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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Author: HumanistJ

I'm a humanist - someone who thinks you can live a good life without believing in anything supernatural. I chair South West London Humanists, I'm a trustee of Humanists UK and its Dialogue Officer. This blog is purely my personal view.

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