July 2011

Another short collection of notable passages from today’s ending of the twenty-third surah.

Those who stand in awe of their Lord, who believe in His messages, who do not ascribe partners to Him, who always give with hearts that tremble at the thought that they must return to Him, are the ones who race toward good things, and they will be the first to get them. (23:57-61)

This is both a vivid description of God’s desire to bless the believer and a list of desirable character traits in the devoted.

We do not burden any soul with more than it can bear.  (23:62)

“Pat” has gone quiet in the comment section of this blog, but she would say this makes her think of 1 Corinthians 10:13.  And I agree! 

When We bring Our punishment on those corrupted with wealth, they will cry for help. (23:64)

The Qur’an seems to acknowledge that wealth inherently possesses a corrupting power.  Yes, money can be used for good for evil.  Yes, greed is the real insidious side to wealth.  But we are naive if we think that money itself has no power of its own to tempt, control, and estrange us from God.

They say, “What?  When we die and turn to dust and bones, shall we really be resurrected?” . . . Say, “Who owns the earth and all who live in it? . . . Who is the Lord of the seven heavens?  Who is the Lord of the Mighty Throne? . . . Who holds control of everything in His hand? Who protects?” (23:82-89)

This is a return to yesterday’s focus on resurrection.  We are given more of an answer here as to why one should believe in the resurrection.  God is in control.  This is His world.  He has power to protect and power over Heaven.  A god that powerful surely can raise the dead.  Of course, having raised a dead person in a notable way already would mean even more. 

Repel evil with good. (23:96)

Another good, Bible-sounding saying.

Those whose good deeds weigh heavy will be successful, but those whose balance is light will have lost their souls for ever and will stay in Hell. (23:102-03)

More “weighing of the heart” language.

The main point in today’s reading is that the reception Muhammad is receiving is not unlike that given to many prophets before him.  We have seen this message many times already. 

The most interesting part of the reading, though, is what the disbelievers say to an unnamed prophet before Muhammad’s time when he claims that we will be resurrected on the Last Day:

The leading disbelievers . . . said, “He is just a  mortal like you — he eats what you eat and drinks what you drink — and you will really be losers if you obey a mortal like yourselves.  How can he promise you that after you die and become dust and bones you will be brought out alive?  What you are promised is very far-fetched.  There is only the life of this world: we die, we live, but we will never be resurrected.  He is just a man making lies up about God.  We will never believe in him.”  (23:33-38)

How can this prophet or Muhammad after him promise the dead will be resurrected? 

It is claimed that the topic of the Hereafter is discussed more than any topic in the Qur’an with the sole exception of monotheism and idolatry.  Resurrection is foundational to the Islamic worldview, so it begs the question “what is the basis for believing this claim?”  This is a religious belief, so it will have a degree of faith involved, to be sure.  But one can hope that there is some reason to believe that this faith is more than wishful thinking.  I do hope that those better versed in Islam can provide evidence for faith in the claim of resurrection.  All I have found is this: 1) Allah has revealed the truth of resurrection in the Qur’an, thus it is true; and 2) as is said in this passage, the truth will be shown in the end (23:40).  If one believes that the Qur’an is the inspired word of God, then yes these arguments would be persuasive.  But it is not realistic to think that #1 would mean much to a person who does not yet trust the Qur’an.  It is not like Muhammad was raised from the dead.   

Resurrection is also foundational to Christianity, so it is only fair to ask what basis do Christians have to believe that they will be resurrected on the Last Day.  Is it because the Bible claims it to be true?  Again, this argument alone does not hold water with someone who does not yet believe the Bible is the word of God.  Does the Bible offer any better reason for believing that resurrection is a reality?

The Apostle Paul devotes an entire chapter to exactly this point.  It seems there were some in his time who were saying something similar to what the disbelievers above were saying.  Paul’s response is the foundational argument for the resurrection in Christianity.  How can we know that we will be resurrected?  Jesus’ resurrection.

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?  If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.  And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.  More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead.  But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.  For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.  And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.  If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.  But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:12-20)

Why should we believe in resurrection?  Because Jesus was raised from the dead.  Jesus wasn’t just resuscitated in the same body; he received a renewed, resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:44).  If Jesus was not resurrected, then Christianity falls apart.  Resurrection is the linchpin.  Why can a Christian believe that resurrection will be a reality?  Not simply because a book says so.  We have been given proof that God has this power and desire in that He raised Jesus from the dead during our time.  We know we can be resurrected in the future because God has already resurrected in the past. 

This argument can be charged with the same circular reason I mentioned earlier in regards to the Qur’an, can’t it?  Christians believe the Bible’s claim of resurrection because the Bible describes a resurrected Jesus.  Isn’t that the same as saying, “I believe the Bible because of the Bible”?

