This will almost certainly be the last post of this blog.  I pledged last Christmas to read the Qur’an closely in a year, discovering for myself as much as the book could teach me about Islam.  I was tired of hearing what others had to say about Islam, others who often were uninformed and loaded with an agenda that was anything but charitable to people different from themselves.  Also, I had been teaching a sizable unit in my 12th grade religion class on world religions for a few years but had not read the sacred texts of the religions I was discussing, and I thought it was time to rectify that.  Cultural events in America as a whole, in Tennessee, and even in Memphis caused me to see more and more of an anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Muslim sentiment, and it was time to see if there was anything to the fears I was hearing.

Now, just a few weeks past a year, I come to the end of the Qur’an, and therefore this blog.  It has been a good project.  Tough at times.  Several things happened personally (like a tree falling on my house!) and I found even just finding a half-hour to read and blog was impossible some days.  I am very glad I did this.  I believe I am a much better informed citizen of the world.  I also found that I have gained a greater appreciation for my own religion, Christianity; sometimes seeing what you have in contrast does that.  And who knows, maybe I have started a friendship or two.  At least one of you who reads this blog and is a Muslim has migrated over to my new year-long project, reading through the Christian New Testament again (see kingdomnewtestament.wordpress.com if you are interested).

A few times throughout the year as my Christian friends discovered this project, they asked what I have learned.  I would mention a few things, but really I have 180+ posts of realizations.  Still, it might be helpful for me to mention a few items that really stand out to me here as we wind this project up:

Muslims are people too:  This one seems like such a given that it shouldn’t need to be said, but it does.  If we would just take the time to actually get to know and talk with people who are different from us, we would find there is less difference than we think and so much room for kindness.  No, we are not all the same in our beliefs.  Yes, there are mutually exclusive ideas in various religions.  But the real point here is that Muslims are humans, not just a religion or a set of beliefs.  Muslims tuck their little daughters and sons into bed at night too.  They struggle with how to honor God in all they do; “struggle” is what the name of the religion means.  They fret about having enough to pay the bills, but not so much that money becomes an idol or “partner” with God.  They passionately desire the best for the world, they just define this slightly differently than others.  I am convinced though the solution is not to vilify or caricature all Muslims as terrorists.  Nothing will be gained from grabbing our kids close when Muslims walk by or develop a political platform that makes tax-paying, law-abiding, freedom-loving American Muslims feel marginalized in our society.  Get to know a Muslim and see what happens.

Keep reading:  Maybe my biggest realization came about halfway through the year when Muslims began to find and comment on this blog.  What I discovered is that if I really wanted to understand Islam, reading the Qur’an is only the beginning.  In fact, I am wondering now if I have read more of the Qur’an than some Muslims I have talked to this year (not the clearly learned Muslims who were kind enough to take a lot of time to educate me about their religion).  I was mistaken when I thought the Qur’an would unlock a thorough understanding of Islam.  I would say now that if one really wants to understand this esteemed religion one would be best served by reading the Hadith, the traditions and sayings of Muhammad that have been collected since his death.  Then pick up the Sunnah, the code for living in this world as a Muslim.  But that is far more reading and study than I am willing to commit to a religion other than my own.

Culture plays a bigger role in modern Islam than a text:  This is my hunch, though I am sure more learned people than I would say the same thing.  I have been struck by how American Muslims respond differently to my queries than Asian Muslims.  I noticed that the 1400 year old Qur’an approaches topics differently than commentators did a 100 years ago and that the translator and commentator of my translation from the 21st century had an even different take.  Time shapes thinking too.  I have noticed that empowered male Muslims speak differently about their religion than do women who are speaking out now about their religion.  And what about subjugated women who fear speaking out at all?  There is no surprise here; texts are infinitely interpretable.  We play a part in determining what a text means and an even bigger role in how a text is lived.  It would be nice to believe the Qur’an (or Bible) just means what it says, but there is logically and observably more to the equation than that.  I suspect 9/11 was driven by politics and cultural ideology more than religion.  I was struck by how few truly offensive passages I came to in the Qur’an.  I think the ugliness non-Muslims so often associate with Islam has more to do with what happens when a text gets into the hands of a cleric or charismatic leader with political or ideological aspirations, not what Allah meant in the Qur’an (if you believe the Qur’an is the words of Allah).

