A Biographical View of the Koran In the second of a series on "Books That Changed the World," professor Bruce Lawrence discusses his new biography of the Koran, where he introduces readers to the text, its historical context and the individuals who played critical roles in the evolution of Islam.
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A Biographical View of the Koran

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A Biographical View of the Koran

A Biographical View of the Koran

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

A ninth-century scholar named Tabari described the Koran as a poem, a prayer book, a song and a code of laws. But he went on to say that it was a poem unlike any other, a song that conveys its meaning through sound, and according to Islamic studies Professor Bruce Lawrence of Duke University, it became a code of laws through the efforts of devout scholars.

Professor Lawrence is the author of a new biography of the Koran, the second in a series on "Books That Changed the World." He introduces readers to the text, to its historical context, to later interpretations, to the peoples of the book, and to the individual people who played critical parts in the evolution of Islam. Along the way, he addresses the many controversies that arise: the role of women, of violence, Jihad and the several sects of Islam.

Later on in the program, we'll speak with Lawrence Anthony, the South African conservationist who led the rescue of the animals at the Baghdad Zoo following the invasion of Iraq. But first, "The Qur'an: A Biography." If you have questions about the meaning, influence or the history of the Koran, give us a call. Our number: 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. You can also comment on our new blog. Go to npr.org/blogofthenation. Blogofthenation is all one word.

Bruce Lawrence joins us now from the studios of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where he directs The Center for Islamic Studies. Nice to have you on the program today.

Professor BRUCE LAWRENCE (Islamic Studies, Duke University; Author, "The Qur'an: A Biography"): Thanks, Neal. It's great to be with you.

CONAN: Thank you. There have been a lot of books written about the Koran, about Islam and Muhammad, after the September 11th attacks. Have we learned anything, do you think?

Prof. LAWRENCE: Sure. We've learned that the book doesn't mean one thing, the same thing to everybody, and it's really important to go back to the text and read it in its own time and its own place if we're going to apply it today.

CONAN: And those books that we've all read, as you suggest, if it means different things to different people, it's a text which - as I was reading the translations in your book and in going back - the text is really murky in a lot of places, ambiguous.

Prof. LAWRENCE: Well, just like the Bible, right, or the Torah? I mean, it's not that everything in it is murky or unclear. It's simply that we have to express it in English, and the difficulty is that Arabic is a extraordinarily rich and lyrical language, and the Koran, of course, is supposed to be understood and recited and remembered by Muslims in Arabic. So the murkiness may be my translation, Neal, not the Arabic itself.

CONAN: Well, one of the individuals that you write about in the book - and, of course, you know, you write about Muhammad and his descendents and followers -but Robert of Ketton plays an important part in the history of the Koran.

Prof. LAWRENCE: Yes, Robert of Ketton - perhaps you've hit on that because it's one of those chapters where I've tried to say, listen. It's not just people who love the Koran or accept its message and are Muslims, but also people who are opposed to Islam, and in fact are avid, people might say dogmatic Christians who nonetheless respect the Koran and try to make sense of it. And Robert is one of those, if you will, oppositional admirers of the Koran, and that's why he's in my book.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. What did he do and how did he do it?

Prof. LAWRENCE: He was a scientist. He probably would not have wanted to do this as his first job in life, and he was really somebody who worked very hard to make science, mathematics and astronomy better known in Latin - translating from Arabic into Latin. But he was also charged by someone of his day, a person who was a religious authority, a pope, saying we need to have understanding of this new religion, one that's threatening us in the West. And so you, Robert, have to do the translation into Latin of the Koran. And he was the first translator - not necessarily the best - but the first translator, and he did so at the behest of Peter the Venerable, a monk serving the wishes of the pope.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And as we look at the history of Koran - and again you say it means different things to different people - the divisions within Islam begin not long after the death of Muhammad.

