Qur’an 34: Pluralism, Victory & Protection

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 final post in the series covers chapters 99-114 (“The Quake”, “The Charging Stallions”, “The Battering”, “Rivalry in Wealth”, “Afternoon”, “The Backbiter”, “The Elephant”, “Quraysh”, “Liberality”, “Abundance”, “The Unbelievers”, “Victory”, “Fibre”, “True Devotion”, “Break of Dawn”, and “Mankind”).

“The Quake” (chapter 99) takes us back to yet another version of the Last Day, when “mankind will come out in scattered throngs” – presumably following instantaneous resurrection – and “be shown their rights and wrongs”.

“The Charging Stallions” (chapter 100) is another complaint that “man…for love of wealth he is miserly to excess” and ignores warnings of judgement. There’s a similar message two chapters later in “Rivalry in Wealth” (chapter 102), this time about competing with others in wealth.

“The Battering” (chapter 101) seems to be about chaos of the Last Day, though that isn’t made explicit.

“Afternoon” (chapter 103) is claimed to contain the entire message of the Qur’an, which – after an opening “By the afternoon!”- it states very simply: “Man is surely amiss! All save those who believe, who do righteous deeds, who enjoin truth upon one another, who enjoin patience upon one another.” Not bad.

“The Backbiter” (chapter 104) warns those who defame others, and who hoard their wealth, that they’re destined for the Fire.

According to the Study Quran, “The Elephant” (chapter 105) relates to events supposed to have taken place shortly before Muhammed’s birth, when a neighbouring king set up a church in order to lure pilgrims away from the Kaaba, and when that failed, he sent an army with an elephant (or elephants) to pull it down. But they were miraculously defeated by a flock of birds which pelted them with hot stones leaving them “like worm-eaten leaves”. This is a cracking story. Unfortunately, the author chose not to include it and the text leaves the reader guessing what it’s all about.

“The Quraysh” (chapter 106) –  the name of Muhammed’s tribe, and the guardians of the Kaaba – having been saved from the People of the Elephant, are urged to “worship the Lord of this House”, presumably meaning they should accept that God is the boss of the Kaaba, and not the idols it contains.

“Liberality” (chapter 107) starts by equating a person who “denies the Judgement” with someone who “drives away the orphan, who enjoins not the feeding of the poor” – a false accusation familiar to many atheists and humanists. It then attacks “those who pray” but are insincere.

“Abundance” (chapter 108) is the shortest in the Qur’an – just three lines: “We gave to you in abundance, so pray to your Lord, and sacrifice. He who baits you: it is he who shall be childless!” OK.

“The Unbelievers” (chapter 109) is surprising. Apparently it’s an early chapter and strikes a very different tone to the some of those that came later, including the next chapter (110). It reads as an acceptance of religious pluralism (it seems atheists didn’t come into it at that stage): “Say: ‘O unbelievers! I do not worship what you worship, nor do you worship what I worship, nor will I ever worship what you worship, nor will you ever worship what I worship. You have your religion, and I have mine.'”

“Victory” (chapter 110) is then a huge contrast: “When there comes the victory of God, and the Conquest, and you see people entering the religion of God in swarms, glorify the praises of your Lord, and ask His forgiveness, for He is ever pardoning.” It is, according to the Study Qur’an, considered to be probably the last chapter to have been “revealed in its entirety”. Apparently the victory in question is generally taken to mean Muhammed’s conquest of Mecca and the adoption of Islam by the Meccans, though it doesn’t actually say taht. Read – as in my translation – in the future tense, it is easy to see how it can be related to the spread of Islam beyond its Arab home by military means.

[I guess the argument that the Qur’an only permits the use of force in defence, and then in line with its rules of war, could be sustained even with the conquest of Mecca, on the basis that the Meccans were the aggressors in the first place. But it doesn’t work if applied to Islam’s spread after Muhammed’s death.]

“Fibre” (chapter 111) makes it abundantly clear that Muhammed doesn’t like “Abu Lahab” (a hated uncle according to my translation), or his wife: “..His wealth shall not avail him, nor what he earned. He shall be scorched by a fire, ablaze, as too his wife, carrying the faggots; around her neck is a rope of fibre.”  There’s no explanation here of what Abu Lahab has done to deserve this fate, nor whether his wife was guilty in her own right or – more likely – simply by association. Why it’s included is unclear.

“True Devotion” (chapter 112) simply says that God is “unique…neither begetting nor begotten, and none can be His peer”.

The final two short chapters, “Break of Dawn” (chapter 113) and “Mankind” (chapter 114) are prayers for protection from evil – and the Jinn make a final guest appearance:

  • “Break of Dawn”: “Say: ‘I seek refuge with the Lord of the break of dawn! From the evil He created, from the evil of the approaching night, from the evil of women who blow on knots, from the evil of the envier when he envies'”
  • “Mankind”: “Say: ‘I seek refuge with the Lord of mankind, King of mankind, God of mankind, from the evil of the One who whispers and recoils, who whispers in the hearts of mankind, of Jinn and mankind'”


And that’s the end.

