Allah: God in the Qur’an

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A concise and illuminating portrait of Allah from one of the world’s leading Qur’anic scholars The central figure of the Qur’an is not Muhammad but Allah. The Qur’an, Islam’s sacred scripture, is marked above all by its call to worship Allah, and Allah alone. Yet who is the God of the Qur’an? What distinguishes the qur’anic presentation of God from that of the Bible? In this illuminating study, Gabriel Said Reynolds depicts a god of both mercy and vengeance, one who transcends simple classification. He is personal and mysterious; no limits can be placed on his mercy. Remarkably, the Qur’an is open to God’s salvation of both sinners and unbelievers. At the same time, Allah can lead humans astray, so all are called to a disposition of piety and fear. Allah, in other words, is a dynamic and personal God. This eye-opening book provides a unique portrait of the God of the Qur’an.


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Allah This page intentionally left blank Allah God in the Qur’an GABRIEL SAID REYNOLDS New Haven and London Published with assistance from the foundation established in memory of Amasa Stone Mather of the Class of 1907, Yale College. Copyright © 2020 by Yale University. All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, including illustrations, in any form (beyond that copying permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law and except by reviewers for the public press), without written permission from the publishers. Yale University Press books may be purchased in quantity for educational, business, or promotional use. For information, please e-­mail sales.press@yale.edu (U.S. office) or sales@yaleup.co.uk (U.K. office). Set in Minion type by Tseng Information Systems, Inc. Printed in the United States of America. Library of Congress Control Number: 2019947014 ISBN 978-­0-­300-­24658-­2 (hardcover : alk. paper) A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48–1992 (Permanence of Paper). 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 Contents Acknowledgments vii Conventions ix Introduction: God of Mercy and Vengeance 1 Part I: Allah and His Book ONE. The Qur’an and the Bible 21 T WO. God and the Prophets 43 T H REE. Heaven and Hell 66 Part II: Mercy F OU R. Divine Mercy 91 FIV E. Allah and the Fate of Sinners 114 SI X. Allah and the Fate of Unbelievers 134 Part III: Vengeance SEVEN. Divine Wrath 157 EI GH T. The Avenger 176 viContents Part IV: A Personal God N IN E. God of the Bible and the Qur’an 203 TEN. Rereading the Qur’an 233 Epilogue: The Qur’an on Peaceful Coexistence 255 Notes 265 Bibliography 297 Index of Qur’an Passages 301 Index of Bible Passages 311 General Index 314 Acknowledgments Most of the work for this book was done during the academic year 2016–2017 when I was on academic leave at the Institute for Advanced Studies (Institut d’études avancées) of Nantes, France. I am deeply grateful to; the institute for its support of my research and to all of the colleagues and friends who formed a welcoming community in Nantes. My research leave that year was also supported by a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which was likewise instrumental in my ability to bring this project to completion. I continued to edit and revise this work during the following two years as I taught in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame. The Department of Theology is an academic community that takes the study of God (and not only of religion) seriously and thereby nourished my thought on the God of the Qur’an. I have benefited greatly from the wisdom (and friendship) of all of my colleagues there. I owe a special debt of gratitude to John Cavadini, Timothy Matovina, and Mun’im Sirry. I am also grateful to the diverse group of colleagues from various faiths who have gathered together at the Scriptural Reasoning sessions run by Notre Dame’s World Religions World Church (WRWC) program. viiiAcknowledgments My thinking on the Qur’an has been shaped by a number of colleagues and friends through the years. These include (but are not limited to) Mohammad Ali Amir-­Moezzi, Sean Anthony, Mehdi Azaiez, Emran El-­Badawi, Anne-­Sylvie Boisliveau, Martino Diez, Guillaume Dye, Asma Hilali, Mohammad Hassan Khalil, Daniel Madigan, Hythem Sidky, Nicolai Sinai, Mun’im Sirry, Devin Stewart, Shawkat Toorawa, and Holger Zellentin. I know many of these scholars through the International Qur’anic Studies Association (IQSA), a learned society dedicated to rigorous academic scholarship on the Qur’an. I offer my thanks to the two anonymous readers of this manuscript, and to the excellent team at Yale University Press, notably Jennifer Banks. I also thank my copy editor, Jessie Dolch. Finally, I am profoundly grateful to my entire family, and in a special way to my wife Lourdes and our children, for their love and for their patience with me. Conventions Qur’an passages in this work are cited, unless noted otherwise, from the revised translation of Ali Quli Qarai as it appears in The Qur’an and the Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018). Note that words italicized in quotations from this translation indicate a second person singular address. Bible passages are cited from the Revised Standard Version. There is no perfect way to refer to the canonical hadith (collections of traditions recounting the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad), especially in a way that would allow a general readership to track down references. I give the number and Arabic name of the section (kitab) in which a hadith appears and the hadith number (#) that can be found on sunnah.com (which, for Bukhari, corresponds to the edition/ translation of Muhsin Khan, based on the 1959 Cairo edition of Fath al-­Bari, and, for Muslim, follows the Arabic edition of Muhammad Fuʾad ʿAbd al-­Baqi) in the hope that this will offer sufficient information for specialists and convenient information for nonspecialists. I have used a simplified transliteration system for rendering Arabic terms in English letters (based on the International Journal of Middle East Studies, but without diacritical marks) xConventions and Anglicized versions of those Arabic terms that are commonly used in English. I refer to the God of the Qur’an normally as “God,” but when it is convenient to refer to the specifically qur’anic presentation of God, I use “Allah.” This is merely a literary convention and is not meant to imply a position on whether the God of the Qur’an is distinct from the God of the Bible or from other conceptions of the divine. Allah This page intentionally left blank Introduction God of Mercy and Vengeance You are the most merciful of the merciful. —Moses, speaking to God, Qur’an 7:151 I n early 2015 the militant group the “Islamic State” (ISIS) burned a Jordanian pilot named Muath al-­Kasasbeh alive in a cage. They filmed the burning, and when the video was released, it provoked outrage around the world. Even some radical militant (or “jihadi”) Muslims were outraged, for they held that burning is a form of punishment reserved for God alone. In what seems like an ironic twist, the video opens with a screen displaying the following words: “In the name of God the compassionate, the merciful.” How could believers in a God of mercy do such a thing? How could a God of mercy be pleased with acts of such cruelty? To Muslims across the globe, groups like ISIS twist Islam and falsify its fundamental message. The overwhelming ma- 2Introduction jority of Muslims not only believe that God is merciful; they believe that God calls humans to be merciful, too. One prominent American Muslim, Umar Faruq Abd-­ Allah, writes: “All that transpires—even temporal deprivation, harm, and evil—will, in due course, fall under the rubric of cosmic mercy.”1 Abd-­Allah also insists that Islam calls on believers to show mercy to others. In fact, he suggests that those who fail to show mercy are likely to go to hell: “A heart that no longer has the capacity to feel mercy cannot be a receptacle of salvation or a container of true faith; to become ruthless and void of compassion is to carry the mark of divine wrath and bear the brand of damnation and is the sure sign of an evil end.”2 The words in the ISIS video, “In the name of God the compassionate, the merciful,” are an invocation, known as the basmala, which appears at the opening of every Sura, or chapter, in the Qur’an (except for Sura 9). In the Islamic world the basmala is also found frequently at the opening of books and even at the beginning of movies. When I was recently in the Middle East, I heard an Egyptian soccer announcer begin his commentary on a game by declaring the basmala.3 Yet references to God’s mercy in the Qur’an, the scripture that Muslims hold to be the very word of God brought down from heaven to earth, are not limited to the basmala. The Qur’an frequently speaks of God as merciful, forgiving, gentle, and kind. Moreover, it not only speaks of God’s mercy or compassion (rahma); it also quite simply names God “the Compassionate” (al-­rahman).4 Thus, for example, in Q 19:​93 (that is, verse 93 of Sura 19 of the Qur’an), the Qur’an declares: “There is none in the heavens and the earth but he comes to the Compassionate (al-­rahman) as a servant.”5 Elsewhere the Qur’an encourages its audience to trust in God’s mercy. For example, in Sura 5 the Qur’an asks in regard Introduction3 to Christians: “Will they not repent to God and plead to Him for forgiveness? Yet God is all-­forgiving, all-­merciful” (5:74). In Sura 2 the Qur’an turns to its own audience, the believers, and assures them that those who either emigrate or fight for the sake of God will receive divine mercy: “Indeed, those who are faithful and those who have migrated and waged jihad in the way of God—it is they who expect God’s mercy, and God is all-­forgiving, all-­merciful” (Q 2:218). One poignant passage of the Qur’an speaks of God’s particular mercy for Zechariah (father of John the Baptist in the Bible), who was childless in his old age. There, God hears the “secret” prayer of Zechariah and has mercy (rahma; Q 19:2) on him, granting him a son.6 The centrality of mercy to Islam opens up the possibility of dialogue among Jews, Christians, and Muslims (and others). Believers in different faiths may differ about a number of issues regarding God and humanity, but they agree that God is merciful. The authors of “A Common Word Between Us and You,” a 2007 letter signed by a group of 138 Muslim scholars and addressed to the pope and other Christian leaders, argue that Muslims and Christians can agree on two fundamental principles: love of God and love of neighbor.7 In describing God’s love they note the references to divine mercy in al-­Fatihah, the opening chapter of the Qur’an: “The Fatihah, recited at least seventeen times daily by Muslims in the canonical prayers, reminds us of the praise and gratitude due to God for His Attributes of Infinite Goodness and All-­Mercifulness, not merely for His Goodness and Mercy to us in this life but ultimately, on the Day of Judgement when it matters the most and when we hope to be forgiven for our sins.”8 These examples show that groups like ISIS do not rep- 4Introduction resent mainstream Islamic opinion on the nature of divine mercy. Yet even mainstream Muslims might disagree over God’s nature. Indeed, to say that God is merciful raises a whole series of questions: Is God’s mercy unconditional, or does it extend only to certain people? Is God merciful only to Muslims or also to Jews and Christians? How about polytheists, atheists, or apostates from Islam? Is God merciful only to the righteous or also to sinners? Is sincere contrition, or an act of penitence, a condition of gaining God’s mercy? Are there other ways to receive mercy, for example, by giving alms or fighting in a holy war? Can mercy be earned? What does the Qur’an mean, in other words, when it describes God as “the compassionate, the merciful”? Beyond Divine Mercy In this book we will discover that understanding the God of the Qur’an is more complicated than it may seem at first. In a world greatly in need of religious dialogue, it has become common for scholars to emphasize the notion of Allah’s mercy. In 2014 a German Muslim scholar named Mouhanad Khorchide dedicated an entire work (titled, in English, “God Is Mercy”) to an Islamic “theology of mercy.”9 The American scholar Bruce Lawrence, author of a book titled simply Who Is Allah?, argues that whereas Christianity is about the love of God in Christ, Islam is fundamentally about a merciful God: “Though the Qur’an confirms all previous prophecies, it also supersedes them and privileges Arabic as the language of that supersession. One