A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
A Look Inside the Koran and the Bible
Father Sidney Griffith Compares and Contrasts the Texts
WASHINGTON, D.C., 26 JULY 2004 (ZENIT)
Muslims think of the Koran as presenting in Arabic the same message that God had previously sent down earlier in the Torah, at the hands of Moses, and in the Gospel, at the hands of Jesus.
So says Father Sidney Griffith, a professor of Semitic and Egyptian languages and literature at the Catholic University of America.
Father Griffith shared with ZENIT how Christians can better understand the Koran and how its teachings on Christ and Revelation differ from those found among Christians.
Part 2 of this interview will appear Tuesday.
Q: What exactly is the Koran? How was it written?
Father Griffith: The Koran—Qur’an, in the conventional transcription—in the sense in which we normally use the term, designates the holy scripture of the Muslim community.
It contains the revelations in Arabic, which God, Allah, sent down occasionally by the agency of the angel Gabriel to God’s messenger, Mohammed, from about the year A.D. 610 to his death in A.D. 632, the years during which the first Islamic community was assembling.
In the sense in which the term Koran is used in the text itself, it means the “reading” or “recitation” that God put on Mohammed’s heart, commanding him to read it, or to proclaim it, to its audience. Accordingly, in its origins the Koran was an oral “scripture” and to this day one normally hears it presented in a cadenced chant.
A relatively short time after Mohammed’s death, early Muslims collected the text of the revelations from the memories of the messenger’s companions and from some written aides de mémoire into the form and organization of the scripture, substantially as we have it in the standard editions today.
It comprises verses, described as marvelous “signs” from God, arranged in 114 suras, or chapters, each with its own name, taken from a key word in the text.
Conceptually, Muslims think of the Koran as presenting in Arabic the same message that God had previously sent down earlier in the Torah, at the hands of Moses, and in the Gospel, at the hands of Jesus.
Q: What would be the hardest for a Christian to understand about the Koran?
Father Griffith: First of all, a Christian, or any other reader unfamiliar with the biography of Mohammed and the early history of the Muslim community, is normally first struck by what he considers to be the disorder of the text.
It seems on a first reading, while being formally highly structured, to lack any topical system of narrative presentation.
In fact, the Muslim reader brings with him to the text in his Islamic consciousness the paradigms which enable him immediately to attune himself to the messages of the verses.
Secondly, the Christian reader knowledgeable about the Bible and the lore of early Christianity often finds it hard to understand the Koran’s way of dealing with biblical characters, stories and narratives familiar to him from the Bible and Christian tradition.
In fact, the Koran’s intention is not to repeat them. Rather, the Koran presumes in its audience a previous knowledge of these matters, enabling the Koran simply to allude to them or to evoke them in its audience’s mind for the purpose of making its own, often very different point.
Q: Briefly, could you explain the key differences between Islam and Christianity?
Father Griffith: The differences between Islam and Christianity are several; two of the most significant of them concern Christology and the theology of Revelation.
The Koran rejects the Christian confession of the divine sonship, that is, the divinity, of the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, as the Koran calls him. This denial in turn involves the rejection of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, on the grounds that it compromises the Christian profession of monotheism.
Furthermore, according to the Koran, the genuine, uncorrupted Gospel, together with the Torah before it, and the Koran after it, are on a par as revelations which God has sent down to human beings at the hands of the messengers: Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. In Chapter 33, Verse 40, it says that Mohammed is the last, or the seal, of the prophets.
But the Torah and the Gospel, in the form in which the Jews and the Christians actually have them, are considered by the Muslims to be textually corrupt and subject to distorted interpretations.
For most Muslims, the Koran is considered to be the uncreated word of God, whereas for Christians the Bible, under divine inspiration, is the word of God in the words of human beings.
Most of the other differences between Islam and Christianity flow from these fundamental differences in doctrine. There is also no clergy in Islam, comparable to Christian clergy; nor any authoritative, institutional magisterium, as in Catholicism.
Q: What part does the Koran play in Islam? Does it work along with Tradition, as in Catholicism?
Father Griffith: The Koran is the ultimate, revealed authority in Islam. There is no doctrine of a deposit of revelation both in Scripture and Tradition, as in Catholicism.
However, there is authoritative tradition, or “hadith,” in Islam, both in what is called holy tradition—“hadith qudsi”—and prophetic tradition—“hadith nabawi.”
The former is a report of a divine saying, repeated by Mohammed, which was nevertheless not included in the Koran, and therefore does not have the authority of the Koran. The latter is a report of a saying or an action of Mohammed, or a fact about him.
Traditions were collected and carefully scrutinized from the earliest days of Islam; a detailed system to guarantee the authenticity, or soundness, of genuine traditions was elaborated.
Since the ninth Christian century there have been official collections of sound traditions available to Muslim scholars for help in interpreting the Koran, especially in the effort to discern how to apply Koranic teaching to the vicissitudes of human life.
The Koran and the sound traditions are together the authoritative sources of Islamic law, of the biography of Mohammed, and of much else in the life of Muslims. ZE04072622
Father Sidney Griffith on the Koran's Treatment of Other Religions
WASHINGTON, D.C., 27 JULY 2004 (ZENIT)
The Koran proclaims that Jews and Christians are "People of the Book," but the sacred text sometimes expresses ambivalence about the two faiths, according to a Semitic-languages scholar.
Father Sidney Griffith, a professor of Semitic and Egyptian languages and literature at the Catholic University of America, shared with ZENIT what the Koran says about Jesus, Mary and the followers of Abraham, and how it provides points of convergence for interreligious dialogue.