Qur’an 33: Poetry & “The Night of Power”

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…]

The chapters are getting pretty short now. This post covers Chapters 88-98 (“The Overspreading Pall”, “The Dawn”, “The City”, “The Sun”, “The Night”, “Prime of Morning”, “Soothing”, “The Fig”, “The Blood Clot”, “Power”, and “Manifest Proof”).

“The Overspreading Pall” (chapter 88) is, of course, hell. As well as being scorched by the customary “blazing Fire” and “quaffed by a boiling spring”, we now hear that its inhabitants have no food apart from “bitter cactus that fattens not, nor assuages hunger”. Meanwhile, those in heaven enjoy the usual benefits.

Here, the reasons to believe include: “how camels were created…how the sky was uplifted…how the mountains were moored” – again the ideas that the sky is a surface raised like a canopy, and mountains are plonked on top of the earth’s surface.

In “The Dawn” (chapter 89) the author reminds us of previous tribes and leaders who ignored God’s message and were therefore destroyed: ‘Ad, Thamud, Pharoah and a new one, Iram (which might actually be a city in ‘Ad). Again the author assumes the reader will know who these are. And again he reminds us that good deeds can be “laid up” like an investment for a good afterlife.

“The City” (chapter 90) presumably refers to Mecca. Most of the chapter seems to be about what it means to “storm the Steep”, apparently referring to more challenging good deeds, with freeing a slave or feeding an orphan during a famine  given as possible examples. Those who do them “are the People of the hand dextral” – companions of the right hand.

“The Sun” (chapter 91) again starts with an oath made on a poetic list of the wonders of creation, working from the sun – perhaps as an analogue for God – to the “symmetry” of a soul, with inclinations to both piety and perversion:

“By the sun and its morning glow! By the moon, in its tow! By the day, when it burnishes it! By the night, when it cloaks it! By the sky and He Who built it! By the earth and He Who levelled it! By the soul and He Who gave it symmetry, inspiring it with its perversion and its piety! Prosperous is he who purifies it; lost is he who stifles it.”

What is not clear is who is taking the oath – presumably God – or what He is then taking it  about, providing commentators with an opening to make up an answer.

(Here, and elsewhere, my translation refers to the earth “levelled”. Others – ref Study Quran – say “spread”, so it’s not clear if this provides any basis for a “flat earth” claim.)

The final verses are a reminder of what happened to Thamud when its people called the messenger God had sent to them a liar. They were “effaced”.

“The Night” (chapter 92) starts similarly to the beginning of The Sun, this time “By the night,…..”. Most of it is about the benefits of being generous and pious and believing, as opposed to “miserly and selfish” and disbelieving. Strangely, in each case, God “eases his way” towards virtue or evil. While the Fire awaits the sinner, we are told that the pious can avoid it if he: “…hands over his wealth, hoping for purity, and none has done him any favour that merits recompense, save only his desire to find favour with his Lord”. There’s a strong emphasis here on financial charity, but the motivation is the desire to avoid an eternity of torment.

“Prime of Morning” (chapter 93) is one of the gentler of these “final” chapters, and one of a few which make me understand why some people say the Qur’an is beautiful. It’s actually probably an early one chronologically, written as God addressing Muhammed:

“By prime of morning, and night when it settles! Your Lord has not abandoned you, nor distains! The Last is better for you than the First. Your Lord shall give you, and you shall be content. Did He not find you an orphan, and sheltered you? And found you erring, and guided you? And found you dependent, and enriched you?
The orphan you must not aggrieve, and the beggar you must not revile, and your Lord’s blessings proclaim.

“Soothing” and “The Fig” (chapters 94 and 95) are short and say nothing new.

In “The Blood Clot” (chapter 96), as well as the usual injunction to wonder at God’s creation, there’s a section about “one who forbids a worshipper as he prays”, apparently referring to someone who opposed Muhammed and the practices of his followers. We are left to guess who it is, but not at the promised reaction by God “We shall summon the watchmen of hell”.

“Power” (chapter 97) is very short, but different. It’s about the “revelation” of the Qur’an itself: “We sent it down in the Night of Power” which is “better than a thousand months. In it the angels and the Spirit are sent swarming down, by their Lord’s leave, attending to every command.” Apparently Muslims believe this was “the night when the first verses of the Quran were revealed…It is one of the odd nights of the last ten days of Ramadan. Muslims believe that on this night the blessings and mercy of Allah are abundant, sins are forgiven, supplications are accepted, and that the annual decree is revealed to the angels who also descend to earth.” The idea of a single night when the Quran was “sent down”, versus the 23 years over which Muhammed is claimed to have received his revelations are reconciled by the belief that there was a two-stage process: firstly, God revealed the entire thing in one go to the angel Gabriel; he then drip-fed it to Muhammed over the next 23 years, with the first revelation also on the Night of Power.

