For the pagans of Arabia in Muhammad’s time, idolatry meant a whole complex system of superstitions and taboos (c.f., 6:136-44).  Maybe it does for us too, but I can’t really think of similarities.  How about you?  This sort of thing is easier to see in true religious paganism, such as the proverbial virgin thrown into the volcano or a baby sacrificed to Moloch as is mentioned in 6:137.  One more reason idolatry is repugnant.

In today’s short section Muhammad is told to tell his world the good news that what is right and wrong is plain.  There is no need for an elaborate system of taboos and religious rituals of suspect nature.  There is a simple moral law to be followed (6:151):

  1. Avoid idolatry
  2. Honor your parents
  3. Reject infanticide
  4. Live a pure life in every way
  5. Refuse to take a life unless it is necessary (which calls into question some popular depictions)
  6. Treat orphans justly, especially when money is involved
  7. Say only what is truthful and fair
  8. Keep your promises

This is an interesting list.  Two of the eight deal with idolatry.  Two deal with family relationships, or three if the orphans are under the charge of the man as it seems.  Two deal with killing.  Four uphold integrity.  Two relate to the tongue.  You could say from this list that the core values of this infant movement that became Islam were monotheism, honor, family, life, justice and integrity.  That’s a pretty good set of core values.

Now jump over to the Hebrew Bible and compare this list to the Ten Commandments (not to imply that this Qur’anic passage is a similar foundational law code).  As I see it, all of the ten core values of ancient Israel are covered by the eight commands of Islam, with the exception of the Sabbath command and the law to keep God’s name holy.

One more jump.  This time to the Sermon on the Mount, a text many see as every bit as foundational to the ethic of Christ’s followers as the Ten Commandments were to the Israelites:

  1. idolatry = Matthew 6:24
  2. parents (metaphorical for God) = Matthew 5:45; 6:8-9; 7:11
  3. infanticide = Matthew 6:21-22; 7:9-10
  4. purity (especially sexual) = Matthew 5:27-32; 7:12
  5. murder = Matthew 6:21-22; 38-39
  6. justice (especially financial) = Matthew 5:23-24; 6:2-3; 12; 19-21
  7. truthfulness = Matthew 5:36-37
  8. reliability = Matthew 5:33-37

Maybe number two is a stretch, but I see straightforward overlap between the Qur’anic list and the words of Jesus.  In fact, the correspondence between the ethics of all three codes for life is quite close.  Once again, there is a lot of common ground here.

An interesting question for another post some time is whether there is anything Jesus commands that Muhammad did not?  How about this one to get us started?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:43-45a)

We come again today to what I would call the religiously “generous” side of Islam.  Yesterday there was judgment.  Tomorrow it may come again.  But today Islam is kind, even welcoming, to the People of the Book (Jews and Christians).  A little unpredictable if you ask me.  But it keeps it interesting!

We have seen it before (see this post), Islam sees itself as the next natural development of the strict monotheism found in pure Judaism and Christianity (without the “Jesus as God” stuff later Christians insert into the true Gospel).  The Qur’an “confirms” the early Scriptures and now is a “final authority over them” (5:48).  As long as a Jew or a Christian is living in this stream of “total devotion” and “mindfulness to God,” he or she is a true believer, even if their label does not say “Muslim.”

We [God] have assigned a law and a path to each of you.  If God so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you, so race to do good:  you will all return to God and He will make clear to you the matters you differed about. (5:48)

Different paths, but that is okay, if we all are doing “good.” 

If only the People of the Book would believe and be mindful of God, We [God] would take away their sins and bring them into the Gardens of Delight.  If they had upheld the Torah and the Gospel and what was sent down to them from their Lord, they would have been given abundance from above and from below; some of them are on the right course, but many of them — how evil is what they do! (5:65-66)

Some are going in the right direction, those who truly believe, those who fear God and show it in a virtuous life.

For the [Muslim] believers, the Jews, the Sabians [another small monotheistic group of Semitic people from the Middle East], and the Christians — those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good deeds — there is no fear: they will not grieve. (5:69)

It is not the label that matters.  Belief and obedience determine true devotion.  True believers are known by their fruit not the name of their faith.  It seems the Qur’an is willing to see more than one path leading to God.

