Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Qur'an Surah 3: The Family of Imran

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn.  I will also include some original Arabic text, because it is very beautiful.

The 114 surahs of the Qur’an were (according to Muslim tradition) revealed to the prophet Muhammad over a 23-year period of his life, and the revelations are often connected to various events from the life of the prophet and his growing community of faith.  The surahs are usually divided by scholars between the “Meccan” surahs, which came from the first part of the prophet's life when he was living in Mecca, and the “Medinan” surahs, which were revealed after the prophet led his people on an exodus of sorts to Medina.  In a future post, I will discuss the life of Muhammad in more detail, but for now I’ll just point out that Surah 3, entitled “The Family of Imran,” comes from the later, Medina period of the prophet’s life.

The title of the surah is a reference to Imran, whom Muslims believe was the father of the virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.  The surah narrates a story from before the birth of Jesus, when Imran’s wife gave birth to Mary, and then entrusted her to the care of the priest Zachariah.  As she grew up, God provided for Mary and took care of her.  As in the gospels, angels appeared to Mary and announced the miraculous birth of Jesus, saying “Mary, God gives you news of a Word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, who will be held in honor in this world and the next, who will be one of those brought near to God.”  The angels tell Mary that Jesus will be a messenger to Israel, healing and performing miracles, and will teach the Torah, and some new stuff.

The Qur’an sees Jesus as another in a succession of prophets from God which include Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Muhammad, the last prophet.  Particular emphasis is given to Abraham, who “was neither a Jew nor a Christian,” and is thus a spiritual ancestor to three faith traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  The surah says, “We believe in God and in what has been sent down to us and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes (of Israel).  We believe in what has been given to Moses, Jesus and the prophets from their Lord.”

Unfortunately, as is the case in our world today, tensions arose between the followers of Muhammad and the followers of other faith traditions.  In the Arabian peninsula of the seventh century, when Muhammad was alive, there were (at least) four main faith groups: Jews, Christians, polytheistic tribes, and the new followers of Islam.  It should be noted that one of Muhammad’s main achievements, as both a religious and political leader, was to unite warring tribes into a larger community of faith.  Unity is a main virtue of this surah: “Hold fast to God’s rope all together: do not split into factions.  Remember God’s favor to you: you were enemies and then He brought your hearts together and you became brothers by His grace.”

Despite this achievement of unity, conflicts persisted during the life of the prophet, and this surah comments on two specific battles: the Battle of Badr (in which Muhammad and his followers defeated a much larger army of Meccan aggressors), and the Battle of Uhud (in which Muhammad and his followers were defeated).  As was mentioned in the previous surah (The Cow), followers of Islam were only allowed to fight in self-defense.  Victory in battle is understood in much the same way that the Israelites under Joshua or David understood victory—as a sign of divine favor.  The point I want to stress here is that war and violence are a part of the faith traditions of both the Bible and the Qur’an.

I’d like to end this report by giving some characteristics of God that emerge from this surah, by quoting some verses:

God is compassionate. (30)
God is most forgiving, most merciful. (31)
His grace is infinite. (74)
God does not guide evildoers. (86)
God does not will injustice for His creatures. (108)
God knows exactly what is in everyone’s hearts. (119)
God loves those who do good. (134)
It is God who is your protector; He is the best of helpers. (150)
It is God who gives life and death. (156)
God is never unjust to His servants. (182)
Our Lord!  You have not created all this without purpose. (191)

Calligraphy from "The Family of Imran" (Al Imran), the third surah of the Qur'an.

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