Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Qur’an Surah 46: The Sand Dunes

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.

One recurring motif in the Qur’an is argument between believers and unbelievers over the truth of Muhammad’s message.  For those not inclined to believe things without reason (i.e. those who think critically) this is a welcome addition to the text.  This is not to say that the arguments given are totally logical and without fallacy.  The Qur’an was written before the Enlightenment and the advent of a “scientific” worldview.  We are dealing with people who believe in miracles and divine revelation as legitimate ways to understand the world.  Nevertheless, the arguments presented are interesting.  Surah 46, The Sand Dunes, gives an argument between the prophet and the “unbelievers” (mainly, polytheistic pagans from Mecca).

The surah gives a series of objections to Muhammad’s message, followed by the prophet’s reply.  The first objection is, “This is clearly sorcery” (v. 7), to which the prophet replies, “God is a sufficient witness between me and you” (v. 8).  While this argument doesn’t hold much water logically, it sort of works in the context of people who believe in supernatural beings, which both Muhammad and his opponents did.

The next objection is a powerful one, which people today still level and Muhammad: “He has invented it himself” (v. 8).  The prophet’s response is, “I am nothing new among God’s messengers” (v. 9).  The prophet’s message, he says, merely participates in a much older tradition, stretching back to Hebrew prophets like Abraham and Moses—thus, he did not invent it.

The next couple objections are similar to the previous one.  The unbelievers say, “This is ancient fiction” (v. 11) and “These are nothing but ancient fables” (v. 17).  The prophet’s response to this is less satisfying (to me).  He says that God will judge everyone at the end of time.  Instead of really engaging with the argument, Muhammad leans on divine revelation and fear of punishment as opposed to sound logic.  But, given the historical context, it wold be unreasonable to expect logic.  We’re talking religion here, not science.

The final objection is actually more of a challenge to the prophet.  The unbelievers demand a sign or miracle, to confirm the prophet’s message.  His response is to remind them of the people of Ad (who lived among sand dunes), whom God punished and destroyed for their unbelief.  In other words, the “signs” are in history.  Other signs include nature and the Qur’an itself.  Again, these arguments are far from convincing to a modern, rational person with a scientific worldview.  Perhaps the value of this surah is less in its sound logic, and more in the picture it gives about how ancient people with pre-scientific worldviews argued about God.  

This surah made me think about my own religious upbringing.  I was raised with an evangelical worldview that took the Bible as a sound basis for history, science, and philosophy.  At the same time, I attended public school where I was taught a totally different way of looking at the world—using the scientific method.  I think there exists, in a lot of religious peoples’ minds, this fundamental conflict between their supernatural beliefs and their belief in 21st century science and historical methods.  How is this conflict resolved?  People have sought to resolve it in different ways.  There exists, in modern Christianity, something called “apologetics” in which people try (unsuccessfully, in my opinion) to defend religious faith using modern methods of science, archeology, philosophy, etc.  Other people just don’t really think much about these things.  They hold onto some strange combination of religious and scientific beliefs that is never fully worked out or articulated.  The way I have resolved it is to embrace the scientific worldview (because I think science is awesome and super important), and to place religious belief in another category that is more personal and subjective.  This is a topic I think about a lot, and am still trying to work out, to be honest.

Using only the Bible, and not science, medieval people came up with some pretty wacky ideas about the universe.  Here's one Christian example from the 15th century...


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