Lesley Hazleton Explores the Koran

I have no doubt many readers will regard this as off topic, but it’s a great little talk. Its tag line at YouTube is “Lesley Hazleton explores the Koran and finds much that is quite different from what is reported in commonly cited accounts.” Hat tip reader May S.

From Wikipedia:

Lesley Hazleton (born 1945) is an award-winning British-American writer whose work focuses on the intersection of politics, religion, and history, especially in the Middle East. She reported from Israel for Time, and has written on the Middle East for numerous publications including The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, The Nation, and The New Republic…

She has described herself as “a Jew who once seriously considered becoming a rabbi, a former convent schoolgirl who daydreamed about being a nun, an agnostic with a deep sense of religious mystery though no affinity for organized religion”.”Everything is paradox,” she has said. “The danger is one-dimensional thinking”.

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  1. DownSouth

    Superb lecture!

    In War and Peace and War Peter Turchin writes:

    [T]he Quaraysh (to whom the future prophet of Islam Muhammad belonged) were a clan of religious leaders associated with the holy pre-Islamic shrine of Mecca. For a leader to become a powerful unifying force that would enable his followers to found an empire, he had to concentrate all forms of power—-religious, military, and economic—-in his hands. Both the Germanic and Arabic society eventually developed such leaders under the influence of frontier conditions. However, whereas in Germania the evolution took the route of investing the military chiefs with sacral legitimacy, in Arabia it was the religious leaders who acquired military power. The endpoint was the same, but the route taken there was culture-specific.

    Hazleton seems to confirm Turchin’s observation, and that is that regardless of the route taken, the endpoint is always the same: Religion invariably gets co-opted and perverted for political and economic agendas. It happened with Islam. It happened with Christianity. And it happened with the secular religion of Modernism, which includes liberal economic theory.

    1. Fifi

      “Religion invariably gets co-opted and perverted for political and economic agendas.”

      I would seriously dispute the notion that there is some pure form to those religions that would be diverted by misguided or ill-intentioned persons to their own purposes.

      Particularly in the case of Islam, the conflation of power and belief system is very much a central feature of the creed, not a bug nor a perversion.

  2. Ina Deaver

    At my University, a course called “world religion” was mandatory. We read the Koran, much of the Upanishads, some Buddhist text I’ve forgotten (shamefully), and the Bible. We also visited a temple/mosque/church of each of the world religions as a requirement, and were instructed as a class on religious practices we would see during the service by the spiritual leader there.

    I marvel that this experience turns out to have been rare. It has been extremely valuable.

  3. Jack Rip

    Hazleton delivers a good short talk, but due to the short talk, she doesn’t cover much. Islam, nevertheless, is a major religion with all the advantages and disadvantages that Christianity and Judaism contain. The assumption that Muslims are different from Christians or Jews is baseless and racist.

    It isn’t as if other religion don’t have their extremists, fanatics and murderers.

      1. DownSouth

        Yea right.

        As if Julian Assange isn’t cooling his heels behind bars as we speak, and in a country that operates in your hallowed Judeo-Chistian tradition.

        1. LeeAnne

          Julian Assange is being jailed by the FED/BIS Israeli Lieberman crony gangster system that has achieved temporary control over the American people and liberal governments all over the world – temporarily.
          The criminal corporatocracy is not the American people. The corporatocracy couldn’t be more than the 1% of the population with all that tax-free, off shore money and income.

          Clearly that is not enough to constitute ‘the American people’ and does not in any way compare with 11th century religious fanatics supported by Saudis supported by US oil industry creeps.

          The corporatocracy accomplished this with creative counterfeiting using Wall Street/Fleet Street financial gangsters to wash it all and corrupt everything it touches into the infinity of quadrillions of dollars.

          Give me a break. Infinite dollars forever for them -the 1%. -unlimited debt for everyone else.

          How long is that going to last? The Internet is verrrrry fragile.

      2. Parvaneh Ferhad

        The fact of those countries having an Muslim majority and their governments being repressive is not necessarily related – I’d say, it isn’t related at all.
        In reality, the most authoritarian of those governments have duely been installed and are kept in power by support from the US in particular and the West in general.

