The one who purifies his soul succeeds and the one who corrupts it fails. (91:9-10)

This is a great hallmark passage.  So much of the Qur’an can be summarized by these words.  What does Islam expect of you? How does one purify or corrupt their soul?  I have chosen to focus on these questions as we read through the next five surahs: 91, Al-Shams (The Sun); 92, Al-Layl (The Night); 93, Al-Duha (The Morning Brightness); 94, Al-Sharh (Relief); and 95, Al-Tin (The Fig).

1.  Avoid arrogance and rejection of the message of God:  The people of Thamud did not.  “Arrogant cruelty” overtook their souls so when the messenger of God came to them, they rejected him as a liar and even hamstrung his camel (91:11-14).  For such people “the raging Fire” is prepared (92:14-16).

2.  Give generously in mindfulness of God:  This is specifically called “self-purification” (92:18).  Those who corrupt their souls are “miserly,” storing up wealth for themselves, “den[ying] goodness” to those in need (92:8-10).

3.  Model the compassion of God:  We too were once orphans in need of help, and God cared for us (93:7-8).  Likewise, we ought to show compassion on those who need help in our communities (93:9-11).

4.  Pray dependently on God:  The purified soul lifts its requests to God (94:8).  It is God who “relieves” the “burden that weigh so heavily on your back” (94:1-3), so one does well to look to Him in “mindfulness” (92:5), not try to handle it himself in self-satisfied arrogance (92:8; 91:11).

In summary, who is it that purifies his soul and succeeds?  It is “those who believe and do good deeds” (95:6).

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As we get closer to the end of the Qur’an the surahs are getting shorter, so I will be combining surahs in many posts.  Today’s two surahs go well together as both of them deal with two of the five pillars of Islam: prayer (salat) and giving (zakat).

Surah 62 encourages the worshipper not to forsake daily times of prayer.

When the call of prayer is made on the day of congregation, hurry towards the reminder of God and leave off your trading–that is better for you, if only you knew–then when the prayer has ended, disperse in the land, and seek out God’s bounty. (62:9-10)

Surah 63 exhorts worshippers give to those in need.

Give out of what We have provided for you, before death comes to one of you and he says, “My Lord, if you would only reprieve me for a little while, I would give in charity and become one of the righteous.”  God does not reprieve a soul when its turn comes: God is fully aware of what you do. (63:10-11)

These two surahs are connected also by a common problem: an hypocrisy produced by the desire for wealth.

In surah 62 Jews are castigated for claiming to love God and follow His Law, yet being so attached to wealth that they loathe the day of their death because they have lost the opportunity to gain more wealth.  Though they should rush to pray with the community, instead “they scatter towards trade or entertainment whenever they observe it, and leave you [Prophet] standing there” (62:11).  Their love for money has made them “asses carrying books” they do not read or obey (62:5).  Should they not welcome the day of their death instead as an opportunity to be reunited with God their “friend” (62:6)?  They need to remember that “what God has is better than any entertainment or trade: God is the best provider” (62:11).

In surah 63–appropriately called “Hypocrites”–a group of supposed believers ask Muhammad to ask God to extend them time to fulfill the admonition to give to the poor.  Yet the reason for this request reveals their hypocrisy: their wealth and children have become a distraction to their duty.  They are not giving to others because they have other desires for their money (63:9).  God offers no reprieve for such a mentality (63:11).

(Now, I must note the irony that it is the eve of Black Friday, the busiest shopping day in America, as I write this post.  HA! )

Not much to say about today’s short section.  I probably should have tacked it onto yesterday’s reading. 

This is as good a place as any other to take notice of a formula we are seeing repeatedly throughout the Qur’an.  Over fifty times at least.  When the Qur’an wants to direct a believer to practice spiritual disciplines and exhibit particular virtues, the Book usually includes these in a loosely constructed formula.  Almost always this formula includes “keeping up regular prayers” and “giving prescribed alms or charity.” 

