What do secularists mean by ‘secularism’?

This article first appeared on the LSE Religion & Global Society blog (9 Jan 2019) with this introduction by the editor, Daniel Coyne:

lse blog intro - jan 2019

When secularists talk about secularism, they are talking about a political idea, a way of organising a state and its society in relation to religion and belief, as opposed to the materialist philosophical idea of the word’s nineteenth century originator, George Holyoake.

Within this political idea, there are many secularisms, both conceptual and practical. Their common ground is the separation of state authorities and institutions from religious authorities and institutions.

Religious commentators often talk about two flavours of secularism, Rowan Williams refers to them as ‘programmatic’ and ‘procedural’, and Charles Taylor ‘closed’ and ‘open’. They dislike ‘programmatic’/’closed’ secularisms, by which they mean those where religion is entirely excluded from the ‘public square’ and manifest solely as a private matter.

Few modern secularists are seeking that, not least because it would be incompatible with the reasons they want secularism in the first place. In ‘The case for Secularism – a neutral state in an open society’ (2007), the Humanist Philosophers Group articulated three arguments in the context of modern, plural societies: autonomy (the need to avoid anyone being coerced into or out of faith or belief); fairness (in a plural society, the ‘Veil of Ignorance’ test implies equality); and pragmatism (the need to maximise harmony and minimise conflict). The secularism this implies is not ‘closed’, but ‘open’.

Andrew Copson’s 2017 book ‘Secularism – Politics, Religion, and Freedom’ defines it using principles from the work of French historian and sociologist of secularism, Jean Baubérot: 1) separation of religious institutions from the institutions of state, and no domination of the political sphere by religious institutions; 2) freedom of thought, conscience and religion for all, with everyone free to change their beliefs, and manifest their beliefs, within the limits of public order and the rights of others; 3) no discrimination against anyone on the grounds of their religion or non-religious worldview, with everyone receiving equal treatment on these grounds.

Both Humanists UK, of which Andrew Copson is Chief Executive, and the National Secular Society use similarly inclusive definitions.

One criticism of this view is that, far from the neutrality it claims, it actually involves imposing both a European Enlightenment notion of separating private faith from community and public life, and a solely rationalist, non-religious worldview on the public realm itself.

These concerns ignore two important facts. Firstly: diversity. Roughly half the British population does not identify with a religion, and the other half has a wide diversity of religious identities, beliefs and practices. Secularism does nothing to inhibit people pursuing what the Humanist Philosophers Group called ‘competing concepts of the good life’. All it does is inhibit one religion or belief imposing itself on the rest in the shared public space.

Secondly: democracy. In such a diverse society, arguments and ways of thinking couched in specifically religious terms can be freely used, but they are unlikely to win enough people over to be successful. The ongoing debate about assisted dying is a case in point. Presumably those opposed to assisted dying include some who sincerely share the Catholic Church’s view that suicide is ‘equally as wrong as murder […and…] is to be considered as a rejection of God’s sovereignty and loving plan.’ But they rarely say that. Instead, the argument focusses on pragmatic concerns about undue pressure on vulnerable people that everyone, not just devout Catholics, can relate to. So far, those arguments have won, despite massive public support for a change in the law.

While secularism implies a reduction in institutional Church power, the separation of religion and state seems not to be a theological problem for Christianity: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ (Mark 12:17). But Christianity is no longer the only consideration. Islam, in all its variations, is the UK’s second largest faith, currently at around 5% of the population (Pew Research forecast 10% in 2050). There is no ‘Church’ in Islam and, conceptually, no religion/state or public/private separation. British Muslim scholars such as Abdullah Sahin therefore share the concerns of Christian thinkers about forms of secularism which might prevent devout Muslims from manifesting their faith holistically in their lives. But he appears to support the sort of inclusive secularism (what he confusingly calls ‘secularity’) which most secularists are actually seeking. Meanwhile British Muslims for Secular Democracy actively campaigns for its implementation.

When we look at secularism in practice, no country applies the three principles perfectly. The US famously has a ‘wall of separation’ between church and state, but ‘In God We Trust’ on its banknotes, and Donald Trump claiming: ‘We’re going to protect Christianity. We don’t have to be politically correct about it’. On the other hand, French laïcité, with its anti-clerical roots, has been applied to ban students from wearing conspicuous religious clothing or symbols in public schools, women from wearing face veils in public and, until overturned by the courts, the wearing of burkinis on the beach – a ban to which the International Humanist & Ethical Union responded with a statement headed ‘This is not our secularism‘. In the Middle East, especially in Syria and Egypt, as Samuli Schielke has highlighted, secularism has a bad name. It is seen by many as a malign western concept. Far from a liberal ideal, it has been applied by nationalist dictators to exert their brutal authority.

The UK is in practice seen as an example of ‘open secularism’. There is freedom of thought and expression, and no bans on religious symbols in schools, or public veiling. All schools are required to teach ‘individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs’. But the UK fails on two of Baubérot’s principles. Not only is the Head of State also the head of the Church of England – an institution with which less than 5% of people under 35 identify – but, uniquely among democratic countries, 26 seats in the legislature (the House of Lords) are reserved for its bishops. Christianity remains embedded in public life, from Remembrance ceremonies to prayers in Parliament. A large – and still growing – number of state-funded schools are run by religious organisations, principally the Church of England and the Catholic Church, but also now Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and Hindu groups. If there is competition for places, these state schools are legally allowed to discriminate against children on the basis of their parents’ faith, or lack of it.

Secularists want these things to change. But at the same time, they will strongly defend freedom of religion or belief, provided the rights of others are not eroded. Religious people are as free as anyone to seek public office and argue from their convictions. The Archbishop of Canterbury can go on TV and argue for political change on the basis of his faith, and as leader of his organisation. But their arguments should be given the same weight in the public square as anyone else’s.

The application of the three principles of secularism would not avoid future disputes about the role of religion and belief in national life. But it would minimise them, and provide the fairest foundation on which to build a peaceful, plural society.

A humanist response to ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ – Pope Francis’ 2013 manifesto

This is the text of a talk given on 20th June 2018 at the invitation of Westminster Inter Faith Group, which is linked to Westminster Cathedral, the ‘mother church’ of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. I should give the leader of the group, John Woodhouse, credit for his efforts to ensure a wide range of views are heard and considered.

‘Evangelii Gaudium’, ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, was a document issued by Pope Francis in 2013, shortly after he became Pope.


As you’d expect, like most humanists, I’m an atheist, so I found plenty to disagree with in Pope Francis’ underlying theology in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). But let’s take that as a given and focus on the other aspects of what he says. And I should add that I’m giving my personal perspective as a humanist – there is no official Humanists UK line on this document.

The impetus for this new evangelical drive came from a Synod of Bishops meeting in 2012. I can see why they were worried. The Church is, in many places, in decline.  In Britain in 2016, roughly a third of people who were brought up in Catholic households now identify as non-religious[1]. The overall Catholic proportion of the British population is remaining roughly steady at around 9% only because immigration, mainly from Poland, has so far made up for the attrition. Catholics in Brazil have dropped from 90% of the population in 1970 to 50% now. The institution is under threat.

So Francis makes it clear that this document is a call to arms: “I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are. ‘Mere administration’ can no longer be enough.”

But Evangelii Gaudium goes a lot further than that. He sees two big problems:  the state of the world and the state of the church. His thesis seems to be that fixing the state of the church, in which evangelism – in the very broad way he uses it – has a part to play, will make a major contribution to fixing the state of the world. He wrote Evangelii Gaudium shortly after he became Pope in 2013. I read it as, effectively, his manifesto.


His analysis of what he calls the challenges of today’s world focuses on two broad areas: firstly, socio-economic exclusion, inequality, and the ills of the financial system; and secondly a range of cultural and religious issues, including the state of his own church.

He blames poverty, inequality and social exclusion on over-reliance on trickle-down economics, free markets and “a globalisation of indifference”.  He complains about “the new idolatry of money”, globalisation, a global elite beyond the reach of state control, corruption, and “a limitless thirst for power and possessions” which means that anything fragile, including the environment, is “defenceless before the interests of a deified market”. He blames the injustices of the socioeconomic system for rising levels of violence. And he calls for the reform of the financial system based on a “non-ideological ethics” to bring about balance and a more humane social order.

It’s hardly news that a religious leader says the world is unfair and excessively materialistic. What’s different here is the specificity of the analysis and the language used. He’s very political. Although I don’t think he’s got everything right – the causes of the financial crash were rather more complex than he seems to think for example. And he generalises wildly, ignoring the fact that an analysis 100% applicable to Latin America may be only 30% applicable to Britain, Germany or China. But overall, I think a lot of people, regardless of their religion of belief, would agree with his concerns about inequality and corruption. He’s hardly alone in thinking that. On the other hand, his analysis must be anathema to many others – I can’t see how a committed American Republican could support him for instance.

In making these important points, though, he omits some others. The last 200 years, and the last few decades in particular, have seen an unprecedented decline in the proportion of people living in absolute poverty, that’s living on less than $1.90 a day. It’s currently around 10%, a quarter of what is was in 1981[2]. Not good enough of course – there are millions of real lives behind the statistics – but it’s a dramatic improvement by any standard. Many would claim it’s attributable to trade and globalisation, with wealth from developed countries moving to all the places our clothes and mobile phones are made. And he doesn’t mention factory conditions or the need for organised labour to avoid exploitation.

Something similar applies to war and violence. It’s striking that Evangelii Gaudium doesn’t mention war among the world’s problems, although the Syrian conflict had been running for two years when it was written. While war and other violence continue to plague the world, as Stephen Pinker has demonstrated, “violence has been in decline over long stretches of time…and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”[3] Of course, that doesn’t mean it will stay that way. But it does mean the Pope’s analysis is rather one-sided.

Nevertheless, he’s right that there are big social and economic issues to be tackled.


He groups his other global problems under the general banner of “culture”. Here again, there is much that people from all sorts of backgrounds, including humanists, can agree with. For example, freedom of religion and belief is constrained in many countries. We should all deplore the persecution of Christians, atheists, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Rohinga Muslims or anyone else. And it’s no surprise to find his concerns for social cohesion, individualism, and family life. But he elides that into concern about what he calls “relativism”. For example, he says “We should recognise how, in a culture where each person wants to be bearer of his or her own subjective truth, it becomes difficult for citizens to devise a common plan which transcends individual gain and personal ambition.” By relativism he seems to mean pluralism. Not only is that a challenge to democracy as a means to decide what should happen, but it implies that there’s a major problem with the city we’re in now, as London has a massive diversity of religions and beliefs, and massive diversity within each grouping, including among Catholics and the non-religious. Actually, London works pretty well and I think we should be proud of it. We teach people to think for themselves on these matters and, as a secularist, I think we should respect their right to draw their own conclusions, provided they don’t then erode the rights of others.  The alternative seems to be a religious hegemony. That might be attractive for a Pope, but we all know where it can lead.

While he’s ok with cultural diversity per se, which he says is “not a threat to Church unity”, he is concerned about it in the sense that “in many [developing] countries globalisation has meant a hastened deterioration of their own cultural roots and the invasion of ways of thinking and acting proper to other cultures which are economically advanced but ethically debilitated”.  Of course, there are real issues here. But the example he gives, referring to Asia and Africa, is about the sacredness of marriage and the stability of the family in the face of what he considers to be poor, or at least culturally-inappropriate, examples in western mass media. That may be so. But he doesn’t mention the positive contribution of global sharing on women’s rights, women’s health or the fight against FGM, or the fact that it is culturally-appropriate Nigerian mass media, in the form of the Nollywood film industry, which has reinforced belief in witchcraft across Africa[4] . Homosexuality isn’t mentioned anywhere in the document. The most charitable explanation for these omissions is that they are the compromises required to find common messages for audiences in several continents.

Beyond these wider issues, some of his concerns under the “cultural” heading are in fact concerns about external challenges to the Church.  They comprise both what he calls “the onslaught of contemporary secularism”, and competition from other faiths.

By “Secularism” he seems to mean “living without a religious identity”. That’s not the meaning that most British Secularists give it. We say it’s about the neutrality of government in matters of religion or belief; freedom of religion and belief – provided it doesn’t erode the rights of others; and lack of discrimination. I’d recommend Andrew Copson’s recent book on Secularism, which will become part of the Oxford University Press “Very Short Introduction” series and which puts it in its varied international contexts.

Francis sees Secularism as a “challenge to inculcating the faith”, bemoaning parents who fail to have their children baptised, or to “teach them how to pray”. He bemoans “spiritual desertification…as a result of attempts by some societies to build without God or to eliminate their Christian roots”, adding a quote that, in these places “the Christian world is becoming sterile, and it is depleting itself like an over-exploited ground, which transforms into a desert”. But it turns out that quote is from Cardinal Newman in 1833. This isn’t new.

He accepts that deficiencies in the Church itself may be contributing to the decline. He lists “machismo, alcoholism, domestic violence, Low Mass attendance, fatalistic or superstitious notions which lead to sorcery and the like”. There seems to be a misfit here with his enthusiasm for what he calls “popular piety”, which to my mind includes attributing miraculous powers to statues and relics. In fact he explicitly mentions “journeying together to shrines” as an “evangelising gesture”. From the outside, it seems that some forms of superstition are more ok than others.

What is pretty astonishing, though, is that this list of deficiencies doesn’t include the fact that Catholic priests have sexually and physically abused children all over the world and the Church has protected the abusers and covered up the abuse. This is such a major stain on the Church’s reputation, and has had such major repercussions, it seems strange that Francis has apparently decided to play it down.

Then there are more subtle issues which are largely invisible to those on the outside. He quotes his predecessor talking about “the grey pragmatism of daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small mindedness”, and he talks about a “tomb psychology transforming Christians in to mummies in a museum”. Strong stuff. Then there are demotivated pastoral workers, and recruitment problems for the priesthood. Yet there’s no mention of celibacy. And he rules out women priests, while emphasising women’s rights and the “equal dignity” of men and women. I wonder how long those positions will be sustainable.

Among the reasons he gives for losing adherents to other religions is “relativistic subjectivism” and, significantly for today’s discussion, “our difficulty in restoring a mystical adherence to the faith in a pluralistic religious landscape”. To me these apparent problems sound more like “thinking for yourself”. Ironically, and to his credit, he explicitly encourages “critical thinking”.

He attacks the idea of a “purely spiritual faith” and “immanentism”, which apparently means a denial of God’s transcendent reality in favour of a wholly subjective form of faith. “Today” he says, “our challenge is not so much atheism as the need to respond adequately to many people’s thirst for God, lest they try to satisfy it with alienating solutions or with a disembodied Jesus who demands nothing of us with regard to others”.  The language he uses here about incarnation and “personal relationships …..with God…Christ…Mary and the saints”, devotions he calls “fleshy”, is rather off-putting for a humanist. But underlying it is the concern that a religion or belief that only looks selfishly for spiritual or material well-being – such as the ‘theology of prosperity’ which is popular in Latin America and parts of Africa – means not caring for others. He sees that as a core of the message. And on that there’s common ground.

So those are the problems. He then turns to the solutions.


His solutions to socioeconomic problems are no different from those that many others would offer. He wants a more people-oriented financial system, greater equality and so on.  But there is something a little patronising in the implication that charity and concern for others is a specifically Christian characteristic. He contrasts St.Paul’s emphasis on looking after the poor with the “self-centred lifestyle of the pagans” – I guess he means the pre-Christian Romans – which he sees re-emerging in modern society. Setting aside the fact that slaves were surely among the worst off people in Jesus and Paul’s time, yet neither of them expressed an objection to slavery, he’s simply wrong about lack of charity in pre-Christian Rome and Greece[5], and it also featured in Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, and subsequently in Islam. Modern Britons are among the world’s greatest contributors to charity, while also being among the least religious –last year we were 7th out of 139 in the World Giving Index 5 year ranking – the top three were Myanmar, the USA and New Zealand.

While it was no surprise to find his emphasis on including the poor in society, his claim that “for the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one” would seem to make little practical difference. In practice, while charity has a vital role, structural change in this area is more likely to be brought about in the political arena than the religious – compare universal health care in Europe and the US. To be fair, he recognises that and encourages “responsible citizenship and participation in political life”.

In some respects, I think the religious perspective might even get in the way. For example, he says that the poor are “beautiful above and beyond all appearances” and “the love by which we find the other pleasing leads us to offer him something freely”. I’m not sure that it’s desirable to put “the poor” into a different them-and-us category which we are obliged to consider “beautiful”, rather than simply recognising everyone as fellow human beings with equal rights and similar needs whose suffering it is right to alleviate. As Bertrand Russell said: “The happy life is, to an extraordinary extent, the same as the good life”. We all gain from helping others.


The four principles he offers for the construction of a just and peaceful society – “time is greater than space”, “unity prevails over conflict”, “realities are more important than ideas” , and  “the whole is greater than the parts” – are fine, to varying degrees, but I didn’t find them particularly helpful, or particularly specific to the Pope’s position.

When it comes to fixing the Church’s problems, he goes beyond simply counteracting the negatives he’s identified to a radical vision of “a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” The implication is that the message is more important than the survival of the institution. He wants “a Church which is poor and for the poor”. That’s pretty bold coming from the CEO, especially one sitting in the splendour of the Vatican.  I’m not sure I believe it. Without the institution and its resources there is no mission, and he hasn’t got a job. In fact I think it’s really one of several challenges to Cardinal Burke and his followers in the Church’s conservative wing. Francis wants the organisation to “abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way’”. Among other things, that means taking into account developments in social science, and recognising that, as Thomas Aquinas apparently pointed out, “the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God ‘are very few’”. Just in case that wasn’t clear, he says “For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion”.

But the biggest challenge for the Church is that it is losing active adherents. While he would argue that doing good works and arguing for the poor is itself an evangelical activity, there’s no escaping the fact that he sees a need for evangelism, or missionary activity, in a more conventional sense. The targets are not only “those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him”, but also both existing Catholics who rarely go to church, and lapsed Catholics, where the aim is “to help them experience a conversion” – all rather ‘Born Again’ I thought. As an aside, it’s interesting that, among the major faiths, only the Catholic Church refers to former adherents as “lapsed”, with the implication that they’re still really Catholics and may be back later. In reality most are ex-Catholics, just as those who have left Islam are ex-Muslims.

He mentions the fact that evangelism will highlight the difference between the Church’s ideal self-image and the actual image it currently has. He says this difference is the “source of the Church’s heroic and impatient struggle for renewal”.  That felt to me rather disingenuous. The problem is not simply one of image, but of substance, especially on the child abuse issue, but also on some other ethical matters.

To be fair, he does try to deal with the problem of divergence between Church teaching and changed public ethics.  Homosexuality and divorce aren’t mentioned explicitly, but it’s hard not to think that’s what he has in mind when he says “the biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects which, important as they are, do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message”. He refers to a hierarchy of truths, all descended from the core message of “the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ” and the need to see God in others”.  He wants evangelism to be focussed on this positive message, not on rules, if the edifice of the Church’s moral teaching isn’t to collapse. I don’t think that will work if the underlying issues are not addressed. He may not think issues such as homosexuality and divorce are major issues, but a lot of other people do. But it’s hard to see how he can address them without causing a rift in the edifice he’s trying to protect.

While he tries to draw a distinction between evangelising and proselytising, he says that Christians are duty-bound to “proclaim the Gospel” and the Church will grow because people find the missionary message attractive. I think this is a meaningless distinction:  no-one can ever be forced to believe something they don’t believe. And “proclaiming the Gospel” – depending on how it’s done – is indistinguishable from proselytisation if you’re on the receiving end.  Even more contentious is his emphasis on the role of Catholic schools which, quote “always strive to join their work of education with the explicit proclamation of the Gospel, are a most valuable resource for the evangelisation of culture”. As you would expect, as a humanist I find it astonishing that schools with that objective continue to be financed by the state.

That’s especially a problem in a society such as ours. His respect for the sciences is, of course, something I’d agree with. But then he goes on to complain that “positivism and scientism refuse to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences”, which denies “other areas of knowledge such as…faith itself, which elevates us to the mystery transcending nature and human intelligence”. Few humanists would go along with scientism in the sense of denying the reality of emotions and all the other subjective human experiences which make life what it is. But talk of mystery transcending nature as a real thing, as opposed to something people have created to explain subjective feelings and answer their desires, is where we part company. And when he says “the Church has no wish to hold back the marvellous progress of science” presumably a line is drawn when it contradicts Church truth claims. For example, we know that homo sapiens, while special in what we have achieved and the richness of human life, is in genetic terms not special in any way – we’re just a particular human animal species that has been very successful over the geologically-short period of around 100,000 years. We also know that no-one is actually possessed by evil forces, physical miracles don’t happen, and the Turin Shroud dates from the 14th century.

At the same time, he seems to have no real answer to the problem of other religions looking more attractive in a plural marketplace of ideas, or to why people should abandon the sort of purely personal spirituality he criticises. Having said that, he does recognise the fact of plurality, and encourages “dialogue with other believers who are not part of the Catholic Church”. So apparently not unbelievers, which cuts out roughly half the population of the UK, and the great majority of the young.


Overall, Evangelii Gaudium left me with a more favourable impression of Pope Francis. It’s a lot more radical and political than I’d expected, and it does no harm for such a prominent figure to highlight some of the ills and injustices of the world.

But I ended up feeling rather sorry for him. For good or ill – and probably a bit of both – the world is moving on.


[1] http://www.natcen.ac.uk/blog/religion-in-britain-in-2016

[2] https://ourworldindata.org/extreme-poverty

[3] https://www.edge.org/conversation/mc2011-history-violence-pinker

[4] http://henrycenter.tiu.edu/2016/02/the-role-of-nollywood-in-witchcraft-belief-and-confessions/

[5] http://philanthrocapitalism.net/bonus-chapters/ancient-giving/


Integrity & Meaning – a Humanist View

I was invited to give a talk at the London Inter Faith Centre on a humanist view of  “Integrity & Meaning”, as a lead-in to a discussion. The event was part of a series on “Identity & Meaning” organised by (Rev) Laurence Hillel exploring the interface between humanist/secular and religious philosophical views on themes which are seen as important for both perspectives. With a mix of Christians, Buddhists, Quakers and non-religious present, including two psychotherapists, we had a rich and thoughtful conversation.

I should stress that this is a personal view as a humanist, not “the humanist view”. See if you agree.



Let’s start with “meaning”. This is something humanists are often asked about, along the lines “Without God, how can your life have meaning?” Tim Crane, a liberally-minded atheist philosopher, in his book “The Meaning of Belief” is helpful in sorting that out.

He starts by defining “religion”, which he says is “a systematic and practical attempt by human beings to find meaning in the world, and their place in it, in terms of their relationship to something transcendent”. So that’s got four components: it’s systematic, practical, finds meaning, and relates to the transcendent. I think that’s pretty good – maybe something for discussion later.

It’s hardly news that for many people, religion is a search for life’s meaning. But it doesn’t follow that every search for meaning is religious. He distinguishes two sorts of meaning: meaning of life and meaning in life:

“Some people find meaning in their relationships with loved ones, their children, and their families. Others find it in their experience of art, music, and beautiful things; others in developing their life plans or in their ethical, moral or political lives. But this does not touch the question of the meaning of our lives a whole….these things are attempts to find meaning in life; religion, as I see it, attempts to find the meaning of life as a whole….the investment of everything with ultimate meaning”.

He adds that: “Looking for the meaning of life is not the same as looking for an understanding of the world, of how things as a whole hang together.” He quotes the American philosopher Thomas Nagel: “It is important to distinguish [the religious] question from the pure desire for understanding of the universe and one’s place in it” where “the religious question”, according to Nagel, is, “How can one bring into one’s individual life a full recognition of one’s relation to the universe as a whole?”  Tim Crane thinks “the religious answer to this question, stated most broadly and abstractly, is that one should live one’s entire life in an awareness of the transcendent…..The believer is convinced that God is present in everything, and the divine presence makes sense of their life by suffusing it with meaning“.

He then contrasts that with two atheist views: “The pessimist’s response is to accept that the world is in and of itself thoroughly dis-enchanted [by which he means no transcendent component] but also to assert that we should try to make the best of it. The pessimist concedes that the religious believer is in a certain sense right: if God does not exist, or if there is no un-seen order, the world is at bottom meaningless. For there is no ultimate purpose in what Philip Larkin called “all the uncaring, intricate, rented world,” so any meaning there is must be some-thing we have to create for ourselves. But this meaning will never amount to “re-enchantment”…. we can only find meaning in life, not the meaning of life.” He thinks there’s also an atheist optimist’s response, which is to say that in reality there is no enchantment – atheists aren’t denying something that is really there – so the benefits of the belief that it is there are human creations and an atheist is just as capable of rich human creations as anyone else. But, rightly in my view, he thinks the optimist doesn’t take the religious impulse seriously.

I’m one of Tim Crane’s pessimists. I don’t see any discernible meaning or purpose of ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’. It just is. And I accept that a belief that “something else” brings meaning to it all offers comfort in the face of what might be seen as a bleak reality, just as faith in an afterlife or reincarnation can make it easier to cope with death. But just because it would be nice if something were true doesn’t make it true.

However, I do think there is meaning in my life. That’s provided by a whole range of things including my relationships with others and the things that I do, including talking with you now.

So, to go back to Tim Crane’s definitions, meaning of life is broadly “objective” in the sense that it’s about something that is considered to be predominantly outside of us – Life, the Universe and Everything – while meaning in life is about our subjective emotions, experiences and reactions as we encounter other things and other people, including sharing in collective emotions and reactions.



But there is another very important component in that subjective meaning, and that is narrative. Humans seem to have a powerful need to be able to explain events in terms of reasons and causes. We need stories. And we all carry in our heads our own, private personal story in terms of what we’ve done and how we’ve developed and changed throughout our lives. Apart from the odd family snapshot, or written record, that story is based almost entirely on our memory, including all the bits and pieces of what others have told us, what we’ve seen on TV or read in novels. The more we find out about memory, the more it becomes clear that we’re standing on sand. Even memories of recent, direct experiences are fallible. Human memory isn’t like computer memory, where the information sits in a fixed place to be taken out and looked at. Brains don’t work that way. Memories aren’t fixed things sitting in files waiting to be accessed. Every time we recall a memory it can be changed.

Actually it goes further than that. The conscious “I” that retains this narrative isn’t, we know, a ghost in the machine. The more research that is done on consciousness, the more it is clear that Descartes was wrong about mind-body duality. It looks like consciousness and subjective experience are emergent properties of a bundle of physical, electrochemical, processes, though no-one knows quite how or why.

There are various reasons why we might change or adapt our memories. One is peer pressure. There have been many experiments showing not only that people will say they remember something they know to be false in order to fit in with others, but in some cases that their actual memories change so that they genuinely think the false memory is true. Anyone reading the reports about the claimed miracles of Our Lady of Fatima in 1917 for example, can see that. Thousands of people were sure they saw the sun dance around or plunge towards the Earth. Those memories were false.

Another reason for us unconsciously to wield the memory editor’s pen is narrative: we want what happened to fit with the story. If it doesn’t, then we change it, or adjust it, or forget it. In order to have meaning in our lives, we need to have a narrative.



Now, what about integrity. The Oxford Dictionary gives two meanings. Firstly, “The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles”, and secondly “The state of being whole and undivided” derived from the Latin “integer” meaning whole or complete. In the sense that we’re taking about it here, it means a combination of the two, as Wikipedia puts it: “Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, or moral uprightness. It is generally a personal choice to hold oneself to consistent moral and ethical standards.” So it’s about being consistent, and being good.

As an aside, I also learned that “ethical integrity” in a philosophical sense is purely about consistency. It seems you can regard other people as playthings and exhibit psychopathic behaviour towards them, but you’re regarded as having ethical integrity if you do it consistently.

Anyhow, back to the dual meaning that I hope we can agree on: being both consistent and being good.

Only someone suffering a bad case of self-loathing will maintain a personal narrative in which they are the villain. While we may admit flaws and errors, most of us like to think of ourselves as good. More than that, as social animals, most of us are strongly influenced by what other people think about us – or at least what we think they think – especially people whose views we value highly.  And we know that in most societies, integrity is highly valued, while hypocrisy – the opposite of consistency – is condemned.

So there’s a clear link here between having meaning in our lives, and personal integrity. Both require a narrative. If we are to have integrity, ethical components of that narrative – how we behave – have to be consistent and based on good values. Consistency doesn’t mean we can’t change or develop over time of course. One of the values can be a willingness to learn from others, from our mistakes, and from new evidence. That fits in the narrative.

The personal narrative which carries the meaning in our lives needs to exhibit a moral consistency if we are to have personal integrity, and not be hypocrites.



But I’ve glossed over the other key element of personal integrity: we need not only to be consistent in how we behave and what we say but we need to be honest and exhibit what the dictionary calls “strong moral principles”.

But how do we know what is moral, what is right or wrong? As a humanist, and an atheist, I can’t appeal to scripture. In fact, I’d go further than that. I think all religions are human creations, and the moral rules found in their scriptures were not sent down by a deity but made up and developed by humans – almost always men. They therefore reflect both general features of our shared humanity, and the particular features of the situation in which they were decided and the people who created them.

The split between those moral precepts attributable to our shared humanity and those reflecting the particularities of time, place, personality, gender and so on is sometimes obvious.

For example: a key value associated with integrity is honesty. That’s a shared human value that appears in most ethical codes. The Ten Commandments say: “Thou shalt not bear false witness”, the Fourth Precept in Buddhism is “I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech” and there are other rules about not stealing or cheating.

On the other hand, earlier in the Ten Commandments there’s a prohibition of idol worship. It’s followed by a threat:  “for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”  That seems to reflect the needs of a leader trying to unify a group of people around a specific religious view which, at the time, was in competition with other views. He rightly saw that unifying principle as a prerequisite for the credibility of the other rules. But he used a threat to punish future generations for their parent’s, grandparent’s, great-grandparent’s and great-great-grandparent’s decision to disobey the idol-worship prohibition. I think most people today would say that’s immoral, and akin to collective punishment. It’s clearly a rule reflecting the particular situation its originator found himself in.

Similarly, we all know the contortions the Abrahamic faiths are going through to reconcile modern views on homosexuality with its condemnation in the texts. Over half of British Catholics under the age of 50 think that gay marriage is right. The previous Pope called it a threat to world peace. The current Pope said of homosexuality “Who am I to judge?”. Meanwhile the formal doctrine is unchanged.

As a humanist, I don’t think honesty, fairness or any other moral value exists “out there”. We created them as a result of both our physical evolution and the evolution of human societies and rational thinking. And we are continuing to develop.


But if morality develops from our shared humanity, how does that happen?

It’s a feature of humans that we are born largely incapable and have long childhoods, requiring lengthy periods of care and nurture. We are social animals, and that’s impossible without a shared view that murder and stealing are wrong and that you can get more done by cooperating. Similarly, it’s easy to see why a society in which dishonesty, stealing and cheating are accepted as norms of behaviour is likely to be less successful that one where they are not.

But there’s an important underpinning component here, and that is empathy. Humans, and may be some other animals, have an important natural ability to empathise. We can put ourselves in the shoes of others. But the link between empathy and morality it’s quite as simple as it might appear. There’s an interesting, if rather repetitive, book called “Against Empathy – The Case for Rational Compassion”, by Paul Bloom, a Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University. He points out that there are in fact two sorts of empathy: emotional empathy, where you literally feel what the other person is feeling , and cognitive empathy, where you have an understanding and appreciation of the way they are feeling. He points out that emotional empathy alone – which is what he’s arguing against – can be dangerous. For a start, it can be debilitating. If I have a serious car crash, I don’t want the doctor in A&E to be overcome by sharing my pain, I want her to think straight and use her skill to save me. Worse than that, we tend to feel purely emotional empathy more readily for people like us than for people who are different. So morality based purely on that would lead us to favour our family or tribe over other people. It’s only when we also use our cognitive empathy, and apply rational thought to extend empathy to principles applicable outside our circle, that we can see that harming those who are different is as bad as harming those who are like us.

In practice, when we talk about empathy, we tend not to make the emotional/cognitive distinction Paul Bloom is concerned about. But he’s right. Without an ability to see people who are different as fellow human beings worthy of empathic understanding, and without the rational extension of natural empathic responses to universal principles of compassion, there would be no universally-applicable morality.

This is the basis for the Golden Rule – treat others as you would wish to be treated. From a humanist viewpoint, it’s a product of our shared humanity, so it’s no coincidence that it has arisen independently, and in slightly different forms, all over the world and in all sorts of different religious and philosophical traditions dating back at least to pre-2000BC Hinduism.

In the Abrahamic traditions, it appears first in Leviticus in the form “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself.” That’s been dated back to around 1440BC. Or as Jesus is quoted it in Matthew: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” or more simply in Luke: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” At around the same time, the scholar Rabbi Hillel is supposed to have responded to a challenge to explain the complexities of Jewish Law while standing one leg by saying – while standing on one leg – “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” In Islam, while the Golden Rule doesn’t appear explicitly in the Qur’an, it does in several Hadiths, or sayings of the Prophet, such as “Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you, and reject for others what you would reject for yourselves.”

It’s been repeated as a maxim by philosophers ever since. But we’re still learning what it means in practice. If you take the Ten Commandments, apart from the ones establishing the primacy of the Hebrew God, all the others can be derived from the Golden Rule. But so can a lot of other rules for living a good life which are not mentioned anywhere in the Bible or the Qur’an. Slavery is the obvious example. There’s no rule in the Bible or the Qur’an saying “Thou shalt not subjugate and own other people and keep them as slaves.” Like gay marriage, it’s an example of how we have continued to evolve and develop our understanding, in these cases by applying rational thought to realise that the “others” to which the Golden Rule applies not just to our own clan or those of the same race, gender or sexual orientation.

The humanist approach to morality is based on the premise that suffering is generally bad, and flourishing and well-being are generally good, so we should consider the intention and likely consequences of our actions on that basis. So humanists fully support the Golden Rule, but also say that we must continue to think, challenge and develop our understanding.  At the highest level, for example, I think it’s only relatively recently that significant numbers of people are seriously considering how far it can be extended to other animals. And at the level of the specific, rules are useful, but every situation is different so there’s no excuse for failing to think through what is right and wrong. Stealing is generally wrong. Stealing bread to keep a starving child alive probably isn’t.

So, from my perspective, morality comes from us. It’s a human creation.



Now, let’s go back to integrity. When the dictionary refers to the “honesty and strong moral principles” that accompany consistency in the definition, I think it means a particular type or subset of the broad range of morality we’ve been considering. We’re not talking about not being a murderer, or whether or not we’re gay, or whether we would sanction collective punishment. These are somehow out of scope. The moral difference between someone who has integrity and someone who doesn’t seems to me to be related above all to honesty and trust. They are both to do with how we interact with others, and have a direct line from the Golden Rule – they are how we want others to deal with us.

Of course, knowing what that these are morally right doesn’t mean we necessarily actually behave morally. We are often faced with the choice of whether to do the right thing or the thing that suits us. It takes effort, both psychological, and sometimes physical, to override the temptation to take the easiest course of action. That’s what is meant by “strong” moral principles. Not everyone who has a consistent moral view displays integrity. It can be hard work.


It should be obvious by now that I don’t see integrity, and its components of moral behaviour and consistency, as being at all dependent upon any particular belief. Having a reputation for behaving consistently in an honest and trustworthy way seems a pretty reliable recipe for someone to be respected in even the most unsophisticated human society. My guess, and it can only be a guess, is that it was as valued in prehistoric times as it is now. It’s human.

Acting with integrity helps make the world a better place, it earns the approval and liking of others, and – like behaving kindly – it makes us feel good about ourselves.

Moreover, genuinely exhibiting integrity makes a powerful positive contribution to the narrative which we build and maintain to give our life its meaning.

What’s not to like?


A Humanist Encounter with Faith & Spirituality

This is the text of an article published in the June 2016 edition of “Interreligious Insight”, the journal of the World Congress of Faiths.

‘Spiritual’ is a word most humanists avoid because of its lack of definition and its religious connotations. And most humanists feel alienated by the word ‘faith’, regarding it as synonymous with ‘religion’ and ‘belief in the absence of evidence’. So a World Council of Faiths conference in the shadow of Salisbury Cathedral titled ‘Promoting spiritual life: an interfaith perspective’ was not my natural habitat. But that was where I found myself early in 2016.

