I think these passages from the next five surahs are worthy of extra consideration:

76: Al-Insan (Man) & 77: Al-Mursalat ([Winds] Sent Forth)

This [Paradise] is your reward.  Your endeavors are appreciated. (76:22)

[They will be told], “Eat and drink to your heart’s content as a reward for your deeds: this is how We reward those who do good.” (77:43-44)

We see in these two passages what is very much a reward-oriented perspective.  Paradise is very much a reward for how one has lived.  Allah responds to the actions of the human, not vice versa like the grace-oriented Christianity.  However, this passage did make me think of this line from Jesus: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21)

78: Al-Naba’ (The Announcement)

Did we not build seven strong [heavens] above you. (78:12)

I would like to hear more about these seven heavens.  Why the differing levels? Are they different degrees of reward?

79: Al-Nazi`at (The Forceful Chargers)

For anyone who feared the meeting with his Lord and restrained himself from base desires, Paradise will be home. (79:40-41)

This is a good baseline statement of the Islamic worldview.

80: `Abasa (He Frowned)

For the self-satisfied one you go out of your way — though it is not your responsibility if he does not attain purity — but from the one who has come to you full of eagerness and awe you are distracted. (80:5-10)

This can be so sadly true.  We desire certain kinds of people and miss those who are really receptive.  The man who can fund the new addition to the church or mosque too often gets more attention than the meth addict mother with problematic kids.  No wonder Allah frowned.

Here are the verses from the next five surahs that stood out the most to me for various reasons.

71: Nuh (Noah)

Every time I [Noah] call them, so that You may forgive them, they thrust their fingers into their ears, cover their heads with their garments, persist in their rejection, and grow more insolent and arrogant. (71:7)

As a teacher, every now and then I have a particularly recalcitrant student who I desperately want to introduce to Jesus but resists anything I say.  It is like they have made up their mind not to believe and no argument of reason or appeal to emotion or need has much traction.  This ayah made me think of such students.

72: Al-Jinn (The Jinn)

We [jinn] used to sit in places there, listening, but anyone trying to listen now will find a shooting star lying in wait for him — [so now] we do not know whether those who live on earth are due for misfortune, or whether their Lord intends to guide them. (72:9-10)

The idea that jinn or angels (I know they are not the same) are not all-hearing is an interesting idea I have only ever heard once before.  They must be listening to hear.  Words must be spoken for them to know.  I once heard a preacher encourage the crowd not to mention their fears out loud, so as not to give a toe-hold to demons who might be listening.  It sounded a little silly to me at the time.  Sounds like he is not the only one who thought this.

73: Al-Muzzammil (Enfolded)

Night prayer makes a deeper impression and sharpens words — you are kept busy for long periods of the day (73:6-7)

That the days are filled with work and busyness is absolutely true.  There is great temptation to drop the discipline of prayer to compensate for a growing to-do list.  It is a temptation too easy to give into.  So the idea of setting aside time in the evenings is a good one.  Muhammad sometimes spent half of the night praying (73:20).  I have also found that prayer at the end of the day is in fact more thoughtful.  I like these ayahs a lot.

74: Al-Muddaththir (Wrapped in His Cloak)

You, wrapped in your cloak, arise and give warning!  Proclaim the greatness of your Lord; cleanse yourself; keep away from all filth; do not weaken, feeling overwhelmed; be steadfast in your Lord’s cause. (74:1-7)

Muslim tradition says these were some of the first words revealed by Muhammad.  Coming down from the Cave of Hira, Muhammad rushed to his house and asked his wife to wrap him in his cloak to sleep.  Maybe he thought, as many would, that he was a little out of his mind.  But the words stayed with him.  Such a fitting first revelation too!

75: Al-Qiyama (The Resurrection)

Truly you [people] love this fleeting world and neglect the life to come. (75:20-21)

This is such a sadly true thought, even amongst those who do believe in the resurrection.  We love what we can see and experience.  We hang on to what he have already.  But there is so much more to come.  Oh, to be renewed in mind!

Surah 68 is an early Meccan surah defending Muhammad against the claim that he is “madman.”  The unbelievers are experiencing a good life filled with prosperity and family, so divine punishment is the last thing they are thinking about.  They are reminded that “disaster” can come overnight.  Muhammad need not worry about the slander he is receiving; God will vindicate him. 

The reader is reminded in surah 69 that the “Inevitable Hour” is guaranteed, just look at what happened to the people of Thamud and `Ad.  This “Great Event” is described in truly apocalyptic fashion.  A luxurious “Garden” will be the “reward” for obedience, while only “Fire” and “filth” await the unbelievers (once again, we see a quid pro quo soteriology).  So, listen to Muhammad; “attentive ears may take heed” (69:12). 

The catastrophic, foreboding images of the last surah return in surah 70.  We will each be friendless and alone on the great “Day of Judgment.”  We should bear in mind that “the punishment of the Lord is not something to feel safe from” (70:28).  There are some who “rushing out” head long “to their graves” (70:43).  But “Gardens of bliss” await those who are constant in prayer, charitable to the poor, fearful of God, mindful of Judgment, sexually chaste, and unwaveringly trustworthy (70:22-35). 

As we have seen many times already this year, the Qur’an offers judgment, fear, and the threat of punishment as very strong sources of motivation to obey Allah.  This is certainly different from the love-heavy message of modern-day American Christianity.

In this short surah Allah is described as “All Aware” (67:14), “the Lord of Mercy” (67:29), “He who holds all control in His hands; who has power over all things” (67:1), and one who has knowledge of all things (67:26).  Even the surah itself is called “Control.”  Clearly, Allah is depicted as an all-powerful, all-caring, all-knowing deity who controls all things.

Some Christians talk about their God this way too (though as process theology and open theism gain traction, not all Christians believe this exactly).  When Christians talk about their God this way, doubters are quick to ask something like, “If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving, why does he allow evil events to take place in the life of good people?”  This is usually called “the problem of evil.”  My desire here is not to rehearse a Christian answer to that question.  There are a million better places to go for that. 

I was just struck as I read today’s surah how the same question could be asked of Muslims in regard to Allah.  In this world that is said to be created by Allah, overseen by Allah, and loved by Allah, why do tsunamis, drive-by shootings, and brain cancer take place?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Is Allah not powerful enough to stop them, or is He not charitable enough?  That might be how the question would be asked by those same doubters I mentioned. 

I am wondering if Muslims are asked about “the problem of evil” as much as Christians are, and if so what answers are often given?

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.

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.