message, one messenger, one language prevail: the message is Mercy, the messenger Muhammad, the language Arabic.”10 Introduction5 Fazlur Rahman, a Pakistani scholar who taught for years at the University of Chicago (and whose last name means “the compassionate”), goes still further. He speaks of the “infinite mercy” of God in the Qur’an, writing, “The immediate impression from a cursory reading of the Qur’an is that of the infinite majesty of God and His equally infinite mercy.”11 But is Rahman right? Can Allah’s mercy accurately be described as “infinite”? If this means that God will forgive everyone, then a close reading of the Qur’an suggests that Rahman is wrong. Allah will have mercy on some, but not on all. This point is emphasized by a second Pakistani scholar, Daud Rahbar, who argues—in a book aptly titled God of Justice—that at the heart of the Qur’an is not God’s mercy, but God’s justice. God forgives those who deserve his forgiveness, and he condemns those who deserve his wrath. In this book I argue that neither Rahman nor Rahbar paints a complete picture of Allah. The God of the Qur’an, I argue, is not simply a God of mercy or of justice. He is both. Allah does not merely observe humans and judge them. He intervenes in human affairs. He reacts to human decisions, sometimes with mercy, and sometimes with anger. He is merciful and wrathful. Indeed, the prominence of the wrath of God in the Qur’an cannot be ignored. On twenty-­eight occasions the Qur’an declares that God is “severe in punishment.” Sixteen times the Qur’an says God is “quick to judge.” On three occasions God declares that he will take vengeance on the unbelievers (Q 32:​ 22, 43:​41, 44:​16). On four occasions (Q 3:4, 5:95, 14:​47, 39:​37) the Qur’an simply describes God as “avenger” or “vengeful” (Arabic dhu intiqam). Now just because the Qur’an says something does not mean that all Muslims agree with it or interpret it simplisti- 6Introduction cally. For example, let’s examine six different translations of the ending of Q 3:4 where the phrase dhu intiqam appears: Pickthall (1930): Allah is Mighty, Able to Requite (the wrong). Yusuf Ali (1934): Allah is Exalted in Might, Lord of Retribution. Arberry (1955): God is All-­mighty, Vengeful. Asad (1980): God is almighty, an avenger of evil. Hilali and Khan (1996): Allah is All-­Mighty, All-­ Able of Retribution. Qarai (2011): God is all-­mighty, avenger.12 For Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, an English convert to Islam, Allah is not “vengeful” but simply “Able to requite (the wrong).” Muhammad Asad, an Austrian convert to Islam from Judaism, has the same approach; he makes God “an avenger of evil.” The translation of Taqi al-­Din Hilali (a Moroccan) and Muhsin Khan (a Pakistani)—a Qur’an translation sponsored by Saudi Arabia—renders dhu intiqam “All-­Able of Retribution.” Abdullah Yusuf Ali (“Lord of Retribution”) and Ali Quli Qarai (“avenger”) render it in ways that emphasize God’s paying humans back for their wrongdoing. Only Arthur Arberry (who is also the only non-­Muslim in the group) renders this phrase in a way that describes God as “Vengeful.” Other passages in the Qur’an seem to juxtapose the mercy and vengefulness of God. In 6:133 the Qur’an speaks of God’s mercy but then immediately threatens its audience: Your Lord is the All-­sufficient dispenser of mercy. If He wishes, He will take you away, and make whom- Introduction7 ever He wishes succeed you, just as He produced you from the descendants of another people.13 Later in that same Sura the Qur’an makes it clear that God’s mercy does not extend to wrongdoers: “But if they impugn you, say, ‘Your Lord is dispenser of an all-­embracing mercy, but His punishment will not be averted from the guilty lot’” (6:147).14 In his work God and Man in the Koran, the Japanese scholar of Islam Toshihiko Izutsu identifies two aspects of God in the Qur’an. Allah, he writes, is a “God of infinite goodness, mercy, forgiveness, and benevolence on one hand, and, on the other, God of wrath, and severe, strict and unrelenting justice.”15 In other words, Allah seems to have two personalities. Decoding the Qur’an So how can one arrive at a clear portrait of the God of the Qur’an? One classical attempt at decoding the Qur’an is to read the Islamic scripture according to a “chronology” or a “history” where individual passages are assigned to different moments during the prophetic career of the Prophet Muhammad. Islamic traditions report that Muhammad proclaimed pieces of the Qur’an (sometimes as small as a single verse, sometimes as much as an entire Sura) between the time when the angel Gabriel first visited him as he meditated on a mountain outside of Mecca (in modern-­day Saudi Arabia) in AD 610 and the time, twenty-­two years later, when he died in his adopted home city of Medina to the north. Western scholars (even if they may dispense with the story of the angel) generally accept this idea, holding that 8Introduction Muhammad gradually proclaimed the Qur’an from AD 610 to 632. Through a painstaking process of “locating” one passage after another, a “history” of the Qur’an (to use an expression taken from a famous introduction to the Qur’an) can be written.16 This approach seems to offer a possible solution to our problem: perhaps Muhammad emphasized divine mercy at certain moments and divine vengeance at others. The traditional biographies of the Prophet relate that during the time when he was in Mecca, Muhammad held no worldly power. He preached his message of the oneness of God and the coming divine judgment, but he was not a political or military leader. This all changed during the Medinan period. In Medina Muhammad assumed power and began to plan raids against unbelieving tribes (including his own tribe of the Quraysh in Mecca). In other words, whereas Muhammad once preached that God would punish unbelievers, he now took that punishment into his own hands.17 The ex-­ Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali (author of a 2015 book titled Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now) emphasizes the contrast between Muhammad’s mission in Mecca and his mission in Medina: In the early days of Islam, when Mohammed was going from door to door in Mecca trying to persuade the polytheists to abandon their idols of worship, he was inviting them to accept that there was no god but Allah and that he was Allah’s messenger. After 10 years of trying this kind of persuasion, however, he and his small band of believers went to Medina, and from that moment, Mohammed’s mission took on a political dimension. Un- Introduction9 believers were still invited to submit to Allah, but after Medina, they were attacked if they refused.18 Hirsi Ali later proposes that even today we can divide the Islamic community into “Meccan” Muslims—those who favor only peaceful preaching—and “Medinan” Muslims—those who would like to see Islam dominate politically. If only Meccan Muslims were to prevail, she suggests, then many of the problems of human rights and jihadism in the Islamic world would disappear. This may be an interesting way of addressing the problem of violence in the Qur’an, but it is less helpful when it comes to the portrait of God in the Qur’an. The two “personalities” of God—mercy and vengeance—are found throughout the scripture. Indeed, in some places these two personalities are found in the same verse. In light of this I avoid a “chronological” approach to the Qur’an in this book.19 Instead of asking “when” and “where” any particular passage of the Qur’an was originally proclaimed, I simply examine as a unity the entire text as it has been passed down to us (a method sometimes described as “narrative criticism”). This is how the majority of Muslim scholars, and believers, read their scripture. Muslim Theology In the course of this book I also examine closely how Muslim scholars, and believers generally, have seen God. Some Muslim scholars are so committed to the notion of God’s justice that they interpret certain qur’anic passages in a metaphorical or symbolic manner (they will ask, for example: How could a just 10Introduction God condemn sinners to hell if he compelled them to sin?). Some of these same scholars are also committed to the notion of divine transcendence or otherness and cannot imagine that God would act in a human manner, for example, by mocking unbelievers (Q 2:15) or by tricking them (Q 3:54, 7:99, 8:30, 10:​21). However, in this book I am principally interested in what the Qur’an itself says about God, and not in later theological debates.20 My thoughts in this regard can be compared with those of Rahbar, who writes: “A scientific exposition of Qur’anic doctrine must keep clear of all the theological or philosophical interpretations that Muslim thought of ages has put on Qur’anic words and phrases. After all between us and the Prophet there lies a lapse of no less than thirteen centuries.” (The only thing that needs to be changed for this statement to be relevant today is the amount of time that has passed since the life of the Prophet Muhammad.) A few pages later Rahbar uses more abrasive language when he warns scholars against depending on the views of medieval Muslim authorities: “We must use our own judgement in deciding the original signification of Qur’anic words and phrases instead of depending carelessly or blindly on commentaries that are full of fictitious traditions.”21 “God” or “Allah”? So what does the Qur’an say about God? How distinctive is its vision of God? Is the God of the Qur’an the same God we find in the Bible? One way to answer these questions is to consider the sorts of names that the Qur’an gives to God. One long list of these names is found in Sura 59: Introduction11 22He is God—there is no god except Him— Knower of the sensible and the Unseen, He is the All-­beneficent, the All-­merciful. 23He is God—there is no god except Him— the Sovereign, the All-­holy, the All-­benign, the Securer, the All-­conserver, the All-­mighty, the All-­ compeller and the All-­magnanimous. Clear is God of any partners that they may ascribe [to Him]! Such passages, and certain famous sayings (or “hadith”) of the Prophet, form the basis of an Islamic tradition that God has ninety-­nine “beautiful” or “best” names (a phrase in the following verse—Q 59:​24—declares “To Him belong the Best Names”). Muslim believers sometimes carry around “rosaries” of thirty-­three beads that allow them to count out these “beautiful” names. Such passages also paint a distinctive picture of the qur’anic God. This picture, intriguingly, does not line up in all respects with other presentations of God. For example, a Christian who reads this passage would likely agree with most of the characteristics that it assigns to God. Most Christians would agree that God is “All-­beneficent,” “All-­merciful,” “Sovereign,” “All-­ holy,” and “All-­benign.” However, there is at least one characteristic here—“All-­compeller” (al-­jabbar)—that a Christian might not ascribe to God. For believing Christians and believing Muslims, the degree to which the Islamic and Christian concepts of God overlap becomes a theological problem. In recent decades Christian and Muslim theologians alike have debated whether these two concepts overlap enough to justify the conclusion that Muslims and Christians believe in the same God. In a Vati­can II document known as Lumen gentium the Catholic 12Introduction Church, at least, answers that they do.22 The authors of Lumen gentium underline what is common in the Muslim and Christian conception of God: like Christians, Lumen gentium declares, Muslims know God as (1) creator, (2) one, (3) merciful, and (4) judge. Other Christian institutions, especially within the evangelical Protestant tradition, have been more hesitant. One case where these issues came to the forefront is that of Larycia Hawkins, the first female African American tenured professor at evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois. On December 10, 2015, Hawkins posted a picture of herself on Facebook wearing an Islamic headscarf and wrote: “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”23 For this post (in which she not only reaches out to Muslims but summons Pope Francis to her side) and for a subsequent statement affirming her theological position, Hawkins was put on leave by Wheaton (the college made it clear that the issue was her affirmation of Muslims and Christians worshipping the same God, and not her wearing of a headscarf). Eventually, the two sides came to an agreement by which Hawkins was not fired but left Wheaton voluntarily. For Wheaton, the problem with Hawkins’s statements had to do with Jesus: the Qur’an explicitly denies the divinity of Jesus Christ (Q 4:172, 9:30). Indeed, in one passage (Q 5:72) it seems to threaten Christians with damnation for this belief. How, then, can it be said that Christians and Muslims believe in the same God? What Wheaton College left implicit is stated explicitly by Nabeel Qureshi, a Muslim convert to evangelical Christianity who recently died from stomach cancer at the age of thirty-­four. Qureshi, responding to this controversy, points to the Qur’an’s polemic against Christian teaching: “Let’s start Introduction13 with the obvious: Christians believe Jesus is God, but the Quran is so opposed to this belief that it condemns Jesus worshipers to Hell (5:72). For Christians, Jesus is certainly God, and for Muslims Jesus is certainly not God. How can it be said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God?”24 Christians are not alone in wondering whether the God of Muhammad is the same God of Christianity. Muslims have asked this question, too, and they’ve arrived at different answers. This is no surprise, since the Qur’an seems to say two different things about this issue. On one hand, the Qur’an seems to affirm that Christians and Jews (“People of the Book”) do worship the same God as Muhammad. Qur’an 29:​46 declares: Do not argue with the People of the Book except in a manner which is best, except such of them as are wrongdoers, and say, “We believe in what has been sent down to us and in what has been sent down to you; our God and your God is one [and the same] and to Him do we submit.” On the other hand, the Qur’an also seems to accuse Christians, and even Jews, of having faulty ideas of God. Qur’an 4:171 seems to warn Christians, declaring “Do not exaggerate in your religion.” Qur’an 5:64 attacks Jews for what they say about God: “The Jews say, ‘God’s hand is tied up.’ Tied up be their hands, and cursed be they for what they say!”25 In light of such passages many Muslims insist that only the Qur’an, and not the Bible, depicts God as he actually is. This helps explain why many Muslim translators of the Qur’an speak not of God but of “Allah.” By keeping the Arabic word “Allah” when they render the Qur’an into English, they emphasize the distinctiveness of the Qur’an’s God. 14Introduction Authorities in the Southeast Asian country of Malaysia have taken this even farther. In 2014 a Malaysian federal court ruled that only Muslims are allowed to use “Allah” in print for God (Christians and others were told to use the Malay word). This struck many as a strange decision, as Arabic-­speaking Christians and Jews (and Baha’is and others) know of no other name for God than “Allah.” At the risk of angering the Malaysian authorities, in the present book I often refer to God as “Allah.” In doing so, however, I don’t mean to make a theological or religious statement. I am not concerned with determining whether Muslims and Christians (or Jews, or Sikhs, or anyone else for that matter) worship the same God. My interest is in the Qur’an as a book, and the Bible as a book, and God as a character in both of those books. As I seek to emphasize what is distinctive in the Qur’an’s portrayal of God, it is useful to have a proper noun— Allah—to refer only to him. Still, it should not be forgotten that the word “Allah” is today simply the word for “God” in Arabic, and it is used by people of all faiths who speak that language. There is also good reason to think that “Allah” was not the creation of the Qur’an. There are two prevalent theories about the derivation of “Allah.” According to the first, Arabic allah comes from the word for God in Syriac, a Christian language that was spread throughout the Middle East at the dawn of Islam: allaha. According to the second, it is derived instead from Arabic al-­ilah (meaning “the god”—similar to the common description of God in Greek as ho theos). This term is used for God in inscriptions of Ancient North and South Arabian, languages related to classical Arabic. In fact, there is evidence from the Qur’an itself that even Muhammad’s opponents—who were supposedly polytheists Introduction15 or pagans—recognized a god named Allah. The Qur’an even suggests that his opponents knew Allah to be the creator. This is seen, for example, in two verses from Sura 29. In the first, the divine voice of the Qur’an declares to the Prophet: If you ask them, “Who created the heavens and the earth and disposed the sun and the moon?” They will surely say, “God [Allah].” Then where do they stray? (Q 29:​61) Two verses later we read: And if you ask them, “Who sends down water from the sky, with which He revives the earth after its death?” They will surely say, “God [Allah].” Say, “All praise belongs to God!” But most of them do not exercise their reason. (Q 29:​63) Such passages led Toshihiko Izutsu to write, “The concept of Allah that was prevalent among the pre-­Islamic Arabs on the eve of the Islamic era was, in general, surprisingly close in nature to the Islamic one.”26 Indeed, the Qur’an goes so far as to declare that when these (supposedly) pagan opponents found themselves in great danger, for example, at sea, they would call on Allah: When waves cover them like awnings, they invoke God [Allah], putting exclusive faith in Him. But when He delivers them towards land, [only] some of them remain unswerving. No one will impugn Our signs except an ungrateful traitor. (Q 31:​32; cf. 29:​65, 17:​67, 10:​22, 6:63)27 16Introduction It’s a bit puzzling that the Qur’an uses seafaring as the example to teach a lesson here, for in the accounts of Islamic tradition, Arabs of Muhammad’s time and place travel by camel, not by boat. More importantly, however, we see something of the Qur’an’s theology here. The Qur’an demands that believers place “exclusive faith” in Allah. They are not to call on him only when it is convenient, as the “pagans” do. Doing Theology It is also important to notice the depiction of divine mercy in the “seafaring” passage above. Allah hears the cries of those, even pagans, who call on him. He delivers them from the midst of the storm. Allah, in other words, is not a distant god who remains aloof in a celestial fortress. He is close to humans, closer, according to one verse (Q 50:​16), than a human’s jugular vein. Yet something of the wrath of God is also evident in this passage, as he speaks of the pagans as “ungrateful traitors.” The goal of this book is to uncover the theology of the Qur’an, to explore the Qur’an’s presentation of a God who is both merciful and wrathful. Part of this exploration will involve contrasting the Qur’an with elements of the Bible. This reflects my own academic background, and in particular my research for a previous book on the Qur’an and the Bible.28 However, this also reflects the Qur’an’s own conversation with biblical literature. As we will begin to discover in the next chapter, the Qur’an has its own perspective on biblical figures, from Adam to Moses, to Jesus and Mary. It also has its own perspective on God, and the Qur’an’s theology is in part a response to biblical theology. From a traditional Islamic perspective, it is unusual to speak of a “theology” of the Qur’an. Theology—as the term is Introduction17 generally understood—is a human effort to understand God (it is derived from the Greek words theos, “God,” and logos, “word” or “reason”). However, for a pious Muslim the Qur’an has no human element at all. It is not simply a book about God; it is a book by God. The Qur’an is what in Arabic might be called a kashf, an “unveiling,” of the divine.29 The present book, however, is written from a scholarly perspective, not a pious, religious perspective, and begins with the simple observation that the Qur’an says things about God, things that can be analyzed for their “theology.” From this perspective we can get to know the God who is lord to millions of Muslims across the globe. This page intentionally left blank I Allah and His Book This page intentionally left blank 1 The Qur’an and the Bible Know that God is severe in punishment, and that God is Forgiving, Merciful. —Qur’an 5:98 F rom a traditional religious perspective, the Qur’an is a perfect book, a heavenly book. Its style is matchless, inimitable. Yet from a literary perspective, the Qur’an can be a challenging book to read. It often jumps from one topic to another, and its logical coherence is not immediately evident. As a starting point for our study of the God of the Qur’an, in this chapter we address this challenge by offering a simple introduction to the Qur’an and to its relationship with the Bible. The Qur’an is divided into 114 chapters known as Suras. These Suras do not proceed from creation to the apocalypse, as the books of the Christian Bible do, or according to a chronology of the Prophet Muhammad’s career. Instead, they are 22 Allah and His Book more or less organized by size: longer Suras appear near the front of the book (this method of organizing a book is similar to the way the letters of Paul are put together in the New Testament: from longest to shortest). In other words, by reading the Suras from 1 to 114, one cannot follow any clear progression of thought. Occasionally one hears the opinion that those who are reading the Qur’an for the first time are better off reading it “backwards”—that is, beginning with Sura 114. Behind this opinion is the traditional idea that most of the small Suras toward the end of the text represent Muhammad’s earlier proclamations when he was still in Mecca (the traditional dates are AD 610–622), whereas many of the longer Suras toward the beginning of the Qur’an represent his proclamations later in his career in Medina (AD 622–632). Thus by reading the Qur’an “backwards,” one can roughly follow the development of Muhammad’s thought (so the theory goes). Scholars (both traditional Muslim scholars and academic scholars) have tried to do better than that. They have sought to establish a precise “chronological” order of the Qur’an’s Suras. Certain translations of the Qur’an have even been rearranged so as to follow this supposed order.1 When you open the cover of one of these translations, you will not find Sura 1, al-­Fatihah (“The Opening”), but usually Sura 96, al-­‘Alaq (“The Sticky Mass”), which according to most traditions was the first Sura revealed to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. The idea of rearranging the Suras in a list that would fit a chronology of Muhammad’s prophetic career reflects a number of traditional ideas and assumptions: that the entirety of the Qur’an is the work of one man only (or, from a Muslim perspective, one God), that his proclamations were reliably preserved and transmitted, that they were not edited (by any- The Qur’an and the Bible 23 one other than Muhammad or God), and that early Muslims could still remember which Suras were proclaimed before others. This idea also implies that Suras were more or less proclaimed as units, that is, that Muhammad finished proclaiming one Sura before he began to proclaim the next. In fact, some scholars grant that the situation might have been more complicated: that Muhammad might have announced different parts of the same Sura at different times, and material from other Suras in between.2 Nevertheless, even many of these scholars do not hesitate to place the Suras as a whole into a chronological list.3 For these scholars the Suras become puzzle pieces that can be rearranged and fit together into one long sequence. As I made clear in the introduction, in this book I avoid this “puzzle pieces” approach to the Qur’an. The Text of the Qur’an A second problem that occupies scholars is the question of when the Qur’an was first written down.4 The standard account relates that it was the third caliph, ‘Uthman, who put together an official version of the Qur’an (and had other versions burned) around the year 650. The earliest manuscripts are indeed very early (although it is maddeningly difficult to pin them down to a specific date), but they are written in an imperfect form of the Arabic script that allows for a variety of possible readings. In fact, we know that a long series of debates ensued about how exactly that script is to be read. In some ways those debates ended only in 1924, when a committee appointed by the Egyptian Ministry of Education established a definitive, complete edition of the Qur’an and disposed of variant versions by sinking them into the Nile River.5 By virtue of the prestige of Egypt as the home of the 24 Allah and His Book famous Al-­Azhar University in Cairo, this 1924 edition spread throughout the Islamic world and eventually to the West. Today, it is virtually the only edition of the Qur’an that is in circulation. Certain scholars are currently working to establish what is known as a “critical edition” of the Qur’an, that is, an edition based on the most ancient manuscripts.6 