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

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…]

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 7: Freedom of belief & multiple Noahs

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 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.