Salafists hand out free copies of the Koran in Germany
″The whole Islamic tradition holds that merely reading aloud from, listening to or touching the Koran requires Muslims to be, if not actually ritually purified, then at least in a state of respect, humility and contemplation… Yet now ′devout′ Muslims want to distribute the Koran like a leaflet, or a product sample, with no reservations about copies of the Koran ending up, like all leaflets or product samples, in the nearest rubbish bin,″ writes Kermani

The Koran is not a Bible

The Koran is not a Bible. As obvious, even banal, as this statement sounds, its implications have been flagrantly ignored – not only by the general public, but also, for many years, by Orientalists, who based their assumptions on Christian theology and Old Testament scholarship in particular.

It is thanks in no small measure to Angelika Neuwirth′s early research that, since the 1980s, the realisation has gained general acceptance, in Western scholarship at least, that the Koran is neither a sermon about God, nor spiritual poetry, nor a prophetic speech in the Ancient Hebraic style. The Prophet certainly did not compose his revelation as a book, to be read and studied alone and in silence.

The Koran′s own conception of itself is as the liturgical recitation of the direct speech of God. It is a text intended to be read out loud. The written word is secondary and until well into the twentieth century it was, for Muslims, little more than an aide-memoire. God speaks when the Koran is recited: in the strictest sense, one cannot read it, one can only hear it.

In this context, Angelika Neuwirth speaks of the sacramental character of Koranic recitation. Although Islam does not use this term, it is essentially a sacramental act to take God′s word into one′s mouth, to receive it through the ears, to learn it by heart: the sacred is not simply remembered, the faithful physically take it into their bodies, actually absorb it, much as Christians do Jesus Christ when they take Communion. (This, incidentally, is why singers are supposed to clean their teeth before declaiming the Koran.)

And now devout Muslims appear on German television and announce that they will be handing out unsolicited Korans in pedestrian precincts and on people′s doorsteps. You only have to have read a book, or a single article, about the Koran by the non-Muslim scholar Angelika Neuwirth to comprehend the presumptuousness of these devout Muslims, who are disregarding the linguistic structure of the text and the history of its reception; to appreciate the sacrilege that, in their zeal, they are committing.

You need only think of the fact that in Muslim households the Koran is, to this day, kept in the place of honour, wrapped in precious cloth. The whole Islamic tradition holds that merely reading aloud from, listening to or touching the Koran – by Muslims themselves and certainly by those of other faiths – requires them to be, if not actually ritually purified, at least in a state of respect, humility and contemplation.

Because in reciting or hearing the Koran a Muslim relives nothing less than the initial act of revelation: it is not a human voice, it is God himself speaking to him or her. This was why, in former times, Muslim military leaders would avoid taking manuscripts of the Koran into battle so that the word of God would not fall into the hands of unbelievers, and why those of other faiths were sometimes even forbidden to learn Arabic on the grounds that they would then be able to recite the Koran.

These are curious, perhaps even extreme examples, yet they are indicative of the scruples that Muslims have always retained with regard to the Koran. And now these devout Muslims wanted to distribute the Koran like a leaflet, or a product sample, with no reservations about copies of the Koran ending up, like all leaflets or product samples, in the nearest rubbish bin.

Treating the Koran unscrupulously

And what an edition, what a devout yet insipid German edition of the Koran, all too easily intelligible and therein falsifying the heart of the Koran, it was that the devout Muslims wanted to distribute! Even the opening of Sura 96 that they quoted on the posters, the supposed call for the Prophet to read: this, in Arabic, is a rhyme – iqra` bismi rabbika lladhi chalaq / chalaqa l-insana min calaq.

It is a rhyme, as all the verses of the Koran, without exception, rhyme. The Koran is legato, rhythmic, onomatopoeic language. You cannot simply read it as you would read a story or the wording of a law. Anyone who opens it without preparation is initially confused.

To him (or her) the Koran appears disjointed; the reader is bothered by all the repetition, the mysterious or incomplete sentences, the allusions whose references remain enigmatic, the drastic changes of subject, the lack of clarity with regard to the grammatical person, the ambiguous imagery.

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Comments for this article: The scholar's touch

A translation of the Quran is not the Quran itself.

Kabir02.08.2016 | 22:39 Uhr