Sunday, May 6, 2012

Quran Background 3: Muhammad in Mecca

For the first three years of Muhammad’s prophethood, he spoke out only to family and close friends. Many of the messages Muhammad received from Jibreel at this point were personal and dealt with his own submission to Allah.  During this time, Muhammad was taught a prayer ritual which became the standard prayer for every Muslim, the only difference being that Muhammad faced toward Jerusalem originally.  The method of his prophethood was primarily the recitation (which is the literal meaning of Qu’ran) of the messages Muhammad received from Allah.

Soon the numbers of the new religion began to grow to such a degree that the Quraysh tribe could no longer ignore it.  At first they called Muhammad a madman, or their local crazed poet.  But when Muhammad began declaring his message openly on the streets of Mecca, they knew that something had to be done about him.  For they knew that Muhammad boldly proclaimed his message of the one God, Allah, and they were afraid that Muhammad’s message might threaten their economic livelihood by hindering the pilgrimage, a pagan practice.  So to take a common stand against Muhammad, the leaders of the Quraysh agreed that they would name Muhammad a sorcerer, in an attempt to discredit him.

 The Quraysh would often dispute Muhammad openly.  At one point, one of the members of the tribe opposing Muhammad said, “I will never believe in you—not until you take a ladder and I see you climb it up to heaven, and until you bring four angels to testify that you are what you claim to be.  And even then I think I would not believe you.”  The majority of Quraysh agreed with this sentiment.  However, the revelation of Allah replied to them, “Waxed proud they have within them, and become greatly disdainful.  Upoon the day that they see the angels, no good tidings that day for the sinners….”  (Sura 25:21,22).

Despite the efforts of the Quraysh, Muhammad gained more followers.  Yet as the number of Muslims (which means in Arabic, “submitted ones”) grew, so did the hostility.  The Quraysh leaders desired to test Muhammad, so they asked some Jews of Yathrib for questions in order to do this.  Three questions were asked Muhammad, and a recitation was given in response giving the correct answers (see Sura 18).  Later the hostility turned to physical persecution against the Muslims.  Some Muslims were beaten for praying in open places.  Other Muslims who were slaves were beaten and threatened with their lives unless they renounced their submission to Allah.  But Muhammad was never threatened personally because one of his relatives, a leader in the Quyrash, was his protector although he was not himself a Muslim.

Muhammad’s early preaching consisted of sermons against polytheism and concerning the future events of resurrection and judgement.
                                “And of His signs
                are the night and the day, the sun and the moon.
                Bow not yourselves to the sun and the moon,
                But bow yourselves to God who creaed them
                                If Him you serve.”  (Sura 41:37)

                A year after Muhammad’s wife Khadijah, died (619 AD), Muhammad received a vision.  He dreamed that he travelled to Jerusalem in one night and from there he ascended into heaven where he saw Allah and many prophets.  Tradition states that when before Allah, he received the word that Muslims were supposed to pray fifty times a day.  On leaving Allah’s chamber, Moses asked Muhammad how many times he was to pray daily.  On learning this, Moses sent Muhammad back to Allah again and again to reduce the amount.  Moses continued to send Muhammad back until it was reduced to five times daily and even then he would have sent Muhammad back.  But Muhammad said, “I have returned unto my Lord and asked him until I am ashamed.  I will not go again.”  The announcement of the vision only increased the hostility of the Quraysh against the Muslims.

                Soon after this, Muhammad’s protector died.  At this point Muhammad began receiving serious threats against his life.  Knowing that these threats would soon turn into attempts, Muhammad decided that he would have to soon leave his beloved city.  Yet he had no place where he could go.

Prince of Lesser Darkness

Satan's Coffee
Sura 38 begins with the denial of Muhammad and his message by the Arabic pagans of Muhammad's day.  It continues speaking of God's judgment on them for their refusal to believe... which is a pretty common theme in the Quran.  What I find most interesting in the Sura is the discussion of Satan from verses 71 through 85.

The story goes like this:

God made humanity to rule the earth and required that all the angels of heaven bow to Man to recognize his rule over the angels.  All the angels obeyed except for Iblis (Satan) who claimed that his nature was superior to humanity, as created from fire instead of clay.  God then rebuked Satan, and proclaimed his ultimate judgment, but God would withhold such judgment until a later time.  Iblis then responded, "Give me some time to prove the inadequate nature of humanity.  I will prove them to be weak and unworthy of ruling Your creation."  God agreed that Iblis had the right to prove his case.  He said, "Hell is fitting for your, for your disobedience.  But all those humans who follow you and your ways I will put them in hell as well."

