Schism and Sacred Texts


Wednesday 1 October 2014

For their own sake. That’s why I want to read, study, learn and write: for their own sake.  Not because someone commanded me to, nor because it seems like I should – but because it is an honourable, pleasurable, and fulfilling pursuit. In the words of Gaston, the French waiter played by Eric Idle in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life: “I can live my own life in my own way if I want to. Fuck off.”

god is not Great
‘God is not Great’, published in 2007, by the late Christopher Hitchens

Today I sent my copy of Christopher Hitchens’ book god is not Great to a friend who is about to have an operation and, as a consequence, an abundance of free time. When I was walking back from the post office I began to consider the tendency of religions to schism over different interpretations of the same text. Why does this occur? Surely there must be just one single way to read a celestial document and that one way would be obvious because it is the work of an omnipotent, omnipresent, infallible author. That division can ensue because of an argument over meaning and interpretation of holy texts is rather important when considering whether religion is man-made. This topic is of such a narrow scope that to have a discussion is tricky, but let’s try anyway.

Take Islam, for example: If the Koran was dictated to Mohammed by the archangel Gabriel on the orders of god then I would have thought that its divine origins would mean that the message and the meaning would be crystal clear. One look at the six o’clock news will show that universal clarity does not exist. In actuality, what we have is a book written in Arabic, a language which is notoriously difficult for a non-native speaker to understand, or for it to be translated into any other language. This is not to say that it cannot be done; currently, there are hundreds of differing English translations of the Koran, they continue to be created, and each translation differs from the previous one. To extend my original question: why are there so many translations? If it was the unalterable word of god – as the Koran is said to be – then why can the text be altered and changed, bringing into being different emphasises by the simple process of translation.

Each school and movement within Islam has a preference for a certain translation. They cannot all be correct, either there is one truthful translation or there is not. This again boils down to whether the Koran was dictated by a divine being or not. If not, then it has merely gone through the same process as other texts that have been translated many times – think of all of the versions of Proust or Chekhov that litter the shelves of your local bookstore. If it was divinely created, however, then god has his favourites. The problem with the latter interpretation is that either the correct, god-preferred school of Islam already exists, or it does not. What’s more, there appears to be no way of telling as the heavens have been remarkably silent on this issue since the death of Mohammed. Humans have been abandoned to decide their own fate and, therefore, they will interpret in new, exciting, and horrific ways for eternity, only finding out if they were correct when they die and are either spirited away to heaven or hell (or neither), which leaves us all in a bit of a quagmire.

Gabriel and Mohammed
Mohammed receiving his first revelation from the archangel Gabriel. An illustration by Rashid al-Din, published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 CE.

To try to work out which of the above is correct one must go back and study the beginnings of Islam and uncover how the Koran came into being. Unlike Christianity, fortunately – or unfortunately, whichever way you wish to view it – the founding of Islam occurred in the light of history. It is possible for one to try to see whether there was anything divine in the formation of the Koran. This appears to create more problems than answers, however, as we know that the Koran was originally an oral document and that it was only written down when those that knew it by heart were becoming startlingly low in number. This was within twenty years of Mohammed’s death in 632 AD. Clearly this, also, is a bit of a headache because the person who is said to have had a hotline to the heavens did not put the final copy together, did not check it for errors, and did not cross check it with its author. A lot of room is left for the unreliability of human recollection. There is also space for different groups of people with different personalities, cultures and backgrounds to pick and choose which portions of the text are divine and which are not (i.e. what they would like to follow and what they wish to discard). Does this make sense in light of the schisms within Islam? Yes and no; explaining would be going off at a tangent because the largest schism – the Sunni and the Shia – is a bit too complex to go into now because it is mostly due to an argument over succession.

Schisms over text are a result of either favouritism on the part of the creator, or – which is more likely – the manmade nature of the document. To paraphrase Sam Harris: I can think of so many books which are better than the Bible, the Koran, or the Torah – would that be the case if they were written by a divine being? Ultimately, as it so often does, it comes down to faith. If you believe, then all of this is merely commentary; however, if you do not, then studying the beginnings of religion is either fascinating or pointless. I believe it to be fascinating.