The Voice of God

Gueorgui Pinkhassov/Magnum Photos
A Muslim family praying, Rockwood, Minnesota, 2003

Anyone who follows the news will be aware that the sacred book of Islam is the Qur’an (known to Muslims as the Noble Qur’an), or, as it was named for centuries in English, the Koran. The militants of al-Qaeda and ISIS proclaim their allegiance to this fundamental text of their religion with the same fervor and ignorance as the Christian Crusaders when they quoted the Bible. In a work of rare courage and humility, Garry Wills has brought the horrors of the Crusades into confrontation with the horrors of the Islamic State, in full recognition that Christian and Muslim warriors are alike in their deliberate repudiation of the basic tenets of the religions they profess.

Wills, who had known little about Muslim scripture before he wrote his book, has undertaken the difficult task of learning about a text written down in the early seventh century CE in a language he cannot read, in order to show his readers that the Qur’an is utterly incompatible with the barbarous beliefs and conduct of those who have violently espoused an alleged caliphate in its name in the twenty-first century. Wills has succeeded admirably in conveying the meaning of Islam’s earliest and most important text for modern readers. His analysis, laced with references to current controversies, is as relevant for those who are ignorant of Islam as it is for the millions who live in accordance with the revelations that Muhammad received, the Qur’an tells us, directly from God (Allah) through the angel Gabriel. Those revelations are said to have begun in 610 CE and continued until Muhammad’s death in 632.

As he is well aware, Wills had a famous predecessor in expounding Islam without the slightest knowledge of the Arabic language but after a careful examination of relevant translations. That predecessor was, astonishingly, Edward Gibbon, in the middle of the eighteenth century. In chapter 50 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—a little-known chapter by comparison with the ones on the Roman emperors and early Christianity—Gibbon describes the divine messages transmitted in the Qur’an, candidly admitting that he does not know Arabic. His account remains arguably the best introduction to Islam in the English language. Wills rightly observes that Gibbon “was brilliant at discerning the core message of religions, before the multiple distortions and abuses that all religions suffer from.” Gibbon accurately reported that the Qur’an recognized Hebrew and Christian scriptures alongside the revelations of Muhammad as comprising “one immutable religion.” Muhammad, according to Gibbon, urged strangers of every tribe to worship a single deity: “He asserted the liberty of conscience, and disclaimed the use of religious violence.”

Fortified by his reading of Gibbon and by his own deep knowledge of Christianity, Wills undertook his analysis with the aid of a new and voluminous work, The Study Qur’an

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