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.