The one who purifies his soul succeeds and the one who corrupts it fails. (91:9-10)

This is a great hallmark passage.  So much of the Qur’an can be summarized by these words.  What does Islam expect of you? How does one purify or corrupt their soul?  I have chosen to focus on these questions as we read through the next five surahs: 91, Al-Shams (The Sun); 92, Al-Layl (The Night); 93, Al-Duha (The Morning Brightness); 94, Al-Sharh (Relief); and 95, Al-Tin (The Fig).

1.  Avoid arrogance and rejection of the message of God:  The people of Thamud did not.  “Arrogant cruelty” overtook their souls so when the messenger of God came to them, they rejected him as a liar and even hamstrung his camel (91:11-14).  For such people “the raging Fire” is prepared (92:14-16).

2.  Give generously in mindfulness of God:  This is specifically called “self-purification” (92:18).  Those who corrupt their souls are “miserly,” storing up wealth for themselves, “den[ying] goodness” to those in need (92:8-10).

3.  Model the compassion of God:  We too were once orphans in need of help, and God cared for us (93:7-8).  Likewise, we ought to show compassion on those who need help in our communities (93:9-11).

4.  Pray dependently on God:  The purified soul lifts its requests to God (94:8).  It is God who “relieves” the “burden that weigh so heavily on your back” (94:1-3), so one does well to look to Him in “mindfulness” (92:5), not try to handle it himself in self-satisfied arrogance (92:8; 91:11).

In summary, who is it that purifies his soul and succeeds?  It is “those who believe and do good deeds” (95:6).

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.

There are lots of reasons people give for not believing in God.  Four popular reasons are voiced by the disbelieving Meccans in today’s reading.

1.  The Argument of Rationalism

Man says, “What?  Once I am dead, will I be brought back to life?” (19:66)

This argument says your beliefs are ridiculous.  Dead people brought back to life again?  You are crazy!  That doesn’t happen.  Death is the end.  When was the last time you saw someone do that?  Use your head.  Reason it out.  We are too smart, too advanced for primitive superstitions and wishful thinking. 

2.  The Argument of Materialism

The disbelievers say to the believers, “Which side is better situated [with “riches and outward glitter”]?  Which side has the better following?” (19:73)

People with this perspective respond with the claim that their life is already better than those with faith.  They say we are richer, happier, and more popular.  We have a better life than what you are offering.  I don’t need what you are offering.  I’ve got it all right now.  If anything, your religion will make me sacrifice some of these things that make me happy.       

3.  The Argument of Pragmatism

Have you seen the man who rejects Our revelation, who says, “I will certainly be given wealth and children”? (19:77)

Everything will be fine without your God, they say.  My way of living is working just fine.  God is not necessary in life.  I make money just fine without your God.  I have wonderful kids who are healthy, and your God has nothing to do with it.  Who needs God?  The proof is in the pudding.  I’ve got all I need already. 

4.  The Argument of Pluralism

The disbelievers say, “The Lord of Mercy has offspring.” (19:88)

This argument claims there are many religious options, not just your one.  You think your God is the only one, but I think my god is a daughter of your God.  Seriously, there can’t just be one way.  Sure, there is one supreme power but it takes a lot of forms.  You have your god and I have mine.  Don’t be so narrow-minded.  Let’s just coexist.  You go your way up the mountain and I’ll go mine — see you at the top! 

Allah doesn’t take on the disbelievers’ arguments in this passage. He simply says that they will see the error of their ways in the end.  This takes us back to a point we keep coming back to: belief has a whole lot to do with desire.  Do we want to believe?  Ayah 76 says it this way:

God gives more guidance to those who take guidance.

Faith: you get it when you want to get it.

Have you ever felt that it doesn’t matter what you say, there are some people who will never be persuaded to believe as you do?  Ever met a person who probably wouldn’t believe even if God did a miracle right in front of him?

