With so many people claiming, or perhaps hoping, that all religions are basically the same, it is good to take a look at the evidence to see if that is true. One place we can do that is in the holy books, and so let’s take a quick look at the Bible as compared to the Quran. Before moving on I should point out that as a Christian I have read the Quran only once which makes me far less familiar with it than with the Bible. That being said, allow me some observations:
The Bible is harder to read, being far more complex than the Quran.
The Bible is made up of sixty-six books combined into two testaments with up to forty authors involved over a very long period of time. It is made up many different genres including historical writings, poetry, prophecy, wisdom writings, apocalyptic, letters, and a genre all its own, gospel. As a Christian I believe the whole Bible is for everyone, everywhere, at all times, yet I understand that each work within the Bible was written to specifically different people at different times on different occasions and under different circumstances. This makes the Bible a very convoluted collection which can frustrate the reader who wants a simple “word from the Lord” without needing to know the genre or study the context. The Quran on the other hand, is a much simpler work. It is throughout its entirety a “word from Allah” and so it is far easier to “get the point” at any point.
However, the Bible has an unexpected unity you won’t find in the Quran. Please don’t misunderstand, you will find a great sense of unity within the Quran, but you would expect that given its nature. With the Bible being a convoluted mix of genres from different times, places, authors and circumstances, you would expect much less of a sense of unity. But it is there in an extraordinary way. While the Quran is held by Muslims to be a record of revelation given over a short period of time, the Bible, while containing moments of direct revelation, could be better described as a chronicle of the relationship between God and humanity, culminating in the revelation of God Himself through Jesus Christ. From beginning to end, the Bible has a wonderful development of a main storyline, a story of God’s love and salvation, and despite the diversity there is a wonderful unity throughout. How can works written over a thousand year span have such unity and such a profound storyline? With God as the Author behind the authors, we need not be surprised.
Also, the complexity of the Bible is of greater evidential worth to a historian seeking truth than the Quran. Investigators get excited when they have a whole mess of evidence to sort through and witnesses to interview. The more there is, the more likely you will have corroboration. Similarly, for the historian, the more primary sources there are, the better. With the Bible we have a multiplicity of witnesses to the story of God and humanity. Within the New Testament, we have a multiplicity of primary sources, quite close time-wise, to the person of Jesus. With the Quran, on the other hand, you have to ask, do I trust this one witness?
Where might reading it lead?
I was struck by an interview with Karen Armstrong, who had this to say as part of an answer given to a question about “Wahhabism – the Saudi-based sect of Islam that informs ISIS fighters”:
Wahhabists encouraged people to read the Koran directly, and ignore the centuries of interpretation by learned scholars. Now that sounds great and liberating, but people were then licenced to come up with many wild interpretations. In the past, no one read the Koran on its own; it was enmeshed in a wide swath of complexity that actually held radical interpretations in check. Now that check’s been lifted, and all kinds of freelancers like Bin Laden, who is no more qualified to issue a Fatwa than I am, have free reign to come up with these extraordinary interpretations.
What I find striking about this is that within the Christian tradition, Christianity has tended to be less violent as people are encouraged to read the Bible directly. Christians still mess up and make messes, but on the whole Christian religious leaders today would not be able to get away with the sorry and violent decisions “in the name of Christianity” of some religious leaders of the past. Too many would rise up and say “That does not fit with what we read in the Bible about how to be a cross-carrying-following-in-the-way-of-love Jesus.”
Consider this quote from a boy who was kidnapped and brainwashed as related in the news:
“Sometimes I am confused,” said Jan. “But everything they said they proved using passages from the Koran. The Koran tells us that Muslims will rule the world. [ISIS] are right: there will be a global Islamic caliphate.”
The quote comes from an extremist position of course. Nevertheless you would have great difficulty building a brain-washed army ready to fight for a caliphate-style religious state using the Bible. You would need to add layers of tradition, interpretation and keep the Bible out of people’s hands.
All religions are not the same, and the holy books are very different. I will continue to pray that people worldwide will be able to get their hands on a Bible, and that we who are fortunate to have one already, will read it.
Note to reader: if you had read this blog post earlier you may notice that the second part has changed as I came to realize that I had “overstated the case.” Many thanks to my commenters for helping me realize that what I had written was poorly written, though it still may be!