September 2011

If I am reading today’s surah correctly, there is a note of acceptance of other religions in what we read today.  Here’s what I am seeing:

  • There is a continuity between the prophetic spirit that inspired Muhammad and that which spoke through the biblical prophets of old, from the religions typically called the “People of the Book” elsewhere in the Qur’an (42:3).
  • The “commandment” that was given to Muhammad is the same one given to Noah, Abraham, and Jesus: “Uphold the faith and do not divide into factions within it.” (42:13)
  • God is the Lord of both groups (42:15)
  • Both will be “gathered together” to a common destiny (42:15)
  • Both have a common hope in the Last Hour (42:18)

That sounds like a generous inclusion based on a common faith even if we do not disagree on lesser specifics.

I am a committed Christian.  I am fiercely devoted to a God who has made himself known to this world through Jesus Christ.  I believe there is one God and this God alone is worthy of our devotion.  I believe the proper response to the great grace of God shown through Jesus Christ is to live a righteous life showing love to God through purity and self-sacrifice and love to others through service and compassion.

So, am I an acceptable believer, as far as a devoted Muslim is concerned?


Does your body ever testify against you?

Mine does.  You’ve eaten too much again.  These stairs are winding you because I was made to move around not sit at a desk.  You can’t play your iPod so loud and assume I’ll be able to hear just as well.  Your late nights staying up reading are making these old eyes weak.  My joints protest under too much weight and not enough exercise.  Yeah, my body talks to me! 

Of course, none of this is anything as serious as what today’s new surah is talking about.  Still I see its intriguing point: the body can testify against a person. 

The message is the now familiar one: disbelievers, you’ve had a chance.  You can’t thumb your nose at God and think there will be no punishment.  You’ve had plenty of warning.  Today, this surah approaches this common refrain in a new way: a very physical, bodily way. 

This surah is chock full of words associated with the senses, especially the senses of hearing, sight, and touch:

  • solid (41:10)
  • smoke (41:11)
  • beautiful (41:12)
  • blast (41:13)
  • roaring wind (41:16)
  • taste (41:16, 50)
  • trample (41:29)
  • see (41:39)
  • touch (41:42, 49, 51)
  • show (41:53)

The point here is plain: you should have heard, seen, and felt the reality of the presence of God.  How could you not? 

No, they “do not hear” (41:4).  They have “encased their hearts” so thy cannot feel and made their ears to “heavy” to hear (41:5).  They “preferred blindness” (41:17) and refused to “listen” to the Quran (41:26).  But their ears are “heavy” and “they are blind” to the truth (41:44).   

So now the disbelievers’ bodies will testify against them:

On the Day when God’s enemies are gathered up for the Fire and driven onward, their ears, eyes, and skins will, when they reach it, testify against them for their misdeeds.  They will say to their skins, “Why did you testify against us?” and their skins will reply, “God, who gave speech to everything, has given us speech — it was He who created you the first time and to Him you have been returned — yet you did not try to hide yourselves from your ears, eyes, and skin to prevent them from testifying against you.” (41:19-22)

To these people who have refused to let their bodies sense the reality of God, His punishment will be unmistakably physical, just like God did years ago to others like them:

We let a roaring wind loose on them for a few disastrous days to make them taste the punishment of shame in this world; more shameful still will be the punishment of the life to come, and they will not be helped. (41:16)  

There is a whole lot of hellfire in the Quran.  A whole lot more than this slightly post-modern evangelical Christian is used to.  I have hashed and rehashed this topic many times on this blog, so I am not going back down this road here again today.  The question when you read a passage like today’s surah is whether Allah is forgiving. 

In the midst of rehearsing how Allah has always sent messengers to people (like Pharaoh), how inclined people are to reject, and how punishment is therefore merited and assured, is a resounding “YES!” 

This Scripture is sent down from God, the Almighty, the All Knowing, Forgiver of sins and Accepter of repentance. (40:2-3)

Three more times in the surah the word “forgive” appears in some form or another:

  • Angels “beg forgiveness for the believers” (40:7-8)
  • Later, Allah is called the “Forgiving One” (40:42)
  • Muhammad is encouraged to ask forgiveness for his sins as well (40:55)
  • Oh, and the very name of this surah is “The Forgiver.”

Is Allah forgiving?  For sure.  Those who ask for forgiveness, those who show great repentance, those who turn from their evil ways can be assured of Allah’s mercy. 

There is another interesting tidbit in this surah, in this ayah here:

They [dead disbelievers] will say, “Our Lord, twice You have caused us to be lifeless and twice you have brought us to life. . . .” (40:11)

It would appear this is a line that would be spoken by an unbeliever at the point of Judgment.  When are the two periods of lifelessness before Judgment?  Translator Haleem offers a “generally accepted view” that this is referring to the point before physical birth and after physical death.  Then the two points when a person is “brought to life” are physical birth and the resurrection of the soul for Judgment.  This certainly makes sense. 

