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.