Qur’an 13: Punishment, Prophets & Science

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…]

The level of repetition in most chapters now means it’s possible to accelerate a little. This post covers four chapters: “Ta’Ha'” (chapter 20 – apparently named after the two Arabic letters with which it starts), The Prophets (chapter 21), The Pilgrimage (chapter 22)and The Believers (chapter 23).

The usual threats of eternal torture for unbelievers and other sinners are repeated. As the author says in “Ta’Ha'”: “…We [God] detailed in it [the Qur’an] all manner of threat; perhaps they will turn pious, or else it may inspire them to remembrance.”

In “The Pilgrimage” there’s a particularly graphic example. God says: “For those who blasphemed, garments of fire have been tailored, and over their heads is poured scalding water, melting therewith their innards and their skins. Upon them shall be clasps of iron; whenever they seek to escape their torment, they are driven back to it: ‘Taste the agony of the raging Fire!’ “

And in “The Believers”, after explaining that believers will have “precedence” and providing the comfort that “We [God] charge not a soul except with what it can bear” he explains that: “[unbelievers] works are inferior to those who have faith, and they persist in their acts of sin. Until, when We seize the decadent among them with torment, see how they shriek for help! Do not shriek Today! You shall have no support from Us.”

On the Last Day it appears there is no graduation of reward, it’s either on one side or the other: “They whose scales are weighed down – these shall prevail. They whose scales are light – these have lost their soul, and in hell shall abide for ever.”

Having said that, there is no suggestion in these chapters that believers themselves should act against unbelievers. Only God does that. Even though the author berates Christians for the sin of associating others with God, he says that God protects places where He is worshipped, even from His own believers: “Had God not caused people to restrain one another, destruction would have fallen upon monasteries, churches, oratories and players of prayer, where the name of God is often mentioned.” Similarly, he does not endorse violence against unbelievers, even when they are on the verge of reacting violently when they hear the message: “When Our [God’s] revelations are recited to them, manifestly clear, you detect in the faces of unbelievers disapproval; they could almost do violence to those who are reciting Our verses to them! Say: ‘Shall I inform you of what is more evil than this? It is the Fire that God promised to unbelievers…'”.

In addition to fire in the afterlife, “Ta’ Ha'” includes threats of punishment in this life. One variety is collective punishment. For example, in “The Prophets”, sceptics accuse the author of “muddled dreams…he fabricated it…he is [just] a poet…Let him bring us a wonder such as earlier messengers were sent.” The proof offered in response is “How many a wicked town We [God] crushed, and reared thereafter another people.” Similarly in “The Believers”, God complains that every messenger He has sent has been disbelieved “so We made them [peoples who rejected the messengers] follow one another into destruction, and made them into moral examples – away with people who do not believe!”

Another variety is personal: “Whoso turns away from remembrance of Me shall live a life of hardship”. However, this is apparently contradicted a few verses later: “cast not your eyes in longing upon what We bestowed on some for their enjoyment – the luxury of this present life. This We do tempt them with it, and the bounty of your Lord is better and more abiding.” So unbelievers, or waverers, are led astray by being given life’s luxuries, and believers should make do with “the bounty of the Lord”. Even setting aside the fact that, in the world today and in the past, there is no correlation between believing and avoiding hardship, on the face of it both the Qur’an and God’s actions are rather inconsistent here.

There is a further indication in these chapters that the author intends the Qur’an to be specific to people in Arabia, with other peoples or nations given their own messengers and revelations from God’s master Book. Firstly, in “Ta’Ha'”, there’s the fact that it’s in Arabic: “…We sent it down, an Arabic Qur’an…”, which would be unintelligible to non-Arabic speakers. Then in “The Pilgrimage”, different holy places: “For every nation We have assigned a place of sacrifice, where they mention the name of God in thanks for what He provided them of cattle”; and different rituals: “For every nation We established a ritual that they follow, so do not allow then to dispute this matter with you.”

In this context, he mentions a number of specific people/nations: “As for believers, the Jews, the Sabeans, the Christians, the Magians and the polytheists – God shall judge between them on the Day of Resurrection”. The Magians were apparently religious officials from Persia, and the Sabeans people from southern Arabia (now Yemen). Once more, it is left to God to judge, not believers. [This verse seems inconsistent with Chapter 9 (“Repentance”) where he classes Jews and Christians as “polytheists” – maybe there’s a translation issue here.]

