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.