Surah 2:102-121: “Those to whom We have sent the Book study it as it should be studied…”

Much of the material we have covered so far in surah 2 is essentially apologetics against Judaism and Christianity, and this next section is no different. The fact that Muhammed would dedicate so much time (surah 2 being the longest chapter of the Qur’an) to his critics speaks not only to the relative political and military strength he acquired during his time in Medina, when this surah was almost certainly written, but also to the fact that Muhammed was conscious of the fact that he was creating a new religion, as opposed to a sect or reinterpretation of an existing one.

This section also opens up an interesting historical diatribe on that most magnificent gape in the record of the Qur’an: the Satanic Verses. Here is today’s material, as always from Yusuf Ali’s translation:

102. They followed what the evil ones gave out (falsely) against the power of Solomon: the blasphemers Were, not Solomon, but the evil ones, teaching men Magic, and such things as came down at babylon to the angels Harut and Marut. But neither of these taught anyone (Such things) without saying: “We are only for trial; so do not blaspheme.” They learned from them the means to sow discord between man and wife. But they could not thus harm anyone except by Allah.s permission. And they learned what harmed them, not what profited them. And they knew that the buyers of (magic) would have no share in the happiness of the Hereafter. And vile was the price for which they did sell their souls, if they but knew!
103. If they had kept their Faith and guarded themselves from evil, far better had been the reward from their Lord, if they but knew!
104. O ye of Faith! Say not (to the Messenger. words of ambiguous import, but words of respect; and hearken (to him): To those without Faith is a grievous punishment.
105. It is never the wish of those without Faith among the People of the Book, nor of the Pagans, that anything good should come down to you from your Lord. But Allah will choose for His special Mercy whom He will – for Allah is Lord of grace abounding.
106. None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things?
107. Knowest thou not that to Allah belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth? And besides Him ye have neither patron nor helper.
108. Would ye question your Messenger as Moses was questioned of old? but whoever changeth from Faith to Unbelief, Hath strayed without doubt from the even way.
109. Quite a number of the People of the Book wish they could Turn you (people) back to infidelity after ye have believed, from selfish envy, after the Truth hath become Manifest unto them: But forgive and overlook, Till Allah accomplish His purpose; for Allah Hath power over all things.
110. And be steadfast in prayer and regular in charity: And whatever good ye send forth for your souls before you, ye shall find it with Allah. for Allah sees Well all that ye do.
111. And they say: “None shall enter Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian.” Those are their (vain) desires. Say: “Produce your proof if ye are truthful.”
112. Nay,-whoever submits His whole self to Allah and is a doer of good,- He will get his reward with his Lord; on such shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.
113. The Jews say: “The Christians have naught (to stand) upon; and the Christians say: “The Jews have naught (To stand) upon.” Yet they (Profess to) study the (same) Book. Like unto their word is what those say who know not; but Allah will judge between them in their quarrel on the Day of Judgment.
114. And who is more unjust than he who forbids that in places for the worship of Allah, Allah.s name should be celebrated?-whose zeal is (in fact) to ruin them? It was not fitting that such should themselves enter them except in fear. For them there is nothing but disgrace in this world, and in the world to come, an exceeding torment.
115. To Allah belong the east and the West: Whithersoever ye turn, there is the presence of Allah. For Allah is all-Pervading, all-Knowing.
116. They say: “(Allah) hath begotten a son” :Glory be to Him.-Nay, to Him belongs all that is in the heavens and on earth: everything renders worship to Him.
117. To Him is due the primal origin of the heavens and the earth: When He decreeth a matter, He saith to it: “Be,” and it is.
118. Say those without knowledge: “Why speaketh not Allah unto us? or why cometh not unto us a Sign?” So said the people before them words of similar import. Their hearts are alike. We have indeed made clear the Signs unto any people who hold firmly to Faith (in their hearts).
119. Verily We have sent thee in truth as a bearer of glad tidings and a warner: But of thee no question shall be asked of the Companions of the Blazing Fire.
120. Never will the Jews or the Christians be satisfied with thee unless thou follow their form of religion. Say: “The Guidance of Allah,-that is the (only) Guidance.” Wert thou to follow their desires after the knowledge which hath reached thee, then wouldst thou find neither Protector nor helper against Allah.
121. Those to whom We have sent the Book study it as it should be studied: They are the ones that believe therein: Those who reject faith therein,- the loss is their own.

Verse 106 specifically tells us that Allah does not “abrogate” or replace the verses of his revelations. This only seems necessary in a chapter that is essentially apologetical in nature (as you have seen, it obsessively criticizes Jews, Christians, and the mysterious Sabians) if there is an extant criticism of Islam at the time of its authorship necessitating such defensiveness.