For now, however, the “1924 Cairo Qur’an” is the standard text. The success of the 1924 Cairo Qur’an gives the impression that there are no variants to the text. In fact, there are many reports of ancient variants to the Qur’an, and in recent years developing work on Qur’an manuscripts (notably an ancient “palimpsest”—a manuscript with writing that had been erased and written over—found in Yemen) has brought to our attention an increasing number of variants. However, the authenticity of such reports is debated, and the variants found in manuscripts tend not to affect the meaning of qur’anic passages. Accordingly, in this book we do not focus on these variants but rather largely stick to the text of the Qur’an that is widespread today. The Rhetoric of the Qur’an While we wait for a critical edition, much can still be said about the nature of the Qur’an. To begin with, we might note how different it is from the Bible. The Bible groups together different books, written by different authors, at different times, in different languages, and in different lands. In addition, many of the biblical books, such as Genesis and the Gospels, are made up of narratives that testify to the ways in which God has acted in human history. These stories are often detailed: they describe principal characters (including at times their appearance: David is “ruddy” and has “beau- The Qur’an and the Bible 25 tiful eyes”) and the places they go (and sometimes, how they got there: walking with a staff or riding a donkey). A nice example of the narrative quality of the Gospels is the description of John the Baptist found toward the beginning of Mark: 4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey. (1:4–6)7 This sort of narrative detail is not found in the Qur’an. In Sura 19, where the Qur’an introduces the character of John (it does not give him the title “the Baptist”), it offers few details: 12“O John!” [We said,] “Hold on with power to the Book!” And We gave him judgement while still a child, 13and compassion and purity from Us. He was Godwary 14and good to his parents, not self-­willed or disobedient. 15Peace be to him, the day he was born, the day he dies, and the day he is raised alive! While the Qur’an mentions John by name, it does not tell us where he lived or what he did, let alone what he wore and what he ate. Instead, it tells us only what is important to the Qur’an’s author: John’s religious qualities, that he was “Godwary and good to his parents.” It is who John was, and not what he did, that matters to the author of the Qur’an. In other places this “allusive” literary quality leads to 26 Allah and His Book some confusion. For example, Sura 97 (known as “Ordainment”) begins with the declaration “Indeed We sent it down on the Night of Ordainment.” The Qur’an, however, never explains what “it” is. Muslim commentators generally argue that “it” must be the Qur’an—that is, that the Qur’an is here referring to the sending down of itself from heaven. However, the reference is so vague that some scholars have argued that “it” is Jesus, and the Qur’an is referring to the sending down of Jesus from heaven. The “Night of Ordainment” in other words, might be Christmas night. In Sura 9 the Qur’an relates, “Among them there are some who say, ‘Give me leave, and do not put me to temptation’” (Q 9:49). However, it never identifies who said this, and why that person said it. Again, the commentators had an answer: these were the words of a “hypocrite” among Muhammad’s community in Medina named al-­Jadd. When the Prophet asked for volunteers to join a military campaign to the north of Arabia near the Byzantine frontier, al-­Jadd came up with an excuse: he claimed that he would not be able to resist the beauty of the Byzantine women, and so he said, “Do not put me to temptation.”8 Another interesting case of the Qur’an’s “allusive” quality is the report in Q 11:​7 1 that Abraham’s wife Sarah laughed: “His wife, standing by, laughed as We gave her the good news of [the birth of] Isaac, and of Jacob after Isaac.” The Qur’an never explains why Sarah (who is left unnamed in the Qur’an—the only woman named in the Qur’an is Mary, mother of Jesus) laughed. If this passage is read in the light of Genesis 18, we can recognize that she laughed because of the news that she would have a son (Isaac—whose name in Hebrew is related to the word for “laughter”) in her old age: “So Sarah laughed to The Qur’an and the Bible 27 herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’” (Gen 18:​12). Muslim commentators, however, did not always rely on the Bible in their reading of the Qur’an. Accordingly, they came up with a wide variety of different explanations for Sarah’s laughter, most of which have nothing to do with the birth of Isaac. Some did away entirely with the laughter: they argue that the Arabic word which usually refers to laughing here refers to menstruation. Sarah didn’t laugh, they concluded; instead, she had her menstrual period. The Qur’an as a “Homily” Yet if the Qur’an is fundamentally different from the Bible—in literary terms, at least—then to what can it be compared? One solution is to think of the Qur’an as a sermon, or a “homily.” In a homily a preacher seeks to persuade his or her audience of a religious argument or to impress on them the importance of an ethical lesson from the Bible. At first glance this seems to be a pretty good description of the Qur’an’s rhetoric. The Qur’an has its own distinct message, but it refers regularly to the main characters of the Bible. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, John, Jesus, and Mary (among others) all appear in the Qur’an. In other words, the Qur’an is actively involved in the interpretation of the Bible and biblical traditions. We might think of the Qur’an competing with Jewish commentators and Christian homilists by advancing its own interpretation of biblical stories. One interesting case of the Qur’an interpreting the Bible is the story of Jonah. In the Book of Jonah the people of Nineveh repent (and are saved) after Jonah proclaims to them an 28 Allah and His Book impending divine punishment (“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!,” 3:4). The Qur’an does not retell that story. It doesn’t speak of the great fish that swallows Jonah or the other details of the biblical story. It doesn’t even mention the name of Nineveh. Instead, it seems to assume that the audience already knows the details.9 98Why has there not been any town except the people of Jonah that might believe, so that its belief might benefit it? When they believed, We removed from them the punishment of disgrace in the life of this world and We provided for them for a time. 99Had your Lord wished, all those who are on earth would have believed. Would you then force people until they become faithful? (Q 10:​98–99) Moreover, the Qur’an uses its references to Jonah to develop a religious idea. In the Bible the story of Jonah is meant to show that the God of Israel has power over the entire world and that he is merciful to all people. The Qur’an, while not rejecting these lessons, adds a new idea: that God has the power to make people believe or disbelieve (“Had your Lord wished, all those who are on earth would have believed”).10 Thus we might conclude that the Qur’an is not so much interested in retelling biblical stories as much as it is interested in using biblical characters to advance its own message. In this way it seems to be “preaching” a new homily or sermon. There is, however, one major difference between the Qur’an and a homily: unlike a Christian preacher, the Qur’an claims to be speaking with the authority of God. The Qur’an and the Bible 29 The Divine Speech of the Qur’an With a few exceptions, the Qur’an is written in the voice of God.11 In other words, the rhetoric of the Qur’an is not only homiletic, it is also prophetic. Here it is worth elaborating a bit more carefully the speakers and “addressees” of the Qur’an. One scholar, Nicolai Sinai, speaks of the Qur’an’s “discursive constellation” made up of three points: God (who at times speaks in the first person— singular or plural—and at other times is spoken about in the third person), the Prophet Muhammad (or another prophet) to whom God speaks directly, and the audience whom God or the prophets sometimes address (and that audience has different components: believers, unbelievers, Jews, Christians, and hypocrites).12 The rhetoric of the Qur’an thus is pretty complicated. In the prophetic books of the Old Testament, prophets narrate the things that God has told them. For example, Ezekiel repeatedly explains that God has spoken to him, saying “the word of the Lord came to me” and then repeating the words of God. In the Qur’an this sort of narration is usually missing. God simply speaks. As Sinai comments perceptively, “Generalising somewhat, one might say that while in the Hebrew Bible it is divine speech that requires an introductory formula, in the Qur’an it is human speech that does so.”13 In certain places the Qur’an quotes unbelievers (what one scholar calls “counterdiscourse”).14 The impression one gets is that God has been listening in on what they say and tells the Prophet Muhammad how to respond: When Our manifest signs are recited to them, those who do not expect to encounter Us say, “Bring a 30 Allah and His Book Qur’an other than this, or alter it.” Say, “I may not alter it of my own accord. I follow only what is revealed to me. Indeed, should I disobey my Lord, I fear the punishment of a tremendous day.” (Q 10:​15) In other passages God speaks not to Muhammad in particular, but to anyone who will listen. Sometimes, this sort of address is combined with declarations about God, as in Q 3:56–57: As for the faithless, I will punish them with a severe punishment in the world and the Hereafter; and they will have no helpers. But as for those who have faith and do righteous deeds, He will pay them in full their rewards, and God does not like the wrongdoers. Non-­ Muslim observers have sometimes seen the Qur’an’s tendency to move between God’s speech and third-­ person reports about God as a sort of inconsistency, if not a defect. Islamic tradition, for its part, gives this shifting a special name—iltifat—and describes it as one element among many of the Qur’an’s “inimitable,” or matchless, styles. One question to be considered is whether the Qur’an’s quotations of what people have said (such as the counterdiscourse in Q 10:​15 above) are quoting things that were really said. After all, the Qur’an also tells us what the unbelievers will say on the Day of Judgment, or when they are condemned to the fires of hell.15 Perhaps every time the Qur’an “quotes” opponents, it is in fact simply staging a scene. This question is only one of many that scholars debate fiercely regarding the rhetoric of the Qur’an. The Qur’an and the Bible 31 Qur’anic rhetoric is thus distinct, but its prophetic speech still puts it squarely within biblical tradition. In at least one passage the Qur’an specifically attributes the transmission of the Qur’an to the agency of the angel Gabriel: Say, “Whoever is an enemy of Gabriel [should know that] it is he who has brought it down on your heart with the will of God, confirming what has been [revealed] before it, and as a guidance and good news to the faithful.” (Q 2:97) The designation of Gabriel as the agent of revelation is biblical. Gabriel is a messenger to Daniel (Dan 8:16, 9:21–27) in the Old Testament and to Zechariah (Luke 1:19) and Mary (Luke 1:26) in the New Testament. The biblical background of the Qur’an’s idea of prophecy seems even more evident in light of the Arabic term that the Qur’an uses for prophet, nabiy, which is related to the Hebrew term, nabi, used for the prophets of the Old Testament.16 This is an interesting point, since Islamic tradition insists that Muhammad first began proclaiming the Qur’an in Mecca, which was (again, according to tradition) the center of a pagan and idolatrous culture. The main shrine, the Ka‘ba (the black, cube-­shaped building around which the Muslim faithful today process during the annual pilgrimage), was supposedly a house of idols.17 Jews and Christians were, basically, nowhere to be found. How could it be that Muhammad came from a city and a culture so deeply marked by paganism when the Qur’an is so deeply marked by the biblical idea of prophecy? Islamic tradition has an answer to this question: God called Muhammad 32 Allah and His Book from the midst of a pagan people as he once had called Abraham. Just as Abraham lived among the pagans of Ur (something that is suggested by, although not explicit in, the account of Genesis) and heard the call of God, so Muhammad lived among the pagans of Mecca and heard the call of God. This