Family is both the most rewarding and most challenging set of relationships ever. 

Many people in this country are coming off a long, long weekend of family meals, shopping trips, and time spent together.  More people travel this Thanksgiving weekend than on any other weekend in the year.  As I drove up Interstate 75 in southern Georgia headed home from Florida I saw one license plate after another from places as far away as Wisconsin, Illinois, even Wyoming.  Maybe one last family trip to the beach before the winter.  Maybe a visit to Grandma who got smart and retired in Tampa.

Family time is filled with laughter, reminiscence, and thoughtful conversation.  Unfortunately there are always tears, regrets, impatience, hurtful remarks, and competition right there too. 

The next three surahs are all loosely connected by a common theme of domestic dispute. 

In surah 64, believers are reminded:

Even among your spouses and your children you will have enemies–beware of them–but if you overlook their offences, forgive them, pardon them, then God is all forgiving, all-merciful. (64:14)

More important than what transpires among family members–some of who are bound not to like each other–is what a believer does next.  The right response is to take the high ground and overlook their offences.  Choose not to harbor grudges.  Forgive.   A very good principle. 

Surah 65 is intensely domestic, as even the title reveals — “Divorce.”  Contrary to traditional Christianity where divorce is still frowned-upon by many of the more conservative types, Islam seems to acknowledge divorce as a fact of life and has made concessions right from the beginning for how to go about it virtuously.  If divorce must happen, the man must give it a three-month waiting period (65:1, 4).  This appears to be connected both to possible pregnancy but also the possibility that God might change their hearts (65:1).  The grounds for divorce must be corroborated by two just witnesses (65:2) and the man must take care of the woman financially (65:6-7).  Above all, both parties must treat each other honorably (65:2) and not make life difficult for the other (65:6-7).   

Finally, surah 66 takes up the issue of gossip and lack of trust in family conversations.  On some occasion, Muhammad discussed a matter with one of his wives in secret (66:3).  As the leader of the Muslim people, we can assume this was not just some simple pillow-talk, but rather something sensitive.   What exactly was said is not stated and isn’t really the point.  This wife revealed these confidences to one of the Prophet’s other wives, and God made this known to Muhammad.  Now, both are called to “repent” (66:4), one for her broken trust and the other for encouraging it presumably.  Now they must choose what kind of wives they will be: virtuous like Pharaoh’s wife and Mary, or disbelieving like the wives of Noah and Lot (66:9-12). 

At a time when gossip is commonplace and trust is constantly eroded, this too is a good message.

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One might expect much more about the Prophet in this new surah named after him than actually occurs.  This surah derives its name from the mention of Muhammad in the second ayah:

God will overlook the faults of those who have faith, do good deeds, and believe in what has been sent down to Muhammad. (47:2)

Here again we see the way Islamic salvation is envisioned: God overlooks the sin of His followers.  This is fundamentally different from the atonement theology of Christianity.  And as we have hashed and rehashed on this blog already, that puts the triggering power of salvation squarely in the hands of the human, understanding of course that if Allah did not want to forgive there is nothing a human could do to cause it.  There is a sort of grace in the reality that Allah wants to save.

When you meet the disbelievers in battle, strike them in the neck, and once they are defeated, bind any captives firmly — later you can release them as a grace or for ransom — until the toils of war have ended. (47:4)

This new surah in a Medinan one, hence the context of battle.  Islam has institutionalized and been marginalized by the pagans of Mecca.  This tension has grown to conflict and even death.  Therefore, if the unbelievers come against the Muslims, they have every right to fight back even to the point of killing.  As we have noticed almost every time violence is sanctioned in the Qur’an, there is a context to the admonitions of violent resistance.  In most cases it is one of battle and self-defense.  Translator Haleem notes that some commentators make much of the fact that in this ayah “grace” is mentioned before “ransom,” implying that grace is the preference.

Here is a picture of the Garden promised to the pious: rivers of water forever pure, rivers of milk forever fresh, rivers of wine, a delight for those who drink, rivers of honey clarified and pure, [all] flow in it; and they will find forgiveness from their Lord.  How can this be compared to the fate of those stuck in the Fire, given boiling water to drink that tears their bowels? (47:15)

What a picturesque image of the contrasting destinies!  I wasn’t expecting the win, given the Muslim’s well-known prohibition on alcohol.  Still, so vivid!  Do most Muslims take images like these of the Afterlife literally or do most simply realize these are cultural, time-bound ways to depict desirable and undesirable fates?

