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Talk given at British Library during Sacred exhibition (27 April–23 September 2007 )
Sacred was the most successful exhibition, in terms of visitor numbers, in the British Library's history.


A vital first step for those interested in trying to understand their Muslim neighbours is the gaining of some knowledge of the Koran, the adamantine bedrock of Muslim belief. However the Koran can appear be a very baffling and mysterious document. Even for those motivated by a passionate Islamic faith, understanding the true nature of the Koran is a lifelong work.

We should begin, as every Muslim does with the Fatihah, the opening verse.

In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate [Bismallahi 'rrahmani 'rrahim]
Praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds ( or 'The Lord of All Being')
The all-Merciful, the all-Compassionate
King on the day of reckoning ( or 'The Master of the day of doom')
Thee only do we serve, and to thee do we pray for help
Guide us on the straight path
The path of those whom though has blessed
Not of those against whom thou art wrathful, nor of those who are astray.

We might, therefore, consider how a western ear responds to this verse of the Koran. First of all, we recognise some of the habitual words of daily greeting and blessing encountered throughout the entire Muslim world, such as 'Bismallah' -in the name of God, as well as 'Al Hamdu lillah'- Praise be to God. Secondly we should know that this verse is widely acknowledged to be the Islamic equivalent of the 'Lords prayer' recited several times a day as a repeated element in each of the five daily prayers of a Muslim. Within Islamic tradition it is believed to have been revealed to the Prophet Muhammad on two separate occasions, right at the beginning (perhaps the seventh revelation he ever received) and then towards the end of his life as a Prophet. The concluding 'Amen' was added at the direct instance of the archangel Gabriel. In looking at the Fatiha, we should notice how God is addressed, as both all-merciful and all-compassionate. These titles, prefacing all verses of Koran, manifest great hope for all humankind. But this verse also expresses an anxiety, an introspection, a God wrathful of humans who have strayed and the prospect of the terrifying end of our world.

Moreover, for those coming from a Christian tradition, one notices a subtle difference. In Islam, as in Judaism, there is no conception of an original sin that needs redeeming by Christ's blood sacrifice. Indeed within Islam, Adam is saluted as the first of the prophets, pardoned by God as he leaves the garden of paradise and given a job to do on earth, as well as an excellent location, Ceylon, with Eve at Jeddah, meeting with joyful union on the now flattened plain of muzdalifa. This representation of Adam is far removed from the dejected shameful refugee of my Christian upbringing, where Adam is faced with ploughing a muddy field all by himself accompanied by much loose talk of the curse of eve.

In Islam, therefore, Humankind, is not so much waiting for the gift of salvation, but an errant flock that needs constant warning to keep to the right moral path. This world view considers Sin not as some curse descended from Adam and Eve, but as being due to a habitual lack of attention. This might be considered the origins of the slight melancholic sadness (Huzn), almost a tone of regret, which is to be found in the Koran. In this interpretation, the Koran is a work of such splendour and mystery, that it is too great for a human audience to attend it. The Koran too, like all of the tens of thousands of Prophetic revelations before it, is thereby fated to be ignored by a listless distracted mankind whose eye is constantly drawn elsewhere, to pride, greed and avarice or to its modern avatars: to fashion shoots, film stars, sporting heroes or celebrity gossip. This Koranic mood of sadness is borne out of an innate failing, a falling away from, and a lack of gratitude to God. It is for this reflex that mankind needs constant reminding, and it is this reminding which is the continuous purpose of the prophets on earth and the recitation of the Koran. It is the Koran which -rather than allowing the innate greed, hunger, anger, violence and selfishness of the untrammelled ego to dominate- reminds us to keep to the right path, the way of life which ensures that you care for the sick, the old, the poor, the helpless, the young and the stranger in your midst.

We can also try and place the Koran in a modern humanist construction which might enable atheists to understand what motivates people who are interested in religion. God -as addressed in the Koran as the All-Merciful and All-Compasssionate - is imagined as a great reservoir of Universal Compassion -which we all need to draw upon to combat our inner-selves. These inner selves represent the greed, violence, and hunger incubated by thousands of generations of brutal struggle for survival in our Darwinian past allowing the selfish gene to rampage. God -as this reservoir of compassion- enables us to transform ourselves and create a humankind which sees itself as a single organic community, which lives as a true brotherhood in which men do not kill, steal and watch each other starve but help and care for each other.

