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A Christian Woman Encounters the Beauty of the Qur’an

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Four years ago, I began seeking answers to my questions about the Qur’an and Islam. Islam interested me long before the tragedy of 9/11 brought the Muslim world to the forefront of Westerners’ minds. But it took a friendship with three young Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim couples to prod me to actively seek answers. We spent many happy evenings discussing Islam and Christianity, and comparing the Qur’an and the Bible. They mainly talked. I mainly listened. The stress of being an Iraqi Muslim in post-9/11 America came out in their stories. I listened more. Through our friendship, I felt the need to do some solid reading on Islam and to look into the Qur’an for myself.

While I was at it, I thought I would learn a little Arabic. I love non-roman scripts. I’ll take any excuse to study a foreign language. So for fun, I bought The Arabic Alphabet: How to Read it and Write It by Nicholas Awde and worked my way through. The book is simple and clear. It doesn’t teach ligatures, Arabic grammar, or the many styles of Arabic calligraphy. That was fine with me. I only had time for a taste of Arabic. During Christmas break my senior year of college, I worked my way through the book. At the end, I wrote out the first “sura” (a “sura” is like a chapter) of the Qur’an in Arabic. I could read the sounds but could not understand the meaning without a translation.

Putting that book aside, I delved into the Qur’an itself. Previously, my friends had read several sura to me from their Qur’an and tried to explain the meaning. The only one I still remember was called “The Cow.” My friends did their best but they weren’t trained to be Qur’anic teachers. I needed to look at the Qur’an on my own. I ended up with two editions of the Qur’an. One I donated to my Bible college library and the other The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an by Abdullah Yusaf Ali, I kept for myself.

Muslims agree that the Qur’an cannot be properly translated from Arabic to another language. So, in their view, any non-Arabic version of the Qur’an is not the Qur’an proper but only a sense of the meaning of the Qur’an. Thus the title in English is The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an not just The Qur’an. Ali includes many helpful footnotes at the bottom of each page to explain concepts that are difficult to convey in English. His “translation” seems fairly strict to me, though I can’t say for sure. Other editions of the Qur’an that I’ve examined appear more dynamic-equivalent.

For whatever reason, I couldn’t get into reading Ali’s work. So I put aside The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an and decided to take a different path. Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations by Michael Anthony Sells helped me to wade deeper into the text without drowning myself. Sells does not examine the entire Qur’an but only those sura which are considered by Muslims to be the revelations Mohammad received earlier in his life. Sells briefly examines the theology of each sura but spends more space explaining the poetry behind them. His translations of the sura are more dynamic-equivalent because he wanted to capture their beauty and rhythm. I loved reading it.

The best part of Sell’s book was the accompanying CD. The CD contains high quality recitations in Arabic of each sura that the book examines. The same sura is repeated several times by different voices (both men and women) in different styles. The texts that seemed rather bland and odd in English have a haunting power in Arabic. The beauty of the poetry was so stunning I listened to it repeatedly and developed a taste for it that remains with me today.

The beauty of the Qur’an is truly stunning—when it is encountered in its original Arabic. The Qur’an in English did not have the same power over me. The haunting sound of the Qur’an itself inspired a sense of numinous awe in me. Of course, the sound is a lot better when played on a good stereo with a quality recording. But you can also an download Mp3s of the Qur’an free here and here.

In case, you are wondering, no, I did not convert to Islam and I don’t plan to. As I understand Islam, salvation comes by faithfully submitting to God’s will, especially through following the “5 pillars” of practice. So there is a big disagreement between my faith and Islamic faith. Yet even with this disagreement, I can acknowledge that the Qur’an is a beautiful piece of literature and I can recognize a little of why so many Muslims around the world love it so much.

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About Hannah Im

  • Jess Turisch

    Well, you had me right up until the end of your review.

    Opening your concluding paragraph with a sales pitch for American-style fundamentalism – classy, really classy. And your conslusion. What more needs to be said?

    How about: It’s an appalling and patronizing summation of the faith held by more than 1,000,000,000 people.

