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?”


Author: HumanistJ

I'm a humanist - someone who thinks you can live a good life without believing in anything supernatural. I'm active in Humanism in the UK, both through Humanists UK and as chair of South West London Humanists. This blog is purely my personal view.

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