Monday, March 12, 2007

Week 08, The Koran, Ibn Ishaq's Biography of the Prophet

Notes on The Koran

1433. “Believers, when you rise to pray wash your faces and your hands . . . . But if you are sick or travelling . . . take some clean sand and rub your hands and faces with it. God does not wish to burden you . . . .” Forms are important, but the faith that animates them is much more so. If you can’t find some sand in Arabia when water isn’t available, you’re not looking very hard.

1433. The Koran says to “deal justly” and “bear with” Israelites and Christians, those other “People of the Book.” For the most part—at least arguably—harsh treatment of non-Muslims is put off to the Day of Resurrection. It’s said of the Israelites that “You will ever find them deceitful, except for a few of them. But pardon them and bear with them.” Similar words are spoken of Christians, who are charged with forgetting the covenant God made with them. And on 1434, the text calls those who insist that “God is the Messiah, the son of Mary” unbelievers.

1435. As with the Hebrew Scriptures, there is undeniably some strict legal sanctioning in The Koran: “As for the man or woman who is guilty of theft, cut off their hands.”

1436. Here the text says that “People of the Book” should “vie with each other in good works” and in the end differences will be resolved.

1436-37. Jesus is described as a prophet, but not as an equal of God. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is the sticking point. See 1437: how can one be a Christian without believing that Jesus is God’s “only begotten Son”? If a Christian gives up this belief, he or she is not Christian, right? So a key source of tension between these two religions is apparent from such passages. The text sometimes counsels patience and offers hope, but it is also often blunt: “do not seek the friendship of the infidels and those who were given the Book before you, who have made of your religion a jest and a pastime” (1436).

1440. Jesus is here made to disavow any claim to divinity. God gave him miracles, and he is a genuine apostle of God, but not, according to the Koran, more than that: “Jesus, son of Mary, did you ever say to mankind: ‘Worship me and my mother as gods beside God?’ // ‘Glory to You,’ he will answer, ‘how could I ever say that to which I have no right?’” The apostles warn us and undergo testing, whereby they set an example of steadfastness. God favors them with his messages, and every nation gets its apostle (1443).

1442. It seems that one cannot have a “pick-and-choose” Koran, to adapt a phrase from Pope John Paul II. The Koran’s status is claimed to be even more infallible than that of the Bible, but I’m no expert in such matters. The Christian tradition has included intense and prolonged argument over the precise textual contours of the Bible; the Church Fathers had to act as literary critics to establish which books were to be considered canonical, and which should be described as apocryphal. But I think that Islam has also built up a vast body of extra-Koranic literature in the area of social conduct and law—the Imams are supposed to be experts in all aspects of the written tradition.

1443. The Idols here are eerily personified and made to attest to their own falsity: “It was not us that you worshipped, God is our all-sufficient witness. Nor were we aware of your worship.”

1446-52. Joseph is treated as a prophet and is “universalized”; he isn’t so much a national leader as an example of patience and wise use of power. In other respects, the story seems similar to the one in the Bible.

1452. Allah speaks directly to Muhammad, distancing the Messenger from the message. There is plenty of room for drama in that kind of relationship between God and the Messenger. But the relationship in the Gospels between Jesus and God seems to me more intimate and more enigmatic.

1453. Here the text makes the father of Jesus “a special messenger”—not “god himself.” Jesus’ blessedness and purity are conveyed, but not any equation of status to God.

Notes on Ibn Ishaq


“How Salman Became a Muslim”


1463-67. Salman is an earnest fellow who seeks the truth. He starts out as a Zoroastrian, and then becomes attracted to the doctrines of Christianity and wants to find an honest embodiment of those doctrines. His father fears this change and actually puts him in fetters, which Salman manages to cast off, whereupon he’s off to Syria and thence to what would now be Mosul, Iraq, whose Bishop he reveres, and afterwards to Nasibin, Turkey, and on to Ammuriya, Turkey. In Ammuriya Salman is told about a prophet who will bring a new dispensation of the Religion of Abraham, and is given a few signs by which he may be known. On 1466, the apostle devises a way for Salman to free himself from his current master, and even helps him carry out the plan: he assists Salman in planting the palm trees promised to the master. Then comes the oddest part of the story. Salman has been told by his master to “go to a certain place in Syria where there was a man who lived between two thickets” (1466). There he meets none other (according to the apostle’s belief) than Jesus, who, when Salman comes upon him, points him towards the apostle. Jesus keeps turning up in the Koran as a wondrous, misunderstood figure.

