Wednesday, November 9, 2016

My Thoughts in the Wake of Trump's Presidency

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, I don’t think I have anything to say that hasn’t already been said. However, I’m too perturbed to do my schoolwork at the moment and just need to get these thoughts off my chest.

The first emotion I experienced last night while watching the election coverage was anger—outrage—at the Democratic Party establishment. The entire country has become divided between progressive populism, embodied by Bernie Sanders, and far right, racist, totalitarian populism, embodied by Trump. The country has made it loud and clear that it is DONE with establishment politicians. The polls from very early on showed that Hillary Clinton could lose to Trump, while Bernie would have a certain and sweeping victory. But in their irredeemable smugness, the Democratic Party establishment dismissed the polls and the voices of the American people, not least from within their own party. They did everything in their power to sabotage Bernie Sanders and to suppress the voices of his supporters, shoving down voters’ throats a candidate who embodies the corporate, establishment corruption that Americans are sick of, and still expected to win. Now extreme right-wing Republicans have taken over the Presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court. By trying everything to undermine Bernie Sanders and force Hillary Clinton on the voters, the Democratic Party committed political suicide. 

But good riddance. Americans are done with the old, corporate, establishment Democratic Party. Real progressive candidates now have a chance to take over the party by storm. In their humiliating defeat, I hope Hillary and her cronies get the message, and get the hell out. 

The second emotion I experienced was dismay, not simply at the fact of a Trump presidency, but over the fact that over a quarter of Americans voted for him—voted for a man who is endorsed by the KKK, who has riled up hateful rhetoric and violence against minorities, who sexually harasses women and is even accused of rape, who declared that he would use torture and take out the families of terrorists, who stated he would revoke any funds to the United Nations to combat climate change, and who candidly asked why he should not deploy nuclear weapons—in the latter two cases, advancing a real and literal threat to the human race at large. I understand that the votes for Trump are not entirely motivated by racism or warmongering, but it hardly makes things better that so many American voters did not see these problems as significant enough to them not to vote for him. For those of you who voted for Trump, I hope you find yourself happy with the devastating results of your choice over the next four years. 

The third emotion I experienced was fear—not for myself, but for all of the innocent people in my country and throughout the world who will have to suffer the devastating consequences of a Trump presidency. 

In the last twenty-four hours, it seems that all of my fears have been confirmed: 

(1) The global financial market has gone out of control. 

(2) There have already been countless incidents reported today across the country of threatening rhetoric and outright violence against minorities—black Americans, Muslim Americans (particularly Muslim women), Hispanic Americans, LGBT. This is only on the first day. 

(3) All hopes of peace, especially in the Middle East, have been dashed. For anyone who naively thought that Trump might exercise isolationist policies, consider these facts. Trump’s candidates for Secretary of State are people like John Bolton and Newt Gingrich—people at least as right-wing as the masterminds of the Iraq war, such as Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz. Shares in arms stock companies have skyrocketed. And the Education Minister of Israel has ominously declared, “The era of a Palestinian state of over.” 

(4) Thanks to Obama, the executive authority of the presidential office has been expanded to include the ability to commit extrajudicial killings, to detain absolutely any citizen or non-citizen indefinitely without trial, and has unlimited access to private information down to every last citizen. And now a totalitarian, fascist monster who has no moral boundaries has taken up these powers. Another testament to the complete debacle that has been the establishment Democratic Party. 

For more already palpable effects of Trump's presidency, see here: 

All of this is just a small glimpse into how dark the next four years are going to be. 

But I think and hope there is a silver lining. Americans are fed up with establishment Democrats and Republicans. Once the white middle class plummets and realizes that Trump does not even have their best interests in mind, and in four years when a boldly progressive candidate such as Elizabeth Warren runs for president, I am optimistic that Democrats and then Americans at large will resoundingly vote for progressive candidates who have real plans to fix the economy (especially for the plummeting middle class), to end America’s never-ending wars in the Middle East, and to get money out of politics. 

If it wasn’t for the Democratic Party establishment, we would have had that with Bernie Sanders. But now we will have to experience four years of hell before we get there. But, if God wills, we will get there. As the Qur’an says, 
“Pharaoh made himself high and mighty in the land and divided the people into different groups: one group he oppressed, slaughtering their sons and sparing their women––he was one of those who spread corruption––but [God] wished to favor those who were oppressed in that land, to make them leaders, the ones to survive, to establish them in the land, and through them show Pharaoh, Haman, and their armies the very thing they feared.” (28:4-6) 
That is, if God wills, an oppressive ruler may take power only to set himself and his establishment up for a painful downfall, and make way for the marginalized and oppressed to gain the success they hoped for. 

Over the next four years, all of us who are among marginalized minorities or who are inclusive and well-meaning people must stand up strongly together and ensure that Trump does not infringe upon our civil and human rights, which are spelled out clearly in our country's Constitution.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Kalām Cosmological Argument and the Problem of Divine Agency and Purpose

For those interested in philosophical theology, this is a twenty-page essay I wrote nearly five years ago.  It touches on a variety of interrelated topics, such as the Kalām Cosmological argument, God's relationship with time, divine agency, causality, freedom and determinism, and the purpose of creation.

There are a few things I'd wish to amend or add to this essay, but since I'm not likely to get around to that anytime soon, I thought I'd just go ahead and post a draft of it for now.  Maybe once I do edit and update it, I will publish it somewhere.  Here is the abstract:

Abstract: In this article, I discuss the theological problems raised by the Kalām Cosmological Argument that has resulted in criticisms of its utility by some Muslim philosophers and theologians, most notably Ibn Taymiyya. I briefly describe the responses to these problems by Ibn Sīna and two kalām sects, the Ashʿarites and the Muʿtazilites, and highlight the problems each of them. I then contrast them with the view fervently argued by Ibn Taymiyya, but also defend an alternative theory for those who are not willing to accept the proposition of an infinite temporal regress in God’s actions.


