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 2:194-211: “do good.” Thanks.

The previous section of the text we went through saw language that is a little more law-like than most other religious books, in that the Qur’an prescribes mundane rules about everything from contracts to wills and estates seemingly devoid of any particular religious or theological meaning. As I posited, this is because Muhammed saw himself tasked with building not just a faith but a society in the face of the political turmoil of contemporary Medina where this Surah was almost certainly written. The strange moral construct of the “law of equality” – an Islamic moral code that is presented inconsistently sometimes multiple times in the same paragraph – comes back in the next section, which otherwise returns more to religious and ritualistic law.

But a lot of it isn’t even truly, uniquely Islamic – laws about Ramadan, the pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj), and other seemingly unique features of Islam far predate Muhammed’s time in Medina.

I rather like this new convention of doing commentary interspersed with the text rather than give you the block of Muhammed’s thoughts then the block of mine. Lets do that. Take it away, Yusuf:

194. The prohibited month for the prohibited month,- and so for all things prohibited,- there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, Transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.

So begins a confusing re-entry into the “law of equality” that was referenced in verse 2:190. 2:190 told the followers of Allah to only make defensive war, and not to “transgress limits,” implying that there is some ceiling on the amount of suffering one is allowed to inflict even in self-defense. 2:194 is a simpler story. Another translation I like ellides in an editorial explanation of the first clause of 194: “[fighting in] the sacred month is for [aggression committed in] the sacred month.” That is a ton of editorialization so take it with a grain of salt, but that reading does at least render this verse thematically consistent with the Hammurabi-style, eye-for-an-eye legal theme of 2:190.

194 also serves the purpose of clarifying that even the “sacred month” (Ramadan) still brooks some sin and bloodshed, but only if need be, ie, in the cause of self-defense. Whether this law is better categorized as a “religious” law or a “mundane” law is a value judgment all your own; it is so common-sense that a nation should not totally disarm for any reason, much less a purely religious reason, shouldn’t need to be stated. Unless, of course, you are self-consciously aware that future nations will be writing their laws based on your book and so even seemingly-trivial inconsistencies or absurdities need to be resolved in writing, as I believe Muhammed was.

195. And spend of your substance in the cause of Allah, and make not your own hands contribute to (your) destruction; but do good; for Allah loveth those who do good.

Now that’s a helpful moral statement. “Do good.” Great, very helpful.

Whether or not an action is good because the Qur’an says so, or whether the Qur’an says an action is good because it is independently good, harks back to the inconsistent soteriology (salvation doctrine) of the Qur’an. The Qur’an adopts at least two and possibly three inconsistent positions on salvation in the same paragraph. If someone is good for goodness’ sake but doesn’t become a Muslim, there is a Qur’anic argument both for and against that person’s eternal reward. And so when we read the Qur’an commanding us to “do good,” this is very unhelpful in isolation, because we do not know if “good” means “do what is good and Allah will reward you,” or if it means, “good is doing what the Qur’an tells you, so you must do everything the Qur’an orders you to.” In a book that liberally intersperses both general moral commands and specific legalisms, this is just bad editorial policy.

But there may be some help in contrast:

196. And complete the Hajj or ‘umra in the service of Allah. But if ye are prevented (From completing it), send an offering for sacrifice, such as ye may find, and do not shave your heads until the offering reaches the place of sacrifice. And if any of you is ill, or has an ailment in his scalp, (Necessitating shaving), (He should) in compensation either fast, or feed the poor, or offer sacrifice; and when ye are in peaceful conditions (again), if any one wishes to continue the ‘umra on to the hajj, He must make an offering, such as he can afford, but if he cannot afford it, He should fast three days during the hajj and seven days on his return, Making ten days in all. This is for those whose household is not in (the precincts of) the Sacred Mosque. And fear Allah, and know that Allah Is strict in punishment.

This overlong verse is self-explanatory so instead what I will highlight is a possible resolution to the question I ask about verse 195, which is whether “good” means “good” or “good” means “Qur’anic.” The opening of verse 196 with a new sentence and the word “and” (consistent across every translation I used in preparing the Jefferson Qur’an) makes me as a reader think that verse 196 is setting itself up to contrast (in some way) with verse 195. Perhaps 195 is telling us to be good for its own sake, and verse 196 is saying, in addition to doing good, one should do this other category of thing and go on the Hajj if you can. Perhaps this is a complicated bit of moral philosophy, and perhaps Muhammed was a bad writer. 

197. For Hajj are the months well known. If any one undertakes that duty therein, Let there be no obscenity, nor wickedness, nor wrangling in the Hajj. And whatever good ye do, (be sure) Allah knoweth it. And take a provision (With you) for the journey, but the best of provisions is right conduct. So fear Me, o ye that are wise.

198. It is no crime in you if ye seek of the bounty of your Lord (during pilgrimage). Then when ye pour down from (Mount) Arafat, celebrate the praises of Allah at the Sacred Monument, and celebrate His praises as He has directed you, even though, before this, ye went astray.