I have had enough ‘interfaith’ experience – yes, that’s another alienating term – to know that the people involved are almost always friendly and interesting, and that there are invariably areas of common ground. This event was no exception and I felt welcome. And my concerns about the relevance to me of substance of the conference were largely dispelled by the opening talk, ‘An overview of current approaches to spirituality’, by the Revd Canon James Woodward, Principal of Sarum College. He emphasised both that he did not know whether ‘spirituality’ was valid concept – referring to it as a ‘Polyfilla’ word – and that, as far as British Christianity in its present institutional form was concerned: ‘It is over’. That put paid to some of my preconceptions!

A huge transition

James Woodward’s words echoed those of Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead in the introduction to their 2015 paper ‘A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools’[i] ‘The last twenty-five years have witnessed some of the most significant shifts in religious belief and practice since the Reformation’. The changes they’re referring to have two characteristics:

  • A major decline in Anglican identity has been accompanied by a major rise in those who identify as non-religious, who currently comprise around half the British population. That will increase, as the non-religious proportion is higher among the young.
  • Within the large minority who retain a religious identity, ‘stronger’ forms of faith – non-denominational Christianity, including Pentecostalism, and Islam – are becoming increasingly prominent. Anglicanism, while important, will find itself in a minority. To quote Professor David Voas[ii], a specialist in population studies: ‘The future of religion in Britain is to be found in Islam and the black majority churches’.

40 years of British Social Attitudes survey data tell the story:BSA trend chart 1983-2015

This is a huge transition. The most serious attempt so far to address it and come up with practical proposals for the way forward is the Woolf Institute’s ‘Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life: living with difference – community, diversity and the common good’ which reported at the end of 2015. The commission consisted of 20 people from across the spectrum, chaired by Baroness Butler-Sloss[iii]. They considered the issues under six headings (they called them ‘conversations’): vision, education, media, dialogue, action and law. Underpinning their work is this statement in the report’s preface: ‘There has been general agreement that in today’s society it is essential not only to understand religion and belief but also to reflect on how they interact with each other at local and national levels. Indeed, it is only with such an understanding that communities can be sustained, and that people can live with difference and contribute to the common good.’

Both religious people and humanists have a common interest in helping ensure that the outcome of this major change is a harmonious, well-integrated and, I would argue, secular plurality.

Getting the terminology clear

To do that, it’s essential that we get the language clear. Three terms in particular often lead to confusion: ‘Secularism’, ‘Humanism’ and ‘Spiritual’.

In broad terms, most British secularists see ‘Secularism’ as meaning a situation where:

  • the State is neutral in matters of religion and belief;
  • freedom of religion and belief, and their expression and practice, are protected, provided the rights of others are respected;
  • the same, democratically-determined, law applies equally to everyone;
  • no one should be either privileged or disadvantaged on the grounds of their religious or non-religious beliefs.

So Secularism does not mean Atheism or Humanism; or denying the influence of Christianity on British and European history and culture; or denying the freedom of religious individuals or institutions to participate in public life and express their views. But it does mean that their views are not given greater weight than others, or considered more immune to challenge, simply because they’re faith-based.

There are various definitions of ‘Humanism’ in its modern sense, including the International Humanist & Ethical Union’s 2002[iv] ‘Amsterdam Declaration’ . This is from the British Humanist Association’s (BHA’s) website: ‘The word humanist has come to mean someone who:

  • trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic);
  • makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals;
  • believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.’

A humanist is not, therefore, someone who is by definition anti-religious. In fact there is a spectrum of views on that: some humanists/atheists are indeed opposed to religion in all its forms; others are ‘anti-religious privilege’ and ‘anti-bad-things-done-and-said-in-the-name-of-religion’ but less concerned about others’ personal beliefs and happy to seek common ground with people of faith.

Of the 50% of so of the population who are non-religious, most[v] – but certainly not all – are broadly humanistic in their beliefs and outlook, whether or not they label themselves as ‘humanists’.

‘Spiritual’ is more problematic, baggy term, with multiple meanings. Broad definitions are fine, but attempting not to deal with the issue at all by saying ‘We know what we mean’ can only perpetuate confusion.

For example, how are we to understand the result of a 2013 YouGov poll[vi] conducted for Professor Linda Woodhead’s ‘Westminster Faith Debates’ (see chart)?

Identity pie

We can only guess what respondents meant when they answered the question.  When I expressed concern at the conference about the word’s multiple meanings, James Woodward asked if I had an alternative, and what I thought the meanings were. I readily admitted that I do not know of another word that covers all the ground. But to me it is used to mean three things:

  1. our inner human lives, including our sense of meaning and purpose;
  2. specific types of subjective experience usually described using words such as ‘transcendent’, or ‘connectedness’, ranging from the mundane to ‘peak experiences’;
  3. the manifestation of a real but non-physical ‘spiritual’ realm to which some people attribute these types of subjective experiences – the territory often claimed by religion.


Rather than argue about the definition, I think it would be best always to make clear what we mean when we use it, or – as I tend to do – avoid using it altogether.

A good illustration of the dangers of muddled thinking here was provided by a 2009 debate on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme between the humanist philosopher A.C.Grayling and the Anglican broadcaster Christina Rees. It was about the BBC’s long-contested policy of excluding non-religious speakers from the ‘Thought for the Day’ slot.  In defending the ban, Christina Rees said that ‘Most people, more than 80% [sic],understand life as having a spiritual dimension’ and accused A.C.Grayling of ‘coming from a position that decries the spiritual dimension…a partial and diminished perspective…’ as ‘there is more to life than you can see, touch and measure’. This is a classic example of a slippery use of ‘spiritual’: she was eliding its three meanings to suggest that people who do not believe in a non-physical ‘spiritual realm’ are ‘Mr.Spock’-like creatures, lacking inner lives, emotions or the ability to experience a sense of wider connectedness. Her argument was effectively that the ‘thoughts’ of the non-religious are implicitly of less value than those of the religious because only the latter are fully human. This, of course, is rubbish.

It also illustrates the sort of sterile ‘religion good/atheism bad’ (or vice versa) debate that broadcasters may favour but which serves mainly to entrench existing positions, as opposed to dialogue aimed at enhancing understanding of both commonalities and differences.

‘Spiritual’ in the sense of our inner lives

Whether we are religious or non-religious, we are all human beings with inner lives. As the 1993 BHA ‘Human Spirit’ leaflet put it: ‘…the spiritual dimension comes from our deepest humanity.  It finds expression in aspirations, moral sensibility, creativity, love and friendship, response to natural and human beauty, scientific and artistic endeavour, appreciation and wonder at the natural world, intellectual achievement and physical activity, surmounting suffering and persecution, selfless love, the quest for meaning and purpose by which to live.’

It was this sense of ‘spiritual’, and especially in the context of health, that Dr Desmond Biddulph, President of the Buddhist Society (and a psychiatrist), discussed in his conference presentation ‘How can faiths work together to promote the value of spirituality?’ He urged us to help others feel less isolated, more able to shed fears and live fully. I couldn’t share all of his Buddhist perspective, or the implication that those who are of no ‘faith’ have no part to play in helping people who need the support of an independent fellow human being. Nevertheless, in the sense of acknowledging, supporting and perhaps developing both the human inner life and our shared humanity, there is plenty of common ground here.

As we progress through the transition to a majority non-religious, plural society, the practical issue of delivering compassionate and empathetic support to non-religious people in vulnerable situations needs to be addressed. One of the growing areas for attention by the BHA is Pastoral Support  in hospitals and prisons. The trained and accredited humanists who do this work in hospitals are usually embedded in chaplaincy teams and, naturally, they deal with the same types of human issues and concerns as their religious colleagues.

Under guidelines issued in 2015[vii], NHS bodies in England are obliged for the first time to provide pastoral support and care to non-religious people on the same basis as chaplaincy is provided to the religious. That’s significant as most non-religious people prefer to talk to someone who thinks like them rather than a vicar, imam or rabbi. Unfortunately, the approach of the Established Church to this development has in some cases been to defend the status quo rather than facilitate the change to a plurality of provision in which the non-religious are properly respected.

‘Spiritual’ in the sense of subjective experience

In ‘The Book of Atheist Spirituality’[viii], the French atheist philosopher, André Comte-Sponville, describes what he calls a ‘mystical experience’:

‘The first time it happened I was in the forest in the north of France. I must have been twenty five or twenty six… That particular evening, some friends and I had gone for a walk in the forest we liked so much. Night had fallen. We were walking. Gradually our laughter faded, and the conversation died down. Nothing remained but our friendship, our mutual trust and shared presence, the mildness of the night air and of everything around us…My mind empty of thought, I was simply registering the world around me – the darkness of the undergrowth, the incredible luminosity of the sky, the faint sounds of the forest…only making the silence more palpable. And then, all of a sudden…What? Nothing: everything! No words, no meanings, no questions, only – a surprise. Only – this. A seemingly infinite happiness. A seemingly eternal sense of peace. Above me, the starry sky was immense, luminous and unfathomable, and within me there was nothing but the sky, of which I was a part, and the silence, and the light, like a warm hum, and a sense of joy with neither subject nor object …Yes, in the darkness of that night, I contained only the dazzling presence of the All…. “This is what Spinoza meant by eternity”, I said to myself – and naturally, that put an end to it.’

What he’s talking about is a ‘peak’ human experience. I recognise it because I’ve had one too.  Most religious people would call this a ‘spiritual experience’. In this example, it’s particularly powerful. But it’s on the same spectrum as the experience created by great art, whether it’s the shiver down the spine from a Beethoven slow movement, or the instant of human connectedness from a great painting, novel, film or play; or the gentle silence of a country scene; or the sense of awe and wonder at the stars on a dark night.

Albert Einstein put it in a cosmological context[ix]:

 ‘There are moments when one feels free from one’s own identification with human limitations and inadequacies. At such moments one imagines that one stands on some spot of a small planet, gazing in amazement at the cold yet profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, the unfathomable; life and death flow into one, and there is neither evolution nor destiny, only being.’

This is non-religious ‘spirituality’ in Comte-Sponville’s sense. Einstein isn’t suggesting there’s a spiritual realm or nature-defying miracles. He’s talking about enhanced human experience, in this case triggered by the natural world. Many artists try to create a similar response. As the painter Mark Rothko said: ‘A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience.’

This type of conscious transcendent experience is not the only type of subjective experience described as ‘spiritual’. Marianne Rankin is Director of Communications for The Alister Hardy Trust. In her conference talk: ‘The personal experience of the spiritual: its variety and commonalities’, she reported that the Trust’s ‘Religious Experience Research Centre’ has collected around 6,000 accounts of first-hand ‘spiritual’ experiences since its foundation in 1969. Some of these are ‘Near Death Experiences’, in which people who recover consciousness from near-fatal conditions report experiences which often have common characteristics, such as walking down a tunnel towards a bright light. Such experiences have been observed across cultures and can be found in literature dating back to ancient Greece. Others are ‘Out of Body’ experiences, often associated with sleep or anaesthetic, in which people report the sensation of floating above their own bodies.

Like the other examples, they can be tremendously powerful and many people who have experienced them are totally convinced that they are a manifestation of a ‘spiritual realm’ in which their soul is separated from their body. The difference here between the religious person and most humanists is not in the power of the subjective experience itself, but in whether they consider it to be a manifestation of the way our brain and bodies work, or a manifestation of disembodied soul and a ‘spiritual realm’ – physical versus non-physical.

It was notable that Marianne Rankin’s talk did not deal with that. Perhaps wrongly, I had the impression that The Alister Hardy Trust’s library of experiences is seen as evidence in support of the ‘spiritual realm’ hypothesis, or at least that it is built on the premise that the hypothesis is true, despite the fact that Sir Alistair Hardy was a distinguished evolutionary biologist. Yet there is an extensive, and growing, body of science providing physical explanations for these phenomena and examples of how they can be reproduced artificially[x]. And there is no objective evidence for the ‘spiritual realm’ hypothesis. To claim that a subjective ‘spiritual’ experience or sensation is evidence of a disembodied realm of soul and spirit is, to me, rather like saying that the pain of shutting your fingers in a closing drawer is evidence of a disembodied realm of pain and suffering. It isn’t.

But that difference of view does not make the subjective experiences themselves any less powerful or less universal. Our ability to have a sense of transcendence and connectedness with others is an important feature of our humanity and one of the characteristics of human consciousness – a mysterious phenomenon we are barely beginning to understand.

Religions generally give such experiences a higher priority in life than Humanism does because they equate them with getting closer to God. They deliberately set up the conditions in which they are more likely to occur: awe-inspiring architecture, emotionally-powerful music, practices of contemplation and meditation which make people slow down and provide the sort of pause in daily life offered by Comte-Sponville’s silent walk in the forest. In some cultures, drugs are employed. These experiences are almost always positive and life-affirming, so I think there are practical things the non-religious can learn from the religious here (though we’d probably best avoid the mind-altering drugs). The transmutation of Buddhist meditation practice to secular ‘mindfulness’ is an example.

Spiritual transformation and the public realm

In ‘Integrating spirituality into the public realm’, Dr Jonathan Rowson, former Director of the Social Brain Centre at the Royal Society of Arts, was content to use the term spirituality without defining it. He argued that ‘spirituality’ is nothing if it is not ‘transformative’ and that meaningful transformation is not in the realm of inner contemplation, but rather should be a driver for political action to improve life for other people. For him, climate change was the top priority.

There is no doubt that many religious people are driven to do good works by their beliefs, just as many non-religious people also devote their time and money for the benefit of others. And there is validity in the concern that a religious practice devoted solely to personal enlightenment is less beneficial to society than action to help others. But it is hard to accept the principle that subjective ‘spiritual’ experience ‘ought’ to be transformative or – more worryingly – that ‘spirituality’ can be invoked to legitimise political action. There are, and have been throughout history, too many examples of bad things legitimised on the basis of ‘spirituality’ – the US Christian Right and Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia come to mind. And most humanists would dispute the idea of elevating ‘spiritual’ motivations above other types of motivation, such as simply thinking that something is ethically right because it makes the world a better place.

Many people of faith and many humanists are interested in similar areas of social and political concern and action – including climate change – there is undoubtedly common ground here. But why bring ‘spirituality’ into it?

In conclusion

The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life recommended that: ‘It should be a high priority, not only for interfaith organisations but also for all religion and belief groups, educational institutions, public bodies and voluntary organisations, to promote opportunities for encounter and dialogue.’

The World Congress of Faiths does just that (even if I find the name rather excluding). Although the conference did not reduce my misgivings about the terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’, I’m glad I attended. It is always good to hear a spectrum of intelligent speakers, and to learn of the academic work taking place. More significantly, the issues covered touch on important aspects of our shared human experience. As the transition to a plural society with a non-religious majority and a varied religious minority moves further forward, we all have a role in ensuring they are not neglected.


[i] Charles Clarke, Linda Woodhead June 2015: ‘A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools’,

[ii] Ruth Gledhill, ‘Christianity Today’ 9 February 2015: ‘Future of religion in Britain is Islam and black majority churches’

[iii] Woolf Institute December 2016 ‘Report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life’

[iv] The Amsterdam Declaration, International Humanist & Ethical Union’s World Congress, 2002.

[v] An Ipsos-MORI poll  for the British Humanist Association in 2007 concluded that ‘Just over a third (36%) of the British population has a humanist outlook on life’.

[vi] YouGov/University of Lancaster Survey Results June 2007

[vii] ‘NHS Chaplaincy Guidelines 2015: Promoting Excellence in Pastoral, Spiritual and Religious Care’

[viii] ‘The Book of Atheist Spirituality’, André Comte-Sponville 2006, English translation 2007.

[ix] In a letter to  Queen Elizabeth of Belgium.

[x] For example: Dean Mobbs and Caroline Watt, Trends in Cognitive Science, October 2011: ‘There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences’.
Charles Q. Choi, Scientific American 12 September 2011: ‘Peace of Mind: Near-Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations – Seeing your life pass before you and the light at the end of the tunnel, can be explained by new research on abnormal functioning of dopamine and oxygen flow’

A humanist response to ‘Amoris Laetitia’ (Pope Francis on ‘The Joy of Love’)

This is the text of a talk given on 21st June 2017 at the kind invitation of Westminster Inter Faith Group, which is linked to Westminster Cathedral, the ‘mother church’ of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

‘Amoris Laetitia, ‘The Joy of Love’, is a document issued by Pope Francis in 2016  bringing together the results of the two Synods on the family in 2014 and 2015. The official Vatican summary is here and the full document here.

It may seem presumptuous for a humanist – and an atheist – to comment on a Vatican document. My excuse is that John kindly invited me to do so! So here goes, with apologies in advance if I say anything that anyone finds offensive. That’s certainly not my intention. And I should add that I’m giving a personal view rather than an official Humanists UK line.

There are two broad considerations here: the broad context in which Amoris Laetitia was created and hence its strategic purpose, and its content.



Let’s start with the context. We have a Pope from Latin America. The country with the largest Catholic population in the world is Brazil, where Catholicism was introduced in the sixteenth century. Although it has no official religion, in 1970 over 90% of Brazilians identified as Catholics[1]. A recent survey[2] indicates it is now down to 50%, with the church losing 9 million (out of around 130 million) adherents between 2014 and 2016. This is a huge change, leading the Brazilian Cardinal, Cláudio Hummes, to say: “We wonder with anxiety: how long will Brazil remain a Catholic country?”. Although there has been an increase in the number of non-religious people – now up to around 14% of the population – the main reason for the decline is the growth of neo-Pentecostalism, a form of Protestantism whose main characteristics have been defined as: “the emphasis on the spiritual battle against the devil” and the profession of the “health and wealth gospel,” explained as “the right of a ‘true’ Christian to live his life here and now in happiness and material affluence.” Pentecostalism has no Canon Law, no “magisterium” or rules about contraception or divorce, and no global hierarchy. In response, a Catholic charismatic movement has grown up and, among Afro-Brazilians, there has been the adoption of an Africanised mass[3].

But essentially, in a competitive religion and belief environment, where people are able to make free choices, the Church is losing out to the competition.

Here in the UK there is a different situation. There has been a growth in non-denominational Protestant churches, notably Pentecostals, but they still account for only about 12% of the population. The main change has been a decline in Anglicanism and a large increase in the non-religious, including humanists like me, who now account for roughly half the population. But the proportion of Catholics has remained roughly static, at around 9%. The reason for that is that departures from the church have been balanced by immigration, especially from Eastern Europe[4]. The key issue in the context of Amoria Laetitia, however, is what those British Catholics think about the issues it covers. Here are some statistics from a survey of over 1000 Catholics conducted for Professor Linda Woodhead’s “Westminster Faith Debates” in 2013[5]:

Asked to choose one item from a list of sources that they “most rely on most for guidance as you live your life and make decisions?”,  not a single person selected “Religious leaders, local or national”, and only 8% selected “The tradition and teachings of my religion”. The top two choices were “Own reason and judgement” and “Own intuition or feelings”, which were together selected by half the respondents.

Asked for their views on abortion, just 19% said it should be banned altogether, 30% favoured “keeping the time limit at 24 weeks”, 5% even favoured increasing the time limit. 30% favoured reducing it. 16% didn’t know.

Asked whether they thought same sex marriage was right or wrong, 38% said it was right, 43% wrong and the rest didn’t know. Of those under 40, over 50% thought it was right.

They were also asked “Do you think British law should be kept as it is, or should it be changed so that people with incurable diseases have the right to ask close friends or relatives to help them commit suicide, without those friends or relatives risking prosecution?” a clear majority, 58%, agreed that “the law should be changed to allow assisted suicide in these circumstances”.

Similarly, a 2013 poll of 12,000 Catholics in 12 countries revealed that 78% back contraception, rising to over 90% in Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Spain and France. The same poll found that 50% thought priests should be able to marry, 51% favoured female priests and 65% said abortions should be allowed in at least special cases, such as when a mother’s life is at risk. And it only takes a look at the birth rates in Catholic countries such as Italy and Spain to see that the ban on contraceptives is widely ignored. You get the idea.

The Vatican’s own poll, conducted in preparation for the two synods that resulted in Amoria Laetitia – where only a limited selection of results have been released – showed that, in Germany,  there was strong condemnation of the ban on re-married divorcees taking communion; and in Switzerland, 90% of Catholics said the ban should be lifted[6].

Meanwhile in the US, under half of Catholics say homosexual behaviour, remarriage without annulment, cohabitation or contraception are sins[7], and one in four have themselves been divorced, while four in ten have cohabited.

The evidence is pretty strong: there is a gulf between Church teachings and the views of many Catholics.

On the other hand, of course, there are many other Catholics in the West – usually the more devout – who are more traditional in their views.

In Africa, homosexuality is a significant issue. Legislation amplifying traditional cultural discrimination against homosexuals has been supported by Catholic bishops in some countries, notably Nigeria, where a 2014 law imposed 14-year prison terms for anyone entering a same-sex relationship. But it has been condemned in other African countries[8].  Those where the church has apparently taken a homophobic line are often those where it is in competition with Islam and African Pentecostalism, both of which have unequivocally hostile positions on the issue.

It seems from the outside that the Church is therefore in a difficult position. It is haemorrhaging followers in at least one of its major countries, Brazil, to a vigorous religious competitor; its authority on family and sexual matters seems to carry limited weight in its historical heartlands in West Europe and North America, where many people who identify as Catholic have decided for themselves to reject core teachings; in Africa there is a strongly-felt split on homosexuality; while at the same time in all areas there is a significant core who expect the Church to uphold its traditional teachings. Across the world, Catholics take opposing – or at least different – views compared to both the Church and each other on some of the most important ethical issues of our time. What to do?

Of course, the Church has always adapted, as the history of ideas like purgatory and limbo illustrates. And while the ban on communion for divorcees has proved one of the most contentious issue related to Amoris Laetitia, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t till about half-way through the Church’s history, in the 12th century, that it decided that marriage was a holy sacrament, and it was only at the Council of Trent in 1547, that sacramental marriage became part of Canon Law.

But we live in a world where the speed of development and communications means that it’s not feasible to take several centuries to make changes, or to have different policies in different places. Yet rapid change is constrained  by the fact that teachings which have in the past been deemed to have Divine authority are hard to change.

Of course, as a humanist I see the whole edifice of Catholic teaching and Canon Law as a human creation. From that perspective, Amoris Laetitia seems to be a sophisticated attempt – couched in the Vatican’s arcane language – to deal with the problems arising when that edifice is undermined by both the complexity and speed of change of modern societies and by the fact that adherents in many places are educated to think for themselves, with the result that large numbers no longer respect Church teaching on key family matters, or consider it to be morally superior.

At the end of the day, the strategic purpose of this document is to help the Church assure its future strength by adapting to massive and rapid social change.



In terms of solutions, the Pope seeks to chart a course between “an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding” and “an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations”. In other words it would be impossible to reach agreement on any change to improve the acceptability of disputed teachings. But he also knows, but cannot say explicitly, that the authority to impose them no longer exists, even among some of the church’s own employees.

The chosen solution seems to be to emphasise tolerance and flexibility of attitude enabling priests to hang on to traditional teachings while dealing better with modern realities: homosexual acts remain sinful, but people who are homosexual should be treated with compassion; non-traditional unions are not approved of, but the Church “does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage”. Empathy and compassion are allowed to go only so far.

The one area where he tries to go a bit further, effectively by moving beyond tolerance of “error” into  ambiguity of teaching, is on the question of whether remarried divorcees should be ex-communicated – presumably a big issue in terms of loss of adherents and especially their children. He says: “…the baptised who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal. Their participation can be expressed in different ecclesial services… Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church… This integration is also needed in the care and Christian upbringing of their children”.

This seems to be a far cry from Canon Law, which refers to divorce as “a grave offense against the natural law” while remarriage “adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery.”  The Catholic Encyclopaedia[9] considers divorce “a modification of monogamy that seems to be no less opposed to its spirit than polyandry, polygamy, or adultery”.

The way out is to say that “conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God.” In other words, your conscience can trump the rules.

A group of traditionalist American cardinals were having none of that. They sent the Pope a letter[10] stating that “conscience [as opposed to law] does not decide about good and evil” suggesting that, if it did, there could be good adultery or good murder – they could have added good homosexual activity and good unmarried partnerships. In the letter, they sought to pin the Pope down, using a list of detailed challenges – or “Dubia” – to Amoris Laetitia. Wisely, he didn’t reply. To the outsider, it seems pretty obvious that he is quite happy with the ambiguity. Unfortunately, it looks like the tactic has not been wholly successful.

Another of the risks he runs is cultural relativism. The Pope says that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium” and for some questions, “each country or region … can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For ‘cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle … needs to be inculturated [a new word to me], if it is to be respected and applied”.

Ironically, on the area where that could be the most contentious, homosexuality, he actually comes down quite firmly on an approach which is contrary to the views of bishops in Nigeria and other countries where homophobia is official government policy, supported by the local Church. “Regarding families with members with homosexual tendencies, it reaffirms the necessity to respect them and to refrain from any unjust discrimination and every form of aggression or violence”.  Good!



Focussing now on the content and ethics: the overall sense that came over to me – and I should stress I’m speaking personally here – is of a man whose instinct is essentially to be kind rather than harsh. The cynic might say he has to do that to avoid making the situation worse, but I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt. Having said that, while he may be a good man in that sense, some of his ideological beliefs run counter to the values and principles Western societies have evolved – however imperfectly – on the basis of human rights. Essentially, these values reflect the basic ethic of the Golden Rule – treat others as you would like to be treated – without the overlay of scripturally-derived doctrine.

In a telling passage, he takes a very broad brush to tell us what he thinks is wrong with the world of the family: “Families face many challenges, from migration to the ideological denial of differences between the sexes (“ideology of gender”); from the culture of the provisional [sic] to the anti-birth mentality and the impact of biotechnology in the field of procreation; from the lack of housing and work to pornography and abuse of minors; from inattention to persons with disabilities, to lack of respect for the elderly; from the legal dismantling of the family, to violence against women.” I confess I don’t know what “the culture of the provisional” means – perhaps something to do with lifetime commitment – but it’s grouped with the perceived evils of birth control. Gender equality is grouped with problems of migration, pornography with child abuse, divorce law with domestic violence.

The implication that there is a comparison of awfulness between divorce and violence against women, or between adult porn and child abuse is, to say the least, both disturbing and surprising, given the massive issue of child abuse and the impact of forcing women to remain in violent marriages.

Not surprisingly for a document about the family, it comes back to divorce more than once. It is “rampant individualism” which he says, “makes it difficult today for a person to give oneself generously to another…..The fear of loneliness and the desire for stability and fidelity exist side by side with a growing fear of entrapment in a relationship that could hamper the achievement of one’s personal goals”. Of course, many moral questions feature a tension between what we want to do to maximise our individual happiness and what we ought to do to maximise the well-being of others. But to talk about “fear of entrapment” as if it’s always a sign of moral weakness makes little sense. How about entrapment in a relationship where one party is subject to physical or mental abuse? Or is serially unfaithful? On the other hand, he himself argues that marriage should be understood as “a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment” rather than the imposition of an ideal that is impossible to achieve in real life.

Divorce is stated explicitly to be “evil”. While this is said in the context of the damaging impact on children – a very real issue of course – there is no qualification. It is just as evil apparently when the couple are childless, or have adult children, or when children’s life is being scarred by conflict between parents, as when people divorce for selfish or trivial reasons and there are young children involved. That seems to be contrary to the Pope’s own exhortation about dealing with the world as it is rather than in theological absolutes. From a humanistic viewpoint, this is – to put it politely – ethically problematic. A humanist view would be to consider the likely consequences in each case and try to produce an outcome which yields the least suffering, and the greatest long-term well-being, for all those concerned. I am no specialist in Divorce Law, but from the outside it seems that the legal approach in most Western countries, evolved through the democratic process over the years, is closer to that compassionate ideal than a doctrine that forbids divorce in almost all circumstances, and has had the effect of bringing shame on innocent divorcees.

One area where there is a welcome implicit shift from traditional teaching is that of sex education. “Yes to sex education” is the title of the section. While it complains that the expression ‘safe sex’ conveys “a negative attitude towards the natural procreative finality of sexuality, as if an eventual child were an enemy to be protected against” there is the implicit acceptance that many young people will have sex before marriage and it’s better that they are properly educated about it. OK. Of course, I think the Church’s whole approach to contraception, birth control and population growth is ethically unsound, but there’s no time to go into that now.  I would just say that two underlying issues are, in my view, hugely important here: firstly, women’s rights and education – together with technology that makes contraception safe, cheap and readily available – and secondly, the direct and indirect impact on human suffering of the Earth’s population growing on its current trajectory.

Similarly, in terms of flexibility, I read into the section where the Pope accepts that the Church “does not disregard the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to her teaching on marriage” that there is license for priests to have a constructive and supportive relationship with people who are in unmarried partnerships or even same-sex couples.  Of course, as a humanist I would say that applying the Golden Rule to people who are homosexual means not causing them avoidable suffering because of their sexuality, while helping them maximise their well-being, assuming there is no negative effect on the well-being of others. On that basis, it is a no-brainer to me that it is morally good to enable people who love one another, and want to make a lifetime commitment, to get married. And while the Pope’s approach here does encourage greater kindness and compassion, the firm barrier of a teaching that says the natural expression of these people’s sexuality is deviant and sinful means that this kindness and compassion is constrained in a way that I imagine is increasingly uncomfortable for many good Catholics.

It also raises what I assume is a general issue with the document. Presumably it’s a matter of luck whether the particular priest someone is dealing with chooses to exercise the limited tolerance allowed by Amoris Laetitia to the full, or to cling more strongly towards the still-unchanged traditional teaching*.

I guess that is a problem that the CEOs of many other multi-national organisations would understand.

Overall the direction the Pope seems to be taking with Amoris Laetitia seems, from this humanist’s perspective, the right one. But the train will keep running into the buffers of doctrine. If that problem is not addressed, then it’s questionable whether the document will successfully deal with the strategic challenges the Church is facing. Maybe it’s simply not possible to reconcile the conflicting forces here. Only time will tell.


* Two days after the Westminster Cathedral Inter Faith Group meeting at which I presented this paper, this article appeared in the Washington Post: Illinois Catholic bishop decrees no Holy Communion, funerals for same-sex couples. It begins:

“The bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield, Ill., is calling on priests there to deny Holy Communion and even funeral rites to people in same-sex unions unless they show “some signs of repentance” for their relationships before death.

The decree by Bishop Thomas Paprocki also said that people “living publicly” in same-sex marriages may not receive the sacrament of confirmation or be admitted to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, a process by which many converts become Catholic, preparing them for baptism and confirmation.

At the same time, Paprocki said that children living with a Catholic parent or parents in a same-sex marriage may be baptized. But when it comes to same-sex unions, priests cannot bless couples, church property cannot be used for ceremonies and diocesan employees are forbidden from participating, the decree said.”

[1] http://www.pewforum.org/2013/07/18/brazils-changing-religious-landscape/

[2] https://www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/brazil-loses-9-million-catholics-in-2-years

[3] https://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/faq/catholic-church-brazil

[4] https://www.stmarys.ac.uk/research/centres/benedict-xvi/contemporary-catholicism.aspx?filtered=1

[5] http://faithdebates.org.uk/blog/surveys-reveal-widening-gulf-catholics-church-teaching/

[6] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/vaticancityandholysee/10627312/Catholics-divided-on-issues-such-as-divorce-and-birth-control.html

[7] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/08/popes-proclamation-like-views-of-u-s-catholics-indicates-openness-to-nontraditional-families/

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/in-rare-public-split-catholic-bishops-differ-sharply-on-anti-gay-laws/2014/02/13/ccfcdd84-94e6-11e3-9e13-770265cf4962_story.html?utm_term=.710376b3afad

[9] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09693a.htm

[10] http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2016/11/14/full-text-cardinals-letter-to-pope-francis-on-amoris-laetitia/

A Humanist Reads The Qur’an

During 2016, I read the Qur’an, and blogged about it as I went along. This is the complete set of 34 posts, plus an introduction, in the order they appeared.

Qur'an logo-lg-white on black

Why I’m going to read the Qur’an

Around one in four of the people on the planet, including 2.7 million Britons (and one in eight of my fellow Londoners) identify as Muslim. There is huge variety within Islam and between individual Muslims, but one thing everyone agrees on is the primacy of the Qur’an.

Like it or not, this 7th century work is one of the most important texts of our time.

But is it the hate-filled book that some on the Far Right would like to see banned, or is it about mercy and compassion, as many Muslim commentators claim?  Or a bit of both?

I’m a humanist and a secularist. I think there should be a level playing field when it comes to religion and belief, where everyone is free to believe and practice what they like – provided it doesn’t affect the rights and freedoms of others – where the State is neutral, and where no religion or belief group has special privilege. Half the people in Britain now say they’re non-religious – and that includes a number of ex-Muslims – while forms of faith that are more fervent than traditional Anglicanism, including most varieties of Islam, make up an important share of the remainder. Making that work peacefully is a challenge. Humanising “The Other” by getting to know people is probably the most important thing we can do to help. But so is separating fact from myth and prejudice. So I’ve decided it’s time to read the Qur’an.

I expect to find: not much in the way of narrative, repetition, things that don’t make sense to me, contradictions, things I find pretty offensive, especially about unbelievers, women and homosexuality, and things that help me understand why Muslims consider it inspirational (as well as a translation can).

While there is some dispute about the history of early Islam, as a humanist I’m 99.99% confident that the Quran is a human creation and was not dictated by an angel called Gabriel. I know what the traditional view is, but apart from the fact that it originated somewhere in Arabia in the 7th century, I don’t know for sure who actually originated it, or who set the apparently non-chronological order of the verses, or whether the differences between the original versions and the version we have now really were as minor as they are claimed to be, or why a text supposedly delivered from God isn’t perfectly clear and consistent in its meaning.

But what matters is the text as it exists, along with the narrative about it, whether or not they’re historically accurate.

The mainstream Muslim view seems to be that, to gain a correct understanding of the Quran, you have to have a scholarly understanding of the language and the context in which each section was created. Contradictions are overcome by the rules of abrogation – some chronologically later verses trumping earlier ones – and, in some schools, by claimed sayings of Mohammed (Hadiths) trumping Qur’anic verses.

I’m aware that a massive literature of interpretation has been built up over the centuries, and it’s still going on. Attempts to give benign interpretations to sections of the text that clash with 21st values are, of course, very welcome. But who is to say which interpretation is “true”? Literalists such as the Salafis – including IS – don’t have that problem, but then find themselves, and those they interact with, stuck with unvarnished views from 7th century Arabia. A more pragmatic view is taken by some progressive Muslims, who believe the text is divinely inspired, but recognise that Mohammed was human and a man of his time, so the text cannot be considered perfect. In their view, it’s a starting point, not a finishing point.

I’m not an academic and am not going to put in unlimited time. So all I can do is read the text as I find it and accept that there will be things I fail to understand, or misinterpret. If I have the energy, I can find more background on specific points later. But I do want to get through it.

In common with the majority of present-day Muslims, I don’t understand Arabic. Rather than struggle with a translation into old-fashioned, hard-to-read English, or one that came from a contentious position, I wanted one in modern English, done by a reputable objective academic. Having looked at the reviews, I’ve gone for the translation by Tarif Khalidi, first published in 2008. [As I progressed I looked up other translations where the Khalidi translation seemed unclear  and, towards the end, consulted “The Study Qur’an” , which provided both another translation and a commentary. ]

In reading it, I’ll aim to adopt a positive attitude, looking for good stuff, as I know that I’ll tend to home in on things to be outraged about. So here goes. Watch this space to see how I get on….

12 January 2016

Quran - Tarif Khalidi - cover crop

Qur’an 1: Moses & The Cow

I’m a British humanist reading The Qur’an (Tarif Khalidi’s translation) and blogging about it as I go. I’m doing my best not to make assumptions, apart from assuming it was written – not necessarily in the order given – by a man (or men) in Arabia in the 7th century. I realise that some Muslims will consider the whole exercise blasphemous, and some anti-theists will say it’s not critical enough. The aim is not to be offensive, but simply to share a personal, non-scholarly, view of one of the most influential texts of our time. [More…]

It’s a start – about a twelfth of the way in, and one of the longest chapters: The Cow. There are some surprises here, but what’s most interesting is the impression of the seventh century authorial voice. But more of that in a minute.