Why this theologically important verse is buried among these repetitive final chapters is unclear.

In “Manifest Proof” (chapter 98) we are told that the “unbelievers among the People of the Book and the idolators were of diverse views until there came to them a manifest proof: a Messenger from God, reciting untainted scrolls. In them are canonical writings.” And they did not “splinter” until afterwards, with those who then blasphemed or remained idolaters destined for the Fire.

He is apparently referring to Judaism, Christianity and Islam as he goes on to explain how simple the message is: “They had been commanded only to worship God in sincerity of religion and pristine of faith, to perform the prayers, and to pay the alms. This is the canonical religion.” The implication is that the “untainted scrolls” are God’s Master Book from which, as we have heard before, the Torah, ‘Evangel’ and Qur’an are drawn.










Qur’an 32: The Prophet’s mistake & religious persecution

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…]

The chapters are getting shorter. This post covers chapters 76-87  (“Man”, “Unleashed”, “The Proclamation”, “The Dispatchers”, “He Frowned”, “Rolling Up”, Disintegration”, “Those who shortchange”, “The Splitting”m “The Constellations”, “The Night Intruder” and “The Highest”).

 “Man” (chapter 76) repeats the familiar theme of heaven for believers who do good works, and hell for the rest, but in the poetic tone set in other “later” chapters, beginning:
“Surely there came upon man a span of time, when he was a thing not worth remembering! We created man from a sperm drop of fluids comingled, that We may test him; and formed him to hear and see. We guided him upon the way, be he grateful or ungrateful”.

There’s no mention here of creation from clay – the version in several chapters – or “dust, then from a sperm, then from a blood clot” (chapter 40) or water (Chapter 25 “It is He Who, from water, created man…”). While the author has talked about creation from sperm elsewhere, it’s unclear what “fluids comingled” refers to. In the following chapter, “Unleashed” (chapter 77) there’s a similar origin, but in this case with a reference to the womb and gestation: “Did We not create you from a trivial fluid, which We deposited in a haven, secure, until a designated term?” So far there’s no reference to the need for an egg, which presumably was unknown at the time.

God’s motivation for creating man was apparently to “test him”.

The author gives us a more detailed description of the heavenly garden. It promises “neither burning sun nor piercing cold….ewers of silver and chalices of crystal, crystal-like silver, perfectly proportioned….a cup mixed with ginger from a fountain…called Salsabil…passing among them…eternal youths: if you see them you would think them scattered pearls…green silk and brocade…silver bracelets…” No chaste and beautiful young women are mentioned this time. It’s a heaven of seventh century material luxury.

Believers should do good – the example given is feeding “the poor, the orphan and the prisoner” – not because they expect a reward or thanks from them, but “only for the sake of God” and because they have the promise of heaven if they had “fulfilled their vows, and feared a Day whose evil is far-flung”. The implication is that good actions are to be driven by the desire to avoid eternal torture and opt for the material rewards of heaven. There is no mention of empathy or compassion.

Once more we get the odd logic implying that it’s in part God’s fault if people fail to take the path of righteousness: “Whoso wishes may follow a path to his Lord; and you cannot so wish unless God wishes.”

“Unleashed” (chapter 77) is written as a poem, with the refrain “Alas that Day, for the deniers!” It’s yet another repeat of what will happen to all the “deniers” throughout history on the Last Day, here referred to as the “Day of Separation”.

“The Proclamation” (chapter 78) apparently refers to the Qur’an itself, which some – he doesn’t say who – “question each other about”, but “will surely know”. The chapter is the usual repetition of the threat of the Day of Separation. We are told that, in the hell awaiting transgressors, “they taste neither coolness nor anything to drink, save boiling water and filthy scum…“. The garden of heaven promised to the pious is this time complete with “companions, shapely and alike of age”.

But here the Last Day has an odd feature: “That Day, the Spirit and the angels shall stand in rows.” There’s no explanation of what is meant by the “Spirit”? Could the “Holy Spirit” have crept in somehow from Christianity?

“The Dispatchers” (chapter 79) repeats the same basic message, but with some variations. It starts with God swearing on an unexplained list of beings, starting with: “By those that dispatch, to the very limit!” (also translated as “By those that wrest violently”, though that is no clearer), that the Day will come, here with an earthquake.

Moses makes an appearance as an example of a messenger who preached truth to power – in his case Pharoah – and the result when he was ignored.

