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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This surah ends by recounting how God stayed faithful to the children of Israel in Moses’ time, even forgiving them of their idolatry with the golden calf at Sinai when they repented.  In fact, this has always been God’s way as far back as Adam’s “idolatry” of his own power in the Garden (20:120).  God cannot stomach idolatry, but even this can be reversed by repentance.  This was an important message in Mecca in Muhammad’s time. 

Here’s a list of the top ten verses that stood out to me in today’s longer reading:

1.  Listen to the Qur’an“We have given you a Qur’an from Us.  Whoever turns away from it will bear on the Day of Resurrection a heavy burden and will remain under it.  What a terrible burden to carry on that Day!” (20:99-101)

2.  An Isaiah-like vision of the Day of the Lord: “They ask you [Prophet] about the mountains: say, ‘[On that Day] my Lord will blast them into dust and leave a flat plain, in it you will see no valley or hill.'” (20:105-107)

3.  Judged by our works: “Those burdened with evil deeds will despair, but whoever has done righteous deeds and believed need have no fear or injustice or deprivation.” (20:111-112)

4.  Give time for understanding before you speak: “[Prophet], do not rush to recite before the revelation is fully complete but say, ‘Lord, increase my knowledge!'” (20:114)

5.  God is looking for finishers: “We also commanded Adam before you, but he forgot and We found him lacking in constancy.” (20:115)

6.  Sounds tempting: “But Satan whispered to Adam, saying, ‘Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and power that never decays?'” (20:120)

7.  But nothing good comes from Satan: “Adam, this is your enemy, yours and your wife’s: do not let him drive you out of the garden and make you miserable.” (20:117)

8.  This sounds even better: “In the garden you will never go hungry, feel naked, be thirsty, or suffer the heat of the sun.” (20:118-119)

9.  Obedience frees: “Whoever follows My guidance, when it comes to you [people], will not go astray nor fall into misery.” (20:123)

10.  Good advice still today: “Do not gaze longingly at what We have given some of them to enjoy, the finery of this present life: We test them through this, but the provision of your Lord is better and more lasting.” (20:131)

“What happens at the end of time?” 

Two students at two different times today asked that same question.  We are very curious about that, aren’t we?  We want to nail the end down so we can make sure we do what we must.  It is kind of like going on a trip.  We start with the end in mind: we find our desired destination on the map than we work backwards to figure out the best way to get there.  If you believe that there is some sort of afterlife that is better than another, well, you figure out what to do to ensure you get to that better place. 

Yesterday, we saw that a life that rejects Allah, Muhammad, and the Qur’an is dangerous.  Today we come to further specifics about judgment according to the Qur’an.  Two points stand out. 

First, any time people could possibly be punished for the choices they make, it is easy to find fault with the one doing the punishing.  Injustice is an easy claim.  It seems that was in the air at the time this surah was written.  Twice, it states that people are “judged with justice” (10:47, 54).  One can ascribe a hard determinism to Allah as if people are damned without cause, as if He has predestined all to a set decision of faith and one must live that out.  Ayah 44 makes it clear that is not the case:

God does not wrong people at all — it is they who wrong themselves.

Allah’s judgments are based on the decisions of people themselves.  If a person is condemned, it is because of choices they have made.  As we put together a picture of how one is saved (if that is not too Christian a way to say that) in Islam, we must bear this in mind. 

Second, Allah extends grace and mercy to believers (10:58), but it appears the decision to do so is entirely based on the faithful obedience of the person.  Obedient people receive grace; the disobedient do not.  Is this grace?  Yes, in the sense that Allah has the right to punish but chooses not to (or maybe that is mercy).  This would appear to be a merited grace.  It is selective, based on the actions of the believer.  There is a degree to which the one receiving the grace deserves it more than one who does not.  Grace in this context is entirely responsive; it is always the second act.  This is not the grace that initiates obedience.  This is not the grace that comes when it is entirely undeserved.  This is not the grace extended to “enemies.”  This is the grace that waits until it is asked for.  Humans are the initiators of salvation in this equation.  Humans act, then Allah responds. 

That seems quite different from the grace that is found in the gospel of Jesus:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!  For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!  Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11)    

 

Today we come to the seventh surah entitled “The Heights” or “The Elevations.”  Abdel Haleem, the translator of my copy of the Qur’an says this surah gets its name from “the heights of the barrier which will divide the righteous from the damned on the Day of Judgment.”  Intriguing!  That will be some interesting topography! 

This is a Meccan surah again, so we should expect paganism to be the main opposition and Muhammad to still be somewhat tentative.  That, in fact, is what we see again in only the first few ayahs:

This Book has been sent down to you [Prophet] — let there be no anxiety in your heart because of it. (7:2)

The accounting of deeds mentioned yesterday is made even clearer today:

On that Day the weighing of deeds will be true and just: those whose good deeds are heavy on the scales will be the ones to prosper, and those whose good deeds are light will be the ones who have lost their souls through their wrongful rejection of Our messages. (7:8-9)

Next, we are re-introduced to Iblis.  Christians know him as Lucifer or simply Satan, a name that is used in this passage as well.  We have come today to the Qur’an’s near-identical account of what Christians typically call the “Fall,” though the Bible doesn’t actually use this term.

