Dictated but not read by mononymous one-hit wonder Muḥammad, The Qu’ran took a mind-boggling 23 years to complete from its inception in 610 CE. Owing its initial commercial success to strong word of mouth, and a series of aggressive ad campaigns, The Qur’ān has since amassed a loyal following of approximately 1.6 billion people, which is no small feat given its complex structure and esoteric style.
Despite its growing popularity, however, The Qur’ān (and the fan-fiction that constitutes its “Expanded Universe”, or Ḥadīth), has, in recent years, been panned by a number of vocal critics for its alleged negative influence on youth culture, and by extension, civil society as a whole. Needless to say, these few voices have caused quite a stir in the media; polarising public opinion, and sparking condemnation from those who see no link between violent forms of entertainment and acts of violence. Add in the backlash against ex-fans, the fan-art boycotts, and cosplay bans, and the discussion surrounding The Qur’ān becomes even more divisive.
Now, normally I’m the kind of person who waits for any given hype-train to lose a significant amount of steam before climbing aboard, as I prefer to ride the rails on my own terms. However, as it continues to chug along with no sign of slowing, I figured now was as good a time as any to buy a ticket.
Faced with rabid fanboyism on one side, and sneering contrarianism on the other, I’ve made a concerted effort to be as objective as humanly possible – for the truth often lies somewhere in the middle. In reviewing such a contentious cult classic, I hope to bridge the gap between these two diametrically opposed positions.
Putting the “meta” in “metafiction”, The Qur’ān is not only written from the point of view of “God” (therein referred to as Allāh), but its very authorship is attributed to Him as well. In this way, The Qur’ān distinguishes itself from The Old Testament and The New, which were both “divinely inspired” (read: ghostwritten) by “God”. The Qur’ān also features a self-insertion (Muḥammad as Allāh’s “Messenger”), and an author surrogate (Allāh as an “idealised” Muḥammad).
Interestingly, throughout the novel, Allāh refers to Himself with both the third person singular “He”, and first person plural “We”. This suggests to me that the character suffers from dissociative-personality disorder, which would explain His (or should that be Their?) propensity for caprice and self-contradiction. Given the extremely human nature of Allāh, it could well be argued that the character is merely the personification of Muḥammad’s inner struggle (or “jihad”) against cognitive dissonance. Therefore, in my opinion, The Qur’ān tells the story of a man driven mad by the futility of his attempts to reconcile his conflicting views on matters of punishment and reward, vengeance and mercy, prurience and prudery.
Though it’s certainly not the first work of fiction to employ an unreliable narrator (see: The Gospels), The Qur’ān features one of the best uses of it I’ve ever encountered. For example, in the second Sūra, Al-Baqarah, Allāh asserts “this is a perfect Book, there is no doubt in it”. What follows, however, could hardly be described as “perfect” in any conventional sense. Whether it’s the type of punishment Allāh prescribes for proscribed acts, or the number of wings an angel is said to have, The Qur’ān is rife with inconsistencies. Like Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, however, these “no sooner spoken than broken” violations of internal logic, or self-imposed “rules”, are unambiguously intentional, and ingenious in their execution.
Also of note is the novel’s non-linear narrative, which allows Muḥammad to do away with (most of) the superfluous nonsense that made the Book of Genealogy such a snoozefest, e.g. the plodding origin story, the interchangeable tales of sibling rivalry, and all that begetting (do you even in medias res, Broses?). With that said, however, a family tree diagram or two would have complimented The Qur’ān’s already Tolkienesque appendix nicely.
Conversely, of all the literary devices Muḥammad utilises throughout The Qur’ān, his use of “direct address” seems to me the most pretentious and self-indulgent. Like a more neurotic and obnoxious Woody Allen, Allāh goes full Gorbachev on the fourth wall, reducing its rubble to dust as He soliloquises from start to finish. This particularly frustrating aspect of The Qur’ān is further compounded by Allāh’s many pre-emptive responses to critics (“disbelievers”), His overuse of the “Palahniukian chorus” (the ad nauseum repetition of certain lines), His flagrant abuse of the rhetorical question (which comes across as snide and condescending), and His relentless “teasing” of The Qur’ān II: Day of Resurrection (the sequel we never got).