This is where further reasoning and research bolsters the faith one can have in what we read in the Bible.  Why should we believe that Jesus was resurrected? 

  1. If the resurrection of Jesus were nothing more than a hoax, the apostles who started that hoax went on to suffer and die for Jesus.  Would you die for a lie?  What did the apostles stand to gain from the hoax: popularity, fame, money, women?  The apostles received none of these in their life-time.  Consider this verse from 1 Corinthians 15:30, “And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour?”
  2. Maybe Jesus just passed out and never really died.  We know from history that a great number of people being flogged before resurrection (as Jesus was) actually died during the beating.  The suffering Jesus endured was simply too severe to live through.  Also, the mixture of water and blood oozing from Jesus’ wound is a tell-tale sign of a fatal wound. 
  3. Maybe the people who thought they saw a resurrected Jesus were just hallucinating.  But over 500 people claimed to see the same resurrected Jesus.  It is illogical that there would be such a mass hallucination.  In addition, the closeness between event and writing made it possible for people who doubted the resurrection account to actually find and talk with these supposed eyewitnesses. 
  4. Maybe someone stole Jesus’ body?  Who?  The only people who would want to do so would be the apostles.  It is illogical to think they could get past an armed battalion of Roman guards who were trained to kill and would be killed themselves if they failed or fell asleep.  It is also not likely that they would be able to move the stone. 
  5. The resurrection accounts are actually crafted as weak arguments if they are fake.  Women are claimed to be the first eyewitnesses.  The testimony of women was not even accepted in a court of law at that time.  Why create such a story?
  6. How did the apostles go from timid fishermen so afraid of dying that they hid to fearless messengers who all died a martyr’s death (except John who died in exile on the island of Patmos)?  How did Paul have such an about-face that he went from murderer to martyr in such a short amount of time?  The best explanation is a miraculous event. 
  7. Anyone who wished to disprove the resurrection could have done so easily.  All they had to do was produce Jesus’ body.  The Jewish religious leaders had every reason to do so as the Christian group grew in popularity after Pentecost only two months after the Crucifixion.  But no one ever did.   

The best and most logical explanation is that Jesus of Nazareth truly was resurrected from the dead as claimed.  And because of that we can have a confidence that we too will be resurrected.    

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?
   Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)

I have been surprised by how rarely I have seen explicit admonitions for virtue in the part of the Qur’an we have read thus far.  I am certainly not saying Muslims are not virtuous.  Of course they are. 

Several years ago my wife worked with a group of Muslim young men and another group of young ladies who self-identified as Christians.  I remember her saying how much more virtuous those men were than the women.  She said she would have much preferred to have those Muslim men as neighbors than those women who seemed to be wearing the name “Christian” more out of convenience, habit, or security than out of devotion.  Definitely, Islam is a religion of virtue. 

I am just surprised how so often it seems the surahs we have read thus far dwell on internal belief and a willingness to serve but then leave it there.  I haven’t seem many long passages on how to interact with others in everyday activities, what attitudes to have to the vagaries of life, or what behavioral virtues Allah longs to find the heart of his followers. 

On the other hand, the Bible, of which I am a devoted follower, makes frequent mention of virtues.  Take this two famous passage from the New Testament as an example:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
   for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
   for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
   for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
   for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
   for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
   for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:3-12)

Or this one:

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh.  They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.  I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Against such things there is no law.  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.  Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. (Galatians 5:16-26)

You rarely go more than a page or two in the New Testament without mention of some prescribed or prohibited action.  Now, with this focus on morality Christianity can easily degrade into little more than “moralism,” that is a code of conduct that is held up as the most important part of religion, expected as a condition of salvation, and separated from a bigger story that gives the rationale for that morality.  To be sure, there are versions of Christianity out there that are guilty of this.  Nonetheless, living life in a manner that God finds pleasing and that promotes love and relational peace is an excellent aspect of Christianity. 

So as a devotee of a book that emphasizes virtue, something has seemed to be missing from my reading of the Qur’an.  Then as we start a new surah today, called “The Believers” or “The Faithful,” we come to mention after mention of virtue. 

  • When you pray, be humble and reverent.  Don’t treat God like a genie or vending machine. (23:2)
  • Be sober-minded and decorous, instead of living a frivolous life obsessed with the pleasures of that which passes away. (23:3) 
  • Be compassionate and give charitably to those in need. (23:4)
  • Abstain from sexuality except in those relationships deemed legitimate and wholesome  (23:5-7)
  • Be known as a trustworthy person financially.  Honor your pledges. (23:8)
  • Be consistent and fervent in prayer.  Don’t just turn to prayer when you are in a bind. (23:9)

I hope to read more like this.

I just have a few notable passages from today’s reading.