Sunday, September 11, 2016

9/11 Thoughts

This will probably make some people unhappy, but I have to say this. There is no doubt that 9/11 was a horrible tragedy, and the victims of this tragedy and their families deserve to be honored. But if you are a person who says “Never forget” when it comes to 9/11, but who forgets or turns a blind eye to far worse tragedies because they did not happen to people of your race, culture, or nationality, or because they were committed by your own country or government, then this is precisely the kind of attitude that is responsible for all of the wide-scale imperialism, racism, and violence that exists today. It is the attitude that certain tragedies or innocent deaths are worth remembering but not others. It is the idea that the lives of our people matter, but others do not. It is exactly this attitude that ends up legitimizing violence and oppression against other peoples, and which has been and continues to be used to fuel this never-ending “war on terror” that is claiming the lives of not thousands, but millions of innocent people, which continues to destabilize a large part of the world, and which has and continues to spread anti-American hostility at an unprecedented rate.

Do you give the tragedy and victims of 9/11 a special importance that you do not give to victims of other races, cultures, or nationalities, especially those who are victims of the policies of your own government? Do you feel outrage or stand up for the honor of these victims the way you do for people of your own skin color? Are you someone who changes your profile picture when a tragedy happens in France or Belgium, but expresses no concern when a tragedy of equal or greater proportions happens in the same week in Turkey, Iraq, or Syria?

If Americans are entitled to say “9/11: never forget,” then should African-Americans too exclaim, “Slavery: never forget”? Or is that a matter of the past, an unfortunate and uncomfortable episode of history, that is better for all of us to forget and move on from? What about Native Americans, who experienced mass genocide, as well as enslavement and rape, by the “discoverer” of America? “Colombus: never forget”? What about the thousands of Vietnamese who died at the hands of the U.S. military in the Vietnam War, or the 50,000 to 150,000 Cambodian civilians who were carpet bombed on the order of Henry Kissinger? What about the hundreds of thousands of Japanese who died in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Or the tens of thousands of Nicaraguans who died as a result of the policies of the Reagan administration? Should they too “never forget”? What about 500,000 Iraqi children who died as a result of U.S. sanctions, or the more than million who have died as a result of the Iraq War? Imagine if Muslims all said, "Iraq: Never forget." Should all of these groups resolve upon sentiments of indefinite hostility and vengeance towards the United States? Or is this a privilege reserved for (predominantly white) Americans? Do all lives really matter?

If you believe that the lives of Americans who died in Pearl Harbor or 9/11 deserve to be remembered, and only those responsible for their deaths deserved to be brought to justice, but do not believe the same when it comes from Hispanics, Native Americans, eastern Asians, Muslims, etc., then I implore you to reconsider your attitude and the consequences that such an outlook has had for the millions and millions of (overwhelmingly non-white) people in the last five and a half centuries. We should be outraged when any innocent lives are taken, regardless of their race or nationality, and regardless of whether those acts of violence are perpetrated by another government, our own government, or no government at all. But this should be a type of outrage that does not further the cycle of death, but motivates us to try to change our government and society for the better. All innocent life deserves to be honored equally, regardless of race or nationality, and the best way to honor innocent life is by standing up against attitudes and policies that result in its devaluing, and trying to change them. It's our responsibility as Americans, and more importantly, as human beings.

I close with this poem:

A Moment of Silence, Before I Start this Poem
Emmanuel Ortiz, 11 Sep 2002.

Before I start this poem, I'd like to ask you to join me

In a moment of silence
In honor of those who died in the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon last September 11th.
I would also like to ask you
To offer up a moment of silence
For all of those who have been harassed, imprisoned,
disappeared, tortured, raped, or killed in retaliation for those strikes,
For the victims in both Afghanistan and the U.S.

And if I could just add one more thing...
A full day of silence
For the tens of thousands of Palestinians who have died at the
hands of U.S.-backed Israeli
forces over decades of occupation.
Six months of silence for the million and-a-half Iraqi people,
mostly children, who have died of
malnourishment or starvation as a result of an 11-year U.S.
embargo against the country.

Before I begin this poem,
Two months of silence for the Blacks under Apartheid in South Africa,
Where homeland security made them aliens in their own country.
Nine months of silence for the dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
Where death rained down and peeled back every layer of
concrete, steel, earth and skin
And the survivors went on as if alive.
A year of silence for the millions of dead in Vietnam - a people,
not a war - for those who
know a thing or two about the scent of burning fuel, their
relatives' bones buried in it, their babies born of it.
A year of silence for the dead in Cambodia and Laos, victims of
a secret war ... ssssshhhhh....
Say nothing ... we don't want them to learn that they are dead.
Two months of silence for the decades of dead in Colombia,
Whose names, like the corpses they once represented, have
piled up and slipped off our tongues.

Before I begin this poem.
An hour of silence for El Salvador ...
An afternoon of silence for Nicaragua ...
Two days of silence for the Guatemaltecos ...
None of whom ever knew a moment of peace in their living years.
45 seconds of silence for the 45 dead at Acteal, Chiapas
25 years of silence for the hundred million Africans who found
their graves far deeper in the ocean than any building could
poke into the sky.
There will be no DNA testing or dental records to identify their remains.
And for those who were strung and swung from the heights of
sycamore trees in the south, the north, the east, and the west...

100 years of silence...
For the hundreds of millions of indigenous peoples from this half
of right here,
Whose land and lives were stolen,
In postcard-perfect plots like Pine Ridge, Wounded Knee, Sand
Fallen Timbers, or the Trail of Tears.
Names now reduced to innocuous magnetic poetry on the
refrigerator of our consciousness ...

