The Koran; a very short introduction

By Omar Ali Leave a comment

An old review I happened to revisit today. It was written for the Pakistani news-magazine Herald in 2002,  you can see a reference to “colonization of the Middle East” which indicates it was a different era and a different me 😉

The Koran (in the OUP “Very Short Introductions” series,) Oxford 2000.

The Koran: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions Book 13) by [Michael Cook]

Pious Muslims may feel that in the presence of the text and its commentaries, they do not need Professor Michael Cook’s “very short introduction” to the Koran. The pious may also wish to stay away because Professor Cook was once associated with the notorious “Hagarene hypothesis” (put forth in the 1977 book: Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook) though he has since backed away from some of the more extreme claims of that book. But “The Koran, a very short introduction” turns out to be a very witty and interesting book, full of insights that the most pious Muslim will find informative and stimulating.
There is a tendency to avoid difficult issues at a time when Likudniks, oil barons and Christian fundamentalists are trying to permanently colonize huge chunks of the Middle East, but it is unlikely that the Binladens of the Islamic world will be able to provide an intellectual framework adequate to the task at hand. Un-nerving as it may be, Muslims have no choice but to re-examine and reconstruct their faith. Professor Cook’s “short introduction” may lead on to better and bigger things.

Professor Cook starts by discussing what constitutes a sacred scripture and the forms such scriptures have taken in different civilizations. He then outlines the role the Koran plays in Muslims culture and how this is similar and how it differs from the role played by the Bible or the Vedas in their cultures. A few short selections from the Quran (the Fatiha, surah alfeel, the “throne verse”, the “sword verse”, among others) are presented in standard translations and used to illustrate the Quranic message and how it is perceived. The treatment is fair and balanced, though with a touch of levity that some Muslims may find initially disconcerting. One can get an idea of Professor Cook’s tone from his own description of his latest work:
“Recently I have published a monograph on a very Islamic value: al-amr bi`l-ma’ruf – roughly, the duty of each and every Muslim to tell people off for violating God’s law”.

The sentence is accurate enough, though the tone is one that a pious Muslim may find out of place in a discussion of religion. But Professor Cook is not a pious Muslim and may perhaps be excused as long as he is not unfair (and in this book at least, he is generally fair). After discussing the status of the Koran in the Muslim world today, He goes on to discuss its origins, its content, organization, translation, pronunciation, commentaries, and dissemination. As is to be expected in such a small book, he cannot cover any topic in great detail, but he manages to touch on a very large number of issues and manages to convey a sense of the subject surprisingly well. The text is packed with fascinating little nuggets, like a picture of the Quran with Spanish translation in Arabic script! In every chapter, he says enough to spark a desire to learn more. At every step, he also interjects comparisons with other culture and other scriptures; comparisons that are illuminating and enlightening and, generally, even-handed. Currently “hot” topics like “tolerance” and “women’s rights” get highlighted, as expected, but he does point out that prior generations did not necessarily look at them through contemporary lenses. What bothered older commentators about the Qur’anic reference to wife beating may turn out to be very different from what bothers a “modern liberal”. On the other hand, at times the older commentators (and the text itself) turn out to have been much more “modern” than we expected.

Professor Cook’s little book works very well as an introduction for someone unfamiliar with the Quran, but if anything, it is even more interesting for someone already familiar with Muslim culture and history. He notes the extraordinary hold of “fundamentalist” interpretations in the Muslim world today, but ends by pointing out that this was not always the case and may not be the case in the future. As an example of how things may change, he points to the work of Abdul Karim Surush in Iran, whose book “siraat-haay mustaqeem” (straight paths) raises the possibility that there is more than one straight path and all may co-exist.

In short, almost anyone wanting to learn more about the Qur’an, will find this a wonderful place to start. It may be a very short introduction, but it touches on many important issues and does so with great erudition and unexpected wittiness. Worth a read


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