Thursday, February 22, 2018

Contented Soul

I have been writing poetry on and off since my mid-teens, but tend not to share it publicly because most of it is so personal. However, I felt like this new one is worth sharing here as an expression of how the Quran has shaped my understanding of and relationship with God, and my understanding of own humble place in existence. Each stanza contains allusions to verses of the Quran (see how many you can find). The title comes from sura 89, "The Dawn" (al-Fajr), verses 27-28.

Contented Soul

You chose me for existence
     And breathed me into being,
You fashioned my very essence,
     my hearing, and my seeing.

Upon this earth you placed me
     For this momentous test
Of faithfulness and virtue,
     And for truth, a sacred quest.

So in this pain and struggle
     I toil through each day,
But Your love sustains me
     As I continue on my way.

And through my each endeavor
     And through everything I learn,
On this alone I set my hopes
     And for this alone I yearn:

To return to You in mercy
     With a heart peaceful and whole,
To meet Your loving countenance
     As a contented soul,

To enter Your blessed garden
     Where Your servants roam,
And in Your love and mercy dwell
As my final, lasting home.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

God’s Promises: The Miraculous Fulfillment of Prophecy in the Quran (Part II)

In this post we will look at two more examples of prophecies in the Quran that are implicit in its stories.  I put these examples together since they highlight similar themes.

2. The Defeat of Idolatry in Mecca

Sura 21, The Prophets (al- Anbiyā’), is another sura revealed towards the later years of the Meccan period, when the Prophet Muhammad and his followers were a small minority persecuted for their faith and preaching against idolatry and other vices in the society of Mecca.  This sura foreshadows the demise of idolatry in Mecca:

بَلْ نَقْذِفُ بِالْحَقِّ عَلَى الْبَاطِلِ فَيَدْمَغُهُ 
فَإِذَا هُوَ زَاهِقٌ ۚ 
وَلَكُمُ الْوَيْلُ مِمَّا تَصِفُونَ

Nay, We dash the truth against falsehood and it shatters it—
and behold, it perishes!
Yours is blame for what you ascribe (to God). 

The context of this passage is the setting up of idols as partners in the worship of God.  The language of "dashing" the truth against falsehood and "smashing" it anticipates Abraham's destruction of his people's idols later in the sura.

A later passage in the sura states:

أَمْ لَهُمْ آلِهَةٌ تَمْنَعُهُم مِّن دُونِنَا ۚ 
لَا يَسْتَطِيعُونَ نَصْرَ أَنفُسِهِمْ وَلَا هُم مِّنَّا يُصْحَبُونَ
بَلْ مَتَّعْنَا هَٰؤُلَاءِ وَآبَاءَهُمْ حَتَّىٰ طَالَ عَلَيْهِمُ الْعُمُرُ ۗ 
أَفَلَا يَرَوْنَ أَنَّا نَأْتِي الْأَرْضَ نَنقُصُهَا مِنْ أَطْرَافِهَا ۚ أَفَهُمُ الْغَالِبُونَ
أَفَلَا يَرَوْنَ أَنَّا نَأْتِي الْأَرْضَ نَنقُصُهَا مِنْ أَطْرَافِهَا ۚ 
أَفَهُمُ الْغَالِبُونَ

Do they have gods who can defend them against Us? 
They have no power to help themselves, nor can they be protected from Us.
We have allowed these sinners and their forefathers to enjoy life for a long time. But do they not see how We are shrinking their borders? 
Is it they who will prevail?[1]

This was a remarkable claim during the Meccan period, when the Quraysh were still fully in power in Mecca, and the Muslims were only a small and powerless minority group within their dominion.  Further still, the concluding section of the sura states:

وَلَقَدْ كَتَبْنَا فِي الزَّبُورِ مِن بَعْدِ الذِّكْرِ 
أَنَّ الْأَرْضَ يَرِثُهَا عِبَادِيَ الصَّالِحُونَ
إِنَّ فِي هَٰذَا لَبَلَاغًا لِّقَوْمٍ عَابِدِينَ

We wrote in the Psalms, as We did in earlier Scripture: 
"My righteous servants will inherit the earth."
Truly in this there is a message for people of worship.

The middle of the sura (vv. 51-67) narrates a famous story from Jewish tradition in which a young Abraham demolishes the idols of his city temple.  He exclaims:

وَتَاللَّهِ لَأَكِيدَنَّ أَصْنَامَكُم 
بَعْدَ أَن تُوَلُّوا مُدْبِرِينَ
فَجَعَلَهُمْ جُذَاذًا

"By God, I shall certainly plot against your idols 
as soon as you have turned your backs!"
So he broke them all into pieces.

