It is nice to come to a topic other than judgment, Paradise and Hell.  However, this topic is no less prickly: money.  Nonetheless, today’s surah gives the following valuable guidance on how to view and use wealth:

  • All power belongs to the Almighty God, not the almighty dollar (57:2).
  • Deal with money in a pure manner because God sees all, even the intentions of our hearts (57:4-6).
  • The wealth we have ultimately comes to us from God (57:7).
  • We especially need to give to others from what we have been given (57:7).
  • God rewards generous giving (57:7).
  • All money goes back to God in the end, so why not use it to His benefit in the mean time (57:10).
  • It is especially admirable to give when it is most needed, but God rewards anyone who gives (57:10).
  • One stands to gain double giving, not keeping one’s wealth to oneself (57:11, 18).
  • This life is little more than a “game” or “illusory pleasure;” our success in this life is not what matters.  Take your earthly success too seriously and it becomes a source for arrogance and rivalry (57:20).
  • Don’t gloat over your success, thinking you made your fortunes yourself.  You are just living out God’s plan (57:22-23). 
  • God does not like miserliness (57:24).  Maybe this is why “monasticism” is not approved (57:29). 

I don’t like to be told I am wrong.  But I think most of us don’t like that.  The real question is what we will do when we are confronted with our error.  As everyone will be wrong eventually, our response is what makes all the difference.

As we come to a new surah, Saad, I see this as the main theme here.  When David was confronted about his infidelity (which is graciously never mentioned in the passage) by way of a parable involving stolen sheep, the great king quickly repented of his sin and asked for forgiveness (38:24).  David’s son Solomon is lifted up as a great example of repentance as well, an attribute that is never assigned to Solomon in the Bible nor is this specific story in there.  When his desire to own a pair of beautiful horses becomes more important to him than his devotion to God so that God punished him with a wasting disease (38:31-34), Solomon turned back to God as soon as he acknowledged the error of his ways (38:35).  Job is also held up as an “excellent servant” because he realized he dealt too harshly (or not harshly enough, depending on your interpretation) with his blasphemous wife (38:41-44).

We see none of this penitence with Iblis.  Once again the story recounts that when Iblis was commanded to bow before the newly created human, Iblis refused.  He was “too proud.  He became a rebel” (38:74).  And so punishment chases him until “the Appointed Day” (38:81).  Likewise, those who are rejecting the Qur’an with its simple reminder that there is only one God (38:1) are also described as “steeped in arrogance and hostility” (38:2).

And so it is.  Who will we be like?  When we see the error of our ways will we fight the arrogance that so easily rises up inside us telling us that we are right, that we need not bow down to anyone?  Will we respond with contrition and humility like David, Solomon, and Job?  Or will we harden our pride even to the point of self-destruction?  That is the question.

This new Meccan surah promises to be an interesting one.  The synopsis in my translation indicates it is more narrative in nature.  I have noticed that the Qur’an does not use many stories; it is much more sermonic.  Because of that, I hate to say, it is a different and slightly more laborious form of literature than what most Westerners may prefer, as story-based as our culture is.

Before the surah launches into its first story, the first eight ayahs mention Allah is testing people’s hearts. What is it about the nature of Allah that requires a “test” to determine a person’s heart (18:7)?  Does He not know already?  Is this all one big game to Him?  Is the heart’s inclination not a reality until the event, thus it must take place?  I am hoping for the last option.

The Companions of the Cave

Next we have the story of the Companions or Sleepers of the Cave.  This is a most interesting story!  The tale, which certainly is told as a parable with a bigger point, tells of three or four or seven young men and a dog who are fleeing oppression at the hands of pagan worshipers and seek refuge in a north-facing cave.  God keeps them there undetected as if a wall had been built obscuring the cave and causes the youths to fall into a deep sleep.  They sleep for what seems like only hours or days but what turns out to be hundreds of years, maybe three or twelve hundred years or longer.  Hungry, they send one of the men down into the city to inconspicuously buy food.  However, his antiquated dress, speech and money draw attention. The people of the city, then, decide a great move of God has taken place at this cave and plan to build a place of worship there.  Then the people argue amongst themselves over the number of youths had been in the cave and for how long.

