Qur’an 10: (Not) The Night Journey

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’m realising that each chapter should probably be taken as a stand-alone piece, which would go some way to explaining all the repetition. A phrase here suggests that’s the intention, talking about “…a Qur’an We [God] divided in distinct parts, so that you may recite it to people unhurriedly.” Confusingly the author then adds “And We [God] revealed it in succession”, which has clearly not translated into the ordering of the chapters, which is in anything but a logical succession.

The name given to Chapter 17 in Tarif Khalili’s translation is “The Journey By Night”, and I’d expected it to give the story of Muhammed’s famous magical flight. He’s supposed to have been transported on a winged horse-like animal to Jerusalem and then to heaven where Moses took him through seven spheres of heaven and he negotiated with God to get the number of daily prayers down from 50 to five. But all the Qur’an actually says is “Glory be to Him Who carried His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Furthest Mosque, whose precincts We have blessed to show him of our wonders…” That’s it.

The belief held by many (not all) Muslims that The Night Journey was a real physical event, winged horse and all, is apparently only loosely based on/reflected in the Qur’an.

Apparently the story is actually in the Hadiths (reported sayings of the prophet, written down many years later). Even the assumption that “the Furthest Mosque” refers to the site in Jerusalem now occupied by the Al-Aqsa (Furthest) Mosque is apparently open to question. The mosque itself was not built till well after Muhammed’s death.

The author devotes more space in the chapter to a section about the Children of Israel, repeating that God gave “the Book” to Moses for their guidance. But he then says: “And We decreed to the Children of Israel in the Book: ‘You shall corrupt the earth twice, and shall soar to a great height. When the time came for the first of two promises, We sent against you servants of Ours, of great might, and they marched across your habitation, shedding blood – a promise fulfilled.” Presumably this refers to the invasion of Israel and destruction of Solomon’s temple by the Babylonians. After that “We granted you the counter-attack against them…” everything went ok but “…the second promise arrived, We sent against you servants of Ours, to abase your faces, to break into the temple as they did once before and to destroy utterly whatever they laid their hands upon.” This is presumably the bloody siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the second temple by the Romans.

So it seems that the Babylonians were God’s servants when they destroyed Solomon’s original temple and so were the Romans when they destroyed its replacement in 70AD – despite being the dominant colonial power brutally putting down a rebellion. Hmmm…

Once more here we get the idea of God leading people astray and then punishing them for it: “He whom God guides is truly guided; he whom He leads astray, for him you will find no protectors apart from Him….Their refuge will be hell; whenever its flames subside, We intensify the blaze upon them.” God maximises the pain.

Towards the end of a section about individual records against which we’ll be judged, the author adds: “If We [God] desire to destroy a town, We order its men of luxury, and they indulge in sin, so Our just decree comes to pass upon it, and We destroy it utterly.”

God not only decides, for no apparent reason, to destroy towns – which presumably means human suffering on a massive scale – but He first arranges for wealthy people in the town to sin so that He can justify doing it, presumably to Himself.

The chapter repeats a list of (largely) benign commandments, though there’s still no sign of the Golden Rule (treat others are you would wish to be treated if you were them). The list is similar, but not identical, to the one in chapter 6 (“Cattle”): show “graciousness to parents”; give “kinsmen their due, as also the poor and the wayfarer”; mysteriously: “Let not your hand be chained to your neck, nor spread it out as far as it extends , or else you will end up worthy of blame, regretful.” which apparently means don’t be either mean or extravagant; “Do not kill your infants for fear of poverty” as God will help provide for them and “Killing them is a mighty sin”; “Do not come near to adultery” – don’t even think about it; do not “kill the soul which God declares hallowed except in justice”, with the addition: “Whoever is killed unjustly, We have granted authority [for retribution] to his guardian. But he should not exceed the limit in killing, for he has already obtained divine support” – an-eye-for-an-eye, but not more; “Do not come near the property of orphans”; “Be faithful to compacts”; “Be fair in weights and measures”; ironically for a humanist reader: “Follow not what you have no knowledge of: hearing, sight and heart” – act based on evidence;  “Do not stride forth jauntily on earth” – presumably a warning against arrogance and hubris. The differences in these lists are additions, not contradictions – for example, there’s nothing in chapter 6 about striding forth jauntily, which was presumably added in response to a particular incident or issue.

There’s a repeat here of guidance on religious practice, particularly prayer. It does not say you have to pray five times a day, but rather “Perform the prayer at the setting of the sun and until darkness of night and the Recitation of dawn”.

There’s also an optional extra prayer in the middle of the night as “an act of supererogation for you. Perhaps your Lord will resurrect you in a commendable situation.” It’s not clear what “a commendable situation” is, other than ensuring a place in heaven rather that hell.

