Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Creative Theology

In reading Sura 53, I was pretty mystified.

Have ye seen Lat. and 'Uzza,
And another, the third (goddess), Manat?
What! for you the male sex, and for Him, the female?
Behold, such would be indeed a division most unfair!

Manat sounds familiar-- and Ali helpfully gives us the note that it is the name of a goddess.  That means the other two names are probably goddesses as well, right?  

But what about the next two lines?

Looking around (in a commentary) I see that the verse is highlighting the pagan hypocrisy.  It is a common pagan practice to allow female babies to starve, if they were really wanting a male one.  No one wanted to refuse to have female babies, but just not as many as male ones, as male babies grow up to be farmers, breadwinners and defenders.  Women, in the ancient world, grew up to be house cleaners and pregnant, and generally a burden to fathers and later husbands in patriarchal societies.

The Quran is pointing out that the pagans make up females for their gods (under the authority of the Most High God, of course), but they aren't really interested to have daughters for themselves.  "Go ahead and refuse to have daughters, but you will fill heaven with women!", it seems to be saying.

The Quran is not saying anything against women here-- although it does say that no spiritual power is given a female name-- rather, the word is just pointing out that the pagans don't know the first thing about the Spirit world.  They make up what they want and present it as the truth.

The Quran speaks the truth-- the only way anyone can know anything about the spirit world is by revelation, not by invention.  

For this reason, theologians of most types truly disturb me.  Theology is not supposed to be innovative or imaginative.  Theology is supposed to be conceptually conservative.  This is because, ultimately, the Spirit World is a mystery, displayed to us in fits and starts unless there is someone who can be proven to know more about that world than any of the rest of us.  The Spirit world is like an image in a kaleidoscope-- one person may see one image, and other person may see another image, but it is impossible to determine in that image.  Only when we put the Kaleidoscope down and look directly at the object, can we really know what it is.

But who has actually seen that world, directly.  Only God Himself, or angels.  Muhammad claimed to have his revelation directly from an angel.   Jesus claimed to have seen it himself, directly.  Moses claimed to have his revelation directly from God.  So, as long as their claims are true, they qualify.

Theologians, however, are only dealing with shadows and mysteries.  Interpretations of texts and dreams and ancient stories.  They should be the most conservative, careful of sciences.  Instead, most theologians are slip-shod, careless and inventive.

This is not to say that the presentation of truth shouldn't be imaginative-- Madeline L'Engle isn't to be denied, nor her ilk. Nor does it mean that theology shouldn't be radical.  If theology is true, it must demand radical change to the world.  But the message of theology should be only that which was revealed, without innovation, without addition.

A Quranic Shift

Just to remind readers of my comments on the Quran, that I am reading the Suras (poems/chapters) in the chronological order that is presented in the WikiIslam.  There is some disagreement as to what the original stated order of these Suras are, but I find this order to be plausible, for the most part. 

Now we approach Sura 53, The Star, which changes the literary aspect of the poems.

I believe the message is still pretty much the same: focusing on the supremacy of God, and ethical action based on the reality of the resurrection and the judgement of all mankind.   However, I think that from here on out, the Suras become more complex, and they deal with more specific issues.

Up until now, the Suras have been pretty much Theology 101.  Introduction and discussion of some pretty basic monotheistic ideas.  Now, the conversation gets more complex.  And longer.  And more details.

This is all good, and I'm glad that we are going to get more specific.  But it also means that we will be heading into areas which require more study on my part.  And, frankly, not everything will be in my areas of interst.  So instead of grouping Suras together, I will be more often just speaking about parts of Suras, and letting the rest go, just as I did with other theological texts.  It was never my plan to write out a complete commentary on the Quran.  First of all, I'm not qualified, but also that would be pretty tedious at times, and the last thing this blog needs is more tedium.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Problem of Preaching...

Anytime we try to convince others of a truth based upon our presuppositions, we will have our presuppositions questioned.  Some would say that is the basic purpose of teenagers.

Muhammad went to the pagan believers with a message of repentance based on the coming judgment day.

First they questioned: How will we get to a judgment day, if we are already dead?

Muhammad says: God will raise you from the dead.

They responded: No one can raise the dead!  Once you are dead, that's it!

Muhammad says: Is anything impossible for God?

They responded: What has God done that even comes close to that scale of creation?

Muhammad says: Well, how about creating you from sperm?  How about creating the earth?  How about sending out winds, sometimes to our benefit, sometimes with destruction?  How about the sky-- can you find a flaw in it?

They say: Well, perhaps, perhaps not.  But even so, how do we know that anyone will actually be judged?

Muhammad says: Because some have already been judged by God.  The generation of Noah, Pharaoh of old, Sodom and Gomorrah, and some of our own generation has been punished and we will freely admit "Oh yes, they have been punished by God."  If some are judged this way, why not all?  Will God not determine justice for all the earth?

At this point they will get uncomfortable and leave.

And the preacher keeps on preaching, and some will believe and many will not.  That is the state of being a preacher.

The Final Day

When the Bible speaks of the last days, it doesn't do so in a  way that we might consider obvious today.

