This will almost certainly be the last post of this blog.  I pledged last Christmas to read the Qur’an closely in a year, discovering for myself as much as the book could teach me about Islam.  I was tired of hearing what others had to say about Islam, others who often were uninformed and loaded with an agenda that was anything but charitable to people different from themselves.  Also, I had been teaching a sizable unit in my 12th grade religion class on world religions for a few years but had not read the sacred texts of the religions I was discussing, and I thought it was time to rectify that.  Cultural events in America as a whole, in Tennessee, and even in Memphis caused me to see more and more of an anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Muslim sentiment, and it was time to see if there was anything to the fears I was hearing.

Now, just a few weeks past a year, I come to the end of the Qur’an, and therefore this blog.  It has been a good project.  Tough at times.  Several things happened personally (like a tree falling on my house!) and I found even just finding a half-hour to read and blog was impossible some days.  I am very glad I did this.  I believe I am a much better informed citizen of the world.  I also found that I have gained a greater appreciation for my own religion, Christianity; sometimes seeing what you have in contrast does that.  And who knows, maybe I have started a friendship or two.  At least one of you who reads this blog and is a Muslim has migrated over to my new year-long project, reading through the Christian New Testament again (see kingdomnewtestament.wordpress.com if you are interested).

A few times throughout the year as my Christian friends discovered this project, they asked what I have learned.  I would mention a few things, but really I have 180+ posts of realizations.  Still, it might be helpful for me to mention a few items that really stand out to me here as we wind this project up:

Muslims are people too:  This one seems like such a given that it shouldn’t need to be said, but it does.  If we would just take the time to actually get to know and talk with people who are different from us, we would find there is less difference than we think and so much room for kindness.  No, we are not all the same in our beliefs.  Yes, there are mutually exclusive ideas in various religions.  But the real point here is that Muslims are humans, not just a religion or a set of beliefs.  Muslims tuck their little daughters and sons into bed at night too.  They struggle with how to honor God in all they do; “struggle” is what the name of the religion means.  They fret about having enough to pay the bills, but not so much that money becomes an idol or “partner” with God.  They passionately desire the best for the world, they just define this slightly differently than others.  I am convinced though the solution is not to vilify or caricature all Muslims as terrorists.  Nothing will be gained from grabbing our kids close when Muslims walk by or develop a political platform that makes tax-paying, law-abiding, freedom-loving American Muslims feel marginalized in our society.  Get to know a Muslim and see what happens.

Keep reading:  Maybe my biggest realization came about halfway through the year when Muslims began to find and comment on this blog.  What I discovered is that if I really wanted to understand Islam, reading the Qur’an is only the beginning.  In fact, I am wondering now if I have read more of the Qur’an than some Muslims I have talked to this year (not the clearly learned Muslims who were kind enough to take a lot of time to educate me about their religion).  I was mistaken when I thought the Qur’an would unlock a thorough understanding of Islam.  I would say now that if one really wants to understand this esteemed religion one would be best served by reading the Hadith, the traditions and sayings of Muhammad that have been collected since his death.  Then pick up the Sunnah, the code for living in this world as a Muslim.  But that is far more reading and study than I am willing to commit to a religion other than my own.

Culture plays a bigger role in modern Islam than a text:  This is my hunch, though I am sure more learned people than I would say the same thing.  I have been struck by how American Muslims respond differently to my queries than Asian Muslims.  I noticed that the 1400 year old Qur’an approaches topics differently than commentators did a 100 years ago and that the translator and commentator of my translation from the 21st century had an even different take.  Time shapes thinking too.  I have noticed that empowered male Muslims speak differently about their religion than do women who are speaking out now about their religion.  And what about subjugated women who fear speaking out at all?  There is no surprise here; texts are infinitely interpretable.  We play a part in determining what a text means and an even bigger role in how a text is lived.  It would be nice to believe the Qur’an (or Bible) just means what it says, but there is logically and observably more to the equation than that.  I suspect 9/11 was driven by politics and cultural ideology more than religion.  I was struck by how few truly offensive passages I came to in the Qur’an.  I think the ugliness non-Muslims so often associate with Islam has more to do with what happens when a text gets into the hands of a cleric or charismatic leader with political or ideological aspirations, not what Allah meant in the Qur’an (if you believe the Qur’an is the words of Allah).

