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!

In today’s section we come to a tricky question: How much control does Allah have over the events of the day?  We often hear the phrase “the will of Allah” or “if Allah wills” (inshallah), the qualifying addendum to a wish for the future, and these ideas are all throughout this passage.  This is a question of predestination (qadar).

It is commonly believed within Islam that Allah has foreknowledge of what is to come.  Some even believe there is a written record of these events (the “Preserved Tablet”).  However, this foreknowledge does not negate human free will; Allah simply knows what free human beings will choose.  Most mainstream Muslims do not believe in complete free will, though.  Allah is in control of all things, and a human only has freedom to the degree Allah wants to allow that freedom.  It is as if we live within a bubble of freedom, in which we can do what we wish.  But if Allah wills for something to happen (or not) the boundaries of that bubble are much tighter in that area and the will of Allah is imposed.  This view is not that different from what many Christians believe as well.

An interesting addition is that the level of commitment one has to Allah can determine how much Allah allows.  He will more rigorously protect His own and will place many more obstacles between a believer and sin.

How does all of this play out in today’s section?

  • If Allah willed for unbelievers to avoid idolatry, he would have made sure it was so. (6:107)
  • Be careful about judging idol worshipers; Allah can even use idolatry to bring people to him. (6:108)
  • People are free to obstinately oppose Allah, and unless He has it within His plan to call them to Him and use them, Allah will allow their freely chosen rebellion. (6:110-11)
  • Allah actively puts evildoers in place to scheme evil. (6:123)
  • Allah doesn’t necessarily punish wrongdoing when it stems from ignorance, not rebellion (6:131)
  • Allah’s will is inescapable (6:134)
  • The rationale for all of this is that Allah is “all wise, all knowing.” (6:128)

From here there are further questions, aren’t there?  Why does Allah not will that all come to know Him in such a way that He imposes that will on everyone?  If he can control all things, why does he allow things that frustrate His will?  Would Allah send a person to Hell who wished to be saved?  Why would Allah actively do things that bring about evil (c.f., 6:123)?

These are all questions people ask of the Christian God too, though.  I will be paying attention to this idea as we read further.

I’ll end with a quote from today’s section that vividly compares the result of Allah’s predeterminism on a person to breathing:

When God wishes to guide someone, He opens their breast to islam (total devotion to God); when He wishes to lead them astray, He closes and constricts their breast as if they were climbing up to the skies. (6:125) 

“Hello!” to the several who have subscribed in the past few days, maybe due to the gracious, unsolicited plug from my friend and preacher Chris Altrock (check out his voluminous blog; his discipline is exemplary and his guidance is always sure).  I guess the fact that he is still willing to own me as a friend means I haven’t been too heretical yet.

Today we begin the longest surah, a Medinan one (that will be important by the end) and interestingly titled “The Cow” because of a reference to come.  At this point Allah speaks, usually in the royal “we.”  Interestingly, 2:2-4 mention three of the five pillars of Islam, the five basic acts a devote Muslim is expected to do — the statement of faith, prayer, and almsgiving.  All that is missing is pilgrimage and fasting.    

From what I understand, ancient Arabic and Hebrew are linguistic cousins.  The word Haleem translates in 2:2 “mindful” in “those who are mindful of God” is connected to the Hebrew word in Proverbs 1:7 usually translated “fear.”

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge. (Prov. 1:7)

“Mindful:” what a great translation!  I have never preferred “fear.”  Sure, I was taught it had the connotation of “respect” and I could get that.  I respect my father in such a way that I would never dream about doing some things to or around him (except when I was a stupid 14-year-old).  But “mindful” says it so well.  We will be led in the right way when we keep our minds fixed on God.  We will begin to find knowledge that changes our lives when our minds are full of God.  How could we dare seek self-glory when there is no room for “self” in our focus for the day?  As Haleem says in his notes on this ayah (verse), the opposite of “mindful/fear” is not familiar or cozy or overly-friendly with God as it sounds like it should be when translated “fear” (not to say that these can’t be a problem, of course) but “to ignore Him.”  Yes, that seems to capture it nicely.  I like it! 

At this point the surah picks up the three kinds of responses to Allah mentioned in 1:7 — belief and devotion; outright rejection that stirs up anger; and an hypocrisy that attempts to straddle the fence but progressively leads one astray.

Islamic predetermination really comes out strongly in 2:6-7.  “It makes no difference” what you say to them, unbelievers are “sealed” for “great torment.” 

Then 2:8-20 is one of the most astounding images of hypocrisy I have ever read.  If you read nothing else from this surah, read these ayahs.  So much could be said here, so I will focus on what exactly hypocrisy is.  So often I hear Christians get it wrong.  The implication seems to be with some that if you claim to be a Christian but then commit a sin Christians are known to look down upon, you are a hypocrite.  In other words, we are all hypocrites in some way, at some time.  That is not hypocrisy, though; that is frailty, depravity, failure.  Yes, we all fail, but we are not all hypocrites.  Hypocrites (the word means “actors” in ancient Greek) set out to deceive and trick, to give the impression that they are something when they know full well they are not and don’t even intend to be that.

3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

Praise God for his mercy on those who fail.  But heaven forbid that we should try to fool God and others with vain religion.