When we speak of the "last days" we talk about a few basic ideas:
-a time when every person will be resurrected from the dead
-a judgement day when each person's eternal destiny will be decided by their deeds
-final destination will either be a permanent state of bliss/contentment or a permanent state of punishment

In the Psalms, such as Psalm 22 or Psalm 37, it is a more personal statement, assuring oneself of the justice of the cosmos through the will of God.

In Isaiah, the Gospels and in Revelation it is spoken of a warning for followers of God to act faithfully and justly.

In Daniel and in Paul's writings, it is a statement of comfort to those who suffer under persecution.

It is left to Muhammad and the later Christian writers to make the obvious step of using these eschatalogical events to warn unbelievers of their coming demise unless they repent.  Admittedly, it is not far from what John the Baptist does, but even John is speaking to those within the folds of Judaism.  It is interesting that Muhammad uses the ideas of resurrection and judgment and eternal destiny to convince pagans of their demise unless they repent.

In Sura 101, Muhammad speaks generally of the day of judgment, explaining what it is and the eternal destiny that awaits both the good and the evil.   It is more like a teaching poem, but still delivering the emotional impact of the final day.

In Sura 75,  Muhammad is confronted by those who claim that the resurrection of the dead, and thus the judgment day, is impossible.  The Sura's only proof is the omnipotence of God-- that God can do whatever He wishes.  Today, the resurrection of the dead shouldn't be doubted on the level of ability since it has been shown that one can clone any cellular creature.  The only real question is why would one want to resurrect the dead.  And the answer given here is simply: justice.

At the end of the life of each person, we can see that it is rare for a person to get what they deserve.  Those who have done evil to many often live according to their own terms.  Those who have done good often get only punishment and suffering in return.  The resurrection and judgment is an opportunity for pure justice to exist.  It is like karma, except instead of continually being stuck in an unjust universe, there is a final break and justice-- true justice-- finally comes to all.

The Quran and the Bible recognize that unless true justice prevails, those who make excuses to do evil will continue to do so.  Only with true and perfect justice-- even a justice that only happens in an unknown future-- can evil be kept at bay.

Finally in Sura 104,  all the pieces come together and a message to those who do evil is given, like any good fire and brimstone preacher.  It is spoken to those who slander God through their actions: specifically those who pile up wealth as if that would give them eternal security.  Rather, those who think that this life is all there is, and acts accordingly, will end up burning forever in punishment.

Right belief can lead to right action and right action to bliss, if only we are willing to wait for it.

Ah woe, that Day, to the Rejecters of Truth!
(It will be said:) "Depart ye to that which ye used to reject as false!
 "Depart ye to a Shadow (of smoke ascending) in three columns,
 "(Which yields) no shade of coolness, and is of no use against the fierce Blaze.
 "Indeed it throws about sparks (huge) as Forts,
Ah woe, that Day, to the Rejecters of Truth!
That will be a Day when they shall not be able to speak.
Nor will it be open to them to put forth pleas.
Ah woe, that Day, to the Rejecters of Truth!
That will be a Day of Sorting out! We shall gather you together and those before (you)!
                                                                                                                  -Sura 77

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Quran Background 2: Muhammad's Call

Muhammad was born around 570AD.  His father had died before he was born and his mother died in infancy.  Muhammad was raised by his uncle, Abu Talib, who was a poorer relative.  Tradition states that even though he had received little or no education, Muhammad was an excellent trader, even in his youth.  This quality was a factor which made him attractive to a wealthy widow named Khadijah.  They married when Muhammad was 25 and Khadijah was 40.

                Having suddenly married into sucyh a wealthy house, Muhammad spent more time in reflection.  He became one of a small group of local agnostics named Hunafa.  Each individual within this group attempted to seek truth by “the light of his own inner consciousness.”  To do this, they would often seek refuge from the cities and find a secluded place in the desert to meditate and fast.  Muhammad himself would travel to a small mountain, Mt. Hira, and find privacy in a cave.  It was here that Muhammad received his call into prophethood.

At the age of 40, Muhammad received an answer from Allah to his prayers.  It came in the form of a vision, in which a voice called to him, “Recite!”  There was some ambiguity in this command, because the command could also be understood to say, “Read!”  He replied to the voice, “How can I read?” for Muhammad had never been taught to read or write.  This dialogue was repeated two more times before the voice answered him:
                “Recite: In the name of thy Lord who created,
                                created Man of a blood-clot.
                Recite: and they Lord is the Most Generous
                                Who taught by the pen,
                       Taught Man that he knew not.”
                                (Sura 96:1-5)
                During this vision, it was revealed to Muhammad that Allah was the one true God and that He has called Muhammad to be his prophet.

Muhammad was unsure of what to make of his vision, whether it was from Satan (Shaitan in Arabic) or Allah.  He took Kadijah into his confidence, who advised him to test the spirit to see from whom it came.  Muhammad did so, and discovered that he was being visited by the angel Gabriel (Jibreel in Arabic).  After more self-doubt and later reassurances by both his wife and his closest friends, Muhammad accepted the role of the prophet to the Arabic peoples.