“The Beginning of the Sending Down of the Quran”


467. The text says that “Prophecy is a troublesome burden—only strong, resolute messengers can bear it by God’s help and grace, because of the opposition which they meet from men . . . .” Muhammad’s message was uncongenial to the people amongst whom he was born (the Quraysh); they were polytheistic animists, and his new dispensation is monotheistic. It isn’t that monotheism was inconceivable to them (Hebrews and Christians were hardly unknown to the Arabian peninsula), but they remained unwilling to change their older religion.

“Khadija, Daughter of Khuwaylid, Accepts Islam”

1467-68. Khadija seems to have been a practical woman of the merchant class, and she became Muhammad’s first convert. The text says that she was of great assistance to him, providing material and moral support as his revelations flowed and ceased.

From “The Prescription of Prayer”

1468-69. Muslims are supposed to pray five times daily if at all possible. This part of the text explains the significance of prayer: at first it was Allah’s commandment to Muhammad that he should pray, and the number of prostrations during prayer gradually increased. The angel Gabriel then visited with the prophet and prayed at the five prescribed times with him, and made apparent the importance of ritual ablution before prayer. But the statement “prayer is in what is between your prayer today and your prayer yesterday” gets to the heart of the matter. Islam itself signifies “submission to God’s will,” and apparently, life itself is to be lived as a perpetual prayer. Therefore, Muslim prayer isn’t something a believer does at the proper times as a formal requirement and then sets aside; it is a constant attitude of devotion. The traditional call to prayer sung at mosques, by the way, is:

God is most great. God is most great.
Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar.
God is most great. God is most great.
Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar.
I testify that there is no God except God.
Ash-hadu an la ilaha ill-Allah.
I testify that there is no God except God.
Ash-hadu an la ilaha ill-Allah.
I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God.
Ash-hadu anna Muhammad-ar-Rasoolullah.
I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God.
Ash-hadu anna Muhammad-ar-Rasoolullah.
Come to prayer! Come to prayer!
Hayya 'alas-Salah. Hayya 'alas-Salah.
Come to success! Come to success!
Hayya 'alal-falah. Hayya 'alal-falah.
God is most great. God is most great.
Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar.
There is none worthy of worship except God.
La ilaha ill-Allah.

Belief.net Call to Prayer.

Another illustrative site is Muslim Canada.org, which contains (as do many other sites) some audio files of the Call to Prayer. The following version in Quicktime format is beautifully done and you can follow the Arabic lines easily: Audio File of Call to Prayer.

From “Ali ibn Abu Talib, the First Male to Accept Islam”

Ali is Muhammad’s first male convert, and when Abu Talib discovers them praying together, he won’t convert but promises his support. The prophet begins to pick up more converts, including Abu Bakhr, who later became the first caliph.

From “The Apostle’s Public Preaching and the Response”

1470-73. Muhammad was getting along with the tribe of the Quraysh, it seems, until he began to speak less than positively about their gods, after which time his faithful uncle Abu Talib did his best to protect him from the machinations and warlike attacks of the Quraysh. But he is beginning to make converts, too, and gathers those loyal to him to his side.

From “Al-Walid ibn Al-Mughira” and “How the Apostle Was Treated by His Own People”

1473-75. Muhammad continues to speak forthrightly, and is accused of being a sorcerer, and so forth. Others defend him fervently, and at one point his own behavior is striking: walking three times around the ancient Qa’aba stone and hearing harsh words spoken against him, he says, “Will you listen to me O Quraysh? By him who holds my life in His hand I bring you slaughter” (1474). This statement makes quite an impression, and his accusers back down for a time.

“Hamza Accepts Islam”

1474. “Islam” means “submission,” and different people achieve it differently. It so happens that Hamza’s way is to beat a man named Abu Jahl for insulting the prophet. This act has a good effect on Hamza and even, to some extent, on Abu Jahl, who regrets his bad behavior.

“The Burial Preparations”

Muhammad passes away, supposedly with the last injunction “Let not two religions be left in the Arabian peninsula” (1475). See Wikipedia on Muslim History for an overview of the historical events that follow the death of the prophet in June 632. Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples is excellent, as is Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: a Biography of the Prophet.

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