Muhammad had:

Nothing prevents Us from sending miraculous signs, except the fact that previous peoples denied them. . . . We send signs only to give warning.  [Prophet], We have told you that your Lord knows all about human beings.  The vision We showed you [the Night Journey] was only a test for the people. . . . We warn them, but this only increases their insolence. (17:59-60)

And so had Jesus.  He told a story in Luke 16 of a Rich Man and a beggar named Lazarus who die and come before Abraham.  The rich man is sentenced to a horrible fate and then begs Abraham to send someone to warn his brothers who are still alive.  What follows is the end of their interchange:

Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”   

“No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”

He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”  (Luke 16:29-31)

Interestingly, they both said essentially the same thing about people like this:

[Prophet], when you recite the Qur’an, We put an invisible barrier between you and those who do not believe in the life to come.  We have put covers on their hearts that prevent them from understanding it, and heaviness in their ears.  When you mention your Lord in the Qur’an, and Him alone, they turn their backs and run away. (17:45-46)

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.  Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance.  Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.  This is why I speak to them in parables:

     “Though seeing, they do not see;
      though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

    “You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
     you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 
     For this people’s heart has become calloused;
     they hardly hear with their ears,
     and they have closed their eyes.
     Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
     hear with their ears,
     understand with their hearts
     and turn, and I would heal them.”

But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. (Matthew 13:10-16)

We should be on guard against thinking both are speaking of some sort of fatalistic damnation of people before they have had a made their own choice about the message.  Notice that in the Qur’anic passage the people talked about have already chosen not to believe.  A similar implication is made in the biblical passage.  Jesus’ ministry is well underway at this point, Matthew places the passage in the middle of his book, and the Isaianic passage that is quoted implies that the people have already hardened their heart.  God is simply sealing the decision these people have made of their own accord.

Because we have been heavily influenced by the Enlightenment’s emphasis on logic, facts and argumentation, it is easy to think that if we just say the right things, display evidential power, or convince people of the error of their ways they will change their minds on a topic (even one as big and foundational as religion) and believe as we believe.  When we think like this we reveal our belief that humans are fundamentally “thinking animals,” as some have called us.  If it were that simple would we not have much more change in people?  Wouldn’t every thinking human being have stopped smoking by now, seeing that the packaging (in America and Canada at least) basically says “These are going to kill you”?  Wouldn’t girls stop falling for the “bad boys” if it were that straight-forward?  Why would we be stuck in patterns of behavior we want to stop?

Maybe it is more accurate to say we are “desiring, wanting animals,” as James K. A. Smith says in his book Desiring the Kingdom.  Smith does not deny that we have incredible cognitive skills and can talk ourselves into change.  But more often than not, we operate from a more primal, instinctual place of desire.  We do what we do because we want to do it.  We even think what we think because of desires within ourselves.

Smith’s book really deserves much more treatment than I can give right here and right now (his explanation of how malls are the new temples or churches of our culture complete with rituals, architecture, acts of worship, and sacred space is worth the price of the book itself), but he has caused me to reassess a lot of my thinking in the past six months or so since reading his book (a little ironic, I know, given the premise of his book).  I have certainly been in the “thinking animal” camp, and I still am to a great degree.  But then I run up against people who it just seems no amount of thinking or intellectual dialogue would change.  Or I see people (sometimes in the mirror) who seem to be on auto-pilot making significant decisions about life not because of their thoughts, rather because of what they want in life.  I have had many faith conversations lately with people who I feel have already decided they want to live a certain way and now are constructing a belief system that supports that choice of lifestyle.

The tricky part is made clear by Jesus in the wider context of Matthew 13.  The “seeing, not seeing/hearing, not hearing” passage quoted above is sandwiched between the telling of the Parable of the Sower and Jesus’ explanation of the parable.  Sure, some will never get it–for whatever reason–but we don’t know who they are.  Some will be as receptive as the good soil and others will have no room in their hearts because of the “rocks” that are there.  Still others have been so “walked on” and harassed by the demonic “birds” that the message has no time to take root.  But we don’t know who is whom.  Our job as “farmers” is simply to scatter the seed.

"Sower with Setting Sun," Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

The main point of attention in the Qur’an thus far has been what one believes.  “There is no God except Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.”  This is called the shahadah, the statement of faith, the first of five pillars of Islam.  It is a part of the daily prayers of a Muslim, it is what one would publicly recite to convert to Islam, and it is the backbone to the entire Islamic belief system. 

