(NOTE: This article, written some years ago, was inadvertently omitted from inclusion in this website. I am posting it belatedly for the sake of completeness. —HB)
[T]he Jewish Cabalists…thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero… nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind.
—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Mirror of Enigmas”
The Holy Spirit has brought down the Koran from your Lord in all truth.
—The Koran, 16:102
In that beautiful Arabian Nights tale, “Aladdin’s Lamp,” the evil magician instructs Aladdin to descend into the Cave of Wonders. “Touch nothing,” he warns, “except the Lamp.”
Once within the cave, Aladdin is confronted with riches beyond belief, even the tiniest portion of which would suffice to make anyone wealthy. Yet he must concentrate on his task and emerge, as he eventually does, laden only with the Lamp.
A fine fairy tale, you might say, evoking memories of childhood and nostalgia for things past? Not according to the Sufis.
Rather, the mystics of Islam would say that the cave is a metaphor for the world and its wonders. “Touching” the world is attachment to anything therein. The Lamp stands for the Heart (the spiritual counterpart of the physical heart). And polishing the Lamp means purifying the Heart. Now what happens when the Lamp is polished? Out comes the Genie of the Lamp, ready to fulfill our every wish.
“Genie,” of course, comes from the word jinn, which derives from the word jann, meaning “hidden.” (In Scandinavian folklore, too, the fairy folk are called huld or huldre, meaning “hidden” in Norwegian.) In the same way, jannah, the Arabic word for Paradise, is a walled (hence, hidden) garden, as is indeed “Paradise” itself, deriving from the Persian Pairi-daeza (Pairi surrounding, daeza wall, implying a garden enclosed with walls, still common in the Middle East).
What do we make of the story, then? We must “go placidly among the noise and haste,” remaining unattached to the world and its myriad allures, and concentrate on polishing our Hearts. When the Heart is sufficiently purified, the power or Power hidden within will manifest itself.
According to the Sufis, the Heart is the seat of God, as is apparent from the Holy Saying of the Prophet: “The heavens and earth cannot contain Me, but the Heart of My believing servant does.” But how do we do polish the Heart? A verse from the Koran provides the clue: “Only by the invocation of God do hearts find solace” (13:28).
Here is a gem from the Koran that any cursory reading might easily overlook. The language of the Koran is very clear, leading to the impression that one can understand it straight away, yet the multidimensional meanings of each Arabic word practically insure that some of the meanings will remain hidden to us.
The Difficulties of the Koran
Just the other day, for example, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the second Sacred Verse revealed to the Prophet had a deeper, unsuspected meaning. It is said there that “God created man of a blood clot (alaq)” (96:2). Now this is usually interpreted as being a reference to an embryo, which clings, as a blood clot might, to the inner wall of a womb. But one of the meanings of alaq, as of the closely related alaqa, is “affection, love.” Right after God exhorted the Prophet to “Read,” therefore, He was telling him that He had created humankind with affection and love. This is a much more meaningful sense of the second verse as it pertains to humanity, for many other creatures besides human beings also grow from embryos.
The deceptive simplicity of the Koran, combined with the personal predilections of translators, make the task of understanding the Koran a well-nigh insuperable one, especially in translation. Every translation of the Koran, the meanings of which are manifold and multidimensional, is a one-dimensional projection (a “shadow”) of it in another language. If we attempt to read it as we would a newspaper or fairy tale, we shall end up highly undernourished. No pain, no gain. Any better understanding of the Koran would require years of study, and certainly the numerous commentaries on the Koran would have to be consulted.
Even in the Prophet’s time, his Companions were hard pressed to understand every verse. Sometimes the Arabic language itself fell short, and words from other languages had to be borrowed, which the Prophet would then proceed to explain in the Koranic context. The Occasions of Revelation, namely the circumstances leading to the revelation of a particular Verse, also were, and still need to be, meticulously studied. But since fools rush in where angels fear to tread, every Tom, Dick or Harry now attempts to read the Koran expecting immediate full comprehension. Good luck.
