February 2011

In today’s section we come to a tricky question: How much control does Allah have over the events of the day?  We often hear the phrase “the will of Allah” or “if Allah wills” (inshallah), the qualifying addendum to a wish for the future, and these ideas are all throughout this passage.  This is a question of predestination (qadar).

It is commonly believed within Islam that Allah has foreknowledge of what is to come.  Some even believe there is a written record of these events (the “Preserved Tablet”).  However, this foreknowledge does not negate human free will; Allah simply knows what free human beings will choose.  Most mainstream Muslims do not believe in complete free will, though.  Allah is in control of all things, and a human only has freedom to the degree Allah wants to allow that freedom.  It is as if we live within a bubble of freedom, in which we can do what we wish.  But if Allah wills for something to happen (or not) the boundaries of that bubble are much tighter in that area and the will of Allah is imposed.  This view is not that different from what many Christians believe as well.

An interesting addition is that the level of commitment one has to Allah can determine how much Allah allows.  He will more rigorously protect His own and will place many more obstacles between a believer and sin.

How does all of this play out in today’s section?

  • If Allah willed for unbelievers to avoid idolatry, he would have made sure it was so. (6:107)
  • Be careful about judging idol worshipers; Allah can even use idolatry to bring people to him. (6:108)
  • People are free to obstinately oppose Allah, and unless He has it within His plan to call them to Him and use them, Allah will allow their freely chosen rebellion. (6:110-11)
  • Allah actively puts evildoers in place to scheme evil. (6:123)
  • Allah doesn’t necessarily punish wrongdoing when it stems from ignorance, not rebellion (6:131)
  • Allah’s will is inescapable (6:134)
  • The rationale for all of this is that Allah is “all wise, all knowing.” (6:128)

From here there are further questions, aren’t there?  Why does Allah not will that all come to know Him in such a way that He imposes that will on everyone?  If he can control all things, why does he allow things that frustrate His will?  Would Allah send a person to Hell who wished to be saved?  Why would Allah actively do things that bring about evil (c.f., 6:123)?

These are all questions people ask of the Christian God too, though.  I will be paying attention to this idea as we read further.

I’ll end with a quote from today’s section that vividly compares the result of Allah’s predeterminism on a person to breathing:

When God wishes to guide someone, He opens their breast to islam (total devotion to God); when He wishes to lead them astray, He closes and constricts their breast as if they were climbing up to the skies. (6:125) 


A couple of you mentioned being behind in your reading of the Qur’an, so here is a day to catch up if you are trying to do that!  No new reading for today (which I need too). 

A lot of what we have been reading recently has to do with how Muslims are to relate to Jews and Christians.  This news story carries the debate out of the Qur’an and into the streets of my hometown. 

Members of the Memphis Islamic Center pray at Heartsong Church in Cordova while their mosque is under construction. (Nikki Boertman/The Commercial Appeal)

Past (and future?) presidential candidate Mike Huckabee castigates Christians, including one church here in Memphis, who open their church buildings to Muslims in which to worship while they build mosques.  Check out the video here .

On the entirely opposite end of the spectrum is this article from the USA Today about this same act of hospitality in Memphis, and this article from David Waters, a local religion reporter on this same Muslim community.  Or check out the video on this site from a Memphis news channel. 

What do you think?

Just a tiny passage today on what I think is one of the most important distinctions between the worldviews of Christianity and Islam: the identity of Jesus.

Without any true knowledge they attribute sons and daughters to Him [God].  He is far higher than what they ascribe to Him, the Creator of the heavens and earth!  How could He have children when He has no spouse, when He created all things, and has full knowledge of all things? (6:100-01)

February 2011

It just so happens that the cover story in this month’s edition of Christianity Today concerns the translation of the term “son of God” in Christian Bibles aimed at a Muslim audience. The author of the article, Collin Hansen, reports that term alone is “repugnant” to a Muslim.

