The Qur'an: a Book Report

The following is the result of a year-long project in which I read each chapter (or surah) of the Qur'an and tried to capture some of its main ideas in my own words.  I have also included some original Arabic text of the surahs, because they are very beautiful.

The Qur’an is the holy book of Islam, a world religion that has over a billion and a half followers worldwide.  The book consists of a series of 114 chapters (or surahs) on various topics and themes.  The word “Qur’an” means “recitation” because the text is meant to be read (or sung) aloud.  According to Muslim tradition, it originates from divine revelations received by the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel in the 7th century C.E.  The surahs are not arranged chronologically.  That is, they do not tell a linear narrative.  They are generally arranged according to length, with the first ones being longer, and the later ones shorter.  An English translation cannot do full justice to the original Arabic text, which is full of poetry and multi-layered meaning.  But, seeing as I don't read Arabic, I'll have to make due with an English translation.

Surah 1: The Exordium

The first surah is called “The Exordium” (or Al Fatihah).  It like a short prologue/prayer, which I will include in its entirety here:

In the name of God
The compassionate
The merciful.
Praise be to God, Lord of the Universe,
The compassionate, the Merciful,
Sovereign of the Day of Judgment!
You alone we worship, and to You alone
we turn for help.
Guide us to the straight path,
The path of those whom You have favored,
Not the path of those who have incurred Your wrath,
Nor of those who have gone astray.

Surah 1: The Exordium (Al Fatihah)

Surah 2: The Cow

“The Cow” contains many references to stories from the Hebrew Bible—the sin of Adam in paradise, the covenant with Abraham, the exodus from Egypt, Moses receiving the law, David and Goliath.  The title “The Cow” comes from a story (not in the Hebrew Bible) in which God commands Moses to sacrifice a yellow cow.  Some passages are directly addressed to the “Children of Israel.”

The text shows respect towards Hebrew prophets and Jesus, and sees the revelation to Muhammad as another in a series of divine revelations.  The main criticism of Jews and Christians, throughout, is that they deny the latest revelation of God through Muhammad: “When they are told: ‘Believe in what God has revealed,’ they reply, ‘We believe in what was revealed to us.’  But they deny what has since been revealed, although it is the truth, corroborating their own scriptures.’”  

The Qur’an sees itself as a further revelation of Judaism and Christianity.  The text questions the exclusive claims of these faith traditions: “If God’s abode of the Hereafter is for yourselves alone, to the exclusion of all others, then wish for death if your claim be true,” and elsewhere, “They declare: None shall enter Paradise but Jews and Christians.  Such are their wishful fantasies.”

Like Jews and Christians, the Qur’an sees Abraham as a pioneer of faith, and states, “Who but a foolish man would renounce the faith of Abraham?”  The text tells an interesting story about Abraham, which is not included in the Bible.  Rather than focusing on Abraham’s son Isaac (like the Torah), the Qur’an focuses on his other son, Ishmael.  It says that Abraham and Ishmael built “the House,” which is the Ka’bah, the holy site in Mecca which Muslim pilgrims flock to every year by the millions.

Like the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian New Testament, the Qur’an is critical of idolatry.  Before the advent of Islam, the people of the Arabian peninsula could be described as largely “pagan,” that is, polytheistic.  Muhammad’s revolution, like the revolution of the Israelites of Canaan and the Christians in the Roman empire, was to change a formerly polytheistic culture into one of monotheism.  As with Judaism, which transformed the Canaanite god “El” into the one God, Muhammad and his followers transformed the Arabic god “Allah” into the one God of Islam.

As with the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the Qur’an contains exhortations to right belief and practice: “Righteousness does not consist in whether you face toward the East or the West.  The righteous man is he who believes in God and the Last Day, in the angels and the Book and the prophets; who, though he loves it dearly, gives away his wealth to kinsfolk, to orphans, to the destitute, to the traveller in need an to beggars, and for the redemption of captives; who attends to his prayers and renders the alms levy; who is true to his promises and steadfast in trial and adversity and in times of war.  Such are the true believers; such are the God-fearing.”

Like the Hebrew book of Leviticus, the Qu’ran contains laws dealing with things like inheritance, fasting, prayer, property, sex, marriage, justice, diet, giving to the poor, etc.  Followers of Islam are commanded to give to the needy.  Echoing the words of Jesus, the surah says, “To be charitable in public is good, but to give alms to the poor in private is better and will atone for some of your sins,” and elsewhere, “Be charitable; God loves the charitable.”

One significant verse in this surah is: “There shall be no compulsion in religion.”  That is, forced conversion is not okay.  Although Muslims are allowed to fight to defend themselves, they are told: “Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first.  God does not love aggressors.”

The last laws of this surah condemn greed and corruption, and give instructions  for fair legal proceedings, with a focus on justice and fair-dealing.  One of the last verses is: “We discriminate against none of his apostles” (which, I think, refers to Abraham, Moses, and Jesus).

Fragment from an 11th century manuscript of the first two surahs of the Qur'an.

Surah 3: The Family of Imran

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.

Surah 4: Women

The fourth surah of the Qur'an comes from the later period of the prophet's life, when he was leader over a growing number of believers in Medina.  Thus, the surah is less concerned with stories and theology (like the earlier Meccan surahs), and is more concerned with practical laws and rules regarding property, inheritance, gender roles, family, and marriage.  The surah also reflects the very real tensions and conflicts (both internal and external) that Muhammad and his community faced in those early years of Islam.

The surah begins with a lovely explanation of the origins of men and women: "People, be mindful of your Lord, who created you from a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them spread countless men and women, far and wide."  From this, one could derive the idea of the "soul mate"--the other half of one's soul that so many people spend their lives looking for--an idea that persists today.

From this lovely beginning, a reader might get the impression that there was gender equality among the early Muslim community; however, the reality was more complex.  Seventh century Arabia was a patriarchal, male-dominated culture, and unfortunately this surah reflects this reality.  Like the patriarchs and kings of the Old Testament, Muslim men are permitted to marry multiple wives, though all wives must be treated equally.  Men are also allowed to strike their wives: "If you fear high-handedness from your wives, remind them [of the teachings of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them."  This abuse is tempered by further instructions of kindness: "Husbands should take good care of their wives," and elsewhere, "it is not lawful for you to inherit women against their will, nor should you treat your wives harshly."  The picture of husband-wife relations that emerges is not one of equality, but is also more complex than modern stereotypes suggest.

This gender inequality is also evident in inheritance laws: "Concerning your children, God commands that a son should have the equivalent share of two daughters."  The inheritance laws are quite complex.  As I read them, I thought it would be interesting to compare the inheritance laws of the Qur'an with those of the Old Testament.  I believe they are quite similar.

Like the Torah, this surah gives basic laws forbidding theft, murder, incest, and other sins.  Believers are encouraged to "believe and do good deeds" and also to stand up against oppression, and fight against oppressors: "Why should you not fight in God's cause and for those oppressed men, women, and children who cry out, 'Lord, rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors!  By your grace, give us a protector and give us a helper!'?"  Throughout the surah, believers are told to uphold justice for children, orphans, and the oppressed: "Let them be mindful of God and speak out for justice."

The surah also reflects conflicts with Jews and Christians, while also maintaining the shared heritage of these faiths: "We have sent revelation to you [Muhammad] as he did to Noah and the prophets after him, to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, to Jesus, Job, Aaron, and Solomon--to David He gave the book of Psalms."  Unlike later Christians, the prophet maintains that the Jews did not kill Jesus.  Also, near the end, the surah argues against the Christian doctrine of the trinity, affirming instead pure monotheism: "So believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of a 'Trinity'--stop [this], that is better for you--God is only one God."

Calligraphy by Everittee Barbee

Surah 5: The Feast

The fifth surah of the Qur’an, entitled “The Feast,” deals (appropriately) with dietary laws—specifically foods which may or may not be eaten when Muslims are on pilgrimage to Mecca.  They may eat seafood, but may not hunt for game.   They may not eat carrion or pigs, and some other things.  The surah mentions the tradition of placing garlands on livestock, to show they are protected from being killed during pilgrimages.

This surah, like previous ones, shows a complex attitude toward Jews and Christians.  On one hand, the text is critical of these groups—the Jews for breaking their pledge (or covenant) with God, and the Christians for worshipping Jesus as God, when he was (according to Muslim tradition) only a prophet like other prophets.

On the other hand, the surah shows respect towards these traditions, and even contains some passages which suggest that God accepts these religions.  The text says, “All journeys lead to Him (God),” and elsewhere, “you will all return to God and he will make clear to you the matters you differed about.”  Throughout the Qur’an, it is emphasized that God, not man, is the ultimate judge of human hearts.

The text also contains laws forbidding murder which are similar to the Torah and the gospel: “In the Torah We (God) prescribed for them a life for a life, an eye for an eye…We sent Jesus, son of Mary, in their footsteps, to confirm the Torah…We sent to you (Muhammad) the Scripture with the faith, confirming the Scriptures which came before it.”   In contrast to taking life, the text also contains this very moving passage which mirrors a quote from the movie Schindler’s List: “if any saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind.”

Regarding the purpose of scripture, the text states: “A light has now come to you from God, and a scripture making things clear, with which God guides to the ways of peace those who follow what pleases Him, bringing them from darkness out into light, by His will, and guiding them to a straight path.”

Pages from The Qur'an Surah 5: The Feast (14th century)

Surah 6: Livestock

The sixth surah of the Qur’an, entitled “Livestock” is a Meccan surah, meaning it comes from the earlier period of Muhammad’s life, when he was living in Mecca.  Before the advent of Islam, many people of Mecca and the Arabian peninsula were polytheists—they believed in many gods.  One of Muhammad’s main achievements was to transform a formerly polytheistic culture into a monotheistic one.  The surah “Livestock” is an extended argument against polytheistic belief and practice.

The prophet asserts that God is one, and that other gods do not exist and are therefore powerless.  Usually, in polytheistic cultures, people attribute various aspects of nature to the activity of gods—the rising of the sun, rain, the growth of crops, etc.  In contrast to this, the prophet asserts that God alone does all these things: “It is God who splits open the seed and the fruit stone: He brings the living from the dead and the dead from the living…He makes the dawn break; He makes the night for rest; and He made the sun and the moon to a precise measure…It is He who made the stars, so that you can be guided by them in the dark.”

This transition in the Arabian world from polytheism to monotheism closely mirrors what happened with the Israelites in Canaan.  The Israelites took the high god of the Canaanite pantheon, El, and transformed him into the one God, Elohim.  Similarly, Muhammad and the early Muslims took the high god of the Arabian pantheon, Allah (a cognate of Elohim), and made him the one God, superseding all other gods.

This connection to the ancient Israelites is further emphasized by a story told in the surah about Abraham.  In the story, Abraham (the spiritual father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) was born into a polytheistic family, but then changed his views to monotheism: “Remember when Abraham said to his father Azar, ‘How can you take idols as gods?  I see that you and your people have clearly gone astray.  In this way we showed Abraham [God’s] mighty dominion over the heavens and the earth, so that he might be a firm believer (i.e. monotheistic).”  This decision led to conflict with his family and community.

Changing a culture from polytheism to monotheism has some benefits and some drawbacks, from a sociological standpoint.  On the one hand, it gives people a sense of unity and shared identity.  On the other hand, it can lead to intolerance and conflict when people don’t believe in this one God.  This surah, like the Bible, expresses hostility toward unbelievers.  I guess my point is that monotheistic religions have, historically, been a mixed bag of benefit and conflict.

The title of the surah refers to the practice of devoting/sacrificing livestock to God, or gods.  The author forbids Muslims from eating meat that has been dedicated to anything other than the one God.

Calligraphy from Surah 6: Livestock

Surah 7: The Heights

Before getting into my book report on the seventh surah of the Qur'an, I want to talk a little about Islamic art.  Traditionally, Muslims have viewed visual representations of people and animals as blasphemous.  The reason is that humans cannot adequately represent God or his creation--to do so is like competing with God (a losing proposition).  Because of this, a different style of art emerged in the Islamic world that is very distinct from "western" art.  Rather than focusing on the human figure or landscapes, Islamic art focuses on text (specifically Arabic calligraphy), geometric patterns, and arabesque designs.  This is why, for my book report on the Qur'an, I am not including figurative paintings (like I did for my book report on the Bible).  Such paintings are very rare, unlike Biblical paintings (which dominate the museums of Europe).  This is not to say that one tradition (Christian or Islamic) is better than the other--they are just different.  Islamic art and architecture is some of the most beautiful (and complex) in the world.   Here, for example, is the exterior of a mosque in Herat, Afghanistan.  Note the text and patters.  

That being said, there is a lesser-known tradition of Islamic art that does, in fact, include figures, and it is this tradition that I want to include with my book report on the seventh surah of the Qur'an, entitled "The Heights."  From a very early date, a popular type of Islamic literature was called Qisas Al-Anbiya (or "Stories of the Prophets").  These included, as you might expect, stories of Islamic prophets.  Some of these prophets are also in the Bible, but some are unique to Islam.  In the 16th century Ottoman Empire (which was largely Muslim), some manuscripts of "Stories of the Prophets" were created WITH ILLUSTRATIONS!  Imagine my excitement when I found these.  Being a visual person, I couldn't resist including some of these illustrations in my book report.  The surah entitled "The Heights" gives stories of some prophets, which I will re-tell here, with illustrations from the 16th century Ottoman "Stories of the Prophets."  Here are some prophets I learned about:

1.) Hud was an ancient Arabian prophet from the region of Ad, which some scholars believe is modern Yemen.  Hud is believed to be a descendent of Noah (also a prophet), and Hud even gets his own surah of the Qur'an (the eleventh one).  Like most prophets, Hud's main purpose (according to the Qur'an) was to get people to stop being polytheists, and to believe in the one God.

Hud, the Prophet from Ad.

2.) Salih was an ancient Arabian prophet who was from the tribe of Thamud, a people who are believed to have come after the people of Ad.  Salih is famous for a story in which the people of Thamud ask for a sign to confirm the prophet's teachings, and God sends down a she-camel.

The prophet Salih shows his people the She-Camel from God.

3.) Shu'ayb was a prophet from ancient Midian, who is sometimes identified with the biblical figure Jethro, Moses' father-in-law.  Like the prophets before and after him, Shu'ayb urged his people to forsake polytheism (aka idolatry) and to embrace the one God.  There is a tomb to Shu'ayb near the town of Mahis, Jordan.

Tomb/shrine to Shu'ayb in Jordan.

Surah 8: Battle Gains

"Battle Gains" is a Medinan surah which mainly comments on the Battle of Badr, in which Muhammad and his followers defeated a vastly greater force of Meccans.  Conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims in Mecca is what caused Muhammed to lead his followers on the migration (or exodus) to Medina.  The Battle of Badr (near Medina) was a great victory for the early community of Muslims.

As the title suggests, the surah deals with the proper distribution of the gains (or spoils) of battle.  Apparently, some of the fighters were unhappy with their share.  The surah tells them, first, that victory comes from God, so any gains they get are a bonus.  The text also commands that battle gains be distributed among families and the poor: "Know that one-fifth of your battle gains belongs to God and the Messenger, to close relatives and orphans, to the needy and travelers."  

The text also deals with the importance of making and keeping treaties after battle to maintain peace: "if they incline toward peace, you must also incline toward peace."

This surah reminded me of the book of Joshua in the Bible, which is about the Israelite conquest of Canaan.  A main difference, I suppose, is that the Muslims (in the Battle of Badr) were not fighting a war of conquest--theirs was a struggle for self-preservation.  Maybe a better comparison would be the story of Gideon, from the book of Judges.  Like Muhammad, Gideon (with the help of God) defeated a large force with a small army.

This surah raises the uncomfortable issue of war and violence in religious texts.  Both the Bible and the Qur'an have stories of war and violence.  I suppose this is, in one sense, an honest reflection of historic human conflict.  History is violent.  Thankfully, it is not only violent.

An angelic host assists the Muslims at the Battle of Badr.

Surah 9: Repentance

The more I read the Qur’an, the more I realize it is a product of its time and place—7th century Arabia (specifically Mecca and Medina).  A prophet named Muhammad became a religious and political leader of a group of Arabs, and he often clashed with other groups who did not believe his message and/or opposed him politically.

The 9th surah of the Qur’an, entitled “Repentance,” reflects some conflicts faced by Muhammad and his followers.  The surah begins by announcing that a specific treaty between Muslims from Medina and “idolators” (polytheists) from Mecca has been broken and is no longer valid.  Undoubtedly, this broken treaty led to violence between these groups.  In the surah, Muslims are commanded to fight the “idolators” who have broken the treaty.

The text makes reference to the Battle of Hunayn, between Muslims and a Bedouin tribe.  These early years, it seems, were years of conflict.  The Qur’an clearly states that God is on the side of the Muslims, and it is critical of “hypocrites” and “cowards” who proclaim faith, but do not fight for it.  The surah ends by discussing preparations for the Battle of Tabouk, and criticism of a group who built a rival mosque in Medina.

This surah’s harsh rhetoric of battle and criticism of “idolators” and “hypocrites” must, I think, be placed squarely in the context of 7th century Arabia.  If there are any lessons to be gleaned from this chapter, they are largely historical, as opposed to practical.  When approaching ancient religious texts like this, a contemporary reader must do the hard critical work of sorting out which parts are timeless, and which are culture-bound.  Maybe, as postmodern literary theorist Michel Foucault would say, it’s all culture-bound.