Prof. LAWRENCE: Well, there are divisions in the sense that everybody has a -the famous, or infamous, Shiite-Sunni difference does emerge, but I would say it doesn't come up dramatically until the ninth and 10th centuries. And one of the things that's very clear in my book is that the Shiite difference, the one that I traced to Jafar Sadiq - who's one of the imams in the Shiite tradition -seems very different to someone who is a Sunni Muslim. But to someone who reads it from the outside, with a Christian, Jewish, or secular perspective, it's all one part of a same code of Arabic language.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And you write at one point that Ali's delayed caliphate, and even more the martyrdom of his son Husayn - and this is the origin of the Shia movement - represented for Shiites a betrayal of the ideals of the earliest Muslim community. The Shiites preferred their imams, who lacked political power, to the caliphs, who exercised political power. Talk to us a little bit more about that division between political and religious power.

Prof. LAWRENCE: Yes, well, it goes back to who represents the Prophet Muhammad - the people who are in his immediate biological family, which are - happened to be because he didn't have a son - his daughter and her offspring, his grandsons Hasan and Husayn, and there was also another one named Muhammad. And these are the people through whom the Shiites trace their own lineage.

But in the Sunni community, there's an equally strong tradition that the Prophet's family included his close companions, that is a man named Abu Bakr Umar Uthman. And so what you have, really, is division - not so much about the Koran. The Koran itself becomes a stable, if you will, the cornerstone of Muslim belief and the vitality of an expanding Islamic empire. But what you have difference of what do these passages mean, the ones that seem to refer to something called the wisdom of God or the light of God? And for Shiites, the wisdom and light of God are the imams, and for Sunni Muslims, the wisdom and light of God are the Prophet himself.

CONAN: And yet we now have a Shiite Islamic state in Iran with the imams in charge.

Prof. LAWRENCE: Yes, and if I were doing this book in Persian - that is to say, instead of writing it in English for largely American or European, English-aware audience - I would have many more chapters on the Shiite view. Instead, I have but one chapter, the one that's chapter five on Jafar as-Sadiq. But there's many, many commentators in present-day Iran who understand the Koran, recite the Koran and view the Koran as a basis for their own political rule in present-day Iran.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners on the line. Our guest is Bruce Lawrence, the author of "The Qur'an: A Biography". He's a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. We'll begin with Bill. Bill's calling us from Jackson, Wyoming.

BILL (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

BILL: I just wanted to ask the guest if the Islamic Jihadists are intentionally misinterpreting the book itself in order to advance their political beliefs, or is that violent language really in the book? I mean, you know, Islam is not a violent religion, and if you say it is, we'll kill you.

Prof. LAWRENCE: Well, don't say - I'm not going to say it is so you don't have to kill me, but then again, Osama bin Laden - who is the topic of chapter 14 in my book - reads it as though it were only a manifesto for war, as if everybody who's not a Muslim - or everybody's who's not his kind of Muslim, because there are many people who are Muslims that he also says are infidels and worthy of death. So if you don't believe the Islam of Osama bin Laden, then you're subject to his wrath and, presumably, to his punishment.

But what I make as an argument - and it's not simply an argument, I have a lot of evidence backing me up - in chapter 14, Osama bin Laden interprets the Koran selectively. He takes only certain passages, and, yes, he only takes certain parts of certain passages. So something says kill but otherwise have a treaty, a contract with someone that prevents a murder or a fight, bin Laden leaves out the second part and just includes the first. So he's selective in what he picks and how he quotes.

BILL: In other words, you say they're cherry picking, basically.

Prof. LAWRENCE: Cherry picking, yeah. You know, unfortunately, we have some Protestant preachers who do the same thing. So bin Laden is probably more like them than he's like his fellow Muslims.


CONAN: Bill, thanks for the call.

BILL: Well, thank you very much for the information.

CONAN: OK, so long.

Prof. LAWRENCE: Well, thanks for the question.

CONAN: Let's go now to Chris, and Chris is calling us from Salt Lake City.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Yeah.

CHRIS: My question was about when the Koran as we know it today was standardized in Islamic culture, because I know that Muhammad himself was illiterate, or so I've heard. And so I'm guessing that there was probably some time in between him reciting the Koran and the time it was standardized as a text, and I was just wondering when that was exactly.

Prof. LAWRENCE: Well, Chris, thank you for the question. I'm going to take advantage of the fact that you're calling from Salt Lake City and say that you probably understand more than people from let us say Florida or Alaska that it's much more equivalent to the experience that happened in Mormonism with the delivery of the tablets to Joseph Smith.

