Thursday, August 19, 2021

Online Course: The Qur'an and Biblical History

This fall and winter, I will again be teaching my online course on the Qur'an and Biblical History for Albalagh Academy, God willing. This is my favorite subject to teach because it involves exploring several different academic fields—ancient Near Eastern studies, biblical studies, late antique Jewish and Christian traditions, and Qur'anic studies—and there is so much to talk about! Moreover, teaching it always gives me the opportunity to ponder, read, and learn more myself and to share new insights that I find along the way. If you are interested in learning more about the stories of the Qur'an and how they relate to biblical tradition and history, then please consider enrolling! Also, feel free to let me know if you have any questions.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Qur'an and the Secrets of Egypt

My friend Abu Zakariya of ManyProphetsOneMessage has just released this high-quality video, based partly on research I have gathered here on this blog—though I have learned several new things from it myself. I highly recommend checking it out, along with his other videos and resources. 

Note: There is one inaccuracy that should be pointed out, which is that the Qur’anic hāmān and the Egyptian ḥm-‘mn do not phonetically correspond, since the former has /h/ (Arabic ه) and the latter has /ḥ/ (equivalent to Arabic ح). They therefore cannot be related.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Excellent resource on ring composition in the Qur'an

It has been a long time since I have posted here! I wanted to give a shout out here to Munir Eltal's blog He is doing an excellent service by trying to collect everything together on symmetry, chiasmus, or ring composition in the Qur'an into one place. I have shared some examples here on my blog—but see his for many, many more.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Online course on the Qur'an, the Bible, and History

I will be offering the following online course starting next month, إن شاء الله, which will be free in light of the pandemic. Anyone who is interested, do register quickly, as the seats are already filling up very fast.

Image may contain: 2 people, including Sharif Randhawa, text

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Travel Reflection: The Native American Spirit

Over the last week, I have been on an enthralling road trip heading home from the west coast of the U.S. (from Washington State) to the east coast (to New York State). So far, it has been an incredible journey of nature and history. However, today I was so impacted by what I learned and experienced that I felt compelled to immediately share it.
Since yesterday, I have been in Rapid City, South Dakota. Today I had the opportunity to visit Mount Rushmore. It was of course fascinating to visit such an artistic and engineering feat and testimony to American history that I have only seen in pictures my whole life. But what impacted me far more was another memorial that I think most people do not know about, as I did not know about it myself until arriving here.
This is the Crazy Horse Memorial located only a short drive away from Mount Rushmore. In 1948, a Native American chief from the Oglala Lakota tribe by the name of “Henry” Standing Bear commissioned a Polish-American sculptor named Korczak Ziolkowski to sculpt a Native American memorial into a mountain not far from Mount Rushmore. Standing Bear was a Native American born into Native American culture, but who attended an American school that attempted to restyle its Native American students by giving them Anglo-Saxon names, cutting their hair, requiring them to wear Western clothing, and forbidding them from speaking their native language. Standing Bear proved to be an outstanding student and acquired a profound eloquence in the English language, but did not forget his roots and the plight of his people, using his education and eloquence to become a spokesperson for Native American causes. Ziolkowski was born in Boston to Polish immigrants, but was orphaned at one year of age and spent a difficult childhood moving from one foster home to another. However, over time he made a name for himself as a prominent sculptor.

The carving of Mount Rushmore alerted Standing Bear to the need for a memorial to tell the Native American side of American history. Ziolkowski soon became dedicated to this cause, and embarked on a project to sculpt a Native American memorial in the mountains of South Dakota that would rival Mount Rushmore, and to use the funds from tourists to establish a museum dedicated to educating people about Native American culture and history, as well as a medical center and a university to train Native Americans in medicine, law, and other fields. When Ziolkowski consulted the Oglala Lakota leaders as to whom they would like the mountain sculpture to portray, they all agreed on Crazy Horse.
Crazy Horse was a Oglala Lakota leader who successfully fought against encroaching American settlers to protect the land and way of life of his people. His most famous victory was in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, in reference to Crazy Horse’s defeat of the Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his forces. The following year, Crazy Horse died after being arrested by the settler military post guard and stabbed with a bayonet by one of its members. He was a Native American hero who was respected not only by his own people, but even by his enemies. In 1982, he was ranked among the “Great Americans” by U.S. Postal Service
who issued a postage stamp in his honor.
Korczak Ziolkowski died before completing the Crazy Horse sculpture, but his family has continued the project in admirable dedication to sharing the Native American side of the American story.

