I have saved these last three surahs for the end as they seemed like they would sum up the Qur’an well.

Surah 112 is precisely such a summation.  Muslim tradition says this minuscule surah is equal to one-third of the entire message of the Qur’an.  Given its emphasis on monotheistic devotion, I can certainly see why people think that.

Say, “He is God the One, God the eternal.  He begot no one nor was He begotten.  No one is comparable to Him.” (112:1-4)

As a Christian, I can’t help but feel that this surah is addressing the trinitarian beliefs of Christianity, and maybe also the pagan beliefs popular in Arabia at the time of the Qur’an.  Nonetheless, there may be no more foundational thought in Islam than this one.

One of the last revelations ever received by Muhammad before his death was Surah 110:

When God’s help comes and He opens up your way [Prophet], when you see people embracing God’s faith in crowds, celebrate the praise of your Lord and ask His forgiveness: He is always ready to accept repentance. (110:1-3)

As one of the final words from Allah, I am struck by this message.  It is prophetic in a sense: there are days coming when people will accept Islam in droves. That will be a reason to celebrate.  Yet the final word of all is an admonition to seek forgiveness and a reassurance that Allah is always ready to receive truly repentant people.  That is such a fitting ending to the Qur’an.  The door to God is always open.  Step through with a repentant heart, and a humble spirit that knows we are always in need of forgiveness.  But it is an open door.  What a welcoming ending.

Interestingly, down at the end of the Qur’an is this realistic surah.  Evidently, a group of pagans had come to Muhammad and proposed a compromise.  They pledged to worship Allah for a year if the Prophet would worship their gods for a year.  Muhammad was told to give this response:

Say [Prophet], “Disbelievers: I do not worship what you worship, you do not worship what I worship, I will never worship what you worship, you will never worship what I worship: you have your religion and I have mine.” (109:1-6)

As I read this surah I couldn’t help but think that these are precisely my sentiments as well.  I have thoroughly enjoyed reading closely the Qur’an this past year.  Even more so, I have enjoy the conversations I have had with people that this blog fostered, especially those with the Muslims who took the time to further educate me on their religion.  What is even more clear to me now than it was when I started is how intractable the religious differences are between differing religions.  It was true 1400 years ago when Muhammad spoke to these pagans.  It is true today when Muslims talk with Christians and Jews.  It is true of me as well.  I have an immense amount of respect for the religion of Islam (more on that in the next post).  I found a true zeal in the Muslims who have followed this blog.  I believe we can show love to each other as humans.  I believe we can cooperate with each other in areas of social concern.  I do believe we can learn to coexist in a democratic society that does not assert any religion over another.  But Muslims have their religion and I have mine.  I can’t bring myself to worship God apart from Jesus, and they couldn’t imagine doing so.  We are at an impasse.

One more final post later in the week as I reflect back on the past year.

I don’t like to be told I am wrong.  But I think most of us don’t like that.  The real question is what we will do when we are confronted with our error.  As everyone will be wrong eventually, our response is what makes all the difference.

As we come to a new surah, Saad, I see this as the main theme here.  When David was confronted about his infidelity (which is graciously never mentioned in the passage) by way of a parable involving stolen sheep, the great king quickly repented of his sin and asked for forgiveness (38:24).  David’s son Solomon is lifted up as a great example of repentance as well, an attribute that is never assigned to Solomon in the Bible nor is this specific story in there.  When his desire to own a pair of beautiful horses becomes more important to him than his devotion to God so that God punished him with a wasting disease (38:31-34), Solomon turned back to God as soon as he acknowledged the error of his ways (38:35).  Job is also held up as an “excellent servant” because he realized he dealt too harshly (or not harshly enough, depending on your interpretation) with his blasphemous wife (38:41-44).

We see none of this penitence with Iblis.  Once again the story recounts that when Iblis was commanded to bow before the newly created human, Iblis refused.  He was “too proud.  He became a rebel” (38:74).  And so punishment chases him until “the Appointed Day” (38:81).  Likewise, those who are rejecting the Qur’an with its simple reminder that there is only one God (38:1) are also described as “steeped in arrogance and hostility” (38:2).

And so it is.  Who will we be like?  When we see the error of our ways will we fight the arrogance that so easily rises up inside us telling us that we are right, that we need not bow down to anyone?  Will we respond with contrition and humility like David, Solomon, and Job?  Or will we harden our pride even to the point of self-destruction?  That is the question.

This surah ends with one more story and a final warning to believe.

The key figure in this last story is Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn, translated “the two-horned one” or “the King of Two-Horns.”  There is no clue from the text who this might be, especially as this is a parable, but Alexander the Great has most often been suggested.  What is clear is that this king has great power over both the East and the West.  Still, he does not presume that he is Master of all; he knows his power comes from God.

In the first of three episode, Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn travels as far as he can to the west (Europe, if this is Alexander the Great).  Here he finds people he must choose to rule in the right manner.  With all imaginable power, his options were wide open.  Appropriately, he chooses to rule with justice, punishing or rewarding as merited.  With as much power as he possessed he could have assumed an arrogance whereby he declared himself a god, but instead he acknowledged that supreme power and judgment rested with God.

