Surah 2:138-163: and YOU get a Qibla, and YOU get a Qibla, and YOU get a Qibla…

Last time, we saw the Qur’an building a sort of civil code of family law – not just divorce law, but also laws about inheritance and certain basic property rights. Prior to that, we were knee-deep in laws relating to religious conduct. Surah 2 somewhat goes back and forth between secular/social laws (ie, the laws that matter for nation-building) and religious or ceremonial rules pertaining to the worship of Allah.

Look, I really have no use for religious or ceremonial laws qua religious or ceremonial laws. The Jefferson Qur’an is explicitly written to shear away gobbledygook about which way you face while you pray or whether God prefers you pray in the morning or night or both. And that is not a point that requires significant labor – I am an atheist, I don’t think the cosmos particularly cares about my mere supplications whether they are uttered in the direction of Mecca or of Tokyo.

That being said, I do hope that this project can be a more serious work than a simplistic gloss on the Qur’an. There are enough wide-eyed lunatics in my own culture (America) who view the Qur’an as nothing more than a manual for violence, and even among my secularist brethren I have seen truly breathtaking simplicity when it comes to criticizing, or even discussing, the Qur’an. The Qur’an is a complicated work, a work of poetry and literature and law that can be read academically without guilt (since most of its material is morally inert, highly-repetitive Old Testament exegesis and the legal codes of a new Arab society).

Today’s passage is mostly ceremonial rules that are duplicative of past material, which is a statement that will become increasingly true of future posts as the Qur’an accumulates more material to repeat. So be it. As always, Mr. Yusuf Ali will deliver the translation, with my commentary. To wit:

138. (Our religion is) the Baptism of Allah. And who can baptize better than Allah. And it is He Whom we worship.

In another of what might seem a strange cultural overlap for readers who are not familiar with the Qur’an, baptism makes its first real appearance here. Like the Bible, nowhere does the Qur’an specify what the procedure for baptism actually is (though this verse likely means it metaphorically to mean an introduction in Islam). Christianity has the same issue, hence the ongoing doctrinal disputes between certain sects of Christianity as to minutiae such as infant baptism, adult baptism, and so on. As an amusing aside, I was born into a family of Southern Baptists, who practice adult baptism, but our family became Methodists fairly early in my life, who practice infant baptism, and so I was not baptized until I was a teenager despite spending most of my Christian life in a church that practices infant baptism.

We do not have a sufficient historical record to know what exactly Muhammed meant by “baptism.” If the practice was sufficiently different between ancient Arabia and the Levant, that difference is not well-described in pre-Islamic history. That being said, we know that baptism as a practice descends from truly primal religion and certainly predates any monotheism in the Middle East. You can find an excellent treatment in the fabulous “The History of Baptism” of the hows and whys of the practice of literal cleansing that also accomplishes a spiritual cleansing.

139. Say: Will ye dispute with us about Allah, seeing that He is our Lord and your Lord; that we are responsible for our doings and ye for yours; and that We are sincere (in our faith) in Him?

140. Or do ye say that Abraham, Isma’il Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes were Jews or Christians? Say: Do ye know better than Allah. Ah! who is more unjust than those who conceal the testimony they have from Allah. but Allah is not unmindful of what ye do!

Verse 140 is very strange. Was Muhammed actually in the presence of a Christian community that, like Muhammed, had gone so far to usurp the ancient pedigree of Judaism by claiming that its earliest heroes were in fact “really” Christians and not Jews? Or is this just another example of the fact that Muhammed had an unimpressive understanding of Jewish scriptures? We do not know. I know of no work of history, on the Qur’an or otherwise, that tells of a Christian community that claimed that Abraham was a Christian. Perhaps these were the beliefs of the mysterious Sabians.

141. That was a people that hath passed away. They shall reap the fruit of what they did, and ye of what ye do! Of their merits there is no question in your case:

142. The fools among the people will say: “What hath turned them from the Qibla to which they were used?” Say: To Allah belong both east and West: He guideth whom He will to a Way that is straight.

143. Thus, have We made of you an Ummat justly balanced, that ye might be witnesses over the nations, and the Messenger a witness over yourselves; and We appointed the Qibla to which thou wast used, only to test those who followed the Messenger from those who would turn on their heels (From the Faith). Indeed it was (A change) momentous, except to those guided by Allah. And never would Allah Make your faith of no effect. For Allah is to all people Most surely full of kindness, Most Merciful.

