In 613 CE, the Byzantine armies were defeated in a significant way by the Persian armies in Syria.  This is the immediate background of this new surah and mention of the battle is made in the first few ayahs.  It is revealed here that there will soon be a change of fortunes and that the Persians will fall to the Byzantines once again.  By the early 620s CE, this is exactly what happened.  Interestingly, the Byzantines that are being mentioned here are Christians, not Muslims.  The Persians were not Muslims either; they were Zoroastrian.  Is this a note of support for the Christians?  The main point: God is in control of all things.

The rest of the surah is much the same message we have been seeing over and over again.  However, I guess I can see in this surah what Dean meant in his comment on this post about how the overall message of a surah may be similar to many others but the specific context causes the nuances of new meaning to come out.

Now, let me put a single ayah in juxtaposition to the seeming preference given to the Christians in this surah:

So [Prophet] as a man of pure faith, stand firm and true in your devotion to the religion.  This is the natural devotion to the religion.  This is the natural disposition God instilled in mankind — there is no altering God’s creation — and this is the right religion, though most people do not realize it. (30:30)

I guess it is possible that Christianity and Judaism were seen as under that umbrella of “right religion” in this surah given their common devotion to God, commitment to monotheism, and “the Book” (though differently defined).  But I suspect that was not the case.  I am not interested at this point in doing anything other than making one observation.

In popular American culture, traditional Christians are viewed as narrow-minded exclusivists who believe their religion is the one “right religion.”  With a verse like this one it is hard to deny the exclusivism that seems to be in traditional Christianity:

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

But those who object to the seeming exclusivity of Christianity are not quick to point out how this is also true of other religions.  What Buddhist believes that the teachings of the Buddha can be totally ignored and one still find nirvana?  What religious Jew is comfortable with adding Jesus to the concept of divinity?  What pagan wants to accept monotheism?  What atheist is willing to concede the existence of a god?  Does a relativistic pluralist not believe that he has discovered an absolute truth?  Do not most religious people believe that their way is the right way?

What is clear in this Quranic passage is that Muslims do.

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?

The Muslims can argue over “battle gains” from the Battle of Badr if they want to but the “good” can easily become “bad” if they push this too far.  Disbelievers will receive punishment in the end; are they sure they want to argue and show a profound lack of trust in God?  So is the gist of today’s passage

It is 8:31 that has caught my attention today:

Whenever Our [Allah’s] Revelation [the Qur’an] is recited to them they say, “We have heard all this before — we could say something like this if we wanted — this is nothing but ancient fables.”

That is really the question, isn’t it?  Is there anything about this revelation that is new, unique, unheard of?  Could this be made up or is there something so unlike the stories told before that makes the revelations of Muhammad stand out as unparalleled? 

Of course, the same questions needs to be asked of every other “grand story” or metanarrative for life.  Is this just the same story people have always told or is it something special? 

The same question needs to be asked of the “stories” by which people today live:

  • Materialism — only that which can be sensed is real and capable of truly satisfying our needs and wants, so gather all you can
  • Nationalism — my nation is superior to all others and as long as we remain strong, rich, and intimidating we can ensure the best kind of life possible
  • Hedonism — physical pleasure will fulfill like nothing else so “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”
  • Egoism — “I” am most important so look at me, love me, want me, give me attention because there is no better experience than when I am the trending topic
  • Romance — the love of the perfect mate will satisfy you like nothing else can

Are these really new, unique stories or is this just another “ancient fable?”  Wouldn’t we agree that as long as people have lived they have lived their lives by these stories?  Across time, gender, race, or socioeconomic level people have lived these stories.  Nationalism did not stop Rome from falling; will it stop America or China or Iran?  Whether the “I” was Caesar, Rameses, Napoleon, or Lady Gaga, “I” seems to end up empty and alone.  Is Bill Gates any more immortal than Tutankhamen or Solomon?  These are no new stories.  “We could say something like this if we wanted!”

And what about the “story” or metanarrative of Jesus?  Is it any different?  Is the way of Christ unique?

