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Quran Read-Along: Is Al’-Imran 181-189 Talking About the Jews?

Slay Them Prophets

Whenever I see talk of slaying prophets, I immediately think of the accusations leveled against the ancient Israelites and assume that we must be talking about them. This would also fit, in parts of the Bible, with, “God is poor while we are rich.” For instance, during the Conquest of Cana’an that happens in the book of Joshua (and only in the book of Joshua I might add as the rest of the Bible and history itself make it rather clear that none of this really occurred, but it was only a story to demonstrate a few lessons), the people take some of the riches that were meant to belong to God. There’s no prophet slaying, though (beyond disobedience of Joshua), and this seems a rather literal interpretation of the fact.

The history of the First Temple during the reign of the Kings of Judah (pre-Josiah) might also call attention to this, as this was the period during which the people (priests) grew wealthy, ignored God, and killed his prophets (supposedly). But again, this seems quite literal, when in fact I detect a spiritual element to this idea: the presumption that we know what God doesn’t and are rich in life (and spirit), and that we ignore the prophets who are sent to him (i.e. slaying prophets is perhaps less literal and more along the lines of ignoring them, like say, what the Jews of Medina are doing to Mohammed).

Can We Start the Sacrifices Again, or What?

As we move into verses 183 and 184 my suspicions feel both confirmed and belied.

That is, the Jews would want their apostles (or prophets) to come to them with news related to burnt offerings – that is, the reinstatement of sacrifice and presumably news of all this happening at the Temple in Jerusalem (that implies fresh autonomy and perhaps the arrival of the messiah).

The rabbis say that prophecy ended with Alexander the Great (c.332 BCE in Jerusalem) because with him came Hellenization, a process that the rabbis considered antithetical to their own tradition and culture. Thus, prophecy was long considered over (nearly 1000 years over) by the time of Mohammed (this disregards the fact that the book of Daniel was written in the 160s BCE because it was believed to be from the early 6th C. BCE) and therefore Jews would have been most disinclined to believe Mohammed unless, presumably, he told them what they wanted to hear: that the future held sacrifices and a reinstatement of their tradition. The Quran seems to be saying that even back in the day when prophets said what Jews claimed they wanted to hear, you killed them.

Spread a Little Revelation

By verse 187 it sounds as though we’re talking about the notion of chosenness. That is to say that the messages of revelation were meant to be shared and spread around the world but instead they were turned inward and used for trifling gain – to make the Jews special for themselves (this is my guess). Christianity was doing the opposite (as an early proselytizing religion) so this seems to be a reference to only the Jews (unless I’m totally missing someone else here). I’m not sure where the line to ‘make it known to mankind’ comes from though. Where was this said?

As basic advice (toned down a smidge-a-roo), I like this: “Think not that those who exult in what they have thus contrived, and who love to be praised for what they have not done – think not that they will escape suffering: for grievous suffering does await them [in the life to come]” When I say toned down, I mean, it doesn’t have to be about grievous suffering for it to tell us that we don’t have to love pretentious people, what Holden Cofield might call phonies. Don’t pay them any mind, it seems to say (without the suffering part…).

Please feel free to comment and critique!

Al’-Imran 181-189

181. God has indeed heard the saying of those who said, “Behold, God is poor while we are rich!”  We shall record what they have said, as well as their slaying of prophets against all right, and We shall say [unto them on Judgment Day]: “Taste suffering through fire 182. in return for what your own hands have wrought – for never does God do the least wrong to His creatures!” 183.  As for those who maintain, “Behold, God has bidden us not to believe in any apostle unless he comes unto us with burnt offerings”  – say [unto them, O Prophet]: “Even before me there came unto you apostles with all evidence of the truth, and with that whereof you speak: why, then, did you slay them, if what you say is true?” 184. And if they give thee the lie – even so, before thy time, have [other] apostles been given the lie when they came with all evidence of the truth, and with books of divine wisdom, and with light-giving revelation. 185. Every human being is bound to taste death: but only on the Day of Resurrection will you be requited in full [for whatever you have done] – whereupon he that shall be drawn away from the fire and brought into paradise will indeed have gained a triumph: for the life of this world is nothing but an enjoyment of self-delusion. 186. You shall most certainly be tried in your possessions and in your persons; and indeed you shall hear many hurtful things from those to whom revelation was granted before your time, as well as from those who have come to ascribe divinity to other beings beside God. But if you remain patient in adversity and conscious of Him – this, behold, is something to set one’s heart upon. 187. AND LO, God accepted a solemn pledge from those who were granted earlier revelation [when He bade them]: “Make it known unto mankind, and do not conceal it!” But they cast this [pledge] behind their backs, and bartered it away for a trifling gain: and how evil was their bargain! 188. Think not that those who exult in what they have thus contrived, and who love to be praised for what they have not done – think not that they will escape suffering: for grievous suffering does await them [in the life to come]. 189. AND UNTO GOD belongs the dominion over the heavens and the earth: and God has the power to will anything.