No, they are not out to get us:  Unfortunately, the common perception of Muslims in America is that Muslims want to kill non-Muslims.  There are few months when a student does not say as much, but we can dismiss this as adolescence.  But where are they getting this view?  Parents?  Television depictions?  Talk-show hosts?  Political candidates?  Religious leaders?  Sadly, some of all of the above.  Of course, my attention was most drawn to those passages that dealt with violence.  Maybe my greatest observation here is truly how few of these passages there are, especially in the more so Meccan last half of the Qur’an.  Then, I was reminded that, just like the Bible, these passages have to be taken in context.  All of them pertained to issues in 7th century Arabia, mainly involving aggressive pagans and a few cases of attacking Christians or Jews.  Generally, I do believe it is right to depict the condoning of violence in the Qur’an as self-defense.  I have no doubt, however, that even in the time of Muhammad this ideal degraded into more than self-defense; dealing with violence with more violence will do that.

Yet, some of them are:  It would be naive and irresponsible to ignore the fact that there are Muslims today who cite their religion as grounds for their violent attacks on non-Muslims, Christians and Jews especially.  Yes, there do seem to be some Muslims who do believe America is the “Great Satan,” though I still think we ought to ask why?  As I see it this goes back to the very same violent texts mentioned above.  As long as you have ayahs like these in the Qur’an — “Fighting has been ordained for you” (2:216) and “Kill them wherever you encounter them” (2:191) — you will have people who come along, regardless of context, and make these texts support their murderous agendas.  Is the Qur’an a violent book?  I don’t think so.  Can it be?  Absolutely!  Again, I think this has more to do with politics and ideology than religion.

Women get a mixed bag:  Is Islam inherently a misogynistic religion that subjugates women?  Like my observations about violence above, it depends on who you are talking to.  Are there passages that can be taken as demeaning to women?  Yes (4:34-35).  But there are also passages that are very protective of women, especially in cases of divorce.  Does polygamy have to be seen as demeaning to women?  No, but it can easily turn into that.  Are hijabs and burqahs prisons into which women are locked?  If you have a forceful husband who is used to getting his way and maybe has a jealous streak, sure they can be.  But they can also be incredibly empowering when they are the way a woman says she will control who can gaze upon her beauty and potentially turn her into a sexual object.  Again, I think the answer here has less to do with religion and more with personality, culture, and situations.  I suspect an American, Canadian, or British Muslim woman experiences a very different life than a young Muslim woman in parts of Iran, Afghanistan or India.

Islam gets so much so right:  In part it is because Islam is still eastern and tied to honor societies in contrast to western Christianity that seems to be driven more so by success, progress, and love, but I am struck by the respect accorded Allah in the Qur’an and in Muslim society.  This is a stark contrast to popular American Christianity-lite where “Jesus is my homeboy” or where we think the first thing we will do in Heaven is give God a hug.  The expectations placed on a worshiper of Allah are clear and high: be truly committed, no turning back, give it all or don’t bother.  The choices in life are simple and clear: Paradise or Hellfire.  Two paths to choose from, which one will it be?  Along that line, one’s eternal destiny is constantly before one as they read their Qur’an.  I would hazard to guess that Judgment and the afterlife are mentioned in at least 90% of the surahs.  People have a responsibility to care about and care for the weak and needy of our society.  Religion is intended to be embodied in flesh.  We do religion; it is lived.  Think about the five pillars of Islam: statement of belief, prayer, fasting, alms, and pilgrimage.  All of these pillars which “hold up” the religion are actions one does.  One doesn’t just believe Islam.  One does it.  I find much of this admirable.

