Well, we are down near the end now.  Two or three posts to go.  The surahs are so small at this point that they can be lumped together easily.

Maybe it is best to summarize these fourteen surahs:

98, Al-Bayyina (Clear Evidence): Those who reject the Qur’an asked for evidence but then wouldn’t believe when they were given the Scripture.  “They are the worst of people” (98:6).

99, Al-Zalzala (The Earthquake): On the last day, the earth will shake violently and give up the buried for judgment.  Those who have done even just an “atom’s weight” of good or bad will be judged accordingly (99:7).

100, Al-`Adiyat (The Charging Steeds): A beautiful picture of strong warhorses by which God swears that people’s idolatrous love for money will be made clear and result in judgment.

101, Al-Qari`a (The Crashing Blow): A cataclysmic reordering of the world is coming with judgment.  People whose lives are “heavy” with good deeds will be rewarded and those whose good deeds are light will go to the “Bottomless Pit” (101:9).

102, Al-Takathur (Competing for More): Competing for more and more “pleasures” will only ensure Hellfire.  You can be certain.

103, Al-`Asr (The Fading Day): In these “fading days,” do good or man will be “deep in loss” (103:2).

104, Al-Humaza (The Backbiter): All that awaits those who rely on their money is the “Crusher” (104:4), towering columns of Hellfire that fall upon the greedy in judgment.

105, Al-Fil (The Elephant): Muhammad can trust God to protect him in the future.  The Prophet only needs to remember how He drove back an army of Christians riding elephants who wanted to destroy the Kaa’ba in the year of his birth.

106, Quraysh (Quraysh): The continues the thought in the surah before.  God drove back the Christians so the Quraysh would feel safe in their trade journeys and not fear.

107, Al-Ma`un (Common Kindnesses):  If a worshiper is all show with his prayers but never fulfills the “common kindnesses” of taking care of the needy and orphans, his religion is false and he has obviously forgotten about Judgment.

108, Al-Kawthar (Abundance): God has “cut off” some unnamed person who hated Muhammad, thus the Prophet should worship Him all the more.

111, Al-Masad (Palm Fibre): The Prophet can be assured that his uncle Abu Lahab and his wife who opposed Muhammad and his work will be ruined and burn in the “Flaming Fire.”  His uncle’s wealth will not save him.

113, Al-Falaq (Daybreak): A prayer one could pray to the “Lord of daybreak” for protection against the “harm of the night,” witchcraft, and evil from those who envy.

114, Al-Nas (People): Another prayer one could pray for protection against the “slinking whisperer” (114:4) and those who are incited against a righteous person by these whispers.  God controls all things; one need not worry.

What struck me as I read through these chapters is, though they are short surahs, how much guidance is given in each on how to live so as to avoid the Fire of judgment and punishment, another theme explored a good deal in this section.  Here’s what I have found makes up “true religion” (98:5):

  • Do good deeds (98:7; 99:7; 101:6-7; 103:3)
  • Worship God alone with true faith (98:5; 103:3)
  • Keep up the prayer (98:5; 108:2)
  • Pay the prescribed alms (98:5)
  • Avoid a love of wealth (100:8; 102:1; 104:2)
  • Encourage one another to accept the truth and be steadfast (103:3)
  • Trust God to protect (105:1; 111:1; 113:1; 114:1)
  • Worship the Lord (106:3)
  • Take care of orphans and the needy (107:2-3)
  • Sacrifice to God alone (108:2)

It is nice to come to a topic other than judgment, Paradise and Hell.  However, this topic is no less prickly: money.  Nonetheless, today’s surah gives the following valuable guidance on how to view and use wealth:

  • All power belongs to the Almighty God, not the almighty dollar (57:2).
  • Deal with money in a pure manner because God sees all, even the intentions of our hearts (57:4-6).
  • The wealth we have ultimately comes to us from God (57:7).
  • We especially need to give to others from what we have been given (57:7).
  • God rewards generous giving (57:7).
  • All money goes back to God in the end, so why not use it to His benefit in the mean time (57:10).
  • It is especially admirable to give when it is most needed, but God rewards anyone who gives (57:10).
  • One stands to gain double giving, not keeping one’s wealth to oneself (57:11, 18).
  • This life is little more than a “game” or “illusory pleasure;” our success in this life is not what matters.  Take your earthly success too seriously and it becomes a source for arrogance and rivalry (57:20).
  • Don’t gloat over your success, thinking you made your fortunes yourself.  You are just living out God’s plan (57:22-23). 
  • God does not like miserliness (57:24).  Maybe this is why “monasticism” is not approved (57:29). 

The best kind of religion should make you rich here and now, right?

We see in today’s new surah that this was the presumption of some people in Muhammad’s time (43:31).  The Prophet was a poor, orphaned, traveling merchant who lucked into a job with a rich woman.  Surely God would have more discretion when choosing a prophet.  Prophets should be powerful, wealthy men.  They should be aristocracy in a significant city like Mecca or Ta’if.  If Muhammad were a real prophet, they thought, he would come with “golden ornaments,” high class, and a significant pedigree, a criticism made against Moses in his time too (43:53).  So, surely Muhammad can’t be a real prophet, and his religion must be a fraud, the disbelievers in this Meccan surah claimed.   