This eternally relevant message may not get through. There are many problems of perception for any westerner wishing to relate to the Koran. This is not just my opinion but is actually contained within a verse of the Koran itself> "When thou recitest the Koran we place between thee and those who believe not in the life to come a dark veil" And we put covering over their hearts lest they should understand it, and in the ears a heaviness" Night Journey, 17, 48-49

So I have created a list of the seven veils that continue to shroud the Koran from the casual inspection of a non-believer.

Veil One
The first problem of perception is that the Koran is not a historical narrative, it has no clear beginning, no middle and no end- still less is it a biography of the Prophet Muhammad. For those brought up in the western canon which comprises novels, biographies and histories) it has no discernible plot-line, no character developments, no photographs, very few references to any contemporary characters or geographical features. To western eyes it is an initially baffling composition, to the degree that some of the early British champions of Islam and of the Prophet Muhammad - men such as Thomas Carlyle - complained that it is hardly a book at all.

Yet this is indeed the right way to look at the Koran. It is not a single book but rather a collection of a over a hundred revelations that came to the Prophet Muhammad over a twenty year period, roughly divided into twelve years at Mecca, 610-622 and ten years at Medina, 622-632. A traditional pious Muslim will believe that Muhammad is merely the messenger, who recited what the Archangel Gabriel gave him from the perfect prototype that exists in heaven. Each verse can almost stand on its own. Indeed it is arguably better to read and think about one verse a day, instead of diligently aspiring to be an earnest student who quickly reads his way through the Koran. All verses essentially repeat the same divine story which urges humankind to keep to the moral highroad.

At times it seems to me as if the 114 verses of the Koran enable God to speak to all the different levels of intelligence and understanding within humankind, within their own limits of knowledge and experience. This is as powerful as if the terrifying stories of Hell and the Final day were required to break through into the battle-hardened souls of the tough pagan Bedouin warriors of the time of the Prophet. However, this approach is not the object of Islam. We see this in the story of Rabbia, an early mystic who traveled with fire in one hand and water in the other, on her way to burn paradise and quench the fires of hell, demonstrating that a true Muslim should strive purely out of a love of God, rather than the influence of either the rewards of heaven or the fires of hell.

The apparent contradictions and repetitions between verses fall away as you enter the true animating spirit. Instead you see how the verses interweave references to each other, share and develop phrases to build up into a complex, multi-hued spiritual directive. This is demonstrated by the fact that there is no single Sura devoted to the great Prophetic example set by Moses, although you will find forty-four references to Musa in the Koran.

Veil Two
Another difficulty for the Western-trained reader to comprehend is in the ordering of the Koran. When the verses of the Koran were first bound together into a single book under the third Caliph Uthman, in 650 AD (eighteen years after the death of the Prophet) there were found to be 6,211 verses arranged within 114 distinctive Sura, or 'Signs', which the community of believers (especially his wives, such as Aisha and Umm Salamah) remembered had been derived from some 200 separate instances of divine revelation. Some were very long, like Sura 9 - Immunity, (130 verses) and Sura 5, the Table, (120 verses) while some like Sura 112, The Unity, are just a brief four lines long. There was no initial attempt to put these different verses into chronological order. With the exception of the Fatiha, placed at the beginning in recognition of its importance, they were arranged by order of length. A western reader, coming to the Koran for the first time, will find themselves plunged into the most complex, multi-faceted verses first, which may well address political, social, legal, personal and philosophical issues in bewildering rapidity. Many of these can only be understood in the context of the understanding gained from other verses.

This is the direct opposite of the experience of a Muslim. A child at a morning-nursery, or at their aunt or grand-father's knee, will hear the simplest, most powerful, lyrical and forceful verses first. They will learn to recite these in parrot and this will remain the emotional, spiritual and literary backdrop for the whole of their life. A single word, or a half phrase from the Koran will, in later life, come galloping to their consciousness full of references and memories. The great Egyptian singer, Umm Kulthum, sang of love with an entirely secular refrain in a modern setting. Yet there are half phrases, words, intonations that reflect the prominence of the Koran, which, as daughter of a rural muezzin, she knew with such intimacy. In this way, stories of disappointed love often flicker with references to the search of a believer for God.

