August 2011

Do people think they will be left alone after saying “We believe” without being put to the test?  We tested those who went before them: God will certainly mark out which ones are truthful and which are lying. (29:2-3)

It is easy enough to say you believe.  It is easy to want to believe, even.  But real belief is tested and tried.  Faith has been given the easy path but it takes the harder journey towards steadfastness in the midst of trial.  In fact, faith is made strong and true only through a little struggle.

The Christian Bible says it this way:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4)

Today’s Quranic passage is an interesting one.  It appears there were some in Muhammad’s sphere of influence who were finding it convenient to claim the Muslim faith in God but when any kind of mistreatment or struggle to be devoted came along they could no longer follow through with their claims of faith.  It was too hard (29:10).

God says he will bring trials into our life as a way to test the resolve of our faith.  Easy, convenient faith is no faith at all.  Who needs faith when everything adds up, when everything is going as expected, or even better?  Is it faith if it never stretches you, if it never makes you trust in rescue or justice or whatever?

They say that butterflies need the struggle that comes from emerging from their chrysalis.  It is a hard process, stressful on the newly formed, untested wings of the butterfly.  Scientists have peeled back the casing of the chrysalis for the butterflies before and what they found is that those butterflies could not fly adequately.  It seems the struggle against the cocoon actually strengthens their wings and prepares them for their life of flight.

Struggles or testing refines us and proves the truth of our faith.

More of the same today.  Allah is just.  He always sends a messenger to warn of the threat of disobedience and disregard.  Then rejection leads to punishment. In Moses’ time if you are Corah (28:76), in Muhammad’s time if you are the pagan disbelievers, or theoretically today if we do the same.  Same message.  Again.

How much repetition — often complete repetition of common phrases — before it begins to erode the claim of authenticity?  How many times does the same message have to be repackaged before the inspiration of the Qur’an is called into question?  I certainly don’t mean this disrespectfully, just objectively.  The Old Testament of the Christian Bible was written at least 1500 years before the Qur’an to a culture that was surely more illiterate and oral than that of the Qur’an, still there is much, much less repetition in the Old Testament.  It would seem the oral nature of the culture is not a sufficient explanation.

Help me understand why it seems I am reading the same thing over and over again.

Today’s new surah, “The Story,” derives its name from the “story” of Moses that is retold here.  A few days ago we had some stories about Moses and Solomon that were not included in the Bible, but today with just a few new details this is the same story of Moses we know from the Bible.

Moses is born, a Hebrew baby boy in Egypt where Hebrew baby boys are “slaughtered” (28:4).  In order to save him, his mother places Moses in the river where he is rescued by the murderous Pharaoh’s own daughter who adopts Moses as her own son.  Nonetheless, God worked it out that Moses was reunited to his mother as his “wet nurse” (28:12-13).

When Moses has reached adulthood, he inadvertently killed a man as Moses tried to separate two men who were fighting.  This becomes well-known, and when Moses tries to break up another fight and one of the man fears that Moses will kill him too, Moses flees to the region of Midian.

In Midian, Moses is given great hospitality from a “father” (28:23), even to the point of being given one of the man’s daughters as a wife.  One day, while traveling in the area, Moses happened upon the burning bush where he meets God, “the Lord of the Worlds” (28:30).  Moses is sent back to Egypt by this God with a staff that turns into a snake and a hand that can become leprous and then be healed. Pharaoh, though, only “behaved arrogantly” refusing to respond to Moses’ message.  Thus, he and his army were thrown in the sea (28:39-40).

Today’s passage ends with this summary of Moses’ life:

We have Moses the Scripture to provide insight, guidance, and mercy for people, so that they might take heed.  (28:43)

It seems Moses will serve as a model for the work Muhammad is being called to, as described in the rest of the surah.

Ants are small . . . and so is this “Ant” surah, relatively.  So we finish it up with today’s reading.  Three passages stood out to me today.

Who is it that originates creation and reproduces it?  Who is it that gives you provision from the heavens and earth?  Is it another god beside God?  Say, “Show me your evidence then, if what you say is true.” (27:64)

I am trying to place myself in the context of this passage. Muhammad comes down the mountain with a message of radical monotheism.  Meccans respond with their traditional polytheistic explanations for reality.  Both are simply claims.  How can we tip the balance towards one or the other?  It is interesting that “evidence” is mentioned.  If the polytheists really want to hang on to the belief that their gods created or at least rule over elements of nature, then they need to provide some evidence that this is true.  But what evidence is Muhammad producing that support his claim that Allah has created the very mountains, river and “gardens of delight” that he has just mentioned (27:60-63)?  That they exist is not evidence enough. The pagans could use the same evidence for their claims.  What evidence do Muslims produce for not just a god but Allah?

You cannot make the dead hear, you cannot make the deaf listen to your call when they turn their backs and leave, you cannot guide the blind out of their error; you cannot make anyone hear you except those who believe in Our signs and submit [to Us]. (27:80-81)

So true!  If a person does not want to believe, you can’t say enough to make them believe.  Good reminder. As someone with a high view of human freedom, I am not comfortable with that meaning Allah prevents them from hearing or listening.  But certainly there are people who harden their own hearts to God.