Tune in tomorrow to see if that changes!

What will you do with Jesus?

Christians say this is the most important question in life.  You can’t deny he existed; there is ample evidence from ancient non-Christian historians that Jesus of Nazareth lived, was famous in his time and place for miracles, and was crucified by the Romans.  What you do from there is where it gets interesting.  Will you use logic to say that his followers must have thought he was divine?  They all suffered and all but one of the apostles died a martyr’s death gaining nothing materially for their beliefs.  There were so many things that could have been done at that time to disprove the resurrection but were never done (produce a body and the Jesus Movement is done).  The early church produced a weak story (criminal’s death on a shameful cross with a resurrection corroborated by women and fishermen), unless there was some sort of credibility that could rise up from the story itself.  More people alive today have found meaning from the story of Jesus than any other religious option (33% in 2001 according to Adherents.com).  The question, then, is what will Islam do with Jesus?

In today’s section we get the answer.  First, the Qur’an discusses what the Jews have done with Jesus.  In a section condemning the Jews for their disbelief they are quoted as saying:

“We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of God.” (They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition: they certainly did not kill him — No!  God raised him up to Himself.  God is almighty and wise.  There is not one of the People of the Book who will not believe in [Jesus] before his death, and on the Day of Resurrection he will be a witness against them.) (4:157-59)

Then the Qur’an addresses the deification of Jesus by the Christians:

People of the Book, do not go to excess in your religion, and do not say anything about God except the truth: The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was nothing more than a messenger of God, His word directed to Mary, and a spirit from Him.  So believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of a “Trinity” — stop [this], that is better for you — God is only one God, He is far above having a son, everything in the heavens and earth belongs to Him and He is the best one to trust.  The Messiah would never disdain to be a servant of God, nor would the angels who are close to Him. (4:171-72)

Persian miniature of Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount

As we have seen before Jesus is highly revered in Islam as a great prophet or “messenger.”  He was the Messiah but this simply means he was a special emissary to Israel from God leading them back to the right way to live with submission (islam).  Even in Islam, Jesus was born to the virginal Mary (an honor not even bestowed upon Muhammad) and performed miracles while on earth.  As we see in this passage, while it seemed to an observer that Jesus was crucified, he in fact never tasted death and ascended directly to Heaven.  He will come again near the Day of Judgment to defeat the “false Messiah.”  While obviously being special among all prophets (even when compared to Muhammad) he was only ever a human, never claimed anything other than that fact, and will make this clear at the end of time (5:116).  As 4:172 said, Jesus was always fine with this role and never once desired greater power.

Lastjudgment30D

Islamic depiction of Jesus at the Day of Judgment

If Jesus did not actually die on the cross, what happened?  The Qur’an does not say.  Muslim tradition says, though, that someone who looked like Jesus was placed on the cross in his place, maybe one of the Roman soldiers who were crucifying him or Simon of Cyrene or Judas Iscariot.  Observation: That seems like a lot of rigmarole just to explain the crucifixion.  That is how important the atonement really is: it is so foundational to Christian theology that Jesus must not have done anything close to it. 

One commits shirk by claiming Jesus was the “son of God” and therefore divine.  “Shirk” means one has given a “partner” to God, one of the most serious sins of all.  As the passage  above says, therefore, it is ridiculous to speak of  a “trinity.” 

So what do Muslims do with Jesus?  Elevate him to a special position, then divest him of anything divine.  Seems like a strange combination.

Who is the liar?  It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ.  Such a man is the antichrist — he denies the Father and the Son.  No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also. . . . every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.  This is the spirit of the antichrist. (1 John 2:22; 4:3)

My friend Philip Cummings forwarded this picture to me today.  Thanks! 

Photo by Janek Skarzynski / AFP - Getty Images

This morning Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric and a number of other Muslim dignitaries visited and prayed at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.  This trip was intended to pay tribute to the millions of Jews who lost their lives in this horrific place and as a way to begin to forge cultural ties between two religions that are usually anything but civil.

