Saturday, March 24, 2012

Thoughts on Al-Qur’ān

Juz' of Qur'an (Egypt, 1438-1453), LACMA (Public Domain) 
While in my early mid-twenties, I attended a speaking event that was hosted by an Islamic mosque and a Christian organization. The Christians who attended each received a copy of the Qur’an (translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali), while the Muslims each were given a copy of the New Testament. Despite everyone insisting that the books were “for reference,” I’m quite sure that both sides viewed this exchange as an opportunity to proselytize the other side. I appreciated the gift as a reference tool, useful for looking up passages quoted in the books I was reading, but I never attempted to read my Qur’an until nearly three years ago. And I finally finished it earlier this week.

The Qur’an is not an easy book to understand, even though each surah reads as if it were concise and complete. I was a little surprised how little content was devoted to religious practices, but perhaps that’s what the hadith is for. I also was surprised at how boring I found the book, since it’s generally the topic of heated conversation. If I were to summarize the book, I would say that it’s most like Revelation, the Apocalypse, a text devoted to eschatology. The Qur’an informs the reader what will occur in what Christians would call the “end times,” when the Resurrection of the dead occurs, and offers instructions on what is necessary to receive final reward and avoid final punishment for deeds done on earth. One thing that stood out to me from the text is the fact the Qur’an seems to self-interpret its “end times” statements as literal. However, there doesn’t seem to be any hint as to when to time the “inevitable event.”

While reading Surat Al-Wāqi`ah (Surah 56), a Meccan or early surah, I immediately made a connection with the “Final Judgment” described in Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus Christ tells of His glorious return, sitting on a heavenly throne and separating the “sheep” from the “goats.” Surah 56 (links A, B, & C) also tells of mankind being divided after the Resurrection. In that case, there are three classes: the Companions of the Right/Right Hand, the Companions of the Left/Left Hand, and the Foremost in Faith. In both texts, those on the right are rewarded while those on the left are punished. In the Qur’an those places of reward and punishment are actually in the right and left positions, while Jesus Christ sends those on the left away to eternal destruction and leads those on the right to Paradise (Matt. 25: 34, 41, & 46).

However, the most glaring contrast is the third position: the Foremost in Faith. The Qur’an has reserved for them the “Gardens of Bliss” that are “Nearest to Allah” and even their own thrones (ayah 11, 12, & 15). Maybe there’s a connection with the promises made to Jesus’ disciples: that twelve thrones upon which they would judge the twelve tribes of Israel awaited those of them who remained faithful (Matt. 19:28). Yes, the text does mention special rewards reserved for those who’ve given up everything to follow Christ (cf. Matt. 19:27-30, Mark 10:28-31, Luke 18:26-30), but the Bible is rather vague on the matter. Jesus continues teaching the disciples with the parable about the hired day laborers who receive the same pay even though they were hired at different times (Matt. 20:1-16). The point of this passage is that we can expect God to give us exactly what He promises us (v. 13), and we’re not to complain when He shows generosity to others (v. 15). The clear implication of this passage is that there will be some who’ve given up less who’ll receive the same reward as those who give up more.

While the Gospel tells us not to expect more, the Qur’an explicitly promises special honors to those who were generous towards the needy and obeyed God (link C)…in other words, people who would be just included among the many other “sheep” (Matt. 25:35-40). This leaves two impressions on my mind: First, Muslims might take comfort in the belief that, even if they cannot make the cut to be in the “foremost” class, they can at least enjoy the benefits of being a part of the “right” (sort of a parasitic nobility, honored but essentially useless from a spiritual perspective). Second and related, Muslims might feel as though they must be guaranteed extra benefits in exchange for their good deeds. In other words, there must be an extra incentive to alter their behavior if they’re going to sacrifice their time and money and even their lives in holy jihad. God, however, expects us to do what is required, because it is right, and not for expected benefit. So, while the Qur’an provides an easy out for those who don’t practice righteousness (the “right”), the Gospel relegates the same people to eternal destruction (the “left”) (Matt. 25:42-45).

Helpful References:
A. The Meanings Of The Holy Qur'an by Abdullah Yusufali Ali (English translation)
B. Qur’ān (English translation)
C. The Meaning of Quran: In Text with Advance Search by S. Abul A'la Moududi (English translation with commentary)
D. The Hadith Library
E. Internet Sacred Text Archive

1. The Qur’an Translation by Abdullah Yusufali Ali (English translation)
2. HarperCollins Study Quran (whenever they get around to publishing it)