Quran Read-A-Long: The Cow 261-266 Speaks of Charity Given From the Heart

The message in verse 262 about the way that charity should be given (I think that’s what it means to spend one’s possessions for the sake of God) is very similar to the Jewish ‘levels’ of tzedakah (charity) that the 12th century Jewish philosopher (and doctor to the Sultan Saladin) expounded. The greatest kind of charity one could do is to give charity when neither the donor nor the recipient knew of the other. In that way, the donor has nothing to feel special about – he merely did his duty – and the recipient never has to have his feelings hurt or feel lower than or indebted to anyone.

Funny enough, the parable reminds me of a very “karmic” understanding of giving. The good you put out into the universe (in the right way, of course) comes back ten-fold. I used to wait tables when I was 19, and whenever I went out after work with my waiter friends to another restaurant they would tip so generously you’d think they’d been served gold. “Tipping Karma,” they used to say. It’ll all come back when people tip us later – but leave a crummy tip or begrudge another server his tip and you’d be like that lightening-struck rock with a run of bad tips that could last for weeks.

Now, that could seem superstitious, and far be it for me to reduce the words of the Quran to karma, but I think what it actually shows is the universality of this important ideal – generosity and the spreading of wealth beget more generosity and wealth for everyone. In the Quran, it’s just made clear that this principle originates with God. Only in this way does a Reaganomics Trickle Down Theory work because by the Quran a spiritual element and understanding have been infused into the importance of spreading the wealth, forcing us to remembers that all we have we have by God’s grace and mercy.

After these verses I read verse 266 and fail to understand the idea therein. Is the person in this verse a person who failed to share the wonderful bounty he’d been given with this marvelous land? Is it saying that he should not have let the fruit remain solely within his garden and should have spread it around so that none of it ever went bad? Verse 267 didn’t help me grasp the meaning, but if anyone could shed some light on this verse I would be grateful. I feel as though it brings these other verses in an interesting direction that I’m failing to get.

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The Cow 261-266

261. THE PARABLE of those who spend their possessions for the sake of God is that of a grain out of which grow seven ears, in every ear a hundred grains: for God grants manifold increase unto whom He wills; and God is infinite, all-knowing. 262. They who spend their possessions for the sake of God and do not thereafter mar* their spending by stressing their own benevolence and hurting [the feelings of the needy] shall have their reward with ‘their Sustainer, and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve. 263. A kind word and the veiling of another’s want is better than a charitable deed followed by hurt; and God is self-sufficient, forbearing. 264. O you who have attained to faith! Do not deprive your charitable deeds of all worth by stressing your own benevolence and hurting [the feelings of the needy], as does he who spends his wealth only to be seen and praised by men, and believes not in God and the Last Day: for his parable is that of a smooth rock with [a little] earth upon it – and then a rainstorm smites it and leaves it hard and bare. Such as these shall have no gain whatever from all their [good] works: for God does not guide people who refuse to acknowledge the truth. 265. And the parable of those who spend their possessions out of a longing to please God, and out of their own inner certainty, is that of a garden on high, fertile ground: a rainstorm smites it, and thereupon it brings forth its fruit twofold; and if no rainstorm smites it, soft rain [falls upon it]. And God sees all that you do. 266. Would any of you like to have a garden of date-palms and vines, through which running waters flow, and have all manner of fruit therein – and then be overtaken by old age, with only weak children to [look after] him-and then [see] it smitten by a fiery whirlwind and utterly scorched? In this way God makes clear His messages unto you, so that you might take thought.

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Fun with the Bible: The Importance of Charity in a Ten Commandments Time

I wrote an article for the Nashville Free Press in my column, No Holier Than Thou, about the importance of charity and the concept of charity among Judaism, Islam and Christianity. To check out this article, please click HERE and please feel free to leave comments either there or here.

Enjoy!

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Quran Read-A-Long: The Cow 177-182 Creates Two Ways of Keeping Wills Honest

The First Half

What a wonderful opening verse! At a basic level it seems to speak of what piety is. Is piety related to which direction you face (presumably for prayer), which is to say a religious matter? No. Piety is about those few fundamentally important beliefs (God, Last Day, etc.) and in being a charitable person who helps others. Piety and social responsibility, then, are rather related – a wonderful message. Interestingly, though, this discussion turns into one about wills, inheritance and retribution.

What is meant by “recompense (for blood) paid with a grace?” This seems related to the retribution for the murdered, but I’m wondering if we’re talking about the same dead person. Is it saying that God gives grace (i.e. brings to Heaven) whosoever is murdered? Obviously it couldn’t be anyone who gets that privilege, but some who may have made amends, surely. Perhaps that’s why it is seen as a concession by God, because the idea is that the murdered man may not have been worthy of Heaven at that moment but could have become so given time. I feel like I’m stretching to make this verse work when I simply don’t understand what it’s saying.

The Second Half

At first I was very confused about verses 180-182, but by the end I think I got it. I kept asking myself, Why does one need to give away his stuff at the end of his life rather than after his death, but 182 makes it quite clear why: because people have been known to change wills. What’s interesting is how the Quran recognizes this societal problem (there would not be laws about it if it were not a problem) and takes a two-pronged approach to solving it.

