Thursday, January 28, 2010

Reading the Qur'an: Juz' 1 (1:1 - 2:141)

So here's my first post on the Qur'an!  As per some advice from a commenter on my earlier post, I am referring to commentary from Muhammad Asad available online, along with my hard copy of the Qur'an translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali (available online here).  I've also read some of the commentary by Manuala Muhammad Ali, although I'm told that it's more controversial than the more mainstream translations.  When I quote the Qur'an, I'll use the Yusuf Ali translation, unless otherwise noted.

Sura 1:  Al-Fatiha (The Opening)

The first sura goes by many names, including the Seven Oft-repeated Verses, because it is recited by every Muslim multiple times during each prayer, which occurs five times a day.  In fact, according to M.M. Ali:
Its oft-repeated seven verses constitute the prayer for guidance of every Muslim at least thirty-two times a day, and therefore it has a much greater importance for him than the Lord’s prayer for a
This seems like a pissing contest to me.  I can repeat the Lord's prayer as many times as I want, doesn't make it any more important.  I suspect more comparisons to other religions are forthcoming.

The first sura was revealed in Mecca, and was one of the earliest revelations, although not the first.  Note that the Qur'an is not setup chronologically; generally longer suras come before shorter ones.  I'm not really sure why this is, but perhaps as I read further it will become more clear.  It supposedly lays out all of the fundamental principles laid out by the rest of the Qur'an in condensed form:

...the principle of God's oneness and uniqueness, of His being the originator and fosterer of the universe, the fount of all life-giving grace, the One to whom man is ultimately responsible, the only power that can really guide and help; the call to righteous action in the life of this world ("guide us the straight way"); the principle of life after death and of the organic consequences of man's actions and behaviour (expressed in the term "Day of Judgment"); the principle of guidance through God's message-bearers (evident in the reference to "those upon whom God has bestowed His blessings") and, flowing from it, the principle of the continuity of all true religions (implied in the allusion to people who have lived - and erred - in the past); and, finally, the need for voluntary self-surrender to the will of the Supreme Being and, thus, for worshipping Him alone. (M. Asad)

This sura is short enough to quote in its entirety:
1. In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
2. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;
3. Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
4. Master of the Day of Judgment.
5. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
6. Show us the straight way,
7. The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.
 I don't really have much to say about it yet.  I obviously don't believe that God exists, and thus we are not responsible to him in any way, nor is he responsible for our existence.  We only have other humans to rely on for aid when we need it.  I don't believe he's bestowed on us grace: I believe we're good because of natural causes.  Then again, I haven't read the Qur'an yet, maybe I'll change my mind. 

Sura 2:  Al-Baqara (The Heifer)

This chapter deals with Jewish history, and where the Jews made errors in earlier revelations.  The name "The Heifer" refers to a story about Moses and the Jews sacrificing a heifer (verses 67-71).  They seem to imply that Jews tend to worship idols, which I can't really argue with, from my reading of the Pentateuch.  

The first part of the sura (verses 2-7) says it is guidance for those who believe without doubt in Allah:
2. This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah.
3. Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them;
4. And who believe in the Revelation sent to thee, and sent before thy time, and (in their hearts) have the assurance of the Hereafter.
5. They are on (true) guidance, from their Lord, and it is these who will prosper.
6. As to those who reject Faith, it is the same to them whether thou warn them or do not warn them; they will not believe.
Allah hath set a seal on their hearts and on their hearing, and on their eyes is a veil; great is the penalty they (incur).

It makes it fairly clear right off the bat that God wants you to believe without evidence.  Not only that, but those who doubt will never believe, regardless of warnings, becuase God has "set a seal on their hearts."  I've never understood this idea.  It's presented in the Bible as well, such as the story in Exodus where God "hardens Pharaoh's heart" and the plagues are cast on Israel.  How exactly is it my fault if God is the one who makes it impossible for me to believe in the first place?  If I must believe in the unseen, without sufficient evidence, that's not going to be good enough.

