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)
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The one who purifies his soul succeeds and the one who corrupts it fails. (91:9-10)

This is a great hallmark passage.  So much of the Qur’an can be summarized by these words.  What does Islam expect of you? How does one purify or corrupt their soul?  I have chosen to focus on these questions as we read through the next five surahs: 91, Al-Shams (The Sun); 92, Al-Layl (The Night); 93, Al-Duha (The Morning Brightness); 94, Al-Sharh (Relief); and 95, Al-Tin (The Fig).

1.  Avoid arrogance and rejection of the message of God:  The people of Thamud did not.  “Arrogant cruelty” overtook their souls so when the messenger of God came to them, they rejected him as a liar and even hamstrung his camel (91:11-14).  For such people “the raging Fire” is prepared (92:14-16).

2.  Give generously in mindfulness of God:  This is specifically called “self-purification” (92:18).  Those who corrupt their souls are “miserly,” storing up wealth for themselves, “den[ying] goodness” to those in need (92:8-10).

3.  Model the compassion of God:  We too were once orphans in need of help, and God cared for us (93:7-8).  Likewise, we ought to show compassion on those who need help in our communities (93:9-11).

4.  Pray dependently on God:  The purified soul lifts its requests to God (94:8).  It is God who “relieves” the “burden that weigh so heavily on your back” (94:1-3), so one does well to look to Him in “mindfulness” (92:5), not try to handle it himself in self-satisfied arrogance (92:8; 91:11).

In summary, who is it that purifies his soul and succeeds?  It is “those who believe and do good deeds” (95:6).

Here are the verses from the next five surahs that stood out the most to me for various reasons.

71: Nuh (Noah)

Every time I [Noah] call them, so that You may forgive them, they thrust their fingers into their ears, cover their heads with their garments, persist in their rejection, and grow more insolent and arrogant. (71:7)

As a teacher, every now and then I have a particularly recalcitrant student who I desperately want to introduce to Jesus but resists anything I say.  It is like they have made up their mind not to believe and no argument of reason or appeal to emotion or need has much traction.  This ayah made me think of such students.

72: Al-Jinn (The Jinn)

We [jinn] used to sit in places there, listening, but anyone trying to listen now will find a shooting star lying in wait for him — [so now] we do not know whether those who live on earth are due for misfortune, or whether their Lord intends to guide them. (72:9-10)

The idea that jinn or angels (I know they are not the same) are not all-hearing is an interesting idea I have only ever heard once before.  They must be listening to hear.  Words must be spoken for them to know.  I once heard a preacher encourage the crowd not to mention their fears out loud, so as not to give a toe-hold to demons who might be listening.  It sounded a little silly to me at the time.  Sounds like he is not the only one who thought this.

73: Al-Muzzammil (Enfolded)

Night prayer makes a deeper impression and sharpens words — you are kept busy for long periods of the day (73:6-7)

That the days are filled with work and busyness is absolutely true.  There is great temptation to drop the discipline of prayer to compensate for a growing to-do list.  It is a temptation too easy to give into.  So the idea of setting aside time in the evenings is a good one.  Muhammad sometimes spent half of the night praying (73:20).  I have also found that prayer at the end of the day is in fact more thoughtful.  I like these ayahs a lot.

74: Al-Muddaththir (Wrapped in His Cloak)

You, wrapped in your cloak, arise and give warning!  Proclaim the greatness of your Lord; cleanse yourself; keep away from all filth; do not weaken, feeling overwhelmed; be steadfast in your Lord’s cause. (74:1-7)

Muslim tradition says these were some of the first words revealed by Muhammad.  Coming down from the Cave of Hira, Muhammad rushed to his house and asked his wife to wrap him in his cloak to sleep.  Maybe he thought, as many would, that he was a little out of his mind.  But the words stayed with him.  Such a fitting first revelation too!

75: Al-Qiyama (The Resurrection)

Truly you [people] love this fleeting world and neglect the life to come. (75:20-21)

This is such a sadly true thought, even amongst those who do believe in the resurrection.  We love what we can see and experience.  We hang on to what he have already.  But there is so much more to come.  Oh, to be renewed in mind!

As we get closer to the end of the Qur’an the surahs are getting shorter, so I will be combining surahs in many posts.  Today’s two surahs go well together as both of them deal with two of the five pillars of Islam: prayer (salat) and giving (zakat).

Surah 62 encourages the worshipper not to forsake daily times of prayer.

When the call of prayer is made on the day of congregation, hurry towards the reminder of God and leave off your trading–that is better for you, if only you knew–then when the prayer has ended, disperse in the land, and seek out God’s bounty. (62:9-10)

Surah 63 exhorts worshippers give to those in need.

Give out of what We have provided for you, before death comes to one of you and he says, “My Lord, if you would only reprieve me for a little while, I would give in charity and become one of the righteous.”  God does not reprieve a soul when its turn comes: God is fully aware of what you do. (63:10-11)

These two surahs are connected also by a common problem: an hypocrisy produced by the desire for wealth.

In surah 62 Jews are castigated for claiming to love God and follow His Law, yet being so attached to wealth that they loathe the day of their death because they have lost the opportunity to gain more wealth.  Though they should rush to pray with the community, instead “they scatter towards trade or entertainment whenever they observe it, and leave you [Prophet] standing there” (62:11).  Their love for money has made them “asses carrying books” they do not read or obey (62:5).  Should they not welcome the day of their death instead as an opportunity to be reunited with God their “friend” (62:6)?  They need to remember that “what God has is better than any entertainment or trade: God is the best provider” (62:11).

