Ramadan Nights

Robert Irwin

  • The Koran translated by N.J. Dawood
    Penguin, 464 pp, £7.99, January 2003, ISBN 0 14 044920 5

Back in the 1960s, when I was studying to become a Sufi saint in North Africa, my Sheikh told me to read the Koran again and again, stopping only for prayers, meals and sleep. At that stage in my life I had only the most elementary knowledge of the background to the Koran. Equally crucially, I had no knowledge of, or access to, the vast body of exegetical literature developed over the centuries to explain it. The only sort of training I had as any kind of exegete or glossator was being taught for A-level how to read Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens. In the circumstances, the repetitive reading of the Koran day after day was a curious experience. The book is quite short – shorter than the New Testament – so I found it possible to read the whole thing in a day. My reading in the broiling sun became a kind of fever. The powerfully rhythmic text was full of enigma, menace and (not surprisingly, considering my environment) mystical promises. Attempts to read it as a story, in the way that one can read a Gospel, were doomed to failure. Faced with obscurities in the Koranic text and true to the intellectual world I had grown up in, I tried to supply my own explanations, based partly on my reading of Sufi masters, but also on a half-baked knowledge of existentialism, Zen Buddhism and the ethos of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Only slowly over the decades was this exciting approach to reading a major religious text replaced by more academic strategies. (I comprehensively failed all parts of the exam to become any kind of saint.)

The context in which one reads the Koran and the expectations one brings to that reading are crucial to one’s understanding of it. In the 1960s, most of those in the West who thought about Islam at all expected that it could soon be relegated to the dustbin of history, though few would have put it quite so brutally. In order for Islam to survive, it would have to accommodate itself to scientific and democratic ways of doing things and the prescriptions and proscriptions of the Koran would have, accordingly, to be fudged. Islam was one of the most prominent victims apparently doomed by the Triumph of the West.

Faced with the challenge of modernity, many Muslims today, rather than accommodate themselves to the age-old fudges that have prevailed in so many Muslim societies, have resorted instead to a kind of textual Puritanism. Instead of referring to the way things were done in, say, colonial Morocco, or Ottoman Turkey, or, much further back, under the Abbasid caliphs, they prefer to return to the ‘simple truths’ of the Koran. The Koran, however, is not simple, and in many centres in Britain, Pakistan and elsewhere the standard of training in the basic tenets of Islam, including the meaning and context of the Koran, is staggeringly poor. Naive literal readings are soldered onto modern preoccupations with the menaces of Zionism, globalisation and feminism, and this third-rate religious education is one of the things that fuels fundamentalist violence. I have a sense that for some hapless, underemployed and spiritually ill-schooled young Muslims, the Koran is a style accessory that goes hand in hand with martial arts training and watching videos of aeroplanes being blown up. On the other hand, there are those Western infidels, whose reading background is mostly in fiction, who pick up an English version of the Koran expecting to be shocked by its exotic barbarism. There have been many, like Fay Weldon at the time of the Rushdie affair, who have read an English translation and are just as shocked as they expected to be.

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