Poetry is a beautiful, wonderful way to express oneself.  Lyrical, filled with imagery and hyperbole, poetry is a great way to communicate deep emotions that sometimes defy simple explanation.

But if one is trying to be precise and specific, if one is trying to give instructions that have the ability to make an eternal difference in one’s life, maybe poetry isn’t the best way to communicate, at least not at first.

The Qur’an would certainly fall into this second category: essential speech.  Though his detractors claimed the opposite, as we see in today’s ending to this surah, Muhammad was a prophet not a poet.  His words were inspired by the “Trustworthy Spirit” (26:193), the angel Gabriel, not the fancies and whims that drive the poets of his time who wandered about aimlessly in the wilderness (26:225).  His words have the aroma of truth, not the odor of sentimentality and pretension.  These are words that even non-Muslim Jews have accepted as words of God, as some Jewish leaders in Mecca had accepted Muhammad as a new prophet of their God (26:197).

Muhammad’s words also did not come from the jinn (those sometimes evil or mischevious spirits) as others claimed (26:210).  This is not even logical.  Why would a jinn inspire such holy words?  How could they?  Jinn are prevented from even hearing the Qur’an (26:212).  Poets may be inspired by the jinn (at least in their thinking at that time) but not Muhammad (26:224).

Wouldn’t it be easier if God came down and spoke His words to an unbelieving world Himself?  Or at least sent an angel?  Why send a human with divine words?  Humans are frail, weak, imperfect, and easily intimidated.

This is precisely what the unbelievers of Muhammad’s time said, as we see in today’s reading.

Those who do not fear to meet Us say, “Why are the angels not sent down to us?” or “Why can we not see our Lord?” (25:21)

The answer given is interesting.

No messenger have We sent before you [Muhammad] who did not eat food and walk about in the marketplaces.  But We have made some of you a means of testing others — will you stand fast? (25:20)

Simply put, this is how God works.  God has always used everyday humans as messengers.  Look at Moses, Noah, ‘Ad, Thamud, and Al-Rass (25:35-38).

From today’s reading it would appear that God’s primary reason for appointing human messengers is to create a test for those who hear the message.  The sending of human messengers honors human free will.  How overwhelming would it be to be visited by God Himself in all His glory?  How could one help but believe?  Would that be faith, though?  And would it be choice?  Instead, God has created a situation in which people can deny and even oppose His message.  And the adversity and adversaries have been many down through history (25:31ff).

The test is one of faith.  Will you believe?  This is just another human, just like you.  You weren’t on the mountain with the Prophet.  Will you believe that the God of the Universe is speaking through this bag of flesh and bones?

The last question in the first ayah of today’s reading is what strikes me most.  “Will you stand fast?”  That is the question.  When it comes time to bear God’s message to our neighbors, will we do it?

“You are not alone.”

Today’s passage begins with this reminder to the Prophet:

Messengers before you [Muhammad] were also ridiculed. (21:41)

Muhammad is a part of a long line of prophets — Moses and Aaron, Abraham, Noah, David and Solomon, Job, Ishmael, Idris, Dhu-l’Kifl (Ezekiel), Jonah, Zechariah, Mary.  God has always been with His messengers.  Today’s section ends with this reassurance:

We answered him [Jonah] and saved him from distress: this is how We save the faithful. (21:88)

Muhammad was not alone.  There were other prophets before him who had experienced the same sting of ridicule.  There were others who watched the destruction of people they had been called to preach to.  There were others who might have felt like failures because those people did not repent.  Others who felt frustrated, angry, or depressed.  He was not alone in this sea of emotions.

Loneliness from rejection is a primal fear.  People everywhere feel it.  Alone in our fears and insecurities.  Alone in our guilt and shame.  Alone in our quirkiness and idiosyncrisy.  That’s why the fear of loneliness is so often a topic of religion, this system we construct from our questions and answers to life’s biggest questions. 

Whether it is Muhammad in Mecca, Moses on Mt. Sinai, or Jesus in Gethsemane, each needed to know they were not alone.  And so do we.