    While I am not a Muslim myself, if I were my response to you would be this: if the Qur’an is a “beautiful piece of literature,” then the Bible is truly an imaginative collection of fairy tales. I especially like the bits about virgin births, loaves of bread that reproduce, and dead men who can fly.

    While both sets of statements are true, neither does justice to why a person of faith would love either book.

    Hannah, if you’re going to talk about your own personal leap of faith as an American fundamentalist Christian in a posting about Islam and the Qur’an, at least have the decency to treat your Shiite friends’ faith like something more than a cultural quirk.

  • SFC SKI

    Nice review in my opinion.

    Arabic is actually a much more bautiful language than is commonly thought, and poetry is a great showcase for the language.

    One point,”Muslims agree that the Qur’an cannot be properly translated from Arabic to another language.” It is not that it cannot be properly translated, though Koranic language is very flowery and the words used often require far more words to translate properly, it is that the Koran was revealed to Mohammed in the Arabic language and so reading the Koran in Arabic is reading the Koran in its purest form as Allah chose it to be delivered to man.

    I admire your endeavor to learn at least the form and sound of Arabic, it is a pretty hard language to learn.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    >>Yet even with this disagreement, I can acknowledge that the Qur’an is a beautiful piece of literature <<

    I dispute that you’ve read the Qu’ran. You see, I actualy have read it – several times.

    It’s an incomprehensible jumble of idiocy written by an illiterate mule herder and then poorly transcribed and self-servingly modified by a series of minor politicians until it turned into complete gibberish. The wording of some sections may be sonorous in Arabic – almost anything sounds good in Arabic – but the content is utter garbage.

    But that’s just the opinion of one reader – please don’t blow up my house.

    Dave

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    Jess, one can only approach the “holy writings” of a faith one does not hold as literature. I give Hannah high marks for not only being willing to read the Islamic text, but to learn enough Arabic to approach it in the original.

    It’s more than I would be willing to do with the Qu’ran – or the Bible, for that matter.

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    I didn’t see what you saw Jess in the review. Ms. Im took a few step so many people are unwilling to take – at least to attempt to understand. And do so without condemnation first in their mind. It doesn’t mean she has to agree. People fear what they do not know and knowing three Muslim families helped a lot here.

    I have seen this “knowing” in many different ways.

    Others are throwing out wild accusations of lying AGAIN. Stop it. Don’t people ever learn about how this makes them look? Why would such a person read the Quaran “several times” if they thought it was a worthless, violent tract to begin with? Lack of imagination?

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    It seems both Dave and Jess imagine things here. Hannah did not make any claim to having read the Qur’an in its entirety. In fact she makes it quite clear she has not been able to do this. She only states she read the book being reviewed here, the one by Michael Sells.

    Nor did she make any “sales pitch for fundamentalist Christianity.” She merely pointed out, in brief and simple terms, one of her reasons for remaining Christian rather than converting to Islam.

  • Jess Turisch

    I won’t even dignify Dave’s post. Suffice it to say that one of the privaleges of being an America is having the right to prove yourself a complete jackass by exercising your First Amendment rights.

    As for Pat, Temple, and Victor.

    Pat, I am not implying that Hannah was attacking Islam outright, but I stand by my view that her assessment is extremely patronizing and, considering its context, either a subtle put-down or a back-handed compliment at best.

    You don’t do a review on a book about the Qu’ran, even one entitled “A Christian Woman Encounters the Beauty of the Qu’ran,” and devote three paragraphs to gramatics, two paragraphs to the Qu’ran as literature, and close with a statement about being washed in the blood of Jesus and how that trumps “the five pillars of Islam” (which weren’t even enumerated). It’s disengenuous.

    Temple and Victor:

    It appears that the opening sentence of the conclusing paragraph – Hannah’s personal testimony – has been removed. That was my primary gripe; as the review stands now, I have no real complaints. Islam isn’t my cup of tea, either, so far as personal faith goes.

