Nature Ex Nihilo
The opening verse here is very philosophical in its nature, insinuating that written all throughout nature is evidence of God – we only have to know what we’re looking at. That is to say, everything comes from God and the reason there is so much harmony in nature and things are designed as they are is because it is all divinely planned.
A few examples regarding the absurd construction of natural things often pop into my head when people talk about how perfect nature is, but setting these things aside, nature certainly is wondrous and the argument of God being behind its design is a most necessary one religiously for a great many people.
The terminology here makes me want to confirm, though: does Islam believe in creation ex nihilo? Islam has a strong philosophical tradition, and much of that philosophy champions the notion that the cosmos are eternal. What is the traditional Islamic line about that notion?
The Conclusion of Al’-Imran
Verse 195 holds quite a promise and a reassurance for the downtrodden. The notion of suffering in God’s name is one I associate generally with Christianity, as it is a religion focused almost obsessively on suffering. This is not a focus of Islam, or at least I haven’t found that to be so, but it makes sense that God would promise those who do happen to suffer for righteous reasons a stake in the afterlife. “Efface their bad deeds” sounds like “sin forgiveness,” another concept I associate with Christianity.
Pointing out these similarities is not meant to undermine what is written here by applying a syncretistic bend to it, but merely to say that it is rather logical that these religions born of the same impetus (people who needed more than they were getting) and of the same God are to emphasize these inherently humane notions: all will be okay for those who are good yet suffer. When we think, why do bad things happen to good people, the Quran replies, God straightens it all out in the end.
My thoughts incline towards the fact that these are the concluding verses of Al’-Imran. Why? Are they a warning to the new Muslim community not to ultimately misinterpret this revelation as the religions before it misinterpreted theirs’? Verse 199 certainly seems to champion this notion as it provides the other side of this coin: that there are those of earlier revelations who have remained true to said religions and who deserve the same recompense as Muslims in the hereafter.
Please add what you can to our understanding of these final verses of Al’-Imran! Al’-Imran 190-200
190. Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the succession of night and day, there are indeed messages for all who are endowed with insight, 191. [and] who remember God when they stand, and when they sit, and when they lie down to sleep, and [thus] reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: “O our Sustainer! Thou hast not created [aught of] this without meaning and purpose. Limitless art Thou in Thy glory! Keep us safe, then, from suffering through fire! 192. “O our Sustainer! Whomsoever Thou shalt commit to the fire, him, verily, wilt Thou have brought to disgrace [in this world]; and such evildoers will have none to succor them. 193. “O our Sustainer! Behold, we heard a voice call [us] unto faith, `Believe in your Sustainer!’ – and so we came to believe. O our Sustainer! Forgive us, then, our sins, and efface our bad deeds; and let us die the death of the truly virtuous! 194. “And, O our Sustainer, grant us that which Thou hast promised us through Thy apostles, and disgrace us not on Resurrection Day! Verily, Thou never failest to fulfill Thy promise!” 195. And thus does their Sustainer answer their prayer: “I shall not lose sight of the labour of any of you who labors [in My way], be it man or woman: each of you is an issue of the other. Hence, as for those who forsake the domain of evil, and are driven from their homelands, and suffer hurt in My cause, and fight [for it], and are slain – I shall most certainly efface their bad deeds, and shall most certainly bring them into gardens through which running waters flow, as a reward from God: for with God is the most beauteous of rewards.” 196. LET IT NOT deceive thee that those who are bent on denying the truth seem to be able to do as they please on earth: 197. it is [but] a brief enjoyment, with hell thereafter as their goal – and how vile a resting-place! – 198. whereas those who remain conscious of their Sustainer shall have gardens through which running waters flow, therein to abide: a ready welcome from God. And that which is with God is best for the truly virtuous. 199. And, behold, among the followers of earlier revelation there are indeed such as [truly] believe in God, and in that which has been bestowed from on high upon you as well as in that which has been bestowed upon them. Standing in awe of God, they do not barter away God’s messages for a trifling gain. They shall have their reward with their Sustainer – for, behold, God is swift in reckoning! 200. O you who have attained to faith! Be patient in adversity, and vie in patience with one another, and be ever ready [to do what is right], and remain conscious of God, so that you might attain to a happy state!
