A Muslim woman asking for protection from black magic inside the shrine of Abba Ruwais, a Copt saint, Cairo, Egypt, 1997

Abbas/Magnum Photos

A Muslim woman asking for protection from black magic inside the shrine of Abba Ruwais, a Copt saint, Cairo, Egypt, 1997

In the summer of 2015, I was asked by the directors of a university political science program to lecture about Americans’ attitudes toward Islam. I asked at the beginning how many in the audience (of about eighty students and faculty) had read the Koran. Four hands went up. Later, at lunch with faculty members, I was asked if the small number of politics students who knew the Koran surprised me. I had to answer, “Yes and no.” Yes, because 1.6 billion people live by this book, try to memorize it, quote it against each other as well as against the outside world. And now we are engaged in tense—potentially hostile—engagements with Muslims around the world. It made sense in dealing with Germany before World War II or with Russia during the cold war for serious people to have read Mein Kampf or Das Kapital. Yet many of those fighting for Germany or Russia had themselves not read Mein Kampf or Das Kapital. The same cannot be said of Muslims and the Koran.

But I could not feign surprise that others had not read the Koran, since I was slow to begin reading it and even slower to work at less inadequate readings of it. Not long after President Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was asked by a friend if I had ever read the Koran. I was embarrassed to answer her, “No.” I have spent most of my life studying in one way or another both Jewish and Christian texts and practices. It was ridiculous that I would remain completely ignorant of what a quarter of the world’s people not only believe in but live by (in different ways).

Jointly the two leading religions, Christianity and Islam, number over half the inhabitants of the globe—2.2 billion Christians (31 percent of the population), 1.6 billion Muslims (23 percent of the population). By 2050 the numbers will be roughly equal.1 Yet few Christians know or care about the Koran—a fact to which I bore melancholy testimony. And even now my reading of it continues to be uninformed on many levels. How, then, can the two most believing communities in the world communicate over such a high wall of ignorance? That would not matter if you believe (as some still do) that religion is not important in world affairs. This can, however, be a perilous attitude, as we found out in invading Iraq with little or no knowledge of the Sunni–Shia divide there. George Bush and Dick Cheney had clearly not read the Koran, or any of the traditions (Hadith) of Islam. But can the rest of us live down to that terrifying ignorance?

So I began, dutifully, reading the Koran, ten years ago. But I found it hard going, with few obvious organizing principles. It is a series of disjunct revelations made to Muhammad, as recorded by his followers on pottery shards or other handy surfaces. These were transferred to paper, then arranged by followers after Muhammad’s death, not in chronological or topical order but, faute de mieux, according to length (longer ones earlier, shorter ones toward the end).

Apart from the lack of an organizing outline, I found it hard—without a constant teasing out of context—to know who is saying what to whom. The originating voice is Allah’s, that is, God’s, but sometimes it is conveyed through Jibrail (the angel Gabriel). Sometimes it is Allah speaking directly to Muhammad about his own duty, his own family, his own confidence; but more frequently it is Muhammad passing on Allah’s message to his fellow worshipers. At rare times, some new and unidentified voice seems to join the mix (e.g., 33.22, 66.4–5).2 The message is often what “We” teach or demand—but is that “We” Allah and Jibrail, Allah and Muhammad, or just Allah using the royal “We”?

The titles later given to chapters—suras—are not helpful. As often in oral cultures, they can refer to a catchword in the sura, or an oddity there, not the sura’s main theme (when there is one) or principal event. “The Ants” is the title of Sura 27, not because that is the subject of the whole chapter, but because it is odd enough to be a hook for calling up a memory of it. The book, long as it is, is made for memorizing.

The militarism, sometimes savagery, of the book is shocking. Muhammad is leading a minority tribe worshiping the one God, Allah, against many believers in many gods. He is upholding a new and an embattled cause, just as ancient Jews upheld (sometimes savagely) the worship of Yahweh against many idols and their devotees. There are peaceful Koran passages (mainly the revelations first begun in Mecca) and warlike passages (mainly revelations continued in the Prophet’s displaced base of Medina). I clearly have to learn more about tribal conditions in seventh-century Arabia. And, of course, I am kept at a distance from the text by my ignorance of the Arabic language.


