One might expect much more about the Prophet in this new surah named after him than actually occurs.  This surah derives its name from the mention of Muhammad in the second ayah:

God will overlook the faults of those who have faith, do good deeds, and believe in what has been sent down to Muhammad. (47:2)

Here again we see the way Islamic salvation is envisioned: God overlooks the sin of His followers.  This is fundamentally different from the atonement theology of Christianity.  And as we have hashed and rehashed on this blog already, that puts the triggering power of salvation squarely in the hands of the human, understanding of course that if Allah did not want to forgive there is nothing a human could do to cause it.  There is a sort of grace in the reality that Allah wants to save.

When you meet the disbelievers in battle, strike them in the neck, and once they are defeated, bind any captives firmly — later you can release them as a grace or for ransom — until the toils of war have ended. (47:4)

This new surah in a Medinan one, hence the context of battle.  Islam has institutionalized and been marginalized by the pagans of Mecca.  This tension has grown to conflict and even death.  Therefore, if the unbelievers come against the Muslims, they have every right to fight back even to the point of killing.  As we have noticed almost every time violence is sanctioned in the Qur’an, there is a context to the admonitions of violent resistance.  In most cases it is one of battle and self-defense.  Translator Haleem notes that some commentators make much of the fact that in this ayah “grace” is mentioned before “ransom,” implying that grace is the preference.

Here is a picture of the Garden promised to the pious: rivers of water forever pure, rivers of milk forever fresh, rivers of wine, a delight for those who drink, rivers of honey clarified and pure, [all] flow in it; and they will find forgiveness from their Lord.  How can this be compared to the fate of those stuck in the Fire, given boiling water to drink that tears their bowels? (47:15)

What a picturesque image of the contrasting destinies!  I wasn’t expecting the win, given the Muslim’s well-known prohibition on alcohol.  Still, so vivid!  Do most Muslims take images like these of the Afterlife literally or do most simply realize these are cultural, time-bound ways to depict desirable and undesirable fates?

So [believers] do not lose heart and cry out for peace.  It is you who have the upper hand: God is with you.  He will not begrudge you the reward for your [good] deeds: the life of this world is only a game, a pastime, but if you believe and are mindful of God, He will recompense you.  He does not ask you to give up [all] your possessions . . . though now you are called upon to give [a little] for the sake of God, some of you are grudging. (47:35-38)

The context of battle come out in the ending of this surah as well.  We do long for peace, don’t we?  There are many reasons for that.  The one taken up here is that conflict demands much from us.  Few really want to fight for their faith, especially literally.  Some might be willing to, but those who want to fight are scary individuals.  In this passage God does four things.  First, he reminds them that this world and the possessions and achievements who can accumulate are little more than trophies in a game; our worldly accumulations are not the point, so be careful how firmly you hang on to them.  Second, he reminds them that they will not have to give it all up, though they would have to if they died, wouldn’t they?  Third, he reminds them they have the upper hand because He is with them and not with the pagans.  Last, he reminds them there is a reward for their willingness to fight.  Fighting aside, faith will take sacrifice.  There is an easy version of religion that requires little from you.  It also gives you little in return.

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I struggle into a new surah today, “The Throngs.”  Struggle because I am getting busier and busier.  Struggle because I still feel like I am reading the same thing over and over again.  With just over three months left in this goal to read through the Qur’an before New Year, I am pressing on to finish the goal.

Here is what hit me from this new chapter:

[As for] those who choose other protectors beside Him, saying, “We only worship them because they bring us nearer to God,” . . . (39:3)

It appears at least some pagans saw their gods as part of pantheon of under-gods that ultimately lead to the real God.

If you are ungrateful, remember God has no need of you, yet He is not pleased by ingratitude in His servants; if you are grateful, He is pleased [to see] it in you. (39:7)

God does not need us.  However, he wants us and he shows this desire through His goodness.  When we are ungrateful, we are essentially saying to God, “We do not want you.”  Maybe that is more insulting, than to reject one who needs you.

No soul will bear another’s burden. (39:7)

By my count, a version of this line occurs five times in the Qur’an (6:164; 17:15; 35:18; 39:7; 53:38).  No one will be punished for the actions of another, that is what I hear this saying.  No wonder Muslims can’t get behind the substitutionary atonement/sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of humanity, the most basic Christian belief.  It transgresses the spirit of this recurring ayah.

When man suffers some affliction, he prays to his Lord and turns to Him, but once he has been granted a favor from God, he forgets the One he had been praying to and sets up rivals to God. (39:8)

I guess every religion has people who use their god to get them out of trouble.  Too bad!

Say, “I fear the torment of a terrible Day if I disobey my Lord.”  Say, “It is God I serve, dedicating my worship entirely to Him — you may serve whatever you please beside Him.”  Say, “The true losers are the ones who will lose themselves and their people on the Day of Resurrection: that is the most obvious loss.  They will have layers of Fire above them and below.”  This is how God puts fear into His servants: My servants, beware of Me.  (39:13-16)

Unless I just don’t understand the last line, this is directed to Allah’s servants, His people, not unbelievers.  It seems a bit harsh.  The Bible talks of a “fear of God” (Proverbs 1:7) that is more like respect or revere.  That is a bit different from fear-what-I-can-do-to-you, fear-the-Fire, do-this-or-else fear.  How does a passage like this play in modern, western societies?  Do American Muslims downplay these kind of prickly depictions of Allah?

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.