This will almost certainly be the last post of this blog.  I pledged last Christmas to read the Qur’an closely in a year, discovering for myself as much as the book could teach me about Islam.  I was tired of hearing what others had to say about Islam, others who often were uninformed and loaded with an agenda that was anything but charitable to people different from themselves.  Also, I had been teaching a sizable unit in my 12th grade religion class on world religions for a few years but had not read the sacred texts of the religions I was discussing, and I thought it was time to rectify that.  Cultural events in America as a whole, in Tennessee, and even in Memphis caused me to see more and more of an anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Muslim sentiment, and it was time to see if there was anything to the fears I was hearing.

Now, just a few weeks past a year, I come to the end of the Qur’an, and therefore this blog.  It has been a good project.  Tough at times.  Several things happened personally (like a tree falling on my house!) and I found even just finding a half-hour to read and blog was impossible some days.  I am very glad I did this.  I believe I am a much better informed citizen of the world.  I also found that I have gained a greater appreciation for my own religion, Christianity; sometimes seeing what you have in contrast does that.  And who knows, maybe I have started a friendship or two.  At least one of you who reads this blog and is a Muslim has migrated over to my new year-long project, reading through the Christian New Testament again (see kingdomnewtestament.wordpress.com if you are interested).

A few times throughout the year as my Christian friends discovered this project, they asked what I have learned.  I would mention a few things, but really I have 180+ posts of realizations.  Still, it might be helpful for me to mention a few items that really stand out to me here as we wind this project up:

Muslims are people too:  This one seems like such a given that it shouldn’t need to be said, but it does.  If we would just take the time to actually get to know and talk with people who are different from us, we would find there is less difference than we think and so much room for kindness.  No, we are not all the same in our beliefs.  Yes, there are mutually exclusive ideas in various religions.  But the real point here is that Muslims are humans, not just a religion or a set of beliefs.  Muslims tuck their little daughters and sons into bed at night too.  They struggle with how to honor God in all they do; “struggle” is what the name of the religion means.  They fret about having enough to pay the bills, but not so much that money becomes an idol or “partner” with God.  They passionately desire the best for the world, they just define this slightly differently than others.  I am convinced though the solution is not to vilify or caricature all Muslims as terrorists.  Nothing will be gained from grabbing our kids close when Muslims walk by or develop a political platform that makes tax-paying, law-abiding, freedom-loving American Muslims feel marginalized in our society.  Get to know a Muslim and see what happens.

Keep reading:  Maybe my biggest realization came about halfway through the year when Muslims began to find and comment on this blog.  What I discovered is that if I really wanted to understand Islam, reading the Qur’an is only the beginning.  In fact, I am wondering now if I have read more of the Qur’an than some Muslims I have talked to this year (not the clearly learned Muslims who were kind enough to take a lot of time to educate me about their religion).  I was mistaken when I thought the Qur’an would unlock a thorough understanding of Islam.  I would say now that if one really wants to understand this esteemed religion one would be best served by reading the Hadith, the traditions and sayings of Muhammad that have been collected since his death.  Then pick up the Sunnah, the code for living in this world as a Muslim.  But that is far more reading and study than I am willing to commit to a religion other than my own.

Culture plays a bigger role in modern Islam than a text:  This is my hunch, though I am sure more learned people than I would say the same thing.  I have been struck by how American Muslims respond differently to my queries than Asian Muslims.  I noticed that the 1400 year old Qur’an approaches topics differently than commentators did a 100 years ago and that the translator and commentator of my translation from the 21st century had an even different take.  Time shapes thinking too.  I have noticed that empowered male Muslims speak differently about their religion than do women who are speaking out now about their religion.  And what about subjugated women who fear speaking out at all?  There is no surprise here; texts are infinitely interpretable.  We play a part in determining what a text means and an even bigger role in how a text is lived.  It would be nice to believe the Qur’an (or Bible) just means what it says, but there is logically and observably more to the equation than that.  I suspect 9/11 was driven by politics and cultural ideology more than religion.  I was struck by how few truly offensive passages I came to in the Qur’an.  I think the ugliness non-Muslims so often associate with Islam has more to do with what happens when a text gets into the hands of a cleric or charismatic leader with political or ideological aspirations, not what Allah meant in the Qur’an (if you believe the Qur’an is the words of Allah).

