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At-Tin: Original sin again

September 17, 2010 2 comments

When I first read Al-'Asr, I thought there was talk of original sin. Not so, the experts say, but then there's this:

Surely we created man of the best stature
Then we reduced him to the lowest of the low
Save those who believe and do good works, and this is a reward unfailing

I guess it's not sin, per se, that laid man low here. It was an explicit act of God, not the temptation and fall of man. But the idea that man is flawed in some fundamental fashion is the same, regardless of the causality.

On the other hand, I infer from this that the extreme Calvinist viewpoint about pre-destination–that some people are doomed to hell no matter the good works they do–could never hold water in Islam. Good works and belief in God are enough for rebirth on Judgment Day, no matter who you are.

Full text (different translation) after the break.

Read more…

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Al-‘Asr: A theme for the early suras

September 9, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about what to put in a summary post once I move past the pre-Hijra suras. What are the major commandments for the early Meccan period? What are the major sins?

Michael Sells in Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations, sees this sura as a concise summary of the four early themes of the message revealed to Muhammad.

  1. “Defending belief in the face of persecution and ridicule;”
  2. “Sharing wealth;”
  3. “Protecting those who are disinherited or in need; and”
  4. “Performing the ritual prayer, salat—the second activity explicitly mentioned in this sura.”

Sells adds an interesting point about the first theme: “To keep the faith through an active witness that exposes one to persecution and danger is, ironically, to gain refuge.”

Al-‘Asr: No such thing as Original Sin

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment

When I read this sura, I picked up on two central concepts: first, the concept of original sin; second on the importance of community.

Michael Sells in Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations sheds a little more light on “original sin,” arguing that while that concept doesn’t exist in the Qur’an, a similar concept of being “lost without God” is.

There is no doctrine of original sin in Islam, no doctrine of an innate sinfulness that makes every human inherently unworthy of salvation without the saving grace of the deity. Instead, the Qur’an affirms that humankind is in a state of forgetfulness, confusion and loss, and in need of a reminder.”

The issue, then, is how to withdraw from that state of confusion, and I’ll cover this sura’s answer (according to Sells) in another post.

Reason Seven to burn a Qur’an

September 7, 2010 1 comment

Back to Florida and Reason Seven to burn a Qur'an on 11-SEP-2010.

"Islam is not compatible with democracy and human rights."

Is not the pot calling the kettle black here?

I don't think of major Christian rulers such as Charlemagne or Richard Coeur de Lion or Charles V or Henry VIII as particularly fond of democracy or dissent. Nor do the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition or the Thirty Years' War or Russian Pogroms seem overtly concerned with human rights. Frankly, the Christian Right in this country is pretty selective about who deserves human rights (not gays, not immigrants, not non-Christians).

Regarding Democracy specifically, after Muhammad died, four men were elected by their peers to take the position of Commander of the Faithful in a process that is little different from loya jirgas in Afghanistan to the smoke-filled rooms of American party politics that nominated decades of presidential candidates before the modern era, including dark horse unknowns such as Warren Harding and James K. Polk. Islam started in democray, though the practice ended with the fifth caliph, Mu'awiya, who turned the caliphate into a hereditary rulership. Just like every Christian nation for over a millenia.

In the modern period…

When Muslims talk about "justice" (and this is a critical code word), they are demanding what we term human rights. Freedom from police oppression. Freedom to travel. Freedom to choose. And "justice" is a deeply Qur'anic principle. The governments in the Muslim world are not particularly Just.

Likewise, what former European colony did end up as a healthy, thriving democracy, no matter the religion, after colonial powers were pushed out. India? Costa Rica? That's basically it. We didn't leave much democracy in Africa. Or Asia. Or the Middle East. We left Kings. Dictators. Oh there were Parliaments, but they didn't last long. Colonial rule required creating countries with deep ethnic divides. Parliaments don't last when the divisions are ethnic, not political. Democray only thrived when the country came to it on its own. Like most of South America.

"The notion of a moral individual capable of making decisions and taking responsibility for them does not exist in Islam."

Sura 103: The Epoch
The human is always at a loss
Except those who keep the faith
    who work justice
    who counsel one another to truth
    and counsel one another to patience.

I'm seeing free will. I'm seeing responsible action. Is it just me?

"The attitude towards women in Islam as inferior possessions of men has led to countless cases of mistreatment and abuse for which Moslem men receive little or no punishment, and in many cases are encouraged to commit such acts, and are even praised for them. This is a direct fruit of the teachings of the Koran." 

Yeah, it's not a direct fruit of the teachings of the Qur'an. The early suras aren't particularly concerned with gender issues. But just a taste: the burqa/niqab/veil? It's cultural and completely external in origin from Islam. I'll get into this much, much later. It's a Christian tradition adopted by early Muslim nobles.

I'm not saying the Muslim world is particularly strong on women's rights.

I'm saying the Islam preached by Muhammad–a man who accepted a woman's offer of marriage (not the other way around), a man whose early wealth came from his (older) wife Khadija, a man who mourned for years over her death, a man who considered Khadija his closest confidant and advisor–is not a religion that would uphold the views held by some stone-age men who claim to be Muslims.

And I'm also saying the Christianity doesn't have such a hot record here either.

Al-‘Asr: Early importance of community

August 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Three verses:

By (the Token of) Time (through the ages),
Verily Man is in loss,
Except such as have Faith, and do righteous deeds, and (join together) in the mutual teaching of Truth, and of Patience and Constancy.

I wouldn’t say this is “original sin” but the concept of being innately lost without Allah’s teaching seems familiar.

What I find interesting is the stress on both private/internal (faith) and external (mutual teaching) acts. I know the phrase “only through Jesus Christ can you be saved” is both metaphorical and literal.

The metaphorical, of course, is that the religion and Christ’s teachings are the only way to salvation.

But the literal implies something else: salvation is personal, 1:1 with Jesus. Christianity was a secret, dispersed and persecuted religion in its infancy, and what mattered most was internal faith, not external practice. It was not strange to be a Christian alone and cut off from all other Christians. You don’t need a church or a community to be a Christian. You can even keep your faith secret.

Islam, from the outset, was a community of people in a single location, who were persecuted as a group in Mecca, fled together as a group to Medina, fought against the Meccans as a coherent military force, etc. When the religion became a conquering force, even then, the community wasn’t dispersed governing multiple communities: the early Islamic Empire controlled its territory by founding new, Muslim only garrison towns (Basra, Kufa, etc.), with the majority of the Muslim population living apart from the Christian, Zoroastrian, Jewish and pagan peoples who owed them fealty. It wasn’t for another 800 years later, in Spain, that Islam had to face a scenario where it was not the religion of political power; where it was persecuted and outnumbered and was forced to go underground as Christianity was in its first years before Constantine converted and legitimized the Christian faith.

The community is such a central concept to Islam, and here is the Qur’an, in an early revelation, stressing the point. Those who join together to mutually reinforce each others' faith are not lost. God is only part of the path, the community is another.