15th century manuscript page of Surah 9: Repentance (or At-Tawba)

Surah 10: Jonah

The tenth surah of the Qur'an has a few major themes: the power and oneness of God, the futility of idolatry, the tradition of people rejecting God's prophets, and an encouragement to believe in God and his prophets.

The surah begins with a meditation on God's power, as expressed in creation: "It is He who made the sun a shining radiance and the moon a light, determining phases for it so that you might know the number of years and how to calculate them."  There is a long tradition of Islamic science, astronomy, and math.  The numbers we use today, for example, are Arabic.  Muslims, historically, have seen not contradiction between religion and science.  While Christian Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages, Muslim scholars in Baghdad and artists in Cordova were making breakthroughs in the sciences and arts, paving the way for the Renaissance.

This surah, like many others, is harshly critical of idolatry (or polytheism).  Muhammad sought to replace the polytheism of his day with monotheism.  The repeated references in the Qur'an to idolatry suggests that such a transformation was a long and difficult one.  It's hard, I imagine, to get people to change their theological outlook, especially when that outlook has existed for generations, and is deeply connected to culture.

The surah ends with a meditation on the biblical tradition of the rejected/misunderstood prophet.  The text discusses figures like Noah, Moses, Aaron, and Jonah--prophets who delivered important messages to their people, to save them from some impending disaster.  Muhammad clearly saw himself as part of this tradition.  He had a message from God which some believed, and others their peril.

The brief reference to Jonah in v. 98 (from which this surah derives its title) is reminiscent of a quote from Jesus in the gospels.  Unbelievers ask Jesus to perform a sign to validate his message (a demand people also made of Muhammad).  Jesus replies that they should recall "the sign of Jonah."  That is, they should remember the story of the Hebrew prophet who told people to repent and return to faith in God.  Muhammad, this surah implies, is a prophet like these former prophets, preaching a revolutionary, controversial, and ultimately transformative message.

The House of Wisdom in Baghdad, a major center of Islam learning during the Middle Ages.

Surah 11: Hud

The eleventh surah of the Qur’an is named after Hud, a prophet who lived in pre-Islamic Arabia.  Like the seventh surah (The Heights), this one tells stories of a series of prophets who came before Muhammad, some biblical, some Arabic: Noah, Hud, Salih, Abraham, and Shu’ayb.

Each of these prophet stories follows a similar pattern.  God speaks to the prophet, commanding him to tell his people to change their ways (mostly to put away idolatry and worship God).  These prophetic messages are met with various responses of belief and unbelief.  Ultimately, in the case of each prophet, God judges/punishes those who refuse to believe/change their ways, thus vindicating the prophet and his message.

This surah begins and ends with words of encouragement to Muhammad, to hold fast to his prophetic messages.  Even though some people don’t believe the prophet (calling him a “sorcerer” or a “liar”), Muhammad is told that he is part of a long series of prophets of God, all of whom experienced some rejection.

It seems that rejection is part of what it means to be a prophet.  This theme is also presented in the biblical books of prophecy.  Guys like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and others delivered dire messages.  Some people believed, some didn’t, but ultimately the prophets (and God) were vindicated.

Reading this surah raised many questions in my mind:  Who are the prophets of today?  What does it mean to be a prophet in an age of reason and science?  Did prophecy end with Muhammad, or have there been other prophets?  What is the source of prophecy?  The idealist would say God, or at least divine inspiration.  The cynic would say mental illness, hallucination, or a desire for power/control.  The very idea of a prophet seems an ancient and out-dated one—part of a pre-scientific worldview.  And yet, billions of people (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) still believe in the words of ancient prophets.  Why?

An exquisite Qur'an once owned by Sultan Abdal Hamid II

Surah 12: Joseph

The twelfth surah of the Qur’an, entitled Joseph (Yusuf, in Arabic), is mostly a re-telling of the story of Joseph (son of Jacob) from the book of Genesis in the Bible.  It is also the plot of the modern musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  The Qur’an often re-tells stories from the Bible, seeing divine lessons in them: “There are lessons in the story of Joseph and his brothers for all who seek them” (v. 7).  The Qur’an sees great value in the stories of the Bible.  While the Qur’an’s account of this story mostly follows the Genesis account, there are some interesting differences—suggesting that the version Muhammad received from his Jewish and Christian friends in Mecca was an oral, not a written, account.  While written accounts of stories tend to remain rigid, oral accounts allow for variety and different cultural contexts.  Also, sprinkled throughout the story are “lessons” that readers/listeners are meant to get out of it.  Here’s the story of Joseph, as told by the Qur’an.

The Israelite patriarch Jacob (aka Israel, son of Isaac, son of Abraham) had twelve sons (who would form the basis of the twelve tribes of Israel).  One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, had a dream in which his eleven brothers bowed down before him.  Joseph’s brothers grew jealous and planned to get rid of him.  They threw him in a pit and sold him to a traveling caravan, which sold him to a nobleman in Egypt.  Joseph’s brothers then lied to their father Jacob, telling him that Joseph had been killed by a wolf.

In Egypt, Joseph found favor with his master (named Potiphar in the Bible) and developed the ability to interpret dreams.  Here is the first lesson of the story—that God can bring goodness out of tragedy: “God always prevails in His purpose, though most people do not realize it” (v. 21).

As Joseph grew in maturity, the wife of his master (traditionally named Zulaikha) tried to seduce him, but Joseph (being a good man and a servant of God) refused.  Here the account differs from the Bible.  In Genesis, Joseph is thrown in  prison on the false charges of the Egyptian woman.  In the Qur’an, the woman is shown to be a a liar, and Joseph is thrown in prison as a kind of protective measure against the advances of other women.  Apparently, Joseph was quite attractive.

Anyway, while in prison, Joseph correctly interprets the dreams of two fellow prisoners.  Word reaches the king that Joseph can interpret dreams, so he is brought before pharaoh to interpret his troubling dreams.  The dreams foretell of a coming famine, which Joseph is tasked with helping avert through a system of storing surplus crops.  Joseph is thus taken out of prison and promoted as a leader of Egyptian agriculture.  Here is another lesson of the story—that God ultimately rewards those who follow Him: “In this way We settled Joseph in that land to live wherever he wished: we grant Our grace to whoever we will and do not fail to reward those who do good” (v. 56).

Meanwhile, over in Canaan, Joseph’s family, feeling the effects of the famine, travel to Egypt to trade for food.  After messing with them for a while, Joseph ultimately reveals his identity to his brothers, and ends up being the salvation of his family, and the fledgling nation of Israel.

This surah ends with a word of encouragement to Muhammad and, by extension, his fledgling community of followers.  In the early years of Islam, the community of faith experienced much adversity and many trials.  In this surah, the community is encouraged to find solace and hope in the story of Joseph.  “We saved whoever we pleased,” the Qur’an states, “There is a lesson in the stories of such people for those who understand” (v. 110-111).

"Joseph Chased by Potiphar's Wife" miniature by Bezhad (1488)

Surah 13: Thunder

The 13th surah of the Qur'an seems to have been prompted by people questioning the legitimacy of Muhammad and his message.  The people ask for a miracle to confirm what he says.  Muhammad's answer is that the real miracles are God's creation, and that true faith is shown through action, not mere belief.

The surah begins, "These are the signs of the Scripture," and goes on to list beautiful examples of how God creates and sustains nature and the universe: "He has subjected the sun and the moon each to pursue its course for an appointed time; He regulates all things, and makes the revelations clear so that you may be certain of meeting your Lord."  The argument here is that true miracles and revelations are shown through nature.  The title of the surah, "Thunder," comes from a verse that continues this theme: "the thunder sounds his praises, as do the angels in awe of Him."  Miracles and signs, this surah seems to suggest, are not magic tricks performed by holy men.  Miracles and signs are all around us, all the time.

Once this deep understanding of God's revelation through nature is taken to heart, the surah explains, it will affect one's actions.  The surah says, "Only those with understanding will take it to heart; those not break their pledges...who keep up the prayer; who give secretly and openly from what We have provided for them; who repel evil with good."

This surah suggests that faith derived from supernatural magic tricks is not a necessary foundation for faith.  It's just not how the world works.  Nature is miraculous enough, and true faith is about how one behaves in this wondrous world.

Surah 14: Abraham

When reading any text, it's important to put it into its historical, social, and cultural context.  This is true of the Qur'an.  It was written and compiled in 7th century Arabia (in the towns of Mecca and Medina) under very specific circumstances.  Muhammad, the prophet of the emerging faith, constantly struggled against powerful Meccan leaders who were polytheistic.  Muhammad's revolution was to turn a formerly polytheistic culture into a monotheistic one.  This struggle is reflected throughout the Qur'an, like the 14th surah, entitled "Abraham."

This surah gets its title from the figure of Abraham from the Old Testament, a figure whom Jews, Christians, and Muslims see as a spiritual forefather.  According to Muslim tradition, Abraham once lived near Mecca, where the Ka'aba existed.  In Abraham's day (as in the time of Muhammad), the Ka'aba was a site of polytheistic worship--the ornate black cube housed idols of several different Arabic dieties.  It was Abraham who, through divine revelation, tried to convince his family and community to shun polytheism/idolatry and embrace monotheism.  Muhammad's task was, in many ways, the same.

Like Abraham, Muhammad succeeded.  Today, the Ka'aba is the destination of millions of Muslim pilgrims every year.  It is perhaps the most powerful symbol of Muslim monotheism.

The Ka'aba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia

Surah 15: Al-Hijr

Like the Bible, the Qur’an has several recurring themes: the oneness of God, the importance of faithfulness, the futility of idolatry, etc.  One recurring theme is the rejected prophet.  The 15th surah of the Qur’an, “Al-Hijr,” focuses on this theme.

During his lifetime, Muhammad encountered opposition to his message.  The surah begins by stating some common objections to the prophet and his message: “They say, ‘Receiver of this Qur’an!  You are definitely mad.  Why do you not bring us the angels if you are telling the truth?”  In other words, Muhammad’s opponents demanded a miraculous sign to confirm his message.  Here, as elsewhere in the Qur’an, the scripture’s response is three-fold:

1.) Even if God gave the people a sign, they would still not believe, because their hearts are already negatively inclined: “They will not believe it…and even if we opened a gateway into the sky, they would still say, ‘Our eyes are hallucinating.  We are bewitched.’”

2.) The real evidence of God’s message is revealed in nature, with all its miracles: “We have set constellations up in the sky and made it beautiful for all to see…As for the earth, We have spread it out, set firm mountains on it, and made everything grow there in due balance.  We have provided sustenance in it for you and for all those creatures for whom you do not provide…We send the winds to fertilize, and We bring down water from the sky for you to drink…”

3.) There is a long tradition of people rejecting the true messages of God.  Muhammad’s situation was nothing new.  People rejected Abraham and Lot’s message to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible.  Other surahs tell of other prophets who experienced rejection: Jonah, Moses, Thamud, Jesus, etc.

This surah gets its title from the pre-Islamic Arabian tribe called Al-Hijr. to whom God sent the prophet Thamud, preaching a message of monotheism.  Like the prophets before him, Thamud experienced some rejection, though ultimately he was vindicated.

The point of this surah seems to be to comfort Muhammad and his fledgling community of faith amidst rejection: “We are well aware that your heart is weighted down by what they say.”  The community is encouraged to take comfort in nature, in history, and in the continuing presence of God, who is “all wise, all knowing.”  Vindication, they are told, will one day come.

Page from 17th century illuminated manuscript of the Qur'an surah Al-Hijr (British Library).

Surah 16: The Bee

This surah takes its name from a brief meditation on the bee, and how this insect reveals God's presence in the world: "And your Lord inspired the bee, saying, 'Build yourselves houses in the mountains and trees and what people construct.  Then feed on all kinds of fruit and follow the ways made easy for you by your Lord.'  From their bellies comes a drink of different colors in which there is healing for people.  There truly is a sign in this for those who think."  The bee serves as a metaphor for God's provision for humanity, and the response of praise (aka honey) that is the natural result of this provision.

Throughout the surah are references to aspects of the natural world that are beneficial to humans: horses, mules, donkeys, water, grain, olives, palms, vines, the sun, moon, stars, the sea, fish, rivers, mountains, etc.  All of this is seen as coming from the grace of God.  It makes sense that these natural provisions are deeply connected to the life of tribal society in 7th century Arabia, where the Qur'an was written.

Like many other surahs, this one encourages monotheism and condemns idolatry, saying that those who attribute the wonders of the world to other gods are not showing proper respect to the One God.  The surah also states that those who do not believe in and follow the One God will be judged and punished in the afterlife.  

The Qur'an's idea of what happens after you die is more in line with Christianity than Judaism.  In the Hebrew scriptures, there is a very foggy and vague idea of the afterlife.  In the Hebrew Bible, God judges people in this life.  The idea of judgment after death (along with notions of heaven and hell) did not develop until after the completion of the Hebrew Bible.  This division of the spiritual realm into heaven and hell was drawn largely from Zoroastrian dualism.  From these Persian ideas, Christian and Muslim thinkers would eventually develop their own unique ideas about the afterlife.

I'll end on a more positive note.  "The Bee" contains this lovely verse: "God commands justice, doing good, and generosity towards relatives and he forbids what is shameful, blameworthy, and oppressive."

Surah 17: The Night Journey

The 17th surah of the Qur’an is named after one of the most important events in the life of Muhammad—the Night Journey.  Though the Qur’an itself doesn’t go into much detail about this event, later traditions (known as Hadith literature) developed the story in more detail.  Here’s the story of Muhammad’s night journey…

One night in the year 621 C.E., while Muhammad was living in Mecca, he was awakened by the angel Gabriel, who filled him with wisdom and belief.  The angel gave the prophet a white animal to ride, named Buraq.  This animal was sort of like Pegasus, because it could fly!

Buraq, the prophet's trusty steed.

Gabriel and Muhammad (riding Buraq) flew to Jerusalem, to the site of what would become the Al Aqsa Mosque (or, the Temple Mount).  In Muslim tradition, the city of Jerusalem is the third holiest place in the world (after Mecca and Medina).  There, the prophet prayed.  Gabriel tested Muhammad by offering him milk and wine to drink.  The prophet chose wisely (milk), and he was blessed.

Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem

Then Gabriel, Muhammad, and his trusty steed Buraq took a tour of the seven levels of heaven, stopping at each level to meet important prophets from the past.  They met Adam, Jesus, John the Baptist, Joseph, Idris, Aaron, Moses, and Abraham.  Each prophet warmly greeted Muhammad and said, “You are welcomed, O brother and a Prophet.”

Journey to the seventh heaven.

Finally, they reached the highest (seventh) level of heaven and came to God’s house, where they found a holy tree and four sacred rivers.  God told Muhammad to have his followers pray five times a day.  Originally, God wanted them to pray 50 times a day, but Moses helped bargain the Almighty down to five (I’m sure Muslims today are grateful for that!)  This is the origin of the Muslim tradition of salat, or praying five times a day.  Then Muhammad returned to his home in Mecca.

Salat, or praying five times a day, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.

The story of the Night Journey is very important to Muslims.  The event is celebrated annually in a festival known as the Lailat al Mi’raj, which usually involves lots of lights, candles, prayer, food, and treats.  Some Muslim traditions interpret the story literally, while others see it as a more mystical, symbolic journey.

Muslims in Turkey celebrate Lailat Al-Mi'raj with prayers.

Surah 18: The Cave

This surah tells four interesting stories: the story of the Sleepers of the Cave, the parable of the luscious gardens, the story of Moses and the holy man, and the story of Dhu l’Qarnayn, “the two-horned one.”  I will briefly summarize each of these stories.

The story of the Sleepers of the Cave is about a group of devout young monotheists who left their polytheistic culture for religious reasons.  They took refuge in a cave, sort of like monks.  They had a dog to guard the entrance.  These young men then fell asleep, and slept for 300 years, sort of like Rip Van Winkle.  When they woke up and re-emerged, their culture had changed to monotheism, much to their delight.

The parable of the luscious gardens tells of two men whom God blessed with really nice gardens.  One of the men, seeing that his garden produced more fruit than the other, became arrogant and did not give due credit to God, so God destroyed his garden.

The story of Moses and the holy man tells of a time when Moses decided to take a journey to “the place where the two seas meet.”  However, Moses’ servant accidentally lost their fish, and the fish somehow scooted across land to the sea, and swam away.  Hungry and demoralized, Moses and his servant headed back toward home.  While traveling, they met a holy man.  Moses asked if he could accompany this holy man, and learn from him.  The holy man said, “You will not be able to bear with me patiently,” meaning Moses would lack the proper insight and context to understand the holy man’s actions.  Moses said he would be patient, so they traveled together.

Just as the holy man predicted, he did some things that baffled and upset Moses.  When they reached the sea and set off in a boat, the holy man punched a hole in the boat.  A little later, the holy man killed a boy.  Then they arrived in a town where the people refused to give them hospitality.  Instead of retaliating, the holy man fixed one of the walls in the town for free.  When Moses and the holy man parted company, the man explained the context of his actions, so they made more sense (except for killing the boy—his explanation for that one seems a bit thin).

Finally, the surah tells the story of Dhu l’Qarnayn, or “the two-horned one.”  This is not the devil.  Some believe it is Alexander the Great.  The identity of the two-horned one is a subject of scholarly debate.  Anyway, Dhu l’Qarnayn was a person to whom God gave great power—to judge among people, to build strong fortifications, etc.

