This will almost certainly be the last post of this blog.  I pledged last Christmas to read the Qur’an closely in a year, discovering for myself as much as the book could teach me about Islam.  I was tired of hearing what others had to say about Islam, others who often were uninformed and loaded with an agenda that was anything but charitable to people different from themselves.  Also, I had been teaching a sizable unit in my 12th grade religion class on world religions for a few years but had not read the sacred texts of the religions I was discussing, and I thought it was time to rectify that.  Cultural events in America as a whole, in Tennessee, and even in Memphis caused me to see more and more of an anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Muslim sentiment, and it was time to see if there was anything to the fears I was hearing.

Now, just a few weeks past a year, I come to the end of the Qur’an, and therefore this blog.  It has been a good project.  Tough at times.  Several things happened personally (like a tree falling on my house!) and I found even just finding a half-hour to read and blog was impossible some days.  I am very glad I did this.  I believe I am a much better informed citizen of the world.  I also found that I have gained a greater appreciation for my own religion, Christianity; sometimes seeing what you have in contrast does that.  And who knows, maybe I have started a friendship or two.  At least one of you who reads this blog and is a Muslim has migrated over to my new year-long project, reading through the Christian New Testament again (see kingdomnewtestament.wordpress.com if you are interested).

A few times throughout the year as my Christian friends discovered this project, they asked what I have learned.  I would mention a few things, but really I have 180+ posts of realizations.  Still, it might be helpful for me to mention a few items that really stand out to me here as we wind this project up:

Muslims are people too:  This one seems like such a given that it shouldn’t need to be said, but it does.  If we would just take the time to actually get to know and talk with people who are different from us, we would find there is less difference than we think and so much room for kindness.  No, we are not all the same in our beliefs.  Yes, there are mutually exclusive ideas in various religions.  But the real point here is that Muslims are humans, not just a religion or a set of beliefs.  Muslims tuck their little daughters and sons into bed at night too.  They struggle with how to honor God in all they do; “struggle” is what the name of the religion means.  They fret about having enough to pay the bills, but not so much that money becomes an idol or “partner” with God.  They passionately desire the best for the world, they just define this slightly differently than others.  I am convinced though the solution is not to vilify or caricature all Muslims as terrorists.  Nothing will be gained from grabbing our kids close when Muslims walk by or develop a political platform that makes tax-paying, law-abiding, freedom-loving American Muslims feel marginalized in our society.  Get to know a Muslim and see what happens.

Keep reading:  Maybe my biggest realization came about halfway through the year when Muslims began to find and comment on this blog.  What I discovered is that if I really wanted to understand Islam, reading the Qur’an is only the beginning.  In fact, I am wondering now if I have read more of the Qur’an than some Muslims I have talked to this year (not the clearly learned Muslims who were kind enough to take a lot of time to educate me about their religion).  I was mistaken when I thought the Qur’an would unlock a thorough understanding of Islam.  I would say now that if one really wants to understand this esteemed religion one would be best served by reading the Hadith, the traditions and sayings of Muhammad that have been collected since his death.  Then pick up the Sunnah, the code for living in this world as a Muslim.  But that is far more reading and study than I am willing to commit to a religion other than my own.

Culture plays a bigger role in modern Islam than a text:  This is my hunch, though I am sure more learned people than I would say the same thing.  I have been struck by how American Muslims respond differently to my queries than Asian Muslims.  I noticed that the 1400 year old Qur’an approaches topics differently than commentators did a 100 years ago and that the translator and commentator of my translation from the 21st century had an even different take.  Time shapes thinking too.  I have noticed that empowered male Muslims speak differently about their religion than do women who are speaking out now about their religion.  And what about subjugated women who fear speaking out at all?  There is no surprise here; texts are infinitely interpretable.  We play a part in determining what a text means and an even bigger role in how a text is lived.  It would be nice to believe the Qur’an (or Bible) just means what it says, but there is logically and observably more to the equation than that.  I suspect 9/11 was driven by politics and cultural ideology more than religion.  I was struck by how few truly offensive passages I came to in the Qur’an.  I think the ugliness non-Muslims so often associate with Islam has more to do with what happens when a text gets into the hands of a cleric or charismatic leader with political or ideological aspirations, not what Allah meant in the Qur’an (if you believe the Qur’an is the words of Allah).

