November 2011


Family is both the most rewarding and most challenging set of relationships ever. 

Many people in this country are coming off a long, long weekend of family meals, shopping trips, and time spent together.  More people travel this Thanksgiving weekend than on any other weekend in the year.  As I drove up Interstate 75 in southern Georgia headed home from Florida I saw one license plate after another from places as far away as Wisconsin, Illinois, even Wyoming.  Maybe one last family trip to the beach before the winter.  Maybe a visit to Grandma who got smart and retired in Tampa.

Family time is filled with laughter, reminiscence, and thoughtful conversation.  Unfortunately there are always tears, regrets, impatience, hurtful remarks, and competition right there too. 

The next three surahs are all loosely connected by a common theme of domestic dispute. 

In surah 64, believers are reminded:

Even among your spouses and your children you will have enemies–beware of them–but if you overlook their offences, forgive them, pardon them, then God is all forgiving, all-merciful. (64:14)

More important than what transpires among family members–some of who are bound not to like each other–is what a believer does next.  The right response is to take the high ground and overlook their offences.  Choose not to harbor grudges.  Forgive.   A very good principle. 

Surah 65 is intensely domestic, as even the title reveals — “Divorce.”  Contrary to traditional Christianity where divorce is still frowned-upon by many of the more conservative types, Islam seems to acknowledge divorce as a fact of life and has made concessions right from the beginning for how to go about it virtuously.  If divorce must happen, the man must give it a three-month waiting period (65:1, 4).  This appears to be connected both to possible pregnancy but also the possibility that God might change their hearts (65:1).  The grounds for divorce must be corroborated by two just witnesses (65:2) and the man must take care of the woman financially (65:6-7).  Above all, both parties must treat each other honorably (65:2) and not make life difficult for the other (65:6-7).   

Finally, surah 66 takes up the issue of gossip and lack of trust in family conversations.  On some occasion, Muhammad discussed a matter with one of his wives in secret (66:3).  As the leader of the Muslim people, we can assume this was not just some simple pillow-talk, but rather something sensitive.   What exactly was said is not stated and isn’t really the point.  This wife revealed these confidences to one of the Prophet’s other wives, and God made this known to Muhammad.  Now, both are called to “repent” (66:4), one for her broken trust and the other for encouraging it presumably.  Now they must choose what kind of wives they will be: virtuous like Pharaoh’s wife and Mary, or disbelieving like the wives of Noah and Lot (66:9-12). 

At a time when gossip is commonplace and trust is constantly eroded, this too is a good message.

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As we get closer to the end of the Qur’an the surahs are getting shorter, so I will be combining surahs in many posts.  Today’s two surahs go well together as both of them deal with two of the five pillars of Islam: prayer (salat) and giving (zakat).

Surah 62 encourages the worshipper not to forsake daily times of prayer.

When the call of prayer is made on the day of congregation, hurry towards the reminder of God and leave off your trading–that is better for you, if only you knew–then when the prayer has ended, disperse in the land, and seek out God’s bounty. (62:9-10)

Surah 63 exhorts worshippers give to those in need.

Give out of what We have provided for you, before death comes to one of you and he says, “My Lord, if you would only reprieve me for a little while, I would give in charity and become one of the righteous.”  God does not reprieve a soul when its turn comes: God is fully aware of what you do. (63:10-11)

These two surahs are connected also by a common problem: an hypocrisy produced by the desire for wealth.

In surah 62 Jews are castigated for claiming to love God and follow His Law, yet being so attached to wealth that they loathe the day of their death because they have lost the opportunity to gain more wealth.  Though they should rush to pray with the community, instead “they scatter towards trade or entertainment whenever they observe it, and leave you [Prophet] standing there” (62:11).  Their love for money has made them “asses carrying books” they do not read or obey (62:5).  Should they not welcome the day of their death instead as an opportunity to be reunited with God their “friend” (62:6)?  They need to remember that “what God has is better than any entertainment or trade: God is the best provider” (62:11).

In surah 63–appropriately called “Hypocrites”–a group of supposed believers ask Muhammad to ask God to extend them time to fulfill the admonition to give to the poor.  Yet the reason for this request reveals their hypocrisy: their wealth and children have become a distraction to their duty.  They are not giving to others because they have other desires for their money (63:9).  God offers no reprieve for such a mentality (63:11).

(Now, I must note the irony that it is the eve of Black Friday, the busiest shopping day in America, as I write this post.  HA! )

Loyalty is a hard thing to come by. 

Moses didn’t have it (61:5).  People rose up and doubted his leadership.  They second-guessed his decisions.  Rebellion came. 

So too with Jesus (61:6).  His popularity sky-rocketed, but it plummetted just as quickly.  He was opposed bitterly by the Jewish religious leaders.  They turned against him, like they had with Moses.   

Now is there any wonder that people oppose Muhammad?  There shouldn’t be. 