The God who created the world in power, majesty and love desired a relationship with his creation so much that he condescended to take on flesh and become a creature as well.  The God who is so holy that he is offended by sin is also so loving that He takes on the very punishment of sin and pays the price for human rebellion Himself.  The God who rules all things displays his ultimate power through the resurrection of the One who died, therefore overthrowing the twin forces feared by all human beings, Evil and Death.  The God who is so demanding He requires holiness of His followers also agrees to live within His followers as the empowering presence that makes holiness a reality.  This God invites all people regardless of past failures to find the greatest fulfillment in a life lived for others and in advancement of a kingdom that is not our own. 

What other god does that?  What other god would dare?  What other god would become so vulnerable?  What other god thinks that much of the creation?  What other story champions grace?  What other story says dependence produces worthiness, not work?  What other story says fulfillment comes through self-sacrifice?  What other story says the way up is down?  Is that a unique story, the kind that people haven’t “heard before?”  It seems so to me.

And what about the story told by Muhammad?  Is it something new, different, and unique?  That is the question the “disbelievers” of Muhammad’s time were asking.  It is also the question we are asking this year, isn’t it?

I once had a student express her distaste for closed-minded Christians who believe they are the only ones going to Heaven.  This student came from a Muslim family, though a very secular one.  The thought that her relatives in a far away country who have only ever known Islam would be banished to Hell simply because they did not accept Jesus as God was insulting (this was not a claim I had made, by the way; as I general rule I try not to alienate my students).  There it was once again: the characterization of Christianity as intolerant and exclusive. 

But why do other religions not get the same bad rap?  Maybe they do and I don’t realize it.  Maybe they do not come across the same way; Buddhism sure does not.  Maybe they are truly more inclusive, like Hinduism.  What strikes me most in this the last section from the fourth surah is how Islam could just as easily be labeled with these same negative epithets.

As for those who ignore God and His messengers and want to make a distinction between them, saying, “We believe in some but not others,” seeking a middle way, they are really disbelievers.  We [Allah] have prepared a humiliating punishment for those who disbelieve.  But God will give [due] rewards to those who believe in Him and His messengers and make no distinction between any of them.  (4:150-151)

Sounds like the Qur’an is saying our way or no way.  There is only one way.

For those of them that reject the truth [the Jews] we have prepared an agonizing torment.  But those of them who are well grounded in knowledge and have faith do believe in what was revealed to you [Muhammad] . . . to them We shall give a great reward. (4:161)

Seems you have to believe certain things.  If you do there is reward.  If you don’t?  Well, “agonizing” doesn’t sound very accepting. 

Those who have disbelieved and barred others from God’s path have gone far astray; God will not forgive those who have disbelieved and do evil, nor will He guide them to any path except that of Hell, where they will remain for ever — this is easy for God. (4:167-69)

You are a believer in another faith?  Not okay.  In fact, Allah won’t even try to guide you to Himself.  Allah finds it “easy” to send people to Hell.

He [the Messiah; more on him tomorrow] will gather before Him all those who disdain His worship and are arrogant: to those who believe and do good works He will give due rewards and more of His bounty; to those who are disdainful and arrogant He will give an agonizing torment. (4:172-73)

Reward or punishment.  It’s up to you.  And it all has to do with how “Muslim” you are. 

That sounds exclusive to me.  I am not a Muslim, so I hear a warning.  I am risking my soul by not having accepted the Qur’an as the final revelation of my God.  My way is not sufficient.  My allegiance to Christianity should be dropped and I should adopt the true spirit of submission (islam) that was in Father Abraham, Moses, David and the great prophet Jesus.  I am not okay where I am.  That sounds very close-minded.  How intolerant!  Some of the best people I know are Christians.  Are you telling me God would send them to Hell just because they haven’t accepted the words brought by Muhammad?  How insulting! 

It seems Christians aren’t alone in their exclusivism, after all.      

More on this same section tomorrow.  It has some very interesting ideas about Jesus and we need to look closely at that, for sure.

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.