Qur’an 26: Chosen people & older fathers

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 45 (“Kneeling”) and Chapter 46 (“Rolling Sands”).

Kneeling” refers to the Last Day, when “…you will witness how every nation will be on its knees…”. Interestingly, the verse continues “…how every nation will be called back to its own Book: ‘Today you shall be recompensed for what you did. Here is Our Book, speaking about you with truth for what you did. Therein We have inscribed all you have done.’ ” Presumably the “Book” here refers not to God’s master book, from which the Qur’an, Torah etc are drawn, but a book recording people’s actions, good and bad. Presumably an omniscient God doesn’t need a book in order to record what people have done – albeit many billions of them – and justify His judgement, but I assume the point is to emphasise that everything will be remembered.

The thrust of the chapter is yet another repeat of the need to take heed of the message, believe – especially don’t take it in jest – and do good deeds, in order to avoid eternal torment in the Fire.

Once more we hear that there are people around who question the whole idea of the afterlife: “They say: ‘There is nothing but our present life. We die, we live, and only Time destroys us.’ Of this they have no knowledge. They are merely guessing. And when Our revelations are recited to them, plain and clear, their only argument is to respond: ‘Bring back our forefathers if you speak the truth!’ Say: ‘It is God Who gives you life, then causes you to die, then gathers you together on the Day of Resurrection, of which there is no doubt.’ But most people have no understanding.” Setting aside the weak argument about bringing back forebears, this seems an excellent encapsulation of the sceptic/Muslim-believer difference.

And once more the author asserts a special status for the Children of Israel in God’s eyes, though it seems some of them went astray: “To the Children of Israel We gave the Book, the Law and Prophecy. We provided them with the good things of life and preferred them above mankind. And We only gave them precise rulings, but they fell into dispute only after Knowledge had come to them, our of mutual envy. Your Lord shall judge between them on the Day of Resurrection concerning that over which they differed.” As well as implying that some of those involved in these (presumably theological) disputes will be judged right and others wrong, the author seems to be saying that knowledge and disputation are bad things – I guess Jewish theologians would say the opposite.

There is a clear statement of eternal justice: “Do those who commit evil deeds imagine that they We will treat them like those who believe and do good deeds, that they are equal in life and death? How badly they judge! God created the heavens and the earth in justice, so that each soul shall be rewarded for what it earned, nor will they be wronged.”

It’s not a surprise to hear that he who “takes his own caprice as his god” is in trouble. But, as before, the author then says that it’s because “God, in His foreknowledge, has led him astray. He sealed his hearing and heart, and shrouded his vision. Who can guide him other than God?” The sinner sins because God has led him astray, then the same God punishes him for sinning. Maybe I keep missing the logic.

Agnosticism is apparently a form of blasphemy. When “those who blasphemed” were told “‘God’s promise is true and the Hour is beyond all doubt,’ [they] answered: ‘We know not what the Hour is. We are merely guessing, but are not certain.'”

 

“Rolling sands” (Chapter 46) takes its title from a story of the prophet ‘Ad, who “warned his people, among the rolling sands” as previous messengers had done, to “Worship none but God. I fear for you the torment of a mighty Day”. But they stuck to their previous gods and their reward was “a wind in which lies painful punishment. It shall destroy everything…”.

Early in the chapter is what reads as a mocking, but rather facile, argument against those who worship another god “Show me which portion of the earth they have created. Or do they own a share of the heavens? Bring me a Book prior to this one, or even a smattering of Knowledge, if you speak the truth.” This clearly excludes Moses and the Torah, as later in the chapter we have “Before it there was the Book of Moses, a guide and a mercy; and this is a Book that confirms it, in the Arabic tongue, to warn the wicked and bring glad tidings to the righteous.”

In fact he seems to use the local presence of Jewish people to bolster his message: “Say: ‘Consider if it be from God and you blasphemed against it, and then someone from the Children of Israel witnesses to its like, and believes, while you stand on your pride.’ Gods guides no wrongdoers.”

Then there’s something rather odd. First God says “We enjoined upon man to be kind to his parents…..His bearing and his weaning are thirty months” which seems to be setting a (long by modern UK standards) fixed period for weaning of 30-9=23 months. Then he goes on “..when he is fully grown and reaches forty years, he says: ‘My Lord, inspire me to be thankful….that I act in virtue…Grant me a virtuous progeny…I have sincerely embraced Islam.'” The implication is that this model of a devout man does not have children until after he’s forty.

