March 2011


Do Muslims do apologetics?  I have only had a chance to search a tiny bit but it seems there are a few Islamic apologists out there.  Most of the websites I found were actually Christian sites arguing against Islam.  Apologetics is a field more popular with Christianity, a religion heavily influenced by Aristotelian logic and Enlightenment rationality.  Christians are known for their doctrine, and Muslims for their actions.  So, maybe Islam is not as inclined to lay out a reasoned defense of their religion.  Let me know what you find out. 

Today’s passage, however, seems rather apologetic to me (and I don’t mean someone’s sorry!)  Today we begin a new surah entitled “Jonah,” the first of several surahs named after traditional Bible characters.  Jonah will make an appearance in this surah, but he won’t be a main character.  As I read the first few ayahs it struck me that Muhammad is called to warn a disbelieving city (Mecca) in hopes that they would turn towards God.  Sounds a lot like Jonah.

When Muhammad shows up in Mecca fresh from his first encounter with the angel Gabriel with the first of his revelations, remember that he is a familiar face.  This is good ole Muhammad.  They had just traded wares with him last week.  Their families knew each other.  They had grown up together.  Muhammad was that neighbor down the street.  And now he claims to have a special message from the same God those Jews and Christians talked about, but his message is a new one.  Moreover, this radical monotheism he is talking about is going to overturn the apple cart of our culture. 

Can we trust him?  How do we know he isn’t pulling a fast one?  What proof does he have for his claims?  How do we know his God is real? 

Today’s passage offers the following reasons, woven comfortably into a sermon of sorts, as good apologetics usually are:

  1. This natural world didn’t just come from nowhere; this God created it (10:3). 
  2. The intricate bodies we have were a creation of this God (10:4).
  3. Have you noticed how the sun and moon are on finely-tuned cycles by which we can keep time and order life (10:5)?  That didn’t come from nowhere either. 
  4. Pain and hardship even have a way of moving people towards God instead of away, as if we know instinctually we need a power outside ourselves and that such a power does in fact exist (10:12).
  5. There are also recitations (the Qur’an) that testify to this God.  He can be found there, if we will read, listen, and obey (10:15). 
  6. Last, just use your God-given gift of reason (10:16).  Belief in this God is logical. 

That’s not a bad list.  As a Christian, I would point to all of the same things to testify to God.  As a teacher of apologetics, I have used all these arguments as evidence for God. 

Nestled in this passage is another truth: all of the best arguments and convincing proofs will not win over someone who does not want to be convinced:

Those who do not expect to meet Us [Allah] [in the Hereafter] and are pleased with the life of this world, contenting themselves with it and paying no heed to Our signs, shall have the Fire for their home because of what they used to do (10:7-8).

But there is ample evidence if you want to see it.

I am having a hard time figuring out Allah.  Is he forgiving or not?  And to what extent?

Yesterday, the following ayah made it sound that for some Allah would be a closed door.  No matter whether you penitently knocked for entrance, forgiveness would not come:

It makes no difference [Prophet] whether you ask for forgiveness for them or not: God will not forgive them even if you ask seventy times (9:80).

Today, I keep coming to ayahs that suggest the opposite (and that is only over the span of two days).  Allah so longs repentance that He is a widely opened door:  

God will accept their repentance (9:102).

He is always ready to accept repentance, most merciful (9:104).

God would not condemn for going astray those He has already guided [to the faith] before making entirely clear to them what they should avoid (9:115).

He [God] relented toward them in mercy in order for them to return [to Him] (9:118).

God is most forgiving and merciful (9:102, 117, 118)

I imagine a Muslim would say (as I would about the God who has made Himself known through Jesus) that we cannot fully “figure out” Allah.  That Muslim might even say, it is blasphemous to even try.  Point well taken.  But the dissonance is there and I am tripping over it.

How about you?

Excuses.  As a teacher I have a heard a few.

We have a train near our campus.  You have to be approaching the campus from one specific direction to actually get stopped by the train, but it is a convenient excuse for those students who go nowhere close to the tracks but had the misfortune of hitting the snooze one too many times that morning.  Likewise, they are doing construction on the interstate right now, but somehow kids who come into town nowhere near the interstate think they too can use the construction as an excuse when running late.  Evidently, according to some kids, cellphones that are never to be seen, heard or used during the school day can be answered without consequences if it is a parent calling.  A student is apparently not responsible for directions that were missed when they were talking to a neighbor when they shouldn’t have been.  Oh, and “my printer is broken” is the new “my dog ate my homework.”

