Attack upon the Holy Quran

Reply to Anthony Burgess’ Criticism

The Muslim Thinker, January/February/March 1990 Issue (Issue 2, pp. 20–23)

In the Observer for Sunday 1 October 1989, the writer and reviewer Anthony Burgess begins his review of the Revised English Bible with the following vehement condemnation of the Holy Quran:

“In common with many of Salman Rushdie’s fellow writers, I have spent some time this year reading the Koran in Dawood’s translation, looking for a textual justification for the proposed murder of a distinguished author. The holy book is so full of murder and mutilation, occasionally mollified by reference to Allah’s infinite mercy, that it becomes wearisome. It is not, whatever Muslims believe, a work of genius.

“It has been a relief to return to the Bible, which undoubtedly is. Islam has certainly little justification — either moral or aesthetic — for regarding the Children of the Scripture (Jews and Christians together) as inferior people who ought to rush to be converted.” (p. 48)

The following Sunday, a letter from a non-Muslim reader was published, admirably refuting this unjustified attack. It said:

“Why does Anthony Burgess begin his review of the Revised English Bible with a silly and offensive remark about the Koran?

“Does he expect us to admire him, the great polyglot, for having spent the summer reading Dawood’s translation?

“And what does he mean by then declaring it not a work of genius? To the unbeliever the ‘genius’ of a work of revelation lies in its literary quality: nobody thinks much of Dawood, whereas there are many non-Muslim Arabic scholars who appreciate the Koran. But what I find most depressing about Mr Burgess’ remarks is the casual disrespect they show for a book which many millions of people hold sacred. …”

In support of the point advanced in the above letter, we may quote the following scholarly Western opinion on the Quran:

“We may well say that the Quran is one of the grandest books ever written. … Sublime and chaste, where the supreme truth of God’s unity is to be proclaimed; appealing in high-pitched strains to the imagination of a poetically-gifted people where the eternal consequences of man’s submission to God’s holy will, or of rebellion against it, are pictured …

“Here therefore its merits as a literary production should, perhaps, not be measured by some preconceived maxims of subjective and aesthetic taste, but by the effects which it produced in Muhammad’s contemporaries and fellow-countrymen. If it spoke so powerfully and convincingly to the hearts of his hearers as to weld hitherto centrifuged and antagonistic elements into one compact and well-organised body animated by ideas far beyond those which had until now ruled the Arabian mind, then its eloquence was perfect, simply because it created a civilised nation out of savage tribes, and shot a fresh woof into the old warp of history.” (Steingass in Hughes’ Dictionary of Islam; our italics.)

“The Quran is unapproachable as regards convincing power, eloquence and even composition. … And to it was also indirectly due the marvellous development of all branches of science in the Muslim world.” (Hirschfield, New Researches, 1902.)

“That the best of Arab writers has never succeeded in producing anything equal in merit to the Quran itself is not surprising.” (Palmer, in the introduction to his English translation of the Quran.)

The editor of The Muslim Thinker took up the allegation of the Quran being “full of murder and mutilation” and Burgess’ claim that he found “relief” upon turning to the Bible. A short letter was sent to the Observer, and subsequently an expanded version of the same to Anthony Burgess himself, which is reproduced below:

“I note from your review of the Revised English Bible (1 October) that you are studying the Quran to ascertain if it applies the death penalty to authors whose writings offend against Islam. For your information I enclose herewith a copy of our quarterly, The Muslim Thinker, which has an article on page 18 [October/November/December 1989 issue] addressing this issue. If my arguments can satisfy you that, far from the death penalty, the Quran does not prescribe any worldly punishment whatsoever in such cases, can we hope that you will tell your readers that you are now convinced that the Quran is not responsible for such teachings?

“After all, as you have made a remark denigrating the Quran (as being ‘full of mutilation and murder’), it is only fair that if you find something which disproves this (to your satisfaction) then you proclaim that just as openly.

“Your charge that the Quran ‘is so full of murder and mutilation’ can only be properly refuted if you actually quote the relevant texts, and moreover show that they constitute the bulk of the Quran. However, we can certainly rebut your assertion that you found it ‘a relief to return to the Bible’.

“The Old Testament books of law are full of penalties of death, stoning and mutilation for numerous offences (most of which are not even punishable in Islam). The book of Joshua recounts battle after battle in which the Israelites, having captured a town, slayed all the inhabitants. To quote the Bible, they ‘utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God had commanded’ (Joshua 10:40). Elsewhere, God told them to treat the defeated foe as follows: ‘… do not spare them, but kill both men and women, infant and suckling …’ (1 Samuel 15:3). Do you find relief in these passages?

“If you can supply us with those verses of the Quran to which you have taken exception, we would gladly publish in The Muslim Thinker a comparative study of these passages with Biblical extracts of the kind mentioned above. People can then form their judgments in the light of facts.”

To date, no reply has been received from Mr Burgess (three months after this letter was sent.)