Qur’an 23: The perfect Qur’an & after-death confusion

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 title of Chapter 39 (“The Groups”) refers to groups of people herded after judgement into hell and “the Garden” (heaven). As usual, both this chapter and Chapter 40 (“Forgiver”) repeat previous material: God’s creation, the Fire that awaits unbelievers, the sins of idol worship, the Last Day and so on. But there are some interesting, and important, variations:

People who “take up masters instead of Him“, claiming “we only worship them to bring us close in nearness to God” are not simply dismissed. “God shall judge between them as to what they disputed about. God guides not the lying blasphemer.”

In apparent contradiction to earlier chapters, where the author refers to Biblical characters – including Jesus’ apostles – as “Muslims”, here he has God saying “Say: ‘I have been commanded to worship God, sincere of faith in Him. And I have been commanded to be the first Muslim.'”

The Qur’an is claimed to be perfect and consistent, if repetitive: “God has sent down the most perfect discourse: a Book concordant and recapitulating.” And later: “In this Qur’an, We have struck for mankind every sort of parable; perhaps they will remember. An Arabic Qur’an, unequivocal; perhaps they will grow pious.”

It seems to me illogical for a book to claim that it is itself perfect: if it isn’t, then the imperfection applies to the claim that it’s perfect! But the fact that he sees it necessary to include this claim may perhaps be because people were pointing out inconsistencies and imperfections.

While blasphemers are destined for “the cradle of hell”, pious believers “…shall have whatever they please with their Lord…God shall pardon them the worst of their deeds, and reward them with wages for the best of their past deeds.” Provided you turn to God before you die, God will forgive whatever sins you have committed: “Say:’O My servants who have transgressed against themselves,  do not despair of God’s mercy. God forgives all sins: He is All-Forgiving, Compassionate to each. Turn in penitence towards your Lord, and submit to Him before  the torment overtakes you, when you shall have not to support you.'”

The soul is in the same position in both sleep and death. You wake up because God has decided to release your soul: “God takes the souls to Him at death, and takes souls that have not died, in their sleep. He retains the soul on which He has decreed death and release the others, until a stated term.”

There’s more on the process on the Last Day. The Trumpet shall be sounded twice. The first time, “everyone in the heavens and the earth shall fall down dead, except for whomever God wills”. The second time “they shall all rise up and see”. Then we have a vivid image: “And the earth shall shine with the light of its Lord, the Book shall be spread out, prophets and witnesses shall be summoned, and judgement will be passed among them in truth, nor will they be wrong”. It’s a pity Islam doesn’t have a tradition of figurative art.

But what happens between when people die and this Last Day? That seems a major omission from the story. I understand there’s a concept of “al-barzakh, literally “a barrier”, but taken not only to mean the barrier between life and death but also a sort of pre-judgement, Islamic limbo. There seems to be no credible Qur’anic source for that. The verse claimed is (23:99-100) “Until, when death comes to one of them, he says: ‘My Lord, bring me back to life. Perhaps I will perform a virtuous deed among others I neglected.’ Oh no! It is a mere word that he utters, but behind them lies a rampart [barzakh], until the Day they are resurrected”. The same word is used for the barrier claimed to separate fresh and salt water, and a barrier between two seas.  Here it obviously means that once you’re dead, you can’t go back. A complex barzakh mythology seems to have been created separately to fill the Qur’anic gap.

That then raises a question about “everyone in the heavens and the earth shall fall down dead, except for whomever God wills”. Who is in the heavens when the Trumpet sounds for the first time? No-one has yet been judged and herded into heaven or hell. Just angels? Has this all been thought-through?

Chapter 40 (“Forgiver”) adds to the confusion. “Each nation planned to seize their messenger, and used false arguments to rebut the truth, but I [God] seized them – and what a punishment it was! Thus did the Word of your Lord come true against those who blasphemed, that they are the denizens of the Fire.” So they didn’t just get punished by having their cities destroyed, but they are, at the time of writing, denizens of the Fire. But the Last Day hasn’t arrived yet, so how can they be? Perhaps I’m missing something.

“Forgiver” introduces a new category of people who may be spared the Fire. Angels surrounding God’s throne ask Him to “….forgive those who repent and follow your way, and spare them the torment of hell.Our Lord, admit them into the Garden of Eternal Abode which you promised them, as also the virtuous from among their parents, spouses and progeny…”  Setting aside the need for angels to ask God to do something He’s already promised to do, this would be a major concession. The “parents, spouses and progeny” would get into heaven in their own right if they were believers as well as “virtuous”. So the request is that they’re allowed in just for being virtuous, believing or not. (Presumably “progeny” only means children, not descendents.) It isn’t made clear whether God refuses this request.

