Monday, March 1, 2010

Reading the Qur'an: Juz' 4 (3:93 - 4:23)

Finally got through the fourth juz' (travelling and helping my mom move last weekend made it hard to read and take notes).  For those of you who haven't read my previous posts on the Qur'an, here's the hub page with links to all the relevant stuff.  For those who are familiar, I'll just get right into it.

This juz' covers the rest of the third sura and the very beginning of the fourth.  We start with an explanation for why two rules the Muslims follow seem to contradict those written in the Bible:
93. All food was lawful to the Children of Israel, except what Israel Made unlawful for itself, before the Law (of Moses) was revealed. Say: "Bring ye the Law and study it, if ye be men of truth."
94. If any, after this, invent a lie and attribute it to Allah, they are indeed unjust wrong-doers.
95. Say: "(Allah) speaketh the Truth: follow the religion of Abraham, the sane in faith; he was not of the Pagans."
96. The first House (of worship) appointed for men was that at Bakka: Full of blessing and of guidance for all kinds of beings:
97. In it are Signs Manifest; (for example), the Station of Abraham; whoever enters it attains security; Pilgrimage thereto is a duty men owe to Allah,- those who can afford the journey; but if any deny faith, Allah stands not in need of any of His creatures.
To me, the dietary restrictions and the direction to face while praying didn't have any real justification anyway, so these explanations aren't that interesting to me.  Just a different set of arbitrary rules.
99. Say: "O ye People of the Book! Why obstruct ye those who believe, from the path of Allah, Seeking to make it crooked, while ye were yourselves witnesses (to Allah.s Covenant)? but Allah is not unmindful of all that ye do."
According to M. Asad, verse 99 refers to Jews and Christians who tried to show that Muhammad acted selfishly, twisting ideas from the Bible to suit his own needs.  Seems like the pot calling the kettle black, really.   More complaints about "People of the Book" and those who deny faith follow (nothing new there).
105. Be not like those who are divided amongst themselves and fall into disputations after receiving Clear Signs: For them is a dreadful penalty,
Seems like the signs aren't clear enough if people are divided, which they clearly are, even among Muslims (e.g., Sunnis and Shiites).  Ahh, but verse 109 explains where to get the truth:
109. To Allah belongs all that is in the heavens and on earth: To Him do all questions go back (for decision).
So God is the one to ask all questions.  The problem, of course, is that I need some evidence before I'm going to go to trust "God's answers", which as of now look like Muhammad's answers.  This is classic circular reason you find in most religions.  Why should I believe God exists?  Because this holy book says so.  Why should I trust what this book says?  Because it was written by God...

Not only that, but depending on your interpretation of this verse, its a complete perversion of what truth is.  If by "decision", they mean God makes a proposition true or false, I take serious issue.  It may be the case the God knows the truth about all things, and if that's the meaning here, that's fine.  But truth about the world is not "made" true by an entity.  Truth relies on the correspondence of the entities and relations in a proposition to reality.  To suggest that God ultimately makes something true makes the concept of truth useless.   (Of course, I could be mis-interpreting this; M. Asad doesn't say much about this verse.)

