Surah 2:25-39: “O, Lucifer, son of the morning…”

Continuing from last time into the Qur’an’s longest single chapter,  the massive second chapter proceeds into the Qur’an’s first, “Bible-style” story: the creation of the universe. The first chapter of the Qur’an (literally, “the Opening“) is just a prayer, and Surah 2 opens by berating some hypothetical unbelievers, apostates, and other horrible people but contains no real “story.”

But here we have a normal Bible-style story that introduces us to the befuddling cosmology of the Qur’an. It echoes Testaments Old and New, introducing us to Adam and Eve, and referring to “seven heavens.” Whether Muhammed would have known the ancient astrological tropes of seven “firmaments” or heavens from the Bible, from apocrypha like the Book of Enoch, or just by cultural diffusion is an open question, but there is a not insubstantial body of evidence that the Qur’an is sprinkled with influences from ancient Christian and Jewish non-canon liturgy and poetry. One of Ibn Warraq’s admittedly weaker works, Koranic Allusions, which contains several excellent academic essays on the topic but also some needlessly polemical ones, explores this topic more richly than I could possibly do justice to here and so I recommend it to you. The academic consensus has not rallied to some of Warraq’s conclusions, but the case is strong that parts of the Qur’an are not pure Islamic parthenogenesis but rather are hybridized from Christian, Syriac, and even Qumranian and Gnostic source material.

25. But give glad tidings to those who believe and work righteousness, that their portion is Gardens, beneath which rivers flow. Every time they are fed with fruits therefrom, they say: “Why, this is what we were fed with before,” for they are given things in similitude; and they have therein companions pure (and holy); and they abide therein (for ever).
26. Allah disdains not to use the similitude of things, lowest as well as highest. Those who believe know that it is truth from their Lord; but those who reject Faith say: “What means Allah by this similitude?” By it He causes many to stray, and many He leads into the right path; but He causes not to stray, except those who forsake (the path),-
27. Those who break Allah.s Covenant after it is ratified, and who sunder what Allah Has ordered to be joined, and do mischief on earth: These cause loss (only) to themselves.
28. How can ye reject the faith in Allah.- seeing that ye were without life, and He gave you life; then will He cause you to die, and will again bring you to life; and again to Him will ye return.
29. It is He Who hath created for you all things that are on earth; Moreover His design comprehended the heavens, for He gave order and perfection to the seven firmaments; and of all things He hath perfect knowledge.
30. Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth.” They said: “Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood?- whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy (name)?” He said: “I know what ye know not.”
31. And He taught Adam the nature of all things; then He placed them before the angels, and said: “Tell me the nature of these if ye are right.”
32. They said: “Glory to Thee, of knowledge We have none, save what Thou Hast taught us: In truth it is Thou Who art perfect in knowledge and wisdom.”
33. He said: “O Adam! Tell them their natures.” When he had told them, Allah said: “Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of heaven and earth, and I know what ye reveal and what ye conceal?”
34. And behold, We said to the angels: “Bow down to Adam” and they bowed down. Not so Iblis: he refused and was haughty: He was of those who reject Faith.
35. We said: “O Adam! dwell thou and thy wife in the Garden; and eat of the bountiful things therein as (where and when) ye will; but approach not this tree, or ye run into harm and transgression.”
36. Then did Satan make them slip from the (garden), and get them out of the state (of felicity) in which they had been. We said: “Get ye down, all (ye people), with enmity between yourselves. On earth will be your dwelling-place and your means of livelihood – for a time.”
37. Then learnt Adam from his Lord words of inspiration, and his Lord Turned towards him; for He is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful.
38. We said: “Get ye down all from here; and if, as is sure, there comes to you Guidance from me, whosoever follows My guidance, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.
39. “But those who reject Faith and belie Our Signs, they shall be companions of the Fire; they shall abide therein.”

What I find interesting about the cosmogony of Satan (Iblis) here is that it is basically a fleshed-out version of the apocryphal Christian reading of Isaiah 14 holding that Satan was originally an angel who was ejected for disobedience to God, though some such apocrypha hold that Satan’s expulsion came after a much more theatrical rebellion against God than just jealousy of humans for God’s special attention to them. Here the Qur’an explicitly takes the position that Satan’s original crime was refusal to worship humans.

It garbles the story of Adam and Eve a little bit, glossing over what Satan actually did in the garden, and turning the “enmity” between Eve and the Serpent into enmity between people as punishment for, in a word, “slipping.” The presence of a special tree is retained, but this version of the origin story doesn’t say much about it other than it was off-limits, mercifully skipping over one of the dimmest parts of the Bible in which humans are punished with death and pain for pursuing knowledge.

2:27 also provides an unfortunate theological basis for the harsh penalties that many Islamic societies impose on apostates and heretics. Those who “break Allah’s covenant after it is ratified” or who “sunder” what Allah has “ordered to be joined” are set out for special punishment, perhaps a hotter temperature in the “Fire” for those who “reject Faith.”

Needless to say, little of this material belongs in the Jefferson Qur’an. There is no need to belabor the strange astronomy of seven heavens or the moral non sequiter of humans being punished for taking Satan’s advice without a lot of heads up from God about him. I’ll spare you a page of red hashed-through text. Between 2:25:2-:39, all I have decided to keep is:

2:25 Give glad tidings to those who work righteousness.