      3. kharris

        The prior comment did not specify “modern”. You did. A tacit admission perhaps, that the same point you have made about Muslim-dominated political cultures today was true of Christian dominated political cultures at other times? Well, tacit admission or no, Christian nations did go through a periods in which government didn’t allow no back-talk. Making the equivalence argument requires nothing more than a knowledge of history.

      4. political economist

        Read or listen to Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Persecution and the outlawing of “others” religious practices, particularly by atheists, is an ongoing battle in the US, a “Christian nation” as the “founding father’s insisted.” (Just quoting some of the religious fanatics in the US.) As for killing open democracies, consider the US sabotage of Iran’s in the early 1950s.

  4. Brendan

    How is this off-topic? Every day your links include something about the horrors perpetrated by the U.S. side of the war. It was inevitable that you’d include something citing the goodness of the stone aged, head-chopping, women-hating islamo-fascists. You are the epitome of a useful idiot.

    1. Eclaire

      And you would call the aging white guys in the US House and Senate who want the State to have control over women’s uteruses what exactly?

      Try stepping outside of your limited cultural boundaries and see us as others do.

      1. Brendan

        Your moral equivalence is ridiculous. Do you think being anti-abortion is the same as women being considered their father’s chattel, until she’s her arranged-marriage husbands chattel? That women should not be entitled to education? That they must veil their faces or their entire bodies? That they be stoned to death if they are accused of adultery? That their testimony not be counted in court if they are so accused? How about cliterectomies?

        If multiculturalism requires me to respect these doctrines, count me out, sister.

        1. Eclaire

          Please refer to Parvaneh Ferhad’s comment above.

          And, refer to your US history. When this “Christian” country was founded, women were regarded as chattel, could not own property, certainly could not vote and, because they had very few economic options (other than prostitution and teaching) were subject to the whims of the males in their families.

          Thanks to the courage of a lot of uppity women (and the industrial revolution), US women now experience an unprecedented degree of social and economic freedom. Which may be why the aged white males in the Congress are so hell-bent on re-subjugating us, using the lame excuse of being “anti-abortion” in an effort to re gain control over our bodies.

          Subjugation of women is definitely not limited to any one religion. Yeah, many cultures still deny women control over their bodies and their destinies but I don’t see much difference between a fanatical Muslim male who wants to repress women and early Colonial preachers who lectured women to shut up and let the men rule the community. Or the sanctimonious males in Congress who would deny US women the right to decide their own reproductive destiny.

          The difference is one of timing and of degree, not of final intent.

          1. Brendan

            Ah, now you switched to the PAST in the West when women had it worse. So you concede that in western societies currently women have it better than islamic countries where cliterectomies, honor killings, forced marriages, stonings take place? How could you not!

            As to Ferhad comment, this pure comic gold: it’s just a mere coincidence that islamic countries are where women are treated so poorly. The poor treatment is precisely that dictated by islamic doctrine and the imams running those countries. The idea that everything everywhere is the fault of the U.S. is the other favorite chestnut the multi-culties always resort to.

    2. Ming

      Yves is not saying anything good about the crazed islamo- fasciists, and neither is ms. Hazelton. However, what Ms.
      Hazelton is pointing out is that the Koran is a book of much subtlety, but it is the islamo- fascists who have perverted it fo their own evil

  5. F. Beard

    I have a generally dim view of the Koran based on what I’ve heard (I haven’t read it yet) just as some of you may have a dim view of the Old Testament (the Torah) based on what you’ve heard. (I may yet read the Koran and still criticize the hell out of it and Mohammad too, if I’ve a mind to. Who knows?)

    But that is pretty irrelevant; the suicide bombers are motivated by foreign troops on their soil and Western puppet governments, not a hatred of (vanishing) Western freedom.

    I’ll say this though, any religion that suppresses criticism of it by force discredits itself.

