A Christian Looks at the Quran (Part 1)

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.

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22 thoughts on “A Christian Looks at the Quran (Part 1)

  1. Like it or not, Islamic people probably feel the same way about you. The Bible does have an overlying ‘story arc’ to it, but it jumps all over the place, especially throughout the New Testament.

    And any religion that deals in absolutes like ‘…without faith it is impossible to please God…’ is probably going to stir up controversy because not everyone shares the same set of beliefs. The God of Christianity that you read about in the Bible tried to make things abundantly clear about how he felt about people who didn’t rank-and-file along with Him when he said things like, ‘And if anyone still prophesies, his father and mother, to whom he was born, will say to him, “You must die, because you have told lies the Lord’s name.” When he prophesies, his own parents will stab him.’ (Zechariah 13:3)

    Now, if I were a member of another religion and read through a book that had THAT to say about how to deal with non-believers of Christianity, I would be a little skeptical about their motives to say the least.

    Religion (including Christianity) was and is today a tool of oppression and a way for smarter, wealthier people to attempt to control the masses.

  2. Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it. The Greek mind, dying, came to a transmigrated life in the theology and liturgy of the Church; the Greek language, having reigned for centuries over philosophy, became the vehicle of Christian literature and ritual; the Greek mysteries passed down into the impressive mystery of the Mass. Other pagan cultures contributed to the syncretist result. From Egypt came the ideas of a divine trinity, the Last Judgement, and a personal immortality of reward and punishment; from Egypt the adoration of the Mother and Child, and the mystic theosophy that made Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, and obscured the Christian creed; there, too, Christian monasticism would find its exemplars and its source. From Phrygia came the worship of the Great Mother; from Syria the resurrection drama of Adonis; from Thrace, perhaps the cult of Dionysus, the dying and saving god. From Persia came millenarianism, the “ages of the world,” the “final conflagration,” the dualism of Satan and God, of Darkness and Light; already in the Fourth Gospel Christ is the “Light shining in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.” The Mithraic ritual so closely resembled the eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass that Christian fathers charged the Devil with inventing these similarities to mislead frail minds. Christianity was the last great creation of the ancient pagan world.

    –Will and Ariel Durant, The Story of Civilization

  3. Ray

    If you are really serious about understanding the Quran, just reading it on your own won’t cut it. Same is true of the Bible. Scholars and theologians today still argue over each book and their meanings. You need to take some classes in religion or find a knowledgeable Muslim to help you or otherwise your intrinsic biases and emotions will prevail and not fact.

  4. I commend your efforts at understanding another faith—hopefully I’m correct in understanding that that’s what you’re up to here. From what I recall from studying early Islam and the Qur’an in college, your characterization of the book’s structure and its use of historical references is fair enough. While much in the Qur’an seems tyrannical or tediously repetitive to someone from a Christian background, I think that, like in any religious book, there are bad sentiments and good sentiments to be found there. (Though I’m a nonbeliever, I like Ecclesiastes quite a bit—except, predictably, the conclusion.) Surah 16 (“The Bee”) is IIRC quite beautiful. Incidentally, the shorter surahs near the end of the Qur’an are considerably less hostile to Jews and Christians—they were mostly composed much earlier, before Muhammad’s conflicts with the Jewish community in Medina.

  5. There’s a lot wrong with what you’ve said. Most obviously some parts of the Koran do come chronologically after other parts and there are specific rules about how to handle such situations when one progresses from another. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naskh_%28tafsir%29

    Second, many sections of the Bible are sprinkled with laws. Exodus through Deuteronomy is a mishmash of narration and legal code often with little clear separation.

    As to the claim that the Bible doesn’t dwell on other religions, that’s simply not true. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy there are multiple injunctions against such worship. Specific injunctions are directed against worship of Baal, Molech and Ashtarte. Much of Judges involves punishment God gives to the Israelites for worshipping idols and this is a common them through later books such as Kings and Chronicles. The story of Elijah at Mount Carmel is probably the most blatant example. Claiming that “the Bible does not dwell that much on the content of other religions” is false.

  6. You said:

    “We do not worship in the way prescribed by Moses, because Christ has made that obsolete.”

    But Matthew 5:17 – 5:19, seem to indicate otherwise: to use the NAB translation, at least one verse says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest part or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.” See also 2 Peter 20-21, which specifically refutes the idea of personal interpretation. According to the Bible you should be willing to sacrifice your children, you should keep slaves, you should kill disobedient children (Jesus specifically repeated that one!) and you should be making earthly war. But you only use part of it, the bits you can justify according to outside morality. This is no different from the Muslim who uses the Quran to justify peace and ignores the bits about marrying nine-year-olds. Your books and theirs are not any different from each other, they’re both disproven artifacts used to justify ‘how things should be’, rather than useful metrics on what is.

