In today’s short section we come to another passage that some could interpret as violent, though I will argue that to do so is to ignore the context and misinterpret. 

God will defend the believers; God does not love the unfaithful and ungrateful.  Those who have been attacked are permitted to take up arms because they have been wronged — God has the power to help them — those who have been driven unjustly from their homes only for saying, “Our Lord is God.”  If God did not repel some people by means of others, many monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, where God’s name is much invoked, would have been destroyed.  God is sure to help those who help His cause — God is strong and mighty. (22:38-40)

Note that it has been quite some time since we have seen a passage that could be taken as authorizing violence (see all past posts on this topic here).  Some modern Muslims’ version of Islam may in fact be aggressively violent, but I am not seeing that impulse in the Qur’an.  Certainly, it is not the pacifism of Jesus, but once again today we come to what I would call “justifiable self-defense,” not a mandate for armed jihad. 

Remember the context of this passage:

As for those who disbelieve and bar others from God’s path and from the Sacred Mosque. (22:25)

This is a Medinan surah.  Nascent Islam has been forced to move to Medina due to the persecution of the idolatrous Meccans.  Those Meccans are now barring the Muslims access to the most sacred of Mosques, the Ka’ba, in Mecca.  Now it seems that situation has escalated to the point where some pilgrims are being harassed and attacked. 

This passage does authorize violent response (22:39) in situations where the victim is being persecuted for his religion (22:40).  The victim’s response is to be measured and not exceed the level of aggression shown him (22:60).  The mention of “churches” and “synagogues” (22:40) also anchors this firmly in the immediate context of polytheism versus monotheism and precludes this passage from being applied to disputes between the Abrahamic religions. 

Ayah 40 makes clear the rationale for armed self-defense: if God’s people (in this passage defined as Jews, Christians, and Muslims) don’t defend themselves against aggression, the worship of God and the renown of His name would be lost.  Many of us take for granted the free exercise of religion.  This passage is about the of that privilege.  Notice that in this passage there is a context, premeditation, and aggressors.

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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)

Today we come to the third story in this surah, an interesting tale about Moses unlike anything we read in the Bible. 

Khidr

Moses is on a journey with a servant and maybe others as well.  He is to meet a wise teacher at the spot where “the  two seas meet,” which may mean the tip of the Sinai Peninsula where the Gulf of Aqabah and the Gulf of Suez join to form the Red Sea.  It appears they were to take a fish with them in some fashion where the fish would stay alive.  Moses would know he had come to the right place when the fish disappeared or escaped.  This happens and soon Moses meets the mysterious, unnamed teacher (Islamic tradition calls this man Khidr).  Moses pledges to follow the man and learn what he may, but the man warns Moses that he will have a hard time bearing with the man patiently and Moses is not to ask questions about anything until the man explains it in his own due time.  Moses agrees and off they go.     

As Moses and the man travelled on, they came to a boat and as they sailed the teacher drilled a hole in the hull causing it to take on water.  Moses cries out in confusing, wondering aloud why the man would do such a thing.  He is scolded by the man to not ask questions as Moses had promised.  Next, they happened upon a boy and without warning the man killed the boy.  Moses was shocked and cried out his bewilderment.  Again, the man warned Moses not to ask questions but to bear patiently with him.  Last, the two came to a town and asked for food but were refused.  In response to this lack of charity, the man saw a broken-down wall nearby and built it back up.  Beside himself, Moses again asked why the man did not seek recompense. 

At this the wise teacher announced that he and Moses would be parting ways.  As he had predicted, Moses was simply unable to bear patiently with the man.  Before they parted, though, the teacher took time to explain the three strange actions he had taken.  First, the damaged boat belonged to a poor couple who needed the boat to make a living but very shortly all intact boats would be seized by the king.  The damage would actually keep the couple from losing their boat for good.  Second, the boy was in fact headed to a lifestyle that would bring hardship on the parents, so by killing the boy the man had actually made way for the couple to have an obedient boy who would be a blessing to them.  Last, the wall that the man repaired belonged to man who had recently died but not before he buried a treasure under the wall intended for his sons when they reached maturity.  With the wall crumbling as it was, soon the treasure would be exposed and these inhospitable townspeople would take the treasure for themselves leaving the orphans to beg.  The wise teacher was honored the father’s intent and rescued the boys from destitution.       

Simply put, the message is a simple one: things are not always as they seem.  Abdullah Yusuf Ali says this about the ironic turnabouts at the end of this passage:

There are paradoxes in life: apparent loss may be real gain; apparent cruelty maybe real mercy; returning good for evil may really be justice and not generosity (18:79-82). God’s wisdom transcends all human calculation.

Can we walk with a faith that trusts the wisdom that leads us or are we too tied to our own judgment?  It will take discipline and patience.  We will have to restrain our tongue.  We will have to remain open-minded and humble.  We will have to seek after a source of wisdom, and then give ourselves to it.    

