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?

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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.

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.

Ants are small . . . and so is this “Ant” surah, relatively.  So we finish it up with today’s reading.  Three passages stood out to me today.

Who is it that originates creation and reproduces it?  Who is it that gives you provision from the heavens and earth?  Is it another god beside God?  Say, “Show me your evidence then, if what you say is true.” (27:64)

I am trying to place myself in the context of this passage. Muhammad comes down the mountain with a message of radical monotheism.  Meccans respond with their traditional polytheistic explanations for reality.  Both are simply claims.  How can we tip the balance towards one or the other?  It is interesting that “evidence” is mentioned.  If the polytheists really want to hang on to the belief that their gods created or at least rule over elements of nature, then they need to provide some evidence that this is true.  But what evidence is Muhammad producing that support his claim that Allah has created the very mountains, river and “gardens of delight” that he has just mentioned (27:60-63)?  That they exist is not evidence enough. The pagans could use the same evidence for their claims.  What evidence do Muslims produce for not just a god but Allah?

You cannot make the dead hear, you cannot make the deaf listen to your call when they turn their backs and leave, you cannot guide the blind out of their error; you cannot make anyone hear you except those who believe in Our signs and submit [to Us]. (27:80-81)

So true!  If a person does not want to believe, you can’t say enough to make them believe.  Good reminder. As someone with a high view of human freedom, I am not comfortable with that meaning Allah prevents them from hearing or listening.  But certainly there are people who harden their own hearts to God.

Whoever comes with a good deed will be rewarded with something better, and be secure from the terror of that Day, but whoever comes with evil deeds will be cast face downwards into the Fire.  Are you rewarded for anything except what you have done? (27:89-90)

Is that grace?  Is doesn’t seem so.  That sounds like people getting what they deserve.  That sounds like a god who responds to the actions of humans, not humans who respond to the actions of the god.

The main point in today’s reading is that the reception Muhammad is receiving is not unlike that given to many prophets before him.  We have seen this message many times already. 

The most interesting part of the reading, though, is what the disbelievers say to an unnamed prophet before Muhammad’s time when he claims that we will be resurrected on the Last Day:

The leading disbelievers . . . said, “He is just a  mortal like you — he eats what you eat and drinks what you drink — and you will really be losers if you obey a mortal like yourselves.  How can he promise you that after you die and become dust and bones you will be brought out alive?  What you are promised is very far-fetched.  There is only the life of this world: we die, we live, but we will never be resurrected.  He is just a man making lies up about God.  We will never believe in him.”  (23:33-38)

How can this prophet or Muhammad after him promise the dead will be resurrected? 

It is claimed that the topic of the Hereafter is discussed more than any topic in the Qur’an with the sole exception of monotheism and idolatry.  Resurrection is foundational to the Islamic worldview, so it begs the question “what is the basis for believing this claim?”  This is a religious belief, so it will have a degree of faith involved, to be sure.  But one can hope that there is some reason to believe that this faith is more than wishful thinking.  I do hope that those better versed in Islam can provide evidence for faith in the claim of resurrection.  All I have found is this: 1) Allah has revealed the truth of resurrection in the Qur’an, thus it is true; and 2) as is said in this passage, the truth will be shown in the end (23:40).  If one believes that the Qur’an is the inspired word of God, then yes these arguments would be persuasive.  But it is not realistic to think that #1 would mean much to a person who does not yet trust the Qur’an.  It is not like Muhammad was raised from the dead.   

Resurrection is also foundational to Christianity, so it is only fair to ask what basis do Christians have to believe that they will be resurrected on the Last Day.  Is it because the Bible claims it to be true?  Again, this argument alone does not hold water with someone who does not yet believe the Bible is the word of God.  Does the Bible offer any better reason for believing that resurrection is a reality?

The Apostle Paul devotes an entire chapter to exactly this point.  It seems there were some in his time who were saying something similar to what the disbelievers above were saying.  Paul’s response is the foundational argument for the resurrection in Christianity.  How can we know that we will be resurrected?  Jesus’ resurrection.

