Read all about it: A few verses from the Quran in its original Arabic, a book that's had a terrific 20th century: with just 200 million adherants to the Muslim faith in 1900, the world is up to 1.5 billion Muslims today. Muslims may surpass Christians, who number 2 billion faithfuls, by 2050. (Photo: Pierre Tristam)
After his release, Terry Anderson, the longest-held American hostage in Lebanon (from 1985 to 1991), would often be asked how he spent his time in captivity and what he read. "The Economist," he once said at a speaking engagement at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia (I was among the reporters assigned to cover his appearance there), calling it "the best news magazine in English." Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, which his captors provided him in his latter years, bored him with their fluff. Anderson's remark comes to mind every time, or rather every week, I come across The Economist's endless reams of fascinating coverage and perspective. The newspaper (thats' the old fashioned way The Economist loves to refer to itself) has a knack for writing completely original pieces about the most common subjects, usually by dint of a new eye or an illuminating juxtaposition.
A recent example: "The Battle of the Books," a wonderful piece about "the business of marketing the Bible and the Koran" (The Economist spells the Islamic holy book differently than most American media, which go with "Quran"), and what it says about the state of modern Christianity and Islam. The piece also poses these "intriguing questions": "Why are today's Christians and Muslims proving so successful at getting the Word out? And who is winning the battle of the books? Is either of the world's two great missionary religions gaining an edge when it comes to getting their Holy Books into people's hands and hearts?"
The Word Is Big-Business
The answers are as delightfully presented as they are, in many cases, surprising. A few basic facts: Bible sales are big business. About 100 million Bibles are sold or given away every year, and sales in the United States alone add up to between $425 million and $650 million a year. But it's South Korea, not the United States (despite the States' 80 million Evangelicals) that produces, proportionately, the most Christian missionaries, and that, along with Brazil, owns the biggest Bible publishing houses. (Brazil's role in evangelizing should be no surprise to anyone familiar with that other delightful bit of recent literature, the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa's The War of the End of the World, where millenarian Christians converge in the name of The Word and against the world).
Christians have also developed a cottage industry of translated Bibles. The book is available in about 900 English translations alone, and also in more than 200 languages, including obscure and little-spoken ones like Gullah which, to my knowledge, is spoken only by a few black residents of South Carolina's and Georgia's barrier islands, and Inupiat, an Alaskan dialect. Apparently, the Bible was also translated into Klingon "by a couple of eccentric geeks," The Economist informs us, who thought that "Star Trek" fans could use the help.
Then there are the endless magazines, like Revolve, the Bible lover's version of teenybopper magazines, or Refuel, its boy equivalent, or Blossom and Explore, because in Christian marketers' terms no child should be left behind--especially not "tweens," those soon-to-be full-fledged consumers.
Allah's Madison Avenue
Muslims, too, are adept at spreading their Word through globalism's new means, namely the internet and its many opportunities for quick marketing or easy-access recitations. Try this for size: at freekoran.com, you can put in your name and address and receive a free Quran within days (OK, maybe weeks). The site specifies: "This free service is provided for non-muslim visitors. If you are already a muslim [sic.], please contact your local mosque for a copy of Koran." There's also an endless stream of recitation web sites, where the faithful, the curious or the hard of hearing can hear and learn the Quran in its original and often sublime Arabic (Quran means, in fact, recitation.
Islam's biggest Quran peddler, its Gideon's International equivalent, is, not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia, whose oil wealth underwrites the distribution of some 30 million Qurans per year, along with the lavish funding of madrassas, itinerant imams and other firestarters of the faith.
Islam Against Itself
But Muslims' marketing savvy isn't as developed, and it has built-in obstacles. For instance, many Muslims believe that the Quran may not, or must not, be translated, since they also believe that it's the direct word of God (actually spoken by the Archangel Gabriel to Muhammad, who then spoke it to others, who then wrote it down, years after Muhammad's death). There's also the fact that illiteracy is rampant in the Arab and parts of the Muslim world. While it's a great achievement for Muslims to learn the Quran by heart (it's a fraction of the Bible's 800,000 words), many learn the words but don't know what they're saying. And it doesn't help that places like Saudi Arabia, so intent on spreading its Puritan, Wahhabist version of Islam, forbid conversion to any other faith or even the dispersion of other religions' books, including the Bible, on Saudi soil. As The Economist notes, "uneven playing fields tend to weaken the home players." It goes on:
Open competition is a boon to religion: American Evangelism has flourished precisely because America has no official church. And theocracy is ultimately a source of sloth and conservatism. “The Book and the Koran”, by Muhammad Shahrur, which tried to reinterpret the Koran for modern readers, was widely banned in the Islamic world, despite its pious tone and huge popularity.
"A Nation of Biblical Illiterates"
That's not to say that knowing what the words mean translates to actual comprehension of the words, or critical understanding of what they say, either for Muslims or Christians. A Gallup poll found that less than half of Americans can name Genesis, the first book of the Bible, a quarter don't know what Easter celebrates (it isn't bunnies), 60 percent can't name more than three or four commandments, and 12% think Noah was married to Joan of Arc. No wonder George Gallup called his country "a nation of Biblical illiterates."
With fewer than 20% of the Islamic world speaking Arabic as a native tongue, the Quran invariably has its work cut out for it there. Still, it's expected that there'll be more Muslims than Christians by the middle of this century. Marketing savvy or not, the Quran's brigades must be doing something right even as places like the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas have created a masters degree "to train missionaries," The Economist notes, "in the art of converting Muslims." It's not always the most ethical missionary zeal in the world: some of those Evangelical lurches have included the production of fake Qurans with writings specifically designed to plant doubt in Muslims' minds. The Pentagon, which has been involved in its own counterfeiting operations with the Iraqi media (among other places), would approve. Jesus doubtfully would.
- Go West, Young Imam: How Saudi Arabia Converts the World
- Saudi Arabia: Country Profile
- Glossary: Wahhabism