Bear in mind that this is Moses we are talking about.  Educated in the royal courts of Egypt, Moses was no country bumpkin.  This is the same Moses who had the wisdom to lead his people to the Promised Land.  Tradition also says he wrote the first five books of the Bible.  That Moses.  Even he did not possess all wisdom.  If Moses needed a humble spirit of submission, how much more do we?

This new Meccan surah promises to be an interesting one.  The synopsis in my translation indicates it is more narrative in nature.  I have noticed that the Qur’an does not use many stories; it is much more sermonic.  Because of that, I hate to say, it is a different and slightly more laborious form of literature than what most Westerners may prefer, as story-based as our culture is.

Before the surah launches into its first story, the first eight ayahs mention Allah is testing people’s hearts. What is it about the nature of Allah that requires a “test” to determine a person’s heart (18:7)?  Does He not know already?  Is this all one big game to Him?  Is the heart’s inclination not a reality until the event, thus it must take place?  I am hoping for the last option.

The Companions of the Cave

Next we have the story of the Companions or Sleepers of the Cave.  This is a most interesting story!  The tale, which certainly is told as a parable with a bigger point, tells of three or four or seven young men and a dog who are fleeing oppression at the hands of pagan worshipers and seek refuge in a north-facing cave.  God keeps them there undetected as if a wall had been built obscuring the cave and causes the youths to fall into a deep sleep.  They sleep for what seems like only hours or days but what turns out to be hundreds of years, maybe three or twelve hundred years or longer.  Hungry, they send one of the men down into the city to inconspicuously buy food.  However, his antiquated dress, speech and money draw attention. The people of the city, then, decide a great move of God has taken place at this cave and plan to build a place of worship there.  Then the people argue amongst themselves over the number of youths had been in the cave and for how long.

It turns out this story was originally Christian, not Islamic.  Commentator Abdullah Yusuf Ali states that the great chronicler of ancient Roman history Edward Gibbons first told the story in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Ali describes the original story this way:

The bare Christian story (without the spiritual lessons taught in the Qur’an) is told in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (end of chapter 33). In the reign of a Roman Emperor who persecuted the Christians, seven Christian youths of Ephesus left the town and hid themselves in a cave in a mountain near by. They fell asleep, and remained asleep for some generations or centuries. When the wall which sealed up the caves was being demolished, the youths awoke. They still thought of the world in which they had previously lived. They had no idea of the duration of time. But when one of them went to the town to purchase provisions, he found that the whole world had changed. The Christian religion, instead of being persecuted was fashionable: in fact it was now the State religion. His dress and speech, and the money which he brought, seemed to belong to another world. This attracted attention. The great ones of the land visited the Cave, and verified the tale by questioning the man’s Companions. When the story became very popular and circulated throughout the Roman Empire, we may well suppose that an Inscription was put up at the mouth of the Cave.

Ali opines that Christians would have posed this story to Muhammad at some point asking him to weigh in on how many youth had been in the cave and for how long as a way to discredit him.  Muhammad then takes the story and makes a larger, grander point from the story.

Kahf Al-Raqim, the cave today

The point now becomes that it is foolish to argue over the minor points of this all important story and miss the life-changing message of God hidden in this parable.  How long did they stay?  Only God knows (18:26)!  Restrain the hubris that makes you think you too can know the mind of God.  Much more important than “how many?” or “how long?” is that God did protect the youth from death and awaken them again to a life that was safer and better than what it had been when they fell asleep.  It is like they were living a whole new life.  As you can guess, the original Christian story was taken as an analogy about Resurrection.  At least some Muslims take the story the same way as well, as is clear from Abdel Haleem’s translation of ayah 21:

In this way We brought them to people’s attention so that they might know that God’s promise [of resurrection] is true and that there is no doubt about the Last Hour, [though] people argue among themselves.

From an artistic and literary point of view, this story is superb!  It is also a truly great message for religious people to bear in mind!  We have a God who will protect us through oppressive times, who will make death seem only like a night’s sleep, and who will raise us again to a life superior to what we now know.  In the mean time, embrace a “generous orthodoxy” that allows for varying views of the minor points of the story, hanging on firmly to the main point.

Terry Jones, the infamous pastor from Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, FL, burned a Qur’an last week as he had threatened to do six months ago.  Now, this week seven UN forces and nine protestors died in violent clashes in northern Afghanistan as Muslims decried the desecration of their Holy Scriptures.  A copy of the Qur’an is not be destroyed, let alone burned in disrespect.  Find the details of the story here.   

Hatred only breeds more hatred.  Violence — whether killing a person or destroying what someone deems to be sacred — births more violence.  Destruction brings destruction.  And, as happened here, the response is usually worse than the first offense.   

This is all very sad.  Jones made an ideological stand (or was it a grab for attention?) and people died.  Families in Nepal, Sweden, Norway, Romania, and Afghanistan no longer have a loved one.  And the demonstrations continue.  Will Islamic extremists only use this to enlist further fighters to stop the flow of democracy, dignity and freedom to Afghanistan?  Pathetic.  Is Islam somehow discredited by the burning of a Qur’an?  If anything, one more professed Christian has further discredited the name of Jesus.  Unconscionable.

