June 2011

For the next three days we will be in the first two-thirds of the next surah, Maryam 19:1-63.  Today we have some time to read, and the first thought will come tomorrow. 

In the meantime, consider listening to this podcast from Yasir Qadhi, resident scholar at the Memphis Islamic Center and instructor in the Department of Religion at Rhodes College here in Memphis.  In March, The New York Times Magazine called Qadhi “one of the most influential conservative clerics in American Islam” and that “arguably few American theologians are better positioned to offer an authoritative rebuttal of extremist ideology.”

Note that this podcast comes from the Calvary Episcopal Church Lenten Preaching Series from April 2011.  Admittedly, Calvary is a good bit more liberal than I generally am, but we should all read (and listen) widely, right?  Qadhi was the first Muslim ever invited to speak in the series, and the timing couldn’t be better. 

I found the first part of his talk to be a bit of a primer on Islam, and thus it was helpful.  The last part is a wonderful commentary on the many names of Allah from the last three ayahs of surah 59.  His beautiful recitation of the passage halfway through is worth a listen if nothing else.


This surah ends with one more story and a final warning to believe.

The key figure in this last story is Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn, translated “the two-horned one” or “the King of Two-Horns.”  There is no clue from the text who this might be, especially as this is a parable, but Alexander the Great has most often been suggested.  What is clear is that this king has great power over both the East and the West.  Still, he does not presume that he is Master of all; he knows his power comes from God.

In the first of three episode, Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn travels as far as he can to the west (Europe, if this is Alexander the Great).  Here he finds people he must choose to rule in the right manner.  With all imaginable power, his options were wide open.  Appropriately, he chooses to rule with justice, punishing or rewarding as merited.  With as much power as he possessed he could have assumed an arrogance whereby he declared himself a god, but instead he acknowledged that supreme power and judgment rested with God.

Next, Dhu’l-Qarnayn heads East to the “rising of the sun” where he meets a primitive people with little in the way of technology.  At the same time, they possess a contentment the first people did not have.  The king leaves them as they are, resisting the urge to change their way of life to adhere to his own sensibilities.  Abdullah Yusuf Ali describes the point of this short segment this way:

Power is apt to be intolerant and arrogant, and to interfere in everything that does not accord with its own glorification. Not so Dhu al Qarnayn. He recognised his own limitations in the sight of God: man never completely understands his own position, but if he devoutly looks to God, he will live and let live. This is the spiritual lesson from the second episode.

16th Century Persian miniature of Dhu 'l-Qarnayn building the wall

Finally, the King comes to a town nestled in a valley between the protection of two tall mountains.  This group of people are skilled in metalwork but have been oppressed by Gog and Magog.  They plead with the King to build an impassable barrier that would shield them from their oppressors and offer tribute in return. Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn agrees, but refuses tribute knowing that the power he has been given by God requires the responsibility to care for the oppressed as well.  He leads the people in building a massive metal and iron wall to close off the mountain pass.  This third episode ends with the point we are supposed to gather: human power can accomplish great feats, but there is a Power that can demolish even the mightiest of walls. 

Power is given to be used to bring justice and never as a vehicle for oppression.  Power must be wielded with humility and understanding, resisting the urge to impose one’s own way of doing things (ironically, the exact opposite to what Alexander did with his agenda of Hellenism).  True power knows there is a power greater than itself.

Today we come to the third story in this surah, an interesting tale about Moses unlike anything we read in the Bible. 


Moses is on a journey with a servant and maybe others as well.  He is to meet a wise teacher at the spot where “the  two seas meet,” which may mean the tip of the Sinai Peninsula where the Gulf of Aqabah and the Gulf of Suez join to form the Red Sea.  It appears they were to take a fish with them in some fashion where the fish would stay alive.  Moses would know he had come to the right place when the fish disappeared or escaped.  This happens and soon Moses meets the mysterious, unnamed teacher (Islamic tradition calls this man Khidr).  Moses pledges to follow the man and learn what he may, but the man warns Moses that he will have a hard time bearing with the man patiently and Moses is not to ask questions about anything until the man explains it in his own due time.  Moses agrees and off they go.     

As Moses and the man travelled on, they came to a boat and as they sailed the teacher drilled a hole in the hull causing it to take on water.  Moses cries out in confusing, wondering aloud why the man would do such a thing.  He is scolded by the man to not ask questions as Moses had promised.  Next, they happened upon a boy and without warning the man killed the boy.  Moses was shocked and cried out his bewilderment.  Again, the man warned Moses not to ask questions but to bear patiently with him.  Last, the two came to a town and asked for food but were refused.  In response to this lack of charity, the man saw a broken-down wall nearby and built it back up.  Beside himself, Moses again asked why the man did not seek recompense. 