There's a sense in which Muhammad was directly revealed through the Archangel Gabriel the word of God, and so it was actually confirmed and put in its present form within about 25, 30 years of his death. So there wasn't the long lag time between the revelations, which did come to him as an illiterate person. He recited them. Other people wrote them down. But then those leaflets, if you will, those files, those particular tablets were put together within a period of a generation, 30 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

CHRIS: Now were there different versions that existed that kind of had to be gone over in between that period?

Prof. LAWRENCE: There are different readings. In fact, there was a Muslim imam who just came to Duke the other day, and he said isn't it interesting that the Prophet himself permitted seven different recitations, in other words, different accents, different ways of even doing some vowel markings for certain parts of the Koran.

But in general, the major vowel markings, the punctuations, and certainly - you know, Arabic has vowels distinct from consonants - all the consonants and even the form and the shape and the content of the 114 chapters was fixed within 30 years after the death of the Prophet. And then by the end of that century in which he died - he died in 632 - so by 700, you had the vowels as well as the consonants fixed in the text that remains with us to today.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. It was also interesting to read in your book that the vernacular Arabic had changed, of course. When you think about it, of course it changed, but even by the time of Tabari in the ninth century.

Prof. Lawrence: Oh, I think, Neal, your point about beginning with Tabari and accenting the way in which Tabari thought about it in the ninth, 10th century, indicates exactly that it was not the same Arabic of the Koran of seventh-century Arabia that you have in the ninth and then into the 10th century. Tabari actually dies in 923. But in the end of the ninth, the beginning of the 10th century of our era, it was a very different kind of Arabic. And of course Tabari himself was Persian, so he learned Arabic, he learned a kind of, if you will, high literary Arabic which was no longer the same as the Arabic of the Koran that was - in which the Koran was revealed.

CONAN: Chris, thanks very much for the call.

CHRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: We're going to take a short break. We're talking with Bruce Lawrence about his biography of the Koran. If you have questions, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail: talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

We're talking with Bruce Lawrence about his new book, "The Qur'an: A Biography", the second in a series called "Books That Changed the World." Bruce Lawrence is an Islamic scholar, a professor at Duke University. If you have questions about the Koran, its meaning or its history, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And, professor, I wanted to ask you - you mentioned part of your book is about later interpretations. You mentioned Osama bin Laden. We talked about Robert of Ketton. I also wanted to ask you about W.D. Muhammad, who's, of course, the son of Elijah Muhammad and the leader of the Nation of Islam.

Prof. LAWRENCE: Well, many people ask me why I picked Imam W.D. Muhammad. And my response was why not? He's arguably the most impressive and certainly the most important of the major leaders of a Muslim-American community. He is African-American, and most of his followers - but not all of them - are also African-American. And he speaks as a kind of authentic, American-Muslim representative.

I've known Imam W.D. Muhammad for a number of years, but that's not why I picked him. I picked him because in the way he articulates the Koran - he doesn't do it chapter-verse, certainly not in the bin Laden fashion where he says it means this and it's kill Christians or Jews. It's instead a generous message.

It's the message of the noble Koran that focuses on God as the Lord of creation, or as he likes to say, God as the Lord of all systems of knowledge. So he accents the positive message of the Koran, which is not only that the universe was made by an omniscient, omnipotent being, but that the purpose was one that advances science as much as religion and causes justice in society and not oppression. I think that's a healthy message, and I think it's closer to the core of the Koran than Osama bin Laden.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And as you look at, you know, the Nation of Islam, the American movement, there was a long time when it was regarded as a, you know, not really part of Islam. It has come much more in accord with the mainline teachings of Islam, wouldn't you say?

Prof. LAWRENCE: Well, yes. and I think that what one has to see is the - not only that it's come in accord with the teachings of Islam, but that Islam itself has become much more of a global religion in Europe - western Europe that is to say - and North America than say it was 30, 40 years ago. And so in one sense, Imam W.D. Muhammad represents this transition not only to another way of forming the Nation of Islam as a movement, but another way of understanding the American Muslim community as part of the global Muslim community.

