In the Koran, Words for Living a Righteous Life

The holy book

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Rather than being a chronology, the Koran's 114 suras, or chapters, are generally laid out according to length, from longest (286 verses) to shortest (three verses). Believed by Muslims to have been arranged by Muhammad according to divine instruction, the Koran opens with a brief invocation that is traditionally followed by a sura known as "The Cow"—which delivers a miscellany of unrelated information including the saga of Adam and Eve, God's warnings to the children of Israel, fasting during Ramadan, and the rules governing divorce.

The order can be a challenge to non-Muslims. "People who start out from the Bible expect that every Scripture should begin with Genesis and should end with a book of Revelation," says Safi. "They expect Page 1, Chapter 1 of the Koran to state, 'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.' "

Compounding the difficulty for beginners, the Koran assumes that readers are already familiar with the stories of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, at least in the broad sense. "What in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures is often prolonged narrative is, in the Koran, short, alluding to [well-known] stories," McAuliffe says.

The language of the Islamic holy book is also of terrific importance: All of God's revela-tions were delivered to Muhammad in Arabic, and the Koran is the first book in the Arabic tongue. Whereas missionaries have translated the New Testament into hundreds of languages to extend its reach while never questioning its authenticity, traditional Muslims treat all translations of the Koran as merely interpretations. What is lost in translation, they believe, is not only the original meaning but also the literal and lyrical power of the language of God. "We can read the Bible in English and feel that we are reading the Bible," McAuliffe says, "but Muslims cannot pick up an Indonesian version and think that they're reading the Koran."

Indeed, for Muslims, Arabic is the sole language of ritual prayer. Going back to the tradition of recitation begun by Muhammad, the Koran is primarily an aural experience—"something you hear rather than something you read," McAuliffe notes—and something that even the youngest children are taught to memorize. "Their experience is of beautiful sounds in Arabic recited by people who are very accomplished. An analogy would be if our experience of the Bible were through Gregorian chants."

Recitation is not only an art form but also a lucrative career for the most accomplished reciters, who speak in public and on television and audiotape.

But while the words of the Koran never vary, their meanings are open to interpretation, in part because Arabic originally contained no vowels. In this sense, the Koran is similar to other scriptures, which have also generated controversies about interpretation. Over the centuries, the Koran has spawned countless commentaries, including the first guidance from Muhammad, to help explain the text.

Furthermore, "the Koran speaks with a number of different voices," Cook says. For instance, the Koran's degree of tolerance for Christians and Jews seems to change from one verse to another. The portrayal of God is another example of the Koran's variations. He is all transcendent in some verses and intimate—closer than the "jugular vein"—in others.

Some scholars attribute the changes in message to differences in the times at which Muhammad's recitations were revealed. During the first, or Meccan, period of Muhammad's life, the language was one of peace, stressing monotheism. After Muhammad left for Medina, under attack from polytheistic Mecca, the recitations became increasingly political; the Muslim community was looking to God's guidance through the Koran to help orient it. That's why "it's fruitless to engage in debates about is Islam inherently x or y," says Roxanne Euben, an associate professor of political science at Wellesley College. "The Koran is indeterminate of what it means to be a good Muslim."

The arguments among Muslims today are not over whether the Koran represents divine guidance, says Safi, but rather how the Koran is to be interpreted—whether some verses are to be highlighted over others—and the processes of interpretation that are brought to the text. People turn to different verses of the Koran to justify their own agendas, says McAuliffe. One such debate turns on whether men and women are created with equal rights and dignity or whether men are inherently superior to women. Another is whether warfare is a natural state or something people resort to when attacked. Nonetheless, Safi concludes, it is in this text—"magical and mystical, historical and divine"—that Muslims continue to confront reality and existence, seeking to conform to God's will.