This isn't the story of Satan told by the Bible, but it fits.
Book of Job

The Bible's story of Satan shows that Satan was humanity's enemy from the beginning, being the trigger for Adam and Eve's downfall.  Satan is "the god of this world" and most of humanity follows Satan through pagan ritual.  But Satan can approach God, condemning and accusing certain humans, especially those who are pleasing to God.  Satan tempts them and tries to get them to fall away from God, causing God to be forced to judge those who are pleasing to Him.

Christian theology of Satan is pretty different from the Quran, but it is different from the Bible as well.

Christian theology claims that Satan was the greatest of angels, but he rebelled against God, taking up arms against Him.  God defeated Satan with his hosts, but Satan and half of his angels fell from heaven and were declared unworthy of God.  This was supposed to happen at the beginning of the world, before humanity was created.  But if this is the case, then how is Satan in the garden and in the presence of God after humanity is created?

The problem comes in the interpretation of Revelation 12, which describes the war between Michael and Satan.  A close reading of that passage in the context of Revelation indicates that it takes place after the ascension of Jesus.  This really changes how one sees Satan working in the world.

Some say that Satan is an extension of Zoroastrianism, where there are two equal beings at war with each other.  However, a careful read of the Bible shows that the theology of Satan comes from pagan sources, where Satan is the equivalent of Zeus, Baal and Marduk, who declares himself ruler after fighting against his father, El, the creator of earth and humanity.  "Satan" is not a name, but a title which means "accuser".  "Devil" is also not a name, but is an insult "the devil".  "Beelzebub" is also an insult, "lord of the flies" which comes from a specific name for Baal, the Canaanite high god.

The theology of Satan is not a theological necessity to  place blame for evil on someone else.  Rather, it is to put pagan theology in its place.  To say that there is only one Most High God and that is the Creator.  You might call Zeus and Baal god, but they are nothing compared to Yahweh, the Lord of all the universe, including your so called gods.


In Christian theology, the theology of the Bible is called bibliology.  Some call the theology and study of the Quran, the Islamic holy book, quranology.

In orthodox Islam, the Quran is an eternal book, written from the foundation of the world, and then revealed, word-for-word to prophets.  It has never changed and is an eternal word for the ages.

However, if you read the Quran, it seems clear that it isn't an "eternal book" at all.  Rather, it was given to a particular people in a particular place and to read the Quran isn't to read an eternal volume for every time and place, written before the foundation of the earth.  This doesn't mean the Quran doesn't have eternal principles that one could glean from it.  But it is not for everyone.

Let's take Sura 54 as an example.

1. Arabic
Orthodox Quran students declare that the Quran isn't properly understood outside of it's original language, Arabic.  I think that there is a strong case to be made for that, as the poetry and tone of the book cannot be grasped in any other language than the original.  However, this also points to its cultural and linguistic limitations.  Arabic was, for a time, used as a kind of lingua franca amidst the Middle East and North Africa for a historic period of time, but it was never a majority language, even in the Muslim world's most extended empire.  And can it really be said that Arabic is the language before the foundation of the world?  There was a form of Arabic before Muhammad and a form of Arabic after, and the Quran is written in one form of Arabic.  But can we really expect Moses, Jesus and David to have spoken Arabic, or spoken to the people in a language they could not have known?
Sura 54 begins with a discussion about the splitting of the moon

2. Stories
The Quran makes reference to many stories also found in the many books that make up the Bible.  Sura 54 mentions Pharoah of Moses' time, Noah, and Sodom's destruction.  But it also makes mention of stories that only the people of Muhammad and those after him would know, like the 'Ad people.  Would Noah or Moses have spoken of events that would not have occurred yet?  Would Jesus have spoken a reference to an event that is not known among his people?  Or worse, would they have spoken of prophets that did not yet exist-- would Noah have spoken of Moses?

This is not a problem with the Quran, but with the theology that has developed about the Quran.  And I must admit that there are such problems about theologies that have developed around the Torah and the Bible.  Some insist on the Bible's truth to such a degree that they deny truth that has been proven without question, even if the Bible isn't explicit about the subject.  Some speak of the Torah as being eternal, denying it's proper place in the history of humanity.
"I speak for myself!"

As in almost all literature, we need to allow books to speak for themselves.  A clear, lightly critical read of a book, any book, whether holy or mundane, will often give us an idea of what the book claims for itself.  The Bible is clearly not a single volume, but a collection of many books, many of them not written by a single individual, but a collected volume of many documents.  The Torah-- whether of Moses or Rabbis-- are collections of ancient wisdom, some of which is contradictory.  And the Quran is a collection of beautiful religious poetry written by and for Arabs of the seventh century AD.

That is not denying any of the eternal truths found in any of these books.  To say that Surah 54 was written for a particular people in a particular place does not deny the eternal truth of coming judgment.  All I am saying is that we "people of the book" need to take care that we do not put our holy volumes, written, compiled and transcribed by limited humans, above God who truly is eternal and unchanging.