Next, Dhu’l-Qarnayn heads East to the “rising of the sun” where he meets a primitive people with little in the way of technology.  At the same time, they possess a contentment the first people did not have.  The king leaves them as they are, resisting the urge to change their way of life to adhere to his own sensibilities.  Abdullah Yusuf Ali describes the point of this short segment this way:

Power is apt to be intolerant and arrogant, and to interfere in everything that does not accord with its own glorification. Not so Dhu al Qarnayn. He recognised his own limitations in the sight of God: man never completely understands his own position, but if he devoutly looks to God, he will live and let live. This is the spiritual lesson from the second episode.

16th Century Persian miniature of Dhu 'l-Qarnayn building the wall

Finally, the King comes to a town nestled in a valley between the protection of two tall mountains.  This group of people are skilled in metalwork but have been oppressed by Gog and Magog.  They plead with the King to build an impassable barrier that would shield them from their oppressors and offer tribute in return. Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn agrees, but refuses tribute knowing that the power he has been given by God requires the responsibility to care for the oppressed as well.  He leads the people in building a massive metal and iron wall to close off the mountain pass.  This third episode ends with the point we are supposed to gather: human power can accomplish great feats, but there is a Power that can demolish even the mightiest of walls. 

Power is given to be used to bring justice and never as a vehicle for oppression.  Power must be wielded with humility and understanding, resisting the urge to impose one’s own way of doing things (ironically, the exact opposite to what Alexander did with his agenda of Hellenism).  True power knows there is a power greater than itself.

This new Meccan surah promises to be an interesting one.  The synopsis in my translation indicates it is more narrative in nature.  I have noticed that the Qur’an does not use many stories; it is much more sermonic.  Because of that, I hate to say, it is a different and slightly more laborious form of literature than what most Westerners may prefer, as story-based as our culture is.

Before the surah launches into its first story, the first eight ayahs mention Allah is testing people’s hearts. What is it about the nature of Allah that requires a “test” to determine a person’s heart (18:7)?  Does He not know already?  Is this all one big game to Him?  Is the heart’s inclination not a reality until the event, thus it must take place?  I am hoping for the last option.

The Companions of the Cave

Next we have the story of the Companions or Sleepers of the Cave.  This is a most interesting story!  The tale, which certainly is told as a parable with a bigger point, tells of three or four or seven young men and a dog who are fleeing oppression at the hands of pagan worshipers and seek refuge in a north-facing cave.  God keeps them there undetected as if a wall had been built obscuring the cave and causes the youths to fall into a deep sleep.  They sleep for what seems like only hours or days but what turns out to be hundreds of years, maybe three or twelve hundred years or longer.  Hungry, they send one of the men down into the city to inconspicuously buy food.  However, his antiquated dress, speech and money draw attention. The people of the city, then, decide a great move of God has taken place at this cave and plan to build a place of worship there.  Then the people argue amongst themselves over the number of youths had been in the cave and for how long.

It turns out this story was originally Christian, not Islamic.  Commentator Abdullah Yusuf Ali states that the great chronicler of ancient Roman history Edward Gibbons first told the story in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Ali describes the original story this way:

The bare Christian story (without the spiritual lessons taught in the Qur’an) is told in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (end of chapter 33). In the reign of a Roman Emperor who persecuted the Christians, seven Christian youths of Ephesus left the town and hid themselves in a cave in a mountain near by. They fell asleep, and remained asleep for some generations or centuries. When the wall which sealed up the caves was being demolished, the youths awoke. They still thought of the world in which they had previously lived. They had no idea of the duration of time. But when one of them went to the town to purchase provisions, he found that the whole world had changed. The Christian religion, instead of being persecuted was fashionable: in fact it was now the State religion. His dress and speech, and the money which he brought, seemed to belong to another world. This attracted attention. The great ones of the land visited the Cave, and verified the tale by questioning the man’s Companions. When the story became very popular and circulated throughout the Roman Empire, we may well suppose that an Inscription was put up at the mouth of the Cave.

Ali opines that Christians would have posed this story to Muhammad at some point asking him to weigh in on how many youth had been in the cave and for how long as a way to discredit him.  Muhammad then takes the story and makes a larger, grander point from the story.

Kahf Al-Raqim, the cave today

The point now becomes that it is foolish to argue over the minor points of this all important story and miss the life-changing message of God hidden in this parable.  How long did they stay?  Only God knows (18:26)!  Restrain the hubris that makes you think you too can know the mind of God.  Much more important than “how many?” or “how long?” is that God did protect the youth from death and awaken them again to a life that was safer and better than what it had been when they fell asleep.  It is like they were living a whole new life.  As you can guess, the original Christian story was taken as an analogy about Resurrection.  At least some Muslims take the story the same way as well, as is clear from Abdel Haleem’s translation of ayah 21:

In this way We brought them to people’s attention so that they might know that God’s promise [of resurrection] is true and that there is no doubt about the Last Hour, [though] people argue among themselves.

From an artistic and literary point of view, this story is superb!  It is also a truly great message for religious people to bear in mind!  We have a God who will protect us through oppressive times, who will make death seem only like a night’s sleep, and who will raise us again to a life superior to what we now know.  In the mean time, embrace a “generous orthodoxy” that allows for varying views of the minor points of the story, hanging on firmly to the main point.