At the end of the surah is this poetic passage: “If the whole ocean were ink for writing the words of my Lord, it would run dry before the words were exhausted.”  This suggests that God has a lot more stories and insights in mind than can be revealed in any holy book.  There are just too many stories.

The Sleepers of the Cave

Surah 19: Mary

This surah begins much like the gospel of Luke--by telling about the birth of John the Baptist.  John's father Zachariah was a priest of Israel who wanted a son and heir.  The problem was that he and his wife were too old for having children.  Nevertheless, God gave them a special son--John (the Baptist).

Then the surah tells of another miraculous birth--the birth of Jesus.  This story differs from the gospel accounts in two interesting ways.  First, Mary went alone into the wilderness to give birth to Jesus, where God provided a stream and date palms to nourish her.  Second, after Mary (who was a virgin) miraculously gave birth to the baby Jesus, the people of her hometown judged and criticized her, calling her unchaste.  They did not believe the whole "miraculous conception" thing, and who could blame them?  It was a pretty incredible story.  But then something amazing happened.  The newborn baby Jesus actually spoke to the unbelievers, silencing them!  Newborn baby Jesus said:

"I am a servant of God.  He has granted me the Scripture; made me a prophet; made me blessed wherever I may be.  He commanded me to pray, to give alms as long as I live, to cherish my mother.  He did not make me domineering or graceless.  Peace was on me the day I was born, and will be on me the day I die and the day I am raised to life again."

Baby Jesus was one articulate baby!  Anyway, the surah goes on to tell about other prophets--some from the Bible, some from Arabic tradition: Abraham, Moses, Ismael, Idris, and others.  The main theme of these stories is that each of these prophets believed in the one God, and shunned idolatry.  Belief in God and following his commandments (delivered through the prophets) are crucial for human salvation, according to the Qur'an.  Those who believe go to paradise.  Those who do not go to hell.  It's a pretty dualistic worldview, like Christianity.

Persian miniature paintings depicting Mary, an important figure in Islam.

Surah 20: Ta Ha

Some surahs of the Qur’an begin with a few seemingly random Arabic letters whose meaning is unknown.  So it is with “Ta Ha.”  Some scholars have suggested that it means “O man!” in an ancient Yemeni dialect, but no one knows for sure.

The content of the surah, however, is familiar.  It tells the story of Moses, from the biblical book of Exodus.  The telling of the story is interesting, stylistically.  Unlike the Bible, which tells the story in a linear, chronological way, the Qur’an opts for a non-linear, Quentin Tarantino style.  It begins with the burning bush, in which God called Moses to deliver the Israelites from the tyrant Pharaoh.  Then, the narrative goes into a flashback sequence, almost like a quick-cut montage, hi-lighting various episodes from Moses’ life—how his mother saved him when he was a baby by putting him in a basket in the Nile, how he killed an Egyptian and fled to Midian, where God called him.

This non-linear narrative style fits the Qur’an as a whole, which is also non-linear.  It is characterized by bursts of ecstatic revelation, as opposed to a continual, chronological story.  It is more poetry than novel.

Then the surah narrates Moses’ parting of the Red Sea, the wilderness wanderings, and the Israelites’ idolatry at Mt. Sinai.  This episode, involving the golden calf, seems to sum up the main “lesson” of the story of Moses and the Israelites—listen to God and his prophets, and avoid idolatry.  The surah ends with an exhortation to do good deeds, in expectation of the final Day of Judgment.

Yesterday, my brother asked me how people go to heaven, according to the Qur’an.  It seems to me that three things are required: belief in the one God, belief in the revelations of his prophets, and good deeds.  These three things, to me, embody the foundation of Islam, according to the Qur’an (or, at least what I’ve read so far).

Calligraphy of the letters "Ta" and "Ha"

Surah 21: The Prophets

“The Prophets” emphasizes a central narrative that is repeated throughout the Qur’an, which is as follows.  God created the world and mankind, but mankind continually turned away from God by worshipping idols.  So God sent prophets to tell the people to turn away from idols and worship the one true God.  These prophets included Noah, Abraham, Moses, Job, Jonah, John the Baptist, Jesus, and ultimately Muhammad, the last prophet.  The function of these prophets was to warn the people that, if they continued in their idolatry, God would destroy them.  In every instance, some people followed the prophet (to their salvation), and others rejected the prophet (to their destruction).

A main message of Muhammad, in the Qur’an, is to warn people of the coming Day of Judgment, when God will separate the righteous believers from the unrighteous unbelievers.  This may sound harsh (and it is), but it was the same message of the Hebrew prophets in the Old Testament, who continually scolded the Israelites for idolatry. When Israel was invaded and conquered by Babylon, prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah blamed it on Israelites’ idolatry.   This was also the same message of John the Baptist in the New Testament, who told people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” (Matthew 3: 2).  It was also the message of Jesus, who continually spoke of the coming “Kingdom of God” and the final separation of the righteous and the wicked.  Jesus also scolded religious leaders of his day for “shedding the blood of the prophets.”

This tradition of the righteous prophet is found in both the Bible and the Qur’an.  The picture of God that emerges from this tradition is a bit troublesome.  This is the jealous God of wrath, who destroys people who don’t believe in him, either in this life or in the afterlife.  This is a scary God, who uses fear to instill obedience.  In my personal view, fear is not the healthiest motivator.  Love is better.

Muhammad leads Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other Prophets in Prayer (from a Persian Miniature)

Surah 22: The Pilgrimage

This surah takes its title from a story about the origin of the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim is encouraged to undertake in his/her life.  According to this surah, it was Abraham who first instituted the pilgrimage, after he turned the Ka’aba (the sacred black cube in the center of Mecca) from a place of idolatry (or polytheistic worship) into a symbol of monotheism.  It was Abraham who called the followers of God to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.  In other words, this tradition is very old.

Upon arrival at the Ka’aba, pilgrims pray, purify themselves (by wearing white garments), and circle around the Ka’aba seven times.  This practice of the pilgrimage, which is one of the “Five Pillars of Islam,” continues to be a very important part of the spiritual life of Muslims, and a way for believers from all over the world to come together in an act of spiritual solidarity and devotion.  Every year, millions of Muslims make this sacred pilgrimage.

Pilgrims on Hajj in Mecca (2008)

Surah 23: The Believers

"Repel evil with good."

-- The Qur'an, Surah 23, Verse 96

The 23rd surah of the Qur'an contains many of the classic motifs which (I'm learning) are repeated throughout the Qur'an.  The surah takes its title from numerous references to believers-- before, during, and after the time of the prophet.  The surah begins with the oft-repeated idea that God's provision for humanity is revealed in creation--in human life, the natural world, and the cosmos, the "seven levels of heaven."

Then the surah gives a few cases of prophets who came before Muhammad, whose purpose was to bring people back to faith in God (this is another motif throughout the Qur'an).  These prophets include Noah, Moses, Aaron, and Jesus.  In the case of each prophet, some people believed, but many did not.  These passages also contain the motif of argument.  The unbelievers give their objections to the prophet: he is a liar, he speaks ancient fables, etc.  In each case, however, the prophet is ultimately vindicated by the retributive justice of God.

The surah ends in the present day (of the time of the prophet), as Muhammad encourages his followers to learn from prior prophets, and from creation, to have faith in God.  Verses 57-61 give a fairly concise description of what this faith entails: "Those who stand in awe of their Lord, who believe in His messages, who do not ascribe partners to Him, who always give with hearts that tremble at the thought that they must return to Him, are the ones who race toward good things, and they will be the first to get them."

In the tradition of apocalyptic literature, the surah also makes reference to the "Day of Judgment," the end of the world, and the promise of resurrection.  After the resurrection, those who have faith in God will enter paradise, and those who do not will enter hell.  As if to temper this harsh idea, the last verse is an affirmation of God's ultimate mercy: "Lord, forgive and have mercy: You are the most merciful of all."

Manuscript page from Surah 23: The Believers (Al-Mu'minoon)

Surah 24: Light

The 24th surah of the Qur’an was composed in the context of some domestic problems Muhammad was having.  Aisha, the prophet’s wife, was left behind by a caravan, found by a young man, who escorted her home to Medina.  Immediately, rumors began to circulate that the prophet’s wife was sleeping with this man.  With this situation as its context, “Light” is primarily a meditation on marriage, adultery, and privacy.

The punishment for adultery is harsh—one hundred “strikes.”  However, one can only be convicted of adultery on the testimony of four witnesses—a pretty rigorous standard.  The prophet refers to the “false accusations” against his wife, and says that she is innocent, because her accusers could not produce the necessary four witnesses.  He further says that those who bring slanderous and false accusations are “rejected by God.”

The surah also gives regulations regarding domestic privacy: “Believers, do not enter other peoples’ homes until you have asked permission to do so and greeted those inside.”  A bit later, regulations for hospitality are given: “When you enter any home, greet one another with a greeting of blessing and goodness as enjoined by God.”  I find it interesting that the prophet uses the occasion of a terrible breach of privacy and trust, to lay down some guidelines for maintaining privacy and trust among his community of faith.  This seems very wise.

This surah also contains a famous passage which some fundamentalist Muslims have used as justification for (almost) totally covering up women.  However, reading the full passage makes this interpretation problematic.  It says; “Tell believing men to lower their eyes and guard their private parts: that is purer for them…And tell believing women that they should lower their eyes, guard their private parts, and not display their charms beyond what is acceptable to reveal.”  This passage is about the modesty of both men and women, the main difference being that women must cover their “charms”, which seems to be jewelry.  The idea for women to completely cover themselves comes not from the Qur’an, but from later Hadith literature.

The surah takes its title from the very beautiful “Verse of Light” (v. 35-36) which I will close with: “God is the Light of the heavens and earth.  His Light is like this: there is a niche, and in it a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, a glass like a glittering star, fueled from a blessed olive tree from neither east not west, whose oil almost gives light even when no fire touches it—light upon light—God guides whoever He will to his Light; God draws such companions for people; God has full knowledge of everything—shining out in houses of worship.”

Ottoman Qur'an manuscript from 1869

Surah 25: The Differentiator

“The servants of the Lord of Mercy are those who walk humbly on the earth, and who, when aggressive people address them, reply with words of peace.”

—The Qur’an Surah 25, v. 63

The more I read the Qur’an, the more I realize its essentially poetic/musical quality.  To the uninformed reader, it seems incredibly repetitive, even boring.  Certain themes weave together and repeat themselves with endless variations throughout.  It’s not a narrative, but it contains many stories.  It’s not a prayer, but it contains many prayers.  I think the best religious/textual comparison I can make is with the Hebrew prophets and the book of Psalms.

When we read the prophets and the psalms, we do not expect a continuous narrative.  We expect poetry and song, which is what the Qur’an is—a song to be sung, not a text to be read silently.  Like music and poetry, like the prophets and the psalms, the Qur’an riffs on a handful of repeated themes.  In my book report on psalms, I focused on two oft-repeated themes: Help me out, God and Help us out, God.  In my various reports on the prophets (like Isaiah), I noted the common themes of judgment, destruction, and renewal.  Like these other religious/poetic texts, the Qur’an weaves certain motifs, like blues or jazz.

Surah 25, The Differentiator, takes its title from another name for the Qur’an, Al-Furqan, which means “that which differentiates right form wrong.”  The text riffs on a few familiar themes: warnings against polytheism, criticisms of the prophet, vindication of the prophet, the final judgment, the testimony of previous prophets, and a meditation on the afterlife (heaven vs. hell).  As poetry goes, it’s pretty heavy and intense stuff, just like the Hebrew prophets and Psalms.

A Qur’an leaf in Maghribi script of surah Al-Furqan (The Differentiator). North Africa or Andalusia, late 12th-13th century 

Surah 26: The Poets

The 26th surah of the Qur’an takes its title from a verse which says, “Only those who are lost in error follow the poets.”  When read out of context, this verse seems bizarre, considering the fact that the Qur’an itself is highly poetic.  In context, however, the verse makes more sense.  A footnote to my Oxford Qur’an explains: “The Meccans dismissed the Qur’an as (mere) poetry.  After the prophet moved to Medina, the Meccans commissioned poets to satirize the Muslims, and some Muslim poets counter-attacked.”  It seems like this surah was written in the context of a kind of “War of the Poets.”  What this surah asserts is that the Qur’an transcends mere poetry.  It is a revelation from God.

The surah may be read as an extended argument for the truth of the prophet’s message, as revealed in the Qur’an.  As in previous surahs, this one tells stories of previous prophets whose message was initially rejected, then vindicated.  These prophets include biblical figures like Moses, Aaron, Abraham, Noah, and Lot. They also include pre-Islamic Arabian prophets like Hud, Salih, and Shu’ayb.  Muhammad is merely the latest in this succession of holy prophets.

19th century Persian manuscript of the Qur'an.

Surah 27: The Ants

One thing I really like about the Qur'an is how it often takes familiar characters and stories from the Bible and adds a new twist to them.  So it is with the 27th surah, The Ants, which tells a unique story involving King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.  Modern scholars today believe that Sheba was the Arabian Kingdom of Saba, centered around the oasis of Marib, in present-day Yemen.  In the Bible, the story goes that the Queen of Sheba, recognizing Solomon's great wealth and wisdom, traveled to Jerusalem to pay her respects and give tribute.  This is the basic storyline in the Qur'an, with some notable Arabian flourishes.

In the Qur'an, Solomon is not only wealthy and powerful, he can also talk with animals!  He says, "People, we have been taught the speech of birds, and have been given a share of everything: this is clearly a great favor."  Solomon also has a posse that consists of men, talking birds, and jinn, which are basically genies.  That's right--Solomon has genies in his crew!

One day, when Solomon and his amazing posse are traveling through the Valley of the Ants, one ant calls out to his fellow bugs: "Ants!  Go into your homes, in case Solomon and his hosts unwittingly crush you."  Solomon gets a kick out of this.

Then king Solomon realizes that one of his birds is missing--the hoopoe.  He angrily shouts: "Why do I not see the hoopoe?  Is he absent?"  Just then, the hoopoe arrives and says he's been visiting the Queen of Sheba.  He says the queen and her people are polytheists and idolaters, which upsets Solomon, and prompts him to send her a letter, asking her to pay a visit.

After a bit of correspondence back and forth, Sheba agrees to visit Solomon, who plans two tests for her, which are meant to teach her the difference between false appearances (i.e. her false gods) and reality (i.e. the one true God).  Solomon asks one of his genies to build a throne that looks exactly like the queen of Sheba's.  He also creates a false pool of water that is actually made of glass.  When the queen arrives, Solomon is like, "Recognize your throne?"  

"Yeah," she says, "That looks just like my throne."

"But it isn't!" Solomon says.  The big reveal.

Then Solomon says, "Why don't you take a swim in my pool?"

The queen gets ready for a swim, and then Solomon is like,"Ha!  It's only glass!"

Based on these optical illusions, the Queen of Sheba agrees to give up her traditional dieties and worship Solomon's God.  Mission accomplished, Solomon!

Surah 28: The Story

The 28th surah of the Qur'an takes it title from the story of Moses, which is re-told as a kind of precursor to Muhammad.  For those unfamiliar with the story of Moses (from the Book of Exodus, various Hollywood films, and, as it turns out, the Qur'an), it is as follows: Moses was an Israelite born in Egypt at a time when Israelites were slaves.  Fearing a rebellion, Pharaoh ordered all the male Israelite babies killed.  Moses' mother, wishing to spare her son's life, put him in a basket in the Nile river, and prayed for mercy from God.  The basket was found by Pharaoh's wife, who decided to adopt the baby and raise him as a prince of Egypt.

When Moses reached manhood, he learned of his peoples' plight and killed an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite slave.  Moses fled into the desert of Midian, where he met his wife and became a shepherd.  Many years later, God appeared to Moses in a burning bush and told him to liberate his people.  Moses was afraid at the enormity of the task, but God gave him signs and wonders to perform, and his brother Aaron to help him.  Moses came before Pharaoh and said, "Let my people go!"  To which Pharaoh replied, "No."  After many signs and wonders from God, Moses finally liberated his people from their bondage in Egypt, and God gave him the Torah, or holy scripture, as guidance for this newly-liberated community, which became the nation of Israel.

After re-telling this story, which is basically the founding narrative of the Jewish people, the Qur'an states that Muhammad is like Moses--leading a new community on a kind of Exodus (or hijra) out of Mecca, and giving them a holy book, the Qur'an, which is a sign of grace and mercy from God.  I find it fascinating how much respect the Qur'an has for the Jewish prophets and scriptures, and how it sees Muhammad as an extension of this tradition.  At a time when Jewish-Muslim relations are quite strained in the Middle East (and elsewhere), perhaps it would be good for Jews, Muslims (and Christians) to reflect on their shared heritage.  This is, I think, an essential part of true inter-faith dialogue--realizing the deep connections between our different faith traditions.

Moses (or Musa) with a cane in his hand (15th century Persian miniature).

