Thursday, November 16, 2006

Blogging the Qur'an, Surah 6


Opening oddity: the Royal "We." Initially, the use of the Royal We came into English use because of the theory of the "king's two bodies" – that the king was simultaneously himself as an individual, and also himself as head of state (two bodies in one). An alternative theory states that the Royal We came into use because the monarch embodied and represented all of his subjects at once, speaking for them. Yet in the translation of the Qur'an, Allah refers to himself with the Royal We. This seems like an odd choice. With a religion and scripture so focused on Allah's transcendence, peerlessness, and oneness, one would not think of Allah as the "head of" anything, or to have dual roles, or to have enough in common with any created thing to be "representative" of them. The use of the Royal We, then, seems an odd translation choice – obviously not because Allah is not important enough to use it, but because the reasons why it is used do not seem to apply to Allah.

Without further ado, enter Surah 6 – Cattle.

The surah opens with a paean to the multitude of reasons for belief in Allah. The existence of creation and your own birth (similar to the proof for God that replaces "I think therefore I am" with "I was born and can conceive of God and therefore God must be.") Interestingly, the surah also lists your own death as an additional reason to believe in Allah. This makes sense two different ways: in its own way, death is as remarkable a natural occurrence as life; and also death is the ultimate reason for religious belief. As Rosenzweig said, in the face of death, philosophy (as opposed to religion) is like a man stuffing his fingers in his ears and saying "I can't hear you."

The surah acknowledges that there will always be disbelievers, no matter what. They think themselves secure while enjoying Allah's blessings, but their security is an illusion that Allah can sweep away at any time by withdrawing those blessings when their debt is not acknowledged.

My brother-in-law once said something to the effect of: "If God would just rearrange the stars to write Jesus's name, evangelism would be easier." This surah deals with this common sentiment. The Pharisees in Jesus's time they said that if the prophets had come to them instead of to their ancestors, they would have believed. The Pharisees also demanded "a sign." Jesus rebuked them, saying that only a wicked generation demanded a sign, and that they were no better. This surah makes a similar point. Allah provides signs as he wills, and those who disbelieve his inspired messenger – Muhammad – will not believe no matter what signs are shown. So the disbelievers always ask for "something more." Muhammad tells them revelations from Allah. What do they say? Essentially, "we don't believe, show us something written down in Allah's handwriting." If Allah sent an angel instead of a man, the angel would have had to be in man-form anyway to communicate with men, and the disbelievers still would have disbelieved. Besides, the surah says, if Allah sends his angels down to mankind, it's already too late – that means the End is here. This section is very reminiscent of Jesus's parable about the dead beggar, Lazarus, and the rich man. The rich man, burning in hell, begged Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them about damnation. Abraham says that "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them follow them." The rich man says "But they will listen if they hear it from a dead man!" Abraham replies: "If they don't believe Moses and the Prophets, then they won't believe even if someone rises from the dead." This was a poignant foreshadowing of Jesus's own death and resurrection (which still didn't convince the unbelievers) and it is exactly the point this surah makes – if they don't believe Allah's truth and message when he has sent you a Prophet (Muhammad) then they won't believe no matter what Allah does, whether it's a sign or an angel. They're just making excuses.

The surah goes on to say that Allah "prescribes for himself mercy" – that is, everyone needs mercy, and Allah's sufferance alone is the source. Eventually there will be a day of reckoning, and on that day one will either have Allah as a friend or foe. Terror and judgment await those who choose wrongly. This is a powerful concept – people often talk about the glorious presence of God. It is glorious, but whether or not it is a good thing (for you) depends largely on your situation. If you are a friend of Allah, then his presence is a joy and a help and you rejoice that you cannot depart. If you are an unbeliever, then Allah's presence is terror and judgment.

As a lawyer, I rather liked the surah's comment that the best possible witness one could have is Allah – and Allah's testimony is that he is One. Yet people choose the ruin of their own soul by rejecting Allah's testimony through his messenger. The words of Allah find the hearts of those who are meant to receive it. This is similar to the Christian doctrine of predestination – a theme we will come back to throughout the surah – and also resembles Jesus's parable of the sower, that the seed of the Word will find its way to good soil.

Conversely, as Allah witnesses that he is One, and always bears true witness, so those who bear false witness about Allah are the greatest wrongdoers. There are two ways to fall into this ignoble category: (1) deny these revelations, since that is denying Allah's words, or (2) invent lies about Allah, saying that he has "partners" (rival gods).