He [Allah] makes Satan’s insinuations a temptation only for the sick at heart and those whose hearts are hardened — the evildoers are profoundly opposed [to the Truth] — and He causes those given knowledge to realize that this Revelation is your Lord’s Truth, so that they may believe in it and humble their hearts to Him: God guides the faithful to the straight path.  (22:53-54)

According to these ayahs, unbelief is due to spiritual weakness and stubbornness.  If you want to believe, you can. 

He [Allah] will give a generous provision to those who migrated in God’s way and were killed or died: He is the Best Provider.  He will admit them to a place that will please them.  (22:58-59)

Dying for Allah brings great reward.  Of course, we all know that some have done ugly things with verses like these. 

It is He [Allah] who gave you [people] life, will cause you to die, then will give you life again.  (22:66)

Creation–De-creation–Re-creation: this is the same cycle that is foundational to the biblical story, and it goes way beyond a literal life, death, and resurrection.

[Prophet], you can see the hostility on the faces of the disbelievers when Our messages are recited clearly to them: it is almost as if they are going to attack those who recite Our messages to them.  Say, “Shall I tell you what is far worse than what you feel now?  The Fire that God has promised the disbelievers!  What a dismal end!”  (22:72)

People find the message of God unpleasant right now.  It might mean change or risk.  But the punishment of Hell that will come later is way worse.  Think long-term. 

You people [idolaters], here is an illustration, so listen carefully: those you call on beside God could not, even if they combined all their forces, create a fly, and if a fly took something away from them, they would not be able to retrieve it.  How feeble are the petitioners and how feeble are those they petition! (22:73)


In today’s short section we come to another passage that some could interpret as violent, though I will argue that to do so is to ignore the context and misinterpret. 

God will defend the believers; God does not love the unfaithful and ungrateful.  Those who have been attacked are permitted to take up arms because they have been wronged — God has the power to help them — those who have been driven unjustly from their homes only for saying, “Our Lord is God.”  If God did not repel some people by means of others, many monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, where God’s name is much invoked, would have been destroyed.  God is sure to help those who help His cause — God is strong and mighty. (22:38-40)

Note that it has been quite some time since we have seen a passage that could be taken as authorizing violence (see all past posts on this topic here).  Some modern Muslims’ version of Islam may in fact be aggressively violent, but I am not seeing that impulse in the Qur’an.  Certainly, it is not the pacifism of Jesus, but once again today we come to what I would call “justifiable self-defense,” not a mandate for armed jihad. 

Remember the context of this passage:

As for those who disbelieve and bar others from God’s path and from the Sacred Mosque. (22:25)

This is a Medinan surah.  Nascent Islam has been forced to move to Medina due to the persecution of the idolatrous Meccans.  Those Meccans are now barring the Muslims access to the most sacred of Mosques, the Ka’ba, in Mecca.  Now it seems that situation has escalated to the point where some pilgrims are being harassed and attacked. 

This passage does authorize violent response (22:39) in situations where the victim is being persecuted for his religion (22:40).  The victim’s response is to be measured and not exceed the level of aggression shown him (22:60).  The mention of “churches” and “synagogues” (22:40) also anchors this firmly in the immediate context of polytheism versus monotheism and precludes this passage from being applied to disputes between the Abrahamic religions. 

Ayah 40 makes clear the rationale for armed self-defense: if God’s people (in this passage defined as Jews, Christians, and Muslims) don’t defend themselves against aggression, the worship of God and the renown of His name would be lost.  Many of us take for granted the free exercise of religion.  This passage is about the of that privilege.  Notice that in this passage there is a context, premeditation, and aggressors.

Islam is well-known for having “five pillars” to their faith.  These five actions were established as Islam became formalized as ways for the Muslim to develop the two most important relationships in life: one’s devotion to God and to fellow Muslim believers.  Those five pillars are as follows:

  1. The Statement of Faith (shahadah) that “there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God”
  2. The daily cycle of Prayer (salat) and prostration
  3. Almsgiving (zakat) to the poor
  4. Observance of the month Ramadan with an increased level of fasting (sawm) from food, water, and sexuality during the day followed by deeply communal feasting at night
  5. All able-bodied Muslims are expected to make a Pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca at least once in their lifetime to engage in the associated rituals

The name of today’s new surah — Al-Hajj, “The Pilgrimage” — makes it clear that we have come to our first significant discussion of the fifth pillar.   

Juan Campo, in the Encyclopedia of Islam, says the pilgrimage is seen both as an action of penitent devotion to God but also as a way to demonstrate solidarity with the worldwide population of Muslims.  Abraham is considered to be the first pilgrim and the example Muslims look to today for the Hajj (22:26).  The pilgrimage, forbidden to non-Muslims, takes a total of six days during the twelfth month of Dhu al-Hijja in the Islamic lunar calendar (some time from October to December, right now).

