Qur’an 31: Divorce & more Jinn

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.

 

 

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Qur’an 30: Jesus foretells Muhammed?

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 cover Chapter 58-63  (“The Dispute”, “The Mustering”, “The Woman Tested”,  “The Battle-Line”, “Congregational Prayer”, “The Hypocrites”) Several of these chapters start with the line “Glorifying God is all that exists in the heavens and the earth…” – a bold claim about the purpose of life.

It seems that Chapter 58 (“The Dispute”) was written at a time when Muhammed was running a relatively stable society, presumably in Medina. The eponymous Dispute is a complaint by a wife about her husband. The author suggests that problem was that the husband had said to the wife: “You are to me like my mother’s back”. God apparently disapproves – wives are not mothers. In the case of “those who pronounce this formula to their wives and then retract”, the man has to free a slave or, if unable, fast for two consecutive months or, if unable, feed sixty poor people, before he and his wife are allowed to sleep with each other “in order that you [presumably the husband] be taught a lesson”. Why this is such a bad thing is unclear.

We then get three sets of guidance all suggesting that Muhammed is now the political boss. Firstly, he reminds us that God is always present in any conversation, so furtive conversations about “sin and crime and defiance of the Messenger” followed by effusive greetings to Muhammed, won’t work. God knows everything. Secondly, believers are told to “make room for each other in the assemblies”, and “if you are told to disperse, then disperse”. And finally, anyone who wants to have a private conversation with Muhammed is expected to offer a gift to charity “for this would be better for you and more pure”. But if you can’t then it may be ok to attend to your prayers, offer alms and “obey God and His Messenger”.  It’s clear who is in charge.

Presumably referring to a specific case (undisclosed) he rails against “those who took under their protection a group with whom God was angry [perhaps read ‘Muhammed was angry’]” and who then “swear false oaths”. They have it seems fallen under the power of Satan and will end up in the eternal Fire. “God has ordained ‘I and my Messengers shall prevail'”. The will of Muhammed and the will of God seem to merge.

Then there’s a disturbing verse: “You shall not find any group who believe in God and the Last Day to be friendly towards those who contradict God and His Messenger, even if they were their own fathers, sons, brothers or fellow clansmen.” The benign reading is that the context, coming after the section about people who protect those with whom God is angry, makes clear that “contradict” means “fight against” in a physical sense. He obviously needs to ensure the loyalty of his followers, and to deal with some of them being related to those on the other side. But it provides a nice quote for anyone wanting to encourage black-and-white/for-me-or-against me thinking.

 

In “The Mustering” (Chapter 59) we are back to war. As usual, the author makes no attempt to provide the context, presumably because it was “revealed” in the wake of events that he assumed his listeners would know about. Apparently the first part of the chapter is about the banishment of one of the Jewish tribes, Banu Nadir, who were expelled from Medina after being accused of plotting to assassinate Muhammed, with whom they had previously had an agreement. All we are told is that they  were “unbelievers among the People of the Book” and that the “Hypocrites” claimed to be their allies but then failed to come to their aid. According to the author, they should have been glad to have been expelled from their homes as “Had God not ordained expulsion upon them, He would have tormented them in this life”. Unfortunately “…in the hereafter they shall face the torment of the Fire [as they] rebelled against God and His Messenger, and whoso rebels against God, God is grievous in punishment.”

He then takes us back to the subject of war booty, previously mentioned in the “Booty” chapter (chapter 8), and frames some rules. Firstly you are not supposed to go to war for the purpose of gaining booty. Secondly, it has to be spread around: “Whatever God grants HIs Messenger in booty from the people of the towns belongs to God and His Messenger, as also to kinsmen, the orphans, the poor and the needy wayfarer, in order that wealth does not circulate solely among those of you who are rich….It belongs also to the poor Emigrants [presumably those who followed him out of Mecca, and…]…Whoso is guarded against his soul’s avarice – these shall win through”.

The final verses of the chapter are in the author’s voice, a poetic prayer running through God’s attributes: “knower of the Unseen and Seen…All Merciful, Compassionate to each….Sovereign, All-Holy, the Bringer of Peace, the all-Faithful, the All-Preserver, the Almighty, the All-Compelling, the All-Sublime; the Creator, Originator, Giver of Forms…All-Wise”.

