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)

If I am reading today’s surah correctly, there is a note of acceptance of other religions in what we read today.  Here’s what I am seeing:

  • There is a continuity between the prophetic spirit that inspired Muhammad and that which spoke through the biblical prophets of old, from the religions typically called the “People of the Book” elsewhere in the Qur’an (42:3).
  • The “commandment” that was given to Muhammad is the same one given to Noah, Abraham, and Jesus: “Uphold the faith and do not divide into factions within it.” (42:13)
  • God is the Lord of both groups (42:15)
  • Both will be “gathered together” to a common destiny (42:15)
  • Both have a common hope in the Last Hour (42:18)

That sounds like a generous inclusion based on a common faith even if we do not disagree on lesser specifics.

I am a committed Christian.  I am fiercely devoted to a God who has made himself known to this world through Jesus Christ.  I believe there is one God and this God alone is worthy of our devotion.  I believe the proper response to the great grace of God shown through Jesus Christ is to live a righteous life showing love to God through purity and self-sacrifice and love to others through service and compassion.

So, am I an acceptable believer, as far as a devoted Muslim is concerned?

We come again today to what I would call the religiously “generous” side of Islam.  Yesterday there was judgment.  Tomorrow it may come again.  But today Islam is kind, even welcoming, to the People of the Book (Jews and Christians).  A little unpredictable if you ask me.  But it keeps it interesting!

We have seen it before (see this post), Islam sees itself as the next natural development of the strict monotheism found in pure Judaism and Christianity (without the “Jesus as God” stuff later Christians insert into the true Gospel).  The Qur’an “confirms” the early Scriptures and now is a “final authority over them” (5:48).  As long as a Jew or a Christian is living in this stream of “total devotion” and “mindfulness to God,” he or she is a true believer, even if their label does not say “Muslim.”

We [God] have assigned a law and a path to each of you.  If God so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you, so race to do good:  you will all return to God and He will make clear to you the matters you differed about. (5:48)

Different paths, but that is okay, if we all are doing “good.” 

If only the People of the Book would believe and be mindful of God, We [God] would take away their sins and bring them into the Gardens of Delight.  If they had upheld the Torah and the Gospel and what was sent down to them from their Lord, they would have been given abundance from above and from below; some of them are on the right course, but many of them — how evil is what they do! (5:65-66)

Some are going in the right direction, those who truly believe, those who fear God and show it in a virtuous life.

For the [Muslim] believers, the Jews, the Sabians [another small monotheistic group of Semitic people from the Middle East], and the Christians — those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good deeds — there is no fear: they will not grieve. (5:69)

It is not the label that matters.  Belief and obedience determine true devotion.  True believers are known by their fruit not the name of their faith.  It seems the Qur’an is willing to see more than one path leading to God.

Tune in tomorrow to see if that changes!

What will you do with Jesus?

Christians say this is the most important question in life.  You can’t deny he existed; there is ample evidence from ancient non-Christian historians that Jesus of Nazareth lived, was famous in his time and place for miracles, and was crucified by the Romans.  What you do from there is where it gets interesting.  Will you use logic to say that his followers must have thought he was divine?  They all suffered and all but one of the apostles died a martyr’s death gaining nothing materially for their beliefs.  There were so many things that could have been done at that time to disprove the resurrection but were never done (produce a body and the Jesus Movement is done).  The early church produced a weak story (criminal’s death on a shameful cross with a resurrection corroborated by women and fishermen), unless there was some sort of credibility that could rise up from the story itself.  More people alive today have found meaning from the story of Jesus than any other religious option (33% in 2001 according to Adherents.com).  The question, then, is what will Islam do with Jesus?

In today’s section we get the answer.  First, the Qur’an discusses what the Jews have done with Jesus.  In a section condemning the Jews for their disbelief they are quoted as saying:

“We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of God.” (They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition: they certainly did not kill him — No!  God raised him up to Himself.  God is almighty and wise.  There is not one of the People of the Book who will not believe in [Jesus] before his death, and on the Day of Resurrection he will be a witness against them.) (4:157-59)

Then the Qur’an addresses the deification of Jesus by the Christians:

People of the Book, do not go to excess in your religion, and do not say anything about God except the truth: The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was nothing more than a messenger of God, His word directed to Mary, and a spirit from Him.  So believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of a “Trinity” — stop [this], that is better for you — God is only one God, He is far above having a son, everything in the heavens and earth belongs to Him and He is the best one to trust.  The Messiah would never disdain to be a servant of God, nor would the angels who are close to Him. (4:171-72)

Persian miniature of Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount

As we have seen before Jesus is highly revered in Islam as a great prophet or “messenger.”  He was the Messiah but this simply means he was a special emissary to Israel from God leading them back to the right way to live with submission (islam).  Even in Islam, Jesus was born to the virginal Mary (an honor not even bestowed upon Muhammad) and performed miracles while on earth.  As we see in this passage, while it seemed to an observer that Jesus was crucified, he in fact never tasted death and ascended directly to Heaven.  He will come again near the Day of Judgment to defeat the “false Messiah.”  While obviously being special among all prophets (even when compared to Muhammad) he was only ever a human, never claimed anything other than that fact, and will make this clear at the end of time (5:116).  As 4:172 said, Jesus was always fine with this role and never once desired greater power.