But what God desires are people who will do what they say, people who will “fight in solid lines for His cause” (61:4).

Interestingly, this surah ends with Jesus’ disciples extolled for their faithfulness to God’s cause (61:14).  Essentially, they stand as an example of what to be.  God supports such people.

Jesus is quoted in today’s surah as saying the following:

Children of Israel, I am sent to you by God, confirming the Torah that came before me and bringing good news of a messenger to follow me whose name will be Ahmad. (61:6)

Of course, the Bible does not state that Jesus ever said anything of the sort.  Jesus said the Holy Spirit would come after him (John 16:7).  He talked about his own second coming (Matthew 24).  But Jesus never said another prophet would come after him.  In Jesus’ mind he was the end.  This new move of God was the culmination of what came before.  The Church that would follow was simply the working out of the Kingdom that started with Jesus.  That working out continues to this day.   

The name “Ahmad” means “praised” or “the praised one.”  This happens to be what the name Muhammad means too.  Clearly, the implication is that Jesus is foreshadowing the coming of Muhammad.  As convenient as that would be for Islam, Christians are going to have a hard time accepting this.

How do we treat the “others” in our life, that is, people who are not like us?  This is a perennial question that all people must ask in life, regardless of religion or philosophy.  That is the question taken up here in this new surah, in particular how do people from one religion treat those who are not a part of their religion?

The first ayah sounds rather exclusionary:

You who believe, do not take My [Allah] enemies and yours as allies, showing them friendship when they have rejected the truth you have received, and have driven you and the Messenger out simply because you believe in God, your Lord. (60:1)

Later we read this:

God forbids you to take as allies those who have fought against you for your faith, driven you out of your homes, and helped others to drive you out: any of you who take them as allies will truly be wrongdoers. (60:9)

There are certainly other sentiments in the surah that carry the same connotation.  Do not value family connections more than God; Abraham didn’t (60:3-4).  Be careful about your marital arrangements.  Do not make unbelieving wives  stay with you if they wish to return from Medina to Mecca (60:11).  Do not bar a Meccan woman from marrying into your religion if she truly wishes to convert (60:10).  The overall point is simple: faith trumps and potentially nullifies all other connections.      

As friends learn about this blog and ask questions about what I am doing here and why, especially (like learning about the second largest and some say fastest growing religion is a bad thing?), I sometimes get the same one question: “I just want to know are Muslims out to get us?”  It is an honest question, I guess.  I do wonder who the “us” is.  While I am normally being asked by Christians, I suspect they mean Americans. 

So if one wanted to emphasize passages like these mentioned above, yes, I can see how Muslims would place distance between themselves and “others.”  In the wrong conditions and in the hands of a person who wanted to exploit otherness for their own power, this could become a threat to non-Muslims.  To be fair, I can also see that passages like these could be used by islamophobic non-Muslims to foster fear and prejudice against Muslims. 

Then, right here in the middle of this same chapter is a passage that turns all of this on its ear:

God may still bring about affection between you and your [present enemies]–God is all powerful, God is most forgiving and merciful–and He does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you for your faith or driven you out of your homes: God loves the just. (60:7-8)

The issue, then, appears to be how the “other” has previously treated the Muslim.  Just and kind people are to be treated in the same fashion.  If a person is not a direct threat to the freedom and faith of a Muslim, that person does not need to be opposed.  If a non-Muslim has not been a threat to the Muslim, they need not worry. 

So, in theory, the answer to my friends’ questions is a simple one: if we have done nothing to threaten Muslims, then we have nothing to fear from Muslims.  And in every interaction I have ever had with individual Muslims in North America, this has exactly been the case.  Mutual respect and kindness abounded. 

But we are back to who the “us” is in their questions.  If “us” means that non-Muslim and their family who live down the street from Muslims or a mosque, let kindness and just reign and fear can be assuaged.  If ” us” means Chrsitians, that becomes more complicated; but if we operate by the spirit of Christ that is marked by kindness and justice, we can have hope I believe.  However if “us” means Americans as it so often does, I am far less certain.  Has America done things and maintained policies that can be perceived of antagonistic to Islam?  Well, I guess it depends of whom you ask.

The Banu al-Nadir surrender to Muhammad

In the months leading up to the Battle of Uhud — the second and disastrous battle after the Muslims moved to Medina between the early Muslims and the pagan Meccans — alliances were made between the Muslims and the Banu al-Nadir, a Jewish tribe living just outside Medina.  Unbeknownst to the Muslims the Banu al-Nadir were double agents; they had already made a deal with the pagans in Mecca to try to kill Muhammad if possible. 

When all of this became clear in the months after the Battle of Uhud, the Muslims beseiged the Banu al-Nadir, pledging to punish them for their duplicity.  To the dismay of the Banu al-Nadir, the pagans in Mecca did not come to their rescue.  A truce was forged and the Banu al-Nadir fled to Syria but not before destroying their houses so the Muslims could not occupy them. 