By way of reminder, the Qibla is the word for the direction to which Muslims must face when praying. This was moved from Jerusalem to Mecca  within the lifetime of Muhammed; to wit:

144. We see the turning of thy face (for guidance to the heavens: now Shall We turn thee to a Qibla that shall please thee. Turn then Thy face in the direction of the sacred Mosque: Wherever ye are, turn your faces in that direction. The people of the Book know well that that is the truth from their Lord. Nor is Allah unmindful of what they do.

145. Even if thou wert to bring to the people of the Book all the Signs (together), they would not follow Thy Qibla; nor art thou going to follow their Qibla; nor indeed will they follow each other’s Qibla. If thou after the knowledge hath reached thee, Wert to follow their (vain) desires,-then wert thou Indeed (clearly) in the wrong.

146. The people of the Book know this as they know their own sons; but some of them conceal the truth which they themselves know.

147. The Truth is from thy Lord; so be not at all in doubt.

We have moved from a physical Qibla to a metaphorical one. Since there is only sketchy history indicating that Jews particularly cared what direction they faced when praying and none whatsoever on Christians, and Muhammed should have been conscious that the Qibla was a truly distinguishing feature between his religion and the Judaism he was largely copying (and the Christianity with which he was competing). It therefore is clear that verse 145 use the Qibla to mean something like “the [metaphorical] object of their devotion.”

This leads to a theological quandary, of course. Swimming upstream against the fact that Allah long predates the 7th century as part of the pre-Islamic Arab pantheon (remember that Muhammed’s own father, Abdullah, has a name that means “slave of Allah,” a name he was given decades before Muhammed began to worship Allah to the exclusion of all other gods), Muhammed wants to claim that Allah was the God of Jewish scripture all along. And yet verse 2:145 tells us that there is some radical distinction between the [metaphorical] Qibla of the Jews and the Qibla of the Muslims. He likely means this in the polemical sense with which he has been talking about “the Jews” all along.

148. To each is a goal to which Allah turns him; then strive together (as in a race) Towards all that is good. Wheresoever ye are, Allah will bring you Together. For Allah Hath power over all things.

This fascinating phrase has occurred before.

149. From whencesoever Thou startest forth, turn Thy face in the direction of the sacred Mosque; that is indeed the truth from the Lord. And Allah is not unmindful of what ye do.

150. So from whencesoever Thou startest forth, turn Thy face in the direction of the sacred Mosque; and wheresoever ye are, Turn your face thither: that there be no ground of dispute against you among the people, except those of them that are bent on wickedness; so fear them not, but fear Me; and that I may complete My favours on you, and ye May (consent to) be guided;

151. A similar (favour have ye already received) in that We have sent among you an Messenger of your own, rehearsing to you Our Signs, and sanctifying you, and instructing you in Scripture and Wisdom, and in new knowledge.

152. Then do ye remember Me; I will remember you. Be grateful to Me, and reject not Faith.

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.

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.

By way of reminder, Safa and Marwa are two hills of likely pre-Islamic devotional significance near Mecca.

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).

The soteriology (salvation theology) of the Qur’an is, as I have already reviewed, wildly inconsistent. The Qur’an adopts two and possibly even three mutually-inconsistent doctrines of salvation in a single sentence; an inconsistent salvation theology is going to be a recurring theme of the Qur’an. 

163. And your Allah is One Allah. There is no god but He, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

The long passages of pure devotional law are of no use to the Jefferson Qur’an. I am preserving snippets of the Qur’an for inclusion into the final product, which will be a Qur’an totally rewritten according to the principles of the Jefferson Bible. In a Jefferson Qur’an first, today’s passage contains no salvageable material.

Surah 1: “The Opening of the Book is a cure to every poison”

The first chapter (surah al-Fatihah) of the Qur’an is special for a lot of reasons. Firstly, it is the only one that is out of the Qur’an’s normal order, which in virtually every publication has its chapters arranged from longest to shortest, as I’ve mentioned. Secondly, it is (probably) one of the only chapters that is provided to us in almost the chronological order by which it was “received” by Muhammed.

According to Islamic tradition, the Qur’an was provided orally to Muhammed by an angel whose Anglicized name is Gabriel, and was then recited orally by Muhammed to his early followers. If it is true that this chapter was among the first ones “received” by Muhammed, then that would place its original creation sometime in the year 609. (Islamic tradition holding that the Qur’an preexisted Muhammed eternally notwithstanding; this is all pure myth-making on the part of later Islamic philosophers.)