We’re told here that the Last Day is imminent: “Warn them of the Day, soon to come, when hearts shall reach up to throats, convulsed in agony.”

There’s a new story here from the time of Moses, of “a believer from Pharoah’s court, who kept his faith secret”. He uses his position to challenge the Pharoah, who plans to kill Moses: “‘Will you kill a man merely because he says: “My Lord is God”? He has brought you signs from your Lord. If he is a liar, his lying shall rebound on him. If he is truthful, some of what he promises you will befall you.” The ‘secret believer’ seems to have ‘come out’, as he goes on to warn “my people” of what happens to those who ignore God’s signs and messengers. Pharoah, on the other hand, orders the building of a tower so that he can climb to the gates of heaven and to the god of Moses “for I think him a liar”.  We’re not told how this project goes. The ‘secret believer’s’ lines then become more or less identical to those of the Qur’anic author as he gives the message to his people. We have “this present life is but a passing frivolity”, “you call me to blaspheme against God and to associate with Him what I have no knowledge of” and “the shameless shall be denizens of the Fire”.

“So God protected him [the ‘secret believer’] from their evil designs, and engulfed Pharoah’s people with terrible torment – the Fire, to which they are exposed morning and evening.” The twice-daily torture by fire is simply a prelude to the full thing: “..when the Hour arrives, ‘Enter , O Pharoah’s people, into the most grievous torment.'” It isn’t clear how all this fits with earlier tellings of the story of Moses and Pharoah in which this ‘secret believer’ is not mentioned, including the parting of the seas, when Pharoah and his troops are drowned. And Pharoah seems not to have done anything about the revelation that he has unwittingly employed a outspoken Israelite prophet as one of his courtiers. Overall, this appears to be a fairly crude bolt-on to the original story.

Once more it is emphasised that the God and Book of Moses are the same as that of the Qur’an, and that Moses’ message was specific to the Israelites: “We [God] brought Moses guidance and bequeathed the Book to the Children of Israel, a Guidance and remembrance to those possessed of minds.”

Here the author says “It is He Who created you from dust, then from a sperm, then from a blood clot, then He brings forth a child.” No mention of clay (the starting point in several chapters), or water (Chapter 25 “It is He Who, from water, created man…”) – and certainly not of an egg.

All life and death is God’s will: “It is He Who gives life and deals death. Once He decides a matter, He merely says to it ‘Be!’ and it is.”

There’s some more detail about the fate of blasphemers and of God’s thinking when he consigns them to hell: “They who called the Book a lie, as too what We sent Our messengers with – they shall surely know, when fetters are upon their necks and they are dragged in chains, then in boiling water, then in fire, they are tossed. It shall then be said to them: ‘Where now are those you once worshipped instead of God?’ And they shall answer: ‘They have vanished from our sight. Indeed we did not before now call on anything at all.’ Thus does God lead unbelievers astray. This is because you used to make merry on earth, without justice, and because of your revelry. So enter the gates of hell, to remain therein for ever – wretched is the berth of the arrogant!””

The Qur’an indeed contains a lot of violence, but most of it is carried out in the afterlife by an apparently cruel deity.

The existence of ruins from previous civilisations is taken as evidence of the uselessness of power and riches if God’s messengers are ignored: “Have they not journeyed in the land and observed the final end of those who preceded them? They were more numerous, and greater than them in might, and left behind more landmarks on earth, but what they earned availed them not.” The implication is that, if you listen to God’s messenger and believe and do good deeds as prescribed in the Qur’an, that isn’t going to happen to your civilisation.History tells us otherwise.

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Qur’an 22: Jinn & stars, David & Solomon

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…]

This post covers Chapter 37 (“Arrayed in Ranks”) and 38 (“Sad”).

In Chapter 37 (“Arrayed in Ranks”) it seems that “ranks” refers to station in life: towards the end of the chapter the author says: “None of us there is but has a well-known station. We are indeed arrayed in ranks; we are indeed the glorifiers.” It comes after a passage referring to Jinn, implying that the spectrum of “stations” includes both humans and Jinn – who are, according to end-notes in my translation, ‘Invisible spirits, but like humans, responsible moral beings’.

As well as repeated claims about the reality of Jinn, the idea that everyone has their station reflects earlier chapters, where God decides who has wealth and good fortune.

The beginning also has this: “We adorned the lower sky with the adornment of stars, a protection against every rebellious demon. They cannot eavesdrop on the Highest Assembly, and are pelted from every side, thrown back, and theirs is an eternal punishment; except for the one who happens to catch a scrap, and is then pursued by a shooting star.” Apparently, the Highest Assembly is the angelic host, though it doesn’t say that. This is a repeat of Chapter 15 (“Al Hijr”) where he says: “We set up constellations in the heavens and made them attractive to onlookers, and We protected them against every execrable demon, except one  who eavesdrops, and whom a visible shooting star pursues.” There’s clearly a story behind this section.