That sentiment is crystal clear in today’s passage from the Qur’an.  God having children?  Wouldn’t that mean God had sexual relations with Mary?  Hansen says this is how many Muslims hear the phrase, as they do not possess the same nuanced, trinitarian idea Christians have of a spiritual conception by way of the Holy Spirit, not actual sexuality.  The idea that Jesus is the “son of God” causes confusion at best and often revulsion.  Later we will see the Qur’an call a curse down on Christians who call Jesus the “Son of God” (9:30).  Some Muslims will even go so far as to leave the presence of someone who uses the phrase so as not to risk punishment upon themselves.   Christianity Today quotes Rick Brown, a long time missionary to Muslims:

Missionaries can live in a Muslim culture for decades, blaming Muslims for being “‘resistant” to the gospel, when the problem actually lies with linguistic and cultural stumbling blocks.  Once these are removed, many Muslims are quite open and interested in knowing more about Jesus. (“The Son and The Crescent,” CT, 2/2011)

Because of this, a whole new wave of translations of the Bible have come about that change the “son of God” language and replace it with more Muslim-sensitive phrases like “the Beloved Son who comes (or originates) from God” or “the Beloved of God.”  The desire is to communicate the same metaphorical connection between “Father” and “Son” without putting up the same barriers.  These translators argue that the really important point is that Muslims comes to know Jesus as the Savior from sin, not the Son.

Other translators and missionaries complain that this compromise “undermines belief in Jesus Christ as the pre-existent, only begotten Son of God.”  This makes Jesus less than he really is.  J. Scott Horrell argues that “when Jesus used Father-Son language, he reached ‘the deepest levels of divine discourse'” and we miss out on this same level of intimacy when we neglect the phrase (“The Son and The Crescent,” CT, 2/2011).  Yes, Jesus is Savior but he is also Son.

It is all an interested, complicated can of worms.  Love compels us to tear down every barrier possible.  But when are we tearing down too much?

What do you think?

For the past few days my high school seniors have been doing presentations on various religious movements, beliefs and customs seen in our world today.  Today, I sat through presentations on:

  • Wicca, a religion in which adherents worship the forces of nature
  • The Hindu veneration of cows and avoidance of meat consumption
  • The significance of the Taoist yin-yang which symbolizes our need to find a delicate balance between the dueling natural forces of life
  • Buddhism and its deification of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), a man who never claimed to be anything other than a man
  • The atrocity of human sacrifice, done to placate the forces of nature depicted as bloodthirsty deities

Humans seem willing to worship just about anything.  I do live in the city of Elvis after all, the original American Idol.  Now, those religious zealots take their pilgrimages seriously!   

It was no different in the ancient world, as today’s section points out.  Go back as far as Abraham.  In the Qur’an’s account of his ancestry, he was born to an idol worshiper named Azar.  Abraham tried out the nature-worship of his father, but worshiping stars, a moon, or even a sun that rises and sets seems inferior to the worship of a God whose glory never fades and who makes the constellations (6:74-79).  Dawn and night come at God’s command (6:96).  Stars are little more than guides by night from One who guides more surely than stars (6:97).  There is nothing in all of the natural order worthy to be compared with God, not water or sky or vegetation or even the great power of fertility, so necessary to desert-dwelling caravaners (6:99).

Whether it be the paganism of Azar or the Meccans or the Wiccans, whether the philosophical dualism of Taoism or the wisdom of the man who became the Buddha, why worship the created when you can worship the Creator?

All who make idols are nothing,
   and the things they treasure are worthless.
Those who would speak up for them are blind;
   they are ignorant, to their own shame. 
Who shapes a god and casts an idol,
   which can profit nothing? 
People who do that will be put to shame;
   such craftsmen are only human beings.
Let them all come together and take their stand;
   they will be brought down to terror and shame.

 The blacksmith takes a tool
   and works with it in the coals;
he shapes an idol with hammers,
   he forges it with the might of his arm.
He gets hungry and loses his strength;
   he drinks no water and grows faint. 
The carpenter measures with a line
   and makes an outline with a marker;
he roughs it out with chisels
   and marks it with compasses.
He shapes it in human form,
   human form in all its glory,
   that it may dwell in a shrine. 
He cut down cedars,
   or perhaps took a cypress or oak.
He let it grow among the trees of the forest,
   or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. 
It is used as fuel for burning;
   some of it he takes and warms himself,
   he kindles a fire and bakes bread.
But he also fashions a god and worships it;
   he makes an idol and bows down to it. 
Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
   over it he prepares his meal,
   he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
   “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.” 
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
   he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
   “Save me! You are my god!” 
They know nothing, they understand nothing;
   their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
   and their minds closed so they cannot understand. 
No one stops to think,
   no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
“Half of it I used for fuel;
   I even baked bread over its coals,
   I roasted meat and I ate.
Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
   Shall I bow down to a block of wood?” 
Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
   he cannot save himself, or say,
   “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”