When I exited the Crazy Horse visitor center and museum, it was raining outside. As I headed for my car, I turned in the direction of the Crazy Horse sculpture to take one last picture. To my amazement, a rainbow had formed right next to it, and I was delighted to be able to capture such a moment:

It is significant that even settlers from the time of Columbus, who treated the Native Americans in extremely inhumane ways over the course of centuries, admitted that the nobility, generosity, and spiritual devotion these people were beyond anything they had ever witnessed.
The following is the text of an extremely beautiful and moving Native American prayer to the “Great Spirit,” the Native American term for God, that I saw in the museum:

Prayer to the Great Spirit
“Oh Great Spirit, Giver of All Life,
You have been always, and before you nothing has been. 
Look and smile upon us your children,
So that we may live this day to serve You.
Watch over my relatives, the red, black, white and brown.
Sweeten my heart and fill me with light this day.
Give me strength to understand and the eyes to see.
Help me Great Spirit, for without you, I am nothing.”

- Paul War Cloud

As a side note, I have been extremely amazed to learn recently of the profound and striking similarities between the faith and praxis of Native American religion and that of Islam. As the Quran says, God has imprinted the souls of all people with an instinctual faith and moral compass, and has appointed “a messenger among every community” to remind, show, and teach them of the divine path (10:47; 16:36). I highly recommend this fascinating discussion on the topic, drawing on the book ‘The Gospel of the Red Man’ by Ernest Thompson Seton:

Monday, August 20, 2018

Islam: The Legacy of Abraham (Part II)

 2. Mecca as the Birthplace of Islam

Surat al-Baqara then goes on to narrate that God ordered Abraham and Ishmael to build the Ka‘ba as a “sanctuary” and “center for mankind.”  Abraham in turn prays to God to make the land into a safe and prosperous city:

We made the House a center for mankind and sanctuary, saying, “Take the spot where Abraham stood as your place of prayer.” We commanded Abraham and Ishmael: “Purify My House for those who walk round it, those who stay there, and those who bow and prostrate themselves in worship.”  Abraham said, ‘My Lord, make this a secure city and provide with produce those of its people who believe in God and the Last Day.” (2:125-126)[1]

Thus, the Ka‘ba became the earthly symbol of islām, and Mecca became its spiritual capital.

Moreover, it was here, upon completing the building of the Ka‘ba, that Abraham prayed to God to elect from his descendants a muslim nation:

As Abraham and Ishmael built up the foundations of the House [they prayed], “Our Lord, accept [this] from us.  You are the All Hearing, the All Knowing. Our Lord, make us submitted to You (muslimayni la-ka), and make from our descendants a nation submitted to you (ummatan muslimatan la-ka)…Our Lord, make a messenger of their own rise up from among them, to recite Your revelations to them, teach them the Scripture and wisdom, and purify them: You are the Mighty, the Wise.” (2:127-129)

Hence, the Qur’an teaches us that the sending of Muhammad as a messenger (peace be upon him) and the Qur’anic revelation are both in fact part of the legacy of Abraham, stemming from the prayer he made upon building and consecrating the Ka‘ba.

3. Surat al-Baqara: The Establishment of the Muslim Nation

Surat al-Baqara, which was mostly revealed in the first and second years of the Hijra, is a historic sura, because this is the sura in which Allah declared the establishment of the Muslim umma or nation.  It is meant to be “a middle nation,” balanced between the excesses of the Jewish and Christian communities, and to serve (like Abraham) as an example for the rest of mankind:

The foolish people will say, “What has turned them away from the prayer direction they used to face?” Say, “East and West belong to Allah. He guides whoever He will to the right way.” Thus We have made you into a middle nation (ummatan wasaṭan), so that you may bear witness [to the truth] before others and so that the Messenger may bear witness [to it] before you. (2:142-143)

With the Hijra, the Muslims had become socially and politically separate and independent from the Quraysh.  Subsequently, when Allah announced the change of the prayer direction from the Temple of Jerusalem to the Ka‘ba—“the first house [of worship] established for mankind” (3:96)—He formally distinguished the religion of the Muslims from that of the Jews.  Hence, the above passage marks the very foundation of the Muslims as an independent nation and religious community.