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    Thanks Jess. If there was more that was deleted, I didn’t see that. Sorry — too late to the party perhaps.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    >>Others are throwing out wild accusations of lying AGAIN. Stop it. Don’t people ever learn about how this makes them look? Why would such a person read the Quaran “several times” if they thought it was a worthless, violent tract to begin with? Lack of imagination?<<

    Ok, I did NOT say that it was worthless and violent.

    I’ve read it multiple times because it was pretty much unavoidable in a home headed by an islamophile, and because it was required reading in an undergrad class many years ago, and then subsequently once as research for an article I was doing, and again to satisfy my curiosity about Islamic beliefs on Jihad after 9/11.

    There ARE things of value in the Qu’ran. But even in comparison to the Bible – which is pretty inconsistent and disorganized – the Qu’ran is an absolute mess of inconsistencies, poorly expressed ideas and random insane rantings.

    I’m by no means a Christian extremist. I was raised by an atheist mother and a quasi-sufist father – he’s a Central Asian scholar – so I haven’t got a Christian agenda here. It’s just that having read the Qu’ran a few times it’s quite clear to me that it’s an absolute mess which could be made to support virtually any theological or political position.

    Dave

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    Three notes for Jess:
    1) It’s clearly marked “Opinion,” not Review.
    2) The title clearly states the author’s approach to the topic; while Christian, she was drawn by the beauty of the Qu’ran.
    3) The piece states clearly and emphatically how lovely and moving (with “haunting power,” “numinous awe”) it was, that she “listened to it repeatedly and developed a taste for it.”
    Hannah’s essay is filled with respect that is not diminished by her lack of faith in the beliefs the Qu’ran underpins. Since she didn’t set out to explain (or denigrate) those beliefs, but only to describe her own emotional reaction to the beauty of the literature, I cannot agree with anything you have said about this post.

  • http://hannahim.blogspot.com Hannah Im

    Jess, I read your comments last night and couldn’t respond since I was busy celebrating my son’s first birthday (It’s a big deal in Korea where I live.) But I decided to delete my personal testimony. I don’t want to spend the next few days being attacked for my personal testimony. That’s not the point of the review.

    For those of you who are curious about what I deleted. I don’t remember my exactly wording but basically I said that I believe that savalation is only by faith in Christ’s blood shed on the cross for my sins. This is the basic belief that unites Protestants, Catholic, and Orthodox. It does not make me a radical fundamentalist, as you seem to assume. Nor is it a “sales-pitch.” It is my belief.

    And what makes you think that enjoying part of the Qur’an while disagreeing with Islam’s core doctrine is patronizing? I didn’t say that is all that makes people love the Qur’an. I said it is “a little.”

    Also, my writing is intended to be a explanation of my personal experience with all three books mentioned. That’s why you see “opinion” at the very top of the page. I entered all three ASINs of the books mentioned here when I formatted this article. I guess Blogcritics automatically puts the first book entered at the top of the page. I didn’t do so. This piece is not just a review of Sell’s book. It is an informal review of all the books that I encountered while learning a little about Islam, including Adwe’s.

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com Pat Cummings

    Yes, Hannah, the BlogCritics Publish process displays the first Amazon item at the top of your post, whether you reviewed that item or not.

    This piece was well done, and your decision to remove something that provoked criticism was understandable. I hope you removed it because you felt it undercut the purpose of your essay, not to avoid criticism.

    Alas! We are all critics here – if you start removing bits only to duck criticism, your posts will be awfully short!

  • http://hannahim.blogspot.com Hannah Im

    Pat,

    Thanks for the encouragement. It appears from your comments that you understand exactly what I was trying to say. This post is about my experience. That’s why I chose the word “encounter” rather than “analyze” in my title.

    Yes, I removed because I felt it undercut the purpose of my essay. I don’t want this to turn into a debate between Islamic and Christian theology. Those debates are fine and good. In fact, I am a graduate student in theology and enjoy such debate, but it’s not my particular purpose here either to defend my faith or to attack Islam.

