Qur’an 16: Poetic Destruction & Foreign Messengers

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…]

There’s an irony here. I’d expected Chapter 26, “The Poets”, to be poetic. It does contain a poetic verse, but the chapter seems to be called The Poets after this: “Shall I tell you upon whom the devils descend? They descend upon every lying villain who gives ear but most of whom are liars. And the poets- the tempters follow them. Do you not see how they wander in every valley, boasting of things they have not done?” He doesn’t seem keen on poets.

Most of the chapter is a repeat of prophetic warnings. But first there is Moses and Aaron in a cut-down, and slightly erroneous, version of the Exodus story. Once again there is the impression that the author had picked up stories from Jews and Christians but slightly mis-remembered them, as he also claims that the Torah, from which the story comes, is part of God’s revelation. As suggested by earlier chapters, maybe he’s simply not interested in narrative.

In Exodus, Aaron – not Moses – performs magic by turning his staff int a serpent. Pharoah sets up a competition between him and the Egyptian sorcerers, who also able to do the same trick. But Aaron’s staff “swallowed up their staffs”, (whatever that means). Here it is Moses who turns his staff into a serpent, and there is no mention that the competing sorcers are able to do the same, simply that “they threw down their ropes and staffs and said ‘By the majoresty of Pharoah, we shall be the victors.’ Moses then threw down his staff, whereupon it swallowed their deceits.”

Then we get a very abbreviated version of the exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea. There is no mention of plagues, killing the first born, angels passing over houses or huge numbers of Israelites leaving Egypt. Instead we just get God telling Moses to strike the sea with his staff to split it open. “Then We brought the others [not defined] near, and We saved Moses and all who were with him, and We drowned the others. In this was a wonder, but most of them were not believers”.

Next up is Abraham, chastising people for worshipping idols and giving a prayer which begins very poetically:
“He it was Who created  me, and He it is who guides me;
He feeds me and gives me to drink;
When I am sick, He cures me;
He shall cause me to die and He shall resurrect me;
He, I hope, will forgive my sins on the Day of Judgement…”

Familiar territory then opens up, with another run through of what happens when people ignore their prophets. There’s Noah and his people; Hud and the tribe of Ad; Salih and the tribe of the Thamud; Shu’ayb and the People of the Thicket – who apparently were guilty of cheating in weights and measures and short-changing. All are destroyed by God for not believing. In the case of the People of the Thicket, “…there seized them the torment of the Day of the Shadow”. When it comes to Lot, the author is more explicit about the people’s sin than the Bible is: “Do you cohabit only with males among mankind, and abandon what your Lord created for you of wives?….So We delivered him and all his family, except for an old woman, who remained behind [he doesn’t say it’s Lot’s wife] . Then We destroyed the others….”

God emphasises his responsibility for destruction: “We destroyed no town except it had warners, as a remembrance, and We were not unjust. ” Demons didn’t do it as “it benefits them not, nor are they able to do so.” The implication is that, if there’s a natural disaster, it’s an intentional act by God as punishment.

A couple of of the verses have a significant implication: “It is indeed a Revelation from the Lord of the Worlds, brought down by a Trustworthy Spirit [presumably the angel Gabriel], upon your heart, so that you may be a warner, in manifest Arabic speech; it is also in the Books of the ancients.
It is not a proof to them that it is recognised by the scholars of the Chilrden of Israel? Had We sent it down upon a foreigner, and he recited it to them, they would still not believe in it….”

This strongly suggests that he author considered himself God’s messenger specifically to the local Arabic-speaking tribes. He thinks the underlying message is universal, but there are different messengers for different peoples. Shouldn’t non-Arab believers be looking to their own prophets, rather than “a foreigner”?

 

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Author: HumanistJ

I'm a humanist - someone who thinks you can live a good life without believing in anything supernatural. I chair South West London Humanists, I'm a trustee of Humanists UK and its Dialogue Officer. This blog is purely my personal view.

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