Part 1 of this interview appeared Monday.
Q: The Koran mentions Jesus and Mary. Could you explain the context?
Father Griffith: The Koran mentions both Jesus and Mary a number of times, always in terms of great personal esteem.
Most importantly, in Chapter 4, Verse 171, the Koran presents Jesus, the son of Mary, as the Messiah, as God's messenger; Jesus is seen as a word of God which he cast into Mary, and a spirit from him, who is nevertheless, in God's sight like Adam, a creature — according to Chapter 3, Verse 59.
At one point the Koran says God asked Jesus, "Did you tell people to take you and your mother as two gods?" — a question that Jesus answered in Chapter 5, Verse 116, saying, "It is not given me to say what is untrue." Clearly, in the Islamic view, both Jesus and Mary are human beings.
The Koran regularly follows the mention of Jesus, the Messiah, with the epithet "son of Mary," as if explicitly to deny the Christian belief that Jesus is the "Son of God."
At one point the Koran denies that Jesus' adversaries killed or crucified him, saying in Chapter 5, Verse 157, "it only seemed so to them," a statement that most Muslims take to mean that Jesus did not in fact die on the cross.
On the basis of a number of other passages in the Koran, most Muslims believe that there will be a role for Jesus on the final day of reckoning. Many Sufis, Muslim mystics, revere Jesus as a model holy man.
Q: For a non-Muslim, the Koran seems to contain a number of contradictions. How would a Muslim see it?
Father Griffith: The contradictions that non-Muslims claim to see in the Koran involve a number of perspectives, both internal and external to the text.
Internally, for example, non-Muslims often point to perceived inconsistencies or reversals of thought or practice between the Meccan and Medinan periods of Mohammed's prophetic career. Externally, they might cite differences between narratives concerned with biblical characters as they appear in the Koran and in the Torah or the Gospel.
Muslims would not consider these differences to be contradictions. Rather, they would think of the non-Muslim's perception of contradiction to be due to a failure in hermeneutics, that is, a failure to read and to understand verses in the Koran on their own terms, and within the interpretive frameworks of the Islamic communities.
Q: What elements in the Koran could open the way for interreligious dialogue? What elements could limit such dialogue?
Father Griffith: In many ways the Koran encourages dialogue with Jews and Christians — "People of the Book" as the Koran calls them some 54 times. For example, Chapter 10, Verse 94, says, "If you are in doubt about what We have sent down to you, ask those who were reading scripture before you."
Chapter 29, verse 46, proclaims, "Do not dispute with the People of the Book save in the fairest way; except for those of them who are evildoers. And say: 'We believe in what has been sent down to us and what has been sent down to you. Our God and your God are one and to Him we are submissive.'"
But there is some ambivalence. It is also the case that the Koran provides a powerful critique of the religious beliefs and practices of Christians and Jews. It characterizes their beliefs as going beyond the bounds of religious propriety — for example, in Chapter 4, Verse 171, and Chapter 5, Verse 77) and their customary behavior as morally objectionable.
On the one hand the Koran says in Chapter 5, Verse 82, that Christians are "the closest in affection to the believers."
On the other hand, in Chapter 5, Verse 51, it says, "Taken them not as friends." Another verse — Chapter 2, Verse 120, says, "Neither the Jews nor the Christians will be pleased with you until you follow their religion."
And within the Islamic polity, as envisioned by the Koran in Chapter 9, Verse 29, the People of the Book are required to pay a special poll tax and to adopt a low social profile in return for the protection, "dhimmah," of the Muslims, hence the adjective "dhimmi," or "one under protection," as applied to Christians or Jews.
Nevertheless, the Koran provides numerous points of convergence for interreligous dialogue. One of the most important of them is the significance of the faith of the biblical patriarch Abraham.
While the Koran insists in Chapter 3, Verse 67, that he was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but a submissive monotheist, it also speaks of the "religion of Abraham" in terms very close to those used by Jews and Christians. The Koran speaks of Abraham as God's friend; so do Isaiah 41:8 and James 2:23.
Q: What do you think attracts Western converts to Islam?
Father Griffith: There are many factors involved in the attraction of Islam to religious seekers in the West.
Positively, Islam is a compelling, reasonable, uncompromising monotheism with a biblical flavor. It provides a compelling moral code, which many moderns and postmoderns view as both realistic and honorable. The Koran's prophetology provides a congenial estimation of what it perceives to be the positive factors in earlier revelations, along with reasons why earlier peoples failed to heed them faithfully.
Islamic history and tradition in various times and places have produced societies with many admirable intellectual and scientific accomplishments. Many Westerners find Islamic mysticism attractive; others see in Islam an effective religious answer to what they view as the ills of the modern Western world.
On the negative side, many Christians who are attracted to Islam lack an adequate understanding of the history and teachings of the Church, and are easily deceived by the many hostile attacks on the Church's doctrines, practices and historical record.
They are unaware of the Church's answers to Islam's critique of Christianity. The shortcomings and moral failures they perceive in Christian communities sometimes dismay them. Often they are unaware of comparable problems in other communities of faith, including the Muslims.
The prevalent materialism and secularism of Western society has in many instances convinced potential converts to Islam that only in Islam can they find an effective antidote to it.
Sometimes potential converts to Islam are overcome in their own efforts faithfully to live the Christian life and, failing to find effective pastoral care from fellow Christians, or failing to follow it, they receive moral guidance and support from pious, observant Muslims. ZE04072721
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