Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What you should know about Islam

It seems to me, when commentary about religion occurs on these forums it is mostly about Christianity. There has been very little critical analysis of Islam. As a religion with over 1, 5 billion subscribers, most of what I read about it is sorely lacking. In the interests of fairness and the understanding of Islam -- and its impact on the world -- here is a very brief primer on the basics of Islam, its founders, its history, its documents and its politics.


Islam is a set of instructions for the propagation an aggressively expansionistic theocracy. It is founded on a collection of dictations spoken by a warrior-priest named Abu al-Qasim Muhammed ibn ?Abd Allah ibn ?Abd al-Mutalib ibn Hashim -- more commonly known as Muhammed.

Muhammed was an illiterate seventh century trader who, at the age of forty, changed careers to become a prophet and later a warlord. By claiming these verses were allegedly revealed to him by a supernatural agency, Muhammed declared he was authorised to start his new religious career and this is what he did.

About twenty years after his death these proclamations were assembled from numerous sources, some written down but most often from memorised oral stories, into a single gospel called the Koran. Koran means recitation.


It is also important to know that these sources of these verses came in a variety of dialects of Aramaic, Persian and early, pre-formalised Arabic, with bits and pieces of most of the languages spoken around the Gulf States – like Hebrew and Greek by one of the late prophet’s scribes, Zayd ibn Thabit. Ibn Thabit was ordered to compile this Koran by the caliph of the time and it is referred to as the Uthman Koran after the caliph.

Once Zayd ibn Thabit had completed his task, copies were made of this authorised and accepted Koran were sent out to different cities with instructions that all earlier conflicting Korans were to be burnt. It should be said that not all Muslims of the time like this version of the Koran – each had their own favourite. This is true to this day.

Ibn Thabit’s Koran is divided into 114 sura or chapters, chapters are divided up into aya or verses.

The famous Sana’a Koran – the Muslim equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls, found in 1972 – shows that these early palimpsest Korans did indeed have discrepancies were dated to around 19 years after Muhammed’s death. Most modern Korans are based around the version standardised in 1918, in Cairo – known as the Hafs Koran.


It is written in the Hadith that the first compilations of the Koran had different suras and ayas (chapters and verses)¬ and some of these people were sad that many of Muhammed’s  teachings and saying had been lost (One of Muhammed’s wives, Aisha, lamented that a goat ate two sura as they lay drying on the night Muhammed died).

In spite of Zayd ibn Thabit’s authorised Koran – with orders to destroy by burning the earlier versions –regional Arabic, Aramaic and other linguistic dialects meant that there were many other versions of the Koran based on different interpretations of the original pre-formalised Arabic.

Originally, scholars said there were seven basic texts but these have now grown into twenty variants all of the Middle East. Most of Muslims use the Hafs Koran but others, like the Warsh and Qalun, are popular in northern Africa.


By the 9th century, the spread of Islam had made Arabic a widely spoken language but because of its informal nature regional dialects were diverging at such an alarming rate that the clergy formalised Arabic to make it match the various linguistic structures of the original Uthmanic Koran.

It is important to note that Ibn Thabit’s Arabic was a collection of roughly corresponding pidgin Aramaic dialects that had no vowels, missing consonants and no punctuation. The original Arabic of the Uthman Koran Arabic had words and grammar and syntax of dozens of other languages, some related, some wildly foreign.

By adding diacritics – the little dots, curls and slashes that added in missing vowels, consonants and Punctuation – early Arabic was formalised. Modern Arabic, however, has very little in common with Ibn Thabit’s Arabic.


The Koran is what Ibn Thabit collected, a dense collection of speeches and sayings and explanations allegedly spoken by Muhammed. It is highly repetitive and dense and somewhat confusing. The work is not broken down into thematic portions but rather clusters of different themes repeat continuously through the text like vignettes.

The text is arranged, after the introduction, from the chapter with the biggest in front trailing to the smallest. There are guides which explain Ibn Thabit’s presumed chronology of the chapters for those interested.


While the Koran is most important to Muslims, the collections of the Hadith are a very close second to most (although there are minority groups of Muslims who only accept Koran as a sacred text but not the Hadith).

The numerous eye witness accounts of Muhammed’s life were assembled in the 9th century into collections of biographies (sira), and legal and religious instructions (Sunna) called the Hadith. This happened around the same time Arabic was formalised and the diacritics were added. Without the diacritical marks for much needed consonants and vowels, the original Arabic made about 20% of the Koran unintelligible – roughly one sentence in five – and sometimes a word had up to thirty different meanings without the diacritics.

To understand the importance of the Hadith is that the Five Pillars of Islam, the basic core instructions to subscribe to the faith – Sahadah: submit to Allah and accept Muhammed as the prophet of Islam; Salat: Prayer; Zakat: Obligatory charity; Sawn: The fast during the lunar month of Ramadan; and Hajj: the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca - are taken from different Hadith.


Both the Koran and Hadith command the formation of a caliphate, a collected Islamic nation (umma) governed by a caliph using Islamic law (shari’a). Islam, by its nature is a political religion or theocracy.


The nature of the Koran and Hadith mean that much of these texts are densely obscured by colloquialisms and idioms known to the Arabs living in the area surrounding and including Mecca and Medina. To help Muslims understand the Koran and Hadith, Islamic scholars have written many exegetic and apologetic texts explaining these colloquialisms and idioms. These exegeses are called tafsir. There are also biographies of Muhammed, extracted from the Koran and Hadith and other sources, called sira.

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