there is a vast literature that analyses who wrote what and what was his purpose. 
    For example, some chapters of the Old Testament were compiled by one family of chief priests and consistently delegitimizes the competing family. In the light of biblical analysis, the Bible can make made sense.  
     
    The Quran, apparently, not.

  9. I hope you will keep in mind my take on it …and… this interpretation of Christianity…. 
     
    sure. but i’m not going to look too deeply into this texts, i want to skim the surface meanings mostly. in the repeated discussion i’ve gotten into with you and randall parker deal with the nature of the texts of the koran and the new testament you’ve implied that the texts have essential constraints on how they can be applied and so forth (as well as the example of muhammed). well, i’m looking to see how “obvious” this is. everytime you and randall bring up the textual constraints i simply respond “i’m skeptical.” well, i will have at least a neophyte familiarity with the central texts (jewish, christian and muslim) next time we get into the exchange, so hopefully i’ll be able to lean toward a more definitive personal opinion (either more skeptical or less so). 
     
     
    Have you considered the possibility that the Quran is confused nonsense?
     
     
    that’s my a priori bias though i’m trying to put that aside. i’m taking seriously the contention that the koran is filled with clear and obvious meanings which are simply non-fungible.

  10. The translation of the Koran I read years ago seemed clear and obvious compared to the translations of the old and new testaments I had read, though stylistically even worse, except for “thunder”. It basically looked like Calvinism + “kill the infidel” + “stop killing your women”.

  11. mike, if i didn’t see the annotations i would have confused a lot of issues which seemed obvious. but it is relatively spare. but again, arabic is an allusive indirect language (classical) from what i gather, so it is like translating poetry, i suspect there is a lot of translator bias.

  12. When I read the Koran a few years back (pre-9/11) the thing that struck me most, at least in comparison with the Jewish and Christian scriptures, was its a-historicity. Having read a great deal more about Islam post 9/11 — maybe 50 books in all — I’ve learned a thing or two. For one thing, it is hard to appreciate the significance of various passages in the Koran (whose arrangement is not chronological, btw, but rather quite arbitrary according to length, the longest first, and the shortest last) without a good knowledge of the second half of Mohammad’s life, as recorded in the hadiths. 
     
    [comparing muhammad to hitler is not addding anything to conversation, please refrain from overblown rhetoric]

    Edited By Siteowner

  13. Islam is not really a religion in the traditional Western sense 
     
    The only real religion in the Western sense is Christianity. Every religion has its own notion of what a real religion is.

  14. Luke Lea, 
     
    Whether you are reading the Old or New Testament, neither is intelligible without the concept of the “refiner’s fire” or the “winnower”. Neither of these is intelligible without an understanding of statistics and material processing. In contrast, the concept of the sheep and goats implies selection by readily discernable characteristics. The OT is clear that refining involves refining and re-refining – i.e. statistics (from a nativist perspective not mathematical). It is also clear that statistics (refining and re-refining) apply to the world and its history, not “salvation” (“all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved”) which is a sheep and goats process (selection/election). 
     
    IMO, the escape (selection/election) you speak of was a way of dissociating from the pain (randomness) of the “refiner’s fire”, but the bulk of early Christians also never lost sight of the refining of the world. This is consistent with mainstream Jewish thought. Jesus taught both and both streams contimue, although certainly the selection/election has come to dominate evangelical Christian thought.

  15. fred, write clearly. soon.

  16. To Razib in particular, 
     
    I think you should take a look at the translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali [1]. Although it?s the only translation I have seen, it is readable and will give you, if not a truthful translation, then at least a traditionalist perspective. 
     
    As far as the translation is concerned, it?s written in classical/Shakespearian English but can be understood fairly easily. The only problem I have is that it was written by a Muslim who believed it was divinely inspired, thus he will not be completely objective about the translation. 
     
    As for the comment that the ?text is just muddled?, it is going to appear muddled because it is muddled! Considering that the earliest Muslims wrote on scraps of sheepskin, and followers of Muhammad supposedly ?memorised? the Koran during their lifetimes we are bound to get muddled text. A question though, considering that the Koran was written in the Quraishi dialect, shouldn?t the person who interprets the Koran, know this dialect but also know different Arabic dialects in Arabia and Syria? For example, I quote Daniel Pipes: 
     
    ?Yehuda Nevo and Judith Koren find that the classical Arabic language was developed not in today’s Saudi Arabia but in the Levant, and that it reached Arabia only through the colonizing efforts of one of the early caliphs.?[2] 
     
    Therefore if the Koran was put together over a time span of hundred years, could it be that bits and bobs of it were in one dialect originally, and were quasi-translated into another dialect, thus causing problems for our scholars today? 
     