“This is what the LORD says—
   your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb: 

I am the LORD,
   the Maker of all things,
   who stretches out the heavens,
   who spreads out the earth by myself, 
who foils the signs of false prophets
   and makes fools of diviners,
who overthrows the learning of the wise
   and turns it into nonsense, 
who carries out the words of his servants
   and fulfills the predictions of his messengers. (Isaiah 44:9-20; 24-26a)

Ministry can be discouraging.  The dark days when you want to cash it all in and go sell insurance come regularly.  Especially early in an endeavor when the tide turns against you and your initial dreams of success are tenuous, it is easy to lose focus.  I hear that under the surface of today’s section.

I am being imaginative, I know, but I see a Prophet who has burst on to the scene with a revelation.  He has come down from the Cave of Hira convinced he has earth-shattering news, a code for life that will revolutionize his world for good, but only if people will listen.  We know they did not, at least not in great numbers at first.  People did leave their Arabic paganism and follow Muhammad towards total devotion to the one God.  But many more opposed him, even violently by the end of his time in Mecca.  And Muhammad wasn’t alone; the first Muslims would have suffered from deflated morale too.

When discouraged, it is helpful to remember what we can and cannot do about our predicament.  Especially when the area of discouragement is ministry success, we need to bear in mind our role and God’s role in the matter.

  • Preach your best sermon or teach your best class, and there are some that are just not going to be persuaded.  God controls the destiny of people’s hearts, and people can resist all they want (6:46; 64-66)
  • Our job is to “give good news and to warn,” not save.  We don’t have that power. (6:48)
  • We don’t hold the keys to reward or punishment.  That’s God’s business, so we shouldn’t assume we know how it will all end up.  Be slow to judge. (6:50; 53; 57-62; 73) 
  • We don’t have all the answers. We can only share what we know and what we have experienced.  However, there are some things we see more clearly than some. (6:50; 55)
  • Use the words of God to warn people, not our own words.  People are accountable to God not us, so they need to hear His words. (6:51; 70)
  • Always be quick to extend grace; it is fundamental to God’s nature (6:54)
  • Be careful of going too far to fit in with those who do not yet believe.  There are limits to what we should accommodate. (6:56)
  • If we are faithful to our calling to put God on the minds of people, we are not accountable for people who reject God. (6:66; 69)
  • Be leery of spending too much time with people who reject God’s message in favor on the pleasures of this world.  Don’t shun them, but don’t be a glutton for discouragement. (6:68; 70)
  • When tempted to give up, keep praying. (6:71-72)

Nothing novel in the list above, is there?  But they are good reminders.

What else?  What helps you when the ups and downs of ministry discourage you?

Even if they saw every sign they would not believe in them. (6:25)

The disbelievers say, “These are nothing but ancient fables.” (6:25)

They say, “There is nothing beyond our life in this world: we shall not be raised from the dead.” (6:29)

This is how the unbelievers of Muhammad’s time described life because of their lack of faith.  As I read today’s section I was struck by how similar these are to sentiments I have heard 21st century Americans say. 

All that matters is matter

The worldview is called “materialism” or “secularism” or “humanism” or some combination of those.  I would contend that this worldview is the number one competition to a Christian worldview in modern America, not radical Islam like some fear.  Materialism contends all that exists is material.  Something is real only if it can be seen, touched, heard, smelled, or tasted.  If it cannot be proven through some sort of science or at least everyday experience, then who would put much stock in it?  Thus, proven facts, money, physical possessions, the body and what it can experience, control over my own domain — these and many more material objects are the most important assets in life.  Those spiritual, ephemeral, conceptual things — well, if we even can believe in those things, they are lesser realities.  Put your confidence in a God who cannot be seen, over a job and paycheck that can?  Find fulfillment from devotion to God, when the arms of love or the joy of a sun-filled vacation are available?  Science trumps wishful thinking any day, right? 