This is an interesting question that many religions ask: what kinds of consciousness have/do/will we have and when?  If Haleem is correct in saying this is a commonly held Islamic belief, then it would appear many Muslims believe there is a period after physical death and before the future Last Judgment in which the soul is “dead” or at least unconscious.

Many Christians like the comfort of the thought that the moment grandma dies she is whisked by angels straight to the side of God.  So, we can say with confidence and joy at the funeral days later, “Today, Grandma is smiling down at us today from Heaven.” 

I am not so sure the Bible is as clear on that idea as we might like.  It certainly seems the timeline the Quranic passage sketches out makes more sense if one believes there is a future day of Judgment.  For Grandma to be with Jesus, wouldn’t she have had to have been judged already?  Of course, I hope dearly that Grandma will be in Heaven, but that would mean there has to be billions of individual Judgment Days each time a person dies.  That is possible, of course.  Or maybe there is a future Resurrection and a future Judgment, as the Quran talks about it (and maybe the Bible, too?). 

I’ll tell you when I get there.

Today this surah ends with a strong eschatological focus.  In fact, the name of the surah — “The Throngs” — comes from the throngs of people who will be led to the Garden (or to Hell) in the Hereafter (39:71, 73).

"The Day of Judgement," late 19th Century painting attributed to Mohammad Modabber

On the Day of Resurrection a trumpet will sound and people will fall down senseless.  Back on their feet again, all eyes will look for what is to happen next (39:68).  God appears as Light, the “Record of Deeds” is laid out, and judgment begins (39:69).  As people go off to reward or punishment, this world will be rolled up like a scroll one has finished reading (39:67).

Those who are sent off to Hell will offer up excuses:

I didn’t think it was important . . . I didn’t get enough guidance from God . . . I just need one more chance. (39:56-58, my paraphrase)

But in the end they will know they were warned by their own and know their punishment is deserved (39:71).  They would give anything — “the earth’s assets twice over” — to ransom themselves from Hell (39:47), but to no avail.

No harm will come to those who did believe (39:61).  Through gates opened wide, they will walk with comfort into the Garden while the “keepers” of the Garden (angels?) will greet them with this exhortation:

Peace be upon you.  You have been good.  Come in: you are here to stay. (39:73)

It is important to note how judgment of destiny is made:

The Record of Deeds will be laid open. (39:69)

Fair judgment will be given between them: they will not be wronged and every soul will be repaid in full for what it has done. He knows best what they do. (39:69-70)

You have been good.  Come in. (39:73)

How excellent is the reward of those who labor! (39:74)

One need not fear that judgment will be unfair. Everyone will get what they deserve, based upon their actions.  Once again we see that a person’s eternal destiny is determined by their own actions.

As a Christian, when I read through today’s section it sounds like the Christian description of Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Well, except for the absence of grace, at least grace in regards to sin.  What I read here is how the Bible would describe it if one’s destiny were determined by one’s own effort.  This is the Heaven of justice, not grace.

I struggle into a new surah today, “The Throngs.”  Struggle because I am getting busier and busier.  Struggle because I still feel like I am reading the same thing over and over again.  With just over three months left in this goal to read through the Qur’an before New Year, I am pressing on to finish the goal.

Here is what hit me from this new chapter:

[As for] those who choose other protectors beside Him, saying, “We only worship them because they bring us nearer to God,” . . . (39:3)

It appears at least some pagans saw their gods as part of pantheon of under-gods that ultimately lead to the real God.

If you are ungrateful, remember God has no need of you, yet He is not pleased by ingratitude in His servants; if you are grateful, He is pleased [to see] it in you. (39:7)

God does not need us.  However, he wants us and he shows this desire through His goodness.  When we are ungrateful, we are essentially saying to God, “We do not want you.”  Maybe that is more insulting, than to reject one who needs you.

No soul will bear another’s burden. (39:7)

By my count, a version of this line occurs five times in the Qur’an (6:164; 17:15; 35:18; 39:7; 53:38).  No one will be punished for the actions of another, that is what I hear this saying.  No wonder Muslims can’t get behind the substitutionary atonement/sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of humanity, the most basic Christian belief.  It transgresses the spirit of this recurring ayah.

When man suffers some affliction, he prays to his Lord and turns to Him, but once he has been granted a favor from God, he forgets the One he had been praying to and sets up rivals to God. (39:8)

I guess every religion has people who use their god to get them out of trouble.  Too bad!

Say, “I fear the torment of a terrible Day if I disobey my Lord.”  Say, “It is God I serve, dedicating my worship entirely to Him — you may serve whatever you please beside Him.”  Say, “The true losers are the ones who will lose themselves and their people on the Day of Resurrection: that is the most obvious loss.  They will have layers of Fire above them and below.”  This is how God puts fear into His servants: My servants, beware of Me.  (39:13-16)

Unless I just don’t understand the last line, this is directed to Allah’s servants, His people, not unbelievers.  It seems a bit harsh.  The Bible talks of a “fear of God” (Proverbs 1:7) that is more like respect or revere.  That is a bit different from fear-what-I-can-do-to-you, fear-the-Fire, do-this-or-else fear.  How does a passage like this play in modern, western societies?  Do American Muslims downplay these kind of prickly depictions of Allah?