Still, I thought it my duty, along with others who share my ignorance, to make what I could of such an important book. So I kept at it, even while often being bogged down. I was wandering in my own little mental desert, like the early Muslims in their barren landscape. I finally found one way to fix my attention to the book in a more systematic way. From the outset I recognized its variations on stories I already knew—of the first man and woman and their fall from divine favor, or accounts of Noah’s flood, of Moses’s passage through the Red Sea, of Shaytan (Satan, also called Iblis) as a fallen jinni, and many others. These stories intrigued me by their twists on the familiar (as in a funhouse mirror).

I should not have found this surprising. There are many more prophets than Muhammad in the Koran: Abraham, Aaron, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Job, Lot, Jonah, Solomon, David, and Jesus.3 Even Adam is a prophet, with whom Allah formed his first covenant. Since there was only one God speaking to all of these prophets and messengers, and what he told them was true, there is a consistency in the messages: “You [Prophet] are not told anything that the previous messengers were not told.”4 It will be noticed that all the prophets down to Muhammad are from Jewish scripture, and that Muhammad knows what Christians sometimes forget, that Jesus was a Jew. The New Testament is based on the Old—Allah says, “We gave Moses the Scripture and We sent…Jesus, son of Mary”—though it adds some features that the Koran also incorporates (like a Last Judgment, with clear division between heaven and hell).

This gave me a hint on how to bring some focus to my reading, which had been wayward to that point. I started the Koran over again, this time marking O in the left margin and N in the right—for Old Testament and New Testament. Soon the margins were full of these marks, and I had a way to reconsider each passage that was flanked with one or other of them (frequently with both). This brought what had seemed exotic to me a little closer for exploration.

I found, in general, more Os than Ns in the margins, though often the N story had absorbed the O one. But as a Catholic, I was surprised to see how often I was jostling along with the Muslims described in the Koran. We both, for instance, have a devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Muslims too believe in her perpetual virginity and sinlessness. When she is told that she will bear Jesus without a human father, Suras 3 and 19 closely resemble the account in the Gospel of Saint Luke.

In Luke, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and says:

Hail, most favored woman, the Lord is with you…. Highly favored of God, you shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall give him the name Jesus. He will be great; he will be called the Son of God…. The Holy Spirit will come to you, and the power of the Most High will cover you over; so the holy child born to you will be called the son of God.

In Sura 3, a favored delegation of angels appears to Mary and says:

Mary, God has chosen you and made you pure. He has truly chosen you above all women…. God gives you news of a Word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, who will be held in honour in this world and the next, who will be one of those brought near to God.5

In Sura 19 Allah sends “Our Spirit, in human form,” to tell Mary: “I am but a Messenger from your Lord, [come] to announce to you the gift of a pure son.”6 As Mary is the greatest woman, Jesus is the greatest of the prophets before Muhammad. According to Sura 3.48, Allah himself “will teach him [Jesus] the Scripture and wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel. He will send him as a messenger to the Children of Israel.” And in Sura 2.87, “We gave Jesus, son of Mary, clear signs and strengthened him with the holy spirit.” Muslims even believe, like us Catholics, that Jesus is the second Adam, a new creation born without a human father.7 He is the pledge of Resurrection for all: “God raised him up to himself.”8


God said, “Jesus, I will take you back and raise you up to Me. I will purify you of the disbelievers. To the Day of Resurrection I will make those who followed you superior to those who disbelieved. Then you will return to Me.”9

According to the traditions (Hadith), though not to the Koran, Jesus will come again at the end of the world to defeat the Antichrist.10

