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.