The Qur’an is not arranged in chronological order of its revelation to Muhammed, it is arranged from longest chapter to shortest except for its first chapter. Surah 2: the Heifer is actually one of the last ones revealed: according to the general academic consensus (which is consistent with the commentaries by the faithful that I read in preparing the Jefferson Quran), it stands way down the list at 87th written. This puts it far behind the interesting Surah 23: the Star, itself at 53rd.I call the Star interesting more for what is excluded from it than what is included, namely, those verses that have today come to be called “the Satanic Verses.”

When we get to surah 23 in the coming weeks I will go into greater detail about what the Satanic Verses are, why they are important, and why I think that the story behind them is authentic and not an invention of later critics, but for now let me give you the quick overview. While reciting the Star, Muhammed allegedly recited verses that more or less require that Allah stands in a quasi-polytheistic relationship to three other pre-Islamic Arabian gods named al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat, called the gharaniq all together, who, according to the Satanic verses, had certain intercessory powers (ie, they could answer prayers).

The general apologetical tact is to either deny the existence of the event at all (highly unlikely in my view) or to take the more imaginative route of saying that Satan interfered with the recitation of the Star, either by distorting Muhammed’s words, confusing the listeners, or beguiling Muhammed himself into actually speaking the words. Hence, the “Satanic” verses.

Verse 106 is one piece of evidence to me suggesting that the incident of the Satanic Verses actually happened; if we begin with the premise that the general historiography of the Qur’an is correct, that the hadith preserving the story of the Satanic Verses is accurate (and as it is embedded in a longer hadith surviving through ibn Ishaq, who is otherwise generally accepted as reliable by historians of Islam, there is no reason to think otherwise), and if we agree that it makes more sense from a theological point of view to say that the incident never occurred at all as opposed to some convoluted apologetical nonsense about Satan warbling the soundwaves between Muhammed’s mouth and his secretaries’ ears, and that surah 2 comes chronologically later than surah 23, then 2:106 makes perfect sense as a defensive reaction to stories about the Satanic Verses: which stories have no proper place existing at all if they are not rooted in some, or complete, truth.

Much of the rest of this section is at least thematically consistent with what we’ve seen: 2:102 shows that Muhammed has an okay grasp of Jewish canon but not a great one, condensing several stories about Solomon and Simon the Mage into a single blurb that serves only to excoriate “the Jews” for some kind of blood libel-style mass apostasy. Verse 108 hammers home that surah 2 is apologetical in nature, dedicated to defending Muhammed from what were likely lines of theological attack for the Christian and Jewish communities of contemporary Medina, specifically comparing Muhammed to Moses and the doubts that Muhammed seem to think were leveled at him by the Jews at the foot of Mt. Sinai (per the material from the previous sections of this chapter), even though the skepticism to which he probably means to refer actually came from Pharaoh in Egypt.

But there is some text that can be sliced out. To wit:

2:109 Quite a number of the People of the Book wish they could turn you people back after you believed, but forgive them.

This is just a nice sentiment extracted from the context. Forgiving thy enemies is one of those things that I think we all wish that the rest of the People of the Book would take more seriously.

2:111 And they say: “None shall enter Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian.” These are their vain desires. Say: Produce your proof if you are truthful.

2:113 The Jews say: “The Christians have nothing to stand upon,” and the Christians say, “The Jews have nothing to stand upon.” Yet they profess to study the same Book.

2:114 And who is more unjust than he who forbids that in places for the worship of Allah, Allah’s name should be celebrated?

2:120 Never will the Jews or the Christians be satisfied with you unless you follow their form of religion.

Much as the phrase “the Jews” gives me the heeby-jeebies, these verses weave together an elegant solution to all sectarian conflict, to all disagreements about theology and interpretation of this or that big book of Important Truths: “Produce your proof if you are truthful.” There is also a delicious irony in 2:113’s excoriating the Christians and the Jews for fighting amongst themselves “yet they profess to study the same Book,” while Muhammed himself is trying to stitch together a wobbly little storyline out of his own understanding of the Jewish scriptures.

2:120 is in the Jefferson Qur’an because I believe that, as nasty as the sentiment of the verse in isolation is, it is true. There really are people in this world who want nothing from you short of your immortal soul. Some of them will knock on your door a little too early in the morning on Saturday until they get it; some will stick pamphlets and tracts in library books until they get it; the best of the lot will just pray their hearts out until they get it.

The worst are the ones who will fight you for it. To them I say, leave the suicide vest, the gun, and the grenade at home, and produce your proof if you are truthful!

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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.