So you want a moment of silence?
And we are all left speechless
Our tongues snatched from our mouths
Our eyes stapled shut
A moment of silence
And the poets have all been laid to rest
The drums disintegrating into dust.

Before I begin this poem,
You want a moment of silence
You mourn now as if the world will never be the same
And the rest of us hope to hell it won't be. Not like it always has

Because this is not a 9/11 poem.
This is a 9/10 poem,
It is a 9/9 poem,
A 9/8 poem,
A 9/7 poem
This is a 1492 poem.

This is a poem about what causes poems like this to be written.
And if this is a 9/11 poem, then:
This is a September 11th poem for Chile, 1971.
This is a September 12th poem for Steven Biko in South Africa,
This is a September 13th poem for the brothers at Attica Prison,
New York, 1971.
This is a September 14th poem for Somalia, 1992.
This is a poem for every date that falls to the ground in ashes
This is a poem for the 110 stories that were never told
The 110 stories that history chose not to write in textbooks
The 110 stories that CNN, BBC, The New York Times, and
Newsweek ignored.
This is a poem for interrupting this program.

And still you want a moment of silence for your dead?
We could give you lifetimes of empty:
The unmarked graves
The lost languages
The uprooted trees and histories
The dead stares on the faces of nameless children
Before I start this poem we could be silent forever
Or just long enough to hunger,
For the dust to bury us
And you would still ask us
For more of our silence.

If you want a moment of silence
Then stop the oil pumps
Turn off the engines and the televisions
Sink the cruise ships
Crash the stock markets
Unplug the marquee lights,
Delete the instant messages,
Derail the trains, the light rail transit.

If you want a moment of silence, put a brick through the window
of Taco Bell,
And pay the workers for wages lost.
Tear down the liquor stores,
The townhouses, the White Houses, the jailhouses, the
Penthouses and the Playboys.

If you want a moment of silence,
Then take it
On Super Bowl Sunday,
The Fourth of July
During Dayton's 13 hour sale
Or the next time your white guilt fills the room where my beautiful
people have gathered.

You want a moment of silence
Then take it NOW,
Before this poem begins.
Here, in the echo of my voice,
In the pause between goosesteps of the second hand,
In the space between bodies in embrace,
Here is your silence.
Take it.
But take it all...Don't cut in line.
Let your silence begin at the beginning of crime. But we,
Tonight we will keep right on singing...For our dead.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

“Seeking Help Through Patience and Prayer”: Reflections on 2:152-157

One of the dearest passages in the Qur’an to me is 2:152-157.  Whenever I am in a state of difficulty and sadness, I stand in prayer reciting it, and find new consolations, counsels, and insights in it.  I want to share a few of them here.

Allah says,

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اسْتَعِينُوا بِالصَّبْرِ وَالصَّلَاةِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ مَعَ الصَّابِرِينَ

“O you who believe, seek help through patience (ṣabr) and prayer.  God is indeed with those who are patient.” (2:153)

For a long time, something in this verse puzzled me.  It’s obvious enough what it means to seek help through prayer.  But what does it mean to seek help “through patience”?  Patience isn't something that we think of as a means of seeking help or even attaining something that we need.  Rather, it is more of a passive condition of accepting, tolerating, and enduring hardship or pain, waiting for it to go away, while trying to keep pushing on.

But the Arabic word ṣabr, which is typically translated as “patience,” denotes more than just this.  It includes steadfastness, constancy, and perseverance.  It means that after an initial period of grief, and after (or while) seeking Allah’s help in prayer, one keeps pushing on, being constant in continuing to make the steps towards one’s goals, and persevering despite the circumstances.  With this, one will certainly attain some success eventually.  But without it, one will not be able to gain anything.  That is why it is a key ingredient, and why Allah says to “seek help” by means of it.

I believe there is also great significance in the fact that this verse, which counsels towards patience and prayer, follows from the conclusion of the previous section of the sura, in which God says, 
فَاذْكُرُونِي أَذْكُرْكُمْ وَاشْكُرُوا لِي وَلَا تَكْفُرُونِ 
“So remember Me; I will remember you.  Be grateful to Me and do not disbelieve/be ungrateful to Me” (2:152).
The purpose of “prayer,” as we know, is precisely (1) remembrance of God and (2) gratitude for His blessings.  These ingredients—prayer, frequently returning to remembrance of God, seeking His help, and developing gratitude for His blessings—are keys to achieving patience, constancy, and perseverance.  

وَلَا تَقُولُوا لِمَن يُقْتَلُ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ أَمْوَاتٌ ۚ بَلْ أَحْيَاءٌ وَلَٰكِن لَّا تَشْعُرُونَ

“And do not say about those who are killed in God’s way, ‘They are dead.’  Rather, they are alive, but you do not perceive it.” (2:154)

This verse teaches us to not look only at what is apparent to our eyes in this world, but to be certain that the mercy Allah has in store in the future, in the unseen, is far greater than what is apparent to us in this world.

وَلَنَبْلُوَنَّكُم بِشَيْءٍ مِّنَ الْخَوْفِ وَالْجُوعِ وَنَقْصٍ مِّنَ الْأَمْوَالِ وَالْأَنفُسِ وَالثَّمَرَاتِ ۗ وَبَشِّرِ الصَّابِرِينَ

الَّذِينَ إِذَا أَصَابَتْهُم مُّصِيبَةٌ قَالُوا إِنَّا لِلَّهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ 

أُولَٰئِكَ عَلَيْهِمْ صَلَوَاتٌ مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ وَرَحْمَةٌ ۖ وَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُهْتَدُونَ

“And We are most certainly going to test you with something of fear, hunger, and a loss of wealth, lives, and fruits.  But give glad tidings to the patient:

Those who, when they are struck by a calamity (muṣība), say, ‘Truly it is to God that We belong, and it is to Him that we are bound to return.’

