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…]
Chapter 19 (“Mary”) covers some of the same ground as Chapter 3 (“The House of Imran”), including Zachariah, and Mary’s sexless conception revealed to her by an angel. Unless I’m missing something, overall it adds little or nothing to previous chapters.
But there’s a strange embellishment to the Mary and Jesus story: the about-to-be-born Jesus talks to Mary while she’s in the agony of labour “He called out to her from beneath her: ‘Do not grieve. Your Lord has made a brook to flow beneath you. So shake towards you the trunk of the palm and it will drop down on you dates soft and ripe. Eat and drink and be of good cheer.'” When people are shocked that she’s got a baby, Jesus talks to them from the cradle: “He said: ‘I am the servant of God. He brought me the Book and made me a prophet, and made me blessed wherever I may be. He charged me with prayer and alms-giving as long as I live, and to be dutiful to my mother. And He did not make me arrogant and wicked. Peace be unto me the day I was born, the day I die and the day I am resurrected, alive!'”
Apparently this is based on the Syriac Infancy Gospel, one of the apocryphal gospels, dating from the 6th century and itself based on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas – which provided the story in the House of Imran about the child Jesus making birds from clay which then come to life – and the Protevangelium of James. It provides an interesting insight into the type of Christians the Qur’an’s author encountered, and the stories he picked up from them. While the Syriac version of the New Testament had been standardised 100-200 years before the Qur’an, it looks like there were still other books and narratives in play at the time.
The author of the Qur’an was illiterate, and therefore presumably depended for his knowledge of other religions on what he was told by their followers or others who had more knowledge. There is no reference to any scholarly input in the Qur’an – at least so far. He refers elsewhere to both the Torah and the Evangel being handed down by God to Moses and to Jesus respectively. In common with the Qur’an, they’re taken from God’s master Book. But he doesn’t say what was in the “Evangel”. Did he think it included these stories about the infant Jesus?
We don’t hear any more in this chapter about Mary and Jesus. He moves on to a selection of earlier prophets: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Ishmael and someone called “Idris” – who is (apparently dubiously) said to be the Biblical Enoch. Why he gives this selection a special status isn’t clear. They are “of prophets, the ones on whom God bestowed His blessings from among the progeny of Adam, and from those We [God] carried with Noah, from the progeny of Abraham and Israel, and from those whom We guided and elected…..After them there followed successors who forsook prayer, and pursued their base desires.” But what about Lot – mentioned several times elsewhere, and included in the Torah – or Jacob or Jonah, both with Qur’anic chapters named after them, or any of the other prophets? It seems as if the author isn’t too concerned about consistency, perhaps understandably if the chapters were written several years apart.
Then he gives us a glimpse of heaven. Or, more precisely, the “Gardens of Eden” which God promises to His worshippers “in the realm of the Unseen”. “In it they hear no empty talk, but only ‘Peace!’ In it they shall receive their provisions morning and evening.” Like the fires of hell, heaven may be in the realm of the unseen, but it’s clearly physical. People have two meals a day. Presumably it has a sewage system.
As usual, he’s having to argue with sceptics, in this case about the mass resurrection on the Last Day: “Does man not remember that We [God] created him beforehand, when he was nothing?” This is consistent with the idea that God can do anything, as the author says in the context of the virgin birth “When He determines any matter, He merely says to it: ‘Be!’ and it is.” Those who are “most obdurate against the All-Merciful” will be “scorched” in hell.
Once again we get the strange logic of God leading people further astray only to punish them for their error. “Say: ‘Whoso is in error, the All-Merciful [sic] shall drag him further and further into error until, when they behold what they were promised, either the torment or the Hour, they will surely know who is worse in station and weaker in warriors!” And “Have you not seen how We dispatched devils against the unbelievers, distressing and beguiling them with sin? So be not in haste concerning them; We are in truth making things ready for them!….they shall have no intercession, except one who compacted with the All-Merciful.”
I guess the message is that, once you are an unbeliever, things will only get worse for you. The All-Merciful is not all-merciful, unless – in an unspecified way – you have a deal with Him.
Even worse than being an unbeliever is claiming that “The All-Merciful has taken to Himself a son”. This is “a thing most terrible…heavens well nigh convulse at the mention of it; the earth is split asunder; the mountains stagger and collapse.” Presumably the main competition at the time it was written was from local Christians.