Adam and Eve from a copy of the Falnama, Iran, c.1550

In the Qur’an, the events in the Garden are actually preceded by a divine showdown of power.  God creates Adam from clay and commands the angels to bow before him.  Most do, but not Iblis and those with him.  Having been created from fire, Iblis claims simply, “I am better than him.”  God banishes the arrogant angel from the pure Garden, but before he goes Iblis whispers lies into Adam and Eve’s ears suggesting God is only preventing them from eating of “this tree” (it would seem the Tree of Life, though it is not called that here) because He wants to keep them subjugated and deprived of the immortality that could be their’s. 

Iblis

Today’s section ends with all three cast from the Garden and made to roam the earth.  Animosity will mark human interactions with Iblis, and the latter swears to take down as many of God’s cherished humans as possible.  God promises to fill Hell with Iblis and those who chose to follow him.

Again, we see immense overlap between the Bible and the Qur’an (though I know some question whether the Bible ever claims that Satan was once an angel).  By now this should come as no surprise.  Islam was not declaring itself to be a new religion; it was a continuation or, even better, a purification or “restoration” (as Glenn called it several weeks back in some comment) of the original story of God.

Here are the two ayahs I would like to focus on from today’s section, the last part of the “Livestock” or “Cattle” surah:

Whoever has done a good deed will have it ten times to his credit, but whoever has done a bad deed will be repaid only with its equivalent. (6:160)

Each soul is responsible for its own actions; no soul will bear the burden of another. (6:164)

Two of the handful of questions that all worldviews answer are: 1) What is humanity’s basic problem? and 2) What is the solution to humanity’s basic problem?  

All three of the Abrahamic religions answer the first question the same way: sin, though each defines sin in slightly different ways.  One of the biggest differences between Christianity and Islam (and all the other religions) is how each answers the second question.  A fundamental tenet of Christianity is that we are saved by the grace of God through faith in the atoning blood of Jesus (Ephesians 1:7, 2:8).  What does Islam teach about how one solves the problem of sin?   

First and foremost, one must believe sincerely in the One God (tawheed) and be totally devoted to him (islam).  This element alone can “seal the deal” or jeopardize one’s eternal destiny irreparably.   

Next, belief is validated through good deeds, the absence of which calls belief into question:

We [Allah] shall admit those who believe and do good deeds into Gardens graced with flowing streams, there to remain for ever. (4:122; c.f., 14:23)

It is said by Muslims that good deeds don’t merit a person a place in Paradise; that only comes through the mercy of God.  If this is the case, then this very similar to Christian grace.  (Note, though, that Christian depictions of the Islamic view of salvation more often describe it as a works-based system, the opposite to what has been stated here.)

Then, sin is forgiven when a person shows repentance.  But what is it that allows God to forgive sins?  What or who makes amends for sin?  This is where the greatest difference is seen between the Christian and Islamic views.  According to the Qur’an, we make amends for our sins (c.f., 5:89, 95).  That leads us back to the second of the two ayahs highlighted from today’s reading.  We are all responsible for our own sins and no one else can make amends for you (c.f., 39:7).  This is very different from the sacrifice of the Christian Savior. 

How do we make amends for our sins?  Socially, we may have to repay a debt.  Spiritually, we may have to do some sort of ritual.  Cosmically, we produce more good in our life than bad.  As we will see in the next surah, there will come a “great accounting” of our deeds on Judgment Day.  On that day it is hoped that our good outweighs our bad.  So in a sense, is salvation not up to us?  Do our deeds not determine some element of our destiny? 

Which leads us to the first ayah quoted at the beginning of this post.  God’s mercy is seen in the way he multiplies the number/weight/effect of the good deeds of believers.  This ayah talks about a 10:1 ratio, and those are some good odds! 

Let’s continue to collect more information from the Qur’an to flesh out the Islamic view of salvation.  I suspect we will find by the end of the year that this theme is a big one.

Two ideas hit me as I read today’s passage.  And I’m throwing in a third one just because it is too sensational not to! 