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Quran Read-A-Long: Al’-Imran 156-180 is the Return of Our Exploration of the Quran Together

156.  People are told not to presume that bad things would not have happened had others believed as they did, because believing as, say, a Muslim would doesn’t preclude bad things from happening, this verse explains. God decides what bad things happen and we must rest assured that whatever is happening is by God’s will and therefore as it should be (in the case of death, at least, if not everything else . . . ).

157. This verse seems to condone martyrdom by saying that dying in God’s cause results in something better than all the good of this world. Verses 169-172 convey a similar message: death in the name of God when doing for God what is right is not death. It is everlasting life – a key theme.

159. This verse pertains to the disaster at Uhud when the prophet was forgiving rather than retributive and that resulted in the retention of his community rather than their abandonment of his cause.

161. It’s curious that the Quran says that a prophet can’t deceive because he’ll be faced with his deceptions come the Day of Resurrection only because there are false prophets. Now, presuming that a person is a real prophet, he’s not lying. And that’s that. However, if there’s a fake prophet and people believe him then he could be lying. Sure, he’ll face that on judgment day and be punished, but if he’s dissimulating and doesn’t care and people believe him then knowing that he’s going to pay for it later doesn’t help us avoid the problem now – it just let’s us know that if we walk around believing everybody who claims to be a prophet then we can be content in the knowledge that the liars will be sorted out when the time comes. Again, though, I don’t find that be particularly reassuring (nor do I mean to suggest that we should believe everyone in the hopes of being in good shape because we were only trying to follow God – my point is, this presents us with difficulties).

Verse 164 and those that precede it don’t seem to be referring to Muslims. Sure, God did raise up an apostle for the Muslims, but not in the midst of the believers because there were no believers (at least not in the right thing) in Mohammed’s day. That was part of the problem. Does this refer to Jesus as we are in the surah about the House of Imran? Does it refer to someone else (or multiple people) in the past?

You know what? On a second (or third/fourth) read it does seem as though verse 164 is referring to Mohammed as the prophet – an “apostle from among themselves” is part of the importance of Mohammed. An Arab prophet and an Arabic revelation. The believers could be those who would believe once given the truth, those who no longer wished to be lost in error.

As I hear verses 177-178 in English I can only imagine what they sound like in Arabic. That is not to say that they sound particularly good in English, but I can see through the translation (a bit) to the poetry of the words themselves. The rhythms of the repetitions of words and phrases and so much more must be beautiful when chanted properly in the original.

179. The idea of “that which is beyond the reach of human perception” is a fascinating one to me right now. I’ve been reading a book about the way people have understood God over the last 4000 years (Karen Armstrong’s A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and one of the primary motifs is the idea of God as unknowable. That may seem quite obvious but the different ways that the three monotheistic faiths have embraced that notion, and the overlap among them, is quite fascinating, especially as it comes to the essential lack of knowledge that some have come to in regards to God. That is, reason and logic only get us so far and there is only so much we can know about God, much of which must be expressed as what we do not know about God. Anyway, that these ideas are not merely arrived at by certain Muslims wrestling with how to understand God but that the Quran points them to the notion that there is that which that they cannot know (whether here about God specifically or not is unclear) is neat.

180. Is this verse a reference to the importance of zakkat? That is, is this about not clinging to the material things of this world and making sure that others get what they need when you have it to spare (and God knowing of those who cling to objects) or is this a reference to something else more specific? Or! as I’ve noticed the Quran is want to do, is it a reference to both, part of the constant reinforcement of central ideas amongst the specifics of the ongoing text? I love that!