No, they are not out to get us:  Unfortunately, the common perception of Muslims in America is that Muslims want to kill non-Muslims.  There are few months when a student does not say as much, but we can dismiss this as adolescence.  But where are they getting this view?  Parents?  Television depictions?  Talk-show hosts?  Political candidates?  Religious leaders?  Sadly, some of all of the above.  Of course, my attention was most drawn to those passages that dealt with violence.  Maybe my greatest observation here is truly how few of these passages there are, especially in the more so Meccan last half of the Qur’an.  Then, I was reminded that, just like the Bible, these passages have to be taken in context.  All of them pertained to issues in 7th century Arabia, mainly involving aggressive pagans and a few cases of attacking Christians or Jews.  Generally, I do believe it is right to depict the condoning of violence in the Qur’an as self-defense.  I have no doubt, however, that even in the time of Muhammad this ideal degraded into more than self-defense; dealing with violence with more violence will do that.

Yet, some of them are:  It would be naive and irresponsible to ignore the fact that there are Muslims today who cite their religion as grounds for their violent attacks on non-Muslims, Christians and Jews especially.  Yes, there do seem to be some Muslims who do believe America is the “Great Satan,” though I still think we ought to ask why?  As I see it this goes back to the very same violent texts mentioned above.  As long as you have ayahs like these in the Qur’an — “Fighting has been ordained for you” (2:216) and “Kill them wherever you encounter them” (2:191) — you will have people who come along, regardless of context, and make these texts support their murderous agendas.  Is the Qur’an a violent book?  I don’t think so.  Can it be?  Absolutely!  Again, I think this has more to do with politics and ideology than religion.

Women get a mixed bag:  Is Islam inherently a misogynistic religion that subjugates women?  Like my observations about violence above, it depends on who you are talking to.  Are there passages that can be taken as demeaning to women?  Yes (4:34-35).  But there are also passages that are very protective of women, especially in cases of divorce.  Does polygamy have to be seen as demeaning to women?  No, but it can easily turn into that.  Are hijabs and burqahs prisons into which women are locked?  If you have a forceful husband who is used to getting his way and maybe has a jealous streak, sure they can be.  But they can also be incredibly empowering when they are the way a woman says she will control who can gaze upon her beauty and potentially turn her into a sexual object.  Again, I think the answer here has less to do with religion and more with personality, culture, and situations.  I suspect an American, Canadian, or British Muslim woman experiences a very different life than a young Muslim woman in parts of Iran, Afghanistan or India.

Islam gets so much so right:  In part it is because Islam is still eastern and tied to honor societies in contrast to western Christianity that seems to be driven more so by success, progress, and love, but I am struck by the respect accorded Allah in the Qur’an and in Muslim society.  This is a stark contrast to popular American Christianity-lite where “Jesus is my homeboy” or where we think the first thing we will do in Heaven is give God a hug.  The expectations placed on a worshiper of Allah are clear and high: be truly committed, no turning back, give it all or don’t bother.  The choices in life are simple and clear: Paradise or Hellfire.  Two paths to choose from, which one will it be?  Along that line, one’s eternal destiny is constantly before one as they read their Qur’an.  I would hazard to guess that Judgment and the afterlife are mentioned in at least 90% of the surahs.  People have a responsibility to care about and care for the weak and needy of our society.  Religion is intended to be embodied in flesh.  We do religion; it is lived.  Think about the five pillars of Islam: statement of belief, prayer, fasting, alms, and pilgrimage.  All of these pillars which “hold up” the religion are actions one does.  One doesn’t just believe Islam.  One does it.  I find much of this admirable.

