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)

This surah ends by recounting how God stayed faithful to the children of Israel in Moses’ time, even forgiving them of their idolatry with the golden calf at Sinai when they repented.  In fact, this has always been God’s way as far back as Adam’s “idolatry” of his own power in the Garden (20:120).  God cannot stomach idolatry, but even this can be reversed by repentance.  This was an important message in Mecca in Muhammad’s time. 

Here’s a list of the top ten verses that stood out to me in today’s longer reading:

1.  Listen to the Qur’an“We have given you a Qur’an from Us.  Whoever turns away from it will bear on the Day of Resurrection a heavy burden and will remain under it.  What a terrible burden to carry on that Day!” (20:99-101)

2.  An Isaiah-like vision of the Day of the Lord: “They ask you [Prophet] about the mountains: say, ‘[On that Day] my Lord will blast them into dust and leave a flat plain, in it you will see no valley or hill.'” (20:105-107)

3.  Judged by our works: “Those burdened with evil deeds will despair, but whoever has done righteous deeds and believed need have no fear or injustice or deprivation.” (20:111-112)

4.  Give time for understanding before you speak: “[Prophet], do not rush to recite before the revelation is fully complete but say, ‘Lord, increase my knowledge!'” (20:114)

5.  God is looking for finishers: “We also commanded Adam before you, but he forgot and We found him lacking in constancy.” (20:115)

6.  Sounds tempting: “But Satan whispered to Adam, saying, ‘Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and power that never decays?'” (20:120)

7.  But nothing good comes from Satan: “Adam, this is your enemy, yours and your wife’s: do not let him drive you out of the garden and make you miserable.” (20:117)

8.  This sounds even better: “In the garden you will never go hungry, feel naked, be thirsty, or suffer the heat of the sun.” (20:118-119)

9.  Obedience frees: “Whoever follows My guidance, when it comes to you [people], will not go astray nor fall into misery.” (20:123)

10.  Good advice still today: “Do not gaze longingly at what We have given some of them to enjoy, the finery of this present life: We test them through this, but the provision of your Lord is better and more lasting.” (20:131)

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!

They say “clothes make the man.”  I believe it, but not in the way you may think.

A decade ago I was finishing my graduate degree and seeking a job in ministry.  My job search narrowed to three very good options, one of which is the fantastic job with a private Christian high school I still have to this day.  Another very enticing option was your traditional preaching position at a great church in upstate New York.  I have never regretted turning down that job offer — because of the fulfillment I have in my present ministry — but I am sure I would have been very happy with that welcoming community of believers too. 

Throughout the interviewing process with this church, my main contact had always been a particular man whose name I am afraid I can no longer remember.  But I will never forget his heart.  I imagine we have all met people for whom it seems God is as present a reality as a flesh-and-blood companion.  This man was one of those kind of people.  I guess I had met a few others like that through my life up to that point, and I have met others since then, but they are rare and so inspiring when you find them.  My New York contact left quite an impression on me.  God was always lurking under the surface or around the corner in every conversation.  He was as active a participant in the events of this man’s life as his wife or kids.  God’s actions were as certain to this man as those of his boss or his friends.  And God got all the credit for the good my contact found in the world and in others.  Some of the last words this man said to me as we sat in the airport waiting for my plane back to Memphis were: “I am very thankful for the God I see in you.”  The GOD I see in you!  He didn’t say he was thankful for me or my abilities or my willingness to serve.  No, he was able to look past me and see that anything good in me was truly coming from the God in me.  How impressionable!  How right!  What a blessing my encounter with this man has remained a decade later. 

In today’s reading we come to a perfect word for what this man possessed: “God-consciousness.”  This idea is connected in this passage with the clothing metaphor that runs throughout.

Children of Adam, We [Allah] have given you garments to cover your nakedness and as adornment for you; the garment of God-consciousness is the best of all garments. (7:26)

It was this clothing of God-consciousness that Adam and Eve possessed.  But it was not long before Satan stripped them of these clean clothes and God began to fade from humanity’s collective consciousness (7:27).  But the Children of Adam can once again “dress well” (7:31) by directing our “worship straight to Him,” by devoting our “religion entirely to Him” (7:29).  This is the worship of a person like the man I met from New York whose God is so big it fills his consciousness.  This is the kind of person for whom it is as important to “put on” God in the morning as it is a pair of pants.  This man is always properly dressed.  At the end of life, a “God-conscious” man gives all praise to God for guiding him there, knowing had it not been for God he never would have found his resting place in the Garden of delights (7:43).  Like the New Yorker, God is always just under the surface.  That is God-consciousness.    