The Oneness of God

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
  Deuteronomy 6:4-5


One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, "What commandment is the foremost of all?"
 Mark 12:28-31 


There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.
 Ephesians 4:4-6

Say: He is Allah, the One and Only;
Allah, the Eternal, Absolute;
He begetteth not, nor is He begotten;
And there is none like unto Him.
   Quran,  Sura 112

In all of these sayings, the most important idea is not that God is one being.  Most beings are unified, and the ancient world recognized that.  Rather, it is that God alone is supreme over the universe. There is no one like Him, no one above Him, no one beside Him, no one can take His place.  Thus, God's unity is His sufficiency and His alone-ness.  Even Christianity, with a Trinitarian notion of God, recognizes that God is one and no one else is beside Him.

It is this notion that all the monotheistic religions agree upon (as well as a few other things).   It is important so that we know that God is not at war with Himself.  God does not change.  God can't one day be replaced.  God isn't of multiple personalities.  God will never break his promises. When we see God's actions on earth, it may seem that God does have different personalities.  But we recognize that while God may repent of harm, that God remains steadfast in His purpose to do good to all.  While other spirits under God may harm, God is merciful.  While humanity, including religious leaders and practitioners, will often be faithless and hating and changeable-- they do not represent God in that way.

God is one and does not change.

You Go Your Way, I"ll Go Mine

There are some who do not believe in God, or who do not believe in the God we believe in.  That may frustrate some of us, and we may try to force others to believe.  But to do so is fruitless.  We can't force someone to see what they do not see.  If we try to force, we will only cause greater conflict, and more resistance.

We should have the same attitude as Muhammade and say as he said, "You go your way and I'll go mine."

We can, of course, explain what we believe.  We can give our perspective on local history, for example.  Some may say "The Civil War was caused by many events" and leave it at that.  Others may say that God used the Civil War to end the atrocity of slavery.  This doesn't mean God caused the Civil War, but used it for His work.

Even so, Muhammad used the story of a local event about an elephant to speak of God's involvement in local history. That makes sense.

Also, Muhammad spoke of how God helps in his life.  "There are many evils around us", he said.  Evil human beings. Evil curses. Evil desires against us.  God is the light in the midst of the darkness, the refuge from the storm of evil.  Satan himself speaks evil to us and about us.  But God and God alone allows us to be protected.

"And so I seek God" says Muhammad.  You may seek other things.  Money, perhaps.  Science.  Power.  Force.  "But I," said Muhammad, "have my hope in God alone."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Do you know who really rejects the faith?
The one who mistreats the orphans.
Who doesn't advocate the feeding of the poor.
Woe to those who observe the prayers
Only to show off
And they deny charity.

Different translation

Art: TV Has Made Us Monsters  by Bansky

Rebuke of the Joneses

Frankly, in Sura 102, the rebuke is pretty general.  Basically, it offers a rebuke who spend all their time piling up useless stuff.  To focus on material goods, the Quran warns, diverts one from more important matters-- seeking God. And those who refuse to seek God will be punished eternally.

Jesus has a very similar attitude toward those who seek to increase their wealth:

"Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.... The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, 'What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, 'This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, "Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry."'  But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?'  So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."
 (Luke 12:15-21)

James is much harsher to those who keep wealth for themselves:

"Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure!  You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter."
 (James 5)

Isn't it funny how all of these sacred texts are firm about the punishment of those who spend their lives trying to better themselves financially, but that is what we expect of our citizens?  And those who do not do well financially, we consider spiritually inept?  Yet, isn't it the other way around?

Possessions distract and destroy.  The one who surrenders to God doesn't have time to build up wealth for himself.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Quran Background 1: Arabia in Muhammad's Time

Arabia in the sixth century AD had no central government.  The opinion of the great civilizations of the time, namely the Byzantine Empire and the western states of crumbling Rome, was that the Arabian desert was the unknown wilderness.  The population there was divided up among various nomadic tribes, whose economic focus was trading.  They mostly traded spices and other exotic items, and a few tribes became quite wealthy.

                The religious center of Arabia was the city Mecca (alternative spelling, Mekka) where there was an intersection of trade routes.  In Mecca was the Ka’ba, the large black box which contained every and god that the Arabians worshipped.  It was said among a few that the foundation of the Ka’ba was built by Abraham and his son, Ishmael (in Arabic Ibrahim and Ismail) who were the ancestors of the Arabian peoples.  As opposed to Ibrahim, however, most Arabians at the time of Muhammad were polytheistic, worshipping local deities.  The greatest of these deities was the god, Allah, yet even he was only one of many gods who were worshipped, which included the Virgin Mary.  To show respect to all of these deities, many Arabians would make an annual pilgrimage to Mecca.  One tribe, the Quaysh was the group of caretakers for the Ka’ba, the center of the pilgrimage.  It is within this tribe that Muhammad was born.

                But not every Arabian was polytheistic.  There were also quite a few other religious groups that had come to Arabia.  Jews, fleeing persecution, came to rest in Arabia.  In fact, it is estimated that up to one half of the Arabian city of Yathrib was Jewish.  

There were also Christians trading with the Quaysh, mostly on the other side of the Red Sea, in Africa.  Most of these Christians believed in a different kind of Trinitarianism than most orthodox Christians do today..  They held that the divinity and humanity of Christ was completly separated, and so discussion of Jesus' divinity was different than how we understand it.  However the Christians had monasteries and many good works such as fasting and giving to the poor, although there is no evidence that they existed in Mecca itself.  

