In the Beginning, There Were the Holy Books

By Kenneth L. Woodward

              Feb. 11, 2002  -  Newsweek  

                        He was a pious family man, a trader
              from Mecca who regularly retreated into the hills
              above the city to fast and pray. In his 40th year,
              while he was praying in a cave on Mount Hira,
              the angel Gabriel spoke to him, saying,
              "Muhammad, you are the Messenger of God,"
              and commanded him to "Recite!"
                        MUHAMMAD PROTESTED that he could notafter all,
                        he was not gifted like the traditional tribal bards of Arabia.
                        Then, according to this tradition, the angel squeezed him so
                        violently that Muhammad thought he'd die. Again Gabriel
                        ordered him to recite, and from his lips came the first verses
                        of what eventually became the Qur'an, regarded as the
                        eternal words of God himself by some 1.3 billion Muslims
                        around the world.

                                                   Until that moment, 13
                                           centuries ago, the Arabs were
                                           mostly polytheists, worshiping
                                           tribal deities. They had no sacred
                                           history linking them to one
                                           universal god, like other Middle
                                           Eastern peoples. They had no
                                           sacred text to live by, like the
                                           Bible; no sacred language, as
                                           Hebrew is to Jews and Sanskrit is
                                           to Hindus. Above all, they had no
                                           prophet sent to them by God, as
                                               Jews and Christians could boast.

                                Muhammad and the words that he recited until his
                        death in 632 provided all this and more. Like the Bible, the
                        Qur'an is a book of divine revelation. Between them, these
                       two books define the will of God for more than half the
                        world's population. Over centuries, the Bible fashioned the
                        Hebrew tribes into a nation: Israel. But in just a hundred
                        years, the Qur'an created an entire civilization that at its
                        height stretched from northern Africa and southern Europe
                        in the West to the borders of modern India and China in the
                        East. Even today, in streets as distant from each other as
                        those of Tashkent, Khartoum, Qom and Kuala Lumpur,
                        one can hear from dawn to dusk the constant murmur and
                        chant of the Qur'an in melodious Arabic. Indeed, if there
                        were a gospel according to Muhammad, it would begin with
                        these words: in the beginning was the Book.


                                                          But since the
                                                   events of September
                                                   11, the Qur'an and the
                                                   religion it inspired have
                                                   been on trial. Is Islam
                                                   an inherently intolerant
                                                   faith? Does the Qur'an
                        oblige Muslims to wage jihadholy waron those who do
                        not share their beliefs? And who are these "infidels" that the
                        Muslim Scriptures find so odious? After all, Jews and
                        Christians are monotheists, too, and most of their own
                        prophetsAbraham, Moses and Jesus especiallyare
                        revered by Muslims through their holy book. Listening to
                        the rants of Osama bin Laden and other radical Islamists,
                       Jews and Christians wonder who really speaks for Islam in
                        these perilous times. What common groundif anyjoins
                        these three "Peoples of the Book," as Muslims call their
                        fellow monotheists? What seeds of reconciliation lie within
                        the Qur'an and the Bible and the traditions that they
                        represent? Does the battle of the books, which has endured
                        for centuries between Muslims and believers in the West,
                        ensure a perpetual clash of civilizations?

   Millions of Muslims make the
    pilgrimage to Mecca and
    other holy sites each year

                                The Qur'an does contain sporadic calls to violence,
                        sprinkled throughout the text. Islam implies "peace," as
                        Muslims repeatedly insist. Yet the peace promised by Allah
                        to individuals and societies is possible only to those who
                        follow the "straight path" as outlined in the Qur'an. When
                        Muslims run into opposition, especially of the armed variety,
                        the Qur'an counsels bellicose response. "Fight them
                        [nonbelievers] so that Allah may punish them at your hands,
                        and put them to shame," one Qur'anic verse admonishes.
                        Though few in number, these aggressive verses have fired
                        Muslim zealots in every age.
                                The Bible, too, has its stories of violence in the name
                        of the Lord. The God of the early Biblical books is fierce
                        indeed in his support of the Israelite warriors, drowning
                        enemies in the sea. But these stories do not have the force
                        of divine commands. Nor are they considered God's own
                        eternal words, as Muslims believe Qur'anic verses to be.
                        Moreover, Israeli commandos do not cite the Hebrew
                        prophet Joshua as they go into battle, but Muslim insurgents
                        can readily invoke the example of their Prophet,
                        Muhammad, who was a military commander himself. And
                        while the Crusaders may have fought with the cross on their
                        shields, they did notcould notcite words from Jesus to
                        justify their slaughters. Even so, compared with the few and
                        much quoted verses that call for jihad against the infidels,
                        the Qur'an places far more emphasis on acts of justice,
                        mercy and compassion.
                                Indeed, the Qur'an is better appreciated as
                        comprehensive guide for those who would know and do the
                        will of God. Like the Bible, the Qur'an defines rules for
                        prayer and religious rituals. It establishes norms governing
                        marriage and divorce, relations between men and women
                        and the way to raise righteous children. More important,
                        both books trace a common lineage back to Abraham, who
                        was neither Jew nor Christian, and beyond that to Adam
                        himself. Theologically, both books profess faith in a single
                        God (Allah means "The God") who creates and sustains the
                        world. Both call humankind to repentance, obedience and
                        purity of life. Both warn of God's punishment and final
                        judgment of the world. Both imagine a hell and a paradise in
                        the hereafter.
                        DIVINE AUTHORITY
                                As sacred texts, however, the Bible and the Qur'an
                        could not be more different. To read the Qur'an is like
                        entering a stream. At almost any point one may come upon
                        a command of God, a burst of prayer, a theological
                        pronouncement, the story of an earlier prophet or a
                        description of the final judgment. Because Muhammad's
                        revelations were heard, recited and memorized by his
                        converts, the Qur'an is full of repetitions. None of its 114
                        suras, or chapters, focuses on a single theme. Each sura
                        takes its title from a single wordThe Cow, for example,
                        names the longestwhich appears only in that chapter.
                        When Muhammad's recitations were finally written down
                        (on palm leaves, shoulders of animals, shards of anything
                        that would substitute for paper) and collected after his
                        death, they were organized roughly from the longest to the
                        shortest. Thus there is no chronological organizationthis is
                        God speaking, after all, and his words are timeless.