And I think he does this in a wholesome and effective way that really ought to be acknowledged and in which I try to play a small role acknowledging him in my book.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Here's an e-mail question, this from David in Sacramento, California.

Could you please ask the scholar about other related texts, specifically the Sunnah, Hadith and Sharia law as they relate to the Koran and how they are used to interpret the revealed text of the Koran. It might also be revealing to explain the split between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. We did that a little bit, but, professor, go ahead.

Prof. LAWRENCE: Do I have 10 minutes or 10 hours?

CONAN: You've got about - we'll give you a minute and half, all right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LAWRENCE: The reason I'm laughing, Neal, at this question is because first of all, it's a very apt question, but it's sort of like tell your whole life in half a minute, and if you can, do it in 15 seconds. So in my 15-second version of the Sunnah, the Hadith and the Sharia and how they impact Islam is to say that the Koran itself is the basis, it's the cornerstone, if you will.

The Sunnah - which is the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad that are often related through Hadith, which means sayings that are attributed to the Prophet Muhammad - that these become, as it were, the resources - both literary but also recited, recalled and transmitted by word-of-mouth from generation to generation, not written down till the ninth and 10th centuries in the case of the Sunnah and the Hadith.

And then the Sharia develops also in this later period, the ninth, 10th and 11th centuries, and becomes the foundation for Islamic law. Law goes back to the Koran, also relates to the Sunnah through Hadith. And together, they become part of what we think of as the Sharia. But the Sharia is an evolving, changing system that cannot be limited to one period of time or one group of people.

CONAN: All right, let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And we'll go to Omar, Omar calling us from Minneapolis.

OMAR (Caller): Yeah, hi. I actually wanted to give a quick comment about a punctuation issue when Islam started spreading toward the West into Syria and other countries. People over there didn't speak Arabic, so the recitation of the Koran was different between person and another. For example, the word (Arabic spoken) or (Arabic spoken), they're the same thing in terms of writing, but the punctuation differs. So this is just to give perspective to the listeners.

And here, where the burning of the other copies that were not according to the original text and recitation, actually - because it's a recitation, not a document in the beginning. But I guess the professor can give a better explanation because he's got more time than me.

But my question is as Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world and the most memorized book and recited book around the hour or the day is the Koran, my question is what role has the West played in vilifying this book? While the Christians in Lebanon, for example, where I come from, don't have this negative view toward the Koran because it doesn't say, oh, kill Christians or Jews as some bigots in the West misinterpret the Koran to play that in the hand of extremists in the East. So can the professor give a quick perspective on that, please? Thank you.


Prof. LAWRENCE: Yes, thank you, Omar, for your question. The part that I heard - you mentioned something - the background of different notations and different recitations of the Koran, which I referred to myself earlier. But the actual point about - the regarding of the Koran, or reviling of the Koran in the West, which is not the same as the positive view in many - most Muslim countries, including Lebanon - I think actually part of the difficulty is that the Koran itself is a closed book. That is to say many of my students, including my Muslim students, have awareness of some parts of the Koran, but they haven't read the whole of the Koran.

Or in some cases, they may know it in Arabic, but they're very unfamiliar with how you would render even the Bismillah. For people who don't know what the Bismillah, the initial words that every Muslim knows, the "Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim." And for most non-Muslims, they hear those words, and it's gibberish. So even to explain the most simple introductory phrase of the Koran is an effort.

And I think one has to recognize that hurdle - if you will, the linguistic, cultural hurdle - before then jumping to the conclusion that the West reviles the Koran. Unfortunately, since 9/11, many people think that all of the Koran is what bin Laden said it was, when in fact, of course, he is not only a splinter, he is very much an oppositional view to the standard and the majority view of the Koran.

CONAN: I also wanted to follow-up on what Omar said about - in the first part of his question - about the importance of punctuation. For example, you spell Koran Q-U-R apostrophe A-N, rather than the more typical spelling of K-O-R-A-N. Why is that?

Prof. LAWRENCE: Well, actually it's a great question, Neal. And one of the things that several people said to me - including the people from the publishers - why don't you just call it the Koran, and then everybody will know what it is and they'll buy it? And I said because I won't buy it. First of all, I won't agree to it, because the Qur'an, Q-U-R apostrophe A-N, is a reflection of the initial Arabic. And I think Koran is what Westerners have come to think of as the name for it in the same way that some people would think, oh, well, you can spell Muhammad M-O-H-A-M-M-E-D, which you can.

