I think these passages from the next five surahs are worthy of extra consideration:

76: Al-Insan (Man) & 77: Al-Mursalat ([Winds] Sent Forth)

This [Paradise] is your reward.  Your endeavors are appreciated. (76:22)

[They will be told], “Eat and drink to your heart’s content as a reward for your deeds: this is how We reward those who do good.” (77:43-44)

We see in these two passages what is very much a reward-oriented perspective.  Paradise is very much a reward for how one has lived.  Allah responds to the actions of the human, not vice versa like the grace-oriented Christianity.  However, this passage did make me think of this line from Jesus: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21)

78: Al-Naba’ (The Announcement)

Did we not build seven strong [heavens] above you. (78:12)

I would like to hear more about these seven heavens.  Why the differing levels? Are they different degrees of reward?

79: Al-Nazi`at (The Forceful Chargers)

For anyone who feared the meeting with his Lord and restrained himself from base desires, Paradise will be home. (79:40-41)

This is a good baseline statement of the Islamic worldview.

80: `Abasa (He Frowned)

For the self-satisfied one you go out of your way — though it is not your responsibility if he does not attain purity — but from the one who has come to you full of eagerness and awe you are distracted. (80:5-10)

This can be so sadly true.  We desire certain kinds of people and miss those who are really receptive.  The man who can fund the new addition to the church or mosque too often gets more attention than the meth addict mother with problematic kids.  No wonder Allah frowned.

I struggle into a new surah today, “The Throngs.”  Struggle because I am getting busier and busier.  Struggle because I still feel like I am reading the same thing over and over again.  With just over three months left in this goal to read through the Qur’an before New Year, I am pressing on to finish the goal.

Here is what hit me from this new chapter:

[As for] those who choose other protectors beside Him, saying, “We only worship them because they bring us nearer to God,” . . . (39:3)

It appears at least some pagans saw their gods as part of pantheon of under-gods that ultimately lead to the real God.

If you are ungrateful, remember God has no need of you, yet He is not pleased by ingratitude in His servants; if you are grateful, He is pleased [to see] it in you. (39:7)

God does not need us.  However, he wants us and he shows this desire through His goodness.  When we are ungrateful, we are essentially saying to God, “We do not want you.”  Maybe that is more insulting, than to reject one who needs you.

No soul will bear another’s burden. (39:7)

By my count, a version of this line occurs five times in the Qur’an (6:164; 17:15; 35:18; 39:7; 53:38).  No one will be punished for the actions of another, that is what I hear this saying.  No wonder Muslims can’t get behind the substitutionary atonement/sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of humanity, the most basic Christian belief.  It transgresses the spirit of this recurring ayah.

When man suffers some affliction, he prays to his Lord and turns to Him, but once he has been granted a favor from God, he forgets the One he had been praying to and sets up rivals to God. (39:8)

I guess every religion has people who use their god to get them out of trouble.  Too bad!

Say, “I fear the torment of a terrible Day if I disobey my Lord.”  Say, “It is God I serve, dedicating my worship entirely to Him — you may serve whatever you please beside Him.”  Say, “The true losers are the ones who will lose themselves and their people on the Day of Resurrection: that is the most obvious loss.  They will have layers of Fire above them and below.”  This is how God puts fear into His servants: My servants, beware of Me.  (39:13-16)

Unless I just don’t understand the last line, this is directed to Allah’s servants, His people, not unbelievers.  It seems a bit harsh.  The Bible talks of a “fear of God” (Proverbs 1:7) that is more like respect or revere.  That is a bit different from fear-what-I-can-do-to-you, fear-the-Fire, do-this-or-else fear.  How does a passage like this play in modern, western societies?  Do American Muslims downplay these kind of prickly depictions of Allah?

The surah continues with a recounting of the careers of the prophets Abraham, Noah, `Ad, Salih, Lot, Shu`ayb again.  There is no need to recount the details of these stories as they have become very familiar.  Bottomline, they preached the message but the people rejected. 