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!
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.
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.
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.
The opening few verses here seem to indicate that we’ve returned to a familiar subject – the Jews and Christians (and in some cases more specifically the Jews) – and though it feels somewhat repetitive to me at this point, I have to remember that we are in a surah called Al-‘Imran, which is the House of Imran. That is to say that we’re talking about Mary’s family (the mother of Jesus) and therefore logically Christianity. I wonder about the degree to which words against and about the Jews fit into a surah with this title, and would be appreciative if anyone could shed some light on the larger place and naming of this surah.
Verses 113-115 address the issue that I discussed with such joy so long ago: those early verses of The Cow that explain how others can go to heaven and be rewarded in the afterlife regardless of their religion so long as they believe in the right things. After all of the condemnatory remarks found in this surah, it’s very nice to be reminded that faith in God is faith in God.
I’m very glad that Asad had something to say about verse 118 and clarified that it is accepted – particularly due to the presence of a verse that permits friendship with non-Muslims (whew!) – to befriend non-Muslims, despite the way this verse makes it sound. Those unlike you is not meant to say non-Muslims but rather those who oppose Islam or act in ways that are so contrary to Islam that friendship is all but impossible. That I can understand.
That said, making an effort to understand those who are so different from us (this us being an any us rather than a Muslim us) can have wonderful results, allowing mutual understanding and living in a way that was not believed possible before when it was thought that two people’s existences were so diametrically opposed. Again, though, I can also understand the need for a cautionary verse like this and don’t necessarily think that in early 7th century Arabia forging friendships for the sake of mutual understanding with those who sought to destroy the umma would have been a particularly savvy idea.
What can you add to these verses to help us understand their meaning? Any thoughts about the surah in general?
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110. YOU ARE indeed the best community that has ever been brought forth for [the good of] mankind: you enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong, and you believe in God. Now if the followers of earlier revelation had attained to [this kind of] faith, it would have been for their own good; [but only few] among them are believers, while most of them are iniquitous: 111. [but] these can never inflict more than a passing hurt on you; and if they fight against you, they will turn their backs upon you [in flight], and will not be succoured. 112. Overshadowed by ignominy are they wherever they may be, save [when they bind themselves again] in a bond with God and a bond with men; for they have earned the burden of God’s condemnation, and are overshadowed by humiliation: all this [has befallen them] because they persisted in denying the truth of God’s messages and in slaying the prophets against all right: all this, because they rebelled [against God], and persisted in transgressing the bounds of what is right. 113. [But] they are not all alike: among the followers of earlier revelation there are upright people, who recite God’s messages throughout the night, and prostrate themselves [before Him]. 114. They believe in God and the Last Day, and enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong, and vie with one another in doing good works: and these are among the righteous. 115. And whatever good they do, they shall never be denied the reward thereof: for, God has full knowledge of those who are conscious of Him. 116. [But,] behold, as for those who are bent on denying the truth – neither their worldly possessions nor their children will in the least avail them against God: and it is they who are destined for the fire, therein to abide. 117. The parable of what they spend on the life of this world is that of an icy wind which smites the tilth of people who have sinned against themselves, and destroys it: for, it is not God who does them wrong, but it is they who are wronging themselves. 118. O YOU who have attained to faith! Do not take for your bosom-friends people who are not of your kind. They spare no effort to corrupt you; they would love to see you in distress.** Vehement hatred has already come into the open from out of their mouths, but what their hearts conceal is yet worse. We have indeed made the signs [thereof] clear unto you, if you would but use your reason. 119. Lo! It is you who [are prepared to] love them, but they will not love you, although you believe in all of the revelation. And when they meet you, they assert, “We believe [as you believe]”; but when they find themselves alone, they gnaw their fingers in rage against you. Say: “Perish in your rage! Behold, God has full knowledge of what is in the hearts [of men]!” 120. If good fortune comes to you, it grieves them; and if evil befalls you, they rejoice in it. But if you are patient in adversity and conscious of God, their guile cannot harm you at all: for, verily, God encompasses [with His might] all that they do.