Al’-Imran 156-180

156. O you who have attained to faith! Be not like those who are bent on denying the truth and say of their brethren [who die] after having set out on a journey to faraway places or gone forth to war, “Had they but remained with us, they would not have died,” or, “they would not have been slain” – for God will cause such thoughts to become a source of bitter regret in their hearts, since it is God who grants life and deals death. And God sees all that you do. 157. And if indeed you are slain or die in God’s cause, then surely forgiveness from God and His grace are better than all that one could amass [in this world]: 158. for, indeed, if you die or are slain, it will surely be unto God that you shall be gathered. 159. And it was by God’s grace that thou [O Prophet] didst deal gently with thy followers: for if thou hadst been harsh and hard of heart, they would indeed have broken away from thee. Pardon them, then, and pray that they be forgiven. And take counsel with them in all matters of public concern; then, when thou hast decided upon a course of action, place thy trust in God: for, verily, God loves those who place their trust in Him. 160. If God succours you, none can ever overcome you; but if He should forsake you, who could succour you thereafter? In God, then, let the believers place their trust! 161. AND IT IS not conceivable that a prophet should deceive – since he who deceives shall be faced with his deceit on the Day of Resurrection, when every human being shall be repaid in full for whatever he has done, and none shall be wronged. 162. Is then he who strives after God’s goodly acceptance like unto him who has earned the burden of God’s condemnation and whose goal is hell? – and how vile a journey’s end! 163. They are on [entirely] different levels in the sight of God; for God sees all that they do. 164 Indeed, God bestowed a favor upon the believers when he raised up in their midst an apostle from among themselves, to convey His messages unto them, and to cause them to grow in purity, and to impart unto them the divine writ as well as wisdom – whereas before that they were indeed, most obviously, lost in error. 165 AND DO YOU, now that a calamity has befallen you after you had inflicted twice as much [on your foes], ask yourselves, “How has this come about?” Say: “It has come from your own selves.” Verily, God has the power to will anything: 166 and all that befell you on the day when the two hosts met in battle happened by God’s leave, so that He might mark out the [true] believers, 167 and mark out those who were tainted with hypocrisy and, when they were told, “Come, fight in God’s cause” – or, “Defend yourselves” – answered, “If we but knew [that it would come to a] fight, we would indeed follow you.” Unto apostasy were they nearer on that day than unto faith, uttering with their mouths something which was not in their hearts, the while God knew fully well what they were trying to conceal: 168 they who, having themselves held back [from fighting, later] said of their [slain] brethren, “Had they but paid heed to us, they would not have been slain.” Say: “Avert, then, death from yourselves, if what you say is true!” 169 But do not think of those that have been slain in God’s cause as dead. Nay, they are alive! With their Sustainer have they their sustenance, 170 exulting in that [martyrdom] which God has bestowed upon them out of His bounty. And they rejoice in the glad tiding given to those [of their brethren] who have been left behind and have not yet joined them, that no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve: 171 they rejoice in the glad tiding of God’s blessings and bounty, and [in the promise] that God will not fail to requite the believers 172 who responded to the call of God and the Apostle after misfortune had befallen them. A magnificent requital awaits those of them who have persevered in doing good and remained conscious of God: 173 those who have been warned by other people, “Behold, a host has gathered against you; so beware of them!” – whereupon this only increased their faith, so that they answered, “God is enough for us; and how excellent a guardian is He!” 174 – and returned [from the battle] with God’s blessings and bounty, without having been touched by evil: for they had been striving after God’s goodly acceptance – and God is limitless in His great bounty. 175 It is but Satan who instils [into you] fear of his allies: so fear them not, but fear Me, if you are [truly] believers! 176 And be not grieved by those who vie with one another in denying the truth: verily, they can in no wise harm God. It is God’s will that they shall have no share in the [blessings of the] life to come; and tremendous suffering awaits them. 177 Verily, they who have bought a denial of the truth at the price of faith can in no wise harm God, whereas grievous suffering awaits them. 178 And they should not think – they who are bent on denying the truth – that Our giving them rein is good for them: We give them rein only to let them grow in sinfulness; and shameful suffering awaits them. 179 It is not God’s will [O you who deny the truth] to abandon the believers to your way of life: [and] to that end He will set apart the bad from the good. And it is not God’s will to give you insight into that which is beyond the reach of human perception: but [to that end] God elects whomsoever He wills from among His apostles. Believe, then, in God and His apostles; for if you believe and are conscious of Him, a magnificent requital awaits you. 180 AND THEY should not think – they who niggardly cling to all that God has granted them out of His bounty – that this is good for them: nay, it is bad for them. That to which they [so] niggardly cling will, on the Day of Resurrection, be hung about their necks: for unto God [alone] belongs the heritage of the heavens and of the earth; and God is aware of all that you do.