January 2011


Today ends the first month of this blog.  I am learning much and asking lots of questions too.  I am struck by the many similarities between Islam and Christianity, similarities usually overshadowed in the rhetoric of our day.  I am also struck by the differences and there have been a few very significant ones. 

The next twenty ayahs are very interesting and produce several questions so I have a few posts simmering but nothing is ready yet.  But given that we have been at this a month and there appears to be some new traffic on the blog I thought I would do a redux of my first post and share again the raison d’etre of this blog. 

More than half (55%) of Americans say they know little to nothing about Islamic religion or practices.  This overwhelming ignorance is precisely the problem.  A lack of accurate information allows people with anti-Islamic sentiments to propagate misconceptions about the beliefs and intentions of Muslims.  Uninformed people won’t object; they don’t know otherwise.

Vandalism of a Nashville Mosque

Some hoped that after the tragedy of September 11th people would start to learn more about Islam.  It seems all that has happened in the last decade (has it really been a decade?) is that popularized stereotypes have become even more entrenched.  As a result American Muslims feel more and more marginalized and persecuted.  These feelings are breeding grounds for loneliness, otherness and exclusion.  For some so inclined, these feelings morph into hatred or even violence.  People who could have entered into dialogue are set at odds.

And this is precisely what Osama bin Laden hoped would happen.

So I read.  I read to educate myself.  I read to understand better.  I read to fight ignorance and its correlate prejudice.  Interestingly, the first word revealed to Muhammad by Allah was in fact “read” (96:1).

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Today we start a new surah, Al-Nisa’ or “Women” in English, so named because of the many mentions of women and how men should treat women in particular (stay tuned, it may not be what you are expecting!)

The surah starts out sounding a whole lot like Leviticus.  This is legal code, especially related to family relationships and one’s financial responsibilities to those in one’s care.

As I read today’s section, I was quite struck by how enlightened these instructions all sounded.  This is not the medieval, oppressive system of laws set up to solely benefit men that Islamic law is sometimes made out to be.  I know modern-day Islamic or sharia law comes as much from the legal rulings and traditions (hadiths) that developed after the Qur’an as from the Qur’an itself, so maybe things change in significant ways after the time this was written.  I will have to do more research about this soon, or maybe you can help us understand how Muslim law developed.  Still, I am impressed with the level of compassion in this section.

I find ayah 9 to be a key to interpreting what we read today:

Let them be mindful of God and speak out for justice.

So, specifically how would a thirst for justice shape our relationships? 

  • Husbands and wives would see themselves as parts of a single soul, necessary for each other (4:1).  More on this provocative thought another day.  This doesn’t sound like patriarchal servitude.
  • Guardians would take care of fatherless children (“orphan” doesn’t necessarily also mean motherless in the ancient world) in their care, being sure to handle their finances fairly (4:2, 6, 10).
  • A man would only commit to marital relationships with the number of women he can treat fairly (4:3).  Yes, polygamy was allowed by the Qur’an.  More on this to come, for sure. 
  • A husband would not exploit his wife financially, living off of her money or keeping her enslaved to him financially (4:4).
  • People would treat the intellectally disabled with respect, caring for them materially, if need be (4:5).
  • Executors would dispense the estate of deceased parents fairly irregardless to the gender of the recipients (4:7).
  • People would not just worry about the future of their own kids (4:9).  That one preaches still today!
  • Parents would provide for the future of all of their children without bias, though they acknowledge that sons will have greater financial needs in the future because of their role in society (4:11).
  • People would always pay off debts with inheritance money before buying anything else (4:11-12). 
  • For the sake of society as a whole, parents would not allow sons or daughters guilty of homosexuality (see commentator Abdullah Muhammad Ali on this interpretation) to run wild.  However, they would allow room for repentance (4:15-16).  So it seems the honor killing we are seeing in parts of the Muslim world would not be congruous with this instruction, at least this single ayah.
  • A man would never take a woman as his wife against her will (4:19).
  • A husband would treat his wife fairly and kindly, always looking for the best God has placed in her (4:19).  WOW! 