 

“The Woman Tested” (Chapter 60) continues to reflect an environment of conflict. In this case, the target audience are believers who have links with those on the other side. In the case of “those who have not fought against you over religion, nor expelled you from your homes, God does not forbid you to treat them honourably and act with fairness towards them, for God loves those who act with fairness.” But he’s concerned about other cases, including where “you [believers] show them amity in secret”. The warning is that “neither kinships nor progeny shall avail you when He distinguishes between you on the Day of Resurrection…” against addressing the problem that some of his followers are related to people on the other side. He gives himself a get-out by saying “perhaps God will create affection between you and those among them with whom you were at enmity…”

There’s then a set of rules for dealing with women who change sides. The premise seems to be that every woman is someone’s wife and comes with a price tag of her bridal money. A husband is owed money if he loses his wife, and a man acquiring a new wife has to pay. So if a believing woman comes over from the unbelievers and passes an (unspecified) test of her faith, then: “give their husbands what they paid, and no blame shall attach to you if you marry them, provided you pay them their bridal money.” There’s even some community sharing:”If any of your wives flee to the unbelievers, and you afterwards fall on some booty, pay those whose  wives have fled the equal of what they had expended..”. Romance doesn’t get much of a look-in.

 

“The Battle-Line” (Chapter 61) title is from its first verse, which tells us that “it is abhorrent to God that you say what you do not do. God loves those who fight in His cause in a battle-line, like an edifice, impenetrable”.

But the most interesting are the following verses where the author provides examples from previous messengers. He quotes Jesus: “Children of Israel, I am the messenger of God to you, confirming what preceded me of the Torah, and I bring you glad tidings of a messenger to come after me called Ahmad”, which apparently refers to Muhammed. It would be interesting to know what Biblical scholars make of that. Ironically, a few lines later, he says “Who is more wicked than one who fabricates lies from God while being called to Islam.”

He goes on to say that, after the Apostles pledged to follow Jesus: “..a party of the Children of Israel believed while another party disbelieved. And We [God] aided those who believed against their enemies, and they ended up victorious.” Presumably the author knew nothing about the total victory of the Romans over the Jews at the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He’s making it up. On the other hand, by the 7th century, Christianity had become far more successful than Judaism, mainly because the Roman victors adopted it, and it ceased to be a predominantly ‘Jewish’ religion. His knowledge of history is sketchy at best.

 

The most notable section of “Congregational Prayer” (chapter 62) is an attack on “the likeness of those who carry the Torah but do not really carry it…..Say: ‘O you who are Jews, if you claim to be the friends of God, to the exclusion of the rest of mankind, then pray for death if you are sincere.’ But they will never pray for death because of what their hands have committed – and God knows best who the wicked are.” It seems to be an attack on those who claim to be the “Chosen People” but fail to live up to the commands of the Torah, perhaps Jewish tribes who sided against Muhammed. But it’s hard to see the logic behind the “if you are friends of God, pray for death” jibe, which could equally be applied to the author and his followers. And there seems to be an inconsistency with previous chapters, such as “The Cow” (Chapter 2), where he accepts the idea of God giving a preferred status of the Children of Israel, albeit that they had not always lived up to it.

There’s then an abrupt change of gear to talk about the call to prayer on “Congregation Day”, when people are supposed to “hasten to the remembrance of God, and leave your commerce aside”. Presumably this refers to Friday prayers, but there is no mention of a particular day of the week, or even that Congregation Day happens weekly.

 

“The Hypocrites” (chapter 63) is yet another attack on those, referred to here and elsewhere as “Hypocrites”, who claim to be Muhammed’s supporters but then change thier minds and become unbelievers.

It finishes with a warning to followers not to “let your wealth or your children divert you from the remembrance of God” on the basis that you should: “Expend from what We provided you before death” as it’s too late to say afterwards to God “if only You [God] held me back [from death] I would have given to charity and been among the virtuous.” While the timing of this encounter with God isn’t make clear, the author seems to suggest here that people encounter God when they die, while elsewhere he says that judgement takes place when everyone is resurrected on the Last Day. The theology is rather vague on this important point.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Qur’an 29: Apocalypse, Jinn & a 2-class heaven

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 cover Chapters 53-57 (“The Star”, “The Moon”, “The All-Merciful”, “The Calamity” and “Iron”).

“The Star” goes right back to basics and is apparently seen as one of the earliest chapters chronologically. Why it is chapter 53 and not chapter 1 is unclear.