This is how the formula comes in todays reading:

[People], keep up the prayer, pay the prescribed alms, and obey the Messenger, so that you may be given mercy. (24:56)

I did a quick search of how many times this formula appears in the Qur’an and the following list shows the practices or virtues included in the formula and how often:

  • Charitable giving (35x)
  • Prayer (28x)
  • Obey God or the Messenger/Muhammad (9x)
  • Believe . . . in God, the Last Day, angels, the Qur’an, messengers,and/or signs (7x)
  • Faithfully endure suffering (6x)
  • Fear God (5x)
  • Worship (4x)
  • Be fair (2x)
  • Study or read the Qur’an (2x)
  • Be honest (1x)
  • Fast (1x)
  • Be chaste (1x)
  • Live modestly (1x)
  • Live peaceably (1x)
  • Protect the weak (1x)
  • Serve others (1x)
  • Be humble (1x)

What is most interesting is how prayer and charitable giving are the two most prevalent commands.  It seems that foundational to the Islamic way of life is to be prayerful with some degree of regularity and to be a truly giving person.  A pagan showed he had truly turned toward Islam when he did two things: prayer and charity (9:5, 11).  We might think to emphasize so many other practices or virtues but these are the two mainstays of Muslim spirituality. 

Do you see prayer and charitable giving as the two most important habits of a godly person?  Why or why not? 

Today we finish the second and longest surah.  It has been interesting.  Every topic under the sun . . . with a strong dose of fighting at the end.  But not today.  Today is money!  Ah, another easy topic! 

To be more precise, we focus today on charity.  Almsgiving (zakat) is one of the five pillars of Islam, the foundational practices of a devout Muslim.  Muslims are to give 2.5% of their yearly income to the poor and needy.  Today’s passage gives guidelines concerning this giving.  Christians will hear echoes of Jesus and his instructions on giving in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6).  Give freely, with no strings attached.  Don’t make a show of it or find ways to remind people what you have given or lay a guilt trip.  Give from what you have produced but also from what you have been given.  Support those who are devoted to God’s work and can’t engage in business for a livelihood.  Loan money fairly and responsibly but avoid charging interest (usury) altogether.  Be careful of the Satanic “myth of scarcity” that says you must keep what you have because there is not enough to go around; live instead in the truth of God’s abundance (2:268).  All excellent guidelines for giving.

What struck me in this passage was not the charitable attitude commanded by the Qur’an.  It was the motivation underlying why one ought to be generous in his giving.  Before going any further, ask yourself why do you give financially to others?

We are reminded in this passage that God “sees what you do” (2:265) and is “well aware of the good you give” (2:273).  The point being that we are to “spend [our] wealth in order to gain God’s approval” (2:265).  Three times this passage says those who give will “have their reward” with God for giving (2:262, 274, 277; and 264 for the converse).  The effect of giving (or not) is described in ways laced with atonement language: secret giving “makes amends” for bad deeds (2:271) and failing to give “cancels out” charitable deeds (2:264).  What one gives does not just benefit the one given to but also “benefits your own soul” (2:272) as if the act has a moral effect on the giver’s standing with Allah.  Maybe the best summary is 2:281:

Beware of a Day when you will be returned to God; every soul will be paid in full for what it has earned, and no one will be wronged.

I have often heard people describe the concept of salvation in Islam (if that is not too Christian a term) as very much like a bank account or a weighing balance.  One lives life accruing merit or demerits based on one’s actions.  In the end, Allah will measure the good and bad done by the person and the result with determine one’s eternal destiny.  Ultimately, one’s salvation is very much a matter of one’s own choices.  Of course, this is more nuanced.  Allah can multiply the effect of one’s good deeds.  There is a question of whether you can ever know your daily “bank balance,” if you will.  And maybe Allah has all of this sorted out already through some sort of hard predeterminism and we are only living into our fate.   

Like everything in this project, I am trying to put aside what I have heard people say about Islam and just hear what the Qur’an itself says.  However, what I am hearing in this passage as a rationale for the good deed of almsgiving does, in fact, seem to be very works-oriented, driven by a righteousness derived by one’s own goodness.  You give to please God.  You give to help others, yes, but so as to help yourself as well. 

Is that different from your motivation?  Is that different from the way of Christ?