In this short surah Allah is described as “All Aware” (67:14), “the Lord of Mercy” (67:29), “He who holds all control in His hands; who has power over all things” (67:1), and one who has knowledge of all things (67:26).  Even the surah itself is called “Control.”  Clearly, Allah is depicted as an all-powerful, all-caring, all-knowing deity who controls all things.

Some Christians talk about their God this way too (though as process theology and open theism gain traction, not all Christians believe this exactly).  When Christians talk about their God this way, doubters are quick to ask something like, “If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving, why does he allow evil events to take place in the life of good people?”  This is usually called “the problem of evil.”  My desire here is not to rehearse a Christian answer to that question.  There are a million better places to go for that. 

I was just struck as I read today’s surah how the same question could be asked of Muslims in regard to Allah.  In this world that is said to be created by Allah, overseen by Allah, and loved by Allah, why do tsunamis, drive-by shootings, and brain cancer take place?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Is Allah not powerful enough to stop them, or is He not charitable enough?  That might be how the question would be asked by those same doubters I mentioned. 

I am wondering if Muslims are asked about “the problem of evil” as much as Christians are, and if so what answers are often given?

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It’s not religion that matters most of all.  It is not even just belief alone.  It is faith submissively expressing itself in obedience, respect, and love. 

Such is the message of today’s short surah, “The Private Rooms.”   

The desert Arabs say, “We have faith.”  [Prophet] tell them, “You do not have faith.  What you should say instead is, ‘We have submitted,’ for faith has not yet entered your hearts.” . . . The true believers are the ones who have faith in God and His Messenger and leave all doubt behind, the ones who have struggled [jihad?] with their possessions and their persons in God’s way: they are the one who are true. . . . They think they have done you [Prophet] a favor by submitting.  Say, “Do not consider your submission [islam] a favor to me; it is God who has done you a favor, by guiding you to faith, if you are truly sincere.”  (49:14-15, 17)

As we read through this surah we read of Muslims who treat Muhammad with such disrespect that they stand outside his “private rooms” and yell for his to come out (49:4).  When he is talking, they shout over him, presumably not laking what he is saying (49:2).  They have forgetten Muhammad is God’s chosen Messenger, not just one of the guys (49:2). 

People are believing any report they hear, without showing the accused brother or sister the respect to find out if it is true first (49:6).  Of course, this causes tension and even arguments, which they are all only too willing to get into (49:9-10).  Offensive remarks, name-calling, back-biting, mockery, looking down on other Muslims, trying to catch people doing something wrong, jumping to conclusions about each other — too many were engaging in this kind of unsuitable behavior (49:11-12). 

And yet these same Muslims were quick to say they have faith (49:14).  No, they have religion.  No, they wear a label that identifies themselves as one of the group.  Do they believe in Allah?  Sure, it seems they do, but that belief has had little effect on their life.  They have a religion called “Islam,” but they have completely missed what “islam” really is: submission. 

Sure, they have “submitted” to Muhammad, in the sense that they do not rebel against his authority.  But real submission requires a heart that is tender and kind to others.  A true submitter has “struggled” or “done war” with his own “person” or will or desires, so that he treats others with respect and love.  A true believer would not act the way this group is acting. 

That is a great message!  And universally applicable, regardless of your religion.

The Apostle Paul of the Bible said it this way:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.  The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:6)

Today’s new surah, named “The Poets” because of historical references late in the surah that we will discuss later, is largely a rehash of familiar topics — Allah has given us many reasons to believe in His creation; prophets have always been opposed; and the consequences of denying Allah is always dire.  Today, the story of Moses and Pharaoh is rehearsed once again.  Nothing terribly notable.

However, the following passage really struck me:

[Prophet], are you going to worry yourself to death because they will not believe?  If We had wished, We could have sent them down a sign from heaven, at which their necks would stay bowed in utter humiliation.  (26:3-4)

The context appears to be that Muhammad is naturally discouraged at the way the Meccans are rejecting his message.  Muhammad is acting as an ambassador of Allah.  Allah responds by saying, “Do not fret.  I am not weak.  I could send them a sign that would overwhelm them if I wanted to.”

What struck me, though, was the effect a sign from Allah would bring: humiliation, disgrace, shame.  If Allah were to choose to suspend freedom for a moment and overwhelm the heart of a person, why produce humiliation?  I am sure the point is that these people have had a choice to accept Allah already and they have not, thus they will feel ashamed of their choice when they are flooded with a glimpse of the glory of Allah.  Still, it seems odd to me.

I think that is because of what I was expecting.  If the God of the Christian Bible were to suspend freedom and overwhelm a human heart for a moment, what emotion would He want to evoke in the heart of a person who is not in a relationship with Him?  I cannot think of a verse in the Bible that addresses this hypothetical situation directly, but I think the answer is that God would choose to evoke an immense feeling of love.  Love is the cornerstone of Christian theology.  God is love (1 John 4:8, 16) the Bible says.  Love drives so much of what God does in the narrative of the Bible.  Creation, fall, and redemption (each in the multifaceted ways they are manifested all throughout the Bible) make the most sense when centered in divine love.  So I imagined that God would flood the person with such a sense of love and desire for relationship that it would melt the unbeliever’s hard heart.