Here, as in a number of other places, the Qur’an is incomplete in the sense that it relies on prior knowledge either of myths – as in this case – or of events, such as the background to battles. By definition, the source of that prior knowledge is un-Qur’anic – so not claimed to be the word of God. That seems to be a gift to anyone who wishes to claims to be an expert.

For example, according to Ask Imam the background to the Jinn, angels and shooting stars is this: “Before the prophethood of Nabi (Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam), the Jinn used to eavesdrop freely without being expelled from the upper terrestrial realms. They would listen to the discussions of the angels and learn about future events. They would return to the World and reveal this information to fortune tellers. When the future events transpired as foretold by the fortune tellers, they would believe that the fortune tellers possessed knowledge of the unseen, thus, they were deceived by the fortune tellers. However, when Rasulullah (Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam) was sent to the World, the Jinn were barred from entering all the upper terrestrial realms and the flaming stars increased to an extent that it filled the terrestrial spheres, therefore, they could no more eavesdrop on the conversations of the angels. Whenever any Jinn would try to eavesdrop, it was pursued and struck by a flaming/shooting star which never missed its target.” Other sources claim that the “shooting star” refers to gamma ray bursts from pulsars, which are really what shoots down the Jinn. [Those who seek credibly to reconcile the Qur’an with science have some heavy lifting to do.]

Once more we have the usual material, including the oft-repeated scepticism of unbelievers who question whether bodies that have crumbled into dust will indeed be resurrected on the Last Day. The author gives some more details of what awaits those who sincerely believe: “….notable bounty, and fruits, and they shall be highly honoured in the Gardens of Bliss, on couches face to face. There shall pass among them a cup from a fountain, crystal clear, a delight to those who drink it; in it there is neither delirium nor are they intoxicated. With them are women, chaste of glance, large-eyed, egg-like, well-guarded”. A believer who had a close friend who doubted is invited by God to “look down and see him in the pit of hell.”

It seems that the believers who make it to heaven are heterosexual males, and the women they encounter in heaven are more for decoration than as equal players. And the comment about being able to drink from the fountain without getting drunk implies that the drink is alcoholic – it’s ok in heaven, not on earth.

Meanwhile the denizens of hell have to contend with the “tree of Zaqqum which…grows in the pit of hell, with fruits like heads of demons. They shall eat from it… [and] have a scalding drink.”

Abraham appears again – with an abbreviated version of the story of his readiness to sacrifice his son to God – along with Noah, Moses and Aaron, “Elias” (presumably Elijah) – who hasn’t appeared in the lists of messengers in earlier chapters – and Jonah.

The author provides an interesting challenge to the Christian belief that Jesus was the son of God: “So sound them [presumably the Christians] out: ‘To your Lord daughters are born, and to them sons? Or did We create the angels female, in their presence?’ It is only their deceit that makes them say that God begat progeny; they are indeed lying. So He preferred girls to boys? What is it with you and your judgements?”  In other words, it doesn’t make sense to claim that God has biological progeny. To this humanist reader, there is a strong element of “pot calling the kettle black” here!

 

Chapter 38 is called “Sad”, which is claimed to be an “unknown” letter of the alphabet.It’s mainly a repetition of earlier material, with a slightly different list of the peoples who have ignored God’s messengers: “the people of Noah, of ‘Ad, and of Pharoah, he of the pegs [thought to mean buildings]….Thamud, the people of Lot and the People of the Thicket.” They’re all referred to as “Confederates”, a term enabling the author to group his contemporary enemies with past sinners. And there’s a gallop through some of the prophets: Job, Abraham Isaac and Jacob, Ishmael, Elisha and “Dhu’l Kifl”.

The main new feature is a story about David, father of Solomon, and two men in dispute about ewes. As in earlier cases, it’s based on a Biblical story, but the Qur’anic version is so stripped-down it has lost the main point of the original.