A Brief Look at Modern Physics
Before we say anything further about the Koran, we shall have to take a brief detour through modern physics, especially quantum physics. The reason may not be immediately apparent, but this excursion is necessary nevertheless.
Quantum mechanics is holistic. In holism, a system is more than the simple sum of its parts, the system as a whole determines in an important way how the parts behave. (Perhaps, for this reason, it should rather be called “quantum organics.”) This was inherent even in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, because we cannot observe a particle without disturbing its state. This was also why Heisenberg said that the simple categories of “objective” and “subjective” had broken down. At least one physicist, David Bohm, was led by this to a “new notion of unbroken wholeness which denies the classical idea of analyzability of the world into separately existing parts.…Rather, we say that inseparable quantum interconnectedness of the whole universe is the fundamental reality, and that relatively independent behaving parts are merely particular and contingent forms within this whole.” In recent decades, terms such as inseparability, entanglement and nonlocality have become stock items in the lexicon of quantum physicists.
Einstein was not quite at home with quantum theory, but perhaps he would have found a deeper meaning in it if he had known of its recently-recognized implications. In his time, quantum theory was regarded as basically probabilistic, whereas Einstein argued that “The Lord God does not play dice with the universe.” Perhaps he would have been better impressed with the notion of an undivided cosmos. In 1935, Einstein, together with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, published an article on why he could not consider quantum mechanics complete. He and his co-authors outlined a thought-experiment which seemed to imply that “spooky action at a distance” was possible, which they dismissed out of hand. (For this reason, the conjecture was referred to as the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen or EPR paradox.) Yet in 1982, Alain Aspect actually performed the experiment, and proved that action of this kind was indeed, apparently, taking place. To quote Michael Talbot,
Aspect and his team discovered that under certain circumstances subatomic particles such as electrons are able to instantaneously communicate with each other regardless of the distance separating them. It doesn’t matter whether they are 10 feet or 10 billion miles apart. Somehow each particle always seems to know what the other is doing. The problem with this feat is that it violates Einstein’s long-held tenet that no communication can travel faster than the speed of light.
It has been said that quantum physics is “irreducibly nonlocal.” That is, it allows for faster-than-light connections. This, however, is problematic, because the universal speed limit of light has held up under a broad range of experiments. To account for this discrepancy, David Bohm theorized that there was a hidden “Implicate Order” underlying physical phenomena. This conception avoids the pitfall of faster-than-light communication.
To illustrate what he means by Implicate, or enfolded, Order, Bohm uses the example of a holograph (or hologram). Split a beam of laser light, allow one part to be reflected off an object—for example, a rose—recombine the reflected and unreflected parts, train them on a photographic plate, and you obtain a holograph.
The holograph of a rose is very different from the photograph of a rose: it does not look anything like the rose at all. In fact, it does not remotely resemble any object, but is an abstract pattern of interference fringes. Yet when one shines a beam of laser light through the holographic transparency, one obtains a three-dimensional image of the rose.
Figure 1. A hologram (left) and the image it produces (right). The transparency on the left is a hologram, but it displays no discernible shape. It reveals the image of a fiery-red car which has been “enfolded” into the transparency, however, when illuminated by red laser light from the right (not in picture). Even a small part of a holograph yields the entire image when illuminated, as shown below.
3-D imaging, however, is hardly the most conspicuous feature of a holograph. Cut the holograph of the rose in two, shine a laser beam through either part, and the whole image of the rose reappears, albeit reduced in size. Repeat the process of cutting, the result does not change. In fact, information about the entire rose has been encoded into every tiniest section of the holograph. Now, let us return to Bohm:
The hologram does not look like the object at all, but gives rise to an image only when it is suitably illuminated. The hologram seems, on cursory inspection, to have no significant order to it, and yet there must somehow be in it an order that determines the order of points that will appear in the image when it is illuminated. We may call this order implicit, but the basic root of the word implicit means ‘enfolded’. So in some sense, the whole object is enfolded in each part of the hologram rather than being in point-to-point correspondence. We may therefore say that each part of the hologram contains an enfolded order essentially similar to that of the object and yet obviously different in form.