  6. Independent Accountant

    This woman does not know what she is talking about. I have read two translations of the Koran. And a book of hadith. And two and a half book shelves of: commentary, Arabic history and Islamic jurisprudence.
    Islam divides the world into the Dar al’Islam and the Dar al’Harb. If we left the Islamic world tomorrow, that would not change. Islam has been at war with: Christianity and Hinduism for 1300 years. That will not change. 99+% of Americans know nothing of Islam. Before 9/11. I knew nothing of it. Just like Lesley Hazelton after her having read four translations of the Koran.

    1. sidelarge

      Throwing such random factoids around randomly does not constitute any valid criticism. If you want to start if off with such a strong statement as “This woman does not know what she is talking about,” make a bit more effort to present some specific point for an argument.

    2. Ming

      I would like to comment on what you wrote:
      ” I have read two translations of the Koran. And a book of hadith. And two and a half book shelves of: commentary, Arabic history and Islamic jurisprudence.”

      First of all my kudos to you, you have spent alot of effort trying to understand the Koran. I have not read the Koran so I certainly could not challenge some of your assertions directly. However, I am quite knowledgable of the Bible, and I can say this, there are many ways of reading the Bible, and whole libraries have been written expressing those views. One could easily be a hell-fire and brimstone Christian, a Jew-hating Christian, or a contextual reading compassionate Christian who still believes in many of the miracles within the Bible. To use history as a guide toward interpreting a religion is incorrect…. History is filled with men who have used religion to sanctify wars and oppression, which is entirely in opposite of the intent of the Author. And btw… You believers in philosophy and science are not much better in terms of historcal performance…. The ideas of Darwin(which as a Christian,
      I do accept as brilliant and correct) were also used to justify the superiority of the ‘white races’ , and the philosphies of the ‘romantic age’ , from which we derive many of our concepts of human rights, also gave rise to communism and fascism and violent ethnic centered nationalism.

    3. Yves Smith Post author

      It appears you are so deeply invested in your point of view that you did not listen to her talk.

      She reads Arabic but decided not to rely on her language skills, admitting her Arabic is not what is used to be.

      She read four translations in parallel over three months, it sounds like full time, as well as commentaries. And she knows the history, thus can also interpret the remarks in context.

      So her depth of and rigor of reading of the Koran trumps yours.

      1. Danial

        Also, while you seem to have bought copies of the quran, you mention stuff in your post that are not in the quran… Its unreasonable to criticize someones understanding of the quran if you bring up random statements that are not from it to refute her statements that are quoting the book.

  7. jake chase

    The sacred cow of religion is dedicated to preserving power of those shrewd enough to grasp the reins. All of it is bunk, most of it is toxic and discussion of the details is time wasted. Most people are idots who understand nothing and believe in anything repeated often enough. This explains the power of religion, advertising, media propaganda and neoliberal economics. We pay the price for rampant stupidity every day. Will the world ever break free of this nonsense? Don’t hold your breath.

  8. LeeAnne

    Its one thing to lecture on comparative religion -defending any one is always propaganda.

    The Koran is GOD … deal with it. I’d be more explicit but I have to consider the deadly consequences of doing so -‘nuf said?

    Stick to markets and economics Yves -you do an outstanding job.

    1. Ming

      I disagree with you Lee- Anne.

      That was a very nice post , Yves. It is always good to hear the voices of reason and enlightenment in our darkening world.

  9. F. Beard

    I’d be more explicit but I have to consider the deadly consequences of doing so -’nuf said? LeeAnn

    Not really. How can one say euff if one is scared to get blown up for doing so?

    1. Danial

      If youre saying that muslim fundamentalists will track down a post on a blog… i think youre either paranoid or dont have much to say so you like giving the illusion that there is much behind that slightly vague statement

  10. Doug Terpstra

    “This was perhaps the biggest surprise… how flexible the Koran is, at least in minds that are not fundamentally inflexible… The perverse of heart will seek out the ambiguities, trying to create discord by pinning down meanings of their own.”

    Predictably, you’ve already attracted a few Christo-fascists here, whose very raison d’être relies on the very profitable cataclysmic clash of civilization ending in the climax of Armageddon.