If you avoid the great sins you have been forbidden, We [royal “we” for God] shall wipe out your minor misdeeds and let you in [to Paradise] through the entrance of honor. (4:31)

He [God] doubles any good deed and gives a tremendous reward of His own. (4:40)

I am stashing these two ayahs away in my mental file cabinet under the category of “Islamic view of salvation.”  I have come into this study with the impression that Islam teaches one is saved by the grace of Allah but based on the good one has done.  Hence, we are talking about a merit-based version of “grace,” though merit and grace don’t seen to go together in my mind.  If God only extends grace to those who have been good enough to sway God in their favor, it seems like the deciding factor in salvation is human behavior, not the unmerited charity of God.  I have heard people explain it like a weighing balance.  Allah weighs our good deeds against our bad deeds and if the good deeds are heavier, then salvation is granted.  I am quite willing to be dispossessed of this view if it proves to be erroneous, but these two ayahs seem to support this conception of salvation.  In 4:31 we see a God who removes minor sins and in 4:40 we see One who doubles the good deeds, thus giving one more “weight.”  This does sound like the language you would use to describe a situation in which you are assessing good and bad against each other.

You who believe, do not come anywhere near the prayer . . . if you are in a state of major ritual impurity . . . not until you have bathed; if you are ill, on a journey, have relieved yourselves, or had intercourse, and cannot find water, then find some clean sand and wipe your faces and hands with it.  (4:43)

I have often seen depictions on television or in movies of Muslims washing their hands and faces thoroughly before they prayed.  Here is the instruction to do so.  Many Muslims wash their feet as well.  The reason is ritual impurity.  You meet God with cleanliness.  From a symbolic perspective, it makes perfect sense: you are reminding yourself of the utter holiness of God in which nothing and no one unclean can stand.  Some schools of thought include washing as a precursor to handling the Qur’an.  As someone who is particularly fond of physical symbols as concrete reminders of spiritual realities, I like the spirit of this practice.  What do you think? 

Washing Hands, Face and Feet before Prayer

One more:

We shall send those who reject Our revelations to the Fire.  When their skins have been burned away, We shall replace them with new ones so that they may continue to feel the pain. (4:56) 

Ouch!  Wow!

The first part of today’s section further supports what I have been taught about a works-based justification with God in Islam.  A soul is “paid in full for what it has done” (3:25) on the Day when all good deeds and bad deeds are laid out before the person (3:30).  Because God is merciful and loving, forgiveness is possible if one returns to a disposition of submission and obedience (3:32). 

What has not been explained thus far is why Allah has the right to forgive sins.  It seems so far that the answer lies in his sovereign power: Allah is the “holder of all control” (love that phrase!, 3:26) so if he wants to forgive a person’s sin, he can.  But what about justice?  The propitiatory element of sin (i.e., sin incurs a debt that has to be paid, a wrath that has to be sated) seems to be missing in what I have read so far.  Maybe in Muslim theology forgiveness does not require a sacrifice.  Maybe Allah is only looking for an attitudinal or dispositional change from rebellion to submission (islam).  That would fit with the “works” focus we have seen so far; we determine it all — sin, punishment, obedience and forgiveness.  I’m going to keep reading with this question in mind.  Please join me.     

The far more intriguing part of this passage is the latter part about Mary the mother of Jesus.  I wasn’t expecting to find her here!  It turns out Mary holds a very esteemed place in Islam (though certainly not like the reverence she has in Catholicism).  Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an; she even has a surah named after her.  She is actually discussed more in the Qur’an than in the New Testament. 

The story of Mary in the Qur’an starts with her birth, something not discussed in the Bible.  Mary’s father was ‘Imran (hence the name for the surah) and tradition says her mother was Hannah.  When Hannah was pregnant she dedicated her baby to God for service, foreseeably as a priest, but to her surprise her baby was a girl.  All of this foreshadows Mary’s special status as the mother of Jesus, who is conceived miraculously with no physical contact with a man.  Like the biblical account, Mary goes off to her cousin Elizabeth’s house where God provided for her every need while pregnant.  Elizabeth’s priest husband Zachariah is moved by God’s provision and the birth of John (as in “the Baptist”) is promised even though Elizabeth is old and barren.  Sounds a whole lot like the Bible.

Mary and the baby Jesus in Islamic Art

This section ends with some interesting descriptions of Jesus.  Even in Islam, Jesus is born of a virgin and no mention of a father is ever made.  However, nothing in this section suggests  Jesus is anything more than a miracle-baby.  He is a “second Adam” as Romans 5 says, but only in the sense that he was created supernaturally from dust not sexual reproduction like Adam (3:59).  Jesus is referred to as “a Word from Him [God],” not “the Word of God” (3:45), referring to the command from God that Jesus “Be” and “he was” (3:47, 59), not some sort of mystical logos/wisdom/order/God as Jesus in Christianity.  Jesus is the “Messiah” (3:45) but that only carries the same “anointed one” connotation it had when referring to the kings of the Old Testament.  The Qur’an says Jesus will be held in honor in this world and the next, and that he did miracles (including breathing life into a clay bird, something mentioned in apocryphal gospels but not the Bible), and confirmed the Torah and Gospel.  It is even said that those who follow Jesus will be held in greater favor with Allah than disbelievers (3:55).  This is a very high view of Jesus, but it is not divinity, is it?