Some years ago, I joined in the Ramadan fast as a gesture of solidarity with a friend. I found the practice incredibly meaningful and have continued doing so since then. For me, the Ramadan fast has simultaneously been a declaration of solidarity with my friends, with my Muslim students, and a source of spiritual discipline and deep meaning for me.
The past two years, however, I decided to add to that spiritual discipline. I decided I was going to try to read the entire Qur’an over the course of the month. I only fully succeeded the first year, making it all the way through. This year, I did read a substantial portion, but fell behind due to travel and never quite caught up.
Now, I have read portions of the Qur’an before, but had never sat down to read it in its entirety. This is despite the fact that I had purchased an edition with Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation alongside the Arabic text for $10 from the Strand Book Store in New York City 25 years ago. It had been something I’d wanted to do for a long time, and Ramadan seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Last year, I did not use my old Yusuf Ali text as my primary reading text—though I did cross reference it frequently. Instead, I read from The Message of the Qur’an translation by Muhammad Asad. A couple of years ago, I had received a free copy of this Qur’an edition through the mail from the Council on American Islamic Relations. After having sent over 100,000 copies to “policymakers, media professionals, educators” and public institutions, they were sending it out now to “other segments in our society who share our commitment to mutual understanding.” I guess that was me. It seemed appropriate that I use this edition, sent to me to foster understanding, to build my own.
Plus, the edition is simply beautiful. The Arabic text stands alongside Asad’s beautiful and highly readable English translation as well as a block of transliteration, guiding pronunciation. Below that is Asad’s commentary and notes and the text is full of beautiful examples of Islamic calligraphy. This volume would be a good companion on my journey.
I spent a few hours on the first day of Ramadan coming up with a schedule of readings before being told that that schedule had long existed and the practice of reading the Qur’an during Ramadan is a long standing one. And so, now duly educated on the practice of taraweeh and now being able to identify the beginning and ending of each juz’—one of the thirty divisions of the Qur’an—I set out upon my task.
Immediately, I was transfixed. There was a beauty here that was immediately apparent, at once strange and familiar. Things I had long heard from my own Christian tradition now were coming to me in a new language, a new poetry.
In a journal, I wrote down some of the passages that struck me the most as I read. Some of those passages are below. I’ve tried to organize them, where possible, into shared themes and ideas, with my comments upon them.
My comments are not meant to be a scholarly treatment of the foundational Islamic text, nor are they meant to speak to any particulars of Muslim faith and practice. Rather, they are written from the perspective of an outsider—knowledgeable about Islam, but who had never read the text in its entirety—for the benefit of other outsiders.
It has been said (and frequently repeated by me) that the Bible its the book that millions live their lives by and hundreds have actually read. It is fair to say that in contemporary America, the Qur’an is the book that millions condemn and vilify, and dozens have actually read. My comments are for those who are interested in the Qur’an but haven’t had the time or ability to read it, and for those people who think they know all about Islam but have never read even a single ayah of the text. For all of you, I have done the hard work you’ve been unable or unwilling to do; perhaps what you read here may inspire you to do likewise.
بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم
On Relations with Other Religions
إِنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ وَٱلَّذِينَ هَادُوا۟ وَٱلنَّصَٰرَىٰ وَٱلصَّٰبِـِٔينَ مَنْ ءَامَنَ بِٱللَّهِ وَٱلْيَوْمِ ٱلْءَاخِرِ وَعَمِلَ صَٰلِحًا فَلَهُمْ أَجْرُهُمْ عِندَ رَبِّهِمْ وَلَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ
Verily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians—all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds—shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.Surah 2, Verse 62
بَلَىٰ مَنْ أَسْلَمَ وَجْهَهُۥ لِلَّهِ وَهُوَ مُحْسِنٌ فَلَهُۥٓ أَجْرُهُۥ عِندَ رَبِّهِۦ وَلَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ
Yea, indeed: everyone who surrenders his whole being unto God, and is a doer of good withal, shall have his reward with his Sustainer; and all such need have no fear, and neither shall they grieve.Surah 2, verses 112
وَلَا تُجَٰدِلُوٓا۟ أَهْلَ ٱلْكِتَٰبِ إِلَّا بِٱلَّتِى هِىَ أَحْسَنُ إِلَّا ٱلَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا۟ مِنْهُمْ وَقُولُوٓا۟ ءَامَنَّا بِٱلَّذِىٓ أُنزِلَ إِلَيْنَا وَأُنزِلَ إِلَيْكُمْ وَإِلَٰهُنَا وَإِلَٰهُكُمْ وَٰحِدٌ وَنَحْنُ لَهُۥ مُسْلِمُونَ
Do not dispute with the People of the Book, except with means better [than mere disputation], unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong [and injury]. But say: “We believe in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, as well as that which has been bestowed upon you: for our God and your God is one and the same, and it is unto him that we [all] surrender ourselves.”Surah 29, verse 46
قُل لِّلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ يَغْفِرُوا۟ لِلَّذِينَ لَا يَرْجُونَ أَيَّامَ ٱللَّهِ لِيَجْزِىَ قَوْمًۢا بِمَا كَانُوا۟ يَكْسِبُونَ
مَنْ عَمِلَ صَٰلِحًا فَلِنَفْسِهِۦ وَمَنْ أَسَآءَ فَعَلَيْهَا ثُمَّ إِلَىٰ رَبِّكُمْ تُرْجَعُونَ
Tell all who have attained to faith that they should forgive those who do not believe in the coming of the Days of God, [since it is] for [God] [alone] to requite people for whatever they may have earned. Whoever does what is just and right, does so for his own good; and whoever does evil, does so to his own hurt, and in the end unto your Sustainer you all will be brought back.Surah 45, verse 14-15
There is a fair amount in the Qur’an on relations to other religions, particularly the other Abrahamic traditions of Judaism and Christianity (the “people of the Book”). Islam sees itself as the inheritor and preserver of the revelation first given to Abraham, then to Moses, and proclaimed by Jesus. It believes that contemporary Christianity and Judaism have received corruptions to that essential message, but does not deny that the same basic faith runs through them all.
On Making Things Harder than They Need to Be
وَإِذْ قَالَ مُوسَىٰ لِقَوْمِهِۦٓ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ يَأْمُرُكُمْ أَن تَذْبَحُوا۟ بَقَرَةً قَالُوٓا۟ أَتَتَّخِذُنَا هُزُوًا قَالَ أَعُوذُ بِٱللَّهِ أَنْ أَكُونَ مِنَ ٱلْجَٰهِلِينَ
قَالُوا۟ ٱدْعُ لَنَا رَبَّكَ يُبَيِّن لَّنَا مَا هِىَ قَالَ إِنَّهُۥ يَقُولُ إِنَّهَا بَقَرَةٌ لَّا فَارِضٌ وَلَا بِكْرٌ عَوَانٌۢ بَيْنَ ذَٰلِكَ فَٱفْعَلُوا۟ مَا تُؤْمَرُونَ
قَالُوا۟ ٱدْعُ لَنَا رَبَّكَ يُبَيِّن لَّنَا مَا لَوْنُهَا قَالَ إِنَّهُۥ يَقُولُ إِنَّهَا بَقَرَةٌ صَفْرَآءُ فَاقِعٌ لَّوْنُهَا تَسُرُّ ٱلنَّٰظِرِينَ
قَالُوا۟ ٱدْعُ لَنَا رَبَّكَ يُبَيِّن لَّنَا مَا هِىَ إِنَّ ٱلْبَقَرَ تَشَٰبَهَ عَلَيْنَا وَإِنَّآ إِن شَآءَ ٱللَّهُ لَمُهْتَدُونَ