He is contrasted with the man who says to his parents “How you exasperate me! You promise me that I shall be resurrected when centuries have passed before me?” and then when they beg him to believe them he says “These are but fables of the ancients.”  It seems that this freethinker not only blights himself but “upon such people shall the Word come true, as it did among nations before them of both Jinn and  humans. They were indeed lost.”

I’m not sure if this is the first time that we hear that Jinn form themselves into nations. But they also appear towards the end of the chapter: “Remember when We steered towards you a small band of Jinn to listen to the Qur’an…” . They listen and go back to their people with the message. Presumably God had to steer the Prophet towards the Jinn as they are claimed to be invisible spirits created from smokeless fire, in contrast to humans, who were created from clay. It seems belief in the real existence of Jinn remains widespread, and they can even be classified.

The chapter ends firstly with another example of God’s apparent relish at the fate of blasphemers: “A Day shall come when blasphemers are paraded before the Fire. ‘Is this real?’. ‘Yes, by our Lord,’ they shall reply. And He [God] shall say: ‘Then taste the torment for your blasphemy!'”

Finally there’s a verse in which God has a quiet word with the author: “So remain steadfast, as other resolute messengers had stood fast. Seek not to bring it quickly upon them. It will be as if, when they witness the Day they are promised, they had been on earth a mere hour of a day. That is the message! Will any be destroyed but the dissolute?”

As I read it, “the message” is therefore that real life is just a fleeting moment, and what really matters is the Last Day and the afterlife.

 

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Qur’an 25: Jesus, hell & your demon

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 43 (“Ornament”) and Chapter 44 (“Smoke”).

Chapter 43 begins by reinforcing the point that the Qur’an is in Arabic so that the people it is aimed at will understand it, and that it’s part of God’s ‘Master Book’: “We have revealed it as an Arabic Qur’an: perhaps you will understand. It is in the Mother of the Book, with Us, Exalted, All-Wise.”

There are a number of references here to Jesus and Christianity. As we know from previous chapters, he doesn’t like the idea of a Son of God: “And they turn one of His servants into a part of Him! Man is so evidently blasphemous!” Later he gives us a reminder of how he positions Jesus: “And when the Son of Mary is adduced as an example, behold, your people are loud in protest, and say ‘What! Are our gods better or is he?’ They adduce his example to you only for argument’s sake…He [Jesus] is only a servant on whom We conferred Our grace, and We made him a model for the Children of Israel”. Jesus “is a portent of the Hour” [I wonder if he was aware that he lived 600 years earlier] and one of Jesus’ roles was apparently “to make clear to you some of what you differ about…But the sects among them fell into dispute – woe to the wicked for the torment of a painful Day!”.

In a response to those who say that God would have done better to have sent the Qur’an to “some grandee in the two cities”, we get another insight into God’s thinking. Firstly, he says God “distributed their livelihoods among them in this present life, and raised some above others in rank, that some might take others into their service”. God has determined your station in life. But then he goes on to say: “Were it not that mankind would have become a single disbelieving community, We would have provided the houses of those who disavow the All-Merciful with roofs of silver…grandiose stairs…magnificiant entrance gates…sumptious couches…and fine adornments” because “these are merely the delights of the present life, but the hereafter belongs to the pious in your Lord’s sight.”

It’s one thing to compare worldly riches with the rewards of heaven. But this seems to be saying that, if God had had a free hand, and did not have to worry about turning everyone into an unbeliever, He would have enjoyed raining riches on unbelievers in the knowledge that they would have their terrible comeuppance in the Fire.

This chapter and the next are strong on other supernatural players. Anyone who “wilfully ignores the mention of the All-Merciful, We will set upon him a demon who will be his intimate companion. They [the demon] shall bar them [the disbeliever] from the Way though they [the disbeliever] themselves imagine they are rightly guided, till, when he comes before Us, he will say: ‘Would that between you [the demon] and me were the distance between East and West’ – wretched is that companion! Today it profits you not, if you are wicked, that you are all [disbeliever and demon] in torment together.” It’s not clear what the relationship is, if any, between these demons and Jinn.

And there’s another detail of hell that we haven’t had before. “The wicked shall abide in the torment of hell, eternally, a torment never subsiding for them, wherein they are bereft of hope.” In a bid to end their suffering “they shall cry out: ‘O Malik, let your Lord deprive us of life!’ And he shall answer: ‘You shall remain as you are.’.” Malik is apparently an angel delegated to look after hell. [How assisted dying would work in the afterlife isn’t clearly explained.]

