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.”

 

 

 

 

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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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