Prayer is not supposed to be silent, or shouted: “Do not raise your voice in prayer, nor whisper it, but seek a middle way between.” It’s not clear why.

He also explains that the purpose of prayer is both to reinforce faith and help believers separate themselves from unbelievers: “When you recite the Qur’an, We place between you and those who do not believe in the hereafter an impenetrable screen. Upon their hearts We draped veils lest they understand it, and in their ears heaviness…”  That’s important to the author in defending against backsliding: “There was a time when they almost beguiled you away from what We had revealed to you….whereupon they would have taken you for a friend. Had We not made you stand firm, you were about to lean a little towards them. Had you done so, We would have made you taste a double torment in this world, and double after death.” Sadly, it always comes back to fear and torture.

The author is confident in the (divine) quality of the Qur’an: “Say:’Were humans and Jinn to band together to produce a semblance of this Qur’an they could not do so, even if they back one another up.” Setting aside the Jinn, I can imagine that many modern authors and editors would agree with that, but probably not for the same reason as the author.

The chapter contains other familiar points, including:

Hell for unbelievers: Unbelievers and those who worship false gods or claim the true God has “associates” will go to hell. Belief is not only in God, but also in the afterlife: “He who desires this fleeting world, We fleetingly grant him therein whatever We please, to whomever We desire, and then We consign him to hell – there to be scorched, disgraced, confuted!”

Miracles: God no longer does miracles as they made no difference to people’s disbelief when He tried them. Instead Muhammed is urged to say: “Am I anything other than a human being, a Messenger?”

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Qur’an 9: Bees, apostasy & inequality

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…]

Emerging strongly from the usual mix of topics in Chapter 16 (“The Bees”) is the idea that God created everything for the benefit of mankind: “He made the night to serve you as also the day, the sun, the moon and the stars – all are made to serve by His command. It is He who made the sea to serve you so that you may eat from it soft flesh and extract from it jewellery for you to wear.”

I’m about half way through the Qur’an now, but this was the first time that I had a real feeling for the author’s sense of wonder at creation. It’s all amazing. He knew little about how it really works, and had no idea of the true scale of the Earth and the Universe, so what may appear to us as an arrogantly anthropocentric perspective is perhaps understandable.

The eponymous bees provide another example: “Your Lord inspired the bees: ‘Take the mountains for your habitation, as also the trees and what they erect on a trellis. Then eat all fruits and follow the paths of your Lord, made easy for you.’ From their entrails comes a drink, of diverse colours, in which there is a remedy for mankind. It is a sign for people to reflect.” He doesn’t explain what honey is a remedy for.

Mountains exist to weigh down the earth and protect us from tremors: “He cast upon the earth towering mountains, lest it should shake you violently…” – another case where a literalist reading is simply incompatible with the facts.

Although the author thinks the universe was created by God for man’s benefit, he complains about man’s arrogance in challenging God – or maybe challenging the author’s views: “He [God] created man from a sperm drop and, behold, he [man] becomes a manifest foe [to God]”. The sperm drop is a new feature of the creation story. It’s not clear how it fits with:“Fear your Lord who created you from a single soul and created from it its spouse…” in Chapter 4 (“Women”).

Apostasy: The punishment for apostasy, or even harbouring doubts, is clear: “Whoso disbelieves God after his belief – except for one forced to recant though his heart is firm of faith – or else whoever expands his heart with unbelief, upon them shall fall the wrath of God, and a mighty torment awaits them.” There’s nothing here condoning or encouraging Muslims to kill apostates. God will deliver the ultimate punishment.

Dietary laws & abrogation: He repeats here the simple core dietary rules: no carrion, blood, pig meat or “whatever is consecrated to what is other than God”.  It sounds as if some of his followers have started to make up additional rules, as he says “And do not say, when your tongue utter lies: ‘This is licit and this is illicit’, seeking to fabricate lies from God” (which seems to throw into question the additional and extended rules that have been applied subsequently). But there’s no mention here of two rules that appear in previous chapters and forbid: “the flesh of animals strangled, killed violently, killed by a fall, gored to death, mangled by wild beasts – except what you ritually sacrifice – or sacrificed to idols.” and “…food upon which God’s name has not been mentioned.” And there’s no mention of the prohibition on alcohol.

Presumably this is a case where “abrogation” logic applies: if the previous chapters were actually written later than this one, the more comprehensive version of the dietary rules trumps the simpler version, which it doesn’t contradict but rather expands. Why God should decide to drip-feed His rules in this way is not explained.

