As we get closer to the end of the Qur’an the surahs are getting shorter, so I will be combining surahs in many posts.  Today’s two surahs go well together as both of them deal with two of the five pillars of Islam: prayer (salat) and giving (zakat).

Surah 62 encourages the worshipper not to forsake daily times of prayer.

When the call of prayer is made on the day of congregation, hurry towards the reminder of God and leave off your trading–that is better for you, if only you knew–then when the prayer has ended, disperse in the land, and seek out God’s bounty. (62:9-10)

Surah 63 exhorts worshippers give to those in need.

Give out of what We have provided for you, before death comes to one of you and he says, “My Lord, if you would only reprieve me for a little while, I would give in charity and become one of the righteous.”  God does not reprieve a soul when its turn comes: God is fully aware of what you do. (63:10-11)

These two surahs are connected also by a common problem: an hypocrisy produced by the desire for wealth.

In surah 62 Jews are castigated for claiming to love God and follow His Law, yet being so attached to wealth that they loathe the day of their death because they have lost the opportunity to gain more wealth.  Though they should rush to pray with the community, instead “they scatter towards trade or entertainment whenever they observe it, and leave you [Prophet] standing there” (62:11).  Their love for money has made them “asses carrying books” they do not read or obey (62:5).  Should they not welcome the day of their death instead as an opportunity to be reunited with God their “friend” (62:6)?  They need to remember that “what God has is better than any entertainment or trade: God is the best provider” (62:11).

In surah 63–appropriately called “Hypocrites”–a group of supposed believers ask Muhammad to ask God to extend them time to fulfill the admonition to give to the poor.  Yet the reason for this request reveals their hypocrisy: their wealth and children have become a distraction to their duty.  They are not giving to others because they have other desires for their money (63:9).  God offers no reprieve for such a mentality (63:11).

(Now, I must note the irony that it is the eve of Black Friday, the busiest shopping day in America, as I write this post.  HA! )

It is nice to come to a topic other than judgment, Paradise and Hell.  However, this topic is no less prickly: money.  Nonetheless, today’s surah gives the following valuable guidance on how to view and use wealth:

  • All power belongs to the Almighty God, not the almighty dollar (57:2).
  • Deal with money in a pure manner because God sees all, even the intentions of our hearts (57:4-6).
  • The wealth we have ultimately comes to us from God (57:7).
  • We especially need to give to others from what we have been given (57:7).
  • God rewards generous giving (57:7).
  • All money goes back to God in the end, so why not use it to His benefit in the mean time (57:10).
  • It is especially admirable to give when it is most needed, but God rewards anyone who gives (57:10).
  • One stands to gain double giving, not keeping one’s wealth to oneself (57:11, 18).
  • This life is little more than a “game” or “illusory pleasure;” our success in this life is not what matters.  Take your earthly success too seriously and it becomes a source for arrogance and rivalry (57:20).
  • Don’t gloat over your success, thinking you made your fortunes yourself.  You are just living out God’s plan (57:22-23). 
  • God does not like miserliness (57:24).  Maybe this is why “monasticism” is not approved (57:29). 

The best kind of religion should make you rich here and now, right?

We see in today’s new surah that this was the presumption of some people in Muhammad’s time (43:31).  The Prophet was a poor, orphaned, traveling merchant who lucked into a job with a rich woman.  Surely God would have more discretion when choosing a prophet.  Prophets should be powerful, wealthy men.  They should be aristocracy in a significant city like Mecca or Ta’if.  If Muhammad were a real prophet, they thought, he would come with “golden ornaments,” high class, and a significant pedigree, a criticism made against Moses in his time too (43:53).  So, surely Muhammad can’t be a real prophet, and his religion must be a fraud, the disbelievers in this Meccan surah claimed.   

The premise that a good religion will be one that brings wealth seems to still be one some people work with today.  I point to the popularity of the “prosperity gospel” preached by some Christians as an example.  The best example in the West, though, is the American “gospel” of success.  The goal of life is to find as comfortable a life as possible, so surely a good religion will help me do that.  If it doesn’t, why would I want to adopt your religion?

God’s response to this charge is to question the very presupposition the charge is built on: why do you assume that wealth is a good thing?  Instead, this surah depicts riches as something that can “corrupt” the heart of a person (43:23).  If upward mobility were the calling card of a true religion, then, yes, God would have been able and glad to give the “mere enjoyments of life” to His followers (43:33-34.  They would be living the lifestyle of the rich and famous with their silver roofs, sweeping staircases, massive gates, comfortable couches, and golden ornaments (the phrase that is the basis for the name of this surah). 

However, God’s grace is better than all they can accumulate (43:32).  Where one does have wealth and social position it has been given by God anyway, so one should not think they have accumulated these things.  They can be taken away as easily as they came.  The greatest possession one can “accumulate” is the promise of the “next life” (43:35).  Hence, a religion that can give you everlasting life is far superior to one that merely brings the comforts and niceties of this life to a person.  In Paradise there will be great joy as one sits down to an “abundant” feast at a table set with golden tableware.  All “their souls desire and eyes delight in” will be there (43:70-73).  The best religion gives you this great reward.

Today’s section brings us to the second of four stories in this surah.  This new story seems to punctuate the point made in ayah 28:

Let not your eyes turn away from them [the Scriptures] out of desire for the attractions of this worldly life.

The “parable” begins with two men.  Both have been created and provided with a rich garden of grapes, dates, and corn.  The land of each is well-watered.  Both men have been set up by God to have a bountiful life.  Soon, one appears to turn to idolatry (18:42, “I wish I had not set up any partner to my Lord”) but even more so he turns to a life of materialism.  This man defines “better” by what he possesses.  God has blessed him, but he has become obsessed with the possessions.  This man has lost sight to God, the giver of blessings.  He compares his estate to that of the other man boasts that he has more.  He becomes convinced that the richness of his life is determined by his riches.  He buys the lie that what he has will always be and will always satisfy.  He even fools himself into believing the “Last Hour” will never come.  Essentially he has erected himself and his wealth is the supreme power. 

Then the other man who has never lost sight of God and the Last Hour scolds his lack of faith:

If only, when you entered your garden, you had said, “As God wills.  There is no power not [given] by God.” (18:39) 

Though this second man has less, he is truly the rich one.  He reminds his neighbor that his estate can be wiped away by the more powerful forces of nature in a moment’s notice.  There is a satisfaction to be found that is far greater than anything material possessions and wealth can bring:

The True God . . . gives the best rewards and the best outcomes. (18:44)

To be faithful, obedient, and mindful of God — this is the greatest calling and reward. 

The story ends as the faithful man said it would: the first man’s crops are destroyed by a storm of epic proportions and he cries out in regret for his faithlessness.

"The End of Materialism II," photo by carr176 on flickr.com

For Christians reading this parable, it will likely remind us of the parable of the Rich Fool told by Jesus:

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest.  He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain.  And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:13-21)

We might also remember the words of Jesus’ brother James:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”  As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes.  All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)

This line from the end of today’s Quranic section is a good reminder to those of us who live in an immensely materialistic world:

Wealth and children are the attractions of this worldly life, but lasting good works have a better reward with your Lord and give better grounds for hope. (18:46)