I finished reading the Quran today. I was motivated to do so by a question posed to Sam Harris regarding what five books he would recommend that everyone read, one of which was the Quran. If I recall correctly, Harris suggested that one could read the Quran in a weekend, which suggests to me he either reads quickly, or more likely, is simply willing and able to hunker down for hours with a particular text. It took me much longer than a weekend to read it, but this was because I really didn’t enjoy doing so. But I kept at it, and eventually finished it.
I’m struck by a number of characteristics of the book. First off, it’s highly aphoristic, in that the thoughts in particular verses stand alone, and don’t really lead into other verses. In this way it’s an ultimately simplistic text, in that there’s really not a lot of development of complex concepts taking place. Complex ideas require sentences that flow into each other, which build into paragraphs and create chapters.
Clearly I have a bias reading this book, as I’m an atheist. Nevertheless, I’m willing to be persuaded by argument and evidence. What arguments and/or evidence does the Quran present to the non-believer to convince one of the existence of Allah? Well, first off, it seems to largely assume that the reader simply accepts the Old Testament accounts of the patriarchs. That Moses had a relationship with the Creator of the Universe is sort of presupposed. While I don’t doubt that the patriarchs really believed in YHWH, I’m simply not willing to believe myself on their say-so.
The other sort of “proof” of Allah that the Quran seems to offer is, roughly, what we would now call an Argument from Design. We are asked to notice how the day is “given” to humans for work and the night for rest. That dates are edible is suggested to be a design feature created by Allah for the sustenance of humans. We are asked to look at a camel and wonder how else a camel could come to be other than the creation of a Supreme Being.
It should be immediately obvious to anyone with any sort of proper scientific education living in the 21st century that the author of such claims was writing from a pre-Darwinian and pre-Copernican level of understanding. No, camels and dates were not “provided” for Homo sapiens, but were the products of evolution, just like ourselves. That the nature of the cosmos was mysterious to iron age peoples should come as no shock. It’s a classic case of “we don’t know, therefore God did it.”
It should be clear that such simplistic “proofs” for Allah are not persuasive.
Above all, I was aghast at the relentless demonization of “unbelievers.” The Creator of the Universe seems absolutely obsessed with telling the reader the fate of the unbelievers in the afterlife. A great deal of imagination and creativity is given over to lurid descriptions of Hell, which is in great contrast to the paucity of descriptors for Paradise.
There are certainly moral messages which we should all applaud, such as the virtue of charity. Yet like certain strains of fundamentalist Christianity, the afterlife is where it’s REALLY at, not the life we know we have here and now. There is very little if any material that promotes human thriving, or even touches on what we might call “numinous” experience, whether achieved through meditation, psychedelic drugs, or simply exercises which promote universal love. The grievously truncated version of Paradise (gardens in which rivers flow) given in the Quran suggests to me that Muhammad probably never consumed magic mushrooms, nor meditated, nor simply had any sort of genuine spiritual experience in which the “oneness” of the human experience was perceived. I could be totally wrong about this, but the obsession with “us vs. them” seems born of the very sorts of mental states that are antithetical to what I understand true spiritual experience to be.
The Quran contains passages of utter hate, direct admonitions to engage in physical violence such the infamous 8 12 and 47 4. It gives the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy a run for their money in this regard.
How does one come to believe this stuff? Like Christianity, or most religions, indoctrination starts in childhood. Questioning the veracity of the Quran is taboo, and is genuinely dangerous depending on the setting. I have to really wonder how Western adults, exposed to at least elementary or secondary levels of education, and not raised as Muslims, could come to be persuaded by this book. I know personally two men, both white Americans like me, who converted to Islam. I suspect, but do not know, that elements besides the Quran itself constituted the draw into conversion. Again I’m generalizing, but conversion to Christianity is usually not accomplished by reading the Bible cover to cover. Potential converts are given highlights and interpretations, not the straight text.
In the same way that oceans of human energy have been devoted to Christian theology, I understand that similar devotion has been given to Islamic theology. I absolutely concede that my understanding of this text is at an ignorant beginner’s level. Nevertheless it should be clear to anyone not indoctrinated into this belief system as a child, with a reasonable level of scientific education, that the Quran is very much a product of an iron age understanding of the cosmos with a relentless moral message of “us vs. them” that we should all find morally abhorrent.