This sura states that God is soon going to cause the land in control of the idolatrous Quraysh of Mecca to shrink, cause God's righteous servants to inherit the land, and abolish idolatry in the Abrahamic sanctuary of Mecca. In this context, the story of the young Abraham smashing his people's idols is not merely a polemical refutation of the idolatry of the Quraysh. It is foreshadowing the destruction of the idols of the Ka'ba—an event that happened many years later, in the Conquest of Mecca.[2]

3. The Liberation of the Ka'ba Under Muhammad's Leadership

A comparable prophecy occurs a little later, within the first two years after the Prophet Muhammad and his followers emigrated to Medina.  It occurs in the final section of Sura 2, "The Cow" (al-Baqara), which prepared the Muslims for their upcoming first battle against the Quraysh, which would be the Battle of Badr.  This would be a battle in which the Muslims of Medina would be outnumbered two or threefold (see 3:13), and be severely disadvantaged in terms of manpower, arms, and resources.  This passage retells the Biblical story of Saul, albeit in a very new way that served as a parable for the new situation in Medina, in which the Prophet had been appointed the political and judicial head of the city.

وَقَالَ لَهُمْ نَبِيُّهُمْ 
إِنَّ اللَّهَ قَدْ بَعَثَ لَكُمْ طَالُوتَ مَلِكًا ۚ 
قَالُوا أَنَّىٰ يَكُونُ لَهُ الْمُلْكُ عَلَيْنَا 
وَنَحْنُ أَحَقُّ بِالْمُلْكِ مِنْهُ 
وَلَمْ يُؤْتَ سَعَةً مِّنَ الْمَالِ ۚ 
قَالَ إِنَّ اللَّهَ اصْطَفَاهُ عَلَيْكُمْ 
وَزَادَهُ بَسْطَةً فِي الْعِلْمِ وَالْجِسْمِ ۖ 
وَاللَّهُ يُؤْتِي مُلْكَهُ مَن يَشَاءُ ۚ 
وَاللَّهُ وَاسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ

Their prophet (Samuel) said to them:  
"God has appointed Saul as a king for you."
They said,  "How can he be the king over us, 
while we are more entitled to sovereignty
and he does not have an abundance of wealth?"
He replied, "God has chosen him over you, 
and increased him in stature, knowledge, and bodily strength.
God gives sovereignty to whomever He pleases.
God is expansive and knowing."

This story reflects the fact that there were elements in the Prophet's community who had long held political ambitions in Medina, and thus harbored feelings of resentment that the Prophet—an outsider distinguished neither by wealth, prestige, or political reputation—was instead made a leader over them.  Through the story of Saul's divine selection as king, this passage implicitly responds by saying that the Prophet was chosen by God to lead and given more worthy qualities of leadership. The prophet in the story, named in the Bible as Samuel, then provides a prophecy whose fulfillment will confirm this:

وَقَالَ لَهُمْ نَبِيُّهُمْ 
إِنَّ آيَةَ مُلْكِهِ أَن يَأْتِيَكُمُ التَّابُوتُ 
فِيهِ سَكِينَةٌ مِّن رَّبِّكُم 
وَبَقِيَّةٌ مِّمَّا تَرَكَ آلُ مُوسَىٰ وَآلُ هَارُونَ
 تَحْمِلُهُ الْمَلَائِكَةُ ۚ
إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَةً لَّكُمْ إِن كُنتُم مُّؤْمِنِينَ

Their prophet said to them:
"A sign of his sovereignty is that that the Ark will return to you
containing tranquility from your Lord 
and relics from what was left by the families of Moses and Aaron, 
carried by angels.
Truly in that will be a sign for you if you are to have faith."

The Ark of the Covenant was for the Israelites the portable equivalent of the Ka'ba for the Muslims, before the Ark was later installed by David in Jerusalem and eventually replaced by the Temple of Solomon.  This story implies that just as a sign that God appointed Saul as king will be the return of the Ark of the Covenant to the Israelites under his military leadership, a sign that God truly chose Muhammad is that under his leadership, the Ka'ba will be liberated and restored as a symbol of Abrahamic monotheism.  The parallel is reinforced by further details of the story:

فَلَمَّا جَاوَزَهُ هُوَ وَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مَعَهُ 
قَالُوا لَا طَاقَةَ لَنَا الْيَوْمَ بِجَالُوتَ وَجُنُودِهِ ۚ 

When [Saul] crossed [the river] with those who had kept faith,
[Those who had little faith] said, "We have no strength today against Goliath and his warriors."

