I used to think of the Koran as an impenetrable text, which reveals itself only to Arab speakers. Thanks to a new translation, I can appreciate it tooby Shereen El Feki / July 24, 2004 / Leave a comment
You know you’re buying a special sort of book when other customers start interfering at the till.
“No, not that way,” said a man with an Egyptian accent, as I handed my pile of books across the cash desk at Waterstone’s. “The Koran must always be on top,” he chided, leaning over to rearrange my purchases. But how should it lie in the plastic bag next to the other books? My fellow shopper-cum-spiritual adviser was at a loss, “I don’t know about plastic bags.” Then he brightened: “God forgives all.”
While the Koran may be short on such finer points of modern etiquette, millions turn to it every day for advice on matters as mundane as arranging a loan and as spiritual as the afterlife. For the world’s 1.3bn Muslims, the Koran (which means “reading” or “reciting”) isn’t just a special book, it’s the special book – the direct word of God revealed by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, between 609 and 632AD.
The power of the Koran lies in its language, as well as its message. Islamic tradition is full of stories of unbelievers who were won over to the faith at the mere sound of its words. Arabic speakers marvel at the beauty and complexity of the language of the Koran, which they take as proof of its divine origin. The music of the verses that make up its 114 suras, or chapters, is clearest in the calls to prayer which ring out from the great mosques of the Muslim world. But I have heard it in as plain a place as my parents’ home in Canada, where my father rises at five every morning to recite from the holy book.
The trouble is, I don’t understand what he’s saying. I was born a Muslim, because my father is Muslim and so too the long line of family which stretches from the concrete of Cairo to a village deep in the Nile delta. My mother comes from a rather different green valley – in south Wales, where her father was a lay preacher, and her brother an Anglican vicar. She converted on marrying my father, and I was brought up with an icing of Islam – avoiding pork, shunning alcohol, absorbing a few verses of the Koran by rote. But I never learned how to pray, and never studied Arabic. Some of my father’s Muslim…