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 Chapters 64-75 (“Mutual Recrimination”, “Divorce”, “Making Illicit”, “Sovereignty”, “The Pen”, “The Hour of Truth”, “Ascensions”, “Noah”, “The Jinn”, “Muffled”, Enfolded”and “Resurrection”).
“Mutual Recrimination” (Chapter 64) is largely a repeat of the Last Day doctrine, which here is referred to as the “Day of Gathering” and the “Day of Recrimination”. There’s the usual reward of “Gardens beneath which rivers flow” for those who believe in God and do good deeds, while “those who blasphemed and cried lies to Our revelations” become “denizens of the Fire, abiding therein for ever.”
Believers who have enemies “among your spouses and your children” get some ambivalent guidance. On one hand they are warned to be “on your guard against them”, on the other they are told that “..if you pardon, disregard and forgive, God is All-Forgiving, Compassionate to each”. But the overall message is clear: “your wealth and your children are but a temptation, but with God is a splendid reward”. The rewards of the afterlife trump those of this life.
“Divorce” (Chapter 65) sets down a rule about the timing of divorce of wives by their husbands: “O Prophet, if you divorce women, divorce them in accordance with their periods of waiting…” which are then specified as 3 months for both menopausal women and, significantly, pre-menstrual ‘women’ – suggesting that young girls were not only married but, apparently, divorced. For pregnant women, “the appointed term is their date of delivery”. During these period of waiting: “do not expel them from their homes, nor should they leave their home, unless they commit a flagrant indecency” – so divorcees are confined to their homes until the special period is over. On the other hand “Allow them to reside where you reside…and do not pester them in order to constrict their lives. If pregnant, you are to pay their expenses until they deliver.” After the defined period “hold them back in amity or let them go in amity”.
This supplement to earlier passages about the treatment of women may have been sensible rule-making in 7th century Arabia, but it has disturbing implications if applied now. The premise is that men have multiple wives; that they may include pre-menstrual girls; that divorce is decided by the man; that there are no specified grounds for divorce, so it’s just up to the man; that it’s acceptable for a man to divorce a woman who is pregnant with his child. Overall, a divorced woman’s only right is apparently to be looked after the few months before the divorce takes effect. That’s it.
The final verse includes a new idea: we have heard before that “God it is Who created seven heavens …”, but not: “and their like on earth”. Presumably the theologians have had some fun with explaining what these seven heavens-on-earth are.
The first part of “Making Illicit” (Chapter 66) provides another example of the incompleteness of the Qur’an. But unlike previous cases, where knowledge of historical or military events is needed to make sense of the text, here we need to know what was going on in Muhammed’s private life. Firstly, he has God saying “O Prophet, who are you to make illicit what God has made licit to you, intending to appease your wives?” But he doesn’t explain what it was that he had “made illicit”to himself, or why.
God gets drawn into household politics: “Remember when the Prophet let one of his wives into a secret, but when she revealed it, and God acquainted him with the matter, he communicated a part of it and set aside another part. When he informed her of it, she asked: ‘Who informed you of this?’ He answered: ‘The All-Knowing and All-Experienced informed me.'” That’s followed by a warning, presumably addressed to two of his wives: “Should you two seek God’s pardon, this is because your hearts have indeed swerved from the truth. But if you two were to come together against him, remember that God is his Patron…..It may be that, if he divorces you, his Lord may give him in exchange wives better than you: true Muslims, faithful, obedient, repentant, devout, and dedicated to fasting – whether married before or virgins.”. Muhammed invokes God, and the threat of divorce, to counteract two of his wives’ ganging up on him. We’re not even told their names.
Among a repeat of the usual exhortations to believe and repent, he makes another strange claim: “God strikes a parallel for unbelievers: the wife of Noah and the wife of Lot…both tied in marriage to ….righteous servants, and they both betrayed them. It was said to them: ‘Enter, both of you, into the Fire…’ ” We know about Lot’s wife. But it seems there’s nothing in the Torah – which Muhammed says is God’s word, on a par with the Qur’an – to say that Noah’s wife betrayed him. She is barely mentioned, and she’s not mentioned at all elsewhere in the Qur’an, including in the chapter called “Noah” (see below). Strange.
And here again he seems to make the mistake of saying that these two women have been sent to the Fire (past tense) when we’re still waiting for the Last Day, so presumably they have not yet been resurrected or judged.