But in Arabic, his name is Muhammad, M-U-H-A-M-M-A-D. So I prefer, without orientalizing or sacralizing one form over the other, Qur'an is a more accurate transcription in English of Al Qur'an than Koran, which is an adaptation for it. That's why I use Qur'an instead of Koran.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Omar, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

OMAR: Thanks for taking it.

CONAN: OK, bye-bye. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Sarah, Sarah with us from Portland Oregon.

SARAH (Caller): Hi, I had a couple of points I wanted to make. One was about the Nation of Islam, the other one was about a quote that you had said Osama bin Laden gave. The first one about Nation of Islam is that I just really strongly object to their even using that phrase to describe who they are. I'm a Muslim, and I know that they don't venerate the prophets. They also follow a false prophet. They don't believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin, and they don't - it's basically a blaspheme of Islam.

The other thing I was going to say is that I'm kind of tired of people apologizing for Islam - Muslims in particular - saying that, you know, Islam is a religion of peace, a religion of peace. Yes, we are a religion of wanting to live in peace, but we will fight and die for it.

And, you know, I mean, it's kind of a dichotomy that a lot of people don't understand, but I think that where you said that Osama bin Laden had, you know, said something about, you know, we must kill the infidels or whatever, and then the second part was that - but that we should try to offer them a truce at first, and you said he left that out. But I've read several transcripts where he has said just leave us alone, just get out of our land, and we will stop this.

So, you know, what - I guess my question is what do you see as a possible solution to the fact that so many of us as Muslims will in fact give our lives and our children's lives for - to get who we consider the people harming our cultures out of our lands?

Prof. LAWRENCE: Well, thank you, Sarah, for two comments that go in different directions. The first comment, if I may refer to you, you object to my using the term Nation of Islam. Actually, I was referring to the predecessor of W.D. Muhammad. Not to himself. Because he not only gave up the term, but he in fact changed it to the Muslim American Society.

And he very much does believe in Mary as a virgin. Of course, it's a chapter in the Koran, (Arabic spoken). So he is a four square, if you will, believer in Sunni Islam, including the virginity and the prophetic role, I might add, of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

On the second point about bin Laden, I think actually I would disagree with what you said I said. Because in the chapter on bin Laden in my book I make it very clear - first of all, I've edited the "Messages To The World: Bin Laden". It's an earlier book of mine that was, for a time, a bestseller because I was the only person to write the whole of bin Laden in English, take all the messages, translate them in something called "Messages to the World".

And so I've gone through everything that bin Laden said and some things that were attributed to him he didn't say. But consistent with bin Laden, you're absolutely right, is the oppressors or occupiers must get out of Muslim territory. Many of my friends agree with the message, but not with the Koranic reference to it that says all Jews and all Christians must be killed. They're two separate issues.

SARAH: Okay.

Prof. LAWRENCE: So bin Laden confuses the two, and what I try and do in my larger book, "Messages to the World" and also in this book on "The Qur'an: A Biography" is to say what happens when he quotes - let's be very specific - he quotes from (Arabic spoken) and he quotes from (Arabic spoken). And he only quotes 9:5A. He does not quote 9:5B.

If we had a long program, I could go into why it's very important that the whole of the Koran, but especially all of the sura, is quoted and not just one part of it.

SARAH: Well, I appreciate that and I also wanted to point out real quick that we don't believe that all - you know, Jews and Christians should be killed. In fact, we believe that they should be highly respected above all others, you know, all other groups, that they are people of the book and did receive the same message that we did.

We just simply believe that the only way to oppress somebody is to not - is to put laws on them that God did not put on us.

Prof. LAWRENCE: Well, thank you for that comment and also thank you for referring to the people of the book, because it's a crucial concept. Many people don't understand that there is something called the Ummul Kitab, the proto book in heaven. And that includes all the scriptures that are Jewish and Christian, as well as the final scripture, which is the Koran itself.

SARAH: Thank you.

