"Not much," he said. "I'd really like to know more."
"Well you're in luck," I said, "because I know a lot about it. I started reading about Islam right after 9-11."
"A lot of people did," he said supportively, "I remember Korans were selling well."
"Yeah, I wanted to know what the story was. So many things were being said about Islam; you know, that it was all about peace, but then you had terrorists quoting the Koran, and I didn't know what to think about it all. I eventually read the Koran cover to cover. Most of it was dull reading, but the last fourth of the book got really interesting. It changed totally. Do you know how the Koran was written?"
"Mohammad got these revelations from an angel named Gabriel. He was living in Mecca at the time, and there were a lot of religions in Mecca, including Judaism and Christianity, so he picked up a lot of their ideas. Anyway, the Koran is just a collection of Mohammad's revelations. That's all that's in there. The whole thing was dictated by Mohammad. Once in awhile, for the rest of his life, he received revelations from Gabriel.
"But his revelations changed at some point. See, at first Mohammad was just one guy among many in a very religiously tolerant place, and he preached tolerance and non-violence. Most of his revelations were about what hell was like and what paradise was like, and how if you don't believe in Allah and if you don't believe Mohammad was the prophet, you were going to hell.
"After 13 years, he gained 150 converts. But Mohammad was always criticizing the other religions of Mecca, and the Meccans resented it, and eventually made his life pretty unpleasant there, so he moved to Medina, where he had some followers, and they set Mohammad up as a kind of leader of their gang."
He looked at me kind of skeptically so I said, "And this history I'm telling you is from Islamic sources, not writings by people who don't like Islam. Anyway, so the Muslims started raiding caravans going to Mecca, since the Meccans were his enemies now, and the enemy of Islam. Mohammad and his believers would raid the caravans, kill the people, and take their stuff. Well, sometimes they would capture some of the people alive and hold them for ransom.
"All of a sudden, Mohammad started getting a lot more people interested in joining Islam."
My workmate smiled at this. He could grasp that there is a certain kind of person who would want to get in on the booty from these raids.
"Yeah, it was a pretty good gig," I said. "They started accumulating some wealth. And Mohammad's little group of followers was growing into an army. Eventually they took over the city of Medina.
"Around this time is when the revelations changed," I said ominously.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"Well, the revelations started becoming less tolerant and more violent. That's what I mean about the last part of the Koran getting interesting. I mean interesting in the sense that it got rid of the confusion I had to begin with."
"Like you, I have also read a lot about different religions. Especially Buddhism and Christianity. And before I learned anything about Islam, I thought most religions were pretty much the same, at least as far as basic principles go. You know what I mean?"
He was nodding his head.
"I thought religions were always started by a wise, kind person who gathers people around him because they can see he is wise. And he spends his life helping people, and then his followers build a religion based on his teachings.
"So when I was reading the Koran, I almost couldn't believe what I was reading. This was totally different than any religion I had ever heard of. Mohammad led the raids on the caravans? He killed people?! The founder of the religion was doing these things? I was blown away.
"At one point, Mohammad personally oversaw the beheading of 800 men. He tortured a rabbi to find out where a particular group of Jews had hidden their gold. I mean, can you imagine Buddha or Jesus doing that? I couldn't believe it! Mohammad actually ordered the assassination of people who criticized Islam."
Lights were going on in my workmate's head. He said, "That's like that guy who wrote 'Satanic Verses.'"
"Right! They're just following Mohammad's example. In fact, it says in the Koran that Mohammad is a model for human behavior and followers should try to be like Mohammad."
Then I anticipated what I know from experience people will think of: Other religious books have violence in them and we shouldn't pick on Islam. So I said, "But you know how the Bible has lots of different kinds of writings? Some are violent and some are peaceful, right?"
"Yeah," he said, nodding like he was just thinking the same thing.
"And if you have contradictions in the Bible, it's not really a big deal because it was written over such a long time by so many different people. Well, that's not the case with the Koran. It actually says in the Koran itself what to do with its own contradictions.
"It really had to deal with this issue, because if you think about it, there is Mohammad preaching tolerance and non-violence, and his believers know those teachings already, and then the revelations changed dramatically. It was very noticeable to everyone. So Allah says in the Koran in one of the revelations that if something I say contradicts something I've said earlier, the newer stuff overwrites the older stuff."
He grasped right away what that meant. "So the more violent parts cancel out the peaceful parts?"
"Yes, exactly. Isn't that mind-blowing? I mean, what a shock. But you know, ever since I read the Koran, I'm no longer confused by the news. I used to wonder what the hell is wrong with the Middle East. Why can't they seem to work out their differences and just get along? Now I realize that the Muslims really can't. They can't work things out with the Jews and still remain Muslim! There is a lot of very intolerant stuff in the Koran about Jews, specifically. Reading the Koran really cleared things up for me. And things like hijackings and kidnappings and suicide bombers started to seem not so perplexing any more."
I had just given my workmate a lot to digest. So I said, "Well, we probably ought to get back to work." And as we were on our way back, I changed the topic of conversation to something else. I remember what it was like when I first found out about this stuff, and I wanted to give him time.
I hope after he comes to grips with it, he feels curious. Ideally, he would read the Koran and find out for himself.