Should You Read the Koran to Understand Muslim Terrorism?

Mr. Pipes is the director of the Middle East Forum. His website address is

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"Anyone concerned with what's happening in our world ought to spend some time reading the Koran." Andy Rooney, the famed CBS commentator, gave this advice shortly after 9/11, as did plenty of others.

His suggestion makes intuitive sense, given that the terrorists themselves say they are acting on the basis of the holy scripture of Islam. Accused 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta had a Koran (sometimes spelled Qur'an) in the suitcase he had checked for his flight. His five-page document of advice for fellow hijackers instructed them to pray, ask God for guidance, and "continue to recite the Koran." Osama bin Laden often quotes the Koran to motivate and convince followers.

Witnesses report that at least one of the suicide bombers who tried to assassinate Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, last month was reading the Koran before blowing himself up. Hamas suicide videotapes routinely feature the Koran.

And lots of non-Muslims in fact have been reading the Koran. In the weeks after September 11, the book's largest publisher in the United States reported that sales had quintupled; it had to airlift copies from Great Britain to meet the demand. American bookstores reported selling more Korans than Bibles.

All this, incidentally, was music to Islamist ears. Hossam Gabri of the Islamic Society of Boston, a group tied to a terrorism funder, considers non-Muslims trying to understand the Koran "a very good development." But reading the Koran is precisely the wrong way to go about understanding "what's happening in our world." That's because the Koran is:

Profound. One cannot pick it up and understand its meaning when nearly every sentence is the subject of annotations, commentaries, glosses, and superglosses. Such a document requires intensive study of its context, development, and rival interpretations. The U.S. Constitution offers a good analogy: its Second Amendment consists of just twenty-seven words ("A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed") but it is the subject of numerous book-length studies. No one coming fresh to this sentence has any idea of its implications.

Complex and contradictory. Contradictions in the text have been studied and reconciled over the centuries through extensive scholarly study. Some verses have been abrogated and replaced by others with contrary meanings. For example, verse 9:5 commands Muslims not to slay pagans until the sacred months have passed and verse 9:36 tells Muslims to fight pagans during those same months. The casual reader has no idea which of these is operational. (In fact, the latter is.)

Static: An unchanging holy scripture cannot account for change over time. If the Koran causes terrorism, then how does one explain the 1960s, when militant Islamic violence barely existed? The Koran was the same text then as now. More broadly, over a period of 14 centuries, Muslims have been inspired by the Koran to act in ways aggressive and passive, pious and not, tolerant and not. Logic demands that one look elsewhere than an immutable text to account for such shifts.

Partial: Holy books have vast importance but do not create the immediate context of action. Reading the Bible in isolation gives limited insight into the range of Jewish and Christian experiences over the millennia ; likewise, Muslims have read the Koran differently over time. The admonishment for female modesty meant one thing to Egyptian feminists in the 1920s and another to their descendants today. Then, head coverings represented oppression and exclusion from public life. Today, in the words of a British newspaper headline, "Veiled is beautiful." Then, the head-covering signaled a woman not being a full human being; now, in the words of an editor at a fashion magazine, the head-covering "tells you, you're a woman. … You have to be treated as an independent mind." Reading the Koran in isolation misses this unpredictable evolution. In brief, the Koran is not a history book.

A history book, however, is a history book. Instead of the Koran, I urge anyone wanting to study militant Islam and the violence it inspires to understand such phenomena as the Wahhabi movement, the Khomeini revolution, and Al-Qaeda. Muslim history, not Islamic theology, explains how we got here and hints at what might come next.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Pipes's claims deserve a longer response than I can give here, but the simplest thing to say is that he has not made a persuasive case.

He says that we should not read the Quran to understand Islam because every sentence is the subject of annotation; presumably, to understand any sentence, one has to understand every (or many) annotation(s), which is impossible or unfeasible. But how many ordinary Muslims consult those annotations? Muslims take the text to be a direct revelation from God, and since God doesn't direct them to consult annotations while reading His word, few feel obliged to do so (and why should they?). If Muslims don't read the annotations, there is no reason why non-Muslims are obliged to read them in order to understand how Muslims think. The task is to understand Muslims, not Muslim scholarship.