Surah 29: The Spider

The 29th surah of the Qur’an takes its title from verse 41, which states: “Those who take protectors other than God can be compared to spiders building themselves houses—the spider’s house is the frailest of all houses—if only they could understand.”  This sentiment has a parallel in the gospel, in Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish builders.  In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: 

“Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man, who built his house on a rock.  The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it didn’t fall, for it was founded on the rock.  Everyone who hears these words of mine, and doesn’t do them will be like a foolish man, who built his house on sand.  The rain came down, the flood’s came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”  (v. 24-27)

The main point of both parables is this: Trust in God and his messenger, and you will prosper.  Do not trust in God and his messenger, and you will be destroyed.  As in many previous surahs, this one draws examples from sacred history.  The stories of Noah, Moses, Abraham, Lot, and Arabian prophets like Shu’ayb all point to one central fact: Those who place their faith in God will prosper, and those who do not will suffer.  

This is a Meccan surah, which means it was written in the earlier period of Muhammad’s life when he and his followers faced persecution from the powerful Meccan tribe known as the Quraysh, who did not take kindly to the prophet’s message.  Thus, this surah was written in a context of persecution and faith being tested.  While modern readers may take issue with the harshness and over-simplicity of the “obey/prosper, disobey/suffer model”, I’m sure it provided encouragement to Muhammad’s new community of faith in 7th century Mecca.

Surah 30: The Byzantines

The title of the 30th surah of my English translation of the Qur'an is "The Byzantines."  The actual Arabic title is "Ar-Rum" or "The Romans."  That's right--both the Bible and the Qur'an have books called "Romans."  As it turns out, the connections between Christianity and Islam run deep in this surah.

The context of "The Byzantines" is a defeat of the Eastern Roman Empire (also called Byzantium) by the Persians in 613 at the Battle of Antioch (in Syria).  The Qur'an laments this defeat because the Byzantines were Christians and fellow monotheists.  That's right--at this time, Christians and Muslims were friends and allies.  Their common "enemies" were polytheists like the Persians and Meccans.

This surah offers comfort and hope to both the defeated Byzantine Christians and the emerging Muslim community.  The prophet predicts an ultimate victory for their fellow monotheists.  The surah begins: "The Byzantines have been defeated in their nearest land.  They will reverse their defeat with a victory in a few years' time: God is in command, first and last.  On that day, the believers will rejoice at God's help."

The tone of this surah is one of encouragement and hope amidst difficult times.  The prophet reminds his audience of all the wonderful signs of God in the world: in the creation of human beings, in the "love and kindness" between spouses, in "the diversity of your languages and colors" (That's right--ethnic and cultural diversity is a sign of God's grace), in sleep, in lightning, in water, in the heavens and the earth.  In light of God's generosity and goodness, the prophet encourages generosity to "the needy, and the wayfarer."  

Like the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel, Muhammad says that God has the power to bring life out of death: "Look, then, at the imprints of God's mercy, how he restores the earth to life after death: this same God is the one who will return people to life after death; he has power over all be patient, for God's promise is true."

As it turned out, the prophet was correct.  In 622, the Byzantines rallied their forces and defeated the Persians during Heraclius' campaign of 622.  This was also the same year that Muhammad and his forces scored an unlikely victory against the Meccans at the Battle of Badr.  622 was a good year for monotheism.

Battle Between Byzantines (under Emperor Heraclius) and Persians (under Emperor Khosrau II) by Piero della Francesca.

Surah 31: Luqman

This surah takes its title from a man called "Luqman the Wise" a black pre-Islamic prophet from Ethiopia. A sensitive and perceptive man, Luqman was always watching the animals and plants of his surroundings, and trying to understand the world based on what he saw. One day, while sleeping under a tree, an angel came to him and said that Allah wanted to bestow a gift upon Luqman: either wisdom or being king. Luqman chose wisdom, and when he woke from his slumber, he was aware that his senses and understanding had sharpened. He felt in complete harmony with nature and could understand the inner meaning of things, beyond their physical reality.  Luqman is much like the biblical figure of Solomon, in that he chose wisdom over power, and he is known for his wise sayings.  In this surah, here is some cousel Luqman gives his son:

God is self-sufficient and the only true God.

God knows everything.

Keep up your prayers.

Do what is right, and not what is wrong.

Bear your troubles steadfastly.

Don't be arrogant.

Be moderate.

Speak softly, not loudly.

There are many stories about Luqman in Arabic and Turkish literature, most notably the Tafsir ibn Kathir and Stories of the Qur'an by Ibn Kathir.  A famous story involves Luqman being captured and sold as a slave, but winning the respect of his master on account of his great wisdom.  The Bahá'í holy writings also make reference to Luqman.  

I suspect that one of the reasons so many prominent African Americans involved in the Civil Rights movement became Muslim (like Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali) was because Islam is a faith that respects people of color, like Luqman the Wise.

Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X

Surah 32: Prostration

This surah takes its title from verse 15, which states: "The only people who truly believe in Our messages are those who, when they are reminded of them, bow down in worship, celebrate their Lord's praises, and do not think themselves above this."  Prostration means bowing down completely to the ground (face down) in prayer.  

Prayer is one of the "Five Pillars of Islam" and it is called salat.  Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day in a very ritualistic manner that involves full prostration and specific prayers.  How different this is from modern Christian ideas of prayer, which are more casual.  Never in my life have I prayed in "full prostration" mode.  It seems really intense, but also potentially really meaningful.

The most intense example of religious prostration I've heard of involves certain Buddhist monks who make a pilgrimage to the Bodhi tree in India where the Buddha was enlightened.  These monks travel thousands of miles, over the Himilayan mountains, prostrating themselves all the way.  They will take one step, lay face down, get up, take another step,  and so on.  For literally thousands of miles.  Now that is some serious prostration.

Surah 33: The Joint Forces

This is a Medinan surah that takes its title from a reference to the Battle of the Trench, in which an army of various tribes besieged Medina, where Muhammad and his followers were living after the hijra (or migration) from Mecca.  The out-numbered Muslims dug a trench, which the joint forces were unable to cross.  After a powerful sandstorm, they retreated.  This victory was seen as a sign of divine favor.  Like many Medinan surahs, this one also gives various laws and regulations dealing with marriage, family, and communal life.

The Battle of the Trench

Surah 34: Sheba

This surah takes its title from a story told about the people of Sheba, another name for the ancient Kingdom of Saba in southern Arabia, in modern-day Yemen.  The Sabean Kingdom lasted from about 1200 B.C.E. to about 275 C.E., which means that, by the time the Qur'an was written in the 600s B.C.E., the Sabeans were an important, but distant, memory.

"Sheba" gives a religious explanation for why that ancient kingdom fell.  Basically, God blessed them with two bountiful gardens, and asked only that they showed him gratitude.  But, like the ancient Israelites complaining about God's provision in the wilderness of Sinai, the Sabeans were ungrateful.  So God sent a flood, which destroyed the two bountiful gardens.  In their place, there rose up "others that yielded bitter fruit, tamarisk bushes, and a few lote trees."  Lote trees are notoriously thorny.  Probably because of the unproductivity of the land, the Sabeans were scattered, and their kingdom fell.

The "moral" of the story is quite clear--give proper gratitude to God for what you have.  Of course, the real reasons for the fall of the Sabean Kingdom were more complex, involving many sporadic civil wars between rival dynasties.  But where's the moral in that?

Here is a bust of a Sabean priestess, who intercedes with the sun goddess on behalf of the donor. (1st century C.E.)

Surah 35: The Creator

This Meccan surah is an impassioned argument for monotheism, against polytheism.  In the context of 7th century Mecca, this was a controversial message.  Though there were Christians and Jews living in the Arabian peninsula at the time, the majority of Arab Meccans, in Muhamad’s early years, were polytheistic.  This included the powerful Quraysh tribe, who controlled the economic and religious life of the community.  One can imagine Muhammad standing by the Ka’aba, the site of polytheistic worship in Mecca, and delivering his radical message, which was as follows:

There is only one God who created and sustains everything.  He is all-powerful and all-knowing.  All other gods are powerless, and actually non-existent.  Muhammad’s message of monotheistic devotion is merely the latest message in a series of messages given to people throughout history (like the Jews and the Christians).  Prophets like Muhammad are “warners” who urge people to turn back to the one God, so as to avoid destruction in this life and the next.

Not surprisingly, Muhammad’s message brought him into direct conflict with the Quraysh tribe and ultimately led to the exodus (or hijra) of the fledgling Muslim community from Mecca to Yathrib (later called Medina, the City of the Prophet).  It was in Medina that Muhammad’s message and community would grow in numbers.  This would ultimately lead the prophet and his followers to re-take Mecca and institute profound religious and social reforms.

Muhammad at the Ka'aba (16th century Turkish painting)

Surah 36: Ya Sin

This surah takes its title from the first two letters of the first verse: ya and sin.  Scholars disagree about the meaning of this title.  Tafsir al-Jalalayn has written, "Allah knows best what He means by these."  Which is another way of saying, "Who knows?"  Ya Sin is a very popular and important surah.  It is often called "The Heart of the Qur'an" because it sums up so concisely and beautifully the major themes of the Qur'an.  These themes are as follows...

Muhammad is God's messenger, sent to warn people about God's mercy and His wrath.  Many messengers (prophets) have been sent before.  Like Muhammad, they all experienced some rejection and haters.  People have a tendency to reject God's messengers.  Remember what happened to Jesus?  God is shown in nature, so people have no excuse for unbelief.  St. Paul made a similar argument in Romans 1:20: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse."  A final resurrection and Day of Judgment is coming, in which people's ultimate destiny will be decided.  The prophet is no mere poet, and the Qur'an is more than poetry--it is a revelation from God.

Arabic calligraphy art using the text of Surah Ya Sin.
After reading "Ya Sin," I decided to look online for some videos of people reciting this popular surah.  I wanted to hear it recited/sung, because that is how we are meant to experience the Qur'an--not as silent words on a page, but as a human utterance.  I found a cool web site, where you can hear each verse recited in Arabic, along with both English text, Arabic text, and transliteration from Arabic to English.  Check it out HERE.  

What I immediately realize, listening to the recitation, is that the Qur'an invites a kind of meditative, emotional response that is simply not possible when reading an English translation.  There is also a kind of direct connection to history and Arabic culture that is undoubtedly meaningful to Muslims.  Listening to these recitations, I get a feeling I got when I went to a very old Eastern Orthodox liturgical church service.  Though I could not understand the literal meaning of the words, something deeper got communicated, like music.  In our fast-paced, modern lives, I think it's important to slow down, listen to something beautiful, and meditate--no matter what your beliefs.  Check out a nice recitation video HERE.

Surah 37: Ranged in Rows

In a previous post, I wrote about the religious life of pre-Islamic Arabia, and noted that the High God was named Allah and that he had three daughters named Al-latAl-Uzza, and Manat.  When Muhammad began preaching his new message of monotheism, this meant doing away with Allah's daughters, which some people (understandably) found difficult to do.  It would be like telling catholics, "You can no longer venerate Mary."

Allah's three daughters in pre-Islamic Arabia.

Throughout the Qur'an, Muhammad repeatedly insists that Allah has no daughters.  This is the case in the 37th surah.  Some people believed that angels were the daughters of God, and Muhammad harshly criticizes them for this "false" belief.  The title of this surah, Ranged in Rows, is a reference to what will happen in heaven on the Day of Judgment.  Humans and angels will be formed into rows, and the angels will rebuke the humans who called them "God's daughters."

What this surah really shows is that getting people to totally transform their worldview is a slow and difficult process.  The Hebrew Bible continually criticizes people for worshipping Baal.  This is because, in pre-Israelite Canaanite mythology, Baal was the son of El, the High God, from whom the Israelites developed the idea of Elohim, or God.  Before El was transformed into the sole God, he had a wife named Asherah.  People worshipped Baal and Asherah, not because they were evil, but because it was what generations of their ancestors had done before them.  Interestingly, the words "El" and "Allah" are linguistically linked, sharing a similar root.  One unfortunate effect of monotheism was the fact that it did away with female goddesses, which probably had negative effects on ideas of gender equality.

Asherah, wife of El.

Surah 38: Saad

This surah, like many before it, tells the stories of various prophets of God who experienced rejection by their communities.  A major theme of the Qur'an is that God has sent prophets throughout history to speak his messages, yet these true messengers experience some rejection, because of the radical nature of their message.  Prophets mentioned in this surah include Noah, Thamud, Lot, David, Solomon, Job, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael, Elisha, and Dhu 'l-Kifl.  Muhammad is the latest in this series of prophets, and he too experienced some rejection by his own tribe, the Quraysh.

Verse 4 states: "The disbelievers think it strange that a prophet of their own people has come to warn them: they say, 'He is just a lying sorcerer.'"  This same sentiment is expressed in the gospel of Mark, when Jesus, after experiencing rejection in his hometown of Nazareth, says, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home" (6:4).  

This insight, that a prophet would be rejected by his own community, is profound and transcends simply religious matters.  I think of Galileo, who was persecuted for teaching things that went against the status quo.  It is the same with all visionaries throughout history who see things differently: Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk, Allen Ginsberg, Sitting Bull, Ghandi, etc.  When people publicly say things that challenge the basic ideology of a community, there is going to be some backlash.

Recently, I was discussing the novel VALIS, by Philip K. Dick, with some friends.  In the novel, a man living in Orange County in the 1970s begins having divine revelations, visions that are actually similar to Muhammad and other prophets throughout history.  His visions challenge orthodox religious and political ideas, and it's easy to dismiss him as "insane," just like the prophets before him.  But I think the message of VALIS (and, as it turns out, the Qur'an) is that we should pay more attention to the eccentric, dissenting voices in our communities.  They may be speaking profound truths we need to hear.

Surah 39: The Throngs

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)

Surah 40: The Forgiver

I found this surah troubling for much the same reason that I find aspects of the Bible troubling.  The picture of God that emerges is disturbing.  On the one hand, as the title suggests, God is characterized by forgiveness.  It says, “Our Lord, you embrace all things in mercy and knowledge, so forgive those who turn to You and follow your path.”  So far, so Good.  God seems alright.  But what if you don’t believe in God, or the particular version of God as depicted in the “holy text”?  Basically, you’re fucked: “Enter the gates of Hell, there to remain—an evil home for the arrogant.”  What I find troubling is the idea of eternal suffering.  It seems profoundly unjust and, to me, undermines the “forgiving” nature of God.

The idea of hell is shared by Christianity and Islam, and it is indeed a difficult one to stomach.  These two major world religions have a lot of beautiful ideas to offer—love, forgiveness, grace, a concern for the poor and marginalized, even the idea of eternal life.  But I don’t think hell is a very good idea, when you think about it for a while.  It belies even a rudimentary understanding of justice.  It goes beyond even the old school “eye for an eye” concept.  Instead of saying, for example, “If you steal someone’s horse, you have to give them a horse,” the hell concept says, “If you sin, your punishment will be totally disproportionate to the crime—you will suffer forever.”

The idea of hell preys upon one of humanity’s weakest attributes—fear.  In pretty much any arena of life, fear is a poor motivator.  But in the realm of religion, fear is a powerful motivator.  And when people are guided by fear, they tend to make ill-informed decisions and believe in weird things. 

It is important to note that the idea of hell developed over time.  It’s not something people have always believed in.  Like pretty much all religious ideas, it evolved in response to very specific historical circumstances into its current state.  The same goes for Satan.  For more on the invention of the idea of Satan, I recommend scholar Elaine Pagels’ book The Origin of Satan.  In the Hebrew Bible (the Christian “Old Testament”), there is no concept of hell.  There are some references to “Sheol” but that is not a place of punishment or suffering.  It is simply the realm of the dead.

For these, and many other reasons, I reject the idea of hell.  I find it distasteful, unjust, and totally absent in the earliest biblical texts.  So why do people still believe in hell, especially today, in the 21st century?  Of course, I can’t speak for everyone, but I can speak for why I used to believe in hell, back when I was an evangelical Christian.  I believed in hell because it was in the Bible, and back then I thought that, to be a Christian, I had to believe pretty much everything in the Bible was true.  Despite my distaste for the idea, I felt I had to accept it as “part and parcel” to the whole Christianity thing.  

Interestingly, when I began to question my faith in college, hell was one of my biggest problems.  The more I thought about it, the more it caused me to question everything.  Today, I am an outspoken agnostic.  I don’t know whether God exists.  But I definitely do NOT believe in hell.  It is morally repugnant to me.

This is a painting of hell, a place which I do not believe exists.

Surah 41: [Verses] Made Clear

This surah describes the Qur’an as a text given to Arab people, in Arabic, so that its message is clear.  It begins: “A revelation from the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy, a Scripture whose verses are made clear as a Qur’an in Arabic for people who understand, giving good news and warning,” and a bit later, “If we had made it a foreign Qur’an, they would have said, ‘If only its verses were made clear!  What!  Foreign speech to an Arab?”  What these verses hi-light is the belief that God sends messengers to different people who speak in words they understand.  References are made to previous prophets like Moses and Thamud, who gave messages from God to their different communities.  

This raises the issue of translation.  If the original Qur’an was given in Arabic, should the text be translated?  Different opinions exist on this question.  What is generally agreed upon by Muslims is that the original Arabic text is the purest form of God’s word.  If translations are made, they are of a lower standing than the original text.  Thus, my English translation pales in comparison to the power and poetry of the original Arabic text.  I suppose the same could be said for the BIble, which was originally written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic.  Most modern Christians do not read these languages, so we must content ourselves with a translation.  Inevitably, as with any translation, we lose a good deal of meaning in this process.  I suppose the lesson is this: If you want to really understand the meaning of a text, you must first learn the language in which it was written.