There’s a run-down of the wonders of creation, with the sky as a “canopy…fashioned …to perfection”, implying the same idea as in Qaf (chapter 50) that part of the evidence of the God as creator is the fact that the sky has no cracks. Similarly, “the mountains He anchored” echoes chapter 50 (“Luqman”): “He…cast upon the earth towering mountains, lest it should shake you violently”. The author sees mountains as anchored into the surface of the earth, rather than folds in its strata – an understandable error for the seventh century. Overall, the earth is “all for your enjoyment, and for your cattle”.

As in “Noah” (chapter 71), the author says he doesn’t know about the timing of the Last Day. God says “But what have you to do with marking it? Its closure is up to your Lord”. That contrasts with the warning he gives that it’s imminent in, for example, “The Star” (chapter 53) and “The Forgiver” (chapter 40).

Most of “He Frowned” (chapter 80) is the usual material about creation and resurrection on the Last Day. But it starts with what looks like something new: the author  admonishing himself (or rather writing that God admonished him) because “He frowned and turned aside when the blind man approached him”, while giving his attention to another man “Whose wealth has made him vain”. God says: “it is not up to you if he [the wealthy man] does not cleanse his sins” while the blind man “came to you in earnest endeavour, in piety”.

There seem to be two rather important messages here. Firstly, Muhammed is, by his own admission (or according to God), not perfect. He can make a mistake. Secondly, each person is free to decide whether or not to hear the message.

“Rolled Up” (chapter 81) has three distinct sections:

  • A poetic description of the Last Day, starting “When the sun is rolled up…” and including a condemnation of what was apparently a pre-Islamic practice of burying newborn girls alive (also mentioned in “previous” chapter) “For what crime was she murdered…”.
  • A section in which the author emphasises his God-given credentials. He has God swearing “by the planets…” that “..this is the speech of a noble envoy: he is a figure of great power, in high esteem with the Lord of the throne, obeyed in heaven, worthy of trust.”

  • An ambiguous section, which after an assurance that the Prophet is not mad, says “He saw him on the open horizon…”. Who “him” refers to is not explained. Apparently there’s some dispute over whether this refers to the angel Gabriel or to Muhammed himself. Either way, it seems to add little.

“The Disintegration” (chapter 82) starts in the same way. In this case with “When the sky disintegrates…”. There’s a reminder that “there are watchers over you, noble scribes, who know what you do” so there’s no escaping the consequences – a reference to the two recording angels supposedly accompanying everyone and recording their deeds in a book for use on the Last Day, as described in “Qaf” (chapter 50).

“Those who shortchange” (chapter 83) provides a variant on the apocalyptic repetition by warning that people who cheat in trading will also get their come-uppance on the Last Day.

There are apparently two compilations of all the personal records the recording angels keep. Those of the “dissolute” are in a book called “Sijjin”, while those of the righteous are in “Illiyyun”. It’s not explained why God needs these compilations, or why it was necessary to make up names for them, but it underlines the black-and-white nature of the whole vision and the way the author is elaborating it: you’re either “dissolute” and destined for hell, or “righteous” en route to heaven, which in this case features a fountain called “Tasmin”. There is no middle way. The implication is that there is little or no differentiation between someone who is only just over the line and the worst sinner.

Among the sinners are those who “would once laugh at the faithful, and, when passing them by, would wink and snigger; returning home, they would return in high spirits…” This has a ring of authenticity about it. Whenever this chapter was written, he was grappling with sceptics and mockery.

“The Splitting” (chapter 84) is more of the same. It seems to be a chronologically “late” chapter, as it refers to unbelievers failing to believe even when they hear the Quran recited to them.

Along with the usual apocalyptic material, “The Constellation” (chapter 85) includes a reference to what appears to be a specific example of religious persecution: the “People of the Trench, with its fire and faggots, as they sat above it, witnessing what they did to the faithful! All they held against them was their belief in God…” According to my translation, this is thought by some commentators to refer to a massacre of Christians by a “Jewish South Arabian king”. Once again, the context is unexplained, though the message seems to be clear. But it leaves open the question of how generalised it is: is it equally wrong to kill people for beliefs the author disagrees with?

The final verse is odd: “In truth, this is an august Qur’an, in a well-guarded tablet”.

“The Night Intruder” (chapter 86) refers to the wonder of “a star of piercing dazzle” in the night sky. Man was here “created from water, discharged, issuing from between the man’s backbone and the woman’s breasts”. Another translation (the “Study Quran”) says “He was created from a gushing fluid , issuing from between the loins and the pelvic arch”, which makes more sense. Both the star and the wonder of human reproduction are claimed as evidence of God’s power, and hence that the promise of resurrection on the Last Day should be believed.

“The Highest” (chapter 87) repeats the usual messages, but finishes “This is all in ancient scrolls, the scrolls of Abraham and Moses” – a reminder of the claim that God’s message in the Qur’an is the same as in the Torah.