You have probably heard even better ones.  Care to share?

I can’t be too hard on students.  I make excuses too and, if I am honest, about more significant matters than tardiness, cellphones, or homework.

  • I don’t have to sign up for the prison ministry because I do ministry in other ways.
  • I don’t have to give as much because I don’t make as much.
  • Evangelism is not my gift.
  • Hospitality is for people with big houses.
  • I taught class, I don’t also have to go meet the visitors; I am not a conversationalist.
  • Others need to sign up instead.
  • I am tired.
  • Someone else will go cook the meal for the homeless.
  • He had it coming.
  • It is not really speeding.

Of course, we can’t do it all.  Of course, there is legitimacy to some part of all of those excuses; we are too smart to just outright lie to ourselves and believe it.  Nonetheless, we know how to use an excuse to get ourselves out of doing the very things we know deep down we should do.  We hate when people give us paltry excuses for being unreliable or outright unfaithful.  Yet, we do the same.

Lord, forgive us!

“Excuse” is the big word in today’s reading as well (9:90, 94×2).  This surah comes at the point where Islam has come to blows with the paganism rife throughout Arabia.  To survive and expand the Muslims will have to “strive” against the pagans even to the point of battle.  All able-bodied Muslims were to respond to the call.  The weak, infirmed and poor were not.  To “whom much has been given, much is required,” to quote Jesus.  Some of those who were not fit to fight even cried because they could not provide a horse for the soldiers who were going to fight.  That’s the right attitude.

However, there were others.  They claimed it was too hot out (9:81).  They thought their wealth could excuse them from going (9:86).  They just flat thought that asking them to fight was too big an “imposition” (9:98).  God has no patience for excuses:

They are loathsome, and Hell will be their home as a reward for their actions (9:95).

Lord, forgive us!

True religion hates hypocrisy.  Why?  Because it makes a mockery of God.  A hypocrites dares to think he can pull the wool over the eyes of the very Creator of their soul.  Hypocrisy also makes a mockery of believers who really do try to live out their religion yet are labeled “hypocrites” right along with those who really are.  Personally, my heart breaks each time I hear students tell me that already, before they have even reached 18 years of age, they have written off religion because religious people are all fake and do just as many bad things as anyone else.

Jesus showed his distaste with hypocrites, and maybe nowhere stronger than in Matthew 23:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:23-28)

In today’s section, we find the Qur’an attack hypocrisy as well.  “Hypocrite” here seems to be synonymous with “sinner” or “disbeliever,” but the point is still the same.  Over the course of this section, the following is said of hypocrites:

  • Their cowardice causes them to look for any way out of conflict (9:56-57)
  • They look at alms as an entitlement not gracious support and resent when they do not receive what they think they should be given (9:58-59)
  • They think nothing of insulting and subverting Muhammad, even trying to harm him (9:61, 74)
  • They easily swear oaths by the name of God but don’t actually try to please that God (9:62)
  • Deep down they live in fear of being exposed (9:64)
  • They promote wickedness and oppose righteousness (9:67)
  • They are tight-fisted and miserly, even after promising God to share the blessings he might choose to give them (9:67, 76)
  • They have put a priority on finding enjoyment right now (9:69)
  • They ignore clear warnings to change (9:70)
  • They criticize the benevolence of others, even those who go to great pains to give (9:79)
  • They are destined for the “Fire of Hell” (9:63, 68, 73, 79)

Early in the life of this blog we clarified that hypocrisy is not the same as failing to withstand the pressure of temptation.  Hypocrisy is willful duplicity.  Hypocrisy is consciously passing oneself as something we know we are not and have no intention to actually be.

May we always be guarded from the pitfall of hypocrisy.

The bill proposing that it be unlawful in Tennessee to craft state laws based on shariah law has been amended by the bill’s creators to eliminate any direct reference to Islam.  See the news story here and a previous post about the brouhaha here.  The changes make the bill what it should be: an anti-terror bill, not something that can be construed as xenophobic, anti-immigrant, or political endorsement (or attack) of a specific religion.

Why would someone do this?

Why would a young man with his whole life in front of him join a group to fly a hijacked plane into a building  ensuring his death?

Why would a young wife strap explosives under her burqa and blow herself up in a crowded railway station? 

There are many contributing factors that would cause such extreme behavior, most of which are not religious.  In the hands of one who wants to use Islam to advance an agenda of power, today’s passage could certainly be used to produce people who would be willing to die for Allah. 