That’s a side of Islam we don’t always hear about.

Abraham's Family

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all look to Abraham as a sort of “father.”  These three are called the Abrahamic religions.  That Judaism claims a connection to Abraham makes the most sense.  The connections are historical, quick and genealogical.   Abraham’s grandson was Jacob whose name was changed to “Israel,” the namesake of the nation.  Abraham’s twelve great-grandsons became the heads of the twelve ethnic tribes of Israel.  The millions of ethnic Jews past and present are part of the fulfillment to the promise of descendants God gave Abraham. 

The connections between Abraham and Christianity are less direct.  Jesus was a descendent of Abraham.  Jesus was the Jew who saves the Jews, who returns and fulfills the promised blessings to the Jews.  Paul also asserts other, more conceptual connections between any Christian — Jewish or Gentile — and Abraham.  As Paul sees it, when a person regardless of ethnicity is baptized and comes “into Christ” he becomes a part of the lineage or “seed” of Abraham and therefore an heir (Galatians 3:26-29).  Furthermore, simply approaching God through faith not law makes one a spiritual ancestor of Abraham, as this was entirely how Abraham approached God in a pre-Mosaic Law world (Galatians 3:6-9; Romans 4:16).  Abraham is the “father” of all who step out in trust, whether circumcised Jews or uncircumcised Gentiles (Romans 4:9-12).  Yes, even Americans, Canadians, Asians and Africans without an ounce of Jewish blood.

Why do Muslims look to Abraham as their father as well?  Muhammad is said to have been a descendent of Abraham too, but this time through Ishmael, Abraham’s son with Hagar the slave girl.  Thus, we are again talking about a genealogical connection.  In 2:126 from today’s section, Abraham asks that God maintain a blessing on the people of Arabia who believe in the One God.  Abraham is given credit in the Qur’an for the name “Muslim” which means “those who submit” (22:78).  Maybe the biggest reason for the Islamic identification with Abraham is their assertion that he was the original monotheist, and thus the original Muslim — that is a “submitter” to the will of God.  It was believed even before the time of Muhammad that Abraham and Ishmael had built the black, cubic shrine called the Ka’ba in the middle File:Kaaba mirror edit jj.jpgof Mecca as the first house of worship to God.  In surah 19 Abraham debates the merits of idolatry with his own polytheistic father, Azar (Terah in Genesis).  Abraham declares it faulty and displeasing to the sole true God, so when Azar rejects his son’s advice Abraham disassociates himself from his father (9:114).  Muslims claim that what was really started with Abraham was the religion that reached its most complete manifestation in Islam.  Therefore, what started formally with Muhammad actually existed in spirit even before Judaism.  Hence, Islam claims not only a historical connection to Abraham but also one of ideology or faith, not unlike Christians do as well. 
Christians look at Islam and say how dare they co-opt our God, add a new revelation onto what we have (and discredit our Bible), and then claim that their religion is only what God started in the beginning in its purest form.  But then I imagine that is what a devote Jew would say about Christianity too.  
In today’s reading, the Qur’an says this:
 So you believers say, “We believe in God and in what was sent down to us and what was sent down to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and what was given to Moses, Jesus, and all the prophets by their Lord.  We make no distinction between any of them, and we devote ourselves to Him.”  So if they believe like you [Muslims] do, they will be rightly guided.  But if they turn their backs, then they will be entrenched in opposition. (2:136-37)
 
So as long as a devoted monotheistic Jew or Christian is truly following the guidance of God then they too will be blessed.  They are actually following the submissive way of Islam anyway, so why be concerned?  And if that is the case, could a Muslim not say that Jew or Christian is actually and truly a Muslim?  It is an interesting way to cut the Gordian knot of religious diversity while maintaining an approach of exclusivity. 

