October 2011

“The End is Near!”

It is coming.  Be guaranteed.  People may doubt, but be assured.  Everyone will be judged for what they have done.  Then sit back and enjoy your reward on a comfortable couch with a beautiful woman, sumptuous food and drink that does not make you drunk.  Or dread the day you wrote the Prophet off as a mad-man. 

Such is the message of this new surah, a now familiar refrain. 

Towards the end of today’s section, the Meccan disbelievers are quoted as saying the following:

We will wait to see what happens to this dubious poet, then decide. (52:30)

We think he just made this up himself. (52:33)

The Prophet is instructed to answer them with these ten questions:

  1. Are you being driven by reason or insolence? (52:32)
  2. Can they come up with a message like the Qur’an? (52:34)
  3. Did they create all of this? (52:35-36)
  4. Do they have control over the “treasures” of this world? (52:37)
  5. Can they listen in on God’s deliberations? (52:38)
  6. Do you really think God has daughters when you yourself only want sons? (52:39)
  7. Am I [Muhammad] trying to burden you with debt by following this God? (52:40)
  8. Do they really think they can see and describe the unseen? (52:41)
  9. Why are they trying to ensnare the Prophet when it won’t succeed? (52:42)
  10. Is there really some other god they think they can set alongside the one true God? (52:43)

Maybe the one question that sums all of this up is, “Who do you think you are?”  Quite an on-target question from a religion that is all about submission.


This next surah is named “Scattering Winds” because of the frequent mention of the sky and wind as witnesses to the power and truthfulness of Allah.

By those [winds] that scatter far and wide, and those that are heavily laden, that speed freely, that distribute [rain] as ordained! (51:1)

By the sky with its pathways. (51:7)

On earth there are signs for those with sure faith — and in yourselves too, do you not see? — in the sky is your sustenance and all you are promised. (51:20-22)

We built the sky with Our power and made it vast. (51:47)

I find it interesting that the central image appealed to here is wind.  That is very a pros pos.  Wind is every bit as invisible as God.  Yet, it is every bit as real as God, too.  Wind cannot be seen, but the results of the wind can be.  Wind can’t be seen, but it can be felt.  It is rather ridiculous at this point to deny the existence of the wind, a sentiment the Prophet would have said was true about the existence of Allah too.  It is not a perfect analogy.  Wind is still more physical than God, and therefore easier to accept as a reality.  However, it is an interesting choice of image.

I also find it interesting that central story in this short surah is the visit of honored guests to the tent of Abraham.  These guests prophesy the future, miraculous birth of a son for Abraham and Sarah.  They also foretell the destruction of the Cities of the Plain.  For those who know the Bible, this is a familiar story.

The interesting aspect is this: In the Qur’an, these are simply “guests.”  There is an implication that these are angels.  But this is not Allah.  That would be far too familiar, too immanent.  Allah does not do that sort of thing in the Qur’an.

The original story is told in Genesis 18.  Here is says 15 times that this is “the LORD,” that is the Christian God.  Abraham and Sarah are visited by God Himself in a theophany.  This sort of thing is not uncommon in Genesis.  Moreover, when Christians read this same biblical story they cannot help but see the Trinity all over it.  Throughout the entire chapter of Genesis 18 there is only one character, “the LORD,” speaking and interacting with Abraham and Sarah.  However, the story starts this way:

The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.  Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby.  When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. (Genesis 18:1-2)

Abraham is visited by one LORD and by three men.  Christians cannot help but see the three aspects of God here in this story all wrapped up in the one LORD who visits with Abraham.

Today’s surah argues for the validity of the Resurrection based on the original Creation.  If God has the power to create in the beginning, he can surely re-create in the end.  Though people may doubt, look around; there are ample reasons to believe. 

I found several interesting phrases in today’s reading.  Sometimes very lyrical or rich in imagery:

  • Denying the supernatural is not as rational as we sometimes think: “The disbelievers deny the truth when it comes to them; they are in a state of confusion.” (50:5)
  • The regenerative nature of water: “Do they not see . . . how with water We give [new] life to a land that is dead?” (50:6, 11)
  • The immanent, intimate, knowledgable presence of God: “We know what his soul whispers to him: We are closer to him than his jugular vein.” (50:16)
  • All will be convinced in the end: “The trance of death will bring Truth with it.” (50:19)
  • Judgment cannot be escaped: “Each person will arrive [to the place of judgment on Judgement Day] attended by an [angel] to drive him on and another to bear witness.” (50:21)
  • All will see clearly eventually: “You paid no attention to this [Day]; but today We have removed your veil and your sight is sharp.” (50:22)
  • The ravenous hunger of Hell: “We shall say to Hell on that day, ‘Are you full?’ and it will reply, ‘Are there no more?'” (50:30)
  • A comforting image of Paradise: “But Paradise will be brought close to the righteous and will no longer be distant.” (50:31)
  • An image of Resurrection: “On the day when the earth will be split open, letting them rush out — that gathering will be easy for us.” (50:44)

"Sacred Heart and Resurrection Body" by Graham Eadie

It’s not religion that matters most of all.  It is not even just belief alone.  It is faith submissively expressing itself in obedience, respect, and love. 