Next, verses 8-20 talk about those who perform lip-service to God, but are hypocrites.  For example:

8. Of the people there are some who say: "We believe in Allah and the Last Day;" but they do not (really) believe.
9. Fain would they deceive Allah and those who believe, but they only deceive themselves, and realise (it) not!
10. In their hearts is a disease; and Allah has increased their disease: And grievous is the penalty they (incur), because they are false (to themselves).
11. When it is said to them: "Make not mischief on the earth," they say: "Why, we only Want to make peace!"
12. Of a surety, they are the ones who make mischief, but they realise (it) not.
I actually like the basic message in verses 8-10:  Be true to yourself, and don't say one thing and do another.  Although I don't believe God is punishing those people who don't follow this principle, I do think it takes a toll.  It feels so much better to just be honest and stand by your principles.

Then again, verses 11-12 sound like an excuse to dismiss non-Muslims no matter what they do.  Even if they say their goal is to make peace, they must be making mischief.  As M. Asad says:
It would seem that this is an allusion to people who oppose any "intrusion" of religious considerations into the realm of practical affairs, and thus - often unwittingly, thinking that they are "but improving things" - contribute to the moral and social confusion referred to in the subsequent verse.
Anyone suggesting more tolerance to other religious views, or secularism, could be accused of causing moral decline.

Verses 23-24 are interesting:
23. And if ye are in as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a Sura like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (If there are any) besides Allah, if your (doubts) are true.
24. But if ye cannot- and of a surety ye cannot- then fear the Fire whose fuel is men and stones,- which is prepared for those who reject Faith.
They assert that the divinity of the Qur'an is obvious.  Their evidence is that you can't produce another work that is like the Qur'an.  That's pretty weak, I see nothing so far that suggests the Qur'an is any better than the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita.  There are differences, but nothing that suggests that any are divinely inspired, or that one is better than the other.

This seems to go along with verse 106 (I know, I'm skipping around), which M. Asad highlights in his introduction to this sura:
106. None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things?
 The reference, in verse 106, to the abrogation of all earlier messages by that granted to the Prophet Muhammad is of the greatest importance for a correct understanding of this surah and indeed of the entire Qur'an... Again and again it is pointed out that the legislation of the Qur'an corresponds to the true requirements of man's nature, and as such is but a continuation of the ethical guidance offered by God to man ever since the beginning of human history. (M. Asad)
While Muslims accept the fact that previous revelations were divinely inspired, the Qur'an is better, new and improved.  I also find the second have of that verse funny.  It sounds like they're saying it doesn't matter how ridiculous all this sounds.  Are you suggesting that God doesn't have the power to do something completely ridiculous?

Verses 30-39 describe the creation of man by God, and how man is superior to angels, because man was given knowledge and free will.  Although this gives man the capability of doing evil, it also means they are capable of becoming masters of nature.  Verse 34 shows that Iblis (i.e. Satan) would not bow to humankind, and was one who rejected faith.  The rest of this section describes mankind's fall from grace, as in Genesis.

The Qur'an makes giving to the poor a major virtue, mentioned first (in the book, not necessarily chronologically) in verse 43.  They also promote telling the truth and not hiding your knowledge in the preceding verse.  Both virtues I can get behind.

Next, we're reminded of the trials of Israel starting with verses 47, mostly describing what happens to Moses.  It focuses a lot on their transgressions.  However, it also reminds us (a lot) about the covenant God made with his chosen people, and say that all people who believe in God and the Last Day will be rewarded, in verse 62:
62. Those who believe (in the Qur'an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.  
I find verse 65 amusing:
65. And well ye knew those amongst you who transgressed in the matter of the Sabbath: We said to them: "Be ye apes, despised and rejected."
No shame in being an ape to me; apparently God didn't know much about human evolution...

The sura continues to talk about the Covenant between God and Man from the Old Testament laws.  For instance, verse 84:
84. And remember We took your covenant (to this effect): Shed no blood amongst you, nor turn out your own people from your homes: and this ye solemnly ratified, and to this ye can bear witness.
I don't know if Muslims ever provide this verse as proof of Islam being a peaceful religion, but the tribalism presents the opposite.  If Islam were peaceful, why explicitly say that only your own people's blood deserves not to be shed, rather than everyone.  Perhaps the peaceful stuff comes later (this is a recap of Old Testament law, of course).