The Cow is a jumble: what believers are supposed to believe in; why it’s a bad idea to be a blasphemer or unbeliever (multiple times); God knows everything (and can demonstrate it); death and the afterlife; how to be virtuous; Abraham, the Children of Israel and Jesus; how God will test you; abrogation; the direction of prayer; the haj; what you can’t eat; wine and gambling; usury; fighting, aggression and retaliation; fasting in Ramadan; menstruation and sex; provision for your wives, and rights over them; divorce and re-marriage; use of wet nurses; resurrection; charity and kindness; loans and commercial contracts.  Along with the many injunctions there’s the occasional parable, a few prayers and the odd thing that I can’t make sense of.

It’s called “The Cow” because of a parable about Moses telling his people that God wants them to slaughter a cow. They object and it takes him three attempts, each with more details about the cow’s specification, before they do it.

The writer comes over as an anxious leader fighting backsliding among his followers. The story of The Cow, and the fact that it’s chosen as the title, fits alongside constant reminders of the eternal fire that awaits unbelievers in the Afterlife.

At the same time, he (and it’s definitely a “he” writing for other men) is both explaining what he thinks a virtuous life looks like, positioning himself alongside the Jewish prophets and Jesus, and providing detailed rules for living.

Presumably these rules are to address practical issues he’s encountering in the real world. For example, he says “Abandon what remains of usury” and accepts that wine (literally it’s just “wine”) and gambling have their benefits, but on balance they’re sinful. He’s obviously a businessman who’s keen to get his people to have clear (ideally written) contracts and abide by them.

He seems to be living in a society with no legal system and no state. For the time, his policies were probably very advanced.

There’s some good stuff. “There is no compulsion in religion” comes with no qualifications, apart from a reminder that “unbelievers abide in the fire for ever” (which I guess won’t worry them if they really don’t believe).

Fighting aggressors is a must, “but do not commit aggression”. You must be kind to “parents, kinsmen, orphans and the poor” and “speak kindly” to people. There’s strong emphasis on the importance of charity and extra credit for not showing off your wealth and generosity. “A kind word followed by magnanimity is better than charity followed by rudeness”, so be respectful to the people you’re giving to.

A man must make provision for his wives in case he dies (“maintenance for a year and no eviction”), wealth must be left to “parents and close relatives impartially” and divorce settlements must be fair.

Even the rule for retaliation for killing is intended to “save lives” by ensuring it’s proportionate, “a free man for a free man, a slave for a slave, a female for a female”, much like the “eye for an eye” rule in the Old Testament, and further evidence of a society with no rule of law.

There’s nothing in The Cow to suggest that believers should be punish unbelievers. “…God will deal with them on your behalf.”

But there’s also misogyny. Top of the list is “Your women are your sowing field; approach your field whenever you please.”

The only exception is when women are menstruating, though once they’re “clean”, you can “approach them from where God ordered you”. So marital rape is ok and sex is just for the husband’s benefit.

If two men aren’t available to witness a contact, you need a man and two women so that “if one woman forgets, the one will remind the other”. Dippy.

While these attitudes would probably be unremarkable among men in 19th century Britain, they’re obviously repugnant to us now. Unfortunately, the injunctions are so clear-cut that it’s hard to see how they could credibly be brought into line with gender equality even with the most benign interpretation.

The God of the Qur’an is more the angry deity of the Old Testament than the God of Love. For those who die as unbelievers “…torment shall not be lessened, nor shall any defence be accepted from them. Your God is one God. There is no God but He, merciful to all, compassionate to each” – provided you’re not an unbeliever. And if you’re a believer: “we shall be testing you with some fear and famine, with loss of wealth, lives and crops”. So that’s the Problem of Suffering sorted out.

And then there are some surprises…

  • He’s critical of “unlettered folk who understand scripture only as false hopes. But they are living an illusion.” Traditionally, Mohammed himself is understood to be illiterate. But clearly he considered himself intellectually superior to these “unlettered folk”, and the impression is that he was relatively well-off. It looks like the writer of the Qur’an was, in our terms, middle class.
  • As well as overt unbelievers, and those who falsely claimed to be believers, he was up against “those who write scripture with their own hands and then claim it to be from God [i.e. via me], that they may sell it for a small price.” Setting aside the question of what is “real”, the fact that forgery was so prevalent that it’s covered in the Qu’ran isn’t encouraging when considering the reliability of the thousands of alleged sayings of the Prophet (Hadiths) and biographical writings (al-Sira), all of which were written down much later.
  • As well as counting followers of Judaism and Christianity who lead righteous lives as “believers”, he emphasises that God’s revelations to Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other Jewish prophets are on a par with his own. He says (pp God): “We make no distinction between any of his messengers,” and “Who can wilfully abandon the religion of Abraham unless it be a one who makes a fool of himself?” Maybe the writer of the Qur’an didn’t set out to establish a separate religion at all, but rather a development of the types of Judaism and Christianity that existed in the area? If so, perhaps Muslims should regard revelations claimed in the Bible with the same reverence as those in the Qur’an.
  • He reaffirms the “covenant” between God and the Children of Israel: “…remember, I preferred you above all mankind”. This applies to all descendants of Abraham except for “evildoers”. This is pretty remarkable given today’s level of anti-Semitism in the Middle East. But he also says (pp God) “…We have appointed you [presumably his own Arab tribe] as a median nation to be witnesses for mankind and the Prophet to be a witness for you”. Do their descendants, like the Children of Israel, have some sort of special status vis-a-vis the deity?

At the start of The Cow there’s a list of what believers believe in. Later on there’s a definition of virtue which starts with another belief list. They’re different. For example, there’s no mention of the afterlife in the virtues list, and no mention of “the Book” in the initial list. Of course, maybe he simply missed items from both lists, but still they’re apparently inconsistent.

The way out of inconsistency is abrogation and there’s a verse on that half way through The Cow that says “For every verse we abrogate or cause to be forgotten, we bring down one better or similar”. The fact that it’s there, near the beginning of the whole book, can only be to cope with inconsistencies that come later. That fits with the belief that the order of the verses isn’t the order in which they were written or recited.

It also fits with the fact that The Cow isn’t the first chapter, although it starts “Behold the Book”. Chapter 1 is “The Opening” – a short prayer. The editor, or editorial team, must have decided to put up it up front.

On to Chapter 3…



Qur’an 2: Surprise: the Apostles were Muslims

Chapter Three “The House of Imran”.

Let’s start with some good stuff. If you want to go to heaven, the author says you must: be pious; restrain anger; pardon people’s offences; ask others for forgiveness if you make a mistake, and avoid stubbornly carrying on doing something knowing it’s not working out. And you mustn’t be miserly.

I guess most people would be happy with that as a non-exclusive list – apart from the “pious” bit. All the rest are applications of the Golden Rule.

The eponymous “Imran” is apparently Jesus’s grandfather, Mary’s father: “God chose Adam and Noah, the House of Abraham and the House of Imran above all mankind: a progeny one from another”. There’s a lot in this chapter about Christianity – though not necessarily Christianity as we know it.

But first he attempts to sort out the problem of competing interpretations of the Qur’an.

He says that some verses are precise – these are “the very heart of the Book” – and some are “ambiguous”. People who focus on the ambiguity and try to “unravel its interpretation” are wayward, as only God knows the correct interpretation.

As the whole Qur’an is claimed to be a revelation from God, it seems strange that He put in anything ambiguous in the first place, especially as He then says (via the author) it’s wrong to try to understand it. It implies that readers should focus on the parts of the Qur’an that are clear and precise – they don’t need any interpretation – and ignore the ambiguous verses. Anyone who claims to know what they mean is second-guessing God. Doesn’t that put a lot of scholars out of business?

Anyhow, on to Christianity…

It seems that the author thinks that Judaism and Christianity are more or less a single religion; that the Qur’an is a continuation of the same series of revelations as the Jewish Torah and the “Evangel” (the Christian gospel), collectively referred to as “The Book”; that that religion is all about surrendering to the One God, aka “Islam”; and that those who follow it are called “Muslims”.

He complains that the People of the Book argue foolishly about whether Abraham was a Jew or a Christian when actually he was neither, since “the Torah and the Evangel were revealed only after his time” making Abraham “a man of pristine faith, a Muslim…”. And when Jesus “detected unbelief” among his supporters, his Apostles replied “We…believe in God. Witness that we are Muslims….”. “The right religion with God is Islam.”

One thing is for sure: as far as the author of the Qur’an is concerned, his God and that of the Jews and Christians is the same.

He says that Imran’s wife, Mary’s mother, dedicated the new-born Mary to God, so preparing the ground for the Virgin Birth, which was apparently an easy task for God, as he’d already created Adam “from dust”. He also includes a story about Jesus as a child making a clay bird which then comes to life. Apart from the Virgin Birth, this material isn’t in the New Testament (aka “Evangel”) at all, but comes from gospels that didn’t make it through the selection process, a process that had been completed over 200 years earlier.

(By the way, Imran’s wife isn’t named in the Qur’an. Apparently she’s called ‘Hannah’ in Muslim tradition and ‘St.Anne’ by Catholics, who call Imran ‘St.Joachim’. Catholic doctrine is that Mary’s conception took place in the normal way but was “Immaculate”, meaning she was born without original sin. Hmm…)

But there are bigger differences between Christianity as we know it and what we hear from the Qur’an’s author.

I already knew that Islam views Jesus as ‘just another prophet‘, with no special ‘Son of God’ status. The author indeed says again that God does not “distinguish between any” of the prophets from Moses to Jesus, or the author. But it was a bit of a surprise to see Jesus referred to specifically as “a messenger to the Children of Israel” and “Christ”.

According to verses at the end of the next chapter (no, the ordering isn’t logical) the crucifixion and resurrection didn’t really happen. The Jews who claimed they “killed Christ Jesus, son of Mary, the messenger of God” had got it wrong. “They killed him not nor did they crucify him, but so it was made to appear to them.” Instead “God raised him up to him”.
The penalty for those Jews who got it wrong was that God “…forbade them certain delectable foods which had been made licit to them” – it doesn’t say what the foods were – a pretty minor penalty compared to any who slipped into usury and disbelief, who were sent to the flames.

And he rejects the doctrine of the Trinity, as God is One: “O people of the Book, do not be excessive in your religion”, but stick to “the truth”, which means, in the case of Jesus, “do not say ‘Three!’..God in Truth is One…”. But it’s not clear who he thinks the “Three” – the Trinity – are. He mentions Jesus, Mary and “a spirit”, and there’s no mention of “Father, Son and Holy Ghost”.

I’m no theologian, but to judge from this chapter, the author didn’t know much about Christian theology.

Instead he keeps coming back to the common ground of the People of the Book and how many of them have gone astray. Better, he says, to “Bring the Torah and recite if you are sincere….God has spoken the truth. So follow the religion of Abraham…”, while dissenters who turn away from revelation’s “manifest signs” head for “terrible torment” on the Day of Resurrection.

The “manifest signs” are obvious to “people possessed of minds”. They include the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the rotation of night and day. “…you [God] did not create all this in vain”. This is the 7th century version of the ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ argument.

Alongside the theology, he talks about war, with verses about battle, retreat and the “Hypocrites” who challenge Muhammed’s military leadership. The Qur’an doesn’t seem to do history or narrative. There’s a reference to a battle at “Badr” – a victory over the Meccans against the odds according to my translation. But there’s no description of this or any other military engagement, or explanation of what the fighting was about, apart from the enemy being “unbelievers”.

Military failure is down to human weakness, failure to support Muhammed as leader, or Satan causing people to run away from the battle. Success is down to God, who tests his troops from time to time and forgives them if appropriate. There’s some important stuff about life and death…

There’s no need to worry about getting killed in battle, whatever the odds, because God is on your side and anyone killed “in the path of God” is not really dead but “alive with the Lord” and looking forward to meeting up again with those who will follow.

There’s a general injunction against getting too infatuated with your present life and material things. Instead being with God is the “fairest homecoming” and “…this present life is but the rapture of delusion”. If you’re a believer, the Afterlife will be better than this one for sure.

In any case: “A soul cannot die save by God’s leave, at a date to be determined”. On the face of it, that doesn’t forbid suicide – the traditional Muslim teaching – but implies that success or failure of a suicide attempt is pre-determined by God.

Scattered among the theological and military verses are the usual warnings about unbelievers and blasphemers going to hell. As far as I can see, there are four categories of unbeliever:

  • Actual enemies who you’re fighting.
  • Unbelievers who are potential allies. The advice is not to adopt them as allies in preference to believers.
  • Those People of the Book, apparently “most”, who fall short in their belief. “They shall not harm you but are merely a little nuisance”.
  • A final category covered by the injunction not to “adopt as intimate friends those outside your circle” as they will “do all in their power to corrupt you and long to do you harm” as they only pretend to believe.
    I guess it’s only human for a new, embattled movement – or any threatened religious or racial minority – to fear “The Other”. But it’s an unhelpful idea applied out of context to a modern, plural society.

Near the end of the chapter there’s this verse:

“I disregard not the works of any who works among you, be they male or female, the one is like the other”.

That’s an interesting prelude to the next chapter “Women”….



Qur’an 3: Was Muhammed a feminist?

Chapter 4: “Women”. Getting used to the jumble of topics in each chapter now. This one has a focus on women, but also covers apostasy, male homosexuality and a lot of other items.

It’s clear that the author (or authors) lived in a society that took for granted that men and women are not equal. In common with most men, and presumably many women, in most parts of the world up until the 20th century, it probably never occurred to him to question that premise. It’s worth remembering that wives were legally their husbands’ possessions in England until late in the 19th century (and in Ireland until 1981).

Of course, our 21st century premise is that men and women are essentially equal, so it’s not surprising that some of his strictures are shocking. I’m no moral relativist: equality is better than inequality. But, for its time, the rules and guidance in this chapter may well have been a big advance in women’s rights. [Update: This academic article on Arab Women Before & After Islam indicates that, while women’s status and rights varied according to their tribe, it is incorrect to assume that the dawn of Islam marked an improvement over what was there before.]

Interestingly, he begins with a gender-neutral creation story “Fear your Lord who created you from a single soul and created from it its spouse, and propagated from both many men and women.” No mention of ribs.

There’s a lot of detail about inheritance. I knew the rule that “God commands you regarding your children: to the male what equals the share of two females”. But it gets more complex with various family compositions. Parents and siblings are also entitled to some inheritance.  And there are strictures about not spending money on yourself that has been entrusted to you for orphans.

Women have a right to their own earnings: “Men have a share of what they earned and women have a share of what they earned”. And they have a degree of control over who inherits their wealth: “To you belongs half of what your wives leave, provided they have no children. If they have a child, your portion is a quarter of what they leave, after deducting any bequests they have made or debts.”

For a man to prove that his wife has committed adultery, he needs four male witnesses. (How likely is that?) The punishment is to “confine them to their homes until death overtakes them or else God provides another way for them” (It’s tempting to speculate what that means – probably not good for the wife.) There’s nothing here about stoning to death, maybe that comes later, and nothing about the other man.

It’s then a big surprise to read in the same section: “And if two males among you commit indecency, rebuke them harshly. If they repent and make amends, leave them alone.” Wow! Male homosexuality is bad, but not that bad. (I can sense an inconsistency coming up….)

There’s a long list of the women who are “forbidden to you”, not only the obvious ones – mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, nieces – but also: wet nurses, “milk sisters”, mothers of your wives, step-daughters where you’ve consummated marriage with their mothers (otherwise it’s ok), “legal” wives of your sons (implying that there are “not legal” wives), your father’s wives (unless that was an “act that belongs to the past”) and sisters of your wives. You’re not allowed to “inherit” – presumably in the sense of ‘from their fathers…’- women against their will, nor to coerce them, provided they don’t cheat on you. “Live with them in kindness.”

Marriage is basically a financial contract: you must “use your wealth to contract legal marriage, not fornication.” (Ah, that’s where the non-legal variety comes from.) If you can’t afford to marry “free, chaste and believing women”, then you’re allowed female slaves who are “believing maidens”, provided you get their owner’s consent. You then “render them their dowries in kindness” and treat them as legal wives, “not lovers or prostitutes”.

Sustaining polygamous marriage can’t be easy. However hard you try he warns “you will not be able to act equitably with your women”, but you must do your best not to leave one of your wives in limbo. If you really go off one of them, be careful: “perhaps you may loathe something in which God places abundant good.” If you decide to “substitute” her with another wife, then you’re not allowed to take back any “riches” you’ve given her. And “if a wife fears antipathy or aversion from her husband, no blame attaches to them both if they arrive at an amicable settlement between them: such a settlement is best.”

If you’re worried that someone’s marriage is in trouble, then “send forth an arbiter” from each of their families in the hope there can be a reconciliation.

But, the premise of God-given male dominance eventually leads to a very worrying conclusion: “Men are legally responsible for women, inasmuch as God has preferred some over others in bounty, and because of what they spend from their wealth. Thus virtuous women are obedient, and preserve their trusts, such as God wishes them to be preserved. And those you fear may rebel, admonish, and abandon them in their beds, and smack them. If they obey you, seek no other way against them.” A degree of violence against women is ok with God.

Taking the text so far at face value, it encourages kindness and fairness in marriage, and acknowledges that women have property of their own, but it also sanctions hitting disobedient wives and the need for wives always to be sexually available (ref Chapter 2). Women have some rights, but limited say.

The assumption throughout this section is that the normal marriage is polygamous. That would imply a lot of ‘spare’ men. At the same time, the inheritance rules emphasise what happens when a man dies. I wonder if it worked that way because so many men were killed in battle? On the other hand, presumably a lot of women died in childbirth.

Alongside the verses on women and marriage, and the injunctions against unbelievers, the some other important points emerge from the jumble:

  • The author urges honesty in business dealings, justice, fairness – even if you have to bear witness against yourself or your family – and kindness, not only to wives, but also to parents, relatives, orphans, the needy, neighbours – whether related or not – friends, travellers and slaves. “God loves not the swaggering and the conceited” and He “wrongs no-one” (I guess eternal flames for unbelievers and blasphemers – “whenever their skins are charred, We replace them with new skins” – doesn’t count).
  • He’s clear that his own authority is God-given “O believers, obey God and obey the Prophet and those set in authority over you.”
  • And he also sees differences in wealth as God-given: “Covet not that by which God preferred some of you over others in bounty.”
  • Here’s a surprise: I thought the abrogation loophole was introduced in Chapter 2 to deal with inconsistencies. But here we have: “Do they not ponder the Qur’an? Had it been from other than God, they would have found much inconsistency therein.” The proof for the divinity of the text is its consistency. 

He covers apostates but in the rather special sense of the Hypocrites – the group who were refusing to follow his military leadership. It seems they’re repeat offenders: “Those who believed then disbelieved then believed then disbelieved, then increased in disbelief – God shall not forgive them nor guide them upon the way. Give tidings to the Hypocrites that a painful torment awaits them.”

Where he urges his followers to kill Hypocrites, it’s only when they insist on actually fighting against his forces. Even if they blaspheme, all that believers are supposed to do is move away till they change the subject: “..if you hear the verses of God blasphemed or mocked, do not sit with them until they broach another subject…God shall herd all Hypocrites and blasphemers into hell.”

There’s no edict here to kill apostates or blasphemers. Punishment lies with God. Maybe the draconian “hudud” punishments come in a later chapter.

There’s no way Muhammed can be described as a feminist in modern terms. But in 7th century Arabian terms, he seems to have been be pushing things in the right direction. If the text is taken literally and applied now, it’s pretty awful. But if the direction of travel is the main thing, then maybe it’s not so bad.



Qur’an 4: Food, friends, frustration…and Jinn

Chapter 5 “The Table” and Chapter 6 “Cattle” indeed give dietary laws and put followers right on false rules about cattle. But as in previous chapters, there’s a lot more covered, and it’s fairly disorganised.

Let’s start with some more moral rules:

There’s a clear general injunction about killing: “…he who kills a soul neither in revenge for another, nor to prevent corruption on earth, it is as if he killed the whole of mankind; whereas he who saves a soul, it is as if he has saved all of mankind”.

In one sense this goes further than the Biblical “Thou shall not kill” because it also encourages action to save life. On the other hand it sanctions the murder of innocent people as proportionate revenge. And “preventing corruption on earth” is a very ambiguous exemption. Presumably it covers capital punishment for crime, but only a few verses later he says that “…the punishment of those who make war against God and His Messenger and roam the earth corrupting it, is that they be killed, or crucified, or have their hands and feet amputated alternately, or be exiled from the land.”

Near the end of Cattle is another list of moral rules. As well as the general injunction: “Whoso begets a good deed shall be rewarded tenfold; who begets an evil deed shall only be punished once” there’s a list of more specific items. Most are clear and sensible: “show loving kindness towards parents”; don’t kill “your infants for fear of poverty”; “be fair in weights and measures, act equitably”; “do not kill the soul which God has sanctified except in justice”; “do not come near the property of the orphan, except with the best intentions, until the orphan has attained the age of maturity”; “if you pass judgement, be just even if a kinsman is involved…”.

But a couple are unclear: “do not come near indecencies, whether out in the open or else concealed” – no doubt that’s attracted plenty of scholarly interpretation; and “We charge no soul except what it can bear” which, strangely, comes immediately after the one about weights and measures.

Also in “The Table” is the punishment for male and female thieves: “…cut their hand as a penalty for what they reaped – a punishment from God…But whoso repents after his transgression and does good deeds, God shall pardon him…”. There might be some wriggle-room if the Arabic word behind “cut” is not the same as “amputate”, and it’s not clear whether good deeds can avoid both punishment on earth and in the afterlife. But….

On the other hand, the Qur’an improves on the Torah’s “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” rule. He doesn’t contradict it – it fits with his injunction about retaliation being proportionate – but adds: “Whoso freely forgives this right, it shall be counted as expiation for him.”

These chapters also make clearer how the Qur’an’s author sees the relationship between revelations from God and the individuals and communities to which they were directed.

He underlines that the Jewish Torah, the Christian “Evangel” (New Testament) and the Qur’an are all revelations from the same deity: “To you We [God] revealed the Book with the Truth, confirming previous scriptures and witnessing their veracity.”

And he lists Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Noah, David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Zachariah, John [presumably the baptist], Jesus, Elijah, Ishmael, Elisha [not clear who that is], Jonah, Lot “all of whom We preferred above mankind. So too their fathers, their progeny and their brothers…They are the ones to whom we granted the Book, the law and the prophesy.” It’s a strange list. I’m no Biblical scholar but, as it looks like he means by the “Torah” the whole of the Old Testament – not just the first five books – he seems to have forgotten about big hitters like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, while relatively minor ones like Zachariah make the cut. And wasn’t David an adulterous king rather than a prophet?

As he believes all three books are revelations from God, he doesn’t contradict them but he repeats (multiple times) that the idea that Jesus was the Son of God, and that he was part of a Trinity, are blasphemy: “It is blasphemy they utter, those who say that God is the third of three!”. Ascribing “partners to God” is forbidden. I think he’s correct that neither the Trinity nor a clear claim that Jesus is the Son of God are actually in the New Testament.

But he repeats the fundamental – if understandable – mistake of thinking that, apart from God and Jesus, the other member of the Trinity is Mary, as in this conversation between God and Jesus: “Remember when God said to Jesus son of Mary: ‘Did you really say to people: “Take me and my mother as two gods, instead of God”?’ He [Jesus] said: “…I said nothing to them except what you commanded me: “Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.”

These mix-ups would fit with the tradition that the author was illiterate. If so, he couldn’t have read the Torah or the “Evangel” for himself and presumably had to rely on what he’d understood from the Jews and Christians he’d encountered.

Although he thinks the Torah, “Evangel” and Qur’an all come from the same deity, some of the laws they contain are apparently community-specific: “For every community We decreed a law and a way of life.” God could have simply made everyone into a single community but decided not to “in order to test you in what he revealed to you. So vie with one another in virtue.” (He deployed the same “test” argument in an earlier chapter to explain why bad things happen to believers.) The implication here is that the “law and way of life” specified in the Qur’an is intended just for the community who received it. For example, he tries to pre-empt people who argue that it was unfair to expect them to meet God’s expectations because “The Book was only revealed to two communities [Jews and Christians] before us”. His response is that “…manifest proof has now come to you from your Lord” in the form of the Qur’an.

Is the “you” here just the Arab tribes of Arabia – his community? There’s nothing to suggest he envisaged a wider community of believers. Did he know that Christians were not a single community? Even if communities are different, why are God’s laws inconsistent? It isn’t clear.

And here’s something potentially controversial, also alluded to in an earlier chapter: he uses Moses’ exhortation to the people of Israel: “O people, enter the holy land which God has marked out for you…” to illustrate what happens when you don’t follow His commands. Apparently they were afraid of the “men of great might” who already occupied the land and refused to attack; their punishment was that the land was “forbidden to them for forty years”. So the Qur’an apparently says that there is a God-given Jewish homeland in the Middle East. It just doesn’t say where this “holy land” was.

While God has done his bit to provide the Jews and Christians with revelation, the author isn’t impressed by their adherence to it: “If only the People of the Book…practice the Torah and the Evangel”. He’s even critical of Jews who have asked him to act as a judge for them “…when they already have the Torah, in which is found the judgement of God”. The Christians have “forgotten a portion of what they were asked to remember” (presumably the Torah), although he concedes that “priests and monks do not grow proud”. He warns his followers not to take Jews and Christians as allies “they are allies of one another”.

More worryingly, he uses them to tell his followers that making friends with unbelievers is sinful and will be punished: “You will witness many of them [people of the Book] making friends with unbelievers – wretched is what their souls have laid in store for them!”.

He also tells his followers to have nothing to do with “those who divide their religion and turn themselves into sects“. He would probably be disappointed to find that the Sunni/Shia split apparently occurred only a few years after his death.

The core rule about food is pretty simple: everything is ok except for “carrion, blood, the flesh of swine”, though in its fuller version also forbidden is “that which is consecrated to other than God; also the flesh of animals strangled, killed violently [not sure how any method of slaughter isn’t violent], killed by a fall, gored to death, mangled by wild beasts – except what you ritually sacrifice – or sacrificed to idols.” Anything from the sea is allowed – interesting as the sea is over 300 miles from Mecca so it must have been preserved – but game on land is not allowed “as long as you are in a state of sanctity”. It’s not explained what that means. There’s nothing specific about ritual slaughter. Maybe it’s seen as a way to ensure the “don’t eat blood” rule is met, though I’d be surprised if ritually-slaughtered meat contains any less blood than any other sort. And he doesn’t offer any reason for any of the rules – maybe some or all of them were already being observed.

While the main rules about food are in “The Table”, in “Cattle” he adds “…do not eat food upon which God’s name has not been mentioned, for this is an offence.” Presumably that’s the basis for rendering food Halal by saying a prayer over it.

His explanation for the greater stringency of Jewish dietary laws is that this is how God “requited them for their sins” – a sort of collective punishment. In reality the Jewish rules are hugely complicated. But he simply says: “Upon Jews We [God] forbade all animals with claws. As for cattle and sheep, We forbade them their fats except for the fat on their backs, or entrails or what is mixed with bone.” Even assuming these are additional to the Qur’anic rules, not only is that incomplete – fair enough – but on the face of it, it’s wrong. There’s nothing about “animals with claws”. Seafood maybe? But the actual prohibition is fish that don’t have both fins and scales. And the actual rule on fat just excludes parts of the abdominal fat of cattle, goats and sheep, not everything except the fat on their backs. More to suggest that he didn’t know very much about Jewish or Christian theology.

The “Cattle” chapter takes its name from a set of verses where the author has a go at a set of “false” religious rules to do with cattle. These rules include how cattle are to be shared out and who can eat what. And he claims that whoever advocated them were also relaxed about infanticide. He contrasts these practices with his view that food is there to be eaten “Eat from what God bestowed upon you…” provided it remains inside what he considers his simple dietary rules. It sounds like these rival rules came from someone who had a rival claim to the word of God: “What greater sinner than he who…fabricates lies from God in order to mislead people?” and is one example of a wider issue: he’s deeply frustrated by people’s unwillingness to accept his teaching.

One of the interesting things about “Cattle” is the insight it gives into the arguments of people he’s trying to persuade. Some of them have a humanistic view of life: “There is nothing but this one present life, and we shall not be resurrected.” His answer is effectively Pascal’s Wager: if you take that line, it will be too late when you’re confronted by the truth of God. “Those who take their religion for amusement and frivolity, those whom the present life has beguiled..shall have boiling water to drink and painful torment…”.

Some mock him and claim it’s all just “fables of the ancients”. He cheers himself up by remembering that “messengers before [you] were mocked”. Even if God had personally “inscribed on parchment” he says sceptics would simply have claimed it was “sorcery” and demanded something more convincing. In the absence of miracles, he uses God’s historical tests and punishments to argue his case: He [God] had made previous generations powerful and then “wiped them out because of their sins.” He had “sent messengers to nations before you and …inflicted upon them famine and hardship that they may abase themselves. If only they had abased themselves when Our calamity struck!” This is not the God of Love.

Having said that, he’s clear that only God, not man, punishes unbelievers: “Say: ‘I stand upon a manifest proof from my Lord and you have pronounced it false. I have no authority over what you seek to quicken. Judgement lies solely with God…”. He simply advises his followers not to get into debates about it: “When you see those who wade in and argue about our revelations, turn away from them until they wade into some other topic.”

Similarly, he doesn’t say anything too strong against apostates: “O believers, whoso among you shall apostatise from his religion, let him know that God will bring forth a people whom he loves and who love Him, humble towards the believers but might against the unbelievers…” I think there’s an ambiguity here: “believers” may cover Jews and Christians as well as his own followers, as we know he considers them all “Muslims”. One thing is clear though, there’s no injunction here to kill unbelievers, unless they are actual enemies in war.

Finally, let’s talk about Jinn. According to a note by the translator, Jinn are “Invisible spirits but, like humans, responsible moral beings.” Presumably they were among the normal supernatural beliefs of the time and the Qur’an’s author didn’t question their existence. Instead he incorporates them, firstly by criticising people who claim that Jinn are “partners” of God, even though “He created them”, and then by criticising both bad Jinn and their human friends: “O tribes of Jinn [clearly there are a lot of them], you have indeed seduced many humans”. If humans defend these bad Jinn, both end up in the Fire, “sinners befriend one another”. It sounds like there are also good Jinn, as all will, like humans, be subject to judgement on Judgement Day.

I wonder whether there’s a clever scholarly interpretation to get rid of the embarrassment of Jinn?

A note on who’s speaking: these and previous chapters contain a mix of 1st person “We…” (meaning God) – in some cases in the form of an instruction: “Say: [something God wants to be said]” – and 3rd person: “God said….” or “He it is who…”. It’s almost as if the author sometimes forgets



Qur’an 5: Creation, cunning & a Jewish homeland

There’s a noticeable change in “voice” between the end of Chapter 6 (Cattle) where it seems as if the author is speaking “…your Lord is All-Forgiving, Compassionate to each”; and the start of Chapter 7 (The Battlements), where we’re getting the voice of God: “This is a Book, sent down upon you, so let there be no distress in your breast because of it.”

Much of the chapter is devoted to examples to illustrate why readers should believe God’s Messenger (aka the author). There’s more narrative than in previous chapters, and a marginally more logical order. There’s also more evidence to suggest that the author has picked up elements of Biblical narrative but has remembered them partially or incorrectly.

The Creation story is very brief. God “created the heavens and the earth in six days. Then He settled firmly on the throne”. That’s it, more or less. There’s no mention of a rest on the seventh day, or the order of the creation process, or that man was created in the final stage. Adam appears in an earlier verse which just says that God gave him form.

Satan is an angel who refuses God’s order to bow down before Adam. Satan argues that Adam, being made from clay, is inferior to him, made from fire. For some reason, God decides to defer judgement on this misdemeanour until the Day of Resurrection, leaving Satan free to do what he wants in the meantime. One of the first things he does is to tell Adam and his wife (unnamed here) that, if they eat fruit from the one tree that God has forbidden to them (no mention of “knowledge”), they can “become angels or turn immortal”. They eat the fruit and “their shame was visible to them, and they went about sewing leaves of the Garden upon themselves”. God refuses to forgive them, and sends them from “the Garden” to earth.

Like some of the material later in this chapter and elsewhere, it looks like the author had heard that Satan was supposed to be a fallen angel, but didn’t know the story given in the Bible – where his dispute with God comes before Adam has been created.

Presumably there are scholarly answers to the various contradictions between the Torah and the Qur’an, both of which the author claims are divine revelations, along with the New Testament. It’s understandable that, as the author claims, some of the rules, such as dietary laws, are intended to be different as they are to be followed by different people, or that the Qur’an adds new guidance to its predecessors. But presumably God shouldn’t give conflicting narratives about the same events.

On the other hand, it’s the sort of rough-and-ready approach you’d expect from an illiterate military leader fired by sincere religious belief, who has picked up what he knows about Judaism and Christianity from conversations with people he has encountered.

The eponymous “Battlements” are on a wall that separate heaven and hell. The author describes an Afterlife scene involving three groups: “people of the Garden” (in heaven); “people of the Fire” (in hell) and men on the battlements, who recognise those on either side and are keen to ensure they end up in the Garden. There’s no explanation of who these men are or why they’re there. These groups can apparently hear each other, and the people in hell plead with those in heaven to help them, maybe by passing over some water. The people in heaven tell them that God has forbidden it. Instead they ask them whether they now agree that God’s word was true after all. Setting aside the practical issue of what happens as millions of new people flow into the system, the idea of the ‘one way ticket to eternal agony’, let alone the salt rubbed into the wound by a crowing crowd in heaven is, I think appalling. The fact that, at one point it’s made clear that the route to heaven is not only belief but also doing good deeds, doesn’t make much difference.

It seems that the author has picked up from Christians the verse in Matthew about it being “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”. He uses the same metaphor but against unbelievers rather than the rich: “Those who call the lie to Our revelations or are too proud to accept them- the gates of heaven shall not open before them, nor shall they enter the Garden, until the camel enters the eye of the needle. Thus do We requite evildoers.”

In threatening those who don’t believe, the author gives God the all-too-human talents of cunning and plotting: “None can feel secure from the cunning of God”. “As for those who cried lies to Our revelations, We shall gradually lure them to their destruction, unawares. I shall lull them for a while, but My plot is tightly proven.”

As in previous chapters, a lot of space is devoted to persuading his audience that he must be followed. He does that using a series of stories in which a prophet emerges with a divine revelation, is rejected by his own people, who then get punished by God in various ways. First there’s Noah. In this version, the penalty for people rejecting him is that they’re drowned while Noah and his “companions” are saved in the Ark. There’s no mention here of animals or any of the rest of the Biblical (originally Sumerian) story. Then there’s the prophet “Hud”, sent to the Arabian “Ad” tribe. Rejected. So God “extirpated all traces” of them. Next, “Salih”, a prophet sent to the Arabian “Thamud” tribe and “Shu’abe” sent to the “Midian” tribe. Both rejected. Earthquake each time.

There’s Lot, who warned his people not to “commit an indecency that no people anywhere have ever committed before ….you go lusting after men rather than women”. Ignored. Penalty, an apparently lethal “rainstorm” from which just Lot and his family are saved “except for his wife who was among those remaining behind”. There’s no mention of her looking back and turning into a pillar of salt. The author has apparently added to the Torah “revelation” here, as that doesn’t saying anything explicitly about homosexuality – let alone claiming that it didn’t exist before Lot’s time – but he’s also changed the story slightly.

The key feature of all these prophets is that, like him, they brought God’s word to their own people, and “…never did We [God] send a prophet to a city but We seized its inhabitants with hardship and misery”. Had they believed and grown pious it would have been ok, “but they lied”. The author’s message is clear: ‘believe me…or else’.

His final example of a prophet is Moses. It’s more complex than the other cases, as Moses wants the Pharaoh to “send forth with me the Children of Israel”. There’s no explanation of why Moses is asking for that – apart from it being God’s will – nor of how he comes to be at the Pharaoh’s court. There’s no “baby in the bulrushes” story. As far as I can recall, the first real miracle in the Qur’an happens here when Moses attempts to prove his divine credentials by throwing down his staff, which then turns into a serpent. The Pharaoh isn’t impressed and instead sets up a competition between Moses and other sorcerers. Moses wins, though it’s unclear what is supposed to have happened. The Pharaoh still won’t concede to his demand, so God tries drought, crop failure, locusts, lice, frogs and blood.  When that doesn’t work “He drowned them in the sea”. It looks like this is another rough-and-ready rendition of a Torah story.