This blog was actually started in response to Terry Jones, at least in part.  Check out my very first post for more details.  Rather than burning a Qur’an, buying one and reading it sounded like a much more productive (and maybe even Christ-like) response to the growth and radicalization of Islam.  Misconceptions can be corrected by actually reading the Qur’an.  To be heard, it might help to listen first.  Respect is shown, even if in the end I cannot agree. 

I hope Terry Jones sees the ramifications of his actions, though as of Saturday morning he had not.  He was quoted as saying he feels no responsibility for the deaths in Afghanistan, blaming the extremist elements of Islam instead.  I hope his heart melts and sees that he too is acting in the extreme.  I hope others will see this as well and find a better way.  Meanwhile the dead are buried.  And so too, maybe, the possibility that Jesus will ever become attractive to those affected. 

Controversial Florida Pastor Terry Jones

Had it not been for the devastating earthquake in Japan, the top news story this week would have been the congressional hearings U.S. Representative Peter King (R-NY) has started regarding the home-grown threat of radical Islam in America.  Is Islam an inherently violent religion?  Does the insularity some Muslims have chosen as a way of life in America  actually encouraged radicalization?  Are we painting with too broad a brush to say Muslims are resistant to American culture and therefore inclined towards exclusion and even antagonism?  These are all excellent questions, though I am not sure turning them into a congressional hearing is healthy, nor all the rhetoric that inevitably goes with it. 

Meanwhile two Tennessean legislators have authored a bill recommending that Islamic shariah law be outlawed in this great state.  To be more precise, the bill states that people who choose to follow shariah law in their own life will be charged with a felony.  The premise is that as America becomes more and more Islamic there may come a day where Islam is the dominant religion and people will lobby to have shariah law replace the established law code of Tennessee.  A similar law has already been passed in Oklahoma.

Shariah law is the ethical code for life established through centuries of interpretation and legal rulings by a long line of Muslim scholars and jurists.  Shariah guides the Muslim on what to eat, what to wear, how to relate to others, how to maintain a high degree of purity, how to worship, what behaviors are immoral, and how to punish trespasses.  Shariah literally means the “way” or “path” for life. 

Yes, shariah law is what dictates that women caught in adultery are to be stoned and people caught stealing are to lose a hand.  However, these kinds of laws only account for 5% of shariah.  And, no, shariah law does not dictate “jihad” or holy war against unbelievers, as some suppose.   

This past weekend my local newspaper, The Commercial-Appeal (which has begun to be more intentional about reporting on religion), featured several stories on Islam and shariah law.  Let me draw your attention to several very good articles:

  • Check out this article by David Waters, the main religion writer, in which he heralds a group of Christians and a group of Muslims who have come together now for six weeks to talk about the other’s religion.  Waters contrasts this generous act aimed at understanding with the “absurd” law proposed in Nashville. 
  • Chris Peck, the paper’s editor, writes this editorial in which he looks at the proposed Tennessee law through the lens of the U.S. Constitution’s freedom to exercise religion and the establishment clause forbidding the institutionalization of religious law like shariah.  He makes me wonder whether this law is even necessary.  If it is not, then it only serves to alienate all Muslims, as the terrorists desire. 
  • The newspaper has set up a council of 25 religious leaders in Memphis to answer a question of religious significance each week.  This week’s was: “Are you concerned about legislative efforts to question or restrict Islamic practices?”  Check out any of the responses, most if not all of which are critical of the bill.  Let me call your attention to these three in particular:
    • Here is an excellent, first-hand response from a shariah-following Muslim scholar from Memphis, Yasir Qadhi.  I am most taken by his claim that the shariah most people talk about in America bears little resemblance to the shariah law he follows each day.  I am especially persuaded by his argument that while this law is certainly anti-Muslim it is also anti-American. 
    • Check out this response from Nabil Baykaly, another Memphis Muslim leader.  He sheds further light on the topic from an islamic point of view.   
    • Here is my friend Chris Altrock’s response.  I find it very Christ-like. 
  • Last, check out this video of Memphis Muslims praying, a religious practice guided by shariah law.      

Now, I am curious what you think. 

I will be taking several days off of blogging later this week again (I will be back strong and consistent the next week), so you might want to read through some of the linked articles later in the week.

A couple of you mentioned being behind in your reading of the Qur’an, so here is a day to catch up if you are trying to do that!  No new reading for today (which I need too). 

A lot of what we have been reading recently has to do with how Muslims are to relate to Jews and Christians.  This news story carries the debate out of the Qur’an and into the streets of my hometown. 

Members of the Memphis Islamic Center pray at Heartsong Church in Cordova while their mosque is under construction. (Nikki Boertman/The Commercial Appeal)

Past (and future?) presidential candidate Mike Huckabee castigates Christians, including one church here in Memphis, who open their church buildings to Muslims in which to worship while they build mosques.  Check out the video here .

On the entirely opposite end of the spectrum is this article from the USA Today about this same act of hospitality in Memphis, and this article from David Waters, a local religion reporter on this same Muslim community.  Or check out the video on this site from a Memphis news channel. 

What do you think?