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!
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.
149-150 These verses continue the notion that I began with last week and that Kay reinforced: that these supreme themes run through the Quran and add strength and consistency to each of the particular topics at hand.
No God But God – Seriously, People
Equating anything with God or claiming that anything, whether object, person, or whatever else is comparable to God is an enormous no-no. As we’ve discussed, this was both an internal Arab problem partially resulting in Mohammed’s flight to Mecca and a problem Islam took up with religions.
Internally speaking, the Arab tribes, particularly the Quryash, worshipped in a few other locations outside of Mecca and considered those places the locations of other divinities. Externally speaking, Christianity was a huge problem for the Muslims because of the divine nature in which Jesus was rendered. As verse 151 says, God never gave any reason ever for people to believe that anything/one but Him was God or divine. It seems more likely, though, that amongst these verses the references are to the Quryash since the Battle of Uhud is about to be mentioned. The reference in verse 154 to “pagan ignorance” also makes it seem as though the ascription here concerns the Quryash. However, at the same time, this entire surah is about the house of Mary’s father, so . . .
Tisk, Tisk, Archers
The first half of 152, as Asad points out, is a reference to the archers abandonment of their post, despite Mohammed’s explicit instruction that they not leave their strategic vantage point until he commanded so. Believing the Battle of Uhud won, they left their post and the Muslim army was no longer safely covered from above. Before this disobedience, God was allowing the Muslims to win. The Quran makes clear that this experience for the archers was a test in their conviction and obedience and that those who remained and died surely went to Heaven.
The dialogue provided in verse 155 is one of the longer ones that we’ve seen and, to me, seems to indicate the controversy and inner conflict resulting from the Battle of Uhud and the archers’ behavior. If there was a lot of back and forth that ended up in the Quran then it seems to me that these kinds of conversations were happening amongst the Muslims: lots of accusations, lots of problems, lots of need for resolution and the assignment of blame. This was a difficult experience and very trying for the fledgling Muslim community, and this verse indicates the degree to which people were struggling with the fallout. As the Quran often does, it assigns the result of people’s actions to God, but it is made clear that those who were tested and failed would be punished.
The following are Asad’s words, which I think are perfect and which I could never have communicated myself from the starred part in verses 155:
*“This is an illustration of a significant Qur’anic doctrine, which can be thus summarized: “Satan’s influence” on man is not the primary cause of sin but its first consequence: that is to say, a consequence of a person’s own attitude of mind which in moments of moral crisis induces him to choose the easier, and seemingly more pleasant, of the alternatives open to him, and thus to become guilty of a sin, whether by commission or omission. Thus, God’s “causing” a person to commit a sin is conditional upon the existence, in the individual concerned, of an attitude of mind which makes him prone to commit such a sin: which, in its turn, presupposes man’s free will – that is, the ability to make, within certain limitations, a conscious choice between two or more possible courses of action.”
