Well, we are down near the end now.  Two or three posts to go.  The surahs are so small at this point that they can be lumped together easily.

Maybe it is best to summarize these fourteen surahs:

98, Al-Bayyina (Clear Evidence): Those who reject the Qur’an asked for evidence but then wouldn’t believe when they were given the Scripture.  “They are the worst of people” (98:6).

99, Al-Zalzala (The Earthquake): On the last day, the earth will shake violently and give up the buried for judgment.  Those who have done even just an “atom’s weight” of good or bad will be judged accordingly (99:7).

100, Al-`Adiyat (The Charging Steeds): A beautiful picture of strong warhorses by which God swears that people’s idolatrous love for money will be made clear and result in judgment.

101, Al-Qari`a (The Crashing Blow): A cataclysmic reordering of the world is coming with judgment.  People whose lives are “heavy” with good deeds will be rewarded and those whose good deeds are light will go to the “Bottomless Pit” (101:9).

102, Al-Takathur (Competing for More): Competing for more and more “pleasures” will only ensure Hellfire.  You can be certain.

103, Al-`Asr (The Fading Day): In these “fading days,” do good or man will be “deep in loss” (103:2).

104, Al-Humaza (The Backbiter): All that awaits those who rely on their money is the “Crusher” (104:4), towering columns of Hellfire that fall upon the greedy in judgment.

105, Al-Fil (The Elephant): Muhammad can trust God to protect him in the future.  The Prophet only needs to remember how He drove back an army of Christians riding elephants who wanted to destroy the Kaa’ba in the year of his birth.

106, Quraysh (Quraysh): The continues the thought in the surah before.  God drove back the Christians so the Quraysh would feel safe in their trade journeys and not fear.

107, Al-Ma`un (Common Kindnesses):  If a worshiper is all show with his prayers but never fulfills the “common kindnesses” of taking care of the needy and orphans, his religion is false and he has obviously forgotten about Judgment.

108, Al-Kawthar (Abundance): God has “cut off” some unnamed person who hated Muhammad, thus the Prophet should worship Him all the more.

111, Al-Masad (Palm Fibre): The Prophet can be assured that his uncle Abu Lahab and his wife who opposed Muhammad and his work will be ruined and burn in the “Flaming Fire.”  His uncle’s wealth will not save him.

113, Al-Falaq (Daybreak): A prayer one could pray to the “Lord of daybreak” for protection against the “harm of the night,” witchcraft, and evil from those who envy.

114, Al-Nas (People): Another prayer one could pray for protection against the “slinking whisperer” (114:4) and those who are incited against a righteous person by these whispers.  God controls all things; one need not worry.

What struck me as I read through these chapters is, though they are short surahs, how much guidance is given in each on how to live so as to avoid the Fire of judgment and punishment, another theme explored a good deal in this section.  Here’s what I have found makes up “true religion” (98:5):

  • Do good deeds (98:7; 99:7; 101:6-7; 103:3)
  • Worship God alone with true faith (98:5; 103:3)
  • Keep up the prayer (98:5; 108:2)
  • Pay the prescribed alms (98:5)
  • Avoid a love of wealth (100:8; 102:1; 104:2)
  • Encourage one another to accept the truth and be steadfast (103:3)
  • Trust God to protect (105:1; 111:1; 113:1; 114:1)
  • Worship the Lord (106:3)
  • Take care of orphans and the needy (107:2-3)
  • Sacrifice to God alone (108:2)

I have been surprised by how rarely I have seen explicit admonitions for virtue in the part of the Qur’an we have read thus far.  I am certainly not saying Muslims are not virtuous.  Of course they are. 

Several years ago my wife worked with a group of Muslim young men and another group of young ladies who self-identified as Christians.  I remember her saying how much more virtuous those men were than the women.  She said she would have much preferred to have those Muslim men as neighbors than those women who seemed to be wearing the name “Christian” more out of convenience, habit, or security than out of devotion.  Definitely, Islam is a religion of virtue. 

