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…]
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 [correction: I guess there isn’t a “flow” if everyone is judged at around the same time, on the Last Day] 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 chose “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.