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.

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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 chosen a single ayah from each of the next ten surahs and made a Wordle word cloud out of these.  I picked these ayah simply by which were most representative of the surah, not which were most interesting or striking.

Only after the fact, as I typed these into the Wordle word cloud generator, did I notice a common theme: the surety of judgment and a just afterlife based on one’s choices here and now.  No surprise there!

Surah 68 is an early Meccan surah defending Muhammad against the claim that he is “madman.”  The unbelievers are experiencing a good life filled with prosperity and family, so divine punishment is the last thing they are thinking about.  They are reminded that “disaster” can come overnight.  Muhammad need not worry about the slander he is receiving; God will vindicate him. 

The reader is reminded in surah 69 that the “Inevitable Hour” is guaranteed, just look at what happened to the people of Thamud and `Ad.  This “Great Event” is described in truly apocalyptic fashion.  A luxurious “Garden” will be the “reward” for obedience, while only “Fire” and “filth” await the unbelievers (once again, we see a quid pro quo soteriology).  So, listen to Muhammad; “attentive ears may take heed” (69:12). 

The catastrophic, foreboding images of the last surah return in surah 70.  We will each be friendless and alone on the great “Day of Judgment.”  We should bear in mind that “the punishment of the Lord is not something to feel safe from” (70:28).  There are some who “rushing out” head long “to their graves” (70:43).  But “Gardens of bliss” await those who are constant in prayer, charitable to the poor, fearful of God, mindful of Judgment, sexually chaste, and unwaveringly trustworthy (70:22-35). 

As we have seen many times already this year, the Qur’an offers judgment, fear, and the threat of punishment as very strong sources of motivation to obey Allah.  This is certainly different from the love-heavy message of modern-day American Christianity.

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.

With its recurring refrain, this new surah — The Lord of Mercy — is more poetic than any other I have seen thus far.  Throughout the chapter an aspect of creation is mentioned then humanity and the jinn are asked:

Which, then, of your Lord’s blessings do you both deny? (55:13). 

This refrain is stated thirty-one times throughout the surah.  As a Christian, today’s reading reminded me of Psalm 136 with its refrain: “His love endures forever.”

The message of the surah is simple: Be sure you know what you are denying if that is really going to be your choice, because judgment is coming.  The images, however, are picturesque.  For example:

They [who are in Paradise] will sit on couches upholstered with brocade, the fruit of both gardens within easy reach. (55:54)

This surah advances Islamic cosmology as well.  The afterlife is described here having three possible destination for humans (and three parallel destinations for the jinn, if I am reading this correctly).  The painful punishment of Hell is described first (55:43f).  Then “two gardens” are mentioned (55:62f), both luxurious and filled with reward.  More will be said about these in the next surah.  Translator Haleem gives this note here:

Paradise exists in two ranks: the higher level for the truly favored, and this lower level described for the less exalted pious.

So it seems we have Hell, a lower Paradise, and a higher Paradise. 

It is easy to see in this surah (55:56, 70-74) that the stereotype that Muslims believe in a male-centered afterlife where the follower is rewarded with “virgins” (or “maidens” as it says in my translation) is not completely untrue.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you!” 

I imagine many of us have been told this more than a few times.  Still, we don’t always like to listen to warnings, do we? 

That was certainly true of Muhammad’s audience (54:5, 36).  They had been warned many times of the impending doom should they wish to ignore the words of Allah.  Nonetheless, they blew it off with unbelief. 

So there was only one thing left to say:

We [Allah] have made it easy to learn lessons from the Qur’an: will anyone take heed? (54:17)

This idea is so central to this surah that it recurs in whole or in part six times in fifty-five short ayahs (54:15, 17, 22, 32, 40, 51).  Listen up!  Take heed!  It is so easy!  Why can’t you see it?  Punishment for disbelief has come in the past and will come again.  Take heed! 

Everything they do is noted in their records: every action, great or small, is recorded.  The righteous will live securely among Gardens and rivers, secure in the presence of an all-powerful Sovereign. (54:52-55)

I grew up with the view that God was one big All-Seeing Eye.  There is nothing he did not see.  No action done in secret was hidden.  He was there always looking and weighing my every deed, writing them all down in His big book of deeds, the book He would use on Judgment Day to send me to Heaven if I had done enough good deeds or Hell if I had not.  I figured I was likely headed to Hell.  It was an image sufficient for evoking great fear in my life. 

I see now that this view is actually more Quranic than it is Biblical.