Lesson 17





1. Clay & Skin

2. Gilgamesh

3. Acts of God

4. Genesis


5. Odysseus

6. Men like

7. Socrates

8. Alexander

9. Virgil

10. Paul


11. Krishna

12. Rama

13. Kalidasa

14. Buddha

15. Confucius

16. Lao Tse


17. Quran

18. Beowulf

19. Genji

20. Survival Itself


21. Dante 1

22. Dante 2

 23. Dante 3

 24. Chaucer

25. Journey to the West

26. New World

27. Indians

28. Don Quixote






The power of the Qur'an                           

Islam is a foremost example of a world-class literary cult. Neural memory created by repeated reading or hearing the Qur'an is distributed among a billion individuals all over the globe. The Mecca pilgrimage, daily prostration in prayer and other Muslim rituals, customs and dress conformities help to construct shared neurology, but it is the Qur'an itself which ultimately is the source for the Islamic mind and culture. 


1. Read Damrosch Qur'an and resonances (B341-373) and “Sympathy the Learned” (B446-456).

2. Skim through the page below, and then reflect on the lesson for an hour in your World Literature Journal.

3. If you are enrolled, go to the Angel web site, take the quiz for this lesson, and submit your World Literature Journal to Dr. G.

What would the prophet think of the world today?

Between Jeremiah (fl. 587 BCE) and Muhammad (cir. 570 - 632 CE), near eastern prophets of various gods continued to come and go, but one of them in particular was said to parallel Jeremiah in foretelling the doom of the Jewish temple. That was Jesus (d. 30 or 31 BCE) who is claimed to have foreseen the destruction of the temple that Ezra had reconstructed after the Jews had returned from Babylon to Jerusalem in 456 or 397 BCE. Historically, the temple prophesies of Jesus and Jeremiah were written down or revised after the fact, in a world in which the temple that the prophet had known was no longer in existence. Did Jeremiah and Jesus accurately predict the future catastrophes of their people? or were these famous predictions attributed to them only after the fact, when the manuscripts were updated?

By the time of Muhammad there had also been a global catastrophe inaugurating a dark age everywhere in Eurasia with the exception of China east of the Gobi region. This disaster included the aforementioned Justinian's plague, and very likely also an impact of a large extra-terrestrial object, which fueled various interpretations that Christians of the sixth century had not pleased God. Maybe they had not been serious enough, or maybe Christianity itself was wrong. This second alternative was advanced by the Qur'an, which freely revised Jewish and Christian scriptures with a point of view that they were historically inaccurate. Jesus ascended to heaven but did not die, the Qur'an asserts. He was not the son of God (B361), nor did he ask to be worshipped (B351).  The true story was revealed to Muhammad and written down in the Qur'an.

Islamic traditions say that Muhammad's early followers took strong precautions to preserve the prophet's actual words. Rote memorization of the Qur'an is supposed to have begun in Muhammad's lifetime. Sunnis commonly claim that the written text dates from only a few years later, when the book was compiled under the Caliphate of Muhammad's successor Abu Bakr and his successors. There is no direct evidence, however, that the manuscript circulated in public until conquests had been made by Muhammadan forces throughout the middle east several decades after the prophet's death.

According to one theory, the Qur'an was written down only to limit the powers of the Caliph. By establishing that Muhammad was the one and only Muslim prophet, the Qur'an denies that any Caliph or other follower legitimately can claim to possess prophetic authority. History provides some circumstantial evidence for this view of the Qur'an's political aim. Within a few decades after Muhammad, the Caliphs' authority came to be limited by Islamic law; scholars and specialists in the Qur'an replaced the Caliph as the Islam's official interpreters. Muslim political leaders then were constrained by the book, in much the same way that Jewish law bound Jewish kings. Leaders may have violated the law-- but not without objection.

The problems of interpretation in Islam are very acute, from the question of peaceful coexistence with nonbelievers to issues of civil rights. That is because in many instances the Qur'an is very specific in its instruction. Sura 4, "Women," for instance, contains instructions for inheritance in which, among other things, males inherit twice as much as females (Damrosch B348). A conservative reading of this passage will likely lead to the conclusion that even today, when many cultures treat women equally with men, Muslim women still should inherit only half as much as Muslim men. A progressive reading of this Sura, however, will assert that the Qur'an brought rights to women which women had not before been granted, and therefore the intent of the prophecy was to improve the lot of women, so that Islam today ought to continue to be a force for empowerment of women. The spirit and the letter of written texts can diverge dramatically over time.