It is those upon whom are salutations from God and mercy, and it is those who are guided.” (2:155-157)

The word “calamity,” muṣība, comes from the verb aṣāba, “to hit,” but which more precisely suggests, “to hit the correct target (aṣ-ṣawāb).”  When a trial hits you, it is specifically designed for you.  It hits you where it hurts you the most, at the time when it hurts the most. Something is taken away from you when you need it the most, when you needed to find support, comfort, or reassurance in it the most.  Think of the passing of the Prophet’s beloved wife Khadija and uncle Abu Talib at the most critical period when he needed them, peace be upon him.

Why does Allah do this?  It is so that you will throw yourself before Him, fall in front of Him, in tears and in the most earnest supplication, resigning yourself completely to Him, throwing yourself into His hands: “It is to Allah that I truly belong, and to Him that I am destined to return.”

And it is so that in exchange, He might shower upon you His love, His regard, His warmth, His care, and His mercy: “It is those upon whom are salutations from God and mercy.”

Whenever Allah hits you with a trial, taking away something dear to you, He is going to replace it with something even better, something even more.  Think of how Allah followed the Prophet’s Year of Sadness with the Night Journey to Jerusalem and the Ascension to Him.

But the catch is: you do not know when that mercy will become manifest.  Allah may give you a taste of that in this world, the way He saved Noah and his followers on the ark, the way He distinguished Abraham with the Promised Land, an unparalleled spiritual status, a new offspring, and other gifts, and the way He reunited Jacob with Joseph and made Joseph one of the most powerful and respected men in Egypt.  But if you think about it, those rewards do not really seem in and of themselves completely worth all the pain and grief that these prophets were required to experience beforehand.  Those rewards are, in fact, just a glimpse and small manifestation of Allah’s mercy and reward to come.  They are a tiny preview into the full and complete mercy and reward that Allah has in store in the next life.

And if, on the other hand, you have to wait a long time to see that glimpse, or you die before you see it, then know that Allah is only delaying it in order to increase that mercy and reward for you on the Day of Judgment.  As our Prophet, peace be upon him, is reported to have said, 
“On the day that God created the heavens and the earth, He created one hundred portions of raḥma (mercy, care, compassion). From it, He placed on the earth one portion, by virtue of which the mother has compassion for her child, and the livestock have compassion for each other, and so do the birds. And God kept back the other ninety-nine. When the Day of Resurrection comes, God will complete the distribution of this mercy.”
For more on this beautiful Qur'anic passage, I recommend the sermon, “Why do bad things happen?: the Qur'an's perspective,” by my teacher, Nouman Ali Khan.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Excellent article series on Noah's Flood and the Qur'an

Up until now, the best treatment I have seen of the Flood and the Qur’an was in Islam and Biological Evolution: Exploring Classical Sources and Methodologies by David Solomon Jalajel.  I had come to the same conclusions as Jalajel before reading his chapter, but seeing that my interpretations were supported by some major Qur’anic commentaries was reassuring.  Surveying and analyzing a number of classical commentaries, Jalajel argues that the Qur'an does not:
  • indicate that the Flood was global;
  • claim that Noah's people were the only human beings on the earth in his time;
  • state that the Flood was universal, affecting all of humanity, but only that it affected Noah's people;
  • claim that all human populations descended from Noah and those who boarded the ark.
Concerning that last point, the Qur’an only states that Abraham descended from Noah (cf. 3:33-34) and hence the Quraysh (36:41; 69:11), the Children of Israel (17:3), and the Biblical prophets named in the Qur’an (6:84).[1]

al-Alusi’s commentary is most instructive.  Commenting on 71:26, in which Noah prays, “do not leave on the earth [or “the land,” ʿalā ’l-arḍ] an inhabitant from the disbelievers,” al-Alusi writes,
...the word ‘[e]arth’ is quite often used to refer to a portion thereof, and it is possible that this is how it is being used here.  Likewise, if we were to concede that the intended meaning was all of the earth, nonetheless the supplication was invoked against the ‘unbelievers’ and these were the ones to whom he was sent and who did not respond.[2]
Similarly, al-Alusi comments in reference to 11:40, which states, “We said, ‘Load upon the ship of every set of mates a pair'":
What the heart tends to accept is that the flood—as some have opined—was not universal in scope and that Noah was not commanded to carry with him what generally subsists on unclean substances on the [e]arth, like mice and insects.  Instead, he was commanded to carry with him what he would need when he and those with him were saved from drowning.[3]
Still, this treatment left one important question in my mind.  The Qur'an says that Noah’s ship “came to rest upon Mount Judi (wa-’stawat ʿalā ’l-jūdiyy)” (11:44).  Yet, for rainfall to cause flood waters to reach the elevation of a mountain and then to recede would entail all kinds of physical impossibilities and would multiply the earth’s atmospheric pressure to a degree that the earth would become uninhabitable.  It would also require a global flood, which would clash with all of the evidence we have from geology.[4]  Moreover, it seemed to me that Mount Judi, known in Turkish as Cudi Dagh (pronounced joo-dee daa'), is too far north to be affected by a flood in the Persian Gulf but too far south to be affected by a Black Sea flood.