The perceived problem of ordering was addressed in various well-meant re-orderings of the English translations of the Koran. They embarked on the project of re-ordering the Koran into a systematic chronology to make an easier path for the western reader. The versions produced by the various Anglican Reverends such as Sale, Rodwell and Margoliouth (excepting the odd instances of inter-faith spite) remain lovely to my ears, perhaps because they laboured to add an echo of the Kings James Bible to their work. Yet the process unleashed a hornet's nest of academic footnotes and quarrels. This well-meaning project was made impossible by some of the middle period Meccan revelations being embedded within a longer Medina-period revelation. By the time of the translations by Arberry, Marmaduke Pickthall (Everyman) and Dawood (Penguin), traditional ordering reasserted itself.

Moreover, there is, in fact, an enormous virtue inherent in how the Koran was arranged. By ignoring the chronology, there was no attempt to impose an order of virtue upon the different verses. Although centuries of scholars and reformers have tried to argue that one verse can 'abrogate' or cancel out another, this can have no authority. Indeed it is dangerously presumptuous if you follow true Islamic belief. The practice of the early community of Muslims, included the habit of all-night Koranic recitations, which although directly encouraged by the Koran, is now considered too arduous. If Muhammad and the first community of believers accepted all these verses as one whole, how may this be contested by any Muslims today? Furthermore, it is traditionally taught that every Ramadan the archangel Gabriel tested the validity of the 'recitation' by having the Prophet Muhammad recite out the whole Koran. Indeed it was only when he was asked to recite the Koran twice one Ramadan, that the Prophet realised that his work was done and that his death was approaching. If God's chosen agent, the Archangel Gabriel was content with the 'recitation', how can a mere scholar dare suggest that they know better? Any leader or teacher who makes his own attempt at an authorative digest, offering an edited-down scrapbook of extracts, must be treated as someone who stands between the believer and their salvation. Although composed of 114 different verses, the Koran has to be studied and absorbed as an entirety or not at all.

Veil Three
When a non Muslim reads a Koranic verse for the first time, they must be aware that they are getting only half the picture. The Koran gives the divine answer: not the prayerful question set by Muhammad. The Koran does not document the petition from his heart, nor the social problems to which many of the verses are addressed.

In some instances, however, we know much more, or we believe we do, about the context of the revelation. We believe that Sura Imran came as a reply to a delegation of Christian Arabs or that Sura 80 'He Frowned', came as a personal reproof to the Prophet after his interview with a powerful chieftain when he turned his back on a blind man asking to hear the Koran. The Sura al Nur has been read in response to a whole basket of social issues that had divided the community at the time of Aisha being wrongly accused of adultery. However, we know that the Prophet's prayers and entreaties were also not always answered, as documented in at least three well-known historical incidents. There was a devastating year and a half gap after the first revelation before he received the next revelation. The prophet was disappointed after he publicly presumed that a revelation would come to answer the spiritual inquiry - about the nature of the soul - in Medina. Finally. he and the whole Muslim community were kept waiting for weeks to hear if his young wife Aisha was innocent of the charges of adultery.

Veil Four
Yet a new reader cannot know which Sura is addressed specifically to the Prophet; to his family of wives; or specifically to the early Muslim community at some historical emergency; and which has universal application. Many scholars have tried to work out a framwork, although once again political and doctrinal differences can quickly emerge from out of such works of piety. The Shia , who feel spiritual leadership of the community was invested in Ali (the prophet's cousin/early disciple/son in law and confidante), take great comfort from making lists of the Sura that seem specific to Ali and the household of Muhammad. Indeed some extreme Shia-partisans have argued that Uthman suppressed verses in favour of Ali. Fortunately, this is not accepted by anything like the majority who remember Ali's approval of Uthman's work, "Uthman acted with the advice of all the leading men among us and had I been ruler at the time I should myself have done the same." However it remains a widespread Shiite belief (shared by many of the Sufi brotherhoods within the Sunni tradition) that Muhammad gave Ali spiritual instructions that were considered to be too demanding and so were never made public.