    But oh what a relief it is to know that the 72 virgins in paradise are only a cruel myth after all (because of course they must remain virgins for all eternity). It’s like discovering after all that heaven is not an eternal church service of reverential posture in a hard pew listening to a pipe organ and an angelic choir of aspiring opera stars.

    1. F. Beard

      Predictably, you’ve already attracted a few Christo-fascists here, whose very raison d’être relies on the very profitable cataclysmic clash of civilization ending in the climax of Armageddon. Doug Terpstra

      If so they do so out of ignorance:

      Alas, you who are longing for the day of the LORD,
      For what purpose will the day of the LORD be to you?
      It will be darkness and not light;
      As when a man flees from a lion
      And a bear meets him,
      Or goes home, leans his hand against the wall
      And a snake bites him.
      Amos 5:18-19 (New American Standard Bible)

  11. readerOfTeaLeaves

    Interesting post and comments.

    Of entirely secular note, it appears that I live within 50 miles of Ms Hazelton, and I gather that her ending photo was taken in either the Cascade or Olympic mountains, where there still are flowing streams. As for ‘abundance’, given our deforestation and massive sprawl of the past 50 years, and our current constant heavy rains, just yesterday it took me nearly 3 hours and 4 detours simply to get a distance that would ordinarily require 40 minutes. In other words: road flooding. Fecundity will have to wait for spring; at present, we are deluged… (meh).

    As for the TED talk, of greatest interest to me is Hazelton’s sensibility about ‘orality’: this was a spoken document.
    As I noted yesterday on the thread about the Statues of Fraud (circa 1677 in England), the notion of a widely literate population is a very modern concept.

    The idea of widely spread public education, available to all children, is a late 1800s notion for the most part — certainly out in the Western United States, where the idea of public education is an essential element of most state constitutions.

    As Hazelton astutely notes, most people encountering the Koran would have done so by listening to the few in their community who had learnt it – and some of them very likely learned it by rote memorization, in which case it would have been essential to them to retain the very identical words and language down through generations. (This was also true of the Greeks with Homer, and with the medieval bards, aoi! It was also the reason that the local priest or pastor Sunday sermon had such power for hundreds of years, pre-teevee, pre-iPod.)

    Modern Biblical scholarship is very much a feature of post-1850s archaeology, linguistics, etc, etc. It’s interesting that this is the approach taken by Hazelton (or at least, it appears to be her method).

    Lovely post, Yves.

    Sometimes, I think we moderns with our electric lights and computers have very little grasp of the worldview of our predecessors. I will humbly point out, however, that those of us fortunate to climb among those ‘flowing waters’ of the Cascade and Olympic mountains and spend the nights looking up from our sleeping bags into the Milky Way and the vast array of circling stars can get some sense of how nomadic tribes, or pre-industrial cultures, would have marveled at nature and viewed it as worthy of reverence.

    1. F. Beard

      As I noted yesterday on the thread about the Statues of Fraud (circa 1677 in England), the notion of a widely literate population is a very modern concept. readerOfTeaLeaves

      I’m not Jewish (that I know of) but I see there are 38 verses with the word “write” in the OT. There are 40 in the NT: Keyword search on “write” in NASB

      I suspect that reading and writing were very important to the Hebrews from the earliest which would partially explain their worldly success.

      1. readerOfTeaLeaves

        I actually came back – putting aside other work because the ’72 Virgins’ is bugging me so much.

        I happen to have a very strong interest in literacy, particularly adult illiteracy. In recent years, there’s been some really interesting work on the history of writing and literacy, much of it coming from archeology.

        The Jewish tribes were probably among those who worked in turquoise and copper mines in Sinai, where the first alphabets have been located. Moses may well have been a prince of Egypt, who came into contact with the miners (slaves). If so, he’d have encountered alphabets. The alphabet was one of the most revolutionary technologies in human history. (If you think of cuniform as Writing 2.0, the alphabet jumps suddenly to about Writing 8.0).

