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.