It turns out this story was originally Christian, not Islamic.  Commentator Abdullah Yusuf Ali states that the great chronicler of ancient Roman history Edward Gibbons first told the story in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Ali describes the original story this way:

The bare Christian story (without the spiritual lessons taught in the Qur’an) is told in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (end of chapter 33). In the reign of a Roman Emperor who persecuted the Christians, seven Christian youths of Ephesus left the town and hid themselves in a cave in a mountain near by. They fell asleep, and remained asleep for some generations or centuries. When the wall which sealed up the caves was being demolished, the youths awoke. They still thought of the world in which they had previously lived. They had no idea of the duration of time. But when one of them went to the town to purchase provisions, he found that the whole world had changed. The Christian religion, instead of being persecuted was fashionable: in fact it was now the State religion. His dress and speech, and the money which he brought, seemed to belong to another world. This attracted attention. The great ones of the land visited the Cave, and verified the tale by questioning the man’s Companions. When the story became very popular and circulated throughout the Roman Empire, we may well suppose that an Inscription was put up at the mouth of the Cave.

Ali opines that Christians would have posed this story to Muhammad at some point asking him to weigh in on how many youth had been in the cave and for how long as a way to discredit him.  Muhammad then takes the story and makes a larger, grander point from the story.

Kahf Al-Raqim, the cave today

The point now becomes that it is foolish to argue over the minor points of this all important story and miss the life-changing message of God hidden in this parable.  How long did they stay?  Only God knows (18:26)!  Restrain the hubris that makes you think you too can know the mind of God.  Much more important than “how many?” or “how long?” is that God did protect the youth from death and awaken them again to a life that was safer and better than what it had been when they fell asleep.  It is like they were living a whole new life.  As you can guess, the original Christian story was taken as an analogy about Resurrection.  At least some Muslims take the story the same way as well, as is clear from Abdel Haleem’s translation of ayah 21:

In this way We brought them to people’s attention so that they might know that God’s promise [of resurrection] is true and that there is no doubt about the Last Hour, [though] people argue among themselves.

From an artistic and literary point of view, this story is superb!  It is also a truly great message for religious people to bear in mind!  We have a God who will protect us through oppressive times, who will make death seem only like a night’s sleep, and who will raise us again to a life superior to what we now know.  In the mean time, embrace a “generous orthodoxy” that allows for varying views of the minor points of the story, hanging on firmly to the main point.

Today we start a new, longer surah that I have often heard quoted before.  This chapter is winsomely named “The Bee,” after a passing reference to the animal halfway through.  Like its title might suggest, much of the first part of the surah discusses with some detail many aspects of nature that all testify to the veracity of Allah.  As with every sentence in the Qur’an it seems, the incredulity of idolatry lurks just below the surface here once again.

In many ways, there is little that is new in today’s reading, though if you are drawn to nature you will likely find this section vivid and affirming.  One new idea that stood out, though, was the priority of arrogance as a chief sin.  Note the repetition of the word “arrogance” early in this chapter (16:22, 23, 29; c.f., 49-50).

Before starting this blog, much of my knowledge of Islam came from textbooks written about the world’s religions.  These are very helpful, as they condense a lot of information into smaller chunks that emphasize the essentials of the religion.  Then there comes a point at which one needs to read the primary documents, hence this blog.  One idea that I have often seen emphasized in chapters about Islam is that arrogance is a cardinal sin.  Let there be no doubt: idolatry is mentioned much more in the Qur’an, and shirk (accepting other deities instead of or alongside Allah) is considered the worst of all sins in Muslim theology.  Nevertheless arrogance or pride is right up there as well.

