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!
Nature Ex Nihilo
The subject of usury is one that comes to the fore in Judaism, Christianity, and now as I finally see, Islam. The Bible says, “If you lend money to any of My people who are poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them” (Exodus 22:25). It is this verse, in large part, which makes usury so repulsive to Christianity (well, not now but back in the day). Christians were forbidden to lend money at interest to one another. Jews were also forbidden, according to this verse, from lending money at interest to one another – but not to Christians. Why? Because the verse specifies “My people,” which for Jews means only other Jews. Thus, Jews can lend with interest to Christians.
Indeed, this is where the Christian stereotype of the greedy, money-grubbing Jew came from. There was a need in 10th century Christian society for money-lenders because Christians couldn’t do it themselves, and Jews were forbidden from doing pretty much everything else (couldn’t be part of guilds and do crafts, couldn’t own land and farm, etc. – hence, money-lending and middle-men traders). Thus, Jews became money-lenders in the Christian world. Today, neither Christians nor Jews seem to have such a problem with what we just call now, banking.
The questions that these verses bring up for me pertain to the nature of banking in modern-day Islam. With usury forbidden, how does banking work in theocratic Islamic countries, like say, Saudi Arabia. Is it forbidden? Is it considered a necessary evil? How do many modern Muslims in general reconcile this verse with what seems to have become the modern capitalist norm (not that all Muslims are modern capitalists but for those who subscribe)? I don’t expect anyone to be able to answer these questions for everyone else, but just generally to share how s/he deals with this. I find that Christians and Jews simply ignore it at this point.
I’d like to add a note by Asad about verse 281: that according to the uncontested evidence of Ibn’ Abbas this verse was the last revelation granted to the Prophet, who died shortly afterward.
Is there anything else you can tell us about these verses?
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The Cow 274-281
274. Those who spend their possessions [for the sake of God] by night and by day, secretly and openly, shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve. 275. THOSE who gorge themselves on usury behave but as he might behave whom Satan has confounded with his touch; for they say, “Buying and selling is but a kind of usury” – the while God has made buying and selling lawful and usury unlawful. Hence, whoever becomes aware of his Sustainer’s admonition, and thereupon desists [from usury], may keep his past gains, and it will be for God to judge him; but as for those who return to it -they are destined for the fire, therein to abide! 276. God deprives usurious gains of all blessing, whereas He blesses charitable deeds with manifold increase. And God does not love anyone who is stubbornly ingrate and persists in sinful ways. 277. Verily, those who have attained to faith and do good works, and are constant in prayer, and dispense charity – they shall have their reward with their Sustainer, and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve. 278. O yo who have attained to faith! Remain conscious of God and give up all outstanding gains from usury, if you are [truly] believers; 279. for if you do it not, then know that you are at war with God and His Apostle. But if you repent, then you shall be entitled to [the return of] your principal: you will do no wrong, and neither will you be wronged. 280. If, however, [the debtor] is in straitened circumstances, [grant him] a delay until a time of ease; and it would be for your own good – if you but knew it – to remit [the debt entirely] by way of charity. 281. And be conscious of the Day on which you shall be brought back unto God, whereupon every human being shall be repaid in full for what he has earned, and none shall be wronged.
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Since this entire passage seems to me to discuss how the Jews don’t believe in revelations that came after the Torah despite their verification of the Jews’ own text, I’m going to focus only on verse 94, which concerns, I think, chosenness. Please feel free to comment on any other part of this passage, however, as it’s all up for discussion.
The Idea of Chosenness
Jews believe that they are the chosen people. Apparently, they were elected by God way back in the day to possess a certain land and forever be God’s chosen and consecrated people. Personally, I don’t live way back in the day – though I may recall it frequently in anecdotes and such – but rather, I live today. What’s important to me are the concerns that we face today and how to make today a better place.
Living in the Now
Many people don’t share those concerns to the extreme that I do, which isn’t to say that they’re not interested in present day issues as much as to say that they’re not concerned with them to the exclusion of what was once important. I am. Some see that as a flaw or as foolishness, but it’s just who I am. I very rarely see the value of preserving tradition solely for the sake of tradition and particularly if it’s detrimental to modern concerns and progress.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t value and respect tradition and the past. After all, I’m trained as a historian and I love studying and understanding religion (hence, The Zen of South Park). However, I’m not attached to ideas or traditions from the past so much so that I can’t give them up to make the world a better place. Most people aren’t with me on that, and I can appreciate that.
The Problem with Chosenness
The idea of being chosen by God, I think, is a dangerous notion. Chosenness implies elitism and a “better than others-ness” that I find pernicious to people’s ability to interact, coexist and progress. How can we talk to one another knowing that the other considers his race/religion/ethnicity/family superior to everyone else’s – and I don’t just mean to have its general advantages and qualities (which is probably okay) but that he believes that he has been chosen by God as an elect?
That’s a pretty twisted notion and makes mutual dialogue difficult. I constantly struggle with the idea of chosenness because I dislike it when people think that there’s something innately special about themselves that is not so in others – that birth precedes merit. This idea manifests itself in many forms throughout the world, but is quite apparent in the notion of Jewish chosenness – the suggestion that only the Jews are God’s chosen people.