  7. The Bible– The HOLY Bible, a book of history? Yeah, right! — the history of talking snakes, a woman formed from a man’s rib and a universe “poofed” into existence in 6 days (as opposed to say, 4.3 Billion years! Your whole argument is a joke.

  8. Welcome to my sleepy blog, everyone.

    Don, I remember reading Will and Ariel Durant a very long time ago. Their idea about the origins of Christianity fails epically, because it assumes that the apostles and their successors were as educated as Will and Ariel Durant. But they weren’t. They lived in their own age, and didn’t have the luxury of looking back at it in hindsight from a comfortable distance, smoking a pipe in a plush office full of books.

    Brian, there is also a danger in taking classes from a professor. The professor will have his own biases, just like I do. Anyhow, I am not trying to be an expert, just an observer from my own perspective.

    Every atheist ever, you remind me of me when I was a teenage atheist. I grew up.

    M, I’ll keep that in mind. I know there are earlier and later chapters, but that is not yet evident in the text. I expect that I will see it as I read on, unless the key to knowing what is “earlier” and “later” is found outside of the text.

    Joshua, Of course the Bible tells people not to practice other religions. But the Quran, at least in the early parts, is qualitatively different. Where the Bible primarily says “don’t do it”, the Quran tells you in a fair amount of detail what is wrong with Christians and Jews. I think that most Christian readers of the Quran will notice the difference in tone. For the atheist reader, it may be a case of “they all look the same to me.”

    Emburii, the entire book of Hebrews explains in great detail why we don’t worship the way Moses did any more. If you were a Christian you would probably understand this. But since you are not, the Bible is a foreign book to you. That is understandable. You understand the Bible as well as the average American understands cricket. Incidentally, I haven’t yet found the verses in the Quran about marrying nine-year-olds. Nor have I found anything in the Bible, though I have read it through a few times, that says I “should” keep slaves.

  9. Miiiiiight want to check the book of Exodus. That silly god sure didn’t know what he was up to around the beginning of time, condoning slavery and all.

    “If you buy a Hebrew slave, he is to serve for only six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave and then married afterward, only he will go free in the seventh year. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife will be freed with him. If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and they had sons or daughters, then the man will be free in the seventh year, but his wife and children will still belong to his master. But the slave may plainly declare, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I would rather not go free.’ If he does this, his master must present him before God. Then his master must take him to the door and publicly pierce his ear with an awl. After that, the slave will belong to his master forever.” (Exodus 21:2-6)

    Semantically speaking, I suppose it doesn’t say that you SHOULD own slaves. Only if you happen upon a great deal for a Hebrew one. Like buy one-get one free.

    And if your slave gets someone pregnant while he’s your slave, even better! You’ll never run out of slaves!

  10. One of the things the Islamic world suffers from is that there is much fewer chances for reinterpretation compared to Christianity. Sure, there are many interpretations – but the best bit about Christianity is that much of the Bible’s teachings contradict each other at various points in history.

    That is particularly useful, as we are all free as Christians to to choose a sub-group of Christianity which teaches that the bits we like are ‘truth’, but the bits we don’t like are just metaphors.

    Do you think talking animals are a myth? That’s OK – there’s a subgroup which teaches that those parts are a metaphor.

    Do you not want to give a tenth of your income? That’s OK -there’s a subgroup of Christianity that teaches the whole bit about ‘give a tenth’ doesn’t really apply in our complex society .. and really God would mean that a tenth AFTER expenses (like paying for our clothes and TV and even after paying for roads and infrastructure via taxes).

    Do you not want to turn the other cheek? That’s OK – there are plenty of subgroups who emphasize the teaching about ‘coming with a sword’ and collect weapons to protect their property and dignity.

    Do you don’t like parts of Jesus’s teaching (such as how to act when being sued or when someone asks for your coat) ? No problem – you’ll be able to find a Christian Church that pretty much ignores them – you’ll be able to justify it by quoting a bit of Paul.

    There are even sub-groups who argue that Jesus was actually very wealthy – and so logically when we are told to be like Jesus then we should make an effort to accumulate a lot of wealth ! (I’m sadly not joking – look at Harvest Church some time)

    That is Christianity’s greatest strength – the diversity of world views united by a common thread.

