I think these passages from the next five surahs are worthy of extra consideration:

76: Al-Insan (Man) & 77: Al-Mursalat ([Winds] Sent Forth)

This [Paradise] is your reward.  Your endeavors are appreciated. (76:22)

[They will be told], “Eat and drink to your heart’s content as a reward for your deeds: this is how We reward those who do good.” (77:43-44)

We see in these two passages what is very much a reward-oriented perspective.  Paradise is very much a reward for how one has lived.  Allah responds to the actions of the human, not vice versa like the grace-oriented Christianity.  However, this passage did make me think of this line from Jesus: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21)

78: Al-Naba’ (The Announcement)

Did we not build seven strong [heavens] above you. (78:12)

I would like to hear more about these seven heavens.  Why the differing levels? Are they different degrees of reward?

79: Al-Nazi`at (The Forceful Chargers)

For anyone who feared the meeting with his Lord and restrained himself from base desires, Paradise will be home. (79:40-41)

This is a good baseline statement of the Islamic worldview.

80: `Abasa (He Frowned)

For the self-satisfied one you go out of your way — though it is not your responsibility if he does not attain purity — but from the one who has come to you full of eagerness and awe you are distracted. (80:5-10)

This can be so sadly true.  We desire certain kinds of people and miss those who are really receptive.  The man who can fund the new addition to the church or mosque too often gets more attention than the meth addict mother with problematic kids.  No wonder Allah frowned.

More of the same in today’s reading.  Eschew idolatry.  Be devoted to the one God,  This is the better way.  He controls all things and could force you, be he won’t.  Don’t resist any longer.  Same message, different words. 

What stands out in this passage is more detail about Paradise or the Garden:

There is good in this present world for those who do good, but their home in the Hereafter is far better: the home of the righteous is excellent.  They will enter perpetual Gardens graced with flowing streams.  There they will have everything they wish.  This is the way God rewards the righteous, those whose lives they take in a state of goodness.  They will say to them, “Peace be upon you.  Enter the Garden as a reward for what you have done.” (16:30-32)

Fifteenth century Persian depiction of Paradise

Maybe you have heard someone say Muslims believe in a carnal Paradise that is described very physically: bountiful gardens, seventy virgins fanning the faithful man as they feed him grapes.  I haven’t really seen the seventy virgins part yet in our reading, but I do have to admit that Paradise does seem to be described in very physical ways that clearly are intended to our natural desires for comfort, provision, and pleasure.  No doubt some of that is simply because one naturally wants to describe the highest of realities in a way that appeals to an audience.  However, it is amazing to me who is never (I think) mentioned when Paradise is described: Allah Himself.  Is that because Allah is so unapproachably holy that even in Paradise He is separated from humanity?  As we can see below, this is very different from how Heaven is described in the Christian Bible.  Without the presence of Allah, Paradise mainly becomes this great reward for the human.  It is everything a human could want.  It is very human-centered. 

Now compare that with this picture of Heaven from the end of the Bible (it’s long but worth it):

1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea [the sea was a symbol of evil, thus there is only the pure presence of good]. 2 I saw the Holy City [the presence of God makes something holy], the new Jerusalem [the center of which was the Temple, the house of God; God is at the center], coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband [unlike our culture, this intensely relational image focuses on the groom not the bride]. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them [it is all about relational living]. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God [one of the most quoted verses in the Bible indicating it is one of God’s greatest goals: covenant relationship]. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away [what life with God is like].”

 5He who was seated on the throne [which is placed at the center of heaven; God is the center] said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

 6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End [“I,” not “you” or “it”]. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who are victorious will inherit all this [yes, there is a reward], and I will be their God and they will be my children [and relationship is the biggest part of that reward]. 8But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death [is there anything that hurts more and is more despairing than the total absence of God?].” 9 One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb [again, relational language].” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God [notice that “Heaven” comes down,” an indication of how much God desires to dwell with his creation]. 11 It shone with the glory of God [which emanates from God’s presence], and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel [God’s people]. 13 There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. 14The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

 15 The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls [it’s a convoluted collection of images but have you noticed that Heaven is both a city and a bride? Heaven is about the people, not the place; again, this is relational]. 16 The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long. 17 The angel measured the wall using human measurement, and it was 144 cubits thick [a perfect people]. 18 The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. 19 The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. 21The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass [a beautiful, priceless people].

 22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple [there is no need for the mediated worship of God through the priesthood and the various courts of the Temple; God is worshiped without mediation] . 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp [God Himself is the source of light]. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there [again, no evil but pure goodness instead]. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful [holiness because of God], but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life [a known people].