Although The Qur’ān assumes familiarity with The Bible, it is by no means necessary, as Muḥammad briefly summarises the more memorable stories from both The Old Testament and The New. While this will be of some benefit to neophytes, these “Last time on The Bible…” recapitulations are, at best, tantamount to name-dropping in a bid to stay relevant, and at worst, serve only to pander to diehard devotees of the originals. Furthermore, every single one is prefaced with “And remember the time…” It’s so formulaic I felt like I was watching an episode of Family Guy. Honestly, I kept expecting each iteration to culminate in a non sequitur cutaway gag: “…when We got that whore stoned and painted the town red?”
Indeed, were it not for the fact that Noah, Moses, Abraham, etc. are public domain characters, Muḥammad would have surely encroached on Tarantino territory – a place where the borderline separating plagiarism and homage is blurred to the point of nonexistence.
Thankfully, as The Qur’ān functions both as a third instalment, and a standalone “reimagining”, this is not the case. Worth noting, however, is the controversial ret-conning of Jesus, who, according to The Qur’ān, is not the Son of God, did not die by crucifixion, and was, therefore, not raised from the dead. While these changes have corrected for Jesus’ much-maligned “comic book death”, and the lazy, yet needlessly convoluted Deus ex machina of “vicarious atonement”, they have also earned Muḥammad the ire of New Testament enthusiasts. Curiously, The Qur’ān is not without its own insufferable purists, as there are those for whom the very idea of an abridged, illustrated edition for children is enough to cause offence. Renderings of such a sort have worked miracles for The Bible, so it seems to me, more than anything, a missed opportunity.
Originally written in Classical Arabic, one can only speculate as to how much is lost in its translation to English. Despite this, however, the poetry of the author’s minimalistic prose is as beautiful as it is imaginative. Take the recurring imagery of “gardens through which streams flow”, for instance. Mundane? Absolutely. But by juxtaposing it with “the Fire”, Muḥammad elevates the terrestrial to the transcendent. Plus, with badass lines such as “Every soul shall taste of death”, and “Hell shall be his sufficient reward”, it’s easy to see why The Qur’ān is so popular – it’s almost as quotable as Mean Girls. Granted, the novel’s aestheticisation of violence may turn some readers off, but for gore-hounds like myself, it’s a huge tick in the “pros” column.
With respect to the novel’s cons, however, there is, of course, the unavoidable issue of Muḥammad’s treatment of women throughout The Qur’ān. Firstly, apart from Maryam (who, incidentally, had her “choices” thrust upon her), none of the other women that appear in the novel are even mentioned by name. Instead, they are relegated to the lowly status of props. Secondly, the fact that the novel’s female characters exist solely to extol the virtues of, or to “develop” the men around them, or to simply advance the plot, is beyond disappointing. Moreover, as no two female characters occupy the same story, let alone talk to each other, The Qur’ān fails to pass the Bechdel Test by default.
There’s no doubt some may take exception to my reading of The Qur’ān as largely metaphorical, but my interpretation is just one of many, and while all are equally valid, it seems rather unsophisticated to take a literalist approach to the text. Although detractors have slammed The Qur’ān for its perceived ableism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and homophobia, it’s important to remember that the author was a product of his time. Yes, the thematic concerns of the novel are problematic to say the least, but one wouldn’t dismiss the oeuvre of H. P. Lovecraft based on his moral failings, would they? The personal life of Muḥammad is irrelevant. One must disentangle the art from the artist. To take any work of fiction out of its historical context and judge it by the ethical standards of today is just absurd. The Qur’ān successfully captures the zeitgeist of 7th Century Saudi Arabia, and for that, it demands respect.
For all its flaws, The Qur’ān is an absolute page-turner, and would surely make a welcome addition to any bibliophile’s collection. Like The Room, Samurai Cop, and Battlefield Earth, The Qur’ān is so ḥarām it’s ḥalāl.