Today we start a new, longer surah that I have often heard quoted before.  This chapter is winsomely named “The Bee,” after a passing reference to the animal halfway through.  Like its title might suggest, much of the first part of the surah discusses with some detail many aspects of nature that all testify to the veracity of Allah.  As with every sentence in the Qur’an it seems, the incredulity of idolatry lurks just below the surface here once again.

In many ways, there is little that is new in today’s reading, though if you are drawn to nature you will likely find this section vivid and affirming.  One new idea that stood out, though, was the priority of arrogance as a chief sin.  Note the repetition of the word “arrogance” early in this chapter (16:22, 23, 29; c.f., 49-50).

Before starting this blog, much of my knowledge of Islam came from textbooks written about the world’s religions.  These are very helpful, as they condense a lot of information into smaller chunks that emphasize the essentials of the religion.  Then there comes a point at which one needs to read the primary documents, hence this blog.  One idea that I have often seen emphasized in chapters about Islam is that arrogance is a cardinal sin.  Let there be no doubt: idolatry is mentioned much more in the Qur’an, and shirk (accepting other deities instead of or alongside Allah) is considered the worst of all sins in Muslim theology.  Nevertheless arrogance or pride is right up there as well.

Yesterday we looked at Iblis, that fallen angel (or jinn, depending on the passage) that refused to serve humanity as Allah intended.  It was pride that drove Iblis’ decision.  The “disbelievers” of Mecca consider Muhammad a fool for denouncing their many gods.  People have always worshiped these gods; their “ancient fables” testify to the truth of these gods (16:24).  Who is Muhammad to reject them and advocate for an invisible God who is new to them in so many ways?  Theirs was a decision driven by arrogance.  Their arrogance tells them they know the truth, that their way is the best way, the only way.  Their arrogance closes their minds to the witness of nature that is everywhere around them.  Actually, their actions of idolatry were driven by an attitude of arrogance.

That is still very true today.  Faith is often hard for people to muster.  And the smarter one thinks he is, the harder it seems to be.  With knowledge in hand, it becomes easy to think we already have it all figured out.  Knowledge puffs us up to the point where we believe we can reason out all things and therefore truth must conform to our minds.  We hold ourselves up as the supreme judges of reality.  It becomes easy to act like God must convince us, as if we are the center of the universe.  Of course, we must use our God-given minds.  And there is nothing wrong with reason in and of itself (16:12).  Faith is not blindly following whatever we are told.  We all want to have a confidence that says we have discovered something true, knowable, and determined.  Still, there can be a huge undertone of arrogance in all of this.

It is interesting what this surah says will happen to the arrogant.  Their destiny is Hell (16:29).  They are rejected and unloved by God (16:23).  But what hits me most is the emphasis on “shame:”

In the end, on the Day of Resurrection, He will shame them, saying, “Where are these ‘partners’ of mine on whose account you opposed [Me]?”  Those given knowledge will say, “Shame and misery on the disbelievers today!” (16:27)

Shame is the antithesis of arrogance.  Arrogant pride says, “Look at me!”  Shame wants to hide.  Arrogance is overly confident in one’s self.  Shame is embarrassed by what it has done.  Pride goes headstrong into a situation, then shamefully shrinks back when it realizes it overstepped.  God’s retribution is beautifully poetic.

Arrogance is truly easy to fall prey to, further evidence to its priority as a chief sin.  Believers and disbelievers alike are susceptible.  We must be on guard.