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)

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There are lots of reasons people give for not believing in God.  Four popular reasons are voiced by the disbelieving Meccans in today’s reading.

1.  The Argument of Rationalism

Man says, “What?  Once I am dead, will I be brought back to life?” (19:66)

This argument says your beliefs are ridiculous.  Dead people brought back to life again?  You are crazy!  That doesn’t happen.  Death is the end.  When was the last time you saw someone do that?  Use your head.  Reason it out.  We are too smart, too advanced for primitive superstitions and wishful thinking. 

2.  The Argument of Materialism

The disbelievers say to the believers, “Which side is better situated [with “riches and outward glitter”]?  Which side has the better following?” (19:73)

People with this perspective respond with the claim that their life is already better than those with faith.  They say we are richer, happier, and more popular.  We have a better life than what you are offering.  I don’t need what you are offering.  I’ve got it all right now.  If anything, your religion will make me sacrifice some of these things that make me happy.       

3.  The Argument of Pragmatism

Have you seen the man who rejects Our revelation, who says, “I will certainly be given wealth and children”? (19:77)

Everything will be fine without your God, they say.  My way of living is working just fine.  God is not necessary in life.  I make money just fine without your God.  I have wonderful kids who are healthy, and your God has nothing to do with it.  Who needs God?  The proof is in the pudding.  I’ve got all I need already. 

4.  The Argument of Pluralism

The disbelievers say, “The Lord of Mercy has offspring.” (19:88)

This argument claims there are many religious options, not just your one.  You think your God is the only one, but I think my god is a daughter of your God.  Seriously, there can’t just be one way.  Sure, there is one supreme power but it takes a lot of forms.  You have your god and I have mine.  Don’t be so narrow-minded.  Let’s just coexist.  You go your way up the mountain and I’ll go mine — see you at the top! 

Allah doesn’t take on the disbelievers’ arguments in this passage. He simply says that they will see the error of their ways in the end.  This takes us back to a point we keep coming back to: belief has a whole lot to do with desire.  Do we want to believe?  Ayah 76 says it this way:

God gives more guidance to those who take guidance.

Faith: you get it when you want to get it.

Today’s section brings us to the second of four stories in this surah.  This new story seems to punctuate the point made in ayah 28:

Let not your eyes turn away from them [the Scriptures] out of desire for the attractions of this worldly life.

The “parable” begins with two men.  Both have been created and provided with a rich garden of grapes, dates, and corn.  The land of each is well-watered.  Both men have been set up by God to have a bountiful life.  Soon, one appears to turn to idolatry (18:42, “I wish I had not set up any partner to my Lord”) but even more so he turns to a life of materialism.  This man defines “better” by what he possesses.  God has blessed him, but he has become obsessed with the possessions.  This man has lost sight to God, the giver of blessings.  He compares his estate to that of the other man boasts that he has more.  He becomes convinced that the richness of his life is determined by his riches.  He buys the lie that what he has will always be and will always satisfy.  He even fools himself into believing the “Last Hour” will never come.  Essentially he has erected himself and his wealth is the supreme power. 

Then the other man who has never lost sight of God and the Last Hour scolds his lack of faith:

If only, when you entered your garden, you had said, “As God wills.  There is no power not [given] by God.” (18:39) 

Though this second man has less, he is truly the rich one.  He reminds his neighbor that his estate can be wiped away by the more powerful forces of nature in a moment’s notice.  There is a satisfaction to be found that is far greater than anything material possessions and wealth can bring:

The True God . . . gives the best rewards and the best outcomes. (18:44)

To be faithful, obedient, and mindful of God — this is the greatest calling and reward. 

The story ends as the faithful man said it would: the first man’s crops are destroyed by a storm of epic proportions and he cries out in regret for his faithlessness.

"The End of Materialism II," photo by carr176 on flickr.com

For Christians reading this parable, it will likely remind us of the parable of the Rich Fool told by Jesus:

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest.  He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain.  And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:13-21)

We might also remember the words of Jesus’ brother James:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”  As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes.  All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)

This line from the end of today’s Quranic section is a good reminder to those of us who live in an immensely materialistic world:

Wealth and children are the attractions of this worldly life, but lasting good works have a better reward with your Lord and give better grounds for hope. (18:46) 

What are “grace” and “mercy?” We have found these are recurring questions as we read through the Qur’an. And Christians ask them in their own theologies just as much as we might ask them here about the Islamic view of these ideas.