More talk of those who broke the Covenant with God (Jews):
91. When it is said to them, "Believe in what Allah Hath sent down, "they say, "We believe in what was sent down to us:" yet they reject all besides, even if it be Truth confirming what is with them. Say: "Why then have ye slain the prophets of Allah in times gone by, if ye did indeed believe?"
92. There came to you Moses with clear (Signs); yet ye worshipped the calf (Even) after that, and ye did behave wrongfully.
93. And remember We took your covenant and We raised above you (the towering height) of Mount (Sinai): (Saying): "Hold firmly to what We have given you, and hearken (to the Law)": They said:" We hear, and we disobey:" And they had to drink into their hearts (of the taint) of the calf because of their Faithlessness. Say: "Vile indeed are the behests of your Faith if ye have any faith!"
Those who reject faith are enemies of Allah:
98. Whoever is an enemy to Allah and His angels and apostles, to Gabriel and Michael,- Lo! Allah is an enemy to those who reject Faith.
99. We have sent down to thee Manifest Signs (ayat); and none reject them but those who are perverse.
I have not seen any Manifest Signs of a god's presence, and it's rather presumptuous that I should take it on faith from someone else.  Hopefully more actual proof shows up later in the Qur'an, but I'm not expecting that.  My experience with holy books is they present a lot more wonder about the proof of a god without presenting the actual proof.  As if it should be obvious to everyone.  It's probably because in the 7th century when the Qur'an was written, or even earlier when other holy books were being written, it was easy to assume God explained everything, since we didn't have the explanation we have today.

They continue with assertions about people without faith, including People of the Book (Jews and Christians) and pagans:
105. It is never the wish of those without Faith among the People of the Book, nor of the Pagans, that anything good should come down to you from your Lord. But Allah will choose for His special Mercy whom He will - for Allah is Lord of grace abounding.
109. Quite a number of the People of the Book wish they could Turn you (people) back to infidelity after ye have believed, from selfish envy, after the Truth hath become Manifest unto them: But forgive and overlook, Till Allah accomplish His purpose; for Allah Hath power over all things.
110. And be steadfast in prayer and regular in charity: And whatever good ye send forth for your souls before you, ye shall find it with Allah. for Allah sees Well all that ye do.
111. And they say: "None shall enter Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian." Those are their (vain) desires. Say: "Produce your proof if ye are truthful."
Those are pretty broad accusations.  I certainly don't wish ill upon those who have faith broadly, including Muslims.  At least verse 109 recommends forgiveness to those who do not believe, and 110 to continue being charitable.  They demand proof from Jews and Christians about the criteria for entering a place which no religion has given any proof of existence at all.
113. The Jews say: "The Christians have naught (to stand) upon; and the Christians say: "The Jews have naught (To stand) upon." Yet they (Profess to) study the (same) Book. Like unto their word is what those say who know not; but Allah will judge between them in their quarrel on the Day of Judgment.
This seems like a silly complaint, given the sectarian nature of Islam today.  The reason no one can agree on the meanings in their holy book is that believing them relies more on individual whims than on evidence.  Translators are certainly looking at historical and linguistic evidence for finding the correct interpretation and translation of the work, but they start from the view that this is a divinely inspired work.
118. Say those without knowledge: "Why speaketh not Allah unto us? or why cometh not unto us a Sign?" So said the people before them words of similar import. Their hearts are alike. We have indeed made clear the Signs unto any people who hold firmly to Faith (in their hearts).
121. Those to whom We have sent the Book study it as it should be studied: They are the ones that believe therein: Those who reject faith therein,- the loss is their own. 
Again, it seems you already have to believe in order to see the proof of God's existence, or even study the book correctly.  So it seems like I'm on a fool's errand, but I'll continue nonetheless.

