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.