So [believers] do not lose heart and cry out for peace.  It is you who have the upper hand: God is with you.  He will not begrudge you the reward for your [good] deeds: the life of this world is only a game, a pastime, but if you believe and are mindful of God, He will recompense you.  He does not ask you to give up [all] your possessions . . . though now you are called upon to give [a little] for the sake of God, some of you are grudging. (47:35-38)

The context of battle come out in the ending of this surah as well.  We do long for peace, don’t we?  There are many reasons for that.  The one taken up here is that conflict demands much from us.  Few really want to fight for their faith, especially literally.  Some might be willing to, but those who want to fight are scary individuals.  In this passage God does four things.  First, he reminds them that this world and the possessions and achievements who can accumulate are little more than trophies in a game; our worldly accumulations are not the point, so be careful how firmly you hang on to them.  Second, he reminds them that they will not have to give it all up, though they would have to if they died, wouldn’t they?  Third, he reminds them they have the upper hand because He is with them and not with the pagans.  Last, he reminds them there is a reward for their willingness to fight.  Fighting aside, faith will take sacrifice.  There is an easy version of religion that requires little from you.  It also gives you little in return.

There is a whole lot of hellfire in the Quran.  A whole lot more than this slightly post-modern evangelical Christian is used to.  I have hashed and rehashed this topic many times on this blog, so I am not going back down this road here again today.  The question when you read a passage like today’s surah is whether Allah is forgiving. 

In the midst of rehearsing how Allah has always sent messengers to people (like Pharaoh), how inclined people are to reject, and how punishment is therefore merited and assured, is a resounding “YES!” 

This Scripture is sent down from God, the Almighty, the All Knowing, Forgiver of sins and Accepter of repentance. (40:2-3)

Three more times in the surah the word “forgive” appears in some form or another:

  • Angels “beg forgiveness for the believers” (40:7-8)
  • Later, Allah is called the “Forgiving One” (40:42)
  • Muhammad is encouraged to ask forgiveness for his sins as well (40:55)
  • Oh, and the very name of this surah is “The Forgiver.”

Is Allah forgiving?  For sure.  Those who ask for forgiveness, those who show great repentance, those who turn from their evil ways can be assured of Allah’s mercy. 

There is another interesting tidbit in this surah, in this ayah here:

They [dead disbelievers] will say, “Our Lord, twice You have caused us to be lifeless and twice you have brought us to life. . . .” (40:11)

It would appear this is a line that would be spoken by an unbeliever at the point of Judgment.  When are the two periods of lifelessness before Judgment?  Translator Haleem offers a “generally accepted view” that this is referring to the point before physical birth and after physical death.  Then the two points when a person is “brought to life” are physical birth and the resurrection of the soul for Judgment.  This certainly makes sense. 

This is an interesting question that many religions ask: what kinds of consciousness have/do/will we have and when?  If Haleem is correct in saying this is a commonly held Islamic belief, then it would appear many Muslims believe there is a period after physical death and before the future Last Judgment in which the soul is “dead” or at least unconscious.

Many Christians like the comfort of the thought that the moment grandma dies she is whisked by angels straight to the side of God.  So, we can say with confidence and joy at the funeral days later, “Today, Grandma is smiling down at us today from Heaven.” 

I am not so sure the Bible is as clear on that idea as we might like.  It certainly seems the timeline the Quranic passage sketches out makes more sense if one believes there is a future day of Judgment.  For Grandma to be with Jesus, wouldn’t she have had to have been judged already?  Of course, I hope dearly that Grandma will be in Heaven, but that would mean there has to be billions of individual Judgment Days each time a person dies.  That is possible, of course.  Or maybe there is a future Resurrection and a future Judgment, as the Quran talks about it (and maybe the Bible, too?). 

I’ll tell you when I get there.

Today I am filled with questions.

In today’s passage, Allah is called the “Lord of Mercy” five times.  This, of course is the same recurring title for Allah in the heading of most of the surahs we have come to thus far.  Certainly, this appellation reveals a characteristic that is deemed by Muslims to be foundational to the nature of Allah.  This is why the following questions nag, and this is as good as any place to state them.

  • What does it mean in Islamic theology that Allah is merciful?
  • What does this kind of mercy do or not do?
  • Is Islamic mercy difference from the kind Jews or Christians might talk about?
  • Is this kind of mercy similar or even synonymous with “grace?”
  • In particular, what motivates Allah’s mercy — power, love, holiness, glory, or something else entirely?
  • Why does Allah extend mercy sometimes and not others?
  • What gives Allah the right to be merciful?  Why is it just for Allah to extend mercy some times and not others?
  • Does someone pay for wrongdoing?  If not, is this “cheap grace” that costs Allah very little?  If so, why does he not extend it to all?

