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.

As a Christian, I believe a vital part of spiritual growth is regular Bible reading.  How do we really know and know about God without an intimate knowledge of the Bible?  Sadly, there are lots of statistics out there that show that Christians are not opening their Bible very much.  We don’t know the facts of our Bibles, but it is even more tragic that we are neglecting the life-giving flow of the Holy Spirit that comes from the Scriptures.

So when I came to the following passage and learned that this was the first revelation to Muhammad I was struck by how right it is:

Read!  In the name of your Lord who created: He created man from a clinging form.  Read!  Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One who taught by the pen, who taught man what he did not know.  (96:1-5)

No wonder the next surah calls this the “Night of Glory” (97:1).  The first word of Allah’s revelation is “Read!”  That is how important the Qur’an is to be to a Muslim.  The devout Muslims I have met do in fact follow this command zealously.  Allah has only revealed himself by words.  Look up the word “Allah” in an image search engine and you come up with little more than beautiful calligraphic depictions of the name Allah in Arabic.  Even visually Allah himself has to be “read.”

Christians — who ironically the Qur’an includes in the moniker “People of the Book” — would do well to mimic this commitment to the text.  Yes, the God of Christianity revealed himself in more than words and a book and even nature.  Yes, God is best known in the form of the flesh and blood Messiah, Jesus Christ.  But the Christian God did give the world a Bible, and it should not be neglected.

One reason people do not read is that deep down they do not think they need to.  Life can be navigated just fine without a sacred text.  I have to wonder if this attitude doesn’t come dangerously close to the self-sufficiency soundly condemned in the last half of the 96th surah:

But man exceeds all bounds when he thinks he is self-sufficient. (96:6-7)

Of possible interest to some of you may be two new blogs I have started recently.  Please check them out and consider following these, if you deem them worthy your time.  I would love to have you join me on these blogs.

A Kingdom Year

I have committed to once again read closely through the New Testament in 2012.  I believe the structure and community of a blog will help keep me disciplined.  If you have never read the basis for the Christian religion or have just wanted some accountability for your own Bible reading, consider joining me on my journey.

 

A Knight’s Miscellany

I am starting a personal blog to help collect the ideas, thoughts, images, and quotes about faith and religion but so many other mundane topics as well (i.e., nature, hiking, culture, humor, Memphis, Canada, reading, and the like).  You can expect short, periodic posts on this blog as this is all life allows right now.

 

 

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.

Today’s new surah, “The Story,” derives its name from the “story” of Moses that is retold here.  A few days ago we had some stories about Moses and Solomon that were not included in the Bible, but today with just a few new details this is the same story of Moses we know from the Bible.

Moses is born, a Hebrew baby boy in Egypt where Hebrew baby boys are “slaughtered” (28:4).  In order to save him, his mother places Moses in the river where he is rescued by the murderous Pharaoh’s own daughter who adopts Moses as her own son.  Nonetheless, God worked it out that Moses was reunited to his mother as his “wet nurse” (28:12-13).

When Moses has reached adulthood, he inadvertently killed a man as Moses tried to separate two men who were fighting.  This becomes well-known, and when Moses tries to break up another fight and one of the man fears that Moses will kill him too, Moses flees to the region of Midian.

In Midian, Moses is given great hospitality from a “father” (28:23), even to the point of being given one of the man’s daughters as a wife.  One day, while traveling in the area, Moses happened upon the burning bush where he meets God, “the Lord of the Worlds” (28:30).  Moses is sent back to Egypt by this God with a staff that turns into a snake and a hand that can become leprous and then be healed. Pharaoh, though, only “behaved arrogantly” refusing to respond to Moses’ message.  Thus, he and his army were thrown in the sea (28:39-40).

Today’s passage ends with this summary of Moses’ life:

We have Moses the Scripture to provide insight, guidance, and mercy for people, so that they might take heed.  (28:43)

It seems Moses will serve as a model for the work Muhammad is being called to, as described in the rest of the surah.

Today we begin a new Meccan surah named “The Ants” because of an esoteric mention of the animals made by King Solomon in ayah 18.  The main point of this section is the same it has been in many of the surahs we have reads thus far: don’t judge the goodness of the Qur’an or the effectiveness of the prophet based on the reception of the people; a long line of prophets have been rejected just as is happening to Muhammad. Breaking through the monotony of repetition, are some interesting stories about two biblical characters not told in the Bible.