Even in my amateur reading of the Koran, these passages destroy the idea, propagated by some, that Jews and Christians are infidels, to be killed by devout Muslims. How can that be, when Allah sent Jesus to teach Torah and Gospel? Allah himself “sent down the Torah and the Gospel earlier as a guide for people.”11 Prophets of the Lord do not kill other Prophets of the Lord. It is true that both Jews and Christians have deserted the Torah and the Gospel—as some Muslims desert the Koran; but the Ever Merciful calls Jews12 and Christians13 and Muslims14 back to repentance. “The [Muslim] believers, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabians [monotheists]…will have their rewards with their Lord.”15

Covenant after covenant has been broken, we are told, but God continues to have mercy on those he called in the first place. He reaffirms his own covenants: “Children of Israel, remember how I blessed you. Honour your pledge to Me and I will honour My pledge to you: I am the One you should fear.”16 In Sura 2 Allah remembers with pride all the things he has done for the Israelites. I am told that the Koran is written in a musically beautiful language. I cannot judge that, but I trust the literary taste of a God who boasts, repeatedly, that he gave David the Psalms.17

Catholic authorities used to claim that the New Testament had superseded the Jewish covenant; but the Second Vatican Council denied that God goes back on his promises to the Children of Israel. In the same way, some thought that Muhammad had replaced all the earlier prophets. In the Koran, he is called “the seal of the prophets,”18 not because he canceled all other messages but because he confirmed them:

In matters of faith, He [Allah] has laid down for you [people] the same commandment that He gave Noah, which We have revealed to you [Muhammad] and which We enjoined on Abraham and Moses and Jesus: “Uphold the faith and do not divide into factions.”19

Allah deals with individual peoples in individual ways, giving them a revelation in their own language, Hebrew for Jews, Greek for Christians, Arabic for Muslims:

We have never sent a messenger who did not use his own people’s language to make things clear for them. But still God leaves whoever He will to stray, and guides whoever He will: He is the Almighty, the All Wise.20

God sends messengers to every people on earth: “Every community has been sent a warner.”21 “We have appointed acts of devotion for every community to observe.”22 Each of the prophets is assigned to his own people:

The Messenger believes in what has been sent down to him from his Lord, as do the faithful. They all believe in God, His angels, His scripture, and His messengers. “We make no distinction between any of His messengers,” they say, “We hear and obey. Grant us Your forgiveness, our Lord. To You we all return!”23

In fact, according to the Koran, which constantly appeals to all God’s prophets, not just to Muhammad, Islam is far more generous to the idea of prophecy than are many Christians.

Wheaton College, a rightly respected evangelical school, is readier to denounce false prophets than was Muhammad. During Advent in 2015, a tenured professor of political science, Larycia Hawkins, was negotiated out of her tenure when she quoted Pope Francis as saying that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” She did not quote the Koran alongside the Pope, but she could have—Allah “sent down the Torah and the Gospel” as well as the Koran. That is reason enough for ecumenical relations between believers.

How many Gods are there, after all? Monotheists may call the one God by different names—Jahweh, or Allah, or Abba. But they are not addressing different deities. There is only one. Admittedly, Christians say that Jesus is not only a prophet but the Son of God, a title Muslims think a reversion to polytheism. But to say that Jesus is more than a prophet does not deny that he is a prophet too, bringing God’s message to mankind. We can build on that agreement rather than insult what others worship. If there is only one God, we are rejecting him if, unlike the Pope, we denounce Allah.

‘The angel Gabriel revealing the eighth sura of the Koran to Muhammad’; illustration from the Siyar-i Nabi (Life of the Prophet), commissioned by the Ottoman sultan Murad III, 1594–1595

Musée du Louvre, Paris/RMN/Art Resource

‘The angel Gabriel revealing the eighth sura of the Koran to Muhammad’; illustration from the Siyar-i Nabi (Life of the Prophet), commissioned by the Ottoman sultan Murad III, 1594–1595

The emphasis on purity, piety, and virginity in the cult of Mary says a great deal about the values of Islam. Dr. Hawkins at Wheaton observed the Christian Advent by wearing the Muslim hijab (headscarf) to express her comradeship with Muslim women. This is like non-Jews wearing a yarmulke in synagogue to express respect for the house we are in. Though some people are now resentful of the hijab, we should remember that religious ties are often expressed in shared clothing. When I was a child, no woman could enter a Catholic church without covering her head, and no man could enter without uncovering his. Sometimes the clothing is not normally visible—our Catholic scapulars (bits of cloth with holy pictures strung around our necks), or Mormon baptismal whites. Many Christians wear crucifixes around their necks.