Left: Muhammad ascends into heaven in an ancient Persian manuscript. In some forms of Islam, illustration of the prophet is forbidden. Some forms of Islam also prohibit interpretation of Qur'an (except by approved scholars), including historical or other secular understanding of the Qur'an. We mean no disrespect  by including the book here in our necessarily secular study of world literature.



















Left: boys memorizing the Qu'an at a contemporary madrasah in Pakistan. The text is being preserved more correctly on paper than in the boys' memories, so why the memorization? Their brains are being networked by the text they share; they are being imprinted in the culture of Islam.

























Left: the Hira, cave where the prophet is believed to have received the words of Allah's messenger

The foundation of Islam

Is Islam a militant or peaceable religion? There is some ambiguity about this question in the text of the Qur'an, and scholars of the Qur'an have taken varying positions. This debate extends even to translators. For example, the pre-9/11 translation by N.J. Dawood in our Longman anthology is criticized as too militant by a more recent post-9/11 translator, London professor M.A.S. Abdel Haleem. One of the passages in dispute is the following paragraph translated by Haleem (a paragraph omitted by our Longman editors, who seem to censor Dawood):

Fight in God's cause against those who fight you, but do not overstep the limits. God does not love those who overstep the limits. Kill them wherever you encounter them, and drive them out wherever they drove you out, for persecution is more serious than killing. Do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque unless they fight you there. If they do fight you, kill them--this is what such disbelievers deserve--but if they stop, then God is most forgiving and merciful. Fight them until there is no more persecution, and worship is devoted to God. If they cease hostilities, there can be no [further] hostility, except toward aggressors.  A sacred month for a sacred month: violation of sanctity [calls for] fair retribution. So if anyone commits aggression against you, attack him as he attacked you, but be mindful of God, and know that He is with those who are mindful of Him. Spend in God's cause: do not contribute to you destruction with your own hands, but do good, for God loves those who do good.  "The Cow" 2:189-195; cf. 9:5 and 9:36.

Haleem wants the words to mean that Muslims can kill only in self-defense, and his translation can be read only in this way. In Dawood's translation, however, the "kill them wherever you find them" is worded so that Muslims are being instructed to kill non-Muslims at any place, regardless of who started the fight. In the original, the pronoun "them" (kill them wherever) has an ambivalent antecedent, so that an interpreter has latitude.

Translation and interpretation are difficult because the Qur'an uses vague pronoun references, shifting points of view, and a generally disjointed style. (Think of it as a "trance" style highly differentiated from normal speech, as if from an extra-human source.) The relationship of one utterance to the next is often not coordinated rationally. Even when the grammar is clear and logical, the text relies on generalized non-specific vocabulary (as above: do good, do not overstep the limits, until there is no more persecution, devoted to God), so practical application of the text often is or should be open to debate.

These ambivalences in the Qur'an notwithstanding, the historical record seems clear that Muhammad was not simply an advisor to kings (like Jeremiah) or a teacher (as Jesus tends to be portrayed in the gospels). He was instead an aggressive ruler of a theocracy founded and enlarged by warfare. The Prophet's audience was almost exclusively male; females are seldom addressed in the Qur'an. The men are instructed, if they wish to avoid hell fire, not to turn tail in a fight against unbelievers, not to malinger when called to arms, and not to seek exemption from military duty. "When you encounter nonbelievers, strike off their heads till you have made a great slaughter among them, and of the rest make fast the fetters" (47:4). God is useful in anesthetizing the warrior against fellow feeling for his victims: "it was not you who killed them but God" (8.17).

Like other cultures of its era, the original Islamic community thrived by warfare and extortion against neighbors. Its economic underpinnings can be seen in various passages in the Qur'an. One-fifth of the spoils of war were taken by the Prophet (8:41). War was to be made even on Christians and Jews if they refused to be taxed (9:29). All who submitted to Islam, both men and women, were required to demonstrate their loyalty not only by bowing in submission but also by paying tithes to the prophet (9:10). Even keepers of houses of worship were required to pay tithes (9:18). Although the alms were taken for charitable relief of the poor and travelers, an administrative share was taken out (9:60). The prophet also took money to cleanse and purify those who repented their violations of the prophet's instructions (9:103).

The Muslim warrior gave more than money to his overlords. The bargain of Islam is perhaps made clearest in the verse:

God purchased the persons and possessions of the believers in return for the Garden--they fight in God's way: they kill and are killed--this is a true promise given by Him in the [Jewish] Torah, the [Christian] Gospel, and the Qur'an. Who could be more faithful in his promise than God? "Repentance" 9:111

In other words, believers sell their bodies and goods in exchange for God's promise of future paradise. To refuse this bargain is to be damned, and outcast from the community of believers. There are other disincentives for disbelieving also. Those who break their promises to God are to be seized and killed ("Women" 4:89). Believers, however, are never to be killed (4:92), so belief buys protection from the community.