قَالَ إِنَّهُۥ يَقُولُ إِنَّهَا بَقَرَةٌ لَّا ذَلُولٌ تُثِيرُ ٱلْأَرْضَ وَلَا تَسْقِى ٱلْحَرْثَ مُسَلَّمَةٌ لَّا شِيَةَ فِيهَا قَالُوا۟ ٱلْـَٰٔنَ جِئْتَ بِٱلْحَقِّ فَذَبَحُوهَا وَمَا كَادُوا۟ يَفْعَلُونَ
And Lo! Moses said unto his people: “Behold, God bids you to sacrifice a cow.” They said: “Dost thou mock at us?” He answered: “I seek refuge with God against being so ignorant!” Said they: “Pray on our behalf unto thy Sustainer that he make clear to us what she is to be like.” Moses replied: ” Behold, he says it is to be a cow neither old nor immature, but of an age in-between. Do, then, what you have been bidden!” Said they: “Pray on our behalf unto thy Sustainer that he make clear to us what her color should be.” Moses answered: “Behold, he says it is to be a yellow cow, bright of hue, pleasing to the beholder.” Said they: “Pray on our behalf unto thy sustainer that he make clear to us what she is to be like, for to us all cows resemble one another; and then, if God so wills, we shall truly be guided aright!” Moses answered: “Behold, he says it is to be a cow not broken in to plow the earth or to water the crops, free of fault, without markings of any other color.” Said they: “At last now he has brought out the truth!”—and thereupon they sacrificed her, although they had almost left it undone.Surah 2, Verses 67-71
This parable of “The Cow” is the story from which the entire Surah takes its name and it sums up religion perfectly.
Moses says to the people: “God wants you to sacrifice a cow.” The people respond, “What kind?” “Not too young, not too old.” “What color?” “A bright, pleasing yellow.” “But what else?” “A cow that hasn’t been used for labor, that has no blemishes, or any other colors.” “Right–so we need a youngish, bright pleasing yellow (and only yellow), non-working, blemish-free, cow.”
If the people had just simply done what God had asked the first time, they could’ve sacrificed any cow. But now, because they clearly couldn’t imagine that it was that easy, they’ve brought upon themselves a much more burdensome obligation.
For me there are echoes of other prophetic oracles from the tradition. The sixth chapter of the Book of Micah comes to mind. In that passage, God brings a lawsuit against the Israelites for breach of contract, complaining that they have not lived up to the covenant between them. The Israelites respond by saying, “With what should I approach the LORD and bow down before God on high?…” More sacrifices, more calves, more rams, more oil? Replies the prophet: “He has told you, O human being, what is good: what does the Lord require of you but “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”
It’s always simpler than we’re inclined to make it.
An alternative reading comes from Yusuf Ali, who maintains that the questions posed by the people are designed to put off the obligations rather than to inquire about the particulars sincerely. This, too, is a frequently encountered phenomenon in religious communities.
On the Creative Power of God
بَدِيعُ ٱلسَّمَٰوَٰتِ وَٱلْأَرْضِ وَإِذَا قَضَىٰٓ أَمْرًا فَإِنَّمَا يَقُولُ لَهُۥ كُن فَيَكُونُ
He is the Creator of the heavens and the earth: if he wills something to be, he says to it, “Be!” and it is.Surah 2, verse 117
The Sovereignty of God is on full display in the Qur’an. And indeed this statement about God’s ability to declare things into existence is repeated a number of times throughout the text.
The idea of God summoning things into existence through the power of speech is found in the first chapter of Genesis, where God declares, “Let there be light” and there is light.
