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.

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Surah 2: 122-152: “Strive as in a race towards all that is good!”

Today we officially cross the halfway mark of the titanic surah 2. As with the past several sections, today we are going to see another screed against the Jews, who were Muhammed’s contemporaries and political rivals, continuing Muhammed’s quest to appropriate the Hebrew scriptures without the audience thinking that his is just a sect or reinterpretation of Judaism or of Christianity.

But there’s a little bit of interesting historical material here, so I’m going to break up today’s big chunk into smaller pieces to talk about some of the historical context. As always, I’ll let Yusuf Ali take it away:

122. O Children of Israel! call to mind the special favour which I bestowed upon you, and that I preferred you to all others (for My Message).
123. Then guard yourselves against a Day when one soul shall not avail another, nor shall compensation be accepted from her nor shall intercession profit her nor shall anyone be helped (from outside).
124. And remember that Abraham was tried by his Lord with certain commands, which he fulfilled: He said: “I will make thee an Imam to the Nations.” He pleaded: “And also (Imams) from my offspring!” He answered: “But My Promise is not within the reach of evil-doers.”
125. Remember We made the House a place of assembly for men and a place of safety; and take ye the station of Abraham as a place of prayer; and We covenanted with Abraham and Isma’il, that they should sanctify My House for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer).
126. And remember Abraham said: “My Lord, make this a City of Peace, and feed its people with fruits,-such of them as believe in Allah and the Last Day.” He said: “(Yea), and such as reject Faith,-for a while will I grant them their pleasure, but will soon drive them to the torment of Fire,- an evil destination (indeed)!”
127. And remember Abraham and Isma’il raised the foundations of the House (With this prayer): “Our Lord! Accept (this service) from us: For Thou art the All-Hearing, the All-knowing.
128. “Our Lord! make of us Muslims, bowing to Thy (Will), and of our progeny a people Muslim, bowing to Thy (will); and show us our place for the celebration of (due) rites; and turn unto us (in Mercy); for Thou art the Oft-Returning, Most Merciful.
129. “Our Lord! send amongst them an Messenger of their own, who shall rehearse Thy Signs to them and instruct them in scripture and wisdom, and sanctify them: For Thou art the Exalted in Might, the Wise.”
130. And who turns away from the religion of Abraham but such as debase their souls with folly? Him We chose and rendered pure in this world: And he will be in the Hereafter in the ranks of the Righteous.
131. Behold! his Lord said to him: “Bow (thy will to Me):” He said: “I bow (my will) to the Lord and Cherisher of the Universe.”
132. And this was the legacy that Abraham left to his sons, and so did Jacob; “Oh my sons! Allah hath chosen the Faith for you; then die not except in the Faith of Islam.”
133. Were ye witnesses when death appeared before Jacob? Behold, he said to his sons: “What will ye worship after me?” They said: “We shall worship Thy Allah and the Allah of thy fathers, of Abraham, Isma’il and Isaac,- the one (True) Allah. To Him we bow (in Islam).”
134. 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!
135. They say: “Become Jews or Christians if ye would be guided (To salvation).” Say thou: “Nay! (I would rather) the Religion of Abraham the True, and he joined not gods with Allah.”
136. Say ye: “We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one and another of them: And we bow to Allah (in Islam).”
137. So if they believe as ye believe, they are indeed on the right path; but if they turn back, it is they who are in schism; but Allah will suffice thee as against them, and He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.
138. (Our religion is) the Baptism of Allah. And who can baptize better than Allah. And it is He Whom we worship.
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!
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.
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.

Yesterday’s post contains the bulk of my thoughts on the apologetical trick of co-opting Jewish scriptures and condemning the “modern” (7th-century) Jews while uplifting the story and spirit of the “real” (Old Testament-era) Jews (who were, in fact, Muslims, of course) so I won’t belabor it. The only real new material in this section is the explicit argument contained in verse 143, which has a translation trick I’ll need to explain.