Finally, this also makes human reason and thought useless.  Why exactly give us intellect if we're just supposed to blindly follow whatever you say?
113. Not all of them are alike: Of the People of the Book are a portion that stand (For the right): They rehearse the Signs of Allah all night long, and they prostrate themselves in adoration.
114. They believe in Allah and the Last Day; they enjoin what is right, and forbid what is wrong; and they hasten (in emulation) in (all) good works: They are in the ranks of the righteous.
I'm interested here in the mention of the Last Day.  The most famous work about the Last Day is in Revelation of the New Testament, which includes a significant role for Jesus.  I'm curious if Muslims accept Revelation, or if they have some other story about the Last Day.  While Muslims accept the Bible as a divinely inspired work, most of what I've read so far tries to explain that while Jesus was a great prophet, he was not the son of God, arguing that Jesus didn't believe he was the son of God; others were responsible for spreading that idea.  I would expect it to be difficult to reconcile the Revelation story, but it also wouldn't surprise me if they give it a go.  I'll be looking for more on the Last Day as I read.
116. Those who reject Faith,- neither their possessions nor their (numerous) progeny will avail them aught against Allah. They will be companions of the Fire,- dwelling therein (for ever).
117. What they spend in the life of this (material) world May be likened to a wind which brings a nipping frost: It strikes and destroys the harvest of men who have wronged their own souls: it is not Allah that hath wronged them, but they wrong themselves.
Another fallacy in verses 116-117, it assumes that those who don't believe in God must be focused on material goods.  It's possible for nonbelievers to be good people who focus on the good of all.
118. O ye who believe! Take not into your intimacy those outside your ranks: They will not fail to corrupt you. They only desire your ruin: Rank hatred has already appeared from their mouths: What their hearts conceal is far worse. We have made plain to you the Signs, if ye have wisdom.
119. Ah! ye are those who love them, but they love you not,- though ye believe in the whole of the Book. When they meet you, they say, "We believe": But when they are alone, they bite off the very tips of their fingers at you in their rage. Say: "Perish in you rage; Allah knoweth well all the secrets of the heart."
120. If aught that is good befalls you, it grieves them; but if some misfortune overtakes you, they rejoice at it. But if ye are constant and do right, not the least harm will their cunning do to you; for Allah Compasseth round about all that they do.
More nonsense.  I don't wish ill on people who are Muslim, I simply disagree with them on theological and, in some cases, moral and ethical issues.  Perhaps some people hate those of other religions, but its not true in general.  This is the standard in-group/out-group mentality that occurs in other religions.  Don't associate with the outsiders, they hate you and will try and ruin you.  (What's actually true is that they're beliefs make at least as much sense as ours, and we don't want you thinking they could be right.)

Verse 119 starts with "ye are those who love them, but they love you not."  In other words, it's not our fault they are evil and hate us, we love everyone (we just won't associate with them).  Sounds very similar to the "love the sin, hate the sinner" mentality many Christians have towards outsiders.  It allows them to hate people, with a little loophole, to keep the whole Prince of Peace trope going.  Very backhanded and self-serving.

The next verse describe God's help of the Muslims in the Battle of Uhud.  I find verses 124-125 puzzling.
124. Remember thou saidst to the Faithful: "Is it not enough for you that Allah should help you with three thousand angels (Specially) sent down?
125. "Yea, - if ye remain firm, and act aright, even if the enemy should rush here on you in hot haste, your Lord would help you with five thousand angels Making a terrific onslaught.
Why exactly would 5,000 angels be significantly better than 3,000 angels?  I would think any number of angels from God could take care of your enemy.  Seems like a strange thing for God to brag about.

More assurances follow that only God can help you, you'll burn if you don't believe, etc.  We do get some good advice in verse 134:
134. Those who spend (freely), whether in prosperity, or in adversity; who restrain anger, and pardon (all) men;- for Allah loves those who do good;-
Give to charity whatever you can, and forgive your fellow man.  But then we get the guilt trip in the next verse:
135. And those who, having done something to be ashamed of, or wronged their own souls, earnestly bring Allah to mind, and ask for forgiveness for their sins,- and who can forgive sins except Allah.- and are never obstinate in persisting knowingly in (the wrong) they have done.
Now I'm all for repenting and asking for forgiveness when you actually do something wrong.  But so far wrong doing in the Qur'an has mostly focused on about belief in God and sexual modesty (especially with regards to women), which should cause no one shame.
140. If a wound hath touched you, be sure a similar wound hath touched the others. Such days (of varying fortunes) We give to men and men by turns: that Allah may know those that believe, and that He may take to Himself from your ranks Martyr-witnesses (to Truth). And Allah loveth not those that do wrong.
This verse sounds as though it condones blind vengeance, although Asad's translation is a bit different.  It begins with:
If misfortune touches you, [know that] similar misfortune has touched [other] people as well...
The "know that" part suggests something very different than "be sure" does in the Ali translation.  It's more of an explanation for why sometimes true believers experience hardship while those who lack faith don't (i.e., martyrdom).  Explanations of this sort continue in verse 142:
142. Did ye think that ye would enter Heaven without Allah testing those of you who fought hard (In His Cause) and remained steadfast?
This explanation is common among other religions, as well.  We need a way to explain why bad things happen to true believers, because one would expect a true believer to be protected by God.  So it becomes a test.  Of course, its difficult to use this argument to explain why some children and infants suffer, who are obviously incapable of participating in some kind of loyalty test.  You'd think God would protect them until they are at least able to understand the test he's imposing on them.
144. Muhammad is no more than an apostle: many Were the apostle that passed away before him. If he died or were slain, will ye then Turn back on your heels? If any did turn back on his heels, not the least harm will he do to Allah. but Allah (on the other hand) will swiftly reward those who (serve Him) with gratitude.
Here it stresses that Muhammad is just a messenger; Allah is the one to worship.  This is in contrast to Christianity, which worships Jesus as a God (which Islam rejects).