There were quite possibly also some small splinter groups of Gnostics who separated morality into spirit, which was good, and flesh, which was evil.  These groups were somewhat Christian in outlook, but they denied the crucifixion and the incarnation to a certain degree.

Power Horses

In Sura 100, The Coursers,  a comparison is made between war horses and humanity.  And, well, humanity doesn't come out well.

The horses are seen from the perspective of their masters, and they are magnificent. They labor hard, and not for their own purposes.  They run with all their might, simply because their master commands them to. They sacrifice themselves in the midst of battle, even though they don't know what the purpose of the fighting is for.

How do humans look from the Master's perspective? Ungrateful and selfish.  It isn't that humans don't work-- they can accomplish some amazing deeds.  But they don't work for their Master, but for themselves.  They don't work for the needy, or for building up God's goals.  Rather, they work for their own glory, their own influence.

The Sura ends with an important question-- What will happen when the Lord opens up the heart of each person to everyone?  When we see the true motivation of all people, who can possibly stand? 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Gratitude: Not Just Attitude

In the midst of the prophetically angry Quran, there are a number of suras of comfort and reminders of God's grace.

In Sura 94, the Muslims* are reminded of their deliverance by God.  They had terrible burdens and were oppressed, but God had given them freedom.  The deeply comforting words are repeated twice: "With every difficulty there is relief; Verily, with every difficulty there is relief."

In God, no matter what terrible horrors we must face, no matter what persecutions or trials, there is, in the end, relief.

In Sura 93, "Morning Bright",  the Muslim is compared to an orphan, lost and fatherless, whom God takes under His wing, providing shelter and care.

However, the Quran recognizes that every gift is, in itself, a demand.  The greater the gift, so greater our response to the gift must be, if only to display proper gratitude.  We need not give as much as the giver did, but we must return something to show that we truly appreciated the gift.

For God's deliverance, what does He request?  In Suras 93 and 94, God requires three things:

a. God requests that we turn our attention to Him.  In our lives, we are constantly focused on Him and thinking how we can properly live our lives in light of the gift of life and freedom He has given us.

b. God asks that we work hard for the purposes He has set us to.  That we work not only for our own well being, but for God's purposes and glory.

c. Finally, God properly asks that we care for the needy and orphans, even as He has helped us when we were needy and an orphan.  We should provide shelter and care for those who do not have it.

These tasks are not onerous, but the proper gratitude to the God who has given us life, freedom and provision.

*"Muslim" isn't necessarily the adherent of a particular religion, but by definition "one who is submitted to God"   Although, of course, one would usually define "submission" by one's own belief system.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Is Muhammad Just Repeating the Bible?

Sura 111-- This is a judgment on an enemy of the Quran.  It isn't really that different-- and certainly no worse-- than the curses in the Psalms (see 109:6-20!) or the curses of the prophets.  We don't know why this man was so cursed, but that is often the case in ancient poetry.

Sura 87-- This has some basics of the Quran.  God is a God of order, not chaos. What God wants of us is to live according to His Path.  This Path is not complicated, but easy to follow.  This Path is revealed, bit by bit, in the process of revealing the Quran. Those who oppose the path will be destroyed on the day of judgment.  Note that this is really no different than a good portion of Jesus' claim.  He said that the "gospel" or his teaching was essential for entering the kingdom and those who lived it would live and those who didn't would be judged (see Matthew 7:21-27).

In seeing these claims from different people, we need to ask these questions:
a. Are these claims contradictory?  In other words, is it possible to follow both sets of teachings?
b. Which one, if either is speaking for God?  How could we know if one is or is not?

Surah 92-- Again, a summary of The Path:

So he who gives (in charity) and fears ((Allah)),
And (in all sincerity) testifies to the best,-
We will indeed make smooth for him the path to Bliss.
And gives the lie to the best,-But he who is a greedy miser and thinks himself self-sufficient,
We will indeed make smooth for him the path to Misery;
Nor will his wealth profit him when he falls headlong (into the Pit).

Is this really different from Jesus' teaching?  Jesus said:

Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.
The land of a rich man was very productive.
And he began reasoning to himself, saying, 'What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?'
Then he said, 'This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.
And I will say to my soul, "Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry."'
But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?'
So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."
And He said to His disciples, "For this reason I say to you, do not worry about your life, as to what you will eat; nor for your body, as to what you will put on.
For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.
Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap; they have no storeroom nor barn, and yet God feeds them; how much more valuable you are than the birds!
And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life's span?
If then you cannot do even a very little thing, why do you worry about other matters?
Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; but I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.
But if God so clothes the grass in the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, how much more will He clothe you? You men of little faith!
And do not seek what you will eat and what you will drink, and do not keep worrying.
For all these things the nations of the world eagerly seek; but your Father knows that you need these things.
But seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you.
Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.
Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
 (Luke 12:15-34)

Both are basically saying: Have faith in God and don't be greedy.  Jesus' teaching perhaps applies more broadly than most of us are comfortable with (as he paints a businessman as being judged and he says "sell your possessions and give to the poor"), but are not Muhammad and Jesus saying basically the same thing?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Judgment Day

Before I continue with my commentary on the Quran, I want to give another disclaimer.  I am not an expert on the Quran, and yet I will give some speculations.  If something seems odd to me, I might look at a commentary, but if the commentary doesn't make sense to me I'll go my own way.  I welcome serious students of the Quran to critique my commentaries.  If I've got it wrong, I'm sorry.