No, they are not out to get us:  Unfortunately, the common perception of Muslims in America is that Muslims want to kill non-Muslims.  There are few months when a student does not say as much, but we can dismiss this as adolescence.  But where are they getting this view?  Parents?  Television depictions?  Talk-show hosts?  Political candidates?  Religious leaders?  Sadly, some of all of the above.  Of course, my attention was most drawn to those passages that dealt with violence.  Maybe my greatest observation here is truly how few of these passages there are, especially in the more so Meccan last half of the Qur’an.  Then, I was reminded that, just like the Bible, these passages have to be taken in context.  All of them pertained to issues in 7th century Arabia, mainly involving aggressive pagans and a few cases of attacking Christians or Jews.  Generally, I do believe it is right to depict the condoning of violence in the Qur’an as self-defense.  I have no doubt, however, that even in the time of Muhammad this ideal degraded into more than self-defense; dealing with violence with more violence will do that.

Yet, some of them are:  It would be naive and irresponsible to ignore the fact that there are Muslims today who cite their religion as grounds for their violent attacks on non-Muslims, Christians and Jews especially.  Yes, there do seem to be some Muslims who do believe America is the “Great Satan,” though I still think we ought to ask why?  As I see it this goes back to the very same violent texts mentioned above.  As long as you have ayahs like these in the Qur’an — “Fighting has been ordained for you” (2:216) and “Kill them wherever you encounter them” (2:191) — you will have people who come along, regardless of context, and make these texts support their murderous agendas.  Is the Qur’an a violent book?  I don’t think so.  Can it be?  Absolutely!  Again, I think this has more to do with politics and ideology than religion.

Women get a mixed bag:  Is Islam inherently a misogynistic religion that subjugates women?  Like my observations about violence above, it depends on who you are talking to.  Are there passages that can be taken as demeaning to women?  Yes (4:34-35).  But there are also passages that are very protective of women, especially in cases of divorce.  Does polygamy have to be seen as demeaning to women?  No, but it can easily turn into that.  Are hijabs and burqahs prisons into which women are locked?  If you have a forceful husband who is used to getting his way and maybe has a jealous streak, sure they can be.  But they can also be incredibly empowering when they are the way a woman says she will control who can gaze upon her beauty and potentially turn her into a sexual object.  Again, I think the answer here has less to do with religion and more with personality, culture, and situations.  I suspect an American, Canadian, or British Muslim woman experiences a very different life than a young Muslim woman in parts of Iran, Afghanistan or India.

Islam gets so much so right:  In part it is because Islam is still eastern and tied to honor societies in contrast to western Christianity that seems to be driven more so by success, progress, and love, but I am struck by the respect accorded Allah in the Qur’an and in Muslim society.  This is a stark contrast to popular American Christianity-lite where “Jesus is my homeboy” or where we think the first thing we will do in Heaven is give God a hug.  The expectations placed on a worshiper of Allah are clear and high: be truly committed, no turning back, give it all or don’t bother.  The choices in life are simple and clear: Paradise or Hellfire.  Two paths to choose from, which one will it be?  Along that line, one’s eternal destiny is constantly before one as they read their Qur’an.  I would hazard to guess that Judgment and the afterlife are mentioned in at least 90% of the surahs.  People have a responsibility to care about and care for the weak and needy of our society.  Religion is intended to be embodied in flesh.  We do religion; it is lived.  Think about the five pillars of Islam: statement of belief, prayer, fasting, alms, and pilgrimage.  All of these pillars which “hold up” the religion are actions one does.  One doesn’t just believe Islam.  One does it.  I find much of this admirable.

