Quran Read-A-Long: An Attempt to Grapple with the Notion of Faith in Islam

I like this quick tale about Abraham in verse 258. I can’t say I have anything in particular to add to its understanding, but I like it. I think it’s funny that the demonstrative tale in verse 259 would be placed between Abraham’s assertion of God’s greatness and his seeming lack of faith in verse 260.

It seems especially odd to me that someone speaking to God would then question matters that God says are so, like resurrection. It seems somewhat illogical since faith is believing without proof and Abraham already has proof of God since they’re chatting casually. Why would Abraham tell God that he has faith but that he just needs a little proof to lay his mind at ease. Needing proof is the essence of not having faith. As Jesus said, it is a wicked generation that needs signs. Not to go all Jesus quoting on anybody – I think it can be very annoying when people do that to make a point – but I do it to emphasize the notion of faith, which is Jesus’ point. You have to believe in things without being shown that they are so. Otherwise you don’t have faith.

I know it seems silly but it makes me think of the Keanu Reeves movie, Constantine. Reeves’ character, thought that he deserved to go to heaven because he believed in God and hell and damnation and all the stuff, as a Catholic, he was supposed to. The angel Gabriel (in the movie) tells him that he doesn’t believe in these things. He knows them to be true because he died briefly, saw these things, and was then resuscitated (or came back to life, if you prefer the symbolic language).

In any case, the point is that once you know, it’s no longer faith. It’s knowledge. That isn’t to say that faith is without knowledge, but just to say that Abraham’s request in this story, considering the mention of faith, is at odds with what my understanding of faith is (and I’ve worked very hard to understand faith). Perhaps faith in Islam is meant in another way (or the translation is tripping me up and Arabic has an in between word) and I’m failing to understand that (and when I say faith, I’m not using the word as a substitute for the word religion). If you can shed light on this issue, I’d be most appreciative.

Finally, my apologies for the two week hiatus from Quran Read-A-Long. Life became overwhelmingly busy and disappointingly, this and my other blogging “responsiblities” got pushed by the wayside. I felt an absence, not from the rest of it, but from this, and am glad to be doing it again. I hope that in the future I don’t have to skip any weeks. Thanks for your patience.

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The Cow 258-260

258. ART THOU NOT aware of that [king] who argued with Abraham about his Sustainer, [simply] because God had granted him kingship? Lo! Abraham said: “My Sus’tainer is He who grants life and deals death.” [The king] replied: “I [too] grant life and deal death!” Said Abraham: “Verily, God causes the sun to rise in the east; cause it, then, to rise in the west!” Thereupon he who was bent on denying the truth remained dumbfounded: for God does not guide people who [deliberately] do wrong. 259. Or [art thou, O man, of the same mind] as he who passed by a town deserted by its people, with its roofs caved in, [and] said, “How could God bring all this back to life after its death?” Thereupon God caused him to be dead for a hundred years; whereafter He brought him back to life [and] said: “How long hast thou remained thus?” He answered: “I have remained thus a day, or part of a day.” Said [God]: “Nay, but thou hast remained thus for a hundred years! But look at thy food and thy drink, untouched is it by the passing of years – and look at thine ass! And We did all this so that We might make thee a symbol unto men. And look at the bones [of animals and men] – how We put them together and then clothe them with flesh!” And when [all this] became clear to him, he said: “I know [now] that God has the power to will anything!” 260. And, lo, Abraham said: “O my Sustainer! Show me how Thou givest life unto the dead!” Said He: “Hast thou, then, no faith?”(Abraham) answered: “Yea, but [let me see it] so that my heart may be set fully at rest.” Said He: “Take, then, four birds and teach them to obey thee; then place them separately on every hill [around thee]; then summon them: they will come flying to thee. And know that God is almighty, wise.”

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8 Responses

  1. I got busy too—Glad to know I have not missed much!

    What is faith—an interesting question! The people that Prophet Abraham(pbuh) grew up with had “faith”—they believed that their idols were divine/represented the divine. But Prophet Abraham(pbuh) was different. He used his intelligence to understand that the Divine could not possibly be represented in idols. God is uncreated—all else including time and space are created. (Time/space were created during the Big Bang). “creation” follows and are bound by “laws” (of physics, gravity…etc) The Creator (being uncreated) is not bound by these “laws” of creation. By using our intelligence, reason, logic—we can come to some understanding about the nature of the difference between the Divine/Creator and the creation. But spirituality is not science—while scientist can be satisfied with purely intellectual answers, spiritually we need something more. We also need to understand with our instinct/intuition or “heart”. Thus the Quran explains “faith” has to feel true to both our intelligence and to our heart.

    Some translators use the word Trust instead of Faith.

  2. I think your connection between verses 2:258 and 2:260 (faith vs. no faith) is very interesting. Personally, I don’t see these two verses as being in such a black-and-white contrast; I do view them as a reaffirmation of Allah’s (swt) power and ability in light of our niggling doubts.