I have come to the middle of the only the second surah, a little over a week into this endeavor, and it would seem that right from the its birth, the Qur’an was born into a milieu of controversy and opposition.  Historically, the polytheists of Mecca took umbrage to this new revelation from God almost as soon as Muhammad returned from the Cave at Hira.  But the fact that the Qur’an is so quickly and persistently attacking Jews and Christians suggests these competing religions were even greater opponents (the attack continues today some places in the world).  I would have thought there were more important things to introduce this early in the book than the failings of the “People of the Book.”  It is almost as if Islam has knit its identity into the identities of these other two religions as a counter-point to their claims.  Almost like a symbiotic relationship, but in a negative way. 

That doesn’t seem like a healthy way to begin.  It seems like that only asks for the world to see you perpetually as a foil to these others, as if Islam cannot stand by itself.  Christianity at least positioned itself as a fulfillment to the religion of the Israelites, not a foil.  If this is a valid observation (and it certainly may not be) it also seems like it is no wonder that Islam’s history has always been intertwined antagonistically with either Judaism or Christianity.  And it seems like we are doomed to see that continue. 

I hope to hear soon about Islam, not the failings of the Jews and the Christians to believe.          

On the topic of Islam and pluralism, this ayah seems to confirm we are talking about replacement, not coexistence:

Any revelation We [Allah] cause to be superseded or forgotten, We replace with something better or similar. (2:106)   

The diatribe against the Jews continues in today’s section.  God accepted a covenant with the Jews.  They accepted God’s law and upheld the part of it that accommodated their agendas.  Yet at the same time they ignored whatever inconvenienced their plans of economic conquest and self-promotion.  They largely ignored God most of the time, and when he sent prophets, apostles and even angels they killed, rejected and defied.  Now they are rejecting the Qur’an, though it is another message from God.  Punishment is coming, says Allah.

Today’s section helps to further confirm my thinking from yesterday.  Islam as a whole is not inclusive in conventional pluralistic ways.  A Jew who did not accept the message of Muhammad could not be accepted as a “cousin” of faith.  There is only one way: the way of Allah as finally stated in the Qur’an, an extension and culmination of the developing revelations of the Jews and Christians.  A Jew or a Christian is worthy to be called a Muslim (as Abraham will be called in 3:67) when he or she reveals that the submission of Islam has always been in his or her heart, but such submission would naturally accept the new words of Muhammad as the crowning work of God.  Islamic “pluralism” is simply supersessionism: you can be swallowed up by the favor of my god and considered one of us by the merit of your life done before you discovered our religion, but now walk with us as one of us and leave your old inferior way.

Some of the descriptions of the Jews in this section sound like prescient images of some American Christians today who swear a greater allegiance to materialism than the Maker of all things material.

These are the people who buy the life of this world at the price of the Hereafter. (2:86)

Low indeed is the price for which they have sold their souls. (2:90)

They will never long for death, because of what they have stored up with their hands.  You are sure to find them clinging to life more eagerly than any other people, even the polytheists. (2:96)

Evil indeed is the price for which they sold their souls, if only they knew.  If they had believed and been mindful of God, their reward from Him would have been far better. (2:102-103)

These were Jews, the chosen people of God, the heirs of a land of milk and honey.  But that milk and honey became more important than the favor of the Giver of that land.  Now they only longed to live one more day in order to enjoy more pleasure and to increase their portfolio even if at the expense of the Hereafter.

artandresistance.wordpress.com

I see this in people who think death is the worst fate known to man.  And why would they think this?  Because death takes you from the here-and-now corporeal delights.  This is a very different worldview from Paul who thought death would be a “gain” (Philippians 1:21).  There are too many of us who will chase after “the life of this world” offered at the local mall, car dealership or the plastic surgeon.  How much it hurts to realize that the price for physical obsession is the selling of our soul.  How it hurts even more when we realize we could have had spiritual blessings that are far better.  Definitely, the same spirit rears its ugly head in my heart at times too.   A nice meal, a scenic vacation, anything made by Apple — these possess great power over my heart.

Remember, the Qur’an was talking about the Jews in this way.  Not savages or barbarians.  Not the polytheists of Mecca.  The covenant people of God.  The ones who should know better.

We should know better.

Back on Monday.  I’m taking Sunday off.