He repeats the claim made in an earlier chapter that God gave a land to Children of Israel. After the bad time they had in Egypt: “We gave you in inheritance the eastern and western parts of the land which We had blessed. Thus was the good word of your Lord fulfilled upon the Children of Israel”. He doesn’t say where the “land We had blessed” is located but, after they left the Pharaoh, “We led the Children of Israel across the sea”, which suggests it’s not in the main part of Egypt. This seems pretty awkward for modern Muslim states in the Middle East. If they don’t approve of Israel, they need to be able to show where else in the area the Qur’anic Promised Land is supposed to be.

The author continues with the story of Moses, his people and his battle to stop them backsliding into idolatry.  Along the way, God gives Moses tablets inscribed with “moral precepts regarding all matters, specific in all their details. So grasp them firmly and command your people to adopt what is best in them.” This suggests that the author knows about the Ten Commandments, but is very vague about what they actually are. He plays safe by suggesting that Moses is free to choose “what is best in them”.

There are some other curiosities among the verses too:

  • After Adam and his wife clothe themselves, the theme is continued in a verse urging people to “..dress properly at every site of prayer; eat and drink but do not be excessive” as “fine apparel [was] created by God for the benefit of His worshippers.”
  • The author claims that his message was foretold in the Torah and the New Testament: “…the Messenger, the Unlettered Prophet, he whom they find written down among them, in the Torah and Evangel”. It’s the first time he refers to himself as “unlettered”.
  • This verse appears to give divine authority to environmental protection: “Do not corrupt the land once it has been set right.” Divine intervention also means that weather and crop yields depend on how well local people behave: “A good land yields its produce by leave of the Lord; an evil land brings forth nothing save in hardship and misery”. Do people bring about their own droughts and famines?
  • “For every nation there is an appointed span of time” is the sort of verse someone might say who was looking to justify regime change.
  • After his resistance to Moses, God “utterly destroyed the works of Pharaoh and his people, together with all the monuments that they had built.” It looks like the author didn’t know about the large number of ancient Egyptian monuments that still exist, many of which were partly buried until relatively recently.
  • Finally, a verse that, as a humanist, it’s hard not to read ironically: “When you do not bring them a verse of revelation, they say ‘Would that you could make it up!’ Say: “‘I only follow what is revealed to me from my Lord. Here are visible proofs from your Lord, a Guidance and a mercy to people of faith.’ ” More seriously, this appears to underline the difference in status between the verses of the Qur’an and other Islamic sources, such as the Hadith



Qur’an 6: Booty, Repentance & a Tough Leader

I was warned that Chapters 8 (‘Booty’) and 9 (‘Repentance’) are claimed to have been written at a time of war and contain verses that, taken in isolation, appear “difficult”. It’s certainly true that the authorial/Messenger’s voice here seems more confident, and tougher, and speaks of current wars and past victories. And it’s clear this was written well into his career: “Remember a time when you were few in number an held to be weak…”. Medinah is specifically mentioned in Chapter 8 and there are references to those who “emigrated” (apparently those who followed him from Mecca to Medinah).

To modern eyes, the idea that raiding caravans and taking away booty – violent robbery – is morally acceptable is, to say the least, problematic. The author even brings God into the details: “Booty belongs to God and His Messenger”…”Remember when God promised you that one of the two caravans should be yours whereas you had wanted the unarmed one to be yours….”.

Like slavery and the unequal status of men and women, raiding caravans was apparently so embedded in the culture of 7th century Arabia that it seems not to have occurred to the author to consider its morality. That’s just the way it is.

[The claimed context of this chapter makes some difference. The commentators say that it’s about a specific battle, the Battle of Badr, which took place when Muhammed and his supporters planned one of their regular raids on the caravans of their Meccan enemies. But this time its leader got wind of the plan, diverted the caravan and instead the Muslims were confronted by the Meccan army. They won against the odds, with claimed support from angels.]

The ‘Repentance’ chapter title comes from a section about polytheists. In previous chapters he only advocated killing unbelievers when they made war, leaving their final punishment to God. Here he’s more aggressive but also offers the opportunity of repentance:

“Once the sacred months are shorn, kill the polytheists wherever you find them, arrest them, imprison them, besiege them and lie in wait for them at every site of ambush. If they repent, perform the prayer and pay the alms, let them go their way.” And: “O believers, fight the unbelievers near you, and let them find you harsh, and know that God stands with the pious.”

On the other hand, he and his followers also needed some polytheists’ help, so there’s an exception “for those among the polytheists with whom you had a compact, and who never let you down, nor ever aided anyone against you – with them you are to fulfil their compact until their appointed term.” This is consistent with his strong line on sticking to deals.

Although Chapter 8 emphasises that, among believers, “blood relatives are more closely obligated one to another”,  the Repentance chapter makes clear: “It is not right for the Prophet and the believers to ask forgiveness for polytheists, even if they are relatives, once it has become clear to them that they are the denizens of hell.”

In contrast with the more ambivalent, some good, some bad, approach in previous chapters, here his definition of polytheists includes Jews and Christians on the basis that: “The Jews say Ezra is the son of God while the Christians say Christ is the son of God”. Apparently the Arabic says “Uzair” here, not Ezra, and it was only several centuries after Mohammed’s time that the two were put together on the basis of a misunderstanding of the beliefs of a Yemeni Jewish tribe. Either way, his claim that Jews consider anyone the son of God is simply incorrect – the concept is as unacceptable in Judaism as in Islam. It looks like another example of his rather rough-and-ready understanding of the other monotheistic religions.

More understandably, he’s not a fan of rabbis and monks “who hoard gold and silver and do not spend them in the cause of God”. Hell fire for them.

In several places in the “Repentance” chapter, he makes it clear that it’s no longer enough to believe; you must also “perform the prayer and pay the alms”, implying there are now some rules to follow.

And, as well as making alms-giving a key requirement, he specifies what the money should be used for: “Voluntary alms [are there other kinds?] are for the poor and wretched, for those who collect them, for those whose hearts have been won over, for slaves to buy their freedom, for those in debt, for the cause of God and for the needy wayfarer. This is an ordinance of God.”

[Updated] Speaking of money, he also says: “Fight those who do not believe in God or the Last Day, who do not hold illicit what God and His Messenger hold illicit, and who do not follow the religion of truth from among those given in the Book, until they offer up the tribute, by hand, in humble mien.” This is apparently the justification for the ‘Jizya’ tax on non-Muslims in Islamic countries.

We’ve already had the idea that the afterlife is more important than this life. Here he goes further: believers must love God more than their own families:

“Say: ‘If your fathers and your sons, your brothers and your spouses and your clans, together with the wealth you acquired and a commerce you fear will find no market [?], and homes you find pleasing – if all these are more dear to you than God, His Messenger and the struggle in His cause, then wait and attend until God fulfils his decree’. God guides not the dissolute.”

He’s also more direct about identifying his own demands with those of God and using the threat of hell as a lever: “For those who offend the Messenger of God, painful punishment is in store…Do they not know that he who oversteps the limit with God and His Messenger – for him awaits the fire of hell…”

And he tries to apply that quite widely. On the basis of promised rewards from God: “It is not fitting for the people of Medinah and the Bedouins in their vicinity to fail to aid the Messenger of God, not to prefer their own selves to his”. He says this despite warning his followers that “Some of the Bedouins…are hypocrites, as are some of the inhabitants of Medinah”. God knows who these backsliders are  and “will torment them twice, and then they shall be conveyed to a torment most painful” unless they repent.

He’s particularly angry with wealthy people who said they believed but then asked to be excused when he ordered his followers to relocate (presumably from Mecca to Medinah) and with others who are reluctant to follow him into battle:

“O believers, what is it with you? When it is said to you ‘March forth in the cause of God.’, you pretend you cannot heave yourself off the ground. Do you prefer this present life to the afterlife? The luxuries of this life are but a trifle compared to the life hereafter. If you do not march forth, He will punish you most painfully  and will substitute another community in your stead….”

“Those [wealthy people] who left behind …contrary to the wishes of the Messenger of God” are “sinners” and “a pollution; their final place of rest is hell.”

He’s also worried about doubters who “come to prayer but lazily, and only spend reluctantly…They swear to God they are people of your number, but they are not, for they are a people that lose heart.” Worse are the “Hypocrites” – ref also previous chapters – who “reverted to unbelief after having embraced Islam” – they’re destined for hell fire.

Perhaps reflecting the problem of persuading more wealthy people to abandon their homes and businesses to follow him, and his own commercial background, he frames believing in God as a business transaction: “God has purchased from the believers their souls and their wealth, and in exchange, the Garden shall be theirs. They fight in the cause of God, they kill and are killed – a true promise from Him in the Torah, the Evangel and the Qur’an…So be of good cheer regarding that business deal you transact. This is the greatest of triumphs.”

Overall, the picture painted is of a highly-driven leader, who expects total commitment, coping with a mix of devoted followers and a wider circle who display the (very recognisable) characteristics of doubt, laziness and resistance to change. His main tools are the promise of heaven and the threat of hell. And, like any good leader, he makes sure his followers feel appreciated.

Finally, some other interesting items:

  • He says: “It is not fitting for a prophet to hold prisoners until he has achieved supremacy in the land.” It’s not clear whether that means captives should be killed or set free.
  • Arguably, there’s a verse here that prevents non-Muslims visiting mosques “There shall frequent the mosques of God only he who believes in God and the last Day, who performs the prayer and dispenses alms.” On the other hand, it doesn’t tell Muslims to stop visitors and non-Muslims won’t be bound by the verse, so I suppose that’s (just about) ok.
  • Four of the twelve months are referred to as “sacred months”. Apparently these were established in pre-Qur’anic times as a period when there should be no fighting, and now they’re set aside for the preparation and execution of the Haj and the Umrah pilgrimages.
  • There’s a lot here about fighting and overcoming odds. He reminds his followers that success is down to God being on your side: “You did not slay them, it was God who slew them.”
  • He explicitly recognises the presence of women among the believers: “The believers, male and female, are friends of one another. They command to virtue and forbid vice. They perform the prayers and pay the alms, and they obey God and His Messenger.”



 Qur’an 7: Freedom of belief & multiple Noahs

Chapter 10 (Jonah) and chapter 11 (Hud) return to a focus on the core message about belief: you’ll go to heaven if you’ve “believed and performed good deeds in fairness”, whereas “…for those who disbelieved there awaits a drink of boiling water and painful torment because of their blasphemy.” But there are some interesting new elements and implications.

One welcome element here is the author’s emphasis that it’s not enough just to believe, you’ve got to do good deeds as well. “Good deeds efface bad deeds…God neglects not the reward of those who do good.”

But he leaves no doubt that if you think “God has taken for himself a child” – that is, you’re a Christian – you’ll “taste terrible torment for [your] blasphemy.” He doesn’t say whether good deeds can get you out of it. It’s not quite clear how this fits with Chapter 3 (Imran), where God is responsible for the virgin birth: “He creates whatever He pleases” and Chapter 4 (Women), where he condemns the idea of the Trinity but says “God in truth is One – glory be to Him, that He should have a child!”. Maybe the exclamation mark indicates irony? [Update: Or, more likely, it’s a translation issue. The condemnation of the idea of son of God is otherwise consistent, as is the view that the Trinity  -which elsewhere he says includes Mary –  is polytheistic. A Christian theologian would say that’s an error.]

From a humanist viewpoint, it’s ironic to read in the Qur’an that those who think Jesus is the son of God: “…follow nothing…but conjecture; they utter nothing but lies”. It’s all made up.

There’s an important inconsistency in the message about freedom of belief. According to chapter 10 (Jonah), after a reference to “the people of Jonah” (no whale) he says: “Had your Lord willed it, all on earth, every single one, would have believed. Will you then compel people to become believers? No soul can believe except by God’s leave. He shall inflict his wrath on those who fail to understand.”

That fits with the “no compulsion in religion” rule from chapter 2 (The Cow) but seems inconsistent with the aggression of chapter 9 (Repentance): “Fight those who do not believe in God or the Last Day, who do not hold illicit what God and His Messenger hold illicit, and who do not follow the religion of truth from among those given in the Book, until they offer up the tribute, by hand, in humble mien.”

I guess there are two ways out of this this important inconsistency. One is through abrogation: “For every verse we abrogate or cause to be forgotten, we bring down one better or similar” (also in Chapter 2), though it’s hard to see how using force and/or taxing people for not believing is “similar or better” than recognising their God-given right not to be compelled to believe –  or vice versa, depending on the order in which God is deemed to have been “sent down” the verses. And it seems that the Qur’an gives only limited indication of the chronological order.

The other – which seems to me more credible – is to say that the context of “Repentance” is a state of war in which the enemy are also unbelievers, with the (unstated) implication that its aggressive approach only applies in that context. That’s also consistent with the instruction in “The Cow” to believers: “…but do not commit aggression”.

But it’s easy to see how literalists can cherry-pick verses to come to either liberal or – potentially fatal – illiberal conclusions.

Another interesting thing here is the link to stories in the Torah. Apart from the passing reference to Jonah, these chapters again mention Moses, Noah and Lot, and not always consistently. In the case of Noah:

  • In Chapter 7 (The Battlements), God punishes people for not believing in Him by drowning them in a flood, only saving Noah and his “companions” in the Ark. There’s no mention of any animals, or anything about his son, nor of the Ark landing on Mount Ararat. (By the way, we now know that the Genesis account was based on a much earlier story from ancient Mesopotamia which positions the landing point somewhere else.)
  • Chapter 10 (Jonah) has the same story, except that here Noah says to the people “I was commanded to be a Muslim”. Again, no animals, no son.
  • But in Chapter 11 (Hud) it’s different. Noah is told to “…’Load up on board two of every kind, and your family – except for those foretold – and those who believed.’ But the believers were few.” The Ark lands on “Mount Judi”. And Noah’s son gets left behind: “O Noah, he is not of your family.”

Similarly, we get a bit more of the Genesis story of Lot in Hud than in The Battlements. There’s still no mention of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt, or of Sodom and Gomorrah. But it includes the (to me, appalling) story of him offering his daughters to be raped by a mob in order to protect God’s messengers, who are staying with him. When the mob refuses, he says “If only I had some power against you, or else I could take refuge in a pillar of great strength.” Coincidence? Or confusion about where the ‘pillar’ fits? [Update: Looks like it’s a translation issue.]

In the case of Moses, there’s an abbreviated version of the earlier story about Pharaoh and the sorcerers, though in Hud Moses says “…put your trust in him if you are truly Muslims”. But when Pharaoh chases the Children of Israel across the sea and is about to be drowned, he recognises God who saves him “in body” as an example.

I’d hope that academics have studied these inconsistencies of narrative. But, as a newcomer, it looks to me as if different parts of the Qur’an probably had at least two different authors, one knowing a bit more of the Torah narrative than the other, and with some embellishments added.

There are also repeats of the non-Biblical stories of earlier peoples who – like Noah’s – received a messenger from God but failed to listen to them and were then destroyed: the Ad and “their tribesman Hud”; the Thamud and Salih – with an added sub-plot about a she-camel; the Midian and Shu’ayb. Rather more poetically than before, in each case God says “Away with Ad”, “Away with Hud” etc. And the earthquake that hits the Thamud and Midian is called “the Scream”.

The reason for including all these stories again is to underline the idea that, not only will unbelievers suffer in the Afterlife, but there’s a good chance your whole civilisation will be destroyed in this life if you ignore God’s message. And there’s no excuse as “For every nation there is a messenger: when their messenger comes to them, judgement is passed among them with fairness, and they are not wronged……For every nation there is an appointed time; when their time arrives, they can neither delay it, nor bring it forward”.

The author does not say here that there will be no new “nations” after the time of the Muhammed  – obviously there have been. And these verses say clearly that God sends a messenger to each nation. The (surprising) implication is that there will be messengers (prophets) after Muhammed.

It’s clear from these chapters that he’s having to deal with people who think that he’s making the Qur’an up himself. In chapter 10 he has God saying: “Say: ‘It is not in my power to change it of my own accord. I merely follow what is revealed to me….who then is more evil than he who ascribes lies to God or cries lies to His revelation.’” The first verse in chapter 11 (Hud) says: “Here is a Book,  its verses made free from error.” And in response to those who say “he fabricated it”, his answer is a challenge: “Bring ten suras like it, fabricated, and call upon whomever you can, apart from God, if you speak the truth. If they do not respond to you, know that it was only sent down with the knowledge of God”.

Some other interesting things:

  • We get an insight into God’s challenges and thought processes: “When you say: ‘You shall surely be resurrected after death’, those who blaspheme respond: ‘This is nothing but manifest sorcery.’ If we postpone their punishment for a set period of time, they will say: ‘What is holding it back?’ Indeed that Day shall come upon them, nor shall it be held back from them!…And if We make man taste Our mercy, then wrench it away from him, he grows exceedingly despondent, exceedingly blasphemous…If We make him taste prosperity after harm has touched him, he says ‘Adversity has passed me by’ then grows exultant, exceedingly proud…”  On the Last Day “…no soul shall speak except by His leave…” Sinners will be in the Fire “…for ever, as long as the heavens and the earth shall last, save as your Lord desires.” And “..The word of your Lord is fulfilled: ‘I shall fill hell to the brim with both Jinn and humans!’”  Once again, we see a cruel deity, though not unlike the God of numerous medieval Christian depictions of hell.
  • The injunction to pray five times a day hasn’t appeared (at least so far). But we do get this rule: “…perform the prayer at the two end of the day, and for some hours of the night”.
  • In chapter 10 (Hud) he repeats that God created everything in six days “then settled firmly on his throne” adding – rather poetically – that God “made the Sun a shining splendour, and the Moon a radiance, reckoning its phases so that you may know the number of years and how to calculate”. So they used a lunar calendar.



Qur’an 8: Thunder & a Splintered Qur’an

The chapters are getting a bit shorter now. Why someone ordered them  from long to short (but only roughly), rather than chronologically or thematically, I guess we’ll never know. This post covers Chapter 12 “Joseph”; 13 “Thunder”; 14 “Abraham”, and 15 “Al Hijr”.

“Joseph” is different from all the previous chapters as it’s almost entirely a narrative. It’s clearly supposed to be the same story of Joseph as appears in Genesis. But there are differences, embellishments and the Qur’an version is, I think, less clear.

For example, there’s no mention here that the story is set in Egypt and the “king” is a Pharaoh. At one point the wife of Joseph’s master (named Potiphar in the Biblical version), who works for the king, tries to seduce him. As he runs out of the house to get away from her, she grabs his shirt and is left holding it, or part of it. In the Genesis version, she calls out to servants in the house that he’s tried to assault her, and that’s the story her husband gets later when he gets home. He has Joseph imprisoned. The Qur’anic version adds more complications: the husband arrives just as Jacob is making his getaway. The wife accuses Joseph, he accuses her. But a “witness” points out that if his shirt has been torn from the front, she’s telling the truth, if from behind, then Joseph is. It’s torn from behind so the husband realises Joseph is innocent. He’s angry with his wife but says the whole thing should be covered up. But then a bunch of local women get to hear of it. The wife invites them round to have a look at Joseph. They all fancy him and the wife effectively says that no-one can blame her for wanting to sleep with him. He calls on God to help him resist. The snag is that these colourful additions to the narrative don’t leave any reason for Joseph to be imprisoned, which is key to the next part of the story. The author is reduced to saying: “Thereafter, it occurred to them, having witnessed these wonders, that they should imprison him for a while”. In the next section, which is about Joseph interpreting the dreams of two fellow prisoners, some details from the Genesis story are missing.

It’s almost as if we’re getting an oral variant of the Joseph story from Genesis, and one which the author and his audience are already familiar. He adds the odd section to underline how God is intervening, and it ends with Joseph saying “Let me die a Muslim and make me join the company of the virtuous!”.

A coda at the end of the chapter starts: “These are reports of the Unseen which We [God] reveal to you. You were not present…..Nor are most people believers, no matter how hard you try. You ask them no wage for it: it is merely a Reminder to all mankind. How many a wonder in the heavens and earth they pass by, taking no notice! And most of them believe not in God unless they associate other gods with him.”

In “Thunder” we’re back to familiar themes. Variations in the fertility of farmland are down to God preferring some farmers over others. Stormy weather is more evidence of God’s power:
“He it is Who shows you the lightening, causing both fear and expectation;
He it is Who raises heavy-laden clouds;
Thunder glorifies His praise and the angels His awe;
He casts thunderbolts and strikes therewith whomsoever He wills.
Yet they dispute regarding God….”

The author apparently encounters people who question his authority because he doesn’t perform miracles. “Those who blaspheme say: ‘If only some miracles were sent down upon him from his Lord!’ You are but a warner, and for every people there is a guide.”

Others question his claim that everyone will come back to life and be judged on the Last Day: ” ‘How can it be that once we are turned to dust we find ourselves created anew?’ These are people who blaspheme against their Lord…These are the people of the Fire, in which they shall abide for ever.” And yet: “Your Lord is forgiving towards mankind, despite their wickedness, but your Lord is grievous in torment.” This section has a worrying implication: reasonable questioning is blasphemy, for which God will ensure your eternal torture. Significantly, it doesn’t say that anyone other than God should do anything apart from disapprove.

We’re reminded that God is omniscient. It doesn’t matter “whether one of you conceals his speech or proclaims it….with him are attending angels, ahead and behind, guarding him in accordance with God’s command”. It seems that the literal belief in personal angels is a significant feature in some forms of Islam. The implication is that there are more angels than people.

And there’s (what I found to be) a confusing parable about “foam”. Having looked at a few translations it seems that what he’s saying is that, in the same way that foam on water, or scum on the surface of molten metal, dissipates leaving the water and pure metal behind, so God’s pure truth is separated from falsehood. I wonder if I’m the first to think that it’s not a very helpful analogy.

We’re again told that “God leads astray whomever He will and guides to Him whoever repents….Do the believers not realise that, if God had willed, He would have guided all mankind? And yet the unbelievers continue to be stricken by a calamity because of their actions, or else by one which alights close to their homes, until they shall come to the promise of God” and “…Whoever God leads astray no guide has he. Torment awaits them in this present life but the torment of the hereafter is more terrible.”

It’s not clear how freewill fits here: if you go wrong, is it your fault or because God led you astray? But then how is it just that He then punishes you for it?

That’s especially the case when God apparently relishes toying with unbelievers before delivering his penalty: “…I granted the unbelievers respite and then I seized them – and what a punishment it was!”

Towards the end of Thunder, we’re given an insight into God’s accountancy. “We sent messengers before you…For every matter decided there is a Register: God erases what He wills, and ratifies. With Him is the Archetype of the Book. Whether We show you part of what We promised them or whether We cause you to die, it is your duty to convey the Message, but Ours is the accounting.” Unlike earlier chapters, he doesn’t mention the Torah or the “Evangel” (New Testament) by name here. But previously he’s made clear that these scriptures, like the Qur’an, are God’s revelations. So the idea seems to be that they, and the Qur’an, and the (lost) scriptures of other Messengers, are all selected parts of God’s master version of the Book. On the face of it, that makes the inconsistencies between them, such as the story of Joseph, harder to understand.

Apparently Abraham features 35 times in the Qur’an, but the chapter actually called “Abraham” contains very little about him, apart from: “Remember when Abraham said: ‘Our Lord, I have settled some of my progeny in a valley where no vegetation grows, near your Sacred House…that they may perform the prayers…’ “. The implication is that people knew the story he was referring to, but it’s not clear where it came from.

The usual themes come up gain. Interestingly the author repeats the claim that: “We sent no Messenger except with the language of his people, that he may enlighten them.” That suggests that Muhammed saw himself as a Messenger of God for his (Arabic-speaking) people, just as the Jewish prophets were there for the Hebrew-speaking people. The implication is that other people, speaking other languages, would have their own prophets and selections from the master Book, and God’s single faith has numerous tribal manifestations. So far we haven’t had the “Muhammed is the final Prophet for all mankind” rule, but it seems inconsistent with sections such as this, especially given the emphasis here on language.

The term “Parable” appears to have a different meaning here compared to the Bible, or maybe it’s a feature of the translation. For example:
“Do you not see how God draws a parable:
A goodly word is like a goodly tree, its roots are firm and its branches reach to the sky.
It brings forth nourishment at every turn, by its Lord’s leave.
And God draws parables for mankind; perhaps they will reflect.
And the likeness of an evil word is like an evil tree uprooted from the ground; no bed has she.”
That’s not a parable in the sense of a story with a message, but rather a metaphor (and, on the face of it, one that doesn’t seem to make much sense, evil words being just as alive and active as good ones).

The author tells us a bit more about the Last Day. “A Day shall come when the earth is recast into other than earth and heavens, when they shall all rise from the dead before God, the One, the Victorious. And you shall see the sinners fettered head and neck in chains, their shirts of copper made, their faces scorched by fire – that God may reward each soul with what it earned. God is swift in reckoning.” As Satan will be among those judged on the Last Day, it’s not clear whom God is “Victorious” over here.

“Al Hijr”, the name of chapter 15, was apparently a ruin in north west Arabia associated with the tribe of Thamud. We’ve previously heard that they rejected their prophet, Salih, and were punished with an earthquake/”the Scream”. This time – the third repeat – we get the additional detail that they were cave dwellers and that the “Scream seized them in the morning”.

The chapter repeats the author’s frequent complaint that God keeps sending Messengers but people don’t believe them: “Even if We [God] open to them a gate from heaven, and they keep ascending through it, they will still say: ‘Ah, our eyes have been blurred, or rather we are a people bewitched.’”

In this case he adds: “We set up constellations in the heavens and made them attractive to onlookers, and We protected them against every execrable demon, except one  who eavesdrops, and whom a visible shooting star pursues.” I guess both Qur’anic literalists and critics make use of this verse. To me it reads as if he’s incorporated a pre-existing belief that shooting stars pursue a particular variety of demon/Jinn – an understandable fantasy for people who don’t know what shooting stars are. The author confirms his view on Jinn a few verses later: “We [God] created man from dried clay, from fetid mud. The Jinn We created beforehand, from the fiery wind.”
God also “…spread out the earth and cast upon it mountains…We send forth the winds, heavy laden, and We bring down water from the sky….”
It’s clear that the Qur’an can’t be taken as a work of science.

There’s a repeat here of the story that the angels obeyed God’s command to prostrate themselves before humans when he created them, apart from Satan, who refused and was then cast out to do what he wanted until the Day of Judgement, when he will be sent to hell along with the other sinners. Hell has “seven gates, each gate having its apportioned share of them.” And the story of Lot appears here yet again. This time the calamity befalling the city is slightly different from before. Rather than just a lethal rainstorm, there’s an earthquake too: “So the Scream seized them at dawn, and We turned it upside down, and rained upon it stones of baked clay” (presumably a volcano).

Perhaps the most interesting section is at the end of the chapter:
“Likewise did We send it [unclear] down upon those who apportioned the Book among themselves,
Who splintered the Qur’an into diverse parts.
By your Lord, We shall question them all,
Regarding what they used to do!”
This suggests that there was a question about holding the Qur’an together as a single work and/or that it was originally “diverse parts” which someone/the author brought together. That would help explain the repetition and inconsistencies – such as in the story of Lot – and maybe the eccentric ordering of the chapters.

Perhaps objective textual and historical analysis of the type to which the Bible has been subject can reveal the answer.



Qur’an 9: Bees, apostasy & inequality

Emerging strongly from the usual mix of topics in Chapter 16 (“The Bees”) is the idea that God created everything for the benefit of mankind: “He made the night to serve you as also the day, the sun, the moon and the stars – all are made to serve by His command. It is He who made the sea to serve you so that you may eat from it soft flesh and extract from it jewellery for you to wear.”

I’m about half way through the Qur’an now, but this was the first time that I had a real feeling for the author’s sense of wonder at creation. It’s all amazing. He knew little about how it really works, and had no idea of the true scale of the Earth and the Universe, so what may appear to us as an arrogantly anthropocentric perspective is perhaps understandable.

The eponymous bees provide another example: “Your Lord inspired the bees: ‘Take the mountains for your habitation, as also the trees and what they erect on a trellis. Then eat all fruits and follow the paths of your Lord, made easy for you.’ From their entrails comes a drink, of diverse colours, in which there is a remedy for mankind. It is a sign for people to reflect.” He doesn’t explain what honey is a remedy for.

Mountains exist to weigh down the earth and protect us from tremors: “He cast upon the earth towering mountains, lest it should shake you violently…” – another case where a literalist reading is simply incompatible with the facts.

Although the author thinks the universe was created by God for man’s benefit, he complains about man’s arrogance in challenging God – or maybe challenging the author’s views: “He [God] created man from a sperm drop and, behold, he [man] becomes a manifest foe [to God]”. The sperm drop is a new feature of the creation story. It’s not clear how it fits with:“Fear your Lord who created you from a single soul and created from it its spouse…” in Chapter 4 (“Women”).

Apostasy: The punishment for apostasy, or even harbouring doubts, is clear: “Whoso disbelieves God after his belief – except for one forced to recant though his heart is firm of faith – or else whoever expands his heart with unbelief, upon them shall fall the wrath of God, and a mighty torment awaits them.” There’s nothing here condoning or encouraging Muslims to kill apostates. God will deliver the ultimate punishment.

Dietary laws & abrogation: He repeats here the simple core dietary rules: no carrion, blood, pig meat or “whatever is consecrated to what is other than God”.  It sounds as if some of his followers have started to make up additional rules, as he says “And do not say, when your tongue utter lies: ‘This is licit and this is illicit’, seeking to fabricate lies from God” (which seems to throw into question the additional and extended rules that have been applied subsequently). But there’s no mention here of two rules that appear in previous chapters and forbid: “the flesh of animals strangled, killed violently, killed by a fall, gored to death, mangled by wild beasts – except what you ritually sacrifice – or sacrificed to idols.” and “…food upon which God’s name has not been mentioned.” And there’s no mention of the prohibition on alcohol.

Presumably this is a case where “abrogation” logic applies: if the previous chapters were actually written later than this one, the more comprehensive version of the dietary rules trumps the simpler version, which it doesn’t contradict but rather expands. Why God should decide to drip-feed His rules in this way is not explained.

Jewish dietary rules are more complex. In Chapter 5 (“The Table”) he says that the reason for their greater stringency is that this is how God “requited them for their sins” – a sort of collective punishment. Here, in Chapter 16 (“The Bees”) he says “For the Jews we pronounced illicit that We related to you beforehand. We wronged them not; it was their own selves they wronged…”. At a stretch this could mean the same as “The Table”: the two sets of laws started the same and then God made the Jewish rules more difficult because they had misbehaved. But is there anything in the Torah (which he regards as a revelation from the same God) to suggest that? And it doesn’t explain why the Jewish rules are less demanding when it comes to alcohol, which is not forbidden. Muddled.

Dementia & the problem of evil: “And it is God who created you and then causes you to die. Among you is one who shall be reduced to a degrading old age so that, once having known, he comes to know nothing. God is Omniscient, Omnipotent.” The answer to the ‘problem of evil’  – “If God is good and all-powerful, why do bad things happen to good people?” – seems to be “God is allowed to be unkind if He wants – it’s not up to us to question.”

Inequality: Wealth, and wealth inequality, is God-given, though so is your duty to share your good fortune: “God has preferred some of you over others in bounty. Those granted preference will not turn over their bounty to their bondsman, so as to share it in equity. Do they repudiate the blessing of God?”.  The God-given nature of inequality is apparently confirmed in an analogy used to illustrate that only God, not false deities, has power: ”God strikes a simile: a bonded slave who has no power over anything, and a person whom We [God] granted a goodly provision, from which he expends in secret and in the open. Are these two equal?”. No ‘blessed are the meek’ here.

Your fault God leads you astray? Once again, we are told that “Had God willed, He would have made you in a single nation. But He leads astray whom He wills, and guides whom He wills…”, again raising the question of whether those who have been led astray by God then deserve punishment by the same God for their disbelief or backsliding. One answer is given earlier in the chapter, when “those who associate others with God say: ‘Had God willed, we would not have worshipped anything apart form Him….’” The answer is “This too is how men before them used to act. Are messengers enjoined to do anything other than deliver a manifest message?” In other words, you can’t blame the messenger if you choose to ignore the message. So are only some types of “leading astray” God’s responsibility?
The muddle is compounded in the next verse: “To every nation We sent a messenger: ‘Worship God and keep away from idol worship.’ Some of them God guided aright; some deserved to be led astray. So journey in the land and observe how the fate of the deniers turned out. Even though you may be concerned that they be guided aright, God guides not whomever He leads astray, nor shall they have any advocate.” So it really is God who stops people believing the message, on the basis that they somehow “deserved” it.

The boundary between God’s will and human free will is not at all clear. Yet humans who go wrong for either reason are punished for eternity. It doesn’t seem fair.

Disproportionate torment. He goes on to remind readers that they will be judged, so “Do not consider the oaths you swear among yourselves as trickery…[lest] you come to taste evil because you obstructed the way to God. Great torment awaits you.” So if you don’t take an oath seriously, God will torture you for eternity, as there has been no mention of any middle ground between eternity in heaven and eternity in hell. By definition, it’s disproportionate.

Satan and the Holy Spirit: The Qur’an helps believers “take refuge in God against Satan, ever to be stoned.” The stoning of Satan features in the Haj rituals. Satan only has power “over those who take him as their master, and who, because of him, associate others with God” – presumably those pesky Christians again.  More surprising is: “It is the Holy Spirit that sends it [the Qur’an] down from your Lord with the Truth…”. Maybe he picked that up from his Christian neighbours.

God’s daughters & infanticide. Among the usual injunctions against doubters, unbelievers and those who say that God has “associates” is this: “And they ascribe daughters to God! Glory be to Him. But they shall have what they desire! Yet, when one of them is brought tidings of an infant girl, his face turns dark, suppressing his vexation. He keeps out of others people’s sight, because of the evil news he was greeted with.  Will he retain the infant, in disgrace, or will be bury it in haste in the ground? Wretched indeed is their decision!”
According to this source, this is an attack on pre-Islamic Arab beliefs: on one hand they thought their goddesses were daughters of God, on the other, they strongly preferred male to female offspring, even to the point of killing new born girls. While the author clearly condemns the idea of God having daughters, he seems to leave open the question of female infanticide. I guess a feminist reading would be that female infants are indeed children of God, and in this way they [the goddess-loving, unIslamic Arabs] get what they desire, despite their cultural disapproval.
That would fit with the equal status of female believers in terms of reward for a good deeds: “Whoever does good, male or female, We shall make him live a decent life, and We shall recompense them with their wages, in accordance with the best of their deeds.”

Sceptics. Again the author complains about sceptics who say that what he’s offering are simply “fables of the ancients”. He assures readers that they will suffer on the Day of Resurrection.

Tents. A nice reference to life’s practicalities: “God made your homes to be places of rest. Who made for you cattle-skin tents you find light to carry when you travel and where you put up…” Presumably God gave us nylon too.



Qur’an 10: (Not) The Night Journey

I’m realising that each chapter should probably be taken as a stand-alone piece, which would go some way to explaining all the repetition. A phrase here suggests that’s the intention, talking about “…a Qur’an We [God] divided in distinct parts, so that you may recite it to people unhurriedly.” Confusingly the author then adds “And We [God] revealed it in succession”, which has clearly not translated into the ordering of the chapters, which is in anything but a logical succession.

The name given to Chapter 17 in Tarif Khalili’s translation is “The Journey By Night”, and I’d expected it to give the story of Muhammed’s famous magical flight. He’s supposed to have been transported on a winged horse-like animal to Jerusalem and then to heaven where Moses took him through seven spheres of heaven and he negotiated with God to get the number of daily prayers down from 50 to five. But all the Qur’an actually says is “Glory be to Him Who carried His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Furthest Mosque, whose precincts We have blessed to show him of our wonders…” That’s it.

The belief held by many (not all) Muslims that The Night Journey was a real physical event, winged horse and all, is apparently only loosely based on/reflected in the Qur’an.

Apparently the story is actually in the Hadiths (reported sayings of the prophet, written down many years later). Even the assumption that “the Furthest Mosque” refers to the site in Jerusalem now occupied by the Al-Aqsa (Furthest) Mosque is apparently open to question. The mosque itself was not built till well after Muhammed’s death.

