Qu’ran reading experiment 3: Surah Ale-‘Imrān

Please read the disclaimer on the first article in this series.

This surah is again directed at Christians, Jews and Muslims and establishes that the Jews and Christians have distorted their religions and should convert to Islam to follow the only truth. It doesn’t explain what that truth is, in what this truth might be better than some other theories. Instead, it threatens that people will be punished (by Allah, in the afterlife) if they don’t believe. It also says unbelievers will be “fuel for the fire”. Is that a threat against me?

Very nice. So instead of giving me solid advice, a functional theory or any sort of moral compass, the book threatens me with punishment and death simply for not believing what it says. And it hasn’t said anything so far except that Allah is best and everyone else is worth less than Muslims. That Islam is truth and everything else is distortion. Not a very convincing argument. Philosophers writing two thousand years earlier, both east and west of Mekkah and Medinah, have provided a much more convincing argument.

Islam takes the victory at the Battle of Badr against thrice the number of nonbelievers as proof that the battle’s victors are the chosen ones of Allah. But similar things have been claimed by the Jews before, with just as little proof as the Qu’ran presents. So since both the Qu’ran and the Torah cite the same proof (none), does that make them equally valid?

The Qu’ran criticizes the Jewish construct of Gehenna (3:24) because obviously, just a year in Gehenna, that’s not punishment enough for those manly butch Muslims. No, for them only true eternal punishment of disbelievers is enough, everything else is for pussies.

The surah then disses Egyptians (3:11) and announces that Allah will punish them as well. If I “fear” Allah, I am promised rewards in Paradise. Why do I need to be afraid of a deity that is supposedly full of love for me? 3:19 says that all three Abrahamic religions had the same root, but claims that only Muslims didn’t get caught up in jealous fighting and distortion of their religion. This is interesting because isn’t what Sunnis are doing to Shias today precisely what the Qu’ran criticizes here?

Killing (Muslim) prophets is not okay (3:21). I don’t know how annoying Muslim prophets were at the time. Jesus was also very annoying to the other Jews, so he got killed, and I’m sure there are better ways to deal with annoying prophets, so 3:21 seems one of the friendlier parts of this surah. The Qu’ran complains that the Jews didn’t acknowledge Muhammad as the prophet that was foretold. But I think that’s fine, they also didn’t accept Jesus as the messiah. They surely can decide themselves who they acknowledge in which role, what could possibly give the proto-Muslims the right to decide for the Jews?

3:28 says that Muslims should not take disbelievers as allies (supporters, protectors). The Arabic word used is awliyāa (I think from ولي). I’ve also seen it translated as “friends.” If indeed the meaning is to separate Muslims from others by forbidding them to have non-Muslim friends, I’d find this very disruptive to a good society. Just think what a barrier this would put between people if taken literally today. If it means “protector” or “bodyguard” and it’s read only in a historical context where people actually chose and needed those, OK, there’s perhaps less harm done.

Yet what does it say about living in multi-faith and multicultural socities? This could be interpreted so that Muslims should isolate themselves from non-Muslims, but in today’s society this isn’t wise. Only by integrating and interacting can societies live peacefully, not by isolation. Later on there will be some statements in the Qu’ran that doing business with non-Muslims is OK, but that business is business — although I can’t know about this yet, I’m only at surah 3.

There are a bunch of warnings that Allah is only kind to those who believe in him and that you should strive to convert disbelievers to believe in Allah.

The birth of Mary, mother of Īsā

The wife of ‘Imrān then delivers a child, a girl, and the Qu’ran finds it necessary to point out that “the male is not like the female”, but there is nothing qualifying about this yet. The woman pledges her daughter to Allah and asks for protection from Sheitan.

I still have to research the Muslim variant of the Satan figure a bit, but I think he’s just a stand-in for anything deemed (arbitrarily) evil or ungodly. This to me is much less interesting than e.g. the tempter Māra in Buddhism (this guy has a specific purpose at least), and a lot less entertaining than trickster gods like Loki/Loptr.

Anyhow. 3:40 – 3:50ish deal with a prophecy from angels that Mary should one day give birth to the prophet Īsā (Jesus). Mary is mentioned mostly as a womb, I guess, and as a vessel for the seed of a Muslim prophet. The Qu’ran then claims that those who believe through Jesus in Allah will be treated “superior” to those who disbelieve during the end-times (never forget that Islam is an end-time sect).

We are warned again that “Allah does not like wrongdoers” in 3:57, but so far the reader does not know what Allah considers wrong or right. If the Qu’ran makes reference to the Torah and the 613 mitzvot of the Jews, or whether it’s some of Moses’ commandments, it does not say. Again didactically really weak, we are warned against doing something that has not been explained so far, and with no systematic approach to why it should be considered wrong.

I was told that it’s “not allowed” to criticize the Qu’ran in this way, it’s not allowed to find fault with its form or content, that one must take the Qu’ran exactly as it is and that its truth will thus reveal itself. I’ll try to refrain from form criticism and will instead criticize only content in future posts.

Anyhow. Jesus will be sent out to the Children of Israel to convert them to Islam. Then a lot of explanation how you should really, really be religious and really, really will be rewarded by Allah during the end-times.