Noah, Hud, Salih, Abraham, Shu`ayb and Moses.  They can teach us a great deal about what it takes and what will come from a “prophetic” ministry.  Much like those of the Old Testament, a prophet is more so one who speaks God’s corrective words into a situation than one who tells the future.  With this in mind, we realize there are prophets all around.

Prophets are sent to their own people (11:25, 50, 61, 74, 84).  So it is no wonder that a prophet desperately pleads for the welfare of his people, wanting to see them turn, not burn (11:26, 52, 61).  One who longs to see punishment, is no prophet (i.e., Jonah, the anti-prophet).  A message of punishment is always secondary to the message of forgiveness and salvation (11:52, 61, 90).

Prophets speak the same, simple message: worship God and Him alone (11:26, 50, 61, 84).  This is the baseline.  You build on devotion to God.  Morality makes no sense without a covenant with God.  Belief reorders one’s entire life.  Only when one decides to follow God undividedly does life begin to become whole.  The message doesn’t have to be terribly complicated.

Prophets more often must point to evidence for God in the natural world than rely upon miracles (11:52, 61, 64).  God is there to be found, if one is willing to see.  Hud pointed to life-giving rain.  Salih appealed to the creative force of God and to a camel.  The flash and bang of miracles may seem nice and convincing, and they were what the people wanted (11:53), but that does not seem to be God’s way much of the time.

Prophets must walk by faith (11:39, 56, 81, 88).  They speak faith-filled words into a situation.  They hope with confidence, but not with proof that what they say will come to pass.  A prophet cannot operate without trust: “I put my trust in God, my Lord and your Lord” (11:56).  Their faith is not just wishful thinking; prophets know that what God ordains will happen (11:43, 45, 55, 66, 76, 92).

Prophets don’t pin their sense of accomplishment to their audience’s response (11:36, 93).  Simply put, some will not believe.  It is enough to obey God and be satisfied in that (11:51).  Prophets are simply mouthpieces.  They also do not bring judgment, so their job is simply to speak (11:33, 45).

Prophets don’t expect life to be easy (11:27, 38, 53, 62, 91).  The message need not be complicated.  The hard work of changing hearts is God’s work alone.  Success is defined internally through obedience, not externally through people’s response.  Still, though the work of a prophet is very straightforward, it is not easy.  Noah was called a liar and mocked for only having success with the lower class.  They laughed at his preposterous boat.  Hud and Salih were rejected outright because of their lack of proof.  Salih suffers the sting of being told by his people that they had expected more from him.  Shu`ayb was labeled as weak and his own countrymen threaten to kill him for his foolishness.  Life was not easy for Abraham’s family in Sodom.  Moses ran for his life from the murderous Pharaoh.  Prophetic ministry is a high and noble calling, but it will not be a cakewalk.

Is it worth it?  That had to be what was on Muhammad’s mind as he came down the mountain to Mecca.

Jesus said “a prophet is without honor in his own hometown” (Luke 4:24).  Muhammad knew exactly what he meant. 

Muhammad

Muhammad began receiving his revelations in the Cave of Hira overlooking his hometown of Mecca.  He went to his own people and they were not impressed.  Most of his first converts were his own family members, friends, and business partners.  When he would preach he was dismissed as a “mad-man.”  Most would push on past him; only a few believed in Muhammad’s monotheistic ideal.  Those who did believe tended to be lower class people or, at best, common workers.  His popularity would soon grow, but early on Muhammad was easy to ignore. 

Muhammad was not alone in his experience of rejection.  In today’s very long reading we come to an extensive rehearsal of the many prophets of old — Noah, Hud, Salih, Lot, Shu`yab, Moses — who were ignored when they in fact brought revelations from God.  It would appear the point of this passage is to weave Muhammad into this line as another such prophet.  In so doing, he is given credibility.  At the time, he also could have found encouragement in this history.  Such is the fate of God’s great prophets.  He is not alone. 

I am afraid my ability to blog will likely be impeded until the end of the weekend.  If you are still reading through the Qur’an with these readings this will give you a chance to catch up and work your way through today’s longer reading.  Blessings!