The Koran: Surah 1, The Exordium
Surah 1 has been called "The best of
Islam." Here it is in the translation available online at the
University of Pennsylvania:
1. In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
2. All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.
3.The Beneficent, the Merciful.
4. Master of the Day of Judgment.
5. Thee do we serve and Thee do we beseech for help.
6. Keep us on the right path.
7. The path of those upon whom Thou hast
Not (the path) of those upon whom Thy wrath is brought down,
nor of those who go astray.
Please read this short passage with real care.
We are not going to spend a lot of time discussing the history of Islam, the third great Abrahamic religion that grew up in Arabia in the 7th century and swept west and north with amazing speed, covering the whole north African coast in a very short time and expanding in other directions as well. Sunjata, the west African epic we'll read later on, traces the career of the hero who brought Islam to Mali 600 years later. This is now one of the most international religions, with followers from every racial group.
The Koran is always read in Arabic and the sound patterns of the original language contribute immensely to understanding of the meaning, according to experts like Professors Blankinship and Ayoub in the Temple Department of Religion. In religious settings, Koran excerpts are read in relatively short passages to permit reflection.
The "poem" above is really worth reflecting on. One way to look at it is as a balanced structure of verses. The first three verses list the epithets or attributes of the deity. Westerners and especially Americans reading through them may be struck by the emphasis on kindness and mercy. Then, at verse 4, we find the day of judgment. Coming to this line from the biblical passages we've been reading we will be struck by the similarity to Christian judgment as mentioned in Matthew, and in fact there is a similar sorting process after death in Islam, with paradise the reward of the faithful and eternal fire for the sinner. We'll talk more about this on Thursday.
This pivotal verse involves both the deity
as judge and man as judged. Now we move to man in the final three
verses. Here we seek to be kept on the straight or right path, one of the
most powerful images in Islamic writing. The seventh verse has a sort of
surprise, because it describes not one but two types of failing: one that
brings God's anger, one that involves "going astray" or (in other
surahs) "slipping." If the path is one of the great images of
Islamic thought, the notion of "slipping" or "going astray"
Think of it as a lyric poem: where are the
emphases, what items are balanced?