• When Evil Is Cool

    What Is the Koran?

    The main issue in "What Is the Koran?," by Toby Lester (January Atlantic), is not how one looks at the Koran as a so-called historical text and analyzes it according to the principles of textual or biblical criticism but, rather, how one conceives the very notion of revelation. What corresponds to Christ as the word of God in Christianity is not the Prophet Muhammad but the Koran in Islam.

    The acceptance of the Koran as the word of God suggests that the so-called historical and textual study of the Koran is tantamount to questioning the historical existence of Jesus Christ, as some people in the West have claimed. The rules of biblical criticism do not apply to the Koran as God's revelation, because what corresponds to the Bible is the hadith collection, which comprises the words and deeds of the Prophet of Islam as the Bible comprises the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. Both the hadith books and the Bible were compiled after the revelation, whereas the Koran has existed in its present form from the very beginning of Islamic revelation. To claim that the so-called history of the Koran undermines or casts doubt on its being a divine revelation is not only to misunderstand the nature of the Koran but also to go against the historical evidence.

    Besides these fundamental points, the author confuses many issues. First of all, the so-called textual and historical study of the Koran does not entail the rejection of the Koran as God's word. Classical scholarship, especially the sciences of Arabic grammar, lexicography, and Koranic exegesis, is peerless. To claim that Muslims have not studied the historical and textual dimensions of the Koran is to admit an ignorance of Islam and Muslims -- unless one intends to blame Muslims for taking their sacred book seriously. The author's mention of some modern Muslim thinkers as proof for his claim that the Koran is not the word of God is flawed and misleading. Although the historicist and modernist reading of the Koran represents only a small minority in the Islamic world, not even this perspective abrogates the divine origin of the Koran, as the author seems to imply. To claim to read the Koran from a certain historical point of view without denying its sacred character is one thing; to see the Koran as a text devoid of any divine substance and written by human beings -- in the way many modern Westerners claim the Bible was written -- is another.

    Seyyed Hossein Nasr

    The rage of some Orthodox Muslims about the modern historical, literary, and philological study of the Koran, as described in the excellent article by Toby Lester, has close parallels in the attitudes within the Jewish religious community toward the modern study of the Bible. In the nineteenth century the critical study of Hebrew scriptures was widely regarded as not only undermining the authority of Scripture but also motivated by contempt for Judaism. Even a religious moderate like Solomon Schechter (the president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America from 1902 to 1915) labeled Julius Wellhausen's higher criticism of the Pentateuch "higher antisemitism." Yet although it is true that some Christian practitioners of biblical scholarship have not been free of anti-Semitism (just as it is probably true that some Western students of the Islamic world are not free of contempt for Middle Eastern culture), the personal attitudes and motives of the scholars are not in themselves sufficient reason to discredit their work.

    The results of Bible criticism have been fruitful and have even been accommodated into modern Jewish religious thought. Today critical study of Hebrew Scripture is the foundation of biblical studies in all the liberal Jewish seminaries, including Schechter's own Jewish Theological Seminary, where it is taught that the religious message of Scripture is derived from the complex interaction of traditional and critical-historical interpretation. The assumption is that faith must be founded in truth, whatever paths lead to that truth and wherever that truth leads.

    Raymond P. Scheindlin

    Scrutinizing religious texts as if they were doctoral dissertations in particle physics is absurd and disingenuous. These writings, from whatever source or tradition, function as elaborate, organic apologetics for systems of irrational belief. Hauling them out of their musty closets for critical examination robs them of their efficacy and purpose. So-called biblical or Koranic scholars are nothing more than overeducated Creationists, attempting to dress up ancient mythologies in costumes of scientific legitimacy.

    David Fishbeck

    I enjoyed the well-researched "What Is the Koran?," but I wish that Toby Lester had provided a bibliography to enable readers to pursue the fascinating material he referred to.

    Though he gives the title of The Origins of the Koran, he neglects to mention the editor and publisher of the book, and tells us nothing about the nature of the essays included.

    The book's editor is Ibn Warraq, an ex-Muslim, and it is published by Prometheus Books. Warraq is the author of Why I Am Not a Muslim (also published by Prometheus Books), which is far more radical than anything written by Nasr Abu Zaid. Ibn Warraq examines every single tenet of Islam, and fearlessly criticizes it from a scientific point of view. In The Origins of the Koran, Warraq brings together some classic and very critical essays on the Koran that were written when scholars were not bound by fear or political correctness.

