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.