Why should we wonder that the Koran prescribes modest dress as a sign of community with the believers? “Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and women believers to make their outer garments hang low over them so as to be recognized [as Muslims] and not insulted: God is most forgiving, most merciful.”24 The code of modesty does not apply only to women. Men too are told to observe it:

Tell believing men to lower their eyes and guard their private parts: that is purer for them. God is well aware of everything they do. And tell believing women that they should lower their eyes, guard their private parts, and not display their charms beyond what [is proper] to reveal; they should draw their coverings over their necklines and not reveal their charms except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their womenfolk, their slaves, such men as attend them who have no desire, or children who are not yet aware of women’s nakedness.25

Muslim women are meant to express in their dress and other ways the purity that will be theirs in heaven: “There [in heaven] will be maidens restraining their glances, untouched before by man or jinn.”26 Some Muslim women carry the modesty code to an extreme by wearing the niqab, which leaves only the eyes exposed, or the burqa, which veils even the eyes behind a mesh, though this is a minority practice and has no basis in the Koran.

Even those practices do not seem so odd to me, since I was educated in grade school by Dominican nuns. Their uniforms (“habits”) were evidently designed to obliterate any sign that they had breasts, or waists, or hips, or hair on their heads. Their faces were tightly framed in starched linen. The Hadith says that heaven’s virgins (houri) will not menstruate, urinate, or defecate. I am sure it never occurred to us boys that our nuns did any of those things (if we had even heard, yet, of menstruation). They were almost inhumanly pure. That is pretty much what the women are in the Islamic heaven. They are restored to the prime of life, to virginity, to their husbands—“maidens of matching age [with their husbands].”27 “With them [the men in heaven] will be spouses—modest of gaze and beautiful of eye—like protected [ostrich] eggs.”28 Protected ostrich eggs, dazzling white, suggest another reason for the hijab, niqab, or burqa in a desert culture—to prevent women from being tanned the color of tough leather. Heavenly women cannot be “rednecks.” In heaven everyone has a renewable virginity—“untouched before by man or jinn.”29

This scant report on the women of heaven in the Revelation (Koran) is expanded in the reports of Tradition (Hadith), where virgins (houri, always plural) are pure white, modest of eye (like gazelles), refined, and delicate. They are not sensually gross but rather shining and clearly understandable ideals. Men look at them with spiritual vision—they can see their bones (not just their bones, but all the transparent parts of them).30 These ethereal creatures are like William Blake’s feminine spirits spiraling in air.

Such attempts at a new way of seeing the world of the spirit certainly seem odd at first. But I had to reconsider when I remembered Augustine of Hippo’s description of heaven in The City of God. He too said that the saved people would have spiritual eyesight to look on spiritual bodies. After rejecting his earlier Manichaeism, which said that there was substantive evil in the world, Augustine defended all things God created as good before sin destroyed their harmony. There was no place in Augustine’s world for an original bad thing. Even in our fallen world, there are traces of what was entirely admirable when it was created. Even worms are marvels of integrity and design.31 Augustine upped the ante when he said that all parts of the human body were originally good and beautiful:

Everything in the body was created not only apt for function but attractive in form. That would be clearer to us if we grasped the mathematical principles that fit every part of the body to every other part. Perhaps human ingenuity can understand these principles as they apply to the body’s outer aspect, but the inner workings, where our eye cannot penetrate—the intertwining (perplexitas) of veins and nerves, the vital action of the bowels—we cannot [now] discern…. How can I describe the mathematics I am talking about—formulas of cooperation, what the Greeks call harmonia, making the whole body, inside and out, act as one…. If a person perceived these principles, even in the deepest bowels, which seem improper [lacking decus], the beauty of this operation would surpass any beauty pleasing the eyes, because it satisfies the mind that uses the eyes.

