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.