The exact history of the first commitment of the Qur’an to writing is complicated and inconsistent so I will save my thoughts on it for a later post. That being said, what record we have of the earliest companions of Muhammed are more or less consistent in asserting that what we today know as Surah 1: the Opening was, indeed, chronologically one of the earliest parts of the Qur’an written down. Al-Zanjani’s fabulously detailed chronological order of the Qur’an, which I will treat as authoritative based on its consistency with both Islamic and Western academic treatment of the question until somebody gives me reason to think otherwise, places it as the fifth chapter received by Muhammed.

A note on terminology: “received” is a word I will be using here and there just as shorthand for “probably made up by Muhammed.” I understand that a plain reading of “received” could give the reader the impression that I believe that a magic being actually orally delivered the text of the Qur’an to Muhammed; this, in my view, is nonsense, but since my differences with the believer in Islam are clear enough there is no need to belabor them.

Here is its entire text as translated by Yusuf Ali:

1. In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
2. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;
3. Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
4. Master of the Day of Judgment.
5. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
6. Show us the straight way,
7. The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.

There is a rich and fascinating commentary on this Surah. It plays a central role in Islamic prayer and poetry and it has attracted voluminous scholarly work from sources both Islamic and non on its language. The modern call to prayer (adhan, which if you are from the Islamic world have heard many times a day; if you are in the Western world, you have probably heard it being played as ominous opening music to bad movies that take place in the Middle East) opens with the words of this chapter.

One of Muhammed’s earliest companions, a man named Abu Sai’id, provided the quote that opens this post to ad-Darimi. (You may have heard the term hadith, which refers to the words and sayings of the first generation of Muslims other than Muhammed, and usually means somebody who claims to have personally known him; Abu Sa’id is such a person, ad-Darimi recorded his words. I think that we have a lot of reasons to believe that many of the haditha we have received are apocryphal at best; again, another time). There is even a hadith of al-Bukhari asserting that no prayer is valid that does not begin with the words of the Opening.

The Opening has a rich history and sophisticated poetic style. But this is the Jefferson Qur’an, and so I must unpeel the superstitious gobbledygook to deliver a purer product. My edits are as follows:

1. In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
2. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;
3. Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
4. Master of the Day of Judgment.
5. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
6. Show us the straight way,
7. The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.

Show us the straight way,
The way of those who go not astray.

There is a part of me that would strike the whole chapter since it is a prayer to one of the many gods I do not believe in. I do not believe that prayer serves any purpose other than to vocalize the personal desires of those who pray, and that nobody is there to hear them (unless that prayer is the adhan, in which case many millions of people are forced to hear it many times a day).

I do, however, very much appreciate the sentiment that lies behind the prayer, which I am sure is the sentiment also appreciated by those many Muslims who venerate the Opening beyond merely its excellent writing. The opening beseeches God for guidance on the quest for truth. I do not believe in God but I, too, fervently crave the truth wherever it lies. I think that the skeptical community and the community of secularists and atheists around the world would hardly disagree.

We skeptical and atheistic types, in my experience, have a deep (some would say exaggerated) love for the natural sciences precisely because it is such a powerful tool for honest, accurate inquiry into the world around us. I sometimes bemoan that same community’s disdain for the humanities (I am biased because, before I went to law school, I was in it for the money and so I studied philosophy and music in college), but recognize that that disdain can come from a sincere respect only for those disciplines that are focused razor-like on objective and accurate truth.

The truth is important and the truth matters. The Opening acknowledges this and goes a step further and in fact pleads for truth, it begs the empty sky for it – as I, in moments of quiet reflection, will plumb my own beliefs for falsehood and inconsistency. I am sure that many Muslims do as well, and are heartened each day by a prayer that joins them in openly pleading for help and guidance. I join with them not in this or any other prayer, but in a heartfelt and sincere yearning for truth both human and scientific.

And so the Jefferson Qur’an and the Qur’an itself open with a plea for a straight path to truth. The Muslim pleads to God for guidance; I plead merely in general. Perhaps I am pleading to you. As I have said here and throughout, I desperately encourage your criticism and corrections on any points historical, liturgical, literary, or in any other form. The next post will provide a little more context on the historical origins of the Qur’an, on the distinction between the Meccan verses and the Medinan verses (the Opening is likely a Meccan chapter), and other historical details that will be crucial for understanding the sublimely mundane Surah 2: Al-Baqarah, the Heifer.