This all seems very high-handed and honorable.  There is a great amount of respect and concern for others, especially anyone who is disadvantaged.  These will be some interesting points to hang onto as we go forward in this study.

Today we finish the third surah, and I hear a Prophet in this section who is discouraged.  As we read closely we can figure out why Muhammad might feel this way.  He has recently fought the Battle of Uhud in which his soldiers abandoned their posts in favor of loot causing others in the army to be killed, not exactly what you want as a leader.  Beyond the army, Muhammad is leading the entire group of early Muslims and they have all been driven from their homes in Mecca (3:195).  Meanwhile, their foes — the polytheists of Mecca — continue to trade to and fro getting richer all the while (3:196).  People mock Muhammad using his own words (3:181).  There is an undercurrent that suggests the Prophet was struggling with the fact that some people who had come to believe were quick to “sell” their faith for the quick satisfaction that comes from wealth (3:177, 187).  He comes to Jews and Christians who in his mind worship the same God who is speaking to him and he shares with them the good news that their same God has spoken again in grand fashion, the Qur’an.  But these “People of the Book” soundly refuse to accept Muhammad’s message (3:176, 184).  That’s a lot for a prophet to take! 

I imagine most of us can relate.  We aren’t prophets.  We don’t have new revelations from God that are being rejected.  We haven’t been chased from our homes, risked death, or had our troops go AWOL.  Still, walking with God isn’t easy.  And some days it doesn’t even seem fair.  Why does he get ahead, the reprobate he is, while I struggle to get by though I am obeying (3:196)?  And discouragement creeps into the heart of all but the Pollyannas among us.

God’s response in this section is helpful. 

  • Don’t think that God is going to be diminished by criticism (3:176).  How many times have I thought I have had to defend God?  A little arrogant, don’t you think? 
  • Repeatedly, he is reminded that God is in control (3:179, 189) and knows what is going on (3:180).  Don’t worry that someone is going to get away with something. 
  • A time of recompense is coming (3:181).  I don’t want to be the kind of person who finds solace in the impending judgment of a person.  But I have never seen my soldiers die, my friends and family chased from their homes, or had someone try to kill me as the Meccans had tried to do to Muhammad.  Maybe I would feel differently if I stood in Muhammad’s sandals. 
  • You are not alone (3:184).  Many other prophets had suffered the same type of rejection.  This sounds like Elijah in 1 Kings 19. 
  • There are things that look good right now but the best things come later (3:185; 197-98).
  • People who really want to see God will find Him (3:190-191).
  • There are people out there who are going to respond favorably and you wouldn’t even expect it (3:199).
  • “If you believe and stay mindful of God, you will have a great reward” (3:179), even if the reward only comes on the “Day of Resurrection” (3:185). 

I have the great privilege to teach religion in a private high school.  Our classes are thoroughly confessional; we are unapologetically Christian and attempt to both teach knowledge of the Bible and help our students form genuine relationships with God.  There are those days when a student moves past the “religion” that has been inherited to discover their own “faith.”  Days when kids boldly testify to the work of an active God in their life.  Days when they manage to put themselves second and the needs of others first.  These are Mt. Carmel days, when you can outrun chariots, when you can take on hen-pecked husbands and blood-thirsty queens. 

But there are other days when those same kids end up in embarrassing situations, when they end up pregnant six months after graduation, when they willingly cast aside the name of Jesus or even God and boldly proclaim on Facebook that they are “spiritual but not religious” or even outright atheists, or when they think the greatest achievements they have made are those that will lead to high salary careers.  It leaves me discouraged too.  I imagine some of you other teachers and ministers and parents who have experienced the same things feel the same way. 

Then I wonder if the problem isn’t that I think I have to do something to change things.  I need to teach better.  I need to invest in more relationships.  I need to have better answers.  I need to be a better example to my sons.  I need to . . . I . . . I . . .

I certainly need to do the best job I can but I am not God.  And when I play God (back to yesterday’s post) who am I really trusting?