So why would Allah want to produce shame not love?  I think part of the answer comes from the frequency of the concept of divine love in the Qur’an.  It is simply incorrect to say that Allah does not say that he loves humanity, at least those who obey Him; the Qur’an most certainly says that.

God loves those who do good. (3:134)

This is just not as strong a chorus in the Qur’an as it is in the Bible, and the love of Allah seems to be quite conditioned by the degree of obedience a person chooses to give.

As for those who believe and do good deeds God will pay them their reward in full but God does not love evildoers. (3:57)

Much more common is the thought that humans are to respond to Allah with respect or fear of His glory and power.  Paying attention to word frequency is not without flaws, but it can tell us something.  The word “fear” occurs three times more frequently than the word “love.”

It seems we have a significant difference in how we humans are to relate to God.

What do you think?

This past Sunday, the minister at the church I attend asked us to state our life’s goal in one sentence.  Good exercise!  Let’s switch that around a bit: in one sentence, what is it that God most wants from us?  Last year in Memphis, I heard Marcus Borg (a bit too liberal for my tastes on several topics, but when he talks about living out Christianity I am usually in wholehearted agreement) sum it up this way: love God and love the people God loves, a memorable summary of Luke 10:27

Of course this is the right answer.  Jesus said as much, but it begs the question what does love look like?  How do I show love to God, in particular?  I would like to assert that showing genuine, unflinching trust in the midst of uncertainty is one of the best ways.     

At this point in the third surah we come to mentions of two significant battles fought by the first Muslims during the life of Muhammad — the Battles of Badr and Uhud.  The way they come packaged, one right after another; the outcomes of both battles; and the lesson the Qur’an appears to be teaching from these battles make me immediately think of the Old Testament stories of Jericho and Ai in Joshua 6-7.  Today we will look at Badr and tomorrow at Uhud. 

Battle of Badr, iranian miniature

The Battle of Badr, Iranian miniature

The Battle of Badr pitted the first Muslims against the polytheists of Mecca.  Skirmishes had taken place between the Muslims and the Meccans before this time; the Meccans had been successful in chasing Muhammad and the Muslims out of Mecca in 622 CE.  But Badr would be the first large-scale battle and it is remembered as one of the most decisive.  On March 13, 624 CE the greatly outnumbered Muslim army marched into the gently sloping valley where the wells of Badr were, anticipating the advance of the much larger Meccan army.  Muslim tradition says the Muslims had 313 troops to the over 900-man, better-equipped Meccan force.  On the day of the battle each side presented their champions for the traditional 3-on-3 individual combat.  Surprisingly, the three Muslim champions were victorious.  This quickly turned into all-out battle, and when all was said and done, with some give-and-take on both sides, the Meccans suffered many more losses than the Muslims (some sources say 20% vs. 4%) and retreated.  Historians say this was the tipping point for Muhammad’s popularity; he had become a force to reckon with in Arabia.  The Muslims would no longer be anybody’s whipping boys. 

It is interesting how the Qur’an describes what takes place in the battle.  The Muslims are outmanned, weaken and losing heart.  So they pray for God’s help.  What happened next is described this way:

If you are steadfast and mindful of God , your Lord will reinforce you with five thousand swooping angels if the enemy should suddenly attack you, and God arranged it so. (3:125)

When by all accounts the Muslims should lose, God intervenes to make the impossible possible.  Victory comes, but from the hand of God.  They proceeded in faith and obedient steadfastness and God brought reward. 

Jericho

Now imagine you are an Israelite soldier marching into your first battle in Canaan.  You come over a rise to see Jericho, the great walled city.  You are undermanned and underequipped, never mind that your battle plans sound more like instructions for a parade.  What would drive you to take another step?              

Trust.  And that alone. 

Before the non-Battle of Jericho ever started God had said: “I have delivered Jericho into your hands” (Joshua 6:2).  In the midst of the marching, Joshua encourages his troops that “the LORD has given you the city” (Joshua 6:16).  And, of course, the victory comes when the walls fall by no feat of the Israelites themselves.  But would the walls have fallen had the Israelites not marched?  I don’t believe so.  God was wondering one thing.  Will you trust me?  I’ll give you a plan that the most inept soldier would reject, but will you still go?  I’ll stretch it out over a week so the ridicule from the people of Jericho increases by the day, even so will you obey?  If I give you a test, will you pass?  They did.  Why?

Trust.  And that alone. 

And the lesson seems to be the same at Badr.  You are outmanned, will you trust me?  You have no significant victories under your belt, will you go anyway?  The tide of battle is turning against you, will you turn and run or turn to me and pray?  Will you pass my test?  And this is exactly what the Qur’an calls it (3:140-42)?  Today’s section begins with the admonition that trust is what Allah desires from his people at the lowest point in the battle most (3:122).  The section ends with further exhortation not to lose heart but to be steadfast (3:146).  The Muslims were and reward came. 

Really, we are talking about faith, but that word has developed so much religious baggage that I wonder if the word “trust” doesn’t actually help us understand the concept better.  Trust gives up control.  Trust surrenders.  Trust submissively says we will do it your way and I’ll look to you to lead the way.  Is this not what God wants most from His people?  Is that maybe how we best say we love someone, even God? 

And is this not what the very word “islam” means?