Surah 68 is an early Meccan surah defending Muhammad against the claim that he is “madman.”  The unbelievers are experiencing a good life filled with prosperity and family, so divine punishment is the last thing they are thinking about.  They are reminded that “disaster” can come overnight.  Muhammad need not worry about the slander he is receiving; God will vindicate him. 

The reader is reminded in surah 69 that the “Inevitable Hour” is guaranteed, just look at what happened to the people of Thamud and `Ad.  This “Great Event” is described in truly apocalyptic fashion.  A luxurious “Garden” will be the “reward” for obedience, while only “Fire” and “filth” await the unbelievers (once again, we see a quid pro quo soteriology).  So, listen to Muhammad; “attentive ears may take heed” (69:12). 

The catastrophic, foreboding images of the last surah return in surah 70.  We will each be friendless and alone on the great “Day of Judgment.”  We should bear in mind that “the punishment of the Lord is not something to feel safe from” (70:28).  There are some who “rushing out” head long “to their graves” (70:43).  But “Gardens of bliss” await those who are constant in prayer, charitable to the poor, fearful of God, mindful of Judgment, sexually chaste, and unwaveringly trustworthy (70:22-35). 

As we have seen many times already this year, the Qur’an offers judgment, fear, and the threat of punishment as very strong sources of motivation to obey Allah.  This is certainly different from the love-heavy message of modern-day American Christianity.

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Does your body ever testify against you?

Mine does.  You’ve eaten too much again.  These stairs are winding you because I was made to move around not sit at a desk.  You can’t play your iPod so loud and assume I’ll be able to hear just as well.  Your late nights staying up reading are making these old eyes weak.  My joints protest under too much weight and not enough exercise.  Yeah, my body talks to me! 

Of course, none of this is anything as serious as what today’s new surah is talking about.  Still I see its intriguing point: the body can testify against a person. 

The message is the now familiar one: disbelievers, you’ve had a chance.  You can’t thumb your nose at God and think there will be no punishment.  You’ve had plenty of warning.  Today, this surah approaches this common refrain in a new way: a very physical, bodily way. 

This surah is chock full of words associated with the senses, especially the senses of hearing, sight, and touch:

  • solid (41:10)
  • smoke (41:11)
  • beautiful (41:12)
  • blast (41:13)
  • roaring wind (41:16)
  • taste (41:16, 50)
  • trample (41:29)
  • see (41:39)
  • touch (41:42, 49, 51)
  • show (41:53)

The point here is plain: you should have heard, seen, and felt the reality of the presence of God.  How could you not? 

No, they “do not hear” (41:4).  They have “encased their hearts” so thy cannot feel and made their ears to “heavy” to hear (41:5).  They “preferred blindness” (41:17) and refused to “listen” to the Quran (41:26).  But their ears are “heavy” and “they are blind” to the truth (41:44).   

So now the disbelievers’ bodies will testify against them:

On the Day when God’s enemies are gathered up for the Fire and driven onward, their ears, eyes, and skins will, when they reach it, testify against them for their misdeeds.  They will say to their skins, “Why did you testify against us?” and their skins will reply, “God, who gave speech to everything, has given us speech — it was He who created you the first time and to Him you have been returned — yet you did not try to hide yourselves from your ears, eyes, and skin to prevent them from testifying against you.” (41:19-22)

To these people who have refused to let their bodies sense the reality of God, His punishment will be unmistakably physical, just like God did years ago to others like them:

We let a roaring wind loose on them for a few disastrous days to make them taste the punishment of shame in this world; more shameful still will be the punishment of the life to come, and they will not be helped. (41:16)  

I am talking right now to a former student who says the Bible is little more than an ultimatum to follow God or be sent to Hell.  To him, the threat of punishment is a major theme all throughout the Bible.

Man, he needs to read the Qur’an!  The Bible hardly touches on Hell and punishment compared to what you find in Islam’s sacred text.  As we read through the Qur’an this year, it seems we can’t go more than a page or two without another reminder that Hell (or the Fire) is a very real place and the chances of being sent there are very real as well.  I don’t mean disrespect — I am just reading and reporting as I find it — but “turn or burn” seems like a term more appropriate for the Qur’an than for the Bible.