Pilgrims encircle the Ka'ba (The Sacred Mosque, 22:25) in Mecca in prayer

Pilgrims perform a series of ritual activities (hajjis) as they trace a twenty-mile loop into the desert outside Mecca and back.  The essential rituals are as follows, in order:

  1. Statement of intention and cleansing of the body (22:29)
  2. Circumambulation of the Ka’ba in Mecca seven times counter-clockwise (22:26, 29)
  3. Running between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times, a run tradition says Ishmael made
  4. Encampment at Mina, three miles southeast of Mecca
  5. Standing at the plain of Arafat, ten miles southeast of Mecca.  Campo reports that this is deemed by many to be the most important action of all as the sea of pilgrims in white robes is seen as “a rehearsal for the resurrection of the dead and Judgment Day.”
  6. Spending the night at Muzdalifa
  7. “Stoning” the three “satanic” pillars at Mina with pebbles, each of which represents a time Satan tempted Abraham as he went to sacrifice Isaac. 
  8. An animal sacrifice, usually an unblemished cow, camel (22:36), sheep or goat on Id Al-Adha, a remembrance of Abraham’s obedience in the near-sacrifice of Isaac and now one of the most sacred of festivals on the Islamic calendar (22:28).  The feast that follows the sacrifice (in which a portion of the sacrificed animal is eaten) provides a fitting communal end to the pilgrimage. 
  9. Farewell circumambulation of the Ka’ba in Mecca again
Map of the Hajj

During the pilgrimage, men are required to dress only in a simple, unhemmed white robe and sandals, as a symbolic way to show that all men are really equal regardless of social class.  Women maintain their typical modest dress and head covering. 

A close-up of the Ka’ba:


Pilgrims praying at Arafat: 

The stoning of the three pillars of Satan:

The Hajj has become such a special act that now over 2.5 million pilgrims flock to Mecca each year, the largest annual religious pilgrimage in the world.  The Saudi government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars developing improved infrastructure, housing, dining, and security for the pilgrims.  Many pilgrims will enlist expert guides to help make sure their pilgrimage is ritually successful. 

Construction outside the Sacred Mosque in Mecca in 2010

Regardless of your own faith, the Muslim pilgrimage has to be held in awe and wonder.  What an amazing, tangible sign of devotion!   This verse is a good reminder of what matters most in the pilgrimage and sacrifice:

It is neither their meat nor their blood that reaches God but your piety. (22:37)

On a personal note, my blogging will likely be sporadic over the next few weeks.  It looks like after three and a half months, we are finally going to be able to move back into our home after the storm damage from April.

Today’s shorter passage chimes in to what I am seeing is a major theme in the Qur’an: the Hereafter.  You can’t go one or two surahs before you are reminded of impending judgment.  In a culture that is hyper-focused on the here-and-now, the Islamic attention to the Hereafter seems a bit odd.  At the same time it might be the reminder that people of faith need to live life with the end in mind, not simply for today. 

There is not much that is new here, just some interesting phraseology.

[Prophet], this is your community, one community, and I am your Lord, so serve Me.  They have torn their unity apart, but they will all return to Us. (21:92-93)

Humans are truly one community.  We are sons and daughters of One Father, creatures from One Creator.  We have done a great job of letting race, nationality, gender, religion, age, and socio-economics separate us, but in the end we will once again be “one community” (c.f., Revelation 7:9).

. . . when the peoples of Gog and Magog are let loose and swarm swiftly from every highland . . . (21:96)

Here we have another mention of Gog and Magog, a barbaric group of people who come at the end of time as an instrument of God’s punishment to bring “terror” and “woe” to those who don’t believe.  The name is most likely code, borrowed from the Bible, for a horrible people.  The point: things are going to get worse before they get better. 

You [disbelievers] and what you worship instead of God will be fuel for Hell: that is where you will go . . . you will all stay there. (21:98-99)

Hell is everlasting punishment.  This is not annihilationism

But those for whom We have decreed Paradise will be kept far from Hell — they will not hear a murmur from it. (21:101-102a)

Total separation of Good and Bad. 

. . . endlessly they will enjoy everything their souls desire. (21:102b)

Once again, I see Paradise is described in a human-centered manner, appealing to what we might want to be rewarded with.  As Onewilltry has pointed out in the comments on this post, Muslims do believe that the greatest reward one can receive is to be in the presence of Allah, so maybe that takes the edge off the human-centeredness we find here. 

On that Day, We [Allah] shall roll up the skies as a writer rolls up [his] scroll.  We shall reproduce creation just as We produced it the first time. (21:104)

What a wonderful way to describe the “re-creation” that Paradise truly will be.  There is another world to come and it isn’t “out there”, it will be “right here.”  The Qur’an does a very good job of making it clear that Paradise is really just a return to the original Garden, a view that I believe is very biblical as well. 

Say, “What is revealed to me is that God is one God — will you submit to Him?” (21:108)

The basic message of Islam.

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