At the start of Chapter 44 (“Smoke”) God says “By the Manifest Book! We sent it down on a blessed night – We have warned! During that night all matters are wisely apportioned, at Our command – We have sent a messenger!” On the face of it, this says that God sent the Qur’an down to Muhammed in a single night, as opposed to a drip-feed over 23 years, which is the tradition, and which seems to fit with the fact that different chapters are clearly written in response to contemporary events. It seems that one way out of the discrepancy is to claim that God gave it in one night to the angels and they then drip-fed to Muhammed. But what the concept of a ‘night’ means to these denizens of seventh heaven is not clear; and there is nothing here to suggest anything other than the obvious meaning. It’s an inconsistency.

People “dally” despite receiving the message, and that’s where the eponymous ‘smoke’ comes in: “So look out for a Day when heaven exhales smoke, for all to see, that envelops mankind – a painful torment that! ‘Our Lord, draw away this torment from us, for we are believers.’ But how will remembering help them when a messenger, undeniable, had already come to them, and they had turned their backs on him, saying: ‘He is tutored and crazed’? If We draw away the torment a little, and you revert to unbelief, a Day shall come when We shall deliver the Great Blow – We shall exact vengeance.”

So it seems we have two “Days”: the first with an unpleasant smoke – perhaps a fog or ash cloud –  as a warning which, if not heeded, results in a vengeful “Great Blow” on the second Day. It’s a test and a threat. But even then, it’s not clear whether the second Day is the Last Day. The next section talks about how “We tested the people of Pharoah”, and delivered the Children of Israel (described as chosen “above all mankind”) from him, at the same time bequeathing “to another nation” all the property and land left behind by Pharoah and his troops after they were drowned in the sea. Was this disaster an example of a second ‘Day’. It’s certainly not the Last. All a bit muddled [or maybe that’s just me].

He reminds us that there were people who simply did not believe in the afterlife at all. “But now these people say: ‘There is nothing but our first death, and we shall not be resurrected. Bring back to us our forebears if you speak the truth.'” All the author can say is that they are sinners.

Which brings us back to hell and heaven. “The Zaqqum-tree [the one with fruits like heads of demons] shall be the food of the grave sinner, like molten brass, boiling in stomachs like boiling water. ‘Seize him, and hurl him into the pit of hell, then pour over his head a torment of boiling water. Taste it, you who are mighty and noble! Here it is, that which you used to doubt!'” Meanwhile the pious will be “amid gardens and springs, clothed in silk and brocade, face to face. And, too, We married them with spouses with dark and large eyes….Therein they do not taste death, except for the first death, and He has spared them the torment of hell – a favour from you Lord.” Presumably “taste death” here to refers to the suffering of hell.

Hell seems to be the default option, with heaven only if God decides you deserve his favour.

 

 

Qur’an 24: Seven heavens & forgiveness

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 41 (“Made Distinct”) and Chapter 42 (“Deliberation”)

Chapter 41 (“Made Distinct” as in “a Book whose verses are made distinct”) gives more details about the creation. In this case God “created the earth in two days”. Above it He “erected towering mountains…and appraised its provisions in four days, in equal measure to those who need them. Then He ascended to heaven, while yet smoke” and brought heaven and earth together. “Then He ordained seven heavens in two days, and inspired each heaven with its disposition…[and] adorned the lowest heaven with lanterns, and for protection”.

That’s two + four + two = eight days, contradicting the six days of earlier chapters. For example 10:3: “Your Lord is God Who created the heavens and the earth [not the earth then the heavens] in six [not eight] days, then settled firmly on the throne, to order the world’s affairs.” Sorting out the world’s provisions when there is no sun or sky is odd to say the least. And, of course, there is no heaven with lanterns hanging from it – it just looks that way. But the idea of a hierarchy of seven heavens, which is also apparently in Jewish mythology – perhaps where the author got the idea from – has made it into everyday language as blissful “seventh heaven”. It isn’t clear where the heavenly Gardens to which believers are promoted on the Last Day are located; presumably with God in heaven seven. The visible stars, sun and moon are in heaven one. But why did God create heavens two to six? That isn’t explained.

Among the usual threats of fire, and reminders of people previously destroyed – the Ad and Thamud – we have a welcome appeal to emollience: “Repay injury with conduct more becoming and, behold, the person with whom you are at enmity becomes like an intimate friend…..If a surge of anger that issues from Satan sweeps over you, seek refuge with God; He is All-Hearing, Omniscient.” And later “Whoso does a good deed does himself good. Whoso does an evil deed does himself evil.”