Still, there is something missing — Jesus:  Unapologetically, I acknowledge that I am understanding Islam in contrast to my Christianity.  So many times this year I felt like Islam came close to the high ideals of Christianity, but then fell short, in large part because of how Jesus is viewed in each religion.  Let there be no doubt, Islam has a high view of Jesus.  He is a great prophet.  The honor he is given in this life and the next are great.  But he is no god in Islam; that would be blasphemous.  So what is missing when Jesus is not God?  Allah just does not come off as being as personal or immanent a god as the God of the Bible is.  Christians can say they are seeing God when they look at Jesus.  Christians believe Jesus reveals the heart and actions of God.  Christians can say their God has given them a flesh-and-blood example of how to live life, Jesus.  Furthermore, when Jesus leaves the earth after his resurrection he sends the Holy Spirit, who Christians believe is the very presence of God.  This Holy Spirit lives inside Christians, making us holy and guiding us through life.  Christians believe a part of their God lives inside of them.  I see none of this in the Qur’an.  Allah did not even speak to Muhammad himself.  Maybe the biggest nut I have tried to crack this year is the difference between Islamic and Christian views on grace.  Does Islam speak of grace and mercy?  Almost every surah starts by calling Allah the “Lord and Giver of Mercy.”  Do humans deserve to be saved from Hell, according to Islam?  No.  Is there any human who can be perfect enough to be deemed righteous in Allah’s eyes?  No.  Are there countless numbers of blessings that come to humans everyday because of Allah’s grace that we simply do not deserve?  Yes.  It is certainly appropriate to speak of grace in Islam.  But it is a fundamentally different kind than what you find in Christianity.  Muslims must live their whole life hoping for grace, while Christians know at their baptism that they have already received that grace because of the cross of Christ.  Muslims spend a life living in such a way as to be worthy of grace with a hope of salvation in the end.  Christians spend a life living in gratitude for a gracious salvation already given, knowing they never can do enough to be worthy of it.  No Christian would want their deeds weighed on a scale at the end of life, because we know we can’t be good enough and we also know God considers any sin to be too much.  As much as I have tried to understand both what I have read in the Qur’an and what the Muslims on this blog have share with me, I simply can’t get past the feeling that Muslims are trying to earn something.  Lastly, with the minimization of Jesus, there is a loss of his reordering of love, power, and success.  The first shall be last.  You gain your life by laying it down.  Blessed are you when you are persecuted.  Turn the cheek.  Repay good for evil.  Overcome evil with good.  Jesus saw life entirely different from conventional men.  No surprise there, he is God and was visiting our world from the world that is to come.  He was inviting us to help bring this new kind of life into this world and hasten the new creation.  This especially meant that we would see love, power, and success differently.  I am afraid that as I read the Qur’an I just heard much of the same ole story humans have always told: my side is better than yours so become like us and avoid the unpleasantness that comes to our enemies who fail to exercise self-control and pull themselves up by their own boot-straps.  This is still one big self-improvement project, though Allah is both more involved and real than Karma or Fate.  Yes, he gives a book to help, so read it and know it and follow it well.  It seems Jesus offers the world something you can’t find anywhere else.  Of course, I do not mean to be offensive in this last observation.

My final point is an obvious one: I am not a Muslim, nor a particularly well-informed scholar of Islam either.  These are the thoughts of an honest seeker of truth after a year of earnest reading and thought.  I am sure I am biased (who is not?).  I am sure I don’t understand things completely (watch the comments on this one for rebuttals).  However, let it not be said that I did not try to understand Islam for myself.  But also don’t let this blog be your last word on this prodigious religion.

Peace, shalom, salam.

More of the same.  I am trying to see how each surah has its own unique slant on a common message, but I am not seeing it in this new surah, “Sheba.”  I am sorry to say, it just sounds like someone who has run out of things to say.  But then some of Muhammad’s detractors are quoted in this very surah saying the same thing.

So, I have tried something different.  I have taken phrases directly from my translation of this surah and put them into a word cloud using wordle.net, a neat little website that seems to be a bit popular these days. I have included a few different styles.