Still, there is something missing — Jesus:  Unapologetically, I acknowledge that I am understanding Islam in contrast to my Christianity.  So many times this year I felt like Islam came close to the high ideals of Christianity, but then fell short, in large part because of how Jesus is viewed in each religion.  Let there be no doubt, Islam has a high view of Jesus.  He is a great prophet.  The honor he is given in this life and the next are great.  But he is no god in Islam; that would be blasphemous.  So what is missing when Jesus is not God?  Allah just does not come off as being as personal or immanent a god as the God of the Bible is.  Christians can say they are seeing God when they look at Jesus.  Christians believe Jesus reveals the heart and actions of God.  Christians can say their God has given them a flesh-and-blood example of how to live life, Jesus.  Furthermore, when Jesus leaves the earth after his resurrection he sends the Holy Spirit, who Christians believe is the very presence of God.  This Holy Spirit lives inside Christians, making us holy and guiding us through life.  Christians believe a part of their God lives inside of them.  I see none of this in the Qur’an.  Allah did not even speak to Muhammad himself.  Maybe the biggest nut I have tried to crack this year is the difference between Islamic and Christian views on grace.  Does Islam speak of grace and mercy?  Almost every surah starts by calling Allah the “Lord and Giver of Mercy.”  Do humans deserve to be saved from Hell, according to Islam?  No.  Is there any human who can be perfect enough to be deemed righteous in Allah’s eyes?  No.  Are there countless numbers of blessings that come to humans everyday because of Allah’s grace that we simply do not deserve?  Yes.  It is certainly appropriate to speak of grace in Islam.  But it is a fundamentally different kind than what you find in Christianity.  Muslims must live their whole life hoping for grace, while Christians know at their baptism that they have already received that grace because of the cross of Christ.  Muslims spend a life living in such a way as to be worthy of grace with a hope of salvation in the end.  Christians spend a life living in gratitude for a gracious salvation already given, knowing they never can do enough to be worthy of it.  No Christian would want their deeds weighed on a scale at the end of life, because we know we can’t be good enough and we also know God considers any sin to be too much.  As much as I have tried to understand both what I have read in the Qur’an and what the Muslims on this blog have share with me, I simply can’t get past the feeling that Muslims are trying to earn something.  Lastly, with the minimization of Jesus, there is a loss of his reordering of love, power, and success.  The first shall be last.  You gain your life by laying it down.  Blessed are you when you are persecuted.  Turn the cheek.  Repay good for evil.  Overcome evil with good.  Jesus saw life entirely different from conventional men.  No surprise there, he is God and was visiting our world from the world that is to come.  He was inviting us to help bring this new kind of life into this world and hasten the new creation.  This especially meant that we would see love, power, and success differently.  I am afraid that as I read the Qur’an I just heard much of the same ole story humans have always told: my side is better than yours so become like us and avoid the unpleasantness that comes to our enemies who fail to exercise self-control and pull themselves up by their own boot-straps.  This is still one big self-improvement project, though Allah is both more involved and real than Karma or Fate.  Yes, he gives a book to help, so read it and know it and follow it well.  It seems Jesus offers the world something you can’t find anywhere else.  Of course, I do not mean to be offensive in this last observation.

My final point is an obvious one: I am not a Muslim, nor a particularly well-informed scholar of Islam either.  These are the thoughts of an honest seeker of truth after a year of earnest reading and thought.  I am sure I am biased (who is not?).  I am sure I don’t understand things completely (watch the comments on this one for rebuttals).  However, let it not be said that I did not try to understand Islam for myself.  But also don’t let this blog be your last word on this prodigious religion.

Peace, shalom, salam.

I have saved these last three surahs for the end as they seemed like they would sum up the Qur’an well.