The author devotes more space in the chapter to a section about the Children of Israel, repeating that God gave “the Book” to Moses for their guidance. But he then says: “And We decreed to the Children of Israel in the Book: ‘You shall corrupt the earth twice, and shall soar to a great height. When the time came for the first of two promises, We sent against you servants of Ours, of great might, and they marched across your habitation, shedding blood – a promise fulfilled.” Presumably this refers to the invasion of Israel and destruction of Solomon’s temple by the Babylonians. After that “We granted you the counter-attack against them…” everything went ok but “…the second promise arrived, We sent against you servants of Ours, to abase your faces, to break into the temple as they did once before and to destroy utterly whatever they laid their hands upon.” This is presumably the bloody siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the second temple by the Romans.

So it seems that the Babylonians were God’s servants when they destroyed Solomon’s original temple and so were the Romans when they destroyed its replacement in 70AD – despite being the dominant colonial power brutally putting down a rebellion. Hmmm…

Once more here we get the idea of God leading people astray and then punishing them for it: “He whom God guides is truly guided; he whom He leads astray, for him you will find no protectors apart from Him….Their refuge will be hell; whenever its flames subside, We intensify the blaze upon them.” God maximises the pain.

Towards the end of a section about individual records against which we’ll be judged, the author adds: “If We [God] desire to destroy a town, We order its men of luxury, and they indulge in sin, so Our just decree comes to pass upon it, and We destroy it utterly.”

God not only decides, for no apparent reason, to destroy towns – which presumably means human suffering on a massive scale – but He first arranges for wealthy people in the town to sin so that He can justify doing it, presumably to Himself.

The chapter repeats a list of (largely) benign commandments, though there’s still no sign of the Golden Rule (treat others are you would wish to be treated if you were them). The list is similar, but not identical, to the one in chapter 6 (“Cattle”): show “graciousness to parents”; give “kinsmen their due, as also the poor and the wayfarer”; mysteriously: “Let not your hand be chained to your neck, nor spread it out as far as it extends , or else you will end up worthy of blame, regretful.” which apparently means don’t be either mean or extravagant; “Do not kill your infants for fear of poverty” as God will help provide for them and “Killing them is a mighty sin”; “Do not come near to adultery” – don’t even think about it; do not “kill the soul which God declares hallowed except in justice”, with the addition: “Whoever is killed unjustly, We have granted authority [for retribution] to his guardian. But he should not exceed the limit in killing, for he has already obtained divine support” – an-eye-for-an-eye, but not more; “Do not come near the property of orphans”; “Be faithful to compacts”; “Be fair in weights and measures”; ironically for a humanist reader: “Follow not what you have no knowledge of: hearing, sight and heart” – act based on evidence;  “Do not stride forth jauntily on earth” – presumably a warning against arrogance and hubris. The differences in these lists are additions, not contradictions – for example, there’s nothing in chapter 6 about striding forth jauntily, which was presumably added in response to a particular incident or issue.

There’s a repeat here of guidance on religious practice, particularly prayer. It does not say you have to pray five times a day, but rather “Perform the prayer at the setting of the sun and until darkness of night and the Recitation of dawn”.

There’s also an optional extra prayer in the middle of the night as “an act of supererogation for you. Perhaps your Lord will resurrect you in a commendable situation.” It’s not clear what “a commendable situation” is, other than ensuring a place in heaven rather that hell.

Prayer is not supposed to be silent, or shouted: “Do not raise your voice in prayer, nor whisper it, but seek a middle way between.” It’s not clear why.

He also explains that the purpose of prayer is both to reinforce faith and help believers separate themselves from unbelievers: “When you recite the Qur’an, We place between you and those who do not believe in the hereafter an impenetrable screen. Upon their hearts We draped veils lest they understand it, and in their ears heaviness…”  That’s important to the author in defending against backsliding: “There was a time when they almost beguiled you away from what We had revealed to you….whereupon they would have taken you for a friend. Had We not made you stand firm, you were about to lean a little towards them. Had you done so, We would have made you taste a double torment in this world, and double after death.” Sadly, it always comes back to fear and torture.

The author is confident in the (divine) quality of the Qur’an: “Say:’Were humans and Jinn to band together to produce a semblance of this Qur’an they could not do so, even if they back one another up.” Setting aside the Jinn, I can imagine that many modern authors and editors would agree with that, but probably not for the same reason as the author.

The chapter contains other familiar points, including:

Hell for unbelievers: Unbelievers and those who worship false gods or claim the true God has “associates” will go to hell. Belief is not only in God, but also in the afterlife: “He who desires this fleeting world, We fleetingly grant him therein whatever We please, to whomever We desire, and then We consign him to hell – there to be scorched, disgraced, confuted!”

Miracles: God no longer does miracles as they made no difference to people’s disbelief when He tried them. Instead Muhammed is urged to say: “Am I anything other than a human being, a Messenger?”



Qur’an 11: The Cave & other stories

In common with Chapter 12 (“Joseph”) – but unlike the other chapters so far – Chapter 18 (“The Cave”) contains plenty of narrative. As usual, there’s no apparent logic behind the order of points in the chapter, so I’ll start with some of the other items here, then look at the stories.

After a prayer, it begins with another example of God’s thinking: “We [God] fashioned what lies upon the earth as an ornament for it, to test them as to who shall be the best in works. And We shall turn all that lies upon it into a desolate plain”, presumably on the Last Day. The author thinks that creation is a test for humans and the results will be marked on Judgement Day.

Embedded in The Cave story itself, there’s an injunction “…do not say of anything: ‘I shall do this tomorrow’ unless you add: ‘If God wills’.” Inshallah. God can do anything and no-one can know whether the Last Day will come before tomorrow. We should feel insecure.

God’s revelation is unchangeable: “And recite what has been revealed to you from the Book of your Lord; no change shall come over his words, nor will you ever find a berth, apart from him”. This seems to refer to the idea in previous chapters that God has the master version of His Book and decides what to reveal, when, how and to whom, the Qur’an being simply the latest example, after the Torah, the ‘Evangel’ (New Testament) and others unnamed.

If this verse is read to mean that any translation from the ‘original’ Arabic is considered a “change over his words”, then the Qur’an was presumably intended solely for Arabic-speakers. And it underlines the difficulty of saying what the definitive Arabic version is, or was, as God – for reasons unclear – chose to reveal His word to someone who couldn’t write it down.

Confusingly, God’s master Book is apparently infinite in size: “If the sea were ink for the words of my Lord, the sea itself would run dry before the words of my Lord had run dry, even if We [God] provided its like to replace it.”

In previous chapters we’ve been told of two different methods by which God created man: one from clay, the other from a drop of sperm. Here the author bolts the two together: God “created you from clay, then from a sperm, then fashioned you into a man”. This makes little logical sense. It’s almost as if he’s aware of the inconsistency and is trying to fix it.

God says about the angels: “I did not make them witness the creation of the heavens and earth [fair enough – they were created later] nor witness their own creation“. I wonder how they could do that?

There’s a nice liberal line about belief and blasphemy: “Whoso wishes, let him believe; whoso wishes, let him blaspheme”, which seems to go further than “no compulsion in religion” to imply that blasphemers should be free to express their views. It’s somewhat marred by the threat that follows: “For the wicked [read blasphemers] We [God] have prepared a Fire…” and when they’re in it and cry out for help, they are “helped to water resembling molten metal, scorching their faces”. Presumably that’s alongside being forced to drink boiling water and pus, which we’ve heard about in previous chapters. Sadly, the use of fear to induce belief does seem to work.

Once more the author’s frustration comes over that not everyone accepts what he’s saying. He, or more strictly God, moans that “man is, of all beings, the most argumentative” and “They have taken My [God’s] verses, and the warnings they received, as a laughing matter.” What it doesn’t say is that the author or his followers should use force to silence unbelievers. He seems to accept that, annoying though it is, they’re free to argue.

On the other hand, he also makes clear that good works are not enough to protect blasphemers from the Fire: “they whose manner of living in this present world has strayed far , while all the time imagining that they are acting righteously…they blasphemed…Their works are voided”.

Now, here are the stories….


The Cave

Like the story of Joseph, the eponymous “Cave” is apparently a re-write of an existing legend – in this case a post-Biblical one – called the “Seven Sleepers of Ephesus”.

Here’s a short version of the original story according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica: “During the persecution of Christians (250 CE) under the Roman emperor Decius, seven (eight in some versions) Christian soldiers were concealed near their native city of Ephesus [modern day Turkey] in a cave to which the entry was later sealed. There, having protected themselves from being forced to do pagan sacrifices, they fell into a miraculous sleep. During the reign (408–450 CE) of the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II, the cave was reopened, and the Sleepers awoke. The emperor was moved by their miraculous presence and by their witness to their Christian doctrine of the body’s resurrection. Having explained the profound meaning of their experience, the Seven died, whereupon Theodosius ordered their remains to be richly enshrined, and he absolved all bishops who had been persecuted for believing in the Resurrection.” There are other versions, for example,with eight men, or where they wake up, not realising how long they’ve been asleep, and one of them goes to Ephesus to buy food only to find that everyone’s a Christian and marvel at his out-of-date silver currency. A longer, Orthodox Christian, version is here.

The Qur’anic version has embellishments and omissions. There’s no mention of Ephesus, or of the number of people (“youths”) – we’re told not to be distracted by arguments about that – and they sleep for longer (300 years, plus 9, apparently to cover the lunar year). And they have a dog.

They leave their town because people “have taken to themselves gods apart from Him” and they don’t know how to “provide manifest proof [that their is the true God]”. They decide to take refuge in a cave in the hope that “God will…make it easy for [them] to find the prudent path to follow in this matter.” They go to sleep. During the course of each day while they’re asleep “We [God] would turn them from right side to left, as their dog spread its paws across the entrance [to the cave].” For a reason the author doesn’t explain, we’re told that, if anyone had seen them, they “would have turned and fled from them, filled with terror of them”. When God wakes them up, they think they’ve only been asleep for about a day. One of them is sent to the town with silver to buy some food. He’s told to be discreet as they don’t want to be caught by the unbelievers. There’s no mention of the proof provided by the old currency of how long they’ve been asleep – rather an important feature as this version doesn’t involve a sealed cave opened by local people themselves. The author gets round this narrative problem by saying: “We [God] divulged their presence”. He doesn’t say how. And we’re not told the reaction of the townspeople. There’s just: “Remember when they argued among themselves, saying: ‘Build on top of them a structure – their Lord knows best about them’. Those who won the argument said: ‘Let us build on top of them a house of prayer.’”. It’s not clear what that refers to. And we’re not told what happened to the sleepers, or their dog, in the period after they woke.

The time lapse is important in the original story because Ephesus moved from being controlled by pagans at the start of the 200 year sleep to becoming Christian by the end of it. But in the Qur’anic version we are not told what happened in the (unnamed) town over the (longer) sleep period. Did the inhabitants remain unbelievers? Was the question of whether the Qur’anic God was the true one still a ‘live’ issue? Had they all become believers? The setting was, logically, hundreds of years before the Qur’an was written, so what/whose Divine message were they supposed to be believers in?

The stated point of the story is “that they [presumably the townspeople – and by extension the readers of the Qur’an] might know that God’s promise is true and that the Hour shall come, no doubt about it.” While the story shows God’s power to perform a miracle, it ‘s hard to see in what way it proves that “the Hour shall come” (i.e. Judgement Day).

The original (Christian) versions of the sleepers legend have clear narratives and make pretty clear points. To me, the Qur’anic version leaves too many important loose ends. It’s poor story-telling. And it’s not clear why the author chose to include it at all when its key feature – the long time delay – is irrelevant for his purpose, and actually detracts from it, as the original townspeople – and 300 years’ of their successors – remain ignorant of the miracle. And no-one learns anything about the “Last Hour”. Perhaps “The Sleepers” was simply a well-known legend and he wanted to find a way to incorporate it.

Parable of two men

In the second story, God gives one of two men them plentiful water, two “gardens of vine”, fruit trees and a bumper harvest. This man (no names given) boasts to the other one, who’s not doing as well, about his wealth and influential family. He arrogantly assumes that his fields will “never become desolate” (irony alert!)  and that – although he doubts that it will ever happen – if the Hour of Judgement comes along, he will get an even better reward in heaven.

The other man says “Are you blaspheming against Him Who created you from clay, then from a sperm, then fashioned you into a man? Assuredly it is God my Lord, and I associate nothing with Him. If only you had entered your garden and said ‘This is the will of God! There is no strength save in God!’ If you see me as inferior in wealth and offspring, perhaps my Lord will bring me what is better than your garden. Or perhaps he will cast down upon it thunderbolts from the sky and it will become a slippery plain. Or perhaps its waters will sink into the earth and you will not be able to make use of them.”

Inevitably, God then destroys the first man’s garden: “his fruit was utterly consumed.”

We’re told at the end that God “is greater in reward and more beneficent in destiny”.Given that, it’s odd that there is nothing about what happened to the other man. Was his hope of favour rewarded? Arguably, he too displayed a hint of arrogance: by virtue of his lack of God-given agricultural luck and success relative to the first man, he implied he might be in line for a place in heaven. The first man seems to have been punished, not for his boastful and arrogant behaviour towards the other man, but because he failed to appreciate that God was the source of his good fortune, he was sceptical about the Last Day, and was guilty of “associating others with God”. Maybe arrogance is not intrinsically bad.

Parable of this present life

Present life: “…is like water We caused to descend from the sky, with which the vegetation of the earth was mingled. But it [presumably the vegetation] turned into chaff, scattered by the winds. God has power over all things.” The idea is clear, but it’s not very clearly put – I suspect it’s the translation I’m using. He goes on to spell out that “property and progeny” of this present life are ephemeral – “virtuous deeds are better” – and that everything on earth will be flattened on Judgement Day.

All you think important is ultimately time-bound and unimportant except good deeds, which will be counted on the Last Day and used by God to make the either/or decision on whether you’re going to the gardens of heaven or the fire of hell. The realities of this present life should always be discounted in favour of the (promised) afterlife.

The Story of al-Khidr – The Green Man

Apparently this is a famous story about a wise, saintly guide to Moses called al-Khidr. In fact his name isn’t mentioned in the Qur’an – perhaps the author assumed people would already know who he was referring to.

After a strange introduction about Moses turning back at the end of a long journey because his servant had forgotten the (live) fish he was supposed to be bringing, “They came upon one of Our [God’s] servants…..to whom We had from on high brought knowledge.” Moses follows him and he demonstrates his wisdom by three initially odd actions that he later explains:

  • He scuttles a fishing vessel, because it belongs to poor fishermen and he knows that, if they continue to sail it, it will be seized by a pirate king.
  • He kills a young man, because “his parents were believers, and we feared he might overburden them with his arrogance and blasphemy” while a future son would be more pure and caring.
  • Despite people in a town refusing to give him and Moses food, he re-builds a damaged wall free of charge, because it belongs to orphans of a virtuous father who buried a legacy for the orphans beneath it.

As exemplars of divinely-inspired behaviour, it’s an eccentric list. In particular, the idea that there’s divine sanction to kill a young man simply because he’s an arrogant blasphemer is morally objectionable, and contrary to Quranic injunctions on killing. And why couldn’t he have simply warned the poor fisherman about the danger instead of damaging their ship? It’s also strange that Moses features here: in other chapters the author has emphasised that he’s one of God’s messengers, on a par with Muhammed. So what is the status of the mysterious guide to which Moses is apparently inferior in wisdom? Again, it reads as though the author has taken an existing legend and woven it in without being put off by some muddled thinking.

The story of Dhu’l Qarnayn

All my translation can say about him is: “The Two-Horned; a mysterious figure, possibly related to stories surrounding Alexander the Great”. It would be interesting to know what Qur’anic literalists make of what is clearly a mythical story, about this character (Alexander?) who God “established firmly on earth and granted him a path to knowledge of all things.”

His path leads him first to a hot pool where the sun sets. There he finds a people, and God says “..either you torment them or you follow with them the way of virtue” to which Dhu’l Qarnayn replies that he’ll torture whoever is wicked and then turn them over to God for further torture. The faithful who do good deeds will be ok and he’ll help by teaching them.

Then he goes to where the sun rises on a people “for whom We [God] had provided no shelter from it. Thus did We encompass in our knowledge all that he had achieved.”  That’s all it says.

Finally he comes to a people who live “between two towering barriers” and are barely able to understand human speech. They want Dhu’l Qarnayn to build them a defence against “Gog and Magog [who are] working corruption on earth”. He builds them an impenetrable iron fortification, but warns them that it will be flattened on the Last Day.

Again, it’s sketchy story-telling, as if listeners would know the story already, including who, or what, Gog and Magog are. And it appears to sanction the torture of the living, rather than leaving punishment to God. Unless I’m missing something, it’s hard to discern the meaning of the Dhu’l Qarnayn story. If it’s a parable, it’s not a very effective one.

Dhu’l Qarnayn isn’t presented as one of God’s messengers, but – like al-Khidr – he clearly has a special, saintly, status.


Overall, it’s nice to see some more narrative. But confess I found this chapter hard work.



Qur’an 12: Mary & a talking newborn

Chapter 19 (“Mary”) covers some of the same ground as Chapter 3 (“The House of Imran”), including Zachariah, and Mary’s sexless conception revealed to her by an angel. Unless I’m missing something, overall it adds little or nothing to previous chapters.

But there’s a strange embellishment to the Mary and Jesus story: the about-to-be-born Jesus talks to Mary while she’s in the agony of labour “He called out to her from beneath her: ‘Do not grieve. Your Lord has made a brook to flow beneath you. So shake towards you the trunk of the palm and it will drop down on you dates soft and ripe. Eat and drink and be of good cheer.’”  When people are shocked that she’s got a baby, Jesus talks to them from the cradle: “He said: ‘I am the servant of God. He brought me the Book and made me a prophet, and made me blessed wherever I may be. He charged me with prayer and alms-giving as long as I live, and to be dutiful to my mother. And He did not make me arrogant and wicked. Peace be unto me the day I was born, the day I die and the day I am resurrected, alive!’”

Apparently this is based on the Syriac Infancy Gospel, one of the apocryphal gospels, dating from the 6th century and itself based on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas – which provided the story in the House of Imran about the child Jesus making birds from clay which then come to life – and the Protevangelium of James. It provides an interesting insight into the type of Christians the Qur’an’s author encountered, and the stories he picked up from them. While the Syriac version of the New Testament had been standardised 100-200 years before the Qur’an, it looks like there were still other books and narratives in play at the time.

The author of the Qur’an was illiterate, and therefore presumably depended for his knowledge of other religions on what he was told by their followers or others who had more knowledge. There is no reference to any scholarly input in the Qur’an – at least so far. He refers elsewhere to both the Torah and the Evangel being handed down by God to Moses and to Jesus respectively. In common with the Qur’an, they’re taken from God’s master Book. But he doesn’t say what was in the “Evangel”. Did he think it included these stories about the infant Jesus?

We don’t hear any more in this chapter about Mary and Jesus. He moves on to a selection of earlier prophets: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Ishmael and someone called “Idris” – who is (apparently dubiously) said to be the Biblical Enoch. Why he gives this selection a special status isn’t clear. They are “of prophets, the ones on whom God bestowed His blessings from among the progeny of Adam, and from those We [God] carried with Noah, from the progeny  of Abraham and Israel, and from those whom We guided and elected…..After them there followed successors who forsook prayer, and pursued their base desires.”  But what about Lot – mentioned several times elsewhere, and included in the Torah – or Jacob or Jonah, both with Qur’anic chapters named after them, or any of the other prophets?  It seems as if the author isn’t too concerned about consistency, perhaps understandably if the chapters were written several years apart.

Then he gives us a glimpse of heaven. Or, more precisely, the “Gardens of Eden” which God promises to His worshippers “in the realm of the Unseen”. “In it they hear no empty talk, but only ‘Peace!’ In it they shall receive their provisions morning and evening.” Like the fires of hell, heaven may be in the realm of the unseen, but it’s clearly physical. People have two meals a day. Presumably it has a sewage system.

As usual, he’s having to argue with sceptics, in this case about the mass resurrection on the Last Day: “Does man not remember that We [God] created him beforehand, when he was nothing?” This is consistent with the idea that God can do anything, as the author says in the context of the virgin birth “When He determines any matter, He merely says to it: ‘Be!’ and it is.” Those who are “most obdurate against the All-Merciful” will be “scorched” in hell.

Once again we get the strange logic of God leading people further astray only to punish them for their error. “Say: ‘Whoso is in error, the All-Merciful [sic] shall drag him further and further into error until, when they behold what they were promised, either the torment or the Hour, they will surely know who is worse in station and weaker in warriors!” And “Have you not seen how We dispatched devils against the unbelievers, distressing and beguiling them with sin? So be not in haste concerning them; We are in truth making things ready for them!….they shall have no intercession, except one who compacted with the All-Merciful.”

I guess the message is that, once you are an unbeliever, things will only get worse for you. The All-Merciful is not all-merciful, unless – in an unspecified way – you have a deal with Him.

Even worse than being an unbeliever is claiming that “The All-Merciful has taken to Himself a son”. This is “a thing most terrible…heavens well nigh convulse at the mention of it; the earth is split asunder; the mountains stagger and collapse.” Presumably the main competition at the time it was written was from local Christians.



Qur’an 13: Punishment, Prophets & Science

The level of repetition in most chapters now means it’s possible to accelerate a little. This post covers four chapters: “Ta’Ha’” (chapter 20 – apparently named after the two Arabic letters with which it starts), The Prophets (chapter 21), The Pilgrimage (chapter 22)and The Believers (chapter 23).

The usual threats of eternal torture for unbelievers and other sinners are repeated. As the author says in “Ta’Ha’”: “…We [God] detailed in it [the Qur’an] all manner of threat; perhaps they will turn pious, or else it may inspire them to remembrance.”

In “The Pilgrimage” there’s a particularly graphic example. God says: “For those who blasphemed, garments of fire have been tailored, and over their heads is poured scalding water, melting therewith their innards and their skins. Upon them shall be clasps of iron; whenever they seek to escape their torment, they are driven back to it: ‘Taste the agony of the raging Fire!’ “

And in “The Believers”, after explaining that believers will have “precedence” and providing the comfort that “We [God] charge not a soul except with what it can bear” he explains that: “[unbelievers] works are inferior to those who have faith, and they persist in their acts of sin. Until, when We seize the decadent among them with torment, see how they shriek for help! Do not shriek Today! You shall have no support from Us.”

On the Last Day it appears there is no graduation of reward, it’s either on one side or the other: “They whose scales are weighed down – these shall prevail. They whose scales are light – these have lost their soul, and in hell shall abide for ever.”

Having said that, there is no suggestion in these chapters that believers themselves should act against unbelievers. Only God does that. Even though the author berates Christians for the sin of associating others with God, he says that God protects places where He is worshipped, even from His own believers: “Had God not caused people to restrain one another, destruction would have fallen upon monasteries, churches, oratories and players of prayer, where the name of God is often mentioned.” Similarly, he does not endorse violence against unbelievers, even when they are on the verge of reacting violently when they hear the message: “When Our [God’s] revelations are recited to them, manifestly clear, you detect in the faces of unbelievers disapproval; they could almost do violence to those who are reciting Our verses to them! Say: ‘Shall I inform you of what is more evil than this? It is the Fire that God promised to unbelievers…’”.

In addition to fire in the afterlife, “Ta’ Ha’” includes threats of punishment in this life. One variety is collective punishment. For example, in “The Prophets”, sceptics accuse the author of “muddled dreams…he fabricated it…he is [just] a poet…Let him bring us a wonder such as earlier messengers were sent.” The proof offered in response is “How many a wicked town We [God] crushed, and reared thereafter another people.” Similarly in “The Believers”, God complains that every messenger He has sent has been disbelieved “so We made them [peoples who rejected the messengers] follow one another into destruction, and made them into moral examples – away with people who do not believe!”

Another variety is personal: “Whoso turns away from remembrance of Me shall live a life of hardship”. However, this is apparently contradicted a few verses later: “cast not your eyes in longing upon what We bestowed on some for their enjoyment – the luxury of this present life. This We do tempt them with it, and the bounty of your Lord is better and more abiding.” So unbelievers, or waverers, are led astray by being given life’s luxuries, and believers should make do with “the bounty of the Lord”. Even setting aside the fact that, in the world today and in the past, there is no correlation between believing and avoiding hardship, on the face of it both the Qur’an and God’s actions are rather inconsistent here.

There is a further indication in these chapters that the author intends the Qur’an to be specific to people in Arabia, with other peoples or nations given their own messengers and revelations from God’s master Book. Firstly, in “Ta’Ha’”, there’s the fact that it’s in Arabic: “…We sent it down, an Arabic Qur’an…”, which would be unintelligible to non-Arabic speakers. Then in “The Pilgrimage”, different holy places: “For every nation We have assigned a place of sacrifice, where they mention the name of God in thanks for what He provided them of cattle”; and different rituals: “For every nation We established a ritual that they follow, so do not allow then to dispute this matter with you.”

In this context, he mentions a number of specific people/nations: “As for believers, the Jews, the Sabeans, the Christians, the Magians and the polytheists – God shall judge between them on the Day of Resurrection”. The Magians were apparently religious officials from Persia, and the Sabeans people from southern Arabia (now Yemen). Once more, it is left to God to judge, not believers. [This verse seems inconsistent with Chapter 9 (“Repentance”) where he classes Jews and Christians as “polytheists” – maybe there’s a translation issue here.]

In “The Pilgrimage” the author adds a complex and – to me – confusing bit of theology to do with Satan interfering in prophesy: “We sent not any messenger or prophet before you but one who, when prophesying, Satan intrudes into his prophecies; God then abrogates Satan’s intrusion [it seems there is some dispute about whether ‘abrogate’ should read ‘record’ here], and God enshrines His revelations, and God is Omniscient, All Wise. And this, in order to make what Satan interpolates a seduction to those in whose heart lies sickness, or whose hearts are hard. Wrongdoers are at rift with God, and far from the truth.”  We have been told that God is repeatedly frustrated by people failing to heed His messengers. Yet He gets Satan to test people by interfering in His messengers’ prophecies. It doesn’t make sense to me.

“Ta’ Ha’” includes another brief re-telling of the story of Moses, complete with the competition with Pharaoh’s sorcerers, the exodus and the golden calf, but with no Ten Commandments. We also have Adam and Eve being led astray by Satan, but God then pardons them – no Original Sin here. Not surprisingly, we get more Old Testament characters in “The Prophets”. The author includes a story of an attempt to burn Abraham to death, which fails because God says “O fire, be cool and comforting to Abraham”. This is apparently based on a Jewish myth which was itself the result of an ancient, and now well-known, translation error, confusing the meaning of “Ur” (Abraham’s city) with the word for fire. Presumably the author picked up the story from local Jews. It’s not in the Torah.

As well as Abraham the author talks about: Lot, Noah, David, Solomon, Job, Ishmael, “Idris” and “Du’l Kifl” (neither clearly identified), “the Man in the Whale” [Jonah – although the whale is not mentioned in the chapter named after him], Zachariah, and “she who preserved her virginity” [Mary].  It’s not clear why this list differs from the prophets to which he gives special status in “Mary” (chapter 19): Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Ishmael, “Idris”.

According to the author, God aided Solomon by directing the wind: “We [God] prevailed on the winds hard blowing to run at his command to the land which We had blessed.” No context is given, but this sounds as if it refers to the – rather more poetic – Song of Solomon: “Awake, north wind, and come south wind! Blow on my garden, that its fragrance may spread everywhere. Let my beloved come into his garden and taste its choice fruits.”

When it comes to Job: “Remember Job, when he cried out to his Lord: ‘Evil has touched me, and You are the most merciful of those who show mercy.’ We [God] answered his prayer, drew away his distress, and restored his family to him, and, as many besides: a mercy from Us, and a remembrance to worshippers”. I’m no Biblical scholar, but this seems to miss the whole point of Job, which I thought was faith tested by massive misfortune ultimately rewarded.

The mistakes in earlier chapters have demonstrated that the Qur’an, like the Bible, is not a literal book of science. Here we get some more examples. In “The Prophets”: “…the heavens and the earth were sewn together, but We [God] ripped them apart”; “and from water created every living thing” (needs some carbon and other elements in there too); “on earth We fixed towering mountains lest the earth should shake them violently” (this is a repeat from an earlier chapter; mountains are folds in the strata of the Earth’s crust, not weights stuck on its surface to stabilise it; and there are earthquakes in mountainous areas); “the sky We made a well-protected canopy” (although it looks that way from Earth at night, it isn’t).

In both “The Pilgrimage” and “The Believers” the author describes human development: “We created you from dust, then from a sperm, then from a blood clot, then from a morsel…”  In “The Believers” the starting point is “essence of clay”, then “a sperm in a well-guarded cavity”. Setting aside the difference between inorganic dust and clay, or their link to (organic) sperm, both the egg and its fertilisation are missing.

Having said that, the author gives a powerful poetic image of the Last Day: “That will be the Day when We roll up the sky, as a scroll rolls up books.”

So far there has been no clear stipulation that believers should pray five times a day. But here we come close: “…glorify the praise of your Lord before sunrise and before sunset. And during some hours of the night and the edges of the day…And command your family to pray, and be constant in performing it.” He also gives an indication of the purpose of prayer: “perhaps you will find contentment…We [God] seek no sustenance from you; it is We who sustain you.” The suggestion seems to be that the purpose of prayer is to make the person praying feel happier – God doesn’t need it.



Qur’an 14: Adultery, marriage & slaves

Chapter 24 (“Light” – as in “God is the light of the heavens…”) starts by going back (or not depending on whether we’re talking chronological order or Qur’anic order) to the topic of adultery.

The odd thing here is that the requirement to prove adultery – four witnesses (unless the accuser is the husband, see below) – seems almost impossible to achieve, yet it’s clear that the author not only expects that there will be cases, but that there will also be false accusations. He specifies severe, merciless public punishment for both the adulteress and the adulterer: “flog each of them a hundred lashes. And let not pity for them overcome you in regard of the law of God, provided you believe in God and the Last Day. And let their punishment be witnessed by agroup of believers.”

Anyone, apart from her husband, who falsely accuses a married woman of adultery  but then fails to produce four witnesses: “flog them eighty lashes” and don’t accept their testimony in the future unless they “repent and reform their ways”. On the other hand, if the accuser is the woman’s husband and has “no witnesses but themselves, let each of them witness four times by God that he is telling the truth and the fifth time that the curse of God will fall on him if he is a liar.” But the wife doesn’t get punished if “she testifies four times by God that he is a liar, and a fifth time that God’s wrath shall fall upon her if he is telling the truth.” So it seems that, in theory, an innocent woman can safeguard herself. There is nothing to say what happens if the wife finds her husband committing adultery.

There’s more here on modesty. Both men and women must “safeguard their private parts” and women must not “expose their attractions except what is visible” and wrap “shawls around their breast lines”. They are only allowed to “reveal their attractions” only before a long list of allowable men including “slaves, or male attendants with no sexual desire”.  While women must not “stamp their feet to reveal what they hide of their ornaments”, there is no specific mention of head covering.

Women past child bearing age “who do not look forward to marriage, to them no blame attaches if they remove thier cloaks, but do not display any ornament”, though “if they behave with modesty this would be better for them.”

Then there’s a contradiction: in Chapter 4 (Women) he says that, if you can’t afford to marry “free, chaste and believing women”, then you’re allowed female slaves who are “believing maidens”, provided you get their owner’s consent. You then “render them their dowries in kindness” and treat them as legal wives. But here in “Light” he says “And let those who find not the means to marry have recourse to chastity until God enriches them with His bounty”. And he goes on to claim that “We [God] sent down revelations fully elucidated”, which, as earlier, at least calls into question the use of abrogation to address contradictions.

The men to which the Qur’an is addressed are apparently middle class enough to own slaves as they are urged to “marry the unwed among you and the virtuous among your slaves, male and female”.

Speaking of slaves, there are some benign rules here. If a slave “seeks a contract of manumission” (i.e. to be allowed to be free), then, “contract with them accordingly, if you know of any talent in them, and grant them of the wealth that God has granted you”. He doesn’t explain what the slave’s side of this contract should look like.

And there’s an injunction against sex slavery: “Do not force your female slaves into prostitution, if they desire chastity, in order to gain some advantage in this present world.” And if they are raped, then “God is All-Forgiving, Compassionate” to the women. “Compassionate”, good. “Forgiving”…?

Apart from that, there’s no guidance on treatment of slaves, or any suggestion that God considers slavery wrong.

He then makes clear that “no blame attaches to the blind, the lame, the sick” – which is good – but also not to you “if you eat in your own houses” or at various relatives’ houses. (Presumably this related to local customs.)

Finally, a revealing – and threatening – passage: ”Do not address the Messenger in your midst [i.e. the author] as you address one another…Let those who defy his orders beware lest some ordeal befall them, or else a painful torment.” You have been warned.



Qur’an 15: Peace, and a Hydrology problem

Chapter 25 is called “The Criterion” in my translation, though an alternative of “the separator of right from wrong” makes rather more sense, referring to the beginning: “Blessed is He Who sent down the Criterion upon His servant to be a warning to mankind!” There seems to be nothing much new here, with the usual strictures about blasphemy, the Last Day and the fate of blasphemers, the need to repent and do good deeds, and so on, and a brief repeat that earlier peoples who failed to heed messengers, including Moses and Noah, were destroyed.

There’s an example here of the mixed use of first and third person narrative: one verse is from the author’s viewpoint (“There comes a Day when He shall herd them….”) then two verses later it’s God’s (“If any of you commits such sin, We shall make him taste a mighty torment.”).

The chapter contains two examples of “science” in the Qur’an. There’s an understandably anthropocentric, and poetic, view of the cosmos: “Blessed is He who set up constellations in the sky, and fixed therein a lamp, and a resplendent moon.” Fair enough.

But he also says: “It is He who merged the two seas, this one fresh and sweet water, that one salty and bitter. Between them He erected a barrier, an impassable boundary.” This has been taken to mean that fresh and salt water don’t mix.

If so, it’s wrong. Unlike oil and water, which are geninely immiscible with a clear boundary surface between them, fresh and salt water do mix. Arguments about differing densities, salinities and temperatures causing stratification at river mouths don’t alter that fact, as anyone can demonstrate in their kitchen. Otherwise it would be impossible to dilute any solution of salt in water. Maybe this is a case of an interesting observation being picked up by the author, and reported in the Qur’an, only to be interpreted too literally.

The same verse goes on to say; “It is He Who, from water, created man, conferring on him kinship, of blood and of marriage” which seems to contradict earlier verses where God created man from clay and/or a sperm.

But most importantly,there’s a verse that the Jihadis would do well to focus on, which provides a welcome complement to the warlike verses of previous chapters: “The true servants of the All-Merciful are those who walk the earth in humility, and when the vicious address them their only word is: ‘Peace‘!”

Interestingly the author says here, for the first time that I recall, that “…We made it [the Qur’an] to be chanted, a sublime chant!”



Qur’an 16: Poetic Destruction & Foreign Messengers

There’s an irony here. I’d expected Chapter 26, “The Poets”, to be poetic. It does contain a poetic verse, but the chapter seems to be called The Poets after this: “Shall I tell you upon whom the devils descend? They descend upon every lying villain who gives ear but most of whom are liars. And the poets- the tempters follow them. Do you not see how they wander in every valley, boasting of things they have not done?” He doesn’t seem keen on poets.

Most of the chapter is a repeat of prophetic warnings. But first there is Moses and Aaron in a cut-down, and slightly erroneous, version of the Exodus story. Once again there is the impression that the author had picked up stories from Jews and Christians but slightly mis-remembered them, as he also claims that the Torah, from which the story comes, is part of God’s revelation. As suggested by earlier chapters, maybe he’s simply not interested in narrative.

In Exodus, Aaron – not Moses – performs magic by turning his staff int a serpent. Pharoah sets up a competition between him and the Egyptian sorcerers, who also able to do the same trick. But Aaron’s staff “swallowed up their staffs”, (whatever that means). Here it is Moses who turns his staff into a serpent, and there is no mention that the competing sorcers are able to do the same, simply that “they threw down their ropes and staffs and said ‘By the majoresty of Pharoah, we shall be the victors.’ Moses then threw down his staff, whereupon it swallowed their deceits.”

Then we get a very abbreviated version of the exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea. There is no mention of plagues, killing the first born, angels passing over houses or huge numbers of Israelites leaving Egypt. Instead we just get God telling Moses to strike the sea with his staff to split it open. “Then We brought the others [not defined] near, and We saved Moses and all who were with him, and We drowned the others. In this was a wonder, but most of them were not believers”.