Surah 2:1-24: “If ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a Sura like thereunto”

As you will recall from the introductory posts, the Qur’an is not ordered, as the Bible is, in any kind of chronological order or even thematically-consistent order. Rather, its chapters (surahs) are ordered from longest to shortest, with the exception of the Opening. Surah 2, the Heifer (Yusuf Ali’s translation is “the Cow”) is therefore the longest chapter in the Qur’an, coming in at a whopping 286 verses, compared to a scant seven for the Opening.

Because the Surah is so long and it is so rich in historical context for the Qur’an, I will take it in sections. The chapter abounds with stories, theology, and laws; it is a very diverse chapter that any modern editor would probably have advised be broken up even further that it might have retained some measure of thematic consistency. I am going to start with the first 24 verses of this massive chapter because it strikes me as a discrete section; it opens the chapter with a challenge to non-believers like me, and as you will see in the next post, it transitions immediately into a set of legal and moral commands that are totally unrelated to the content of this first group of 24 verses. And they are (as always, from Yusuf Ali’s translation):

1. A.L.M.
2. This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah.
3. Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them;
4. And who believe in the Revelation sent to thee, and sent before thy time, and (in their hearts) have the assurance of the Hereafter.
5. They are on (true) guidance, from their Lord, and it is these who will prosper.
6. As to those who reject Faith, it is the same to them whether thou warn them or do not warn them; they will not believe.
7. Allah hath set a seal on their hearts and on their hearing, and on their eyes is a veil; great is the penalty they (incur).
8. Of the people there are some who say: “We believe in Allah and the Last Day;” but they do not (really) believe.
9. Fain would they deceive Allah and those who believe, but they only deceive themselves, and realise (it) not!
10. In their hearts is a disease; and Allah has increased their disease: And grievous is the penalty they (incur), because they are false (to themselves).
11. When it is said to them: “Make not mischief on the earth,” they say: “Why, we only Want to make peace!”
12. Of a surety, they are the ones who make mischief, but they realise (it) not.
13. When it is said to them: “Believe as the others believe:” They say: “Shall we believe as the fools believe?” Nay, of a surety they are the fools, but they do not know.
14. When they meet those who believe, they say: “We believe;” but when they are alone with their evil ones, they say: “We are really with you: We (were) only jesting.”
15. Allah will throw back their mockery on them, and give them rope in their trespasses; so they will wander like blind ones (To and fro).
16. These are they who have bartered Guidance for error: But their traffic is profitless, and they have lost true direction,
17. Their similitude is that of a man who kindled a fire; when it lighted all around him, Allah took away their light and left them in utter darkness. So they could not see.
18. Deaf, dumb, and blind, they will not return (to the path).
19. Or (another similitude) is that of a rain-laden cloud from the sky: In it are zones of darkness, and thunder and lightning: They press their fingers in their ears to keep out the stunning thunder-clap, the while they are in terror of death. But Allah is ever round the rejecters of Faith!
20. The lightning all but snatches away their sight; every time the light (Helps) them, they walk therein, and when the darkness grows on them, they stand still. And if Allah willed, He could take away their faculty of hearing and seeing; for Allah hath power over all things.
21. O ye people! Adore your Guardian-Lord, who created you and those who came before you, that ye may have the chance to learn righteousness;
22. Who has made the earth your couch, and the heavens your canopy; and sent down rain from the heavens; and brought forth therewith Fruits for your sustenance; then set not up rivals unto Allah when ye know (the truth).
23. And if ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a Sura like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (If there are any) besides Allah, if your (doubts) are true.
24. But if ye cannot- and of a surety ye cannot- then fear the Fire whose fuel is men and stones,- which is prepared for those who reject Faith.

Lets start with a mystery. What is going on in verse 1 of the Heifer? Three free-floating letters, A.L.M., seem to be doing nothing but taking space before Muhammed launches into an aggressive work of pre-emptive apologetics, attacking not just unbelievers in general, but their most contemptible sub-group: apostates.

There is no academic consensus as to the meaning of the three characters, which are altogether called muqatta’at, that open the Heifher; 28 other chapters have their own combination of the “mysteries letters” (one translation of muqatta’at). One scholar, Amin Islahi, speculates in his work that the letters, in their original meaning, may signal certain themes in the chapters they open. Otto Loth claimed in his book Tabaris Korankommentar to have discovered some numerological connection to pre-Islamic Assyrian and Babylonian languages. And the Sufi tradition holds that they are secret mystical references to the names of God. Who knows?

