The Qur’an: A Journey and The Messenger: A Tale Retold, by Kader Abdolah; book reviews

Kader Abdolah’s volumes – published in English for the first time – may struggle to build the bridges he envisaged, says Hassan Mahamdallie

Kader Abdolah is, without doubt or qualification, an admirable man. A left wing writer and opponent of both Iran’s Shah and the Ayatollah Khomeini, he was forced out of his homeland in 1988. He tells the story of how the people smugglers would get political refugees into the USA for $10,000, Denmark for $3,000 and Holland for nothing. He ended up in Amsterdam. Unable to speak Dutch, he mourned having left thousands of years of Persian culture behind him. 

Having tried and failed three times to get to New York on false passports, he eventually accepted his fate. Traumatised by his inability in exile to compose his fiction in Persian “a gun without bullets” but determined “to show the sorrow of my people to the rest of the world” he began to master the Dutch language, one word, one sentence, one page, one story at a time. 

Kader Abdolah (a pen-name that commemorates two executed Kurdish activists) is today one of Holland’s most acclaimed writers, with three of his novels The House of the Mosque, The King and My Father’s Notebook having been translated from his adoptive literary language into 30 other mother tongues. 

In 2008 he published The Qur’an: A Journey and The Messenger: A Tale Retold, companion volumes that he hoped would “build a bridge between East and West”. They each sold over 100,000 copies in the Dutch edition, and have now been translated into English. Bridge-building is rarely anything but an honourable enterprise – and these two books have clearly had an impact in opening up the foundations of Islam – The Qur’an and the life of Muhammad – to a non-Muslim public. At the time of their publication Holland was certainly in need of some “bridge-building” – in 2008 Gert Wilder’s far right Freedom Party had won nine seats in the 2006 general election, followed by 24 seats in the 2010 election. (It is now down to 15 MPs). 

Any comments or criticisms of Abdolah’s companion pieces therefore have to be seen within this very real and urgent context. Additionally, the English reader has to take account of the fact that his take on The Qur’an has been translated from Quranic Arabic (via Persian) into Dutch and then into English; a process for which the notion of ‘lost in translation’ was surely coined for. 

For the purpose that Abdolah has ascribed to them, the two books are best read together – they should be seen as one span really. The Qur’an can, of course, be read on many levels; depending on your approach – as the divine word of Allah as given to Muhammed, as a synthesis and extension of existing monotheistic texts, as an historical product of the material conditions of 7th century Arabia, as a metaphysical literary masterpiece, and lastly (for those lacking imagination or common humanity) as a list of strict prohibitions. Similarly, the life of Muhammad can be viewed as the narrative of the last prophet, the example of the best of men, of a mystic, a politician, a military leader, a man of his times and so on. 

Given the many, many versions of the Qur’an outside of the original Arabic, the historical disputes over the veracity of the countless Hadith and the division of Muslims into different branches and sects, Abdolah has set himself a hard task. Even if he fails in the eyes of some, for differing reasons, we should at least have the generosity to recognise his honourable intent. 

For this reader, his ‘journey’ through the Qur’an has some drawbacks. He arranges the surahs (chapters) in chronological order, so that we can see which were revealed in exile in Medina and those that were subsequently revealed in Mecca. I think I can see why he has done this, but I am not certain it ‘helps’ the new reader to appreciate the Qur’an as a living, contradictory, text. To give him credit, Abdolah admits the sacrifice he has made by clearing up apparent confusion – he quotes al-Jahiz (776-868 AD) who wrote “I see no chaos in his suras. I compare his prose to bunches of dates hanging high in the trees. Muhammed recounts something, but interrupts his story midway and moves on to something else, just like a bunch of dates branches off but stays complete nonetheless, and forms a unity”. 

As a version of the text of the Qur’an, Abdolah’s enterprise tries to translate and explain simultaneously; a difficult task that he does not wholly master. I prefer Marmaduke Pickthall’s The Glorious Qur’an: An Explanatory Translation (1930) that has the same goal as Abdolah’s – to access the text for the new reader - but succeeds in also contextualising it and retaining the richness of the language and its imagery. Pickthall’s version is admittedly more challenging, but also more rewarding.  

In The Messenger, we have not so much as a biography, as ‘a tale retold’ – a fictional account of Muhammed’s life. However, I was thrown at the very start of the book by Abdolah’s choice of narrator. Without fully letting us know, he merges two historical figures and companions of the prophet - the man who first compiled the Qur’an as a complete written text, Zayd ibn Thabit and one of the prophet’s first ‘converts’ Zayd ibn Haritha. How then to approach what follows? What is fiction, faction or fact? Abdolah also attempts to line up surahs with events in the prophet’s life, which makes sense, but sometimes the result is a too crude cause and effect. 

He roughly divides Muhammed’s life into two halves - in exile in Medina (humble mystic) in power in Mecca (ruler and military leader pursuing earthly rewards). Abdolah is driving at something that he knows a lot about – what happens when a religious leader gains control of the state. Who am I to say he is wrong?

Hassan Mahamdallie is co-director of the Muslim Institute and deputy editor of its journal Critical Muslim. His play, 'The Crows Plucked Your Sinews' is on currently UK tour and will return to The Albany Theatre, Deptford, in March