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Islamic depiction of Jesus at the Day of Judgment

If Jesus did not actually die on the cross, what happened?  The Qur’an does not say.  Muslim tradition says, though, that someone who looked like Jesus was placed on the cross in his place, maybe one of the Roman soldiers who were crucifying him or Simon of Cyrene or Judas Iscariot.  Observation: That seems like a lot of rigmarole just to explain the crucifixion.  That is how important the atonement really is: it is so foundational to Christian theology that Jesus must not have done anything close to it. 

One commits shirk by claiming Jesus was the “son of God” and therefore divine.  “Shirk” means one has given a “partner” to God, one of the most serious sins of all.  As the passage  above says, therefore, it is ridiculous to speak of  a “trinity.” 

So what do Muslims do with Jesus?  Elevate him to a special position, then divest him of anything divine.  Seems like a strange combination.

Who is the liar?  It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ.  Such a man is the antichrist — he denies the Father and the Son.  No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also. . . . every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.  This is the spirit of the antichrist. (1 John 2:22; 4:3)

Abraham's Family

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all look to Abraham as a sort of “father.”  These three are called the Abrahamic religions.  That Judaism claims a connection to Abraham makes the most sense.  The connections are historical, quick and genealogical.   Abraham’s grandson was Jacob whose name was changed to “Israel,” the namesake of the nation.  Abraham’s twelve great-grandsons became the heads of the twelve ethnic tribes of Israel.  The millions of ethnic Jews past and present are part of the fulfillment to the promise of descendants God gave Abraham. 

The connections between Abraham and Christianity are less direct.  Jesus was a descendent of Abraham.  Jesus was the Jew who saves the Jews, who returns and fulfills the promised blessings to the Jews.  Paul also asserts other, more conceptual connections between any Christian — Jewish or Gentile — and Abraham.  As Paul sees it, when a person regardless of ethnicity is baptized and comes “into Christ” he becomes a part of the lineage or “seed” of Abraham and therefore an heir (Galatians 3:26-29).  Furthermore, simply approaching God through faith not law makes one a spiritual ancestor of Abraham, as this was entirely how Abraham approached God in a pre-Mosaic Law world (Galatians 3:6-9; Romans 4:16).  Abraham is the “father” of all who step out in trust, whether circumcised Jews or uncircumcised Gentiles (Romans 4:9-12).  Yes, even Americans, Canadians, Asians and Africans without an ounce of Jewish blood.

Why do Muslims look to Abraham as their father as well?  Muhammad is said to have been a descendent of Abraham too, but this time through Ishmael, Abraham’s son with Hagar the slave girl.  Thus, we are again talking about a genealogical connection.  In 2:126 from today’s section, Abraham asks that God maintain a blessing on the people of Arabia who believe in the One God.  Abraham is given credit in the Qur’an for the name “Muslim” which means “those who submit” (22:78).  Maybe the biggest reason for the Islamic identification with Abraham is their assertion that he was the original monotheist, and thus the original Muslim — that is a “submitter” to the will of God.  It was believed even before the time of Muhammad that Abraham and Ishmael had built the black, cubic shrine called the Ka’ba in the middle File:Kaaba mirror edit jj.jpgof Mecca as the first house of worship to God.  In surah 19 Abraham debates the merits of idolatry with his own polytheistic father, Azar (Terah in Genesis).  Abraham declares it faulty and displeasing to the sole true God, so when Azar rejects his son’s advice Abraham disassociates himself from his father (9:114).  Muslims claim that what was really started with Abraham was the religion that reached its most complete manifestation in Islam.  Therefore, what started formally with Muhammad actually existed in spirit even before Judaism.  Hence, Islam claims not only a historical connection to Abraham but also one of ideology or faith, not unlike Christians do as well. 
Christians look at Islam and say how dare they co-opt our God, add a new revelation onto what we have (and discredit our Bible), and then claim that their religion is only what God started in the beginning in its purest form.  But then I imagine that is what a devote Jew would say about Christianity too.  
In today’s reading, the Qur’an says this:
 So you believers say, “We believe in God and in what was sent down to us and what was sent down to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and what was given to Moses, Jesus, and all the prophets by their Lord.  We make no distinction between any of them, and we devote ourselves to Him.”  So if they believe like you [Muslims] do, they will be rightly guided.  But if they turn their backs, then they will be entrenched in opposition. (2:136-37)
 
So as long as a devoted monotheistic Jew or Christian is truly following the guidance of God then they too will be blessed.  They are actually following the submissive way of Islam anyway, so why be concerned?  And if that is the case, could a Muslim not say that Jew or Christian is actually and truly a Muslim?  It is an interesting way to cut the Gordian knot of religious diversity while maintaining an approach of exclusivity. 