Commentator Abdullah Yusuf Ali says this about this clothing metaphor in his translation of the Qur’an:

There is a double philosophy of clothes here. Spiritually, God created man “bare and alone” (6:94): the soul in its naked purity and beauty knew no shame because it knew no guilt. After it was touched by guilt and soiled by evil, its thoughts and deeds became its clothing and adornments, good or bad, honest or meretricious [tawdry], according to the inner motives which gave them colour. . . . But the best clothing and ornament we could have comes from righteousness, which covers the nakedness of sin, and adorns us with virtues.

These “clothes” really do make the man.

Today, for the first time, we get to a Meccan surah, entitled “Livestock” or “Cattle” in English.  Scholars have noted that because the Meccan surahs were written at a time when Islam was still getting a foothold in Arabia.  They are more persuasive and less enfranchised.  By the time the Muslims moved to Medina, Islam had gained power and these later surahs have a slightly more dictatorial tone.  Well, we may very well see that difference in tone for the first time.

I am struck in this section by how the Islamic basis for belief and obedience is quite different from that of Christianity.  Simply put, Muhammad is told to persuade the polytheists of Mecca with reward or avoidance, in other words “to get/not get.”  I see this coming out in four ways in this passage:

  • God is in control of all things as the Creator, so don’t try to work against his control (6:4-5)
  • God is the supreme power in this world, so don’t make him use it against you (6:6)
  • God is inclined to punish those who reject him, so don’t do it (6:15)
  • God rewards those who believe, so come get it (6:16)

In this mentality, the favor of God is still up in the air.  Who knows how he will respond to you?  That is up to you.  Earn a reward.  Avoid a punishment. 

This section ends with the warning that there is no greater sin than to reject God or to look to some other god for power or control (6:21).  These other gods will be of no help in the end, so stop it and turn to God (6:22-24). 

Medieval Mecca

Let’s remember the context of Mecca, from where this surah originated.  Islamic tradition says Mecca was started by the descendents of Ishmael shortly after he and his father Abraham built the Ka’ba, the large, square, black shrine still at the center of city.  Positioned at the crossroads of important trading routes, Mecca quickly grew in size and wealth.  It was not long before Mecca also became the center of Arabian paganism and the Ka’ba became a shrine to the many gods worshiped by the Arabs.  It is this highly polytheistic environment that Muhammad grew up in and into which the Qur’an comes with its push for radical monotheism.  These admonitions to turn from all other gods and find a reward with Allah make more sense in that context. 

Nonetheless, I find all of this very different from the winsome motivation put forward by Christianity.  The way of Christ is not a reward or avoidance worldview.  Jesus and his followers did not come talking about something that could be earned from a God whose favor was still very much up in the air.  Christianity is based on a response motivation; we love because we were first loved, we obey because of what has already been given.  God’s mind was made up to work for our good long before we were even born, long before we even turn towards him.  I see a great difference in the very nature of God in these two depictions.  How about you?

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:10-11)

We come again today to what I would call the religiously “generous” side of Islam.  Yesterday there was judgment.  Tomorrow it may come again.  But today Islam is kind, even welcoming, to the People of the Book (Jews and Christians).  A little unpredictable if you ask me.  But it keeps it interesting!

We have seen it before (see this post), Islam sees itself as the next natural development of the strict monotheism found in pure Judaism and Christianity (without the “Jesus as God” stuff later Christians insert into the true Gospel).  The Qur’an “confirms” the early Scriptures and now is a “final authority over them” (5:48).  As long as a Jew or a Christian is living in this stream of “total devotion” and “mindfulness to God,” he or she is a true believer, even if their label does not say “Muslim.”

We [God] have assigned a law and a path to each of you.  If God so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you, so race to do good:  you will all return to God and He will make clear to you the matters you differed about. (5:48)

Different paths, but that is okay, if we all are doing “good.” 