I am just surprised how so often it seems the surahs we have read thus far dwell on internal belief and a willingness to serve but then leave it there.  I haven’t seem many long passages on how to interact with others in everyday activities, what attitudes to have to the vagaries of life, or what behavioral virtues Allah longs to find the heart of his followers. 

On the other hand, the Bible, of which I am a devoted follower, makes frequent mention of virtues.  Take this two famous passage from the New Testament as an example:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
   for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
   for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
   for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
   for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
   for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
   for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:3-12)

Or this one:

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh.  They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.  I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Against such things there is no law.  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.  Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. (Galatians 5:16-26)

You rarely go more than a page or two in the New Testament without mention of some prescribed or prohibited action.  Now, with this focus on morality Christianity can easily degrade into little more than “moralism,” that is a code of conduct that is held up as the most important part of religion, expected as a condition of salvation, and separated from a bigger story that gives the rationale for that morality.  To be sure, there are versions of Christianity out there that are guilty of this.  Nonetheless, living life in a manner that God finds pleasing and that promotes love and relational peace is an excellent aspect of Christianity. 

So as a devotee of a book that emphasizes virtue, something has seemed to be missing from my reading of the Qur’an.  Then as we start a new surah today, called “The Believers” or “The Faithful,” we come to mention after mention of virtue. 

  • When you pray, be humble and reverent.  Don’t treat God like a genie or vending machine. (23:2)
  • Be sober-minded and decorous, instead of living a frivolous life obsessed with the pleasures of that which passes away. (23:3) 
  • Be compassionate and give charitably to those in need. (23:4)
  • Abstain from sexuality except in those relationships deemed legitimate and wholesome  (23:5-7)
  • Be known as a trustworthy person financially.  Honor your pledges. (23:8)
  • Be consistent and fervent in prayer.  Don’t just turn to prayer when you are in a bind. (23:9)

I hope to read more like this.

They say “clothes make the man.”  I believe it, but not in the way you may think.

A decade ago I was finishing my graduate degree and seeking a job in ministry.  My job search narrowed to three very good options, one of which is the fantastic job with a private Christian high school I still have to this day.  Another very enticing option was your traditional preaching position at a great church in upstate New York.  I have never regretted turning down that job offer — because of the fulfillment I have in my present ministry — but I am sure I would have been very happy with that welcoming community of believers too. 

Throughout the interviewing process with this church, my main contact had always been a particular man whose name I am afraid I can no longer remember.  But I will never forget his heart.  I imagine we have all met people for whom it seems God is as present a reality as a flesh-and-blood companion.  This man was one of those kind of people.  I guess I had met a few others like that through my life up to that point, and I have met others since then, but they are rare and so inspiring when you find them.  My New York contact left quite an impression on me.  God was always lurking under the surface or around the corner in every conversation.  He was as active a participant in the events of this man’s life as his wife or kids.  God’s actions were as certain to this man as those of his boss or his friends.  And God got all the credit for the good my contact found in the world and in others.  Some of the last words this man said to me as we sat in the airport waiting for my plane back to Memphis were: “I am very thankful for the God I see in you.”  The GOD I see in you!  He didn’t say he was thankful for me or my abilities or my willingness to serve.  No, he was able to look past me and see that anything good in me was truly coming from the God in me.  How impressionable!  How right!  What a blessing my encounter with this man has remained a decade later. 

In today’s reading we come to a perfect word for what this man possessed: “God-consciousness.”  This idea is connected in this passage with the clothing metaphor that runs throughout.

