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…]
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.
[Update: 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.”