Verse 124-127 mention Abraham from the Old Testament:
124. And remember that Abraham was tried by his Lord with certain commands, which he fulfilled: He said: "I will make thee an Imam to the Nations." He pleaded: "And also (Imams) from my offspring!" He answered: "But My Promise is not within the reach of evil-doers."
125. Remember We made the House a place of assembly for men and a place of safety; and take ye the station of Abraham as a place of prayer; and We covenanted with Abraham and Isma'il, that they should sanctify My House for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer).
126. And remember Abraham said: "My Lord, make this a City of Peace, and feed its people with fruits,-such of them as believe in Allah and the Last Day." He said: "(Yea), and such as reject Faith,-for a while will I grant them their pleasure, but will soon drive them to the torment of Fire,- an evil destination (indeed)!"
127. And remember Abraham and Isma'il raised the foundations of the House (With this prayer): "Our Lord! Accept (this service) from us: For Thou art the All-Hearing, the All-knowing.
I don't recall hearing much about Isma'il in the Bible, as opposed to Isaac, who was the father of Jacob, father of the 12 sons who become the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel (oh, and Isaac was almost sacrificed by Abraham according to God's command, let's not forget).  I'll have to look back to see what's said about Isma'il in the Bible. 

The rest of this Juz' finishes with reminding us again that Muslims accept all of the previous revelation, but are also given a new revelations that even better.  It even makes the claim that the prophets, Abraham, Isaac, Isma'il (again, I don't remember him being a prophet in the Bible), and Jacob we not Jews or Christians:
140. Or do ye say that Abraham, Isma'il Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes were Jews or Christians? Say: Do ye know better than Allah. Ah! who is more unjust than those who conceal the testimony they have from Allah. but Allah is not unmindful of what ye do!
So in summary, I like some of the virtues presented so far (being true to yourself and others, being charitable, etc.), but the same in-group out-group stuff that comes across in the Bible is here as well.  There is also a lot of pressure to believe before one can see the proof for God.  My mind just doesn't work that way.  I don't just believe things because I'm told, I need some evidence first.  I'm kind of strange like that.  There certainly is condemnation of Jews, who are viewed as idol worshipers and convenant-breakers, though forgiveness and patience is ordered, which is good.  Hopefully that message will continue throughout the Qur'an. 

Phew, one down, 29 to go!  Stay tuned for Juz' 2, which includes more of Chapter 2 (The Heifer).


  1. I would like to make some comments---If other perspectives are acceptable to you---but if it makes you uncomfortable, I'll understand--could you let me know?

    The Quran is meant as a "book of guidance"---guidance to improving the "human condition". In Islam, taking good action is important, but equally important is the intent behind good actions--deliberate good action is better than accidental one.

    Verses 2-7--this is a definition---explaining what is a "believer" 8-12--The next several verses define/explain the various other types of people, such as those who are hypocrites to those who choose not to follow guidance/goodness. Those who reject guidance/goodness because they are more interested in causing "mischief" (divisions, hate, sufferring, oppression....etc) are "unbelievers". Human beings are created inherently "good"---that is our "nature", so when we have good intentions that result in good actions---we are true to our "nature", by rejecting goodness" we also go against the nature for which we were created.

    Free-will---Muslim philosophers and scholars have debated about "free-will". (IMO)The Quranic view is that free-will is a blessing from God but with it comes responsibilty to use it wisely for the benefit of all of God's creation.

    Throughout, the Quran tells Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) that his duty is only to "remind"--that people must choose of their own free-will to follow the Quran. Those who "reject guidance/goodness" will not heed the message---they will not understand it. But that initial decision must be theirs. ---Our choices (free-will) have consequenses.

    23-24--Yes---it does seem an odd challenge. However, if the premise/argument is that the Quran is "man-made"--then logic would say that any other man can produce a work like this one. (And yes---this accusation as well as others were put forth in the time of the Prophet(pbuh))
    However---in the 1,400 years since the revelation, this challenge has not yet been broken.----therefore, it is still open for anyone to give it a try.(and note--the challenge does not include a specified length of the Sura--that is, it can be a short one)

    I would like to write more...if you allow.