That’s when hearing words like God gives Muhammad are helpful.  Better yet, it is good to remember the Parable of the Sower.  We are the sowers of our world.  We are the ones who broadcast the word of God across the soils of the souls in our classrooms, sanctuaries, dining rooms, carpools, and so on.  But that is where our job ends.  We can’t control the quality of the soil.  We don’t often even know the quality of the soil.  Our job is to sow, and to harvest when that time comes.  We can’t make things grow.  But God can, and he is really in control.

If you are steadfast and mindful of God, that is the best course. (3:186)

More than almost anything else, what has the greatest ability to erode our trust in God?  I would like to suggest that the answer — as unpopular as it may be — might just be money. 

Quickly on the heels of a discussion of the stunning victory at the Battle of Badr, today’s section turns to a far less glorious battle.  The Battle of Uhud was the second time the Muslims of Medina led by Muhammad met the Meccans.  Much like Badr one year before, the Muslims were greatly outnumbered but started the battle with great success, driving the Meccans back.  Then, when the battle looked like a sure victory, the Muslim archers abandoned their posts in order to plunder the Meccan camp.  This allowed the Meccan cavalry to circle behind the Muslim line and bring a surprise attack from behind.  Ten percent of the Muslim force was lost and many more were injured including Muhammad himself.  The Muslims retreated and the Meccans marched home victors.   

It is interesting how the Qur’an described the fatal moment in the battle:

God fulfilled his promise to you: you were routing them, with His permission, but then you faltered, disputed the order, and disobeyed, once he had brought you within sight of your goal — some of you desire the gains of this world and others desire the world to come — and then he prevented you from [defeating] them as a punishment. (3:152)

The Qur’an sees this fundamentally as an issue of disobedience driven by greed.  They fail the test of whether they would trust in God or not (3:154).  Instead they run after riches thinking that somehow money will bring a greater reward than can be found in God.  But “believers should put their trust in God” not money (3:160).  A pure relationship with God is “better than anything people amass” (3:157).

As I mentioned yesterday, the combination of the Badr and Uhud stories in quick succession with the messages they both present — victory in trust, defeat in distrust and greed — call me back to the stories of Jericho and Ai in Joshua 6-7.  The similarities are striking.  At Jericho, Israel proceeds with unquestioning trust and obedience.  The result is a victory we even teach to our children.  Then the very next chapter Israel suffers a humiliating defeat at the hands of the underwhelming people of Ai.  Why?  The same reason we saw in the account of Uhud: greed and disobedience.  Achan, an Israelite soldier, had disobeyed the command to leave all of the plunder in Jericho as a sort of “firstfruits” for God.  He stashed gold under his tent and as a result a sure victory was compromised. 

This tandem of tandems (Badr and Uhud, Jericho and Ai) asks us the same question: who or what will you trust?  Both take on riches as prime competition to real trust of God.  Both admonish people to rely solely on God.   

Money has this way of creeping into our consciousness and flavoring everything we experience.  Money offers false promises, but we have a hard time seeing the lies.  Money convinces us we have power, and for a time it might even give us some.  Money liberates us from our dependency on others; with a wad of bills in our pocket we can strike out on our own.  We tell ourselves we don’t need “handouts,” and the hands that offered therefore become less important.  Soon we see a small stockpile and convince ourselves it was of our own doing.  How long before even God becomes unnecessary?  How long before we only look to our pocketbooks to solve our problems?  Ask yourself: what do you immediately think when your car has an unexpected breakdown, when you do your taxes and you owe more than you thought, when a tooth begins to give you problems, or when the leadership at your church asks you to increase your giving?  Does your first thought go to how much money is in your bank account?  Yeah, me too.  In whom or what do we trust? 

Here’s an irony: we place “In God We Trust” on our money in America.  Are we sure?  Or are we trying to convince ourselves?

This past Sunday, the minister at the church I attend asked us to state our life’s goal in one sentence.  Good exercise!  Let’s switch that around a bit: in one sentence, what is it that God most wants from us?  Last year in Memphis, I heard Marcus Borg (a bit too liberal for my tastes on several topics, but when he talks about living out Christianity I am usually in wholehearted agreement) sum it up this way: love God and love the people God loves, a memorable summary of Luke 10:27

Of course this is the right answer.  Jesus said as much, but it begs the question what does love look like?  How do I show love to God, in particular?  I would like to assert that showing genuine, unflinching trust in the midst of uncertainty is one of the best ways.     