Such is the message of today’s short surah, “The Private Rooms.”   

The desert Arabs say, “We have faith.”  [Prophet] tell them, “You do not have faith.  What you should say instead is, ‘We have submitted,’ for faith has not yet entered your hearts.” . . . The true believers are the ones who have faith in God and His Messenger and leave all doubt behind, the ones who have struggled [jihad?] with their possessions and their persons in God’s way: they are the one who are true. . . . They think they have done you [Prophet] a favor by submitting.  Say, “Do not consider your submission [islam] a favor to me; it is God who has done you a favor, by guiding you to faith, if you are truly sincere.”  (49:14-15, 17)

As we read through this surah we read of Muslims who treat Muhammad with such disrespect that they stand outside his “private rooms” and yell for his to come out (49:4).  When he is talking, they shout over him, presumably not laking what he is saying (49:2).  They have forgetten Muhammad is God’s chosen Messenger, not just one of the guys (49:2). 

People are believing any report they hear, without showing the accused brother or sister the respect to find out if it is true first (49:6).  Of course, this causes tension and even arguments, which they are all only too willing to get into (49:9-10).  Offensive remarks, name-calling, back-biting, mockery, looking down on other Muslims, trying to catch people doing something wrong, jumping to conclusions about each other — too many were engaging in this kind of unsuitable behavior (49:11-12). 

And yet these same Muslims were quick to say they have faith (49:14).  No, they have religion.  No, they wear a label that identifies themselves as one of the group.  Do they believe in Allah?  Sure, it seems they do, but that belief has had little effect on their life.  They have a religion called “Islam,” but they have completely missed what “islam” really is: submission. 

Sure, they have “submitted” to Muhammad, in the sense that they do not rebel against his authority.  But real submission requires a heart that is tender and kind to others.  A true submitter has “struggled” or “done war” with his own “person” or will or desires, so that he treats others with respect and love.  A true believer would not act the way this group is acting. 

That is a great message!  And universally applicable, regardless of your religion.

The Apostle Paul of the Bible said it this way:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.  The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:6)

The Treaty of Hudaybiyya

In 628 CE, Muhammad and a band of 1400 Muslims marched out from Medina armed only with animals to sacrifice in Mecca on pilgrimage.  For some time they had been barred from entering Mecca to worship at the Ka’ba by the pagan Meccans.  Battles had ensued between the two sides.  Now they tried a different tack: go peacefully and avoid bloodshed.  This new Medinan surah recounts aspects of this journey and the “triumph” (the name of the surah) that resulted.

The Muslims were met by the Meccans outside the city in a small town called Hudaybiyya.  They were stopped there and barred once again from entering Mecca but this time a treaty was drawn up between the two sides in which the Muslims would be granted free access to Mecca and the Ka’ba for the following ten years in order to complete their pilgrimages and sacrifices.  The Meccans even agreed to leave the city so the Muslims could worship in peace.  This became known as the Treaty of Hudaybiyya.  The treaty lasted all of one year, but it was the first time the nascent Muslims were acknowledged by their neighbors to be a legitimate bargaining power, one with which it might be better to strike a treaty than to fight.  In this way, the Treaty was most certainly a triumph. 

Hudaybiyya today

Much of the surah takes up the issue of loyalty within the Muslim group.  As the plan for the peaceful pilgrimage to Mecca was birthed and vetted amongst the people, the desert Muslim tribes were not especially fond of the plan.  They offered up excuses and stayed home.  There was no war booty to be had in the campaign.  Worse, there was the very real possibility of the loss of possessions or even death.  Thinking with earthly minds, this pilgrimage didn’t make sense.  God says he is less than impressed.  He will be dealing with them. 

Three passages stood out to me in this surah.  First:

Those who pledge loyalty to you [Prophet] are actually pledging loyalty to God himself — God’s hand is placed on theirs. (48:10)

We can conclude from this ayah that a Muslim who pledged fidelity to Muhammad would place their hand on his.  Then it was as if God were placing his hand on the top of the other two, to seal the pledge.  What strikes me is the rare anthropomorphism assigned to Allah in this passage.  Allah has so often been described in purely spiritual ways.  Allah is almost never described in bodily fashion (in fact, I can’t recall a passage at all so far in our reading).  And yet he is here.  Interesting! 

The second passage also has to do with the body, but this time the Muslim’s:

You see them kneeling and prostrating, seeking God’s bounty and His good pleasure: on their faces they bear the marks of their prostrations. (48:29)

Does this have a spiritual connotation?  Probably.  Commentator Ali says  this refers to gentleness, kindness, and love.  But it is also likely meant physically.  Daily prayer, five times a day, forehead to the ground — well, that’s going to leave a mark!  It is very admirable when your spiritual devotion leaves a physical mark on your person.