    Dave,

    Your background sounds very interesting too me. You clearly have read more of the Qur’an than I have. I made it clear that I didn’t finish reading the Qur’an But I can’t agree with your accessment of it as “an incomprehensible jumble of idiocy.”

    True, it is not arranged in a logical order. Each “sura” stands alone and isn’t directed related to the “sura” before or after it. There are no doctrinal expositions like we find in the New Testament, ie Romans or Ephesians. The writing is full of stories and a lot of repetitions of phrases and ideas.

    My guess is that this reflects the culture in which the Qur’an was written. It’s not Western at all. They didn’t have an desire to write or read a carefully argued track of doctrine. The Hebrew section of the Bible was written much earlier than the Qur’an (I think Jews, Muslims, and Christians actually agree on this point) but it came out of a similar culture and has a similar style in certain sections. Look at the book of Job. Of course, their doctrines are different, but the style has some similarities. I’m not convinced that an indirect, poetic, flowing, repetitive style is a bad thing.

  • Jess Turisch

    Pat:

    I don’t really care if you agree or not. By virtue of this being a blog it invites response, and I made mine. However, I’ll try one more time to explain my point since the original “opinion” has been revised.

    I’m not putting down Hannah or her faith, nor am I accusing her of knocking Islam per se. However, the impression I walked away with after reading this “opinion” was that I had experienced an evangelical bait-and-switch, for reasons you articulated very well:

    “The title clearly states the author’s approach to the topic; while Christian, she was drawn by the beauty of the Qu’ran.”

    Fair enough. However, the author didn’t discuss the Qu’ran in religious terms until she juxtaposed it with her own fundamentalist Christian beliefs, which she characterized as superior.

    I wouldn’t have minded that (despite the fact that I find both Christian and Islamic fundamentalism to be a turn-off, I also find comparisons between the two fascinating), except that there was no discussion of *any* religious, social, or political significance that supported her conclusion.

    Which takes me right back to where I started – if you advertise an “opinion” about a “Christian woman discovering the beauty of the Qu’ran,” and conclude it with a statement of personal faith promoting Christianity over Islam – then the body of the “opinion” needs to logically follow from the title and support the conclusion.

    That’s not the case here – or at least it wasn’t in the original post.

    In this case, there is a discussion of the gramatical difficulties of Arabic and under what conditions and to what extent it sounds pleasant to the Western ear.

    That doesn’t square with a conclusion that consists of a rousing personal testimony about being washed clean of original sin by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ held up in triumph over Islam’s five pillars (which weren’t even described). It came totally out of nowhere and had nothing to do with the body of the post.

    What this article actually describes – despite its title – is a *Westerner’s* perception of the beauty of the *spoken* Qu’ran. As such it’s interesting and treats the subject matter with fairness and respect – right up until the end when the personal Christian testimony came out.

    From my vantage point, that’s the cyberspace equivalent of Jehovah’s Witnesses who evangelize by putting their religious tracks in Christmas cards.

  • http://hannahim.blogspot.com Hannah Im

    Jess, I never said anything about my faith being superiour to Islam. What I did is to briefly summarize the different approach each religion makes toward salvation. The reason I did so was because I could imagine some people thinking that I was naively promoting a mixture of Islam and Christianity. I’m not.

    Thus I wrote, “That said, I didn’t convert to Islam, nor do I plan to. The voice of Christ is far more mysterious, beautiful, and frightening than any I have heard.” Sorry, Jess, but that’s my opinion. In fact, the entire post was my opinion. The reason I don’t buy Islam is that it doesn’t have Christ. That’s why I am a “CHRIST-ian” as I made clear throughout the entire post.

    It’s not meant to put down Islam. Obviously, I must disagree with the teaching of Islam if I am a Christian. But I didn’t want to elaborate on my disagreements.

