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.