        Abraham (Abrm) was originally from Ur, a center of the metal trades. The metal trades were probably the origins of the creation of alphabets, as they had to interact with so many language groups (‘babel’) that creating an alphabet was a reaction to Information Overload, circa 1200 BCE.

        The Jewish people were — if not the developers of the alphabet — then certainly on the cusp of that movement. It meant that **every** member of the tribe, clan, or city could become literate and so the WORD of God became worthy of reverence. There’s a whole huge, enormous literature if you are inclined to google a bit.

        The Greeks are said to have added vowels, but that’s probably not true; the Phoenicians put the vowels in to be able to contend with the various languages along their metal trade (shipping) routes. Among those would have been groups that later moved toward Islam.

        The written shapes of Arabic suggest that they may have originated as painted forms on the hides of animals; the Greeks had more square shapes as the result of engraving them in stone. (Again, this is from memory, I don’t have citations.)


        As for the 72 Virgins, it’s interesting to consider that the difference between a sideral day and a solar day is off by a fraction above 3 seconds – always has been, always will be.

        Many historical stories are encodings of ancient astronomical knowledge.

        It requires 72 years for the stars to turn 1 degree of ‘precession’; in other words, they move in relation to the earth.

        The constellation Virgo was at one time on the Vernal Equinox, and she is after all ‘the Virgin’. So that ’72’ seems like it probably has some ancient astronomical significance.

        But that’s only my hunch.

        And now, to stop mucking up Yves’ pleasant OT post commenter field….

        1. Qafir Arnaut

          It appears the ’72 virgins’ debacle in Islam is the way the universe corrects imbalances. If the greek jews caused an error in the translation of the hebrew word ‘woman’ and thus the Christians got the Virgin Mary, the muslims it seems did the same thing. They seem to have mistranslated the word ‘grape’ and turned it into ‘virgin’. It happens when your alphabet has no vowels.

          1. readerOfTeaLeaves

            I have no idea whether this was written in jest, mockery, or seriousness.

            I get the bit about the translation problems of languages with no vowels. (Big time!) So your point about the likelihood of translation errors make complete sense to me; however, I’ve no knowledge of Arabic, so can’t tell whether your ‘grape’ reference is a witticism, or genuine. (Or both?)

            Maryam originated, I believe as some meaning connected with ‘sweet water’, meaning ‘flowing water’ — to get right back to Hazelton’s point. Waters that failed to flow turned brackish, and unhealthy. Maryam (Anglicized through eons to ‘Mary’) had an association with the moon (which seemed to ‘flow’ through the 28 day lunar cycle, and with ‘sweet waters’ or flowing waters.

            Lovely comment, whether jest or sincere.

            Although I’ve no notion what Hazelton might make of the mistranslation of ‘grape’ to ‘woman’. I’ve seen weirder mistranslations, though ;-)

            Kind regards.

  12. Jim the Skeptic

    Lesley Hazleton points out the Koran is like the Arabic poetry that she had heard recited. I have read others comment that the best way to read the Koran is in Arabic. The main stream media point out that what passes for education in the madrasas is a rote reading or memorization of the Koran in Arabic.

    Why the need for the poetry, which usually does not translate well, and seemingly, less for the ideas which can be translated? Is that a symptom of something deeper? The poetry belonged to the people, the ideas and their interpretation belonged to the rulers and their clerics?

    At one time the Islamic world was the center of learning and their world was expanding. Something happened within their world which caused a change. This change was not catastrophic but it’s effect over time has been as relentless as water wearing away rock. The rest of the world has moved on and the Islamic world has not. (See “What went wrong” by Bernard Lewis for his discussion.)

    In Europe the Roman Catholic church limited change, even to the point of showing Galileo the instruments of torture in 1633. But the Catholic church had been losing it’s monopoly since about 1517 when Martin Luther started the reformation. The power of religion to limit science and learning was receding in Europe. Civil government began the long journey to separate itself from reliance on religious leaders.

    By 1791 the first amendment to the US constitution said the “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …”. Make no mistake, there had been an establishment of religion in the colonies before the revolution, and the founder fathers were renouncing the practice.

