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…]
In common with Chapter 12 (“Joseph”) – but unlike the other chapters so far – Chapter 18 (“The Cave”) contains plenty of narrative. As usual, there’s no apparent logic behind the order of points in the chapter, so I’ll start with some of the other items here, then look at the stories.
After a prayer, it begins with another example of God’s thinking: “We [God] fashioned what lies upon the earth as an ornament for it, to test them as to who shall be the best in works. And We shall turn all that lies upon it into a desolate plain”, presumably on the Last Day. The author thinks that creation is a test for humans and the results will be marked on Judgement Day.
Embedded in The Cave story itself, there’s an injunction “…do not say of anything: ‘I shall do this tomorrow’ unless you add: ‘If God wills’.” Inshallah. God can do anything and no-one can know whether the Last Day will come before tomorrow. We should feel insecure.
God’s revelation is unchangeable: “And recite what has been revealed to you from the Book of your Lord; no change shall come over his words, nor will you ever find a berth, apart from him”. This seems to refer to the idea in previous chapters that God has the master version of His Book and decides what to reveal, when, how and to whom, the Qur’an being simply the latest example, after the Torah, the ‘Evangel’ (New Testament) and others unnamed.
If this verse is read to mean that any translation from the ‘original’ Arabic is considered a “change over his words”, then the Qur’an was presumably intended solely for Arabic-speakers. And it underlines the difficulty of saying what the definitive Arabic version is, or was, as God – for reasons unclear – chose to reveal His word to someone who couldn’t write it down.
Confusingly, God’s master Book is apparently infinite in size: “If the sea were ink for the words of my Lord, the sea itself would run dry before the words of my Lord had run dry, even if We [God] provided its like to replace it.”
In previous chapters we’ve been told of two different methods by which God created man: one from clay, the other from a drop of sperm. Here the author bolts the two together: God “created you from clay, then from a sperm, then fashioned you into a man”. This makes little logical sense. It’s almost as if he’s aware of the inconsistency and is trying to fix it.
God says about the angels: “I did not make them witness the creation of the heavens and earth [fair enough – they were created later] nor witness their own creation“. I wonder how they could do that?
There’s a nice liberal line about belief and blasphemy: “Whoso wishes, let him believe; whoso wishes, let him blaspheme”, which seems to go further than “no compulsion in religion” to imply that blasphemers should be free to express their views. It’s somewhat marred by the threat that follows: “For the wicked [read blasphemers] We [God] have prepared a Fire…” and when they’re in it and cry out for help, they are “helped to water resembling molten metal, scorching their faces”. Presumably that’s alongside being forced to drink boiling water and pus, which we’ve heard about in previous chapters. Sadly, the use of fear to induce belief does seem to work.
Once more the author’s frustration comes over that not everyone accepts what he’s saying. He, or more strictly God, moans that “man is, of all beings, the most argumentative” and “They have taken My [God’s] verses, and the warnings they received, as a laughing matter.” What it doesn’t say is that the author or his followers should use force to silence unbelievers. He seems to accept that, annoying though it is, they’re free to argue.
On the other hand, he also makes clear that good works are not enough to protect blasphemers from the Fire: “they whose manner of living in this present world has strayed far , while all the time imagining that they are acting righteously…they blasphemed…Their works are voided”.
Now, here are the stories….
Like the story of Joseph, the eponymous “Cave” is apparently a re-write of an existing legend – in this case a post-Biblical one – called the “Seven Sleepers of Ephesus”.
Here’s a short version of the original story according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica: “During the persecution of Christians (250 CE) under the Roman emperor Decius, seven (eight in some versions) Christian soldiers were concealed near their native city of Ephesus [modern day Turkey] in a cave to which the entry was later sealed. There, having protected themselves from being forced to do pagan sacrifices, they fell into a miraculous sleep. During the reign (408–450 CE) of the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II, the cave was reopened, and the Sleepers awoke. The emperor was moved by their miraculous presence and by their witness to their Christian doctrine of the body’s resurrection. Having explained the profound meaning of their experience, the Seven died, whereupon Theodosius ordered their remains to be richly enshrined, and he absolved all bishops who had been persecuted for believing in the Resurrection.” There are other versions, for example,with eight men, or where they wake up, not realising how long they’ve been asleep, and one of them goes to Ephesus to buy food only to find that everyone’s a Christian and marvel at his out-of-date silver currency. A longer, Orthodox Christian, version is here.