At this the wise teacher announced that he and Moses would be parting ways.  As he had predicted, Moses was simply unable to bear patiently with the man.  Before they parted, though, the teacher took time to explain the three strange actions he had taken.  First, the damaged boat belonged to a poor couple who needed the boat to make a living but very shortly all intact boats would be seized by the king.  The damage would actually keep the couple from losing their boat for good.  Second, the boy was in fact headed to a lifestyle that would bring hardship on the parents, so by killing the boy the man had actually made way for the couple to have an obedient boy who would be a blessing to them.  Last, the wall that the man repaired belonged to man who had recently died but not before he buried a treasure under the wall intended for his sons when they reached maturity.  With the wall crumbling as it was, soon the treasure would be exposed and these inhospitable townspeople would take the treasure for themselves leaving the orphans to beg.  The wise teacher was honored the father’s intent and rescued the boys from destitution.       

Simply put, the message is a simple one: things are not always as they seem.  Abdullah Yusuf Ali says this about the ironic turnabouts at the end of this passage:

There are paradoxes in life: apparent loss may be real gain; apparent cruelty maybe real mercy; returning good for evil may really be justice and not generosity (18:79-82). God’s wisdom transcends all human calculation.

Can we walk with a faith that trusts the wisdom that leads us or are we too tied to our own judgment?  It will take discipline and patience.  We will have to restrain our tongue.  We will have to remain open-minded and humble.  We will have to seek after a source of wisdom, and then give ourselves to it.    

Bear in mind that this is Moses we are talking about.  Educated in the royal courts of Egypt, Moses was no country bumpkin.  This is the same Moses who had the wisdom to lead his people to the Promised Land.  Tradition also says he wrote the first five books of the Bible.  That Moses.  Even he did not possess all wisdom.  If Moses needed a humble spirit of submission, how much more do we?

Today’s section brings us to the second of four stories in this surah.  This new story seems to punctuate the point made in ayah 28:

Let not your eyes turn away from them [the Scriptures] out of desire for the attractions of this worldly life.

The “parable” begins with two men.  Both have been created and provided with a rich garden of grapes, dates, and corn.  The land of each is well-watered.  Both men have been set up by God to have a bountiful life.  Soon, one appears to turn to idolatry (18:42, “I wish I had not set up any partner to my Lord”) but even more so he turns to a life of materialism.  This man defines “better” by what he possesses.  God has blessed him, but he has become obsessed with the possessions.  This man has lost sight to God, the giver of blessings.  He compares his estate to that of the other man boasts that he has more.  He becomes convinced that the richness of his life is determined by his riches.  He buys the lie that what he has will always be and will always satisfy.  He even fools himself into believing the “Last Hour” will never come.  Essentially he has erected himself and his wealth is the supreme power. 

Then the other man who has never lost sight of God and the Last Hour scolds his lack of faith:

If only, when you entered your garden, you had said, “As God wills.  There is no power not [given] by God.” (18:39) 

Though this second man has less, he is truly the rich one.  He reminds his neighbor that his estate can be wiped away by the more powerful forces of nature in a moment’s notice.  There is a satisfaction to be found that is far greater than anything material possessions and wealth can bring:

The True God . . . gives the best rewards and the best outcomes. (18:44)

To be faithful, obedient, and mindful of God — this is the greatest calling and reward. 

The story ends as the faithful man said it would: the first man’s crops are destroyed by a storm of epic proportions and he cries out in regret for his faithlessness.

"The End of Materialism II," photo by carr176 on flickr.com

For Christians reading this parable, it will likely remind us of the parable of the Rich Fool told by Jesus:

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest.  He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain.  And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:13-21)

We might also remember the words of Jesus’ brother James:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”  As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes.  All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)

This line from the end of today’s Quranic section is a good reminder to those of us who live in an immensely materialistic world:

Wealth and children are the attractions of this worldly life, but lasting good works have a better reward with your Lord and give better grounds for hope. (18:46) 

This new Meccan surah promises to be an interesting one.  The synopsis in my translation indicates it is more narrative in nature.  I have noticed that the Qur’an does not use many stories; it is much more sermonic.  Because of that, I hate to say, it is a different and slightly more laborious form of literature than what most Westerners may prefer, as story-based as our culture is.

Before the surah launches into its first story, the first eight ayahs mention Allah is testing people’s hearts. What is it about the nature of Allah that requires a “test” to determine a person’s heart (18:7)?  Does He not know already?  Is this all one big game to Him?  Is the heart’s inclination not a reality until the event, thus it must take place?  I am hoping for the last option.

