This new surah, “The Ranged Ones” or “Ranged in Rows,” (shorter than it appears from the number of ayahs) refers to the collection of angels (or men, depending on your interpretation) arranged in ranked rows ready to serve God in the way he most immediately needs.  Angels factor into this surah a few times.  These are the passages that stood out to me.

We have adorned the lowest heaven with stars, and made them a safeguard against every rebellious devil: they cannot eavesdrop on the Higher Assembly — pelted from every side, driven away, they will have perpetual torment — if any [of them] stealthily snatches away a fragment, he will be pursued by a piercing flame. (37:6-10)

This is an interesting take on spiritual warfare.  It appears the stars in this passage are animated in some way.  And I wonder if the pelting of the devils here has anything to do with the “stoning of Satan” that is a part of the Hajj?

[God’s true servants] will have familiar provisions — fruits — and will be honored in gardens of delight; seated on couches, facing one another.  A drink will be passed around among them from a flowing spring: white, delicious to those who taste it, causing no headiness or intoxication.  With them will be spouses — modest of gaze and beautiful of eye — like protected eggs. (37:41-49)

Here we have some new images of Paradise.  Couches, I guess, connote comfort.  This white, non-alcoholic drink is interesting.  Again, we see the male-centeredness of this description in that it is beautiful women that are mentioned.

Then he [a man in heaven] will say, “Shall we look for him [a friend]?”  He will look down and see him in the midst of the Fire, and say to him, “By God, you almost brought me to ruin!  Had it not been for the grace of my Lord, I too would have been taken to Hell.” (37:55-57)

What is the “grace” this man receives here?  Is it protecting him from the influence of his friend?  Is this Islamic grace: help to the person who still has the make the decisions and exercise his own power to obey?

Then he will say [to his blessed companions], “Are we never to die again after our earlier death?  Shall we never suffer?  This truly is the supreme triumph!” (37:58-60)

This reminds me of 1 Corinthians 15:51-57

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.  When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

 “Where, O death, is your victory?
   Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

But I have to ask again, where is the evidence that Allah can resurrect?  Compare that to the Christian claim that God can resurrect as shown through the already-manifested resurrection of Jesus.

Is this the better welcome, or the tree of Zaqqum, which We have made a test for the evildoers?  This tree grows in the heart of the blazing Fire, and its fruits are like the devil’s heads.  They will fill their bellies eating from it; then drink a scalding mixture of top of it; then return to the blazing Fire. (37:62-68)

What is this tree?  It sounds almost like the opposite of the Tree of Life.  Commentator Ali says that is exactly right, the point being that “the appetite for Evil grows with what it feeds on.”

Now [Muhammad], ask the disbelievers: is it true that your Lord has daughters, while they chose sons for themselves?  Did We create the angels as females while they were watching?  No indeed!  It is one of their lies when they say, “God has begotten.”  How they lie! (37:149-52)

There was a pagan Arab idea that angels were Allah’s daughters.  The insult of this claim was that those same Arab man preferred to only have sons themselves, to the point that female infanticide was known to occur.  Hence, Allah is painted in an inferior manner than a man would want to be seen himself.

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 rest of this surah waxes sermonically about battle and the spoils of war.  I haven’t found a good overall point, so I offer these select verses as some that stood out in context: 

If you had an appointment to fight, you would have failed to keep it [but the battle took place] so that God might bring about something already ordained. (8:42)

This is a good reminder that plan as we might, there are divine plans that outweigh our own.  Ultimately, we are not in control. 

Remember when God made you [Prophet] see them [opponents] in your sleep as few: if He had shown them to you as many, you would certainly have lost heart and argued about it, but God saved you. (8:43)

What a novel thought!  God might even change the perception of a situation to ensure his plan is done.  Interesting idea! 

Believers, when you meet a force in battle, stand firm and keep God firmly in mind, so that you may prosper. (8:45)

That is such good advice!  Challenges do seem easier to tackle when God is firmly in mind.  Of course, keeping God there when staring at some death-dealing force is hard! 