It starts with an assurance from God that “your companion” (presumably Muhammed) is telling the truth about his revelations, and the then-traditional gods and goddesses (named as al-Lat, al-Uzza, Manzat) were just made up, “but names that you and your forefathers coined”. Interestingly it says nothing about a cave and an angel but reads as if God Himself appeared to Muhammed: “It is but an inspiration, inspired, taught him by one immense in power, daunting. He took his stand, being on the upper horizon, then drew near and hung suspended, and was two bows’ length, or nearer. And He revealed to His servant what He revealed.”

The voice of the deity here is a little less angry than in some of the other chapters. He is “expansive in His forgiveness” towards those who “refrain from major sins and debaucheries, save minor misdemeanours”. There’s no mention of hell fire, though we do get ancient towns and people destroyed (‘Ad and Thamud and “before them the people of Noah”), with the existence of ruins is taken as evidence of God’s vengeance.

And there are some ethics here too: “…no soul burdened shall bear the burden of another; …man shall gain only what he endeavours” which seems to contradict some other chapters where God decides people’s place in society. In addition to His role as creator, and the cause of “laughter and weeping”: “He is Lord of Sirius”, which was apparently the star worshipped by pre-Islamic Arabs.

What the author refers to here as the “Second Creation” (not the Last Day) is seen as just around the corner: “The Imminent Event is at hand!”

 

Chapter 54 (“The Moon”) carries on with the apocalyptic theme, but with less moderation. It starts with the news that “The Hour has drawn near, and the moon is split” – a warning that the foolish dismiss as sorcery. God resumes his vengeful tone as the author runs through the familiar list of peoples who He has destroyed: the people of Noah and their flood, ‘Ad who get a hurricane; Thamud and their “Scream” (apparently an earthquake); the people of Lot, who get violent hail.

God jeers at them as they suffer: “So how do you find My torment and My warnings?”  And hell fire is back: “The wicked are sunk in error and madness. A Day will come when they shall be dragged into the Fire, on their faces: ‘Taste the touch of the gate of hell’ “.

The short verse “And We made the Qur’an easy to remember, but is there anyone to recall it to mind?” appears twice. Presumably this is the basis for the tradition of memorising the Qur’an. Evidently, God was wrong on this one – it’s not easy.

 

Chapter 55 (“The All-Merciful”) is a change of gear. It’s written in a poetic style with the refrain “So which of your Lord’s blessings will the two of you deny?” On the basis of: “He created man from thin clay, like earthenware, and created the Jinn from shimmering flame. So which of your Lord’s blessings will the two of you deny?” it seems that “the two” refers to humans and Jinn, referred to later as “you two great masses of creation”. The Jinn are not, it seems, a fanciful add-on, but a major part of creation.

The inventory of wonders of creation that follows includes, intriguingly, “He brought the two seas together, but as they meet, between them is a barrier they do not overrun.” which sounds like a repeat of Chapter 25: “It is He who merged the two seas, this one fresh and sweet water, that one salty and bitter. Between them He erected a barrier, an impassable boundary.” This time, though, there’s no mention of fresh and salt water, so it seems to refer to a physical barrier.

We then get heaven and hell, where the gardens of heaven feature “…maidens, chaste of glance, undefiled before them by humans or Jinn” and “..maidens virtuous and beautiful…dark-eyed and confined to pavilions…undefiled before them by humans or Jinn”. Setting aside the sexism, that suggests that Jinn can have sex (or maybe that it wasn’t thought-out that well).

 

“The Calamity” (Chapter 56) explains how, on the Last Day “you shall be of three kinds…companions of the Right (the righteous who will have their heaven), companions of the Left (who have ignored the warnings, doubted the resurrection on the Last Day, and get “boiling water and the roasting of hell”)…and the surpassing, the truly surpassing. These shall be the nearest in the Garden of Bliss: a crowd of ancient communities, and a few from latter times”. It isn’t clear why these ancients get a privileged place in this 2-class heaven.

 

“Iron” (the title of Chapter 57) is simply among the creations God “sent down…in which there is great strength and benefits to mankind” but seems otherwise irrelevant. We hear again about the Creation, completed in six days, after which God “sat firmly on the throne”.  The author explains more about the organisation of heaven and hell: “A wall shall be erected between them in which there is a gate, with mercy on its outer and torment on its inner side”.

He reminds us that “the present life is but amusement, frivolity and finery, and mutual boasting among you and accumulation of wealth and progeny”….”this present life is but the rapture of delusion“.