The most striking feature from today’s section is the fourteen uses of the phrase “mindful of God.”  Save Abraham, the other five prophets all ask their people the same question: “Will you not be mindful of God?” (26:106, 124, 142, 161, 177).  The other nine uses of the phrase are all admonitions to “be mindful of God” (26:108, 110, 126, 131, 132, 144, 150, 179, 184) and often “and obey” is added. 

What has become very clear to me as I read through the Qur’an is how central mindfulness of God (taqwa) is to the Islamic faith.  This phrase is translated other ways: “fear of God,” “reverence for God,” or “God consciousness.”  Faith begins when a person decides to make God a conscious part of their life.  Faith strengthens as God sinks deeper and deeper into the believer’s mind, so much so that God is there in every decision, every action, and every breath.  When God is so dear to a person that his reverence for God shapes what one does and does not do, that is a true “fear of God.”  This is not the “fear” that immobilizes, rather this is the “fear” that makes one’s relationship with God so sacred that nothing that would sully it is allowed to enter into the situation. 

See this earlier post and the comment by khany on this post for more on this same topic.       

“Mindful of God.”  Such a great phrase.  And an even better character trait.

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?

“Hello!” to the several who have subscribed in the past few days, maybe due to the gracious, unsolicited plug from my friend and preacher Chris Altrock (check out his voluminous blog; his discipline is exemplary and his guidance is always sure).  I guess the fact that he is still willing to own me as a friend means I haven’t been too heretical yet.

Today we begin the longest surah, a Medinan one (that will be important by the end) and interestingly titled “The Cow” because of a reference to come.  At this point Allah speaks, usually in the royal “we.”  Interestingly, 2:2-4 mention three of the five pillars of Islam, the five basic acts a devote Muslim is expected to do — the statement of faith, prayer, and almsgiving.  All that is missing is pilgrimage and fasting.    

From what I understand, ancient Arabic and Hebrew are linguistic cousins.  The word Haleem translates in 2:2 “mindful” in “those who are mindful of God” is connected to the Hebrew word in Proverbs 1:7 usually translated “fear.”

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge. (Prov. 1:7)

“Mindful:” what a great translation!  I have never preferred “fear.”  Sure, I was taught it had the connotation of “respect” and I could get that.  I respect my father in such a way that I would never dream about doing some things to or around him (except when I was a stupid 14-year-old).  But “mindful” says it so well.  We will be led in the right way when we keep our minds fixed on God.  We will begin to find knowledge that changes our lives when our minds are full of God.  How could we dare seek self-glory when there is no room for “self” in our focus for the day?  As Haleem says in his notes on this ayah (verse), the opposite of “mindful/fear” is not familiar or cozy or overly-friendly with God as it sounds like it should be when translated “fear” (not to say that these can’t be a problem, of course) but “to ignore Him.”  Yes, that seems to capture it nicely.  I like it! 

At this point the surah picks up the three kinds of responses to Allah mentioned in 1:7 — belief and devotion; outright rejection that stirs up anger; and an hypocrisy that attempts to straddle the fence but progressively leads one astray.

Islamic predetermination really comes out strongly in 2:6-7.  “It makes no difference” what you say to them, unbelievers are “sealed” for “great torment.” 

Then 2:8-20 is one of the most astounding images of hypocrisy I have ever read.  If you read nothing else from this surah, read these ayahs.  So much could be said here, so I will focus on what exactly hypocrisy is.  So often I hear Christians get it wrong.  The implication seems to be with some that if you claim to be a Christian but then commit a sin Christians are known to look down upon, you are a hypocrite.  In other words, we are all hypocrites in some way, at some time.  That is not hypocrisy, though; that is frailty, depravity, failure.  Yes, we all fail, but we are not all hypocrites.  Hypocrites (the word means “actors” in ancient Greek) set out to deceive and trick, to give the impression that they are something when they know full well they are not and don’t even intend to be that.

3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

Praise God for his mercy on those who fail.  But heaven forbid that we should try to fool God and others with vain religion.