Do not quarrel with one another, or you may lose heart and your spirit may desert you. (8:46)

How true!  A united force can stand against innumerable opponents, but as soon we start to fight with ourselves the battle is half over. 

Satan made their [the boastful] foul deeds seem fair to them, and said, “No one will conquer you today, for I will be right beside you,” but when the armies came within sight of one another he turned on his heels, saying, “This is where I leave you: I see what you do not, and I fear God: God is severe in His punishment.” (8:48)

I find this ayah so ironic.  Satan is the master of lies, but he can also see and tell the truth like no other!  Satan knows his schemes are doomed, and he will be the first to extricate himself from a sticky situation.

Whatever you give in God’s cause will be repaid to you in full, and you will not be wronged. (8:60)

That kind of makes arguing over the spoils of battle a bit superfluous, doesn’t it?

Prophet, urge the believers to fight: if there are twenty of you who are steadfast, they will overcome two hundred, and a hundred of you, if steadfast, will overcome a thousand of the disbelievers, for they are people who do not understand. (8:65)

How do you factor in divine help to strategic planning?  When God is involved, much more is possible than we “ask or imagine.”

You [people] desire the transient goods of this world, but God desires the Hereafter [for you]. (8:67)

So no wonder they fought over the spoils!

Instead, be content:

So enjoy in a good and lawful manner the things you have gained in war and be mindful of God. (8:69)

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.

Ayah 23 gets to the root of why I have started this blog:

If you have doubts about the revelation [of the Qur’an] We [Allah] have sent down to Our servant [Muhammad], then produce a single surah like it — enlist whatever supporters you have other than God — if you truly think you can.

That seems like a fair claim.  If you are going to dismiss the Qur’an, then read it and do some comparison.  Christians would say the same about the Bible.  That is why it is important to me to read this alongside the Bible, and to flow between the two.  How does the Bible and the vision it has for the world compare?  Allah has invited us to do so.   

This section of the second surah sounds like a creation story of sorts, and maybe that is what it is.  Its more sermonic than narrative.  God the maker and sustainer, all-powerful and all-knowing, creates this world and the seven heavens and, therefore, surely deserves worship from his creatures.  Then along comes a prideful angel named Iblis (also called Satan or Shaytan) who leads Adam and his wife astray to eat the forbidden fruit.  They are cast out but not before “the Ever Relenting, the Most Merciful” God accepts Adam’s repentance.  (Notice, mercy follows repentance.)  Sounds familiar, but we need to remember that Muslims are supersessionists — they don’t claim a new story; they claim their understanding of the same Jewish and then Christian story of history is the unadulterated, truthful one.  So of course it is the same basic story.

Muhammad in Paradise during his Night Vision

In the middle of this description of creation is an equally vivid picture of Paradise or simply the Garden (lush, watered gardens of delight and purity).  Quickly paired with the question of how one could dream of ignoring the One who creates is how one could ignore the One who resurrects and returns the believer to Himself.  Are we talking about creation or resurrection, the beginning or the end?  Yes.  Both.  I like the way the reader, caught in the middle of fallen time, is taken back to the perfect beginning and forward to the glorious end simultaneously. 

Today at teacher inservice, a friend rehearsed for us the mind-blowing, soul-thrilling story of Creation, Fall, and Re-Creation.  For Christians this is our metanarrative, our “grand story,” the warp and woof of life, the pulse that underlies every breath.  Re-Creation is there in Genesis as well:

I will put enmity between you [serpent] and the woman, and between your offspring and hers [Messianic?]; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:15)

We do well to remember in those fleeting Creation moments of life when all is right with the world that there is a Re-Creation that makes the ethereal ever real.  In the sting and stench of Fall we must hang on the delight and purity of Re-Creation.  In Life there is Death, but in Death there is Life. 

In what part of your life do you need to hear that Re-Creation is as sure as Creation?