More sober minded scholars, less interested in conspiracy theories and historical secrets, have yet come with up a remarkably similar editorial structure. For there has long been a tradition of dividing the Koran into three readings: the clear verses which could be read literally; those verses which were best read with awareness of the historical background and commentaries and those which should be read as a spiritual allegory. Others preferred to list them as known to those who knew Arabic; known only to the Prophet Muhammad; and those known only unto God. Though as always a true believer would be unwise to consider that the opinion of a mere human should ever be elevated above the word of God.

Veil Five
If Saul, an ardent early persecutor of Christians was converted by the blinding light and voice of Christ to become the great apostle of Christianity, it was the actual sound of the recited Koran (by a mere believer not the Prophet Muhammad) that turned the persecuting pagan Omar into one of its great zealous champions and its most successful Caliph. The Koran exists primarily as a sound, an oral recitation which was conveyed by God to the Archangel Gabriel, to Muhammad. The written book has always been a secondary source of holiness, removed one step from its first form. It is at its very best, a crib to empower a reciter. It is believed that those who just read the Koran in their mind, will never able to have the same relationship to the divine message as those who hear the message and allow it to penetrate both mind, heart and soul.

Obviously none of this is available to a Westerner in London, who cannot listen, read, understand, let alone recite Koranic Arabic. Those who cannot understand the recited verses of Arabic will always be in an outer circle, unable to approach anywhere near to the true understanding and power of the Koran. Those who read Arabic are at one remove, those of us who depend on translations into other languages are at a very distant remove indeed. One of my favourite entries from an Arabic-English dictionary published in Lebanon in the 60's reveals the vast pitfalls available to anyone attempting to work Arabic into English.

Listen to these two definitions.
Jawn - Black or White or Light Red or Day or an intensely black horse
Khal - Huge mountain, Big Camel, Banner of a prince, Shroud, Black stallion, Opinion, Suspicion, Bachelor, Horse's Bit, Weak-bodied, weak-hearted man, Imaginative man.

In spite of these great difficulties, the work of the translation ,or rather the Interpretation of the Koran, into an English text is an honourable and intensely important activity. We have already mentioned the achievements of Sale in the 18th century (leaning on the Frenchman Savary's work), followed by J. M Rodwell, by G. Margoliouth, Marmaduke Pikthall, N J Dawood (by background an Iraqi Jew), and J Arberry. But there are others who it remains to thank such as Abdullah Yusuf Ali worked in India in the 1930's to create the English version that is most highly rated by Muslims today. Nor should we forget a 12th century English scholar, Robert of Keeton who travelled through Italy, found the enthusiastic backing of the venerable abbot Peter of Cluny, laboured at Toledo whilst consulting the Arabic commentaries and grammarians, to make the first fair translation into Latin. In spite of the offensive label he diplomatically adhered to the title of his work, a close reading reveals considerable sympathy and dedication.

Amongst the moderns we must include Richard Bell and Thomas Cleary working in America. Michael Sells, having worked on translating the pre-Islamic odes of Arabia, has recently created an inspiring English rendition of some of the early parts of the Koran. His commentary is a delight in itself. For those of us without his gifts as an Arabist, he reveals the vast gulfs that must always stretch between any English rendition and the Koranic original. In one case he shows that most translators have chosen to translate the Arabic word 'hawiya' into an image of hell, such as 'the fire.' Its original range of Arabic connotations can indeed include hell, but are centred around 'the sense of loss that comes upon a mother when she loses her child", as well as 'the sense of falling' or a dread of falling down a continual abyss. In previous attempts, these delicate references to maternal grief, and to fear of the fate that have befallen their children on the Day of Calamity, 'when humankind are like moths scattered and mountains are life fluffs of wool', are totally lost. This difficult labour must, however, go on. Some 80% of the worldwide community of Muslims have no real knowledge of Arabic apart from one or two phrases, and even within the 20% of Muslims who are Arabic speakers, only a minority are competent to understand the Arabic of the Koran.