Today’s surah addresses the “gathering of the forces” (59:2) against the Banu al-Nadir and the power of God over all intrigues and plans of man.  The surpreme power of God is heralded here, especially the last few ayahs (59:22-24).  Click here for a past post about a local Muslim scholar Yasir Qadhi who spoke on this passage in a Christian church in Memphis in April and gave a moving recitation of 59:22-24. 

There were spoils of battle evidently, so the question remained how to distribute it.  God answers the question for the Muslims:

Whatever gains God has turned over to His Messenger [Muhammad] from the inhabitants of the villages belong to God, the Messenger, kinsfolk, orphans, the needy, the traveller in need — this is so they do not just circulate among those of you who are rich. (59:7)

Call it an ancient criticism of “trickle-down economics!”  It seems often the rich just get richer and the poor stay poor.  The rich have ways of ensuring that the flow of wealth goes into their own pockets.  But in the economy of God it is those in need who are taken care of first.  Money follows the pathways of need, not opportunism.

One of the arguments Christian apologists make in support of the claim of the authenticity of the Bible is that the very men who wrote the Bible wrote rather unflattering things about themselves and Jesus:

  • Peter denies Jesus three times hours before his death
  • All of the apostles abandon Jesus during the time of his trials and death
  • Thomas has to have Jesus prove his bodily resurrection
  • Peter is perpetually rash, violent, and presumptuous
  • James and John want to have Jesus destroy a town who fails to welcome the Christ warmly
  • The apostles jockeyed for power amongst themselves, each wishing to rule the others
  • The majority of apostles were lowly fishermen
  • Jesus was a friend of outcasts, rejects, and people of ill-repute

 If the stories of the Bible are fiction or exaggerated and mythologized fact, wouldn’t the apostles depict themselves in a better light that they did?  They were unburdened by objectivity and had the freedom to make themselves look good, why would they include such unflattering depictions? 

By itself it is not the kind of argument you would want to base your entire faith on, but it is a nice point to add to others when making the case that the Bible is more than just another book on a shelf. 

Then when I read the first few ayahs of today’s surah I was struck that the same logic could apply here, but about the Qur’an this time. 

Usually the Prophet Muhammad is defended wholesale in the Qur’an.  The Muslims I have talked with here assert the great virtue — almost absolute purity — of the prophets.  So to see Muhammad corrected by God Himself is unusual. 

Evidently there was a pagan Arab custom that a husband could declare his wife to be “like [his] mother’s back to him” (58:2).  Besides the fact that this just sounds weird, this declaration functioned to deprive the wife of her marital rights, yet not produce a true divorce.  Hence the wife was unable to marry again, sealing her for a life of neglect and lack of fulfillment. 

Khawla, daughter of Tha`laba, had such a pronouncement uttered against her, so she appealed to Muhammad.  Islamic tradition says that the Prophet sided with pagan tradition and said “You are unlawful to him now.”    

The first part of today’s surah is a declaration from God that this custom is unfair and wrong, vindicating the woman’s desires. 

What they say is certainly blameworthy and false. (58:2)

God’s compassionate nature as a defender of the weak and oppressed is upheld and accentuated in this account.  Interestingly, though, Muhammad is corrected and shown to have faulty judgment.  Not a big deal; I don’t imagine a Muslim would say the Prophet was infallible. 

What strikes me is this: If one does not accept the Qur’an as inspired scripture (and, as a Christian, I do not) one has to come up with an alternate explanation for its origin.  The logical supposition is that Muhammad fabricated the words of the Qur’an, the same claim anyone who rejects the inspiration of a supposed sacred book (the Bible, the Qur’an, the Book of Mormom, or whatever) would offer. 

Now back to the apologetic argument stated at first in this post: if someone makes something up, why would they make themselves look bad?  If this surah was the invention of Muhammad’s fictional genius, why make God correct him?  If it lends support for the authenticity of the Bible, wouldn’t it do so for the Qur’an too in this case?  It seems so. 

Now, there is a bit of a difference in degree of embarrassment between outright denial or skepticism in the resurrection and making an incorrect legal ruling.  And the surah does go on to make the Prophet look really good and very authoritative:

Those who oppose God and His Messenger will be brought low, like those before them. (58:5)

And the embarrassment argument doesn’t hold a lot of weight by itself, but I was struck by the unusual candidness with which this surah is stated.

My friend and former teacher John Mark Hicks has written a very nice review of Lee Camp’s new book on Christian-Muslim relations, “Who is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam — and Themselves.”  Camp is a professor of theology and ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN, a very fine school connected with my religious tradition.

Camp especially brings up the topic of violence and war, and places this thorny issue in a wider context that Christians will find both helpful and confrontational.  This one is probably more for the Christians who are reading this blog, but all can find something interesting I think.

Check out Hicks’s review here.

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