In the past 50 years, thinkers have come to realize that Islam is an intrinsic part of the history of Western thinking on evil in complicated ways. Islam is linked to the older traditions of Jewish and Christian thought, but offers an alternate vision to them. There is also the way in which the Islam regards the Qur’an.
Islam and Other Abrahamic Religions
Islamic thought was deeply influenced by earlier Greek, Jewish, and Christian thinkers; and so, to understand Islamic thought reveals things about those earlier traditions that might otherwise go missing.
Islam was itself the source of the transmission of much pre-Christian literature and philosophy, especially Greek philosophy, to Western Christendom. These also picked up a good bit of insight on a series of important topics from the Islamic philosophers and lawyers themselves.
Also, Islam serves in a way as a kind of internal critic of the mainstream of Western thinking about evil; a critic who is both within and without this mainstream. It not only serves as a useful contrastive option to the main line of thinking that Western ideas of evil follow, but it also serves as a vital account that has its own integrity, even if it is somewhat oblique to that mainstream.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, Wondrium.
The Uniqueness of the Qur’an
The Qur’an is unique among the scriptures of the Abrahamic faiths in explicitly rendering the episode of the origin of evil in Creation by recounting the rebellion of Iblis, the rebellious spirit. Iblis is the one who becomes ash-Shaitan, the primordial rebel against God.
The Qur’an is the sacred text of Islam, but it is not viewed, per se, as the Muslim Bible. Yes, it’s roughly as long as the Christian New Testament and similarly divided into sections. There are 114 suras (chapters) in the Qur’an and each of those suras is composed of verses called ayahs, which is also translated as the word ‘sign’.
Each of the verses, thus, of each of the suras of the Qur’an is a sign of God’s providence and love towards humanity. So far so good; it looks like another holy book.
Learn more about the idea of evil in Abrahamic religions.
A Complex Relationship
But the similarities can mislead in some important ways. The Qur’an is complicatedly related to both Torah and the Christian Bible, New Testament and Old Testament.
First of all, Islam respects the sacred books of both the Jewish and Christian positions; it claims, in fact, that those books themselves contain significant dimensions of God’s revelation through the sending of the prophets of God. Islam incorporates significant segments of the narratives of both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament into its teachings; and, at times, the story themselves appear, slightly differently told, in the Qur’an.
The Written Revelation
Secondly, the Qur’an is not quite the same thing as a ‘bible’. A bible literally comes from the Greek word ‘the book’; the Qur’an literally means ‘the recitation’. The Qur’an is the revelation accorded to Muhammad, transmitted to him by the angel Gabriel; and Muhammad, then, would go recite it to his followers and to rivals and other people interested in the towns.
It was written down actually only in bits and pieces during Muhammad’s life, and then it was only compiled, collected, organized, and fixed textually after his death and canonized in the form that we have it, it seems to be, by Uthman, the third Caliph, who ruled about 20 or so years after Muhammad’s death.
The Perfect Record of the Divine
The vast majority of Muslims across the centuries have believed the Qur’an to be the perfect record of what the archangel Gabriel recited to Muhammad as God told him to recite. The Qur’an is composed entirely of exceptionally powerful lyric poetry, some of the most beautiful Arabic poetry ever written.
In a way that’s different from the Torah and the Christian New Testament and Old Testament, the Qur’an itself is sacramental; a material means of holiness; a way of participating in God; in some sense, more akin to the Christian Eucharist than to the Christian Bible or the Jewish Torah.
Form and Language of the Qur’an
The Qur’an is the word of God for Muslims, but in this case it is somewhat akin to how Jesus is the word of God for Christians because the Qur’an was recited by God to Gabriel in Arabic. In other words, there’s no distance whatsoever between the content of God’s message and the linguistic form in which it exists in the Qur’an.
In Islam, it’s very clear that the poetic form and the linguistic form of the Qur’an are exactly what God meant to give his people. At one point in the Qur’an God says, “I have given you an Arabic Qur’an, an Arabic recitation”; and that means that this language and this recitation, these poems, are intrinsically very theologically rich and dense.
Learn more about the Hebrew Bible and the fear of God.
Not Just Legal but Philosophical
Many people, in the West, perhaps—also many Muslims—think that the Qur’an is a rigorously legal text; but, in fact, it is literally an assemblage of poetic verses that shape the soul and informs the mind as much as guide the will, direct the will, of the believer. Of the roughly 6,000 verses in the Qur’an, only around 500 have the form of law, directly commanding or forbidding believers to do something or other.
Indeed, the entire Qur’an has only about 200 verses directly commanding believers to pray, but 600 verses commanding believers to reflect, to ponder, and to analyze God’s magnificence in nature, in plants, in stars, and in the solar system as a whole.
Common Questions about the Qur’an and Its Link to Christianity and Judaism
Islam was the source of the transmission of much pre-Christian literature and philosophy, especially Greek philosophy, to Western Christendom. These also picked up a good bit of insight on a series of important topics from the Islamic philosophers and lawyers themselves.
In a way that’s different from the Torah and the Christian New Testament and Old Testament, the Qur’an itself is sacramental; a material means of holiness; a way of participating in God. The Qur’an is the word of God for Muslims.
No. Of the roughly 6,000 verses in the Qur’an, only around 500 have the form of law.