He claims that the text is too complicated and contextual for the average reader to understand. But doesn't that depend on the skills of the reader? If the text is complicated, take your time reading it. If you see a contradiction, note it. Look for a way of resolving it; if there is no way, you're justified in concluding that the text is contradictory. I don't see the problem here. (Incidentally, I don't think that the doctrine of "abrogation" makes the least sense at all, and many Muslims reject it, too.)

He says that the text is static and therefore can't explain change. But every change has a dynamic and a static element (some things change, while other things stay the same). Many things have changed in the Muslim world, but the basic commitment to Islam has stayed the same; and many things about Islam have changed over time, but many things about it have stayed the same. Reading the Quran can give you some insight into some important things in the Muslim world--no more, no less. But isn't that enough reason to read it?

He says that the Quran is partial and that it doesn't capture the rest of the tradition. There are three obvious rejoinders to make: 1) it's better to understand a part of something than to understand no part of it; 2) the Quran ipso facto has a much higher status in Islam than any of the traditions and is therefore more important than they are (the Quran is God's direct revelation, the traditions are not), and 3) many Muslims adopt a "sola scriptura" attitude that rejects the traditions altogether (which is probably the best hope for reform in the Muslim world, since the traditions are a pretty hopeless mess).

I can't help adding that one of the stranger features of Pipes's view is that it is a near replica of Edward Said's view on the same subject ("Impossible Histories," Harper's magazine, July 2002--not 100% sure about the date). Said is more obnoxious than Pipes, but he advances the same view for similar reasons. When a view of Islam comes to resemble Edward Said's, you know there's something wrong with it.

Finally, contrary to a few previous posters, I think it is very important whether terrorists are correctly interpreting or misinterpreting the Quran. If they are correctly interpreting it, then the Quran is the source of terrorism. That's worth knowing. If they are misinterpreting it, then we need to ask why people who believe that the Quran is a direct line to God are hearing so much static on the line (or making the static themselves). And if both things are true in different ways, then both conclusions apply in different ways.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

I'm not a believing Muslim, but I've had enough Sunday school to know that Bill Heuisler's excerpts are a colossal misinterpretation of the Quran. They're not even in the ballpark.

There is no passage at IX.5-6 corresponding to what Bill has quoted. IX.5-6 has God telling Muhammad how to handle the pagans of Mecca. The advice is: if you sign a treaty with them, keep it until the treaty expires--after that, go on the offensive. Belligerent, but hardly outlandish advice for wartime. (It's relevant that the pagans chased Muhammad and his followers out of Mecca by force and into exile. The whole "They threw me out of my city, but I'm comin' back to get what's mine" theme is central to Islam, as the Exodus story is central to Judaism and the crucifixion is to Christianity.)

The passage at IV.76 refers back to IV.75. The context concerns fighting for those who are oppressed and calling for rescue from their oppressors. That rescue is equated with "the cause of God." Is there much of a difference between that and the Battle Hymn of the Republic?

IV.74 refers to...IV.75. See above.

What Bill refers to as VIII.39-42 is really a text that begins at VIII.38, which he's glommed onto passages in 39. But VIII.38 refers to what God is going to do, not what people ought to do. And God, being the tough guy he is, comes up with all the usual threats against the unbelievers, including fire, brimstone, and all the rest. But those are going to be applied in the afterlife, not here. (It never occurs to God that non-believers are hardly going to scared of threats coming from an entity they don't believe in, applied to a soul they don't believe in, taking place in a realm they don't believe in. But I digress.)

In IX.39, we get the usual Quranic boilerplate about fighting "tumult and oppression" etc. True, it does say that a Muslim should fight to establish "justice and faith in God, altogether and everywhere," but the "everywhere" refers to everywhere where "tumult and oppression" gives you a reason to take military action in the first place. That is not much different from Clausewitz's (or Augustine's) idea that if you have a reason to fight, you should fight to establish your own preferred peace.

So yes, the Quran rejects pacifism. But so does the Christian just war tradition. The real difference is that whereas the provisions for war are embedded into the Quranic text, they are not embedded in the New Testament. But since Christianity became a political religion with the rise of Constantine, the Church Fathers ultimately had to address war, and what they said is not hugely different from what Muslims say.