Arabic is a beautiful language.

Surah 42: Consultation

This surah takes its title from a reference in verse 38 to the practice of consultation (or, shura).  This means, simply, the practice of deciding your affairs in consultation with those who will be affected by that decision.  It is a type of democracy, and is meant to be an important characteristic of the Muslim community.  Believers are encouraged to "conduct their affairs by mutual consultation."  This way of being, of having a mutual concern for others, is a good antidote to selfishness and ego-centrism.

This surah also contains a number of verses which go against western stereotypes of Islam as an inherently aggressive, violent, or repressive religion.  Regarding treatment of Christians and Jews, the surah says, "God is our Lord and your Lord--to us our deeds and to you yours, so let there be no argument between us and you--God will gather us together, and to Him we shall return."  This is actually a lovely picture of religious tolerance.

Regarding when it is appropriate to fight, the surah says, "There is no cause to act against anyone who defends himself after being wronged, but there is cause to act against those who oppress people and transgress in the land against all justice."  In other words, it is only okay to fight against oppression and injustice.   Finally, regarding how to treat "unbelievers," a Muslim's only duty is to deliver God's message.  There can be no compulsion in matters of faith.  In this surah, God says to Muhammad, "Your only duty is to deliver the message." 

The more I read the Qur'an, the more I realize that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are not so different from one another.  We are all more connected than we realize.

Surah 43: Ornaments of Gold

In both the Bible and the Qur'an, prophets tend not to be people of wealth and power.  On the contrary, they often come from the fringes of society to criticize the wealthy and powerful.  This was certainly the case with Jesus, who came from the poor town of Nazareth, which was inhabited mainly by subsistence farmers and day laborers.  I also think of the prophet Elijah from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), who spent much of his time in the wilderness, with practically no possessions.  Same thing with John the Baptist, who had a lot in common with Elijah.  John and Elijah both spoke against their kings and the political elite.  Jesus spoke against the religious leaders of his day--the Temple priests, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees.  Often, because of the fact that these prophets defied authority, spoke truth to power, they were persecuted and killed, sort of like Martin Luther King Jr.

Muhammad continued this tradition of the not-powerful prophet who spoke against the authorities of his day.  For Muhammad, this was the powerful Quraysh tribe, who thrived on an exploitive religio-economic system in Mecca.  Muhammad preached radical social and religious reforms, a kind of egalitarian society, and the Quraysh ran him out of town.  He would eventually return, however, triumphant.

The 43rd surah of the Qur'an, "Ornaments of Gold," basically reinforces this idea that a true prophet will not be wealthy or powerful.  The surah refers to "golden ornaments" which "are mere enjoyments of this life.  The real reward is in "the next life for those who take heed of Him (God)."  In heaven, "dishes and goblets of gold will be passed around them with all that their souls desire and their eyes delight in."  These sentiments are also expressed in the New Testament gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

The surah also gives the example of Moses who, when he confronted the wealthy and powerful Pharaoh of Egypt, was merely a shepherd.  Pharaoh asked, mockingly, "Am I not better than this contemptible wretch who can scarcely express himself?  Why has he not been given any gold bracelets?"  If you've seen the movie The Ten Commandments, you know how that story turned out.  The point is that the real treasures of this life are non-material.  God doesn't care about people's bank accounts or investment portfolios.  In a country as fiercely capitalistic and materialistic as the United States, where I live, it is very difficult (and certainly counter-cultural) to value things other than wealth, but this is the path taught by both the Bible and the Qur'an.

Prophets tend to be poor, dress weird, and suffer hardship (like John the Baptist).

Surah 44: Smoke

This Meccan surah takes its title from a reference in verse 10 to “the Day when the sky brings forth clouds of smoke for all to see.”  Scholars have interpreted this passage in two ways.  It may refer to an event from the life of Muhammad, when there was a famine in Mecca that was so severe that people started seeing a smoke-filled sky as the result of eyes misty with hunger.  There are accounts in the hadith literature (stories from the life of the prophet, not in the Qur’an) that interpret the smoke in this way.

More likely, however, is the other interpretation, which sees the “smoke-filled sky” as a reference to the final Day of Judgment—a theme repeated in nearly every surah.  Believers are constantly told to be ready for the Day of Judgment, or the Day of Resurrection, when all people will be judged, and sent to either heaven or hell.  This interpretation is supported by the fact that, later in the surah, there are specific references to the Day of Resurrection.

Being a Meccan surah, the context of this one is conflict between the fledgling community of Muhammad’s followers and the powerful Quraysh tribe, who basically controlled Mecca, and didn’t like the prophet and his followers.  The surah comforts the prophet and his community with a story from sacred history—the story of the Exodus—when Moses led the oppressed Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land in Canaan.  Like the Israelites, the followers of Muhammad would eventually make their own Exodus (called the Hijra) to Medina, the “city of the prophet” where they would grow into a much larger community.

Surah 45: Kneeling

This is a Meccan surah which takes its title from verse 28: "You will see every community kneeling.  Every community will be summoned to its record: Today you will be repaid for what you did."  This is a reference to the Day of Judgment (also called the Day of Resurrection) at the end of time, when everyone will be judged for their beliefs and deeds, and sent to either heaven or hell.  In context, it was spoken as a judgment against polytheistic pagans of Mecca, with whom Muhammad and his early followers clashed.

What is unique about this vision of the Final Judgment is its focus on communities, as opposed to individuals.  In western Christianity, and western society in general, salvation is seen as an essentially individual affair.  In seventh century Arabia, a tribal society, salvation was seen as a community affair.  Communities succeeded or failed together.  Pretty much all of the Qur'an is addressed to communities of faith, as opposed to individuals.

Although I don't believe in a literal heaven or hell, or a Day of Judgment for that matter, I like the idea that communities, not just individuals, will be held accountable.  Rather than God judging us, however, I think it will be future generations who judge us.  In my classes this week, we were talking about how the city of Fullerton, in the 1920s, had an active Ku Klux Klan.  Of course, as students today, we judge the community for its racist past.  But what I find equally interesting is this question: How will future generations judge our community today?  How will future generations judge my community, the Fullerton community, for how we treated the homeless, or undocumented immigrants, or how we polluted the environment and over-developed the land?  Taking this historical long view allows us to think more carefully about our actions and our communities.

The word used for "community" in Islam is "Ummah"

Surah 46: The Sand Dunes

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...

Surah 47: Muhammad

This surah is a little disturbing, as it contains instructions for warfare: “When you meet the disbelievers in battle, strike them in the neck, and once they are defeated, bind any captives firmly—later you can release them as a grace for ransom—until the toils of war have ended” (v. 4).  In the context of 7th century Arabia, however, it would be strange if the Qur’an didn’t mention inter-tribal conflict—it was a reality of life.  The specific context of this surah was the Battle of Badr, an important battle which helped ensure the survival of Muhammad's community of faith.  And yet, the fact remains that the Qur’an, like the Bible before it, does condone certain types of armed conflict and violence.  I suppose this was probably necessary for survival, but it's still disturbing.

This surah, like much of the Qur’an also focuses a lot on the afterlife.  Believers are urged to behave in ethical/faithful ways so as to avoid eternal damnation in Hell, and to enter the gardens of Paradise, which are described in this way: “rivers of water forever pure, rivers of milk forever fresh, rivers of wine, a delight for those who drink, rivers of honey clarified and pure, all flow in it; there they will find fruit of every kind; and they will find forgiveness from their Lord.”  This is contrasted with Hell, which is a fiery place where people are given “boiling water to drink that tears their bowels.”

In contrast to the afterlife, which believers are told to look forward to, this earthly life is described as “only a game, a pastime.”  In short, the real life is the afterlife.  I actually have a problem with this worldview.  What if it’s not true?  What if there is no afterlife?  What if the “real deal” is here, now, on this earth?  In my view, it’s important to value this life because it may, in fact, be the only one we get.  And, even if there is an afterlife, it seems to me that this life is at least equally important.  Additionally, living in fear of some future punishment is not a recipe for mental and emotional health.  Fear is an effective, but ultimately toxic, human motivator.

The context of this surah was the Battle of Badr.

Surah 48: Triumph

In 622 C.E., after a series of conflicts with the powerful Quraysh tribe in Mecca, Muhammad led his small group of followers on a migration to Medina, where they would grow into a larger community of faith.  After they had become established in Medina, God gave Muhammad a vision that he should lead his followers on a pilgrimage back to Mecca.  This was, no doubt, a scary proposition, however he did it.  

Outside of Mecca, Muhammad and his followers were stopped by the Quraysh.  The two rival groups eventually signed a peace treaty (known as the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah), which said that Muhammad and his followers would not enter Mecca that year, but would return the following year.  Also, the treaty provided for a ten-year truce between the two groups.  

This is the context of the 48th surah.  The “triumph” is not success in battle, but rather the successful negotiating of a peace treaty.

Qur'an surah 48 in Kufic script (8th-9th century C.E.)

Surah 49: The Private Rooms

This is a Medinan surah, which means that it is mainly concerned with guidelines for maintaining a healthy community.  In this regard, the surah gives three main commands:

1.) Do not shout at the prophet, but rather treat him with respect, with a lowered voice.

2.) Seek to reconcile community members who are fighting.

3.) Don't gossip about community members behind their backs.

Persian Qur'an Manuscript (19th century)

Surah 50: Qaaf

I recently got into a conversation with my dad about the Christian doctrine of what happens when you die.  The popular belief is that, when you die, your soul goes to heaven (or hell).  But this is not exactly the picture we find in the New Testament.  In the book of Revelation, for example, there is the belief that, at the end of time, all the dead will be bodily resurrected from their graves to face a final judgment.  The belief that your soul separates from your body at death is arguably a more Gnostic than orthodox Christian belief.

It is this latter view, that the dead will be bodily raised at the end of time, which the Qur’an adopts.  Surah 50, Qaaf, is concerned mainly with emphasizing this belief.  In the Qur’an, the belief in bodily resurrection is so important that it is what separates true believers from unbelievers.  This belief was also super important to early Christians.

The question then arises—what happens to people between death and final resurrection at the end of time?  To my knowledge, neither the Bible nor the Qur’an explicitly answers this question.  One could reasonably infer that, in this interim period, you are simply dead.  If you are somehow alive during this period, what need would there be for resurrection?

I guess my point is that both of these major world religions leave us with some unanswered questions regarding what happens when you die.

"The Resurrection of the Dead" by Michelangelo
Surah 51: Scattering (Winds)

This surah takes its title from two references to powerful wind, which are symbolic of the two natures of God: He is a benevolent provider, and he is a stern judge.  This imagery would have resonated particularly with desert-dwelling Arabs of the 7th century, for whom powerful wind could be both a blessing (bringing rain) or a curse (bringing destructive sandstorms). The surah begins with a description of benevolent wind: “By those [winds] that scatter far and wide, and those that are heavily laden [with rain], that speed freely, that distribute [rain] as ordained!”  Nature is often seen in the Qur’an as a sign of divine provision and goodness.  Indeed, in a desert climate like 7th century Arabia, winds brought much-needed rain.  

Just as winds could bring life-giving water, winds could also bring devastating sandstorms.  For those who reject the prophet, God has other, less benevolent, winds in store: “We sent the life-destroying wind against them and it reduced everything it came up against to shreds.”  A main component of Muhammad’s teaching is the coming Day of Resurrection, when God will judge humanity.  The powerful wind is seen as an embodiment of this judgment.  The two types of wind in surah 51 are symbols of the two natures of God: benevolent provider and stern judge.  It's a powerful, evocative, poetic image with different meanings.

Surah 52: The Mountain

This surah has a passionate, almost frustrated tone, as it harshly criticizes the people of Mecca who deny the prophet’s message.  He swears on “the mountain” (Mt. Sinai, where Moses received his revelation) that the unbelievers will burn in hell on the Day of Judgment.

By contrast, those who believe the prophet’s message (and do good deeds) will go to the gardens of paradise, where they will be re-united with their children and “beautiful-eyed maidens.”  It’s unclear whether these maidens are their wives, or different women.

The prophet ends by addressing the criticisms of unbelievers who say that he is a sorcerer, a madman, a poet, or that he simply made it all up.  His response is basically that he will be vindicated on the coming Day of Judgment (an event which did not happen during the prophet’s lifetime, and has still not happened).  

Mt. Sinai is located in Egypt.
 Surah 53: The Star

This Meccan surah begins with the prophet “proving” the truth of his message by referring to two special visits he received from the angel Gabriel.  This sort of uncorroborated testimony might have been enough for 7th century people, but it (frankly) doesn’t hold much water for me.  The surah asks, “Are you going to dispute with him what he saw with his own eyes?”  My response would have been, “Um, yeah.”

Then the prophet, oddly, criticizes the polytheistic Meccans for believing in their own miraculous things like the three daughters of God: al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat.  It’s actually unfortunate that these female deities were ultimately banished from Arabian cosmology, to be replaced with a singular (and probably quite lonely) God.  It seems to me that the three daughters might have kept some of Allah’s more patriarchal, domineering tendencies in check.  Alas.

The title of the surah comes from a reference to the star Sirius, which pre-Islamic Arabs worshipped, and then stopped worshipping when Islam won the day.

The star Sirius is located near the constellation Orion.

Surah 54: The Moon

This is a Meccan surah, which means it comes from the first half of the prophet’s life, when he was preaching his message of radical monotheism to the largely polytheistic inhabitants of Mecca.

The prophet is convinced that, if the people reject his message, they will suffer the same destructive fate as previous communities who rejected their prophets, like Noah, Salih, Lot, and Moses.  This destruction will happen on the Day of Judgment (a concept shared by Christians), when God will separate believers and unbelievers, and send them to either hell or paradise.

The title of the surah comes from the first line: “The hour draws near, the moon is split,” referring to an apocalyptic event that will happen on the Day of Judement—the moon will crack in two!  Divine judgment aside, that would really fuck with the tides.

If you see this, stay away from the beach.

Surah 55: The Lord of Mercy

This surah is structured like a poem, which describes the wonders of nature and of the afterlife, with the repeating line, “Which, then, of your Lord’s blessings do you both deny?”  My footnote tells me that “both” refers to humans and jinn (which are spirits, the origin of the word “genie”).

The first half focuses on elements of the natural world, which God is said to have created: the sun and moon, plants and trees, bodies of water, and finally humanity.  Then the surah describes, quite evocatively, both hell and heaven.  Hell is a place of “flames and scalding water.”  Heaven (which exists on two levels) is described as a lush desert oasis—a garden with shady date palms and flowing streams.  It’s interesting that paradise is described as something familiar to desert-dwelling Arabs.

It would be interesting to compare and contrast different cultures’ ideas of paradise, to see how the geography of their actual landscapes affects their visions of the hereafter.

Surah 56: That Which is Coming

Thus surah focuses on the oft-repeated theme of the Day of Judgment, when the believers and unbelievers will be separated.  Here’s how it will go down.  People will be separated into three positions: those in front of God (the best of the believers), those to the right of God (the ordinary believers), and those to the left of God (the unbelievers).  Based on their position, people will be either rewarded or punished eternally in the hereafter.

This view is quite similar to the Christian vision of the final judgment, an event which both early Christians and Muslims believed was imminent (thus adding urgency to their prophet’s message.  Unfortunately, the Day of Judgment never actually happened, and believers today (Christian and Muslim alike) are still waiting for it. 

One wonders how long people are willing to wait before they go, “Hmm. Maybe we are waiting in vain.”  Maybe the whole ‘Day of Judgment’ thing was just a clever tactic to scare people into belief. For Christians, this question should have extra urgency, as Jesus directly claimed (in Matthew 16:26) that some of his disciples would live to see his return as righteous Judge.  Then they all died having not seen it.  The faithful are still waiting.  

To me, this final separation of "the righteous and the wicked" represents a rather out-moded, dualistic view of humans.  According to this view, humans are either totally evil or totally good--and their ultimate destination (heaven or hell) confirms this view.  But this does not match my lived experience.  Most humans I've met have been complex mixtures of "good" and "bad."  But, even categories like "good" and "bad" are problematic, because sometimes a person's worst qualities are the result of traumatic/painful experiences that were not his/her fault.  I'm not saying there is no such thing as "good" and "evil."  I'm just saying that, when it comes to human beings, drawing hard lines between "good" and "bad" people seems oversimplistic.

A Christian vision of the Day of Judgment.

Surah 57: Iron

This is a Medinan surah, which means it comes from the latter half of the prophet’s ministry, after he had defeated Mecca and gained growing regional power.  It begins by focusing on the power and omniscience of God, as shown through creation.  The people are urged to believe God’s prophet Muhammad, and to give some of their money and possessions to God (or, more probably, the prophet).  Giving is described as a “loan” to God, which will be repaid in the hereafter, in heaven.

The afterlife is seen as more important than this life, which “is just a game, a diversion, an attraction, a cause of boasting among you, of rivalry in wealth and children…it is only an illusory game.”  This privileging of the afterlife over this present life is interesting.  On the one hand, it gives people hope that, despite present troubles, things will ultimately get better.  On the other hand, what if there is no afterlife?  If that’s the case, it would be a real tragedy if people disregarded this life.  What if it’s the only one we get?

The surah affirms God’s providence, even over misfortune.  People are encouraged to uphold justice.  The title comes from this verse: “We (God) also sent iron, with its mighty strength and many uses for mankind.”  Interestingly, iron can be used both to destroy (in war), and to build (in peace).  I think this surah implies both uses.