The sura continues with the message that true believers fight for God, and God protects them, and leads them to victory.  For example:
146. How many of the prophets fought (in Allah.s way), and with them (fought) Large bands of godly men? but they never lost heart if they met with disaster in Allah's way, nor did they weaken (in will) nor give in. And Allah Loves those who are firm and steadfast.
I suspect Muslims will argue that this is only refers to defending yourself against attackers (this has come up before in previous discussions).  However, the allusion here it to previous prophets, presumably from the Bible.  The Bible is filled with stories of these prophets, such as Moses and Joshua, attacking cities of people who believe in rival gods without provocation.  It seems like a bad example to use if God does not want this advice to be used offensively.  Add to this what's said in verse 151:
151. Soon shall We cast terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers, for that they joined companions with Allah, for which He had sent no authority: their abode will be the Fire: And evil is the home of the wrong-doers!
Casting terror into hearts doesn't sound like a defensive stance.  Similarly, in the next verse:
152. Allah did indeed fulfil His promise to you when ye with His permission Were about to annihilate your enemy,-until ye flinched and fell to disputing about the order, and disobeyed it after He brought you in sight (of the booty) which ye covet. Among you are some that hanker after this world and some that desire the Hereafter. Then did He divert you from your foes in order to test you but He forgave you: For Allah is full of grace to those who believe.
God was about to let them annihilate their enemies, until they disobeyed him.  Annihilation is not about defending yourself, its about completely destroying a group of dissenters.  But don't forget, God is Oft-forgiving:
155. Those of you who turned back on the day the two hosts Met,-it was Satan who caused them to fail, because of some (evil) they had done. But Allah Has blotted out (their fault): For Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Forbearing. 
156. O ye who believe! Be not like the Unbelievers, who say of their brethren, when they are travelling through the Earth or engaged in fighting: "If they had stayed with us, they would not have died, or been slain." This that Allah may make it a cause of sighs and regrets in their hearts. It is Allah that gives Life and Death, and Allah sees well all that ye do.
157. And if ye are slain, or die, in the way of Allah, forgiveness and mercy from Allah are far better than all they could amass.
158. And if ye die, or are slain, Lo! it is unto Allah that ye are brought together.
More explanation for why believers end up dead in battles if God is on their side.  So it appears that God is either testing you, you disobeyed some minor command, or you sinned earlier and forgot to ask forgiveness.  It all sounds rather petty to me.
160. If Allah helps you, none can overcome you: If He forsakes you, who is there, after that, that can help you? in Allah, then, Let believers put their trust.
Of course whether Allah helps you or forsakes you seems to be based on a his shaky whims.  Don't worry, if you lose, its just a test.  More discussion of fighting for God follows, along with what waits for martyrs in heaven:
169. Think not of those who are slain in Allah's way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord;
170. They rejoice in the bounty provided by Allah. And with regard to those left behind, who have not yet joined them (in their bliss), the (Martyrs) glory in the fact that on them is no fear, nor have they (cause to) grieve.
171. They glory in the Grace and the bounty from Allah, and in the fact that Allah suffereth not the reward of the Faithful to be lost (in the least).
This was quoted by Osama bin Laden in his Letter to America, from 2002.  We also learn more about what the punishment for unbelievers will be:  all kinds of punishments it turns out.  Severe ones (verse 176), Grievous ones (177), and even shameful one (178).  Also those who "covetously withhold of the gifts which Allah Hath given" (verse 180), and those who reject Allah's apostles (183-4) will also not be very happy on the Day of Judgment.
185. Every soul shall have a taste of death: And only on the Day of Judgment shall you be paid your full recompense. Only he who is saved far from the Fire and admitted to the Garden will have attained the object (of Life): For the life of this world is but goods and chattels of deception.
This sentiment is one of my least favorite things about all religion.  It's this idea that this life is worthless, its the next one that really counts. This type of mentality is what allows religious loons to completely disregard everyone and everything, because it all doesn't matter compared to the magic pie in the sky that awaits.  If you'd like to waste your time preparing for your second life (which I've yet to see any evidence for), then be my guest.  But you have no right to deny anyone else the pleasure of living their life to its fullest, because this life is the only one I, and many other, believe we'll be able to experience.  Perhaps that wasn't the intent of the authors of holy books like the Qur'an and th Bible, but I'm not sure why something like this would otherwise be stated.