Ali does not translate the word “Ummat” for us because there really is no word for it in English. Here is a parallel translation that will give you some idea of what is meant. Rashad’s translation renders it as “an impartial nation;” Muhammed Pickthall (whose translation I think is the most poetic of the ones I read, for the record, but is a little hard to read sometimes) renders it “a middle nation;” other translations that render it as an “exalted” nation are likely based on a post facto superiority view of the Islamic community rather than what Muhammed likely intended – that Islam is the “middle way” for Christians, Jews, and the mysterious Sabians. This “impartial nation” thought is the only one that makes sense of three separate overlapping issues:

  1. As explained in prior posts, Muhammed’s political position upon his return to Medina was that of the role of the mediator between the Christian and Jewish communities of Medina (Yathrib). It would not be helpful, and in fact might be dangerous, to the Muslim community of Medina if Muhammed came out of the gate swinging about the Islamic community being the superior community rather than the “middle way” community.
  2. Verse 135 only makes sense if we see this passage as an attempt to frame Islam as the middle way, by setting “the Jews” and Christians in opposition to each other.
  3. The best available evidence tells us that the Jewish and Christian communities were much larger suppliers of new converts to Islam (Glubb’s The Life and Times of the Prophet is an excellent older source on this point that has been validated by the succeeding decades of academic scholarship) than the Sabians (whoever they were) and the “pagan” communities. It is therefore a simply a sharper rhetorical weapon to contextualize Islam as the middle between the two, not more like one than the other, and not stated in a way that completely alienates either side’s religion as totally bogus.

My two cents.

147. The Truth is from thy Lord; so be not at all in doubt.
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 is a passage that I genuinely do not understand – or rather, it is written badly. Verse 147 tells us that truth comes from God, so there should be no doubts – yet much of surah 2 is dedicated precisely to those who do doubt (who Muhammed calls “perverse“). Verse 148 goes on to give a contradictory message in a single sentence: Allah decides where everyone turns, but here is where you should turn: the “Good.” Whether or not Muhammed had a sufficiently sophisticated understanding of Greek philosophy to effectively deploy such massively loaded and complex terms as “the Good” with an eye to those philosophies will be discussed in later posts, but I doubt it.

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.

One final historical diversion: these verses define the qibla, or the direction to which Muslims should face when they are praying. Montgomery Watt and even less partisan sources tell us that, originally, Muslims were instructed to pray towards Jerusalem, before the consecration of the Masjid al-Haram where the Qaaba is located. That Allah would designate a roving point of devotional supremacy is weird enough. But you’ve certainly encountered just through your culture an understanding that Muslims pray in the direction of the Qaaba. What is it?

In surah 3, Muhammed will tell us that the Qaaba (Kaaba is the Anglicization that you have probably seen but one that I don’t particularly care for) is the actual site of the First Temple where Abraham and Solomon worshiped. Beyond the fact that the entire historicity of the First Temple being anywhere at all is in serious question, it is very unlikely that it was located so far south of the Levant.

Ancient Greek historians as far back as Diodorus actually referred to what is likely the area of Mecca as a sacred place long before the rise of Islam and even before Judaism or Christianity had any significant presence in the region. Pre-Islamic non-Abrahamic religion in the area is weird and confusing but do remember that “Allah” had a ritual significance in Arabia long before Islam (Muhammed’s own father was named Abdullah: “Servant of Allah”). There is also some evidence that Mecca itself was something of a demilitarized zone, perhaps to facilitate its role as a trading home, for much of pre-Islamic Arabian history, but whether its religious significance is because of this or a consequence of this is not a matter of academic consensus that I know of.

So really, in my estimation, we know that the Qaaba is, and even have some idea of why it is significant in Islam, but it is otherwise an enduring mystery.

Finally, here is all that I have kept from this section for the Jefferson Qur’an:

2:134 They shall reap the fruit of what they did, and you of what you do!

2:141 They shall reap the fruit of what they did, and you of what you do!

2:148 Strive together as in a race toward all that is good.

This is another case of me preserving a sentiment that I simply like. In fact, I like the sentiment of the repeated phrase above so much that I took it twice. I like the idea that people should be prepared to accept the consequences of their own actions – it is rather at odds with Muhammed’s essentialist wordlview that “the Jews” can be one, harmoniously apostate and fallen people, rather than speaking to the individual goodness of any given Jew, or of any Muslim who are instead condensed into an Ummat.