In surah 63–appropriately called “Hypocrites”–a group of supposed believers ask Muhammad to ask God to extend them time to fulfill the admonition to give to the poor.  Yet the reason for this request reveals their hypocrisy: their wealth and children have become a distraction to their duty.  They are not giving to others because they have other desires for their money (63:9).  God offers no reprieve for such a mentality (63:11).

(Now, I must note the irony that it is the eve of Black Friday, the busiest shopping day in America, as I write this post.  HA! )

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.

Not much to say about today’s short section.  I probably should have tacked it onto yesterday’s reading. 

This is as good a place as any other to take notice of a formula we are seeing repeatedly throughout the Qur’an.  Over fifty times at least.  When the Qur’an wants to direct a believer to practice spiritual disciplines and exhibit particular virtues, the Book usually includes these in a loosely constructed formula.  Almost always this formula includes “keeping up regular prayers” and “giving prescribed alms or charity.” 

This is how the formula comes in todays reading:

[People], keep up the prayer, pay the prescribed alms, and obey the Messenger, so that you may be given mercy. (24:56)

I did a quick search of how many times this formula appears in the Qur’an and the following list shows the practices or virtues included in the formula and how often:

  • Charitable giving (35x)
  • Prayer (28x)
  • Obey God or the Messenger/Muhammad (9x)
  • Believe . . . in God, the Last Day, angels, the Qur’an, messengers,and/or signs (7x)
  • Faithfully endure suffering (6x)
  • Fear God (5x)
  • Worship (4x)
  • Be fair (2x)
  • Study or read the Qur’an (2x)
  • Be honest (1x)
  • Fast (1x)
  • Be chaste (1x)
  • Live modestly (1x)
  • Live peaceably (1x)
  • Protect the weak (1x)
  • Serve others (1x)
  • Be humble (1x)

What is most interesting is how prayer and charitable giving are the two most prevalent commands.  It seems that foundational to the Islamic way of life is to be prayerful with some degree of regularity and to be a truly giving person.  A pagan showed he had truly turned toward Islam when he did two things: prayer and charity (9:5, 11).  We might think to emphasize so many other practices or virtues but these are the two mainstays of Muslim spirituality. 

Do you see prayer and charitable giving as the two most important habits of a godly person?  Why or why not? 

About a third of the surahs in the Qur’an start with one to five Arabic letters (i.e., “Alif Lam Mim,” 2:1).  There are many theories on these and many think they are largely some sort of memory device.  This new surah, the twentieth, starts with “Ta Ha,” two letters again but also the way one would say “O man!” as if to get the reader’s attention.  This chapter is largely a retelling of the stories of Moses and Adam.

Memory is the major theme that runs through the first section of this surah.  The Qur’an describes itself here as a “reminder” to a world that has forgotten (20:3).  The implication here is a connection with what has come before, in this case the Bible.  To be a reminder, the stories of Moses and Adam would have had to be well-known. 

Three further points are made about memory.  First, prayer is intended to help the worshiper remember God (20:14).  How can one pray genuinely and not bring God and His good deeds to the front of their minds?  Second, Muhammad is warned to be mindful of how closely allied he allows himself to get with unbelievers (20:16).  They will become “distractions” and turn his mind from remembering God.  Third, one of the benefits to having Aaron alongside him as a partner will be that they together will be able to remember God better (20:34).  Community helps with memory. 

As today’s section ends, God gives Moses a dual mission: go to Pharaoh but also remember Me.  This is very interesting.  It was not enough for Moses to go.  His mission was not simply one of obedience.  God does not frame Moses’ mission simply in terms of the task he is to do.  Every bit as important was the internal reality that Moses was going to have to keep firmly in mind if he were to have success in his mission.  The internal memory was every bit as important as the external actions.      

This reminds me of a description of the effective spiritual life Henri Nouwen has given in several of his books (the same thoughts can be found in this online article).  Nouwen encourages us to picture the ideal spiritual life like an old wagon wheel.  We must start at the center or hub of the wheel.  This is our internal, personal devotional life, what Nouwen calls “solitude.”  This is us and God.  This is the domain of prayer and Scripture and fasting.  Like the wheel, this is what holds everything  together.  This is where we hear we are loved and accepted by God, where we gather the strength to face whatever else may come and to do so with virtue.  This would be Moses’ prayer life. 

Nouwen then proceeds out to the spokes.  This is “community,” those like-minded believers we surround ourselves with.  They give our external life structure and move us out into the world in many different directions.  They are connected to the center of the wheel in that they too are experiencing private “hub-moments” with God, but they are also connected to the tire tread as these friends deliver us into the unbelieving world, where the “rubber meets the road” so to speak.  This is Moses’ companionship with Aaron. 

Finally, Nouwen describes the tire tread as “ministry,” those places where we interact with an unbelieving world in an attempt to connect them with both the community and God we have found.  Ministry is the real purpose for solitude and community.  We are here to shape our world.  Just like a tire, this is where the stress and pressure is.  Tires pop and have slow leaks.  Maybe this is the “distress” 20:2 was talking about.  This is Moses’ mission to face Pharaoh.

The greatest point today is this: a successful spiritual life cannot be lived on auto-pilot.  It takes intentional effort to remember and let those memories guide us.