Left: more than two million Muslims participate in the annual Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca.























Another interpretation is that during four sacred months of the year Muslims can fight only in self-defense, but there is no such limitation during the remaining months of the year  (see 9:36).

























Left: young Muslims in London celebrate the knighthood of novelist Salmon Rushdie, an apostate from Islam.  Sharia, traditional Islamic law, specifies capital punishment for Muslims who abandon the faith, so Rushdie has faced numerous death threats.

Relations of three monotheisms

Prophecy is first person presentation "I am God," in which it is clear that God and the prophet are not the same person--that the prophetic words are spoken by the prophet but understood to be the words of God.  This impersonation of God poses a simple question. If God is so insistent that humans worship God, as prophets claim, then why doesn't God simply speak to everybody, and speak consistently to all, so that all will clearly know what is expected of them? Why should God select a Jeremiah, Jesus, Muhammad, Delphic oracle, Hammurabi or any other individual who will have trouble making everybody believe that the words are true?

After Jesus' death, Paul and other Christian writers solved this problem by declaring the prophet himself to have been more than a messenger, but this solution in the end posed further complications for monotheism. Jesus came to be interpreted not only as God's spokesman, empowered by the "Holy Ghost" to speak for his heavenly "Father," but also as incarnate God (the "Son"). This assertion of Jesus' divinity, or participation in a holy trinity, seemed to many Jews to be blasphemous or pantheistic, and so Christians were expelled from Judaism.

The rift between Judaism and Christianity opened the way for the prophet of Islam to carry on Judeo-Christian tradition and also criticize both of the predecessor monotheisms. The Qur'an sides with Judaism in rejecting the divinity of Jesus, but it agrees with Christianity insofar as Christians believe that Jesus was a prophet especially favored by God. So the Qur'an rejects the view that Jesus was "son of God" (why would God need a son when all people are his creations?) but it accepts the idea that Jesus was born of a virgin (why not, if God can create whatever he wants?). The Qur'an claims that God raised Jesus into heaven while Jesus was still alive, so it avoids the issue of Jesus' death and resurrection from the dead. Some of the Qur'an's notions about Jesus may have been current among Abyssinian Christians known to Muhammad. According to the early biography of the prophet by Ibn Ishaq (d. cir. 761), book-learned Christians Bahira and Waraqa were the first to recognize Muhammad as a prophet. Christians were known even better to the third Caliph (in Sunni tradition) Uthman Ibn Affan who had lived among them and later during his reign published the Qur'an.

Although there are anti-Semitic passages in the Qur'an, the same could be said of most prophetic literature in the Jewish scriptures: we have seen plenty of criticism of the Jewish people in the book of Jeremiah, for example. The Qur'an in fact accepts that some Jews and Christians are true believers in God and are destined for the Garden at the Last Day. It traces the Muslim faith (surrender to God) back to Abraham and the Jewish patriarchs, and it brings it forward up to Jesus. In this sense of its continuity with prior literary traditions, the Qur'an is like a third testament of the bible, following the "Old" and the "New."

In the Qur'an, Jews and Christians are called "the People of the Book," which is slightly confusing because the word Qur'an itself means "the book." Rather than appending Muhammad's revelations to the Judeo-Christian ones, the Qur'an refers Judeo-Christian passages by allusion or retelling. The allusions would seem to assume that the readers and hearers are familiar with Jewish and Christian scriptures, but the retellings seem to supersede the Bible, as they freely vary the stories. Different suras strike different postures toward the People of the Book, some conciliatory and some hostile.  The unevenness of treatment of this subject may reflect composition of different suras at different dates; tradition states that Muhammad received the word of God over some twenty years (from about 610 to 632 CE). 















In medieval Christian tradition, Muhammad was seen as a Christian who left the church and caused a bloody schism.. This tradition is reflected in Dante's Inferno, where Muhammad is punished with other sowers of discord (28:10).























Left: The Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. The Qur'an supports Mecca in much the same way that Enuma Elish supports the Ziggurat of Marduk at Babylon or that Hesiod's Theogony supports the Shrine of the Muses at Helicon--but with more lasting success!

Lesson Summary: The Qur'an is a prime example of literature as the underlying network promoting a cult of believers to support a shrine.

Suggested journal topics
and optional readings

1. The Eden story: how does the Qur'an revise the Eden story of Genesis? See especially Sura 7, "The Heights.") What purpose do you think the changes could have had.