CONAN: Sarah, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

We're speaking with Bruce Lawrence, the author of "The Qur'an: A Biography." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this is a comment that was posted on our blog, The Blog of the Nation, by J.C.

Yes, the leaflets were compiled later on - he put leaflets in quotation marks -but the Muslims who lived at the time of the prophet memorized the Koran in its entirety from the very beginning, and this tradition continues today.

Indeed, Professor, you say that the recitation of the Koran is its pure form.

Prof. LAWRENCE: Yes, and I mention this in the very beginning. I say that one of the important aspects that everybody should note is the Koran is a book. To say that the Koran is simply the holy book of Islam is to miss the point that Koran itself means not just revelation but recitation. That is the oral pronunciation of those words that are deemed to have come from Allah. So it's a sense in which the written Koran, if you will, is a poor second best to the spoken or recited Koran.

CONAN: I also wanted to ask you a question which has puzzled a lot of people. We've heard the description of the idea of Islamic paradise. Is there an Islamic hell?

Prof. LAWRENCE: Yes, there is. And it's very much described in certain passages of the Koran, and it's every bit as vivid as descriptions of heaven and hell that come in the book of Daniel in the Hebrew bible or the book of Revelation in the New Testament. The sense that there is not only a dividing line between those who uphold God's laws and those who are pure in heart and do what is right and those others who choose either to ignore those laws or are led to be very oppressive and cruel in their behavior.

And so the notion comes up very clearly, especially in the 99th chapter of the Koran - sura az-Zalzalah - that God sees everything that people do. And if you just do one iota of good, you'll see it. Meaning you'll have a reward. But if you do one iota of bad or evil, you'll also see it.

In other words, there's no escape hatch. There's no way of hiding from an omniscient as well as an omnipotent being who does finally judge and does reckon that there's heaven and hell. But I should quickly add - and this is in one of my chapters, the one that deals with Ibn al-Arabi in this book, where I cite in chapter eight a very important Spanish writer in the 12th century who says even hell is a metaphor for punishment that does not endure forever.

So the metaphors in the Koran, the language that refer to hell, is a temporary state and that ultimately God is so merciful that all people, all people, will finally recognize him and be a part of a heavenly rather than a hellish afterlife.

CONAN: And finally, this is an e-mail question from John Kelly(ph) in Cincinnati.

Islamic theology, he writes, posits that the Arabic language preexists humanity and that the language of the Koran itself is the eternal language of Allah. To what extent does this complicate both our understanding of the Koran and any translations of it?

Prof. LAWRENCE: Well, thank you for that comment, John Kelly. What it brings up, which is something that fascinates everybody, even those who are not native speaking Arabic persons, as am I. I'm not. I'm originally American, but I learned Arabic from the time I was 16.

But there's a sense in which all of us, whether we know it from birth or we acquire it by education, respect that Arabic has this quality of multiple levels of meaning and possibilities for not only sentences but paragraphs - and in the case of the Koran, whole chapters - that is difficult to translate into any other language.

So in one sense if there is a heavenly book, as the Koran says - there's a heavenly book from which the Koran itself is a partial revelation - then that heavenly book has Arabic. But it also has Hebrew, it has Greek, it has Latin, every known language, according to the Koran, is also there in that heavenly book.

So what we have in the Koran is the portion of it in Arabic that was deemed important to reveal to the last prophet, Muhammad. But there is a sense in which all nations, all laws, and also all languages have a divine origin. It's not just Arabic and not just the Arab people.

CONAN: Bruce Lawrence, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.

Prof. LAWRENCE: Thank you, Neal. I enjoyed it.

CONAN: Bruce Lawrence, a professor and director of the Islamic Study Center at Duke University. His book is "The Qur'an: A Biography." And he joined us from studios on the Duke campus in Durham, North Carolina. Remember if you're looking for it in the bookstore it begins with a Q and not with a K.

Next up in the Books that Changed the World series, Charles Darwin scholar Janet Brown on "The Origin of Species" and philosopher Simon Blackburn on "Plato's Republic."

When we come back from a short break, the inside story of the rescue of the animals at the Baghdad Zoo. Lawrence Anthony led the rescue effort. He joins us next. If you'd like to speak with him: 800-989-8255. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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