One difference is that in the Muslim doctrine, in a defensive war, there is no category of "jus in bello"--in other words, anything goes. But lots of secular Europeans have said that (Clausewitz again). So I don't see any huge gap between Islam and "the West" on this. Some differences, but no huge gap.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

But he does say "Instead of the Koran..." Why instead? I doubt one could really understand the history he mentions in that paragraph in abstraction from the Quran. Much of the history was driven by the theology, after all.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

In my last citation, three paragraphs from the bottom, I meant VIII.39, not IX.39.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

My Arabic is nothing to write home about. (In fact, my Arabic is so bad that...I wouldn't be able to write home in Arabic.) But you don't really need to read Arabic (or very much Arabic) to figure out what the Quran is saying.

I think the operative question in all of the quotations you cite is: who is God commanding the Muslims to fight against and why? The mere fact that he's saying "fight them--hard!" is neither here and there. Fight who? Fight why? Some people deserve to be fought hard. Some don't. If we don't know the context, we don't know what the passages are saying.

I've read the Quran pretty carefully many times over the course of many years. Here's my generalization: most (not all) of the jihad passages in the Quran justify defensive war. But a few (actually, just one I can think of) really do seem to justify offensive war. If you put it all together, that gives you a holy book that justifies a mostly defensive but partly offensive conception of holy war.

What that means is that I'm disagreeing with the letter but partially agreeing with the spirit of your post. I think you're overstating--WAY overstating--your case. The passages you cite don't really prove much about terrorism. But I would also disagree with anyone who thinks that the Quran is irrelevant to Islamic terrorism. It isn't. The relevance is subtle, but it's there: if God sometimes justifies offensive war, couldn't the twenty-first century be one of those times? Bin Laden certainly thinks so. So do lots of other people.

That's why I disagree with Pipes. If you read the Quran carefully, you can learn a lot about Islamic terrorism.
You just have to read it more carefully and contextually than quoting a passage here and there.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Isn't it a lot more likely that he sincerely holds a false view that he's stating pretty loudly and clearly here? I don't see what's gained by throwing out speculative innuendo about Pipes's (supposed) Straussianism which (supposedly) requires lying to the populace. It obviously does make a difference to him whether people read the Quran: he has a conception of Islam that gives the Quran relatively short shrift, and he wants people to focus on that.

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 2/5/2004

I think it's possible that Daniel Pipes may not want people who are interested in understanding middle east politics to read the Koran, for reasons that he has chosen not to state.

I don't trust the neocon crowd, and many/most of them are followers of Leo Strauss, who taught that elite policymakers should mislead the populace. Understand that I'm just speculating here about Pipes. I don't see what difference it would make to him if people read the Koran or not. In any case, I don't think he's really interested in helping most people to understand the Middle East.

Frank Richard Trombley - 2/4/2004

Islamic law is a pervasive feature of Sunni Islam. It includes the law of war that is outlined in the medieval jihad manuals, whose basis is found not only in Qur'anic teaching, but also in the hadith or sayings traditions about Muhammad, and in the opinions of Muslim jurists of the four main schools of law. These works are relevant even today as sources of Islamic law. The Qur'an one is source of information for this, but it must be read in light of later legal interpretations as well. What some western critics call 'terrorism' is a radical interpretation of the Islamic law of war. There are a good many Muslim commentators who have different opinions of jihad law as interpreted by the spokesmen for al-Qa'ida. Therefore, as to the question of whether it helps us understand 'terrorism' to read the Qur'an from a western perspective, the answer is a qualified 'yes'. But simplistic questions invariably get simplistic answers. One cannot simply 'read the Qur'an' from cover to cover in English translation and get to the bottom of the issue. The Qur'an has to be understood as a document addressed to Arabs in the particular historical, economic, religious and social circumstances (pre-industrial, transhumant/urban, polytheistic, tribal) of the pre-Islamic Hejaz. I am very sceptical about hostile orientalist (i.e. western, non-Muslim)critics who trawl through the Qur'an, looking for arguments to prove a particular polemical position. The bare minimum for someone who is serious about the subject should be to go through W. Montgomery Watt's Introduction to the Qur'an (Edinburgh University Press, 1970; repr. 2002), a good, solid work that has been around for a long time, and then to consider works of Muslim jurists on the Islamic law of war. If persons cannot inform their remarks from books like this, their pronouncments on the Qur'an are probably not worth listening to.