    For example, ?Lord? / Rabb is used to refer to God in some chapters, and in the Chapter Yusuf, if I can remember correctly, is used to refer to the man that adopted Joseph. 
     
    I am the guy who sent you the hilarious jihad music video. Please delete these two sentences :). 
     
    [1] Published by Amana corporation, Islamic Propagation Centre International.  
    [2]Who was the Prophet Muhammad? Link: http://www.danielpipes.org/article/333

  17. As you all know, Daniel Pipes is a Jew, so have reservations about what he says. Please note that I don’t want any replies saying that I am anti-semitic for saying this. 
     
    The article that I mentions in the previous post talks generally about different theories. I have not read Yehuda Nevo and Judith Koren’s book but a guy named Colin Wells gave it a scathing review: 
     
    http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2004/2004-02-33.html

  18. “As you all know, Daniel Pipes is a Jew, so have reservations about what he says. Please note that I don’t want any replies saying that I am anti-semitic for saying this.” 
     
    Too bad – that is anti-Semitic. If you don’t like being questioned about the crap you post, don’t post it. And of course Wells doesn’t fail to mention that both Nevo and Koren are Israelis (does it matter? To you it does but to the unbiased reader?) and throws in phrases such as this in the concluding paragraph of his review  
     
    “The first, certainly a possibility, is that everyone else — including generations of accomplished Byzantinists and Orientalists — got it completely wrong. The second is that two comparatively untrained Israelis might have an undeclared contemporary motive for attempting to discredit the cherished beliefs of Arabs and other Muslims.” 
    http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2004/2004-02-33.html 
     
    Wow, you two seem to think alike. Jews can’t write about Muslims because they’re Jews. 
     
    Jackass!

  19. A frank exchange of views was had by all. 
     
    The fact that the Koran was recorded on sheepskin is entirely irrelevant. It wasn’t bloody hides just torn off the sheep, it was something called “parchment”, also used by Christendom. 
     
    Pipes’s Jewishness is irrelevant, but there are other good reasons to mistrust him. 
     
    Razib, **sometimes** the “poeticism” of texts is the outcome of interpretive attempts to read troublesome passages out of existence.

  20. A, 
     
    When a person believes in or identifies with religion X, but attempts to discredit religion Y, where X=/=Y, we tend to assume that that person is biased. 
     
    Since Daniel Pipes is Jewish and attempts to discredit Islam, he might be less than objective. 
     
    Hopes this helps

  21. Holy smokes, reading through the koran? In more than one language? I salute your bravery; I don’t have the stomach for that much voluntary tedium!

  22. I’ve spent the last few weeks working through Genesis and Exodus with a brilliant young (non-Christian) Korean girl. (I work as a private tutor in readin’ & writin’ & ‘rithmetic, and these were on her Summer reading list.) 
     
    The best modern, scholarly translation of the Pentateuch I could find was by Everett Fox: *The Five Books of Moses* (Schocken ’83). I can strongly recommend it. The notes aren’t bad, and the translation is invariably striking and occasionally beautiful. 
     
    But, obviously, it should be read alongside the Authorized (a.k.a. King James) Version – the greatest thing in English not written by Shake-speare, and, moreover, a work of great scholarly integrity. 
     
    In fact, when it comes to the “New Testament,” I see no reason to use anything else. The gospels are, comparatively speaking, *not* difficult texts, and the Authorized Version does them full justice. 
     
    Genesis, on the other hand, presents difficulties in practically every line, for which one needs at least two translations and three commentaries. 
     
    Bugger all.

  23. Razib, 
    did you perform ablution before touching the Quran? You know that’s haram right?

  24. steve, do you have any articles that point me to why the KJV is good for the NT? i generally read the KJV, but mostly my interest has been in the OT (though i’ve read the 5 books in myriad translations). 
     
    btw, i just read the 4 gospels. i have read them quickly before, but this time i took my time and concentrated. there isn’t really that much there that i don’t recall from king of kings. though i didn’t like jesus’ ‘tude in the gospel of john, he seemed pretty self-righteous, he should take a look in the mirror before lecturing the pharisees :)

  25. Razib – yeah, as presented by John, Jesus just isn’t a very appealing guy, is he? 3:16 is justly famous, not to mention 8:7 – “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” But, by and large, John’s Jesus doesn’t seem to care very much about anything except whether or not you believe that he is who he claims to be. I guess how one feels about that will depend on whether or not one believes that he is who he claims to be. 
     