  2. Hi kat. By all means write, I appreciate the feedback.

    My problem with verses 23-24 is that the challenge is to the wrong party. Muslims claim that the Qur'an is divinely inspired, which is an extraordinary claim. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It's not the non-believers responsibility to prove that the book was NOT written by a god. Thus far, I haven't found anything that could not have been written by human beings in the 7th century. (I know I've only read part of the firt chapter, so I'm still open to finding something extraordinary, but until then I'm skeptical).

    I think you're incorrect anyway. For instance, Shakespeare's work was man-made, though I doubt anyone could create something like them. Particularly if the one judging what is "like" Shakespeare's work is the one who also has a lot riding on being right. The challenge just seems to beg for "goal-post moving" by those judging what works are like or dislike the Qur'an.

    Thanks for the comments, I truly appreciate them.

  3. Thankyou for your invitiation. I am interested in your views and questions of the you mentioned, I come to this book with a bias and sometimes this can limit ones understanding. So, I am hoping that our conversation here will be a mutual learning experience for us so that we can come to respect/understand each others views.

    verse 23-24---it is my understanding that this is not "issued" to any particular party---the invitation to the challenge is open to all---even Muslims. Those who want to "debunk" Islam---this is an easy way to do it---just produce arabic verses of the same literary merit. However, I do agree that it is not anybody's responsibilty to go around proving or disproving the Quran. We have the free-will to choose.

    Shakespeare--I agree that his work is "man-made"---but then, Nobody is disputing that it isn't "man-made"

    Verse 106--abrogation--the important part of this verse (for a Muslim) is "but we substitute something better..." in context of "law" (Do's and dont's). Much of the "law" is from the Torah (Judaism)but with an added dimension of compassion and mercy.

    Verse 30---is interesting--We (Human beings) were created to be on earth.
    Verse 34---Iblis is not an angel (the nuance is lost in translation)
    verse 37-38 is about God's compassion and mercy and His promise to Prophet Adam(pbuh) that he and others will be sent "guidance". (--- explains why guidance has been sent to all mankind over the years)
    Verse 47--"Choseness"---The Quran has a different nuance than the Jewish understanding of this word. In Islam, all human beings are created equal---therefore no one is "superior" to another. Thus,"choseness" implies that the Jewish people were blessed (favoured) with more guidance than others and with this comes more responsibilty for following that guidance correctly.
    verse 48 is important.
    verse 49-59--The Jewish ritual practices are about "rememberance" and this is what these verses are about---the rememberance.
    Verse 65---It is a strange verse--speculation among some scholars is that it refers to a traditional story about a fishing village.
    Evolution---the Quran says that some parts are clear and some parts are "similitiude" (not to be taken literally) --Rudimentary theories of evolution were devloped by al-Jahiz (776-869) "struggle for survival" and by ibn Miskawayh and other Muslim thinkers---however these theories emerged from observations and experiments done in the science of chemistry rather than biology.
    Verse 84---it is addressed to the "Children of Isreal" see preceding verse....verse 85-86 focus on the theme that sometimes people will make promises---but do only those parts that are convenient and forget the rest.
    111-113--Rather than quarrelling among ourselves about "labels" we should focus on being good.---An important message for Muslims today.
    121---Yes, it seems as if the Quran requires blind belief---this is not so (will come up later in another story of Prophet Abraham (pbuh))--an interesting view of faith (trust) is--"Faith without the light of reason ans science, degenrates into mere superstition". Remember---the Meccans believed that their stone idols had "powers". The Quran says we must use our intelligence to understand our world (That is why we have been given intelligence!)
    124-127--the Kaba (Cube) is said to have been erected by Prophet Abraham(pbuh) and his son Ismail. It is the place where muslims go for hajj (the annual pilgrimage)
    verse 140---The Quran uses the word "Muslim" not as a noun/label but to mean "one who submits" (to God). What we call/label ourselves is not as important as our intentions and actions.
    For Muslims, Right/correct actions are informed by right/correct intentions which are based on right/correct beliefs.

  4. Do you know about this edition of the Gita?