The Qur’anic version has embellishments and omissions. There’s no mention of Ephesus, or of the number of people (“youths”) – we’re told not to be distracted by arguments about that – and they sleep for longer (300 years, plus 9, apparently to cover the lunar year). And they have a dog.
They leave their town because people “have taken to themselves gods apart from Him” and they don’t know how to “provide manifest proof [that their is the true God]”. They decide to take refuge in a cave in the hope that “God will…make it easy for [them] to find the prudent path to follow in this matter.” They go to sleep. During the course of each day while they’re asleep “We [God] would turn them from right side to left, as their dog spread its paws across the entrance [to the cave].” For a reason the author doesn’t explain, we’re told that, if anyone had seen them, they “would have turned and fled from them, filled with terror of them”. When God wakes them up, they think they’ve only been asleep for about a day. One of them is sent to the town with silver to buy some food. He’s told to be discreet as they don’t want to be caught by the unbelievers. There’s no mention of the proof provided by the old currency of how long they’ve been asleep – rather an important feature as this version doesn’t involve a sealed cave opened by local people themselves. The author gets round this narrative problem by saying: “We [God] divulged their presence”. He doesn’t say how. And we’re not told the reaction of the townspeople. There’s just: “Remember when they argued among themselves, saying: ‘Build on top of them a structure – their Lord knows best about them’. Those who won the argument said: ‘Let us build on top of them a house of prayer.'”. It’s not clear what that refers to. And we’re not told what happened to the sleepers, or their dog, in the period after they woke.
The time lapse is important in the original story because Ephesus moved from being controlled by pagans at the start of the 200 year sleep to becoming Christian by the end of it. But in the Qur’anic version we are not told what happened in the (unnamed) town over the (longer) sleep period. Did the inhabitants remain unbelievers? Was the question of whether the Qur’anic God was the true one still a ‘live’ issue? Had they all become believers? The setting was, logically, hundreds of years before the Qur’an was written, so what/whose Divine message were they supposed to be believers in?
The stated point of the story is “that they [presumably the townspeople – and by extension the readers of the Qur’an] might know that God’s promise is true and that the Hour shall come, no doubt about it.” While the story shows God’s power to perform a miracle, it ‘s hard to see in what way it proves that “the Hour shall come” (i.e. Judgement Day).
The original (Christian) versions of the sleepers legend have clear narratives and make pretty clear points. To me, the Qur’anic version leaves too many important loose ends. It’s poor story-telling. And it’s not clear why the author chose to include it at all when its key feature – the long time delay – is irrelevant for his purpose, and actually detracts from it, as the original townspeople – and 300 years’ of their successors – remain ignorant of the miracle. And no-one learns anything about the “Last Hour”. Perhaps “The Sleepers” was simply a well-known legend and he wanted to find a way to incorporate it.
Parable of two men
In the second story, God gives one of two men them plentiful water, two “gardens of vine”, fruit trees and a bumper harvest. This man (no names given) boasts to the other one, who’s not doing as well, about his wealth and influential family. He arrogantly assumes that his fields will “never become desolate” (irony alert!) and that – although he doubts that it will ever happen – if the Hour of Judgement comes along, he will get an even better reward in heaven.
The other man says “Are you blaspheming against Him Who created you from clay, then from a sperm, then fashioned you into a man? Assuredly it is God my Lord, and I associate nothing with Him. If only you had entered your garden and said ‘This is the will of God! There is no strength save in God!’ If you see me as inferior in wealth and offspring, perhaps my Lord will bring me what is better than your garden. Or perhaps he will cast down upon it thunderbolts from the sky and it will become a slippery plain. Or perhaps its waters will sink into the earth and you will not be able to make use of them.”
Inevitably, God then destroys the first man’s garden: “his fruit was utterly consumed.”