There is little new in chapter 67 (“Sovereignty”), which includes a repeat of the seven heavens “piled one upon another” and the wonder of their perfection. But it then goes on: “We adorned the lower sky with lanterns, and made them to be volleys against the demons…” In chapters 15 and 27 he has given us the (bizarre) hypothesis that shooting stars are there to attack demons/Jinn who are trying to listen in to the angels. Here, the “lanterns” beautifying the night sky – the lowest of the seven heavens in Qur’anic cosmology – are the ordinary stars and planets, not (short-lived) shooting stars. Not only is the Qur’an not a book of science, but it is also sometimes inconsistent.
“The Pen” (chapter 68) differs from the previous chapter in its poetic style. Apparently it is chronologically one of the earliest chapters. But it covers familiar themes. The title comes from the first line “By the Pen, and by what they trace in lines!” – presumably referring to writing – and starts by God reassuring Muhammed that He’s on his side and that he shouldn’t listen to “the deniers”. (Was this a sort of therapy to help the author through a period of doubt?)
These “deniers” are apparently being “tested” by God. He gives a parable to make the point. Some farmers (“owners of the garden”) say they will harvest their garden when they get up at dawn the following day. But they fail to say “God willing” (inshallah) before they go to bed. So God destroys their crops during the night. The next morning, when they find out, they realise their mistake in failing to glorify God, and end up “in mutual reproach”. God rattles his sabre: “Such is Our torment, but the torment of the hereafter is far more grievous, if only they knew.”
It’s not difficult to guess the main theme of “The Hour of Truth” (chapter 69). On the Day of Judgement, good believers will take their book – presumably the book of their deeds and misdeeds – with their right hand, and end up with “a life of contentment in a lofty Garden….” as their reward. In contrast, the unbeliever who never “encouraged the feeding of the poor” is “handed his book with his left hand” and is full of regret: ‘Seize him and shackle him, then scorch him in hell, then lash him to a chain, seventy arms in length.’ Is right-handedness associated with good and left with bad?
The first line of “Ascensions” (chapter 70) is “A questioner questioned the imminent torment” and it carries on with the familiar theme. Those who avoid “..the blazing Flame, the stripper of scalps” are those who pray, who believe in the Day of Judgement and “fear the Lord’s torment”, who give a share of their wealth to “the beggar and the indigent” and – notably – who “guard their chastity, save with their spouses and slaves, when no blame attaches to them.” Once again he confirms that judgement happens only on the Last Day, “when they are turned out of their tombs”.
“Noah” (chapter 71) is a brief run through of Noah’s failed attempts to get people to give up idolatry – the named gods being pre-Islamic Arabic ones that would presumably be familiar to the author’s audience, rather than any that might have been around in Noah’s time. It culminates with Noah asking God to send the flood, but to “forgive me, and forgive my parents, and forgive believing men and believing women…”.
It’s ironic that, in the chapter actually named “Noah” there’s no mention of his wife, who in “Making Illicit” (chapter 66) is held up alongside Lot’s wife as an example of a prophet’s wife who lets the side down.
“The Jinn” get their own chapter title (chapter 72), which starts with God giving Muhammed a revelation from the view-point of a group of Jinn. It’s a repeat of familiar material, including the prohibition of associating anyone with God. And we get the fantasy of the protective shooting stars, this time from the Jinn perspective: “we [the group of Jinn] probed the sky and found it filled with mighty guards and shooting stars…we would seat ourselves nearby, to listen [presumably nearby the angels to align with the earlier narrative], but whoever listens now is pursued by a shooting star lying in wait”. It seems that the Jinn can also be Muslims. Those who are “transgressors” shall be “the fire-wood for hell”.
An interesting line here is “Say: ‘I know not whether what you are promised is imminent, or whether my Lord shall set a longer term for it'” which seems to be out of line with previous chapters saying that the Last Day is imminent. For example “The Star” (chapter 53, considered one of the earliest chapters chronologically): “The Imminent Event is at hand!”, and Chapter 40 (“The Forgiver”): “Warn them of the Day, soon to come…”.
“Muffled” (chapter 73) refers to people muffled in their garments when they get up at night to pray. The guidance here seems to be to spent as much time as you’re able praying during the night, whether it’s two thirds, a half, or a third, recognising that “among you are th sick, and other who travel the land…and that still others are fighting in the cause of God.”
Continuing the textile theme, “Enfolded” (chapter 74) is laid out a poem in my edition. The contents are the usual warnings of the hell that awaits unbelievers, and in particular God’s wrath about a specific, un-named, wealthy man who gives due consideration to the Message but concludes that “This is nothing but sorcery, time-worn; nothering but human speech”. He gets the Fire. Similarly, “Resurrection” (chapter 75) covers the same theme, having first provided a riposte to those who doubt the mass physical resurrection that is promised: “Does man imagine We shall not reassemble his bones?”. Whenever these chapters were written, the author was encountering sceptics.