Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ the poetry of the Qur’an

Wednesdays are Jesus and Mo days, and today’s strip, called “doom,” came with an email note: “If any reader is moved to tears of divine rapture by this comic, please reply to this email.” (The address is

Apropos, in the evening I’m reading the Qur’an for the second time, having decided to read a version which most scholars say is one of the best (it’s this one). It is still full of punishment, hatred, and the words of a vindictive Allah—but at least it’s supposedly accurate. And of course, as is shown pointedly in the strip, the translator of my version, Arthur Arberry, says that no translation can match the ineffable beauty of the original Arabic words.  That may well be so, but while the Arabic sounds may fall softly on the ear, their meaning is still often vile and repugnant, like the ones in this strip.

The Qur’an has no monopoly on nice poetry carrying odious messages; the Old Testament is often the same, but the poetry was added largely by King James’s translators.


  1. Randall Schenck
    Posted January 10, 2018 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Yes, to catch the real beauty you had to be there. Or was that, not be there.

  2. Posted January 10, 2018 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    The adage applies: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    • Posted January 10, 2018 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      Indeed. I wouldn’t doubt many extremists find that bit beautiful.

    • mrclaw69
      Posted January 10, 2018 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      Perhaps you mean: “Beauty is in the eye of the beheader”…?

  3. Posted January 10, 2018 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    And I bet in French it sounds sexy.

  4. Alpha Neil
    Posted January 10, 2018 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Bak. Derk-derk-Allah. Durka durka Mohammed jihad. Haka sherpa sherpa bak Allah.

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 10, 2018 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    … the Old Testament is often the same, but the poetry was added largely by King James’s translators.

    Hitchens wrote a good piece on that, “When the King Saved God.” Only decent writing ever done by committee.

    • TJR
      Posted January 10, 2018 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Although it turns out a lot of the KJ bible, and a lot of the best bits, were straight out of the Tyndale bible.

    • Leigh
      Posted January 10, 2018 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

      I have never understood why people characterize the bible as “great literature” Why?
      I have to ask myself if I have such a defective appreciation of the written word that I can see no merit in this book as literature? Granted I was not exposed to any version of the bible as a child, KJV or otherwise, and the most intense exposure came when my daughter asked for help passing a class required for her BA. It was the first time either of us had read sizeable portions of the book.

      We have no problem rejecting this book as a science or history text. It certainly offers dubious moral guidance. Is it time to stop touting its worth as literature as well.

      • Posted January 10, 2018 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

        Yes. It does make a fairly good door-stop or paperweight.

      • Posted January 10, 2018 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

        I disagree, Leigh. Ecclesiastes, with its Epicurean tinge, would make it into any anthology on how to live the good life. Job is an essential contribution to the human conversation on theodicy. And Esther is a charming tale at the beginning of the Middle Eastern story-telling tradition. Even the Creation and Flood stories tell us how Israelite thought differed from its Mesopotamian roots.

        If we did not pay attention to the Hebrew Bible we would not understand the development of ideas in time and in space. We would not know how Mesopotamian and Egyptian tales, law codes and wisdom literature made it down to the inter-testamental period. We would not know specifically that the commonly asserted Judeo-Christian tenet to be kind and decent found in Proverbs derives from the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope. We would have no memory.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted January 10, 2018 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

          I disagree. It may be interesting as a historical document (but surely in that case the original texts are far more relevant than King James re-write), but that doesn’t make it great literature.


          • Posted January 10, 2018 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

            No, but some of it is very good. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 for instance, Dickens’ inspiration for the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities. And Psalm 23 is beautifully put, as are some sections of Proverbs and the Song of Solomon.

            They had 600 or so years to write the damn thing. The law of averages tells you some of it must be pretty good.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted January 10, 2018 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, Dermot, I’m a fan of Ecclesiates, too, and of Isaiah, and Ezekiel, and Psalms, as well. Some pretty good writing there, in the KJV anyway, and the source of much idiom and allusion. Which isn’t to say it’s without its longueurs; if I never read another “begat” again, it’ll be too soon.