This again reflects a very real situation. Those in Medina who had little faith, but only claimed to be believers in order to save face, believed that the Quraysh were far too great in manpower and resources for God to enable the Muslims to defeat them.  On the other hand:

قَالَ الَّذِينَ يَظُنُّونَ أَنَّهُم مُّلَاقُو اللَّهِ 
كَم مِّن فِئَةٍ قَلِيلَةٍ غَلَبَتْ فِئَةً كَثِيرَةً بِإِذْنِ اللَّهِ ۗ 
وَاللَّهُ مَعَ الصَّابِرِينَ
وَلَمَّا بَرَزُوا لِجَالُوتَ وَجُنُودِهِ 
قَالُوا رَبَّنَا أَفْرِغْ عَلَيْنَا صَبْرًا وَثَبِّتْ أَقْدَامَنَا 
وَانصُرْنَا عَلَى الْقَوْمِ الْكَافِرِينَ

Those who knew that they were going to meet their Lord said, 
"How often a small force has defeated a large army with God’s permission! 
God is with those who are steadfast."
And when they met Goliath and his warriors, 
they said, "Our Lord, pour patience on us, make us stand firm, 
and help us against the disbelievers."

The outcome was as God had promised them through his prophet:  

فَهَزَمُوهُم بِإِذْنِ اللَّهِ

And so with God’s permission they defeated them.

Just as this story implied, the Muslims ended up winning the Battle of Badr.  This was a turning point, and despite certain setbacks, the Prophet and his followers would enter Mecca as peaceful conquerors in less than six years.

The Quran concludes the above narration of the story of Saul as follows:

تِلْكَ آيَاتُ اللَّهِ نَتْلُوهَا عَلَيْكَ بِالْحَقِّ ۚ 
وَإِنَّكَ لَمِنَ الْمُرْسَلِينَ

These are signs of God, which We recite to you with truth.
No doubt you (Muhammad) are among the messengers.

[1] I have adapted some of these translations from the Quran translation of M.A.S. Abdel Haleem.
[2] I owe these observations to Mustansir Mir, “The Qur’an as Literature,” Religion & Literature 20 no. 1 (1988): 49-64, pp. 59-60.
[3] For a fuller discussion of the story of Saul in the context of Sura 2, see Nouman Ali Khan and Sharif Randhawa, Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran as Literature (Euless, TX: Bayyinah Institute, 2016), Chapter 13, “The Coherence and Structure of Sura 2, The Cow.”

Monday, February 12, 2018

God’s Promises: The Miraculous Fulfillment of Prophecy in the Quran (Part I)

A couple weeks ago I gave a talk on a phenomenon in the Quran that I find to be one of the most stunning signs of its miraculous provenance.  These are the prophecies of the Quran.  These prophecies take two forms:
  1. Some are explicit prophecies, and these tend to be the most well-known.
  2. Others are implicit prophecies, which are embedded for example in the stories the Quran revealed in order to make certain assurances to the Prophet and his followers.
I will argue that the fulfillment of these prophecies is striking in the following ways:
  1. These prophecies were not trivial, but they made claims that were bold and shocking given the historical context of their revelation.  They promised that these events or outcomes would transpire by God’s leave, despite there being every reason for believing the contrary. Some of these prophecies stipulated that they would occur within a specific time frame, such as during the life of the Prophet or his companions.
  2. These prophecies not only came true, but came true in a timeframe, manner, and scale that is without historical parallel, again reinforcing that the Quran’s point that these would only occur as a result of divine planning and intervention.

Over the course of the next few posts, I will be describing some examples of this, God-willing. I will in particular be drawing attention to prophecies or divine promises embedded in the stories of the Quran, since these are the most overlooked.  The first one will be on God's promises in the story of Joseph in the Quran.

1. The story of Joseph

Sura 12, “Joseph” (Yusuf), is the only sura of the Quran dedicated to a full chronological narrative.  The themes, language, and style of the sura place it firmly in the context of the late Meccan period, in which it would have had the most relevance to the Prophet Muhammad and his followers.  During this time, they were being persecuted by their own people—their own fellow tribe and kin—to the point that they were about to be driven out from their home town of Mecca.  It is especially during this period that the Quran narrated stories in order to reassure the hearts of the Muslims.  These were typically stories that already existed in Biblical lore, but were retold with new purposes in the Quran.  For example, these stories would console the believers and ensure them that God would reward their patience and constancy with success and victory.  But how was this possible?  They were a small group, they had no power, they were being persecuted by a much more powerful group, and they were being dispossessed of their homes and assets.  How could they possibly attain victory?