The third passage appears to be an expansion of Jesus’ Parable of the Sower.  This ayah describes what a firmly devoted worshiper is like:

This is how they are pictured in the Torah and the Gospel: like a seed that puts forth its shoot, becomes strong, grows thick, and rises on its stem to the delight of its sowers. (48:29)

One might expect much more about the Prophet in this new surah named after him than actually occurs.  This surah derives its name from the mention of Muhammad in the second ayah:

God will overlook the faults of those who have faith, do good deeds, and believe in what has been sent down to Muhammad. (47:2)

Here again we see the way Islamic salvation is envisioned: God overlooks the sin of His followers.  This is fundamentally different from the atonement theology of Christianity.  And as we have hashed and rehashed on this blog already, that puts the triggering power of salvation squarely in the hands of the human, understanding of course that if Allah did not want to forgive there is nothing a human could do to cause it.  There is a sort of grace in the reality that Allah wants to save.

When you meet the disbelievers in battle, strike them in the neck, and once they are defeated, bind any captives firmly — later you can release them as a grace or for ransom — until the toils of war have ended. (47:4)

This new surah in a Medinan one, hence the context of battle.  Islam has institutionalized and been marginalized by the pagans of Mecca.  This tension has grown to conflict and even death.  Therefore, if the unbelievers come against the Muslims, they have every right to fight back even to the point of killing.  As we have noticed almost every time violence is sanctioned in the Qur’an, there is a context to the admonitions of violent resistance.  In most cases it is one of battle and self-defense.  Translator Haleem notes that some commentators make much of the fact that in this ayah “grace” is mentioned before “ransom,” implying that grace is the preference.

Here is a picture of the Garden promised to the pious: rivers of water forever pure, rivers of milk forever fresh, rivers of wine, a delight for those who drink, rivers of honey clarified and pure, [all] flow in it; and they will find forgiveness from their Lord.  How can this be compared to the fate of those stuck in the Fire, given boiling water to drink that tears their bowels? (47:15)

What a picturesque image of the contrasting destinies!  I wasn’t expecting the win, given the Muslim’s well-known prohibition on alcohol.  Still, so vivid!  Do most Muslims take images like these of the Afterlife literally or do most simply realize these are cultural, time-bound ways to depict desirable and undesirable fates?

So [believers] do not lose heart and cry out for peace.  It is you who have the upper hand: God is with you.  He will not begrudge you the reward for your [good] deeds: the life of this world is only a game, a pastime, but if you believe and are mindful of God, He will recompense you.  He does not ask you to give up [all] your possessions . . . though now you are called upon to give [a little] for the sake of God, some of you are grudging. (47:35-38)

The context of battle come out in the ending of this surah as well.  We do long for peace, don’t we?  There are many reasons for that.  The one taken up here is that conflict demands much from us.  Few really want to fight for their faith, especially literally.  Some might be willing to, but those who want to fight are scary individuals.  In this passage God does four things.  First, he reminds them that this world and the possessions and achievements who can accumulate are little more than trophies in a game; our worldly accumulations are not the point, so be careful how firmly you hang on to them.  Second, he reminds them that they will not have to give it all up, though they would have to if they died, wouldn’t they?  Third, he reminds them they have the upper hand because He is with them and not with the pagans.  Last, he reminds them there is a reward for their willingness to fight.  Fighting aside, faith will take sacrifice.  There is an easy version of religion that requires little from you.  It also gives you little in return.

The Prophet Muhammad, 17th century Ottoman cop...

Image via Wikipedia

The people of Mecca don’t want to believe what Muhammad is teaching.  It seems preposterous: life after death (46:17).  It is beneath them: it is mainly poor people accepting this new-fangled religion (46:11).  That crazy man made this all up (46:8).    Muhammad is told to ask them the one question we all must ask: 

What if this Qur’an really is from God and you reject it? (46:10)

The Qur’an is logical: if God can create this intricate world, don’t you think he can bring the dead back to life again (46:33)?  Muhammad could point to Jews in Mecca who had accepted the Qur’an as another revelation from their God (46:10, 12).  The parents of these unbelievers even believed (46:15, 17).  Even the jinn were accepting the veracity of this message when they heard it (46:29-31).  Why reject it?

Things will not turn out well if they do reject it.  One only has to think about the example of the people of `Ad, a civilization bigger and more established than Mecca in Muhammad’s time (46:26), yet God wiped them out from amongst the “sand dunes” (the reason for the name of this surah) with a desert storm when they would not heed the warning Hud was bringing (46:21-25).   

“This is a warning” (46:35).  One better have a really good reason to reject the Qur’an.

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