Believers, why, when it is said to you, “Go and fight in God’s cause,” do you feel weighed down to the ground?  Do you prefer this world to the life to come?  How small the enjoyment of this world is, compared with the life to come!  If you do not go out and fight, God will punish you severely and put others in your place. . . . So go out, no matter whether you are lightly or heavily armed, and struggle in God’s way. . . . Those who have faith in God and the Last Day do not ask you [Muhammad] for exemption from struggle . . . only those who do not have faith in God and the Last Day ask your permission to stay home. . . . They are already in trouble: Hell will engulf the disbelievers (9:38-39, 41, 44-45, 49).

Remember that the context of this surah (like the last one; some think these two surahs were actually originally one that became separated) is closely connected to battle.  War is sometimes called a necessary evil.  Most people don’t want there to be war, but if there must be one those who willingly risk the sacrifice of life for their nation are considered heroes.  Still, why would one happily go off to battle, in the way that is described in the passage above?

According to today’s passage, one who is called to war and sees it as a curse, death sentence, or punishment is to be shamed.  Such a response reveals a lack of true faith.  God has championed his people in the worst of situations, so there is no need for fear.  It also shows one is more attached to this fleeting life than to the life that is to come.  True believers give up anything in service to God.  There are much better rewards coming.  Last, true believers see struggles for the faith as a win-win situation: “Do you expect something other than one of the two best things to happen to us?” (9:52).  Either God will bring victory or He will reward the slain warrior in the next life.  That is the best perspective to have when called to fight for the faith. 

I guess I can understand the thinking.  But I can’t help but think passages like these are dangerous.  Placed in the wrong hands.  Placed before impressionable minds.  They make me uncomfortable. 

How about you?

They say fences make good neighbors.  I guess so.  I’ve just always been blessed to have pretty good neighbors, so I’ve not had to worry about it.  Really what we are talking about are boundaries, and a healthy life has boundaries one does not cross lest things begin to get messy.

Religiously, we call this “holiness.”  The distinction between the sacred and common, pure and impure, special and everyday, safe and unsafe.  Holiness demands that we see the world a little bit differently.  All things are not the same.  Some are good and others not.  Some are in and others out.  Some clean and others unclean.  Holiness is necessary, uncomfortable, offensive, and a gift from God all at the same time.

Today’s section pertains to the topic of holiness, though the word is never used.  In this context, there are three groups of people the Medinan Muslims must relate to, and Allah offers instructions on how best to interact with each with holiness in mind.

First, how should the Muslims relate to the pagan Meccans who once used the “Sacred Mosque” or Ka’ba in Mecca as a pagan shrine and who now still want to even though it has become a shrine to Allah?  This section commands that they should be barred from the Mosque, as their idolatry and wanton rituals (i.e., naked circumambulation, says commentator Ali) degrade the holiness of the sacred spot.  Holiness is found in a spot.  Not because of the location, but because of what it represents.  Such holy places are to be “fenced off” from those who lessen the sacredness of the place with their ignorance and disregard.

Second, how should the Muslims relate to attachments? This would be family who are not Muslims, but also wealth, possessions, business dealings, and the buildings we erect to house our prosperous life.  Is God just one more item on a list of cherished items?  Is He one in a list of several equally cherished relationships — “Faith, Family, Friends”?  Holiness is shown in relationships when our allegiance to God outweighs all others.  Holiness is when we are attached to God more than a house, a paycheck, or a career.

Third, how should the Muslims relate to the People of the Book — Jews and Christians?  These people “ascribe partners” to God — the Messiah Jesus, Mary, Ezra (evidently an ancient sect of Judaism held the prophet up as a great “son” of God, though it is not clear if they meant this literally), even their cherished rabbis and monks — and this is simply “unclean” (9:28).  Note, that is a holiness word.  At stake here is the very nature and honor of God; “they try to extinguish God’s light” (9:32).  Be holy even in how you see God and what ideas you allow to go unchecked.

Holiness is mandatory if a group or religion is “to show it is above all [other] religions” (9:33).  Or maybe a more palatable way to say that is that we have to really be different if we want to be seen as a different people.

Let’s also remember as Christians that there is another side to the story.  In Jesus we find someone who could maintain a perfect balance between holiness and hospitality.  Sin was never condoned, but sinners were welcomed.  The woman who had sold her body the night before, was welcomed to place her body at his feet.  Proud Pharisees were welcomed to come to Jesus by night for a round of twenty questions.  Throughout it all, Jesus remained unsullied but also entirely welcoming.  That is the perfect balance and the perfect example.

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