The premise that a good religion will be one that brings wealth seems to still be one some people work with today.  I point to the popularity of the “prosperity gospel” preached by some Christians as an example.  The best example in the West, though, is the American “gospel” of success.  The goal of life is to find as comfortable a life as possible, so surely a good religion will help me do that.  If it doesn’t, why would I want to adopt your religion?

God’s response to this charge is to question the very presupposition the charge is built on: why do you assume that wealth is a good thing?  Instead, this surah depicts riches as something that can “corrupt” the heart of a person (43:23).  If upward mobility were the calling card of a true religion, then, yes, God would have been able and glad to give the “mere enjoyments of life” to His followers (43:33-34.  They would be living the lifestyle of the rich and famous with their silver roofs, sweeping staircases, massive gates, comfortable couches, and golden ornaments (the phrase that is the basis for the name of this surah). 

However, God’s grace is better than all they can accumulate (43:32).  Where one does have wealth and social position it has been given by God anyway, so one should not think they have accumulated these things.  They can be taken away as easily as they came.  The greatest possession one can “accumulate” is the promise of the “next life” (43:35).  Hence, a religion that can give you everlasting life is far superior to one that merely brings the comforts and niceties of this life to a person.  In Paradise there will be great joy as one sits down to an “abundant” feast at a table set with golden tableware.  All “their souls desire and eyes delight in” will be there (43:70-73).  The best religion gives you this great reward.

Another short collection of notable passages from today’s ending of the twenty-third surah.

Those who stand in awe of their Lord, who believe in His messages, who do not ascribe partners to Him, who always give with hearts that tremble at the thought that they must return to Him, are the ones who race toward good things, and they will be the first to get them. (23:57-61)

This is both a vivid description of God’s desire to bless the believer and a list of desirable character traits in the devoted.

We do not burden any soul with more than it can bear.  (23:62)

“Pat” has gone quiet in the comment section of this blog, but she would say this makes her think of 1 Corinthians 10:13.  And I agree! 

When We bring Our punishment on those corrupted with wealth, they will cry for help. (23:64)

The Qur’an seems to acknowledge that wealth inherently possesses a corrupting power.  Yes, money can be used for good for evil.  Yes, greed is the real insidious side to wealth.  But we are naive if we think that money itself has no power of its own to tempt, control, and estrange us from God.

They say, “What?  When we die and turn to dust and bones, shall we really be resurrected?” . . . Say, “Who owns the earth and all who live in it? . . . Who is the Lord of the seven heavens?  Who is the Lord of the Mighty Throne? . . . Who holds control of everything in His hand? Who protects?” (23:82-89)

This is a return to yesterday’s focus on resurrection.  We are given more of an answer here as to why one should believe in the resurrection.  God is in control.  This is His world.  He has power to protect and power over Heaven.  A god that powerful surely can raise the dead.  Of course, having raised a dead person in a notable way already would mean even more. 

Repel evil with good. (23:96)

Another good, Bible-sounding saying.

Those whose good deeds weigh heavy will be successful, but those whose balance is light will have lost their souls for ever and will stay in Hell. (23:102-03)

More “weighing of the heart” language.

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) 

Today’s a bit of a potpourri of verses that stood out to me from today’s section:

We [Allah] have bound each human being’s destiny to his neck.  On the Day of Resurrection, We shall bring out a record for each of them, which they will find spread wide open, “Read your record.  Today your own soul is enough to calculate your account.” (17:13-14)

We have talked about this before.  The eschatology of Islam describes Allah as opening a written record on human merits and demerits on the Day of Judgment and declaring one’s destiny from what is written there.  The issue is that the average person cannot know for sure the contents of this record book while one lives, therefore making salvation an unknown while we live.  Here we see though that, in fact, some can know ahead of time.  Their lifestyle is so obviously for or against the will of Allah that they can know what will happen.

No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger. (17:15)

Everyone gets a chance.  Kind of takes away the question skeptics like to ask about what happens to the African bushman who never hears, doesn’t it?

Your Lord has commanded that you should worship none but Him, and that you be kind to your parents.  (17:23)

It is interesting that respect of parents is coupled with avoiding idolatry.  Maybe that is because we learn to relate to an authoritative God by learning to relate well to authoritative parents.  It is also interesting that this passage is talking to grown kids about respecting their aging parents.  That is certainly a message that still resonates today.

Give relatives their due, and the needy, and travellers — do not squander your wealth wastefully. (17:26)

It appears conspicuous consumption was a problem back then too!

Do not kill your children for fear of poverty — We shall provide for them and for you — killing them is a great sin. (17:31)

Really?  Evidently some did.  Yikes!

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.