One theory with which I am perfectly comfortable is that the letters are simply secretarial marks by some scribe trying to keep track of which manuscript is which. If these letters were of divine significance, we would hope that God would do us the favor of actually explaining what they mean to us (since, as verse 2 tells us, the Qur’an is “of guidance sure”). If they are thematic markers, is Islahi telling us that a whopping 86 surahs of the Qur’an (those that do not open with such letters) have no themes worth talking about? And if they are some numerological oddity, that still does nothing to explain why only about one fourth of the chapters have them.

When Muhammed died, there was no extant written version of the Qur’an. The actual origin of the Qur’an is in a series of oral recitations by Muhammed to his followers, who may or may not have reduced these recitations to writing or who may have committed them to memory and spread them to others before the final written versions were later crystallized. Certain clues lead me to believe that Muhammed directly recited the Qur’an to transcribers (for example, it would have been much easier to whitewash the so-called “Satanic Verses,” which I’ll discuss when we get to surah 53, had there been no original written record of them). Whether or not Muhammed was, as tradition holds, illiterate, is of little consequence to me either way but I am inclined to doubt it because there is evidence in the Qur’an that Muhammed was fairly fluent in pre-Islamic Arab poetry, Jewish and Zoroastrian theology (though he had an atrociously inaccurate understanding of Christianity, the Trinity in particular, as we’ll see), and because that same tradition holds that Muhammed was a successful merchant, indicating that he should at least know how to read numbers.

Back to the story. As time went on, a number of inconsistent compilations of the words of Muhammed had begun to proliferate across the early Islamic world. Scholars today call them the “Metropolitan Codices,” and they were all ordered destroyed and replaced by the early Caliph Uthman (the Caliphs were leaders of the Islamic world in its early days; there is no analogy in Christianity, though if the Pope were also a king of a nation that would be fairly close). Uthman’s text has since morphed into the modern Qur’an. (I say “morphed” because there is still a rich lineage of textual variation between Uthman’s compilation and the modern day; it is traced with pointed criticism by the immensely talented and mercifully anonymous Ibn Warraq in his vast polemic Why I Am Not A Muslim, which you should buy and read here).

Because we must view Uthman’s codex as an attempt to bring multiple different manuscripts under a single umbrella, it stands to reason that we are talking about a compilation of the work of many different authors. It is not inconceivable that any of these authors might have used these letters as index markers or as mnemonic devices for the orally-recited verses they were attempting to translate. I don’t know for sure, obviously – this is something of a pet theory, but it sings much more soundly in my ears than the song of magic mystical numbers advocated by the more superstitious bards.

Lets return to the next. Surah 2 is one of what are called the Medinan surahs. This refers to those chapters that were written after Muhammed’s return to (or conquest of, depending on who you ask) Medina. There is a lot to say about the differences between the two “kinds” of Surah, but for right now it will suffice to say that Surah 2: the Heifer comes from an era in Muhammed’s life where his political and military positions were stronger; in this latter part of the formation of Islam, Muslims were more numerous and were rapidly displacing their political opponents throughout the Arabian peninsula.

The aggressive tone of this opening sequence therefore makes sense, since the stronger you are, the less conciliatory your rhetoric need be. He rails against “hypocrites” (ie, those who claim to believe but don’t act like it), apostates, and unbelievers, nonsensically stating that the merciful and compassionate Allah has willfully sealed up their hearts to forbid their belief… and they should be excoriated because of this. There is a ringing parallel to the story of Moses and the fictional slavery of the Jewish people in Egypt in the Bible, where Pharoah’s recalcitrance in the face of Moses’s use of holy fury against Pharoah and his people is explained by God’s deliberately hardening Pharoah’s heart against Moses.

But perhaps my favorite part of this section is verse 23’s dare to any who question the absolute perfection of the Qur’an to produce “a like Sura,” to produce a copy that’s just as good. Beyond the bevy of grammatical oddities in the Qur’an that will be discussed in later posts as they occur, I of course believe that I am stepping to that challenge with every word I write here: I believe that the Jefferson Qur’an is superior to the Qur’an. And here is how I believe one should produce a superior 2:1-24:

1. A.L.M.
2. This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah.
3. Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them;
4. And who believe in the Revelation sent to thee, and sent before thy time, and (in their hearts) have the assurance of the Hereafter.
5. They are on (true) guidance, from their Lord, and it is these who will prosper.
6. As to those who reject Faith, it is the same to them whether thou warn them or do not warn them; they will not believe.
7. Allah hath set a seal on their hearts and on their hearing, and on their eyes is a veil; great is the penalty they (incur).
8. Of the people there are some who say: “We believe in Allah and the Last Day;” but they do not (really) believe.
9. Fain would they deceive Allah and those who believe, but they only deceive themselves, and realise (it) not!
10. In their hearts is a disease; and Allah has increased their disease: And grievous is the penalty they (incur), because they are false (to themselves).
11. When it is said to them: “Make not mischief on the earth,” they say: “Why, we only Want to make peace!”
12. Of a surety, they are the ones who make mischief, but they realise (it) not.
13. When it is said to them: “Believe as the others believe:” They say: “Shall we believe as the fools believe?” Nay, of a surety they are the fools, but they do not know.
14. When they meet those who believe, they say: “We believe;” but when they are alone with their evil ones, they say: “We are really with you: We (were) only jesting.”
15. Allah will throw back their mockery on them, and give them rope in their trespasses; so they will wander like blind ones (To and fro).
16. These are they who have bartered Guidance for error: But their traffic is profitless, and they have lost true direction,
17. Their similitude is that of a man who kindled a fire; when it lighted all around him, Allah took away their light and left them in utter darkness. So they could not see.
18. Deaf, dumb, and blind, they will not return (to the path).
19. Or (another similitude) is that of a [See the] rain-laden cloud[s] from the sky: In it are zones of darkness, and thunder and lightning[.]: They press their fingers in their ears to keep out the stunning thunder-clap, the while they are in terror of death. But Allah is ever round the rejecters of Faith!
20. The lightning all but snatches away their sight; every time the light (Helps) them, they walk therein, and when the darkness grows on them, they stand still. And if Allah willed, He could take away their faculty of hearing and seeing; for Allah hath power over all things.
21. O ye people! Adore your Guardian-Lord, who created you and those who came before you, that ye may have the chance to learn righteousness;
22. Who has made the earth your couch, and the heavens your canopy; and sent down rain from the heavens; and brought forth therewith Fruits for your sustenance; then set not up rivals unto Allah when ye know (the truth).
23. And [I]f ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a Sura like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (If there are any) besides Allah, if your (doubts) are true.
24. But if ye cannot- and of a surety ye cannot- then fear the Fire whose fuel is men and stones,- which is prepared for those who reject Faith.

2:8 Of the people there are some who say: “We believe in Allah and the Last Day”; but they do not really believe.
2:11 When it is said to them: “Do not make mischief on the earth,” they say: “Why, we only want to make peace!”
2:13 When it is said to them: “Believe as the others believe:” they say: “Shall we believe as the fools believe?”
2:19 [See] the rain-laden cloud from the sky: in it are zones of darkness, and thunder and lightning.
2:23 And if you are in doubt as to what Muhammed wrote, then produce a Sura like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers if your doubts are true.

I admit that I have kept only a very snarky reading of this section. Yes, there are unbelievers. Yes, they just want to live in peace and be left alone. And yes, some of us, when asked why we don’t believe what others believe, will respond in our most irritable moments with some variant of “you want me to believe what those idiots believe?”

Not that Muslims are idiots, or Christians, or anybody else. I really don’t think that. There is a caricature of the modern secular movement that sees it as a self-righteous, aloof cabal of socially incompetent nerds who just like to dump all over religion and see themselves as smarter than everybody else. I am not one of those atheists, nor have I ever actually met one of those atheists, despite our frequent portrayal as such by many of the religious. But I do want to preserve, as an absolute right, the right to disagree with other people. I think that most Muslims would agree with this sentiment.

But sadly I think that many Islamic societies have not yet achieved a level of pluralism and religious tolerance necessary to rise to the high mantle of a later admonition of the Qur’an, which is that “there shall be no compulsion in religion.” The Islamic community has produced a vast trove of beautiful art, sublime poetry, they preserved Greek philosophy and math in mighty libraries and schools while the people of Europe were still trying to determine whether or not Jews had started the Plague by poisoning the water supply. And yet the Islamic world has also produced many societies that either have strong social pressures towards conformity or even outright bans on religious pluralism: as Muhammed says, even the beautiful clouds at night illuminated by lightning yet retain “zones of darkness.” And so that verse remains as well.

Finally, I have retained 2:23 because I like the sentiment. First of all, there are many parts of the Qur’an that really are extremely talented and beautiful poetry. I am going to criticize the text, language, grammar, syntax, even that very poetry throughout this blog, but do not confuse this in even your most defensive moment as some kind of insinuation that the Qur’an is useless, or stupid, or totally devoid of literary value. I don’t believe that, and it’s easy not to believe because it is obviously not true. But still I will rise to that challenge, and here is another small brick in the wall of that challenge.

As the next post winds deeper into the thicket of the massive second surah, I will use that opportunity to talk more about the military fortunes of the early Muslims, and to deliver some much-needed praise for some of Muhammed’s moral values as expressed therein.

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.