Cheating of the goys

There is a bit of socio-criticism: In 3:75 the Qu’ran bemoans that Jews cheat and lie to goys. And later on we are told to fear Allah again. So I presume this means that Muslims should not cheat or lie to unbelievers. Finally, almost 100 pages in, here is something morally useful: Do not cheat or lie to those who believe differently. Whether cheating or lying is permissible at all, and in what circumstances, has not been revealed yet. And even this piece of good advice and colossal dissing of Jews is hidden in a lot of warnings to fear Allah.

Distorting of scripture

3:78 is rather cute because it warns that prophets should not change religious scripture while claiming it was sent from Allah, and it also warns that prophets should not make people serve them instead of Allah. But in the New Testament, Jesus often plays substitute to the God figure by claiming that only through Jesus do you get salvation from God (not directly from or through God, but through Jesus). Jesus also criticizes several of the Jewish religious practices of the time and even himself broke Biblical law, telling people that sometimes it’s OK to break the law.

So did Jesus distort scripture, put himself above Allah, and would he be considered to have acted against 3:78? It gets really interesting if you pit religious scripture against each other, but let’s stay with the Qu’ran for now. We don’t know yet whether what’s reported in Matthew 12 is also in the Qu’ran, and how they phrased it there. Also don’t forget that the synoptic gospels in the New Testament are by no means all the gospels. It could very well be that there were gospels that completely left out the bits where Jesus is a law-breaking bad dude.

But alas, back to the Qu’ran. Please note that I’m not making up the disorganized nature of the Qu’ran’s writing, I’m going section by section, and the seemingly random ordering and themes that I’m commenting on are in roughly the same order as they were revealed in the book. Apparently readers are not allowed to criticize this randomness, because it is divine, so let’s play by those rules. If you get confused by my ordering of things, it’s no different than if you’d be reading the Qu’ran itself, and I will make no attempt to put things into any specific order.

You should better fear Allah, fear him! And die as a Muslim (3:102). Further such verses about how disbelievers will be punished on the day of judgment, about how their faces will turn black. Some dissing of Jews and Christians, claiming that among them are some believers, but that most of them are surely disobedient (to whom? Their gods? The Muslim god?). More verses about how if you disbelieve, you will roast in fire eternally. Exactly two verses about how those Christians and Jews who pray regularly and “hasten to good deeds” will be counted among the righteous. How nice, after dozens of verses of provocation towards Jews and Christians, there are some cheerful words.

3:118 reminds Muslims that they should only take other Muslims as friends. Repetition using different wording is a common theme in the Qu’ran, we have seen this plea before somewhere in surah 2. Then there’s something about how Allah will choose which disbelievers to cut down and which one to merely torture, and that he might send angels to help you (your armies, I guess).

Many more verses about fearing Allah. And for the first time, Allah is mentioned as “loving” something. Allah loves the doers of good (3:148). With “good” not being defined so far. But in 3:151 we’re already back to the scaremongering, with “we will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve”. 3:152 tells us how Allah sometimes gives permission to kill people, even though in surah 2 it was said that Allah punishes those who kill most severely.

3:157 is probably one of the reasons there are suicide bombings and terror attacks, because it says that if you’re killed fighting in the name of Allah, Allah’s forgiveness and mercy is beyond whatever you could accumulate in this world. It then says that the victory at the Battle of Uhud is proof of Allah’s support of the true believers [and their armies], plus some more verses about Muslim military domination thanks to divine intervention. More verses about how unbelievers will be punished by Allah.

Those rich Jews again

Some stuff about rich Jews unjustly killing prophets around 3:180. And finally one interesting bit at 3:185: “What is the life of this world except enjoyment of delusion.” This is very funny from a Buddhist perspective, because hey, finally the two systems find a term they can talk about with each other. Enjoying the delusion and not understanding impermanence, non-self etc. is a poison or at least one of the fetters. I’m not sure what the Qu’ran recommends as a solution (the way this is going, probably more fear of Allah). In Buddhism, you work on it by learning about mind-phenomena, meditation, science etc. until you can see through the delusion to the nature of reality. This is very brief and inaccurate, please read some Buddhist stuff for the details.

But I’m not even sure the Qu’ran speaks of the same delusion.

3:195 mentions that males and females “are of one another”. I would interpret this as being some statement for the equality of men and women. It would be nice if this were really true, but Muhammad’s sex life was rather adventurous and he was apparently often busy raping and enslaving women after his massacres. So he himself did not set a good example, even though 3:195 was revealed to him.

Summary

That was surah 3. Which parts of it are valuable? It repeats dozens upon dozens of times that we should fear Allah, and that only then we will be rewarded, and that if we take our armies against our enemies in the name of Allah we will be forgiven our sins, etc. It cites victories in two battles as proof that the Muslims have the truth. It is also stated in some examples how Muslims are better than all others, and that only Muslims have the unfiltered truth (that the other religions lost due to modification).

If there were anything remarkable, valuable, useful in what’s revealed yet, I would be willing to take it to heart. But the book says nothing so far. Only that everyone who isn’t fearing Allah will roast in fire forever.

 

 

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