In the Biblical version God sends the prophet Nathan to David with a story of two men from the same town, once rich with many sheep and cattle, and the other with only one ewe lamb, which has become the family pet. When a traveller comes to town, necessitating an animal to be killed for a welcome meal, the rich man kills the poor man’s lamb. When David hears that, he reacts with fury, saying the the rich man should be killed and the poor man compensated many times over. But Nathan replies “You are the man” and explains that, after God had given David everything, he committed a great sin by killing a man so that he could get his wife for himself. Although David apologies, and God accepts, among the penalties God imposes is that the son born from this liaison dies. But his next son is Solomon.
In the
Quranic version, after hearing how God has favoured David with power and wisdom, we are told that two “disputants” – rich and poor brothers – arrive with David and, for reasons not explained, he is frightened of them. The poor one explains that the rich one has 99 ewes, but he has only one. “And yet he says to me: ‘Place her in my charge’, and he overcomes me in argument”. David is incensed and says that the rich one is in the wrong. Then “David imagined that We had put him to the test, so he sought His Lord’s forgiveness…” The whole point of the story seems to be missing.

When it comes to Solomon, there’s a reprimand from God for his over-fondness for horses, and an allusion to a Biblical story about an angel usurping his position by taking his form and sitting on his throne. Here “We [God] tested Solomon by placing on his throne a physical likeness. Then he repented….” and God places the wind at his command, “so too the demons, every builder and diver, and other bound in chains.” Again, the lack of any details makes the verse about the throne impossible to understand unless the reader knows the story already. Presumably the rest ties in with Solomon’s army we heard about in “The Ants” (Chapter 27) which included Jinn, though there’s no mention here of birds.

There’s a brief reprise of the heaven and hell versions from the previous chapter, except that we learn that the women in heaven  are not only “chaste in glance” but also “of equal age”.  And down in hell: “Let them taste it: scalding water and pus, and similar torments of diverse kinds.”

And we hear again about Iblis, the angel who refused to bow before man, considering himself superior as he was made from fire but man was made from clay. God tells him: “‘Depart from this place, ever to be stoned! [which I believe is reflected in part of the haj, where pilgrims stone a pillar]. My curse is upon you until the Day of Judgement’ ” Iblis says to God “I swear by Your Might, I shall seduce them all, except Your devout followers.” Why God decides to defer action against Iblis until the Day of Judgement, leaving him free to temp people, is unclear.

Qur’an 21: Temptation, diversity & the “Heart of the Qur’an”

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…]

This post covers Chapter 34 (“Sheba”), Chapter 35 (“The Creator”) and Chapter 36 (“Ya Sin”).

Buried in Chapter 34 (“Sheba”), among the usual repetition  – the fate of unbelievers, the Last Day, the futility of believing in “partners” of God… – is a verse that could as well have appeared alongside the assertive claims in the previous chapter:

We sent you not but to all of mankind – a herald of glad tidings and a warner. But most of mankind has no understanding”…. It isn’t clear what the author means by “all mankind”, either geographically, ethnically or in time. But, taken with the Seal of the Prophets line from the previous chapter, this seems to be the basis for the Islamic claim of Final Prophethood for the whole world is made. That contradicts earlier verses which say that the Prophet is sent specifically to his people to communicate his message in their (Arabic) language, in line with earlier prophets, and with his call not to argue with other People of the Book, who don’t recognise him as a prophet.

After passages about God providing “soft iron” to David to make chain mail, and to Solomon “power over the winds”, a “fountain of brass, and Jinn to work for him, the author comes to the eponymous “Sheba”. This time, there is no mention of its queen and her visit to Solomon. Instead God destroys its two fertile gardens in a flood, and replaces them by gardens “bearing bitter fruit, tamarisk bushes and a scattering of lote-trees”  as punishment because the people were blasphemers and “took no notice”.

Chapter 35 (“The Creator”) carries on with the repetition. For the first time that I recall, here he emphasises the role of Satan as a tempter,  luring people away from God: “O mankind, God’s promise is true, so let not this present life seduce you, and let not the Tempter tempt you away from God. Satan is your enemy….”. Strangely that is immediately followed by a verse repeating the idea that God also leads people astray: “Consider a person whose evil deed is made attractive to him, and he regards as good. God leads astray whomever He pleases and guides whomever He pleases. So let not your soul perish with grief over them: God knows full well what they do.” The theology seems rather inconsistent.

On the creation of man, we get here: “God it was who created you from dust, then from a sperm, then fashioned you into two genders” – a slight variant on clay as the starting point, or water in one of the chapters – and the point about genders seems new.

When it comes to burdens of the soul, we’re all on our own: “No soul burdened can carry the burden of another.” Makes sense.

Among the many examples of creation, is a rather poetic verse celebrating colour diversity:

“Have you not seen how God causes water to descend from the sky and with which We [3rd to 1st person switch] bring forth fruits diverse in colours?
And mountain tracks, white and red, diverse in colours,
And other pathways, dark and obscure?
So also humans, beasts of burden and cattle of diverse colours?