Jewish dietary rules are more complex. In Chapter 5 (“The Table”) he says that the reason for their greater stringency is that this is how God “requited them for their sins” – a sort of collective punishment. Here, in Chapter 16 (“The Bees”) he says “For the Jews we pronounced illicit that We related to you beforehand. We wronged them not; it was their own selves they wronged…”. At a stretch this could mean the same as “The Table”: the two sets of laws started the same and then God made the Jewish rules more difficult because they had misbehaved. But is there anything in the Torah (which he regards as a revelation from the same God) to suggest that? And it doesn’t explain why the Jewish rules are less demanding when it comes to alcohol, which is not forbidden. Muddled.

Dementia & the problem of evil: “And it is God who created you and then causes you to die. Among you is one who shall be reduced to a degrading old age so that, once having known, he comes to know nothing. God is Omniscient, Omnipotent.” The answer to the ‘problem of evil’  – “If God is good and all-powerful, why do bad things happen to good people?” – seems to be “God is allowed to be unkind if He wants – it’s not up to us to question.”

Inequality: Wealth, and wealth inequality, is God-given, though so is your duty to share your good fortune: “God has preferred some of you over others in bounty. Those granted preference will not turn over their bounty to their bondsman, so as to share it in equity. Do they repudiate the blessing of God?”.  The God-given nature of inequality is apparently confirmed in an analogy used to illustrate that only God, not false deities, has power:”God strikes a simile: a bonded slave who has no power over anything, and a person whom We [God] granted a goodly provision, from which he expends in secret and in the open. Are these two equal?”. No ‘blessed are the meek’ here.

Your fault God leads you astray? Once again, we are told that “Had God willed, He would have made you in a single nation. But He leads astray whom He wills, and guides whom He wills…”, again raising the question of whether those who have been led astray by God then deserve punishment by the same God for their disbelief or backsliding. One answer is given earlier in the chapter, when “those who associate others with God say: ‘Had God willed, we would not have worshipped anything apart form Him….'” The answer is “This too is how men before them used to act. Are messengers enjoined to do anything other than deliver a manifest message?” In other words, you can’t blame the messenger if you choose to ignore the message. So are only some types of “leading astray” God’s responsibility?
The muddle is compounded in the next verse: “To every nation We sent a messenger: ‘Worship God and keep away from idol worship.’ Some of them God guided aright; some deserved to be led astray. So journey in the land and observe how the fate of the deniers turned out. Even though you may be concerned that they be guided aright, God guides not whomever He leads astray, nor shall they have any advocate.” So it really is God who stops people believing the message, on the basis that they somehow “deserved” it.

The boundary between God’s will and human free will is not at all clear. Yet humans who go wrong for either reason are punished for eternity. It doesn’t seem fair.

Disproportionate torment. He goes on to remind readers that they will be judged, so “Do not consider the oaths you swear among yourselves as trickery…[lest] you come to taste evil because you obstructed the way to God. Great torment awaits you.” So if you don’t take an oath seriously, God will torture you for eternity, as there has been no mention of any middle ground between eternity in heaven and eternity in hell. By definition, it’s disproportionate.

Satan and the Holy Spirit: The Qur’an helps believers “take refuge in God against Satan, ever to be stoned.” The stoning of Satan features in the Haj rituals. Satan only has power “over those who take him as their master, and who, because of him, associate others with God” – presumably those pesky Christians again.  More surprising is: “It is the Holy Spirit that sends it [the Qur’an] down from your Lord with the Truth…”. Maybe he picked that up from his Christian neighbours.

God’s daughters & infanticide. Among the usual injunctions against doubters, unbelievers and those who say that God has “associates” is this: “And they ascribe daughters to God! Glory be to Him. But they shall have what they desire! Yet, when one of them is brought tidings of an infant girl, his face turns dark, suppressing his vexation. He keeps out of others people’s sight, because of the evil news he was greeted with.  Will he retain the infant, in disgrace, or will be bury it in haste in the ground? Wretched indeed is their decision!”
According to this source, this is an attack on pre-Islamic Arab beliefs: on one hand they thought their goddesses were daughters of God, on the other, they strongly preferred male to female offspring, even to the point of killing new born girls. While the author clearly condemns the idea of God having daughters, he seems to leave open the question of female infanticide. I guess a feminist reading would be that female infants are indeed children of God, and in this way they [the goddess-loving, unIslamic Arabs] get what they desire, despite their cultural disapproval.
That would fit with the equal status of female believers in terms of reward for a good deeds: “Whoever does good, male or female, We shall make him live a decent life, and We shall recompense them with their wages, in accordance with the best of their deeds.”

Sceptics. Again the author complains about sceptics who say that what he’s offering are simply “fables of the ancients”. He assures readers that they will suffer on the Day of Resurrection.

Tents. A nice reference to life’s practicalities: “God made your homes to be places of rest. Who made for you cattle-skin tents you find light to carry when you travel and where you put up…” Presumably God gave us nylon too.