At this point in the third surah we come to mentions of two significant battles fought by the first Muslims during the life of Muhammad — the Battles of Badr and Uhud.  The way they come packaged, one right after another; the outcomes of both battles; and the lesson the Qur’an appears to be teaching from these battles make me immediately think of the Old Testament stories of Jericho and Ai in Joshua 6-7.  Today we will look at Badr and tomorrow at Uhud. 

Battle of Badr, iranian miniature

The Battle of Badr, Iranian miniature

The Battle of Badr pitted the first Muslims against the polytheists of Mecca.  Skirmishes had taken place between the Muslims and the Meccans before this time; the Meccans had been successful in chasing Muhammad and the Muslims out of Mecca in 622 CE.  But Badr would be the first large-scale battle and it is remembered as one of the most decisive.  On March 13, 624 CE the greatly outnumbered Muslim army marched into the gently sloping valley where the wells of Badr were, anticipating the advance of the much larger Meccan army.  Muslim tradition says the Muslims had 313 troops to the over 900-man, better-equipped Meccan force.  On the day of the battle each side presented their champions for the traditional 3-on-3 individual combat.  Surprisingly, the three Muslim champions were victorious.  This quickly turned into all-out battle, and when all was said and done, with some give-and-take on both sides, the Meccans suffered many more losses than the Muslims (some sources say 20% vs. 4%) and retreated.  Historians say this was the tipping point for Muhammad’s popularity; he had become a force to reckon with in Arabia.  The Muslims would no longer be anybody’s whipping boys. 

It is interesting how the Qur’an describes what takes place in the battle.  The Muslims are outmanned, weaken and losing heart.  So they pray for God’s help.  What happened next is described this way:

If you are steadfast and mindful of God , your Lord will reinforce you with five thousand swooping angels if the enemy should suddenly attack you, and God arranged it so. (3:125)

When by all accounts the Muslims should lose, God intervenes to make the impossible possible.  Victory comes, but from the hand of God.  They proceeded in faith and obedient steadfastness and God brought reward. 

Jericho

Now imagine you are an Israelite soldier marching into your first battle in Canaan.  You come over a rise to see Jericho, the great walled city.  You are undermanned and underequipped, never mind that your battle plans sound more like instructions for a parade.  What would drive you to take another step?              

Trust.  And that alone. 

Before the non-Battle of Jericho ever started God had said: “I have delivered Jericho into your hands” (Joshua 6:2).  In the midst of the marching, Joshua encourages his troops that “the LORD has given you the city” (Joshua 6:16).  And, of course, the victory comes when the walls fall by no feat of the Israelites themselves.  But would the walls have fallen had the Israelites not marched?  I don’t believe so.  God was wondering one thing.  Will you trust me?  I’ll give you a plan that the most inept soldier would reject, but will you still go?  I’ll stretch it out over a week so the ridicule from the people of Jericho increases by the day, even so will you obey?  If I give you a test, will you pass?  They did.  Why?

Trust.  And that alone. 

And the lesson seems to be the same at Badr.  You are outmanned, will you trust me?  You have no significant victories under your belt, will you go anyway?  The tide of battle is turning against you, will you turn and run or turn to me and pray?  Will you pass my test?  And this is exactly what the Qur’an calls it (3:140-42)?  Today’s section begins with the admonition that trust is what Allah desires from his people at the lowest point in the battle most (3:122).  The section ends with further exhortation not to lose heart but to be steadfast (3:146).  The Muslims were and reward came. 

Really, we are talking about faith, but that word has developed so much religious baggage that I wonder if the word “trust” doesn’t actually help us understand the concept better.  Trust gives up control.  Trust surrenders.  Trust submissively says we will do it your way and I’ll look to you to lead the way.  Is this not what God wants most from His people?  Is that maybe how we best say we love someone, even God? 