This is highlighted by the structure of Surat al-Baqara itself.  The sura has the following overall structure, with the change of prayer direction being the central section of the sura:

A. Faith and Disbelief (vv. 1-39): Believers and disbelievers; God created and will resurrect.
B. Criticism of the Israelites (vv. 40-121): Moses delivers law to Children of Israel; Children of Israel fail to submit.
C. Abraham’s legacy (vv. 122-141): Abraham was tested; Ka‘ba built by Abraham and Ishmael; prayer that descendants will return to monotheism and submit to God.
D. The change of prayer direction to the Ka‘ba (vv. 142-152): the new Muslim community is established as a “middle nation” who believe and compete in doing good works.
C’. Restoring Abraham’s legacy (vv. 153-177): Muslims will be tested; instructions about pilgrimage to Mecca; warning not to take ancestors or their gods as rivals besides God.
B’. Laws for the new Muslim nation (vv. 178-242): Prophet delivers law to Muslims; Muslims exhorted to submit wholeheartedly.
A’. The struggle of the believers against the disbelievers (vv. 243-286): Believers in struggle against disbelievers; God’s power over creation and to resurrect; laws of financial dealings.

The sura therefore “revolves” around the Ka‘ba, much as believers circle around the Ka‘ba during the Hajj.  Moreover, the statement “We have made you into a middle community,” occurs in the middle verse of the sura: the sura has 286 verses, and this declaration occurs in verse 143.[2]  This serves to highlight the change of prayer direction towards the Ka‘ba built by Abraham, and the establishment of the Muslim community, as the central feature of this sura.

4. The Foundations of Islam

From the above, we see that the Hajj (and hence, ‘Eid al-Adha) is a commemoration of the tradition of islām—submission to the One God—that traces back to Abraham, and which was restored during the prophetic mission of Muhammad (peace be upon them).  It is also a celebration of the prayer of Abraham as he built the Ka‘ba with Ishmael, which was fulfilled in the establishment of the Muslim nation, formalized by the change of prayer direction to the Sacred House.  The Ka‘ba is the symbol of this nation—a “sanctuary” and “place of return for mankind”; Mecca is its spiritual capital; the Qur’an is its constitution; and the days of Hajj and ‘Eid al-Adha are among its holidays.  In sum, during these these days, we commemorate the faith, sacrifice, and submission of Abraham; remember him as our spiritual forefather; recall how he revived monotheism and consecrated the Ka‘ba to the worship of God; and how that monotheism was again restored by Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the Qur’an, in fulfillment of Abraham’s prayer.

As Islam is the “religion of Abraham,” the other four pillars of Islam also go back to him:

1. The first pillar is to testify that there is nothing to worthy of worship except Allah, and that Muhammad is His Messenger.  The connection with Abraham is obvious, since it is he who revived monotheism when the world was immersed in idol worship, and the role of Muhammad’s mission was to restore the legacy of Abraham (peace be upon them).

2. The ritual prayer, or ṣalāh, is rooted in Abraham’s supplication, “My Lord, make me an establisher of the prayer, and many from my descendants” (14:40).  Moreover, during the prayer direct ourselves towards the Ka‘ba, the Sacred House built by Abraham.

3. The poor-due, or zakāh, harks back to Abraham through his son Ishmael: “And mention in the scripture Ishmael.  He was true to his promise and was a prophet-messenger; and he used to enjoin prayer and the poor-due, and he was pleasing to His Lord” (19:54-55).

4. The obligation to fast during Ramadan was revealed in Surat al-Baqara, following the formal establishment of the Muslim umma.  According to this passage, the purpose of Ramadan is to commemorate the Qur’an:

It was in the month of Ramadan that the Qur’an was revealed as guidance for mankind, clear messages giving guidance and distinguishing between right and wrong.  So any one of you who is present that month should fast…He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful (2:185). 

The revelation of the Qur’an, as we have seen before, was the fulfillment of Abraham’s prayer.  Hence, all five pillars of Islam go back to Abraham.

5. The Hajj as a Divine Miracle

We saw above that Allah says in Surat al-Baqara,

We made the House a center for mankind. (2:125)

The word for center, mathāba, denotes “a place that is much frequented and serves as a point of congregation for people.”[3]  The Qur’an is filled with divine promises that Muhammad and his followers would conquer Mecca, liberate the Ka‘ba from idolatry, and restore it as a center for the worship of One God.  It also contains indications that the Prophet’s message would be a universal one.  The majority of these prophecies were revealed in the Meccan period, while the Muslims were still a small, persecuted minority, without any tangible hope of accomplishing such lofty aspirations.