That is the description of the body before it was made crystalline in heaven, where the spiritual gaze will resemble that of Superman, able to see everything, inner and outer.

This way of thinking about heaven is a kind of theological science fiction. Both Christians and Muslims are forced to be so daring because they both believe in the resurrection of the body. The risen body will not, in both systems of theology, be subject to degeneration or decrepitude. In fact, resurrection will reverse all the actions that undo an earthly body, minute by minute. Both religions treat heaven as a second creation in which humans will have bodies that are even closer to the ideal form than the bodies of Adam and Eve. Admittedly, this world of rational imagination is based on some preexisting beings in the actual world experienced by Christians in the West and Muslims in the East and West. Broadly speaking, Christianity sees heaven as the City of God, a higher polity with an ethereal citizenship. The desert culture of Islam sees heaven as a garden perpetually rinsed with purifying waters.

These strenuously spiritual ways of visualizing heaven could not be farther from the hedonistic visions of some Muslims and Christians who just see heaven as earthly pleasures multiplied. A good example of the latter is the widespread view that the murderers of September 11, who prepared for their vicious mission by getting lap dances in a strip club, anticipated their martyrs’ reward of seventy-two virgins waiting to give them lap dances in perpetuity. Even before I began reading the Koran, I knew enough about Muslim scholars and philosophers to realize they could not believe in this adolescent’s fantasy. When I did begin reading, I saw that everyone in Muslim heaven is a virgin, fresh from God’s creating hand.

Then where did the number seventy-two come from? The number comes up in one strain of Hadith that denies there will be any class divisions in heaven. It says that even the humblest people will have 80,000 servants and seventy-two houri waiting on them. These are clearly eschatological numbers signifying abundance. The more specific martyr’s reward of seventy-two virgins, reported in some strains of the Hadith, “is not reliable at all according to leading Sunni Hadith scholars,” says Jonathan A.C. Brown.32 The September 11 attackers seem to have taken their views from Osama bin Laden, who is not a trustworthy exegete of Islamic theology—the way some people take their picture of Islam from the propaganda of the Islamic State, though over 120 Muslim scholars denounced these so-called Islamists for across-the-board violation of Muslim teachings.33

It is easy to get a distorted impression of the Muslim religion from the loud words and actions of their extremists. Some attributed the September 11 attacks to Muslims in general, or to Islam itself. The Gallup organization tested this notion in one of its most extensive and expensive international polling operations. It mounted surveys in thirty-five predominantly or prominently Muslim countries, representing over a billion Muslims, asking tens of thousands if they approved or disapproved of the attacks on September 11. Fully 93 percent of the respondents disapproved of the attacks, while only 7 percent approved. Significantly, the 93 percent disapproved on religious grounds—that is, because of Islam. Most of the 7 percent approved on political grounds (because of things like resentment of colonial powers in their land).34

I do not want to make my attempts at understanding the Koran become an apologia for it. I am repelled by some aspects of the book—the acceptance of slavery, of polygamy, of patriarchy, of war—but I take heart from the fact that many Muslims are repelled by these things too. After all, there is slavery, polygamy, patriarchy, and war in the Old Testament—and Jews have even more reason to be repelled by that than I do. To understand others’ religion is to empathize with the problems he or she has concerning it. Religion is a dangerous thing—like sex, and love, and marriage.

When I hope that others will sympathize with my religion, I am counting on them to hate as much as I do the systematic rape of young boys carried out by Catholic priests worldwide, and the systematic protection of these rapists by cowardly and careerist bishops. That attitude is not “anti-Catholic,” any more than condemnation of Arab terrorism is “Islamophobic.”

Though Christians and Jews have reciprocating ignorances, I think we Christians begin with the greater deficit of knowledge—certainly I do. I knew really nothing about the Koran. But those who do know the Koran have quite a bit of knowledge about Torah and Gospel, since Allah sent them both to earth before he sent the Koran. They belong together. Not every Muslim remembers that; but we Westerners cannot even remember it unless we learn something about the Koran. It’s about time.