Now, let me move ahead in my blindness...

Sura 74 is called "The Cloaked Man", which might very well refer to Muhammad, who was seeking another revelation like he did before.  Perhaps the Sura could be split, revealed at two different times, but it seems to me that it might all work together.

Muhammad was in dispute with a critic.  The critic said that there was no day of judgment.  That no All-powerful God would come to judge between the good and the bad, and that Muhammad's own poetry proved nothing.  He said that Muhammad had only made a few poems and recited them, but that was no indication of God's power, or a necessity to pray to Him.

I like this Sura.  First of all, it is its own response.  It is speaking back to the critic, saying, "See, I can give Muhammad as many revelations as I want."

But most of all, the poem says, "Do what you like.  The day of judgment comes whether you like it or not."

This is one thing Muhammad had in similarity to Jesus.  They both took the final day with the utmost seriousness.  We are to organize our lives according to how we will be ultimately judged by God.  This idea is life changing and powerful.

Those who wish to live immoral lives deny God and deny the day of judgment. (They aren't the only ones who do, but certainly they do)  (Psalm 14 and Psalm 53).  They say this to claim that there is no recrimination for their evil deeds.  Both Jesus and Muhammad (and David) strongly oppose this notion.  They may not agree as to what the standard of judgment is, but the judgment of God is coming.  And we need to get ready for it.

Going to Extremes

In the chonological order of the Quran, Sura 58 ("The Binding")  is the third poem Muhammad gave.  Yet already, there is discussion of reading the Quran all night.  Not, of course, the entire Quran, but the poems that Muhammad had already given. It speaks of extreme prayer and fasting.

And then it dismisses it.  It doesn't actually command that one shouldn't partake in such practices, but it strongly discourages them. Basically, the poem says, "You've got a lot of other things to do for God.  Don't destroy yourself through worship to make yourself unfit for anything else."  It's pretty wise, really.

It especially makes sense of the historic context.  The time of Muhammad was the end of the time of the desert fathers, who were hermits who lived in the desert.  Also this is a couple centuries after St. Simeon Stylites who spend 37 years living on a pole for the Lord.  This was an age of "spiritual athletes" where many extreme spiritual practices were being done.

For his community, Muhammad nipped these kinds of practices in the bud.  The Quranic submission to God ("islam") is not to include extreme spiritual practices, especially those that cause neglect the every day practices of living.

In comparing this to Jesus' teaching, I have to say that Jesus is much more of an extremist than Muhammad.  Muhammad was much more a practitioner of Aristotle's motto, Moderation in all things, than Jesus.  Jesus certainly encouraged some kinds of extremism.

  • He encouraged lowliness and discouraged any kind of self-exaltation. (Luke 14:11)
  • He encouraged love of everyone, even to the detriment of ones well-being. (Luke 6:35ff)
  • He encouraged the rejection of family, if it meant better dedication to God (Luke 14:16)  (although not to the degree of actually harming one's family--Mark 7:11-13)
  • He spoke of the surrender of all of one's possessions to God, and much of it to the poor (Luke 14:33; 12:33)
  • And most of all, he spoke of following him being equal to denying oneself and dying for the faith (Mark 8:34)

Jesus was not the most balanced of religious leaders.  He lived an extreme life and required this of his disciples.  But most of all, Jesus required an extreme love.  Everything was to be balanced by love.

Jesus might completely agree with Sura 73.  He saw no benefit of extreme religious ritual.  But he did encourage-- nay, command-- extreme love.  "Greater love has no one than this that he lay down his life for his friends."  We definitely don't need more people to be religious extremists.  We don't need more people praying all night.  We do, however, need people to surrender their lives for love.  After all, love makes the world go 'round.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Pen Gives Proof of Revolution

Sura 68 ("The Pen") is still very early chronologically, but it is after Muhammad had been reciting his poems to the populace at large.  Perhaps it was when he was reciting them in his wife's house, when she had gathered people to hear her husband.

Nevertheless, there is strong opposition against Muhammad.  Some have called him mad or possessed by a demon.  Allah defends Muhammad in this Sura.  You can read it here.

He tells a story about a group of farmers.  During harvest, they collect the fruit, but refuse to acknowledge God in the process. One morning, they awake and there is nothing to harvest-- all the fruit is gone. They believe that thieves are the cause of their sorrow but one among them says that it is because they have refused to give God what is His due.  Their anger then transfers from thieves to the one among them who rebuked the others.  Thus, says the Sura, the one will be rewarded while the unbelievers will be punished.  In this life, it says, punishment is for a time, but eternally punishment is much more harsh.

I can't help but compare this to Jesus' experience and his parable of the tenant farmers.