Today, millions of men and women around the world travel each year to Mecca for Hajj.  When visiting the Ka‘ba, they recall the legacy of Abraham and the fulfilled prophecy of the success of the mission of the Prophet and his companions.  By participating in the rites of Hajj with millions of other believers, they are also reminded of the spread of the Abrahamic message from a small, persecuted religious group in Mecca, to now every corner of the globe.  This message is that God is One and that all human beings are equally His creatures and servants.  The Hajj is the largest gathering of people from all races, nationalities, languages, and social classes in the world.  As they pray together and circle around the Ka‘ba in harmony, they are united in the worship of God and the acknowledgement of human equality, of which the Ka‘ba is a symbol.  The Hajj is a veritable miracle of Islam—a living testimony to the fulfillment of the divine promises to Abraham reported in the Qur’an and the previous scriptures.

Further reading:
·      F.E. Peters, The Children of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam (Princeton University Press, 2010).
·      Jon D. Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam(Princeton University Press, 2012).
·      Neal Robinson, “Surat Al ‘Imran and Those with the Greatest Claim to Abraham,” Journal of Qur’anic Studies 6, no. 2 (2004): 1-21.
·      Angelika Neuwirth, “The House of Abraham and the House of Amram,” in The Qur’an in Context, pp. 499-503.
·      Mustansir Mir, Understanding the Islamic Scripture: A Study of Selected Passages from the Qur’an (N.p.: Pearson Education, 2008), pp. 29-34.
·      Nouman Ali Khan and Sharif Randhawa, Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran as Literature (Euless, TX: Bayyinah Institute, 2016), pp. 195-212, 224-231.

[1] A parallel account in 14:35-41 reports the settling of Mecca by Abraham: “Our Lord, I have established some of my offspring in an uncultivated valley, close to Your Sacred House, Lord, so that they may keep up the prayer. Make people’s hearts turn to them, and provide them with produce, so that they may be thankful” (14:37).
[2] See Nouman Ali Khan and Sharif Randhawa, Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran as Literature (Euless, TX: Bayyinah Institute, 2016), pp. 209-210.
[3] Mir, 31.

Islam: The Legacy of Abraham (Part I)

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘…I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

God said, ‘I will make you a leader for mankind.” (Qur’an, 2:124)

In the season of Hajj, it is important to remember and reflect on what the Hajj is about.  That is what I intend to do briefly here in these posts, focusing on a particular Qur’anic passage that explains this theme.  This passage is Abraham’s prayer of consecration as he is building the Ka‘ba with his son Ishmael (peace be upon them), as it is recorded in Sura 2, The Cow (al-Baqara), in verses 124-129.  This passage occupies a central place in the Qur’an as far as salvation history is concerned, and it is no accident that it occurs in the beginning of the Qur’an, in the very second sura.  This sura, and in particular this passage, explains the very foundations of Islam as a religion.  Before we dive into this passage, however, there is some background that is worth briefly examining.

1. Abraham: The Father of the Muslim Nation

In various places in the Qur’an, Allah specifically dubs Islam “the religion of Abraham” (millat Ibrāhīm).  For example, in response to some members of the Jewish and Christian communities in Medina, who criticized the Muslims for not following their religions, the Muslims are repeatedly told to “Follow the religion of Abraham, ḥanīfan; and he was not one of those who associate partners with God” (2:135; 3:95; 4:125; 6:161; 16:123).  At the conclusion of Surat al-Hajj, Allah even calls Islam “the religion of your father Abraham (millati abīkum ibrāhīm)”:

Strive hard for Allah as is His due: He has chosen you and has not placed on your religion any difficulty—the religion of your forefather Abraham.  He named you muslims in the past and in this [message]. (22:78)

Thus, according to the Qur’an, Abraham (peace be upon him) is the spiritual father of the Muslim nation, and Islam is to be understood primarily as “the religion of Abraham.”

It is important to understand the background of this declaration.  The Qur’an’s interlocutors consisted on the one hand of the pagan Quraysh of Mecca, and on the other hand of the Jewish and Christian communities in Medina and elsewhere.  The Quraysh of Mecca claimed their status as the leaders of the holy city and the custodians of the Ka‘ba on the basis of their descent from Abraham through his son Ishmael.  Likewise, the Jewish community looked to Abraham, whom they called “our father Abraham,” as both their physical father and as the spiritual father of Judaism.  Christians also claimed Abraham as their spiritual forefather: Paul claimed Abraham, who was justified by faith rather than by adherence to the Jewish law, as the archetype of Christian faith, and declared Christians to be the children of Abraham in faith apart from obedience to the revealed Law (Rom. 4; Gal. 3).[1]  The Qur’an turns each of these claims on its head, asserting,

Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but was a ḥanīf; and he was not one of those who associate partners with God (3:95).