It was in this context that the sura of Joseph was revealed.  Think about what happens in the story.  Joseph experienced one tragic difficulty after another.  He was a young man who was persecuted by his own brothers, exiled from his home to a foreign land, enslaved, accused, and imprisoned, but over these many hard years he held onto his faith.  Then God created unique circumstances that allowed Joseph to rise to a prominent place of respect and authority and to prosper.  Through a dramatic turn of events, he was eventually brought face-to-face with the brothers who persecuted them.  He had the upper hand over them.  Yet he forgave them, they sincerely repented from their crimes against him, and they were reunited as a family.

What was this story supposed to signal to its first Muslim audience?  It is that despite the seemingly hopeless situation you are in, God will create unique circumstances by which He will save you, raise you to a position of success and prominence, cause you to triumph—and maybe even turn the hearts of your families and tribesmen so that they will repent from their wrongs against you and reconcile with you.  As Mustansir Mir, in his essay on irony in the story of Joseph, writes:
Muhammad is identified with Joseph, and the tribe of Quraysh, to which Muhammad belonged and which had turned hostile to him, with Joseph’s brothers. In addition, the story predicts that just as Joseph finally triumphed over the obstacles put in his way by his brothers, so Muhammad will eventually emerge a victor in his struggle against the Quraysh. When, in 630, Muhammad conquered Mecca and the Quraysh anxiously waited for the verdict on their fate, Muhammad addressed them, asking them how they expected him to treat his former enemies. Their plea for mercy was made in the form of praise: “You are a noble brother and the son of a noble brothers.” Muhammad issued a general amnesty, saying: lā tathrība ‘alaykumu ’l- yawm, “No blame rests on you today.” These words were taken from v. 92 of the twelfth sūra of the Qur’ān—Joseph. The story had worked itself out in history. And so had the irony.[1] 

 Think about it:
  • Joseph is hated and persecuted by his own, more powerful older brothers (an ʿuba, or a "strong clan"—12:8, 14), just like the Prophet and his followers were despised and persecuted by their own tribesmen.
  • In the story, Joseph is exiled by his brothers to a foreign land.  Similarly, the Prophet and his companions would be exiled to Medina.
  • In the foreign land, Joseph eventually rises to a place of respect and authority.  Likewise, the Prophet and his followers would rise to a position of respect and authority, and within only a number years become the dominant power in the Arabian Peninsula—and later, the entire Near East.

وَكَذَٰلِكَ مَكَّنَّا لِيُوسُفَ فِي الْأَرْضِ 
يَتَبَوَّأُ مِنْهَا حَيْثُ يَشَاءُ ۚ 
نُصِيبُ بِرَحْمَتِنَا مَن نَّشَاءُ ۖ 
وَلَا نُضِيعُ أَجْرَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ

Thus did We establish Joseph with authority in the land, 
free to settle in it wherever he pleased. 
We bestow our Mercy on whomever We wish, 
and We do not allow the reward of those who do good to be lost. 

  • Joseph is eventually brought face-to-face with his own brothers who persecuted him, but he forgave them.  Likewise, the Prophet would return to Mecca and have the upper hand over the Quraysh, yet he forgave them.
  • Finally, the brothers prostrate to Joseph, they repent of their wrongs, and the brothers become reconciled and form a single family again.  In the same way, the Quraysh end up submitting to the Prophet’s authority, and even accept his message, joining the community of believers.  They are reunited, but now not as Arab polytheists, but as faithful devotees of the one God of Abraham.

Who could have predicted such an outcome?  As the Quran stresses, the only people at this time who could credit the idea of such a story playing out in their own lives were those who recognized that God has promised it and that He is fully in control of events and their outcomes:

وَكَذَٰلِكَ مَكَّنَّا لِيُوسُفَ فِي الْأَرْضِ 
وَلِنُعَلِّمَهُ مِن تَأْوِيلِ الْأَحَادِيثِ ۚ 
وَاللَّهُ غَالِبٌ عَلَىٰ أَمْرِهِ 
وَلَٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

Thus We established Joseph with authority in the land, 
to teach him the true meaning of dreams 
and the fulfillment of prophecies (ta’wīl al-aḥādīth).
God is fully in control of His affair,
but most of the people do not know it.

Hence, as the Quran fittingly says:

لَّقَدْ كَانَ فِي يُوسُفَ وَإِخْوَتِهِ 
آيَاتٌ لِّلسَّائِلِينَ

Certainly in (the story of) Joseph and his brothers 
there are signs for those who inquire.

[1] Mustansir Mir, “Irony in the Qur’ān: A Study of the Story of Joseph,” Literary Structures of Religious Meaning in the Qur’ān (Richmond, Surrey: Routledge, 2000), 126.