    Unfortunately, I can’t cite any *articles* in support of the scholarly claims of the Authorized Version of the New Testament. I’m relying on the casually expressed opinions of colleagues here. But, by all accounts, the gospels are comparatively crude texts that don’t call for much subtlety in translation, *as, indeed, they should be, given what they purport to be.*

  26. well, i’ve been reading some material online, and it seems evangelicals are big fans of john while the liberal christians tend to favor the synoptics. i’m not a big fan of evangelicals in the first place, but seeing them as fans of john makes them more sinister to me :) i mean, what ever happened to christian humility? comparing matthew-mark-luke vs. john is like dr. jesus and mr. hyde. 
     
    and yes, i have read genesis about two dozen times in multiple annotated versions, and translation is a bitch and hides all sorts of ambiguities. but then again, the original source is semitic, just like arabic, and there’s that stereotype that these languages can be allusive, idiomatic and contextual.

  27. “I’m taking seriously the contention that the koran is filled with clear and obvious meanings which are simply non-fungible” 
     
    Pls translate. 
     
    I met a German Jewish scholar who said he understood and admired the Koran. He said the key is Beduin campfire tales, images and metaphors. It has to be appreciated under the magic carpet of the dessert, strong coffee, djat and hashish, and thirst.

  28. Pls translate. 
     
    i am trying to operate on the premise that the text of the koran easily maps onto to particular actions because of the character of the text. in other words…. 
     
    axiom: islam is defined by the koran 
    axiom : koran declares X is meritous 
     
    inference: islam defines X as meritous.

  29. btw, after reading the four gospels any divorced christian should shut the fuck up about homosexuals. at least that was a first impression i got, most of the parables and stories were familiar to me, and i knew jesus mentioned divorce multiple times, but i was surprised by the repetition of this particular point (part of it this is the repetition induced by the synoptic use of “Q” i suspect, but fundies don’t believe in such equivocation anyhow, so who cares?).

  30. “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” is the sort of statement that an atheist can respect in Christianity. Anything comparable from the Koran for me to mull over?

  31. Anything comparable from the Koran for me to mull over? 
     
    not yet kufir! repent so that ye may not feel the hellfire unbeliever!

  32. Scott (first comment above) probably without knowing gave right on the head of the nail!  
     
    It is forbidden to translate the Quran. 
     
    A Muslim has the obligation to learn Arabic and read the Quran in original. Rajib, in spite of his parents and uncles´s good will, missed his lessons at the madrassah and now has a hole in his otherwise wide culture.  
     
    Prof. Uri Robin says Muslim is mistranslated and it should be understood as ¨Dedicated¨ or the one who has dedicated his life. (Taphseer)- interpretation – of alsarawiy or of elkortoby are the best, and he is an expert. Without them the Quran is a mishmash. With them, well, I am no literary critic. 
     
    BTW, Mohammed´s relation to the peoples of the book – Jews, Christians- was most enlightened. He saw himself not abolishing but compleating those religions. Muslims had also less complexes with Jews and pagans – when Jewish tribes allied themselves with the idolater tribes of Mekka opposing Mohammed, he confronted them on the battleground and cut them down, demonstrating to all and sundry that Mohammed was the true prophet. Christians have an unsolved complex because in the affair of Jesus vs. pagan Romans and the Jewish priestship, their prophet ended badly. In general, Muslims showed an uninterested respect toward Jews till the Israel. Jews beating Muslims goes against their weltanschauung.  
     
    Rajib my friend – back to the madrassah!

  33. Razib, if you’re still coming around — sacred texts can’t really be given a causal function in history except in a big, overriding, vague “general context” kind of way. One place to look might be, not the Enlightenment, but the early Reformation, when many groups of people who were undeniably (and fanatically) Christian came up with theologies which were wildly different from one another, and not only that, some of the new theologies replaced the old ones in the most progressive parts of Europe (including counter-reformation France, which was innovative too).  
     
    The “Germanization” of Western Christianity ca. 500-1000 AD is another example. 
     