The surah goes on to describe the fate of those "greatest wrongdoers" – that on the last day, everyone will believe, but too late to save themselves. There is a clever, almost funny image used here – the last day comes, and the unbelievers come naked and alone before Allah. Allah then asks, deadpan, "Where are all your other gods? ("partners of make-believe") You thought they were so useful, let them show up now!" You can have whatever make-believe gods you want, but they don't show up when crunch time hits before Allah. Then the unbelievers will try to change their story, but too late. Of course, even their repentance isn't true repentance – it's just borne out of fear, and if the day somehow passed they'd go right back to their idols. Nice touch, given the way many folks get very pious when no one but God can help, but forget God as soon as the crisis passes.

There's an interesting next verse (25) in the surah that says Allah places "veils upon the hearts" of some who hear, lest they repent. This is strikingly similar to God's injunction to Isaiah in Is. 6:9-10 (and later quoted by Jesus as the reason for speaking in parables) -- [God] said, "Go and tell this people: " 'Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.' Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed."

The surah supports the suicide bomber (martyrdom seeker)'s reasoning: this world is nothing compared to the Hereafter. Almost rhetorically, the question comes – have you no sense? Why reject joy everlasting? Why reject the truth? Reminds me of the quote by Jim Eliot (martyred Christian missionary in South America ca. 1956) – "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." To be clear, there is no specific call to martyrdom in this passage, but its focus on the Hereafter could lead one that direction.

The surah goes on to counsel Muhammad how to deal with rejection. Muhammad is not the first messenger to be rejected. If the disbelief grieves Muhammad, don't let it, because there is no sign that could convince the disbelievers. They all need to hear, but it's not your job to convince them. Allah does the only effective convincing – in fact, Allah himself will raise the dead and let them hear the message (though presumably they will still not believe unless they were intended to believe – more predestination). There are those who will say "why is there no sign" (see above) but they do not know the truth or they would not need a sign. As Jesus said, "a wicked and adulterous generation demands a sign, but no sign shall be given but the sign of Jonah."

Nor is Allah just revealing himself for the first time. Many people and nations have received revelations from God. These have been messengers, prophets, and calamities sent to keep men humble. But they still never learned ("the devil made all they used to do seem fair" in their own eyes). So Allah let these wicked men prosper for a time and then caught them and destroyed them in the very moment of their triumph and enjoyment. This passage has a lot of resonance with the Psalms, the wicked prospering for awhile but ultimately being swept away.

In verse 50 Muhammad clarifies his claims. He does not claim to have the "treasures of Allah" (talismans or something like that) or the "knowledge of the unseen" (presumably some sort of mystic, Gnostic knowledge) and does not claim to be "an angel". Muhammad has only revelation from Allah, and that is enough.

Interesting section now follows on Muhammad's instructions on how to deal with believers and unbelievers. For the believers, "those who call on the Lord and seek his face, do not drive them away." Does this mean Muhammad maintains a "big tent" for those who truly wish to follow Allah? Perhaps, for the surah goes on to say that "You are not accountable for them and they are not for you." Only Allah can compare each to the other; no man can say which person Allah favours most.

As for the unbelievers, if they demand proof of the coming wrath and judgment, well, that's up to Allah in his own time. If it were up to Muhammad, he would have judgment come immediately; but God is "the Best of Deciders." (Take that, George W. Bush!)

Only Allah can deliver men from darkness. Verse 63 has a pithy note about unbelievers who pray in secret to Allah saying "save us from this and then we will be thankful" but then how, after merciful deliverance, they still attribute other gods beside him.

Another interesting set of verses on unbelievers. Verse 65 says that for "those who deny the truth, "Say (Muhammad): I am not put in charge of you." Muhammad is not in charge of those who disbelieve. One can see this either as a mandate to leave the unbelievers to their own sinful devices, or simply a reminder that each soul stands or falls under the gaze of Allah.

Irony alert – verse 68 seems to speak directly to those of us involved in this "blogging the Qur'an" project: "when you see those who meddle with our revelations, withdraw until they meddle with another topic" So it's no wonder blogging the Qur'an would not engage a lot of Muslim attention – they're commanded not to deal with those who meddle with the revelations. Regarding the previous paragraph, this also looks like a command to disassociate and warn, not conquer.

The surah then goes on to warn Muhammad to forsake those who see religion as a "pastime" and who are beguiled by the world. In other words, beware those who want to turn religion into just another club. You hear exactly the same from orthodox religious figures the world over. It seems that a good part of why so-called modernizers and reformers who call for "more palatable" (i.e. more Western and secular) interpretations of Islam have not caught on and are generally despised. If the goal of such "modernizers" is to turn Islam into the Arab equivalent of the United Methodists or the Unitarians or the other dying liberal Protestant denominations, then no wonder they are rejected. You don't turn Allah's truth into a social club full of good intentions where you go on Sundays to "teach your children some morals and values." You live it or you leave it.

