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Reading the Koran

By: Alexander Orwin
November 21, 2018

n What the Qur’an Meant, and Why It Matters historian Garry Wills takes up the admirable task of learning about the Koran. The book begins with a brief introduction justifying the project in the name of contemporary affairs. In Part I, Wills rebukes the various kinds of ignorance and folly that a better reading of the Koran could combat. In Part II, taking up over two-thirds of the book, he is concerned with interpretations of the Koran, often designed to correct the errors enumerated in Part I.

Wills doesn’t know Arabic, so he relies on experts for guidance. He makes especially frequent use of Study Quran (2015), a new English translation with hundreds of pages of commentary, edited by Muslim reformist intellectual Seyyed Hossein Nasr. This is an impressive work, but one that tends to confirm Wills’s own liberal perspective. Wills makes up to some extent for his unfamiliarity with Arabic by means of his Christian background, which proves to be extremely valuable for approaching the Koran. Some of his book’s most illuminating sections involve comparisons between the Koran and Christian scripture. The most useful sections are characterized by an earnest inquiry into the Koran’s religious meaning, with an emphasis on themes that should be familiar to fellow monotheists. Chapters 4-6, in particular, consider literary and religious themes in the Koran without any bitter political bone to chew. In Chapter 4, Wills describes quite beautifully the importance of water and rain in the Koran. Scarce and life-giving for the desert people among whom the Koran originated, water serves as a symbol of divine fertility, guidance, and grace. Water-related imagery also represents the insatiable thirst of hell, and perfect satisfaction of heaven.

In Chapter 5, Wills examines the meaning of the cosmos in the Koran. He shows how every aspect of it, from mineral to animal to angelic, speaks to the glory of its creator. Even angels are expected to recognize their dependence on God: Iblis, who disobeyed God by refusing to bow down to His human creation, is transformed into Satan. God’s ubiquity is a great leveler. Yet this infinitely powerful, remote God is also very close to humans: most importantly, He chooses to speak clearly and succinctly by means of prophecy. In Chapter 6, “The Perpetual Stream of Prophets,” Wills compares the characters of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus in the Bible and Koran, emphasizing just how much the two books have in common. He reminds Judeo-Christian readers that Muslims, far from being simply foreign or strange, belong to another branch of our own tradition. Religiously-educated Americans will find much in the Koran that is strangely familiar. Driving home this point is something that Wills is quite able to accomplish. Yet his ecumenical agenda goes further: he argues that “Allah protects equally the synagogue, the church, and the mosque.”  This claim segues into a section where Wills attempts to prove the tolerance and peacefulness of the Koranic teaching.        

Wills could have justified his enterprise with the perfectly unobjectionable claim that “a book so important to so many of our fellow humans” should be familiar to us. Instead, he devotes the book’s first third to a sweeping attack on the ignorance toward Islam prevalent in the United States. Though Donald Trump’s outrageous comments about Muslims are roundly criticized, the current President is hardly the focus of Wills’s ire. On the introduction’s first page, he already has William F. Buckley, Jr., in his sights. The first chapter, titled “Secular Ignorance,” consists of a blistering assault on the Iraq War, along with everyone associated with it. While this chapter follows logically from Wills’s earlier assertion that the very project of learning about the Koran arose in response to the “disastrous invasion of Iraq,” on the whole it is largely gratuitous. Even if we accept, with Wills, that the war was a disastrous error, blaming it on ignorance of the Koran or even Islam seems farfetched. As Wills himself suggests, ignorance of Shi’ism and the Ba’ath Party, underestimation of religion’s power, and failure to grasp the general conditions in Iraq might be more plausible charges against the initiators of the war.

The next two chapters, “Religious Ignorance” and “Fearful Ignorance,” are better suited to the book’s purpose. A wider knowledge of the Koran and Muslim civilization more generally might indeed be a partial antidote to fear-mongering against both Muslim countries and immigrants. Yet Wills never varies his targets. Everyone criticized by Wills in the first three chapters for promoting misconceptions of Islam is a Republican or conservative. His list of culprits includes not only public figures who might plausibly be accused of hostility toward Islam, such as Trump, Mike Huckabee, and Daniel Pipes, but those who are obviously innocent of it, such as George Bush, Bill Kristol, Francis Fukuyama, and the “cult of neo-conservativism’s gurus (Leo Strauss, Allan Bloom, Harvey Mansfield).” Unsurprisingly, Wills never acknowledges the enormous contributions conservative scholars, such as the recently deceased Bernard Lewis, or Strauss’s students such as Muhsin Mahdi, have made to the serious study of Islamic civilization. Americans of all stripes could benefit from a closer acquaintance with the Koran; Wills makes reading it seem like an exclusively partisan endeavor.

Finally, it is worth noting that, though Wills occasionally praises Barack Obama’s attitudes toward Islam, he offers no assessment of the former President’s actual Middle Eastern policies. Wills therefore does not effectively respond to a crucial objection that he himself attributes to Bill Kristol: Obama, not Bush, was responsible for the ultimate failure of the Iraq War and the rise of ISIS. The absence of Obama as a bridge between Bush and Trump makes Wills’s account seem incomplete, even anachronistic. It begs the question of the relationship between ‘correct’ attitudes toward Islam and sound policy toward the Islamic world.

