I have saved these last three surahs for the end as they seemed like they would sum up the Qur’an well.

Surah 112 is precisely such a summation.  Muslim tradition says this minuscule surah is equal to one-third of the entire message of the Qur’an.  Given its emphasis on monotheistic devotion, I can certainly see why people think that.

Say, “He is God the One, God the eternal.  He begot no one nor was He begotten.  No one is comparable to Him.” (112:1-4)

As a Christian, I can’t help but feel that this surah is addressing the trinitarian beliefs of Christianity, and maybe also the pagan beliefs popular in Arabia at the time of the Qur’an.  Nonetheless, there may be no more foundational thought in Islam than this one.

One of the last revelations ever received by Muhammad before his death was Surah 110:

When God’s help comes and He opens up your way [Prophet], when you see people embracing God’s faith in crowds, celebrate the praise of your Lord and ask His forgiveness: He is always ready to accept repentance. (110:1-3)

As one of the final words from Allah, I am struck by this message.  It is prophetic in a sense: there are days coming when people will accept Islam in droves. That will be a reason to celebrate.  Yet the final word of all is an admonition to seek forgiveness and a reassurance that Allah is always ready to receive truly repentant people.  That is such a fitting ending to the Qur’an.  The door to God is always open.  Step through with a repentant heart, and a humble spirit that knows we are always in need of forgiveness.  But it is an open door.  What a welcoming ending.

Interestingly, down at the end of the Qur’an is this realistic surah.  Evidently, a group of pagans had come to Muhammad and proposed a compromise.  They pledged to worship Allah for a year if the Prophet would worship their gods for a year.  Muhammad was told to give this response:

Say [Prophet], “Disbelievers: I do not worship what you worship, you do not worship what I worship, I will never worship what you worship, you will never worship what I worship: you have your religion and I have mine.” (109:1-6)

As I read this surah I couldn’t help but think that these are precisely my sentiments as well.  I have thoroughly enjoyed reading closely the Qur’an this past year.  Even more so, I have enjoy the conversations I have had with people that this blog fostered, especially those with the Muslims who took the time to further educate me on their religion.  What is even more clear to me now than it was when I started is how intractable the religious differences are between differing religions.  It was true 1400 years ago when Muhammad spoke to these pagans.  It is true today when Muslims talk with Christians and Jews.  It is true of me as well.  I have an immense amount of respect for the religion of Islam (more on that in the next post).  I found a true zeal in the Muslims who have followed this blog.  I believe we can show love to each other as humans.  I believe we can cooperate with each other in areas of social concern.  I do believe we can learn to coexist in a democratic society that does not assert any religion over another.  But Muslims have their religion and I have mine.  I can’t bring myself to worship God apart from Jesus, and they couldn’t imagine doing so.  We are at an impasse.

One more final post later in the week as I reflect back on the past year.

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I am sure it makes perfect sense to pagans, but paganism is enigmatic to monotheists.

Why would someone chose to worship one god among many or one localized god or a god who is only associated with one segment of the world, like the seas or the mountains or the moon?  Why would you not choose to worship one supreme god who has power over all parts of nature and life?  Why worship the creation when you can worship the Creator?

These are precisely the questions taken up in today’s passage from this new surah, “The Differentiator,” another name for the Qur’an.  Of course, paganism was the norm in pre-Islamic Mecca.

It is He [Allah] who has control over the heavens and earth and has no offspring — no one shares control with Him — and who created all thing and made them to an exact measure.  Yet the disbelievers take as their gods things beneath Him that create nothing, and are themselves created, that can neither harm nor help themselves, and have no control over death, life, or resurrection. (25:2-3)

The Prophet Isaiah asked the same questions of the ancient Israelites as they flirted with Canaanite paganism.

All who make idols are nothing,
and the things they treasure are worthless.
Those who would speak up for them are blind;
they are ignorant, to their own shame.
Who shapes a god and casts an idol,
which can profit nothing?
People who do that will be put to shame;
such craftsmen are only human beings.
Let them all come together and take their stand;
they will be brought down to terror and shame.

