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.

Today this surah ends with a strong eschatological focus.  In fact, the name of the surah — “The Throngs” — comes from the throngs of people who will be led to the Garden (or to Hell) in the Hereafter (39:71, 73).

"The Day of Judgement," late 19th Century painting attributed to Mohammad Modabber

On the Day of Resurrection a trumpet will sound and people will fall down senseless.  Back on their feet again, all eyes will look for what is to happen next (39:68).  God appears as Light, the “Record of Deeds” is laid out, and judgment begins (39:69).  As people go off to reward or punishment, this world will be rolled up like a scroll one has finished reading (39:67).

Those who are sent off to Hell will offer up excuses:

I didn’t think it was important . . . I didn’t get enough guidance from God . . . I just need one more chance. (39:56-58, my paraphrase)

But in the end they will know they were warned by their own and know their punishment is deserved (39:71).  They would give anything — “the earth’s assets twice over” — to ransom themselves from Hell (39:47), but to no avail.

No harm will come to those who did believe (39:61).  Through gates opened wide, they will walk with comfort into the Garden while the “keepers” of the Garden (angels?) will greet them with this exhortation:

Peace be upon you.  You have been good.  Come in: you are here to stay. (39:73)

It is important to note how judgment of destiny is made:

The Record of Deeds will be laid open. (39:69)

Fair judgment will be given between them: they will not be wronged and every soul will be repaid in full for what it has done. He knows best what they do. (39:69-70)

You have been good.  Come in. (39:73)

How excellent is the reward of those who labor! (39:74)

One need not fear that judgment will be unfair. Everyone will get what they deserve, based upon their actions.  Once again we see that a person’s eternal destiny is determined by their own actions.

As a Christian, when I read through today’s section it sounds like the Christian description of Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Well, except for the absence of grace, at least grace in regards to sin.  What I read here is how the Bible would describe it if one’s destiny were determined by one’s own effort.  This is the Heaven of justice, not grace.

This new surah, “The Ranged Ones” or “Ranged in Rows,” (shorter than it appears from the number of ayahs) refers to the collection of angels (or men, depending on your interpretation) arranged in ranked rows ready to serve God in the way he most immediately needs.  Angels factor into this surah a few times.  These are the passages that stood out to me.

We have adorned the lowest heaven with stars, and made them a safeguard against every rebellious devil: they cannot eavesdrop on the Higher Assembly — pelted from every side, driven away, they will have perpetual torment — if any [of them] stealthily snatches away a fragment, he will be pursued by a piercing flame. (37:6-10)

This is an interesting take on spiritual warfare.  It appears the stars in this passage are animated in some way.  And I wonder if the pelting of the devils here has anything to do with the “stoning of Satan” that is a part of the Hajj?

[God’s true servants] will have familiar provisions — fruits — and will be honored in gardens of delight; seated on couches, facing one another.  A drink will be passed around among them from a flowing spring: white, delicious to those who taste it, causing no headiness or intoxication.  With them will be spouses — modest of gaze and beautiful of eye — like protected eggs. (37:41-49)

Here we have some new images of Paradise.  Couches, I guess, connote comfort.  This white, non-alcoholic drink is interesting.  Again, we see the male-centeredness of this description in that it is beautiful women that are mentioned.

Then he [a man in heaven] will say, “Shall we look for him [a friend]?”  He will look down and see him in the midst of the Fire, and say to him, “By God, you almost brought me to ruin!  Had it not been for the grace of my Lord, I too would have been taken to Hell.” (37:55-57)

What is the “grace” this man receives here?  Is it protecting him from the influence of his friend?  Is this Islamic grace: help to the person who still has the make the decisions and exercise his own power to obey?

Then he will say [to his blessed companions], “Are we never to die again after our earlier death?  Shall we never suffer?  This truly is the supreme triumph!” (37:58-60)

This reminds me of 1 Corinthians 15:51-57

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.  When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

 “Where, O death, is your victory?
   Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

But I have to ask again, where is the evidence that Allah can resurrect?  Compare that to the Christian claim that God can resurrect as shown through the already-manifested resurrection of Jesus.

Is this the better welcome, or the tree of Zaqqum, which We have made a test for the evildoers?  This tree grows in the heart of the blazing Fire, and its fruits are like the devil’s heads.  They will fill their bellies eating from it; then drink a scalding mixture of top of it; then return to the blazing Fire. (37:62-68)

What is this tree?  It sounds almost like the opposite of the Tree of Life.  Commentator Ali says that is exactly right, the point being that “the appetite for Evil grows with what it feeds on.”

Now [Muhammad], ask the disbelievers: is it true that your Lord has daughters, while they chose sons for themselves?  Did We create the angels as females while they were watching?  No indeed!  It is one of their lies when they say, “God has begotten.”  How they lie! (37:149-52)

There was a pagan Arab idea that angels were Allah’s daughters.  The insult of this claim was that those same Arab man preferred to only have sons themselves, to the point that female infanticide was known to occur.  Hence, Allah is painted in an inferior manner than a man would want to be seen himself.