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?  If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.  And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.  More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead.  But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.  For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.  And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.  If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.  But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:12-20)

Why should we believe in resurrection?  Because Jesus was raised from the dead.  Jesus wasn’t just resuscitated in the same body; he received a renewed, resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:44).  If Jesus was not resurrected, then Christianity falls apart.  Resurrection is the linchpin.  Why can a Christian believe that resurrection will be a reality?  Not simply because a book says so.  We have been given proof that God has this power and desire in that He raised Jesus from the dead during our time.  We know we can be resurrected in the future because God has already resurrected in the past. 

This argument can be charged with the same circular reason I mentioned earlier in regards to the Qur’an, can’t it?  Christians believe the Bible’s claim of resurrection because the Bible describes a resurrected Jesus.  Isn’t that the same as saying, “I believe the Bible because of the Bible”?

This is where further reasoning and research bolsters the faith one can have in what we read in the Bible.  Why should we believe that Jesus was resurrected? 

  1. If the resurrection of Jesus were nothing more than a hoax, the apostles who started that hoax went on to suffer and die for Jesus.  Would you die for a lie?  What did the apostles stand to gain from the hoax: popularity, fame, money, women?  The apostles received none of these in their life-time.  Consider this verse from 1 Corinthians 15:30, “And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour?”
  2. Maybe Jesus just passed out and never really died.  We know from history that a great number of people being flogged before resurrection (as Jesus was) actually died during the beating.  The suffering Jesus endured was simply too severe to live through.  Also, the mixture of water and blood oozing from Jesus’ wound is a tell-tale sign of a fatal wound. 
  3. Maybe the people who thought they saw a resurrected Jesus were just hallucinating.  But over 500 people claimed to see the same resurrected Jesus.  It is illogical that there would be such a mass hallucination.  In addition, the closeness between event and writing made it possible for people who doubted the resurrection account to actually find and talk with these supposed eyewitnesses. 
  4. Maybe someone stole Jesus’ body?  Who?  The only people who would want to do so would be the apostles.  It is illogical to think they could get past an armed battalion of Roman guards who were trained to kill and would be killed themselves if they failed or fell asleep.  It is also not likely that they would be able to move the stone. 
  5. The resurrection accounts are actually crafted as weak arguments if they are fake.  Women are claimed to be the first eyewitnesses.  The testimony of women was not even accepted in a court of law at that time.  Why create such a story?
  6. How did the apostles go from timid fishermen so afraid of dying that they hid to fearless messengers who all died a martyr’s death (except John who died in exile on the island of Patmos)?  How did Paul have such an about-face that he went from murderer to martyr in such a short amount of time?  The best explanation is a miraculous event. 
  7. Anyone who wished to disprove the resurrection could have done so easily.  All they had to do was produce Jesus’ body.  The Jewish religious leaders had every reason to do so as the Christian group grew in popularity after Pentecost only two months after the Crucifixion.  But no one ever did.   

The best and most logical explanation is that Jesus of Nazareth truly was resurrected from the dead as claimed.  And because of that we can have a confidence that we too will be resurrected.    

“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. (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)

Many in Muhammad’s time did not believe what he was saying.

“He’s just a normal human being like you and me.” (21:3)

“He is charming you with wise-sounding words.  Don’t be blind.” (21:3)

“His dreams don’t even make sense.” (21:5)

“These supposed revelations are all made up.” (21:5)

“I am going to need to see some signs to believe all these words.  That’s what past prophets did.” (21:5)

“He’s a laughing-stock!” (21:36; all my own paraphrases)

Essentially they were saying, “Why should we believe you?”  Or maybe they were going one worse and saying, “We don’t believe you!”

A main point in this new Meccan surah will be that this is the way it has always been with prophets of God.  You are not alone.  Don’t be discouraged.  Press on. 

Of course, if you are not a Muslim, “why should we believe?” is still the question we ask when we read the Qur’an.  Are these words anything more than the wild imaginations of a Meccan merchant?  Why should I believe these are words from God?  Why should I leave the religion I am already committed to in favor of the teachings of Muhammad? 