I have come to the middle of the only the second surah, a little over a week into this endeavor, and it would seem that right from the its birth, the Qur’an was born into a milieu of controversy and opposition.  Historically, the polytheists of Mecca took umbrage to this new revelation from God almost as soon as Muhammad returned from the Cave at Hira.  But the fact that the Qur’an is so quickly and persistently attacking Jews and Christians suggests these competing religions were even greater opponents (the attack continues today some places in the world).  I would have thought there were more important things to introduce this early in the book than the failings of the “People of the Book.”  It is almost as if Islam has knit its identity into the identities of these other two religions as a counter-point to their claims.  Almost like a symbiotic relationship, but in a negative way. 

That doesn’t seem like a healthy way to begin.  It seems like that only asks for the world to see you perpetually as a foil to these others, as if Islam cannot stand by itself.  Christianity at least positioned itself as a fulfillment to the religion of the Israelites, not a foil.  If this is a valid observation (and it certainly may not be) it also seems like it is no wonder that Islam’s history has always been intertwined antagonistically with either Judaism or Christianity.  And it seems like we are doomed to see that continue. 

I hope to hear soon about Islam, not the failings of the Jews and the Christians to believe.          

On the topic of Islam and pluralism, this ayah seems to confirm we are talking about replacement, not coexistence:

Any revelation We [Allah] cause to be superseded or forgotten, We replace with something better or similar. (2:106)   

We find the reason for the title of this surah (Al-Baqarah means “The Cow”) in today’s section, the story of a cow or heifer that was to be sacrificed as a purification from sin (2:67-71).  The sacrifice even seems to be able to raise the dead!  This appears to be connected to the story in Number 19:1-10 of the red heifer offered by Moses for the purification of the people.  Nonetheless, it seems like a weird story to me! 

Most of this passage is a scathing indictment against the Jewish nation for their disrespect of God and abuse of their covenant.  They hypocritically pretend to be allied with God when in reality they only serve themselves.  They wave race and election and God’s promises about as some sort of insurance policy they can cash in to save their rock-hard hearts.  You cannot treat God like this and think all will be okay.  The conclusion of the matter is crystal clear:

Truly those who do evil and are surrounded by their sins will be inhabitants of the Fire, there to remain, while those who believe and do good deeds will be the inhabitants of the Garden, there to remain. (2:81-82)

How one’s faith is manifested through behavior determines one’s destiny, and the “children of Israel” (at least some of them) have been found wanting. 

The very first verse in this section introduces a new idea.  Are Muslims exclusivists like most traditional Christians or are they in fact more inclusive than us? 

The Muslim believers, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabians [another Semitic monotheistic ancient religion] — all those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good — will have their rewards with their Lord.  No fear for them, nor will they grieve. (2:62)

Interestingly, a moderate Muslim think tank in Washington DC called The Center for Islamic Pluralism uses this exact verse as a banner statement for their site, so maybe so at least in some permutation.  The Muslim commentator Abdullah Yusuf Ali says this about this verse:

The point of the verse is that Islam does not teach an exclusive doctrine, and is not meant exclusively for one people. The Jews claimed this for themselves, and the Christians in their origin were a sect of the Jews. Even the modern organized Christian churches . . . [believe]  that all who do not believe in it or who lied previously to [rejected the saving power of] the death of Christ are at a disadvantage spiritually before the Throne of God. The attitude of Islam is entirely different. Islam existed before the preaching of Muḥammad on this earth: the Qur’ān expressly calls Abraham a Muslim (3:67). Its teaching (submission to God’s will) has been and will be the teaching of Religion for all time and for all peoples.

But then doesn’t the rest of today’s section talked about the spiritual bankruptcy of the Jews?  I am getting ahead of myself but I know we will come to passages in which Allah commands Muslims to try to convert Jews and Christians to their religion.  It does not seem like Islam is as inclusive as Ali would like it to appear.  It seems all he is doing is saying Allah accepts (actually envelopes) anything that came before 610 CE (the advent of Islam) and calls that Islamic or the one true “Religion” as well (i.e., Abraham).  In that way it may sound like Islam is more inclusive than Judaism or Christianity, but really it insists on the legitimacy of only one way.  It doesn’t get more exclusive than that.  I suspect we will see (as happens in the rest of this passage) the Qur’an come back and exclude aspects of Judaism and Christianity every bit as much as these religions exclude Islam.  This will be another idea to pay attention to.