This surah ends by recounting how God stayed faithful to the children of Israel in Moses’ time, even forgiving them of their idolatry with the golden calf at Sinai when they repented.  In fact, this has always been God’s way as far back as Adam’s “idolatry” of his own power in the Garden (20:120).  God cannot stomach idolatry, but even this can be reversed by repentance.  This was an important message in Mecca in Muhammad’s time. 

Here’s a list of the top ten verses that stood out to me in today’s longer reading:

1.  Listen to the Qur’an“We have given you a Qur’an from Us.  Whoever turns away from it will bear on the Day of Resurrection a heavy burden and will remain under it.  What a terrible burden to carry on that Day!” (20:99-101)

2.  An Isaiah-like vision of the Day of the Lord: “They ask you [Prophet] about the mountains: say, ‘[On that Day] my Lord will blast them into dust and leave a flat plain, in it you will see no valley or hill.'” (20:105-107)

3.  Judged by our works: “Those burdened with evil deeds will despair, but whoever has done righteous deeds and believed need have no fear or injustice or deprivation.” (20:111-112)

4.  Give time for understanding before you speak: “[Prophet], do not rush to recite before the revelation is fully complete but say, ‘Lord, increase my knowledge!'” (20:114)

5.  God is looking for finishers: “We also commanded Adam before you, but he forgot and We found him lacking in constancy.” (20:115)

6.  Sounds tempting: “But Satan whispered to Adam, saying, ‘Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and power that never decays?'” (20:120)

7.  But nothing good comes from Satan: “Adam, this is your enemy, yours and your wife’s: do not let him drive you out of the garden and make you miserable.” (20:117)

8.  This sounds even better: “In the garden you will never go hungry, feel naked, be thirsty, or suffer the heat of the sun.” (20:118-119)

9.  Obedience frees: “Whoever follows My guidance, when it comes to you [people], will not go astray nor fall into misery.” (20:123)

10.  Good advice still today: “Do not gaze longingly at what We have given some of them to enjoy, the finery of this present life: We test them through this, but the provision of your Lord is better and more lasting.” (20:131)

The fourteenth surah — Abraham — is named after the patriarch who shows up late in the surah in a secondary way.  Tomorrow we will look at the theme of gratitude that is at the beginning and end of the chapter.  Today is more of a miscellany of interesting ideas from the first part of the surah.

1.  There have been many threats of punishment in the past few surahs.  In fact, it seems like you can’t read very long anywhere in the Qur’an without running up on these reminders.  So it is good to be reassured right from the beginning of this surah that Allah’s intention is to forgive and bless humanity:

This is a Scripture which We have sent down to you [Prophet] so that you may bring people from the depths of darkness into light, to the path of the Almighty. (14:1)

He calls you to Him in order to forgive you your sins and let you enjoy your life until the appointed hour. (14:10)

Later in today’s reading the point comes out that Allah is not simply trying to get his own way.  If so, he could have destroyed the rebellious and started over (14:19).  Instead, Allah wants to redeem these people, and redemption is his greatest goal. 

2.  Still, punishment is a possibility and it is interesting that “prefer[ing] the life of this world over the life to come” (14:3) is a recurring description of those who incite God’s ire greatly.  If that was truly 1400 years ago when the Qur’an was written, what about now?  It seems this description is even more true today. 

3.  Ayah 4 is a good description of how Allah relates to those who choose to follow him and those who do not:

God leaves whoever He will to stray, and guides whoever He will. (14:4)

Humans are free to choose Allah or not.  Then Allah acts passively in the life of those who choose to walk away from him — he does not stop them.  But Allah works actively to guide those who do choose Him, and we have to imagine that life becomes easier when Allah is actively involved. 

4.  The people of Mecca respond to Muhammad’s plea for faith with a request for proof:

You want us to turn away from what our forefathers used to worship.  Bring us clear proof then [if you can.] (14:10)

But there’s the rub. Of course, someone would want proof in order to switch worldviews, but God operates by faith, maybe faith with evidence, but faith nonetheless:

We cannot bring you any proof unless God permits it, so let the believers put their trust in Him. (14:11)

Unless one is willing to walk by faith, they will not find Allah.

5.  There is a very vivid image used to describe Hell late in today’s reading:

Hell awaits each one; he will be given foul water to drink, which he will try to gulp but scarcely be able to swallow. (14:16-17)

That’s Hell: working with the things of life intended to bring satisfaction (i.e., water) but not finding fulfillment at all.  Hell is sex without love, company without belonging, work without reward.  It is “hav[ing] no power over anything they have gained” (14:18).  This image of Hell is such a strong contrast with the image of Paradise in ayah 23: “Gardens graced with flowing streams.”

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.