Children of Adam, We [Allah] have given you garments to cover your nakedness and as adornment for you; the garment of God-consciousness is the best of all garments. (7:26)

It was this clothing of God-consciousness that Adam and Eve possessed.  But it was not long before Satan stripped them of these clean clothes and God began to fade from humanity’s collective consciousness (7:27).  But the Children of Adam can once again “dress well” (7:31) by directing our “worship straight to Him,” by devoting our “religion entirely to Him” (7:29).  This is the worship of a person like the man I met from New York whose God is so big it fills his consciousness.  This is the kind of person for whom it is as important to “put on” God in the morning as it is a pair of pants.  This man is always properly dressed.  At the end of life, a “God-conscious” man gives all praise to God for guiding him there, knowing had it not been for God he never would have found his resting place in the Garden of delights (7:43).  Like the New Yorker, God is always just under the surface.  That is God-consciousness.    

Commentator Abdullah Yusuf Ali says this about this clothing metaphor in his translation of the Qur’an:

There is a double philosophy of clothes here. Spiritually, God created man “bare and alone” (6:94): the soul in its naked purity and beauty knew no shame because it knew no guilt. After it was touched by guilt and soiled by evil, its thoughts and deeds became its clothing and adornments, good or bad, honest or meretricious [tawdry], according to the inner motives which gave them colour. . . . But the best clothing and ornament we could have comes from righteousness, which covers the nakedness of sin, and adorns us with virtues.

These “clothes” really do make the man.

It seems this next section is a bit of an ethical code and there are lots of salient texts here for understanding Islam, so I will be discussing this section both today and tomorrow. 

What makes a person “good?”  As limited as it is, this section says it is one who treats all of the following correctly:

  1. Food — what to eat and when to eat it; more on this tomorrow
  2. Money — The “truly good” are those who are generous with their money even though they can think of many other things to do with their money.  They give to others — family, friends, but especially the poor and needy.  Good people are steadfast in their giving even when the economy takes a downturn.  Good = generous, even to the point of self-denial.
  3. Justice — Good people only seek retribution that is fair.  This is the same “eye for an eye” principle in Exodus 21:24 and elsewhere.  It was given in Islam for the same reason it was in the Old Testament.  Powerful groups of people were demanding greater retribution for wrong-doing because they had the power to collect.  In essence, justice was not being done.  Good people realize there is nothing wrong with receiving justice but only to the level that justly recompenses the person for their loss.  It is easy to pay back one step greater an offense, but where does that stop?  Allah says “fair retribution saves life for you (2:179),” which can be so true when talking about truly heinous acts done against you or one you love.  Good = fair, though not necessarily forgiving.
  4. Time — specifically times of fasting; more on this tomorrow
  5. Sexuality — A good person knows that sexuality is also good, when expressed between spouses who “are as close as garments” to each other (great wording!).  Sexuality does not “counteract” the spiritual act of fasting, not even during the fasting month of Ramadan.  At the same time, there are times to show mastery over one’s desires and abstain from sex, such as during special times devoted to prayer at the mosques.  Good = disciplined, though not necessarily ascetic.

 Before you read any further, ask yourself the same question: what makes a person “good?”

Lest one think of the ethics of Islam as legalistic ritualism, this section also reminds the reader that goodness does not come from religious observances like eating halal, the qiblah, or fasting (2:177).  Goodness comes from how one lives in relation to God and others.  You are good if you do good

We who are not Muslims must see two things:

  1. Islam, though it is one of the religions most known for emphasizing actions, is not a robotic religion of heart-less rituals done to fulfill a checklist handed down from on high.  We do an injustice to Islam by depicting it this way. 
  2. The Islamic perception of good is very much like what we are used to in our culture — good people do good things, bad people do bad things — but it is very different from traditional Christianity.  Remember that Paul says “there is no one who does good” (Romans 3:12).  No Christian, if they understand the gospel correctly, would claim a goodness that arises from their own deeds.  However, God is good and Jesus was the “good” sacrifice and now we who are not good can be seen as good through the blood of Christ.  Now our deeds are done from gratitude not goodness.  This is a significant difference between the two religions. 

What do you think?