Qur’an 27: Sketches of war & society

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 47 (“Muhammad”), Chapter 48 (“Victory”) and Chapter 49 (“The Chambers”).

In “Muhammed”, we are back to war. But it is clear that support for the authors military ambitions is not unanimous, even among the believers.

It is easy to see why the line “When you encounter the unbelievers, blows to necks it shall be…” is quoted as evidence of Qur’anic encouragement to violence against non-Muslims. But the rest of the verse makes the context clear: “…until, once you have routed them, you are to tighten their fetters. Thereafter, it is either gracious bestowal of freedom or holding them to ransom, until war has laid down its burdens.” It isn’t a general call to attack all unbelievers but specific to a war – background unexplained – in which the enemy are unbelievers, with a defined end.  The author then reverts to his usual theme of how much better off the believers are than the unbelievers who “have no patron”.

They are promised a vision of heaven featuring: “rivers of water, not brackish, and rivers of milk, unchanging in taste, and rivers of wine, delicious to them who drink it, and rivers of honey, pure and limpid.” Despite the prohibition of wine-drinking on earth, not only is it apparently fine in heaven, but the implication is that the author’s intended readers generally regarded it as desirable. Meanwhile, of course, those “abiding eternally in the Fire…are given boiling water to drink, which rends their innards”.

It is clear that some of his followers were not happy with his militarism: “The believers say: ‘If only a sura were revealed!’ But when a sura is revealed, unambiguous, in which fighting is mentioned, you [Muhammed] notice those in whose hearts is sickness looking at you like one swooning from fear of death”.

He elides his military ambitions with God’s: “Those who disbelieve and bar the way of God, and who defy the Messenger after Guidance has become fully apparent to them – they shall not harm God in any way, and He shall cause their works to founder.” In fact “…Those who disbelieve and bar the way of God, then die as unbelievers – God shall not forgive them”.

Not only does he expect people to fight when he says so, but he expects them to finance the war too: “Here you are, called upon to expend your wealth in the cause of God…..whoso begrudges it is merely begrudging himself!”

Chapter 48 (“Victory”) talks about a series of military events of which the author only gives us glimpses, presumably on the assumption that readers would know about them. They involve “Bedouins left behind” who, it implies, should have been helping with a potential battle, are promised another one, reminded of a previous occasion when they “turn[ed] tail” and warned that, if they do it again, “He will punish you most painfully”; an incident in which “believers made their pledge to you beneath the tree”; references to God promising booty, but also a mention of “other booty which you could not seize but which God has encompassed in His knowledge” – which sounds like an excuse for something going wrong in the booty plan; a victory in the “vale of Mecca” in which the unbelievers on the other side gave up without fighting; the same unbelievers and blasphemers keeping Muhammed “away by force from the Sacred Mosque [presumably the Kaaba], while sacrificial animals were prevented from reaching their rightful place”; and a convoluted verse about believing men and women preventing Muhammed from becoming “guilty of an unintentional crime” by trampling people underfoot.

The chapter is another example of the fact that the Qur’an is not a complete, self-contained work, but relies in places on prior knowledge of specific historical events, or sometimes stories.

It is also clear that there is no distinction in the author’s mind – or at least in his words – between God’s will and the author’s, or between unbelievers, blasphemers and enemies.

“The Chambers” (Chapter 49) consists mainly of the author telling his followers how to behave. It starts, like the previous chapter, with an unexplained incident, in this case one which led him to complain about believers raising their voices and about those who “call out to you [the author] from behind the chambers”. They are told to “lower their voices in the presence of the Messenger of God”.

In terms of chronology, this chapter seems to be late enough in his story for him to be able to tell followers to treat him reverentially.

Then there are instructions about behaviour in the community of believers: take care about unwittingly causing harm by trusting news brought by “a dissolute person”; how to sort out fights between groups of believers; not making fun of other groups of believers, and in particular; “Let no women make fun of other women make fun of other women, for they may be better than them”; not “backbiting” or calling each other nicknames; and not spying on each other or talking about people behind their backs (compared to cannibalism!).

He doesn’t trust Bedouins who claim to be believers but “faith has not entered their heart,” and are only claiming to be believers to make him “beholden to them”. God, he says, needs no convincing of the sincerity of anyone’s faith.