Finally, the surah affirms the message of previous prophets (Noah, Abraham, and Jesus), even if their followers got the message wrong.  For example, this passage condemns Christian monasticism, which was widespread in Muhammad’s day): “monasticism was something they (Christians) invented—We (God) did not ordain it for them.”  Perhaps this is why there is not (to my knowledge) a monastic tradition in Islam.  The surah ends with a reference to “The People of the Book” (i.e. Jews), and says that they have no special claim on God’s bounty—it extends to everyone.  The apostle Paul, a Jewish follower of Jesus, made a similar point: “He gives it to whoever He will.  God’s grace is truly immense.”  These criticisms of Christians and Jews probably have their origin with real conflicts between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the prophet’s time—conflicts which (unfortunately) continue to our own times.

This is a piece of iron ore.

Surah 58: The Dispute

This surah is interesting from a women's rights perspective because it actually asserts more rights and protections for women than previously existed in pre-Islamic times.  Thus, it goes against popular stereotypes that Islam and the Qur'an are totally misogynistic.  In some ways, as this surah shows, the Qur'an was extremely progressive for its time.

In pre-Islamic Arabia, men who wanted to divorce their wives could do something called Zihar, in which they said to their wife, "Thou art to me as the back of my mother."  This freed the husband from marital responsibilities, but it did NOT free the wife.  She still had to stay in the husband's home and could not re-marry.  This surah abolishes that practice.

The context for "The Dispute" is that a  Muslim man said to his wife the Zihar, thus divorcing her in the traditional way.  The woman then complained to Muhammad that this was totally unfair.  The prophet's response was to abolish the practice, in the name of fairness.  

Surah 59: The Gathering (Of Forces)

When Muhammad and his followers left Mecca and settled in Medina, they made agreements with the Jewish clans who lived there, like the Banu al-Nadir and the Banu Qaynuqa.  The agreement was that these Jewish clans would fight neither for nor against the Muslims.  It was basically an agreement of neutrality.

However, after the Muslims in Medina were defeated by their enemies from Mecca at the Battle of Uhud, the Jewish clan Banu al-Nadir broke their agreement with Muhammad and made an alliance with the Meccans.  They even tried to kill the prophet when he entered their area.  A leader named Ibn Ubayy made an agreement with the Jewish clan that, if they fought with him against the Muslims, he would fight with them.

Consequently, the Muslims (under Muhammad’s leadership) besieged the Jewish clan, defeated them, and drove them out of the city.  Some fled to Syria, other to Khaybar.  This was one of the first in a series of tragic conflicts between Jews and Muslims, which would happen throughout history, even to our own times.

The 59th surah of the Qur’an, The Gathering (of Forces), takes this conflict as its central theme, basically arguing that God was on the side of the Muslims and opposed to the Jews and “hypocrites” who’d broken their agreement with the prophet.  The surah is a particularly one-sided narrative and does not take into account the Jewish clan’s point of view.

On a (slightly) positive note, the surah says that the land and possessions taken from the dispossessed Jews and hypocrites will be distributed among “poor and needy” Muslims.  But this bit of generosity was no consolation to the Banu al-Hashim Jewish clan, who lost their homes.

Submission of Banu al-Nadir to Muslim troops (14th century painting).

Surah 60: The Woman Tested

This surah deals with socio-political events in Mecca and Medina between the years 628-630 C.E.  It was revealed between the Treaty of Hudaybiyya (which was between the Muslims of Medina and the non-Muslim Quraysh tribe in Mecca), and the occupation of Mecca.  The treaty sought to ease tensions, called for a ten-year peace, and allowed Muslims to take a pilgrimage to Mecca, known as The First Pilgrimage.

In the surah, instructions are given regarding loyalty--Muslims should not take as allies those Meccans (specifically the Quraysh) who drove them out of Mecca (leading to the Hijra, or migration, to Medina).  The title of the surah ("The Woman Tested") comes from instructions regarding how to deal with women who emigrated from Mecca to Medina, and vice versa.  For those who leave Mecca, Muslim men may marry them, provided they convert to Islam.

Thus, the context of the surah is one which acknowledges tensions, but foresees a kind of reconciliation.  The surah states, "God may still bring about affection between you and your [present] enemies--God is all powerful, God is most forgiving and merciful--and He does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought against you for your faith or driven you out of your homes: God loves the just." The Jewish patriarch Abraham is cited as a good example of faithfulness to God.

This is the translation of the Qur'an I'm reading.

Surah 61: Solid Lines

This is a Medinan surah which encourages believers to stick together in support of "God's cause".  It states, "God truly loves those who fight in solid lines for His cause, like a well-compacted building."  Like the previous surah, this one draws some "solid lines" of division between Muslims and non-Muslims.

And yet, ironically, the examples of faithfulness which the surah cites are Jewish and Christian!  Moses is cited as one who eschewed idolatry and remained faithful to God.  Jesus and his disciples are also cited as positive examples of faithfulness to God: "As Jesus, son of Mary, said to the disciples, 'Who will be my helpers in God's cause?'  The disciples said, 'We shall be God's helpers.'"

Surah 62: The Day of Congregation

This Medinan surah begins by reminding Muslims of God’s grace in giving them a prophet: “It is He who raised a messenger, among the people who had no Scripture, to recite His revelations to them, to make them grow spiritually and teach them the Scripture and wisdom.”  This is significant because it was Muhammad who helped to unify the disparate polytheistic Arabs into a community of faith in the 7th century C.E.

This surah gives a criticism of Jews who went astray from obeying the Torah.  This is significant because, throughout the Qur’an, Muhammad is seen as a successor to Jewish prophets like Abraham, Moses, and (later) Jesus.  Muhammad did not claim to invent a new religion, but to bring people back to the truth of a very old spirituality, which had its roots in Judaism and Christianity, plus some uniquely Arab elements.

The title of the surah comes from the traditional Muslim call to Friday prayer, called Jumu'ah.  Muslims are encouraged to place spirituality above other pursuits like business and entertainment: “What God has is better than any entertainment or trade: God is the best provider.”

Jumu'ah at a university in Malaysia.

Surah 63: The Hypocrites

This is a Medinan surah which speaks strongly against religious hypocrisy—that is, professing faith while acting contrary to that faith.  The surah speaks against “using oaths as a cover,” and against “those whose outward appearance pleases you…but they are like propped up timbers.”  The specific context of this surah was that people were outwardly pledging support for the community of Muslims in Medina, but were actually seeking to undermine it, financially and socially.

The prophet’s response to these hypocrites is to call them out, and to encourage believers to greater practical faith—giving to the needy and supporting one another, in word and deed.  This surah’s disdain for hypocrisy is reminiscent of Jesus’ disdain for the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day.  For example, in Mathew 23, Jesus really goes to town on the Pharisees: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.”  The point here is that both the Bible and the Qur’an share a concern for authenticity, as opposed to hypocrisy, when it comes to faith.

Surah 64: Mutual Neglect

This surah contrasts the actions and fates of believers vs. unbelievers.  Basically, believers will prosper and go to heaven, while unbelievers will suffer and go to hell.  The title of the surah comes from a reference to the Day of Resurrection at the end of time, when God will separate the believers from the unbelievers, and send them to their eternal fates (heaven or hell).  Here, the “Day of Resurrection,” is also called “The Day of Mutual Neglect,” presumably because everyone will be so preoccupied with their own fate that they will neglect everyone else.

I want to elaborate a bit on a couple points of theology raised by this surah.  First, the idea of the Day of Resurrection—a concept shared by Christians.  The popular/contemporary view of many Christians today is that, when you die, you immediately go to heaven.  But this is not necessarily the view espoused in the Qur’an, or even according to some interpretations of the Bible.  The Muslim view, also held by some Christians throughout history (including Martin Luther) seems to be that , when you die, your physical body waits in the ground unto the Day of Resurrection, when it is bodily raised.  The implications of this are strange.  Presumably, everyone who has died so far is not in heaven, but still dead in the ground, awaiting a future resurrection.

The second theological point has to do with salvation—that is, who gets to go to heaven.  A popular notion is that Christians are saved by “grace through faith” in Christ, while Muslims are saved by good deeds.  However, this surah says, “He will cancel the sins of those who believed in Him and acted righteously.”  Thus, the Muslim idea of salvation also rests upon faith and God’s forgiving grace.  I suppose my point here is that, while Christians and Muslims usually focus on the differences between their faiths, they actually share some striking similarities.

Surah 65: Divorce

This is a Medinan surah which (as you might expect from the title) sets down some regulations for divorce, which are as follows:
1.) When a man divorces a woman, she must wait at least three months (or three menstrual cycles) before she can re-marry.

2.) Two witnesses must observe the divorce.

3.) If the woman is pregnant, the husband must care for her until she gives birth.

4.) If the woman is caring for other children that are the father's, he must provide for them.

5.) Husbands and wives are encouraged to consult with one another, and not create unnecessary hardship for one another.

These regulations are given added weight, as they are the command of the Lord.  Those who do not obey them will be punished (in this life and the next); conversely, those who obey them will be rewarded (in this life and the next).

This is Arabic calligraphy of the first ayat (verses) of surah 65.

Surah 66: Prohibition

This is a Medinan surah which was prompted by a domestic disturbance between Muhammad and two of his wives.  Apparently, the prophet told a secret (the surah does not say what the secret was) to one of his wives, who then broke his confidence by telling the secret to another wife.  And yes, Muhammad (like the biblical figures Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, etc.) had multiple wives.

Because the prophet had a direct line to God, the Almighty told him of his wife's indiscretion, and he proceeded to scold her.  The end of the surah gives two examples of "bad wives" who betrayed their husbands (the wives of Noah and Lot), and two examples of "good wives" who remained faithful to their husbands and to God: the wife of Pharaoh, and Mary, the mother of Jesus.

These examples of "good wives" vs. "bad wives" hi-light some interesting differences between Islamic and Jewish/Christian traditions about important women of sacred history.  For example, in the Bible, Pharaoh's wife is a minor character, and she is neither good nor bad.  In Islam, however, Pharaoh's wife (named Asiya) is revered as one of the greatest women of all time, because she remained faithful to God despite her evil husband.  Islam also has some unique traditions regarding Mary, the mother of Jesus.  In fact, Mary is actually mentioned more in the Qur'an than in the New Testament.  She has a whole surah dedicated to her (the 19th surah).

Mary and Jesus (called Maryam and Isa in the Qur'an) from a Persian miniature.

Surah 67:  Control

This is a Meccan surah, associated with the early period of the prophet’s life, when he was a leader of a persecuted religious minority.  These surahs tend to reflect this conflict between the emerging Muslim monotheists and the still-dominant Meccan polytheists.  These surahs can be quite harsh in tone, reflecting the prophet’s frustration with those who do not accept his message.

This surah “Control” (which can also be translated “Sovereignty”) emphasizes God’s total control over this world and the next: “Exalted is He who holds all control in His hands, who has power over all things, who created life and death.”  For a polytheist (who believed in a pantheon of gods with varying levels of power) this notion of a single, all-powerful God would be quite radical.

As with other surahs, in this one the prophet sees his role as that of a warner—urging people to accept the one God, to escape his wrath, which is pretty gnarly and severe.  Examples are given of previous disbelieving peoples whom God destroyed.  But, the prophet asserts, the real judgment will come in the next life: “For those who defy their Lord we have prepared the torment of Hell: an evil destination.”  A common feature of both Islam and Christianity is this heaven/hell dualism, and fear of punishment is a powerful motivator in this worldview.

In describing the afterlife, and the spiritual realms, this surah gives some interesting cosmology.  For example, it describes not just one heaven, but seven.  And here’s an interesting bit: “We have adorned the lowest heaven with lamps and made them (missiles) for stoning devils.”  Thus, according to this cosmology, heaven and hell are not so geographically far apart—heaven must be defended with missiles.  This imagery evokes strange and disturbing contemporary parallels.  For example, in Jean-Luc Godard’s beautiful 2004 film Notre Musique, heaven is envisioned as a fenced-off area protected by the U.S. military.  I think it’s a commentary on the idea of heaven as a place of exclusion that must be protected by violence.  Is it really heaven if some people are left outside to suffer?

It also reminds me of a scene from Errol Morris’s documentary Gates of Heaven (about a pet cemetery).  At one point, Morris asks a woman to consider the idea that her deceased dog might not be in heaven.  Her response: “Then it wouldn’t be heaven.”

Seven heavens.

Surah 68: The Pen

This is an early Meccan surah which addresses the accusation that Muhammad was not God’s messenger, but merely insane.  The prophet’s detractors in Mecca often said this.  To be fair, if I met someone who claimed to speak for God, I would probably question his/her sanity as well.  But this surah asserts the prophet’s sanity and the truth of his message: “You (prophet) are not, by (receiving) God’s grace (or, revelation), a madman.”

Then the surah tells a parable.  The unbelievers in Mecca are compared to the owners of a garden who hoarded all the resources for themselves and did not share with the poor.  For their greed, the gardeners were punished.  These gardeners may be compared with the powerful leaders of the Quraysh tribe in Mecca who profited hugely from the religio-economic system in Mecca, and did not provide for the poor and needy.  One important feature of Muhammad’s early ministry was a call for increased social and economic justice.  This, it could be argued, was more threatening than his theology.

The title of the surah comes from the (somewhat mysterious) first verse: “By the pen!  By all they write!”  My commentary by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem explains: “This could refer to the angels and what they write down of peoples’ deeds or to the generic pen and what people write, thus swearing by the ability to write with which God endowed all human beings.”  Either way, this surah asserts the power of the written word.  Arabic calligraphy, using a "qalam" (or reed pen) is a very ancient Muslim artform.

A "qalam" is a reed pen used for Arabic calligraphy.

Surah 69: The Inevitable Hour

This is a Mecan surah which deals with the punishment of disbelievers in this life and the life to come, as well as the ultimate reward of the believers.  The first section describes communities which God destroyed in the past for their unbelief: the people of Thamud and Ad, Egypt (during the Exodus), and the whole world during the time of Noah during the great flood.  Noah (who is seen as a great prophet in Islam) is an example of a righteous believer who was spared calamity.

The next section deals with the future Day of Judgment (or, The Inevitable Hour), when God will separate the believers (who will go to heaven) from the unbelievers (who will go to hell).  This section contains apocalyptic imagery that recalls the book of Revelation in the Bible: “And when the Trumpet is sounded a single time, when the earth and its mountains are raised high and then crushed with a single blow, on that Day the Great Event will come to pass.  The sky will be torn apart on that Day, it will be so frail.”  And so on.

The imagery describing the fate of the unbelievers in hell is particularly evocative, and would make a good 1980s heavy metal album cover, with strong S&M overtones: “Take him, put a collar on him, lead him to burn in the blazing fire, and (bind him) in a chain seventy meters long…and the only food he has is the filth that only sinners eat.”  So metal!

Here is an album cover from the heavy metal band Dio.

Surah 70: The Ways of Ascent

This is a Meccan surah which, like many others, deals with the coming Day of Resurrection, when the unbelievers will be sent to hell, and the believers sent to heaven.  The title comes from a description of the paths by which the angels ascend to God, “the ways of Ascent, by which the angels and the spirit ascend to Him, on a day whose length is fifty thousand years.”  I’m not sure what this fifty thousand years refers to—perhaps it has to do with the concept of relative time—a day for humans is thousands of years for God, or vice versa.  In the Bible, it says that, for God, “a day is like a thousand years.”  This concept is often used by Christians to explain why Jesus’ return has taken so long.  Here, perhaps it is being used to answer unbelievers’ objections that the Day of Judgment has not yet happened.  Today, 1.400 years later, believers are still waiting.

This surah promises horrible punishments for the unbelievers (“There is a raging flame that strips away the skin”), and blissful rewards for the believers (“They will be honored in Gardens of bliss”).  The strictness of these punishments/rewards is softened a bit by the surah’s focus on social and economic justice.  People who go to hell are not only being punished for their beliefs, but also for their greed.  Hell is for the man who “amasses wealth and hoards it.”  By contrast, heaven is for people “who give a due share of their wealth to beggars and the deprived.”  Thus, Muhammad’s message is not just about belief vs. unbelief.  It is also about generosity vs. greed.  Indeed, a central part of his message has to do with social justice for the dispossessed, the poor, and the exploited.

"Jacob's Ladder" painting of angels ascending and descending by William Blake (c. 1800)

Surah 71: Noah

In Islam, the biblical figure of Noah is seen as a great prophet whose function was to persuade people to turn away from polytheism (and the supposed wickedness that accompanied it), and to embrace monotheism (and the supposed righteousness that accompanied it).  This is also how Abraham is viewed in the Qur’an (one who rejected the polytheism of his culture and embraced the one true God).  This transition from polytheism to monotheism was also a central part of Muhammad’s mission in Mecca.

This surah describes Noah’s attempts to get his contemporaries to stop believing in their many gods, and to accept the one God.  It even lists the “pagan” gods of Noah’s day: Wadd, Suwa, Yaghuth, Ya’uq, and Nasr.  Because the people of Noah’s day refused to abandon their religious traditions, God destroyed them.  This genocide is “justified” by this logic: even if one unbeliever survives, he is likely to spread his “false” beliefs and practices.  This surah, and the biblical story of Noah, is disturbing, and raises serious questions about monotheism, religious tolerance, violence, and genocide.

