In this short surah Allah is described as “All Aware” (67:14), “the Lord of Mercy” (67:29), “He who holds all control in His hands; who has power over all things” (67:1), and one who has knowledge of all things (67:26).  Even the surah itself is called “Control.”  Clearly, Allah is depicted as an all-powerful, all-caring, all-knowing deity who controls all things.

Some Christians talk about their God this way too (though as process theology and open theism gain traction, not all Christians believe this exactly).  When Christians talk about their God this way, doubters are quick to ask something like, “If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving, why does he allow evil events to take place in the life of good people?”  This is usually called “the problem of evil.”  My desire here is not to rehearse a Christian answer to that question.  There are a million better places to go for that. 

I was just struck as I read today’s surah how the same question could be asked of Muslims in regard to Allah.  In this world that is said to be created by Allah, overseen by Allah, and loved by Allah, why do tsunamis, drive-by shootings, and brain cancer take place?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Is Allah not powerful enough to stop them, or is He not charitable enough?  That might be how the question would be asked by those same doubters I mentioned. 

I am wondering if Muslims are asked about “the problem of evil” as much as Christians are, and if so what answers are often given?

A big theme in today’s short surah — “Kneeling” — is the fact that God has placed evidence of Himself in nature.  The body of this post is entirely a string of quotes from the surah that send this message.  The pictures included are from my three favorite places on this planet (so far), places that confirm for me the existence of One Great and Powerful God. 

Sunrise in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN

“There are signs in the heavens and the earth for those who believe: in the creation of you, in the creatures God scattered on earth . . . in the alteration of night and day, in the rain God provides, sending it down from the sky and reviving the dead earth with it, and in His shifting of the winds there are signs for those who use their reason. . . . It is God who made the

Fall in Grand Teton National Park (taken by WordPresser Tim Jennings)

sea of use to you . . . He has made what is in the heavens and the earth beneficial to you, all as a gift from Him.  There truly are signs in this fo those who reflect. . . . God created the heavens and earth for a true purpose. . . . Control of everything in the heavens and the earth belongs to God. . . . So praise be to God, Lord of the heavens and earth, Lord of the worlds.  True greatness in the heavens and earth is rightfully His.” (45:3-5, 12, 13, 22, 27, 36-37)

From Old Baldy Lookout across the Beaver Valley, Ontario

This new surah, named “The Creator,” is one of those surahs where Dean’s sentiment expressed here a few weeks ago that he often finds a similar message in many surahs but each with a different slant or focus really proves true. 

Same message:  God is in control of all things.  Don’t worry.  He will reward or punish people justly based on their decisions about Him.  Muhammad, don’t worry if they call you a liar; they did the same to earlier messengers too. 

But true to the surah’s naturalistic name, this common message is brought home here by weaving in many mentions of nature as evidence of God’s power and control. 

So I today I will produce a string a nature quotes together from this surah and pair those with beautiful pictures of nature.  Enjoy! 

Praise be to God, Creator of the heavens and earth. (35:1)

Is there any creator other than God to give you sustenance from the heavens and earth?  There is no God but Him. (35:3)

It is God who sends forth the winds; they raise up the clouds; We drive them to a dead land and with them revive the earth after its death: such will be the Resurrection. (35:9)

No female conceives or gives birth without His knowledge. (35:11)

The two bodies of water are not alike — one is palatable, sweet, and pleasant to drink, the other salty and bitter — yet from each you eat fresh fish and extract ornaments to wear, and in each you see the ships ploughing their course so that you may seek God’s bounty and be grateful. (35:12)

He makes the night merge into the day and the day into the night; He has subjected the sun and the moon — each runs for an appointed term. (35:13)

Have you [Prophet] not seen how God sends water down from the sky and that We produce with it fruits of varied colours. (35:27)

If God were to punish people [at once] for the wrong they have done, there would not be a single creature left on the surface of the earth, but He gives them respite for a stated time and, whenever their time comes, God has been watching His servants. (35:45)

God is in control.  Let there be no doubt.  That is the message in today’s reading.  The Islamic view of providence is very high.  Allah is in control of all things.  Of course that opens up Muslim theology to a great number of questions about free will, control, justice, love and evil.  Those would all be interesting topics to explore within the context of divine power, however none of these are touched on directly in this passage.  Today’s reading focuses again on God’s control over all people’s destiny and their ability to respond to the knowledge of Allah.

Within this passage are two beautiful images, the first of which gives this surah its name.

God is the Light of the heavens and earth.  His Light is like this: there is a niche, and in it a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, a glass like a glittering star, fueled from a blessed olive tree from neither east nor west, whose oil almost gives light even when no fire touches it — light upon light — God guides whoever He will to his Light. (24:35)

The second is the opposite image.  Disbelievers are:

Like shadows in a deep sea covered by waves upon waves, with clouds above — layer upon layer of darkness — if he holds out his hand, he is scarcely able to see it.  The one to whom God gives no light has no light at all. (24:40)

These are vivid, rich images of light and darkness.

Translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali sheds further light on the “light upon light” passage.  A niche was a shallow alcove or depression in a Middle Eastern house of that time placed high on a wall.  This allowed the light placed there to give light to the whole room. 

These two passages are also considered parables and, as Ali says, volumes have been written unpacking its deep symbolism.  God is the true light, the One from whom all other light derives.  Just as all natural light we know on this planet comes from some other object (i.e., the sun, fire, electricity), all goodness comes from God.  We are the lamp, given light from God, used to light our world.  We shine that light in many “glittering” ways but they are always imperfect and diffused, like light that passes through glass.  Nonetheless, those who are called by God to be light and who are willing to receive that calling, are in fact sources of goodness and light in the world.