  11. Andy, of course I know the Book of Exodus, and yes, there is a huge difference between “can own slaves” and SHOULD own slaves.”

    In the ancient world, of course, slavery was unquestioned. The Mosaic Law deals with slavery, just as it deals with polygamy and divorce. To summarize very briefly, indentured servitude (typically for debt) was permitted and regulated. An Israelite could not force another Israelite into permanent slavery. An Israelite could buy a foreign slave, or, in some cases, captured enemies became slaves, and that slavery could be multi-generational. But a foreign slave could eventually become a citizen, and then earn freedom after a time. Brutality to a slave was punishable.

    But, just because there are rules about slavery, doesn’t mean that the Bible thinks slavery is good. There is a story going on, and part of the story includes deliverance for the captives.

  12. There is also a difference between condoning slavery and condemning it as the morally reprehensible practice that it is. The God of the old testament was quick to make rules about what the Israelites ate and how they ate it, what they wore, what they could celebrate, when they should make sacrifices .. the excuse that “slavery was allowed because it was unquestioned in the Ancient world” doesn’t hold water. So were foreskins, and he banned those too!

    I was once where you are now, with a strong knowledge of the bible and a strong faith which blinded my reason. I knew that God allowed slavery and the treating of women as property, he allowed people to beat their slave even to death (as long as they lingered in a coma for a few days), he suggested parents should kill their children if they were disobedient, that the nation as a whole should commit mass genocides of men, women, and infants with differing religious views, he empowered prophets to slaughter children who insulted them, and killed many for the sins of their parents while claiming not to do so. I knew all these things, but I made excuses, I closed my eyes, and I believed him to simultaneously be the god of love who seeks none to be destroyed but to attain to everlastingly life.

    Gradually, I woke up. I believe the most logical explanation for all these terrible acts by a ‘loving’ god is that he does not exist. The god of the bible is an invention of man, just as we believe all other ancient gods to be. He was a convenient explanation for the heinous acts of rulers, a means of controlling the dissatisfied masses, and a way of enforcing convenient social norms.

    I applaud that you are considering the Koran, but as you read I encourage you to reconsider your own beliefs from a similar point of reference. Would you believe the Bible if you had not been raised with a strong cultural bias to do so? If you had been born in Saudi Arabia, would you not accept the Koran as the word of God, while viewing the bible with puzzled skepticism?

  13. Lee, actually I was not raised with a “strong cultural bias” to believe the Bible. Christianity really clicked for me when I was in college, and I had to climb over the debris of Saturday night’s partying to get to church on Sunday, and when my religion professors were, for the most part, hostile to Christianity. Maybe I’m just contrary.

    As for the folks in Saudi Arabia, a lot of them would be something other than Muslim if they were not threatened with death if they denied Islam. these folks just put their heads down and hope for a better day.

    Lots of non-Christians and even many Christians are embarrassed by the Old Testament, but you have to remember that the world was a very different place back then, before Christ. If you remember your Christian upbringing, think of the hymn that goes: “The whole world was lost in the darkness of sin, the light of the world is Jesus.” Not a bad plot summary of the Bible.

    Before Christ, slavery was inevitable, and in Roman times about 50% of the population were slaves. Now that Jesus has come to save us from our sins, freedom from human bondage is a possibility.

  14. I agree that the Bible is a story. Just like I agree that ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ is a story. They’re both full of metaphors and you can take a lot away from both stories. In fact, if people analyzed and applied Heinlin’s themes from that story like some people do with the Bible, I think the world would be a much better place.

    Just because there’s a story going on in the Bible, doesn’t mean it’s a true one.

  15. Well done, Ray. When you hear a squeal, you’re probably on target, and strange to think that militant nonbelievers would squeal so when you’re militating against militant Islam….mmmkay…

  16. Bubba, it seems like some fellow on an atheist site had read my post, and suggested to the other readers that a few thousand of them come over and tell me how dumb I was. (I’m paraphrasing.) The suggestion had little to do with the original post over there.

    Anyhow, like the dutiful sheep they are, they followed unquestioningly. 🙂

  17. When your second sentence is: “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,” I am not too confident that you will be open to the teachings, although I do commend you for trying.

    And why on earth would there be “dangers” with taking a course from a professor? Can you not see past someone’s biases to draw your own conclusions? I think that being in a course and having the ability to debate and discuss the text with fellow students would be more beneficial than reading it without any other insight.

  18. It doesnt say anywhere in the Quran to stay at war with the christians and the Jew until they are defeated. you are mixing in your preconcieved notions with what you have already read. nooooott objective!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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