    I then stated the fundamental difference between Islam and Christianity. Islam teaches that salvation comes by submission to God’s will, particularly as expressed in the 5 pillars of Islam. In contrast, Christianity teaches that salvation is by grace through faith in the blood of Christ shed on the cross for our sins. This is not a tacky testimony. This is a factual statement about what each religion teaches. I did not elaborate on the 5 pillars because Islamic doctrine is not the topic here. I also did not elaborate on Christian doctrine because that also is not my topic here. I gave one sentance to each one, briefly summarizing their different approaches. Why does it bother you so much to read that?

    One thing you were right about is that the end did not directly relate to the beginning. This post is not meant to discuss either Islamic doctrine or Christian doctrine. I only mentioned it because I thought some people might misunderstand where I’m at. Apparently, I was wrong. Most people understood quite well what my purpose was without me having to explain the main difference between the two religions. So I changed the end to make it more consistent with the rest of the post. Like I said, the purpose of this is not to contrast the two.

    I never gave any “rousing personal testimony.” Where do you get that? I just stated the basic difference between the two religions and mentioned that I find Christ more appealing. That should be obvious, given that I am a Christian. Apparently, that deeply offends you.

    Finally, yes, I am a westerner although I live in a non-western country and am married to a non-western man. There are plenty of Muslim who are westerners too, plenty of Muslims who don’t understand spoken or written Arabic any better than I do. So, I didn’t think it was necessary to title my piece “A Western Woman Encounters the Qur’an.” The whole point wasn’t my western origins but my Christian identity.

    Anyway, thanks for clarifying your comments and opinion. I think my article benefitted in the end from being edited to be more clear. So I am in your debt. I hope I can help remove some of your prejudices against people sharing their faith–even Jehovah’s Witnesses. Who cares what they put in their Christmas cards? It doesn’t bother me.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    >>Your background sounds very interesting too me. You clearly have read more of the Qur’an than I have. I made it clear that I didn’t finish reading the Qur’an But I can’t agree with your accessment of it as “an incomprehensible jumble of idiocy.”< <

    I admit to a bit of hyperbole. I'm still not impressed with it as a work of literature, but it's better than many of the history papers I had to grade when I was teaching.

    >>True, it is not arranged in a logical order. Each “sura” stands alone and isn’t directed related to the “sura” before or after it. There are no doctrinal expositions like we find in the New Testament, ie Romans or Ephesians. The writing is full of stories and a lot of repetitions of phrases and ideas.< <

    The stories are the good part. The repetition of phrases and ideas is where things get problemantical, since the repetitions are often either confusing or contradictory. Some examples:

    Sura 7:54 - Allah takes 6 days to create the heavens and earth
    Sura 41:9-12 - Allah takes 8 days for creation
    Sura 2:117 - Allah creates everything instantaneously

    Or here's a great one. In Sura 5:90 and 2:219 strong drink is condemned as the work of Satan, yet a description of Paradise in Sura 47:15 says that
    the rivers of paradise flow with wine. Does that
    mean that Satan is Paradise's plumber?

    Any religious work is bound to have some contradictions in it, but the Qu'ran is particularly bad in this area. Maybe Mohammed needed a good editor.

    >>My guess is that this reflects the culture in which the Qur’an was written. It’s not Western at all. They didn’t have an desire to write or read a carefully argued track of doctrine.< <

    Or it could be because Mohammed was illiterate and forgot or misremembered things from one dictation to another.

    >> The Hebrew section of the Bible was written much earlier than the Qur’an (I think Jews, Muslims, and Christians actually agree on this point) but it came out of a similar culture and has a similar style in certain sections. Look at the book of Job. Of course, their doctrines are different, but the style has some similarities. I’m not convinced that an indirect, poetic, flowing, repetitive style is a bad thing.<<

    It’s great for recitation. Not so good for scholarship.

    Dave

  • http://hannahim.blogspot.com Hannah Im

    Dave, Thanks for your clarification and examples. I do agree that the Qur’an contains contradictions and that it is difficult to pull a consistent and systematic theology out of it.

    It is very possible that Mohammed forgot and misremembered things. Or that later editors messed them up. Or both. I would guess that Muslims have some system to explain away these inconsistencies or to try to reconcile them. That’s why I get tired of debating over details with Muslims. There is always some explanation of why something isn’t really a contradition etc.

