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.”