Really, every religion has to answer these questions.  Every religion is subject to investigation and defense.  Yes, faith will be involved in the answer — or we are not talking about religion — but it can’t just be blind, unsupported faith without any inkling of evidence.  Of course, faith cannot be proven; that is why it is “faith” not “fact” (though there is actually a lot of faith undergirding many things we describe as fact).  But what makes one faith more credible than another — as the Qur’an claims it is?  Some degree of support has got to be part of the answer.  This surah even says exactly that to the idol worshipers who claim their gods are children of the One True God: “Bring your proof” (21:24).   

I am having a hard time understanding Islamic apologetics, especially the reasons put forward by the Qur’an itself for faith.  Most of the time I don’t feel like the Qur’an does give reasons to believe; it simply admonishes the reader to believe.  In today’s section I see the following rationale given for belief:

  1. The Events of History — look at the destruction that came to whole communities of people in the past who chose to ignore God (21:6, 11)
    • But many of these communities cited are people from the Bible, and of course this is up for interpretation: good people suffer too and bad people some times get off scott-free 
  2. The Qur’an Itself — consider the internal merit of the Qur’an itself; you can tell something about the beauty and truth of a piece of art from the piece itself (21:10)
    • But this is not the strongest argument as it devolves into circular reasoning pretty quickly (i.e., the Qur’an is true because the Qur’an says it is true)
  3. The Reasonableness of This Argument— “Will you not use your reason?” (21:10); think about it and you will see the logic of belief.  Where does this section appeal to logic?
    • Resurrection: “Have they chosen any gods from the earth who can give life to the dead?” (21:21)
      • But where is the evidence that Muhammad’s God can resurrect?
    • God’s Incomparable Superiority: “If there had been in the heavens or earth any gods but Him, both heavens and earth would be in ruins” [because of the fight there would have been]. (21:22)
      •  But this is only a claim; where is the support?
    • Nature: Look at the earth and sky, living creatures, firm mountains, and constellations. (21:30-34) 
      • But most worldviews appeal to nature, and can nature take you from the existence of a higher, creative power to the personal identity and nature of Allah? 
  4. The Lack of Reason in Other Arguments — You say you want an immortal prophet, but when has that ever happened (21:34) [Well, I can think of one!]
    • But this only diminishes other claims rather than bolsters the truth of your own
  5. The Future — there are “signs” coming that will convince (21:37)
    • But how can I believe and be persuaded by something that has not yet happened?   

I am going to keep reading with my attention on why one should believe the authenticity of the Qur’an.  On that note, I especially like this vivid phrase from today’s reading:

We [Allah] hurl the truth against falsehood, and truth obliterates it — see how falsehood vanishes away! (21:18) 

I know this is a biased observation, though I wonder if pure objectivity is even possible on this matter (I know, how postmodern of me!).  But here it is.  Let the commenting begin.

It seems that even the Qur’an can’t avoid elevating Jesus to a point unparalleled by any other person, even Muhammad himself. 

I know, that assertion is going to need some evidence.  Here’s what I am seeing:

  • Jesus is called the “Messiah” (4:171), which doesn’t have to mean anything more than “anointed one” but it is a title not shared in the Qur’an with anyone else
  • Jesus was born miraculously of a virgin (19:20)
  • Jesus’ mother Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an, indicating her uniqueness among women (19:16ff)
  • The infant Jesus miraculously spoke from the cradle (3:46; 5:110; 19:29)
  • Jesus possessed the miraculous ability to breathe life into a clay bird, an act that imitates the creation of humankind by God (3:49; 5:110)
  • Jesus is saved from suffering a physical death (4:158)
  • Jesus has already been physically raised up into the highest of heavens to be with God himself (4:158)
  • Islamic tradition even says that Jesus will come again in the “Last Days” to help fight against the “false Messiah.”
  • Islamic art shows Jesus standing in God’s court at the Last Judgment.

Jesus (Isa) on the top step in white in the upper left quadrant

To my knowledge, none of the above can be claimed of Muhammad, at least not from his life as described in the Qur’an.  That just seems a little odd to me if Muhammad is the greatest of all prophets. It is as if even the Qur’an cannot escape the supremacy of Jesus Christ.

Well, that’s what I am seeing.  What do you think?