Surah 2:153-177: salvation for… pretty much whoever? For Muslims only? Why not both!

We turn now from a long string of invective against “the Jews,” Christians, and whoever the Sabians are to a new theme. This part of the Surah 2 is more about Islamic nation-building; I’ll break up the inestimable Yusuf Ali’s translation below a little bit to help explain some of what we are looking at here. The Qur’an’s weird essentialism (that Jews are, as a people, essentially or innately apostate from the “Islamic” teachings of their ancestors) is not consistently applied – in this section you will see that not all Muslims, for example, are created equal.

Take it away, Yusuf:

153. O ye who believe! seek help with patient perseverance and prayer; for Allah is with those who patiently persevere.
154. And say not of those who are slain in the way of Allah. “They are dead.” Nay, they are living, though ye perceive (it) not.

This sentiment likely makes more sense after one of the more significant events in early Islamic history: the Badr campaign, or the Battle of Badr, which marked the beginning of open hostilities between the Muslims and Jews of Medina and which culminated in the outright expulsion of many of Muhammed’s politico-theological opponents, and also saw the beginnings of open hostilities with the despised Quraysh tribe. The Quraysh were, in fact, Muhammed’s own tribe, but between their mercantile strength in the Arabian peninsula and their refusal to join Muhammed’s growing religion, and likely the uncomfortable suggestion that there could be something banal or worldly about the blood flowing in the Prophet’s veins, they made a natural target.

It therefore would have been an important part of Muhammed’s sermons after these battles to hearten his followers with a common religious refrain: the certain knowledge that those who live and die by the sword ascend to special treatment in the hereafter.

155. Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere,
156. Who say, when afflicted with calamity: “To Allah We belong, and to Him is our return”:-
157. They are those on whom (Descend) blessings from Allah, and Mercy, and they are the ones that receive guidance.
158. Behold! Safa and Marwa are among the Symbols of Allah. So if those who visit the House in the Season or at other times, should compass them round, it is no sin in them. And if any one obeyeth his own impulse to good,- be sure that Allah is He Who recogniseth and knoweth.
159. Those who conceal the clear (Signs) We have sent down, and the Guidance, after We have made it clear for the people in the Book,-on them shall be Allah.s curse, and the curse of those entitled to curse,-
160. Except those who repent and make amends and openly declare (the Truth): To them I turn; for I am Oft-returning, Most Merciful.
161. Those who reject Faith, and die rejecting,- on them is Allah.s curse, and the curse of angels, and of all mankind;
162. They will abide therein: Their penalty will not be lightened, nor will respite be their (lot).
163. And your Allah is One Allah. There is no god but He, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

First, a historical note on verse 158: Safa and Marwa are hills between Mecca and Medina (Yathrib) of a certain theological significance in Islam. Probably owing more to their significance as points of military importance during the prolonged conflicts between the Muslim community of Medina than to the bizarre re-telling of the story of Abraham and Hagar that has survived in Islamic tradition in those hills (you can read about it in the wikipedia link above and in subsequent posts here), they are used here as metaphors for one of many inconsistent solutions to the “Problem of Evil” in Islam.

The Problem of Evil is a recurring theological dilemma for monotheistic religions. I spent a good deal of my undergraduate work building a thesis against Alvin Plantinga’s own response to this problem so I’ll try not to get too long-winded here, but the long and short of it is the old refrain of “if God is real, why do bad things happen?” (I shudder to reduce the problem so savagely but, there it is). Verse 155 makes it seem like Allah uses suffering to test us: “glad tidings” are for those who “persevere” in the face of the horrible things that Allah either causes or allows to happen, as if this is satisfying. Verse 157 goes on to say that Allah in fact rewards those who suffer and persevere, though this likely is of little comfort to those who suffer and die without the promised reward.