And is this not what the very word “islam” means?

I have read over this section a couple of times and I don’t see much that stands out as new.  So instead of rehashing old posts, I thought I would give my “top ten favorite (or significant) quotes from this section.”  I would love to hear your favorites too!  Or pick one of the following ten and say what you like about that one. 

1.  Who is really in charge?

Everything in the heavens and earth belongs to God; it is to Him that all things return. (3:109)

2.  Follow Father Abraham and you can’t go wrong!

God speaks the truth, so follow Abraham’s religion: he had true faith and he was never an idolater. (3:95)

3.  A powerful image of the protection of God:

If you are steadfast and conscious of God, their [unbelievers who wish to see harm done to believers] scheming will not harm you in the least: God encircles everything they do. (3:120)

4.  Real, deep spirituality demands sacrifice.

None of you will attain true piety unless you give out of what you cherish. (3:92)

5.  Don’t blame God for the consequences of sin!

A frosty wind strikes and destroys the harvest of people who have wronged themselves: It was not God who wrong them; they wronged themselves. (3:117)

6.  God’s mercy is predicated upon active repentance.

Such people [those who know the truth and reject it anyway] will be rewarded with rejection from God, by the angels, by all people, and so they will remain, with no relief or respite for their suffering.  Not so those who afterwards repent and mend their ways: God is most forgiving and merciful. (3:87-89)

7.  Money can’t buy you love . . . or salvation!

Those who disbelieve and die disbelievers will not be saved even if they offer enough gold to fill the entire earth. (3:91)

8.  A recipe for a good community:

Be a community that calls for what is good, urges what is right, and forbids what is wrong: those who do this are the successful ones. . . . [Believers] you are the best community singled out for people: you order what is right, forbid what is wrong, and believe in God. (3:104, 110)

9.  Maybe there is hope for us after all!

There are some among the People of the Book who are upright, who recite God’s revelations during the night, who bow down in worship, who believe in God and the Last Day, who order what is right and forbid what is wrong, who are quick to do good deeds.  These people are among the righteous and they will not be denied [the reward] for whatever good deeds they do: God knows exactly who is conscious of Him. (3:113-115)

10.  One more . . . Allah calls people who reject him LOSERS!  Ha! 

If anyone seeks a religion other than complete devotion to God [islam], it will not be accepted from him: he will be one of the losers in the Hereafter. (3:85)

Okay that last one was flippant.  Sorry.  Now, how about you?

What does the Qur’an think of the Christian Bible? 

The traditional answer is that Allah revealed the Torah to Moses, the Psalms to David, and the Gospel (or Injil in Arabic) to Jesus (3:3).  Later Allah revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad, so we have continuity once again.  Several times so far we have seen the Qur’an appeal to the “People of the Book” to simply look into their own Bibles to see that what Muhammad was now revealing centuries later was no different from what had come before.  The traditional answer continues that these previous revelations had since been corrupted by Jewish and Christian writers, leaders and theologians (see 3:71, 78) thus the Hebrew and Christian Bibles of the seventh century (and today) were no longer the pure revelations given by God and therefore could not be trusted.  Jesus was given a “book” or “Gospel” that taught a message akin to the Qur’an, but then Paul and others re-invented Jesus and the Gospel to support their claims that Jesus was God.  Same goes for the Old Testament.  So for all intents and purposes, the real Torah and Gospel are lost. 

So turn to the Qur’an, today’s reading implores once again.  When you have come to see the truth of the Qur’an, to turn away and return to the half-truths of corrupted past revelations is ludicrous.  And dangerous (3:77).  The truest followers of Abraham — the original Muslim, in a way — will return to a submissive monotheism that outdates both Judaism and Christianity (see the post from 1/11).  And to turn a prophet like Jesus into a “lord” and to claim to be Jesus’ “servant,” well Allah would never approve of that (3:79-80). 

So, what does the Qur’an think about the Christian Bible?  Why bother with that old thing when you could have something even better? 

Bible - Quran

Trading a Bible for a Qur'an

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