No, they are not out to get us:  Unfortunately, the common perception of Muslims in America is that Muslims want to kill non-Muslims.  There are few months when a student does not say as much, but we can dismiss this as adolescence.  But where are they getting this view?  Parents?  Television depictions?  Talk-show hosts?  Political candidates?  Religious leaders?  Sadly, some of all of the above.  Of course, my attention was most drawn to those passages that dealt with violence.  Maybe my greatest observation here is truly how few of these passages there are, especially in the more so Meccan last half of the Qur’an.  Then, I was reminded that, just like the Bible, these passages have to be taken in context.  All of them pertained to issues in 7th century Arabia, mainly involving aggressive pagans and a few cases of attacking Christians or Jews.  Generally, I do believe it is right to depict the condoning of violence in the Qur’an as self-defense.  I have no doubt, however, that even in the time of Muhammad this ideal degraded into more than self-defense; dealing with violence with more violence will do that.

Yet, some of them are:  It would be naive and irresponsible to ignore the fact that there are Muslims today who cite their religion as grounds for their violent attacks on non-Muslims, Christians and Jews especially.  Yes, there do seem to be some Muslims who do believe America is the “Great Satan,” though I still think we ought to ask why?  As I see it this goes back to the very same violent texts mentioned above.  As long as you have ayahs like these in the Qur’an — “Fighting has been ordained for you” (2:216) and “Kill them wherever you encounter them” (2:191) — you will have people who come along, regardless of context, and make these texts support their murderous agendas.  Is the Qur’an a violent book?  I don’t think so.  Can it be?  Absolutely!  Again, I think this has more to do with politics and ideology than religion.

Women get a mixed bag:  Is Islam inherently a misogynistic religion that subjugates women?  Like my observations about violence above, it depends on who you are talking to.  Are there passages that can be taken as demeaning to women?  Yes (4:34-35).  But there are also passages that are very protective of women, especially in cases of divorce.  Does polygamy have to be seen as demeaning to women?  No, but it can easily turn into that.  Are hijabs and burqahs prisons into which women are locked?  If you have a forceful husband who is used to getting his way and maybe has a jealous streak, sure they can be.  But they can also be incredibly empowering when they are the way a woman says she will control who can gaze upon her beauty and potentially turn her into a sexual object.  Again, I think the answer here has less to do with religion and more with personality, culture, and situations.  I suspect an American, Canadian, or British Muslim woman experiences a very different life than a young Muslim woman in parts of Iran, Afghanistan or India.

Islam gets so much so right:  In part it is because Islam is still eastern and tied to honor societies in contrast to western Christianity that seems to be driven more so by success, progress, and love, but I am struck by the respect accorded Allah in the Qur’an and in Muslim society.  This is a stark contrast to popular American Christianity-lite where “Jesus is my homeboy” or where we think the first thing we will do in Heaven is give God a hug.  The expectations placed on a worshiper of Allah are clear and high: be truly committed, no turning back, give it all or don’t bother.  The choices in life are simple and clear: Paradise or Hellfire.  Two paths to choose from, which one will it be?  Along that line, one’s eternal destiny is constantly before one as they read their Qur’an.  I would hazard to guess that Judgment and the afterlife are mentioned in at least 90% of the surahs.  People have a responsibility to care about and care for the weak and needy of our society.  Religion is intended to be embodied in flesh.  We do religion; it is lived.  Think about the five pillars of Islam: statement of belief, prayer, fasting, alms, and pilgrimage.  All of these pillars which “hold up” the religion are actions one does.  One doesn’t just believe Islam.  One does it.  I find much of this admirable.