Still, there is something missing — Jesus:  Unapologetically, I acknowledge that I am understanding Islam in contrast to my Christianity.  So many times this year I felt like Islam came close to the high ideals of Christianity, but then fell short, in large part because of how Jesus is viewed in each religion.  Let there be no doubt, Islam has a high view of Jesus.  He is a great prophet.  The honor he is given in this life and the next are great.  But he is no god in Islam; that would be blasphemous.  So what is missing when Jesus is not God?  Allah just does not come off as being as personal or immanent a god as the God of the Bible is.  Christians can say they are seeing God when they look at Jesus.  Christians believe Jesus reveals the heart and actions of God.  Christians can say their God has given them a flesh-and-blood example of how to live life, Jesus.  Furthermore, when Jesus leaves the earth after his resurrection he sends the Holy Spirit, who Christians believe is the very presence of God.  This Holy Spirit lives inside Christians, making us holy and guiding us through life.  Christians believe a part of their God lives inside of them.  I see none of this in the Qur’an.  Allah did not even speak to Muhammad himself.  Maybe the biggest nut I have tried to crack this year is the difference between Islamic and Christian views on grace.  Does Islam speak of grace and mercy?  Almost every surah starts by calling Allah the “Lord and Giver of Mercy.”  Do humans deserve to be saved from Hell, according to Islam?  No.  Is there any human who can be perfect enough to be deemed righteous in Allah’s eyes?  No.  Are there countless numbers of blessings that come to humans everyday because of Allah’s grace that we simply do not deserve?  Yes.  It is certainly appropriate to speak of grace in Islam.  But it is a fundamentally different kind than what you find in Christianity.  Muslims must live their whole life hoping for grace, while Christians know at their baptism that they have already received that grace because of the cross of Christ.  Muslims spend a life living in such a way as to be worthy of grace with a hope of salvation in the end.  Christians spend a life living in gratitude for a gracious salvation already given, knowing they never can do enough to be worthy of it.  No Christian would want their deeds weighed on a scale at the end of life, because we know we can’t be good enough and we also know God considers any sin to be too much.  As much as I have tried to understand both what I have read in the Qur’an and what the Muslims on this blog have share with me, I simply can’t get past the feeling that Muslims are trying to earn something.  Lastly, with the minimization of Jesus, there is a loss of his reordering of love, power, and success.  The first shall be last.  You gain your life by laying it down.  Blessed are you when you are persecuted.  Turn the cheek.  Repay good for evil.  Overcome evil with good.  Jesus saw life entirely different from conventional men.  No surprise there, he is God and was visiting our world from the world that is to come.  He was inviting us to help bring this new kind of life into this world and hasten the new creation.  This especially meant that we would see love, power, and success differently.  I am afraid that as I read the Qur’an I just heard much of the same ole story humans have always told: my side is better than yours so become like us and avoid the unpleasantness that comes to our enemies who fail to exercise self-control and pull themselves up by their own boot-straps.  This is still one big self-improvement project, though Allah is both more involved and real than Karma or Fate.  Yes, he gives a book to help, so read it and know it and follow it well.  It seems Jesus offers the world something you can’t find anywhere else.  Of course, I do not mean to be offensive in this last observation.

My final point is an obvious one: I am not a Muslim, nor a particularly well-informed scholar of Islam either.  These are the thoughts of an honest seeker of truth after a year of earnest reading and thought.  I am sure I am biased (who is not?).  I am sure I don’t understand things completely (watch the comments on this one for rebuttals).  However, let it not be said that I did not try to understand Islam for myself.  But also don’t let this blog be your last word on this prodigious religion.

Peace, shalom, salam.

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How do we treat the “others” in our life, that is, people who are not like us?  This is a perennial question that all people must ask in life, regardless of religion or philosophy.  That is the question taken up here in this new surah, in particular how do people from one religion treat those who are not a part of their religion?