Medina

In the mid 620s CE, the Muslims were growing in popularity and power.  After standing strong in both the Battle of Badr in 624 and the Battle of Uhudin 625, the Muslims had become a force to reckon with.  The Muslims had been expelled from Mecca in 622 and migrated to Medina.  By 627, a confederacy of those concerned with Muslim expansion — Meccans, Jews, and the Banu Qurayza tribe — marched against Medina.  In anticipation of battle, the Muhammad-led Muslims dug a “trench” around the city that immobilized the confederacy’s cavalry.  Though outnumbered three to one, the Muslims withstood what was a three week “battle of the wits.”  Discouraged and bothered by poor weather, the confederacy disbanded and returned home.  So went the Battle of the Trench.

Of course, the battle was seem by the Muslims as a great deliverance from God.  The first part of this new Medinan surah, “Joint Forces” or “The Confederates,” recounts the emotions of that campaign. The Muslims were surrounded.  Their “eyes rolled with fear” (33:10).  Some were ready to give up on God.  They looked for a way to escape the battle (33:13).

Others saw this for what it was: a test (33:11, 24).  They rose to the occasion.  They promised not to abandon their calling as God’s people (33:15), even if that meant to fight and even die (33:23).  These people God protected and rewarded.

The Battle of the Trench will be used in the rest of this surah as a “reminder” (33:9) of God’s care and control.

Just a sampling of notable passages from today’s ending to the “Spider” surah.

Keep up the prayer: prayer restrains outrageous and unacceptable behavior.  Remembering God is greater. (29:45)

I really like the way this is all put together here.  Keep praying.  “Pray continually,” is the way my Bible says it (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  Why?  Because prayer does two things.  Prayer moves you towards God.  God becomes more of a reality in our lives as we pray.  There is no greater action than to remember God.  As that happens, the second benefit of prayer comes: we are moved away from behavior that works against our devotion to God.  It is just hard to act inappropriately when you are praying.  Keep praying!  Good advice.

[Believers], argue only in the best way with the People of the Book [Jews and Christians]. (29:46)

I must say that the Muslims who have discovered this blog and entered into the conversation I am hoping to have here (though I am finding it harder each day just to post let alone respond to really good comments, sorry; keep them up as they are very helpful) exemplify this ayah very well.  Thank you!

This present life is merely an amusement and a diverson; the true life is in the Hereafter, if only they knew. (29:64)

This passage is an excellent statement of a God-centered worldview.  This world is not real life, at least not as life is meant to be.  True life is coming.  True life is life with God.  True life is what comes when God’s kingdom comes into this world.  Of course, that is hard to believe because we have only lived this life and we sense this world most acutely.  But intentional thought and action can help us remember that we were made for more than this.  So if this world is not “home,” any time we throw ourselves into the luxuries of this world that ultimately pass away or cannot fulfill we are actually diverting our minds and souls from reality.  So well stated!  This ayah made me think of this great quote from Peter Kreeft, a Christian scholar and apologist, from his book on Heaven:

Otherworldliness is escapism only if there is no other world.  If there is, it is worldliness that is escapism.

For the next three days we will be in the first two-thirds of the next surah, Maryam 19:1-63.  Today we have some time to read, and the first thought will come tomorrow. 

In the meantime, consider listening to this podcast from Yasir Qadhi, resident scholar at the Memphis Islamic Center and instructor in the Department of Religion at Rhodes College here in Memphis.  In March, The New York Times Magazine called Qadhi “one of the most influential conservative clerics in American Islam” and that “arguably few American theologians are better positioned to offer an authoritative rebuttal of extremist ideology.”

Note that this podcast comes from the Calvary Episcopal Church Lenten Preaching Series from April 2011.  Admittedly, Calvary is a good bit more liberal than I generally am, but we should all read (and listen) widely, right?  Qadhi was the first Muslim ever invited to speak in the series, and the timing couldn’t be better. 

I found the first part of his talk to be a bit of a primer on Islam, and thus it was helpful.  The last part is a wonderful commentary on the many names of Allah from the last three ayahs of surah 59.  His beautiful recitation of the passage halfway through is worth a listen if nothing else.

There is probably no religion more associated with prayer than the Islamic faith. The distinctive call to prayer. The bowing of the whole body toward Mecca. Stopping all activities to pray. Hundreds of men pressed side to side in a sea of devotion.  Muslims pray.