It wasn’t until college until I really realized that grace was more than just a prayer you said before dinner.  I had sung “Amazing Grace” all my life, but the truly amazing story of a God who acts in life-saving ways through Jesus Christ on the behalf of sinners and “enemies” (Romans 5:10), well, that took some maturity to really get.  “Mercy” — I knew that one well.  It was what I got when I deserved so much worse.  The simplest of minds gets that one.  And I am often pretty simple-minded.

The beginning of this surah gives us a line that goes a long way to helping us understand better the Qur’anic view of “grace:”

He will grant you wholesome enjoyment until an appointed time, and give His grace to everyone who has merit. (11:3)

We have seen this idea before.  With this connotation, “grace” is most equal to the word “favor.”  Some have Allah’s favor, and some do not.  What determines the difference?  Grace or favor is granted to the one who merits it through his obedient goodness.  Once again, we see that the Qur’anic view of grace has as much to do with merit earned by the person as it does the compassion of a god upon an undeserving human.

If any desire [only] the life of this world with all its finery, We shall repay them in full in this life for their deeds — they will be given no less — but such people will have nothing in the Hereafter but the Fire: their work here will be fruitless and their deeds futile. (11:15-16)

There is a foe much greater than Islam, more threatening to American Christians than Muslim violence.  Materialism, the dominant worldview of our own increasingly secularized American society, says only that which is material exists and only that which can be sensed, owned or used for some immediately gratifying end has value.  This “religion” (the store isn’t called “True Religion” for no reason, right?) is much more insidious than Islam.  In America at least, we have more to fear from marketing, malls and massage parlors than we do from mosques.

Christians realize the threat of materialism.  Muslims do too.  And this is something we can most certainly agree upon.  Ayah 17 even claims a continuity between this message from the Qur’an and that found in the “Book of Moses” of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  The reduction of life to consumerism, of the human to consumer, and of happiness to ownership and pleasure are rivals that Christians and Muslims can join together to oppose.

I’m back and back for good, I promise.

Over the past two weeks I have lost my luggage in, well, I don’t know where.  I was in San Antonio, TX but my luggage might have seen Pittsburgh for all I know.  After being reunited with my clothes, I was blessed to visit with fellow Christian school leaders and teachers, and to share what the religion faculty at my school is presently doing to impact the hearts of youth with the gospel of Jesus.  I walked through the Alamo, floated through the wonderful Riverwalk, and ate schnitzel in historic New Braunfels, TX (who knew some of the earliest European settlers of southern Texas were Germans?!).  I made it home long enough to pack again and head with the family to one of our favorite places in the world, the Smoky Mountains.  Check out my 12-year old son’s short video of our trip (yes, I am proud of him!).  We hiked and shopped and rode go-karts and ate out to our heart’s content.  I am blessed to have a wife who enjoys a beautiful waterfall as much as a sale at the scrapbooking store.  It was all very restorative.

Tom Branch Falls along Deep Creek Trail, GSMNP

Okay, forgive the self-indulgence.  Back in the saddle.  I hope the extra time has allowed us all to digest the many ideas and questions that are presently swirling in the world right now concerning Islam.

Living with others is hard.  People want things their way.  And when that doesn’t happen it becomes easy to think one is missing out on what others have.  Conspiracy theories abound and things seem unfair.  Community is hard.

It seems Muhammad is dealing with exactly these challenges in this new surah entitled “Battle Gains” or “The Spoils.”  This Medinan surah is situated months after the Battle of Badr, the first battle between the Muslims and the Meccans shortly after the Hijra (the migration to Medina). The battle ended with a stunning battle and now some of the soldiers are complaining about how the spoils of battle are being divided.  Allah weighs in on the matter in this surah.

Dividing the Spoils

Allah starts strong: true believers don’t fuss about things like this.  They don’t dream of questioning God.  They trust, pray and give.  They don’t worry about getting more (8:2-4).  And true believers “remember” (8:7, 11, 26, 30, 42, 43).  They remember what God has done thus far.  They remember that they were outnumbered at Badr.  They remember they had to fight the harder of two opponents.  They remember they should have been defeated but were victorious.  God takes care of true believers.  Just as He will right now as the “battle gains” are divided.