The first ayah sounds rather exclusionary:

You who believe, do not take My [Allah] enemies and yours as allies, showing them friendship when they have rejected the truth you have received, and have driven you and the Messenger out simply because you believe in God, your Lord. (60:1)

Later we read this:

God forbids you to take as allies those who have fought against you for your faith, driven you out of your homes, and helped others to drive you out: any of you who take them as allies will truly be wrongdoers. (60:9)

There are certainly other sentiments in the surah that carry the same connotation.  Do not value family connections more than God; Abraham didn’t (60:3-4).  Be careful about your marital arrangements.  Do not make unbelieving wives  stay with you if they wish to return from Medina to Mecca (60:11).  Do not bar a Meccan woman from marrying into your religion if she truly wishes to convert (60:10).  The overall point is simple: faith trumps and potentially nullifies all other connections.      

As friends learn about this blog and ask questions about what I am doing here and why, especially (like learning about the second largest and some say fastest growing religion is a bad thing?), I sometimes get the same one question: “I just want to know are Muslims out to get us?”  It is an honest question, I guess.  I do wonder who the “us” is.  While I am normally being asked by Christians, I suspect they mean Americans. 

So if one wanted to emphasize passages like these mentioned above, yes, I can see how Muslims would place distance between themselves and “others.”  In the wrong conditions and in the hands of a person who wanted to exploit otherness for their own power, this could become a threat to non-Muslims.  To be fair, I can also see that passages like these could be used by islamophobic non-Muslims to foster fear and prejudice against Muslims. 

Then, right here in the middle of this same chapter is a passage that turns all of this on its ear:

God may still bring about affection between you and your [present enemies]–God is all powerful, God is most forgiving and merciful–and He does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you for your faith or driven you out of your homes: God loves the just. (60:7-8)

The issue, then, appears to be how the “other” has previously treated the Muslim.  Just and kind people are to be treated in the same fashion.  If a person is not a direct threat to the freedom and faith of a Muslim, that person does not need to be opposed.  If a non-Muslim has not been a threat to the Muslim, they need not worry. 

So, in theory, the answer to my friends’ questions is a simple one: if we have done nothing to threaten Muslims, then we have nothing to fear from Muslims.  And in every interaction I have ever had with individual Muslims in North America, this has exactly been the case.  Mutual respect and kindness abounded. 

But we are back to who the “us” is in their questions.  If “us” means that non-Muslim and their family who live down the street from Muslims or a mosque, let kindness and just reign and fear can be assuaged.  If ” us” means Chrsitians, that becomes more complicated; but if we operate by the spirit of Christ that is marked by kindness and justice, we can have hope I believe.  However if “us” means Americans as it so often does, I am far less certain.  Has America done things and maintained policies that can be perceived of antagonistic to Islam?  Well, I guess it depends of whom you ask.

My friend and former teacher John Mark Hicks has written a very nice review of Lee Camp’s new book on Christian-Muslim relations, “Who is My Enemy? Questions American Christians Must Face about Islam — and Themselves.”  Camp is a professor of theology and ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN, a very fine school connected with my religious tradition.

Camp especially brings up the topic of violence and war, and places this thorny issue in a wider context that Christians will find both helpful and confrontational.  This one is probably more for the Christians who are reading this blog, but all can find something interesting I think.

Check out Hicks’s review here.

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.

Strike the adulteress and the adulterer one hundred times.  Do not let compassion for them keep you from carrying out God’s law — if you believe in God and the Last Day. (24:2)

Ouch!

There can be no doubt that Islam takes sexual immorality seriously.  The word used in this ayah for sexual sin connotes any extramarital sexual activity, including sexual relations between unmarried people.  Notice that the punishment is supposed to be equally shared by both offenders, regardless of gender.  Translator Abdel Haleem says the strikes were to be “on the skin” and Islamic tradition shows this was originally done with the hand, clothes, shoes, or a belt.

I am afraid its passages like these that make people say Islam is a violent religion, especially the “don’t be compassionate” part.  And definitely it should be said at this point that there are stories all over the Internet of people who identify themselves as Muslims who do take dictates like these and use them as justification for the mob killing or honor killing of people caught in sexual sin.  Often the woman suffers even worse.  Out of respect for my Muslim friends who surely would not let sexual indiscretion become an excuse for violence of an animalistic nature, I will not link to any such articles.

