Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | January 19, 2009

Is There a Way?: On a First Reading of the Qur’an

Reading the Qur’an today is an essential.  While the world is succumbing to war and strife, it is almost a prayer to be reading a book so important to people who are different from one’s self.  We should all be learning, instead of learning to kill.

That said, I will also say there are things in the Qur’an that are at least hard to read.  So much so, that it has taken me a couple of tries to actually make it through.

One of the things is that in almost every sura (or chapter) there is a warning against the “unbelievers” that they are headed for a severe punishment.  It’s almost like sitting in church week after week when there is a known sinner sitting in the midst, not repenting or coming forward for a “new life.”  Time and time again the warning is made, and made uncompromisingly.  It’s withering to read again and again the plight of “unbelievers” in eternal torment as opposed to the bliss of the believers. 

And what’s even more disturbing is to sit there as you read it and not know exactly who these unbelievers are and if  you yourself should be lumped in with them.  Are they unbelievers because they are idolators?  Are they unbelievers because they don’t believe in God?  Or, are they unbelievers because they don’t believe in Muhammad?  Maybe in Islam there is no distinction, but as you read you are forced as an individual to come up with an answer for yourself.

So there are things hard to read in the Qur’an, but there are also things that are just different or unfamiliar.  There are the additions to Biblical stories that are sometimes made.  One addition is when Moses’ powers outshine Pharoah’s sorcerers’ powers.  In the Qur’an, the sorcerers seeing this, repent and believe in Moses’ God. (26, 46-52)  There’s the story of Zulaikha, which inserts a princess into the story of Joseph, instead of Potiphar’s wife.  She falls in love with Joseph, because he is so beautiful; and she can’t stand to see him sold as a slave. (12, 26)  There is also the story of Iblis.  When God makes mankind he commands the angels to bow down and worship mankind, but one angel, Iblis (or Satan), refuses.  Although in some ways I rather enjoyed these additions to the Bible, this last addition raised many questions for me.

If there are things hard to understand in the Qur’an, there are also things quite regular, for instance, like the proofs or signs of God from nature.  Here are some examples –

“And He it is Who makes the Night as a Robe for you, and Sleep as Repose, and makes the Day (as it were) a Resurrection.” (25, 47)

“It is He Who sends down rain from the sky: from it ye drink and out of it (grows) the vegetation on which ye feed your cattle.  With it He produces for you corn, olives, date palms, grapes and every kind of fruit: verily in this is a Sign for those who give thought.” (16, 10-11)

“In the daily Pageants of Nature – the dawn and the restful night, the sun, the moon, the stars that guide the mariner in distant seas, the rain-clouds pouring abundance, and the fruits that delight the heart of man – can ye not read the Signs of God?” (C. 79)

The conclusion to all this is simply that – “both Revelation and Nature are eloquent in instructing man for his own good… ” (C. 196)

When reading the Qur’an,  I tend to be aware of verses that could be used by the terrorists.  But I won’t go into that here.  I feel it would be against my real purpose in reading the Qur’an to overemphasize that.  On the contrary, there are many passages which sound out against such strife.  

For instance, the Qur’an’s opposition to what it calls “contention” is one such theme.  In some ways this can be seen as self-serving.  But it certainly works both ways.  For instance, in Sura 6, verse 159, the formation of “sects” are forbidden.  Islam, as Fazlur Rahman has written (1), has had comparatively few dissentions as compared with Christianity.  The Sunni/Shia split, although still violent,  is really one of only a few such schizms.  Christianity, on the other hand, has hundreds of denominations.  The Qur’an’s opposition to “contention” is probably one of the reasons for this.  In another passage, Muslims are forbidden to engage in “disputes” among themselves.  The passage goes like this –

“And obey God and His Apostle; and fall into no disputes, lest ye lose heart and your power depart; and be patient and persevering: for God is with those who patiently persevere.” (8, 46)

The softness of Islam can also be felt in the following passage about “contention” –

“Faith has been one at all times, but sects and divisions rose through selfish contumacy.  Let all contention cease, and conduct weighed by the just balance of God’s Word.  The just and the unjust will all be brought before God, Whose Mercy and Bounty are writ large in the Signs in His marvelous Creations – one, yet diverse!” (C. 211)

Almost a pretext for tolerance!