parallel can be extended still further: just as Abraham would eventually leave the pagans of Ur and travel to Harran, and eventually Canaan, so Muhammad would leave the pagans of Mecca and travel to a new city, a largely Jewish city, Medina (originally named Yathrib). However, there is another explanation: perhaps the original context of the Qur’an was less pagan than the tradition makes it out to be. Perhaps the tradition has portrayed Mecca as a pagan city precisely because it wanted to portray Muhammad as a new Abraham. Perhaps, in other words, the real historical context of the Qur’an’s origins included more Jews and Christians than we have been led to believe. The Qur’an’s “Self-­Referentiality” Quite unlike the Bible, the Qur’an has a fascinating tendency to refer to itself. Such “self-­references” are often (although not only) found at the beginning of Suras. For example, Q 2:2 declares, “That is the Book, there is no doubt in it, a guidance to the Godwary.” Another reference to “the Book” can be found in Q 3:3 (here God is speaking to the Prophet): “He has sent down to you the Book with the truth, confirming what was [revealed] before it.” Many more such examples could be cited that seem to have the Qur’an talking about the Qur’an. But can such references to a “Book” actually be references to the Qur’an as we know it with its 114 Suras,18 or, as Islamic The Qur’an and the Bible 33 tradition might put it, to “the codex between two covers”?19 After all, these verses, which are part of that “codex,” seem to be referring to something else.20 In fact, the term “Book” (Arabic kitab) in the Qur’an may have a more general meaning of revelation—something “written” in heaven but not on earth. Something similar might be concluded about the appearance of the word “Qur’an” in the Islamic scripture. For example, in Sura 10 we read: “This Qur’an could not have been fabricated by anyone besides God; rather, it is a confirmation of what was [revealed] before it, and an elaboration of the Book, there is no doubt in it, from the Lord of all the worlds” (Q 10:​37). The use of Arabic “Qur’an” here leads some readers to assume that the Qur’an is speaking about itself. However, “Qur’an” is simply an Arabic term meaning “recitation.” It became the name of the Muslim scripture only later, when subsequent generations of Muslims (precisely on the basis of verses such as these) began to use it as a name for their holy book. In other words, even when it refers to “Qur’an,” the Qur’an must be referring to something else. As the French scholar Anne-­Sylvie Boisliveau has argued, the Qur’an’s repeated insistence that it has come from heaven seems to testify to an environment in which there were skeptics.21 Apparently, not everyone was convinced by the Prophet’s claims that his proclamations came from God or were “written in heaven.” In places, the Qur’an presents views that resemble precisely this sort of skepticism. In Sura 6 the Qur’an relates (in a good example of counterdiscourse), “When they come to you, to dispute with you, the faithless say, ‘These are nothing but myths of the ancients’” (Q 6:25).22 The Qur’an’s author was clearly intent on responding to these skeptics by insisting that its proclamations were not myths, but prophecies. 34 Allah and His Book Muhammad and the Qur’an But who is that author? The Qur’an’s claim of divine origins raised an interesting dilemma for non-­Muslim scholars. They often felt compelled to consider the following question: If Muhammad was not actually visited by an angel, was he at least sincere in the belief that his revelations came from God? In other words, did he consciously fabricate his proclamations and seek to pass them off as the word of God (perhaps in order to achieve influence or power through them)? Or did he have a sincere conviction that he was hearing the word of God? Was he, in other words, an impostor? In the foundational work of Western qur’anic studies, The History of the Qur’an (Geschichte des Qorāns [1860]), Theodor Nöldeke defends Muhammad’s sincerity.23 He insists that the sort of allegiance and enthusiasm that Muhammad won from his followers could only come from a sincere “inner voice.”24 Nöldeke, however, was not above criticizing Muhammad. He considers that the Prophet regrettably came to believe that all of his thoughts came from a divine source, that he “used the authority of the Koran to issue ordinances that are not at all related to religion.”25 No doubt Nöldeke has in mind those passages, traditionally considered “Medinan,” that give decrees on matters such as marriage, divorce, battle tactics (Q 4:101–4), and the sharing of war booty (Q 8:1, 38–41); whether it is permitted to raise one’s voice in the presence of the Prophet (Q 49:2); or even whether Muhammad had the right to marry the divorced wife of his adopted son (Q 33:​37).26 By Nöldeke’s telling, Muhammad eventually came to believe that his personal convictions had a divine origin, and that is why “mundane” matters are included in the Qur’an.27 The question of Muhammad’s sincerity arose for schol- The Qur’an and the Bible 35 ars such as Nöldeke who assumed that Muhammad is the sole author of the Qur’an. Today, however, some scholars offer different scenarios for the origin of the Qur’an—for example, that it is the culmination of a complicated process involving various sources and layers of editing.28 One argument for the possibility that the current shape of the Qur’an owes much to a complicated process of editing is the appearance within it of multiple versions of the same story. To give just one example, the Qur’an relates in seven different Suras an account by which God commands the angels to bow down before Adam (2:34, 7:11–12, 15:​28–33, 17:​61–62, 18:​50, 20:​115–16, 38:​7 1–78). A traditional explanation for this repetition would be that Muhammad decided to proclaim (or God decided to reveal) the same account in different circumstances (one modern scholar has compared these repetitions to a politician’s “stump speech”).29 An alternative explanation is that initially there was one tradition about angels bowing before Adam, but as this tradition spread orally, different versions of it developed. Eventually, when the Qur’an was written down, seven different versions were all incorporated into the text through a process of editing. All of this offers some idea of the profound differences in scholarly perspectives on the origin of the Qur’an. This diversity is reflected in the way that various sorts of scholars refer to passages in the Qur’an. Traditional Muslim scholars, who consider the Qur’an to have a divine source, might introduce a qur’anic passage by declaring, “God says. . . .” Earlier generations of Western scholars would do so instead with the words “Muhammad says. . . .” Today, scholars tend to avoid the question entirely by simply saying, “The Qur’an says. . . .” 36 Allah and His Book The Qur’an’s Relationship to the Bible In articulating its message, the Qur’an does not claim to be the first or the only divine book. God has spoken before. In fact, the Qur’an even names books that God has “sent down” to earlier prophets. We can see this in Sura 3: 3He has sent down to you the Book with the truth, confirming what was [revealed] before it, and He had sent down the Torah and the Evangel 4before as guidance for mankind, and He has sent down the Criterion. Indeed, there is a severe punishment for those who deny the signs of God, and God is all-­ mighty, avenger. The language the Qur’an uses here for the earlier books that God has sent down is telling. The word rendered here “Torah” represents Arabic tawrah, stemming ultimately from Hebrew torah, meaning “law” but used in Jewish literature for the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (or the Pentateuch), or even the entire Hebrew Bible. “Evangel” here represents Arabic injil, stemming ultimately from the Greek euangélion, meaning “gospel.” Elsewhere the Qur’an seems to refer to other elements of biblical tradition. In Q 4:163, and again in 17:​55, the divine voice of the Qur’an declares, “We gave David the zabur,” a term often translated “Psalms.”30 This declaration suggests that the author of the Qur’an was aware of the traditional association (made by Jews and Christians alike) of David with the Psalms. The identification of zabur with the Psalms is also suggested by Q 21:​105: “Certainly We wrote in al-­zabur, after the remembrance: ‘My righteous servants shall indeed inherit the earth,’” The Qur’an and the Bible 37 a verse that seems to be a paraphrase of Ps 37:​29: “The righteous shall possess the land, and dwell upon it forever.”31 Thus the Qur’an claims a certain connection to the biblical tradition. The Qur’an is meant to be a revelation in the tradition of Moses, David, and Jesus. Yet did the author of the Qur’an ever read the Bible? There are a number of reasons to conclude that he did not. First, and most important, most scholars believe that at the time of the Qur’an’s origins the Bible had not yet been translated into Arabic. By that time, many Arabic speakers had become Christians—some tribes had converted en masse—but Arab Christians must have known the Bible only through oral translations from other languages (above all a Semitic language known as Syriac).32 Indeed, there is some reason to think that part of the appeal of the Qur’an to Arabic speakers in the seventh century was that it offered God’s word in their own language. On a number of occasions the Qur’an draws attention to its Arabic language.33 Second, the Qur’an tends not to quote from the Bible. The closest thing to a quotation is Q 21:​105 (cited above), which is close to—but not a precise quotation of—Ps 37:​29. Elsewhere the Qur’an includes other biblical turns of phrase but never precise quotations of biblical passages. The Qur’an (7:40) alludes to the New Testament maxim of a camel and the “eye of the needle”; however, it does not reproduce the version of that maxim in any of the Gospels (Matt 19:​23–24, Mark 10:​25, Luke 18:​25). Something similar could be said about the way the Qur’an speaks of a “mustard seed,”34 an “uncircumcised heart,”35 and the “twinkling of an eye.”36 In each case the Qur’an cites a biblical turn of phrase, but to a different effect.37 Third, the Qur’an’s author tends not to distinguish between material found in the Bible and material found in other 38 Allah and His Book texts. When speaking of Jesus, for example, the Qur’an refers both to miracles known from the canonical Bible, such as his healing of lepers or his raising the dead, and to miracles known only from “apocryphal” and other later texts, such as his speaking “in the cradle” or his bringing a clay bird to life (Q 3:49, 5:110). The Qur’an also tells stories about other figures—such as the account of the angels bowing before Adam or Abraham being thrown into a fire (Q 21:​68–70, 29:​24–25, 37:​97–98)—that are found not in the Bible but in assorted Jewish and Christian texts. All of this suggests that in the environment of the Qur’an’s author, Jewish and Christian traditions were “in the air”—transmitted orally but not available in ­writing.38 This conclusion might explain why the Qur’an never describes the Bible precisely. It never speaks of the Old or New Testament (or the Jewish division of the Hebrew Bible into Torah, Prophets, and Writings) or, for that matter, any individual book of the Bible (with the possible exception of Psalms). When it speaks of the Torah, it is not clear that the Qur’an has the first five books of the Hebrew Bible in mind. And the Qur’an notably always speaks of “Evangel” or “Gospel” in the singular, and never of the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Apparently, the Qur’an’s author had a conception that, just as the Qur’an is a “book” from heaven, so too earlier prophets received “books”: Moses the Torah, David the Psalms, and Jesus the Evangel. This brings us a long way from the actual appearance of the Bible, which is not a book given to a Moses, David, or Jesus but a book about Moses, David, and Jesus. The way in which the Qur’an refers to these earlier books led later Muslim scholars to develop a scenario of revelation, which had the advantage of affording them a way to argue The Qur’an and the Bible 39 against the authenticity of the Bible. According to this scenario God revealed books to certain (but not all) prophets, among them Moses, David, and Jesus. However, at some point (and here Islamic tradition is far from unanimous) these revelations were corrupted, or falsified. That is why the Bible can’t be trusted. The development of this scenario was also a response to certain passages in the Qur’an that criticize Jews (especially) and Christians (also) as poor stewards of revelation. For example, in