 1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb [God is the source of all life] 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations [God returns the world to its Edenic state of perfection and presence]. 3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him [God is the King and leader, even in Heaven]. 4 They will see his face [unparalleled, personal access to God], and his name will be on their foreheads [made children of God].5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 21:1-22:5) 

"New Jerusalem" (late fourteenth century French tapestry)

Notice that in the Bible Heaven is described in terms of relationship not reward.  Sure, you get a kind of existence that is unlike anything we can even know right now.  Yes, all that we loath about life right now is removed.  But notice that in the Bible almost no focus is placed on what the believer gets out of Heaven.  God is the focus and center, even literally.  When you strip back all of the metaphors (because how else do you describe the pure presence of God?), Heaven is the unmitigated presence of God.  For Christians, Heaven is about God, not about what we can get out of it.

As I see it, that’s a rather significant difference between these two religions.  What do you think?

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?

Why would someone do this?

Why would a young man with his whole life in front of him join a group to fly a hijacked plane into a building  ensuring his death?

Why would a young wife strap explosives under her burqa and blow herself up in a crowded railway station? 

There are many contributing factors that would cause such extreme behavior, most of which are not religious.  In the hands of one who wants to use Islam to advance an agenda of power, today’s passage could certainly be used to produce people who would be willing to die for Allah. 

Believers, why, when it is said to you, “Go and fight in God’s cause,” do you feel weighed down to the ground?  Do you prefer this world to the life to come?  How small the enjoyment of this world is, compared with the life to come!  If you do not go out and fight, God will punish you severely and put others in your place. . . . So go out, no matter whether you are lightly or heavily armed, and struggle in God’s way. . . . Those who have faith in God and the Last Day do not ask you [Muhammad] for exemption from struggle . . . only those who do not have faith in God and the Last Day ask your permission to stay home. . . . They are already in trouble: Hell will engulf the disbelievers (9:38-39, 41, 44-45, 49).

Remember that the context of this surah (like the last one; some think these two surahs were actually originally one that became separated) is closely connected to battle.  War is sometimes called a necessary evil.  Most people don’t want there to be war, but if there must be one those who willingly risk the sacrifice of life for their nation are considered heroes.  Still, why would one happily go off to battle, in the way that is described in the passage above?

According to today’s passage, one who is called to war and sees it as a curse, death sentence, or punishment is to be shamed.  Such a response reveals a lack of true faith.  God has championed his people in the worst of situations, so there is no need for fear.  It also shows one is more attached to this fleeting life than to the life that is to come.  True believers give up anything in service to God.  There are much better rewards coming.  Last, true believers see struggles for the faith as a win-win situation: “Do you expect something other than one of the two best things to happen to us?” (9:52).  Either God will bring victory or He will reward the slain warrior in the next life.  That is the best perspective to have when called to fight for the faith. 

I guess I can understand the thinking.  But I can’t help but think passages like these are dangerous.  Placed in the wrong hands.  Placed before impressionable minds.  They make me uncomfortable. 

How about you?

Today, for the first time, we get to a Meccan surah, entitled “Livestock” or “Cattle” in English.  Scholars have noted that because the Meccan surahs were written at a time when Islam was still getting a foothold in Arabia.  They are more persuasive and less enfranchised.  By the time the Muslims moved to Medina, Islam had gained power and these later surahs have a slightly more dictatorial tone.  Well, we may very well see that difference in tone for the first time.

I am struck in this section by how the Islamic basis for belief and obedience is quite different from that of Christianity.  Simply put, Muhammad is told to persuade the polytheists of Mecca with reward or avoidance, in other words “to get/not get.”  I see this coming out in four ways in this passage:

  • God is in control of all things as the Creator, so don’t try to work against his control (6:4-5)
  • God is the supreme power in this world, so don’t make him use it against you (6:6)
  • God is inclined to punish those who reject him, so don’t do it (6:15)
  • God rewards those who believe, so come get it (6:16)

In this mentality, the favor of God is still up in the air.  Who knows how he will respond to you?  That is up to you.  Earn a reward.  Avoid a punishment. 

This section ends with the warning that there is no greater sin than to reject God or to look to some other god for power or control (6:21).  These other gods will be of no help in the end, so stop it and turn to God (6:22-24). 

Medieval Mecca

Let’s remember the context of Mecca, from where this surah originated.  Islamic tradition says Mecca was started by the descendents of Ishmael shortly after he and his father Abraham built the Ka’ba, the large, square, black shrine still at the center of city.  Positioned at the crossroads of important trading routes, Mecca quickly grew in size and wealth.  It was not long before Mecca also became the center of Arabian paganism and the Ka’ba became a shrine to the many gods worshiped by the Arabs.  It is this highly polytheistic environment that Muhammad grew up in and into which the Qur’an comes with its push for radical monotheism.  These admonitions to turn from all other gods and find a reward with Allah make more sense in that context. 

Nonetheless, I find all of this very different from the winsome motivation put forward by Christianity.  The way of Christ is not a reward or avoidance worldview.  Jesus and his followers did not come talking about something that could be earned from a God whose favor was still very much up in the air.  Christianity is based on a response motivation; we love because we were first loved, we obey because of what has already been given.  God’s mind was made up to work for our good long before we were even born, long before we even turn towards him.  I see a great difference in the very nature of God in these two depictions.  How about you?

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:10-11)