Yesterday we looked at Iblis, that fallen angel (or jinn, depending on the passage) that refused to serve humanity as Allah intended.  It was pride that drove Iblis’ decision.  The “disbelievers” of Mecca consider Muhammad a fool for denouncing their many gods.  People have always worshiped these gods; their “ancient fables” testify to the truth of these gods (16:24).  Who is Muhammad to reject them and advocate for an invisible God who is new to them in so many ways?  Theirs was a decision driven by arrogance.  Their arrogance tells them they know the truth, that their way is the best way, the only way.  Their arrogance closes their minds to the witness of nature that is everywhere around them.  Actually, their actions of idolatry were driven by an attitude of arrogance.

That is still very true today.  Faith is often hard for people to muster.  And the smarter one thinks he is, the harder it seems to be.  With knowledge in hand, it becomes easy to think we already have it all figured out.  Knowledge puffs us up to the point where we believe we can reason out all things and therefore truth must conform to our minds.  We hold ourselves up as the supreme judges of reality.  It becomes easy to act like God must convince us, as if we are the center of the universe.  Of course, we must use our God-given minds.  And there is nothing wrong with reason in and of itself (16:12).  Faith is not blindly following whatever we are told.  We all want to have a confidence that says we have discovered something true, knowable, and determined.  Still, there can be a huge undertone of arrogance in all of this.

It is interesting what this surah says will happen to the arrogant.  Their destiny is Hell (16:29).  They are rejected and unloved by God (16:23).  But what hits me most is the emphasis on “shame:”

In the end, on the Day of Resurrection, He will shame them, saying, “Where are these ‘partners’ of mine on whose account you opposed [Me]?”  Those given knowledge will say, “Shame and misery on the disbelievers today!” (16:27)

Shame is the antithesis of arrogance.  Arrogant pride says, “Look at me!”  Shame wants to hide.  Arrogance is overly confident in one’s self.  Shame is embarrassed by what it has done.  Pride goes headstrong into a situation, then shamefully shrinks back when it realizes it overstepped.  God’s retribution is beautifully poetic.

Arrogance is truly easy to fall prey to, further evidence to its priority as a chief sin.  Believers and disbelievers alike are susceptible.  We must be on guard.

How much do we push our worldview? 

I’ve struggled with this question.  Some times I have pushed too much, not knowing when to stop, always looking for a way to advance my argument.  The worst is when I am discussing a topic with a person just like me, who tends to push too much also.  Other times I have been guilty of being too passive and not pushing the conversation towards Jesus at all. 

In today’s reading, the Qur’an answers the question of how much to push by saying, “Not too much at all.  Make your message known then leave it with the person.”  Ayah 3 tells Muhammad to speak his message then leave the Meccan idolators to experience life for what it is, good or bad.  Let them chase after their false hopes and maybe they will learn, but don’t force it on them.  (Another indication that conversion by the sword is not Qur’anic Islam.) 

There is good reason we don’t push too much.  What are we saying when we act like the power of our argument is in how persuasive we can be, how well argued or well supported we have made our case?  At times like these, we act like the power is in us and our fine arguments.  We don’t leave any room for the Spirit, and that is where the real power resides, right?

Today’s reading argues that there are even some that if you gave them great miracles like raising them up into the heavens, they would still explain it away as hallucinations (15:14-15).  For example, people like those of the city of Al-Hijr (15:80), for whom this surah is named.  Sadly, we have a sense that is true too in some of the people we know, don’t we?

This is a second reason we have to resist the urge to push too much.  This attitude that conversion depends on us leaves us wide open to discouragement, as was happening to Muhammad (15:97).  We think evangelistic success ultimately depends upon us, so when we do not find the success we desire, well, it must be because of our failures.  We have not been persuasive enough.  We have not answered all the right questions.  We have not tried hard enough, long enough, and in the right ways.  Of course, we want to be skillful in how we share our message, but we must remember the power to change human hearts resides in God alone.       

More tomorrow on this short surah as well.