Woe to Foes: The Koran

“Ya Rab ah deeny” I was told to repeat twice each time before I started reading the Koran.

“What does it mean?” I asked, doubtfully. It sounded like something that an actual Muslim would say, not somebody who is simply curious about the religion which is playing such a crucial role in world events.

“Just say it, you must.” Was all the answer I was given.

Thus I began my reading of the Koran. I find that one cannot accurately critique something if one does not have accurate knowledge of that very thing. I find that you should know what others are thinking, believing, following, in order to understand them better. Knowledge, as I have been stressing, eliminates prejudices, opens the heart and mind and can prevent catastrophe. After reading so much about the Middle East, and 2 months this past spring living in a Muslim country, I realized the glaring error that stared me in the face every time I enter the library: I had not yet read the Koran, the centerpiece of Islam, the very foundation of the Middle East.

Penguin Classic's "The Koran", translated by N. J. Dawood (c) 1999 (the version I am reading)

So far, I have read the first two chapters, or surahs: Al-Fatihah (The Exordium) and Al-Baqarah (The Cow), which is not saying much as Al-Fatihah is simply a one-page prayer of sorts. For a girl who had only ever read a children’s bible stories collection, the Koran is a strange read. I expect it, like those bible stories, to be laced with an air of fantasy, of fairy tales, but Al-Baqarah is more of a warning, a punishing death sentence than any fairy tale. Like a fairy tale, however, the purpose of the Koran is to teach age-old lessons of life, and the moral of “Al-Baqarah” appears to me to be :

Non-believers are condemned to eternal hell fire and shall not be forgiven, while believers, even though they may stray, will be forgiven. In even simpler terms: believe or burn!

I am a bit confused (and would love for someone to clarify this for me) as to if “non-believers” includes Jews and Christians. It may be an atrociously stupid question, but already this first surah mentions several times Jesus, Abraham, Moses and Adam and exalts them, even though in the Christian faith these men also exist and are seen as symbols of Christianity. Are these men non-believers?And why, if Christians, Jews and Muslims believe in the very same people, words and books as Muslims would they be punished with fire after death? Wouldn’t that be like sacrificing your own brother? If Allah is so merciful and compassionate, than how could he let mankind–even if they are unbelievers–have such a woeful fate?

As with most readings, there were both things that I agreed, as well as disagreed, with. For example: “He who suspects an error or an injustice on the part of a testator and brings about a settlement among the parties incurs no guilt” (in regarding people’s wills after death). I certainly wish that several people who I love  had held such a belief, before they were allowed to be trampled.

Or: “Fight for the sake of God those who fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love aggressors.” (line 2:195) I certainly wish the terrorists of 9/11 had followed the true Koran and not been aggressors before they committed such atrocities.

Or: “But you may hate a thing although it is good for you, and love a  thing although it is bad for you.” (2:216) I have stressed this argument many a time, and recently, too.

As for that which I disagreed with, it was a single line which will forever be the thorn in the side of the Koran: “Women shall with justice have rights similar to those exercised against them, although men have a status above women.” (2:217) I would not agree that God is mighty and wise for proposing such a statement. After reading this line, which clear as day can bear no other translation, I fear that the Koran might forever be tarnished in my mind and judgment. I do not understand how it could be the will of such a omniscient and caring God that women should be considered unequal to men. The feminist in me burns at the fact that millions of women believe in this very book, this very book that puts them down. Perhaps they agree with this line? How could they?

I know that the Koran stresses dignity for women; it stresses right here in the very same line that women should have rights “similar” to those of men. But “similar” is not the same as “equal,” is it? After all: “women are your fields: go, then, into your fields whence you please.” (2:222) And what if the women, this object, this property, doesn’t want? I fear, then, that despite the rights of women that the Koran suggests, that this one line cancels them all out and supports the ill-treatment of women that I have read about throughout the Muslim world. I hope against hope that there is a better translation to be inferred from such a line, but this one small little line looms grand against all the justice and poetry that this book must hold.

Which is why I will question it, will even enjoy it and agree with it at times, but cannot bring my self to follow it.



6 thoughts on “Woe to Foes: The Koran

  1. Hello Ana.

    First, thanks for sharing your study of the Qur’an, that is going to be interesting to follow.

    Second, have you considered to study it with commentaries? I have experienced that the way the “official” Islamic commentators (and hence those who explain how to “get” Islam) understand the Qur’an, might be different from how a non-Muslim might understand it, since they rely on a different traditional view and understanding, than the non-Muslims. This is what I have experienced often, when confronted with modes of interpretations of non-Jews, in the study of Torah vs. how I – as a practicing Jew – interpret the same verses.

    All the best.

    Shmuel Aryeh

  2. Hi Schmuel Aryeh,

    You’re welcome! Actually, “ana” is the Arabic word for “I” or “me” and not my name, which is Meredith—I like to be anonymous 🙂

    I will be posting every few chapters about my Qur’anic reading. I never thought about reading it with commentaries, but that is a good idea! Although, I am wary of following someone else’s “interpretation”–I believe that religion should be personal and not a collective mentality: it is one of the reasons I do not follow religion, as I would have my own “version” of whichever religion I did follow, which would probably put me at odds with the church/mosque/synagogue!

    1. I actually thought about it, but pushed the thought away:o). I’m studying a little Arabic, but it’s going to be more intensive, since it’ll be important for my studies. Right now it’s mainly the Shams-dialect, but I will be focusing more on Fusha later.

      Thought I do understand your view on the religious issue, I would – at least partly – object to it, at least when it comes to get an understanding of what a religion “says.” I’m totally for the personal relation to G-D, something I surely encourage, but if each and every one of us had our own “private” version of the various religions, then the whole notion of “Islam,” “Judaism,” and so on would be rather obscure:o).

      That is another discussion though. I don’t think that you should take the comments as being decisive for you, more guiding and explaining. I don’t agree in all commentaries on the Torah either, though I appreciate their help to explain things and giving me a deeper understanding.

  3. Meredith,

    I followed you back here after you posted a comment on my blog the other day.

    I applaud your attempting to read the Quran. It is not an easy read, even with the help of the commentary and a teacher. I would offer these recommendations though.

    1. Read not from The Cow to the back, but after The Fatihah, read from the last chapter to the front. The chapters are smaller, and they are more easily digested, and this is the way most all Muslims learn. 🙂

    2. I would encourage you to read with the assistance of a commentary. I understand that you would like to form your own opinions, but each chapter does not discuss one topic. The topics jump around and this is the main reason why things are taken out of context and distorted. Sometimes the verse could be addressing a question, sometimes asking a question and sometimes addressing something historical.

    This is a problem that I had when I made my first attempt at reading the Quran. It is not linear, there is no set formula to follow, and without the commentary (the rest of the story) it is often very confusing. The Quran is published exactly the way it was revealed to Mohammed, it has not been edited.

    3. As a non-Muslim, my initial approach to learning about the religion was to take my Children’s Bible Stories and compare them with Quran Stories for Little Muslims. They talk of the same people. From there, I’ve compared the stories of all of the prophets, and the stories of the events around them. (Moses’s story with Egypt and the Pharaoh, Joseph and his Coat, David and the animals, Jesus’ birth and death.) If you try to find these stories in The Quran, they are not told in whole chapters, but in segments scattered all throughout the book.

    Non-Believers are people who do not believe in the existence of One God. Islam teaches that all of the messengers from Judaism and Christianity are to be revered as Prophets. Moses was teaching the same message that Jesus continued teaching, and Mohammed completed the message. They are all people ‘of the book.’

    Please feel free to visit my blog, or send me email. I will be as helpful as I can with my limited, non-Muslim knowledge of Islam from the outside looking in.


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