    Cherry-picking passages and making them central rather than peripheral is the key. 
     
    Institutionalization of religions (which is institutional, sociological and political) is much more causal. Once a disciplined group has a reliable source of funding and has authority over some significant area, it’s self-perpetuating until it fails or is defeated. Its scripture is only one part of its operation. In Catholicism scripture ranked third, after reason (scholasticism) and the church tradition (canon law). Scripture-reading was discouraged and impossible for most; the Bible was an esoteric text. 
     
    Analogy with legal systems and American constitutionalism is worth making. The text of the Constitution is recent and in many respects clearly written, but there are wild cards in there (e.g. the ninth and fourteenth amendments) which can mean many different things and whose scope will always be contested. Difficulty of interpretation is a formal inevitabiity for documents of this authoritative type, not a function of poeticism.  
     
    To me, thinking of al Qaeda as a well-funded institution makes more sense than thinking of it as the essence of Islam or the Koran. I think of it as an insurgent tendency within Saudi Islam, and it’s only important because the Saudis are funding it.  
     
    There have been tolerant, unfanatical, and even rationalistic schools of Islam, but as far as I know they’re all extinct. Most present day schools reject the “philosophers” such as Avicenna and Averroes.  
     
    Old-fashioned magical Islam (marabouts and Sufis, Indonesia, Morocco) is least objectionable to us, but it reaks of superstition.

  34. Three positive sayings of Muhammed are as follows (hadith I fear, not Koran): 
     
    “Seek wisdom, even as far as China”. 
     
    “The ink of scholarship is more precious than the blood of martyrs”. 
     
    Plus the thing about “peoples of the book”. In point of fact, when Islam first arose it led to an explosion of scholarship in the decadent post-imperial Roman and Persian world.

  35. “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” is the sort of statement that an atheist can respect in Christianity. 
    How can an atheist respect this? This is just begging for the tollerance of what most all of us (atheists through evangelical christians) consider evil. I’ve jaywalked so I can’t convict this man of murder, too bad. 
    I do wonder, though, has any group ever followed this sort of direction for any length of time?

  36. Am I the only one to trust hadiths as the word of Mohammed about as far as I trust the NT Letters as the word of Jesus?

  37. Pretty much irrelevant, IBall. We’re talking about other people’s religious beliefs, not actual history.

  38. “When I come to Love, I am ashamed of all that I have ever said about Love.” Rumi. 
     
    Above quote is from a Sufi site. 
    Sufism was not originally a “superstition”–it is mystiscism. If you don’t believe in god, the difference is irrelevant; but if you are a believer, superstition means believing that some physical charm has, in itself, power. Mysticsm is, perhaps, believing that the power is in your own mind and heart, and that a particular sort of focussed and joyful devotion will develop that power. Something like this emerges from all religions, i.e. Hasidic Jews for example. In fact, the Hasidim even dance in circles i think.

  39. Razib, if you’re still coming around — sacred texts can’t really be given a causal function in history except in a big, overriding, vague “general context” kind of way. One place to look might be, not the Enlightenment, but the early Reformation, when many groups of people who were undeniably (and fanatically) Christian came up with theologies which were wildly different from one another, and not only that, some of the new theologies replaced the old ones in the most progressive parts of Europe (including counter-reformation France, which was innovative too). 
     
     
    well, provisionally i tend to lean strongly to this direction. i’m just giving the other opinion the benefit of the doubt here and seeing how far it can take me
     
    Something like this emerges from all religions, i.e. Hasidic Jews for example. In fact, the Hasidim even dance in circles i think. 
     
    i have seen the sufi-hasidic analogy before, and it seems extremely apropos. the correlations are pretty close: charismatic teachers, interest in religious esoteric and continued acceptance of the exoteric elements of a religious tradition (ie; shariah and halakah).

  40. ?A Muslim has the obligation to learn Arabic and read the Quran in original. Rajib, in spite of his parents and uncles´s good will, missed his lessons at the madrassah and now has a hole in his otherwise wide culture. ? 
     
    Trust me on this one, Muslims don?t learn anything useful at madrassah?s. We learn how to recite the Koran but we don?t learn classical Arabic ? that is for the advanced students only. 
     
    p.s How does one italicise or make the text bold?

  41. re: bold or italic, look here.

  42. This text is bold 
     
    Italic text 
     
    bold and italic

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