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…]
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”….