Next up is Abraham, chastising people for worshipping idols and giving a prayer which begins very poetically:
“He it was Who created  me, and He it is who guides me;
He feeds me and gives me to drink;
When I am sick, He cures me;
He shall cause me to die and He shall resurrect me;
He, I hope, will forgive my sins on the Day of Judgement…”

Familiar territory then opens up, with another run through of what happens when people ignore their prophets. There’s Noah and his people; Hud and the tribe of Ad; Salih and the tribe of the Thamud; Shu’ayb and the People of the Thicket – who apparently were guilty of cheating in weights and measures and short-changing. All are destroyed by God for not believing. In the case of the People of the Thicket, “…there seized them the torment of the Day of the Shadow”. When it comes to Lot, the author is more explicit about the people’s sin than the Bible is: “Do you cohabit only with males among mankind, and abandon what your Lord created for you of wives?….So We delivered him and all his family, except for an old woman, who remained behind [he doesn’t say it’s Lot’s wife] . Then We destroyed the others….”

God emphasises his responsibility for destruction: “We destroyed no town except it had warners, as a remembrance, and We were not unjust. ” Demons didn’t do it as “it benefits them not, nor are they able to do so.” The implication is that, if there’s a natural disaster, it’s an intentional act by God as punishment.

A couple of of the verses have a significant implication: “It is indeed a Revelation from the Lord of the Worlds, brought down by a Trustworthy Spirit [presumably the angel Gabriel], upon your heart, so that you may be a warner, in manifest Arabic speech; it is also in the Books of the ancients.
It is not a proof to them that it is recognised by the scholars of the Chilrden of Israel? Had We sent it down upon a foreigner, and he recited it to them, they would still not believe in it….”

This strongly suggests that he author considered himself God’s messenger specifically to the local Arabic-speaking tribes. He thinks the underlying message is universal, but there are different messengers for different peoples. Shouldn’t non-Arab believers be looking to their own prophets, rather than “a foreigner”?



Qur’an 17: Talking Birds, Talking Ants

Chapter 27 (“The Ants”) includes a world of Jinn and talking animals: “To Solomon were mustered his troops of Jinn, humans and birds, all held in strict order. Until, when they arrived at the Valley of Ants, an ant said ‘O ants, enter your dwellings lest Solomon and his troops crush you unawares.’ He smiled with amusement at its words and said: ‘My Lord, inspire me to offer thanks for the bountry You bestowed on me….. .” The Biblical Solomon refers to ants in Proverbs as a source of inspiration, for example: “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.” But they don’t talk and there’s nothing about being crushed by troops of Jinn, humans and birds.

After that, Solomon becomes angry because one of the birds, the hoopoe, is missing. But the bird turns up with a report about the riches of Saba (=Sheba) and their queen – they’re sun-worshippers. That’s the starting point for a confused story in which Solomon exchanges written messages with the Queen of Sheba and she travels to visit his court. At the same time Solomon asks for someone to bring him her throne, and a “giant Jinni” obliges.

That leads to some interesting logic: “This [the throne] is a favour from my Lord, in order to test me whether I shall give thanks or be ungrateful. Whoso gives thanks, gives thanks only for his own good. Whoso is ungrateful, my Lord is All-Sufficient, All-Forgiving.” In other words, don’t thank God for good things, he doesn’t need it.

Solomon disguises the throne and asks her whether it look like hers. She says “It is nearly so” and Solomon claims that her inability to spot it is because she doesn’t have “right guidance” – that is, she’s not a believer. But she is so dazzled by the wealth of Solomon’s court, including a roof terrace made of glass which she thinks is water, that she submits to God.

This seems to be another example of an amended, abbreviated rather badly-told version of a Bible narrative. The throne puzzle seems unnecessary, and doesn’t appear in the Biblical version, where instead it is the Queen who tests Solomon with riddles. On the other hand, the outcome – that she’s so dazzled she takes on belief in Solomon’s God – is the same.

We have here again Moses and his staff turning into a serpent, as well as reference to fire, though not specifically a burning bush. There’s yet another repeat of the Thamud tribe failing to heed the prophet Salih; and of Lot. But unlike the previous chapter, where it was an “old woman” who remained behind when Lot escaped the destruction of his town, here “…his wife, whom We destined to remain behind”.

And here again we encounter the wonders of creation, what will happen on the Last Day and blasphemers who doubt that the dead will be resurrected.

The chapter starts with another example of the strange idea that God deliberately misleads unbelievers so that they end up being tortured in hell: “We have made their deeds appear attractive in their sight, so they stumble aimlessly in their error.It is they whom an evil torment awaits, who shall be the greatest losers in the hereafter.”

And near the end the author reports that God is generously providing the Qur’an to help out the local Jews: “This Qur’an narrates to the Children of Israel most of what they dispute about.  It is a guidance and a mercy to the faithful. Your Lord shall judge between them with His decree. He is Almighty, Omniscient.”

It seems that quite a few people take this whole chapter literally, one even claiming that the use of the feminine form of Arabic to refer to ants is a miracle of science in the Qur’an, since it been found only recently that worker ants are female and have no wings to get away from trampling armies, while males do have wings and could simply fly away.



Qur’an 18: Not the Moses Basket – & Spiders

Chapter 28 (“The Narrative”) does indeed contain a chunk of narrative – the first part of Moses‘ story.

As with Bible stories elsewhere in the Qur’an, it’s given in an abbreviated and altered form which, in places, makes less sense than the original. This seems strange as the author could presumably have asked any local rabbi to translate the original for him.

Here’s an example: Moses’ mother hides her baby. Instead of taking a basket, making it waterproof and concealing the baby-in-the-basket among the reeds (original version), here God tells her to “cast him into the river”. The family of the Pharoah duly pick him up. In the orginal version, the baby’s sister watches to see the basket being discovered and then offers Pharoah’s daughter to find a woman to nurse him – the woman being his mother. In the Qur’anic version, nothing happens till the next day, when the mother is distraught and sends her sister (not his) to “Follow his tracks”, though it’s not made clear what tracks a baby cast into a river the day before would leave. When she spots him with Pharoah’s family, we are told “We [God] had already forbidden him suckling by wet-nurses” so the sister offers the mother and they are reunited. But in what way were the Pharoah’s family “forbidden” to use wet-nurses for the foundling? As narrative, it doesn’t work.

The burning bush that was not consumed – a nice image in Exodus – doesn’t feature. Instead there’s simply a fire on a mountainside which Moses goes to investigate. And instead of God giving him instructions about getting the Israelites out of Egypt, God gets him to perform the trick of throwing down his staff which turns into a serpent – which belongs later in the story. The whole story from then to the parting of the Red Sea is covered in a few paragraphs, which major omissions. There’s no explicit reference to “Israelites” or “Hebrews” anywhere.

The reason for the lack of attention to the narrative seems to be to get to the point where God explains that He brought the Book to Moses and then makes the direct link with the author, explaining “..it was a mercy from your Lord , so that you may warn a people to whom no warner before you had been sent”.

The rest of the chapter includes the customary strictures against unbelievers and those who talk about “associates” of God, a reminder that God created the alternation of night and day, and how the worldly who are unbelievers and who do not do good deeds will be brought down.

[I wonder what Muslims who have been brought up with the Qur’anic stories think when they encounter the Biblical versions?]


“The Spider” (Chapter 29) is largely repetition of earlier chapters, but there are a few interesting points:

It starts with a reminder that believing is not enough. God will “put to the test” those who say they believe “that God may know who were sincere and who were lying” – which is strange as elsewhere the author says that God knows what lies in everyone’s hearts. More usefully, he emphasises that, if a believer also performs good deeds “We [God] shall grant remission for thier sinful deeds and reward them for the best of their acts.”

So neither believing alone, nor doing good deeds alone is enough, you have to do both, but then you’re allowed some bad deeds too.

Again there are references to Noah, Abraham, Lot, Isaac, Jacob and Shu’ayb, the prophet to Midian (though in Chapter 26, “The Poets”, they were called “The People of the Thicket”) and the fate of the people who ignored them. We hear that Noah lived “a thousand years, less fifty”, the same number as in the Bible. The varied forms of destruction God uses on sinning peoples is listed: a fire storm; the Scream [which from earlier chapters seemed to refer to an earthquake]; the earth caving in beneath them; drowning.

The chapter is called “The Spider” because of this section: “The likeness of those who took to themselves patrons instead of God is like the spider that builds a house for itself. But surely the most fragile of houses is the spider’s house, if only they knew!” The author didn’t know that spider silk is the strongest naturally-occurring material there is, weight for weight five times stronger than steel. Spiders’ webs are not particularly fragile. And in any case they are not “houses” to provide shelter, but traps for insects. It’s quite reasonable for someone in 7th century Arabia not to know that – spiders’ webs look fragile and spiders are often seen in them- and it’s not too bad as an analogy. But it’s another illustration of the fact that the Qur’an is not a book of science.

Believers are told “Do not argue with the People of the Book [Jews and Christians] except in the best manner, save the wicked among them, and say: ‘We believe in what has been sent down upon us, and sent down upon you. Our God and yours is One God, and to Him we submit.’…” This welcome statement appears to contradict a number of others, including those strongly attacking believers in the Trinity – who the author deems to associate others with God – and the grouping in the violent Chapter 9 (“Repentence”) of Jews and Christians among the polytheists who are to be killed.

In a strikingly direct passage, God say “O worshippers or Mine who believe, My earth is wide. It is Me who you must worship. Every soul shall taste death and then to Us you shall revert.” He follows with a promise of heavenly paradise for those who believe and do good deeds.

We are then reminded that “This present life is nothing but frivolity and amusement. But the Abode of the Hereafter is the real life, if only they knew!” – surely the idea of an afterlife that is more important than this life is one of the more dangerous ideas humans have come up with. But it’s not wise to say that as: “Who is more wicked than he who…calls the Truth a lie once it has come to him? Is not hell the final berth of blasphemers?” Oh well…



Qur’an 19: Clouds, mountains & a return to vengeance

This post covers Chapter 30 (“The Byzantines”), Chapter 31 (“Luqman”) and Chapter 32 (“The Prostration”).

Chapter 30 (“The Byzantines”) starts with a prediction: “The Byzantines have been defeated in the nearer part of the land, and yet, after their defeat, they shall be victorious – in a few years.” Apparently this refers to the defeat of the Byzantines by the Persians at the Battle of Antioch in 614 – a problem for early Muslims because the Byzantine Christians  were montheist People of the Book while the Persians were Zoroastrians, so it was important for God to win in the long term (which is what happened about 6 years later).

Among the usual items about the wonders of creation and the need to be a believer are a few other interesting points:

  • God is capricious, but if something bad happens, it’s down to your past misdeeds. “If we make mankind taste mercy, they are happy with it, but if some affliction befalls them for their past misdeeds, behold, they despair. Do they not observe that God spreads forth His bounty to whomever He wills – and witholds it?”
  • Alms count, usury doesn’t (though it’s not forbidden in this chapter): “So render to kinsman what is their due, as also to the poor and the needy wayfarer…What usury you practise, seeking thereby to multiply the wealth of people , shall not multiply with God. But the alms you render, seeking the face of God – these shall multiply their reward.”

There’s some lovely stuff about weather: “God it is Who sends forth the winds, agitating clouds, which He then spreads across the sky in any manner He pleases. He turns it into billowing masses and you can see the rain coming forth from its crevices; and if He causes it to fall down on whomever He pleases of His servants, behold, they rejoice even though, before it was sent down, they were despondent.” God decides the finest details of the weather, including who gets rained on.

I get an inkling here of how it feels to marvel at every aspect of the world and see the hand of a deity behind it.

And there’s a coda, which again shows that the author was up against the doubters: “In the Qur’an, We have struck for mankind every sort of parable. And if you bring them a proof, those who blaspheme will say: ‘You are merely dabbling in falsehood.’ This does God stamp the hearts of those who do not understand. So bear with patience. God’s promise is true; and be not disheartened by those who have no conviction.”

Chapter 31 (“Luqman”) continues along the same lines, but uses the voice of a pre-Islamic wise man, Luqman, to articulate some of the verses. It seems that Luqman was the name of both an ancient wise man, perhaps from 1100BC Ethiopia, and a pre-Islamic Arabic mythical figure, and the two have become merged.

Among the usual things, Luqman advises his son not to “ascribe partners to God”. God weighs in to say that, even though it is important to care for your parents, if they press you to associate others with Him, then “do not obey them, but befriend them in this life, in kindness.” [This is clearly benign, but seems inconsistent with the message that, once they die, the same God will torture them for eternity.]

He also tells him not to be arrogant or loud: “‘Do not turn you cheek away from people with contempt, and do not walk merrily upon the earth: God loves not every swaggering snob. Let your walk be modest and keep your voice low: the ugliest of sounds is the braying of an ass.’”

Once again it’s implied that the heavens are a solid thing held above the earth, and that God put mountains on the earth to weight it down: “He raised the heavens without pillars that you can see, and cast upon the earth towering mountains, lest it should shake you violently, and He set loose in it every sort on animal.” [This fallacious view of mountains is taken by some as an example of scientific miracles in the Quran.]

The Luqman chapter includes a verse giving a striking metaphor for the security provided by faith in God: “Whoso surrenders his face to God, and acts righteously, has held fast to a handle most secure.”


In Chapter 32 (“The Prostration”), the author returns to threatening form. Those who are believers and prostrate themselves and do righteous deeds are promised a place in the Gardens of Refuge (i.e heaven).

But when, on the Last Day, sinners change their tune and promise to do good if they are restored to life, God will have none of it. Once more we get the idea that God could have avoided sinners and unbelievers making their mistake, but chose not to: “Had We wished, We could have granted each soul its right guidance.

But My decree is binding: I shall fill hell with both Jinn and humans. So taste it – and since you forgot the encounter of this your Day, We have forgotten you – taste the punishment of eternity for what you have committed.”

There’s a confusing verse referring to the “lesser” and the “greater” torment. “The dissolute, however, shall have the Fire as their refuge: each time they purpose to leave it, they are turned back to it, and it is said to them: ‘Taste the torment of the Fire, which once you disowned’. We shall make them taste the lesser torment rather than the greater – perchance they might return. Who is more wicked than he who, when reminded of his Lord’s revelations, turns away from them? We shall surely take vengeance upon sinners.” Apparently the “lesser torment” refers to suffering in this life, which provides an opportunity for sinners to see the error of thier ways and turn to God before it’s too late. It’s not clear how that squares with God’s ability to grant each soul right guidance if He wants to.



Qur’an 20: A tough Seal of the Prophets

Chapter 33 (“The Confederate Troops”) seems an important chapter. It has the war-time flavour of some of the earlier chapters, and in it the author makes a strong claim for his God-given leadership position and his entitlement to privileged status.

Obedience to the Prophet (aka the author and military leader) is essential: “It is not for any believer, man or woman, if God and His Prophet decide some matter, to have liberty of choice in action. Whoso disobeys God and His Prophet has strayed far into manifest error.”

And he names himself: “Muhammad is not the father of any man among you, but he is the Prophet of God and the Seal of Prophets. God has knowledge of all things.” The Seal of Prophets is apparently taken to mean that he is the final prophet. Given this is so important, it’s strange that the Qur’an does not actually say that’s what it means. A parallel interpretation is that Mohammed had a birthmark on his back which was the “seal” to prove his prophethood, or that he put his seal of approval on previous prophets.

Believers have to be duly deferential when visiting the prophet: “…do not enter the chambers of the Prophet for a meal unless given leave, and do not wait for it to be well-cooked. Rather, if invited enter, and when fed disperse, not lingering for conversation. This behaviour irritates the Prophet, who is embarrassed to tell you, but God is not embarrassed by the truth. And if you ask his wives for some favour, do so from behind a screen; this is more chaste for both your hearts and theirs. You must not offend the Prophet, nor must you ever marry his wives after him, for such would be a mighty sin in the sight of God.” I found it important to remember here that the author of all this is the prophet himself.

There’s also a lot about the special position of the Prophet and his wives, and of the superiority of blood relations over other types of relationship. Adopted children are different to your own children and are to be called by their fathers’ names. And “Kinsmen by blood are more caring for one another in the Book of God than the believers and Emigrants, unless you wish to bestow some act of kindness upon your clients. This is inscribed in the Book”.

The Prophets’s wives are not supposed to be interested in worldly things, and their piety will be doubly rewarded. But “if any of you commits a proven indecency, torment shall be multiplied upon her twice over” – hard to imagine given the horror of the standard torment. They are urged not to “speak enticingly” to avoid stirring lustful thoughts, to “remain in your homes” and not to “display your adornments, as was the case with the earlier Age of Barbarism” (the pre-Islamic period).

The Prophet gives himself rules about who he can have sex with: “We have made licit for you the wives to whom you have given their bridal money, as also the slaves that God assigned you as war booty, the daughters of your paternal uncles and aunts, the daughters of your maternal uncles and aunts, who emigrated with you [presumably from Mecca to Medina], and also a believing woman if she offers herself to the Prophet, provided the Prophet wishes to marry her…”. This is all “a special dispensation to you [Mohammad] only, but not to the believers”.

On the other hand, “Henceforth it is not licit for you to take more wives, nor to exchange them for other wives even if you admire their beauty – except for slaves.” The women, of course, appear to get very little say.

It seems this is a period of war. The “Confederates” of the title is the name given to “infidels” who fought Mohammed and also those who fought the ancient prophets such as Noah. The “Hypocrites” also feature here. According to my translation, they were believers from Medina who refused to accept Mohammad’s political leadership. As in earlier chapters, there is no adequate description of battle scenes, for example: “Remember when they attacked you from higher ground and lower, when eyes were transfixed, and hearts reached up to throats, and you thought evil thoughts of God. It was then that the believers were tested and convulsed a mighty convulsion. It was then that the Hypocrites and those sick in heart said: ‘God and His Prophet promised us nothing but delusion’…” In the end “God repelled the unbelievers, and He spared the believers combat…He compelled those who aided them from among the People of the Book to come down from their strongholds, and cast terror in their hearts – some of them you killed, others you took prisoner. And He made you inherit their lands, their homes and their wealth, as well as a region you had never set foot in before.”

Presumably people at the time knew to what all this was referring. But as a narrative document, the Qur’an here, and in other similar places, is incomplete.

There are also problems of internal security: “If the Hypocrites, and the sick in heart, and those who spread panic in the city, do not desist, We [God] will give you sway over them …Accursed they shall be; wherever they are found they shall be captured and killed outright.”

It’s a tough, confident – perhaps even hubristic – chapter.



Qur’an 21: Temptation, diversity & the “Heart of the Qur’an”

This post covers Chapter 34 (“Sheba”), Chapter 35 (“The Creator”) and Chapter 36 (“Ya Sin”).

Buried in Chapter 34 (“Sheba”), among the usual repetition  – the fate of unbelievers, the Last Day, the futility of believing in “partners” of God… – is a verse that could as well have appeared alongside the assertive claims in the previous chapter:

We sent you not but to all of mankind – a herald of glad tidings and a warner. But most of mankind has no understanding”…. It isn’t clear what the author means by “all mankind”, either geographically, ethnically or in time. But, taken with the Seal of the Prophets line from the previous chapter, this seems to be the basis for the Islamic claim of Final Prophethood for the whole world is made. That contradicts earlier verses which say that the Prophet is sent specifically to his people to communicate his message in their (Arabic) language, in line with earlier prophets, and with his call not to argue with other People of the Book, who don’t recognise him as a prophet.

After passages about God providing “soft iron” to David to make chain mail, and to Solomon “power over the winds”, a “fountain of brass, and Jinn to work for him, the author comes to the eponymous “Sheba”. This time, there is no mention of its queen and her visit to Solomon. Instead God destroys its two fertile gardens in a flood, and replaces them by gardens “bearing bitter fruit, tamarisk bushes and a scattering of lote-trees”  as punishment because the people were blasphemers and “took no notice”.

Chapter 35 (“The Creator”) carries on with the repetition. For the first time that I recall, here he emphasises the role of Satan as a tempter,  luring people away from God: “O mankind, God’s promise is true, so let not this present life seduce you, and let not the Tempter tempt you away from God. Satan is your enemy….”. Strangely that is immediately followed by a verse repeating the idea that God also leads people astray: “Consider a person whose evil deed is made attractive to him, and he regards as good. God leads astray whomever He pleases and guides whomever He pleases. So let not your soul perish with grief over them: God knows full well what they do.” The theology seems rather inconsistent.

On the creation of man, we get here: “God it was who created you from dust, then from a sperm, then fashioned you into two genders” – a slight variant on clay as the starting point, or water in one of the chapters – and the point about genders seems new.

When it comes to burdens of the soul, we’re all on our own: “No soul burdened can carry the burden of another.” Makes sense.

Among the many examples of creation, is a rather poetic verse celebrating colour diversity:

“Have you not seen how God causes water to descend from the sky and with which We [3rd to 1st person switch] bring forth fruits diverse in colours?
And mountain tracks, white and red, diverse in colours,
And other pathways, dark and obscure?
So also humans, beasts of burden and cattle of diverse colours?

Those who believe and do good are rewarded with the Gardens of Eden, bracelets of gold and pearls and garments of silk. They have an eternity free of pain and fatigue. The unbelievers have the fires of hell. “They shall not be judged and thus die, nor shall they be spared any of its torment…..In it they shall scream: ‘Our Lord, take us out and we will act righteously, otherwise that what we used to do!’” But they have had a lifetime to get it right, they ignored the “warner” so no-one will help them. Once again, this section underlines that heaven and hell are seen as physical places.

God not only is the creator, but he holds everything in place: “God grasps firmly the heavens and earth lest they pass away. If they were to pass away, none after Him can grasp them firmly.” The force that would otherwise cause them to “pass away” is not explained.

“Ya Sin”, the name of Chapter 36, is claimed to be two letters, but of unknown origin. Reading the translation, the chapter seems to be almost 100% repetition of well-worn themes.  But apparently it reads better in Arabic and, if this write-up is anything to go by, can be taken as a summary: “It has been proposed that Yāʾ-Sīn is the “heart of the Quran”. The meaning of “the heart” has been the basis of much scholarly discussion. The eloquence of this surah is traditionally regarded as representative of the miraculous nature of the Qur’an. It presents the essential themes of the Qur’an, such as the sovereignty of God, the unlimited power of God as exemplified by His creations, Paradise, the ultimate punishment of non believers, resurrection, the struggle of believers against polytheists and non believers, and the reassurance that the believers are on the right path, among others. Yā Sīn presents the message of the Qur’an in an efficient and powerful manner, with its quick and rhythmic verses.”



Qur’an 22: Jinn & stars, David & Solomon

This post covers Chapter 37 (“Arrayed in Ranks”) and 38 (“Sad”).

In Chapter 37 (“Arrayed in Ranks”) it seems that “ranks” refers to station in life: towards the end of the chapter the author says: “None of us there is but has a well-known station. We are indeed arrayed in ranks; we are indeed the glorifiers.” It comes after a passage referring to Jinn, implying that the spectrum of “stations” includes both humans and Jinn – who are, according to end-notes in my translation, ‘Invisible spirits, but like humans, responsible moral beings’.

As well as repeated claims about the reality of Jinn, the idea that everyone has their station reflects earlier chapters, where God decides who has wealth and good fortune.

The beginning also has this: “We adorned the lower sky with the adornment of stars, a protection against every rebellious demon. They cannot eavesdrop on the Highest Assembly, and are pelted from every side, thrown back, and theirs is an eternal punishment; except for the one who happens to catch a scrap, and is then pursued by a shooting star.” Apparently, the Highest Assembly is the angelic host, though it doesn’t say that. This is a repeat of Chapter 15 (“Al Hijr”) where he says: “We set up constellations in the heavens and made them attractive to onlookers, and We protected them against every execrable demon, except one  who eavesdrops, and whom a visible shooting star pursues.” There’s clearly a story behind this section.

Here, as in a number of other places, the Qur’an is incomplete in the sense that it relies on prior knowledge either of myths – as in this case – or of events, such as the background to battles. By definition, the source of that prior knowledge is un-Qur’anic – so not claimed to be the word of God. That seems to be a gift to anyone who wishes to claims to be an expert.

For example, according to Ask Imam the background to the Jinn, angels and shooting stars is this: “Before the prophethood of Nabi (Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam), the Jinn used to eavesdrop freely without being expelled from the upper terrestrial realms. They would listen to the discussions of the angels and learn about future events. They would return to the World and reveal this information to fortune tellers. When the future events transpired as foretold by the fortune tellers, they would believe that the fortune tellers possessed knowledge of the unseen, thus, they were deceived by the fortune tellers. However, when Rasulullah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam) was sent to the World, the Jinn were barred from entering all the upper terrestrial realms and the flaming stars increased to an extent that it filled the terrestrial spheres, therefore, they could no more eavesdrop on the conversations of the angels. Whenever any Jinn would try to eavesdrop, it was pursued and struck by a flaming/shooting star which never missed its target.” Other sources claim that the “shooting star” refers to gamma ray bursts from pulsars, which are really what shoots down the Jinn. [Those who seek credibly to reconcile the Qur’an with science have some heavy lifting to do.]

Once more we have the usual material, including the oft-repeated scepticism of unbelievers who question whether bodies that have crumbled into dust will indeed be resurrected on the Last Day. The author gives some more details of what awaits those who sincerely believe: “….notable bounty, and fruits, and they shall be highly honoured in the Gardens of Bliss, on couches face to face. There shall pass among them a cup from a fountain, crystal clear, a delight to those who drink it; in it there is neither delirium nor are they intoxicated. With them are women, chaste of glance, large-eyed, egg-like, well-guarded”. A believer who had a close friend who doubted is invited by God to “look down and see him in the pit of hell.”

It seems that the believers who make it to heaven are heterosexual males, and the women they encounter in heaven are more for decoration than as equal players. And the comment about being able to drink from the fountain without getting drunk implies that the drink is alcoholic – it’s ok in heaven, not on earth.

Meanwhile the denizens of hell have to contend with the “tree of Zaqqum which…grows in the pit of hell, with fruits like heads of demons. They shall eat from it… [and] have a scalding drink.”

Abraham appears again – with an abbreviated version of the story of his readiness to sacrifice his son to God – along with Noah, Moses and Aaron, “Elias” (presumably Elijah) – who hasn’t appeared in the lists of messengers in earlier chapters – and Jonah.

The author provides an interesting challenge to the Christian belief that Jesus was the son of God: “So sound them [presumably the Christians] out: ‘To your Lord daughters are born, and to them sons? Or did We create the angels female, in their presence?’ It is only their deceit that makes them say that God begat progeny; they are indeed lying. So He preferred girls to boys? What is it with you and your judgements?”  In other words, it doesn’t make sense to claim that God has biological progeny. To this humanist reader, there is a strong element of “pot calling the kettle black” here!


Chapter 38 is called “Sad”, which is claimed to be an “unknown” letter of the alphabet. It’s mainly a repetition of earlier material, with a slightly different list of the peoples who have ignored God’s messengers: “the people of Noah, of ‘Ad, and of Pharaoh, he of the pegs [thought to mean buildings]….Thamud, the people of Lot and the People of the Thicket.” They’re all referred to as “Confederates”, a term enabling the author to group his contemporary enemies with past sinners. And there’s a gallop through some of the prophets: Job, Abraham Isaac and Jacob, Ishmael, Elisha and “Dhu’l Kifl”.

The main new feature is a story about David, father of Solomon, and two men in dispute about ewes. As in earlier cases, it’s based on a Biblical story, but the Qur’anic version is so stripped-down it has lost the main point of the original.

In the Biblical version God sends the prophet Nathan to David with a story of two men from the same town, once rich with many sheep and cattle, and the other with only one ewe lamb, which has become the family pet. When a traveller comes to town, necessitating an animal to be killed for a welcome meal, the rich man kills the poor man’s lamb. When David hears that, he reacts with fury, saying the rich man should be killed and the poor man compensated many times over. But Nathan replies “You are the man” and explains that, after God had given David everything, he committed a great sin by killing a man so that he could get his wife for himself. Although David apologies, and God accepts, among the penalties God imposes is that the son born from this liaison dies. But his next son is Solomon.
In the Quranic version, after hearing how God has favoured David with power and wisdom, we are told that two “disputants” – rich and poor brothers – arrive with David and, for reasons not explained, he is frightened of them. The poor one explains that the rich one has 99 ewes, but he has only one. “And yet he says to me: ‘Place her in my charge’, and he overcomes me in argument”. David is incensed and says that the rich one is in the wrong. Then “David imagined that We had put him to the test, so he sought His Lord’s forgiveness…” The whole point of the story seems to be missing.

When it comes to Solomon, there’s a reprimand from God for his over-fondness for horses, and an allusion to a Biblical story about an angel usurping his position by taking his form and sitting on his throne. Here “We [God] tested Solomon by placing on his throne a physical likeness. Then he repented….” and God places the wind at his command, “so too the demons, every builder and diver, and other bound in chains.” Again, the lack of any details makes the verse about the throne impossible to understand unless the reader knows the story already. Presumably the rest ties in with Solomon’s army we heard about in “The Ants” (Chapter 27) which included Jinn, though there’s no mention here of birds.

There’s a brief reprise of the heaven and hell versions from the previous chapter, except that we learn that the women in heaven  are not only “chaste in glance” but also “of equal age”.  And down in hell: “Let them taste it: scalding water and pus, and similar torments of diverse kinds.”

And we hear again about Iblis, the angel who refused to bow before man, considering himself superior as he was made from fire but man was made from clay. God tells him: “‘Depart from this place, ever to be stoned! [which I believe is reflected in part of the haj, where pilgrims stone a pillar]. My curse is upon you until the Day of Judgement’ ” Iblis says to God “I swear by Your Might, I shall seduce them all, except Your devout followers.” Why God decides to defer action against Iblis until the Day of Judgement, leaving him free to temp people, is unclear



Qur’an 23: The perfect Qur’an & after-death confusion

The title of Chapter 39 (“The Groups”) refers to groups of people herded after judgement into hell and “the Garden” (heaven). As usual, both this chapter and Chapter 40 (“Forgiver”) repeat previous material: God’s creation, the Fire that awaits unbelievers, the sins of idol worship, the Last Day and so on. But there are some interesting, and important, variations:

People who “take up masters instead of Him“, claiming “we only worship them to bring us close in nearness to God” are not simply dismissed. “God shall judge between them as to what they disputed about. God guides not the lying blasphemer.”

In apparent contradiction to earlier chapters, where the author refers to Biblical characters – including Jesus’ apostles – as “Muslims”, here he has God saying “Say: ‘I have been commanded to worship God, sincere of faith in Him. And I have been commanded to be the first Muslim.’”

The Qur’an is claimed to be perfect and consistent, if repetitive: “God has sent down the most perfect discourse: a Book concordant and recapitulating.” And later: “In this Qur’an, We have struck for mankind every sort of parable; perhaps they will remember. An Arabic Qur’an, unequivocal; perhaps they will grow pious.”

It seems to me illogical for a book to claim that it is itself perfect: if it isn’t, then the imperfection applies to the claim that it’s perfect! But the fact that he sees it necessary to include this claim may perhaps be because people were pointing out inconsistencies and imperfections.

While blasphemers are destined for “the cradle of hell”, pious believers “…shall have whatever they please with their Lord…God shall pardon them the worst of their deeds, and reward them with wages for the best of their past deeds.” Provided you turn to God before you die, God will forgive whatever sins you have committed: “Say: ’O My servants who have transgressed against themselves,  do not despair of God’s mercy. God forgives all sins: He is All-Forgiving, Compassionate to each. Turn in penitence towards your Lord, and submit to Him before the torment overtakes you, when you shall have not to support you.’”

The soul is in the same position in both sleep and death. You wake up because God has decided to release your soul: “God takes the souls to Him at death, and takes souls that have not died, in their sleep. He retains the soul on which He has decreed death and release the others, until a stated term.”

There’s more on the process on the Last Day. The Trumpet shall be sounded twice. The first time, “everyone in the heavens and the earth shall fall down dead, except for whomever God wills”. The second time “they shall all rise up and see”. Then we have a vivid image: “And the earth shall shine with the light of its Lord, the Book shall be spread out, prophets and witnesses shall be summoned, and judgement will be passed among them in truth, nor will they be wrong”. It’s a pity Islam doesn’t have a tradition of figurative art.

But what happens between when people die and this Last Day? That seems a major omission from the story. I understand there’s a concept of “al-barzakh“, literally “a barrier”, but taken not only to mean the barrier between life and death but also a sort of pre-judgement, Islamic limbo. There seems to be no credible Qur’anic source for that. The verse claimed is (23:99-100) “Until, when death comes to one of them, he says: ‘My Lord, bring me back to life. Perhaps I will perform a virtuous deed among others I neglected.’ Oh no! It is a mere word that he utters, but behind them lies a rampart [barzakh], until the Day they are resurrected”. The same word is used for the barrier claimed to separate fresh and salt water, and a barrier between two seas.  Here it obviously means that once you’re dead, you can’t go back. A complex barzakh mythology seems to have been created separately to fill the Qur’anic gap.

That then raises a question about “everyone in the heavens and the earth shall fall down dead, except for whomever God wills”. Who is in the heavens when the Trumpet sounds for the first time? No-one has yet been judged and herded into heaven or hell. Just angels? Has this all been thought-through?

Chapter 40 (“Forgiver”) adds to the confusion. “Each nation planned to seize their messenger, and used false arguments to rebut the truth, but I [God] seized them – and what a punishment it was! Thus did the Word of your Lord come true against those who blasphemed, that they are the denizens of the Fire.” So they didn’t just get punished by having their cities destroyed, but they are, at the time of writing, denizens of the Fire. But the Last Day hasn’t arrived yet, so how can they be? Perhaps I’m missing something.

“Forgiver” introduces a new category of people who may be spared the Fire. Angels surrounding God’s throne ask Him to “….forgive those who repent and follow your way, and spare them the torment of hell.Our Lord, admit them into the Garden of Eternal Abode which you promised them, as also the virtuous from among their parents, spouses and progeny…”  Setting aside the need for angels to ask God to do something He’s already promised to do, this would be a major concession. The “parents, spouses and progeny” would get into heaven in their own right if they were believers as well as “virtuous”. So the request is that they’re allowed in just for being virtuous, believing or not. (Presumably “progeny” only means children, not descendents.) It isn’t made clear whether God refuses this request.

We’re told here that the Last Day is imminent: “Warn them of the Day, soon to come, when hearts shall reach up to throats, convulsed in agony.”

There’s a new story here from the time of Moses, of “a believer from Pharoah’s court, who kept his faith secret”. He uses his position to challenge the Pharaoh, who plans to kill Moses: “‘Will you kill a man merely because he says: “My Lord is God”? He has brought you signs from your Lord. If he is a liar, his lying shall rebound on him. If he is truthful, some of what he promises you will befall you.” The ‘secret believer’ seems to have ‘come out’, as he goes on to warn “my people” of what happens to those who ignore God’s signs and messengers. Pharaoh, on the other hand, orders the building of a tower so that he can climb to the gates of heaven and to the god of Moses “for I think him a liar”.  We’re not told how this project goes. The ‘secret believer’s’ lines then become more or less identical to those of the Qur’anic author as he gives the message to his people. We have “this present life is but a passing frivolity”, “you call me to blaspheme against God and to associate with Him what I have no knowledge of” and “the shameless shall be denizens of the Fire”.

“So God protected him [the ‘secret believer’] from their evil designs, and engulfed Pharaoh’s people with terrible torment – the Fire, to which they are exposed morning and evening.” The twice-daily torture by fire is simply a prelude to the full thing: “..when the Hour arrives, ‘Enter , O Pharoah’s people, into the most grievous torment.’” It isn’t clear how all this fits with earlier tellings of the story of Moses and Pharoah in which this ‘secret believer’ is not mentioned, including the parting of the seas, when Pharoah and his troops are drowned. And Pharoah seems not to have done anything about the revelation that he has unwittingly employed a outspoken Israelite prophet as one of his courtiers. Overall, this appears to be a fairly crude bolt-on to the original story.

Once more it is emphasised that the God and Book of Moses are the same as that of the Qur’an, and that Moses’ message was specific to the Israelites: “We [God] brought Moses guidance and bequeathed the Book to the Children of Israel, a Guidance and remembrance to those possessed of minds.”

Here the author says “It is He Who created you from dust, then from a sperm, then from a blood clot, then He brings forth a child.” No mention of clay (the starting point in several chapters), or water (Chapter 25 “It is He Who, from water, created man…”) – and certainly not of an egg.