Still, there is something missing — Jesus:  Unapologetically, I acknowledge that I am understanding Islam in contrast to my Christianity.  So many times this year I felt like Islam came close to the high ideals of Christianity, but then fell short, in large part because of how Jesus is viewed in each religion.  Let there be no doubt, Islam has a high view of Jesus.  He is a great prophet.  The honor he is given in this life and the next are great.  But he is no god in Islam; that would be blasphemous.  So what is missing when Jesus is not God?  Allah just does not come off as being as personal or immanent a god as the God of the Bible is.  Christians can say they are seeing God when they look at Jesus.  Christians believe Jesus reveals the heart and actions of God.  Christians can say their God has given them a flesh-and-blood example of how to live life, Jesus.  Furthermore, when Jesus leaves the earth after his resurrection he sends the Holy Spirit, who Christians believe is the very presence of God.  This Holy Spirit lives inside Christians, making us holy and guiding us through life.  Christians believe a part of their God lives inside of them.  I see none of this in the Qur’an.  Allah did not even speak to Muhammad himself.  Maybe the biggest nut I have tried to crack this year is the difference between Islamic and Christian views on grace.  Does Islam speak of grace and mercy?  Almost every surah starts by calling Allah the “Lord and Giver of Mercy.”  Do humans deserve to be saved from Hell, according to Islam?  No.  Is there any human who can be perfect enough to be deemed righteous in Allah’s eyes?  No.  Are there countless numbers of blessings that come to humans everyday because of Allah’s grace that we simply do not deserve?  Yes.  It is certainly appropriate to speak of grace in Islam.  But it is a fundamentally different kind than what you find in Christianity.  Muslims must live their whole life hoping for grace, while Christians know at their baptism that they have already received that grace because of the cross of Christ.  Muslims spend a life living in such a way as to be worthy of grace with a hope of salvation in the end.  Christians spend a life living in gratitude for a gracious salvation already given, knowing they never can do enough to be worthy of it.  No Christian would want their deeds weighed on a scale at the end of life, because we know we can’t be good enough and we also know God considers any sin to be too much.  As much as I have tried to understand both what I have read in the Qur’an and what the Muslims on this blog have share with me, I simply can’t get past the feeling that Muslims are trying to earn something.  Lastly, with the minimization of Jesus, there is a loss of his reordering of love, power, and success.  The first shall be last.  You gain your life by laying it down.  Blessed are you when you are persecuted.  Turn the cheek.  Repay good for evil.  Overcome evil with good.  Jesus saw life entirely different from conventional men.  No surprise there, he is God and was visiting our world from the world that is to come.  He was inviting us to help bring this new kind of life into this world and hasten the new creation.  This especially meant that we would see love, power, and success differently.  I am afraid that as I read the Qur’an I just heard much of the same ole story humans have always told: my side is better than yours so become like us and avoid the unpleasantness that comes to our enemies who fail to exercise self-control and pull themselves up by their own boot-straps.  This is still one big self-improvement project, though Allah is both more involved and real than Karma or Fate.  Yes, he gives a book to help, so read it and know it and follow it well.  It seems Jesus offers the world something you can’t find anywhere else.  Of course, I do not mean to be offensive in this last observation.

My final point is an obvious one: I am not a Muslim, nor a particularly well-informed scholar of Islam either.  These are the thoughts of an honest seeker of truth after a year of earnest reading and thought.  I am sure I am biased (who is not?).  I am sure I don’t understand things completely (watch the comments on this one for rebuttals).  However, let it not be said that I did not try to understand Islam for myself.  But also don’t let this blog be your last word on this prodigious religion.

Peace, shalom, salam.

It is nice to come to a topic other than judgment, Paradise and Hell.  However, this topic is no less prickly: money.  Nonetheless, today’s surah gives the following valuable guidance on how to view and use wealth:

  • All power belongs to the Almighty God, not the almighty dollar (57:2).
  • Deal with money in a pure manner because God sees all, even the intentions of our hearts (57:4-6).
  • The wealth we have ultimately comes to us from God (57:7).
  • We especially need to give to others from what we have been given (57:7).
  • God rewards generous giving (57:7).
  • All money goes back to God in the end, so why not use it to His benefit in the mean time (57:10).
  • It is especially admirable to give when it is most needed, but God rewards anyone who gives (57:10).
  • One stands to gain double giving, not keeping one’s wealth to oneself (57:11, 18).
  • This life is little more than a “game” or “illusory pleasure;” our success in this life is not what matters.  Take your earthly success too seriously and it becomes a source for arrogance and rivalry (57:20).
  • Don’t gloat over your success, thinking you made your fortunes yourself.  You are just living out God’s plan (57:22-23). 
  • God does not like miserliness (57:24).  Maybe this is why “monasticism” is not approved (57:29). 

We pick up today where yesterday’s surah left off.  We are told about “that which is to come” (the name of this new surah) in the tripartite afterlife. 