Those who believe and do good are rewarded with the Gardens of Eden, bracelets of gold and pearls and garments of silk. They have an eternity free of pain and fatigue. The unbelievers have the fires of hell. “They shall not be judged and thus die, nor shall they be spared any of its torment…..In it they shall scream: ‘Our Lord, take us out and we will act righteously, otherwise that what we used to do!'” But they have had a lifetime to get it right, they ignored the “warner” so no-one will help them. Once again, this section underlines that heaven and hell are seen as physical places.

God not only is the creator, but he holds everything in place: “God grasps firmly the heavens and earth lest they pass away. If they were to pass away, none after Him can grasp them firmly.” The force that would otherwise cause them to “pass away” is not explained.

“Ya Sin”, the name of Chapter 36, is claimed to be two letters, but of unknown origin. Reading the translation, the chapter seems to be almost 100% repetition of well-worn themes.  But apparently it reads better in Arabic and, if this write-up is anything to go by, can be taken as an summary: “It has been proposed that Yāʾ-Sīn is the “heart of the Quran”. The meaning of “the heart” has been the basis of much scholarly discussion. The eloquence of this surah is traditionally regarded as representative of the miraculous nature of the Qur’an. It presents the essential themes of the Qur’an, such as the sovereignty of God, the unlimited power of God as exemplified by His creations, Paradise, the ultimate punishment of non believers, resurrection, the struggle of believers against polytheists and non believers, and the reassurance that the believers are on the right path, among others. Yā Sīn presents the message of the Qur’an in an efficient and powerful manner, with its quick and rhythmic verses.”

 

Qur’an 20: A tough Seal of the Prophets

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 33 (“The Confederate Troops”) seems an important chapter. It has the war-time flavour of some of the earlier chapters, and in it the author makes a strong claim for his God-given leadership position and his entitlement to privileged status.

Obedience to the Prophet (aka the author and military leader) is essential: “It is not for any believer, man or woman, if God and His Prophet decide some matter, to have liberty of choice in action. Whoso disobeys God and His Prophet has strayed far into manifest error.”

And he names himself: “Muhammad is not the father of any man among you, but he is the Prophet of God and the Seal of Prophets. God has knowledge of all things.” The Seal of Prophets is apparently taken to mean that he is the final prophet. Given this is so important, it’s strange that the Qur’an does not actually say that’s what it means. A parallel interpretation is that Mohammed had a birthmark on his back which was the “seal” to prove his prophethood, or that he put his seal of approval on previous prophets.

Believers have to be duly deferential when visiting the prophet: “…do not enter the chambers of the Prophet for a meal unless given leave, and do not wait for it to be well-cooked. Rather, if invited enter, and when fed disperse, not lingering for conversation. This behaviour irritates the Prophet, who is embarrassed to tell you, but God is not embarrassed by the truth. And if you ask his wives for some favour, do so from behind a screen; this is more chaste for both your hearts and theirs. You must not offend the Prophet, nor must you ever marry his wives after him, for such would be a mighty sin in the sight of God.” I found it important to remember here that the author of all this is the prophet himself.

There’s also a lot about the special position of the Prophet and his wives, and of the superiority of blood relations over other types of relationship. Adopted children are different to your own children and are to be called by their fathers’ names. And “Kinsmen by blood are more caring for one another in the Book of God than the believers and Emigrants, unless you wish to bestow some act of kindness upon your clients. This is inscribed in the Book”.

The Prophets’s wives are not supposed to be interested in worldly things, and their piety will be doubly rewarded. But “if any of you commits a proven indecency, torment shall be multiplied upon her twice over” – hard to imagine given the horror of the standard torment. They are urged not to “speak enticingly” to avoid stirring lustful thoughts, to “remain in your homes” and not to “display your adornments, as was the case with the earlier Age of Barbarism” (the pre-Islamic period).

The Prophet gives himself rules about who he can have sex with: “We have made licit for you the wives to whom you have given their bridal money, as also the slaves that God assigned you as war booty, the daughters of your paternal uncles and aunts, the daughters of your maternal uncles and aunts, who emigrated with you [presumably from Mecca to Medina], and also a believing woman if she offers herself to the Prophet, provided the Prophet wishes to marry her…”. This is all “a special dispensation to you [Mohammad] only, but not to the believers”.

On the other hand, “Henceforth it is not licit for you to take more wives, nor to exchange them for other wives even if you admire their beauty – except for slaves.” The women, of course, appear to get very little say.