Fortunately, I stumbled upon a brilliant series of articles by a Muslim researcher, examining the Qur’anic account of the Flood from the perspective of history, geology, archaeology, and anthropology.  I was very surprised to find such a sophisticated treatment of the subject on an obscure blog that hasn’t been updated since 2007!  The author explained the goal of his series as follows:
This is not an attempt to prove the validity of the Qur’anic and/or Biblical story of Noah and the Flood, but simply to look at various physical aspects of the event, and to relate it to what we can discover from geographical, historical, archaeological, and other sources – in short, relate it to what we know about the world in general.
The contents of this series are outlined as such:

This series is the best treatment of the subject I have seen.  The author avoids the pitfalls of Christian fundamentalist interpretations of the Flood story, which immensely clash with the data of geology and other physical sciences.  I was very pleased to find a satisfying answer to my above question in SF06b: Extent of the Flood.   The author points out,
Now, when we read that the ship came to rest “‘alaa’l juwdiyyi”, we do not have to understand that to mean ‘on top of Judi” It could also be understood as “at Judi.” In Arabic, “‘alaa baabihi,” meaning “at his door,” is common usage.
Hence the Qur’anic statement could be translated as “it came to settle at Mount Judi.”

Using visuals, the author goes on to show how severe flooding of the Persian Gulf—a phenomenon that is now attested to by geological evidence—combined with a temporary sagging of the Arabian plate would be capable of inundating Mesopotamia without requiring a significant rise in sea level.  The floodwaters would be able to reach into a valley that extends into the vicinity of Mount Judi.  He observes that this
could be produced by means of a heating and partial melting of the continental crust from below. Effects of this could also involve volcanic eruptions, including massive eruptions of steam. In this respect some rather cryptic words used in the Holy Qur’an might be of significance. They appear to mean: “And the oven was heated.” 
As for Qur’anic references to “waves like mountains” (11:42), this can be taken to suggest that Noah’s ship sailed temporarily into the ocean.  It does not entail that the waves were literally the altitude of mountains (cf. 42:32; 55:24) or that this description applies to the floodwaters over Mesopotamia.

The author’s model of the Flood resembles that of Hugh Ross in his Navigating Genesis: A Scientist's Journey Through Genesis 1-11.  Ross likewise proposes a regional flood that covered the Persian Gulf basins, Mesopotamia, and part of the Arabian Peninsula, though he places the Flood tens of thousands of years earlier.  What is unique about this author’s treatment however is that he focuses on the details of the Qur’anic story, carefully considering the geological, archaeological, and anthropological implications of each detail.

The blog series contains many insights beyond the ones I have noted.  The only disagreement I have that I would like to note is that the author assumes that the Flood wiped out all of humanity during Noah’s time and that all subsequent human populations descended from those who boarded the ship.  As I noted above, even this assumption is unnecessary on the Qur’anic account.

The only significant thing lacking in this author’s treatment is a discussion of the transmission of the Flood story and the relationship between the Biblical (and hence, to some extent, Qur’anic) account and the more ancient Mesopotamian versions.  These include the Ziusudra Epic in Sumerian, the Atrahasis Epic in Akkadian, and the Epic of Gilgamesh.  A masterful study of this nature is Noah’s Ark and the Ziusudra Epic by Robert M. Best.  Studies of the the Mesopotamian Flood accounts have led many Assyriologists to trace the origins of the Flood story to a local flood in southern Iraq c. 2900 BCE.   Engagement with this evidence is generally missing from conservative Christian and Muslim discussions, which tend to focus more exclusively on exegesis and scientific data.

[1] This verse also mentions “Job.”  The Bible only states that Job was from “the land of Uz,” which is not a known geographical location.  Rabbinic authorities differed over whether Job was an Israelite, an Aramean, an Edomite, or some other ethnicity, and the question remains open as far as modern Biblical scholarship is concerned.  Hence, this is moot for my argument.
[2] al-Alusi, Rūḥ al-Ma‘ānī, 29/126.  Qtd. in Jalajel, 57.  
[3] al-Alusi 12/353.  Qtd. in Jalajel, 60-61.
[4] See Robert M. Best, Noah’s Ark and the Ziusudra Epic (Fort Myers: Enlil Press, 1999), 39-40, for a summary and references for such studies.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Does the Qur'an "copy" or "plagiarize" the Bible?

A common accusation by polemicists against Islam is that the Qur’an “plagiarizes” or “copies” the Bible or other Jewish and Christian sources.  To be candid, this continues to be one of the stupidest claims to come out of anti-Islamic polemics, and I notice even Muslims rarely realize the stupidity of this argument.

When movies like “The Ten Commandments” and “The Passion of the Christ” came out, no one claimed that they were plagiarizing the Bible, because everyone recognized that these are intentional retellings of the Biblical stories.  Similarly, when someone writes a book containing Bible stories for children, nobody claims they are “plagiarizing” or “copying from” the Bible. This is adaptation or a retelling of a well-known traditional story. Likewise, when the Qur’an retells traditional stories about Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, or Jesus, to claim that what it is doing is “plagiarism,” “copying,” or even “borrowing” shows a fundamental ignorance of what these terms mean, as well as how traditional stories have always been retold in news ways throughout history.

Hence such claims no longer remain credible in Western Qur'anic studies. Here are two representative quotes on this topic from important contemporary Western scholars of the Qur’an, both of whom incidentally are Catholic clergymen.

Sidney H. Griffith writes:
Hermeneutically speaking, one should approach the Qur’ān as an integral discourse in its own right; it proclaims, judges, praises, blames from its own narrative center. It addresses an audience which is already familiar with oral versions in Arabic of earlier scriptures and folklores. The Qur’ān does not borrow from, or often even quote from these earlier texts. Rather, it alludes to and evokes their stories, even sometimes their wording, for its own rhetorical purpose. The Arabic Qur’ān, from a literary perspective, is something new. It uses the idiom, and sometimes the forms and structures, of earlier narratives in the composition of its own distinctive discourse. It cannot be reduced to any presumed sources. Earlier discourses appear in it not only in a new setting, but shaped, trimmed and re-formulated for an essentially new narrative.[1]
Similarly, Michel Cuypers writes:
There is of course no question of criticizing 'borrowings,' 'imitations,' or 'influences' from apologetic or polemical intentions, as a certain Orientalism in bad taste has done, but rather recognizing that the Qur’an shares a phenomenon which is characteristic of Biblical writings—re-writing. The books of the Bible unceasingly re-appropriate earlier writings, reusing them and turning them to a new perspective which makes revelation advance. The Qur’an does no different, although it does so in a different way from the Bible…since it positions itself as the final revelation in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it has had to re-assume the earlier traditions while making its own mark on the texts it repeats in this way. Far from reducing the Qur’an to a pastiche of earlier writings, the intertextual or 'interscriptural' work we will undertake removes none of its originality, but on the contrary, better draws it out.[2]
I will have a chapter on this subject in an upcoming book I have been co-authoring—hence my prolonged absence on this blog (!)—which I will soon be giving details about, insha’a ’llah.  Stay tuned!