As we develop this idea, we shall see that this notion of enfoldment is not merely a metaphor, but that it has to be taken fairly literally. To emphasise this point, we shall therefore say that the order in the hologram is implicate. The order in the object, as well as in the image, will then be unfolded and we shall call it explicate.
In this view, the principle behind a hologram applies to the universe at large. Information about every part of the universe is enfolded into every other part. In other words, at bottom the universe is undivided, indeed indivisible. If we use the word “atom” in its original sense (a- no, tom parts), the universe is the only true atom.
But this is precisely the vision of the famous Sufi, Ibn Arabi. His conception, based on actually experienced mystical states of consciousness, is called the “Unity of Being” (wahdah al-wujud). That is, all of existence is one, an indivisible whole. To us, this is theory. To the Sufis, it is a fact of immediate experience.
The Koran as Symphony
Let us now return to the Koran. According to Professor Ziauddin Sardar,
The Qur’an is definitely not a linear text. For example, the first verses revealed to the prophet Muhammad are not at the beginning but at the start of the 96th chapter of the Qur’an (96:1-5). The last revelation comes in the third verse of the fifth (5:3) of the Qur’an’s 114 chapters, known as surahs. Moreover, the Qur’an does not deal with its subjects in one place but in several places, dropping them suddenly and then picking up later in the text. It says one thing on one subject in one place, and something quite different on the same subject elsewhere.
What we can all agree on is that the structure and style of the Qur’an is complex. It defies expectations of being a simple story and therefore raises questions about how and why it is structured as it is and what we should understand from this arrangement.
Sound plays a very important part in the structure of the Qur’an. Before it was a written text, the Qur’an existed as sound; this is why it is often compared to an epic poem. But I like to think of it in terms of a musical symphony. Just like the notes in a symphony may be repeated, so the verses in the Qur’an are frequently repeated. Just as misplaced notes may play havoc with the whole symphony so a misreading of the Qur’an leads the whole text to be out of sync. This is why Muslims pay so much attention to the correct reading of the Qur’an. …
I find the complexity of structure and style of the Qur’an insistently points to necessary relationships, to the need to think of things not in separate compartments but as involved and integrated with each other. In contemporary terms, I think, the Qur’an invites us to take a multidimensional rather than a one-dimensional approach to all aspects of life.
Goethe’s views on the Prophet and the Koran
Carlyle had ranked the Prophet of God among his heroes. Goethe, in his West-Eastern Divan, did not hesitate to call him the “Head of created beings.” Goethe was a holistic thinker who believed that all of nature is one. He also wrote: “If Islam means submission to God, We all live and die in Islam,” “I try to remain in Islam,” and “we have to remain inside Islam, (that means: in complete submission to the will of God)…”
In fact, the name of Goethe’s Divan, as well as its following lines:
To God belongs the East
To God belongs the West
Northern and southern lands
Rest in the peace of His hands
were inspired by the Koran, where God is called the “Lord of the two Easts, and Lord of the two Wests” (55:17). (The “two” here refers to the material and spiritual realms.)
Similarly, in relation to Mohammed and the Koran, Goethe’s view was: “He is a prophet and not a poet and therefore his Koran is to be seen as a divine law and not as a book of a human being.” We can see here that Goethe was prepared to go much further than many Westerners in accepting Mohammed as a prophet and the Koran as divine law.
A Man for All Times
Professor Michael Hart, who made a special study of the most influential men in history, selected the Prophet of God as the highest-ranking person. Here is how Hart explains his choice:
My choice of Muhammad to lead the list of the world’s most influential persons may surprise some readers and may be questioned by others, but he was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular levels. …
[T]he influence of Muhammad through the medium of the Koran has been enormous. It is probable that the relative influence of Muhammad on Islam has been larger than the combined influence of Jesus Christ and St. Paul on Christianity. On the purely religious level, then, it seems likely that Muhammad has been as influential in human history as Jesus.