    Tariq Ismail

    One of the facts Toby Lester omits is that to this day, whenever copies of the Koran are made, copies that are incorrect are simply buried. It is very plausible that mistakes have been made in copies scribed by hand. The most common way of disposing of these copies is to bury them, and what better place to bury them than in a mosque? I think the aberrations Lester is excited about are mistakes made in copying.

    Khalid Sulaiman

    Toby Lester exhibits a confused understanding of some aspects of Muslim thought (and makes some statements that are simply misleading) and a confusion between two interesting topics: the history of the Koran and the interpretation of the Koran. In addition, Lester makes use of references that are out of print and/or written by self-proclaimed antagonists to Islam. In other words, the author's major references can't be checked, and some of his sources are clearly bigoted -- not academic.

    Lester refers to the seemingly authorless The Origins of the Koran. His lapse in attribution is understandable, given that this collection of essays is edited by none other than the infamous, pseudonymous Ibn Warraq, author of Why I Am Not a Muslim -- which cannot be described as anything resembling valid academic scholarship. Warraq articulated his purpose in writing the book: "This book is first and foremost an assertion of my right to criticize everything and anything in Islam -- even to blaspheme." One can only assume that his goals have remained unchanged.

    Similar problems abound with reference to the works of Patricia Crone -- which are out of print, as are the books by John Wansbrough referred to in the article. Thus I have to question Lester's assertion that anyone "engaged in the critical study of the Koran today must contend with Wansbrough's two main works" (emphasis mine). Are so few people engaged in such study that two seminal works cannot be kept in print?

    In the beginning of the article Lester discusses issues that involve the possibility of a historical development to the Koranic text that continued after Muhammad's death. At the end of the article, however, his emphasis shifts to issues related to the interpretation of the Koranic text -- as that text's history is currently understood. The general and usual understanding of the historicity of the text is that the Koran is a collection of Muhammad's utterances at discrete, identifiable times over a period of about twenty-three years. A proper understanding must thus always refer back to the historical context, or to questions being asked by contemporaries at the time of each "incident of revelation." In that sense Muslims have always understood the Koran as being bound by history, time, place, and context.

    Jeremiah D. McAuliffe Jr.


    Seyyed Hossein Nasr is not alone in denouncing my article as a "claim that the Koran is not the word of God," and I'm sorry to hear that it has been understood as such. I made no such claim, and intended none. What brought me to write about the Koran was curiosity: I had regularly seen newspaper and magazine stories on new approaches to the study of the Bible, and on various issues surrounding the historical Jesus, and I wondered why it was that nobody seemed to be reporting on new approaches to the study of the Koran. Did these simply not exist? That seemed unlikely for a text that is such a rich spiritual, social, linguistic, historical, and political document. If such scholarship did exist, why wasn't anybody talking about it? Indeed, why was there so little in-depth discussion of the Koran at all in the American media, despite the fact that this text is the foundation of a religion adhered to by almost a fifth of the world's population?

    My goal was therefore journalistic, not polemical: I wanted to discover what, if any, revisionist (as opposed to simply exegetical) studies of the Koran existed, and I wanted to explore the context in which they were -- or were not -- taking place.

    Once I had found that a variety of such studies did indeed exist (by using a library, which I heartily recommend to Jeremiah McAuliffe as a source for out-of-print books), I merely reported on what I had found, in as balanced and neutral a manner as I could. That some of this scholarship is provocative and iconoclastic does not mean that my mentioning it in print is somehow an "attack" on the Koran. If I were promoting a specific point of view, I might well have dismissed this scholarship as worthless (as does David Fishbeck) or blasphemous (as does Seyyed Hossein Nasr). As a journalist, however, I felt obliged to point out its existence.

    In writing my piece I sought, as well, to expose readers to the traditional Islamic understanding of the Koran and its origins -- a subject that never seems to get more than an oversimplified sentence or two in most press accounts. I devoted several pages of my article to presenting the conventional Muslim understanding of the Koran, sticking, as best I could, to the beliefs about the Koran that are shared by Islam's various sects. Nobody has yet written to take me to task for this account, and many non-Muslims have told me of their surprise at learning just how similar in content and message the Koran and the Bible are. It was my hope that by introducing readers to conventional as well as unconventional approaches to the study of the Koran, I was offering them the opportunity to evaluate these approaches for themselves. In this light, I think Khalid Sulaiman's approach is a good one: rather than writing my article off as an insult to Islam, he simply points out that textual deviations in the Yemeni Koran fragments don't necessarily require a revised understanding of Islamic history.