Certainly there is nothing godly about using a person’s sin as an excuse for uncorking the plug that holds back our most base violent impulses.  However.  It should be remembered that God’s people are to be a people of holiness.  We stand for purity and honor, even in a culture like many of us live in today that views sexual sin as unavoidable, common, and excusable.  And, dare I remind us, Christians and Jews should remember there are similar commands in our Bible too (c.f., ).

Maybe the most important point for those who find passages like this one and make a case for the depravity of Islam is that the quote above is only a partial quote.  Ayah 2 continues:

. . . and ensure that a group of believers witnesses the punishment.

The hope seems to be that the public nature of punishment will encourage honesty and self-control.  So lighting one’s daughter or sister on fire in the hiddeness of one’s own kitchen and calling it an unfortunate cooking accident (as is happening in the rare instances of “honor killings” in parts of North America and Europe — no I won’t link to these either, out of respect) is absolutely outside of the spirit of this passage.

Ayah 4 adds that the charge of fornication requires four witnesses.  One can’t simply trump up charges against a person.  Given the private nature of sexual activity, four witnesses is actually a high demand, further evidence that the intention is to maintain justice and truth.  In fact, an accuser who cannot produce four witnesses will have his case thrown out and he will suffer 4/5ths of the punishment (80 strikes) he was seeking for the others.

As with all texts, it is imperative that we remember the broader context of the passage.  This entire section of this new Medinan surah named “Light” focuses on the need to be just in one’s punishment, in particular to ensure that all accusations are corroborated by the required number of witnesses.  The thrust of this passage is actually towards justice not away from it, as dragging a woman into the city streets upon her father’s word that his daughter has been indecent in her relationship with her boyfriend and stoning her with fury and bloodlust would be.

Islamic tradition tells us that Muhammad had personal experience with this topic and that seems to be the impetus for what is written here.  On the return from an expedition to Banu al-Mustaliq, the Prophet’s wife `A’isha had backtracked in search of a necklace she had dropped.  Soon a nomad named Safwan happened upon her.  Placing her on his camel, Safwan reunited her with her husband.  However, a man and a woman traveling through the desert alone only gave some a ripe opportunity to cast dispersions on `A’isha’s moral character (24:11).  Apparently this rumor developed some traction (24:12).  Today’s passage chides those who would believe and even pass on such accusations without the required corroboration (24:13ff).  Such is not just nor fitting of holy people.

No doubt, sexual purity is a must for those who wish to see God.  But so too is truthfulness and justice.

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.

The main point of attention in the Qur’an thus far has been what one believes.  “There is no God except Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.”  This is called the shahadah, the statement of faith, the first of five pillars of Islam.  It is a part of the daily prayers of a Muslim, it is what one would publicly recite to convert to Islam, and it is the backbone to the entire Islamic belief system. 

The Shahadah in Arabic

It is wise to place emphasis on belief.  Our behavior is generated and shaped by our beliefs.  Change beliefs and you are on the road to a transformed way of living too.  To some degree at least, we are “believers” before we are anything else, the main term the Qur’an has been using for people. 

But believers eventually must act.  How is a Muslim to act in this world?  We know what one is to think, but what is the desired lifestyle?  To be sure, we have already been given several answers along our way through the Qur’an so far.  In today’s reading we find much more:

  • Do what is just or fair to others (16:90)
  • Do the good or right thing in the situation (16:90)
  • Be generous to relatives (16:90)
  • Avoid actions that are shameful (16:90)
  • Avoid actions that oppress others (16:90)
  • Be a person of your word, fulfilling pledges and keeping oaths (16:91-92)
  • Do not lie (16:105, 116)
  • Avoid forbidden foods (carrion, blood, pork, ritual food) unless that is all there is to survive (16:115)
  • Argue with others in only the most courteous ways (16:125)
  • Try to avoid fighting back when opposed (16:126)

Aren’t these the very same ethics Christians (and others) wish to have as well? 

Before we finish with this surah let’s stop and notice that it has been several chapters since we have read much that could be interpreted as violent.  Direct attacks on Christianity or Judaism have been non-existent as well.  Is the Qur’an saying what we expected?