All life and death is God’s will: “It is He Who gives life and deals death. Once He decides a matter, He merely says to it ‘Be!’ and it is.”

There’s some more detail about the fate of blasphemers and of God’s thinking when he consigns them to hell: “They who called the Book a lie, as too what We sent Our messengers with – they shall surely know, when fetters are upon their necks and they are dragged in chains, then in boiling water, then in fire, they are tossed. It shall then be said to them: ‘Where now are those you once worshipped instead of God?’ And they shall answer: ‘They have vanished from our sight. Indeed we did not before now call on anything at all.’ Thus does God lead unbelievers astray. This is because you used to make merry on earth, without justice, and because of your revelry. So enter the gates of hell, to remain therein for ever – wretched is the berth of the arrogant!””

The Qur’an indeed contains a lot of violence, but most of it is carried out in the afterlife by an apparently cruel deity.

The existence of ruins from previous civilisations is taken as evidence of the uselessness of power and riches if God’s messengers are ignored: “Have they not journeyed in the land and observed the final end of those who preceded them? They were more numerous, and greater than them in might, and left behind more landmarks on earth, but what they earned availed them not.” The implication is that, if you listen to God’s messenger and believe and do good deeds as prescribed in the Qur’an, that isn’t going to happen to your civilisation. History tells us otherwise.



Qur’an 24: Seven heavens & forgiveness

This post covers Chapter 41 (“Made Distinct”) and Chapter 42 (“Deliberation”)

Chapter 41 (“Made Distinct” as in “a Book whose verses are made distinct”) gives more details about the creation. In this case God “created the earth in two days”. Above it He “erected towering mountains…and appraised its provisions in four days, in equal measure to those who need them. Then He ascended to heaven, while yet smoke” and brought heaven and earth together. “Then He ordained seven heavens in two days, and inspired each heaven with its disposition…[and] adorned the lowest heaven with lanterns, and for protection”.

That’s two + four + two = eight days, contradicting the six days of earlier chapters. For example 10:3: “Your Lord is God Who created the heavens and the earth [not the earth then the heavens] in six [not eight] days, then settled firmly on the throne, to order the world’s affairs.” Sorting out the world’s provisions when there is no sun or sky is odd to say the least. And, of course, there is no heaven with lanterns hanging from it – it just looks that way. But the idea of a hierarchy of seven heavens, which is also apparently in Jewish mythology – perhaps where the author got the idea from – has made it into everyday language as blissful “seventh heaven”. It isn’t clear where the heavenly Gardens to which believers are promoted on the Last Day are located; presumably with God in heaven seven. The visible stars, sun and moon are in heaven one. But why did God create heavens two to six? That isn’t explained.

Among the usual threats of fire, and reminders of people previously destroyed – the Ad and Thamud – we have a welcome appeal to emollience: “Repay injury with conduct more becoming and, behold, the person with whom you are at enmity becomes like an intimate friend…..If a surge of anger that issues from Satan sweeps over you, seek refuge with God; He is All-Hearing, Omniscient.” And later “Whoso does a good deed does himself good. Whoso does an evil deed does himself evil.”

There’s some more here about the Qur’an and its relationship with previous revelations: “As for those who blaspheme the remembrance when it comes to them – a Book Exalted, which no falsehood can blemish, adding or subtracting, a revelation of the All-Wise, All-Praiseworthy – remember that nothing is being said to you that was not said to messengers before you.” Similarly, in Chapter 42 (“Deliberation”) he says:”He [God] prescribed to you of religion what He once enjoined upon Noah, as also what we revealed to you and what We enjoined upon Abraham, Moses and Jesus: to follow the right religion and not to be in dispute over it.” So Muhammed positions himself as another prophet, but not a special one: his basic message is identical, he claims, to that of his predecessors.

He goes on to say “Had We [God] revealed the Qur’an in a foreign tongue, they would have said: ‘If only the verses were made clear! What? Foreign and Arabic?’…” In other words: ‘no excuses as this is in your language’. Similarly in Chapter 42 (“Deliberation”) God says “We revealed to you an Arabic Qur’an, in order that you warn Mecca, the Mother of Cities, and its surroundings, and warn of the Day of Assembly, of which there is no doubt: a party in the Garden, a party in the raging Furnace.”

These underline the impression from previous chapters that the message is directed specifically at his local Arabic-speaking people, while other people have, or have had, their own messengers in their own language giving the same message.  It’s therefore ironic that the majority of modern Muslims don’t understand classical Arabic.

There’s a confusing verse in Chapter 42 (“Deliberation”), after the section saying that Moses, Jesus and the current prophet are all preaching the same religion. Firstly he says “For the idolators, what you call them to seems excessive. But God chooses to His side whom He wills, and guides to Himself whoever turns in repentance”. So it’s a ‘Big Ask’ for idolators to accept the message, and God decides which of them will come round (and then condemns the others to hell). But then goes on: “They differed not concerning it except when Knowledge had come to them, out of mutual envy. Were it not for a prior Word from your Lord which set a stated term, judgement would have been passed on them. And those bequeathed the Book after them are in perplexing doubt about it.” This seems to be saying that, if God hadn’t already decided to postpone judgement till the Last Day, people who use their knowledge to dispute the pure religion would have already been judged and found themselves condemned. The result of their disputation is that people after them are then confused. Presumably he means here Jews and Christians. He makes the same point about his own followers: “As for those who continue to dispute about God after having answered His call, their arguments hold no value with their Lord. Upon them shall fall wrath, and grievous torment awaits.” Questioning and doubt lead to hell.

Chapter 42 (“Deliberation”) then has more on right and wrong.

God chooses not to make life too easy for believers so they remain in line: “Had God spread His bounty to His servants, they would have grown shameless on earth. Rather, He dispenses it in any measure He wills.” On the other hand, if something bad happens, it’s your fault (though God will forgive you): “Any calamity that befalls you is due to what your own hands have earned – but He forgives much. You cannot escape His power on earth and, apart from God, you have no guardian and no champion.” On the face of it, this is saying the answer to the question ‘why do bad things happen to good people’ is that it’s their fault. Commentators claim that it refers only to the specific people he is addressing in this chapter – doubting Meccans.  But they don’t apply the same logic to other verses which are deemed to be universal.

There’s another list of what people  must do to secure a place in heaven. They must: “believe and place their trust in God”; “refrain from major sins and debaucheries [not specified], and forgive when wrathful”; “answer the call of the Lord and perform the prayers”; “settle their affairs through common deliberation” [presumably, play fair in business]; “expend from what We provided them” [spend according to your God-given means]; “when aggression assails them, show a bold front” [resist anger]. It’s an interesting list, though not a comprehensive one. On the other hand, it doesn’t claim to be.

To me the most interesting section of the chapter suggests a balance between proportionate retaliation (an eye for an eye) and forgiveness: “Harm is requited by a similar harm. But whoso forgives and makes peace, his reward shall be with God, for He loves not the unjust. Whoso retailiates in kind after being wronged – these are not held to account. Rather, account is demanded of those who oppress people and commit transgression on earth, unjustly. To them there is painful torment. But he who bears with patience and forgives, this would be a course of action upright and prudent.”

The implication is that: ‘you steal one of my goats, I take one of yours’ is fine; but ‘you steal one of my goats, I forgive you’ is a plus. ‘You steal one of my goats and I wipe out your entire herd’ is not fine. Nor is general unjust oppression. Maybe this is a verse that ISIS choose to skip.

Finally, God won’t talk to you directly: “It is not vouchsafed for any human being that God should address him except through inspiration or from behind a veil, or else He sends a messenger who reveals what he wills, by His leave.”



Qur’an 25: Jesus, hell & your demon

This post covers Chapter 43 (“Ornament”) and Chapter 44 (“Smoke”).

Chapter 43 begins by reinforcing the point that the Qur’an is in Arabic so that the people it is aimed at will understand it, and that it’s part of God’s ‘Master Book’: “We have revealed it as an Arabic Qur’an: perhaps you will understand. It is in the Mother of the Book, with Us, Exalted, All-Wise.”

There are a number of references here to Jesus and Christianity. As we know from previous chapters, he doesn’t like the idea of a Son of God: “And they turn one of His servants into a part of Him! Man is so evidently blasphemous!” Later he gives us a reminder of how he positions Jesus: “And when the Son of Mary is adduced as an example, behold, your people are loud in protest, and say ‘What! Are our gods better or is he?’ They adduce his example to you only for argument’s sake…He [Jesus] is only a servant on whom We conferred Our grace, and We made him a model for the Children of Israel”. Jesus “is a portent of the Hour” [I wonder if he was aware that he lived 600 years earlier] and one of Jesus’ roles was apparently “to make clear to you some of what you differ about…But the sects among them fell into dispute – woe to the wicked for the torment of a painful Day!”.

In a response to those who say that God would have done better to have sent the Qur’an to “some grandee in the two cities”, we get another insight into God’s thinking. Firstly, he says God “distributed their livelihoods among them in this present life, and raised some above others in rank, that some might take others into their service”. God has determined your station in life. But then he goes on to say: “Were it not that mankind would have become a single disbelieving community, We would have provided the houses of those who disavow the All-Merciful with roofs of silver…grandiose stairs…magnificiant entrance gates…sumptious couches…and fine adornments” because “these are merely the delights of the present life, but the hereafter belongs to the pious in your Lord’s sight.”

It’s one thing to compare worldly riches with the rewards of heaven. But this seems to be saying that, if God had had a free hand, and did not have to worry about turning everyone into an unbeliever, He would have enjoyed raining riches on unbelievers in the knowledge that they would have their terrible comeuppance in the Fire.

This chapter and the next are strong on other supernatural players. Anyone who “wilfully ignores the mention of the All-Merciful, We will set upon him a demon who will be his intimate companion. They [the demon] shall bar them [the disbeliever] from the Way though they [the disbeliever] themselves imagine they are rightly guided, till, when he comes before Us, he will say: ‘Would that between you [the demon] and me were the distance between East and West’ – wretched is that companion! Today it profits you not, if you are wicked, that you are all [disbeliever and demon] in torment together.” It’s not clear what the relationship is, if any, between these demons and Jinn.

And there’s another detail of hell that we haven’t had before. “The wicked shall abide in the torment of hell, eternally, a torment never subsiding for them, wherein they are bereft of hope.” In a bid to end their suffering “they shall cry out: ‘O Malik, let your Lord deprive us of life!’ And he shall answer: ‘You shall remain as you are.’.” Malik is apparently an angel delegated to look after hell. [How assisted dying would work in the afterlife isn’t clearly explained.]

At the start of Chapter 44 (“Smoke”) God says “By the Manifest Book! We sent it down on a blessed night – We have warned! During that night all matters are wisely apportioned, at Our command – We have sent a messenger!” On the face of it, this says that God sent the Qur’an down to Muhammed in a single night, as opposed to a drip-feed over 23 years, which is the tradition, and which seems to fit with the fact that different chapters are clearly written in response to contemporary events. It seems that one way out of the discrepancy is to claim that God gave it in one night to the angels and they then drip-fed to Muhammed. But what the concept of a ‘night’ means to these denizens of seventh heaven is not clear; and there is nothing here to suggest anything other than the obvious meaning. It’s an inconsistency.

People “dally” despite receiving the message, and that’s where the eponymous ‘smoke’ comes in: “So look out for a Day when heaven exhales smoke, for all to see, that envelops mankind – a painful torment that! ‘Our Lord, draw away this torment from us, for we are believers.’ But how will remembering help them when a messenger, undeniable, had already come to them, and they had turned their backs on him, saying: ‘He is tutored and crazed’? If We draw away the torment a little, and you revert to unbelief, a Day shall come when We shall deliver the Great Blow – We shall exact vengeance.”

So it seems we have two “Days”: the first with an unpleasant smoke – perhaps a fog or ash cloud –  as a warning which, if not heeded, results in a vengeful “Great Blow” on the second Day. It’s a test and a threat. But even then, it’s not clear whether the second Day is the Last Day. The next section talks about how “We tested the people of Pharoah”, and delivered the Children of Israel (described as chosen “above all mankind”) from him, at the same time bequeathing “to another nation” all the property and land left behind by Pharoah and his troops after they were drowned in the sea. Was this disaster an example of a second ‘Day’. It’s certainly not the Last. All a bit muddled [or maybe that’s just me].

He reminds us that there were people who simply did not believe in the afterlife at all. “But now these people say: ‘There is nothing but our first death, and we shall not be resurrected. Bring back to us our forebears if you speak the truth.’” All the author can say is that they are sinners.

Which brings us back to hell and heaven. “The Zaqqum-tree [the one with fruits like heads of demons] shall be the food of the grave sinner, like molten brass, boiling in stomachs like boiling water. ‘Seize him, and hurl him into the pit of hell, then pour over his head a torment of boiling water. Taste it, you who are mighty and noble! Here it is, that which you used to doubt!’” Meanwhile the pious will be “amid gardens and springs, clothed in silk and brocade, face to face. And, too, We married them with spouses with dark and large eyes….Therein they do not taste death, except for the first death, and He has spared them the torment of hell – a favour from you Lord.” Presumably “taste death” here to refers to the suffering of hell.

Hell seems to be the default option, with heaven only if God decides you deserve his favour.



Qur’an 26: Chosen people & older fathers

This post covers Chapter 45 (“Kneeling”) and Chapter 46 (“Rolling Sands”).

Kneeling” refers to the Last Day, when “…you will witness how every nation will be on its knees…”. Interestingly, the verse continues “…how every nation will be called back to its own Book: ‘Today you shall be recompensed for what you did. Here is Our Book, speaking about you with truth for what you did. Therein We have inscribed all you have done.’ ” Presumably the “Book” here refers not to God’s master book, from which the Qur’an, Torah etc are drawn, but a book recording people’s actions, good and bad. Presumably an omniscient God doesn’t need a book in order to record what people have done – albeit many billions of them – and justify His judgement, but I assume the point is to emphasise that everything will be remembered.

The thrust of the chapter is yet another repeat of the need to take heed of the message, believe – especially don’t take it in jest – and do good deeds, in order to avoid eternal torment in the Fire.

Once more we hear that there are people around who question the whole idea of the afterlife: “They say: ‘There is nothing but our present life. We die, we live, and only Time destroys us.’ Of this they have no knowledge. They are merely guessing. And when Our revelations are recited to them, plain and clear, their only argument is to respond: ‘Bring back our forefathers if you speak the truth!’ Say: ‘It is God Who gives you life, then causes you to die, then gathers you together on the Day of Resurrection, of which there is no doubt.’ But most people have no understanding.” Setting aside the weak argument about bringing back forebears, this seems an excellent encapsulation of the sceptic/Muslim-believer difference.

And once more the author asserts a special status for the Children of Israel in God’s eyes, though it seems some of them went astray: “To the Children of Israel We gave the Book, the Law and Prophecy. We provided them with the good things of life and preferred them above mankind. And We only gave them precise rulings, but they fell into dispute only after Knowledge had come to them, our of mutual envy. Your Lord shall judge between them on the Day of Resurrection concerning that over which they differed.” As well as implying that some of those involved in these (presumably theological) disputes will be judged right and others wrong, the author seems to be saying that knowledge and disputation are bad things – I guess Jewish theologians would say the opposite.

There is a clear statement of eternal justice: “Do those who commit evil deeds imagine that they We will treat them like those who believe and do good deeds, that they are equal in life and death? How badly they judge! God created the heavens and the earth in justice, so that each soul shall be rewarded for what it earned, nor will they be wronged.”

It’s not a surprise to hear that he who “takes his own caprice as his god” is in trouble. But, as before, the author then says that it’s because “God, in His foreknowledge, has led him astray. He sealed his hearing and heart, and shrouded his vision. Who can guide him other than God?” The sinner sins because God has led him astray, then the same God punishes him for sinning. Maybe I keep missing the logic.

Agnosticism is apparently a form of blasphemy. When “those who blasphemed” were told “‘God’s promise is true and the Hour is beyond all doubt,’ [they] answered: ‘We know not what the Hour is. We are merely guessing, but are not certain.’”


“Rolling sands” (Chapter 46) takes its title from a story of the prophet ‘Ad, who “warned his people, among the rolling sands” as previous messengers had done, to “Worship none but God. I fear for you the torment of a mighty Day”. But they stuck to their previous gods and their reward was “a wind in which lies painful punishment. It shall destroy everything…”.

Early in the chapter is what reads as a mocking, but rather facile, argument against those who worship another god “Show me which portion of the earth they have created. Or do they own a share of the heavens? Bring me a Book prior to this one, or even a smattering of Knowledge, if you speak the truth.” This clearly excludes Moses and the Torah, as later in the chapter we have “Before it there was the Book of Moses, a guide and a mercy; and this is a Book that confirms it, in the Arabic tongue, to warn the wicked and bring glad tidings to the righteous.”

In fact he seems to use the local presence of Jewish people to bolster his message: “Say: ‘Consider if it be from God and you blasphemed against it, and then someone from the Children of Israel witnesses to its like, and believes, while you stand on your pride.’ Gods guides no wrongdoers.”

Then there’s something rather odd. First God says “We enjoined upon man to be kind to his parents…..His bearing and his weaning are thirty months” which seems to be setting a (long by modern UK standards) fixed period for weaning of 30-9=23 months. Then he goes on “…when he is fully grown and reaches forty years, he says: ‘My Lord, inspire me to be thankful….that I act in virtue…Grant me a virtuous progeny…I have sincerely embraced Islam.’” The implication is that this model of a devout man does not have children until after he’s forty.

He is contrasted with the man who says to his parents “How you exasperate me! You promise me that I shall be resurrected when centuries have passed before me?” and then when they beg him to believe them he says “These are but fables of the ancients.”  It seems that this freethinker not only blights himself but “upon such people shall the Word come true, as it did among nations before them of both Jinn and  humans. They were indeed lost.”

I’m not sure if this is the first time that we hear that Jinn form themselves into nations. But they also appear towards the end of the chapter: “Remember when We steered towards you a small band of Jinn to listen to the Qur’an…” . They listen and go back to their people with the message. Presumably God had to steer the Prophet towards the Jinn as they are claimed to be invisible spirits created from smokeless fire, in contrast to humans, who were created from clay. It seems belief in the real existence of Jinn remains widespread, and they can even be classified.

The chapter ends firstly with another example of God’s apparent relish at the fate of blasphemers: “A Day shall come when blasphemers are paraded before the Fire. ‘Is this real?’. ‘Yes, by our Lord,’ they shall reply. And He [God] shall say: ‘Then taste the torment for your blasphemy!’”

Finally there’s a verse in which God has a quiet word with the author: “So remain steadfast, as other resolute messengers had stood fast. Seek not to bring it quickly upon them. It will be as if, when they witness the Day they are promised, they had been on earth a mere hour of a day. That is the message! Will any be destroyed but the dissolute?”

As I read it, “the message” is therefore that real life is just a fleeting moment, and what really matters is the Last Day and the afterlife.



Qur’an 27: Sketches of war & society

This post covers Chapter 47 (“Muhammad”), Chapter 48 (“Victory”) and Chapter 49 (“The Chambers”).

In “Muhammed”, we are back to war. But it is clear that support for the authors military ambitions is not unanimous, even among the believers.

It is easy to see why the line “When you encounter the unbelievers, blows to necks it shall be…” is quoted as evidence of Qur’anic encouragement to violence against non-Muslims. But the rest of the verse makes the context clear: “…until, once you have routed them, you are to tighten their fetters. Thereafter, it is either gracious bestowal of freedom or holding them to ransom, until war has laid down its burdens.” It isn’t a general call to attack all unbelievers but specific to a war – background unexplained – in which the enemy are unbelievers, with a defined end.  The author then reverts to his usual theme of how much better off the believers are than the unbelievers who “have no patron”.

They are promised a vision of heaven featuring: “rivers of water, not brackish, and rivers of milk, unchanging in taste, and rivers of wine, delicious to them who drink it, and rivers of honey, pure and limpid.” Despite the prohibition of wine-drinking on earth, not only is it apparently fine in heaven, but the implication is that the author’s intended readers generally regarded it as desirable. Meanwhile, of course, those “abiding eternally in the Fire…are given boiling water to drink, which rends their innards”.

It is clear that some of his followers were not happy with his militarism: “The believers say: ‘If only a sura were revealed!’ But when a sura is revealed, unambiguous, in which fighting is mentioned, you [Muhammed] notice those in whose hearts is sickness looking at you like one swooning from fear of death”.

He elides his military ambitions with God’s: “Those who disbelieve and bar the way of God, and who defy the Messenger after Guidance has become fully apparent to them – they shall not harm God in any way, and He shall cause their works to founder.” In fact “…Those who disbelieve and bar the way of God, then die as unbelievers – God shall not forgive them”.

Not only does he expect people to fight when he says so, but he expects them to finance the war too: “Here you are, called upon to expend your wealth in the cause of God…..whoso begrudges it is merely begrudging himself!”

Chapter 48 (“Victory”) talks about a series of military events of which the author only gives us glimpses, presumably on the assumption that readers would know about them. They involve “Bedouins left behind” who, it implies, should have been helping with a potential battle, are promised another one, reminded of a previous occasion when they “turn[ed] tail” and warned that, if they do it again, “He will punish you most painfully”; an incident in which “believers made their pledge to you beneath the tree”; references to God promising booty, but also a mention of “other booty which you could not seize but which God has encompassed in His knowledge” – which sounds like an excuse for something going wrong in the booty plan; a victory in the “vale of Mecca” in which the unbelievers on the other side gave up without fighting; the same unbelievers and blasphemers keeping Muhammed “away by force from the Sacred Mosque [presumably the Kaaba], while sacrificial animals were prevented from reaching their rightful place”; and a convoluted verse about believing men and women preventing Muhammed from becoming “guilty of an unintentional crime” by trampling people underfoot.

The chapter is another example of the fact that the Qur’an is not a complete, self-contained work, but relies in places on prior knowledge of specific historical events, or sometimes stories.

It is also clear that there is no distinction in the author’s mind – or at least in his words – between God’s will and the author’s, or between unbelievers, blasphemers and enemies.

“The Chambers” (Chapter 49) consists mainly of the author telling his followers how to behave. It starts, like the previous chapter, with an unexplained incident, in this case one which led him to complain about believers raising their voices and about those who “call out to you [the author] from behind the chambers”. They are told to “lower their voices in the presence of the Messenger of God”.

In terms of chronology, this chapter seems to be late enough in his story for him to be able to tell followers to treat him reverentially.

Then there are instructions about behaviour in the community of believers: take care about unwittingly causing harm by trusting news brought by “a dissolute person”; how to sort out fights between groups of believers; not making fun of other groups of believers, and in particular; “Let no women make fun of other women make fun of other women, for they may be better than them”; not “backbiting” or calling each other nicknames; and not spying on each other or talking about people behind their backs (compared to cannibalism!).

He doesn’t trust Bedouins who claim to be believers but “faith has not entered their heart,” and are only claiming to be believers to make him “beholden to them”. God, he says, needs no convincing of the sincerity of anyone’s faith



Qur’an 28: Many angels & an uncracked sky

This post covers Chapter 50 (“Qaf”), Chapter 51 (“The Lashing Gales”) and Chapter 52 (“The Mountain”).

Qaf returns to familiar themes but adds new information on our supernatural companions. It starts with the importance of believing in the author’s status as Messenger (“warner”), and his answer to those who challenge his teaching about resurrection on the Last Day, when their original bodies will have turned to dust (God has everything recorded).

He repeats the claim that the wonders of creation are proof of the existence of God. Except he starts with rather an unfortunate example: “Have they not observed the sky above them and how We [God] erected it and decked it out, how free of cracks it is?” (Other translations have “flaws”, “rifts”, “gaps” and “openings” in place of “cracks”.) The author thinks, not unreasonably for his time, that the sky, the first of the seven heavens described in Chapter 41, is a surface which – if imperfect – would have cracks or flaws. Read poetically, that’s fine. Read literally, it is simply wrong.

We hear yet again about the wonders of earthly creation, and how people in the past have ignored God’s Messengers.

But then he provides more details about how people’s deeds are recorded. God is “nearer to [a man] than his jugular vein”. There is some confusing theology here. He tells us that there are two recording angels “poised one to the right and one to the left, not a word escapes him [not capitalised ‘Him’, so presumably meaning an angel] but he has with him a watchman in attendance.” So it looks as if everyone is attended by two angels recording their every deed. The implication is that two of them are needed to ensure nothing is missed, though that seems to have been extended to the view that the one on the right writes down good deeds and the one on the left writes down evil deeds. These are apparently distinct from the two guardian angels that, according to Chapter 13, accompany everyone, one in front, the other behind.

As well as the angels, it there is a “Demon-Comrade” or Qareen, who provides temptation to do bad deeds. It is not clear how this fits with the threat in chapter 43 that anyone who “wilfully ignores the mention of the All-Merciful, We will set upon him a demon who will be his intimate companion”, which suggests that only non-believers have these demons, while here it implies that everyone does. When it comes to God’s judgement, the demon-comrade says ‘My Lord, it was not me who made him impious – he himself was far gone in error’. Presumably God makes His judgement on the basis of the angels’ reports. [Given that around 107 billion people have already lived, God’s Final Day judgements will need to be fast.]

It seems therefore that we are all accompanied by two recording angels (left and right), two guardian angels (in front and behind) and a Demon Comrade. Quite a crowd.


There’s a change of gear in Chapter 51 (“The Lashing Gales”) which beings with a poetic verse about ships lashed by gales to underline the reality of what the author is promising. In fact the chapter is almost entirely repetiton of the usual material, wth the addition of a new example of God’s violent retribution against an unbelieving people in the past. Strangers report to Abraham that they were envoys sent by God to rain down “stones of baked clay, each bearing its mark from your Lord” on the “profligate” in a town of “sinful people”. Only one “household of Muslims” survives and God leaves the ruins “as a sign for those who fear the painful torment”.


Similarly, Chapter 52 (“The Mountain”) starts with a poetic verse using the certainty of a mountain to underline the certainty of “Your Lord’s torment”. In the contrasting description of heaven, we are told that “they shall pass a cup from hand to hand, wherein there is no drunken uproar, nor any wrongdoing” – more evidence that alcohol, and in this case passing a cup around – was a normal feature of a party at the time. But in heaven, you drink but don’t get drunk.

The author mocks the unbelievers. They say that he “improvised it” [the Qur’an] but are challenged to “bring forth a discourse like it”. They say they were created from nothing, but who then created everything? Was it them? Are they in “supreme control”? “Even if they see missiles raining down from the sky, they would say: ‘Massed clouds!'”. They will get their come-uppance when confronted with the real fire of hell.



Qur’an 29: Apocalypse, Jinn & a two-class heaven

This post cover Chapters 53-57 (“The Star”, “The Moon”, “The All-Merciful”, “The Calamity” and “Iron”).

“The Star” goes right back to basics and is apparently seen as one of the earliest chapters chronologically. Why it is chapter 53 and not chapter 1 is unclear.

It starts with an assurance from God that “your companion” (presumably Muhammed) is telling the truth about his revelations, and the then-traditional gods and goddesses (named as al-Lat, al-Uzza, Manzat) were just made up, “but names that you and your forefathers coined”. Interestingly it says nothing about a cave and an angel but reads as if God Himself appeared to Muhammed: “It is but an inspiration, inspired, taught him by one immense in power, daunting. He took his stand, being on the upper horizon, then drew near and hung suspended, and was two bows’ length, or nearer. And He revealed to His servant what He revealed.”

The voice of the deity here is a little less angry than in some of the other chapters. He is “expansive in His forgiveness” towards those who “refrain from major sins and debaucheries, save minor misdemeanours”. There’s no mention of hell fire, though we do get ancient towns and people destroyed (‘Ad and Thamud and “before them the people of Noah”), with the existence of ruins is taken as evidence of God’s vengeance.

And there are some ethics here too: “…no soul burdened shall bear the burden of another; …man shall gain only what he endeavours” which seems to contradict some other chapters where God decides people’s place in society. In addition to His role as creator, and the cause of “laughter and weeping”: “He is Lord of Sirius”, which was apparently the star worshipped by pre-Islamic Arabs.

What the author refers to here as the “Second Creation” (not the Last Day) is seen as just around the corner: “The Imminent Event is at hand!”


Chapter 54 (“The Moon”) carries on with the apocalyptic theme, but with less moderation. It starts with the news that “The Hour has drawn near, and the moon is split” – a warning that the foolish dismiss as sorcery. God resumes his vengeful tone as the author runs through the familiar list of peoples who He has destroyed: the people of Noah and their flood, ‘Ad who get a hurricane; Thamud and their “Scream” (apparently an earthquake); the people of Lot, who get violent hail.

God jeers at them as they suffer: “So how do you find My torment and My warnings?”  And hell fire is back: “The wicked are sunk in error and madness. A Day will come when they shall be dragged into the Fire, on their faces: ‘Taste the touch of the gate of hell’ “.

The short verse “And We made the Qur’an easy to remember, but is there anyone to recall it to mind?” appears twice. Presumably this is the basis for the tradition of memorising the Qur’an. Evidently, God was wrong on this one – it’s not easy.


Chapter 55 (“The All-Merciful”) is a change of gear. It’s written in a poetic style with the refrain “So which of your Lord’s blessings will the two of you deny?” On the basis of: “He created man from thin clay, like earthenware, and created the Jinn from shimmering flame. So which of your Lord’s blessings will the two of you deny?” it seems that “the two” refers to humans and Jinn, referred to later as “you two great masses of creation”. The Jinn are not, it seems, a fanciful add-on, but a major part of creation.

The inventory of wonders of creation that follows includes, intriguingly, “He brought the two seas together, but as they meet, between them is a barrier they do not overrun.” which sounds like a repeat of Chapter 25: “It is He who merged the two seas, this one fresh and sweet water, that one salty and bitter. Between them He erected a barrier, an impassable boundary.” This time, though, there’s no mention of fresh and salt water, so it seems to refer to a physical barrier.

We then get heaven and hell, where the gardens of heaven feature “…maidens, chaste of glance, undefiled before them by humans or Jinn” and “..maidens virtuous and beautiful…dark-eyed and confined to pavilions…undefiled before them by humans or Jinn”. Setting aside the sexism, that suggests that Jinn can have sex (or maybe that it wasn’t thought-out that well).


“The Calamity” (Chapter 56) explains how, on the Last Day “you shall be of three kinds…companions of the Right (the righteous who will have their heaven), companions of the Left (who have ignored the warnings, doubted the resurrection on the Last Day, and get “boiling water and the roasting of hell”)…and the surpassing, the truly surpassing. These shall be the nearest in the Garden of Bliss: a crowd of ancient communities, and a few from latter times”. It isn’t clear why these ancients get a privileged place in this 2-class heaven.


“Iron” (the title of Chapter 57) is simply among the creations God “sent down…in which there is great strength and benefits to mankind” but seems otherwise irrelevant. We hear again about the Creation, completed in six days, after which God “sat firmly on the throne”.  The author explains more about the organisation of heaven and hell: “A wall shall be erected between them in which there is a gate, with mercy on its outer and torment on its inner side”.

He reminds us that “the present life is but amusement, frivolity and finery, and mutual boasting among you and accumulation of wealth and progeny”….”this present life is but the rapture of delusion“.

The Christians get a special mention. Following Noah and Abraham and “their progeny…We sent Our messengers , and followed them up with Jesus son of Mary, and granted him the Evangel. In the hearts of those who followed him We planted kindness and compassion; and also a monasticism that they invented but which We did not ordain for them except to seek the pleasure of God. But they did not do it justice. Hence We granted those among them who believed their reward, but many of them are dissolute.”

“Let the People of the Book know that they are not entitled to any bounty from God, and that bounty rests in the hands of God, who dispenses it to whomsoever He wills.”

So no special treatment for Jews and Christians, but a repeat of the doctrine that all the “messengers” – including the Jewish prophets, Jesus and Muhammed – were on a par and anyone who heeded the message God conveyed through them will be ok.

“Kindness and compassion” are God-designated virtues, and were associated with Christian teaching.



Qur’an 30: Jesus foretells Muhammed?

This post cover Chapter 58-63  (“The Dispute”, “The Mustering”, “The Woman Tested”,  “The Battle-Line”, “Congregational Prayer”, “The Hypocrites”) Several of these chapters start with the line “Glorifying God is all that exists in the heavens and the earth…” – a bold claim about the purpose of life.

It seems that Chapter 58 (“The Dispute”) was written at a time when Muhammed was running a relatively stable society, presumably in Medina. The eponymous Dispute is a complaint by a wife about her husband. The author suggests that problem was that the husband had said to the wife: “You are to me like my mother’s back”. God apparently disapproves – wives are not mothers. In the case of “those who pronounce this formula to their wives and then retract”, the man has to free a slave or, if unable, fast for two consecutive months or, if unable, feed sixty poor people, before he and his wife are allowed to sleep with each other “in order that you [presumably the husband] be taught a lesson”. Why this is such a bad thing is unclear.

We then get three sets of guidance all suggesting that Muhammed is now the political boss. Firstly, he reminds us that God is always present in any conversation, so furtive conversations about “sin and crime and defiance of the Messenger” followed by effusive greetings to Muhammed, won’t work. God knows everything. Secondly, believers are told to “make room for each other in the assemblies”, and “if you are told to disperse, then disperse”. And finally, anyone who wants to have a private conversation with Muhammed is expected to offer a gift to charity “for this would be better for you and more pure”. But if you can’t then it may be ok to attend to your prayers, offer alms and “obey God and His Messenger”.  It’s clear who is in charge.

Presumably referring to a specific case (undisclosed) he rails against “those who took under their protection a group with whom God was angry [perhaps read ‘Muhammed was angry’]” and who then “swear false oaths”. They have it seems fallen under the power of Satan and will end up in the eternal Fire. “God has ordained ‘I and my Messengers shall prevail'”. The will of Muhammed and the will of God seem to merge.

Then there’s a disturbing verse: “You shall not find any group who believe in God and the Last Day to be friendly towards those who contradict God and His Messenger, even if they were their own fathers, sons, brothers or fellow clansmen.” The benign reading is that the context, coming after the section about people who protect those with whom God is angry, makes clear that “contradict” means “fight against” in a physical sense. He obviously needs to ensure the loyalty of his followers, and to deal with some of them being related to those on the other side. But it provides a nice quote for anyone wanting to encourage black-and-white/for-me-or-against me thinking.


In “The Mustering” (Chapter 59) we are back to war. As usual, the author makes no attempt to provide the context, presumably because it was “revealed” in the wake of events that he assumed his listeners would know about. Apparently the first part of the chapter is about the banishment of one of the Jewish tribes, Banu Nadir, who were expelled from Medina after being accused of plotting to assassinate Muhammed, with whom they had previously had an agreement. All we are told is that they  were “unbelievers among the People of the Book” and that the “Hypocrites” claimed to be their allies but then failed to come to their aid. According to the author, they should have been glad to have been expelled from their homes as “Had God not ordained expulsion upon them, He would have tormented them in this life”. Unfortunately “…in the hereafter they shall face the torment of the Fire [as they] rebelled against God and His Messenger, and whoso rebels against God, God is grievous in punishment.”

He then takes us back to the subject of war booty, previously mentioned in the “Booty” chapter (chapter 8), and frames some rules. Firstly you are not supposed to go to war for the purpose of gaining booty. Secondly, it has to be spread around: “Whatever God grants HIs Messenger in booty from the people of the towns belongs to God and His Messenger, as also to kinsmen, the orphans, the poor and the needy wayfarer, in order that wealth does not circulate solely among those of you who are rich….It belongs also to the poor Emigrants [presumably those who followed him out of Mecca, and…]…Whoso is guarded against his soul’s avarice – these shall win through”.

The final verses of the chapter are in the author’s voice, a poetic prayer running through God’s attributes: “knower of the Unseen and Seen…All Merciful, Compassionate to each….Sovereign, All-Holy, the Bringer of Peace, the all-Faithful, the All-Preserver, the Almighty, the All-Compelling, the All-Sublime; the Creator, Originator, Giver of Forms…All-Wise”.