[1] Sidney H. Griffith, “Christian Lore and the Arabic Qur’an: The ‘Companions of the Cave’ in Surat al-Kahf and in Syriac Christian tradition,” in The Qur’ān in Its Historical Context, ed. Gabriel Said Reynolds (London: Routledge, 2008), 116
[2] Michel Cuypers, The Banquet: A Reading of the Fifth Sura of the Qur’an (Miami: Convivium, 2009), 31.

Friday, April 15, 2016

A Bibliography of Studies in English on the Coherence and Structure of the Qur'an's Suras

Cross posted from:

The topic of the Qur'an's naẓm, "arrangement" or "composition," has achieved significant interest in contemporary study of the scripture, giving rise to a number of extremely interesting and insightful studies of the coherence and structure of the Qur'anic suras.  Here I would like to provide a bibliography of such studies in English for interested readers and students of the Qur'an.  This post can be continually updated as further studies in this field are published.

First, however, I would like to give mention of two contemporary pioneering works outside of the English language.  First, Amin Ahsan Islahi has written a commentary of the entire Qur’an in Urdu focused on the study of coherence, titled Tadabbur-i Qur’ān (Pondering the Qur’an).  His commentary of suras 32-114 have been translated into English and may be found on  For studies of this commentary in English, see Mustansir Mir, Coherence in the Qur'an (Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, 1986), as well as Neal Robinson, Discovering the Qur’an: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown UP, 2003), pp. 271-283.

Second, the formal structure of all of the Meccan suras, and especially the early Meccan suras, has been studied by Angelika Neuwirth, Studien Zur Komposition Der Mekkanischen Suren (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1981). Although this work has yet to be translated into English, her findings are refined by Robinson, Discovering the Qur’an: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text), pp. 97-161.  Neuwirth’s structural or thematic divisions of the Meccan suras are also outlined in an appendix by Carl Ernst, How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide, With Select Translations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), pp. 213-222.  

What follows is a bibliography of coherence-based studies of particular suras in English.


Sura 1: The Opening (al-Fātiḥa)
  • Michel Cuypers, “Semitic Rhetoric as a Key to the Question of the Naẓm of the Qur’anic Text” Coherence in the Qur’an 13 no. 1 (2011): 13-15.
  • Raymond Farrin, Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation: A Study of Symmetry and Coherence in Islam’s Holy Text, Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 2014, 1-7.
Sura 12: Joseph (Yusuf)
  • Mustansir Mir, “The Qur’anic Story Of Joseph: Plot, Themes, And Characters,” Muslim World1 (1986): 1-3, points out the chiastic structure of the sura.
  • Michel Cuypers, “Semitic Rhetoric,” 15-19, offers a deeper and more refined analysis of the sura as a ring composition.
Sura 15: al-Ḥijr
  • Ernst, 111-120, underscores the structure of the sura and its anchors with earlier suras.
Sura 17: The Night Journey (al-Isrā’)
  • Robinson, Discovering the Qur’an, 188-195.
Sura 23: The Believers (al-Mu’minūn)
  • Neal Robinson, “The Structure and Interpretation of Sūrat al-Mu’minūn,” Journal of Qur’anic Studies 2, no. 1 (2000): 89-106.
Sura 51: The Scatterers (adh-Dhāriyāt)
  • Mir, Coherence in the Qur’an, 39-41, summarizes Hamid al-Din Farahi’s analysis of the sura.
  • Ernst, 78, outlines the structure and balance of the sura.
Sura 53: The Star (an-Najm)
  • Ernst, 98-104, provides some observations on the structure and balance of the sura.
Suras 54: The Moon (al-Qamar) and 55: The All-Merciful (ar-Raḥmān) (as a sura pair)
  • Farrin, Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation, 63-69.
Sura 55: The All-Merciful (ar-Raḥmān) – also 54 and 56
  • Muhammad Abdel Haleem, “Context and Internal Relationships: Keys to Qur’anic Exegesis” Approaches to the Qur’an, eds. G. R. Hawting and Abdul-Kader A. Shareef (London: Routledge, 1993), 71-98; also presented in Muhammad Abdel Haleem, Understanding the Qur’an: Themes and Styles, 3rd ed. (London: I.B. Taurus, 2011), 161-186.
Sura 75: The Resurrection (al-Qiyama)
  • Neal Robinson, “The Qur’ān as the Word of God” in Heaven and Earth: Essex Essays in Theology and Ethics, ed. Andrew Linzey and Peter J. Wexler (Worthing: Churchman, 1986), 38-54.
  • Salwa M.S. El-Awa, Textual Relations in the Qur’ān: Relevance, Coherence, and Structure (Routledge: New York, 2006), 101-159.
Sura 78: The News (an-Naba’)
  • Robinson, Discovering the Qur’an, 167-176.
Sura 79: The Pullers (an-Nāzi‘āt)
  • Robinson, Discovering the Qur’an, 177-188.
Sura 101: The Crashing Blow (al-Qāri‘a)
  • Cuypers, “Semitic Rhetoric,” 7-9.