The rest of the book combines the virtues of the first three chapters of Part III along with some of the frustrating elements of Part I. Wills continues to read and explore the Koran, but it becomes increasingly obvious what he wants to prove. Chapters 7 through 8 portray the Koran as a book promoting peace, Chapters 9 and 10 defend Islamic Law (sharīʿa), while the final three chapters present Koranic attitudes toward women in a positive light. All sections make good points, but none are entirely persuasive.

Chapter 7, “Peace to Believers,” pleads for fraternity between Christian, Jewish, and Muslim believers. Wills argues that according to the Koran previous scriptures remain valid for Jews and Christians. He is right to claim that the Koran presents itself as identical to these scriptures as they were originally revealed. What Wills ignores, however, is the Muslim doctrine of taḥrīf, according to which the previous scriptures have been irretrievably distorted and rewritten by errant rabbis and priests. It is therefore necessary for true Jews and Christians to abandon their old, corrupted scriptures and embrace the Koran, and unnecessary for Muslims to pay too much attention to the discredited Old and New Testaments. The verses cited by Wills in fact confirm this. The People of the Book—Jews and Christians—are asked “to uphold the Torah, the Gospel, and that which has been sent down to you [Muhammad] from your Lord” [emphasis added]. The following verses (Koran 5.70-77) contain a virulent attack on the old scriptures, including the Trinitarian doctrine. Wills cites these verses, but suggests rather optimistically that the Koranic attacks on the Trinity are to be reinterpreted as not “anti-Christian,” but merely “anti-Nicaean.” Could Jeffersonian Unitarianism, or a form of Trinitarianism that is lucidly monotheistic, bridge the gap between Christianity and Islam, as Wills hopes? Not, in my view, unless it accepts Muhammad as prophet and the Koran as authoritative. So while we should welcome Pope Francis’s ecumenical efforts, they face tougher obstacles than Wills envisages. 

Wills’s discussion of zeal (jihād) also sheds light on some important verses and questions, before reaching a somewhat hasty conclusion. He cites the famous Koranic saying “there is no compulsion in religion” (Koran 2.256) as definitive proof that the book “never advocates war as a means of religious conversion.” But how could one understand the many eloquent verses that advocate qitāl, an Arabic term far more unambiguously warlike than jihād, against unbelievers for the sake of God (Koran 2.190-193, 2.224, 4.74-75, 9.5, 9.29)? Wills offers a partial explanation based on questionable translations. In 2.193, his translation renders dīn, a generic term for religion, as “worship [at the shrine],” as if the goal of armed struggle is merely to protect the Kaaba, not to convert others. Wills interprets the well-known Sword verse (Koran 9.5) along these lines, as justifying only battle with treaty-breaking pagans. But he ignores the more unequivocally belligerent verse in the same Surah, which calls for qitāl against all those among the People of the Book who don’t fully accept Islamic doctrine, until they relent and agree to pay a special tax (Koran 9.29). It is hardly surprising that Muslims are already enjoined to fight and die for their religion in the Qur’ān itself, given that Muhammad spent so much of the last decade of his life battling religious enemies in Arabia. I therefore remain skeptical of Wills’s claim that the warlike character of Islam emerged only because of its imperial expansion. Of course, had Islam never assumed a warlike character and defeated several mighty empires, it would be of no great interest to Wills or anybody outside the confines of some small commune in the Arabian desert. At the same time, we may agree with Patricia Crone, whom Wills cites, that traditional Muslim willingness to fight and die for their religion should not in itself be identified with the barbaric terrorism of groups like ISIS and al-Qaida, whose knowledge of the Muslim tradition is highly selective at best.

 Wills’s treatment of sharīʿa centers around the matter-of-fact observation that the term occurs only once in the Koran (Koran 45.18). As a result, the various schools of jurisprudence in Islam do not proclaim any single doctrine or legal code. The desire of certain American state legislators to ban sharīʿa therefore makes no sense. Wills still needs to explains the few penal statements that do occur in the Koran, which are generally harsh, prescribing the law of talion in one case and amputation, crucifixion, and death in another (Koran 2.178, 5.34). Wills responds by claiming that these laws are not in fact harsh, at least in comparison with legal punishments meted out until recently among Jews and Christians.

This polemical line of argument also characterizes Wills’s discussion of women in the Koran. Wills deserves credit for bringing the Koran’s rich treatment of the theme to our attention. He cannot deny that the Prophet himself took many wives, and that the Koran’s various injunctions concerning women, including permission to beat them, stem from this fact (Koran, 4.34). But one can hardly expect a book that emerged in such a context to advocate liberal, monogamous attitudes toward women. Did Wills need to justify the Koran by reminding us that the Torah, Gospel, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas were all “misogynist” as well? He observes that the Koran proposes dowry and inheritance laws that give women relatively greater freedom (Koran 2.236-41). This is an important point, but perhaps Wills did not need to add that “[e]ven in mid-twentieth century America, a woman was often not able to open a bank account or make a major purchase without her husband and guardian’s approval. Woman of the Koran were better off in this respect.” This final jab against conservative attitudes prevalent in the author’s youth reveals the recurrent problem with Wills’s book: what begins as a promising effort to understand one of the world’s most important religious texts devolves into yet another exercise in American liberal partisanship. Wills should be praised for taking up a novel topic so late in his career, yet he often appears to be fighting all-too-familiar battles.