Jesus also was declared "mad" and "possessed" by some around him.  His very family wanted him locked away (in contrast, Muhammad's family was supportive).  Jesus defended himself in many ways, but there are two that I find especially significant:
-He says that his miracles are "witnesses" to the truth of his teaching.  These miracles could only happen by God's hand and they do God's work.  Therefore, Jesus' speech must be from God. (John 5:36ff)
-Secondly, Jesus says that the miracles couldn't come from Satan, for they are directly attacking Satan's kingdom.  Satan may have the power for the miracles, but he wouldn't purposely cause a civil war, would he? (Matthew 12:24-28)

It is interesting that Jesus' arguments are based on the miracles no one could deny.  Muhammad's proof was his poetry itself.  I am not denying the powerful proof of the exquisite beauty of the poem. However,unlike Keats, I have a hard time accepting beauty as proof of truth.  Apart from that, we only have the word of the poem itself.  Perhaps the message has such power that I can accept it for that.  Certainly Muhammad's message was truth for idolaters-- there is one God and a day of judgment.  But if it is proof for idolaters, should it not also be proof for Christians and Jews?

Muhammad's tale also has a similarity to Jesus' tale of the tenant farmers.  In Jesus' story (Mark 12:1-11), the farmers were keeping the fruit themselves without giving any to the owner.  The owner sent messengers (prophets) to collect the rent, but the renters refused, beating and killing the messengers.  Finally the owner sent the heir, and the renters killed him as well.  This caused the owner to take up arms and kill the renters.

Note the differences in the analogy.  Muhammad is placed as one among the harvesters, who speaks wisdom about needing to show respect.  Jesus puts himself as the Son, the Prince who will own the kingdom.  Certainly Jesus makes a bolder claim about himself, and a bolder claim requires a bolder proof.

A miracle poem is sufficient proof that one must give God His rightful acknowledgement.  To prove oneself as the proper king, when there has been no king for 600 years, demands a huge proof.  Healings?  Perhaps. Raising from the dead?  That would be sufficient.  The debate between Christians and Muslims is whether Jesus actually rose from the dead...

Sunday, October 16, 2011

What Do We Really Believe?

Who Am I, Really?
It is often quoted, “You are what you eat.” But I am not a tuna sandwich or a quesadilla. Perhaps what we eat gives us the energy to be who we are, but it is not who we are. Rather, it is our thoughts and beliefs that make us who we are. We do not name ourselves according to our culinary preference, but we proudly tell others the names that display what we believe. Our church group (what we believe about God), our political leanings (what we believe about how to help our country), our sports team (what we believe about that team—namely, they are great)—these are the things we talk about to indicate who we are (as well as other things, like occupation)

However, our beliefs are as complex as our thinking, and at times we say we believe something that contradicts what we believe about something else. And we also will say that we believe one thing and do another. I can say that I believe that people should be nice to one another, but if I found out my neighbor took my television without my permission then I might not be so nice to him. My wife would then point out the contradiction between what I say and what I did, and I will explain it to her: “You see, I think that we should generally be nice to each other, but if someone takes something from me, then I don’t have to be nice.” The reasoning may or may not be valid, but I only came up with the reason to excuse what I did. The reality is, what I said I believed originally—“People should be nice to each other,”— is different from what I really believed— “I will be nice to others as long as they are nice to me.”

Given that what we say we believe is so often contradicted by what we do, how do we know what we really believe. I say I believe in Jesus—but do I really? And how do I know? I think that if I make statements of belief—“I believe that Jesus is Lord”, that will be enough. If I know something, “Jesus rose from the dead” or “Airplanes are safe,” does that mean I believe in it?

Evaluating What We Really Believe In
Jesus recognized that often what we say and what we believe are two different things. This is why he gave us a test to find the true character of a person—what they really believe in, whether they are really good and bad. Jesus said, “We know a tree by its fruit. We know that a tree is an apple tree because it bears apples. And we know that a fig tree can’t produce pears. Even so, we know what a person is really like by their actions and careless speech.” (Matthew 7:16-20 and 12:33-36). Thus, we know what people really believe by how they behave in certain areas in life.

Below are six areas that, according to Jesus, indicate what we really believe. If we follow God in these areas, then we can say we believe in God. But if we do not, then we must believe in something else—for our actions are a mirror of our hearts.

As shown above, what we do with our lives—our work, our response to stressful situations—that’s what really shows who we are. We can say that we love God, but the question is, how do we show it? Sometimes the best way to determine our character is to imagine that a stranger who has never seen us before is presented with a videotape of our whole lives, with the sound off, so they can’t hear our own explanations of our lives. How would that stranger evaluate us? What would characterize us? If we stole, we would certainly be characterized as a thief. But we more often than not excuse ourselves, not wanting our actions to determine who we are—“Sure, I get drunk occasionally, but that doesn’t make me an alcoholic.” “Yes, I have hit my child in anger, but that doesn’t make me a child abuser.” Yet Jesus said that a person shows truly whether they believe in him as to whether they do what he says (Luke 6:46-49)

Jesus says that what we do with our money and possessions indicates where our heart is, thus who we are (Luke 12:34). A person can say, “I believe that God will heal me,” but then why does he spend so much money on medicine? A person can say, “My comfort will be in heaven,” but then why does she surround herself with comforts on earth? If we want to see what a person really believes in, we can look at how they spend their money—that will indicate what they think to be most important in life. Jesus said that if we want to show that we believe we will get to heaven, then we need to take a substantial amount of our wealth and give it to the poor—not necessarily the church, unless they are serving the poor (Luke 12:33; Acts 4:34-35)