It seems this is a period of war. The “Confederates” of the title is the name given to “infidels” who fought Mohammed and also those who fought the ancient prophets such as Noah. The “Hypocrites” also feature here. According to my translation, they were believers from Medina who refused to accept Mohammad’s political leadership. As in earlier chapters, there is no adequate description of battle scenes, for example: “Remember when they attacked you from higher ground and lower, when eyes were transfixed, and hearts reached up to throats, and you thought evil thoughts of God. It was then that the believers were tested and convulsed a mighty convulsion. It was then that the Hypocrites and those sick in heart said: ‘God and His Prophet promised us nothing but delusion’…” In the end “God repelled the unbelievers, and He spared the believers combat…He compelled those who aided them from among the People of the Book to come down from their strongholds, and cast terror in their hearts – some of them you killed, others you took prisoner. And He made you inherit their lands, their homes and their wealth, as well as a region you had never set foot in before.”

Presumably people at the time knew to what all this was referring. But as a narrative document, the Qur’an here, and in other similar places, is incomplete.

There are also problems of internal security: “If the Hypocrites, and the sick in heart, and those who spread panic in the city, do not desist, We [God] will give you sway over them …Accursed they shall be; wherever they are found they shall be captured and killed outright.”

It’s a tough, confident – perhaps even hubristic – chapter.

Qur’an 19: Clouds, mountains & a return to vengeance

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…]

This post covers Chapter 30 (“The Byzantines”), Chapter 31 (“Luqman”) and Chapter 32 (“The Prostration”).

Chapter 30 (“The Byzantines”) starts with a prediction: “The Byzantines have been defeated in the nearer part of the land, and yet, after their defeat, they shall be victorious – in a few years.” Apparently this refers to the defeat of the Byzantines by the Persians at the Battle of Antioch in 614 – a problem for early Muslims because the Byzantine Christians  were montheist People of the Book while the Persians were Zoroastrians, so it was important for God to win in the long term (which is what happened about 6 years later).

Among the usual items about the wonders of creation and the need to be a believer are a few other interesting points:

  • God is capricious, but if something bad happens, it’s down to your past misdeeds. “If we make mankind taste mercy, they are happy with it, but if some affliction befalls them for their past misdeeds, behold, they despair. Do they not observe that God spreads forth His bounty to whomever He wills – and witholds it?”
  • Alms count, usury doesn’t (though it’s not forbidden in this chapter): “So render to kinsman what is their due, as also to the poor and the needy wayfarer…What usury you practise, seeking thereby to multiply the wealth of people , shall not multiply with God. But the alms you render, seeking the face of God – these shall multiply their reward.”

There’s some lovely stuff about weather: “God it is Who sends forth the winds, agitating clouds, which He then spreads across the sky in any manner He pleases. He turns it into billowing masses and you can see the rain coming forth from its crevices; and if He causes it to fall downon whomever He pleases of His servants, behold, they rejoice even though, before it was sent down, they were despondent.” God decides the finest details of the weather, including who gets rained on.

I get an inkling here of how it feels to marvel at every aspect of the world and see the hand of a deity behind it.

And there’s a coda, which again shows that the author was up against the doubters: “In the Qur’an, We have struck for mankind every sort of parable. And if you bring them a proof, those who blaspheme will say: ‘You are merely dabbling in falsehood.’ This does God stamp the hearts of those who do not understand. So bear with patience. God’s promise is true; and be not disheartened by those who have no conviction.”

Chapter 31 (“Luqman”) continues along the same lines, but uses the voice of a pre-Islamic wise man, Luqman, to articulate some of the verses. It seems that Luqman was the name of both an ancient wise man, perhaps from 1100BC Ethiopia, and a pre-Islamic Arabic mythical figure, and the two have become merged.

Among the usual things, Luqman advises his son not to “ascribe partners to God”. God weighs in to say that, even though it is important to care for your parents, if they press you to associate others with Him, then “do not obey them, but befriend them in this life, in kindness.” [This is clearly benign, but seems inconsistent with the message that, once they die, the same God will torture them for eternity.]

He also tells him not to be arrogant or loud: “‘Do not turn you cheek away from people with contempt, and do not walk merrily upon the earth: God loves not every swaggering snob. Let your walk be modest and keep your voice low: the ugliest of sounds is the braying of an ass.'”

Once again it’s implied that the heavens are a solid thing held above the earth, and that God put mountains on the earth to weight it down: “He raised the heavens without pillars that you can see, and cast upon the earth towering mountains, lest it should shake you violently, and He set loose in it every sort on animal.” [This fallacious view of mountains is taken by some as an example of scientific miracles in the Quran.]

The Luqman chapter includes a verse giving a striking metaphor for the security provided by faith in God: “Whoso surenders his face to God, and acts righteously, has held fast to a handle most secure.”

 

In Chapter 32 (“The Prostration”), the author returns to threatening form. Those who are believers and prostrate themselves and do righteous deeds are promised a place in the Gardens of Refuge (i.e heaven).

