There is a whole lot of hellfire in the Quran.  A whole lot more than this slightly post-modern evangelical Christian is used to.  I have hashed and rehashed this topic many times on this blog, so I am not going back down this road here again today.  The question when you read a passage like today’s surah is whether Allah is forgiving. 

In the midst of rehearsing how Allah has always sent messengers to people (like Pharaoh), how inclined people are to reject, and how punishment is therefore merited and assured, is a resounding “YES!” 

This Scripture is sent down from God, the Almighty, the All Knowing, Forgiver of sins and Accepter of repentance. (40:2-3)

Three more times in the surah the word “forgive” appears in some form or another:

  • Angels “beg forgiveness for the believers” (40:7-8)
  • Later, Allah is called the “Forgiving One” (40:42)
  • Muhammad is encouraged to ask forgiveness for his sins as well (40:55)
  • Oh, and the very name of this surah is “The Forgiver.”

Is Allah forgiving?  For sure.  Those who ask for forgiveness, those who show great repentance, those who turn from their evil ways can be assured of Allah’s mercy. 

There is another interesting tidbit in this surah, in this ayah here:

They [dead disbelievers] will say, “Our Lord, twice You have caused us to be lifeless and twice you have brought us to life. . . .” (40:11)

It would appear this is a line that would be spoken by an unbeliever at the point of Judgment.  When are the two periods of lifelessness before Judgment?  Translator Haleem offers a “generally accepted view” that this is referring to the point before physical birth and after physical death.  Then the two points when a person is “brought to life” are physical birth and the resurrection of the soul for Judgment.  This certainly makes sense. 

This is an interesting question that many religions ask: what kinds of consciousness have/do/will we have and when?  If Haleem is correct in saying this is a commonly held Islamic belief, then it would appear many Muslims believe there is a period after physical death and before the future Last Judgment in which the soul is “dead” or at least unconscious.

Many Christians like the comfort of the thought that the moment grandma dies she is whisked by angels straight to the side of God.  So, we can say with confidence and joy at the funeral days later, “Today, Grandma is smiling down at us today from Heaven.” 

I am not so sure the Bible is as clear on that idea as we might like.  It certainly seems the timeline the Quranic passage sketches out makes more sense if one believes there is a future day of Judgment.  For Grandma to be with Jesus, wouldn’t she have had to have been judged already?  Of course, I hope dearly that Grandma will be in Heaven, but that would mean there has to be billions of individual Judgment Days each time a person dies.  That is possible, of course.  Or maybe there is a future Resurrection and a future Judgment, as the Quran talks about it (and maybe the Bible, too?). 

I’ll tell you when I get there.

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?

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 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)

I have read over this section a couple of times and I don’t see much that stands out as new.  So instead of rehashing old posts, I thought I would give my “top ten favorite (or significant) quotes from this section.”  I would love to hear your favorites too!  Or pick one of the following ten and say what you like about that one. 

1.  Who is really in charge?

Everything in the heavens and earth belongs to God; it is to Him that all things return. (3:109)

2.  Follow Father Abraham and you can’t go wrong!

God speaks the truth, so follow Abraham’s religion: he had true faith and he was never an idolater. (3:95)

3.  A powerful image of the protection of God:

If you are steadfast and conscious of God, their [unbelievers who wish to see harm done to believers] scheming will not harm you in the least: God encircles everything they do. (3:120)

4.  Real, deep spirituality demands sacrifice.

None of you will attain true piety unless you give out of what you cherish. (3:92)

5.  Don’t blame God for the consequences of sin!

A frosty wind strikes and destroys the harvest of people who have wronged themselves: It was not God who wrong them; they wronged themselves. (3:117)

6.  God’s mercy is predicated upon active repentance.

Such people [those who know the truth and reject it anyway] will be rewarded with rejection from God, by the angels, by all people, and so they will remain, with no relief or respite for their suffering.  Not so those who afterwards repent and mend their ways: God is most forgiving and merciful. (3:87-89)

7.  Money can’t buy you love . . . or salvation!

Those who disbelieve and die disbelievers will not be saved even if they offer enough gold to fill the entire earth. (3:91)

8.  A recipe for a good community:

Be a community that calls for what is good, urges what is right, and forbids what is wrong: those who do this are the successful ones. . . . [Believers] you are the best community singled out for people: you order what is right, forbid what is wrong, and believe in God. (3:104, 110)

9.  Maybe there is hope for us after all!

There are some among the People of the Book who are upright, who recite God’s revelations during the night, who bow down in worship, who believe in God and the Last Day, who order what is right and forbid what is wrong, who are quick to do good deeds.  These people are among the righteous and they will not be denied [the reward] for whatever good deeds they do: God knows exactly who is conscious of Him. (3:113-115)

10.  One more . . . Allah calls people who reject him LOSERS!  Ha! 

If anyone seeks a religion other than complete devotion to God [islam], it will not be accepted from him: he will be one of the losers in the Hereafter. (3:85)

Okay that last one was flippant.  Sorry.  Now, how about you?

The first part of today’s section further supports what I have been taught about a works-based justification with God in Islam.  A soul is “paid in full for what it has done” (3:25) on the Day when all good deeds and bad deeds are laid out before the person (3:30).  Because God is merciful and loving, forgiveness is possible if one returns to a disposition of submission and obedience (3:32). 