Andrew D. Todd - 2/4/2004

There is a book which deals closely with the equivalent tradition in Christianity:

Donald Harman Akenson, GOD'S PEOPLES: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel,and Ulster.

Akensen is a Canadian, and basically a Commonwealth historian, so he doesn't deal with New England puritanism and its offshoots, but it would fit into the same pattern. He talks about people who called themselves radical Christians (Calvinist, Evangelical), but read the Old Testament almost exclusively.

Bill Heuisler - 2/3/2004

Professor Khawaja,
You have me at a distinct disadvantage since I speak no Arabic. My recourse is internet search engines that yield constant and widely dispersed references to the quotes I used in my first post. IX 5-6 seems to be widely quoted on the internet as I cited it.

You say it is not as I have cited it. Okay. There's much more of like content. For instance:
ii:191 "And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, and persecution is severer than slaughter, and do not fight with them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight with you, then slay them, such is the
recompense of unbelievers."
iv.76: "Those who believe fight in the cause of God..."
viii.12: "I will instill terror into the hearts of the Infidels, strike off their heads then, and strike off from them every fingertip."
ii.256: "But they who believe, and who fly their country, and fight in the cause of God may hope for God's mercy: and God is Gracious, Merciful."
viii. 15, 16: "Believers, when you meet the unbelievers preparing for battle do not turn your backs to them. (or you?) shall incur the wrath of God and hell shall be his home: an evil dwelling indeed".
ix.39: "If you do not fight, He will punish you severely, and put others in your place."
ix.29,30: "Declare war upon those to whom the Scriptures were revealed but believe neither in God nor the Last Day ,and who do not forbid that which God and His Apostle have forbidden, and who refuse to acknowledge the true religion until they pay the poll-tax without reservation and are totally subjugated."

Circumstantial? Perhaps, but sadly incarnate in the news. The leader at the holy place where thousands died during a panic at a Satan-stoning said the dying was God's will. The Holy Man seemed to simply accept what has become an annual (preventable) disaster as predestination ordained by Allah. Medieval vs modern or simply archaic and passive in the face of fierce, archaic dogmatism?

My point? Deuteronomy and Leviticus may contain graphic and esoteric verbiage, but the Old Testament Lex Talonis, for instance, is not taught to young Jews and Christians in state funded schools as a matter of policy. The sheer weight of dire messages in the Koran surely overwhelm any bad translations or mistaken intent.
Bill Heuisler

mark safranski - 2/3/2004

True. A good illustration would be that Sheik Obeid, the spiritual guru of the first WTC bombers was a rival of al Qaida's # 2 Ayman Zwahiri (sp? ) while both were in Egyptian prison for Islamic Jihad and Muslim Brotherhood activities. The dispute was partly theological apparently though that had no practical effect on their violent politics toward everyone else.

David Battle - 2/3/2004

I wholeheartedly agree with this approach rather than picking apart the Koran verse by verse and getting into pissing contests about the minutiae in the Koranic texts. From my own christian experience, I know that 10 christians may read the same Biblical verse and reach ten different interpretations. The Koran is no different.

It is the larger social and theological trends that drives modern terrorism, not isolated and contradictory verses one side uses to support or condemn the Koran.

Do you think some muslim zealot is going to change his views because some dude called Irfan Khawaja has a more correct interpretation on verses re jihad? Of course not.

Caleb Bacharach - 2/3/2004

Mr. Green,
I don't think Pipes is arguing that no one can understand the Koran, nor does he say that even he does. Furthermore, Pipes is not saying that it should not be allowed to read the book or any other book for that matter so freedom of speech is not an issue here. He is simply saying that reading the Koran will not help you understand modern terrorism. I agree.