Furthermore, Muhammad (unlike Jesus) was a secular as well as a religious leader. In fact, as the driving force behind the Arab conquests, he may well rank as the most influential political leader of all time. …
The Arab conquests and Islam are two different things. Incessant wars between the Byzantine and Persian empires had left great swaths of land in a power vacuum; these belonged to one or the other only on a map. The Arabs moved to fill in that void. One recent authority concludes: “As we have repeatedly seen, the Muslim conquerors put little or no pressure on the recently subjected populations to convert to Islam. Any attempt at compulsory conversion would probably have provoked widespread outrage and open hostility… Attraction, not coercion, was the key to the appeal of the new faith.”[5a] So much for Islam being spread by the sword. But neither could the Arabs have been successful in the absence of Islam and of Arab unification, both of which were due to the Prophet. (Islam pronounced all Muslims brethren. Once the Arabian peninsula was Islamized, the disparate Arab tribes were united as never before by this precept.) Hart again:
It is this unparalleled combination of secular and religious influence which I feel entitles Muhammad to be considered the most influential single figure in human history.
Like Hart, Professor Harold Bloom, a prominent literary and cultural critic, felt compelled to rank Mohammed among the hundred greatest geniuses in history. “No one else,” writes Bloom, “has given us a text in which God alone is the speaker.” That he lists Mohammed among geniuses points to the fact that, like many others before him, he implicitly delegates authorship of the Koran to Mohammed. But anything further would imply that the good professor had become a convert, which would be too much to ask.
The Literary Aspects of the Koran
Thus, Bloom proposes to treat the Koran as literature. Let us oblige him, quoting just enough to follow his argument and discern his style:
The Koran has little in common with the Talmud, but, as an interpretation of the Hebrew patriarchs and prophets, it seems to me highly persuasive.
…even Moses does not occupy as solitary and crucial a position in Judaism as Muhammad does in Islam. It is therefore something of a puzzle for the non-Muslim reader that so little sense of Muhammad’s individual personality is conveyed by the Koran, as opposed to the overwhelming sense of the God’s nature and disposition.
This is because the Prophet has made himself totally transparent to God and His message: there is no “Muhammad” therein, only God speaks.
Urgency of course is also a frequent mark of the Hebrew Bible and of the New Testament, but rarely is the pace so relentless as it is throughout the Koran.
[Even the God] of Muhammad’s earlier Meccan suras is already…the biblical God of Abraham, Noah, Moses, and Jesus, the Jewish Christian God who is paradoxically both wholly transcendent and wholly immanent.
There is a rhetorical finality and completeness to the Koran, as well as an awesome apparent simplicity that at first makes the reader impatient of commentary. The Hebrew Bible, in whole as in part, is a very difficult text, and much in the New Testament is confused and contradictory, while the Koran somehow appears to be stunningly open and clarified, massively self-consistent, and extraordinarily coherent.
This apparent simplicity must be accompanied by a caveat: no matter how well we think we understand it, the Koran is more like a textbook of advanced calculus, and must be approached in that spirit. Verse 3:7 tells us that some verses are clear, easily understood (muhkam), while others are allegorical (mutashabih). Only God knows their true meaning, and only those well-grounded in knowledge can understand them.