The one consolation for those of us on the very periphery of full comprehension of the Koran may be understood by even those fluent in Koranic Arab. There is a tradition that no human voice (or that even of the angels) can ever do justice to Sura 55. Even reduced to English it does indeed have some unforgettable phrases, "created the jinn from smokeless fire"
Or an earth from which
'all upon it will disappear
save the face of your lord which endures forever"

Veil Six
Those Westerners who have some familiarity with Islamic countries, have often noticed and commented with approval at the disciplined way in which the religious life of a Muslim community is organised. My father, a Roman Catholic Naval Officer was one of these. To watch an ancient mosque fill up with worshippers, all neatly taking their place, shoulder to shoulder, then performing the complicated stages of their highly physical prayer, standing, bowing, kneeling, prostrating together, is always an inspiring vision of unity and community.

This is repeated in the neat codifications of a believer. The five pillars of Islam (affirmation of belief, prayer, charity, fasting at Ramadan and the pilgrimage) appear to dovetail with the practice of five daily prayers, (dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, dusk and night). These are then mirrored by the five distinctions of Islam, namely: the honouring of poverty; the universality of all previous revelation; the inclusion of all humanity without reference to class, race, sex or ethnicity; the simplicity and clarity of worship; and the personal responsibility of every soul to choose between good and evil. To a lesser extent, these are, in turn, repeated by the five prohibitions (pork, gambling, alcohol, adultery, divination) and then echoed by the five favourite meats of the Prophet, [mutton, camel, gazelle, rabbit, chicken]; the five favourite fruits of the Prophet [dates, melons, cucumbers, grapes, water-melons]; the five qualities of manliness [bravery, patience, persistence, protection of the weak, defiance of the strong] and so on. Cumulatively, this creates the impression of an adamantine, inter-linked crystalline structure of faith, practice and belief.

Many Westerners often expect a similar order and discipline to emerge from the Koran. They can be shocked by the emergent nature of Islam that is revealed by a close reading of the Koran. For instance the very earliest verses from Mecca, suggest but three pillars to the faith: affirmation of the oneness of God, prayer and charity. Similarly the timing of prayer is initially prescribed for just dawn and dusk, as well as all night sessions, before later being fixed at the canonical five. Following the movement of the community of the faithful to Medina the direction of prayer is moved from Jerusalem to Mecca, there is the adoption of the practice of a month of fasting and finally the addition of the fifth and final pillar, the Haji, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

We find the nature of this revelation attested within the Koran itself,
"and we have parcelled out the Koran into sections
that though mightest recite it unto men by slow degrees
and we have sent it down piecemeal." Night Journey, 17; 107

Seventh Veil
The seventh veil regards that which is unsaid in the Koran. The allusions and tangential references within many of the Koranic verses are what generate much of its continual dynamism. The inquirer is thereby drawn into a form of imaginative dialogue, teasing out their own engagement. As an example for further consideration we might examine the Night Journey of the Prophet. There are actually three different references to this within the Koran, perhaps the two clearest are in Sura An-Najm (the star) and Sura Al-Isra (the Night Journey). But though the Sura are long, the references to this celebrated journey are quite brief and terse, "Glory to He who took his servant for a journey by night from the most sacred mosque to the farthest mosque, whose precincts We blessed, in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One Who hears and sees." Repeated in Sura Al-Isra " So did God convey by inspiration to his servant what he meant to convey. The heart in no way belied that which he saw. Will you then dispute with him concerning what he saw?"

But this Night Journey is one of the most decisive encounters in the Prophet's entire life. It is where the final form of the prayer ritual was received, where the daily liturgy of five prayers was received (bargained down with Moses' aid from the fifty first suggested), where the profession of faith was settled and where Muhammad had his most intense mystical experience. This was the miraculous journey to the Temple's ruins at Jerusalem on the back of the winged Buraq, a mystical communion with all the Prophets of old, ranked amongst the seven circles of heaven, where he was once again allowed to approach the Lote Tree/the Lotus of the Utmost Boundary towards the throne of heaven by Gabriel from which the four rivers of paradise flow. All of this took place in a mere instant. But all of these fascinating and important details by which the narrative is constructed, come not from the Koran, but from the traditions, teachings and sayings of the Prophet- as you have just heard.