Following is one of the more interesting and cohesive narrative sections of the surah. This part tells a story of Abraham. Abraham tells his father and family that they are idolators. They dispute this. Then Abraham starts pretending to worship the heavenly bodies – a star that rises, the moon when it rises, the sun when it rises. Each time he pretends to be totally dismayed when they set, saying "I need guidance and help all the time, not just when they're up – where are they now?" Yet they still dispute, so he says: how can you blame me for questioning your crappy gods, who can't even stick around, when you stand there questioning the true God? I'm the one secure in this situation, not you, because I am questioning things you worship, while you are questioning the one who created them.

The surah then goes on to list "the righteous," which is a Biblical who's who --- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Noah, David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Moses & Aaron, along with Elijah, Elisha, Ishmael, Jonah, and Lot from the Old Testament. There is also Zachariah and John and Jesus from the New Testament. There's a lot of overlap in this surah between the other People of the Book – a focus on Islam as the superseding "New Covenant" (Islam is to Christianity as Christianity is to Judaism). The list of the righteous is those people to whom God gave the Scriptures and wisdom and prophecy. But if those people disbelieve, then the Scriptures will pass to those who do believe – the new Islamic believers inherit all the Scriptures and revelation of the past covenants.

A break in the trail of listing who's received which revelation: Muhammad is ordered to "Ask no fee for giving warning, for you are only being a Reminder as you were told to be." I suppose this does not technically say Muhammad cannot receive a fee if offered, only that he should spread revelation whether rewarded temporally or not.

Back to the revelation argument: If the Jews (presumably applying to other People of the Book also, but particularly the Jews) object to Islam because "God doesn't speak to mankind," then you have an easy answer – where else did the Torah come from? They didn't know it in advance, nor did their ancestors; it was all new. So obviously God can give revelation. Muhammad's Scripture is a Scripture confirming that revealed before, to "warn Mecca and those surrounding." This is one of the passages I found most interesting, since it seems to indicate that Muhammad may have perceived of his role differently (and less grandly) at some point. There is a big difference between being the particular prophet to a people (the Arabs) who hadn't received a specific messenger up to that point (unlike, say, the Jews) and being The Prophet.

I love this title for Allah: "Cleaver of the Daybreak."

Also, note that the Qur'an is just as Creationist, if not more, than the most zealous Christian fundamentalist. In fact, this surah indicates that "the jinn" were created by Allah (thus showing that they are not in fact gods, but creatures). First mention of the Jinn in this surah.

The surah then specifically takes on one of the competing religious narratives: Christianity. The surah complains that some "ascribe to [Allah] sons and daughters", obviously a reference to Jesus the "Son of God." But Allah cannot have a child, the surah argues, because he is the Originator, and thus cannot a "consort" since he created all things? It is hard to tell if this is intended as a real response – an argument about the unity and eternality of Allah precluding any sense of a sub-aspect like "God the Son" – or if it is merely a flatly literal interpretation of the complex doctrine of the Incarnation and the Trinity (i.e. "Christians claim God has a son. God does not have a wife. Therefore God has no son.") The first is not particularly well fleshed-out, if that is the intent. The second raises the interesting possibility that Muhammad may have been acting out of some rudimentary Christian convictions, except that due to his relative isolation from major Christian centers, he got only the crude watered-down version of the doctrine, which made him think it needed revision.

The surah now reiterates that the idolaters would not be idolatrous except for the will of God. More predestination. It also says specifically that Muhammad is not responsible for the idolaters.

Here is a really interesting passage to apply to modernity. Allah orders Muhammad that he should not "blaspheme" the false entities that idolaters claim are their gods, lest Muhammad induce "retaliatory blasphemy," so to speak, of Allah. In other words, show respect even for false gods of idolaters, to encourage idolaters to show respect for Allah. I am afraid I think immediately of the Danish cartoon fiasco, the censorship and racism of similar cartoons run in Muslim papers, and the subsequent Iranian "Holocaust Cartoon" seminar – the way that Muslims demanded respect from Western publications while simultaneously running cartoons disrespectful of Jews and Christians seems pretty clearly contrary to this section of the surah.

The surah then goes back to the earlier idea of using signs and portents to induce belief in the unbelievers. The idolaters all swear they will believe with a sign. But Allah knows that even though they say they will believe, they still wouldn't. "Though an angel speak to them, they would not believe; though the dead speak to them; they would not believe, unless God opened their hearts. But most are ignorant (willfully)."

Allah then goes on to say that he has appointed for every Prophet an adversary – "devils of humankind and jinn" to spin beguiling tales to unbelievers. Allah allows this so that every person may feel good about their sin, keep doing it, and thus earn their just punishment.

The next section is where the surah gets its name – it deals with dietary restrictions.

