A Look Inside the Koran and the Bible (Part 1)

Father Sidney Griffith Compares and Contrasts the Texts

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 26, 2004 (Zenit.org).- 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.

[Tuesday: What the Koran says about other religions]

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