    Most recently the Republicans’ dependence on trickle down economics and the tax cut as stimulus, resembles nothing so much as dogma. Their defenders are the current high priests, the economists. They ignore that fact that our economy was at it’s best during periods of extremely high taxation of the highest income earners. No, the government must protect the interests of the most advantaged.

    Will we end up like the Islamic middle east?

  13. skippy

    With so much to marvel at, why does humanity incessantly through out its history, feel the need to align itself with a creator[s, entity[s with unexplainable powers above them, only to be understood and applied by a few…eh…and only after death is *all* revealed to the common…sigh.

    Complexity begets obfuscation of which the charismatic weld so well…Oooummm…synthetic derivatives…Oooummm

    Skippy…Convert! the Randian holy pilgrimage to Wall st. is at hand, the Fed, Treasury and economic priests proclaim it so!

    PS. No boom boom in the daylight…so saith the Lama…No condoms for Aids said da Pope…Pat Robertson said it was Gods punishment…the orthodox Jewry are the chosen…ad infinity…holy text and bias is a mental explosive.

    PSS. God is a child’s soap bubble…fun to create…wonderful to watch…dance on the minds winds…hard to catch…and destroyed if touched…to harshly.

  14. Hepcat

    It doesn’t matter what the Koran says. What matters is what Muslims think it says.

    The Koran says nothing about 72 virgins — little comfort if an islamist uses it as motivation to blow himself up and take out other people.

    It doesn’t matter if the Koran puts conditions on killing infidels when any number of polls say a large proportion of Muslims condone suicide bombing.




    10-15% of muslims are funadamentalist muslims that hold to the destructive ideology of Osama Bin Laden.
    So, .15×1.4b = 210,000,000 7th century tribal islamo-facists operating under the thinnist gossamer of “religion”.
    That makes whatever the remainder think completely IRRELEVANT.
    You have to deal with the 210,000,000 indiscriminate bomb throwers wherever they throw them; NY, Seattle, Indonesia, Australia, India, Russia, Sweden…….
    Discussing the various esoteric “meanings” of the Koran is completely fruitless.

      1. Skippy

        Too right.

        Today’s problem was yesterdays solution…sigh.

        And terror, is it at ground level or thousands of feet in the air ummm, some times remotely controlled by those that still kiss their kids goodnight, just hours after.

        1. Danial

          If 10-15% were fundamentalists or terrorists, we’d be in trouble. A vast majority live amongst us in peace ad work for the same values as our own

  16. Sufferin' Succotash

    Gee, if that’s a non-sequitur I’d sure like to see a sequitur that makes any sense.
    Maybe torching a mosque or two would make us all feel good.

    1. Skippy

      Not to long ago in the good old USA some bad rye bread created a fad (witch hunting) and even after that some brother on brother civil war, oops white pride and civil rights too.

      Were better than that today…right, but what would have happened if we were bombed, had our state / country boundary’s reconfigured ever few decades, became a chess board for every megalomaniac ruler[s of the day…eh

      Skippy….Christan men never beat their wives…right…most don’t but some do…eh. So your point is again?

  17. avgJohn

    At the top of a scenic mountain in the Rockies I ask a small child of five if he loved God. With bright eyes and a broad smile he opened his arms and hands in a wide gesture and said “sure, he made all of this for me”. We spoke no more on the subject, but the casualness and sincereity of his reply stunned me, and I knew from that moment that you discover God from your heart, not through an intellectual investigation.

    “And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.'”
    -Matthew 18:3-4

    1. Skippy

      “sure, he made all of this for me”.

      The arrogance of some humans is beyond comprehension, to infect a child’s mind, before they have a chance to decide for them selves such_absolutes_is_…astonishing.

      Yet with such a simple stroke of endearment_all_is validated.

      Skippy…the brown people reduction squad will be looking for him in 15 odd years, then he will meet God, will it be your or theirs….ummm.

  18. Sufferin' Succotash

    Makes me glad to live in a society no longer characterized by blatant patriarchically-motivated cruelty.

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