Sura 2: The Cow (al-Baqara)
  • Mustansir Mir, “The Sūra as a Unity: A Twentieth Century Development in Qur’an Exegesis” in Approaches to the Qur’an, eds. G. R. Hawting and Abdul-Kader A. Shareef, eds. (London: Routledge, 1993), 211–24; reprinted in Colin Turner, ed., The Koran: Critical Concepts in Islamic Studies (4 vols. London: Routledge, 2004), vol. 4, 198–209.
  • Robinson, Discovering the Qur’an, 201-223.
  • H. Mathias Zahniser, “Major Transitions and Thematic Borders in Two Long Sūras: al-Baqara and al-Nisā’” in Literary Structures of Religious Meaning in the Qur’an, ed. Issa J. Boulatta (Richmond: Curzon, 2000), 26–55.
  • David E. Smith, “The Structure of al-Baqarah,” Muslim World 91 (2001): 121–36.
  • Raymond Farrin, “Surat al-Baqara: A Structural Analysis,” Muslim World1 (2010): 17-32.
  • Farrin, Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation, 9-21.
  • Nevin Rida El-Tehry, Textual Integrity and Coherence in the Qur’an: Repetition and Narrative Structure in Surat al-Baqara (PhD diss., University of Toronto, Toronto, 2010).
Sura 3: The House of ‘Imrān (Āl ‘Imrān)
  • Neal Robinson, “Surat Al ‘Imran and Those with the Greatest Claim to Abraham,” Journal of Qur'anic Studies 6, no. 2 (2004): 1-21.
  • Neal Robinson, “The Dynamics of Surah Āl ‘Imrān” Pak Tae-Shik, Saramui Jonggyo, Jonggyoui Saram (Seoul: Baobooks, 2008), 425-486.
  • Farrin, Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation, 24-32.
  • Bilal Gökkir, “Form and Structure of Sura Maryam—A Study from Unity of Sura Perspective,” Süleyman Demirel Üniversitesi İlahiyat Fakültesi Dergisi 16, no. 1 (2006): 1-16.
Sura 4: Women (an-Nisā’)
  • Mustansir Mir, Coherence in the Qur’an (Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, 1986), 46-62, provides a summary and analysis of Islahi’s study of the structure and coherence of the sura.
  • A. H. Mathias Zahniser, “Major Transitions and Thematic Borders in Two Long Sūras: al-Baqara and al-Nisā” in Literary Structures of Religious Meaning in the Qur’an, ed. Issa J. Boulatta (Richmond: Curzon, 2000), 26–55.
  • A. H. Mathias Zahniser, “Sura as Guidance and Exhortation: The Composition of Surat al-Nisa” in Humanism, Culture, and Language in the Near East: Studies in Honor of Georg Krotkoff, ed. Asma Afsaruddin and A.H. Mathias Zahnisr (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 71-86.
Sura 5: The Dining Table (al-Mā‘ida)
  • Neal Robinson, “Hands Outstretched: Towards a Re-Reading of Surat al-Mā’ida” Coherence in the Qur’an 3, no. 1 (2001): 1-19.
  • Michel Cuypers, The Banquet: A Reading of the Fifth Sura of the Qur’an, trans. Patricia Kelly (Miami: Convivium Press, 2009); cf. Cuypers, “Semitic Rhetoric,” 9-13.
Sura 33: The Confederations (al-Aḥzāb)
  • El-Awa, Textual Relations in the Qur’ān, 45-100.
Sura 60: She Who is to Be Examined (al-Mumtaḥana)
  • Ernst, 163-166, analyzes the sura as a ring composition.
Suras 113: Daybreak (al-Falaq) and 114: Mankind (an-Nās) as a sura pair

  • Farrin, Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation, 22-24.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Demystifying "Gog and Magog" in Judeo-Christian Tradition, the Qur'an, and the Hadiths

Adeel, the author of the "Quran Answers" blog, has just published an excellent essay on the topic of Gog and Magog in the Qur'an and hadiths.  I felt this was worth posting about, because the topic of Gog and Magog has become the subject of a lot of misunderstanding, wild conjecture, and bizarre interpretations.  But, while it represents an apocalyptic motif shared by Jewish, Christian, and Islamic tradition, it is in fact grounded in a well-known historical phenomenon with historical, geographical, and ethnic identifiers.  Before posting the link to the "Quran Answers" article, I thought it would be worth providing some historical context to this misunderstood tradition.

