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.