Now, this passage doesn’t provide a flattering portrayal of the Jews, considering that it lambasts them for rejecting these very words which verify the truth of the Torah, and I must point out that my own sentiments on the matter of chosenness do not follow this general thread of condemnation. However, I found the larger point here – that the Jews stick to the Torah and its notion of chosenness to the exclusion of others being able to reach God, which is a patently absurd idea (that we can’t all be with God in the afterlife) – that I find it damaging and unhelpful and wanted to speak out about it myself.
What do you think of this passage? Do you have anything to add? What do you think of the idea of chosenness, whether in this particular instance as it relates to the Jews or in its general application to so many people’s understanding of themselves and their people as supremely special?
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The Cow: 87-97
87. Remember We gave Moses the Book and sent after him many an apostle; and to Jesus, son of Mary, We gave clear evidence of the truth, reinforcing him with divine grace. Even so, when a messenger brought to you what did not suit your mood you turned haughty, and called some imposters and some others you slew. 88. And they say: “Our hearts are enfolded in covers.” In fact God has cursed them for their unbelief; and only a little do they believe. 89. And when the Book was sent to them by God verifying what had been revealed to them already – even though before it they used to pray for victory over the unbelievers – and even though they recognized it when it came to them, they renounced it. The curse of God be on those who deny! 90. They bartered their lives ill denying revelation of God out of spite that God should bestow His grace among His votaries on whomsoever He will, and thus earned wrath upon wrath. The punishment for disbelievers is ignominious. 91. And when it is said to them: “believe in what God has sent down,” they say: “We believe what was sent to us, and do not believe what has come thereafter,” although it affirms the truth they possess already. Say: “Why have you then been slaying God’s apostles as of old, if you do believe?” 92. Although Moses had come to you with evidence of the truth, you chose the calf in his absence, and you transgressed. 93. Remember when We took your pledge and exalted you on the Mount (saying: ) “Hold fast to what We have given you, firmly, and pay heed,” you said: “We have heard and will not obey.” (The image of) the calf had sunk deep into their hearts on account of unbelief. Say: “Vile is your belief if you are believers indeed!” 94. Tell them: “If you think you alone will abide with God to the exclusion of the rest of Mankind, in the mansions of the world to come, then wish for death if what you say is true.” 95. But they will surely not wish for death because of what they had done in the past; and God knows the sinners well. 96. You will see they are covetous of life more than other men, even more than those who practice idolatry. Each one of them desires to live a thousand years, although longevity will never save them from punishment, for God sees all they do.
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The Jews’ Position in Islamic Society
The direct addressees of these verses are the Children of Israel, which is to say, the Jews. As you may know, Muslims consider Jews to be ‘people of the Book,’ that book being the Bible. Because Muslims believe that the Bible is revealed scripture from God – with the Quran being God’s final communique with men – Jews and Christians are both respected as people who acknowledge Allah and follow his word, just not all of it. For this reason, in Muslim culture, Jews were given the status of dhimmi, a second-class citizen (pretty good compared to anyone who wasn’t Jewish, Muslim or Christian) and paid an additional tax and were subject to additional rules (related to dress, their houses of prayer, living situation, etc.).
The Jews and Their Scriptures in the Quran
In any case, this passage of the Quran acknowledges the traditional relationship between God and the Jews, with God recalling all that he had done for the Jews (presumably, freeing them from Egyptian bondage, giving them a homeland and protecting them so long as they were good). This was part of the covenant, which verse 40 calls a “pledge,” though I’m curious about the original Arabic. Is the root of the word b-r-t/s?
Verse 41 is fascinating because it tells the Jews that they should recognize the holiness and from-God-ness of the Quran, these very verses, because it verifies (and complements) “what is already with” them, which is to say, the Bible (or at least the Old Testament). The next few verses are an exhortation along similar lines, telling them not to be misled, and then verse 44 asks why, if the Jews have read the Scriptures, do they not understand the veracity of this text.
Though the Children of Israel will come up again and again throughout the Quran, this first mention sets up the historical attitude of Islam towards Judaism, which is that it must be respected as having understood part of the picture, but that the religion still rejects that which it knows should be true. I think that this attitude is well-intentioned and one of tolerance, but does not go the full mile when it comes to our modern sentiments about acceptance.
Still, for an idea originating 1400 years ago, we should appreciate what it’s doing and not expect it to conform to our modern wishes. Fortunately, there are many Muslims today that take this farther and recognize that Jews (as well as Christians) have a right to worship God to the extent that they please, acknowledging those of His scriptures that work for them. I only hope this attitude spreads, not just among Muslims but Christians and Jews as well.
Some Questions and Related Articles
What do you think about these verses? What are your thoughts on the modern need for inter-religious toleration and acceptance verse the right of a religion to believe its traditional teachings (whether related to Islam or not)?
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The Cow 40-46
40. O Children of Israel, remember the favours I bestowed on you. So keep your pledge to Me, and I will mine to you, and be fearful of Me, 41. And believe in what I have sent down which veifies what is already with you; and do not be the first to deny it, nor part with it for little gain; and beware of Me. 42. Do not confuse truth with falsehood, nor conceal the truth knowingly. 43. Be firm in devotion; give zakat (the due share of your welath for the welfare fo others), and bow with those who bow (before God). 44. Will you enjoin good deeds on the others and forget your own selves? You also read the Scriptures, why do you then not understand? 45. Find strength in fortitude and prayer, which is heavy and exacting but for those who are humble and meek, 46. Who are conscious that they have to meet their Lord, and to Him they have to return.
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