    David Fishbeck's dismissal of religion and the critical-historical study of it is facile: whether or not one believes in religious texts like the Bible and the Koran, the fact is that they have exerted centuries of enormous influence on culture, politics, language, literature, and morality -- as have the studies that have arisen to explain them. This is all worth serious scrutiny.

    When Evil Is Cool

    Roger Shattuck's article "When Evil Is 'Cool'" (January Atlantic) left me puzzled -- I could not figure out what prompted it. Most of Shattuck's examples, save Pulp Fiction, were from the past, yet his thesis seemed to be that we are today in danger of capitulating to the idea of evil as cool. Is he warning us against Nietzsche? No one actually reads Nietzsche anymore, and if people did, they wouldn't understand him. Is Shattuck saying that we are surrounded not only by Leopolds and Loebs but also by Darrows?

    William L. Scurrah

    Roger Shattuck's otherwise illuminating piece vastly oversimplifies the issue of Nietzsche's attitude toward evil. Shattuck seems to use Nietzsche as an exemplar of someone who displays "an attitude of assent and approval toward moral and radical evil, as evidence of superior human will and power." At any rate, Shattuck thinks that "the twentieth century has conferred astonishingly widespread respect for metaphysical evil by honoring the thought of Nietzsche." To be sure, Nietzsche's complex ideas (for example, the "will to power," "beyond good and evil," and the "superman") have been widely misinterpreted as lauding the triumph of the powerful over the weak or, worse, as harbingers of Nazism. The work of Walter Kaufmann and others has largely refuted this view. Kaufmann points out that the virtues Nietzsche praised are honesty, courage (especially moral courage), generosity, courtesy, and intellectual integrity. Although Nietzsche used "the will to power" as an explanatory concept (to explain, for example, why people behave in "neurotic" ways), he did not espouse the coercive use of power. Indeed, Kaufmann reminds us that "of all the sundry manifestations of the will to power, Nietzsche probably approved only of the striving for freedom." Furthermore, real "power" and morality for Nietzsche consisted not in triumphing over others but in "self-overcoming" -- that is, in the perfection and taming of the self. In this light it is very hard to see how Shattuck can construe Nietzsche's views as typifying an "attitude of assent" toward moral and radical evil.

    Ronald Pies

    Roger Shattuck's essay on how evil is becoming cool presents interesting perspectives but misses the core distinction. The great moral divide is between those who believe that purposely hurting others can be good and those who do not. People in the first category quarrel endlessly over the question of who deserves to suffer and who doesn't. Viewed from the other side of the moral divide, their quarrels and quibbles are just another case of pots calling kettles black. Their selective condemnations of evil, ostensibly in the name of human rights, are themselves foundations of hate.

    In today's political climate the most pervasive instance of cool harm-doing, one not even mentioned by Shattuck, is so-called retributive justice -- literally repaying an injury with suffering in return. Retribution's root idea is that adding more suffering to the world can be better than always opting for less -- that increasing the world's total anguish and affliction is sometimes morally right. As our political taste for punition steadily grows, retributive justice is becoming synonymous with justice itself.

    Good can never triumph so long as evil is done in its name. It will never prevail until good people accept the humane principle that any act to inflict suffering is wrong unless it is honestly meant as the most humane alternative that the situation presents, giving due regard to the interests of everyone affected.

    John A. Humbach

    My examples drew on literature from earlier periods in part because the blandishments held out by cool evil today have roots deep in our past. We can learn from those roots in Diderot and Baudelaire, in Emerson and Hawthorne -- and in the classics and the Bible.

    I assure William Scurrah that Nietzsche is widely and attentively read today in college courses in many departments. And I assure Ronald Pies that Walter Kaufmann, a fine translator, produces misleading commentaries that launder Nietzsche's writings, leaving out their most troubling content. That content may fall under John Humbach's "retributive justice," which he feels I overlooked. Perhaps so. However, the Orestes story, which I did bring in, embodies the crucial struggle to transform retributive justice (or retaliation, eye for an eye) into distributive justice (the rule of law).

    The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; April 1999; Letters; Volume 283, No. 4; pages 6-11.