The one who purifies his soul succeeds and the one who corrupts it fails. (91:9-10)

This is a great hallmark passage.  So much of the Qur’an can be summarized by these words.  What does Islam expect of you? How does one purify or corrupt their soul?  I have chosen to focus on these questions as we read through the next five surahs: 91, Al-Shams (The Sun); 92, Al-Layl (The Night); 93, Al-Duha (The Morning Brightness); 94, Al-Sharh (Relief); and 95, Al-Tin (The Fig).

1.  Avoid arrogance and rejection of the message of God:  The people of Thamud did not.  “Arrogant cruelty” overtook their souls so when the messenger of God came to them, they rejected him as a liar and even hamstrung his camel (91:11-14).  For such people “the raging Fire” is prepared (92:14-16).

2.  Give generously in mindfulness of God:  This is specifically called “self-purification” (92:18).  Those who corrupt their souls are “miserly,” storing up wealth for themselves, “den[ying] goodness” to those in need (92:8-10).

3.  Model the compassion of God:  We too were once orphans in need of help, and God cared for us (93:7-8).  Likewise, we ought to show compassion on those who need help in our communities (93:9-11).

4.  Pray dependently on God:  The purified soul lifts its requests to God (94:8).  It is God who “relieves” the “burden that weigh so heavily on your back” (94:1-3), so one does well to look to Him in “mindfulness” (92:5), not try to handle it himself in self-satisfied arrogance (92:8; 91:11).

In summary, who is it that purifies his soul and succeeds?  It is “those who believe and do good deeds” (95:6).

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The surah continues with a recounting of the careers of the prophets Abraham, Noah, `Ad, Salih, Lot, Shu`ayb again.  There is no need to recount the details of these stories as they have become very familiar.  Bottomline, they preached the message but the people rejected. 

The most striking feature from today’s section is the fourteen uses of the phrase “mindful of God.”  Save Abraham, the other five prophets all ask their people the same question: “Will you not be mindful of God?” (26:106, 124, 142, 161, 177).  The other nine uses of the phrase are all admonitions to “be mindful of God” (26:108, 110, 126, 131, 132, 144, 150, 179, 184) and often “and obey” is added. 

What has become very clear to me as I read through the Qur’an is how central mindfulness of God (taqwa) is to the Islamic faith.  This phrase is translated other ways: “fear of God,” “reverence for God,” or “God consciousness.”  Faith begins when a person decides to make God a conscious part of their life.  Faith strengthens as God sinks deeper and deeper into the believer’s mind, so much so that God is there in every decision, every action, and every breath.  When God is so dear to a person that his reverence for God shapes what one does and does not do, that is a true “fear of God.”  This is not the “fear” that immobilizes, rather this is the “fear” that makes one’s relationship with God so sacred that nothing that would sully it is allowed to enter into the situation. 

See this earlier post and the comment by khany on this post for more on this same topic.       

“Mindful of God.”  Such a great phrase.  And an even better character trait.

About a third of the surahs in the Qur’an start with one to five Arabic letters (i.e., “Alif Lam Mim,” 2:1).  There are many theories on these and many think they are largely some sort of memory device.  This new surah, the twentieth, starts with “Ta Ha,” two letters again but also the way one would say “O man!” as if to get the reader’s attention.  This chapter is largely a retelling of the stories of Moses and Adam.

Memory is the major theme that runs through the first section of this surah.  The Qur’an describes itself here as a “reminder” to a world that has forgotten (20:3).  The implication here is a connection with what has come before, in this case the Bible.  To be a reminder, the stories of Moses and Adam would have had to be well-known. 

Three further points are made about memory.  First, prayer is intended to help the worshiper remember God (20:14).  How can one pray genuinely and not bring God and His good deeds to the front of their minds?  Second, Muhammad is warned to be mindful of how closely allied he allows himself to get with unbelievers (20:16).  They will become “distractions” and turn his mind from remembering God.  Third, one of the benefits to having Aaron alongside him as a partner will be that they together will be able to remember God better (20:34).  Community helps with memory. 

As today’s section ends, God gives Moses a dual mission: go to Pharaoh but also remember Me.  This is very interesting.  It was not enough for Moses to go.  His mission was not simply one of obedience.  God does not frame Moses’ mission simply in terms of the task he is to do.  Every bit as important was the internal reality that Moses was going to have to keep firmly in mind if he were to have success in his mission.  The internal memory was every bit as important as the external actions.      