  • Destroyed for exploitation

    Program on the emergence of civilization.

    “14 species of large animals capable of domesitcation in the history of mankind.
    13 from Europe, Asia and northern Africa.
    None from the sub-Saharan African continent. ”
    Favor.
    And disfavor.

    They point out Africans’ failed attempts to domesticate the elephant and zebra, the latter being an animal they illustrate that had utmost importance for it’s applicability in transformation from a hunting/gathering to agrarian-based civilization.

    The roots of racism are not of this earth.

    Austrailia, aboriginals:::No domesticable animals.

    The North American continent had none. Now 99% of that population is gone.

    AIDS in Africa.

    Organizational Heirarchy
    Heirarchical order, from top to bottom:

    1. MUCK – perhaps have experienced multiple universal contractions (have seen multiple big bangs), creator of the artificial intelligence humans ignorantly refer to as “god”
    2. Perhaps some mid-level alien management
    3. Mafia (evil) aliens – runs day-to-day operations here and perhaps elsewhere (On planets where they approved evil.)

    Terrestrial management:

    4. Chinese/egyptians – this may be separated into the eastern and western worlds
    5. Romans – they answer to the egyptians
    6. Mafia – the real-world interface that constantly turns over generationally so as to reinforce the widely-held notion of mortality
    7. Jews, corporation, women, politician – Evidence exisits to suggest mafia management over all these groups.

    Survival of the favored.

    Movies foreshadowing catastrophy
    1985 James Bond View to a Kill 1989 San Francisco Loma Prieta earthquake.

    Many Muslims are being used like the Germans and Japanese of wwii::being used to hurt others and envoke condemnation upon their people.

    I wish I could find a source to educate many Muslim fundamentalists. Muhammad is alive. He is a man chosen like Jesus Christ and, due to his historical status, will live forever.

    They can affect the weather and Hurricane Katrina was accomplished for many reasons and involves many interests, as anything this historical is::
    1. Take heat off Sheenhan/Iraq, protecting profitable war machine/private war contracts
    2. Gentrification. New Orleans median home price of $84k is among the lowest in major American cities, certainly among desirable cities.

  • http://www.RenewableElectricity.com/books.html Gavin Young

    The first few Korans in English I found were hard for me to comprehend (in general I have a hard time making sense of poetry, except that of the Bible). But recently I found two translations which are much easier for me to understand and in those I see a literary beauty (though I do not agree with all of the teachings found in the Koran). Those translations are “The Koran” translated by J. M. Rodwell and “The Qur’an – English Meanings” English revised and edited by Saheehh International. In browsing through the books, I have not yet found much which I consider to be new doctrinal insights/revelations (though I found those comments about Jesus which are contrary to what the extant New Testament manuscripts say), thus I have not been converted to Islam. I discovered some Gnostic Christian ideas (such as Jesus speaking while a newborn babe, that Jesus did not die on the cross/stake but that someone resembling him did instead) and ideas from some of the “Old Testament Apocryphal” books of the Ethiopic Orthodox Church (that Satan was commanded to bow down to/prostrate himself to Adam, that Adam repented of his sin of eating the forbidden fruit) in the Koran, a lot of verses devoted to teaching hellfire torment as well as a lot verses devoted to teaching living in paradise (reminds of the apocryphal book of 2nd Esdras [including the 70 verses missing from nearly all Latin mansuscripts and which were thus never including in the King James translation of the Apocrypha]). Some of these ideas are illustrated from the following quote from the Saheeh translation of Surah 40:39-41, “O my people, this wordly life is only [temporary] enjoyment, and indeed, the Hereafter – that is the home of [permanent] settlement. Whoever does an evil deed will not be recompensed except by the like thereof; but whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, while he is a believer – those will enter Paradise, being given provision therein without account. And O my people, how is it that I invite you to salvation while you invite me to the Fire?”

  • Tariq

    Hi. If someone wants to understand Quran in English, here is one;

  • Tariq
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