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.

 

 

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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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