The basic historical understanding of "Gog and Magog"[1] across the Abrahamic traditions is summed up well by Abdullah Yusuf Ali in an appendix of his Qur'an translation and commentary:
It is practically agreed that they were the wild tribes of Central Asia which have made inroads on settled kingdoms and Empires at various stages of history. The Chinese Empires suffered from their incursions and built the Great Wall of China to keep out the Manchus and Mongols. The Persian Empire suffered from them at various times and at various points. Their incursions into Europe in large hordes caused migrations and displacements of populations on an enormous scale, and eventually broke up the Roman Empire. These tribes were known vaguely to the Greeks and Romans as "Scythians", but that term does not help us very much, either ethnically or geographically.[2]
A.R. Anderson catalogs some of the earliest recorded examples of these incursions:
From time immemorial the Caucasus—that mighty bulwark thrown across the isthmus between the Black and the Caspian Seas—has lain in the pathway of northern nomads descending into the fair lands of Hither Asia. What devastating waves of migration have burst against its barriers, some of them to clear its passes and to deal destruction to the civilizations of the south! Such may have been the course of the Kassites when about 1900 B.C. they came bringing with them the horse, but wrecking the empire founded by Hammurabi. Such too may have been the course of the Mitanni, when they about 1400 B.C. made themselves felt as far as Palestine. It was probably through the pass of Dariel that the Cimmerians, Gimirrae, who are to be identified with the biblical Gomer, invaded Assyria under Sargon (722-705 B.C.) and then later passed on to overrun Asia Minor, devastating it as far as the Aegean, and overthrowing the power of Phyrgia founded by Midas. A generation later under Esar-Haddon (681-668 B.C.), the Scythians followed by way of the pass of Derbend, destined before the century was past to join the Medes and Chaldeans in overthrowing Assyria (612 B.C.). East of the Caspian the Massagetae constituted a problem even to Cyrus the Great. Darius, recognized the Scythian peril, sought to strike them by way of the Balkan peninsula, crossing the Danube in an in an expedition in which he narrowly escaped utter ruin. [3]
Such incursions continued well into the Common Era.  The term "Scythians," or later "Huns," became a generic designation for Central Asian nomadic tribes who occupied the northern parts of the Caucasus.  The people of Asia Minor and the Caucasus would build defensive walls in the Caucasian mountains, such as the Pass of Dariel and the Gates of Derbend in modern-day Russia, to protect them from from invasions by these tribes from the north.  The Huns, of course, ravaged Europe in the late fourth and fifth centuries, contributing to the fall of the Western Roman Empire.  In the following centuries, the Sabirs, Kök Türks, and Khazars posed repeated threats to Byzantine and/or Persian territories in the Near East.  In the climax of the centuries long Byzantine-Sassanian Wars, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius even opened the Gates of Derbend and summoned the Kök Türks and Khazars against his Sassanian Persian opponents.

The Gates of Derbend in modern-day Russia, also known in popular tradition as the Gates of Alexander.
(Courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Notwithstanding, the most devastating manifestation of this phenomenon occurred centuries later: the Mongol invasions and conquests of the thirteenth century.

The expansion of the Mongol Empire.
(Courtesy of Wikipedia, user Astrokey 44.)

In summary, Schmidt and Van Donzel write:
[Gog and Magog] were identified with different “impure peoples”: Scythians, Huns, Alans, Khazars, Turks, Kipchaks, or the Mongols. The common denomination of these peoples is that they all were accomplished horsemen who invaded the Roman Empire from the Eurasian steppes and whose civilisations were unknown to the citizens of the Roman Empire.[4]
 Speaking more broadly, Anderson states:
The term Gog and Magog has therefore become synonymous with barbarian, especially with the type of barbarian that bursts through the northern frontier of civilization. This frontier extends the whole length of the Eurasian continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Spain to China, and includes such outstanding landmarks as the Alps, the Caucasus, and the Great Wall[5]…The legend of Alexander’s Gate and of the enclosed nations is in reality the story of the frontier in sublimated mythologized form.[6]
The Gog/Magog tradition has evolved over the course of the Abrahamic traditions, from the mention of Magog as a descendent of Noah's son Japheth in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10:2), to the proto-apocalyptic prophecy about the armies of "Gog of Magog" in Ezekiel 38-39, to further apocalyptic development in Second Temple Jewish texts and early Christian and Rabbinic writings, to their infusion with the Alexander legends in the Late Antique period, and in their presentation in the Qur'an (18:93-99; 21:95-96) and prophetic hadiths.

Adeel's essay provides a fairly straightforward reading of the Qur'anic verses and (frequently misunderstood) hadiths on the topic of Gog and Magog, along with helpful analysis from medieval and modern Muslim scholars.  The essay clarifies:
  • What the hadiths say about the ethnic identity and geographical location of "Gog and Magog";
  • How the hadiths seem to have prophesied the Mongol invasions many centuries before they occurred;
  • That the fortification that restrained Gog and Magog (see Qur'an 18:93-99) may have already been breached, rather than being a future event;
  • That the invasions of Gog and Magog are not restricted to a single apocalyptic event, but are a transhistorical phenomenon, recurring across history, but culminating in their most catastrophic manifestation immediately before the Last Day;
  • How this catastrophic event fits into the ends times chronology presented in the hadiths;
  • What the hadiths about their enormous numbers mean.
It is also notable that the hadiths cited in the essay have many parallels with Ezekiel 38-39 and Rabbinic traditions.  This is an enlightening read for anybody who has been confused about this topic:

[1]  The etymology of these names is uncertain.  For a summary of several theories, see J. Lust, “Magog” in Karel Van Der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Hoorst (eds.), Dictionary of Demons and Deities in the Bible (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 2nd ed, pp. 535-536.  Magog occurs in the Table of Nations in Genesis 12 as a nation descending from Noah’s son Japheth, the progenitor of European and certain Asian peoples.  “Gog” first occurs in the prophecy in Ezekiel 38-39, where he is the political and military head of the region of Magog.  In the second century BCE, “Gog” occurs in place of “Magog” in the Book of Jubilees, and they subsequently occur as counterpart tribes in the third book of the Sibylline Oracles.  In the Qur'an, the paired names are made to rhyme—Ya'juj and Ma'juj—as is a common literary feature of the scripture.
[2]  Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur'an: Arabic Text with an English Translation and Commentary (Lahore: Shaykh Muhammad Ashraf, 1937), vol. 2, p. 761.
[3]  Andrew Runni Anderson, “Alexander at the Caspian gates,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 59 (1928): 138–139.
[4]  Andrea and Emeri Van Donzel (eds.), Gog and Magog in Early Syriac and Islamic Sources: Sallam’s Quest for Alexander’s Wall (Leiden: Brill, 2009), p. 45.
[5]  Here Anderson is considering post-Qur’anic interpretations, such as that the Mongol invasions represented Gog and Magog. Nonetheless, it is an accurate characterization of Gog and Magog as a transhistorical typology.
[6]  Andrew Runni Anderson, Alexander's Gate, Gog and Magog, and the Inclosed Nations (Baltimore: The Waverly Press Inc., 1932), p. 8.