In “The Pilgrimage” the author adds a complex and – to me – confusing bit of theology to do with Satan interfering in prophesy: “We sent not any messenger or prophet before you but one who, when prophesying, Satan intrudes into his prophecies; God then abrogates Satan’s intrusion [it seems there is some dispute about whether ‘abrogate’ should read ‘record’ here], and God enshrines His revelations, and God is Omniscient, All Wise. And this, in order to make what Satan interpolates a seduction to those in whose heart lies sickness, or whose hearts are hard. Wrongdoers are at rift with God, and far from the truth.”  We have been told that God is repeatedly frustrated by people failing to heed His messengers. Yet He gets Satan to test people by interfering in His messengers’ prophecies. It doesn’t make sense to me.

“Ta’ Ha'” includes another brief re-telling of the story of Moses, complete with the competition with Pharaoh’s sorcerers, the exodus and the golden calf, but with no Ten Commandments. We also have Adam and Eve being led astray by Satan, but God then pardons them – no Original Sin here. Not surprisingly, we get more Old Testament characters in “The Prophets”. The author includes a story of an attempt to burn Abraham to death, which fails because God says “O fire, be cool and comforting to Abraham”. This is apparently based on a Jewish myth which was itself the result of an ancient, and now well-known, translation error, confusing the meaning of “Ur” (Abraham’s city) with the word for fire. Presumably the author picked up the story from local Jews. It’s not in the Torah.

As well as Abraham the author talks about: Lot, Noah, David, Solomon, Job, Ishmael, “Idris” and “Du’l Kifl” (neither clearly identified), “the Man in the Whale” [Jonah – although the whale is not mentioned in the chapter named after him], Zachariah, and “she who preserved her virginity” [Mary].  It’s not clear why this list differs from the prophets to which he gives special status in “Mary” (chapter 19): Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Ishmael, “Idris”.

According to the author, God aided Solomon by directing the wind: “We [God] prevailed on the winds hard blowing to run at his command to the land which We had blessed.” No context is given, but this sounds as if it refers to the – rather more poetic – Song of Solomon: “Awake, north wind, and come south wind! Blow on my garden, that its fragrance may spread everywhere. Let my beloved come into his garden and taste its choice fruits.”

When it comes to Job: “Remember Job, when he cried out to his Lord: ‘Evil has touched me, and You are the most merciful of those who show mercy.’ We [God] answered his prayer, drew away his distress, and restored his family to him, and, as many besides: a mercy from Us, and a remembrance to worshippers”. I’m no Biblical scholar, but this seems to miss the whole point of Job, which I thought was faith tested by massive misfortune ultimately rewarded.

The mistakes in earlier chapters have demonstrated that the Qur’an, like the Bible, is not a literal book of science. Here we get some more examples. In “The Prophets”: “…the heavens and the earth were sewn together, but We [God] ripped them apart”; “and from water created every living thing” (needs some carbon and other elements in there too); “on earth We fixed towering mountains lest the earth should shake them violently” (this is a repeat from an earlier chapter; mountains are folds in the strata of the Earth’s crust, not weights stuck on its surface to stabilise it; and there are earthquakes in mountainous areas); “the sky We made a well-protected canopy” (although it looks that way from Earth at night, it isn’t).

In both “The Pilgrimage” and “The Believers” the author describes human development: “We created you from dust, then from a sperm, then from a blood clot, then from a morsel…”  In “The Believers” the starting point is “essence of clay”, then “a sperm in a well-guarded cavity”. Setting aside the difference between inorganic dust and clay, or their link to (organic) sperm, both the egg and its fertilisation are missing.

Having said that, the author gives a powerful poetic image of the Last Day: “That will be the Day when We roll up the sky, as a scroll rolls up books.”

So far there has been no clear stipulation that believers should pray five times a day. But here we come close: “…glorify the praise of your Lord before sunrise and before sunset. And during some hours of the night and the edges of the day…And command your family to pray, and be constant in performing it.” He also gives an indication of the purpose of prayer: “perhaps you will find contentment…We [God] seek no sustenance from you; it is We who sustain you.” The suggestion seems to be that the purpose of prayer is to make the person praying feel happier – God doesn’t need it.