In this case, mirrored by many others of lesser importance, it is the Sunna (the recorded lifetime example of the Prophet) and the Hadith, (his Sayings), amplified by learned commentaries that explain the historical background behind each Sura and explore any shades of grammatical meaning within the Arabic that provide us with the meat to put on the bones of the Koran. These other sources remain a supporting documentary back-up, that can elaborate and elucidate, but must never be permitted to contradict a Koranic verse. However much later generations of Muslim scholars and lawyers might venerate the first biographies of the Prophet and the great compilations of Sayings of the Prophet assembled by later scholars, they are all man-made and hence fallible. This is also true of their product, the great socio-legal compilations comprising of codified extracts from the Koran, the Sunna, and the Hadith that form the Sharia. The four legal schools of Sunni law and social behaviour: Maliki, Hanbali, Hanafi, Shafii, are often compared to the Mishnah and Talmud, the codification of oral traditions that accompany the Hebrew Testament. They cannot and must not be placed on the same shelf as the Koran.

Therefore, someone just entering the world of Islamic studies, or beginning to embark on reading the Koran confronts a quite bewildering body of accumulated oral and written tradition that now embellishes certain Koranic verses. There is no easy way to negotiate the pitfalls which these might entail, but let us consider the richness of some of these other supporting traditions that have become wrapped around some of the Sura.

Sura 97 - Power/Destiny/al-Qadr

We have revealed it in the Night of Power.
How can you know what is the night of Power?
Better is the Night of Power
Than a thousand months, hour for hour.
In it angels and the spirit alight,
On every errand by God made right
Peace pervades till dawn's early light.

This revelation is believed to have come upon the Prophet in 619 AD, at a period of his life in Mecca when the persecution of the pagans seemed on the point of breaking his spirit. His great soul-mate and confidante, his wife Khadijah had just died, as had his adoptive father, his paternal uncle Abu Talib, who though not a believer had resolutely protected Muhammad all his life. Three years before a hundred Muslims had decided to escape the persecution by taking refuge in Christian Ethiopia.

The 'It' is understood to be the Koran. This may describe a brief and intense vision of the entire divine revelation which either came to Muhammad, or constitute an inspired recollection, a time-bonded anniversary of that first night when the Archangel Gabriel commanded him to recite the first revelation. But this time the experience came without the disabling fear of the first experience, and with a sense of the true glory of his mission. It has inspired endless poetic inquiries, all of which respect the sense of mystery. The date is avidly celebrated throughout the Muslim world, as prayers and petitions are believed to be especially efficacious. Families will wean children into the habit of Ramadan by encouraging the young to join them in a daylight fast for this one night, then celebrating the event with a special meal at dusk and by the wearing new clothes, before joining the care-free festival-like atmosphere that fills the streets. Like Christian children spotting Santa's sleigh in the night-sky of Christmas Eve, the stars in the sky seem to sparkle with twice their accustomed light with angels rushing through the heavens on errands of mercy. Though in keeping with the spirit of this mysterious revelation, no-one knows exactly which date night the Night of Power is, although it is believed to be somewhere in the last ten nights of Ramadan with the 26th often favoured.

But the reader must also be aware of the dangers of the Koran, for many before them have found that once the veils have been lifted away, they find themselves dazzled and obsessed. As Ibn Arabi, al Sheikh al Akbar, the great master, warned 'everything comes from the Koran and its treasures" and advised his followes to "Plunge into the ocean of the Koran if you can breathed deeply…otherwise content yourself with the study of the commentaries and its apparent meanings"

He wrote 300 books, all of which are extended poetic and philosophical commentaries set around the jewel of a Koranic verse. His great work, The Meccan Openings is an extended commentary on 'the seven verses for repetition' the short Fatiha with which we began this evening. Rumi, the other great mystical exponent of Islam found himself similarly consumed. Rumi's fabulous collection of 27,000 Persian couplets, is entirely based around lifting up phrases and lines from the Koran and dancing with them with words, music and contemplation.

"Do not look for God
look for one
looking for God
But why look at all?
He is not lost
He is right here
Closer than your breath"

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