In my own experience as a reader of literature, the Koran rarely makes a biblical impression on me, particularly of an aesthetic sort. Sometimes, as I immerse myself in reading the Koran, I am reminded of William Blake or of Walt Whitman; at other moments, I think of Dante… [These three] approximate a divine voice, which is what we hear incessantly in the Koran. … The Koran is a vast, prophetic prose poem, one that emphasizes the centrality and continuity of the prophetic tradition. [It] is both a renewal of tradition and a breakthrough into what will come beyond tradition, which must mean beyond prophecy itself. Here, the Koran is mysterious, and perhaps legitimates the Islamic mystics, the Sufis…
To clarify: the Prophet combined both prophethood (nubuwwa) and sainthood (wilaya) within himself. Prophethood has ended, but sainthood continues. Back to Bloom:
For what is the Koran? It is anything but a closed book, even if it is the seal of prophecy. As much as the Bible, or Dante, or even Shakespeare, the Koran is the Book of Life…it is a universal book, again as open and generous…as the masterworks of Shakespeare or Cervantes. The Sufis found their center in sura 24:35, a sublime passage on the God as light, and a paean to the persuasive universalism of the poet-prophet Muhammad.
Here Bloom quotes from the translation by Ahmed Ali:
God is the light of the heavens and the earth.
The semblance of His light is that of a niche
in which is a lamp, the flame within a glass,
the glass a glittering star as it were, lit with the oil
of a blessed tree, the olive, neither of the East
nor of the West, whose oil appears to light up
even though fire touches it not,–light upon light.
God guides to His light whom He will.
So does God advance precepts of wisdom for men,
for God has knowledge of every thing.
Bloom next comments on this famous Light Verse:
It is a perfect poem in itself, a miracle and yet natural, and in no way sectarian: “light upon light.” The niche may be the heart of Muhammad, or finally any discerning heart: “God guides to His light whom He will.” That blessed olive tree, neither of the East [n]or of the West, is everywhere and nowhere, wherever and whenever a purified vision alights. Purely as a provocation to aesthetic appreciation, this celebrated rhapsody to light is comparable only to crucial theophanies in Dante and Blake, and to biblical and post-biblical apostrophes that invoke a liberating illumination. Not least, this rapture is an epitome of the Koran, another evidence of its authentic status as a central book for everyone.
Dante. Blake. Whitman. Cervantes. Shakespeare. If Professor Bloom is reminded of the greatest names in world literature, surely there must be much more to the Koran than meets the casual eye?
Ocean of Prophetic Eloquence
Professor Arthur J. Arberry, who made one of the most well-regarded translations into English of the Koran, was likewise impressed by its eloquence. “I have been at pains,” says Arberry, “to study the intricate and richly varied rhythms which—apart from the message itself—constitute the Koran’s undeniable claim to rank amongst the greatest literary masterpieces of mankind. … This very characteristic feature—‘that inimitable symphony’ [M.M. Pickthall]—has been almost totally ignored by previous translators; it is therefore not surprising that what they have wrought sounds dull and flat indeed in comparison with the splendidly decorated original. For the Koran is neither prose nor poetry, but a unique fusion of both.” He continues:
The reader of the Koran, particularly if he has to depend upon a version, however accurate linguistically, is certain to be puzzled and dismayed by the apparently random nature of many of the Suras. This famous inconsequence has often been attributed to clumsy patchwork on the part of the first editors. I believe it to be rather of the very nature of the Book itself. In many passages it is stated that the Koran had been sent down ‘confirming what was before it’, by which was meant the Torah and the Gospel; the contents of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, excepting such falsifications as had been introduced into them, were therefore taken as true and known. All truth was thus present simultaneously within the Prophet’s enraptured soul; all truth, however fragmented, revealed itself in his inspired utterance. The reader of the Muslim scriptures must strive to attain the same all-embracing apprehension. The sudden fluctuations of theme and mood will then no longer present such difficulties as have bewildered critics ambitious to measure the ocean of prophetic eloquence with the thimble of pedestrian analysis. Each Sura will now be seen to be a unity within itself, and the whole Koran will be recognized as a single revelation, self-consistent to the highest degree.
Indeed, the Prophet referred to the suras (chapters) of the Koran as “my books.” Perhaps it would be more accurate, therefore, to regard the Koran not as a single book, but as a collection of 114 books. Arberry hoped that “some faint impression may be given of its dramatic impact and most moving beauty” by his “interpretation, poor echo though it is of the glorious original.”