“The Woman Tested” (Chapter 60) continues to reflect an environment of conflict. In this case, the target audience are believers who have links with those on the other side. In the case of “those who have not fought against you over religion, nor expelled you from your homes, God does not forbid you to treat them honourably and act with fairness towards them, for God loves those who act with fairness.” But he’s concerned about other cases, including where “you [believers] show them amity in secret”. The warning is that “neither kinships nor progeny shall avail you when He distinguishes between you on the Day of Resurrection…” against addressing the problem that some of his followers are related to people on the other side. He gives himself a get-out by saying “perhaps God will create affection between you and those among them with whom you were at enmity…”

There’s then a set of rules for dealing with women who change sides. The premise seems to be that every woman is someone’s wife and comes with a price tag of her bridal money. A husband is owed money if he loses his wife, and a man acquiring a new wife has to pay. So if a believing woman comes over from the unbelievers and passes an (unspecified) test of her faith, then: “give their husbands what they paid, and no blame shall attach to you if you marry them, provided you pay them their bridal money.” There’s even some community sharing:”If any of your wives flee to the unbelievers, and you afterwards fall on some booty, pay those whose  wives have fled the equal of what they had expended..”. Romance doesn’t get much of a look-in.


“The Battle-Line” (Chapter 61) title is from its first verse, which tells us that “it is abhorrent to God that you say what you do not do. God loves those who fight in His cause in a battle-line, like an edifice, impenetrable”.

But the most interesting are the following verses where the author provides examples from previous messengers. He quotes Jesus: “Children of Israel, I am the messenger of God to you, confirming what preceded me of the Torah, and I bring you glad tidings of a messenger to come after me called Ahmad”, which apparently refers to Muhammed. It would be interesting to know what Biblical scholars make of that. Ironically, a few lines later, he says “Who is more wicked than one who fabricates lies from God while being called to Islam.”

He goes on to say that, after the Apostles pledged to follow Jesus: “..a party of the Children of Israel believed while another party disbelieved. And We [God] aided those who believed against their enemies, and they ended up victorious.” Presumably the author knew nothing about the total victory of the Romans over the Jews at the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He’s making it up. On the other hand, by the 7th century, Christianity had become far more successful than Judaism, mainly because the Roman victors adopted it, and it ceased to be a predominantly ‘Jewish’ religion. His knowledge of history is sketchy at best.


The most notable section of “Congregational Prayer” (chapter 62) is an attack on “the likeness of those who carry the Torah but do not really carry it…..Say: ‘O you who are Jews, if you claim to be the friends of God, to the exclusion of the rest of mankind, then pray for death if you are sincere.’ But they will never pray for death because of what their hands have committed – and God knows best who the wicked are.” It seems to be an attack on those who claim to be the “Chosen People” but fail to live up to the commands of the Torah, perhaps Jewish tribes who sided against Muhammed. But it’s hard to see the logic behind the “if you are friends of God, pray for death” jibe, which could equally be applied to the author and his followers. And there seems to be an inconsistency with previous chapters, such as “The Cow” (Chapter 2), where he accepts the idea of God giving a preferred status of the Children of Israel, albeit that they had not always lived up to it.

There’s then an abrupt change of gear to talk about the call to prayer on “Congregation Day”, when people are supposed to “hasten to the remembrance of God, and leave your commerce aside”. Presumably this refers to Friday prayers, but there is no mention of a particular day of the week, or even that Congregation Day happens weekly.


“The Hypocrites” (chapter 63) is yet another attack on those, referred to here and elsewhere as “Hypocrites”, who claim to be Muhammed’s supporters but then change thier minds and become unbelievers.

It finishes with a warning to followers not to “let your wealth or your children divert you from the remembrance of God” on the basis that you should: “Expend from what We provided you before death” as it’s too late to say afterwards to God “if only You [God] held me back [from death] I would have given to charity and been among the virtuous.” While the timing of this encounter with God isn’t make clear, the author seems to suggest here that people encounter God when they die, while elsewhere he says that judgement takes place when everyone is resurrected on the Last Day. The theology is rather vague on this important point.



Qur’an 31: Divorce & more Jinn

This post covers Chapters 64-75  (“Mutual Recrimination”, “Divorce”, “Making Illicit”, “Sovereignty”, “The Pen”, “The Hour of Truth”, “Ascensions”, “Noah”, “The Jinn”, “Muffled”, Enfolded”and “Resurrection”).

“Mutual Recrimination” (Chapter 64) is largely a repeat of the Last Day doctrine, which here is referred to as the “Day of Gathering” and the “Day of Recrimination”. There’s the usual reward of “Gardens beneath which rivers flow” for those who believe in God and do good deeds, while “those who blasphemed and cried lies to Our revelations” become “denizens of the Fire, abiding therein for ever.”

Believers who have enemies “among your spouses and your children” get some ambivalent guidance. On one hand they are warned to be “on your guard against them”, on the other they are told that “..if  you pardon, disregard and forgive, God is All-Forgiving, Compassionate to each”. But the overall message is clear: “your wealth and your children are but a temptation, but with God is a splendid reward”. The rewards of the afterlife trump those of this life.

“Divorce” (Chapter 65) sets down a rule about the timing of divorce of wives by their husbands: “O Prophet, if you divorce women, divorce them in accordance with their periods of waiting…” which are then specified as 3 months for both menopausal women and, significantly, pre-menstrual ‘women’ – suggesting that young girls were not only married but, apparently, divorced. For pregnant women, “the appointed term is their date of delivery”. During these period of waiting: “do not expel them from their homes, nor should they leave their home, unless they commit a flagrant indecency” – so divorcees are confined to their homes until the special period is over. On the other hand “Allow them to reside where you reside…and do not pester them in order to constrict their lives. If pregnant, you are to pay their expenses until they deliver.” After the defined period “hold them back in amity or let them go in amity”.

This supplement to earlier passages about the treatment of women may have been sensible rule-making in 7th century Arabia, but it has disturbing implications if applied now. The premise is that men have multiple wives; that they may include pre-menstrual girls; that divorce is decided by the man; that there are no specified grounds for divorce, so it’s just up to the man; that it’s acceptable for a man to divorce a woman who is pregnant with his child. Overall, a divorced woman’s only right is apparently to be looked after the few months before the divorce takes effect. That’s it.

The final verse includes a new idea: we have heard before that “God it is Who created seven heavens …”, but not: “and their like on earth”. Presumably the theologians have had some fun with explaining what these seven heavens-on-earth are.

The first part of “Making Illicit” (Chapter 66) provides another example of the incompleteness of the Qur’an. But unlike previous cases, where knowledge of historical or military events is needed to make sense of the text, here we need to know what was going on in Muhammed’s private life. Firstly, he has God saying “O Prophet, who are you to make illicit what God has made licit to you, intending to appease your wives?” But he doesn’t explain what it was that he had “made illicit”to himself, or why.

God gets drawn into household politics: “Remember when the Prophet let one of his wives into a secret, but when she revealed it, and God acquainted him with the matter, he communicated a part of it and set aside another part. When he informed her of it, she asked: ‘Who informed you of this?’ He answered: ‘The All-Knowing and All-Experienced informed me.'”  That’s followed by a warning, presumably addressed to two of his wives: “Should you two seek God’s pardon, this is because your hearts have indeed swerved from the truth. But if you two were to come together against him, remember that God is his Patron…..It may be that, if he divorces you, his Lord may give him in exchange wives better than you: true Muslims, faithful, obedient, repentant, devout, and dedicated to fasting – whether married before or virgins.”. Muhammed invokes God, and the threat of divorce, to counteract two of his wives’ ganging up on him. We’re not even told their names.

Among a repeat of the usual exhortations to believe and repent, he makes another strange claim: “God strikes a parallel for unbelievers: the wife of Noah and the wife of Lot…both tied in marriage to ….righteous servants, and they both betrayed them. It was said to them: ‘Enter, both of you, into the Fire…’ ” We know about Lot’s wife. But it seems there’s nothing in the Torah – which Muhammed says is God’s word, on a par with the Qur’an – to say that Noah’s wife betrayed him. She is barely mentioned, and she’s not mentioned at all elsewhere in the Qur’an, including in the chapter called “Noah” (see below). Strange.

And here again he seems to make the mistake of saying that these two women have been sent to the Fire (past tense) when we’re still waiting for the Last Day, so presumably they have not yet been resurrected or judged.

There is little new in chapter 67 (“Sovereignty”), which includes a repeat of the seven heavens “piled one upon another” and the wonder of their perfection. But it then goes on: “We adorned the lower sky with lanterns, and made them to be volleys against the demons…” In chapters 15 and 27 he has given us the (bizarre) hypothesis that shooting stars are there to attack demons/Jinn who are trying to listen in to the angels. Here, the “lanterns” beautifying the night sky – the lowest of the seven heavens in Qur’anic cosmology – are the ordinary stars and planets, not (short-lived) shooting stars. Not only is the Qur’an not a book of science, but it is also sometimes inconsistent.

“The Pen” (chapter 68) differs from the previous chapter in its poetic style. Apparently it is chronologically one of the earliest chapters. But it covers familiar themes. The title comes from the first line “By the Pen, and by what they trace in lines!” – presumably referring to writing – and starts by God reassuring Muhammed that He’s on his side and that he shouldn’t listen to “the deniers”. (Was this a sort of therapy to help the author through a period of doubt?)

These “deniers” are apparently being “tested” by God. He gives a parable to make the point. Some farmers (“owners of the garden”) say they will harvest their garden when they get up at dawn the following day. But they fail to say “God willing” (inshallah) before they go to bed. So God destroys their crops during the night. The next morning, when they find out, they realise their mistake in failing to glorify God, and end up “in mutual reproach”. God rattles his sabre: “Such is Our torment, but the torment of the hereafter  is far more grievous, if only they knew.”

It’s not difficult to guess the main theme of “The Hour of Truth” (chapter 69). On the Day of Judgement, good believers will take their book – presumably the book of their deeds and misdeeds – with their right hand, and end up with “a life of contentment in a lofty Garden….” as their reward. In contrast, the unbeliever who never “encouraged the feeding of the poor” is “handed his book with his left hand” and is full of regret: ‘Seize him and shackle him, then scorch him in hell, then lash him to a chain, seventy arms in length.’ Is right-handedness associated with good and left with bad?

The first line of “Ascensions” (chapter 70) is “A questioner questioned the imminent torment” and it carries on with the familiar theme. Those who avoid “..the blazing Flame, the stripper of scalps” are those who pray, who believe in the Day of Judgement and “fear the Lord’s torment”, who give a share of their wealth to “the beggar and the indigent” and – notably – who “guard their chastity, save with their spouses and slaves, when no blame attaches to them.” Once again he confirms that judgement happens only on the Last Day, “when they are turned out of their tombs”.

“Noah” (chapter 71) is a brief run through of Noah’s failed attempts to get people to give up idolatry – the named gods being pre-Islamic Arabic ones that would presumably be familiar to the author’s audience, rather than any that might have been around in Noah’s time. It culminates with Noah asking God to send the flood, but to “forgive me, and forgive my parents, and forgive believing men and believing women…”.

It’s ironic that, in the chapter actually named “Noah” there’s no mention of his wife, who in “Making Illicit” (chapter 66) is held up alongside Lot’s wife as an example of a prophet’s wife who lets the side down.

“The Jinn” get their own chapter title (chapter 72), which starts with God giving Muhammed a revelation from the view-point of a group of Jinn. It’s a repeat of familiar material, including the prohibition of associating anyone with God. And we get the fantasy of the protective shooting stars, this time from the Jinn perspective: “we [the group of Jinn] probed the sky and found it filled with mighty guards and shooting stars…we would seat ourselves nearby, to listen [presumably nearby the angels to align with the earlier narrative], but whoever listens now is pursued by a shooting star lying in wait”. It seems that the Jinn can also be Muslims. Those who are “transgressors” shall be “the fire-wood for hell”.

An interesting line here is “Say: ‘I know not whether what you are promised is imminent, or whether my Lord shall set a longer term for it'” which seems to be out of line with previous chapters saying that the Last Day is imminent. For example “The Star” (chapter 53, considered one of the earliest chapters chronologically): “The Imminent Event is at hand!”, and Chapter 40 (“The Forgiver”): “Warn them of the Day, soon to come…”.

“Muffled” (chapter 73) refers to people muffled in their garments when they get up at night to pray. The guidance here seems to be to spent as much time as you’re able praying during the night, whether it’s two thirds, a half, or a third, recognising that “among you are th sick, and other who travel the land…and that still others are fighting in the cause of God.”

Continuing the textile theme, “Enfolded” (chapter 74) is laid out a poem in my edition. The contents are the usual warnings of the hell that awaits unbelievers, and in particular God’s wrath about a specific, un-named, wealthy man who gives due consideration to the Message but concludes that “This is nothing but sorcery, time-worn; nothering but human speech”. He gets the Fire. Similarly, “Resurrection” (chapter 75) covers the same theme, having first provided a riposte to those who doubt the mass physical resurrection that is promised: “Does man imagine We shall not reassemble his bones?”. Whenever these chapters were written, the author was encountering sceptics.



 Qur’an 32: The Prophet’s mistake & religious persecution

The chapters are getting shorter. This post covers chapters 76-87  (“Man”, “Unleashed”, “The Proclamation”, “The Dispatchers”, “He Frowned”, “Rolling Up”, Disintegration”, “Those who shortchange”, “The Splitting”m “The Constellations”, “The Night Intruder” and “The Highest”).

 “Man” (chapter 76) repeats the familiar theme of heaven for believers who do good works, and hell for the rest, but in the poetic tone set in other “later” chapters, beginning:
“Surely there came upon man a span of time, when he was a thing not worth remembering! We created man from a sperm drop of fluids comingled, that We may test him; and formed him to hear and see. We guided him upon the way, be he grateful or ungrateful”.

There’s no mention here of creation from clay – the version in several chapters – or “dust, then from a sperm, then from a blood clot” (chapter 40) or water (Chapter 25 “It is He Who, from water, created man…”). While the author has talked about creation from sperm elsewhere, it’s unclear what “fluids comingled” refers to. In the following chapter, “Unleashed” (chapter 77) there’s a similar origin, but in this case with a reference to the womb and gestation: “Did We not create you from a trivial fluid, which We deposited in a haven, secure, until a designated term?” So far there’s no reference to the need for an egg, which presumably was unknown at the time.

God’s motivation for creating man was apparently to “test him”.

The author gives us a more detailed description of the heavenly garden. It promises “neither burning sun nor piercing cold….ewers of silver and chalices of crystal, crystal-like silver, perfectly proportioned….a cup mixed with ginger from a fountain…called Salsabil…passing among them…eternal youths: if you see them you would think them scattered pearls…green silk and brocade…silver bracelets…” No chaste and beautiful young women are mentioned this time. It’s a heaven of seventh century material luxury.

Believers should do good – the example given is feeding “the poor, the orphan and the prisoner” – not because they expect a reward or thanks from them, but “only for the sake of God” and because they have the promise of heaven if they had “fulfilled their vows, and feared a Day whose evil is far-flung”. The implication is that good actions are to be driven by the desire to avoid eternal torture and opt for the material rewards of heaven. There is no mention of empathy or compassion.

Once more we get the odd logic implying that it’s in part God’s fault if people fail to take the path of righteousness: “Whoso wishes may follow a path to his Lord; and you cannot so wish unless God wishes.”

“Unleashed” (chapter 77) is written as a poem, with the refrain “Alas that Day, for the deniers!” It’s yet another repeat of what will happen to all the “deniers” throughout history on the Last Day, here referred to as the “Day of Separation”.

“The Proclamation” (chapter 78) apparently refers to the Qur’an itself, which some – he doesn’t say who – “question each other about”, but “will surely know”. The chapter is the usual repetition of the threat of the Day of Separation. We are told that, in the hell awaiting transgressors, “they taste neither coolness nor anything to drink, save boiling water and filthy scum…“. The garden of heaven promised to the pious is this time complete with “companions, shapely and alike of age”.

But here the Last Day has an odd feature: “That Day, the Spirit and the angels shall stand in rows.” There’s no explanation of what is meant by the “Spirit”? Could the “Holy Spirit” have crept in somehow from Christianity?

“The Dispatchers” (chapter 79) repeats the same basic message, but with some variations. It starts with God swearing on an unexplained list of beings, starting with: “By those that dispatch, to the very limit!” (also translated as “By those that wrest violently”, though that is no clearer), that the Day will come, here with an earthquake.

Moses makes an appearance as an example of a messenger who preached truth to power – in his case Pharoah – and the result when he was ignored.

There’s a run-down of the wonders of creation, with the sky as a “canopy…fashioned …to perfection”, implying the same idea as in Qaf (chapter 50) that part of the evidence of the God as creator is the fact that the sky has no cracks. Similarly, “the mountains He anchored” echoes chapter 50 (“Luqman”): “He…cast upon the earth towering mountains, lest it should shake you violently”. The author sees mountains as anchored into the surface of the earth, rather than folds in its strata – an understandable error for the seventh century. Overall, the earth is “all for your enjoyment, and for your cattle”.

As in “Noah” (chapter 71), the author says he doesn’t know about the timing of the Last Day. God says “But what have you to do with marking it? Its closure is up to your Lord”. That contrasts with the warning he gives that it’s imminent in, for example, “The Star” (chapter 53) and “The Forgiver” (chapter 40).

Most of “He Frowned” (chapter 80) is the usual material about creation and resurrection on the Last Day. But it starts with what looks like something new: the author admonishing himself (or rather writing that God admonished him) because “He frowned and turned aside when the blind man approached him”, while giving his attention to another man “Whose wealth has made him vain”. God says: “it is not up to you if he [the wealthy man] does not cleanse his sins” while the blind man “came to you in earnest endeavour, in piety”.

There seem to be two rather important messages here. Firstly, Muhammed is, by his own admission (or according to God), not perfect. He can make a mistake. Secondly, each person is free to decide whether or not to hear the message.

“Rolled Up” (chapter 81) has three distinct sections:

  • A poetic description of the Last Day, starting “When the sun is rolled up…” and including a condemnation of what was apparently a pre-Islamic practice of burying newborn girls alive (also mentioned in “previous” chapter) “For what crime was she murdered…”.
  • A section in which the author emphasises his God-given credentials. He has God swearing “by the planets…” that “..this is the speech of a noble envoy: he is a figure of great power, in high esteem with the Lord of the throne, obeyed in heaven, worthy of trust.”
  • An ambiguous section, which after an assurance that the Prophet is not mad, says “He saw him on the open horizon…”. Who “him” refers to is not explained. Apparently there’s some dispute over whether this refers to the angel Gabriel or to Muhammed himself. Either way, it seems to add little.

“The Disintegration” (chapter 82) starts in the same way. In this case with “When the sky disintegrates…”. There’s a reminder that “there are watchers over you, noble scribes, who know what you do” so there’s no escaping the consequences – a reference to the two recording angels supposedly accompanying everyone and recording their deeds in a book for use on the Last Day, as described in “Qaf” (chapter 50).

“Those who short-change” (chapter 83) provides a variant on the apocalyptic repetition by warning that people who cheat in trading will also get their come-uppance on the Last Day.

There are apparently two compilations of all the personal records the recording angels keep. Those of the “dissolute” are in a book called “Sijjin”, while those of the righteous are in “Illiyyun”. It’s not explained why God needs these compilations, or why it was necessary to make up names for them, but it underlines the black-and-white nature of the whole vision and the way the author is elaborating it: you’re either “dissolute” and destined for hell, or “righteous” en route to heaven, which in this case features a fountain called “Tasmin”. There is no middle way. The implication is that there is little or no differentiation between someone who is only just over the line and the worst sinner.

Among the sinners are those who “would once laugh at the faithful, and, when passing them by, would wink and snigger; returning home, they would return in high spirits…” This has a ring of authenticity about it. Whenever this chapter was written, he was grappling with sceptics and mockery.

“The Splitting” (chapter 84) is more of the same. It seems to be a chronologically “late” chapter, as it refers to unbelievers failing to believe even when they hear the Quran recited to them.

Along with the usual apocalyptic material, “The Constellation” (chapter 85) includes a reference to what appears to be a specific example of religious persecution: the “People of the Trench, with its fire and faggots, as they sat above it, witnessing what they did to the faithful! All they held against them was their belief in God…” According to my translation, this is thought by some commentators to refer to a massacre of Christians by a “Jewish South Arabian king”. Once again, the context is unexplained, though the message seems to be clear. But it leaves open the question of how generalised it is: is it equally wrong to kill people for beliefs the author disagrees with?

The final verse is odd: “In truth, this is an august Qur’an, in a well-guarded tablet”.

“The Night Intruder” (chapter 86) refers to the wonder of “a star of piercing dazzle” in the night sky. Man was here “created from water, discharged, issuing from between the man’s backbone and the woman’s breasts”. Another translation (the “Study Quran”) says “He was created from a gushing fluid , issuing from between the loins and the pelvic arch”, which makes more sense. Both the star and the wonder of human reproduction are claimed as evidence of God’s power, and hence that the promise of resurrection on the Last Day should be believed.

“The Highest” (chapter 87) repeats the usual messages, but finishes “This is all in ancient scrolls, the scrolls of Abraham and Moses” – a reminder of the claim that God’s message in the Qur’an is the same as in the Torah.



Qur’an 33: Poetry & “The Night of Power”

The chapters are getting pretty short now. This post covers Chapters 88-98 (“The Overspreading Pall”, “The Dawn”, “The City”, “The Sun”, “The Night”, “Prime of Morning”, “Soothing”, “The Fig”, “The Blood Clot”, “Power”, and “Manifest Proof”).

“The Overspreading Pall” (chapter 88) is, of course, hell. As well as being scorched by the customary “blazing Fire” and “quaffed by a boiling spring”, we now hear that its inhabitants have no food apart from “bitter cactus that fattens not, nor assuages hunger”. Meanwhile, those in heaven enjoy the usual benefits.

Here, the reasons to believe include: “how camels were created…how the sky was uplifted…how the mountains were moored” – again the ideas that the sky is a surface raised like a canopy, and mountains are plonked on top of the earth’s surface.

In “The Dawn” (chapter 89) the author reminds us of previous tribes and leaders who ignored God’s message and were therefore destroyed: ‘Ad, Thamud, Pharoah and a new one, Iram (which might actually be a city in ‘Ad). Again the author assumes the reader will know who these are. And again he reminds us that good deeds can be “laid up” like an investment for a good afterlife.

“The City” (chapter 90) presumably refers to Mecca. Most of the chapter seems to be about what it means to “storm the Steep”, apparently referring to more challenging good deeds, with freeing a slave or feeding an orphan during a famine  given as possible examples. Those who do them “are the People of the hand dextral” – companions of the right hand.

“The Sun” (chapter 91) again starts with an oath made on a poetic list of the wonders of creation, working from the sun – perhaps as an analogue for God – to the “symmetry” of a soul, with inclinations to both piety and perversion:

“By the sun and its morning glow! By the moon, in its tow! By the day, when it burnishes it! By the night, when it cloaks it! By the sky and He Who built it! By the earth and He Who levelled it! By the soul and He Who gave it symmetry, inspiring it with its perversion and its piety! Prosperous is he who purifies it; lost is he who stifles it.”

What is not clear is who is taking the oath – presumably God – or what He is then taking it  about, providing commentators with an opening to make up an answer.

(Here, and elsewhere, my translation refers to the earth “levelled”. Others – ref Study Quran – say “spread”, so it’s not clear if this provides any basis for a “flat earth” claim.)

The final verses are a reminder of what happened to Thamud when its people called the messenger God had sent to them a liar. They were “effaced”.

“The Night” (chapter 92) starts similarly to the beginning of The Sun, this time “By the night,…..”. Most of it is about the benefits of being generous and pious and believing, as opposed to “miserly and selfish” and disbelieving. Strangely, in each case, God “eases his way” towards virtue or evil. While the Fire awaits the sinner, we are told that the pious can avoid it if he: “…hands over his wealth, hoping for purity, and none has done him any favour that merits recompense, save only his desire to find favour with his Lord”. There’s a strong emphasis here on financial charity, but the motivation is the desire to avoid an eternity of torment.

“Prime of Morning” (chapter 93) is one of the gentler of these “final” chapters, and one of a few which make me understand why some people say the Qur’an is beautiful. It’s actually probably an early one chronologically, written as God addressing Muhammed:

“By prime of morning, and night when it settles! Your Lord has not abandoned you, nor distains! The Last is better for you than the First. Your Lord shall give you, and you shall be content. Did He not find you an orphan, and sheltered you? And found you erring, and guided you? And found you dependent, and enriched you?
The orphan you must not aggrieve, and the beggar you must not revile, and your Lord’s blessings proclaim.

“Soothing” and “The Fig” (chapters 94 and 95) are short and say nothing new.

In “The Blood Clot” (chapter 96), as well as the usual injunction to wonder at God’s creation, there’s a section about “one who forbids a worshipper as he prays”, apparently referring to someone who opposed Muhammed and the practices of his followers. We are left to guess who it is, but not at the promised reaction by God “We shall summon the watchmen of hell”.

“Power” (chapter 97) is very short, but different. It’s about the “revelation” of the Qur’an itself: “We sent it down in the Night of Power” which is “better than a thousand months. In it the angels and the Spirit are sent swarming down, by their Lord’s leave, attending to every command.” Apparently Muslims believe this was “the night when the first verses of the Quran were revealed…It is one of the odd nights of the last ten days of Ramadan. Muslims believe that on this night the blessings and mercy of Allah are abundant, sins are forgiven, supplications are accepted, and that the annual decree is revealed to the angels who also descend to earth.” The idea of a single night when the Quran was “sent down”, versus the 23 years over which Muhammed is claimed to have received his revelations are reconciled by the belief that there was a two-stage process: firstly, God revealed the entire thing in one go to the angel Gabriel; he then drip-fed it to Muhammed over the next 23 years, with the first revelation also on the Night of Power.

Why this theologically important verse is buried among these repetitive final chapters is unclear.

In “Manifest Proof” (chapter 98) we are told that the “unbelievers among the People of the Book and the idolators were of diverse views until there came to them a manifest proof: a Messenger from God, reciting untainted scrolls. In them are canonical writings.” And they did not “splinter” until afterwards, with those who then blasphemed or remained idolaters destined for the Fire.

He is apparently referring to Judaism, Christianity and Islam as he goes on to explain how simple the message is: “They had been commanded only to worship God in sincerity of religion and pristine of faith, to perform the prayers, and to pay the alms. This is the canonical religion.” The implication is that the “untainted scrolls” are God’s Master Book from which, as we have heard before, the Torah, ‘Evangel’ and Qur’an are drawn.



Qur’an 34: Pluralism, Victory & Protection

This final post in the series covers chapters 99-114 (“The Quake”, “The Charging Stallions”, “The Battering”, “Rivalry in Wealth”, “Afternoon”, “The Backbiter”, “The Elephant”, “Quraysh”, “Liberality”, “Abundance”, “The Unbelievers”, “Victory”, “Fibre”, “True Devotion”, “Break of Dawn”, and “Mankind”).

“The Quake” (chapter 99) takes us back to yet another version of the Last Day, when “mankind will come out in scattered throngs” – presumably following instantaneous resurrection – and “be shown their rights and wrongs”.

“The Charging Stallions” (chapter 100) is another complaint that “man…for love of wealth he is miserly to excess” and ignores warnings of judgement. There’s a similar message two chapters later in “Rivalry in Wealth” (chapter 102), this time about competing with others in wealth.

“The Battering” (chapter 101) seems to be about chaos of the Last Day, though that isn’t made explicit.

“Afternoon” (chapter 103) is claimed to contain the entire message of the Qur’an, which – after an opening “By the afternoon!”- it states very simply: “Man is surely amiss! All save those who believe, who do righteous deeds, who enjoin truth upon one another, who enjoin patience upon one another.” Not bad.

“The Backbiter” (chapter 104) warns those who defame others, and who hoard their wealth, that they’re destined for the Fire.

According to the Study Quran, “The Elephant” (chapter 105) relates to events supposed to have taken place shortly before Muhammed’s birth, when a neighbouring king set up a church in order to lure pilgrims away from the Kaaba, and when that failed, he sent an army with an elephant (or elephants) to pull it down. But they were miraculously defeated by a flock of birds which pelted them with hot stones leaving them “like worm-eaten leaves”. This is a cracking story. Unfortunately, the author chose not to include it and the text leaves the reader guessing what it’s all about.

“The Quraysh” (chapter 106) –  the name of Muhammed’s tribe, and the guardians of the Kaaba – having been saved from the People of the Elephant, are urged to “worship the Lord of this House”, presumably meaning they should accept that God is the boss of the Kaaba, and not the idols it contains.

“Liberality” (chapter 107) starts by equating a person who “denies the Judgement” with someone who “drives away the orphan, who enjoins not the feeding of the poor” – a false accusation familiar to many atheists and humanists. It then attacks “those who pray” but are insincere.

“Abundance” (chapter 108) is the shortest in the Qur’an – just three lines: “We gave to you in abundance, so pray to your Lord, and sacrifice. He who baits you: it is he who shall be childless!” OK.

“The Unbelievers” (chapter 109) is surprising. Apparently it’s an early chapter and strikes a very different tone to the some of those that came later, including the next chapter (110). It reads as an acceptance of religious pluralism (it seems atheists didn’t come into it at that stage): “Say: ‘O unbelievers! I do not worship what you worship, nor do you worship what I worship, nor will I ever worship what you worship, nor will you ever worship what I worship. You have your religion, and I have mine.'”

“Victory” (chapter 110) is then a huge contrast: “When there comes the victory of God, and the Conquest, and you see people entering the religion of God in swarms, glorify the praises of your Lord, and ask His forgiveness, for He is ever pardoning.” It is, according to the Study Qur’an, considered to be probably the last chapter to have been “revealed in its entirety”. Apparently the victory in question is generally taken to mean Muhammed’s conquest of Mecca and the adoption of Islam by the Meccans, though it doesn’t actually say taht. Read – as in my translation – in the future tense, it is easy to see how it can be related to the spread of Islam beyond its Arab home by military means.

[I guess the argument that the Qur’an only permits the use of force in defence, and then in line with its rules of war, could be sustained even with the conquest of Mecca, on the basis that the Meccans were the aggressors in the first place. But it doesn’t work if applied to Islam’s spread after Muhammed’s death.]

“Fibre” (chapter 111) makes it abundantly clear that Muhammed doesn’t like “Abu Lahab” (a hated uncle according to my translation), or his wife: “..His wealth shall not avail him, nor what he earned. He shall be scorched by a fire, ablaze, as too his wife, carrying the faggots; around her neck is a rope of fibre.”  There’s no explanation here of what Abu Lahab has done to deserve this fate, nor whether his wife was guilty in her own right or – more likely – simply by association. Why it’s included is unclear.

“True Devotion” (chapter 112) simply says that God is “unique…neither begetting nor begotten, and none can be His peer”.

The final two short chapters, “Break of Dawn” (chapter 113) and “Mankind” (chapter 114) are prayers for protection from evil – and the Jinn make a final guest appearance:

  • “Break of Dawn”: “Say: ‘I seek refuge with the Lord of the break of dawn! From the evil He created, from the evil of the approaching night, from the evil of women who blow on knots, from the evil of the envier when he envies'”
  • “Mankind”: “Say: ‘I seek refuge with the Lord of mankind, King of mankind, God of mankind, from the evil of the One who whispers and recoils, who whispers in the hearts of mankind, of Jinn and mankind'”


And that’s the end.


2 December 2016


Qur’an 34: Pluralism, Victory & Protection

I’m a British humanist reading The Qur’an (Tarif Khalidi’s translation) and blogging about it as I go. I’m doing my best not to make assumptions, apart from assuming it was written – not necessarily in the order given – by a man (or men) in Arabia in the 7th century. I realise that some Muslims will consider the whole exercise blasphemous, and some anti-theists will say it’s not critical enough. The aim is not to be offensive, but simply to share a personal, non-scholarly, view of one of the most influential texts of our time. [More…]

This final post in the series covers chapters 99-114 (“The Quake”, “The Charging Stallions”, “The Battering”, “Rivalry in Wealth”, “Afternoon”, “The Backbiter”, “The Elephant”, “Quraysh”, “Liberality”, “Abundance”, “The Unbelievers”, “Victory”, “Fibre”, “True Devotion”, “Break of Dawn”, and “Mankind”).

“The Quake” (chapter 99) takes us back to yet another version of the Last Day, when “mankind will come out in scattered throngs” – presumably following instantaneous resurrection – and “be shown their rights and wrongs”.

“The Charging Stallions” (chapter 100) is another complaint that “man…for love of wealth he is miserly to excess” and ignores warnings of judgement. There’s a similar message two chapters later in “Rivalry in Wealth” (chapter 102), this time about competing with others in wealth.

“The Battering” (chapter 101) seems to be about chaos of the Last Day, though that isn’t made explicit.

“Afternoon” (chapter 103) is claimed to contain the entire message of the Qur’an, which – after an opening “By the afternoon!”- it states very simply: “Man is surely amiss! All save those who believe, who do righteous deeds, who enjoin truth upon one another, who enjoin patience upon one another.” Not bad.

“The Backbiter” (chapter 104) warns those who defame others, and who hoard their wealth, that they’re destined for the Fire.

According to the Study Quran, “The Elephant” (chapter 105) relates to events supposed to have taken place shortly before Muhammed’s birth, when a neighbouring king set up a church in order to lure pilgrims away from the Kaaba, and when that failed, he sent an army with an elephant (or elephants) to pull it down. But they were miraculously defeated by a flock of birds which pelted them with hot stones leaving them “like worm-eaten leaves”. This is a cracking story. Unfortunately, the author chose not to include it and the text leaves the reader guessing what it’s all about.

“The Quraysh” (chapter 106) –  the name of Muhammed’s tribe, and the guardians of the Kaaba – having been saved from the People of the Elephant, are urged to “worship the Lord of this House”, presumably meaning they should accept that God is the boss of the Kaaba, and not the idols it contains.

“Liberality” (chapter 107) starts by equating a person who “denies the Judgement” with someone who “drives away the orphan, who enjoins not the feeding of the poor” – a false accusation familiar to many atheists and humanists. It then attacks “those who pray” but are insincere.

“Abundance” (chapter 108) is the shortest in the Qur’an – just three lines: “We gave to you in abundance, so pray to your Lord, and sacrifice. He who baits you: it is he who shall be childless!” OK.

“The Unbelievers” (chapter 109) is surprising. Apparently it’s an early chapter and strikes a very different tone to the some of those that came later, including the next chapter (110). It reads as an acceptance of religious pluralism (it seems atheists didn’t come into it at that stage): “Say: ‘O unbelievers! I do not worship what you worship, nor do you worship what I worship, nor will I ever worship what you worship, nor will you ever worship what I worship. You have your religion, and I have mine.'”

“Victory” (chapter 110) is then a huge contrast: “When there comes the victory of God, and the Conquest, and you see people entering the religion of God in swarms, glorify the praises of your Lord, and ask His forgiveness, for He is ever pardoning.” It is, according to the Study Qur’an, considered to be probably the last chapter to have been “revealed in its entirety”. Apparently the victory in question is generally taken to mean Muhammed’s conquest of Mecca and the adoption of Islam by the Meccans, though it doesn’t actually say taht. Read – as in my translation – in the future tense, it is easy to see how it can be related to the spread of Islam beyond its Arab home by military means.

[I guess the argument that the Qur’an only permits the use of force in defence, and then in line with its rules of war, could be sustained even with the conquest of Mecca, on the basis that the Meccans were the aggressors in the first place. But it doesn’t work if applied to Islam’s spread after Muhammed’s death.]

“Fibre” (chapter 111) makes it abundantly clear that Muhammed doesn’t like “Abu Lahab” (a hated uncle according to my translation), or his wife: “..His wealth shall not avail him, nor what he earned. He shall be scorched by a fire, ablaze, as too his wife, carrying the faggots; around her neck is a rope of fibre.”  There’s no explanation here of what Abu Lahab has done to deserve this fate, nor whether his wife was guilty in her own right or – more likely – simply by association. Why it’s included is unclear.

“True Devotion” (chapter 112) simply says that God is “unique…neither begetting nor begotten, and none can be His peer”.

The final two short chapters, “Break of Dawn” (chapter 113) and “Mankind” (chapter 114) are prayers for protection from evil – and the Jinn make a final guest appearance:

  • “Break of Dawn”: “Say: ‘I seek refuge with the Lord of the break of dawn! From the evil He created, from the evil of the approaching night, from the evil of women who blow on knots, from the evil of the envier when he envies'”
  • “Mankind”: “Say: ‘I seek refuge with the Lord of mankind, King of mankind, God of mankind, from the evil of the One who whispers and recoils, who whispers in the hearts of mankind, of Jinn and mankind'”


And that’s the end.