"Noah's Ark" by Edward Hicks (1846)

 Surah 72: The Jinn

The jinn are interesting characters in the Qur’an who don’t really have a parallel in the Bible.  They are something between humans and angels—invisible beings that are the origin of the word “genie.”  The jinn were an important part of pre-Islamic Arabian mythology.  Unlike the pre-Islamic gods, the jinn managed to become a part of Islamic mythology, albeit in a limited role.  They can loosely be compared to fairies or nymphs.

This surah describes a group of jinn who overhear a recitation of the Qur’an and become believers.  This causes them to recognize the limits of their power.  For example, they try to get into heaven, but can’t: “We tried to reach heaven, but discovered it to be full of stern guards and shooting stars (divine missiles?).”  They try to listen at the gates of heaven, hoping to predict the future, but are unable to do so.  This surah is about the loss of the power of the jinn in Arabian mythology.  With the advent of Islam, the jinn are subject to the power and judgment of God—just like humans.

Disney's concept of a jinn (or genie).

Surah 73: Enfolded

Most surahs of the Qur’an can be divided into Meccan (from the early part of the prophet’s life) and Medinan (from the later part of the prophet’s life).  But this one, Enfolded, is part-Meccan, part-Medinan.  In the Meccan part, God speaks of the punishment of the unbelievers on the Day of Resurrection, when they will be sent to hell.

The Medinan part includes a relaxing of previous commands regarding prayer and Qur’an recitation.  Because the prophet and his people were so busy building a new community (in Medina), and because the Qur'an was gradually becoming longer, God says that they may pray and “recite as much of the Qur’an as is easy for you.”  The surah acknowledges the busyness of peoples’ lives, and cuts down on the prayer/recitation requirements.  The title of the surah comes from the first line, which describes the prophet during his nightly prayers: “You, enfolded in your cloak…recite the Qur’an slowly and distinctly.”  Thus, despite the new relaxed requirements, the Muslims are not to relax their devotion and sincerity.

Reciting the Qur'an.

Surah 74: Wrapped in His Cloak

Unlike the Bible, the Qur’an does not tell a linear narrative.  Though it is said to reveal divine revelations Muhammad received gradually between the years 609 and 632 C.E., these revelations are not presented in order.  Hence, early revelations may appear late in the text, and late revelations may appear earlier.  This is the case with the 74th surah, whose first seven verses are thought to be some of the earliest revelations the prophet received.

It will be helpful here to give some context surrounding these verses, and the very beginning of Muhammad’s calling as a prophet of God.  Before he was the prophet, Muhammad was a moderately successful caravan trader from Mecca.  He was married to a woman 15 years his senior named Khadija, who was a very successful business woman.  Contrary to custom, Khadija had proposed to Muhammad, and they lived monogamously.

As he grew older, Muhammad became increasingly disillusioned with the socio-economic system of his society, which exploited the poor for the benefit of the rich (sound familiar?).  He began taking long spiritual retreats into the hills and mountains around Mecca, and it was here, alone on Mt. Hira, that Muhammad received his first revelation. 

Instead of being filled with joy and bliss, however, he was terrified.  He thought he was going insane, and wanted to commit suicide.  This was some heavy, heavy shit.  Oppressed by his revelation, he rushed home to his wife Khadija and said, “Wrap me up!  Wrap me up!”  She covered him with a cloak and gently soothed the suffering man.  It was in these moments, many Muslim scholars believe, that he received the revelation included in surah 74, when he was suffering and overwhelmed:

“You, wrapped in your cloak, arise and give warning!  Proclaim the greatness of your Lord; cleanse yourself; keep away from idolatry; do not weaken, feeling overwhelmed; be steadfast in your Lord’s cause.”

Thus, not only was the experience of revelation intensely overwhelming, it was only the beginning.  For the next several years, Muhammad would continue to receive these things, plus he would be burdened with leading a new community of believers, which would place him in direct confrontation with the wealthiest and most powerful tribes of the region.  Being a prophet is not an easy task.

This story of Muhammad’s early life, while not narrated much in the Qur’an itself, is part of a large collection of supplementary materials to the Qur’an known as Hadith Literature, which basically means “Stories of the Prophet.”  I like this story of Muhammad’s early revelations because it presents divine revelation/inspiration not as bliss, but as suffering.  Most of the great artists and writers I love (from Vincent Van Gogh to Fyodor Dostoyevsky to David Foster Wallace) took their inspiration from deep personal pain and trauma.  So it was with Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

Surah 75: The Resurrection

This is a Meccan surah which mainly deals with the coming Day of Resurrection, when God will bodily raise everyone who has died, and re-fashion their corpses in preparation for the Final Judgment.  This surah expresses anger/frustration that so many people do not believe in this final resurrection.  To be fair to the unbelievers, it’s a pretty fantastical idea (in my opinion).

The surah says that those who don’t believe will regret it on the Day of Resurrection.  There is an interesting quote which seems to sum up the conflict people feel between religious belief and the practical reality of this life: “Truly you people love this fleeing world and neglect the life to come.”  As someone who also loves this “fleeting world,” I sympathize with the unbelievers.

Another unique element of this surah is a short paragraph describing the actual process of divine revelation, and giving the prophet instructions on how to receive the word of the Lord: “Prophet, do not rush your tongue in an attempt to hasten the Revelation: It is for Us to make sure of its safe collection and recitation.  When we have recited it, repeat the recitation and it is up to Us to make it clear."  Apparently, the prophet was feeling some (understandable) anxiety about getting the revelations exactly correct, and God seems to be telling Muhammad to relax a bit.

Muhammad receiving revelation from the angel Gabriel.

Surah 76: Man

This is a Medinan surah which contrasts the eternal fates of the believers and the unbelievers.  Basically, the unbelievers will go to hell, where there will be “chains, iron collars…blazing fire…and a painful torment.”  The believers, by contrast, will enter a garden of paradise, where they will “sit on couches, feeling neither scorching heat nor biting cold, with shady branches spread above them and clusters of fruit close at hand.”  They will be served by beautiful youths in a place of “bliss and great opulence.”  Heaven, in this context, sounds like the palace of an Arabian king or tribal chief. 

What makes this a Medinan (as opposed to Meccan) surah is its emphasis on not just right belief, but right practice.  Those who get to go to heaven will not just believe the right things; they will also “fulfill their vows” and “give food to the poor, the orphan, the captive.”  Thus, this “fleeting life” is a test which will determine each human’s eternal fate.

Muhammad visiting Paradise.

Surah 77: (Winds) Sent Forth

Reading the Qur’an in a prose translation (as I am), it’s easy to forget that the original Arabic text is actually a work of musical poetry, meant to be recited and sung.  The 77th surah, even in English prose translation, retains some of the poetic quality of the original in its use of repetition of a single phrase nine times, at evenly-spaced intervals:

“Woe, on that Day, to those who denied the truth!”

This is a Meccan surah which deals with the now-familiar subject of the Day of Resurrection or, as it’s called here, the Day of Decision, when the believers and unbelievers will be resurrected, judged, and sent to their eternal fates: heaven or hell.  It’s a heavy theme, but at least it’s expressed poetically here.

Muhammad visits Hell.

Surah 78: The Announcement

This is a Meccan surah which, like many other Meccan surahs, deals with the coming Day of Resurrection, when God will separate the believers from the unbelievers and send them to either heaven or hell.  If you've been reading this book report, you may share my frustration that the Qur'an is super repetitive about the Day of Resurrection.  Dozens of surahs repeat the same basic formula--believe and you'll go to heaven, don't believe and you'll go to hell.  This message loses some of its force after the 37th time you read it.

Frustrated by this repetition of content, I've decided to focus more on form.  After all, the Qur'an is a kind of epic poem/song meant to be recited/sung.  I know I'm missing a lot of the poetry because I'm reading an English prose translation of the original Arabic, but I can still detect some poetic elements that are preserved, even in translation.

For example, in this surah, repetition is actually a poetic device.  It begins with a series of rhetorical questions posed to unbelievers, which use the form "Did we not...?"  These questions are meant to hi-light God's creative power, and to cause the unbeliever to question his/her unbelief:

"Did We not make the earth smooth, and make the mountains stable?
Did We not create you in pairs, give you sleep for rest, the night as a cover, and the day for your livelihood?
Did We not build seven strong [heavens] above you, and make a blazing lamp?
Did We not send water pouring down from the clouds to bring forth with it grain, plants, and luxuriant gardens?

Thus, it turns out that repetition is actually an intentional poetic device, at least in this surah.

Manuscript of surah 78.

 Surah 79: The Forceful Chargers

This is another Meccan surah which (yet again) warns the unbelievers about the coming Day of Resurrection--when they will be judged and sent to either heaven or hell.  By now, this is a very familiar message.

What is interesting, to me, about this surah is how it re-imagines a story about Moses and Pharaoh to support its message.  In the original story of Moses and Pharaoh, found in the book of Exodus in the Jewish Torah (and the Christian Old Testament), God sent Moses to Pharaoh with a very specific message and mission.  As Charleton Heston put it in The Ten Commandments: "Let my people go!"  Moses demanded that Pharaoh free all the Israelite slaves in Egypt so they could form their own nation in the "Promised Land."

In this Qur'anic version of the story, however, no mention is made of the Israelite slaves, let alone their hopes for nationhood.  In this version, Moses' mission is not Jewish emancipation, but rather the salvation of Pharaoh.  Moses tries to convert Pharaoh to monotheism, saying: "Do you want to purify yourself [of sin]?  Do you want me to guide you to your Lord, so that you may hold Him in awe?"  Of course, Pharaoh refuses to abandon a millennia of Egyptian religious tradition, and so he suffers devastation.  Thus, what was originally a story about Jewish national liberation becomes, in the Qur'an, a warning about the danger of unbelief.

What's interesting to me about this surah is not trying to figure out which story of Moses and Pharaoh is the historically "correct" version.  After all, modern archeologists like Israel Finkelstein have concluded that the Exodus (at least as its described in the Book of Exodus) probably never happened.  What's interesting to me is how a common story, or legend, like the story of Moses and Pharaoh, can be re-imagined by different religious communities for very different purposes.  Myths, legends, and sacred history are more malleable than we think.  How we interpret them says more about us that it does about the story.

Surah 80: He Frowned

This Meccan surah is unique in that it actually criticizes the prophet Muhammad for a particular action.  Usually, in the Qur’an, the prophet is seen as a model of behavior and devotion.  However, this surah shows that even he is not above reproach.

Here’s what happened.  While the prophet was speaking to some important/notable Meccan unbelievers, trying to convert them, a blind Muslim man approached.  Instead of greeting his fellow believer, Muhammad frowned at him, preferring to speak to the “important” Meccans.  For this, the prophet is reproached: “For all you know,” God says to Muhammad, “he (the blind man) might have grown in spirit…For the self-satisfied one (the “important” Meccan) you (prophet) go out of your way…but from the one who has come to you full of eagerness and awe (the blind man), you (prophet) are distracted.”

The lesson of this surah is that everyone (including the prophet) should not discriminate against or give special preference to anyone—especially those who are already socially marginalized like the blind man.  It is an important reminder to be accepting, open, and kind to all people at all times.  This is, admittedly, a difficult task, one which even the prophet did not do perfectly.

The first 15 verses of surah 80.

Surah 81: The Rolling Up

This is a Meccan surah which uses poetic imagery and repetition to express what will happen on the Day of Resurrection:

“When the sun is rolled up,
when the stars are dimmed,
when the mountains are set in motion,
when pregnant camels are abandoned,
when wild beasts are herded together,
when the seas boil over,
when souls are sorted into classes,
when the baby girl buried alive is asked for what sin she was killed,
[a critical reference to the pre-Islamic practice of female infanticide]
when the records of deeds are spread open,
when the sky is stripped away,
when Hell is made to blaze and Paradise brought near:
then every soul will know what it has brought about.”

Then the surah defends the words of the prophet against unbelievers who say he is mad or demon-possessed.

Boiling Sea.

Surah 82: The Breaking

As I slowly near the end of the Qur’an, I notice that the surahs are getting shorter and shorter.  Surahs 80-90 are usually 1-2 paragraphs.  Surahs 90-114 (the final surah) are usually only a few lines.  This one, surah 82, is one brief paragraph which very concisely reiterates the key ideas which, by now, should be very familiar to the reader.  Because of its short length, I will simply paraphrase it in my own words:

On the Day of Resurrection, when the sky breaks, the stars are scattered, the seas burst forth, and graves bust open with the resurrected dead, everyone will be judged according to his/her deeds and whether they put their faith in God.  Everyone will be totally at the mercy of God on that final day, when they will be sent to either paradise or torment.

Beware the Day of Resurrection!

Surah 83: Those Who Give Short Measure

In the early days of Islam, Mecca was a hub of trade on the Arabian peninsula (present-day Saudi Arabia).  Before becoming the prophet, Muhammad made his living as a caravan trader, a business he shared with his wife Khadija.  Apparently, a major problem in the trade city of Mecca was the practice of cheating others in business transactions.  This surah condemns this practice: “Woe to those who give short measure, who demand of other people full measure for themselves, but when it is they who weigh or measure for others give less than they should.”  Basically, this surah is a plea for business ethics and fair-dealing.

This surah goes on to say that those who deal unfairly will be punished on the Day of Judgment.  Two key terms are introduced here which I have not encountered thus far in the Qur’an: Sijjin and Illiyyum.  “Sijjin” is the written record of the unbelievers’ misdeeds, for which they will be judged.  Its root word means “prison” — an appropriate metaphor for misdeeds.  By contrast, “Illiyyun” is the written record of the believers’ good deeds, for which they will be rewarded.  It’s root word relates to height or elevation.

Both the Bible and the Qur’an often use concrete imagery like this to help explain abstract/spiritual concepts.  In the New Testament, for example, hell is often called “gehenna,” which was a burning trash dump outside Jerusalem.  For flesh-and-blood humans, such metaphors are helpful.

Pre-Islamic Arabian trade routes.

Surah 84: The Cracking

This is Meccan surah which takes its title from the opening line, which is a reference to the apocalyptic Day of Resurrection: “When the sky cracks, obeying its Lord as it rightly must, when the earth is leveled out, casts out its content and becomes empty, obeying its Lord as it righty must…”  The obedience of nature is contrasted with the disobedience of the unbelievers: “So why do they not believe?  Why, when the Qur’an is read to them, do they not prostrate themselves [to God]?”

Surah 85: The Towering Constellations

This is a Meccan surah which makes an oath, by the towering (star) constellations, that those who persecute believers will be punished on the Day of Resurrection.  Interestingly, however, the main examples it gives to prove this point are not persecuted Muslims, but (some scholars believe) Christians and Jews: 1.) Yemeni Christians who were persecuted by a 6th century Jewish ruler, and 2.) the ancient Jewish patriarch Abraham who was persecuted by a guy named Nimrod.  The point here seems to be that ANY religious persecution is bad—no matter who is doing the persecuting, or being persecuted.  This is a surprisingly inclusive message.

Surah 86: The Night-Comer

This is a surprisingly sexy surah, which gives numerous metaphors of things “coming out” to illustrate how the dead will be resurrected at the end of time.  These metaphors of things “coming out” include:

-A piercing star
-Semen from a penis
-A baby coming out of a vagina
-Plants emerging from the earth

This surah is juicy and life-affirming.  It also encourages peace between believers and unbelievers in verse 16: “[Prophet], let the disbelievers be, let them be for a while.”

Surah 87: The Most High

This Meccan surah contrasts the fleeting nature of this temporal life with the everlasting nature of the life to come.  This (earthly) life is compared to a green pasture, which eventually withers away into “dark debris.”  Believers are told to prefer the Hereafter, which is “better and more lasting.”  Interestingly, this surah claims that this message (regarding the afterlife) “is in the earlier scriptures, the scriptures of Abraham and Moses,” i.e. the Jewish Scriptures (the Torah).  This is interesting because the Torah is terribly vague and unclear about the afterlife, even suggesting in some places that there is no afterlife.  The Jewish (and later Christian) concept of the afterlife (heaven and hell) was a relatively late development, which some scholars argue was influenced by Greek and Zoroastrian thought.

This is the symbol of Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion that greatly influenced different religious ideas about the afterlife.

Surah 88: The Overwhelming Event

This is yet another Meccan surah which contrasts the fates of the believers and unbelievers on the Day of Resurrection (or, as it’s called here, the Overwhelming Event).  By now, you should be well aware of these ideas.  What I find most interesting here are the last five verses, which state that the prophet (and, by extension, all Muslims) may not compel/force unbelievers to believe. 

“So [Prophet] remind them: your only task is to remind, you are not there to control them.  As for those who turn away and disbelieve, God will inflict the greatest torment upon them.  It is to Us (God) they will return, and then it is for Us to call them to account.”

Thus, believers are told to simply give their message, and then leave the responsibility to God.  This is a highly significant message, reiterating a fundamental message of the Qur’an, which may be news to western, non-Muslims: There is to be no compulsion in matters of religious faith.  Ultimately, that’s between each individual and God.  Those who compel belief are violating a central tenet of the Qur’an.

Surah 89: Daybreak

Meccan surahs like this one come from the early period of the prophet's ministry, when he was a leader of a persecuted religious minority in Mecca who increasingly found themselves at odds with the powerful ruling tribe of that city, the Quraysh--who benefitted financially from an exploitive religio-economic system.  Muhammad's message was threatening to the Quraysh, not so much because of its theology, but because of its radical call for social and economic justice.  Ultimately, conflict with the Quraysh led to the famous exodus (or Hijra) of Muhammad and his fledgling community of faith from Mecca to Yathrib (later called Medina).