There are also two inconsistent views of salvation in this very short passage. Verse 158 gives us a nice, universalist view of salvation: if you obey an internal impulse towards goodness, Allah will notice this and reward you. This verse does not even ask that you believe anything in particular. But just two short verses later in verse 160, one must actually openly declare “the Truth” (stated throughout Surah 2 as knowledge of Allah’s own words) in order to enjoy eternal reward. So in verse 158, goodness is its own reward; in verse 160-163, one must openly confess the narrow theological dictates of Islam in order to be saved. C’est la vie, insh’Allah.

164. Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the profit of mankind; in the rain which Allah Sends down from the skies, and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds, and the clouds which they Trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth;- (Here) indeed are Signs for a people that are wise.

Back to the “suffering is an opportunity to persevere and receive the gifts of Allah” view.

165. Yet there are men who take (for worship) others besides Allah, as equal (with Allah.: They love them as they should love Allah. But those of Faith are overflowing in their love for Allah. If only the unrighteous could see, behold, they would see the penalty: that to Allah belongs all power, and Allah will strongly enforce the penalty.
166. Then would those who are followed clear themselves of those who follow (them) : They would see the penalty, and all relations between them would be cut off.

And back to the “narrow theological dictates of Islam” view of salvation.

167. And those who followed would say: “If only We had one more chance, We would clear ourselves of them, as they have cleared themselves of us.” Thus will Allah show them (The fruits of) their deeds as (nothing but) regrets. Nor will there be a way for them out of the Fire.

This actually fills in a theological gap that beleaguers Biblical theologians. There is no explicit statement in the Bible that salvation is only for the living; later Christian theologians have had to convince their flock that they can’t just take their chances in this life and repent after they’ve come to discover the “reality” of Hell in the afterlife. But in Islam, this is a clear statement that salvation is for the living alone. This also makes sense of the necessity of rehabilitating the key figures of the Jewish scriptures as good Muslims: it would be hard to affiliate the new religion with the “authentic” old religion if everyone of Abdhullah’s generation on back automatically went to Hell for not obeying at least half of the salvation views presented in this chapter (Abdullah, “Slave of Allah,” was Muhammed’s father).

Beyond, of course, the political expediency of being able to frame “the Jews” of Yathrib as apostates of the true religion, instead of as members of a (populous and political powerful) “false” religion.

168. O ye people! Eat of what is on earth, Lawful and good; and do not follow the footsteps of the evil one, for he is to you an avowed enemy.
169. For he commands you what is evil and shameful, and that ye should say of Allah that of which ye have no knowledge.

This is likely a reference to Jewish dietary law, which Muslims also follow. “The evil one” is probably a reference to the Adversary, the antagonist of the biblical story of Job and many others. You may know him by the anachronism “Satan.”

170. When it is said to them: “Follow what Allah hath revealed:” They say: “Nay! we shall follow the ways of our fathers.” What! even though their fathers Were void of wisdom and guidance?
171. The parable of those who reject Faith is as if one were to shout Like a goat-herd, to things that listen to nothing but calls and cries: Deaf, dumb, and blind, they are void of wisdom.

Verse 171 has one of my favorite visual metaphors of the Qur’an. It takes a rather dim view of people who are not Muslims and is actually a rather defeatist attitude for an evangelist of Allah to take (why would Muhammed try to spread his religion to anyone if most people are like wild animals, who heed bleating and barking more than reasoning and theology, after all) and frankly, discouraging evangelists is a view I rather like.

172. O ye who believe! Eat of the good things that We have provided for you, and be grateful to Allah, if it is Him ye worship.

Contrast with verse 168, which says only to eat that which is lawful as opposed to that which Allah has provided. Are we to believe, then, that kosher laws apply to literally everything, or that there are some foods on this good Earth that Allah did not create? From whence then cometh they?

173. He hath only forbidden you dead meat, and blood, and the flesh of swine, and that on which any other name hath been invoked besides that of Allah. But if one is forced by necessity, without wilful disobedience, nor transgressing due limits,- then is he guiltless. For Allah is Oft-forgiving Most Merciful.

Contrast with verse 172!