The Christians get a special mention. Following Noah and Abraham and “their progeny…We sent Our messengers , and followed them up with Jesus son of Mary, and granted him the Evangel. In the hearts of those who followed him We planted kindness and compassion; and also a monasticism that they invented but which We did not ordain for them except to seek the pleasure of God. But they did not do it justice. Hence We granted those among them who believed their reward, but many of them are dissolute.”

“Let the People of the Book know that they are not entitled to any bounty from God, and that bounty rests in the hands of God, who dispenses it to whomsoever He wills.”

So no special treatment for Jews and Christians, but a repeat of the doctrine that all the “messengers” – including the Jewish prophets, Jesus and Muhammed – were on a par and anyone who heeded the message God conveyed through them will be ok.

“Kindness and compassion” are God-designated virtues, and were associated with Christian teaching.

 

Qur’an 28: Many angels & an uncracked sky

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 50 (“Qaf”), Chapter 51 (“The Lashing Gales”) and Chapter 52 (“The Mountain”).

Qaf returns to familiar themes but adds new information on our supernatural companions. It starts with the importance of believing in the author’s status as Messenger (“warner”), and his answer to those who challenge his teaching about resurrection on the Last Day, when their original bodies will have turned to dust (God has everything recorded).

He repeats the claim that the wonders of creation are proof of the existence of God. Except he starts with rather an unfortunate example: “Have they not observed the sky above them and how We [God] erected it and decked it out, how free of cracks it is?” (Other translations have “flaws”, “rifts”, “gaps” and “openings” in place of “cracks”.) The author thinks, not unreasonably for his time, that the sky, the first of the seven heavens described in Chapter 41, is a surface which – if imperfect – would have cracks or flaws. Read poetically, that’s fine. Read literally, it is simply wrong.

We hear yet again about the wonders of earthly creation, and how people in the past have ignored God’s Messengers.

But then he provides more details about how people’s deeds are recorded. God is “nearer to [a man] than his jugular vein”. There is some confusing theology here. He tells us that there are two recording angels “poised one to the right and one to the left, not a word escapes him [not capitalised ‘Him’, so presumably meaning an angel] but he has with him a watchman in attendance.” So it looks as if everyone is attended by two angels recording their every deed. The implication is that two of them are needed to ensure nothing is missed, though that seems to have been extended to the view that the one on the right writes down good deeds and the one on the left writes down evil deeds. These are apparently distinct from the two guardian angels that, according to Chapter 13, accompany everyone, one in front, the other behind.

As well as the angels, it there is a “Demon-Comrade” or Qareen, who provides temptation to do bad deeds. It is not clear how this fits with the threat in chapter 43 that anyone who “wilfully ignores the mention of the All-Merciful, We will set upon him a demon who will be his intimate companion”, which suggests that only non-believers have these demons, while here it implies that everyone does. When it comes to God’s judgement, the demon-comrade says ‘My Lord, it was not me who made him impious – he himself was far gone in error’. Presumably God makes His judgement on the basis of the angels’ reports. [Given that around 107 billion people have already lived, God’s Final Day judgements will need to be fast.]

It seems therefore that we are all accompanied by two recording angels (left and right), two guardian angels (in front and behind) and a Demon Comrade. Quite a crowd.

 

There’s a change of gear in Chapter 51 (“The Lashing Gales”) which beings with a poetic verse about ships lashed by gales to underline the reality of what the author is promising. In fact the chapter is almost entirely repetiton of the usual material, wth the addition of a new example of God’s violent retribution against an unbelieving people in the past. Strangers report to Abraham that they were envoys sent by God to rain down “stones of baked clay, each bearing its mark from your Lord” on the “profligate” in a town of “sinful people”. Only one “household of Muslims” survives and God leaves the ruins “as a sign for those who fear the painful torment”.

 

Similarly, Chapter 52 (“The Mountain”) starts with a poetic verse using the certainty of a mountain to underline the certainty of “Your Lord’s torment”. In the contrasting description of heaven, we are told that “they shall pass a cup from hand to hand, wherein there is no drunken uproar, nor any wrongdoing” – more evidence that alcohol, and in this case passing a cup around – was a normal feature of a party at the time. But in heaven, you drink but don’t get drunk.

The author mocks the unbelievers. They say that he “improvised it” [the Qur’an] but are challenged to “bring forth a discourse like it”. They say they were created from nothing, but who then created everything? Was it them? Are they in “supreme control”? “Even if they see missiles raining down from the sky, they would say: ‘Massed clouds!'”. They will get their come-uppance when confronted with the real fire of hell.