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.