Michael Green - 2/3/2004

This is fascinating. Daniel Pipes, who purports to be an educator or at least better than most educators at teaching us what we need to know, argues that we should not read the Koran because we cannot understand it. Implicit in this is Pipes's belief that only he can understand. This is a seemingly strange argument for someone who professes to believe in freedom of speech and thought to make. But it is unsurprising. Of course we should read the Koran, and Muslim history, and even American history. Reading the latter might help us understand why other countries often have hated us, including today, when the lies the White House told to get us into war have shamed us all. Reading American history also might teach us something about how we could have Daniel Pipes--i.e., the McCarthy era.

Michael Green - 2/3/2004

This is fascinating. Daniel Pipes, who purports to be an educator or at least better than most educators at teaching us what we need to know, argues that we should not read the Koran because we cannot understand it. Implicit in this is Pipes's belief that only he can understand. This is a seemingly strange argument for someone who professes to believe in freedom of speech and thought to make. But it is unsurprising. Of course we should read the Koran, and Muslim history, and even American history. Reading the latter might help us understand why other countries often have hated us, including today, when the lies the White House told to get us into war have shamed us all. Reading American history also might teach us something about how we could have Daniel Pipes--i.e., the McCarthy era.

mark safranski - 2/3/2004

I'm all for people reading original texts like the Bible or the Quran but Pipes is correct that doing so wouldn't really shed much as much light as one would assume on modern Islam, much less Islamist terrorism.

What would be helpful for most laypersons would be a well-written " popular " book that clearly summarizes and explains the jurisprudential traditions and major sects within Islam. Specialists and interested scholars will always read much more thoroughly but the mass culture could use a concise primer.

Caleb Bacharach - 2/3/2004

Irfan, an excellent point.

I do believe that it is possible to fully understand Islam, Judaism, or Christianity having never read the actual text themselves, but instead simply a historical text that mentions their connection to them. However, I recognize your point.

Caleb Bacharach - 2/3/2004

I agree with some of what has been said on this post (particularly the post from Irfan Khawaja). However, I find that much of the debate here seems to stem from a misunderstanding of Pipes whole point. He is NOT arguing against reading/studying/interpreting/analyzing the Koran.

The whole article is simply a response to the claim that understanding the Koran is the key to understanding "what's happening in our world."

Pipes believes that the Koran cannot explain militant Islam any more than the Bible can explain the Inquisition. The Koran might be a useful tool (which Pipes does not deny), but it will not answer the questions of contemporary terrorism more than a history book on the development of modern Islam. I, for one, find his rationale for this argument to be as brief as it is persuasive.

As Pipes correctly points out, "Muslim history, not Islamic theology, explains how we got here and hints at what might come next."

David C Battle - 2/2/2004

Mr. Luker:

Bush is protecting Wall Street. Can you imagine the bear market he would produce by saying there has raged a "civilizational conflict" for the last 1,300 years???

But I will agree with you that Bush cannot send tanks to win a war against islam. The war against international jihad needs to be fought within Islam itself so that moderate, rational voices can rise above the violence and hatred of the bigots who seem to be the only ones able to speak for Islam.

Unfortunately, those Saruman-like bigots hold sway, and define what modern islam is to look like. Moderates have no choice but to remain silent or go into exile.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/2/2004

Mr. Heuisler

I never said that the Quran was "benign" or that there wasn't tension and contradiction in the text. The verses you cite have been reinterpreted many times over the centuries: their meaning is not fixed in the simplistic manner you suggest. Many, if not most, Muslims believe that those verses are of limited application to fellow monotheists, apply only within existing Islamic boundaries and are pretty out of date. That's why you shouldn't take them at face value. That and the fact that there are a few hundred pages of Quran that you didn't cite, which significantly complicate the readings of these verses. Of course, there are Muslims who do take them literally and interpret them broadly. That's why you should read the book.

Let's not get into comparative religious virtue and military-missionary linkages again, shall we?

Jonathan Dresner - 2/2/2004

Mr. Battle,

The analogy with the Soviet Constitution is misguided: the proper analogy with Communism would be with a widely studied and cited text, like the Communist Manifesto, or Lenin's writings. That mix of theory and praxis is closer to the Quranic analogy.