Iblis

Speaking of Hell, ayahs 26-50 in this surah are a sustained description of the jinn and Iblis.

Before Allah created humans from dirt, clay, or mud (depending on the passage) He created the jinn from smokeless fire (interestingly, angels were created from light).  Jinn were not inherently evil; they could obey God if they chose to.  If they did not, jinnis (plural form, from which we get the English term genie) became “satans” or “demons.” 

God’s intention from the beginning was for the jinn to “bow down” and serve the humans, and the jinn (or angels) did.  That is, all of them except Iblis who could not stomach the thought.  In response God banished Iblis from Paradise.  As a result, Iblis has promised to “lure” humans away from God and towards “the wrong.”  Only God’s “devoted servants” will be able to resist Iblis’ charms, though this passage makes it clear that Iblis does not possess the power to force humans to follow him; they choose to go astray by their own choice.  In Islamic thought Iblis only has what power he does because God allows him to have it; God is the supreme power in control of all things.  In the end Iblis and those who have chosen to follow his ways will be banished to Hell, a painful place of torment.

We will hear more about Iblis and the jinn later.

The fourteenth surah — Abraham — is named after the patriarch who shows up late in the surah in a secondary way.  Tomorrow we will look at the theme of gratitude that is at the beginning and end of the chapter.  Today is more of a miscellany of interesting ideas from the first part of the surah.

1.  There have been many threats of punishment in the past few surahs.  In fact, it seems like you can’t read very long anywhere in the Qur’an without running up on these reminders.  So it is good to be reassured right from the beginning of this surah that Allah’s intention is to forgive and bless humanity:

This is a Scripture which We have sent down to you [Prophet] so that you may bring people from the depths of darkness into light, to the path of the Almighty. (14:1)

He calls you to Him in order to forgive you your sins and let you enjoy your life until the appointed hour. (14:10)

Later in today’s reading the point comes out that Allah is not simply trying to get his own way.  If so, he could have destroyed the rebellious and started over (14:19).  Instead, Allah wants to redeem these people, and redemption is his greatest goal. 

2.  Still, punishment is a possibility and it is interesting that “prefer[ing] the life of this world over the life to come” (14:3) is a recurring description of those who incite God’s ire greatly.  If that was truly 1400 years ago when the Qur’an was written, what about now?  It seems this description is even more true today. 

3.  Ayah 4 is a good description of how Allah relates to those who choose to follow him and those who do not:

God leaves whoever He will to stray, and guides whoever He will. (14:4)

Humans are free to choose Allah or not.  Then Allah acts passively in the life of those who choose to walk away from him — he does not stop them.  But Allah works actively to guide those who do choose Him, and we have to imagine that life becomes easier when Allah is actively involved. 

4.  The people of Mecca respond to Muhammad’s plea for faith with a request for proof:

You want us to turn away from what our forefathers used to worship.  Bring us clear proof then [if you can.] (14:10)

But there’s the rub. Of course, someone would want proof in order to switch worldviews, but God operates by faith, maybe faith with evidence, but faith nonetheless:

We cannot bring you any proof unless God permits it, so let the believers put their trust in Him. (14:11)

Unless one is willing to walk by faith, they will not find Allah.

5.  There is a very vivid image used to describe Hell late in today’s reading:

Hell awaits each one; he will be given foul water to drink, which he will try to gulp but scarcely be able to swallow. (14:16-17)

That’s Hell: working with the things of life intended to bring satisfaction (i.e., water) but not finding fulfillment at all.  Hell is sex without love, company without belonging, work without reward.  It is “hav[ing] no power over anything they have gained” (14:18).  This image of Hell is such a strong contrast with the image of Paradise in ayah 23: “Gardens graced with flowing streams.”

This surah ends with its raison d’etre: to strengthen Muhammad for the task before him of confronting the idolatrous people of his own hometown Mecca (11:120).  Muhammad is to see himself as part of something much bigger than this moment.  As a prophet, his calling is to join the long stream of God’s servants who call out salvation and destruction as options to their people.  He is not coming down the mountain to Mecca alone.  He is not the only one who has experienced the assortment of emotions and experiences he will.