a qur’anic passage addressed to the Israelites, God says, “Do not mix the truth with falsehood, nor conceal the truth while you know” (Q 2:42). Later in that same Sura the Qur’an declares, “So woe to them who write the Book with their hands and then say, ‘This is from God,’ that they may sell it for a paltry gain” (Q 2:79). Certain other passages of the Qur’an (e.g., 4:46, 5:14) report that the Israelites “pervert words from their meanings,” a turn of phrase that seems to accuse them of “misinterpreting” scripture but is often taken to mean that they have physically changed scripture.39 All of this led most—although not all—Muslim scholars to develop a hostile perspective on the Bible. From this perspective, the Bible is not equivalent to the Torah, Psalms, and Evangel mentioned in the Qur’an. It is only an inauthentic remnant of original revelations. In a famous tradition a companion of Muhammad declares: O community of Muslims, how is it that you seek wisdom from the People of the Book? Your book, brought down upon His Prophet—blessings and peace of God upon him—is the latest report about God. You read a Book that has not been distorted, but the People of the Book, as God related to you, 40 Allah and His Book exchanged that which God wrote [for something else], changing the book with their hands.40 Yet when we read the Qur’an carefully, we find another voice, a voice which seems to say that the Jewish and Christian scriptures are not that bad after all. For example, the hadith cited above seems to contradict Q 10:​94, in which God tells the Prophet to check with the “People of the Book” when he is in doubt over what God has revealed to him. In another passage the Qur’an commands the “People of the Gospel” to judge according to the things revealed in it (Q 5:47). The Qur’an’s concern with the Torah, Psalms, and Evangel suggests a conclusion that we have already suggested above, namely, that it was proclaimed in a context heavily marked by the presence of Jews and Christians. In order to persuade them of the truth of this new message, the author of the Qur’an chose to associate his own proclamations with those scriptures. This is rather typical in the history of religions. Joseph Smith, the prophet of the Mormons, also acknowledged the Bible in addition to his own revelations. Baha’u’llah, the prophet of the Baha’i faith, acknowledged both the Bible and the Qur’an in addition to his own revelations. Yet ultimately the negative assessment of the Bible’s authority had an important impact on later Muslim attitudes. Most Muslim authorities discourage other Muslims from reading the Bible (except, perhaps, when they are making arguments on the basis of the Bible to convert Jews or Christians to Islam). And while some Muslim scholars have looked to the Bible as a source for understanding the biblical narratives in the Qur’an,41 the Bible plays no role in Muslim ritual. The Qur’an and the Bible 41 God as a Qur’anic Character In fact there are profound differences between the Bible and the Qur’an. Adam in the Bible is not the Adam in the Qur’an (for instance, only the Qur’an tells the story of angels bowing down before him). Moses in the Bible is not the Moses in the Qur’an (only in the Qur’an is Moses concerned with the resurrection of the body and the Day of Judgment). Jesus in the Bible is definitely not the Jesus in the Qur’an (only in the New Testament is he a divine savior). And all of this brings us to a key question: What about God? Is he the same character in both books? From a theological perspective, it is difficult to conclude that the God of the Bible is not the God of the Qur’an. After all, in many ways Muslims and Christians (and Jews, along with Baha’is, Sikhs, and other monotheists) share a common understanding of God. All would say that God is the creator, that he is just, that he is merciful, that he is providential (concerned with human affairs), and that in some way he brings humans to an account for their lives. From a theological perspective, one might simply argue that since there is only one God, Muslims, Christians, and other monotheists are all worshipping him together (although this is not really a foolproof argument, since in theory some monotheists could conceive of their “one god” in such an unusual way—say, as a great dragon in the sky—that their belief would not overlap with the beliefs of others). From a literary perspective, however, the God of the Bible and the God of the Qur’an are both characters like the human protagonists who appear in those books. “Allah” appears in the Qur’an alongside human characters such as Adam, Moses, Mary, Jesus, and Muhammad and alongside angels and 42 Allah and His Book other supernatural creatures known as the jinn. The author of the Qur’an uses all of these characters, including God, to advance his religious arguments. The God of the Qur’an, in other words, is defined in a distinct way by all of the things the Qur’an says about him. Another way to think of this is to imagine a list of the “cast of characters” that one sometimes finds at the opening of the text of a play. If such a list were to appear at the opening of the Qur’an, we might assume that the first “character” to be presented would be Allah (after all, the word “Allah” appears about twenty-­seven hundred times in the text). But how would he be described? In other words, who is Allah? This is the question we try to answer in the following pages. 2 God and the Prophets When Allah completed creation, He wrote with Him on His Throne: “My Mercy has preceded My Anger.” —Saying of the Prophet Muhammad I n the mid-­1990s I was working at a social justice center that provided English courses and social work services to Arab immigrants in Brooklyn, New York. One night the center held a meeting among local faith leaders and activists. There was a lot of talk of improving relations between the religious communities in New York. About halfway through the meeting a woman in a headscarf stood up and explained: “I want everyone here to know that Islam has no problems with other monotheists. As long as you believe in one god, you are fine by us.” At this, another woman—evidently a non-­Muslim—stood up and responded: “But why limit this to people who believe in one god? What about people who believe in many gods or no god at all?” The first woman didn’t 44 Allah and His Book respond, and I realized that this was a sensitive point for her. After all, belief in only one God is the most important point of Islamic theology: it makes up the first part of the profession of faith (“There is no god but Allah . . .”), and it is central to the religious worldview of the Qur’an. In the New Testament we read of an unforgivable sin: “Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.”1 The Qur’an, too, has an unforgivable sin, but it is different. The unforgivable sin of the Qur’an is polytheism, or associating something with Allah (Arabic shirk). In two different passages of the same Sura we read that God will never forgive this sin: Indeed, God does not forgive that a partner should be ascribed to Him, but He forgives anything besides that to whomever He wishes. Whoever ascribes partners to God has indeed fabricated [a lie] in great sinfulness. (Q 4:48; cf. 4:116) This passage tells us something about the nature of the qur’anic God. He will not tolerate rivals. He is a jealous God. What else can be known of Allah? Who is he? Sura 7 relates how Moses, while on Mount Sinai, yearns to see God, to look at him. To this request, God responds: “Look at the mountain: if it abides in its place, then you will see Me.” When God shows himself to the mountain, the mountain crumbles and Moses falls down prostrate in terror, declaring, “I turn to You in penitence!” (Q 7:143). Yet if Moses did not see God on the mountain, many Muslim theologians still hold that the blessed might see him in paradise. There is some evidence for this idea in Islamic sources. Qur’an 75:​23 speaks of the blessed “gazing upon their Lord.” In a hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad he tells God and the Prophets 45 his followers, as they are looking at a full moon in the night sky, “You will see your Lord in the Hereafter as you see this moon.”2 Another tradition relates that the Prophet Muhammad saw God already in this life. According to this tradition Muhammad journeyed on a miraculous winged beast (named Buraq) by night from Mecca all the way to Jerusalem. He then ascended to heaven and passed various prophets on different levels. Finally, Muhammad (according to some versions of the account) advanced to the very throne of God. There, God touched Muhammad between his shoulder blades “with cool and comforting hands.”3 According to this version of the account, Allah even has hands. He can reach out and touch a human. Another tradition goes still further. A medieval scholar named Bayhaqi (d. 1066) has Muhammad report, “I saw my Lord in the form of a curly-­haired, beardless young man wearing a green robe.”4 Many Muslim scholars reject this hadith, with one scholar calling this tradition of God as a “curly-­haired beardless young man” a “condemned, disauthenticated addition.”5 Some (notably among Shi‘ite Muslims and a school of theology known as the Mu‘tazila) consider the very possibility of a vision of God impossible. From their perspective, there is no way to know what God looks like. Or, better, God does not look like anything. Yet even those who would say it is impossible to depict what Allah looks like would still say it is possible to describe him in other ways. Even if God cannot be seen, he can still be known. In this chapter we begin to get to know Allah as we unveil his character in the Qur’an. In order to do this, we first examine what the Qur’an says about God, including the sorts of names that it gives to God (in other words, “who God is”). 46 Allah and His Book We then analyze how the Qur’an portrays God’s interactions with humanity (“what God does”). This leads us to examine several qur’anic stories about prophets, those men whom God commissions to model proper human conduct and to deliver his messages. These two tasks correspond to classical ways of looking at God: the first of these (to use some technical terms) is ontological—the way God is, independently, essentially; the second of these is economic (not in the sense of business but in the sense how God “manages” the world)—the way God is in his relationship with creation, and humanity in particular. In both respects—the ontological and the economic—we will discover a theological tension that will occupy us more and more in this book, namely, that the God of the Qur’an is at once merciful and vengeful. Allah and the Other Names of God Perhaps the simplest way to begin an analysis of the God of Islam is to look at the names that the Qur’an gives to him. We have already mentioned the passage in the Qur’an (Q 59:​ 22–24) that gives God’s “beautiful” or “best” names. To Muslims such passages are the key to understanding the God who is lord of the universe. By describing himself with different names (remember that according to a Muslim perspective, God is the author of the Qur’an), God has given humanity a glimpse of his essence. He has unveiled something of his being. The Qur’an, one might say, is God’s self-­presentation. When I begin teaching a class, I ask the students to write on a notecard some basic information about themselves (their name, hometown, hobbies; their interest in taking the class) so that I might get to know them better. From a Muslim perspec- God and the Prophets 47 tive, we might say that the Qur’an is God’s “notecard,” which he has written and delivered to humans so that we might get to know him better. It does not say everything that could be said about God (surely, God cannot tell everything there is to say about himself in a single book), but it does offer some important insights. The Qur’an, for example, calls God “king” (Arabic malik) or “sovereign,” “holy,” “benign,” and “securer.” Each of these names defines God a bit more; each term distinguishes the particular Islamic vision of God. The principal name of God in the Qur’an is, of course, Allah. Muhammad proclaims the Qur’an “in the name of Allah” (Q 1:1). But is “Allah” God’s name or simply a word meaning “God”? In the Book of Exodus in the Bible, God speaks to Moses on Mount Sinai. One of the issues that comes up in their conversation is God’s name. Moses asks God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (3:13). And God responds, “I AM WHO I AM. . . . Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (3:14). The Hebrew rendered here “I am who I am” is “Yahweh,” and Jewish tradition, on the basis of this passage, took “Yahweh” to be God’s “special” or “proper” name. The name “Yahweh” is considered to be so holy that it is generally not to be pronounced or even written (for this reason, one sometimes writes only the consonants and represents the name as YHWH, called the Tetragrammaton). The Qur’an does not seem to have this same idea with the name Allah. God in the Qur’an can be called Allah, but he can also be called by other names. Notably, the Qur’an often (fifty-­ seven times, in fact) refers to God simply as “the Compassionate One” (al-­rahman) (see more on this in Chapter 4). One pas- 48 Allah and His Book sage in the Qur’an suggests that Allah and al-­rahman are both particularly fine alternatives: “Say, ‘Invoke ‘‘[Allah]” or invoke “the All-­beneficent” [al-­rahman]. Whichever [of His Names] you may invoke, to Him belong the Best Names’” (Q 17:​110). But what about the other names that the Qur’an gives to God? It refers to God with a rich and diverse vocabulary. Different lists of God’s “ninety-­nine” names, with considerable variations, developed through time.6 The number ninety-­ nine was established by a prophetic hadith (on the authority of a companion of Muhammad named Abu Hurayra) in which Muhammad declares, “God has 99 names—one hundred minus one—and who ever counts them will enter into paradise.”7 Other traditions relate that God has one hundred names but kept one name a secret.8 Together, the names of God allow us to describe the character of Allah in a way that is different from a vague or “lowest common denominator” definition of the divine that might be common to different religious traditions. One of the most common names for God in the Qur’an is “master” (rabb). This term appears hundreds of times (never with the definite article). God is said to be rabb of humans (Q 79:​24, 87:1) and rabb of “this house” (Q 106:3; usually thought to be a reference to the Ka‘ba in Mecca). A number of other divine names in the Qur’an also emphasize the quality of God’s sovereignty; these include the “self-­sufficient” (al-­ghani), the “self-­subsisting” (al-­qayyum), the “strong” (al-­qawi), the “mighty” (al-­‘aziz), the “great” (al-­ kabir), and the “high or lofty” (al-­‘ali). Other divine names emphasize other qualities, such as the “wise” (al-­hakim) or the “knowledgeable” (al-­khabir). Still other divine names in the Qur’an allude to the ways or modes with which Allah interacts with humans. He is said God and the Prophets 49 to be the “gentle” (al-­halim), the “forgiving” (al-­ghafur), the “relenting” (al-­tawwab), and the “benevolent” (al-­latif ) but also the “powerful” (al-­jabbar) and the “compeller” (al-­qahhar). One Islamic tradition divides the divine names between the names of beauty (al-­jamal) and the names of majesty (al-­jalal). An echo of these divine names can be heard in the names of Muslims. The name Abdallah means “servant” or “slave” of Allah. Other Arabic names beginning with “Abd” are also found, for example Abd al-­Aziz (“slave of the mighty”), Abd al-­Halim (“slave of the gentle”), and Abd al-­Jabbar (“slave of the powerful”—the name taken by the legendary basketball player Kareem Abdul-­Jabbar). Yet what do these names actually tell us about Allah? In his work God of Justice Daud Rahbar criticizes the way in which Western scholars rely on the notion of God’s names in order to paint a portrait of Allah. Rahbar makes the important observation that the Qur’an on occasion gives pairs of divine names that would seem to affirm both one thing and its opposite. For example, Allah is “the one who honors” and “the one who humiliates,” “the one who grants” and “the one who withholds,” “the one who offers help” and “the one who causes distress,” “the one who guides” and “the one who leads astray.” In other words, these names simply make the point that God is responsible for everything. They do not define his character or disposition in any particular way. Indeed, they would seem to keep God’s nature a mystery. God and Humans There is, however, another way to get to know the God of the Qur’an. Instead of focusing on his names, one might instead focus on his actions. In other words, one might learn about 50 Allah and His Book Allah by analyzing those passages that describe not only who he is but also what he does and how he relates to humans. What God does above all is demand obedience. In a mysterious passage found in Sura 7, all of the souls of humanity— in some primordial time before their earthly existence—come to acknowledge God’s sovereignty: When your Lord took from the Children of Adam their descendants from their loins, and made them bear witness over themselves, [He said to them,] “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Yes indeed! We bear witness.” [This,] lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection, “We were indeed unaware of this.” (Q 7:172) This verse, known as the alastu verse (from the first Arabic words in the question that God poses to humanity), seems to illustrate the Qur’an’s conception of the divine-­human relationship: the fundamental task of humans is to acknowledge God’s lordship. The same lesson is taught by those passages that describe creation. While the Qur’an argues that God has created things for the sake of humanity, it also insists that he expects something in return. Creation is not an act of pure grace. God expects gratitude and, ultimately, submission: It is God who made for you the shade from what He has created, and made for you retreats in the mountains, and made for you garments that protect you from heat, and garments that protect you from your [mutual] violence. That is how He completes His blessing upon you so that you may submit [to Him]. (Q 16:​81) God and the Prophets 51 The Arabic of the final phrase in this verse is la‘allakum tuslimun, an expression that could be read, “that you would be a Muslim.” The very name for the Islamic religion comes from those qur’anic passages that speak of “submission”—in Arabic, islam—to God.9 In the Qur’an the lesson about submission is taught even by the angels. A number of qur’anic passages tell the story of how God commanded the angels to bow before Adam, the first human. All of the angels obey the divine command except for one: “but not the devil: he was not among those who prostrated” (Q 7:11) When asked why he did not bow before Adam, the devil has a logical answer: “‘I am better than him,’ he said. ‘You created me from fire and You created him from clay’” (Q 7:12). This story—which explains how the devil fell from heaven—is known to us from pre-­Islamic Christian sources. In those sources the story of the fall of the devil is “Christological”; that is, the point of the Christians who told this story is that just as the angels bowed before Adam (who before his fall bore the perfect image of God), so too they will bow before Christ (see Phil 2:9–10), who is both human and divine. In the Qur’an, of course, this Christological element is missing: Christ, according to the Qur’an, is not God incarnate and not worthy of angelic worship. Instead, in the Qur’an the story of the angels’ bowing is meant simply to teach humans a lesson about obedience. Faced with a divine command, even one that seems to be counterintuitive (why would God command angels to bow before a being made out of clay?), the question is, Will humans obey or disobey? Will they make the choice of the angels or of the devil? In some ways, the qur’anic character who most distinctly models the human obligation to recognize God’s lordship and to obey him is Abraham. In a story that is also known to us in 52 Allah and His Book pre-­Islamic writings, the Qur’an relates how Abraham became a monotheist by observing the stars, the moon, and the sun: 75Thus did We show Abraham the dominions of the heavens and the earth, that he might be of those who possess certitude. 76When night darkened over him, he saw a star and said, “This is my Lord!” But when it set, he said, “I do not like those who set.” 77Then, when he saw the moon rising, he said, “This is my Lord!” But when it set, he said, “Had my Lord not guided me, I would surely have been among the astray lot.” 78Then, when he saw the sun rising, he said, “This is my Lord! This is bigger!” But when it set, he said, “O my people, I indeed disown what you take as [His] partners.” 79“Indeed, I have turned my face toward Him who originated the heavens and the earth, as a hanif, and I am not one of the polytheists.” (Q 6:75–79) In the final verse of this passage Abraham identifies himself as a hanif, a term that is usually understood to mean a “pure monotheist” and is frequently associated with Abraham in the Qur’an.10 Its meaning is presumably connected with the larger theme of this passage, in which Abraham wisely discovers by observing heavenly bodies that nothing but God, the creator, is to be worshipped. Yet the point of the Qur’an is not simply that God alone is to be worshipped by human beings. The God of the Qur’an wants more than that. He wants their obedience. And Abra- God and the Prophets 53 ham also models obedience to God, most notably in the story of the sacrifice, or the near-­sacrifice, of his son. Readers may be familiar with the story from Genesis 22, known as the akedah (or “binding” of Isaac) in Jewish tradition, in which God calls on Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. In the biblical account the tension around this story is connected to God’s promise that Abraham would have descendants “without counting” through Isaac, the very son whom God is now demanding Abraham to sacrifice. The test of Abraham’s obedience, or his love of God, is thus all the more dramatic. He is faced with a terrible dilemma. This element is missing from the Qur’an. Unlike Genesis, the Qur’an never describes Isaac as the son through whom a promise will be fulfilled. Indeed, in the qur’anic account it is not even clear that the son to be sacrificed is Isaac. That son is never named, and the majority of Muslim interpreters insist that it is not Isaac but Ishmael (the ancestor of the Prophet Muhammad according to his traditional genealogy). Yet if the point about Abraham’s promise is not to be found in the qur’anic version of this account, the point about a prophet’s obedience to God is still prominent. Indeed, in some ways this larger point is accentuated, since in the qur’anic account both Abraham and his son declare their willingness to go forward with the sacrifice. In this account, Abraham has a dream of the coming sacrifice. When he describes that dream to his son, the (unnamed) son declares that he is ready to die, saying, “Father! Do whatever you have been commanded. If God wishes, you will find me to be patient.” (Q 37:​102) 54 Allah and His Book Notably, the son here does not simply say that he will be patient. The son exclaims, “If God wishes,” he will be patient. With this exclamation he suggests that God has the ability to intervene in human affairs, or even control human behavior. Whether or not the son will endure the test depends on God’s will. This is a point to which we shall return. As in the account of Genesis 22, in the Qur’an the son does not die. At the last moment, God redeems the son. Genesis 22 speaks of a ram that is caught in a thicket and is sacrificed in the place of Isaac. Qur’an 37 speaks instead of a “great sacrifice” (37:​107).11 Jesus in the Qur’an Jesus, too, models obedience to God in the Qur’an. This obedience is seen in a conversation that he carries on with God near the end of Sura 5 (we will return to this conversation in Chapter 6). During the conversation, God asks Jesus whether he told people to worship him—and his mother—as gods. He responds piously: Glory be to You! It does not behove me to say what I have no right to. Had I said it, You would certainly have known it: You know whatever is in myself, and I do not know what is in Your Self. Indeed, You know best all that is Unseen. (Q 5:116) The very idea that he (or his mother) would be equal to God shocks Jesus. He is only a servant of God, or even a slave of God. In some ways one could imagine that it would be especially important for Jesus to model submissiveness before God God and the Prophets 55 in the Qur’an. The Qur’an’s author is aware that Christians consider Jesus to be the “son of God.” At one point (Q 9:30) the Qur’an declares, “The Christians have said, ‘Christ is the son of God’” (that same verse curiously insists that the Jews consider Ezra to be the son of God, too). Indeed, the Qur’an goes out of its way to make the point that Jesus was a prophet, but nothing more than a mortal. The Qur’an presents a simple argument to make this case: Jesus (and his mother) ate food (Q 5:75). The Qur’an does not deny that Jesus performed miracles—indeed, no figure in the Qur’an is said to perform more miracles than