  6. Andy David
    Posted January 10, 2018 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I’ve heard that the beauty of the language in the Quran is proof that it must have been divinely authored; no mere human could write so exquisitely.

    It seems a helluva lot more likely that — after 1,400 years of placing the Quran above all other texts — the paragon of beauty against which the Quran is measured is… the Quran. How could it fail to measure up to itself?

    • Posted January 10, 2018 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      Well, in the translation I read, it was full of anacalutha, ellipses and whole passages only comprehensible after several readings. And ibn Warraq points out several grammatical errors in the piece, as well as passages which are obviously Mohammed, and not Allah or Gabriel, dictating.

      There is the further point that the writers may not have been imagining that their efforts would become scripture and the style may be a function of whatever they thought the function of their writing was. Either the mistakes in the Koran are the remnants of an uncorrected draft or of genuinely poor style. In the case of the Koran, it claims at the start of each chapter to be the word of God. So there is less likelihood than in the case of the NT that the authors were envisaging just a common-or-garden book on God: this looks designed to be scripture.

      So we are left with God’s word, rather like an absent-minded psychopath, in which he is regularly incapable of presenting a sentence in which the second half relates to the first.

      • Simon
        Posted January 11, 2018 at 8:48 am | Permalink

        I wonder if there is anything in the Quran which comes directly from Mo. The Quran is derived from many different versions which existed 60 years after his death. As a matter of history, the provenance of the Quran is even more dubious than that of the Bible. It seems fairly clear that the caliph Abdul Malik ordered the creation and standardisation of the religion from various writings around 690. He did this as an aid to binding the Arab empire together under his rule. The importance of Mecca, even the identity of the prophet, and the existence of the codified religion do not appear before this time.

  7. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 10, 2018 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Actually, a fairly poetic modern translation of the Bible that is closer to the original than King James is the Jerusalem Bible.

    To date, it is the only English translation that when confronted with books that are partly prose and partly poetry (such as Ecclesiastes and the Gospel of John [New Testament]), translates the prose bits as prose, and the poetry bits as poetry, with the poetry bits more indented, etc.

  8. Posted January 10, 2018 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    How does the translation you are reading, Jerry, handle the “nonsensical” chapters, like the one with just a qoph?

    • Posted January 10, 2018 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      I just started it two nights ago and progress is slow because it’s boring, but I will finish it. But what is a qopf?

      • Posted January 10, 2018 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        I read it on a Brittany beach in, I think, 2003 during the murderous heatwave for that extra special blasted desert heat vibe. I couldn’t work out whether it was the sun or the suras giving me a headache.

      • Posted January 12, 2018 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        One of the letters in the Arabic alphabet.

        Apparently, there are chapters that are just sprinklings of letters with no apparent meaning, and one is just a letter qoph.

  9. Posted January 10, 2018 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    “It sounds so beautiful in Arabic” reminds me of a strange human behavior pattern where people are inclined to think more positively to thoughts expressed in an unfamiliar language. For example, if Americans read the Bible or the Koran in everyday English, they might not hold these books in such high reverence — “OMG” being the common reaction.

    Perhaps this inclination correlates with a person’s level of xenophobia.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 10, 2018 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      I would say that any book of total nonsense (the Bible comes to mind) inevitably sounds better in a foreign language you don’t understand. I bet the Bible would sound delightful to me in Spanish, Italian or Russian.

      (Maybe less so in Finnish or Dutch…)


  10. josh
    Posted January 10, 2018 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    It’s hard to imagine how any translation choices could be responsible for making it as meandering and repetitive as the version I’ve read. (Sale’s) And yes, Mohammed threatens unbelievers with hell on almost every page.

  11. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted January 10, 2018 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    That quote in the cartoon sounds to me like Mo was plagiarising the Bible. I can imagine some hellfire preacher of a couple of centuries ago ranting on in exactly the same terms.


  12. Lars
    Posted January 10, 2018 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    What I’ve read of it has a gabbling, hectoring tone and is full of non-sequiturs. This is Islam’s idea of deathless prose?

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