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149. O YOU who have attained to faith! If you pay heed to those who are bent on denying the truth, they will cause you to turn back on your heels, and you will be the losers. 150. Nay, but God alone is your Lord Supreme, and His is the best succor. 151. Into the hearts of those who are bent on denying the truth We shall cast dread in return for their ascribing divinity, side by side with God, to other beings – [something] for which He has never bestowed any warrant from on high; and their goal is the fire – and how evil that abode of evildoers! 152. AND, INDEED, God made good His promise unto you when, by His leave, you were about to destroy your foes – until the moment when you lost heart and acted contrary to the [Prophet’s] command, and disobeyed after He had brought you within view of that [victory] for which you were longing. There were among you such as cared for this world [alone], just as there were among you such as cared for the life to come: whereupon, in order that He might put you to a test, He prevented you from defeating your foes. But now He has effaced your sin: for God is limitless in His bounty unto the believers. 153. [Remember the time] when you fled, paying no heed to anyone, while at your rear the Apostle was calling out to you – wherefore He requited you with woe in return for [the Apostle’s] woe, so that you should not grieve [merely] over what had escaped you, nor over what had befallen you: for God is aware of all that you do. 154. Then, after this woe, He sent down upon you a sense of security, an inner calm which enfolded some of you, whereas the others, who cared mainly for themselves, entertained wrong thoughts about God – thoughts of pagan ignorance – saying, “Did we, then, have any power of decision [in this matter]?” Say: “Verily, all power of decision does rest with God” – [but as for them,] they are trying to conceal within themselves that [weakness of faith] which they would not reveal unto thee, [O Prophet, by] saying, “If we had any power of decision, we would not have left so many dead behind.” Say [unto them]: “Even if you had remained in your homes, those [of you] whose death had been ordained would indeed have gone forth to the places where they were destined to lie down.” And [all this befell you] so that God might put to a test all that you harbor in your bosoms, and render your innermost hearts pure of all dross: for God is aware of what is in the hearts [of men]. 155. Behold, as for those of you who turned away [from their duty] on the day when the two hosts met in battle – Satan caused them to stumble only by means of something that they [themselves] had done.* But now God has effaced this sin of theirs: verily, God is much-forgiving, forbearing.
Asad does a great job explaining verse 144, both its more immediate relevance and its longstanding value. Though I understood the implication of the latter, the former is what occurred to me. That is to say that I understood this as being a reference to the near death experience of Mohammed at the Battle of Uhud. People thought Mohammed had died and this caused a great stir amongst the Muslims.
What I didn’t think about fully is that Abu Bakr had to deal with something quite similar – but real – when Mohammed actually did die. Abu Bakr’s comments that those who worshiped Mohammed know that he has died, but those who worship God know that He is ever-living is perfect to keep people believing Muslims even without their prophet. Very profound.
The emphasis on the troubles and hardships of the prophets and their followers also seems contextually grounded in the life of Mohammed and the umma at the time surrounding the Battle of Uhud. If these verses do indeed carry that theme, they resonate with an importance that speaks generally about the situation.
I’m always unsure of what to do when the same familiar ideas return as they do in lines 147 and 148, and I think part of the reason why is because of the chopped-up nature in which we’re reading the Quran here. By only taking a few lines at a time these themes and motifs appear as a piece of the present chunk of verses under investigation. On the contrary, I’d imagine that if we were reading the Quran straight through or at least in larger sections, then amidst the individual issues under discussion these themes would constantly recur, bracketing in specific parts and serving as a constant reinforcement of all else that is written in the Quran. I feel as though that would be a more powerful method of reading the Quran for the sake of these larger and very important messages.
That’s not to say that I’m going to change the way we’re doing things here, but just by way of noting the way I perceive the place of these kinds of lines in the Quran – the major thematic verses. Please share your thoughts about these verses in the comments below.
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144. AND MUHAMMAD is only an apostle; all the [other] apostles have passed away before him: if, then, he dies or is slain, will you turn about on your heels?* But he that turns about on his heels can in no wise harm God – whereas God will requite all who are grateful [to Him]. 145. And no human being can die save by God’s leave, at a term pre-ordained. And if one desires the rewards of this world, We shall grant him thereof; and if one desires the rewards of the life to come, We shall grant him thereof; and We shall requite those who are grateful [to Us]. 146. And how many a prophet has had to fight [in God’s cause], followed by many God-devoted men: and they did not become faint of heart for all that they had to suffer in God’s cause, and neither did they weaken, nor did they abase themselves [before the enemy], since God loves those who are patient in adversity; 147. and all that they said was this: “O our Sustainer! Forgive us our sins and the lack of moderation in our doings! And make firm our steps, and succour us against people who deny the truth!” – 148. whereupon God granted them the rewards of this world, as well as the goodliest rewards of the life to come: for God loves the doers of good.
