Monday, 12 August 2013

The Opening of the Koran

Islam is sadly misunderstood today, by many Muslims as well as non-Muslims alike.

For one thing, the Muslim holy book, the Koran, teaches unity of all peoples and religions under an all-powerful and compassionate God. It repeatedly criticizes the idea that only some of God’s people are eligible for his grace. Dante in the 14th century did not know this and in his imagination he consigns the Muslim prophet to one of the deepest levels of his Inferno for the crime of divisiveness. Yet today, Muslims do little to eradicate this continuing prejudice when they themselves often define their religion in terms of difference. The Koran’s message on the other hand is clear: “All good do-ers have no fear.”

The other terrible mis-understanding is the association of Islam with pre-Islamic tribal customs that celebrated violence and also objectified women. Islam, on the other hand, saw these customs as rooted in the “nafs”, the base emotions of the human heart such as greed and lust. The Koran gives specific guidance, for example of prayer, charity and fasting, as well as prescriptions for correct behaviour whose express purpose is to avoid conflict. Where violence is advocated it is in self-defence of people and their religion within a context at the time of severe persecution and existential threat. Moreover, for every verse that advocates responding in kind, there is another adjacent to it stressing that peaceful resolution would always be better.  The focus throughout is to promote the well-being of all people, to work hard to do good, to purify the heart of its “nafs” and, by surrendering the ignorant mind, to find peace with God.

Yet today, Islam is often misrepresented in terms of cultural practices and superstitions it sought to overcome. Often the behaviour of Muslims themselves does little to eliminate this perception. Early Islam was acutely aware of outlawing persecution, sparing enemies in war and forbidding pillage of land and wealth because they themselves had been persecuted.  It also protected women’s rights far beyond the West at the same time, and this too an acute priority as the prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, had no sons surviving into adulthood. The history of early Islam is full of prominent women. But the old patriarchy died hard, and if anything it made a comeback in the centuries following the prophet. That this is so is no more the fault of Islam (so clear in praising forgiveness and advancing women's rights) as the errors of the West and the rise of nationalism were the fault of Christianity (so trenchant against pride and greed).

Finally, there is a more subtle problem for Islam today of literalism. Those Muslims who advocate a return to a law and way of life as laid down by the prescriptions and guidance of the Koran, often do so neglecting the context and purpose of the Koran’s message. It bears repeating that this message is to promote the well-being of others and to find peace with God. If any prescriptions do not fulfill this, or are mis-used to judge and persecute people, then they go against this message. All punishment and all mercy is with God.

The following is a very loose rendering of the first surah “The Opening” which opens the Koran and is read at the beginning of every prayer. The verses that follow are from the beginning of the long second surah entitled “The Cow” (referring to the Biblical story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt). They fail to capture the poetry of the original Arabic, yet hopefully they can give a flavour of Islam’s teaching.

1. The Opening

In the name of God,
The Merciful, The Compassionate,
Guide us on the straight path,
The path of those you have blessed.

Lord of all Being & non-Being,
All-merciful, all-compassionate,
Save us on the Day
Of Being’s disarray.

All praise belongs to God,
Thee alone we serve and pray.
May we not incur your wrath,
Nor be led astray.

2. The Cow

In the name of God,
The Merciful, The Compassionate,
Alif, Lam, Mim,
Trust the guidance of the Book,
Perform the prayer,
Believe in the Unseen.

As you are guided,
So were those before you
Prospering hereafter.
It boots not to warn
Those whose hearts and ears and eyes
God has set a seal.

As for those pretenders
Who corrupt the land
And feign belief,
They deceive themselves,
In their hearts a sickness,
For which God makes them suffer.

He who hears God’s guidance
And trades it for error
Is like a man at night
In the raging storm
Void of light
Except when lightning strikes.

Reverent and grateful,
Serve God who made thee,
Earth’s couch and Heaven’s dome,
And out of heaven,
Water, and from flowing streams,
Gardens of ripe fruit.

Hold none God’s equal,
And should you doubt this covenant,
Find a line to match it!
Encourage the faithful,
Do good, and
Forever dwell content.

Children of Israel,
Remember my blessing!
Fulfill my covenant
And I shall fulfill thine
And hold me in awe,
Do not disbelieve it!

Sell not my signs,
And take care not to exchange
Truth with vanity,
Nor conceal the truth
Nor bid others be pious
Forgetting yourself.

We made a compact
With the children of Israel
To serve none save God,
Be good to parents
Near kinsmen, and orphans,
And to the needy.

Be upright in speech,
Perform the prayer,
And pay the alms,
We made a compact—
Do not shed blood, nor expel
A party of you from their homes.

Conspire not
In sin and enmity.
Do you free the slave,
But then expel him,
Believing the Book in part
But disbelieving in part?

We gave Moses the Book,
And sent Messengers after,
And gave Jesus
Son of Mary
Clear signs confirming him
With the Holy Spirit.

If they believe
God’s grace is theirs alone,
Say: “I long for death,
Surrendering to God’s will”
But such men cannot say it,
For they cling to life.

Whatever verse we abrogate
Or cast into oblivion
In its wake we bring
Better or alike.
Don’t you know
God is all-powerful!

God singles out for Mercy
Whom he will,
Bounty abounding.
Should they say, “Only us!”,
Say, “Produce your proof!”
Nay, all good-doers have no fear.

Perform the prayer, pay the alms,
What good you do shall
Foreward to your soul’s account.
You shall find it with God,
God sees all you do.