Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Koran: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Cook (Book Review #22 of 2016)



The Koran: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Cook

I read this book and the Very Short Introduction to Islam (3 stars) consecutively, I found VSI: The Koran to be a better work (4.5 stars). The history in this "short" introduction is substantive and it (eventually) deals with modern textual criticism. As a student of Arabic, I enjoyed how the author delves into the development of Arabic language. I listened to the audio version of this, which is helpful in many ways, especially in explaining the Arabic pronunciation and grammar.

In comparison with other books on the history of the Koran and Islam, I recently finished Tom Holland's The Shadow of the Sword (5 stars), Reza Aslan's The Origins and Future of Islam (2.5 stars), Mansfield's Brief History of the Middle East (3.5 stars), Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples (4.5 stars), and Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted (4.5 stars). Robert Hoyland's In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (4 stars) was also helpful in explaining the context leading up to the codification of the Koran. This book is a great supplement to any study of Islamic and Arab history.

The following are my notes and gleanings:
You can't understand the Koran without understanding some of the nature and history of Arabic and how the Koran brings unity to the language. Arabic is the only scriptural language to become the language of a worldwide civilization. One cannot attain literacy in Koranic Arabic and colloquial Arabic at the same time, (this would be like akin to obtaining fluency in Latin and Spanish at the same time), so there is a tension between the language, particularly in how to translate difficult or archaic words. The first English "translation" of the Koran was not until 1734, and not without controversy. Only in the 19th century was the Quran actually printed on a printing press, again with great controversy. The codex was already common at the time of Muhammed, and the most influential versions of the text come from early codexes compiled by those close to Muhammad. The physical Koran itself is a sacred object, and the Arabic used is also considered sacred, hence adding markings like diacritics to provide pronunciation, particularly for words or objects not found in modern Arabic, was quite controversial. Adding diacritics came later in Koranic history but is now considered important if the Koran is to be recited correctly, which is an ultimate purpose of the book-- to be recited. (The diacritics [or vocalizations] are colored whereas the actual Arabic text is in black).

Historical criticism, as is commonplace with biblical manuscripts, largely does not exist in Koranic scholarly thought. Similarly, much of Islamic commentary on the Koran involves contextual analysis. There are lists of lawyers and academics critically analyzing the Koran, but these efforts are often criticized as heretical and sometimes these progressives are denounced or pay with their lives. As told in Tom Holland's book, when early manuscripts of the Koran were found in Yemen in the 1970s, the research was cancelled when a German researcher found "aberrations" between the early manuscripts and the official Koranic text today. Cook does not deal with this incedent, but later in the book does mention comparisons of manuscript fragments, some deviations, and later standards that developed. Commentators on the Koran have to deal with the modern post-Western values that the world has adopted through history such as logic, the scientific method, and concepts like universal human rights. The Koran itself was canonized quickly, perhaps helped by the idea that Arabs were already familiar with the idea of canon from Christian and Jewish scriptures. The final redactors edited little, leaving parallel passages in place. Cook compares the Arabic used in various places to note difference is rhyme, suggesting different times for authorship. There are also the obvious differences between what was recorded in Medina versus Mecca, etc. Cook does examine some of the recent scholarly proposals for various sources, perhaps some sayings in the Koran have origins that precede Mohammed.

Cook writes that about 1/4 of the suras begin with an odd combination of letters with unclear meaning. It's clear someone used to know, but like some of the archaic words in the text the meaning or precise definitions have been lost to history. Given the importance of Arabic as the language used by Mohammed to recite, and the doctrine that the Koran itself is eternal, it is impossible to consider the Koranic text as containing foreign words. Reading a Koran is not considered good practice--Muslims have criticized this practice as being Jewish. Instead, only recitation is proper in worship. The Koran must not be read, but chanted. The chanting itself is rule-bound and cannot be musical (note Wahabbists like ISIS and the Taliban ban music but chant the Koran). It is an art form and can be emotional, depending on the school of thought.

The author examines many of the 114 surahs in the book, and I only noted a few. Chapter Two delves into the Al-Fatihah, containing the fundamental principles of the Koran. The goal is the Sirat al-Mustaqim-- the straight path that pleases Allah. Failture to worship Allah alone is the ultimate sin. There is a surah that Muslims are to respond to repentance of enemies with forgiveness and compassion (contrary to what we see with ISIS). Surah 2 says that there is no religious compulion while surah 9 creates the way for the "people of the book" to pay a tax rather than submit to Islam. Surah 113 writes that Allah creates evil. In other places in the Koran, Allah leads people astray. The "satanic verses" in the Koran are mentioned along with their purported history; even the Prophet sinned. Does the verse require a story, or was there a story behind the verse? Mohammed himself is only mentioned four times in the entire Koran, making it difficult to know much about him. Commentators have always resisted any western change to the suras about beating your wife-- acrobatics surrounding the Arabic in this surah are found in Reza Aslan's book.

I learned a great deal about the Koran and even Arabic comitic grammar and nuances in this "brief introduction." I highly recommend it. 4.5 stars.

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