On the Diversity of Religious Expression
وَلِكُلٍّ وِجْهَةٌ هُوَ مُوَلِّيهَا فَٱسْتَبِقُوا۟ ٱلْخَيْرَٰتِ أَيْنَ مَا تَكُونُوا۟ يَأْتِ بِكُمُ ٱللَّهُ جَمِيعًا إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَىْءٍ قَدِيرٌ
For every community faces a direction of its own, of which God is the focal point. Vie, therefore, with one another in doing good works. Wherever you may be, God will gather you all unto himself, for truly God has the power to will anything.Surah 2, verse 148
وَمَا كَانَ رَبُّكَ لِيُهْلِكَ ٱلْقُرَىٰ بِظُلْمٍ وَأَهْلُهَا مُصْلِحُونَ
For never would thy Lord destroy a community for wrong [belief alone] so long as its people behave righteously [toward one another].Sura 11, verse 117
This is an interesting notion that religion is not truly defined by rite or ritual, or even by theology, but by right action. The purpose of religion is to live righteously, the details about which direction to pray or whether some aspect of theology is properly understood are less important. This reminds me of the teachings of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who noted that orthodoxy, which he defined as “right opinion,” is but “a very slender part of religion, if any part at all.” Love and right relationship with God and neighbor are much more central. Remember this the next time your religious community gets into an argument about what color the carpeting in the sanctuary should be or whether Welch’s grape juice is the only kind of grape juice allowed for communion.
On the Majesty and Transcendence of God
ٱللَّهُ لَآ إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ ٱلْحَىُّ ٱلْقَيُّومُ لَا تَأْخُذُهُۥ سِنَةٌ وَلَا نَوْمٌ لَّهُۥ مَا فِى ٱلسَّمَٰوَٰتِ وَمَا فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ مَن ذَا ٱلَّذِى يَشْفَعُ عِندَهُۥٓ إِلَّا بِإِذْنِهِۦ يَعْلَمُ مَا بَيْنَ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَمَا خَلْفَهُمْ وَلَا يُحِيطُونَ بِشَىْءٍ مِّنْ عِلْمِهِۦٓ إِلَّا بِمَا شَآءَ وَسِعَ كُرْسِيُّهُ ٱلسَّمَٰوَٰتِ وَٱلْأَرْضَ وَلَا يَـُٔودُهُۥ حِفْظُهُمَا وَهُوَ ٱلْعَلِىُّ ٱلْعَظِيمُ
God! There is no god but him, the Living, the Eternal. Neither slumber nor sleep overtakes him. To him belongs what is in the heavens and what is on the earth. Who is there that could intercede with him, unless it be by his leave? He knows all that lies open before people and all that is hidden from them, whereas they can attain to nothing of his knowledge except that which he wills them [to attain]. His Throne encompasses the heavens and the earth and he is never weary of preserving them. He is the truly exalted, tremendous.Surah 2, verse 255
وَلَوْ أَنَّمَا فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ مِن شَجَرَةٍ أَقْلَٰمٌ وَٱلْبَحْرُ يَمُدُّهُۥ مِنۢ بَعْدِهِۦ سَبْعَةُ أَبْحُرٍ مَّا نَفِدَتْ كَلِمَٰتُ ٱللَّهِ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ
And if all the trees on earth were pens, and the sea [were ink], with seven more seas yet added to it, the words of God would not be exhausted: for, verily God is almighty, wise.Surah 31, verse 27
It is a fair statement to say that the God of the Qur’an is extremely transcendent. In the Jewish and Christian traditions you tend to find transcendence held in tension with immanence and intimacy. In the first chapter of Genesis, for example, God creates the universe by divine fiat, summoning the world into existence by the power of speech. In the third chapter, God strolls through the Garden of Eden at the cool time of day. In the Qur’an, God is presented almost exclusively as transcendent and there is great resistance to suggesting otherwise. That may be because the environment in which the Qur’an was revealed was one dominated by pre-Islamic pagan idolatry, in which the gods were associated with all manner of idols and earthly objects. Indeed, the practice of shirk, translated by Asad as “ascribing divinity to other than God,” is one of the most repeatedly condemned sins in the Qur’an.
