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.

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?

Strike the adulteress and the adulterer one hundred times.  Do not let compassion for them keep you from carrying out God’s law — if you believe in God and the Last Day. (24:2)

Ouch!

There can be no doubt that Islam takes sexual immorality seriously.  The word used in this ayah for sexual sin connotes any extramarital sexual activity, including sexual relations between unmarried people.  Notice that the punishment is supposed to be equally shared by both offenders, regardless of gender.  Translator Abdel Haleem says the strikes were to be “on the skin” and Islamic tradition shows this was originally done with the hand, clothes, shoes, or a belt.

I am afraid its passages like these that make people say Islam is a violent religion, especially the “don’t be compassionate” part.  And definitely it should be said at this point that there are stories all over the Internet of people who identify themselves as Muslims who do take dictates like these and use them as justification for the mob killing or honor killing of people caught in sexual sin.  Often the woman suffers even worse.  Out of respect for my Muslim friends who surely would not let sexual indiscretion become an excuse for violence of an animalistic nature, I will not link to any such articles.

Certainly there is nothing godly about using a person’s sin as an excuse for uncorking the plug that holds back our most base violent impulses.  However.  It should be remembered that God’s people are to be a people of holiness.  We stand for purity and honor, even in a culture like many of us live in today that views sexual sin as unavoidable, common, and excusable.  And, dare I remind us, Christians and Jews should remember there are similar commands in our Bible too (c.f., ).

Maybe the most important point for those who find passages like this one and make a case for the depravity of Islam is that the quote above is only a partial quote.  Ayah 2 continues:

. . . and ensure that a group of believers witnesses the punishment.

The hope seems to be that the public nature of punishment will encourage honesty and self-control.  So lighting one’s daughter or sister on fire in the hiddeness of one’s own kitchen and calling it an unfortunate cooking accident (as is happening in the rare instances of “honor killings” in parts of North America and Europe — no I won’t link to these either, out of respect) is absolutely outside of the spirit of this passage.

Ayah 4 adds that the charge of fornication requires four witnesses.  One can’t simply trump up charges against a person.  Given the private nature of sexual activity, four witnesses is actually a high demand, further evidence that the intention is to maintain justice and truth.  In fact, an accuser who cannot produce four witnesses will have his case thrown out and he will suffer 4/5ths of the punishment (80 strikes) he was seeking for the others.

As with all texts, it is imperative that we remember the broader context of the passage.  This entire section of this new Medinan surah named “Light” focuses on the need to be just in one’s punishment, in particular to ensure that all accusations are corroborated by the required number of witnesses.  The thrust of this passage is actually towards justice not away from it, as dragging a woman into the city streets upon her father’s word that his daughter has been indecent in her relationship with her boyfriend and stoning her with fury and bloodlust would be.

Islamic tradition tells us that Muhammad had personal experience with this topic and that seems to be the impetus for what is written here.  On the return from an expedition to Banu al-Mustaliq, the Prophet’s wife `A’isha had backtracked in search of a necklace she had dropped.  Soon a nomad named Safwan happened upon her.  Placing her on his camel, Safwan reunited her with her husband.  However, a man and a woman traveling through the desert alone only gave some a ripe opportunity to cast dispersions on `A’isha’s moral character (24:11).  Apparently this rumor developed some traction (24:12).  Today’s passage chides those who would believe and even pass on such accusations without the required corroboration (24:13ff).  Such is not just nor fitting of holy people.

No doubt, sexual purity is a must for those who wish to see God.  But so too is truthfulness and justice.

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.

I remember being told with a smirk and wink as a child that some places in the world thieves are punished by the cutting off of hands.  I am not sure about the prudence of telling a child this, though I may have “helped myself” to some forbidden fruit, and the comment sure wasn’t intended to be a threat.  Still, a mental picture like that stays with a kid, which was maybe the point!  Today we come to the passage in the Qur’an that instructs that thievery be handled in exactly that way. 

Today’s section begins with a rehearsal of Jewish history, in particular a reminder that the Jews have been unfaithful as far back at the episode with the twelve spies sent to scout out Canaan.  This is a common strategy: pull out all the skeletons in an opponent’s closet and make them look bad.  

Then the passage turns to an interesting re-telling of Cain and Abel, embellished with a conniving raven (?).  All of this is a lead up to the enduring issue at hand: how to punish willful, violent crimes against others, such as the killing of one’s brother.  The bottomline is that murder is punishable by “death, crucifixion, the amputation of an alternate hand and foot, or banishment from the land” (5:33).  And it gets worse in the Hereafter (5:37).  Theft is to be punished by the cutting off of hands, whether the offender is male or female, and this is intended to be a deterrent to the masses (5:38).  I will refrain from posting the many pictures out there on the Internet, but it seems now in some places the removal of hands has been replaced by the crushing of hands and arms by running over such with a vehicle.  I guess this is considered more humane?  What is the underlying ethical principle?  The same “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” principle we see in the Hebrew Bible as well.

To be fair, I should mention that there is also a strong possibility of mercy in this very same passage.  True repentance can curtail capital punishment for those who have “spread corruption in the land” because “God is forgiving and merciful” (5:34).  Repentance and restitution can prevent punishment from thievery (5:39).  After all it is God who is in charge of the world, even in charge of justice, so if he chooses to forgive (or punish) he is justified.  This seems to be the point of this line:

He punishes whoever He will and forgives whoever He will: God has power over everything. (5:40) 

Though that sounds sort of willy-nilly, the point is certainly not that God is unpredictable or unfair.  If anything He is more than fair.        