(I will mention two other passages, here, too.  As a proof of the inspiration of the Qur’an, this scripture raises the idea of intelligent talk: “Then, by the Lord of heaven and earth, this is the very Truth, as much as the fact that ye can speak intelligently to each other.” (51, 23) I don’t know if it means the same thing in the Arabic, but it seems important to me.  The other passage holds that some criticized Muhammad for not speaking enough.  It says – “Among them are men who molest the Prophet and say, ‘He is (all) ear.’  Say, ‘He listens to what is best for you…’ ” (9, 60) Listening was a critical skill for Muhammad, as it should be for anyone.  So, talking intelligently and listening – two great things.)

At the end of the Qur’an there is this statement.  Apparently, it is partly directed at unbelievers (the “hatred” part), but it is really talking to Muslims.  And I have no reason to believe they would disagree.

“To the man of God, rich in divine blessings, is granted a fountain unfailing, that will quench the spiritual thirst of millions; turn, then, in devotion and sacrifice to God, nor heed the venom of hatred, which destroys its own hopes, alas, of the present and the future!” (C. 288 )

Although this is not the absolute ending of the Qur’an, to me, it could be.  No more powerful statement can be made of our duty in the present moment.  This is really the Qur’an at its best.  With all the battle lines drawn, there is still an answer, and it is not hatred.

Finally, as to the question in the title of this post, “Is there a way?”, I would like to look at the following verse –

“Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian; but he was true in Faith, and bowed his will to God’s, (which is Islam), and he joined not gods with God.” (3, 67)

It could be remembered that the Apostle Paul also argued from Abraham.  When Paul wished that new believers would not have to be circumsized, he pointed out that Abraham talked with God and received promises before he was circumsized.(2)  Why should Paul be able to argue from Abraham’s faith, and no one else?

So, is there a way?  Can a person talk to God without joining a church or becoming involved with a religious community?  I think they can.  Faith is required, because we are sinners.  But the solution, more often than not is just talking to your own God. 

This is maybe something that Muhammad can hold out to us – that one person and God is still a majority.

************

(1) Islam, by Fazlur Rahman. – (2nd ed.) – Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.  I never did own this title, so I don’t know what page.

(2) Romans 4: 9-12.

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Responses

  1. “Unbeliever”- the arabic word “kafir”, ‘Kufr” comes from the root word “ungrateful” –An unbeliever is someone who has received guidance but has rejected it after knowing/understanding it —thus, has been ungrateful.
    The definition of “believer” is in surah 2 verses 2-4.
    –those who believe in God, and the unseen, who pray, who believe in revelations sent (current and previous)and believe in Judgement day.

    The Quran also says it is not for us (humans) to decide who “deserves” to go to heaven or who is “right”….that judgement is for God to make.
    Surah 5 verse 48
    “To you we sent scripture in truth, confirming what came before it and guarding it in safety. So judge between them from what God has revealed and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the truth that has come to you. To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way. If God had so willed, he could have made you a single people, but (his plan) is to test you in what he has given you: So strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to God; it is he that will show you the matters in which you dispute.”

  2. “And what’s even more disturbing is to sit there as you read it and not know exactly who these unbelievers are and if you yourself should be lumped in with them.”

    What you said is very true. Muslims reading the Quran wonder the same thing. The Quran is not interested in labels—Muslim, Christian, Bhuddhist—it matters not what religious label you call yourself—since God can see our hearts.

    I enjoyed your post very much. Your comparisions and insights were interesting.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Kay. You’re welcome any time.


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