174. Those who conceal Allah.s revelations in the Book, and purchase for them a miserable profit,- they swallow into themselves naught but Fire; Allah will not address them on the Day of Resurrection. Nor purify them: Grievous will be their penalty.
175. They are the ones who buy Error in place of Guidance and Torment in place of Forgiveness. Ah! what boldness (They show) for the Fire!
176. (Their doom is) because Allah sent down the Book in truth but those who seek causes of dispute in the Book are in a schism Far (from the purpose).

Another gloomy verse for those who might wish Islam to be a universalist religion – ie, those who rather enjoy verses like 2:158 above.

177. It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces Towards east or West; but it is righteousness- to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfil the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the Allah.fearing.

Contrast this verse with those verses above for a third view of salvation. It is not enough to mindlessly obey the silly rituals of Islam, the very ones Muhammed has ordained as profound Truth revealed by God, nor is it enough to be morally good: you have to be good and charitable and believe in Allah and the Last Day and Angels and the Qur’an and Muhammed and your own contracts (!) in order to reach heaven.

I have a theory on the rather out-of-place commandment in 2:177 to follow “the contracts which ye have made.” I try to carefully flag the state of academic consensus when I relay it to you; this theory comes from no academic work that I know of, and if it does, no plagiarism is intended, nor is it intended to reflect the views of any of the many eminent scholars I’ve read and recommended to you so far.

My theory is that the Qur’an’s inclusion of contract law in the criteria for salvation (which sounds silly just writing it) serves a purpose somewhat similar to that of the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution. The wikipedia article does not do justice to a big part of its historical context. Late 18th/early 19th century America was basically in a state of economic free-fall. In order to assure foreign creditors (who had financed the Revolution and who the American government knew would be financing the inevitable next war with Britain, which came to pass in the War of 1812) and to encourage foreign investment, the 11th Amendment was passed. Surely as wikipedia states this was in part to clarify the authority of the federal government to hear lawsuits against and between individual US states, but it also served the purpose of reassuring foreign creditors that their actions for collection of bad debts would not be overridden by American courts, guaranteeing that foreign creditors and investors would always have at least some remedy available to them should they choose to invest in an American venture.

Likewise, Muhammed, being a merchant himself, knew that the Medinan community’s greatest strength was its traditional commercial power and role as a crossroads of the southern Arabian peninsula. Likewise, Muhammed had to create some language in the Qur’an that would demand of his own followers that they obey the fundamental precepts of commerce in order to continue the project of Islamic nation-building that will become much clearer in the next couple of posts. Otherwise, it would be very easy for the community to become alienated from the greater world of trade (and therefore evangelism).

It would have been easy for Muhammed to say “fulfill your contracts with other Muslims” (in nicer language), but he did not. He simply said to fulfill your contracts. In contrast to the sublime racial wisdom of the 17th Ferengi Rule of Acquisition (I love Star Trek and despise myself for waiting this long to make a reference). This only makes sense if Muhammed saw a role for his community in the greater world beyond the walls of Yathrib, and will make even more sense as we descend over the next couple of posts deeper into the Qur’an’s insanely detailed version of the common law of contracts.

To conclude, here is what remains from today’s section in the Jefferson Qur’an:

2:168 O you people! Eat of what is on earth, lawful and good; and do not follow the footsteps of Evil.

2:170 The say: “Nay! We shall follow the ways of our fathers.” What! Even though their fathers were void of wisdom?

2:177 It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards East or West; but it is righteousness to spend of your substance for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves. Practice regular charity, fulfill the contracts which you have made, and be firm and patient in pain or adversity and throughout all periods of panic.

Note the creative editing necessary to make some basic moral sense out of these. Extracted from the religious context, I have no problem with eating what is “lawful.” Verse 170 serves the fine purpose of excoriating those who base their beliefs about cosmos-scale moral and philosophical questions on what their forebears believed. And I think that the innate virtue of a savagely-edited 2:177 rather speaks for itself.