This Meccan surah seeks to comfort the prophet and his struggling community by reminding them of previous tyrannical rulers whom God overthrew, including the great Pharoah of Egypt, whose land God devastated before Moses led the Israelites on their Exodus.  The implied message is: Take heart...God will ultimately bring justice.

In addition to comforting the prophet and his community, this surah gives a scathing indictment of social injustice, probably referring to the Quraysh tribe: "You (people) do not honor orphans, you do not urge one another to feed the poor, you consume inheritance greedily, and you love wealth with a passion."  The surah concludes with a comforting promise of reward for the faithful Muslims: "You, soul at peace: return to your Lord well-pleased and well-pleasing; go in among My servants and into My garden."

Surah 90: The City

This surah states some fundamental ethical concepts, urging people to follow the difficult path of right behavior: "To free a slave, to feed at a time of hunger and orphaned relative or a poor person in distress, and to be one of those who believe and urge one another to steadfastness and compassion."  The title refers to the city of Mecca, where Muhammad first preached these ethical concepts.

Surah 91: The Sun

As I mentioned in a previous post, the last 20 or so surahs of the Qur'an's are very short--some of them being only a few lines.  One pattern I've noticed is that many of these surahs begin with an oath, in which the speaker swears on something like the stars, the morning, the night, etc.  This surah takes its title from this opening oath, which is quite poetic:

"By the sun in its morning brightness,
and by the moon as it follows it,
by the day as it displays the sun's glory,
and by the night as it covers it,
by the sky and how He built it,
and by the earth and how He spread it,
by the soul and how He formed it
and inspired it [to know] its own rebellion and piety...
the one who purifies his soul succeeds
and the one who corrupts it fails."

This surah ends with an oft-repeated story of the rebellious people of Thamud, who didn't believe the messenger God sent to them, and went so far as to kill his camel.  For this breach of hospitality, God destroyed them.  This story is similar to the story of Lot and the angels who visited the city of Sodom in the book of Genesis.  For the people's breach of hospitality, and rejection of divine messengers, they were destroyed.

Surah 92: The Night

This is a Meccan surah which takes its title from the opening oath: "By the covering night, by the radiant day, by the male and female he created, the ways you take differ greatly."  Like many of the Proverbs of the Hebrew Scriptures (or, the Christian Old Testament book of Proverbs), this surah contrasts the behavior and fates of the righteous and the wicked.  The righteous person "testifies to mindful of God...[and] gives his wealth away as self-purification."  By contrast, the wicked person is "miserly...self-satisfied...and denies goodness."

According to this surah, a fundamental component of goodness is generosity.  Just as Jesus preached, wealth is seen as an impediment to God.  Jesus said in the gospel of Matthew: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."  Of the wealthy, this surah says, "his wealth will not help him as he falls."  Goodness, not wealth, is the key to salvation.

Surah 93: The Morning Brightness
This is an early Meccan surah which is meant to reassure the prophet that God has not forsaken him, despite the persecution he was experiencing in the early days of his ministry.  The title comes from the opening oath and promise: "By the morning brightness and by the night when it grows still, your Lord has not forsaken you, nor does He hate you, and the future will be better for you than the past."  This passage reminds me of the words spoken by the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah to the Israelites suffering in their Babylonian exile: "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." 

Here the prophet is reminded of how the Lord provided for him when he was a young orphan in Mecca: "Did He not find you an orphan and shelter you, find you lost and guide you, find you in need and satisfy your need?"  The practical application of this surah is its final verses: "So do not be harsh with the orphan, and do not chide the one who asks for help; talk about the blessings of your Lord."

Surah 94: Relief

This short Meccan surah is a continuation of the re-assurances given to the prophet in surah 93.  In the midst of hardship, Muhammad is told to remember how God provided for him in his difficult early years.  The main point of the surah is this couplet:

"So, truly where there is hardship there is also ease;
truly where there is hardship there is also ease."

Being a prophet is a hard, burdensome vocation.  Pretty much all the prophets in the Bible and the Qur'an suffered, and relied on the mercy of God for their survival.  Muhammad is no different. 

To be a prophet is to suffer.

Surah 95: The Fig

This is a Meccan surah which I will quote in its entirety, because it is really short:

"By the fig, by the olive, by Mount Sinai, by this safe city [Mecca], We created man in the finest state then reduced him to the lowest of the low, but those who believe and do good deeds will have an unfailing reward.  After this, what makes you deny the Judgment [the Day of Resurrection]?  Is God not the fairest of judges?"

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a Christian friend who asked me how Muslims are "saved."  I replied that salvation, for Muslims, is a combination of faith in God and good deeds.  Protestant Christianity has omitted the second part of this formula.  For Protestants (including evangelicals), salvation is not a matter of good deeds--it is strictly a matter of faith in Jesus.  To be honest, I prefer a religious system which prioritizes good deeds.


Surah 96: The Clinging Form

This surah is highly significant because its first five verses are traditionally believed to be the very first revelation Muhammad received, while alone on a spiritual retreat on Mt. Hira, just outside Mecca, in the year 610 C.E...

"Read!  In the name of your Lord who created: He created man from a clinging form [a fetus].  Read!  Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One who taught by the pen, who taught man what he did not know."

Another translation of the first word "Read!" is "Recite!"  This gets to the heart of an important debate in Islamic studies.  Some scholars have posited that Muhammad was illiterate, which makes the revelation of the Qur'an all the more miraculous.  On the other hand, if you translate the first word as "Read!" it suggests that the prophet was literate, and raises some interesting questions about the nature of divine revelation.  Was it primarily an oral, or written tradition?  Your answer to that question raises further questions about the accuracy of this religious text.   Tradition holds that Muhammad delivered his revelations orally to scribes, and that the first written collection did not happen until years after the prophet had died.

Surah 97: The Night of Glory

This short Meccan surah is a counterpart to the previous surah, which includes the very first revelation Muhammad received in 610 C.E.  This event was called "The Night of Glory."  It may be compared to Moses' burning bush experience on Mt. Sinai, when he first encountered the divine.  Because this surah is so short, I will quote it in its entirety:

"We sent it down on the Night of Glory.  What will explain to you what that Night of Glory is?  The Night of Glory is better than a thousand months; on that night the angels and the spirit descended again and again with their Lord's permission on every task.  Peace it is until the rising of the dawn."

On the "Night of Glory," time was transcended and the prophet was given a vision of the divine--an ecstatic/mystical experience that pretty much all major religious figures experienced in their own unique ways.

Muhammad receiving a revelation from the angel Gabriel.

Surah 98: Clear Evidence

This is a Medinan surah which refers to the main competing religious faiths of Muhammad's time and place (7th century Arabia): "the People of the Book and the idolators."  These included Jews, Christians, and Arabian polytheists.  The surah says that these groups "were not about to change their ways until they were sent clear evidence," which seems reasonable enough.  Most people are hesitant to change their religious beliefs until they find compelling reasons to do so.

In the pre-scientific world of 7th century Arabia, "clear evidence" meant something quite different from what it means to secular 21st century people.  It had nothing to do with the scientific method, empirical studies, and a rigorous academic community.  For these people, "clear evidence" meant divine revelation.  This is significant, and (I think) gets to the heart of the contemporary divide between religious and secular people.  Secular folks (like me) require empirical evidence before we believe something.  Religious folks (which still includes most people on the planet) are content with claims of divine revelation.  This, to me, is weird, and suggests that religious faith is not about reason or logic, but about something deeper within human psychology.

Surah 99: The Earthquake

This is a Medinan surah which deals with the apocalyptic Day of Judgment (also called The Day of Resurrection) when the dead will be raised, judged, and sent to their eternal fates (heaven or hell).  On the Day of Resurrection, there will be a massive earthquake and people will be thrown from their graves.  The final judgment is described in this way: "On that day, people will come forward in separate groups to be shown their deeds: whoever has done an atom's-weight of good will see it, but whoever has done an atom's weight of evil will see that."  In other words, even the smallest kindnesses and sins will be taken into account on the Day of Judgment.  The impact of this on believers is to inspire them to do good, I think.

Surah 100: The Charging Steeds

This is a Meccan surah which takes its title from the opening oath: "By the charging steeds that pant and strike sparks with their hooves, who make dawn raids, raising a cloud of dust, and plunging into the midst of the enemy, man is ungrateful to his Lord--and he is witness to this--he is truly excessive in his love of wealth."

The main message of this surah is similar to the teaching of Jesus--that love of money is a primary spiritual problem for humans.  On the Day of Judgment, when each individual will stand naked before God, personal wealth won't mean jack shit. 

A charging steed.

Surah 101: The Crashing Blow

This is a Meccan surah which (again) gives some scenes from the Day of Resurrection (or, as it's called here, The Crashing Blow), "when people will be scattered like moths and the mountains like tufts of wool."  On this day, everyone will be judged according to his/her deeds.

Surah 102: Competing for More

This Meccan surah criticizes peoples' obsession with economic competition and the accumulation of material wealth, stating: "Competing for more distracts you until you go into your graves."  Ultimately, material wealth has no bearing on The Day of Resurrection.  In a sense, this surah is a critique of capitalism.

Surah 103: The Fading Day

The title of this surah has to do with the notion that our life here on earth is short, like a fading day.  Because of this, people should be concerned with spiritual matters.  I'll quote this surah in full because it (like life) is very brief:

"By the fading day, man is [deep] in loss, except for those who believe, do good deeds, urge one another to truth, and urge one another to steadfastness."

This is a rather concise description of the way of salvation, according to the Qur'an.

Surah 104: The Backbiter

This is another surah which condemns those who greedily hoard wealth: "Woe to every fault-finding backbiter who amasses riches, counting them over, thinking they will make him live forever."  These wealth-obsessed people will be sent to hell or, as it's called here, "The Crusher."

Surah 105: The Elephant

This surah references events that were said to have happened in the hear of Muhammad's birth (570 C.E.), when Abraha, a Christian ruler of Yemen, amassed a large army (including war elephants, like in The Lord of the Rinigs) to attack Mecca, destroy the sacred Ka'aba, and divert pilgrims to a Christian cathedral in their homeland.

According to this surah, Abraha's army was defeated with God's help: "Do you [Prophet] not see how your Lord dealt with the army of the elephant?  Did He not utterly confound their plans?  He sent flocks of birds against them, pelting them with pellets of hard-baked clay (also, like the eagles from The Lord of the Rings): He made them [like] cropped stubble."

This story is meant to encourage the believers in Mecca that God will also protect them.

Surah 106: Quraysh

This surah continues the ideas of the previous surah, which told the story of how, in 570 C.E., around the time of Muhammad's birth, God protected the Meccans (including the ruling tribe, the Quraysh) from an attack by a Christian ruler from Yemen.  This army was defeated, this surah claims, to protect the Quraysh tribe and their trade caravans.  In response, the Quraysh are encouraged to worship God, Lord of the Ka'aba.

This surah is kind of ironic because elsewhere in the Qur'an, the Quraysh tribe is seen as the opponents of Muhammad's fledgling community of faith.  However, further complicating matters is the fact that Muhammad was himself originally a member of the Quraysh tribe.  I suppose this surah points out the complex relationship between Muhammad and the Meccan ruling class in the early days of his ministry.

Surah 107: Common Kindnesses

This surah is basically a condemnation of religious hypocrisy, that is, claiming to be a believer while acting contrary to those beliefs: "Woe to those who pray but are heedless of their prayer: those who are all show and forbid common kindnesses...It is he who pushes aside the orphan and does not urge others to feed the needy."  These hypocrites will not fare well on the Day of Judgment.

Surah 108: Abundance

The context of this surah is the death of the prophet's son.  When this happened, it is said that an opponent of Muhammad taunted him, saying that his family line was cut off, without posterity.  This surah is meant to comfort and reassure the prophet that his true posterity is in heaven: "We have truly given abundance to you [Prophet]--so pray to your Lord and make sacrifices to Him alone--it is the one who hates you who has been cut off."  This surah reminds us of the interesting fact that the prophet died without a hereditary heir.  After Muhammad died, there was a crisis of succession.  Ultimately, the mantle fell to a guy named Abu Bakr.

Surah 109: The Disbelievers

The context of this Meccan surah was religious conflict between the polytheists of Mecca and Muhammad's monotheistic community.  The polytheists proposed a kind of compromise: Muhammad should worship their gods for one year, and they will worship his for a year.  This surah was the reply to this proposal:

"Say [Prophet], 'Disbelievers, I do not worship what you worship, you do not worship what I worship, I will never worship what you worship, you will never worship what I worship: you have your religion and I have mine."  The prophet's uncompromising devotion to God could also be interpreted as a kind of call for religious tolerance/pluralism: You have your religion, and I have mine.

Surah 110: Help

The context of this surah is said to be the surrender of Mecca to the Prophet Muhammad and his community of Muslims.  This bloodless victory was an early triumph of Islam.  This surah is thought to be one of the last received by the prophet before he died: “When God’s help comes and He opens up your way [Prophet], when you see people embracing God’s faith in crowds, celebrate the praise of your Lord and ask His forgiveness: He is always ready to accept forgiveness.”

Surah 111: Palm Fibre

The context of this surah was that an uncle of Muhammad named Abu Lahab opposed the prophet and cursed him with this curse: “Tabbat Yadak” (which means “May your hands be ruined”).  This surah is the reply:  “May the hands of Abu Lahab be ruined!  May he be ruined too!  Neither his wealth nor his gains will help him: he will burn in the flaming fire—and so will his wife.”

The story goes that Abu Lahab’s wife used to tie bunches of thorns and twisted palm fibre and throw them into the Prophet’s path.  This surah promises that she, too, will perish “with a palm fibre around her neck.”  Brutal!

Surah 112: Purity of Faith

This is one of the briefest surahs in the Qur’an.  Despite its brevity, the prophet said that it was equal to one-third of the Qur’an—it was so important.  Here it is:  “Say, He is God the God, God the eternal.  He begot no one nor was He begotten.  No one is comparable to Him.”

In addition to being a concise statement of faith, this surah may also be seen as a refutation of the Christian doctrine of the trinity, and the notion that Jesus was God’s begotten son, an idea which Islam roundly rejects.  In Islam, Jesus is an important prophet, but not God’s son.  The notion of God having a son is seen, by Muslims, as incompatible with monotheism.  To be fair, theirs is the more logical position.

Surah 113: Daybreak

This surah is recited as an invocation against evil—both material and spiritual: “I seek refuge with the Lord of daybreak against the harm of what He has created, the harm of the night when darkness gathers, the harm of witches when they blow on knots [a means of casting spells], the harm of the envier when he envies.”

This surah reminds me of my upbringing in a Christian church, where there was often talk of “spiritual warfare,” and certain types of prayers invoked against demons and evil spirits.  It’s trance that in the 21st century, lots of people still attribute bad things to invisible evil spirits.  To me, this seems a rather primitive worldview.  I tend to attribute bad things to chance, individual choice, human desperation, ignorance, and other non-supernatural causes—as opposed to witches and demons.

Surah 114: People

This is the last surah of the Qur’an!  As I read it, I feel like I’ve just completed a marathon.  It has taken me nearly a year to read and write my book report on the holy book of Islam, the religion of 1.5 billion fellow human beings worldwide.  Put another way, 1 in 5 people on planet earth are Muslim.

The final surah is quite brief—six short verses.  Like the previous surah, the one is also recited as an invocation/prayer against evil: “I seek refuge with the Lord of people, the Controller [or king] of people, the God of people, against the harm of the slinking whisperer—who whispers into the hearts of people—whether they be jinn or people.”

From a literary standpoint, this surah is notable for its repetition of the word “people.”  As much as it is about God, the Qur’an (like every other major religious text) is also about people, with all their complexity, aspirations, problems, questions, dreams.  Ultimately, religion is about people and their attempt to understand and engage meaningfully with this big, mysterious, painful, and wonderful world.


  1. taking the print out of this book report and will read it :)
    i hope it changes you

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  3. Hey brother. I really appreciate your efforts here. I was born into this faith and don't really know much about the religion. The Quran is in Arabic, which I cannot read/understand but I do plan on giving the English-translated version a thorough reading.

  4. The Qur’an (in Anglicized form: Koran ) is certainly the greatest literary work in classical Arabic and for all Muslims stands as the definitive word of God (in Arabic: Allah ) spoken to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. When reading the Qur’an , you should realize that, for all Muslims, the text you are reading is quite literally the voice of God; because the Qur’an is the direct speech of God in Arabic, translation of the work is seen as blasphemy, as an unforgivable tampering with God’s own speech. Nevertheless, the Qur’an has been translated into Turkish and Farsi (the language of Iran) in this century and is recited in these languages in religious services in Turkey and Iran. The Muslim community tolerates this but just barely. For all practical purposes, to be Muslim, then, means almost universally to be able to read and understand classical Arabic, despite what one’s native language is [Ed. a Muslim reader noted that many Muslims do not understand the language, but they must only read or say the words correctly]. I liked your blog, Take the time to visit the me and say that the change in design and meniu?

  5. Hello from Turkey. I will read this article in a more space of my time. It seems interesting and useful..
    Just to ay hello.

    I found you via the movie Pan's Labyrinth review.