The parallels (and differences) between the Hebrew scriptures and Qur'an are obviously deliberate and important.  The world was destroyed twice: once at the close of the Bronze Age cir 1200 BCE and then again in the middle 500's AD. The Jewish Exodus is the story of how the ancestors of the Jewish people escaped and survived the first catastrophe, but then about 1750 years later there was another world disaster that needed to be explained. It then became apparent that just being Jewish (or Christian for that matter), was not enough to assure survival. So a new prophecy was needed to explain why the Lord had become angry again, and how behavior should be modified to assure survival. There is where Muhammad came in, to rewrite the scriptures and save humankind from the ultimate disaster in the future, the final judgment.  Muhammad's people came out of the second catastrophe relatively unscathed, compared to everybody else, and so they were able to conquer vast areas of the Middle East and North Africa in a very short time, lending further support to the notion that God was on their side.

Muhammad was looking at social injustice as one of the reasons for the Lord's anger. His concern about orphans is an echo of Jeremiah's, but it is no less sincere. The Qur'an does not seem very liberal to us today, but it was progressive in its time. Can you see how his retelling of Adam and Eve and the other Genesis stories may be trying to change the way that people view themselves and their behavior?

2. The Flood: for a similar comparative exercise, try comparing the Babylonian account of the flood in Gilgamesh tablet 11 (Longman A122-A127), the Noah story in Genesis 6-9, and the Noah episode of the Qur'an (Sura 71).

3. The modern world: What does the Qur'an have to tell us about modern Islamic states and movements? Is the Qur-anic model still a viable model in the world of today? Right: Muslim surfer in Florida from James Knight, Assassinationpress.blogspot.com

The same question can be asked of any text-based cult. Even when the text is established and unchanging, its interpretation can change. Conservative interpretations purport to follow the intentions of the original author; progressive interpretations treat the text as living document whose spirit remains the same but whose meanings necessarily change to assure relevance to each passing generation of readers. For example, in the literary cult of the United States which is based on the US Constitution, conservatives often argue that there is no right to an abortion but there is a right for civilians to bear arms, while progressives frequently argue just the opposite. The words of the US Constitution are not in question, but their meaning or application is very often in dispute. 

4. Terrorism and martyrdom: What would Muhammad think about suicide bombers? sectarian violence? war and peace between Arabs and Jews? the state of Israel? the recent Iraq wars? middle eastern oil fields? Given the textual difficulties and the ambivalence of Qur'an on many subjects, is there any clear way to answer these questions?

5. Passivity: Islam promotes surrender. How does this ideal compare and contrast to withdrawal in Buddhism and wu wei in Taoism? Are these comparable notions to "faith" in Christianity.

6. Political language. How does Anglo-American political language tie in with language of Qur'an? Do you hear echoes of the  Qur'an in western politics?  Try this example. US President George W. Bush, following the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, warned the world that the US would not tolerate terrorists or those who sheltered terrorists. Does this not echo sura 8 "The Spoils"?

Those who have embraced the Faith and fled their homes, and fought for the cause of God with their wealth and their persons, and those that have sheltered them and helped them, shall be as friends to one another (Damrosch B 353).

How would President Bush's language have sounded to Muslims harboring bin Laden after the September 11 attacks?

7. Male superiority and wife beating. A piece of Sura 4 "Women" was left out of the textbook. It speaks of wife beating. Here are several translations.

  1. "Men are superior to women on account of the qualities with which God has gifted the one above the other, and on account of the outlay they make from their substance for them. Virtuous women are obedient, careful, during the husband's absence, because God has of them been careful. But chide those for whose refractoriness you have cause to fear; remove them into beds apart, and scourge them: but if they are obedient to you, then seek not occasion against them: verily, God is High, Great!" (Rodwell's version of Quran, 4:34)
  2. "Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Surely God is high, supreme." (Dawood's version of Quran, 4:34)
  3. "Men are in charge of women, because Allah has made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah has guarded. As for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High Exalted, Great." (Pickthall's version of Quran, 4:34)
  4. "Men are the managers of the affairs of women for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property. Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for God's guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them. If they then obey you, look not for any way against them; God is All high, All great." (Arberry's version of Quran, 4:34)
  5. "Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in their sleeping places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great. (Shakir's version of Quran, 4:34)
  6. "Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband's) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whom part you fear disloyalty and ill conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them means (of annoyance) for Allah is Most High, Great (above you all). (Ali's version of Quran, 4:34)

8. Translations of the Qur'an and other materials on-line.  Three side-by-side translations and other materials are found at http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/quran/  This includes some traditional Muslim commentary

More translations and other resources are available at http://www.altafsir.com/tafseerquran.asp

Instructor: gutchess@englishare.net
Copyright © 2007-2009







































Can Islam adapt? If it can, should it?