What has not been explained thus far is why Allah has the right to forgive sins.  It seems so far that the answer lies in his sovereign power: Allah is the “holder of all control” (love that phrase!, 3:26) so if he wants to forgive a person’s sin, he can.  But what about justice?  The propitiatory element of sin (i.e., sin incurs a debt that has to be paid, a wrath that has to be sated) seems to be missing in what I have read so far.  Maybe in Muslim theology forgiveness does not require a sacrifice.  Maybe Allah is only looking for an attitudinal or dispositional change from rebellion to submission (islam).  That would fit with the “works” focus we have seen so far; we determine it all — sin, punishment, obedience and forgiveness.  I’m going to keep reading with this question in mind.  Please join me.     

The far more intriguing part of this passage is the latter part about Mary the mother of Jesus.  I wasn’t expecting to find her here!  It turns out Mary holds a very esteemed place in Islam (though certainly not like the reverence she has in Catholicism).  Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an; she even has a surah named after her.  She is actually discussed more in the Qur’an than in the New Testament. 

The story of Mary in the Qur’an starts with her birth, something not discussed in the Bible.  Mary’s father was ‘Imran (hence the name for the surah) and tradition says her mother was Hannah.  When Hannah was pregnant she dedicated her baby to God for service, foreseeably as a priest, but to her surprise her baby was a girl.  All of this foreshadows Mary’s special status as the mother of Jesus, who is conceived miraculously with no physical contact with a man.  Like the biblical account, Mary goes off to her cousin Elizabeth’s house where God provided for her every need while pregnant.  Elizabeth’s priest husband Zachariah is moved by God’s provision and the birth of John (as in “the Baptist”) is promised even though Elizabeth is old and barren.  Sounds a whole lot like the Bible.

Mary and the baby Jesus in Islamic Art

This section ends with some interesting descriptions of Jesus.  Even in Islam, Jesus is born of a virgin and no mention of a father is ever made.  However, nothing in this section suggests  Jesus is anything more than a miracle-baby.  He is a “second Adam” as Romans 5 says, but only in the sense that he was created supernaturally from dust not sexual reproduction like Adam (3:59).  Jesus is referred to as “a Word from Him [God],” not “the Word of God” (3:45), referring to the command from God that Jesus “Be” and “he was” (3:47, 59), not some sort of mystical logos/wisdom/order/God as Jesus in Christianity.  Jesus is the “Messiah” (3:45) but that only carries the same “anointed one” connotation it had when referring to the kings of the Old Testament.  The Qur’an says Jesus will be held in honor in this world and the next, and that he did miracles (including breathing life into a clay bird, something mentioned in apocryphal gospels but not the Bible), and confirmed the Torah and Gospel.  It is even said that those who follow Jesus will be held in greater favor with Allah than disbelievers (3:55).  This is a very high view of Jesus, but it is not divinity, is it?

Ayah 23 gets to the root of why I have started this blog:

If you have doubts about the revelation [of the Qur’an] We [Allah] have sent down to Our servant [Muhammad], then produce a single surah like it — enlist whatever supporters you have other than God — if you truly think you can.

That seems like a fair claim.  If you are going to dismiss the Qur’an, then read it and do some comparison.  Christians would say the same about the Bible.  That is why it is important to me to read this alongside the Bible, and to flow between the two.  How does the Bible and the vision it has for the world compare?  Allah has invited us to do so.   

This section of the second surah sounds like a creation story of sorts, and maybe that is what it is.  Its more sermonic than narrative.  God the maker and sustainer, all-powerful and all-knowing, creates this world and the seven heavens and, therefore, surely deserves worship from his creatures.  Then along comes a prideful angel named Iblis (also called Satan or Shaytan) who leads Adam and his wife astray to eat the forbidden fruit.  They are cast out but not before “the Ever Relenting, the Most Merciful” God accepts Adam’s repentance.  (Notice, mercy follows repentance.)  Sounds familiar, but we need to remember that Muslims are supersessionists — they don’t claim a new story; they claim their understanding of the same Jewish and then Christian story of history is the unadulterated, truthful one.  So of course it is the same basic story.

Muhammad in Paradise during his Night Vision

In the middle of this description of creation is an equally vivid picture of Paradise or simply the Garden (lush, watered gardens of delight and purity).  Quickly paired with the question of how one could dream of ignoring the One who creates is how one could ignore the One who resurrects and returns the believer to Himself.  Are we talking about creation or resurrection, the beginning or the end?  Yes.  Both.  I like the way the reader, caught in the middle of fallen time, is taken back to the perfect beginning and forward to the glorious end simultaneously. 

Today at teacher inservice, a friend rehearsed for us the mind-blowing, soul-thrilling story of Creation, Fall, and Re-Creation.  For Christians this is our metanarrative, our “grand story,” the warp and woof of life, the pulse that underlies every breath.  Re-Creation is there in Genesis as well:

I will put enmity between you [serpent] and the woman, and between your offspring and hers [Messianic?]; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:15)

We do well to remember in those fleeting Creation moments of life when all is right with the world that there is a Re-Creation that makes the ethereal ever real.  In the sting and stench of Fall we must hang on the delight and purity of Re-Creation.  In Life there is Death, but in Death there is Life. 

In what part of your life do you need to hear that Re-Creation is as sure as Creation?