The Qur’an thus responds to the claims of the pagan Quraysh by pointing out that “Abraham was a ḥanīf—and he was not one of those who associate partners with God.”  The word ḥanīf, which I have abstained from translating, is generally understood to mean a follower of the natural, inborn monotheism that is innate to human nature.  As a ḥanīf, Abraham’s faith differed too from that of Christians, as it was basic, unitarian monotheism, free from the complications of the Trinity and other later Christian dogmas.  Nor was Abraham a Jew in his religious practice, because he preceded the revelation of the Torah.  Rather, he was a muslim, one who surrendered himself unconditionally to God’s commands, without restricting them to what would later become Jewish law and tradition.[2]  As the Qur’an also says, “People of the Scripture, why do you dispute about Abraham, while the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed until after him? Do you not reason?” (3:65).

The Qur’an pronounces Abraham to instead be the father of the Muslim nation, in both faith and practice.  In terms of faith, it is Abraham who restored monotheism in an age when the world had become almost completely immersed in polytheism and idolatry.  It would likewise be the role of the Muslims to restore this pristine monotheism to the world, starting with the city and house that Abraham had originally founded for the purpose of worshiping the One God.  In terms of his practice, Abraham was a perfect model of islām, fully submitting himself to divine command, even though he received the most difficult commands out of any human being.  For this reason, Surat al-Baqara states,

Abraham’s Lord tested him with instructions, and he fulfilled them completely. (2:124)

In the Arabic text of this verse, “Abraham,” who is the direct object, is muqaddam, meaning that it is shifted to the beginning of the sentence, against the normal order of a sentence in Arabic.  This shift serves to highlight that Abraham was tested in a unique way, like no one else before or after him.  Moreover, the word “instructions” (kalimāt, literally “words”) indicates that that the tests were several, rather than being restricted to a single one.  Abraham was repeatedly tested with divine instructions that no one else was tested with, and in these tests, he demonstrated the highest level of islām, or submission to God.

Two of these unique tests occurred in association with what would subsequently become the city of Mecca.  The first of these was God’s command to Abraham to leave his wife Hagar and his infant son Ishmael in the middle of the Arabian desert, without any food, water, shelter, or company.  This was a test primarily of Abraham’s and Hagar’s faith and trust in God’s providence.  The test resulted in miraculous origins of the well of Zamzam, marking the land that would later become Mecca.  This story is narrated in the Bible, in Genesis 21:

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. (Gen. 21:15-19) 

This test also resulted in the tradition of running seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa, which would become part of the Hajj, in commemoration of Hagar’s distraught search for water for Ishmael.

The second of these unique tests was that, years later, Abraham was given the command to sacrifice his son Ishmael:

He said, “I will go to my Lord: He is sure to guide me.  Lord, grant me a righteous son,” so We gave him the good news that he would have a patient son.  When the boy was old enough to work with his father, Abraham said, “My son, I have seen myself sacrificing you in a dream. What do you think?” He said, “Father, do as you are commanded and, God willing, you will find me steadfast.” When they had both submitted (aslamā) to God, and he had laid his son down on the side of his face, We called out to him, “Abraham, you have fulfilled the dream.” This is how We reward those who do good––it was a test to prove [their true characters]––We ransomed his son with a momentous sacrifice, and We let him be praised by succeeding generations: “Peace be upon Abraham!” This is how We reward those who do good: truly he was one of Our faithful servants. (37:99-111; cf. Gen 22:1-19)

This also was a test primarily of Abraham’s faith and trust in God, because God had previously promised Abraham that he would make him a great nation through his seed.[3] Surat al-Baqara continues to narrate that as a result of Abraham’s unwavering faith and obedience, God announced to him, “I will make you a leader for mankind” (2:124). Abraham thus became the spiritual role model for the rest of mankind, an example of unconditional trust in God and surrender (islām) to His command. During the Hajj season and ‘Eid al-Adha, it is his example that we remember and commemorate.

[1] See F.E. Peters, The Children of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam (Princeton University Press, 2010); Jon D. Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton University Press, 2012). 

[2] In this article, I am using the term “islam” in two senses. When spelled “islām,” I will be referring to islam as the spiritual state of self-surrender to God, the religion that all of God’s messengers called to. When spelled “Islam,” I will be referring to the manifestation of this that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) through the Qur’an and in the form of the Islamic Shari‘a. 

[3] According to some Biblical scholars, this test and the replacement of Abraham’s son with a ram had the further significance of abolishing child sacrifice, which was a widespread religious practice in the ancient Near East.