But when, on the Last Day, sinners change their tune and promise to do good if they are restored to life, God will have none of it. Once more we get the idea that God could have avoided sinners and unbelievers making their mistake, but chose not to: “Had We wished, We could have granted each soul its right guidance.

But My decree is binding: I shall fill hell with both Jinn and humans. So taste it – and since you forgot the encounter of this your Day, We have forgotten you – taste the punishment of eternity for what you have committed.”

There’s a confusing verse referring to the “lesser” and the “greater” torment. “The dissolute, however, shall have the Fire as their refuge: each time they purpose to leave it, they are turned back to it, and it is said to them: ‘Taste the torment of the Fire, which once you disowned’. We shall make them taste the lesser torment rather than the greater – perchance they might return. Who is more wicked thatn he who, when reminded of his Lord’s revelations, turns away from them? We shall surely take vengeance upon sinners.” Apparently the “lesser torment” refers to suffering in this life, which provides an opportunity for sinners to see the error of thier ways and turn to God before it’s too late. It’s not clear how that squares with God’s ability to grant each soul right guidance if He wants to.

 

 

Qur’an 18: Not the Moses Basket – & Spiders

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 28 (“The Narrative”) does indeed contain a chunk of narrative – the first part of Moses‘ story.

As with Bible stories elsewhere in the Qur’an, it’s given in an abbreviated and altered form which, in places, makes less sense than the original. This seems strange as the author could presumably have asked any local rabbi to translate the original for him.

Here’s an example: Moses’ mother hides her baby. Instead of taking a basket, making it waterproof and concealing the baby-in-the-basket among the reeds (original version), here God tells her to “cast him into the river”. The family of the Pharoah duly pick him up. In the orginal version, the baby’s sister watches to see the basket being discovered and then offers Pharoah’s daughter to find a woman to nurse him – the woman being his mother. In the Qur’anic version, nothing happens till the next day, when the mother is distraught and sends her sister (not his) to “Follow his tracks”, though it’s not made clear what tracks a baby cast into a river the day before would leave. When she spots him with Pharoah’s family, we are told “We [God] had already forbidden him suckling by wet-nurses” so the sister offers the mother and they are reunited. But in what way were the Pharoah’s family “forbidden” to use wet-nurses for the foundling? As narrative, it doesn’t work.

The burning bush that was not consumed – a nice image in Exodus – doesn’t feature. Instead there’s simply a fire on a mountainside which Moses goes to investigate. And instead of God giving him instructions about getting the Israelites out of Egypt, God gets him to perform the trick of throwing down his staff which turns into a serpent – which belongs later in the story. The whole story from then to the parting of the Red Sea is covered in a few pargraphs, which major omissions. There’s no explicit reference to “Israelites” or “Hebews” anywhere.

The reason for the lack of attention to the narrative seems to be to get to the point where God explains that He brought the Book to Moses and then makes the direct link with the author, explaining “..it was a mercy from your Lord , so that you may warn a people to whom no warner before you had been sent”.

The rest of the chapter includes the customary strictures against unbelievers and those who talk about “associates” of God, a reminder that God created the alternation of night and day, and how the worldly who are unbelievers and who do not do good deeds will be brought down.

[I wonder what Muslims who have been brought up with the Qur’anic stories think when they encounter the Biblical versions?]

 

“The Spider” (Chapter 29) is largely repetiton of earlier chapters, but there are a few interesting points:

It starts with a reminder that believing is not enough. God will “put to the test” those who say they believe “that God may know who were sincere and who were lying” – which is strange as elsewhere the author says that God knows what lies in everyone’s hearts. More usefully, he emphasises that, if a believer also performs good deeds “We [God] shall grant remission for thier sinful deeds and reward them for the best of their acts.”

So neither believing alone, nor doing good deeds alone is enough, you have to do both, but then you’re allowed some bad deeds too.

Again there are references to Noah, Abraham, Lot, Isaac, Jacob and Shu’ayb, the prophet to Midian (though in Chapter 26, “The Poets”, they were called “The People of the Thicket”) and the fate of the people who ignored them. We hear that Noah lived “a thousand years, less fify”, the same number as in the Bible. The varied forms of destruction God uses on sinning peoples is listed: a fire storm; the Scream [which from earlier chapters seemed to refer to an earthquake]; the earth caving in beneath them; drowning.