There’s some more here about the Qur’an and its relationship with previous revelations: “As for those who blaspheme the remembrance when it comes to them – a Book Exalted, which no falsehood can blemish, adding or subtracting, a revelation of the All-Wise, All-Praiseworthy – remember that nothing is being said to you that was not said to messengers before you.” Similarly, in Chapter 42 (“Deliberation”) he says:”He [God] prescribed to you of religion what He once enjoined upon Noah, as also what we revealed to you and what We enjoined upon Abraham, Moses and Jesus: to follow the right religion and not to be in dispute over it.” So Muhammed positions himself as another prophet, but not a special one: his basic message is identical, he claims, to that of his predecessors.

He goes on to say “Had We [God] revealed the Qur’an in a foreign tongue, they would have said: ‘If only the verses were made clear! What? Foreign and Arabic?’…” In other words: ‘no excuses as this is in your language’. Similarly in Chapter 42 (“Deliberation”) God says “We revealed to you an Arabic Qur’an, in order that you warn Mecca, the Mother of Cities, and its surroundings, and warn of the Day of Assembly, of which there is no doubt: a party in the Garden, a party in the raging Furnace.”

These underline the impression from previous chapters that the message is directed specifically at his local Arabic-speaking people, while other people have, or have had, their own messengers in their own language giving the same message.  It’s therefore ironic that the majority of modern Muslims don’t understand classical Arabic.

There’s a confusing verse in Chapter 42 (“Deliberation”), after the section saying that Moses, Jesus and the current prophet are all preaching the same religion. Firstly he says “For the idolators, what you call them to seems excessive. But God chooses to His side whom He wills, and guides to Himself whoever turns in repentance”. So it’s a ‘Big Ask’ for idolators to accept the message, and God decides which of them will come round (and then condemns the others to hell). But then goes on: “They differed not concerning it except when Knowledge had come to them, out of mutual envy. Were it not for a prior Word from your Lord which set a stated term, judgement would have been passed on them. And those bequeathed the Book after them are in perplexing doubt about it.” This seems to be saying that, if God hadn’t already decided to postpone judgement till the Last Day, people who use their knowledge to dispute the pure religion would have already been judged and found themselves condemned. The result of their disputation is that people after them are then confused. Presumably he means here Jews and Christians. He makes the same point about his own followers: “As for those who continue to dispute about God after having answered His call, their arguments hold no value with their Lord. Upon them shall fall wrath, and grievous torment awaits.” Questioning and doubt lead to hell.

Chapter 42 (“Deliberation”) then has more on right and wrong.

God chooses not to make life too easy for believers so they remain in line: “Had God spread His bounty to His servants, they would have grown shameless on earth. Rather, He dispenses it in any measure He wills.” On the other hand, if something bad happens, it’s your fault (though God will forgive you): “Any calamity that befalls you is due to what your own hands have earned – but He forgives much. You cannot escape His power on earth and, apart from God, you have no guardian and no champion.” On the face of it, this is saying the answer to the question ‘why do bad things happen to good people’ is that it’s their fault. Commentators claim that it refers only to the specific people he is addressing in this chapter – doubting Meccans.  But they don’t apply the same logic to other verses which are deemed to be universal.

There’s another list of what people  must do to secure a place in heaven. They must: “believe and place their trust in God”; “refrain from major sins and debaucheries [not specified], and forgive when wrathful”; “answer the call of the Lord and perform the prayers”; “settle their affairs through common deliberation” [presumably, play fair in business]; “expend from what We provided them” [spend according to your God-given means]; “when aggression assails them, show a bold front” [resist anger]. It’s an interesting list, though not a comprehensive one. On the other hand, it doesn’t claim to be.

To me the most interesting section of the chapter suggests a balance between proportionate retaliation (an eye for an eye) and forgiveness: “Harm is requited by a similar harm. But whoso forgives and makes peace, his reward shall be with God, for He loves not the unjust. Whoso retailiates in kind after being wronged – these are not held to account. Rather, account is demanded of those who oppress people and commit transgression on earth, unjustly. To them there is painful torment. But he who bears with patience and forgives, this would be a course of action upright and prudent.”

The implication is that: ‘you steal one of my goats, I take one of yours’ is fine; but ‘you steal one of my goats, I forgive you’ is a plus. ‘You steal one of my goats and I wipe out your entire herd’ is not fine. Nor is general unjust oppression. Maybe this is a verse that ISIS choose to skip.

Finally, God won’t talk to you directly: “It is not vouchsafed for any human being that God should address him except through inspiration or from behind a veil, or else He sends a messenger who reveals what he wills, by His leave.”