I’ve written about it previously in this post, but we see it again in today’s passage:

So perform the regular prayers in the period from the time the sun is past its zenith till the darkness of the night, and [recite] the Qur’an at dawn — dawn recitation is always witnessed — and during the night wake up and pray, as an extra offering of your own. (17:78-79)

Devout Muslims pray five times a day: 6am, 12pm, 5pm, 8pm, 10pm (all times are approximate as they change daily with the cycle of the sun).  The admonition to pray (salah) five times arises more from Islamic tradition than from the Qur’an.  As was said a few days ago, tradition says it was during the Night Journey this surah is named after that the command to pray five times a day came.

Of course, this command to pray five times a day can become very ritualistic, and rituals can become legalistic and empty. There is nothing wrong with rituals by themselves; as Christians report praying an average of less than five combined minutes per day, we could benefit from a bit more ritual. But I especially liked the attitude I heard from “yeshmayin” (another Christian blogging through the Qur’an) a few days ago in the comments of this post:

I have always thought the story of God telling Mohammed how many times to pray is a beautiful one. It reminds me of Paul’s words to “Pray without ceasing.” To me, that is the essence of the entire story. When God told Mohammed to pray 50 times a day, the point was to pray without ceasing. I don’t believe it was meant to be a literal-count-them 50 times. (Like when we are told in the NT to forgive our brother seventy times seven times– it is not a literal number meant to be counted up.)

Today’s passage also gives a wonderful sample of the ideal prayer:

Say, “My Lord, make me go in truthfully, and come out truthfully, and grant me supporting authority from You.” (17:80)

Prayer is first and foremost about expressing dependency.  If prayer is the heart’s cry of faith, the most basic and beautiful prayer a true worshiper can pray is “I need you.” And this is precisely the prayer stated here — whether going in, coming out or standing strong, “I need Thee every hour.”

So true!

Why would someone do this?

Why would a young man with his whole life in front of him join a group to fly a hijacked plane into a building  ensuring his death?

Why would a young wife strap explosives under her burqa and blow herself up in a crowded railway station? 

There are many contributing factors that would cause such extreme behavior, most of which are not religious.  In the hands of one who wants to use Islam to advance an agenda of power, today’s passage could certainly be used to produce people who would be willing to die for Allah. 

Believers, why, when it is said to you, “Go and fight in God’s cause,” do you feel weighed down to the ground?  Do you prefer this world to the life to come?  How small the enjoyment of this world is, compared with the life to come!  If you do not go out and fight, God will punish you severely and put others in your place. . . . So go out, no matter whether you are lightly or heavily armed, and struggle in God’s way. . . . Those who have faith in God and the Last Day do not ask you [Muhammad] for exemption from struggle . . . only those who do not have faith in God and the Last Day ask your permission to stay home. . . . They are already in trouble: Hell will engulf the disbelievers (9:38-39, 41, 44-45, 49).

Remember that the context of this surah (like the last one; some think these two surahs were actually originally one that became separated) is closely connected to battle.  War is sometimes called a necessary evil.  Most people don’t want there to be war, but if there must be one those who willingly risk the sacrifice of life for their nation are considered heroes.  Still, why would one happily go off to battle, in the way that is described in the passage above?

According to today’s passage, one who is called to war and sees it as a curse, death sentence, or punishment is to be shamed.  Such a response reveals a lack of true faith.  God has championed his people in the worst of situations, so there is no need for fear.  It also shows one is more attached to this fleeting life than to the life that is to come.  True believers give up anything in service to God.  There are much better rewards coming.  Last, true believers see struggles for the faith as a win-win situation: “Do you expect something other than one of the two best things to happen to us?” (9:52).  Either God will bring victory or He will reward the slain warrior in the next life.  That is the best perspective to have when called to fight for the faith. 

I guess I can understand the thinking.  But I can’t help but think passages like these are dangerous.  Placed in the wrong hands.  Placed before impressionable minds.  They make me uncomfortable. 

How about you?