This reminds me of a description of the effective spiritual life Henri Nouwen has given in several of his books (the same thoughts can be found in this online article).  Nouwen encourages us to picture the ideal spiritual life like an old wagon wheel.  We must start at the center or hub of the wheel.  This is our internal, personal devotional life, what Nouwen calls “solitude.”  This is us and God.  This is the domain of prayer and Scripture and fasting.  Like the wheel, this is what holds everything  together.  This is where we hear we are loved and accepted by God, where we gather the strength to face whatever else may come and to do so with virtue.  This would be Moses’ prayer life. 

Nouwen then proceeds out to the spokes.  This is “community,” those like-minded believers we surround ourselves with.  They give our external life structure and move us out into the world in many different directions.  They are connected to the center of the wheel in that they too are experiencing private “hub-moments” with God, but they are also connected to the tire tread as these friends deliver us into the unbelieving world, where the “rubber meets the road” so to speak.  This is Moses’ companionship with Aaron. 

Finally, Nouwen describes the tire tread as “ministry,” those places where we interact with an unbelieving world in an attempt to connect them with both the community and God we have found.  Ministry is the real purpose for solitude and community.  We are here to shape our world.  Just like a tire, this is where the stress and pressure is.  Tires pop and have slow leaks.  Maybe this is the “distress” 20:2 was talking about.  This is Moses’ mission to face Pharaoh.

The greatest point today is this: a successful spiritual life cannot be lived on auto-pilot.  It takes intentional effort to remember and let those memories guide us.

“Have you lost your mind?”

I heard those words more than a few times growing up.  Now, I say those words on occasion as a parent.  I even said those words recently as a teacher to a student who, well, had lost his mind.

Today’s passage starts with the admonition to stay away from intoxicants and gambling.  Devout Muslims have a complete prohibition (haram) against any involvement with either.  Purists won’t even use soy sauce or vanilla extract that contains alcohol.  (Forgive me, but I find it ironic that I can buy a beer and a lottery ticket at my neighborhood gas station owned and operated by Muslims.)  This passage makes it clear why:

With intoxicants and gambling, Satan seeks only to incite enmity and hatred among you, and to stop you remembering God and prayer. (5:91)

In other words, they will make you “lose your mind.”  And they will.

I can remember when I was about fifteen the carnival came to town.  In the middle of the midway, they had this one gaming table where you could “play the ponies.”  It was a simplified roulette table with twelve spots around the circle where you could lay down a dollar bet.  The “carnie” would spin the five or six spinning horses, and they would whip around the table until they each stopped on one of the spots.  If no horse landed on your spot, you lost your dollar.  If a horse or two or five did, you won that many dollars.  I remember working my way up to $24, big money on $1 bets.  I remember thinking I ought to walk away now.  Within a few more spins it was all gone.  I had lost my mind.

Sadly, too many of us have seen first-hand or in those around us how alcohol can make a person lose their mind.  And their job, their marriage, or even their life.

Let’s move past the two examples given in the Qur’an.  Anger can do it too.  The red flash of rage and all control is gone.  I hear shopping can do the same for some people.  A couple of hours and a credit card and more damage is done than is realized.  Pornography or other sexually illicit behavior creates a rush that suspends reason and prudence.  The possibility of attention is heavily intoxicating for some too.  Even video games seem to have the same effect for some.  What else?  A great number of things can cause us to lose our mind.

The Qur’an specifically mentions how alcohol and games of chance stir up people against each other, make one forget about God, and hinder prayer.  I am not sure there are three more deadly results to behavior than those.  Strained relationships with God and with others and the feeling that you cannot reach out with the words necessarily to restore those relationships.  Spiritually lethal.

There is something else that stands out in this same passage, though, and I believe it is God’s answer.  The phrase “mindful of God” occurs six times in these 18 ayahs.  Instead of losing one’s mind through alcohol or gambling, let your mind be filled with God.  The apostle Paul said something similar:

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.  Instead, be filled with the Spirit. (Ephesians 5:18)

According to the Qur’an, mindfulness makes belief easier (5:93, 108).  Obedience then comes more easily as well (5:93).  A mind fixed on God knows what to do and is more easily kept on track (5:96).  Being mindful of God is the path to spiritual prosperity (5:100).  Where your mind is your body is soon to follow.  Lose your mind and you are likely to lose much more.