On Religious Liberty
لَآ إِكْرَاهَ فِى ٱلدِّينِ
There shall be no coercion in matters of religion.Surah 2, verse 256a
وَدَّ كَثِيرٌ مِّنْ أَهْلِ ٱلْكِتَٰبِ لَوْ يَرُدُّونَكُم مِّنۢ بَعْدِ إِيمَٰنِكُمْ كُفَّارًا حَسَدًا مِّنْ عِندِ أَنفُسِهِم مِّنۢ بَعْدِ مَا تَبَيَّنَ لَهُمُ ٱلْحَقُّ فَٱعْفُوا۟ وَٱصْفَحُوا۟ حَتَّىٰ يَأْتِىَ ٱللَّهُ بِأَمْرِهِۦٓ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَىْءٍ قَدِيرٌ
Out of their selfish envy many among the followers of earlier revelation would like to bring you back to denying the truth after you have attained to faith – (even) after the truth has become clear unto them. Nonetheless, forgive and forbear, until God shall make manifest his will: behold, God has the power to will anything.Surah 2, verse 109
مِّنَ ٱللَّهِ ذِى ٱلْمَعَارِجِ
…from God, unto whom there are many ways of ascent.Surah 70, verse 3
On account of Islamic extremists and the media who report on them, Islam has a reputation as an intolerant religion. Muslims are frequently cast as seeking to (and being commanded to) kill the unbeliever. But here, in clear language of the Qur’an is the declaration: la ikra’ha fi ad-din, there shall be no coercion in matters of religion.
Even in contentious relationships with “followers of earlier revelation” (i.e., Jews and Christians), the Muslim is told, “Nonetheless, forgive and forbear.” This is not the portrait of religious intolerance so frequently encountered, but rather a recognition that whatever disputes arise between religious communities, God remains in control regardless.
On Preferential Treatment Among Believers
وَلَا تَطْرُدِ ٱلَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ رَبَّهُم بِٱلْغَدَوٰةِ وَٱلْعَشِىِّ يُرِيدُونَ وَجْهَهُۥ مَا عَلَيْكَ مِنْ حِسَابِهِم مِّن شَىْءٍ وَمَا مِنْ حِسَابِكَ عَلَيْهِم مِّن شَىْءٍ فَتَطْرُدَهُمْ فَتَكُونَ مِنَ ٱلظَّٰلِمِينَ
Here repulse not [any of] those who at morn and evening invoke their Lord, seeking his countenance. Thou art in no wise accountable for them, just as they are in no wise accountable for thee–and thou hast therefore no right to repulse them: for then thou wouldst be among the evildoers.Surah 6, verse 52
According to commentators, this verse was revealed at a time when some prominent Meccans were interested in joining Muhammad’s community but were reluctant to sit among those whose social standing was significantly lower. The tradition is not clear as to whether they asked Muhammad to drive them away altogether or simply make them move to the back, but the commentators note the Muhammad might have been willing to ask these poorer followers to depart temporarily for the sake of receiving these wealthier Meccans. According to tradition, this verse was revealed to him forbidding the driving away of those who pray and seek God, regardless of station.