As we said above, a person can say one thing and do another. But Jesus said that we should pay attention to people’s careless words—the statements they make when they didn’t have time to plan it out. Often that’s when people’s pride and anger and selfishness flare up. If we are planning a statement, that can be one thing we say, but the statements we use when we are being thoughtless and carefree—those are the words by which we will be judged, for those are the words that show what we really believe and so who we really are. (Matthew 12:35-36)

At times we all feel insecure. We are often struck by anxiety and we don’t know where to turn. Where we do turn in those moments of crisis indicates what we trust in or who we think will pull us out of our fear. Perhaps we will turn to a family member—especially if they are wealthy—or a friend. Perhaps we have a habit or addiction that we think will make us feel better. Perhaps we have nothing we can rely on but our anxiety, but we say, “How I wish I had this or that”. That is what we really rely on, the person or object we truly believe in. But Jesus tells us that in our time of crisis, the one we can always count on, the dependable one who we can trust in is God. (John 14:1; Luke 12:30-32). To “believe in” God doesn’t mean to have the correct doctrine, it means that you will count on him in a time of crisis. So whatever we turn to in crisis, that is our real god.

God makes it clear that he wants us to treat everyone according to their well-being. He wants us to do what is good for everyone we meet—whether that person is an evil person or a good one (Luke 6:27-36; Galatians 6:10). We can make a list of who we actually show care for and who we do not. “Yes, I try to help this person whenever I can. This person, though, is a dolt and so I avoid then when possible. I like to assist this kind of person, but this kind I detest and wouldn’t even give them the time of day.” By this test, then, we can often see what limits we place on our belief in God. We believe in God and in his ways when we are around certain people or situations, but in other ones we do not. If people respect us, that’s fine, we can believe in God in that situation. But if someone cusses us out, then we find it difficult to believe in God. For we know that we will be rewarded according to our love, not our doctrinal beliefs.

We often make promises and commitments, from appointments to projects we agreed to work on. Sometimes we do not even have a promise to do something, but we have a “social contract” with our family, in which our behavior is determined. And there are many things that we “believe in” that we commit to do, whether it be prayer or a favor for someone at church or visiting a sick person in the hospital. But what we believe in is not found in the promises we make, but in the promises we actually keep. We may “believe in” prayer and make a schedule for us to wake up a bit early to do it. But, when the time comes, we find that we actually believe in sleep more than prayer because the snooze button is hit until the prayer time has vanished. We may “believe in” visiting the sick, and so promise to do it, but when the time comes we find the television too alluring, showing that we believe in our comfort and rest more. Jesus said that we must fulfill our promises and so display our faithfulness, for what we do shows what we believe. This doesn’t mean that we are able to keep all our promises. Sometimes emergencies come up. But we must remember this, whatever we chose to do, that is what we really believe in. (Matthew 21:28-31)

One last thing to note—Jesus is a firm believer in changing one’s ways. We know he believes in change because he forgives people their sin. He displays his belief of changed behavior by accepting those who have repented. Even so, if you evaluate your true beliefs and determine that you haven’t really believed in Jesus, it is not too late to change! Jesus said he will give you his Spirit and he will help you repent from your old life and begin to believe in Him anew! Pray for God’s grace and you will begin to truly believe in Jesus, not just in words, but in your whole life. In that way you will be a new creation, created by God to do actions in light of Jesus!

Evaluate your actions, and determine
what you really believe!

Who We Really Are

Sura 96 of the Quran is considered to be the first poem Muhammad received from the angel Gabriel.  You can read it here.

The story goes like this:

Muhammad was born the son of a middle class merchant. He never learned how to read or write. He married a wealthy widow, and spent much of his time away from people, seeking the true God.  Muhammad determined already that Allah, the God of Abraham, was the God he should seek.

Then, out of the blue, he received a message from the angel Gabriel, in the form of a poem.  The beginning of this poem was the command "Recite!" or, otherwise translated "Read!".  Muhammad was confused, as he couldn't read, but as he received the words of the poem, he found that he had become literate.

However, all of that isn't what the Sura is about.

Instead, it is about  secularists, or people who are practical secularists.  It says, "Men think they are self-sufficient, and so transgress all bounds."  The true path, however, is the path of God.  The one who denies others the right to seek God will be judged by God.

When this was spoken, it was not spoken about atheists or agnostics.  Rather, it was about people who believed in their god or gods, and prayed at the right time, but lived their lives the way they wanted to, thus denying any real belief in God.

To believe is to act.  We know what a person truly believes by how they treat others, how they act when no one is looking, how they spend their money.  God will judge every human according to his or her deeds, so says Jesus and the rest of the NT.  Every deed, especially the hidden ones.  Make no mistake, God is not mocked, He knows who we really are and our eternity is determined by our true self. 

Talk About Allah

Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;
Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
Master of the Day of Judgment.
Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
Show us the straight way,
The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace,
those whose portion is not wrath, and who go not astray.