If only the People of the Book would believe and be mindful of God, We [God] would take away their sins and bring them into the Gardens of Delight.  If they had upheld the Torah and the Gospel and what was sent down to them from their Lord, they would have been given abundance from above and from below; some of them are on the right course, but many of them — how evil is what they do! (5:65-66)

Some are going in the right direction, those who truly believe, those who fear God and show it in a virtuous life.

For the [Muslim] believers, the Jews, the Sabians [another small monotheistic group of Semitic people from the Middle East], and the Christians — those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good deeds — there is no fear: they will not grieve. (5:69)

It is not the label that matters.  Belief and obedience determine true devotion.  True believers are known by their fruit not the name of their faith.  It seems the Qur’an is willing to see more than one path leading to God.

Tune in tomorrow to see if that changes!

When I travel places, I try very hard to avoid caravanning with other drivers.  I hardly like to follow people through town.  Give me a destination and I’ll met you there.  Why?  I am not going to like the way you drive, the speed you drive, the lane you drive in, how you ride the brake or wait until the last minute to brake, whatever.  I want to go my way, my speed, and the way I am used to driving.  I want my way.

Whether you are in a car or under someone’s leadership, following someone is hard.  Pretty soon we will doubt your judgment or competence.  You will say something we don’t like.  You will ask for something we are not ready to give.  I will have to surrender my way and, well, I don’t like that.

In today’s section it seems Muhammad is dealing with people who feel exactly the way I often do.  This is Muhammad, the Prophet of God, the Messenger.  He has been chosen by God to lead.  But this is also the same Muhammad with whom you grew up, with whom you use to trade, whose mother was a cousin to a cousin of yours.  Muhammad is just a human, right?  How do we know for sure we can trust him?  How do we know for sure that God really said that we needed to fight these people?  People make mistakes and maybe this risky situation Muhammad wants us to go walking into is one.  Why should we follow Muhammad?

I think Jesus knew something about this too (Mark 6:1-6).

The context of this section is battle, likely against the Meccans.  There are among the Muslims people who claim to be wholeheartedly devoted to God but then look for ways to avoid their duty to fight.  They drag their feet and show up late for battle (4:72).  They assume that if they avoid a defeat by dragging their feet that this was a reward from God.  They blame Muhammad for their misfortune (4:78).  God calls them hypocrites, people who want the glory and benefit of battle, who want to play the part of warrior but who are not actually willing to sacrifice for the cause.  God has little patience for them.  Where is their faith?  Do they really think they can avoid death anyway if it is their time (4:78)?  Do they not realize that if they are faithful there are only two outcomes to battle: victory or death (4:74)?  They will not be defeated.

Still, this is hard, and it is a wh0le lot easier to blame Muhammad for misfortune and go their own way at their own pace, conveniently missing anything that would actually demand a sacrifice of will.

Let those of you who are willing to trade the life of this world for the life to come, fight in God’s way.  To anyone who fights in God’s way, whether killed or victorious, We shall give a great reward. (4:74)

Can this passage be used to encourage Muslims to lay their lives down for Allah in exchange for an eternal reward?  Definitely.  Might this even get into the mind of an extremist and make the sacrifice of self in a crowded Moscow subway station or airport or on a plane bound for Detroit easier to do?  Probably so.  Notice, though, the context:

Why should you not fight in God’s cause and for those oppressed men, women, and children who cry out, “Lord, rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors!  By your grace, give us a protector and give us a helper!” (4:75)

These warriors were to fight in defense of the oppressed.  Commentator Abdullah Yusuf Ali opines that this is likely referring to the few persecuted Muslims still left in Mecca after the migration (hijra) to Medina.  As the Muslims wage war with the Meccans and slowly take Mecca for the Muslims, they are only defending and avenging the oppressed.  They are God’s answer to the cry for help in ayah 75.

Could Hezbollah import these verses into the strife in Palestine?  Maybe so.  But to use it to validate terrorist bombings in Moscow in support for Chechen independence or flying planes into American office buildings?  Seems like a stretch.

Moscow Subway Station bombed in 2010 by Chechen Rebels