We’re told at the end that God “is greater in reward and more beneficent in destiny”.Given that, it’s odd that there is nothing about what happened to the other man. Was his hope of favour rewarded? Arguably, he too displayed a hint of arrogance: by virtue of his lack of God-given agricultural luck and success relative to the first man, he implied he might be in line for a place in heaven. The first man seems to have been punished, not for his boastful and arrogant behaviour towards the other man, but because he failed to appreciate that God was the source of his good fortune, he was sceptical about the Last Day, and was guilty of “associating others with God”. Maybe arrogance is not intrinsically bad.
Parable of this present life
Present life: “…is like water We caused to descend from the sky, with which the vegetation of the earth was mingled. But it [presumably the vegetation] turned into chaff, scattered by the winds. God has power over all things.” The idea is clear, but it’s not very clearly put – I suspect it’s the translation I’m using. He goes on to spell out that “property and progeny” of this present life are ephemeral – “virtuous deeds are better” – and that everything on earth will be flattened on Judgement Day.
All you think important is ultimately time-bound and unimportant except good deeds, which will be counted on the Last Day and used by God to make the either/or decision on whether you’re going to the gardens of heaven or the fire of hell. The realities of this present life should always be discounted in favour of the (promised) afterlife.
The Story of al-Khidr – The Green Man
Apparently this is a famous story about a wise, saintly guide to Moses called al-Khidr. In fact his name isn’t mentioned in the Qur’an – perhaps the author assumed people would already know who he was referring to.
After a strange introduction about Moses turning back at the end of a long journey because his servant had forgotten the (live) fish he was supposed to be bringing, “They came upon one of Our [God’s] servants…..to whom We had from on high brought knowledge.” Moses follows him and he demonstrates his wisdom by three initially odd actions that he later explains:
- He scuttles a fishing vessel, because it belongs to poor fishermen and he knows that, if they continue to sail it, it will be seized by a pirate king.
- He kills a young man, because “his parents were believers, and we feared he might overburden them with his arrogance and blasphemy” while a future son would be more pure and caring.
- Despite people in a town refusing to give him and Moses food, he re-builds a damaged wall free of charge, because it belongs to orphans of a virtuous father who buried a legacy for the orphans beneath it.
As exemplars of divinely-inspired behaviour, it’s an eccentric list. In particular, the idea that there’s divine sanction to kill a young man simply because he’s an arrogant blasphemer is morally objectionable, and contrary to Quranic injunctions on killing. And why couldn’t he have simply warned the poor fisherman about the danger instead of damaging their ship? It’s also strange that Moses features here: in other chapters the author has emphasised that he’s one of God’s messengers, on a par with Muhammed. So what is the status of the mysterious guide to which Moses is apparently inferior in wisdom? Again, it reads as though the author has taken an existing legend and woven it in without being put off by some muddled thinking.
The story of Dhu’l Qarnayn
All my translation can say about him is: “The Two-Horned; a mysterious figure, possibly related to stories surrounding Alexander the Great”. It would be interesting to know what Qur’anic literalists make of what is clearly a mythical story, about this character (Alexander?) who God “established firmly on earth and granted him a path to knowledge of all things.”
His path leads him first to a hot pool where the sun sets. There he finds a people, and God says “..either you torment them or you follow with them the way of virtue” to which Dhu’l Qarnayn replies that he’ll torture whoever is wicked and then turn them over to God for further torture. The faithful who do good deeds will be ok and he’ll help by teaching them.
Then he goes to where the sun rises on a people “for whom We [God] had provided no shelter from it. Thus did We encompass in our knowledge all that he had achieved.” That’s all it says.
Finally he comes to a people who live “between two towering barriers” and are barely able to understand human speech. They want Dhu’l Qarnayn to build them a defence against “Gog and Magog [who are] working corruption on earth”. He builds them an impenetrable iron fortification, but warns them that it will be flattened on the Last Day.
Again, it’s sketchy story-telling, as if listeners would know the story already, including who, or what, Gog and Magog are. And it appears to sanction the torture of the living, rather than leaving punishment to God. Unless I’m missing something, it’s hard to discern the meaning of the Dhu’l Qarnayn story. If it’s a parable, it’s not a very effective one.
Dhu’l Qarnayn isn’t presented as one of God’s messengers, but – like al-Khidr – he clearly has a special, saintly, status.
Overall, it’s nice to see some more narrative. But confess I found this chapter hard work.