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!

“The End is Near!”

It is coming.  Be guaranteed.  People may doubt, but be assured.  Everyone will be judged for what they have done.  Then sit back and enjoy your reward on a comfortable couch with a beautiful woman, sumptuous food and drink that does not make you drunk.  Or dread the day you wrote the Prophet off as a mad-man. 

Such is the message of this new surah, a now familiar refrain. 

Towards the end of today’s section, the Meccan disbelievers are quoted as saying the following:

We will wait to see what happens to this dubious poet, then decide. (52:30)

We think he just made this up himself. (52:33)

The Prophet is instructed to answer them with these ten questions:

  1. Are you being driven by reason or insolence? (52:32)
  2. Can they come up with a message like the Qur’an? (52:34)
  3. Did they create all of this? (52:35-36)
  4. Do they have control over the “treasures” of this world? (52:37)
  5. Can they listen in on God’s deliberations? (52:38)
  6. Do you really think God has daughters when you yourself only want sons? (52:39)
  7. Am I [Muhammad] trying to burden you with debt by following this God? (52:40)
  8. Do they really think they can see and describe the unseen? (52:41)
  9. Why are they trying to ensnare the Prophet when it won’t succeed? (52:42)
  10. Is there really some other god they think they can set alongside the one true God? (52:43)

Maybe the one question that sums all of this up is, “Who do you think you are?”  Quite an on-target question from a religion that is all about submission.

I struggle into a new surah today, “The Throngs.”  Struggle because I am getting busier and busier.  Struggle because I still feel like I am reading the same thing over and over again.  With just over three months left in this goal to read through the Qur’an before New Year, I am pressing on to finish the goal.

Here is what hit me from this new chapter:

[As for] those who choose other protectors beside Him, saying, “We only worship them because they bring us nearer to God,” . . . (39:3)

It appears at least some pagans saw their gods as part of pantheon of under-gods that ultimately lead to the real God.

If you are ungrateful, remember God has no need of you, yet He is not pleased by ingratitude in His servants; if you are grateful, He is pleased [to see] it in you. (39:7)

God does not need us.  However, he wants us and he shows this desire through His goodness.  When we are ungrateful, we are essentially saying to God, “We do not want you.”  Maybe that is more insulting, than to reject one who needs you.

No soul will bear another’s burden. (39:7)

By my count, a version of this line occurs five times in the Qur’an (6:164; 17:15; 35:18; 39:7; 53:38).  No one will be punished for the actions of another, that is what I hear this saying.  No wonder Muslims can’t get behind the substitutionary atonement/sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of humanity, the most basic Christian belief.  It transgresses the spirit of this recurring ayah.

When man suffers some affliction, he prays to his Lord and turns to Him, but once he has been granted a favor from God, he forgets the One he had been praying to and sets up rivals to God. (39:8)

I guess every religion has people who use their god to get them out of trouble.  Too bad!

Say, “I fear the torment of a terrible Day if I disobey my Lord.”  Say, “It is God I serve, dedicating my worship entirely to Him — you may serve whatever you please beside Him.”  Say, “The true losers are the ones who will lose themselves and their people on the Day of Resurrection: that is the most obvious loss.  They will have layers of Fire above them and below.”  This is how God puts fear into His servants: My servants, beware of Me.  (39:13-16)

Unless I just don’t understand the last line, this is directed to Allah’s servants, His people, not unbelievers.  It seems a bit harsh.  The Bible talks of a “fear of God” (Proverbs 1:7) that is more like respect or revere.  That is a bit different from fear-what-I-can-do-to-you, fear-the-Fire, do-this-or-else fear.  How does a passage like this play in modern, western societies?  Do American Muslims downplay these kind of prickly depictions of Allah?

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.

I am sure it makes perfect sense to pagans, but paganism is enigmatic to monotheists.

Why would someone chose to worship one god among many or one localized god or a god who is only associated with one segment of the world, like the seas or the mountains or the moon?  Why would you not choose to worship one supreme god who has power over all parts of nature and life?  Why worship the creation when you can worship the Creator?

These are precisely the questions taken up in today’s passage from this new surah, “The Differentiator,” another name for the Qur’an.  Of course, paganism was the norm in pre-Islamic Mecca.

It is He [Allah] who has control over the heavens and earth and has no offspring — no one shares control with Him — and who created all thing and made them to an exact measure.  Yet the disbelievers take as their gods things beneath Him that create nothing, and are themselves created, that can neither harm nor help themselves, and have no control over death, life, or resurrection. (25:2-3)

The Prophet Isaiah asked the same questions of the ancient Israelites as they flirted with Canaanite paganism.

All who make idols are nothing,
and the things they treasure are worthless.
Those who would speak up for them are blind;
they are ignorant, to their own shame.
Who shapes a god and casts an idol,
which can profit nothing?
People who do that will be put to shame;
such craftsmen are only human beings.
Let them all come together and take their stand;
they will be brought down to terror and shame.