    Here’s how I see these two verses. I think Ibrahim (pbuh) was an intelligent man, although he made occasional mistakes in judgment; for example, by associating the stars, moon and sun with Allah (swt) (6:74-79). In the end, he realized his errors and began worshiping Allah (swt) alone. Thus, by the time of his meeting with the king (Nimrod, according to Ibn Kathir) in 2:258, he correctly points out that the king’s power is very limited, especially in comparison to that of Allah (swt).

    However, as an intelligent man, he is beset by niggling doubts. I think this is a “curse” of intelligence, that we become so filled with facts and enamored with logic that our conscious and subconscious minds begin to fill us with questions about our faith. Some people lose that faith entirely; others (like me) battle time and time again with the questions. In this regard I see Ibrahim (pbuh) in a sympathetic light. I don’t believe that I have no faith simply because I have doubts or questions. I believe my faith is tempered and strengthened through my internal jihad against the doubts and questions. In other words, despite the doubts and questions, my faith in Allah (swt) and Islam remains and grows stronger (and will continue to in the future, insha’allah).

    So, by the time of verse 2:260, Ibrahim (pbuh) has his doubts and asks Allah (swt) for reassurance. Interestingly enough, Allah (swt) normally spurns providing such “proof,” at least to unbelievers; for example:

    If their spurning is hard on thy mind, yet if thou wert able to seek a tunnel in the ground or a ladder to the skies and bring them a sign,- (what good?). If it were God’s will, He could gather them together unto true guidance: so be not thou amongst those who are swayed by ignorance (and impatience)! (6:35)

    They say: “We shall not believe in thee, until thou cause a spring to gush forth for us from the earth, “Or (until) thou have a garden of date trees and vines, and cause rivers to gush forth in their midst, carrying abundant water; “Or thou cause the sky to fall in pieces, as thou sayest (will happen), against us; or thou bring God and the angels before (us) face to face: “Or thou have a house adorned with gold, or thou mount a ladder right into the skies. No, we shall not even believe in thy mounting until thou send down to us a book that we could read.” Say: “Glory to my Lord! Am I aught but a man,- an apostle?”(17:90-93)

    Ibrahim, however, is both a prophet (nabi) and a messenger (rasul) of Allah (swt), so Allah (swt) provides him with a miracle. Now the Qur’an mostly focuses on what I call lower-case miracles, the signs of Allah (swt) that permeate the universe to the point where we largely take them for granted. But in 2:260, we have an upper-case MIRACLE. Except, in Muhammad Asad’s translation, you’d never know it.

    In 2:259, the nameless traveler (‘Uzayr/Ezra, according to Ibn Kathir) dies, is resurrected in 100 years, then is told to look at his food and drink, which remained fresh after all that time, and his donkey, which had died and was nothing more than bones. The donkey is resurrected in front of the traveller (“When this was shown clearly to him…”):

    As-Suddi said, ” `Uzayr observed the bones of his donkey, which were scattered all around him to his right and left, and Allah sent a wind that collected the bones from all over the area. Allah then brought every bone to its place, until they formed a full donkey made of fleshless bones. Allah then covered these bones with flesh, nerves, veins and skin. Allah sent an angel who blew life in the donkeys’ nostrils, and the donkey started to bray by Allah’s leave.” All this occurred while `Uzayr was watching, and this is when he proclaimed,

    (He said, “I know (now) that Allah is able to do all things,”) meaning, “I know that, and I did witness it with my own eyes. Therefore, I am the most knowledgeable in this matter among the people of my time.” (Tafsir Ibn Kathir)

    Now the traveler knows the true power of Allah (swt). Likewise, with Ibrahim (pbuh). He says to the king in 2:258 that “My Lord is He Who Giveth life and death.” But apparently he thought to himself afterwards, “Did I speak truly?” So he asks Allah (swt) for a similar demonstration in His power to resurrect the dead. Allah (swt) asks, “Don’t you believe?” To which Ibrahim (pbuh) says, “Yes, Lord, but I wish to be stronger in faith.”

    Now Muhammad Asad’s translation reads,

    Said He: “Take, then, four birds and teach them to obey thee; then place them separately on every hill [around thee]; then summon them: they will come flying to thee.

    Sounds simple enough. Train the birds, place them on different hills, then call them; they will all return to you. But every other translation that I’ve checked (Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, Hilali & Khan, Ibn Kathir) all say that the birds were killed and dismembered first! Ibn Kathir:

    And (remember) when Ibrahim said, “My Lord! Show me how You give life to the dead.” He (Allah) said: “Do you not believe” He (Ibrahim) said: “Yes (I believe), but to be stronger in faith.” He said: “Take four birds, then cause them to incline towards you (then slaughter them, cut them into pieces), and then put a portion of them on every hill, and call them, they will come to you in haste. And know that Allah is All-Mighty, All-Wise.”