The rest of this sura talks more about People of the Book who do not submit to God, and that Muslims must not follow in their footsteps.  We get some more bad evidence in verse 190:
190. Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day,- there are indeed Signs for men of understanding,-
Luckily today we understand why night and day exist here on Earth.  No need for a God to explain this.  Not a very convincing sign for "men of understanding."
191. Men who celebrate the praises of Allah, standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and contemplate the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth, (With the thought): "Our Lord! not for naught Hast Thou created (all) this! Glory to Thee! Give us salvation from the penalty of the Fire.
I guess I spoke too soon.  By "men of understanding", it means men who blindly praise God, and contemplate his creation without giving it much actual thought.  Actual thought would require questioning why God would make all life on Earth appear to have evolved over billions of years, making humans an accident of natural selection, or why he would create an entire universe for the sake of a single planet on the outskirts of an unremarkable galaxy.

The sura concludes with one more reminder about unbelievers:
196. Let not the strutting about of the Unbelievers through the land deceive thee:
197. Little is it for enjoyment: Their ultimate abode is Hell: what an evil bed (To lie on)!
And what will happen to the true believers:
198. On the other hand, for those who fear their Lord, are Gardens, with rivers flowing beneath; therein are they to dwell (for ever),- a gift from the presence of Allah. and that which is in the presence of Allah is the best (bliss) for the righteous.
199. And there are, certainly, among the People of the Book, those who believe in Allah, in the revelation to you, and in the revelation to them, bowing in humility to Allah. They will not sell the Signs of Allah for a miserable gain! For them is a reward with their Lord, and Allah is swift in account.
200. O ye who believe! Persevere in patience and constancy; vie in such perseverance; strengthen each other; and fear Allah. that ye may prosper.

Thanks goodness that sura is over, though I suspect I'll hear more about the punishments awaiting unbelievers in the coming ones.   Given the 200 verses, I have to say that nothing really new came of reading all of it.  A few things about Jesus and Mary were mentioned, but the rest was a rehash of stuff from the first two suras, about being charitable and kind, and more about People of the Book and unbelievers.  I'm hoping the fourth sura is more interesting.  Luckily I get to wade into it slowly; only the first 23 verses are part of this sura.

Chapter 4:  An-Nisaa (The Women)

This sura is named The Women, because many of its verses deal with the rights of women and information about family life, according to M. Asad.  This should be interesting.  If course given that the Qur'an was written in the 7th century, I don't expect it to be especially propitious toward women by today's standards.  Then again, most Muslims, I would suspect, want me to consider this book relevant today.  Given they believe the Qur'an to be inspired by God, I would expect it to reflect that. Let's see.

The sura starts with some bad science:
1. O mankind! reverence your Guardian-Lord, who created you from a single person, created, of like nature, His mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women;- reverence Allah, through whom ye demand your mutual (rights), and (reverence) the wombs (That bore you): for Allah ever watches over you.
We know humans did not pop into existence from a single person.  We evolved through gradual change and natural selection.  Suggesting there was a single person created by God from which all other people came makes no sense given the evidence we have.  Not a good start.
2. To orphans restore their property (When they reach their age), nor substitute (your) worthless things for (their) good ones; and devour not their substance (by mixing it up) with your own. For this is indeed a great sin.
OK, this is good advice.  Treat orphans with respect.  I'm good with this.
3. If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, Marry women of your choice, Two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one, or (a captive) that your right hands possess, that will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice.
I'm not sure if this is advising men to marry orphan women if they can't handle not taking their stuff.  Either way, it's pretty disturbing.  You're allowed up to four wives.  I've heard that before.  In fact, I've heard people defend Islam by saying the religion only permits up to four wives (how modern!).  And if you can't handle that, then marry a captive that you own, so you don't do injustice to someone else.
4. And give the women (on marriage) their dower as a free gift; but if they, of their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, Take it and enjoy it with right good cheer. 
Dowry's a bit old-fashioned, but at least the women are supposed to keep it for themselves.  That's good, I guess.
5. To those weak of understanding Make not over your property, which Allah hath made a means of support for you, but feed and clothe them therewith, and speak to them words of kindness and justice. 
Take care of those who are unable to fend for themselves.  I can get behind this as well.