Whoever comes with a good deed will be rewarded with something better, and be secure from the terror of that Day, but whoever comes with evil deeds will be cast face downwards into the Fire.  Are you rewarded for anything except what you have done? (27:89-90)

Is that grace?  Is doesn’t seem so.  That sounds like people getting what they deserve.  That sounds like a god who responds to the actions of humans, not humans who respond to the actions of the god.

Today we begin a new Meccan surah named “The Ants” because of an esoteric mention of the animals made by King Solomon in ayah 18.  The main point of this section is the same it has been in many of the surahs we have reads thus far: don’t judge the goodness of the Qur’an or the effectiveness of the prophet based on the reception of the people; a long line of prophets have been rejected just as is happening to Muhammad. Breaking through the monotony of repetition, are some interesting stories about two biblical characters not told in the Bible.

Moses is reported as saying he will go over to the Burning Bush to find fire that he can bring back to his family so that they can warm themselves (27:7).  Interesting new idea not borrowed from the Bible.

King Solomon is reported as knowing the language of birds (27:16).  He could also marshal ranks of jinn and birds along with people, possible for battle (27:17).  Solomon’s power was so great that even the armies of ants feared him and ran to their homes (27:18).  The strangest stories of all is that of a hoopoe, a beautiful, regal bird, who had scouted out the southern kingdom of Sheba in fine military fashion (27:20-44).  This story appears to be the back-story of the Queen of Sheba that many of us would know from the Bible.  This pagan queen and her powerful armies are humbled by the wisdom of Solomon and the Queen devotes herself to Solomon’s God.  Interesting!

King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

One ayah early in today’s reading gave me pause:

As for those who do not believe in the life to come, We have made their deeds seem alluring to them, so they wander blindly: it is they who will have the worst suffering, and will be the ones to lose most in the life to come. (27:4-5)

It would appear from this passage that these people were given the freedom to believe the prophet’s message of a second life, but with their freedom they rejected.  Then Allah overwhelms their freedom and sends them into a degradation that is made to seem alluring and that causes them to walk further and further from Him.  My question from this is how much of a chance are people given before their chances are over and they are sealed for destruction?  Is this a one-shot thing?  How patient is this God?

Poetry is a beautiful, wonderful way to express oneself.  Lyrical, filled with imagery and hyperbole, poetry is a great way to communicate deep emotions that sometimes defy simple explanation.

But if one is trying to be precise and specific, if one is trying to give instructions that have the ability to make an eternal difference in one’s life, maybe poetry isn’t the best way to communicate, at least not at first.

The Qur’an would certainly fall into this second category: essential speech.  Though his detractors claimed the opposite, as we see in today’s ending to this surah, Muhammad was a prophet not a poet.  His words were inspired by the “Trustworthy Spirit” (26:193), the angel Gabriel, not the fancies and whims that drive the poets of his time who wandered about aimlessly in the wilderness (26:225).  His words have the aroma of truth, not the odor of sentimentality and pretension.  These are words that even non-Muslim Jews have accepted as words of God, as some Jewish leaders in Mecca had accepted Muhammad as a new prophet of their God (26:197).

Muhammad’s words also did not come from the jinn (those sometimes evil or mischevious spirits) as others claimed (26:210).  This is not even logical.  Why would a jinn inspire such holy words?  How could they?  Jinn are prevented from even hearing the Qur’an (26:212).  Poets may be inspired by the jinn (at least in their thinking at that time) but not Muhammad (26:224).

The surah continues with a recounting of the careers of the prophets Abraham, Noah, `Ad, Salih, Lot, Shu`ayb again.  There is no need to recount the details of these stories as they have become very familiar.  Bottomline, they preached the message but the people rejected. 

The most striking feature from today’s section is the fourteen uses of the phrase “mindful of God.”  Save Abraham, the other five prophets all ask their people the same question: “Will you not be mindful of God?” (26:106, 124, 142, 161, 177).  The other nine uses of the phrase are all admonitions to “be mindful of God” (26:108, 110, 126, 131, 132, 144, 150, 179, 184) and often “and obey” is added. 

What has become very clear to me as I read through the Qur’an is how central mindfulness of God (taqwa) is to the Islamic faith.  This phrase is translated other ways: “fear of God,” “reverence for God,” or “God consciousness.”  Faith begins when a person decides to make God a conscious part of their life.  Faith strengthens as God sinks deeper and deeper into the believer’s mind, so much so that God is there in every decision, every action, and every breath.  When God is so dear to a person that his reverence for God shapes what one does and does not do, that is a true “fear of God.”  This is not the “fear” that immobilizes, rather this is the “fear” that makes one’s relationship with God so sacred that nothing that would sully it is allowed to enter into the situation. 

See this earlier post and the comment by khany on this post for more on this same topic.       

“Mindful of God.”  Such a great phrase.  And an even better character trait.

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