How “Good” Is The Koran?

Andrew Sullivan —  Jun 6 2012 @ 10:55am

Scores of readers are countering Sam Harris' criticism of the Islamic holy book:

I too, have read the Qur'an a number of times, in both English and Arabic, and have a couple of counters to that rather offensive and bigoted quote. First, the Qur'an, unlike GT_KORAN_120605the Bible, is not a narrative expected to promote morality through example. It is considered the living, breathing, actual word of God, dictated and preserved to inspire and educate through spirit and meaning. If you approach it with the typical 21st century American (Judaeo-) Christian idea of biblical narrative, then yes, you will come away disappointed, puzzled, and probably very misinformed. If you approach it as you would the ecstatic poetry of say, Julian of Norwich, or Hildegard of Bingen, you may see things differently.

Second, it's pretty clear that poetic meaning is lost on Mr. Harris, if he thinks that chapters like The Spider (al-Ankabut, su.29), or The Light (al-Nur, su.24), or The Women (al-Nisa', su.4), The Dawn (al-Fajr, su.89), or The Clot (al-Alaq, su.96) are without value. Finally, if the Qur'an is any worse than the Holy Bible as a moral compass, I'll eat my shorts.

Another suggests:

How about Surah 2 verse 256?  "Let there be no compulsion in religion."


A simple Google search for peaceful quotations from the Quran turns up plenty of positive wisdom, such as: "Whoever recommends and helps a good cause becomes a partner therein, and whoever recommends and helps an evil cause shares in its burdens" Qur’an:4:85


I won't say that the Quran is a particularly "wise" book, but the idea that everything but a few lines about patience and generosity is "just vilification of the infidel" is patently unfair.  Sura 2 (the Cow), verse 62, in the Yusuf Ali translation: "Those who believe (in the Qur'an)  and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians, – any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with the Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve." 1,400 years ago, the Qur'an was preaching salvation of followers of other faiths, an idea which only became widespread among Christians less than a century ago.  A shame so many Muslims don't bother to pay attention to this verse.


Why is the Koran a good book? I'll give two examples why.

Historical context seems to be a concept entirely alien to Mr. Harris, seeing as he can find nothing "good" in the Koran. I ask him: what about the rights it granted women in 7th century Arabia? Rights to property, divorce, alimony, child support, etc., are all granted explicitly in the Koran. This is remarkably progressive given the fact that women in the West were only granted similar rights less than 200 years ago.

Another reason why the Koran seems a good book is its commitment to education and knowledge-seeking (see Surah 20.114 for an example of this). This Quranic emphasis on learning was the genesis of the Islamic intelectual tradition – the very tradition that preserved math, science, and philosophy throughout the dark ages in Europe. As a scientific man himself, Mr. Harris must surely see the value in that.


I'm Muslim in name only; agnostic; long time reader that does not enjoy your "god babble" on Sundays. Harris seems to find offense with the Quran for lacking a spiritual and moral map; but you don't clarify that Muslims don't look to the Quran for these things.

In brief, Islam has two sources: the Quran and the Sunnah (the practices of Muhammad). Muslims look to the Quran for affirmation of divinity; they look to the Sunnah for their moral and ethical map (all those proverbs and maxims like, love for your neighbor what you love for yourself; be nice to people even if they throw trash on you; give water to a thirsty dog even if you should have to send your own shoe down a well). It is the Quran itself which has various verses that affirm the necessity and importance of the Sunnah.

You'd have to be silly to read the Quran for a map on daily behavior. It is too epic for that. The Quran is obsessed with affirming the sovereignty, majesty, grandeur of the divine. And its primary vehicle for doing so is the stories of the ancient Prophets, Joseph, Jacob, Moses, and the ilk. The Quran's longest chapter, The Cow, is all about what happens to you when you abandon God (you become debauched idol worshippers). Even the Quran's earliest revelations (the short chapters that are ironically at the end of the compiled book) only mostly affirm god – as creator, master, unifier – with a few exhortations towards being nice to orphans.

But this does not mean that Islam's moral and spiritual map, as found in the Sunnah, is small. Quite the contrary. It is perhaps bigger than the combined maps of Judaism and Christianity, and on top of that, extremely hard to wade through.

What's perhaps throwing people like Sam Harris and others off about the Sunnah is that he doesn't know where to find it. Without getting into a massive lecture about the various definitions of Sunnah (which I would be too bored to give), let me just say that the question of "What is the Sunnah?" is a fraught one in Islam. It is actually the single biggest fight between Muslims. You should consider getting some kind of Islamic expert on your "Ask Anything" video series to break it down.

Yet another:

I'm an incoming graduate student starting study at the School of Oriental and African Studies in Middle East Politics, and hopefully a second year degree in Islamic Studies. I'm Christian, not Muslim; I speak Arabic, but not fluently. And I'm not sure which Qur'an Harris is looking at, but there are a couple reasons why he might not be impressed.

First, Harris is likely reading an English Qur'an, which is not really a Qur'an at all. One of the Qur'an's biggest claims to fame is its transmission from the time of the Prophet, if not thirty years afterward when it was finally codified and written down, in Arabic, unchanging. My senior undergraduate thesis was on the history of Qur'anic recitation. Those who claim that there are different versions of the Qur'an, relying on various sayings of the Prophet (hadith) that discuss such things, generally make arguments that don't hold water. Thus, the Qur'an's unchanging nature and preservation of the Arabic language are two things that make it great.

Second, I doubt Harris has ever taken any time to listen to Qur'anic recitation:

The Qur'an's primarily oral, not written nature, and its setting in poetry, not prose, lends itself to oral expression in a way other texts do not. Stories abound of listeners to recitation from Islam's beginning to today stopping in their steps, entranced, and later converting. There is something magical and fascinating in the Word of God beautifully and artfully and reverently ornamented.

Third, as for Harris's claim that the Qur'an is really only a couple platitudes and invective against the infidel, again, I'm not sure which Qur'an Harris is reading, but it's likely one without tafsir, or explanation. Certainly, the Qur'an has its share of lines against kafirs, or infidels. But it also has its share of stories pulled from the Judeo-Christian tradition, commandments of religious law, and moral teachings. The book Jesus and Mohammed: The Parallel Sayings page after page puts the moral teachings of the Qur'an and the hadith side by side with the teachings of the Bible and the words of Jesus. The document "A Common Word," signed by such Muslim leaders as Shaykh Salim Falahat, the director-general of the Muslim Brotherhood of Jordan, Ali Juma'a, the mufti of Egypt, and 136 other leading Muslim leaders, point to teachings of the Qur'an mirroring the two great commandments of Jesus.

The Qur'an is filled with moral teachings, like the Bible. It is much more than a letter of invective against unbelievers. Moreover, Harris fails to make the differentiation, unimportant to him but surely important to 2 billion Christians, 1.5 billion Muslims and 14 million Jews, of "people of the Book" and "infidels." I'm a Christian who's studied in Jordan and is returning there in a few weeks for more study. The Qur'an draws me again and again back to the mysteries and wonders of Islam. I have gotten much more wisdom out of it than a "random book in Barnes and Noble". It's a shame Harris can't appreciate it as so many millions do.

(Photo: Yusuf, 70, recites from the Koran at a graveyard in Kabul on April 25, 2012. Yusuf earns 100 Afghani (2 USD) for reciting prayers over graves being visited by relatives and loved ones. By Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images)