Verses 6-13 describe how to deal with the property of orphans and divide the property of deceased relatives.  While for the most part its not that interesting, it's worth noting that in most cases men are given greater shares than women.  However, given that at this time men would have been almost always the head of their household, it makes some sense that they would receive a larger share.  By today's standards it would not be tolerated, but again, this was the 7th century (of course this also doesn't say much for God; you'd think he would be a bit more forward-thinking in a book that supposed to be his final revelation.)  Verse 14 simply states that the punishment for not following these rules is, what else, torture by Fire in Hell.
15. If any of your women are guilty of lewdness, Take the evidence of four (Reliable) witnesses from amongst you against them; and if they testify, confine them to houses until death do claim them, or Allah ordain for them some (other) way. 
16. If two men among you are guilty of lewdness, punish them both. If they repent and amend, Leave them alone; for Allah is Oft-returning, Most Merciful.
So it appears that men are capable of repenting while women are not, given the same offense.  It's one thing to give men and women different amounts of property, but to punish one more severely for the same crime is inexcusable for anyone, especially for a supreme being.
17. Allah accept the repentance of those who do evil in ignorance and repent soon afterwards; to them will Allah turn in mercy: For Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom.
Unless you're a woman, apparently.
18. Of no effect is the repentance of those who continue to do evil, until death faces one of them, and he says, "Now have I repented indeed;" nor of those who die rejecting Faith: for them have We prepared a punishment most grievous.
One good thing about verse 18 is that it basically makes deathbed conversions a moot point, unlike Christianity, where we hear about atheists converting just before death.  In fact, I agree with this verse (or I would if it were probable that the Qur'an were correct).  The whole "born-again" nonsense is incredibly obnoxious to me.  As an example, I've heard of born-agains who, before accepting Christ, were sexually promiscuous, and after being born again, they became "virgins" again.

Now I don't have a problem with their past sexual behavior (assuming they were at least somewhat responsible about it), nor do I have a problem with them deciding they no longer what to act that way.  What's obnoxious is when these people are often sanctimonious about it, as if they have some morally superior position.  They inflict guilt on others with their hypocrisy, and many are not willing to question them because of their religious "justification."
19. O ye who believe! Ye are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should ye treat them with harshness, that ye may Take away part of the dower ye have given them,-except where they have been guilty of open lewdness; on the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If ye take a dislike to them it may be that ye dislike a thing, and Allah brings about through it a great deal of good. 
20. But if ye decide to take one wife in place of another, even if ye had given the latter a whole treasure for dower, Take not the least bit of it back: Would ye take it by slander and manifest wrong? 
21. And how could ye take it when ye have gone in unto each other, and they have Taken from you a solemn covenant?
Verse 19-21 are mostly good with me.  Treat women kindly and don't take their dower if you decide to divorce them.  The claim is made here that you should treat women on a "footing of... equity," suggesting that women are equal to men.  That may be the case in some ways (by applying the golden rule to both men and women the same, for example), but just by writing this sura we can see that men and women are not equal in all senses.

The Juz' closes with prohibitions on marrying women in your close family:
22. And marry not women whom your fathers married,- except what is past: It was shameful and odious,- an abominable custom indeed. 
23. Prohibited to you (For marriage) are:- Your mothers, daughters, sisters; father's sisters, Mother's sisters; brother's daughters, sister's daughters; foster-mothers (Who gave you suck), foster-sisters; your wives' mothers; your step-daughters under your guardianship, born of your wives to whom ye have gone in,- no prohibition if ye have not gone in;- (Those who have been) wives of your sons proceeding from your loins; and two sisters in wedlock at one and the same time, except for what is past; for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful;-
So thus far, the fourth sura doesn't contain anything much different from the Bible.   Women are generally treated as property in both cases:  men make decisions about who to marry and divorce, women have some say, but not much.  This isn't surprising, unless you expect the Qur'an to be a moral paragon.  Perhaps the rest of this chapter will contain more progressive views, but so far I doubt it.  The next Juz' (#5) contains most of the rest of this sura, so we'll see.


  1. dissapointing post----no interesting insights or questions---mostly filled with dismissive Christian-centric opinions and misunderstandings----not any different from a thousand other such posts........

  2. i agree with kat - rehash is getting old, and boring.