Earlier this year, I resolved to attempt to read the Quran through, and to write about it here. Like it or not, we will be dealing a lot more with Islam in the next century, so it is important to know what the Islamic religion really teaches. As a Christian, it makes sense for me to compare and contrast the Quran with the Bible, since that is the religious text most of my readers will be most familiar with, and it is what I know.
The exercise has proved to be difficult, so I am going very slowly. Reading a religious text can be difficult, particularly one that is hostile to your own beliefs. So far I have finished first 5 Suras. Here are two preliminary observations:
1. I have heard people say the Quran is “just like the Bible.” That is not at all true. The difference in the nature of the text is very striking.
The Bible is a historical book: It begins with the creation of the world, and ends with the Last Judgement and the end of the world. It has a historical storyline to it, and many of the books are primarily focused on the history of God’s dealings with his people. In the New Testament, the Gospels focus on the life of Jesus, while Acts records the history of the early church. Everything that happens or is taught in the Bible is part of a story.
In contrast, the Quran (at least at the beginning) is focused on instruction. The books are not in chronological order. They are arranged mostly by size. Historical events (mostly alternative versions of events referred to in the Bible) are referred to, but they are not the focus, except as a way of communicating teachings for the present.
The practical effect of this structural difference between the two books is that the believer must look at the books differently. A Christian, who understands that the Bible contains the history of God’s dealings with His people, intuitively knows that some things people did in the biblical times are not to be repeated today. We do not worship in the way prescribed by Moses, because Christ has made that obsolete. We also don’t make war like Joshua did, because our Promised land is not on earth, and our warfare is now spiritual in nature. And while the Old Testament Law regulated polygamy, while not exactly approving of it, the New Testament makes plain that monogamy was always the way it should have been. We have much to learn from what Moses and Joshua did, but their actions belong to an earlier chapter of the story.
In contrast, because the Quran does not have a historical storyline, everything I have read in the Quran so far is applicable universally, for all Muslims, at all times. So if, for example, the Quran teaches polygamy (which it does in Sura 4.3), then Islam needs to teach polygamy forever.
2. The Quran’s instructions to believers depend upon a conflict, often involving physical violence, with other religions, particularly Jews and Christians. Very much of the content of the Quran that I have read so far is anti-Christian and anti-Jewish polemic. No doubt this was useful to Muslims when they began in the 7th century. The Muslim is expected to be at war with Jews and Christians, and is expected to continue that warfare until the enemies of Allah have submitted. The Muslim cannot accept, for the long term, being in a society where Islam has minority status. When in a position of numerical, political, or military dominance, the Muslim is to subdue religious minorities.
In contrast, the Bible does not dwell that much on the content of other religions. The making of idols, which is a feature of many religions, is mocked in Jeremiah 10, but the purpose of the mockery is to dissuade God’s people from falling into pagan practices. (This passage is incidentally a very good piece of satire.) For the most part, the Bible is content to proclaim the truth about God in a way that will turn people away from false religions, and will allow the details of particulat idolatrous beliefs to be forgotten.
The Old and New Testaments also portray a wide variety of possible relationships between the believer and society. In the Old Testament, Yahweh worship is the established religion during the period that Israel was an independent nation. However, at other periods in biblical history, believers are part of a minority, and are often persecuted. The teachings of the Bible are more concerned with being faithful in the situation you are in, as opposed to “taking over” in any military or political sense.