The blacksmith takes a tool
and works with it in the coals;
he shapes an idol with hammers,
he forges it with the might of his arm.
He gets hungry and loses his strength;
he drinks no water and grows faint.
The carpenter measures with a line
and makes an outline with a marker;
he roughs it out with chisels
and marks it with compasses.
He shapes it in human form,
human form in all its glory,
that it may dwell in a shrine.
He cut down cedars,
or perhaps took a cypress or oak.
He let it grow among the trees of the forest,
or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.
It is used as fuel for burning;
some of it he takes and warms himself,
he kindles a fire and bakes bread.
But he also fashions a god and worships it;
he makes an idol and bows down to it.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
over it he prepares his meal,
he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
“Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
“Save me! You are my god!”
They know nothing, they understand nothing;
their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
and their minds closed so they cannot understand.
No one stops to think,
no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
“Half of it I used for fuel;
I even baked bread over its coals,
I roasted meat and I ate.
Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”
Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
he cannot save himself, or say,
“Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?” (Isaiah 44:9-20)

The Apostle Paul said something similar to the Roman Christians who lived in the midst of rampant paganism.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.  They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. (Romans 1:18-25)

I imagine the answers to the questions at the top of this post are simple.  People raised in paganism naturally develop a polytheistic worldview.  There are many ways in which our world does seem segmented and the power associated with the segments do sometimes seem to be in opposition (i.e., the power of the earth can level the power of human industry and construction).  One can only adopt monotheism once they are aware it is a viable option.  Polytheists do often believe in a supreme power, but it is only an impersonal power that gave life to the personal gods of the pagan pantheon.

But . . . when the religion of the One God is presented, why hang on to an inferior explanation?  It is probably not that simple, but that is the message that we start with in this new surah.

I just have a few notable passages from today’s reading.

He [Allah] makes Satan’s insinuations a temptation only for the sick at heart and those whose hearts are hardened — the evildoers are profoundly opposed [to the Truth] — and He causes those given knowledge to realize that this Revelation is your Lord’s Truth, so that they may believe in it and humble their hearts to Him: God guides the faithful to the straight path.  (22:53-54)

According to these ayahs, unbelief is due to spiritual weakness and stubbornness.  If you want to believe, you can. 

He [Allah] will give a generous provision to those who migrated in God’s way and were killed or died: He is the Best Provider.  He will admit them to a place that will please them.  (22:58-59)

Dying for Allah brings great reward.  Of course, we all know that some have done ugly things with verses like these. 

It is He [Allah] who gave you [people] life, will cause you to die, then will give you life again.  (22:66)

Creation–De-creation–Re-creation: this is the same cycle that is foundational to the biblical story, and it goes way beyond a literal life, death, and resurrection.

[Prophet], you can see the hostility on the faces of the disbelievers when Our messages are recited clearly to them: it is almost as if they are going to attack those who recite Our messages to them.  Say, “Shall I tell you what is far worse than what you feel now?  The Fire that God has promised the disbelievers!  What a dismal end!”  (22:72)

People find the message of God unpleasant right now.  It might mean change or risk.  But the punishment of Hell that will come later is way worse.  Think long-term. 

You people [idolaters], here is an illustration, so listen carefully: those you call on beside God could not, even if they combined all their forces, create a fly, and if a fly took something away from them, they would not be able to retrieve it.  How feeble are the petitioners and how feeble are those they petition! (22:73)

Owned!   

This surah ends by recounting how God stayed faithful to the children of Israel in Moses’ time, even forgiving them of their idolatry with the golden calf at Sinai when they repented.  In fact, this has always been God’s way as far back as Adam’s “idolatry” of his own power in the Garden (20:120).  God cannot stomach idolatry, but even this can be reversed by repentance.  This was an important message in Mecca in Muhammad’s time. 

Here’s a list of the top ten verses that stood out to me in today’s longer reading:

1.  Listen to the Qur’an“We have given you a Qur’an from Us.  Whoever turns away from it will bear on the Day of Resurrection a heavy burden and will remain under it.  What a terrible burden to carry on that Day!” (20:99-101)

2.  An Isaiah-like vision of the Day of the Lord: “They ask you [Prophet] about the mountains: say, ‘[On that Day] my Lord will blast them into dust and leave a flat plain, in it you will see no valley or hill.'” (20:105-107)

3.  Judged by our works: “Those burdened with evil deeds will despair, but whoever has done righteous deeds and believed need have no fear or injustice or deprivation.” (20:111-112)

4.  Give time for understanding before you speak: “[Prophet], do not rush to recite before the revelation is fully complete but say, ‘Lord, increase my knowledge!'” (20:114)

5.  God is looking for finishers: “We also commanded Adam before you, but he forgot and We found him lacking in constancy.” (20:115)

6.  Sounds tempting: “But Satan whispered to Adam, saying, ‘Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and power that never decays?'” (20:120)

7.  But nothing good comes from Satan: “Adam, this is your enemy, yours and your wife’s: do not let him drive you out of the garden and make you miserable.” (20:117)

8.  This sounds even better: “In the garden you will never go hungry, feel naked, be thirsty, or suffer the heat of the sun.” (20:118-119)

9.  Obedience frees: “Whoever follows My guidance, when it comes to you [people], will not go astray nor fall into misery.” (20:123)

10.  Good advice still today: “Do not gaze longingly at what We have given some of them to enjoy, the finery of this present life: We test them through this, but the provision of your Lord is better and more lasting.” (20:131)