Tuesday, July 22, 2008

God as Amazon Reviewer

Another day, another effort to make the Koran compatible with modern life:

An-Na`im holds that traditional sharia, as it developed over the centuries following the revelation of the Quran, indeed sanctions aggressive jihad, the killing of apostates, the subordination of women, and dhimmitude or worse for non-Muslims. This history cannot be interpreted away. What can be reinterpreted is the Quran, which includes verses both from the earlier, more tolerant, Mecca period of Mohammed’s life, as well as those from the later Medina portion, marked by conquest and subordination. It was the Medina version that had become orthodoxy by the 10th century. But it is the verses from the earlier period that represent the true, universal message of Islam; the Medina verses were in fact an adaptation to particular historical circumstances in the life of the embryonic umma.
The argument that the Mecca verses are superior to the Medina verses rests on the idea that "particular historical circumstances" gave rise to the latter, but this begs the question. It's trivially true to say that texts originate in particular historical settings, so this just shifts the question from "which text is authentic" to "which particular historical setting gave rise to an authentic text?" Insofar as conformity with god's will is the measure of authenticity, any answers to this question will be unverifiable unless and until god shows up to answer: until then, we humans have the texts, and we have the historical settings of the texts (those historical settings and our understandings of them are, incidentally, available to us via texts unless there is a time-travel technology I've not heard about). What we don't have is god logging in and giving his five-star Amazon rating to one text and a one-star rating to the other text.

We also don't have a god snapping his almighty fingers and causing the inauthentic, unrepresentative, faulty verses to vanish. One would expect that to be an easy feat for an omnipotent deity notorious for caring about what people think and say about him. Evidently, if the god of the Koran exists, that god is content with the verses as they are, nice and nasty, Mecca and Medina alike.

As if that weren't enough to be swimming against in this effort to tart up the Koran for modern times, the many generations of Muslim scholarship have kept all the verses around and have considered them authentic, valuable, truthful, representative, and so on. The various contradictions have been noticed, and an entire subspecialty of Muslim exegesis has developed under the title of Naskh, or abrogation, which sets rules (or tries to) for cherry-picking interpretations amid the contradictions.

I would like to believe the Koran is compatible with the modern world and modern notions of human rights. I would like to believe a lot of things. The fact is, it isn't. And I've noted before the very steep challenges associated with efforts to whitewash holy texts.

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