On the one hand, there is a practical, on the ground approach, and on the other, a celestial approach. First, the solution is that people nearing death will bequeath their goods before they die, thereby ensuring that the people who are supposed to have them do indeed have them. Thus, there can be no mistaking that the will was not altered. Second, the Quran makes this more than a mundane matter and tells us that anyone who does mess with wills will be divinely punished, and it even encourages those who suspect will-tamperers to come forward by ensuring that such people will not be punished, either by God or, I assume, other people (at least the Godly injunction would seem to prevent such thing).

I must say that I find this to be very clever. It is by no means a unique way of doing things. The Torah is all over this dual method of ensuring that problems are solved with a heavenly and an earthly solution, as well as other societies in which religion and penal codes are one and the same, but this is very well done. Identify a problem: will-tampering. Propose a solution: give away stuff before death. Reinforce divinely: God punishes those who break this law. Bravo!

Do you have anything to add to my assessment or would you like to point out anything that I’ve missed? What do you think of these verses?

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The Cow 177 – 182

177. Piety does not lie in turning your face to East or West: Piety lies in believing in God, the Last Day and the angels, the Scriptures and the prophets, and disbursing your wealth out of love for God among your kin and the orphans, the wayfarers and mendicants, freeing the slaves, observing your devotional obligations, and in paying the zakat and fulfilling a pledge you have given, and being patient in hardship, adversity, and times of peril. These are the men who affirm the truth, and they are those who follow the straight path. 178. O believers, ordained for you is retribution for the murdered, (whether) a free man, or a slave of a slave, or a woman of a woman. But he who is pardoned some of it by his brother should be dealt with equity, and recompense (for blood) paid with a grace. This is a concession from your Lord and a kindness. He who trangresses in spite of it shall suffer painful punishment. 179. In retribution there is life (and preservation). O men of sense, you may haply take heed for yourselves. 180. It is ordained that when any one of you nears death, and he owns good and chattels, he should bequeath them equitably to his parents and next of kin. This is binding on those who are upright and fear God. 181. And any one who changes the will, having heard it, shall be guilty and accountable; for God hears all and knows everything. 182. He who suspects wrong or partiality on the part of the testator and brings about a settlement, does not incur any guilt, for God is verily forgiving and merciful.

Quran Read-A-Long: The Cow 83-86

The Ten Commandments, More or Less

This passage begins with what seems to be a reference to the Ten Commandments because it starts by referencing a covenant with the people of Israel. The commandments here that align with the biblical injunctions are 1. to worship only God and 2. to be good to one’s parents. We get some bonus commandments mentioned in the Quranic version which I think are excellent additions: speak of goodness to men and give charity. There are certain provisions throughout other law-giving moments in the Torah that speak about charity and caring for orphans but not right in the 10 commandments as they are presented here – and this speaking of goodness to men is a great one, I must say.

The Disobeying Israelites

The rest of the passage is about a familiar theme: the Israelites reneging on their promises. They say they won’t kill (also a commandment) but they do. They also claim that they won’t kick their people out of their homes, but they do. Is this reference to kicking certain people out of their homes a particular reference to something in the Bible or does Islam explain what event(s) this refers to in other literature (or elsewhere in the Quran)? Perhaps it refers to inner-tribal warfare (like when the Benjamites go to war with the rest of the tribes of Israel).

The Issue of the Book – Again

The Israelites are asked in verse 85 if they believe only part of the Torah and reject the rest. Within these and other quranic verses it would certainly seem that way. I can’t be sure what this refers to within Islam in particular (though I’d be fascinated to find out if you know), though I can say that within Judaism it seems that this is true.

Jews today, and in Mohammed’s time, no longer obeyed any of the sacrificial laws (a large chunk of the Torah’s laws) because they didn’t have the Temple in which to sacrifice. The rabbis had, by this time, created innumerable additional laws and turned other laws around (it should be added, not maliciously and deceptively but in order to preserve a religion that was no longer Temple-centric) and so if one were to read the Torah that the Jews had in the 7th century and compared this with their practices one would definitely see a series of discrepancies. However, I can’t be sure if this is referring to the actions of the Israelites historically (probably so) or to the contemporary Jews. Maybe both?

Judgment

In any case, a theme that has appeared repeatedly and no doubt one that will reappear again and again as a central tenet of Islam, is that we will all be judged. The bad will be disgraced and the good rewarded. No matter what we do, God is aware and there is no escaping His judgment. Verse 86 makes it clear that there is no value in trading the quality of the next life for anything in this one.

Summary

What do you think of these verses and what do they make you think of? Can you help answer anything that I mentioned above? What can you add to help us understand these verses better?

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The Cow 83-86

83. Remember, when We made a covenant with the people of Israel and said: “Worship no one but God, and be good to your parents and your kin, and to orphans and the needy, and speak of goodness to men; observe your devotional obligations, and give zakat (the due share of your wealth for the welfare of others),” you went back (on your word), except only a few, and paid no heed. 84. And remember, when We made a covenant with you whereby you agreed you will neither shed blood among you nor turn your people out of their homes, you promised, and are witness to it too. 85. But you still kill one another, and you turn a section of your people from their homes, assisting one another against them with guilt and oppression. Yet when they are brought to you as captives you ransom them, although forbidden it was to drive them away. Do you, then, believe a part of the Book and reject a part? Ther is no other award for them who so act but disgrace in the the world, and on the Day of Judgment the severest of punishment; for God is not heedless of all that you do. 86. They are those who bought the life of the world at the cost of the life to come; and neither will their torment decrease nor help reach them.