The Companions of the Cave

Next we have the story of the Companions or Sleepers of the Cave.  This is a most interesting story!  The tale, which certainly is told as a parable with a bigger point, tells of three or four or seven young men and a dog who are fleeing oppression at the hands of pagan worshipers and seek refuge in a north-facing cave.  God keeps them there undetected as if a wall had been built obscuring the cave and causes the youths to fall into a deep sleep.  They sleep for what seems like only hours or days but what turns out to be hundreds of years, maybe three or twelve hundred years or longer.  Hungry, they send one of the men down into the city to inconspicuously buy food.  However, his antiquated dress, speech and money draw attention. The people of the city, then, decide a great move of God has taken place at this cave and plan to build a place of worship there.  Then the people argue amongst themselves over the number of youths had been in the cave and for how long.

It turns out this story was originally Christian, not Islamic.  Commentator Abdullah Yusuf Ali states that the great chronicler of ancient Roman history Edward Gibbons first told the story in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Ali describes the original story this way:

The bare Christian story (without the spiritual lessons taught in the Qur’an) is told in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (end of chapter 33). In the reign of a Roman Emperor who persecuted the Christians, seven Christian youths of Ephesus left the town and hid themselves in a cave in a mountain near by. They fell asleep, and remained asleep for some generations or centuries. When the wall which sealed up the caves was being demolished, the youths awoke. They still thought of the world in which they had previously lived. They had no idea of the duration of time. But when one of them went to the town to purchase provisions, he found that the whole world had changed. The Christian religion, instead of being persecuted was fashionable: in fact it was now the State religion. His dress and speech, and the money which he brought, seemed to belong to another world. This attracted attention. The great ones of the land visited the Cave, and verified the tale by questioning the man’s Companions. When the story became very popular and circulated throughout the Roman Empire, we may well suppose that an Inscription was put up at the mouth of the Cave.

Ali opines that Christians would have posed this story to Muhammad at some point asking him to weigh in on how many youth had been in the cave and for how long as a way to discredit him.  Muhammad then takes the story and makes a larger, grander point from the story.

Kahf Al-Raqim, the cave today

The point now becomes that it is foolish to argue over the minor points of this all important story and miss the life-changing message of God hidden in this parable.  How long did they stay?  Only God knows (18:26)!  Restrain the hubris that makes you think you too can know the mind of God.  Much more important than “how many?” or “how long?” is that God did protect the youth from death and awaken them again to a life that was safer and better than what it had been when they fell asleep.  It is like they were living a whole new life.  As you can guess, the original Christian story was taken as an analogy about Resurrection.  At least some Muslims take the story the same way as well, as is clear from Abdel Haleem’s translation of ayah 21:

In this way We brought them to people’s attention so that they might know that God’s promise [of resurrection] is true and that there is no doubt about the Last Hour, [though] people argue among themselves.

From an artistic and literary point of view, this story is superb!  It is also a truly great message for religious people to bear in mind!  We have a God who will protect us through oppressive times, who will make death seem only like a night’s sleep, and who will raise us again to a life superior to what we now know.  In the mean time, embrace a “generous orthodoxy” that allows for varying views of the minor points of the story, hanging on firmly to the main point.

There is probably no religion more associated with prayer than the Islamic faith. The distinctive call to prayer. The bowing of the whole body toward Mecca. Stopping all activities to pray. Hundreds of men pressed side to side in a sea of devotion.  Muslims pray.

I’ve written about it previously in this post, but we see it again in today’s passage:

So perform the regular prayers in the period from the time the sun is past its zenith till the darkness of the night, and [recite] the Qur’an at dawn — dawn recitation is always witnessed — and during the night wake up and pray, as an extra offering of your own. (17:78-79)

Devout Muslims pray five times a day: 6am, 12pm, 5pm, 8pm, 10pm (all times are approximate as they change daily with the cycle of the sun).  The admonition to pray (salah) five times arises more from Islamic tradition than from the Qur’an.  As was said a few days ago, tradition says it was during the Night Journey this surah is named after that the command to pray five times a day came.

Of course, this command to pray five times a day can become very ritualistic, and rituals can become legalistic and empty. There is nothing wrong with rituals by themselves; as Christians report praying an average of less than five combined minutes per day, we could benefit from a bit more ritual. But I especially liked the attitude I heard from “yeshmayin” (another Christian blogging through the Qur’an) a few days ago in the comments of this post:

I have always thought the story of God telling Mohammed how many times to pray is a beautiful one. It reminds me of Paul’s words to “Pray without ceasing.” To me, that is the essence of the entire story. When God told Mohammed to pray 50 times a day, the point was to pray without ceasing. I don’t believe it was meant to be a literal-count-them 50 times. (Like when we are told in the NT to forgive our brother seventy times seven times– it is not a literal number meant to be counted up.)