Moses is reported as saying he will go over to the Burning Bush to find fire that he can bring back to his family so that they can warm themselves (27:7).  Interesting new idea not borrowed from the Bible.

King Solomon is reported as knowing the language of birds (27:16).  He could also marshal ranks of jinn and birds along with people, possible for battle (27:17).  Solomon’s power was so great that even the armies of ants feared him and ran to their homes (27:18).  The strangest stories of all is that of a hoopoe, a beautiful, regal bird, who had scouted out the southern kingdom of Sheba in fine military fashion (27:20-44).  This story appears to be the back-story of the Queen of Sheba that many of us would know from the Bible.  This pagan queen and her powerful armies are humbled by the wisdom of Solomon and the Queen devotes herself to Solomon’s God.  Interesting!

King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

One ayah early in today’s reading gave me pause:

As for those who do not believe in the life to come, We have made their deeds seem alluring to them, so they wander blindly: it is they who will have the worst suffering, and will be the ones to lose most in the life to come. (27:4-5)

It would appear from this passage that these people were given the freedom to believe the prophet’s message of a second life, but with their freedom they rejected.  Then Allah overwhelms their freedom and sends them into a degradation that is made to seem alluring and that causes them to walk further and further from Him.  My question from this is how much of a chance are people given before their chances are over and they are sealed for destruction?  Is this a one-shot thing?  How patient is this God?

Today’s new surah, named “The Poets” because of historical references late in the surah that we will discuss later, is largely a rehash of familiar topics — Allah has given us many reasons to believe in His creation; prophets have always been opposed; and the consequences of denying Allah is always dire.  Today, the story of Moses and Pharaoh is rehearsed once again.  Nothing terribly notable.

However, the following passage really struck me:

[Prophet], are you going to worry yourself to death because they will not believe?  If We had wished, We could have sent them down a sign from heaven, at which their necks would stay bowed in utter humiliation.  (26:3-4)

The context appears to be that Muhammad is naturally discouraged at the way the Meccans are rejecting his message.  Muhammad is acting as an ambassador of Allah.  Allah responds by saying, “Do not fret.  I am not weak.  I could send them a sign that would overwhelm them if I wanted to.”

What struck me, though, was the effect a sign from Allah would bring: humiliation, disgrace, shame.  If Allah were to choose to suspend freedom for a moment and overwhelm the heart of a person, why produce humiliation?  I am sure the point is that these people have had a choice to accept Allah already and they have not, thus they will feel ashamed of their choice when they are flooded with a glimpse of the glory of Allah.  Still, it seems odd to me.

I think that is because of what I was expecting.  If the God of the Christian Bible were to suspend freedom and overwhelm a human heart for a moment, what emotion would He want to evoke in the heart of a person who is not in a relationship with Him?  I cannot think of a verse in the Bible that addresses this hypothetical situation directly, but I think the answer is that God would choose to evoke an immense feeling of love.  Love is the cornerstone of Christian theology.  God is love (1 John 4:8, 16) the Bible says.  Love drives so much of what God does in the narrative of the Bible.  Creation, fall, and redemption (each in the multifaceted ways they are manifested all throughout the Bible) make the most sense when centered in divine love.  So I imagined that God would flood the person with such a sense of love and desire for relationship that it would melt the unbeliever’s hard heart.

So why would Allah want to produce shame not love?  I think part of the answer comes from the frequency of the concept of divine love in the Qur’an.  It is simply incorrect to say that Allah does not say that he loves humanity, at least those who obey Him; the Qur’an most certainly says that.

God loves those who do good. (3:134)

This is just not as strong a chorus in the Qur’an as it is in the Bible, and the love of Allah seems to be quite conditioned by the degree of obedience a person chooses to give.

As for those who believe and do good deeds God will pay them their reward in full but God does not love evildoers. (3:57)

Much more common is the thought that humans are to respond to Allah with respect or fear of His glory and power.  Paying attention to word frequency is not without flaws, but it can tell us something.  The word “fear” occurs three times more frequently than the word “love.”

It seems we have a significant difference in how we humans are to relate to God.

What do you think?