Those who read the comments on this blog have read an explanation for “grace” according to Muslim thinking, given by people who would understand better than I would.  Grace is unmerited favor.  It is grace when people of all sorts receive life, provision, safety, and wholeness.  Seeing a new day is grace.  Having food in your pantry is grace.  Enjoying the work of your hands and the beauty of our world is grace.  Grace is when people who don’t even accept Allah receive the blessings of life we might expect only believers would receive.

Today’s new surah recounts many of these such “acts of grace” Allah gives to the world:

  • The revelation of the Qur’an (36:5)
  • The warning of possible punishment (36:6)
  • A historical record of punishment and reward (36:31)
  • Food and the fertility of soil (36:33)
  • Well-watered crops of produce (36:34)
  • A balanced and paired creation (36:36)
  • Consistent constellation patterns (36:37-40)
  • The Ark and other vessels in the midst of flooding (36:41-43)
  • Enjoyment of life (36:44)
  • Eyesight (36:66)
  • Mobility (36:67)
  • The ability to domesticate animals for food, milk, and transportation (36:71-73)
  • Fire (36:80)

No doubt, this is grace.  Each is certainly unmerited favor.  I am still left to wonder, though, is that the extent to Allah’s grace?  Does Allah have grace for sin?  Not just that he allows any person to live, as we all sin.  Will Allah do something about the sins of people who can’t or don’t?  Or are people still left to rectify their own sins, hence earning God’s favor?

Ants are small . . . and so is this “Ant” surah, relatively.  So we finish it up with today’s reading.  Three passages stood out to me today.

Who is it that originates creation and reproduces it?  Who is it that gives you provision from the heavens and earth?  Is it another god beside God?  Say, “Show me your evidence then, if what you say is true.” (27:64)

I am trying to place myself in the context of this passage. Muhammad comes down the mountain with a message of radical monotheism.  Meccans respond with their traditional polytheistic explanations for reality.  Both are simply claims.  How can we tip the balance towards one or the other?  It is interesting that “evidence” is mentioned.  If the polytheists really want to hang on to the belief that their gods created or at least rule over elements of nature, then they need to provide some evidence that this is true.  But what evidence is Muhammad producing that support his claim that Allah has created the very mountains, river and “gardens of delight” that he has just mentioned (27:60-63)?  That they exist is not evidence enough. The pagans could use the same evidence for their claims.  What evidence do Muslims produce for not just a god but Allah?

You cannot make the dead hear, you cannot make the deaf listen to your call when they turn their backs and leave, you cannot guide the blind out of their error; you cannot make anyone hear you except those who believe in Our signs and submit [to Us]. (27:80-81)

So true!  If a person does not want to believe, you can’t say enough to make them believe.  Good reminder. As someone with a high view of human freedom, I am not comfortable with that meaning Allah prevents them from hearing or listening.  But certainly there are people who harden their own hearts to God.

Whoever comes with a good deed will be rewarded with something better, and be secure from the terror of that Day, but whoever comes with evil deeds will be cast face downwards into the Fire.  Are you rewarded for anything except what you have done? (27:89-90)

Is that grace?  Is doesn’t seem so.  That sounds like people getting what they deserve.  That sounds like a god who responds to the actions of humans, not humans who respond to the actions of the god.

Today we begin a new Meccan surah named “The Ants” because of an esoteric mention of the animals made by King Solomon in ayah 18.  The main point of this section is the same it has been in many of the surahs we have reads thus far: don’t judge the goodness of the Qur’an or the effectiveness of the prophet based on the reception of the people; a long line of prophets have been rejected just as is happening to Muhammad. Breaking through the monotony of repetition, are some interesting stories about two biblical characters not told in the Bible.

Moses is reported as saying he will go over to the Burning Bush to find fire that he can bring back to his family so that they can warm themselves (27:7).  Interesting new idea not borrowed from the Bible.

King Solomon is reported as knowing the language of birds (27:16).  He could also marshal ranks of jinn and birds along with people, possible for battle (27:17).  Solomon’s power was so great that even the armies of ants feared him and ran to their homes (27:18).  The strangest stories of all is that of a hoopoe, a beautiful, regal bird, who had scouted out the southern kingdom of Sheba in fine military fashion (27:20-44).  This story appears to be the back-story of the Queen of Sheba that many of us would know from the Bible.  This pagan queen and her powerful armies are humbled by the wisdom of Solomon and the Queen devotes herself to Solomon’s God.  Interesting!

King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

One ayah early in today’s reading gave me pause:

As for those who do not believe in the life to come, We have made their deeds seem alluring to them, so they wander blindly: it is they who will have the worst suffering, and will be the ones to lose most in the life to come. (27:4-5)

It would appear from this passage that these people were given the freedom to believe the prophet’s message of a second life, but with their freedom they rejected.  Then Allah overwhelms their freedom and sends them into a degradation that is made to seem alluring and that causes them to walk further and further from Him.  My question from this is how much of a chance are people given before their chances are over and they are sealed for destruction?  Is this a one-shot thing?  How patient is this God?

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?