    (cause them to incline towards you) means, cut them to pieces. This is the explanation of Ibn `Abbas, `Ikrimah, Sa`id bin Jubayr, Abu Malik, Abu Al-Aswad Ad-Dili, Wahb bin Munabbih, Al-Hasan and As-Suddi. Therefore, Ibrahim caught four birds, slaughtered them, removed the feathers, tore the birds to pieces and mixed the pieces together. He then placed parts of these mixed pieces on four or seven hills. Ibn `Abbas said, “Ibrahim kept the heads of these birds in his hand. Next, Allah commanded Ibrahim to call the birds to him, and he did as Allah commanded him. Ibrahim witnessed the feathers, blood and flesh of these birds fly to each other, and the parts flew each to their bodies, until every bird came back to life and came walking at a fast pace towards Ibrahim, so that the example that Ibrahim was witnessing would become more impressive. Each bird came to collect its head from Ibrahim’s hand, and if he gave the bird another head the bird refused to accept it. When Ibrahim gave each bird its own head, the head was placed on its body by Allah’s leave and power. ”

    What more powerful demonstration of Allah’s (swt) ability to resurrect the dead could there be? Ibn Abbas is reported to have said, “To me, there is no Ayah in the Qur’an that brings more hope than this Ayah.”

  3. It’s funny that you ended with Abbas’s quote, because as I was reading this last part I found my mouth hanging a little agape at the profundity of this miracle verses the miracle that’s described in the translated verse I’ve provided. I was under the impression, for some reason, that you favored Asad’s translation. Is this not true? Is there a translation I can use online that would be better for these purposes?

    Each of the miracles done to provide the person in question with more faith is a miracle involving resurrection. Since that is one of the hardest things to believe in when we let our reason become dominant (simply because it so blatantly contrasts with our daily experience – when people die they don’t come back) it’s interesting that this is what is constantly demonstrated for what it symbolizes about reinforcing the faith in what’s to come.

  4. Is there a translation I can use online that would be better for these purposes?

    In all honesty, no. This is why the Qur’an in the original Arabic is favored by Muslims worldwide. Translations tend to be a necessary evil.

    One of the points I originally wanted to write was that verse 2:260 was an excellent example of the need to cross-reference different translations of the Qur’an against each other. Each translator has his or her own style and may favor different interpretations, each from the other. Asad is a decent translator, and I appreciate the body of knowledge he brought to the analysis of the Qur’an, from Judaism, that many Muslims lack. I don’t always agree with either his translation or analysis, though. The two translations I favor are Yusuf Ali, who also brought a lot of knowledge to his own analysis of the Qur’an, and Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall. Between these two I prefer one over the other for certain surahs and ayat. All have their own strengths and weaknesses. Even if you changed from, say, Asad to Yusuf Ali, I’d still bring up differences between the two translations; in that regard it’s all relative. Use whichever translation you like.

  5. Translations—I agree completely with JD, Yusuf Ali , while generally good does have bias in certain areas that Pickthall seems to balance.
    Found this definition somewhere—Faith=Firm belief arising out of knowledge and conviction. …Think it explains the verse.

  6. http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/871201_Abraham.html

    I was wondering whether there was a similar story in the Torah or the Talmud or Midrash of Abraham(a.s) and the birds and came across the above link, which suggests that it passed into the Midrash from the Qur’an. Quite interesting.

  7. Achmed – thank you so much for including that link. That really was fascinating. My favorite part of religious studies is understanding those elements of our religions that are so intricately related and influenced by one another because they remind me of how bound together we all are in our quest for faith and truth (which reminds me of Kay’s interesting find relating firm belief and knowledge, a way I don’t tend to conceive of the notion of faith – do you remember if it was an Islamic/Jewish/Christian or neutral source where you found that, Kay?).

    Concerning this synchretic sourcing of this Abraham story, when I read the versions of the story provided by JD, I was immediately reminded of Genesis 15, something that did not happen when I originally read the Asad translation I was working with. In Genesis 15, as the author of Achmed’s link points us to, Abraham performs a generally unknown (though highly speculated upon within biblical scholarship) ritual with a few animals, including some birds. It is from here that midrashic literature inserts the story under discussion from the Quran 2:260 (or a very similar version of it).

    What I find most fascinating about all of this is that this story of ritual sacrifice in Genesis 15, if we read closely enough, actually proceeds Abraham’s own wrestling with faith, just like these Quranic versions (and more in the way that JD described it above than in a lack-of-faith/total-faith sort of way). Abraham is in the middle of complaining to God about God’s promises that he will be the progenitor of many nations. Abraham says, “Pshah, God! I have no children and only a slave. Is this slave to inherit everything?” By the end of the conversation, however, Abraham believes God about the future (a future which incidentally has to do with making the impossible happen – raising children from a barren women!) and thus, Abraham has faith (which God reckons to him as righteousness). Only then is this ritual performed.

    Thanks so much for bringing that to our attention, Achmed!

    Concerning translations, one of my great regrets is that I have not taken the time yet to learn Arabic so that I can read the Quran as it’s meant to be read. As it happens, I’m pretty obligated to learn another language before that – Hungarian – because my girlfriend is Hungarian and though she speaks English, if I ever hope to communicate properly with the rest of her family, I’m going to have to get on that. However, after Hungarian, Arabic! (inshallah)

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