Jesus. However, when reporting the miracles of Jesus, the Qur’an often (although not always) makes the point that he did so with the permission (or “leave”) of Allah: I have certainly brought you a sign from your Lord: I will create for you the form of a bird out of clay, then I will breathe into it, and it will become a bird by God’s leave. I heal the blind and the leper and I revive the dead by God’s leave. I will tell you what you have eaten and what you have stored in your houses. There is indeed a sign in that for you, should you be faithful. (Q 3:49; cf. 5:109) Elsewhere the Qur’an makes the same point in a different way. In Sura 18 God declares, “Do not say about anything, ‘I will indeed do it tomorrow’ without [adding], ‘God willing’” (in sha’a allah; Q 18:​23–24).12 This verse helps explain the popularity of the well-­known expression inshallah (“if God wills”) in the Arabic and Islamic worlds. Muslims, it implies, should not take anything for granted, since everything depends on the 56 Allah and His Book will of God. Muslim theologians have even debated whether one could say “I am a Muslim” without adding inshallah. The Punishment Stories With the examples of Abraham and Jesus, we have seen how the God of the Qur’an demands human obedience. Yet he does not send prophets only as models of proper human behavior or as moral exemplars. In the Qur’an God also sends prophets with the command to worship and obey God. They transmit God’s promise that those who do so will be admitted into paradise and those who refuse to do so will be condemned to hell. This is why the prophet in the Qur’an is called both a bearer of good news (bashir) and a bearer of a warning (nadhir). This is why the qur’anic message is sometimes called both an incitement to desire a reward (targhib) and an incitement to fear punishment (tarhib). At the heart of this dynamic are those passages, concentrated in a number of Suras—notably 7, 11, 26, 37, and 54—that are largely consumed with accounts about civilizations God has destroyed for rejecting the message of the prophets sent to them. These accounts are known (for good reason) in Western scholarship as “punishment stories.” They are not part of a sacred history with a grand narrative that develops in stages and leads to a certain culmination with the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Instead, these accounts are different versions of the same scenario. They are meant, collectively, to persuade the Qur’an’s audience that it is dangerous to reject the message of a prophet. This threat is stated clearly in Sura 6: Your Lord is the All-­sufficient dispenser of mercy. If He wishes, He will take you away, and make whom- God and the Prophets 57 ever He wishes succeed you, just as He produced you from the descendants of another people. (6:133) All of the punishment stories are in Suras that are traditionally classified as “Meccan” (although they are also mentioned in two “Medinan” Suras: Q 9:70 and 22:​42–44).13 Some, but not all, of these accounts involve biblical characters such as Noah, Lot, and Moses (the punishment stories of Q 37 notably include only biblical characters). It is interesting to note that these characters in the Qur’an retain certain characteristics of their biblical narratives. The Qur’an does not, for example, have the people of Noah’s time destroyed by fire instead of water, or the people of Lot’s time drowned in water instead of consumed by fire, or Pharaoh and his chariots lost in the desert and not thrown into the sea. However, the role of biblical narratives in shaping the qur’anic punishment stories might be described as ornamental. The Qur’an uses certain distinctive features of those biblical narratives—perhaps because they were so well-­known that it could not do otherwise. However, those biblical narratives are transformed to fit the standard model of the punishment stories. For the Qur’an is not concerned with teaching its audience about the personalities of Noah, Lot, and Moses. Rather, it is concerned with making a religious argument by asking the age-­old question about the disappearance of earlier peoples: ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt (“where are those who were before us?”). Precisely because the Qur’an does not fit these characters into a historical narrative it is able to integrate into the punishment stories other characters unknown to the Bible, including Hud, Salih, and Shu‘ayb, characters who presumably came from pre-­qur’anic Arabian lore. These characters, too, 58 Allah and His Book are poured into the same prophetic mold. All of these stories, whether they involve biblical or nonbiblical characters, involve a similar scenario. To show the cyclic nature of these accounts, I cite here excerpts from six punishment stories, according to the three principal stages of these accounts (the prophet preaches, the people reject the prophet, and God destroys the unbelievers), as they appear in Sura 7: The Prophet Preaches to His People 1. “[Noah] said, ‘O my people, worship God! You have no other god besides Him. I indeed fear for you the punishment of a tremendous day’” (Q 7:59). 2. “[Hud] said, ‘O my people, worship God! You have no other god besides Him. Will you not then be wary [of Him]?’” (Q 7:65). 3. “[Salih] said, ‘O my people, worship God! You have no other god besides Him. There has certainly come to you a manifest proof from your Lord. This she-­camel of God is a sign for you’” (Q 7:73). 4. “[Lot] said to his people, ‘What! Do you commit an outrage none in the world ever committed before you?!’” (Q 7:80). 5. “[Shu’ayb] said, ‘O my people, worship God! You have no other god besides Him. There has certainly come to you a manifest proof from your Lord. Observe fully the measure and the balance, and do not cheat the people of their goods, and do not cause corruption on the earth after its restoration’” (Q 7:85). 6. “And Moses said, ‘O Pharaoh, I am indeed God and the Prophets an apostle from the Lord of all the worlds. It behooves me to say nothing about God except the truth. I certainly bring you a clear proof from your Lord. So let the Children of Israel go with me’” (Q 7:104–5). The People Reject the Prophet 1. “The elite of [Noah’s] people said, ‘Indeed we see you in manifest error’” (Q 7:60). 2. “The elite of [Hud’s] people who were faithless said, ‘Indeed we see you to be in folly, and indeed we consider you to be a liar’” (Q 7:66). 3. “So they hamstrung the She-­camel and defied the command of their Lord, and they said, ‘O Salih, bring us what you threaten us with, if you are one of the apostles’” (Q 7:77). 4. “But the only answer of [Lot’s] people was that they said, ‘Expel them from your town! They are indeed a puritanical lot’” (Q 7:82). 5. “The elite of his people who were arrogant said, ‘O Shu‘ayb, we will surely expel you and the faithful who are with you from our town, or else you shall revert to our creed.’ He said, ‘What! Even if we should be unwilling?!’” (Q 7:88). 6. “[Pharaoh] said, ‘If you have brought a sign, produce it, should you be truthful’” (Q 7:106). God Destroys the Unbelievers 1. “So We delivered [Noah] and those who were with him in the ark, and We drowned those who denied Our signs. Indeed they were a blind lot” (Q 7:64). 59 60 Allah and His Book 2. “Then We delivered Hud and those who were with him by a mercy from Us, and We rooted out those who denied Our signs and were not faithful” (Q 7:72). 3. “Thereupon the earthquake seized them and they lay lifeless prostrate in their homes. So [Salih] abandoned them [to their fate], and said, ‘O my people! Certainly I communicated to you the message of my Lord, and I was your well-­wisher, but you did not like well-­wishers’” (Q 7:78–79). 4. “Thereupon We delivered [Lot] and his family, except his wife; she was one of those who remained behind. Then We poured down upon them a rain [of stones]. So observe how was the fate of the guilty!” (Q 7:83–84). 5. “So the earthquake seized them and they lay lifeless prostrate in their homes. Those who impugned Shu‘ayb became as if they had never lived there. Those who impugned Shu‘ayb were themselves the losers” (Q 7:91–92). 6. “So We took vengeance on [Pharaoh’s people] and drowned them in the sea, for they denied Our signs and were oblivious to them” (Q 7:136). The way in which the Qur’an tells these stories of warning, disbelief, and destruction one after another tells us something about its fundamental concern. The Qur’an seeks to warn its own audience and thereby to persuade them to believe in its God and in its prophet, Muhammad. Thus in the Qur’an the God and the Prophets 61 prophets of the past are prophets of the present. One scholar has gone so far as to speak of “monoprophetism” in the Qur’an (parallel to its monotheism).14 The point of these stories is that by hearing them the Qur’an’s audience will make a better choice than those who chose not to believe in the prophet sent to them. The Qur’an means to inspire fear of God. One might think of how, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:​28). Similarly, in Sura 2 the Qur’an, referring to wrongdoers, exclaims, “So do not fear them, but fear Me” (Q 2:150). Tellingly, the prophets not only warn their people of calamity; they also invite their people to look back at how earlier generations were destroyed. Thus in Sura 7 Hud refers to the destruction of the people of Noah, saying: 69Do you consider it odd that there should come to you a reminder from your Lord through a man from among yourselves, so that he may warn you? Remember when He made you successors after the people of Noah, and increased you vastly in creation. So remember God’s bounties so that you may be felicitous. Just as Hud points to the fate of an earlier people in order to persuade his own people to believe, so the Prophet Muhammad does the same in the Qur’an. Muhammad, one might say, is the last of the prophets of the punishment stories.15 An interesting feature found in Q 26 (but not in the other Suras that relate punishment stories) is a refrain in which the 62 Allah and His Book prophet demands that his people obey him. Time and again the prophets in Q 26 warn, “Be wary of Allah and obey me!” (Noah, vv. 108, 110; Hud, vv. 126, 131; Salih, vv. 144, 150; Lot, v. 163; Shu‘ayb, v. 179). The point of this refrain is clear: the prophet is the representative of God on earth. Just as Muslims are to obey God, they are also to obey the prophet. One can understand why later Islamic tradition developed the doctrine that the prophets are all infallible. If they are to be obeyed, they must be fully trustworthy, they must be perfect. The punishment stories, however, also leave us with a problem: If God destroyed the earlier peoples who rejected their prophets, why did he not destroy the people of Mecca who rejected Muhammad? Was Muhammad disappointed that God did not come through and send a firestorm or a mighty wind or earthquake to sweep away the Meccans? Certain verses suggest that at some point Muhammad believed that God might destroy them: Say, “Whoever abides in error, the All-­beneficent shall prolong his respite until they sight what they have been promised: either punishment, or the Hour.” Then they will know whose position is worse, and whose host is weaker. (Q 19:​75) We will indeed take vengeance on them, whether We take you away or show you what We have promised them, for indeed We hold them in Our power. (Q 43:​41–42) Another verse seems to promise, incredibly, that every town will be punished by God (presumably including Mecca): God and the Prophets 63 There is not a town but We will destroy it before the Day of Resurrection, or punish it with a severe punishment. That has been written in the Book. (Q 17:​ 58) David Marshall offers a solution to this problem. He argues that Muhammad initially expected God to intervene in human history and punish his enemies in Mecca. This moment passed, however, when Muhammad arrived in Medina and gathered a force of men who could fight those enemies in open warfare. In Medina, as Muhammad gathered military strength, he began to see himself as the rod of divine punishment. Marshall sees this development culminate in one verse of Sura 9. He writes: “The Medinan paradigm is expressed nowhere more clearly than at 9:14. . . . Here there is nothing allusive or indirect about the language used; the believers are simply commanded: Fight them and God will punish them at your hands and degrade them.”16 God of Punishment, God of Mercy So do these punishment stories mean that Allah is merciless or vindictive? For many Muslims they suggest exactly the opposite. As was explained to me by a Muslim imam at a conference on religious extremism in Ca

Allah: God in the Qur’an

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