Wanting to read what 1.6 billion Muslims around the world believe to be the infallible, unalterable word of God, I picked up a copy of the Koran. It started inauspiciously: “This book is not to be doubted. It is a guide for the righteous, who have faith in the unseen and are steadfast in prayer”.
This life, says God, is but a sport and a pastime. The righteous can look forward to the rewards of the next life, which reflect the desiderata of desert tribesmen living in the 7th century AD. Paradise is a garden watered by running streams and fountains, where believers can sit in shady groves of palms and vines, surrounded by “bashful, dark-eyed virgins”.
Non-Muslims, on the other hand, have less to look forward to. For the next 400 pages the torments awaiting unbelievers, infidels, apostates, idolators and evil-doers are described in revoltingly smug, lip-smacking detail. “The damned shall be cast into the Fire, where, groaning and wailing, they shall abide as long as the heavens and the earth endure, unless your Lord ordain otherwise: your Lord shall accomplish what he will”. Though Arabic has no word for what the Germans call schadenfreude, Muslims are obviously familiar with the concept.
I read the Koran in a translation by N J Dawood. Some Islamic scholars insist that the Koran can only be understood properly in the original Arabic, but, frankly, the book is so boring that I doubt if it would have made much difference. This is the problem with an “unalterable” text: it has never received which it needed most, a comprehensive edit. I read in the translator’s introduction that the sections can be read in any order, which should have rung warning bells that I wouldn’t find a cohesive narrative. There is only a seemingly endless catalogue of promises, threats and imaginative variations on the theme that “God is great”. The judicious use of a blue pencil would have reduced those 400 dreary pages to about a dozen… without losing anything of significance. The Koran has nothing to teach us about morality. Behaving well, merely to avoid the fires of hell: what kind of morality is that?
The book is “not to be doubted” because it is the authentic word of God, as revealed to an illiterate warlord, Muhammed, in what we used to call - during a brief lull in hostilities - the Holy Land. The voice is God’s own, revealing him to be sadistic, vengeful, dogmatic, unforgiving, tyrannical, small-minded, pedantic, insecure and narcissistic. He rules through fear, threats and promises, and demands to be worshipped constantly. God is probably the least attractive character in all fiction, and he says the same things… over and over and over again.
Islam is a man-made religion. Women are mentioned - though not addressed directly - along with slaves, camels, sheep, goats and the other chattels that were of monetary value in a desert economy. The “bashful, dark-eyed virgins” are rewards for the righteous. Men can have sex with their wife, or wives, or a favourite slave-girl. The punishment for a woman taken in adultery is death.
God knows everything. God sees everything. God knows what you are thinking. God knows the day of your demise. He made the heavens and the earth, the fish and the flowers. He made the rain that waters the crops, and he created man… from a germ and a clot of blood. And all he asks from his followers, in return for all this bounty, is that they praise him ceaselessly, obey his every instruction and smite his enemies at every time of asking. I was reminded of George Orwell’s definition of totalitarianism: “a boot stamping on a human face - forever”. The Koran manages to be both dull and terrifying at the same time… and that’s a bad combination.
The claims to have unique access to the “one true God” are not exclusive to Islam, of course. And if your God is the only true God then it follows that all other gods must be false. Islam isn’t the only religion to wish ill on those who worship other Gods and ‘golden calfs’. But Islam makes one unique claim for itself: that it is the last revelation. God will have nothing further to say to mankind. This is it.
The tone of the book is an incitement to violence, but the judgements go much further than that. With the Koran still believed to be the unalterable word of God, the 7th century violence has transferred into the 21st. These are no empty threats. The penalty for apostasy - leaving the religion - is the same today as it was 1,400 years ago. Death. That fact alone should dispel any notion, suggested by ‘moderate Muslims’, that Islam is a peaceful religion. Extreme muslims haven’t ‘misinterpreted’ the holy texts; the calls for violent reprisals are embedded in every page.
Revelations? Hardly. The Koran is 400 pages of white noise and nonsense, book-ended by the sincere hope that the end-times are at hand. For those who believe in paradise, the apocalypse can’t come soon enough. Islam is inviolable. God must not be mocked. The punishment for blasphemy is a small fine or a few hours of community service. Just kidding. It’s death, of course…