This is the beautiful prayer that is probably the most recited sacred text, with the Lord's Prayer a second.  This prayer could easily be a Christian or Jewish prayer, having the same theology as either of the other two main monotheistic religions. 

God is shown to be loving, merciful and generous.  He is the Creator of the Universe. God is going to judge the earth, depending on people's lifestyles, just the same as the New Testament.  But most of all, God is the one who answers prayer, and shows his utmost care by answering prayers.

Let's deal with one issue right away: the name "Allah" for God.   It has been said that it was the name of a moon god which was adopted by Muhammad later on.  This is certainly not the case.  

Allah has two roots: al, which means "the" and ilah, which is "God".  Ilah is from the same root that Elohim in Hebrew is-- that is the Hebrew term "God". 

In fact, we need to remember just how close Arabic and Hebrew is.  For instance the basic greeting "peace" in Hebrew is Shalom, and in Arabic it is "Salaam"-- that's pretty close.   So that fact that they share the same name for God shouldn't be surprising. 

Could the name for God have pagan origins?  Well, the word Elohim certainly had pagan uses.  Actually, the word is plural, so in most contexts it would be translated "gods".  (It is translated as singular because in most places in the Hebrew Bible Elohim is matched with a singular verb, which means Elohim, which has a plural ending, is meant to be understood as singular.  The plural form is retained in order to show God's greatness over other gods.)  The word for God in the New Testament is Theos, which certainly had a pagan origin.  A strong possibility for the root of the English word "God" is a general term for an idol. 

What am I getting at?  The root of a word doesn't make its meaning.  Meaning of a word is determined by context.  In the context of the Quran, even just the first Sura, Allah is the Creator, the Judge, merciful and powerful.  Yes, we are talking about the same God as the Bible here.  No one else fits the bill.

A Nod To Muhammad

I haven't done regular posts for a while here and thought I should.  I'll keep posting about the five points of Calvinism, but I've been considering what text I should work on?  I've been pretty exhausted, and so I don't want to do something difficult and unfamiliar.  I will eventually be doing M. Alder's volume How To Think About God, but I thought I'd do something easier (for me) for now: The Quran.

Many people might ask why I am bothering doing the Quran.  By Christians this book is generally considered, at best, a heretical text.  And it is ultimately sacred to a billion people on the planet.  Most people in my position wouldn't touch it.

Here's some reasons why I want to comment on the Quran:
1. I've read it a few times already, including a commentary and I've done some Quran studies.  It's pretty familiar to me already, so it's easy.
2. It is easily accessible.  I'm going to be using Yusuf Ali's translation primarily, which you can find online at this location. 
3. The Quran is much misunderstood and maligned both by those who haven't read it and by some who have.  It is good to read it in light of how it was originally intended.
4. I'd like to comment some on Christian assumptions about Islam, if it applies to the Quran.

Here's some introductory notes before we get started:

The Quran is not the same as Islam
The Quran is where Islam began, and it the source of it's most important traditions, but Islam is not limited to it's most holy book.  We will be discussing the book, not Islam as a whole.  Islam, like all world religions, can't be distilled in a single point of view or theological summary.  It is a variety of viewpoints and many interpretations of many texts.   It is best not to judge the whole religion based on one text or one point of view. To talk about the Quran is to focus on one slice of Islam, a much bigger pie.

The Quran is Organized Differently
The Quran is divided into Suras, not chapters or books.  The Suras aren't organized chronologically, but roughly by size.  For the novice, reading the Quran from front to back is misleading, because there is no sense of development.  In fact, most of the longer Suras, found in the front of the Quran, are dated later than most of the others.  And many of the shorter Suras, at the back of the Quran, are dated early.  Thus, my recommendation, if you don't have a list of the chronological arrangement of the Quran, and if you are reading it for the first time is to read the Suras from back to front.  This way you have a better sense of the development.  In this read of the Quran, I won't follow a strictly chronological order, nor will I be commenting on all the Suras, but I will be referring to this chronological list.

The Real Quran is in Arabic
Every Muslim and every Quranic scholar will tell you that the Quran should really be read in the original language.  To hear the Quran recited in Arabic, even a little bit, you can understand why.   (Get a taste of it here)  The poetry and the language is a part of the experience of the Quran.  To read the Quran in English is to grasp a meaning of the Quran, but not to experience it fully.  Of course, here we will have to settle for the English.  I don't know Arabic and I doubt many (or any) of the readers of the blog will know Arabic.

The Historical Context is Important
Each Sura is a poem which was given to Muhammad on a particular occasion.  Each Sura is God speaking to Muhammad about that occasion.  Thus, to understand a number of Suras, we have to know the occasion to which the Sura is speaking.  This is where we use Quranic commentaries.  I have found Yusuf Ali's commentary most helpful in providing a context for each Sura.

I am NOT a Quranic Scholar
Just like the other texts I discuss in this blog, I am not necessarily an expert on the subject.  I am just expressing my opinion from my particular theological viewpoint.  I will agree with some parts of the Quran and I will disagree with others, just like any other theological text.  If I were Muslim, that would be unacceptable, but I am a Jesus-centrist and so my viewpoints come from that perspective.  I might get my understanding of the Quran wrong, just like I might any other text, especially ancient.  Just blame my ignorance, and please correct me.