Today’s passage also gives a wonderful sample of the ideal prayer:

Say, “My Lord, make me go in truthfully, and come out truthfully, and grant me supporting authority from You.” (17:80)

Prayer is first and foremost about expressing dependency.  If prayer is the heart’s cry of faith, the most basic and beautiful prayer a true worshiper can pray is “I need you.” And this is precisely the prayer stated here — whether going in, coming out or standing strong, “I need Thee every hour.”

So true!

Have you ever felt that it doesn’t matter what you say, there are some people who will never be persuaded to believe as you do?  Ever met a person who probably wouldn’t believe even if God did a miracle right in front of him?

Muhammad had:

Nothing prevents Us from sending miraculous signs, except the fact that previous peoples denied them. . . . We send signs only to give warning.  [Prophet], We have told you that your Lord knows all about human beings.  The vision We showed you [the Night Journey] was only a test for the people. . . . We warn them, but this only increases their insolence. (17:59-60)

And so had Jesus.  He told a story in Luke 16 of a Rich Man and a beggar named Lazarus who die and come before Abraham.  The rich man is sentenced to a horrible fate and then begs Abraham to send someone to warn his brothers who are still alive.  What follows is the end of their interchange:

Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”   

“No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”

He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”  (Luke 16:29-31)

Interestingly, they both said essentially the same thing about people like this:

[Prophet], when you recite the Qur’an, We put an invisible barrier between you and those who do not believe in the life to come.  We have put covers on their hearts that prevent them from understanding it, and heaviness in their ears.  When you mention your Lord in the Qur’an, and Him alone, they turn their backs and run away. (17:45-46)

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.  Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance.  Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.  This is why I speak to them in parables:

     “Though seeing, they do not see;
      though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

    “You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
     you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 
     For this people’s heart has become calloused;
     they hardly hear with their ears,
     and they have closed their eyes.
     Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
     hear with their ears,
     understand with their hearts
     and turn, and I would heal them.”

But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. (Matthew 13:10-16)

We should be on guard against thinking both are speaking of some sort of fatalistic damnation of people before they have had a made their own choice about the message.  Notice that in the Qur’anic passage the people talked about have already chosen not to believe.  A similar implication is made in the biblical passage.  Jesus’ ministry is well underway at this point, Matthew places the passage in the middle of his book, and the Isaianic passage that is quoted implies that the people have already hardened their heart.  God is simply sealing the decision these people have made of their own accord.

Because we have been heavily influenced by the Enlightenment’s emphasis on logic, facts and argumentation, it is easy to think that if we just say the right things, display evidential power, or convince people of the error of their ways they will change their minds on a topic (even one as big and foundational as religion) and believe as we believe.  When we think like this we reveal our belief that humans are fundamentally “thinking animals,” as some have called us.  If it were that simple would we not have much more change in people?  Wouldn’t every thinking human being have stopped smoking by now, seeing that the packaging (in America and Canada at least) basically says “These are going to kill you”?  Wouldn’t girls stop falling for the “bad boys” if it were that straight-forward?  Why would we be stuck in patterns of behavior we want to stop?

Maybe it is more accurate to say we are “desiring, wanting animals,” as James K. A. Smith says in his book Desiring the Kingdom.  Smith does not deny that we have incredible cognitive skills and can talk ourselves into change.  But more often than not, we operate from a more primal, instinctual place of desire.  We do what we do because we want to do it.  We even think what we think because of desires within ourselves.

Smith’s book really deserves much more treatment than I can give right here and right now (his explanation of how malls are the new temples or churches of our culture complete with rituals, architecture, acts of worship, and sacred space is worth the price of the book itself), but he has caused me to reassess a lot of my thinking in the past six months or so since reading his book (a little ironic, I know, given the premise of his book).  I have certainly been in the “thinking animal” camp, and I still am to a great degree.  But then I run up against people who it just seems no amount of thinking or intellectual dialogue would change.  Or I see people (sometimes in the mirror) who seem to be on auto-pilot making significant decisions about life not because of their thoughts, rather because of what they want in life.  I have had many faith conversations lately with people who I feel have already decided they want to live a certain way and now are constructing a belief system that supports that choice of lifestyle.

The tricky part is made clear by Jesus in the wider context of Matthew 13.  The “seeing, not seeing/hearing, not hearing” passage quoted above is sandwiched between the telling of the Parable of the Sower and Jesus’ explanation of the parable.  Sure, some will never get it–for whatever reason–but we don’t know who they are.  Some will be as receptive as the good soil and others will have no room in their hearts because of the “rocks” that are there.  Still others have been so “walked on” and harassed by the demonic “birds” that the message has no time to take root.  But we don’t know who is whom.  Our job as “farmers” is simply to scatter the seed.

"Sower with Setting Sun," Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

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