The blacksmith takes a tool
and works with it in the coals;
he shapes an idol with hammers,
he forges it with the might of his arm.
He gets hungry and loses his strength;
he drinks no water and grows faint.
The carpenter measures with a line
and makes an outline with a marker;
he roughs it out with chisels
and marks it with compasses.
He shapes it in human form,
human form in all its glory,
that it may dwell in a shrine.
He cut down cedars,
or perhaps took a cypress or oak.
He let it grow among the trees of the forest,
or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.
It is used as fuel for burning;
some of it he takes and warms himself,
he kindles a fire and bakes bread.
But he also fashions a god and worships it;
he makes an idol and bows down to it.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
over it he prepares his meal,
he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
“Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
“Save me! You are my god!”
They know nothing, they understand nothing;
their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
and their minds closed so they cannot understand.
No one stops to think,
no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
“Half of it I used for fuel;
I even baked bread over its coals,
I roasted meat and I ate.
Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”
Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
he cannot save himself, or say,
“Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?” (Isaiah 44:9-20)

The Apostle Paul said something similar to the Roman Christians who lived in the midst of rampant paganism.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.  They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. (Romans 1:18-25)

I imagine the answers to the questions at the top of this post are simple.  People raised in paganism naturally develop a polytheistic worldview.  There are many ways in which our world does seem segmented and the power associated with the segments do sometimes seem to be in opposition (i.e., the power of the earth can level the power of human industry and construction).  One can only adopt monotheism once they are aware it is a viable option.  Polytheists do often believe in a supreme power, but it is only an impersonal power that gave life to the personal gods of the pagan pantheon.

But . . . when the religion of the One God is presented, why hang on to an inferior explanation?  It is probably not that simple, but that is the message that we start with in this new surah.

Mary and the baby Jesus

Today we come to a new surah, Maryam, so named because Mary the mother of Jesus is discussed early on.  As has been said here before, Mary is actually mentioned more in the Qur’an than in the Bible. 

Much of the surah is a recounting of “the Lord’s grace towards” eight of “His servant[s]” (19:1), all but one of which we know well from the Bible.

  • Zechariah is granted in his old age an heir and protector for his wife when he is gone. 
  • John (the Baptist) is graced with wisdom, purity, and compassion.  In response to these gifts, John was a most submissive son. 
  • Mary was given a child though still a virgin.  Even during the pains of childbirth she was provided for bountifully with a cool stream of fresh water and an endless supply of dates.
  • Jesus is granted the ability to speak as a baby in order to make clear that he too is a prophet and given a “Scripture” or “revelation” (the Gospels or Injil?).  Like his cousin, Jesus too responds by living a respectful life in submission to his mother. 
  • To Abraham, God gave a “noble reputation” and the chance to share with his idolatrous father the greater truth of One God.  When driven away from his family by their faithless threats of stoning should he not recant this foolish monotheism, Abraham was granted a new family with Isaac and Ishmael. 
  • Ishmael was made a prophet and messenger of God, and he led his family well. 
  • Moses was honored to be God’s prophet and messenger when he was called by God into “secret communion” on the mountain.  When reticent, God even made Aaron a fellow prophet to work alongside Moses.
  • Last, God also blessed the prophet Idris and made him a “man of truth.”  Some have said Idris is another name for Enoch from Genesis 5, but his exact identity is unknown.

After mentioning Jesus, this surah also throws in an aside that clearly denies that God could have children.  Such is not “befitting” (19:34b-40).  Given the context, it would certainly seem this is aimed at Christianity and our view that Jesus is the “son of God.”  The issue is that Christians would certainly agree.  It is not befitting to talk of Jesus as the son of God, if we are talking about God somehow fathering an entirely separate being called Jesus.  But that is not what Christians believe.  Jesus IS God.  They are one.  The Son is an extension of the God-essence, just as the Father is as well.  Christians really wouldn’t have a hard time giving a hearty “Amen!” to this foundational verse from the Qur’an:

There is no god other than God. (59:22)