The chapter is called “The Spider” because of this section: “The likeness of those who took to themselves patrons instead of God is like the spider that builds a house for itself. But surely the most fragile of houses is the spider’s house, if only they knew!” The author didn’t know that spider silk is the strongest naturally-occurring material there is, weight for weight five times stronger than steel. Spiders’ webs are not particularly fragile. And in any case they are not “houses” to provide shelter, but traps for insects. It’s quite reasonable for someone in 7th century Arabia not to know that – spiders’ webs look fragile and spiders are often seen in them- and it’s not too bad as an analogy. But it’s another illustration of the fact that the Qur’an is not a book of science.

Believers are told “Do not argue with the People of the Book [Jews and Christians] except in the best manner, save the wicked among them, and say: ‘We believe in what has been sent down upon us, and sent down upon you. Our God and yours is One God, and to Him we submit.’…” This welcome statement appears to contradict a number of others, including those strongly attacking believers in the Trinity – who the author deems to associate others with God – and the grouping in the violent Chapter 9 (“Repentence”) of Jews and Christians among the polytheists who are to be killed.

In a strikingly direct passage, God say “O worshippers or Mine who believe, My earth is wide. It is Me who you must worship. Every soul shal taste death and then to Us you shall revert.” He follows with a promise of heavenly paradise for those who believe and do good deeds.

We are then reminded that “This present life is nothing but frivolity and amusement. But the Abode of the Hereafter is the real life, if only they knew!” – surely the idea of an afterlife that is more important than this life is one of the more dangerous ideas humans have come up with. But it’s not wise to say that as: “Who is more wicked than he who…calls the Truth a lie once it has come to him? Is not hell the final berth of blasphemers?” Oh well….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Qur’an 17: Talking Birds, Talking Ants

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 27 (“The Ants”) includes a world of Jinn and talking animals: “To Solomon were mustered his troops of Jinn, humans and birds, all held in strict order. Until, when they arrived at the Valley of Ants, an ant said ‘O ants, enter your dwellings lest Solomon and his troops crush you unawares.’ He smiled with amusement at its words and said: ‘My Lord, inspire me to offer thanks for the bountry You bestowed on me….. .” The Biblical Solomon refers to ants in Proverbs as a source of inspiration, for example: “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.” But they don’t talk and there’s nothing about being crushed by troops of Jinn, humans and birds.

After that, Solomon becomes angry because one of the birds, the hoopoe, is missing. But the bird turns up with a report about the riches of Saba (=Sheba) and their queen – they’re sun-worshippers. That’s the starting point for a confused story in which Solomon exchanges written messages with the Queen of Sheba and she travels to visit his court. At the same time Solomon asks for someone to bring him her throne, and a “giant Jinni” obliges.

That leads to some interesting logic: “This [the throne] is a favour from my Lord, in order ro test me whether I shall give thanks or be ungrateful. Whoso gives thanks, gives thanks only for his own good. Whoso is ungrateful, my Lord is All-Sufficient, All-Forgiving.” In other words, don’t thank God for good things, he doesn’t need it.

Solomon disguises the throne and asks her whether it look like hers. She says “It is nearly so” and Solomon claims that her inability to spot it is because she doesn’t have “right guidance” – that is, she’s not a believer. But she is so dazzled by the wealth of Solomon’s court, including a roof terrace made of glass which she thinks is water, that she submits to God.

This seems to be another example of an amended, abbreviated rather badly-told version of a Bible narative. The throne puzzle seems unnecessary, and doesn’t appear  in the Biblical version, where instead it is the Queen who tests Solomon with riddles. On the other hand, the outcome – that she’s so dazzled she takes on belief in Solomon’s God – is the same.

We have here again Moses and his staff turning into a serpent, as well as reference to fire, though not specifically a burning bush. There’s yet another repeat of the Thamud tribe failing to heed the prophet Salih; and of Lot. But unlike the previous chapter, where it was an “old woman” who remained behind when Lot escaped the destruction of his town, here “…his wife, whom We destined to remain behind”.

And here again we encounter the wonders of creation, what will happen on the Last Day and blasphemers who doubt that the dead will be resurrected.

The chapter starts with another example of the strange idea that God deliberately misleads unbelievers so that they end up being tortured in hell: “We have made their deeds appear attractive in their sight, so they stumble aimlessly in their error.It is they whom an evil torment awaits, who shall be the greatest losers in the hereafter.”

And near the end the author reports that God is generously providing the Qur’an to help out the local Jews: “This Qur’an narrates to the Children of Israel most of what they dispute about.  It is a guidance and a mercy to the faithful. Your Lord shall judge between them with His decree. He is Almighty, Omniscient.”

It seems that quite a few people take this whole chapter literally, one even claiming that the use of the feminine form of Arabic to refer to ants is a miracle of science in the Qur’an, since it been found only recently that worker ants are female and have no wings to get away from trampling armies, while males do have wings and could simply fly away.