To take another analogy: would it make sense for someone who is studying Christian political activism in the US to read the Gospels? (Would it make any sense to study the subject without reading them, at least once?) For someone studying the white-power militia movement to read the Turner Diaries?

Bill Heuisler - 2/2/2004

Professor Dresner,
Simplistic? Needs to be understood in its modern context? Foundational? Contradictory and reinterpreted verses? Do you perhaps reach a little for "liberal" understanding?

Translations of certain passages:
IX.5-6: "Kill those who join other gods with God wherever you may find them."
IV.76: "Those who believe fight in the cause of God.
IV.74: "Let those who fight in the cause of God who barter the life of this world for that which is to come; for whoever fights on God's path, whether he is killed or triumphs, We will give him a handsome reward."
VIII.39-42: "Say to the Infidels: if they desist from their unbelief, what is now past shall be forgiven; but if they return to it, they have already before them the doom of the ancients! Fight then against them till strife be at an end, and the religion be all of it God's."

I don't believe in coincidence; Christianity preaches forgiveness (the Crusades were reaction) and Christian war against Islam has been largely reactive. But violence has been endemic to Islam since Arabs exploded from their peninsula. Some point to relative Islamic calm prior to the Sixties, forgetting the post-Raj bloodbath in India and the slave trade centered in Dar Es Salaam, Zanzibar, Agadez and Tombouctou. Argue about good and bad people if you must, but why shouldn't we take those passages at face value? Are they mistranslations? How could such words (even loosely) be mistaken for benign?
Bill Heuisler

Ralph E. Luker - 2/2/2004

Mr. Battle, Even George Bush knows better than to declare war on Islam. You should learn from him.

David C Battle - 2/2/2004

A book can't kill people. People who READ that book, however, can.

During the Cold War, even the most hawkish conservatives had to admit that the Constitution of the Soviet Union was a brilliant immitation western constitutional democracy, with all the trappings of a free society. If the Kremlin had actually governed by it's constitution, there probably would not have been a Cold War.

Religious texts, like legal documents, are irrelevant if they are being missaplied or ignored.

Similarly, the Koran, like any religious text, can be picked apart or praised. But what matters here is Islam, not the Koran. The Koran doesn't kill people, muslims DO. Does it matter to the dead, victims of islamic terrorism, that Osama has an "incorrect" understanding of "true" islam? Not one whit. Does it matter to the dead that "most muslims" are peaceful? I doubt it. Even if they are a minority, there are enough muslims being brainwashed by Saruman-like imams who AREN'T peaceful.

Islam, and it's teachings, however removed from the Koran they may be, are the issue. Wahabism more specifically.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/2/2004

Pipes is right about the contextual and theological difficulties of reading a holy scripture, and I certainly understand his main point: the literalism of American Christianity leads to a simplistic approach to other traditions' sacred texts; I can't even count the number of times I've encountered people who think Judaism stopped changing around the time of Moses (sophisticates grant us up to the time of Jesus).

And I'm always in favor of good history being the basis for greater understanding and policy. Radical islamism is a classic anti-modernist modernism, and needs to be understood in its modern context. Frankly, though everyone should spend some time reexamining 20th century world history in light of what we now know about the world. But predigested history is not enough, not for real understanding.

The Quran is the foundational text, it is widely read and studied within the Islamic world, and it was also deeply influential in the development of medieval and early modern Western religion (e.g. Byzantine iconoclasm). Just as the Quran must be understood in both its original and current contexts, analytical history must be read along with some of its sources, particularly when those sources are as rich and central as the Quran.

The number of contradictory and reinterpreted verses is less than Pipes' makes it sound. Much of the Quran that I have read is pretty self-consistent and still relevant to contemporary Muslims. It is a powerful text, a testament to ethical monotheism, a challenge to reshape the world in better ways, some radical and some incremental. That it is interpreted conservatively today is a testament to the truth of the quip that "conservativism is the worship of dead revolutions."

There is no reason to warn people away from it. Pipe's article may be taken as a caution to people who want to read it, but you must ignore his conclusion. Read it carefully, with reservations, but don't make Pipes' mistake of thinking that we can manipulate the world without an understanding of its deep structures and foundations.

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