Surah 112 is precisely such a summation.  Muslim tradition says this minuscule surah is equal to one-third of the entire message of the Qur’an.  Given its emphasis on monotheistic devotion, I can certainly see why people think that.

Say, “He is God the One, God the eternal.  He begot no one nor was He begotten.  No one is comparable to Him.” (112:1-4)

As a Christian, I can’t help but feel that this surah is addressing the trinitarian beliefs of Christianity, and maybe also the pagan beliefs popular in Arabia at the time of the Qur’an.  Nonetheless, there may be no more foundational thought in Islam than this one.

One of the last revelations ever received by Muhammad before his death was Surah 110:

When God’s help comes and He opens up your way [Prophet], when you see people embracing God’s faith in crowds, celebrate the praise of your Lord and ask His forgiveness: He is always ready to accept repentance. (110:1-3)

As one of the final words from Allah, I am struck by this message.  It is prophetic in a sense: there are days coming when people will accept Islam in droves. That will be a reason to celebrate.  Yet the final word of all is an admonition to seek forgiveness and a reassurance that Allah is always ready to receive truly repentant people.  That is such a fitting ending to the Qur’an.  The door to God is always open.  Step through with a repentant heart, and a humble spirit that knows we are always in need of forgiveness.  But it is an open door.  What a welcoming ending.

Interestingly, down at the end of the Qur’an is this realistic surah.  Evidently, a group of pagans had come to Muhammad and proposed a compromise.  They pledged to worship Allah for a year if the Prophet would worship their gods for a year.  Muhammad was told to give this response:

Say [Prophet], “Disbelievers: I do not worship what you worship, you do not worship what I worship, I will never worship what you worship, you will never worship what I worship: you have your religion and I have mine.” (109:1-6)

As I read this surah I couldn’t help but think that these are precisely my sentiments as well.  I have thoroughly enjoyed reading closely the Qur’an this past year.  Even more so, I have enjoy the conversations I have had with people that this blog fostered, especially those with the Muslims who took the time to further educate me on their religion.  What is even more clear to me now than it was when I started is how intractable the religious differences are between differing religions.  It was true 1400 years ago when Muhammad spoke to these pagans.  It is true today when Muslims talk with Christians and Jews.  It is true of me as well.  I have an immense amount of respect for the religion of Islam (more on that in the next post).  I found a true zeal in the Muslims who have followed this blog.  I believe we can show love to each other as humans.  I believe we can cooperate with each other in areas of social concern.  I do believe we can learn to coexist in a democratic society that does not assert any religion over another.  But Muslims have their religion and I have mine.  I can’t bring myself to worship God apart from Jesus, and they couldn’t imagine doing so.  We are at an impasse.

One more final post later in the week as I reflect back on the past year.

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?

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.

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)

A big theme in today’s short surah — “Kneeling” — is the fact that God has placed evidence of Himself in nature.  The body of this post is entirely a string of quotes from the surah that send this message.  The pictures included are from my three favorite places on this planet (so far), places that confirm for me the existence of One Great and Powerful God. 

Sunrise in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN

“There are signs in the heavens and the earth for those who believe: in the creation of you, in the creatures God scattered on earth . . . in the alteration of night and day, in the rain God provides, sending it down from the sky and reviving the dead earth with it, and in His shifting of the winds there are signs for those who use their reason. . . . It is God who made the

Fall in Grand Teton National Park (taken by WordPresser Tim Jennings)

sea of use to you . . . He has made what is in the heavens and the earth beneficial to you, all as a gift from Him.  There truly are signs in this fo those who reflect. . . . God created the heavens and earth for a true purpose. . . . Control of everything in the heavens and the earth belongs to God. . . . So praise be to God, Lord of the heavens and earth, Lord of the worlds.  True greatness in the heavens and earth is rightfully His.” (45:3-5, 12, 13, 22, 27, 36-37)

From Old Baldy Lookout across the Beaver Valley, Ontario

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.