Monotheistic Usury Banning
Usury is forbidden in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Now, many would say that usury is allowed in Judaism, but what the Torah says is that an Israelite can’t lend with usury to another Israelite. At the time of the writing of the Bible, this law certainly makes sense as well as why considering other peoples in the matter was totally irrelevant.
Christianity, in fact, used that very biblical verse to insist that usury was entirely illegal, and Jews, considering usury acceptable with someone else (i.e. Christians), were perfect for the job of money-lenders in Christendom because Christians couldn’t do it for themselves but needed the service and Jews were forbade from most else (e.g. owning land and farming, joining guilds, etc.). That Islam continues this ‘tradition’ and also bans usury is most significant, I think.
Asad offers an interesting reason for this: that the pagan Meccans had ammassed their wealth and armies through usury and this practice was not to be emulated.
Managing My Anger
The middle of verse 134 jumped out at me. Not only does it fall amidst an idea that I don’t think we’ve had too thoroughly yet (paradise), but it mentions that those who attain to the afterlife and who are God conscious and who presumably God appreciates the behavior of are those who “hold in check their anger.”
I’ve been very frustrated lately with a lot of things, largely mundane. In short, things that are supposed to work and that shouldn’t be a hassle are proving hassle-filled time sinks. I know that such things are part of life, but these things just seem to be compounding lately and my frustration and anger are getting the better of me.
It’s nice to have this soft warning here to say, God appreciates it when you curb your anger. This was definitely one of my most personal moments with the Quran so far.
135: Is there some particular shameful deed that one sins against himself that’s being referenced here or are there a host of these sins? I ask because I’m wondering if this is likened to all shameful deeds that we commit against all people and the verse is just saying that a sin against anyone is a sin against yourself. But I may be misreading.
Teaching Islam to a 7th Grade History Class
139: So I finally got my opportunity to discussed Islam with a 7th grade history class at a private Jewish day school. Though I didn’t get the introductory lesson, I did get “Islamic Expansion” (i.e. Ummayad dynasty). It was definitely fun, and I was amazed at how engaged the students were. I tried to convey how amazing it was that the Arabs managed to knock down the Persian Empire, push back the Byzantines considerably, and sweep in every direction.
Because we’d just read about the Battle of Uhud here, I was thinking about the importance of faith in God when going into battle – knowing that God will secure your victory but that one must believe in victory through God. This verse just recalled that for me because it references the Battle of Uhud and says that you will rise high if you believe.
The Turning Tides of Fortune
Verse 140 seems to carry on with my theme noted above from verse 134: we all experience fortune and misfortune, and we’re not the first to get either. Interestingly, this verse also pertains to martyrdom in the name of God, and though that is not how it has affected me personally, I imagine that many others have drawn faith and strength from this verse. For me, however, the beginning has proven a reminder that life has it’s ups and downs and that seeing ourselves through all of those times is important. I actually feel a lot better about things than when I first began this post.
What can you share with us about these verses?
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130. O YOU who have attained to faith! Do not gorge yourselves on usury, doubling and re-doubling it* – but remain conscious of God, so that you might attain to a happy state; 131. and beware of the fire which awaits those who deny the truth! 132. And pay heed unto God and the Apostle, so that you might be graced with mercy. 133. And vie with one another to attain to your Sustainer’s forgiveness and to a paradise as vast as the heavens and the earth, which has been readied for the God-conscious 134. who spend [in His way] in time of plenty and in time of hardship, and hold in check their anger, and pardon their fellow-men because God loves the doers of good; 135 and who, when they have committed a shameful deed or have [otherwise] sinned against themselves, remember God and pray that their sins be forgiven – for who but God could forgive sins? – and do not knowingly persist in doing whateverthey may have done. 136. These it is who shall have as their reward forgiveness from their Sustainer, and gardens through which running waters flow, therein to abide: and how excellent a reward for those who labour! 137. [MANY] WAYS of life have passed away before your time. Go, then, about the earth and behold what happened in the end to those who gave the lie to the truth: 138. this [should be] a clear lesson unto all men, and a guidance and an admonition unto the God-conscious.139. Be not, then, faint of heart, and grieve not: for you are bound to rise high if you are [truly] believers. 140 If misfortune touches you, [know that] similar misfortune has touched [other] people as well; for it is by turns that We apportion unto men such days [of fortune and misfortune]: and [this] to the end that God might mark out those who have attained to faith, and choose from among you such as [with their lives] bear witness to the truth – since God does not love evildoers – 141 and that God might render pure of all dross those who have attained to faith, and bring to nought those who deny the truth. 142. Do you think that you could enter paradise unless God takes cognizance of your having striven hard [in His cause], and takes cognizance of your having been patient in adversity? 143. For, indeed, you did long for death [in God’s cause] before you came face to face with it; and now you have seen it with your own eyes!
