The Great Books Discussion Group of Kansas City read and discussed the Koran (Qur'an) over the Summer of 2008. We met three times at one month intervals. Our group discussed the Koran (Qur'an) as literature from a Christian and western background. Any critical comments are not intended to demean the religious beliefs of people from other backgrounds.
As a work of literature, the Koran is a tough go for the western mind. It is diffuse, discursive and wordy in the extreme. It is the recorded pontifications of a charismatic 6th century Arab. The numerous chapters have the characteristic of being short sermonettes often starting out with a reference to a character such as Adam or Abraham of the Hebrew Bible. The chapter then proceeds to make a moral lesson or observation about the story. It is similar to a preacher who can give more than one sermon based on the same scripture verse but with a slightly different message. Reading the Koran gives the impression that stories are being repeated over and over. One of the things being said over and over is that certain groups of disbelievers are going to hell. (One source counts 783 threats of damnation in the Koran, 1 threat per every 7.9 verses). One of the commentaries suggests that the Muslim's image of hell is more like purgatory. This is not necessarily evident from a casual reading of the Koran. As a matter of fact, a direct reading of the Koran is not the best way to learn about what it means to be a Muslim. To learn about the Muslim religion it is necessary to read a commentary that explains the meanings of the Koran.
The chapters are not organized by theme or chronological order. Outside sources suggest that the chapters of the Koran are roughly organized in reverse chronological order of when they were initially dictated by Mohammed. However, this isn't evident to the casual reader.
Anyone who studies comparative religions learns that the five pillars of Muslim faith are: (1) profession of faith, (2) ritual prayer, (3) alms tax, (4) fasting during Ramadan, and (5) pilgrimage to Mecca. However, these five pillars are not clearly laid out in the Koran. At least they're not evident to a casual reader. Presumably a careful studious reading of the Koran will find these five requirements scattered about in various isolated locations. But there are no chapters titled, "The five pillars of the Muslim faith." The Koran could benefit from a modern editor. The same message could be conveyed in a much clearer way with fewer words. (The Hebrew and Christian bibles could also benefit from some editing.)
The first 40 years of Mohammed's life were spent as a caravan merchant traveling around to the various parts of the Arabian Peninsula. He may have learned about the Hebrew Bible stories and about Jesus from stories told around caravan camp fires. He was probably illiterate. At least we know that the words in the Koran are transcriptions of his sayings written by others. He recognized the patriarchs as true Muslim believers. Even Jesus is recognized as a messenger of God (Allah). It is the Christians that got it all wrong by developing theological ideas such as the Trinity. The Koran makes numerous references to the polytheists (code word for Christians) who are surely going to hell.
It's interesting to compare the Koran to the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. There are some parts of the Old and New Testaments that are difficult to read and understand. However, the Old and New Testaments were written, edited and collected over period of hundreds of years by many different writers and scribes. Therefore there's a variety of styles and messages in the numerous books of the Old and New Testaments. Also, many parts of the Bible are filled with narrative stories that read much like adventure novels. In contrast to the Bible the Koran contains the words of only one person with one style and no narrative stories. One way to describe the experience of reading the Koran is that it's like reading one of the minor prophets in the Old Testament, only 100 times longer.
There was some discussion in our group as to whether the word "Allah" is a true translation for the English word "God." There is some indication that Allah is a given name for God in Arabic, not a noun for a supreme being. Therefore, a translation of the concept of false gods into Arabic would not use the word Allah. Since there were no Arabic speakers in our group we have no definitive answer on this issue.
The Koran makes numerous references to Angels, Gins and Men. Modern readers of the English translations have no problems with the words Angels and Men. But what are Gins? It is evident that Mohammed assumed that everyone knows what a Gin is. Once again we need to refer to outside sources to explain. Gins are creations, like humans, and are given the ability to do good or evil. One source indicates that Angels are created with light, Gins are created with smoke-like fire and Adam was made from dirt. That same source says that Satan was a Gin, not an angel as in Christian tradition. Most people in the West are familiar with the Hollywood genie in the bottle. This Hollywood depiction of Gin came from the Muslim tradition.
I listened to the English Translation in audio format published by Noorbox Productions and downloaded from Audible.com. It comes in three volumes. This review is attached to Volume 1 since I didn't know how to combine the three volumes.
I've decided not the rate the book with stars. Based on the impact that the book has had on history it deserves 5 stars. Based on the reading experience for a typical American of Christian background, it rates 1 star.