On the other hand, those who are not called are so separated from God and the light or goodness than comes from Him that it is like they are drowning in a dark, tempestuous sea, deep in the regions of the oceans where sea creatures don’t even have eyes because light is not present.  This sea is further shrouded by thick clouds.  There is no light at all.  A life without God is the deepest darkness.   

Strong images!

Fear or Faith? 

Which will it be?  That is one of the most foundational questions of life.

All of us have lived in fear at times.  Rejection, Loneliness,  Punishment.  Reprisal.  Injustice.  Violence.  Poverty.  Disease.  Death.  Shame.  Embarrassment.  Failure.  Fear is an emotion we know well.

Often at the root of that fear is the feeling that we do not measure up, that we will be too incapable to face what may come.  Imagine being Moses and Aaron sent to face off against Pharaoh, the strongest man alive in Moses’ time.  This is a fool’s errand.

It is no wonder then that three times in today’s passage God tells Moses “do not be afraid” (20:46, 68, 77; c.f., 20:21).  In fact, this is a common admonition in the Qur’an (3:175; 5:44; 11:70; 15:53; 27:10; 28:7; 28:31; c.f., 5:54; 48:27).  As many of us know, this is also a regular refrain in the Bible (used over 75 times).  Fear or faith — which will it be?

But how is it possible to have faith in the face of fear?  The answer is in what causes our fear.  As was said above, we often fear that we are incapable or insufficient for the situation at hand.  Quite frankly, we are incapable to face some situations.  Faith, though, looks beyond self.  Faith inserts God into the equation.  Faith says the power dynamic has changed because now we have God on our side.  Today’s passage describes that realization this way:

[Moses and Aaron] said, “Lord, we fear he will do us great harm or exceed all bounds.”  [God] said, “Do not be afraid, I am with you both, hearing and seeing everything.” (20:45-46)

The Bible says it similarly:

“I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you. (Genesis 26:24)

“Do not be terrified; do not be afraid of them.  The LORD your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes.” (Deuteronomy 1:29-30)

“This is what the LORD says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s.'” (2 Chronicles 20:15)

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)

“So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:6)

Almost without exception, in both the Bible and the Qur’an the “do not be afraid” passages are all paired with God saying HE will do something.  A believer can find the ability to have faith where others would fear because they have God’s power on their side.

This is the only way to explain the change in Pharaoh’s sorcerers, as stated in 20:70-73:

[So it was, and] the sorcerers three themselves down in submission.  “We believe,” they said, “in the Lord of Aaron and Moses.”  Pharaoh said, “How dare you believe in him before I have given you permission?  This must be your master, the man who taught you witchcraft.  I shall certainly cut off your alternate hands and feet, then crucify you on the trunks of palm trees.  You will know for certain which of us has the fiercer and more lasting punishment.”  They said, “We shall never prefer you to the clear sign that has come to us, nor to Him who created us.  So decide whatever you will: you can only decide matters of this present life — we believe in our Lord, [hoping] He may forgive us our sins and the sorcery that you forced us to practice — God is better and more lasting.”

Before, their sorcery was all about them.  A little sleight of hand.  Illusion.  The power of suggestion.  Seeming power but really only what their own hands and ingenuity could conjure up. But when they saw the “signs” of Moses and Aaron, they recognized true power.  A power outside humanity.  It is faith in this kind of power that makes their bravery possible.

This surah ends with one more story and a final warning to believe.

The key figure in this last story is Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn, translated “the two-horned one” or “the King of Two-Horns.”  There is no clue from the text who this might be, especially as this is a parable, but Alexander the Great has most often been suggested.  What is clear is that this king has great power over both the East and the West.  Still, he does not presume that he is Master of all; he knows his power comes from God.

In the first of three episode, Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn travels as far as he can to the west (Europe, if this is Alexander the Great).  Here he finds people he must choose to rule in the right manner.  With all imaginable power, his options were wide open.  Appropriately, he chooses to rule with justice, punishing or rewarding as merited.  With as much power as he possessed he could have assumed an arrogance whereby he declared himself a god, but instead he acknowledged that supreme power and judgment rested with God.

Next, Dhu’l-Qarnayn heads East to the “rising of the sun” where he meets a primitive people with little in the way of technology.  At the same time, they possess a contentment the first people did not have.  The king leaves them as they are, resisting the urge to change their way of life to adhere to his own sensibilities.  Abdullah Yusuf Ali describes the point of this short segment this way:

Power is apt to be intolerant and arrogant, and to interfere in everything that does not accord with its own glorification. Not so Dhu al Qarnayn. He recognised his own limitations in the sight of God: man never completely understands his own position, but if he devoutly looks to God, he will live and let live. This is the spiritual lesson from the second episode.

16th Century Persian miniature of Dhu 'l-Qarnayn building the wall

Finally, the King comes to a town nestled in a valley between the protection of two tall mountains.  This group of people are skilled in metalwork but have been oppressed by Gog and Magog.  They plead with the King to build an impassable barrier that would shield them from their oppressors and offer tribute in return. Dhu ‘l-Qarnayn agrees, but refuses tribute knowing that the power he has been given by God requires the responsibility to care for the oppressed as well.  He leads the people in building a massive metal and iron wall to close off the mountain pass.  This third episode ends with the point we are supposed to gather: human power can accomplish great feats, but there is a Power that can demolish even the mightiest of walls. 

Power is given to be used to bring justice and never as a vehicle for oppression.  Power must be wielded with humility and understanding, resisting the urge to impose one’s own way of doing things (ironically, the exact opposite to what Alexander did with his agenda of Hellenism).  True power knows there is a power greater than itself.