There is strength in knowing you are a part of something bigger.  That is very counter-cultural today.  America is the land of the great “I.”  We are individuals through and through.  Maybe on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July we are reminded we are a part of a larger group with bigger, nobler purposes.  But most of the time, right along with Toby Keith, we just “wanna talk about me.”

But individualism is only as strong as the individual, and most of us aren’t that strong for long.  God has called his people to a group, a heritage, a “great cloud of witnesses.”  There is strength in numbers, they say.

Are the punishments of Hell eternal?  Can a loving God punish people forever?  Is there an end and an escape?  Or is there an annihilation of the soul and thus an end to the punishment?

These questions have been around for a long time, and they are now being resurrected — at least in part — by Rob Bell in his newest book, Love Wins.  This is not the place for a review of that book (in short, I loved the first two chapters, have some significant issues with some of his last points, marvel at his ability to communicate, but was driven crazy by his lack of support for many of his points . . . oh, and a note to the blogosphere, you ought to read the book before you criticize it!), but I found it interesting that two lines in today’s reading bring up similar questions:

The wretched ones will be in the Fire, sighing and groaning, there to remain for as long as the heavens and earth endure, unless your Lord wills otherwise: your Lord carries out whatever he wills.  As for those who have been blessed, they will be in Paradise, there to remain as long as the heavens and earth endure, unless your Lord wills otherwise — an unceasing gift. (11:106-108)

Is this saying that Allah might will to remove people from the Fire?  If so, would it not also mean that Allah could will to remove people from Paradise too?  And what does it mean that people will be in the Fire/Paradise “as long as the heavens and earth endure?”  Is that this “heavens and earth?”  Is that implying there will be an end to spiritual punishment, say at some future point of recreation?  If so, will there also be an end to reward?  But isn’t Paradise “an unceasing gift?”  Or are these lines little more than rhetorical devices emphasizing that Allah does whatever he wishes, because he is Allah?

Muslim commentator Abdullah Yusuf Ali says this about this passage:

Here it [the word translated “remain as long as” or “dwell therein”] is definitely connected with two conditions, viz: (1) as long as the heavens and the earth endure, and (2) except as God wills. Some Muslim theologians deduce from this the conclusion that the penalties referred to are not eternal, because the heavens and the earth as we see them are not eternal, and the punishments for the deeds of a life that will end should not be such as will never end. The majority of Muslim theologians reject this view. They hold that the heavens and the earth here referred to are not those we see now, but others that will be eternal. They agree that God’s Will is unlimited in scope and power, but that it has willed that the rewards and punishments of the Day of Judgment will be eternal.

Juan E. Campo states in the Encyclopedia of Islam that some Muslim theologians developed the view well after the Qur’an was written that souls would escape the Fire after a set time of punishment.  Passages like today’s help us see why they might conclude this.

If nothing else, what we see today is that Christians are not the only ones who wonder and even argue about the afterlife.

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.

Much of life is about choice — what to do, how to do it, when, why, and what becomes of those choices.  Not all of life, of course.  We don’t have much to do with flooding, tornadoes, and falling trees, though we do even have a choice of how to respond to these.

Maybe the biggest choice in life is what we will do with God and his instructions for life?  Will we obey or rebel?  Will we go his way or find a “crooked path” that seems more suitable to us (11:19)?  Will we create a god that is more palatable?  What to do with God?  Since time began this has been humanity’s fundamental question.

Spoken within the context of the idolatrous city of Mecca early in the prophetic work of Muhammad, this surah focuses on the same question.  One choice leads to Paradise, and the other to Fire.  Which will it be?  The choice is yours, because such an important choice cannot be made under compulsion.

In this long section, the work of six prophets are chronicled as examples of those who have laid out this choice before their people: Noah, Hud (for whom this surah is named), Salih, Abraham, Shu`ayb, and Moses.  Three of these are familiar to Christians, though there are a few interesting additions to their lives (like Noah had a son who refused to get on the Ark and drowned).  The other three are entirely foreign.  The point of these stories seems to be that Muhammad is the next such prophet.  His calling in Mecca is the same as these men.  Point to Allah.  Lay out the choice.  Leave it with them to decide.

Who in your life needs to know their choices?  Are we leaving it their choice?  What choice is before us as well?