The Koran as Indra’s Net
According to Hindu mythology, an artificer once manufactured a splendid net of jewels, each reflecting the others and the reflections of their reflections, and so on to infinity. The image of this dazzling, this magnificent, net is nothing but a metaphor for the universe itself. But equally, we now begin to perceive that it is a metaphor for the Koran as well. The Koran may be structured in the same way as the universe: it may be holographic.
In his last book, Professor Norman O. Brown turned his attention to “the Apocalypse of Islam,” where he focused on the Koran in connection with James Joyce’s masterpiece, Finnegans Wake:
The apocalyptic style is totum simul, simultaneous totality: the whole in every part. Marshall Hodgson, in The Venture of Islam—still the outstanding and only ecumenical Western history—says of the Koran, “Almost every element which goes to make up its message is somehow present in any given passage.” Simultaneous totality, as in Finnegans Wake. Or, more generally, what Umberto Eco calls “The Poetics of the Open Work”: “We can see it as an infinite contained within finiteness. The work therefore has infinite aspects, because each of them, and any moment of it, contains the totality of the work.” Eco is trying to characterize a revolution in the aesthetic sensibility of the West: we are the first generation in the West able to read the Koran, if we are able to read Finnegans Wake. In fact Carlyle’s reaction to the Koran—”a wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement”—is exactly our first reaction to Finnegans Wake. The affinity between this most recalcitrant of sacred texts and this most avant-garde of literary experiments is a sign of our times. Joyce was fully aware of the connection…
In both the Koran and Finnegans Wake this effect of simultaneous totality involves systematic violation of the classic rules of unity, propriety and harmony; bewildering changes of subject; abrupt juxtaposition of incongruities.
Hence, it does not matter in what order you read the Koran: it is all there all the time; and it is supposed to be all there all the time in your mind or at the back of your mind… In this respect the Koran is more avant-garde than Finnegans Wake, in which the overall organization is entangled in both the linear and the cyclical patterns the novel is trying to transcend.
Here one is also reminded of “holopoetry,” developed in recent times by Eduardo Kac. Another similarity that Brown finds with Finnegans Wake is that language buckles under the weight of the message:
In the Koran as in Finnegans Wake there is a destruction of human language. To quote Seyyed Hossein Nasr: “…Many people, especially non-Muslims, who read the Quran for the first time are struck by what appears as a kind of incoherence from the human point of view. It is neither like a highly mystical text nor a manual of Aristotelian logic, though it contains both mysticism and logic. It is not just poetry although it contains the most powerful poetry. The text of the Quran reveals human language crushed by the power of the Divine Word.”
Some Sufis might even aver that the heavenly archetype of the Koran, the “Mother of the Book” or “Guarded Tablet,” constitutes the DNA of the universe itself. God’s light (and God is Divine Light, “the Light of the heavens and the earth”), passing through the prism of the Guarded Tablet, projects the universe (after passing through multiple layers of existence) as a four-dimensional spacetime bubble. This Cosmic Blueprint then becomes actualized in the myriad phenomena that meet the eye.
It is as if William Blake, in his famous lines, had the reading of “the Reading” (for this is what the “Koran” means) in mind:
To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower;
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
in an hour.
 That is, Gabriel (2:97).
 David Bohm, “On the Intuitive Understanding of Nonlocality as Implied by Quantum Theory,” Foundations of Physics, vol 5, 1975.
 David Bohm and Basil Hiley, The Undivided Universe, London: Routledge, 1993, pp. 353-4.
 Michael H. Hart, The 100: a Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, New York: Citadel, 2000 (revised ed.), c1978, pp. 3-10.
 Harold Bloom, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, New York: Warner Books, 2002, pp. 143-153, esp. 148ff.
 Ibid., 150, 152.
 Ibid., 153.
 Ibid., 154.
 A.J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, London: Oxford U. Pr., c1955, p. xi.
 Norman O. Brown, Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1991, pp. 88-90.
 Ibid., p.90.