I don’t like to be told I am wrong.  But I think most of us don’t like that.  The real question is what we will do when we are confronted with our error.  As everyone will be wrong eventually, our response is what makes all the difference.

As we come to a new surah, Saad, I see this as the main theme here.  When David was confronted about his infidelity (which is graciously never mentioned in the passage) by way of a parable involving stolen sheep, the great king quickly repented of his sin and asked for forgiveness (38:24).  David’s son Solomon is lifted up as a great example of repentance as well, an attribute that is never assigned to Solomon in the Bible nor is this specific story in there.  When his desire to own a pair of beautiful horses becomes more important to him than his devotion to God so that God punished him with a wasting disease (38:31-34), Solomon turned back to God as soon as he acknowledged the error of his ways (38:35).  Job is also held up as an “excellent servant” because he realized he dealt too harshly (or not harshly enough, depending on your interpretation) with his blasphemous wife (38:41-44).

We see none of this penitence with Iblis.  Once again the story recounts that when Iblis was commanded to bow before the newly created human, Iblis refused.  He was “too proud.  He became a rebel” (38:74).  And so punishment chases him until “the Appointed Day” (38:81).  Likewise, those who are rejecting the Qur’an with its simple reminder that there is only one God (38:1) are also described as “steeped in arrogance and hostility” (38:2).

And so it is.  Who will we be like?  When we see the error of our ways will we fight the arrogance that so easily rises up inside us telling us that we are right, that we need not bow down to anyone?  Will we respond with contrition and humility like David, Solomon, and Job?  Or will we harden our pride even to the point of self-destruction?  That is the question.

This new surah, “The Ranged Ones” or “Ranged in Rows,” (shorter than it appears from the number of ayahs) refers to the collection of angels (or men, depending on your interpretation) arranged in ranked rows ready to serve God in the way he most immediately needs.  Angels factor into this surah a few times.  These are the passages that stood out to me.

We have adorned the lowest heaven with stars, and made them a safeguard against every rebellious devil: they cannot eavesdrop on the Higher Assembly — pelted from every side, driven away, they will have perpetual torment — if any [of them] stealthily snatches away a fragment, he will be pursued by a piercing flame. (37:6-10)

This is an interesting take on spiritual warfare.  It appears the stars in this passage are animated in some way.  And I wonder if the pelting of the devils here has anything to do with the “stoning of Satan” that is a part of the Hajj?

[God’s true servants] will have familiar provisions — fruits — and will be honored in gardens of delight; seated on couches, facing one another.  A drink will be passed around among them from a flowing spring: white, delicious to those who taste it, causing no headiness or intoxication.  With them will be spouses — modest of gaze and beautiful of eye — like protected eggs. (37:41-49)

Here we have some new images of Paradise.  Couches, I guess, connote comfort.  This white, non-alcoholic drink is interesting.  Again, we see the male-centeredness of this description in that it is beautiful women that are mentioned.

Then he [a man in heaven] will say, “Shall we look for him [a friend]?”  He will look down and see him in the midst of the Fire, and say to him, “By God, you almost brought me to ruin!  Had it not been for the grace of my Lord, I too would have been taken to Hell.” (37:55-57)

What is the “grace” this man receives here?  Is it protecting him from the influence of his friend?  Is this Islamic grace: help to the person who still has the make the decisions and exercise his own power to obey?

Then he will say [to his blessed companions], “Are we never to die again after our earlier death?  Shall we never suffer?  This truly is the supreme triumph!” (37:58-60)

This reminds me of 1 Corinthians 15:51-57

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.  When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “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.

But I have to ask again, where is the evidence that Allah can resurrect?  Compare that to the Christian claim that God can resurrect as shown through the already-manifested resurrection of Jesus.

Is this the better welcome, or the tree of Zaqqum, which We have made a test for the evildoers?  This tree grows in the heart of the blazing Fire, and its fruits are like the devil’s heads.  They will fill their bellies eating from it; then drink a scalding mixture of top of it; then return to the blazing Fire. (37:62-68)

What is this tree?  It sounds almost like the opposite of the Tree of Life.  Commentator Ali says that is exactly right, the point being that “the appetite for Evil grows with what it feeds on.”

Now [Muhammad], ask the disbelievers: is it true that your Lord has daughters, while they chose sons for themselves?  Did We create the angels as females while they were watching?  No indeed!  It is one of their lies when they say, “God has begotten.”  How they lie! (37:149-52)

There was a pagan Arab idea that angels were Allah’s daughters.  The insult of this claim was that those same Arab man preferred to only have sons themselves, to the point that female infanticide was known to occur.  Hence, Allah is painted in an inferior manner than a man would want to be seen himself.

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