199. Then pass on at a quick pace from the place whence it is usual for the multitude so to do, and ask for Allah.s forgiveness. For Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.

200. So when ye have accomplished your holy rites, celebrate the praises of Allah, as ye used to celebrate the praises of your fathers,- yea, with far more Heart and soul. There are men who say: “Our Lord! Give us (Thy bounties) in this world!” but they will have no portion in the Hereafter.

The original specifics of the pilgrimage to Mecca are hopelessly lost to time and were apparently inconsistent among the pre-Islamic “pagans” of Arabia even before Muhammed’s time, but what is certain is that the pilgrimage to Mecca itself in one form or another predates Islam by centuries. F.E. Peters’ the Hajj is an excellent sourcebook on the modern and ancient practice of the Hajj and goes into far more detail than I can here.

The early pilgrimage to Mecca lacked the Biblical interpolations Muslims today follow (such as casting stones at Satan and going to Mt. Arafat); it was about going to Mecca and probably also visiting the Kaaba, which too was a site of ritual significance long before Muhammed for reasons we can at best only intelligently speculate about. Muhammed has blatantly co-opted it, laying upon it as he is wont to do an innovative retelling of the Hebrew Scriptures (which Muhammed knew… poorly) to preserve his connection to, but not reinvention of, the ancestral monotheism he wishes to replace. Today it is the iconic unique feature of Islam, but its true origins are lost to us, except to say that Muhammed did not invent the Hajj.

201. And there are men who say: “Our Lord! Give us good in this world and good in the Hereafter, and defend us from the torment of the Fire!”

202. To these will be allotted what they have earned; and Allah is quick in account.

Another ill-presented and unusual moral lesson. If 2:201-202 says that all we have to do to get our eternal reward is ask for it, then what is the point of all the do-gooding we’re asked to do in verses 195 and 196? But then, 202 does not actually tell us what the reward is. What does somebody “earn” by a profession such as 2:201? The Qur’an doesn’t say.

203. Celebrate the praises of Allah during the Appointed Days. But if any one hastens to leave in two days, there is no blame on him, and if any one stays on, there is no blame on him, if his aim is to do right. Then fear Allah, and know that ye will surely be gathered unto Him.

There is a set of two “sacred days” some Muslims apparently may have believed (or inherited the belief of being) set aside for the Hajj. This verse tells the reader that there is apparently nothing special about these sacred days – Muhammed, perhaps, shearing away some extraneous paganism from the original Hajj rituals to make way for all of the Hebrew testament references.

204. There is the type of man whose speech about this world’s life May dazzle thee, and he calls Allah to witness about what is in his heart; yet is he the most contentious of enemies.

205. When he turns his back, His aim everywhere is to spread mischief through the earth and destroy crops and cattle. But Allah loveth not mischief.

206. When it is said to him, “Fear Allah., He is led by arrogance to (more) crime. Enough for him is Hell;-An evil bed indeed (To lie on)!

207. And there is the type of man who gives his life to earn the pleasure of Allah. And Allah is full of kindness to (His) devotees.

If Muhammed was referring to a specific person here, that person is lost to history. Likely, this is prophylactic apologetics, encouraging his people to mentally separate Muhammed out from all those other itinerant prophets, the latter of whom will distort the authentic message with their lies and is, in fact, not just wrong (2:204), but is in fact positively evil, out to steal food from your kids’ mouths (2:205).

208. O ye who believe! Enter into Islam whole-heartedly; and follow not the footsteps of the evil one; for he is to you an avowed enemy.

It is not clear whether or not “the evil one” described here is the generic wicked-tongued heretic described in the previous verses, or is Satan.

209. If ye backslide after the clear (Signs) have come to you, then know that Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.

210. Will they wait until Allah comes to them in canopies of clouds, with angels (in His train) and the question is (thus) settled? but to Allah do all questions go back (for decision).

211. Ask the Children of Israel how many clear (Signs) We have sent them. But if any one, after Allah.s favour has come to him, substitutes (something else), Allah is strict in punishment.

And here we have a nice shout-out back to the original anti-apostasy prohibitions from earlier in the chapter, mixed with the continued polemic against “the Children of Israel” as wicked, fallen apostate Muslims instead of as authentic, devout Jews.

I kept some of the material from this section for inclusion in the Jefferson Qur’an that will require some explanation. Here are the verses:

2:195 Do not make your own hands contribute to your destruction, but do good.

2:204 There is the type of man whose speech about this world’s life may dazzle you, and he calls Allah to witness about what is in his heart; yet he is the most contentious of enemies.

2:205 When he turns his back, his aim everywhere is to spread mischief through the earth and destroy crops and cattle.

2:195 is one of those uncontroversially decent moral commands that I will always presumptively include in the final text of the Jefferson Qur’an as a gesture of good faith towards the Qur’an, which after all is losing about 95% of its original material in the course of this editing. 2:204-205, however, I will explain. Its functionality as an ironic warning against people just like Muhammed is simply too charming a textual quirk for me to pass up. It will therefore find use in a particular section of the Jefferson Qur’an, once this long slog through the native text is completed.