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As Asad tells us, these verses can hardly be understood without an understanding of the Battle of Uhud, and so Asad provides us with a rousing description of this marked battle between the Muslim forces of Medina and the Quryash forces from Mecca. Significantly, Asad notes that many of the verses of this surah come from this time, and I’m wondering if he means from here forward or other verses that we’ve already seen (and if so, which ones).
The Quran is very good at, as we’ve discussed many times, providing an eternal lesson out of the experiences of the Muslims of Mohammed’s day. For instance, immediately preceding this battle, 300 soldiers abandoned the Muslim army and two other leaders nearly left with their men as well, but ultimately stayed because God was watching out for the Muslims. The lesson behind the Muslim victory – and I call it a victory because when an army of that small size takes on and survives the assault of a larger force as it did, the fight can only have been but a victory – is that you must place your trust in God in order to be victorious (whether at battle or life). My interpolated point was not to discount the difficulties of the battle, including Mohammed’s injury, but I do think it’s something else that they won – and an important lesson too.
124. Is there something significant in the number of 3000 angels? What about 5000 in the following verse? If these numbers do not have known significance before these verses were written, do they come to have significance in later Islamic thought? Does 3000 angels represent 10 times the number of people who abandoned the Muslim forces? If so, what is 5000?
Not to continue this thread of questions, but are the last two verses a mild chastisement of Mohammed’s behavior for proclaiming certain things about people’s potential forgiveness by God? That is what Asad seems to imply. At the same time, it’s that same reminder that I recall somewhere from The Cow in which we are told that we can have no idea who God will and won’t forgive and let into heaven and the very act of saying that someone will be going to either place is cause enough for not being admitted into heaven. Which verses were those?
What else can you tell us about these verses?
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121. AND [remember, O Prophet, the day] when thou didst set out from thy home at early morn to place the believers in battle array. And God was all-hearing, all-knowing 122. when two groups from among you were about to lose heart, although God was near unto them and it is in God that the believers must place their trust: 123. for, indeed, God did succour you at Badr, when you were utterly weak. Remain, then, conscious of God, so that you might have cause to be grateful. 124. [And remember] when thou didst say unto the believers: “Is it not enough for you [to know] that your Sustainer will aid you with three thousand angels sent down [from on high]? 125. Nay, but if you are patient in adversity and conscious of Him, and the enemy should fall upon you of a sudden, your Sustainer will aid you with five thousand angels swooping down!” 126. And God ordained this [to be said by His Apostle] only as a glad tiding for you, and that your hearts should thereby be set at rest – since no succour can come from any save God, the Almighty, the Truly Wise – 127. [and] that [through you] He might destroy some of those who were bent on denying the truth, and so abase the others that they would withdraw in utter hopelessness. 128.[And] it is in no wise for thee [O Prophet] to decide whether He shall accept their repentance or chastise them – for, behold, they are but wrongdoers, 129. whereas unto God belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth: He forgives whom He wills, and He chastises whom He wills; and God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace.