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.