Most of the imagery of Hell or Paradise is now familiar.  Paradise has its lush gardens, running water, flagons of drink that does not intoxicate, comfortable couches, and beautiful maidens specially created as rewards for the faithful (56:35-38).  Scalding waters and winds, misery and longing for relief that will never come are all that wait those sent to Hell to “burn” (56:94).

What is new here is detail about the three possible destinations, not simply two as one would expect. 

Then you will be sorted into three classes.  Those on the Right — what people they are!  Those on the Left — what people they are!  And those in front — ahead indeed!  For these will be the ones brought nearest to God in Gardens of Bliss. (56:7-12) 

Nothing I see in this passage explains why believers are sorted into the two Paradises.  While it seems obvious that those in the Garden of Bliss straight ahead of God are somehow better or purer or more righteous, that is never explicitly stated in this passage.  Both Paradises are exactly that — paradise.  Rewards, comfort, and pleasure abound in both. 

Lest, the point of the afterlife get lost in all the details of the three destinations, it is clear that Paradise is first and foremost about being close to the presence of God.  This one fact is what distinguishes the better Paradise from the right-handed one: what makes the first Paradise better is that these believers are allowed to stand straight in front of God with the closest proximity of all.

That by itself is an interesting way to conceive of Paradise.

Sirius in the night sky

Why would you worship the stars — like Sirius, that the Meccans were worshiping (53:49) — when you can worship the maker of the stars?  Stars set (53:1), but God will remain forever.  Bow down before God and worship (53:62).  That is the message in today’s short surah, appropriately titled “The Star.”

It seems so silly today that people would worship a star or the moon or a river or some form of animal or what have you.  Really?  It seems so clear that there is a better option.  Why not worship the One who created each of these? 

But how easy it is to fall into this trap.  We “worship” — as in assign power and reverence — to celebrities, to lovers, to popular and powerful people.  We even “worship” — as in long to have or be united with — power, pleasure, beauty, wealth, comfort, and myriad other things.  We “worship” — as in rearrange our life around in order to serve — self-promotion, success, family, and work.  In our moments of honest self-awareness surely we can see how silly this is as well.   

Bow down before God and worship!

This next surah is named “Scattering Winds” because of the frequent mention of the sky and wind as witnesses to the power and truthfulness of Allah.

By those [winds] that scatter far and wide, and those that are heavily laden, that speed freely, that distribute [rain] as ordained! (51:1)

By the sky with its pathways. (51:7)

On earth there are signs for those with sure faith — and in yourselves too, do you not see? — in the sky is your sustenance and all you are promised. (51:20-22)

We built the sky with Our power and made it vast. (51:47)

I find it interesting that the central image appealed to here is wind.  That is very a pros pos.  Wind is every bit as invisible as God.  Yet, it is every bit as real as God, too.  Wind cannot be seen, but the results of the wind can be.  Wind can’t be seen, but it can be felt.  It is rather ridiculous at this point to deny the existence of the wind, a sentiment the Prophet would have said was true about the existence of Allah too.  It is not a perfect analogy.  Wind is still more physical than God, and therefore easier to accept as a reality.  However, it is an interesting choice of image.

I also find it interesting that central story in this short surah is the visit of honored guests to the tent of Abraham.  These guests prophesy the future, miraculous birth of a son for Abraham and Sarah.  They also foretell the destruction of the Cities of the Plain.  For those who know the Bible, this is a familiar story.

The interesting aspect is this: In the Qur’an, these are simply “guests.”  There is an implication that these are angels.  But this is not Allah.  That would be far too familiar, too immanent.  Allah does not do that sort of thing in the Qur’an.

The original story is told in Genesis 18.  Here is says 15 times that this is “the LORD,” that is the Christian God.  Abraham and Sarah are visited by God Himself in a theophany.  This sort of thing is not uncommon in Genesis.  Moreover, when Christians read this same biblical story they cannot help but see the Trinity all over it.  Throughout the entire chapter of Genesis 18 there is only one character, “the LORD,” speaking and interacting with Abraham and Sarah.  However, the story starts this way:

The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.  Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby.  When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. (Genesis 18:1-2)

Abraham is visited by one LORD and by three men.  Christians cannot help but see the three aspects of God here in this story all wrapped up in the one LORD who visits with Abraham.

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?

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?