Spoils — whether of war or from a day of work or an inheritance or some unexpected windfall — have a way of making us forget.  All we see is the potential power lying within the object itself.  We forget how it came to be before us.  We forget from where it ultimately came.  We forget there may be a reason it has come our way. We forget that this object is only a tool to be used for some greater purpose.  All we want is to have.  So don’t stand between me and that object.

And it is at this moment that we become “the worst creatures in God’s eyes . . . those who are willfully deaf and dumb, who do not reason” (8:22).

Today, remember.  We did not get here by ourselves.  We are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” who have all contributed a few stitches to the tapestry of our lives.  Community is precious; don’t tear away at it.  More so, we are carried along by the grace and mercy of a providential God who overcomes all odds to advance his kingdom through the likes of us, his people.  Remember the ephemeral objects of this world are not the true rewards.  Remember the one in control knows best.  Remember He is good, right and fair.  Remember.

What specifically do you need to remember today so as to avoid becoming “deaf and dumb?”

Even if they saw every sign they would not believe in them. (6:25)

The disbelievers say, “These are nothing but ancient fables.” (6:25)

They say, “There is nothing beyond our life in this world: we shall not be raised from the dead.” (6:29)

This is how the unbelievers of Muhammad’s time described life because of their lack of faith.  As I read today’s section I was struck by how similar these are to sentiments I have heard 21st century Americans say. 

All that matters is matter

The worldview is called “materialism” or “secularism” or “humanism” or some combination of those.  I would contend that this worldview is the number one competition to a Christian worldview in modern America, not radical Islam like some fear.  Materialism contends all that exists is material.  Something is real only if it can be seen, touched, heard, smelled, or tasted.  If it cannot be proven through some sort of science or at least everyday experience, then who would put much stock in it?  Thus, proven facts, money, physical possessions, the body and what it can experience, control over my own domain — these and many more material objects are the most important assets in life.  Those spiritual, ephemeral, conceptual things — well, if we even can believe in those things, they are lesser realities.  Put your confidence in a God who cannot be seen, over a job and paycheck that can?  Find fulfillment from devotion to God, when the arms of love or the joy of a sun-filled vacation are available?  Science trumps wishful thinking any day, right? 

Faith is hard.  It was in Abraham’s time.  It was in Jesus’ time.  It was in Muhammad’s time.  And it is our time.    

In contrast to the worldview that says this world is all we’ve got, the Qur’an describes life this way:

The life of this world is nothing but a game and a distraction; the Home in the Hereafter is best for those who are aware of God. (6:32)

I am not sure I would say this life is that trivial.  That seems to go too far in the other direction.  This life is very important.  We have a definite mission to bring God’s kingdom to our world with the time we have on this planet.  I would hardly say that is a “distraction,” though there sure are many distractions in this world that get us sidetracked from our mission.  But the point that this life is not our primary life, eternal life, the abundant life, kingdom life certainly resonates with me. 

Yet, how easy it is to believe that this life is most “real,” and that it is what we were made for.  I like the way Peter Kreeft says it (thanks to David Jackson for sharing this quote with me a few years ago):

Home—that’s what heaven is. It won’t appear strange and faraway and “supernatural”, but utterly natural. Heaven is what we were designed for. All our epics seek it: It is the “home” of Odysseus, of Aeneas, of Frodo, of E.T. Heaven is not escapist. Worldliness is escapist. Heaven is home.

People think heaven is escapist because they fear that thinking about heaven will distract us from living well here and now. It is exactly the opposite, and the lives of the saints and our Lord himself prove it. Those who truly love heaven will do the most for earth. It’s easy to see why. Those who love the homeland best work the hardest in the colonies to make them resemble the homeland. “Thy kingdom come. .. on earth as it is in heaven.”

For if it is true… it is not escapism. The charge of escapism therefore logically boils down to the charge of falsehood; only those who are certain the rumor is false can reasonably call it escapist. Otherworldliness is escapism only if there is no other world. If there is, it is worldliness that is escapism. (Peter Kreeft, Heaven)

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.

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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.