Let me finish with the words of two great Jewish men on the matter.  I prefer their take:

Villager: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth!
Tevye: Very good. That way the whole world will be blind and
toothless. (from Fiddler on the Roof)

You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.”  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Jesus in Matthew 5:38-42)

Today we come to a new surah, “The Feast” or “The Table” in English.  Food will be a recurring topic in this Medinan surah, and it likely takes its name from a feast the disciples of Jesus ask God to send down as a sign.  We will see many of the same themes we have already seen, including more on Jesus.

The surah starts by laying out laws about clean and unclean food.  Nothing new here.  See this post for details on Islamic food restrictions or “halal.”

Next, further instructions are given on the washings Muslims should do in preparation for prayer.  See this post for details on these.  I found this line of explanation interesting:

God does not wish to place any burden on you; He only wishes to cleanse you and perfect His blessing on you, so that you may be thankful. (5:6)

These customs are not meant to be legalistic and burdensome.  Instead they will lead the believer to a way of life that brings blessing and, therefore, gratitude for the oversight of God.  Law blesses.  It is only this view of Law that allows a psalm like Psalm 119 to make sense.  Take one verse as an example:

I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. (Psalm 119:14)

Take the time to read through Chris Altrock’s recent, wonderfully re-written paraphrases of this great psalm.  You will see Law very differently.

I love this next line:

Do not let hatred of others lead you away from justice, but adhere to justice, for that is closer to awareness of God. (5:8)

Our world would be a better place if people of all faiths followed this instruction.

The connection between “remember” and “trust” in 5:11 is profound.  It reminds me of Deuteronomy.  If trust is what God wants most for us, and I believe it is, vigilantly hanging on to the memories of the great acts of God may be one of the most important things we can ever do.

Then the nobility of this passage disintegrates into an attack on Jews and Christians again.  This is getting wearisome.

This section ends with an address to the “People of the Book” to listen to Muhammad because he now comes to bring “light” to show the “right path” (5:16) and to “warn” us against danger (5:19).

On a cold night I am looking for a blazing bonfire, the kind that attracts from a distance, that beats back the chill and surrounds one in its radiating heat.  It seems like that is the kind of light that should come from God.  I am afraid I am finding the Qur’an to be more like a struggling campfire that flares up brilliantly when a new log is placed but then quickly dies back down to dim embers.

I have already found a “light” (John 1:9) that seems to burn much brighter.

Today we start a new surah, Al-Nisa’ or “Women” in English, so named because of the many mentions of women and how men should treat women in particular (stay tuned, it may not be what you are expecting!)

The surah starts out sounding a whole lot like Leviticus.  This is legal code, especially related to family relationships and one’s financial responsibilities to those in one’s care.

As I read today’s section, I was quite struck by how enlightened these instructions all sounded.  This is not the medieval, oppressive system of laws set up to solely benefit men that Islamic law is sometimes made out to be.  I know modern-day Islamic or sharia law comes as much from the legal rulings and traditions (hadiths) that developed after the Qur’an as from the Qur’an itself, so maybe things change in significant ways after the time this was written.  I will have to do more research about this soon, or maybe you can help us understand how Muslim law developed.  Still, I am impressed with the level of compassion in this section.

I find ayah 9 to be a key to interpreting what we read today:

Let them be mindful of God and speak out for justice.

So, specifically how would a thirst for justice shape our relationships? 

  • Husbands and wives would see themselves as parts of a single soul, necessary for each other (4:1).  More on this provocative thought another day.  This doesn’t sound like patriarchal servitude.
  • Guardians would take care of fatherless children (“orphan” doesn’t necessarily also mean motherless in the ancient world) in their care, being sure to handle their finances fairly (4:2, 6, 10).
  • A man would only commit to marital relationships with the number of women he can treat fairly (4:3).  Yes, polygamy was allowed by the Qur’an.  More on this to come, for sure. 
  • A husband would not exploit his wife financially, living off of her money or keeping her enslaved to him financially (4:4).
  • People would treat the intellectally disabled with respect, caring for them materially, if need be (4:5).
  • Executors would dispense the estate of deceased parents fairly irregardless to the gender of the recipients (4:7).
  • People would not just worry about the future of their own kids (4:9).  That one preaches still today!
  • Parents would provide for the future of all of their children without bias, though they acknowledge that sons will have greater financial needs in the future because of their role in society (4:11).
  • People would always pay off debts with inheritance money before buying anything else (4:11-12). 
  • For the sake of society as a whole, parents would not allow sons or daughters guilty of homosexuality (see commentator Abdullah Muhammad Ali on this interpretation) to run wild.  However, they would allow room for repentance (4:15-16).  So it seems the honor killing we are seeing in parts of the Muslim world would not be congruous with this instruction, at least this single ayah.
  • A man would never take a woman as his wife against her will (4:19).
  • A husband would treat his wife fairly and kindly, always looking for the best God has placed in her (4:19).  WOW! 

This all seems very high-handed and honorable.  There is a great amount of respect and concern for others, especially anyone who is disadvantaged.  These will be some interesting points to hang onto as we go forward in this study.