The Shahadah in Arabic

It is wise to place emphasis on belief.  Our behavior is generated and shaped by our beliefs.  Change beliefs and you are on the road to a transformed way of living too.  To some degree at least, we are “believers” before we are anything else, the main term the Qur’an has been using for people. 

But believers eventually must act.  How is a Muslim to act in this world?  We know what one is to think, but what is the desired lifestyle?  To be sure, we have already been given several answers along our way through the Qur’an so far.  In today’s reading we find much more:

  • Do what is just or fair to others (16:90)
  • Do the good or right thing in the situation (16:90)
  • Be generous to relatives (16:90)
  • Avoid actions that are shameful (16:90)
  • Avoid actions that oppress others (16:90)
  • Be a person of your word, fulfilling pledges and keeping oaths (16:91-92)
  • Do not lie (16:105, 116)
  • Avoid forbidden foods (carrion, blood, pork, ritual food) unless that is all there is to survive (16:115)
  • Argue with others in only the most courteous ways (16:125)
  • Try to avoid fighting back when opposed (16:126)

Aren’t these the very same ethics Christians (and others) wish to have as well? 

Before we finish with this surah let’s stop and notice that it has been several chapters since we have read much that could be interpreted as violent.  Direct attacks on Christianity or Judaism have been non-existent as well.  Is the Qur’an saying what we expected?

Noah, Hud, Salih, Abraham, Shu`ayb and Moses.  They can teach us a great deal about what it takes and what will come from a “prophetic” ministry.  Much like those of the Old Testament, a prophet is more so one who speaks God’s corrective words into a situation than one who tells the future.  With this in mind, we realize there are prophets all around.

Prophets are sent to their own people (11:25, 50, 61, 74, 84).  So it is no wonder that a prophet desperately pleads for the welfare of his people, wanting to see them turn, not burn (11:26, 52, 61).  One who longs to see punishment, is no prophet (i.e., Jonah, the anti-prophet).  A message of punishment is always secondary to the message of forgiveness and salvation (11:52, 61, 90).

Prophets speak the same, simple message: worship God and Him alone (11:26, 50, 61, 84).  This is the baseline.  You build on devotion to God.  Morality makes no sense without a covenant with God.  Belief reorders one’s entire life.  Only when one decides to follow God undividedly does life begin to become whole.  The message doesn’t have to be terribly complicated.

Prophets more often must point to evidence for God in the natural world than rely upon miracles (11:52, 61, 64).  God is there to be found, if one is willing to see.  Hud pointed to life-giving rain.  Salih appealed to the creative force of God and to a camel.  The flash and bang of miracles may seem nice and convincing, and they were what the people wanted (11:53), but that does not seem to be God’s way much of the time.

Prophets must walk by faith (11:39, 56, 81, 88).  They speak faith-filled words into a situation.  They hope with confidence, but not with proof that what they say will come to pass.  A prophet cannot operate without trust: “I put my trust in God, my Lord and your Lord” (11:56).  Their faith is not just wishful thinking; prophets know that what God ordains will happen (11:43, 45, 55, 66, 76, 92).

Prophets don’t pin their sense of accomplishment to their audience’s response (11:36, 93).  Simply put, some will not believe.  It is enough to obey God and be satisfied in that (11:51).  Prophets are simply mouthpieces.  They also do not bring judgment, so their job is simply to speak (11:33, 45).

Prophets don’t expect life to be easy (11:27, 38, 53, 62, 91).  The message need not be complicated.  The hard work of changing hearts is God’s work alone.  Success is defined internally through obedience, not externally through people’s response.  Still, though the work of a prophet is very straightforward, it is not easy.  Noah was called a liar and mocked for only having success with the lower class.  They laughed at his preposterous boat.  Hud and Salih were rejected outright because of their lack of proof.  Salih suffers the sting of being told by his people that they had expected more from him.  Shu`ayb was labeled as weak and his own countrymen threaten to kill him for his foolishness.  Life was not easy for Abraham’s family in Sodom.  Moses ran for his life from the murderous Pharaoh.  Prophetic ministry is a high and noble calling, but it will not be a cakewalk.

Is it worth it?  That had to be what was on Muhammad’s mind as he came down the mountain to Mecca.