“Those who believe” have plenty of glad tidings from the Qur’an itself, and as written it seems the clear intent is not to give glad tidings to those who don’t believe. The dare to call on other gods if one does not accept “Faith” is an interesting one but also is one I can’t really take the book up on. I have no use for the origin story whose only moral seems to be that literally all suffering that happens in the world is appropriate punishment for defying the will of God (though these days he is thankfully content to wait until you are dead to punish you).

2:28 sets up something about the Qur’an that many people don’t know: it appears to endorse a fundamentally millenarian view of the end of the world: “He cause[s] you to die, and will again bring you to life; and again to Him will ye return” sounds a lot like the resurrection of the dead at the sounding of the last trumpet in the Bible. It is a nice and poetic parallel, but it is ultimately of little consequence to the narrative and is little more than hyperbole about God’s greatness (tee’d up by the offended-sounding “How can ye reject faith in Allah…”).

Surah 2 is enormous; as the Qur’an is ordered from longest to shortest after the Opening, and so we will be in it for a good while. It will soon take us from theological storytelling and broad-brush moral abstractions and commandments to more detailed rulemaking.

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What is the Jefferson Qur’an?

An Introduction

Well after the end of his political life, Thomas Jefferson took a straight razor to his Bible and gashed out everything he found disagreeable to his reason or to his morals. Little survived the crucible of his skepticism: where the Bible contained 31,102 verses under the canonical system, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth contains fewer than 1,000 verses, and many of those verses themselves are further redacted. The final product contained no miracles, neither the savagery and superstition of the Old Testament nor the millenarian madness of Paul, none of the God said this, God did that that interfered with Jefferson’s personal deistic philosophy.

Even the very existence of Thomas Jefferson’s personal Bible was not widely-known during his lifetime. Likely he feared the political fallout that would result, even though the text was assembled after his presidency and after the ascendancy of a successor generation for his own political party. He may have felt that his legacy, and the future prospects of his political allies, would not survive the revelation that Jefferson thought he could fix, or at least streamline, the word of God. After all, what American politician, aspiring or otherwise, in his or her right mind would make public their own, personal, diced-up New and Improved Testament? But then, perhaps we are lucky that all that we in the West face for criticizing prevailing contemporary myths is an uphill election fight. More on that in a moment.

My first encounters with Islam were in the context of Christian apologetics; born into a Christian household, I was extremely devout throughout my youth and was born again as a teenager. I became steeped in the works of men ranging in intellectual seriousness from Ken Ham and Lee Strobel to William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga, the latter of whom became the subject of my undergraduate philosophy thesis. Like so many other Christians the more I became exposed to the intellectual foundations of my faith the weaker that faith became, and by my early 20s I was and remain an atheist. I replaced Ham, Strobel, Craig and Plantinga with Robert Price, PZ Myers, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, the former two of whom I even brought to speak at my undergraduate alma mater on behalf of the local little chapter of the Secular Student Alliance that I founded.

Like many others in the West, atheist or otherwise, I had little serious knowledge of Islam. I knew the name Muhammed, and something about seventy-two virgins, and that there was a thing called Sunni and a thing called Shi’a and a thing called the Qur’an (though I probably spelled it Koran). I essentially knew enough about Islam to squeak by eighth-grade social studies and not much more. But, having already been so thoroughly immersed in Christian apologetics from an early age I quickly became bored with secular critiques of Christianity, and Islam came as almost a natural successor to my curiosity. I added Ibn Warraq, Salman Rushdie, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali to my pantheon, and finally sat down to go through the Qur’an itself.

One cannot simply read a work like the Qur’an like any other book for two main reasons. First, its effects have far transcended the text in a way that only two or three other books in all of our history have: about one human in four believes that it is the perfect thesis on morality, cosmic truth, and humanity’s purpose and eternal future. A work that has meant so much to human history and culture frankly deserves better, even though I believe most of it to be nonsense and most of the remainder to be profoundly immoral.

Secondly, like most foundational religious texts, it is profoundly boring. If “badly written” is not the right phrase, it should at least be called “not targeted to the mass-market paperback audience.” The Qur’an is extremely repetitive, its chapters (suras) are assembled not in any chronological or otherwise orderly fashion but are instead arranged from longest to shortest for reasons totally unknown to even its most serious historians and commentators. Some of its stories, many of which are of totally unknown provenance, are so esoteric and weird that they strike me as long-lost Aesop’s Fables told only in Wonderland. Unlike the Bible, the Qur’an at least has stylistic consistency since it is the product of a single voice and not many, and consequently this single voice had to employ certain memory devices and similar idioms and turns of phrase to facilitate its frequent oral recitation and so the Qur’an is agonizingly repetitive. To simply sit down and read it in a single go is to quickly descend into glazed scanning.

So, in order to force myself to really work with the text and to understand it, I steeled myself to write The Jefferson Qur’an alongside my reading of the native text, rather than just read the Qur’an in isolation. It quickly became apparent to me that the text did not adequately speak for itself and so, over the course of about a year, I read the Qur’an, as well as three of its major commentaries, and many other supplemental works, some by Muslims and some not, in order to better understand its cultural, historical, and theological context. I ultimately relied on four different translations read in parallel and three different Quranic commentaries to whittle down the 6,200 some-odd verses of the Qur’an to the narrow volume I intend to produce here.

Here I will walk you through the text of the Qur’an and my own thoughts on it, with such commentary as my meager understanding can provide, and explain my process behind each of the many redactions I have made to the text. I hope that, with your assistance, feedback, and criticism, we together will together arrive at that one pure product that survives the crucible of free inquiry: the truth.