Always say Allah's blessing upon meals. As long as grace has been said over the food, there's no reason no to eat it. Unless, of course, it is forbidden. But you would know that in advance. Unless you are compelled (does this mean to eat something forbidden?) Avoid eating anything over which Allah's blessing has not been said.

I was a bit confused at verse 123, which says that "he who was dead and we have raised to life" has nothing in common with one in darkness – does this mean Jesus? The eucharist? Or is the verse just saying, in a convoluted way, that those who behave like the idolaters (in darkness) have nothing in common with those who are not idolaters (they who were dead and who were raised to life, metaphorically)?

An interesting turn of phrase follows, saying that Allah "makes broad" his bosom for believers and "makes narrow" for unbelievers. This seems like the opposite phraseology of the New Testament, though for a similar concept – compare the New Testament "broad road that leads to destruction" with the "camel passing through the eye of a needle."

Allah speaks again to the Jinn – he says they "seduced mankind, and mankind "enjoyed" it (sounds a little kinky, in a spiritual sense). After the evildoers testify against themselves, they depart to the fire – clear reference to a negative afterlife to go with the positive. This ties in with the theodicy point the next verse raises – how do some evildoers get into positions of power? Well, some of the wrongdoers are allowed power over others to allow them to earn more punishment. Meanwhile, every person gets a warning – Allah sent messengers to ensure that nobody was destroyed unwarned.

Apparently the Greek theory of sacrificing to all the gods at once so you didn't "miss out" on any doesn't work with Allah. If you try to placate Allah as one god among many, then your sacrifice to the others does not reach Allah, and what you claim goes to Allah just goes to the other gods. Neither sacrifice pleases Allah. This makes sense, since the very act of putting Allah into a group with others is itself the worst sort of sacrilege. Well, that and child sacrifice, which Allah accuses the idolaters of performing. Which, it appears, the pagan Arabs of Muhammad's time actually did – they sacrificed their children and sometimes buried "unwanted" girls (still the practice in, e.g., China).

Speaking of ways to offend Allah, it appears that adding regulations is just as bad as ignoring revelation. This is consistent with the Biblical approach, actually – see, for example, Jesus railing against the Pharisees for nullifying God's laws with their traditions, and Paul railing against the "Judaizers." Specifically, this surah speaks against Gnostic-style division of foods – rules about which cattle can be eaten, whether veal is forbidden, rules about some types of cattle reserved for men but not women (all rules of the pagan Arabs which Islam rejected). In fact, Muslims are allowed to eat sheep, goats, camels, oxen, and all young thereof, because Allah has not made a rule against it, and those who say he has such a rule are lying about his requirements. Lying about Allah's requirements – whether denying them or adding them – is equally bad.

The only things forbidden are carrion, blood, and swine, or anything sacrificed to idols. This is, in fact, the same compromise that the Jerusalem Council reached in Acts, with the exception of swine. But Allah will forgive consumption of them if there is compulsion involved.

Jews got different regulations as a penalty for rebellion (thus the difference with the Torah). So if anyone who adds extra regulations says "We are just doing what God told us" then challenge them to produce the one to whom God spoke. Muhammad is there ready to testify; where is their prophet? In fact, the true "sacred duties" are: no other gods, do good to your parents, do not slay your children because of poverty (i.e. girls), do not approach lewdness, and do not kill except in the course of justice. Also do not take from the orphan, give justice, and keep your word. Once again, proving that the rules necessary to keep society going are pretty universal. How does "do not kill except in the course of justice" relate to violent jihad against civilians?

Nevertheless, where they are not superseded by Muhammad's revelation, Muslims are to follow the other revealed scriptures, and do not say it was only for "other sects" (i.e. Jews and Christians) because you have been warned that it still stands. Do not think you can follow only the prior scriptures and do it "better" than those who failed, because now a greater revelation has been given. If you don't follow this revelation, you wouldn't have followed the previous either. So Jews and Christians cannot keep going with their old revelations now that Muhammad has come along. If unbelievers doubt the revelation because they say they wait for a sign (or angel) to come, well then it isn't faith – if they believe when they see the sign, what credit is that? This is like the Biblical story of Doubting Thomas – Jesus says "You have believed because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe."

160 – Schismatics are condemned. Bad news for Protestants, and more specifically bad news for "reformers" of Islam who contradict the traditional, stricter understandings of the Qur'an.

Good deeds will be repaid tenfold, evil deeds repaid with justice. Similar to "punishing the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation, but showing love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments." (Old Testament Yahweh).

Interesting comment that each man's station in life is part of his test from Allah. Does this have some resonance with ideas of karma? Or is it a way to keep people satisfied with their social position instead of demanding social mobility based on "equality in Islam"?

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