Faith is hard.  It was in Abraham’s time.  It was in Jesus’ time.  It was in Muhammad’s time.  And it is our time.    

In contrast to the worldview that says this world is all we’ve got, the Qur’an describes life this way:

The life of this world is nothing but a game and a distraction; the Home in the Hereafter is best for those who are aware of God. (6:32)

I am not sure I would say this life is that trivial.  That seems to go too far in the other direction.  This life is very important.  We have a definite mission to bring God’s kingdom to our world with the time we have on this planet.  I would hardly say that is a “distraction,” though there sure are many distractions in this world that get us sidetracked from our mission.  But the point that this life is not our primary life, eternal life, the abundant life, kingdom life certainly resonates with me. 

Yet, how easy it is to believe that this life is most “real,” and that it is what we were made for.  I like the way Peter Kreeft says it (thanks to David Jackson for sharing this quote with me a few years ago):

Home—that’s what heaven is. It won’t appear strange and faraway and “supernatural”, but utterly natural. Heaven is what we were designed for. All our epics seek it: It is the “home” of Odysseus, of Aeneas, of Frodo, of E.T. Heaven is not escapist. Worldliness is escapist. Heaven is home.

People think heaven is escapist because they fear that thinking about heaven will distract us from living well here and now. It is exactly the opposite, and the lives of the saints and our Lord himself prove it. Those who truly love heaven will do the most for earth. It’s easy to see why. Those who love the homeland best work the hardest in the colonies to make them resemble the homeland. “Thy kingdom come. .. on earth as it is in heaven.”

For if it is true… it is not escapism. The charge of escapism therefore logically boils down to the charge of falsehood; only those who are certain the rumor is false can reasonably call it escapist. Otherworldliness is escapism only if there is no other world. If there is, it is worldliness that is escapism. (Peter Kreeft, Heaven)

Today, for the first time, we get to a Meccan surah, entitled “Livestock” or “Cattle” in English.  Scholars have noted that because the Meccan surahs were written at a time when Islam was still getting a foothold in Arabia.  They are more persuasive and less enfranchised.  By the time the Muslims moved to Medina, Islam had gained power and these later surahs have a slightly more dictatorial tone.  Well, we may very well see that difference in tone for the first time.

I am struck in this section by how the Islamic basis for belief and obedience is quite different from that of Christianity.  Simply put, Muhammad is told to persuade the polytheists of Mecca with reward or avoidance, in other words “to get/not get.”  I see this coming out in four ways in this passage:

  • God is in control of all things as the Creator, so don’t try to work against his control (6:4-5)
  • God is the supreme power in this world, so don’t make him use it against you (6:6)
  • God is inclined to punish those who reject him, so don’t do it (6:15)
  • God rewards those who believe, so come get it (6:16)

In this mentality, the favor of God is still up in the air.  Who knows how he will respond to you?  That is up to you.  Earn a reward.  Avoid a punishment. 

This section ends with the warning that there is no greater sin than to reject God or to look to some other god for power or control (6:21).  These other gods will be of no help in the end, so stop it and turn to God (6:22-24). 

Medieval Mecca

Let’s remember the context of Mecca, from where this surah originated.  Islamic tradition says Mecca was started by the descendents of Ishmael shortly after he and his father Abraham built the Ka’ba, the large, square, black shrine still at the center of city.  Positioned at the crossroads of important trading routes, Mecca quickly grew in size and wealth.  It was not long before Mecca also became the center of Arabian paganism and the Ka’ba became a shrine to the many gods worshiped by the Arabs.  It is this highly polytheistic environment that Muhammad grew up in and into which the Qur’an comes with its push for radical monotheism.  These admonitions to turn from all other gods and find a reward with Allah make more sense in that context. 

Nonetheless, I find all of this very different from the winsome motivation put forward by Christianity.  The way of Christ is not a reward or avoidance worldview.  Jesus and his followers did not come talking about something that could be earned from a God whose favor was still very much up in the air.  Christianity is based on a response motivation; we love because we were first loved, we obey because of what has already been given.  God’s mind was made up to work for our good long before we were even born, long before we even turn towards him.  I see a great difference in the very nature of God in these two depictions.  How about you?

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:10-11)

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