Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Qur’an Surah 39: The Throngs

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.

This is a Meccan surah, written in the context of increasing hostilities between the monotheistic followers of Muhammad and the polytheistic Meccans, primarily those of the Quraysh tribe, the ruling tribe of Mecca.  It is an intense and impassioned argument for monotheism, framed in apocalyptic terms.  On the “Day of Judgment,” the believers in one God will be led to heaven, and those “who ascribe partners to God” (i.e. polytheists) will be led to hell.  The surah takes its title from the “throngs” of people who will be led to their eternal fates (heaven or hell) at the end of time:

The prophet describes the “Final Judgment,” perhaps drawing inspiration from the biblical book of Revelation and other apocalyptic literature: “On the Day of Resurrection, the whole earth will be in His grip.  The heavens will be rolled up in his right hand—Glory be to Him!  He is far above the partners they ascribe to Him!—the Trumpet will be sounded, and everyone in the heavens and earth will fall down senseless except those God spares.  It will be sounded again, and they will be on their feet, looking on.  The earth will shine with the light of its Lord; the Record of Deeds will be laid open; the prophets and witnesses will be brought in.  Fair judgment will be given between them: they will not be wronged and every soul will be repaid in full for what it has done.”

Following this final judgment, people will be separated into one of two fates: heaven or hell.  The unbelievers will first be set to hell: “Those who rejected the Truth will be led to Hell in their throngs.  When they arrive, its gates will open and its keepers will say to them, ‘Were you not sent your own messengers to recite the revelations of your Lord to you and warn you that would would meet this Day?’ and they will say, ‘Yes indeed we were.’  But the sentence of punishment will have been passed against those who rejected the truth.  It will be said, ‘Enter the gates of Hell; there you will remain.  How evil is the abode of the arrogant!”

Then the faithful believers were be led to their eternal reward in heaven, always envisioned in the Qur’an as a fruitful garden: “Those who were mindful of their Lord will be led in throngs to the Garden.  When they arrive, they will find its gates wide open, and its keepers will say to them, ‘Peace be upon you.  You have been good.  Come in: you are here to stay,’ and they will say, ‘Praise be to God who has kept His promise to us and given us this land as our own.  Now we may live wherever we please in the Garden.’   Like in the book of Revelation, there will be a heavenly throne upon which God sits, surrounded by worshipping angels: “You [Prophet] will see the angels surrounding the Throne, glorifying their Lord with praise.  True judgment will have been passed between them, and it will be said, ‘Praise be to God, the Lord of the Worlds.’”

I’d like to take this opportunity to share a little of what I learned about apocalyptic literature during my study of the Bible.  Historically, apocalyptic literature has arisen during periods of persecution.  The earliest biblical example of this type of literature is the book of Daniel, written when Jews were suffering religious persecution under the reign of the Greek ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes.  Daniel sought to give his readers hope in the midst of persecution by giving them a vision of final justice.  Though they may be suffering for their faith in this life, they can take comfort in knowing that justice will ultimately come at some future date.  

The New Testament book of Revelation, the most well-known example of apocalyptic literature, was written under similar circumstances as Daniel.  The fledgling Christian movement was suffering under Roman persecution, and this book spoke of a future dispensation of justice, which was meant to give suffering Christians hope amidst persecution.  For more on the book of Revelation as anti-Roman apocalyptic literature, check out my book report on scholar Elaine Pagels’ excellent book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.

To me, what is most interesting about apocalyptic literature (whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim) is not so much what it says about the future, but what it says about the past—specifically, what it says about the mindset of persecuted communities.  For them, this type of literature was not intended to install fear so much as hope.  The basic message is: Though you may be suffering persecution now, hang on, because one day justice will come.

"The Last Judgment" by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel)

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