The fascinating thing about this verse is the the Qur’an not only presents a message to the reader about the equality of all the faithful regardless of social station but also presents the Prophet himself as one who was in need of receiving this message. This dynamic of Muhammad being both the proclaimer and the receiver of the Revelation is fascinating. (See, also “On Distractions from What is Good,” below)
On the Mercy of God
إِلَّا مَا قَدْ سَلَفَ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ كَانَ غَفُورًا رَّحِيمًا[After a long list of prohibitions:] But what is past is past: for behold, God is indeed much forgiving, a dispenser of grace.Surah 4 “The Women,” verse 23
قَالَ ٱلنَّارُ مَثْوَىٰكُمْ خَٰلِدِينَ فِيهَآ إِلَّا مَا شَآءَ ٱللَّهُ
He will say, “The fire shall be your abode, therein to abide—unless God wills it otherwise.”Surah 6, verse 128
On the Day of Judgment, those who deserve paradise will enter paradise, and those who deserve the fire, the fire. Thereupon God, the Supremely Exalted, will say, ‘Take out [of the fire] everyone in whose heart there was as much of faith (or good) as a grain of mustard seed.’ And so they will be taken out of it, already blackened, and will be thrown into the River of Life, and then they will sprout as an herb sprouts by the side of a stream: and didst thou not see how it comes out, yellow and budding?Hadith (per Bukhari)
I find these passages extraordinary. As one scholar of Islam has told me, the Qur’an speaks frequently of sin and punishment because the situation encountered in Arabia at the time of the revelation of the Qur’an was one dominated by lawlessness, idolatry, and a belief that wrongdoers would not be held accountable for their evil acts. The Qur’an is forceful in its repetition that indeed “God knows all that ye do.” It is tempting, therefore, to conclude that Islam is a religion of “fire and brimstone” judgment, and indeed, this is how it is often portrayed in the media by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. (Bill Maher, I’m talking about you.)
But such an opinion of Islam ignores the very words of the Bismillah: “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, Most Merciful.” The vision of God in the Qur’an is not of an angry, vengeful God, but of a God of justice tempered by mercy. These passages make that explicit, as Surah 4, verse 23 does, when after listing a long series of prohibited conduct notes that if these things happened in the past prior to coming to faith, it’s okay: “For God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful…”
The verse from Surah 6 is even more remarkable. The scene is one of judgment of wrong-doers and they are told “the fire shall be your abode” matter of factly. But then, “Unless God wills it otherwise.” إِلَّا مَا شَآءَ ٱلل ila ma sha’Allah. This avoids the pit that so many fall into, where the Law of God is placed above God. That is, where God is frequently described as a judge who has no option but to carry out the dictates of the law. Here, the Qur’an reminds us that God is the author of the law and remains free to exercise grace and mercy according to God’s will.
In Asad’s notes on this passage, he references a passage from the Hadith (the stories and sayings of the early Islamic community) in which Muhammad discusses God’s rescuing from damnation, those in whom even a mustard seed of goodness or faith can be found. They will be removed scorched, but then planted and will bloom “yellow and budding.” This is not a vision of fire and brimstone merciless judgment. It is a constant reminder of God’s sovereignty and power—and part of divine power is the exercise of grace.
O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety, and fear God. For God is well acquainted with all that ye do.Surah 5, verses 8-9
Have you considered [the kind of person] who gives the lie to all moral law? Behold, it is this [kind of person] that thrusts the orphan away, and feels no urge to feed the needy. Woe then unto those praying ones whose hearts are remote from their prayers – those who want only to be seen and praised, and withal, deny all assistance [to their fellow men]!Surah 107
This teaching in 5:8-9, that being just is next to piety is reminiscent of Jesus’ admonishment of the Pharisees for tithing mint, cumin, and dill but neglecting the “weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith.” (Matthew 23:23) Here, too, justice is seen as an essential element of faith.
Likewise, the teaching of Surah 107 with its familiar insistence on protecting widows and orphans and the needy, evokes Jesus’ teaching “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1) in its condemnation of showy religion and the letter of James in its condemnation of words that are not followed by compassionate action: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:14–16 NRSV)
وَلَتَجِدَنَّ أَقْرَبَهُم مَّوَدَّةً لِّلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ ٱلَّذِينَ قَالُوٓا۟ إِنَّا نَصَٰرَىٰ ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّ مِنْهُمْ قِسِّيسِينَ وَرُهْبَانًا وَأَنَّهُمْ لَا يَسْتَكْبِرُونَ
… and thou wilt surely find that of all people, they who say, “Behold, we are Christians,” come closest in love to believers. Because there are priests and monks among them, and because these are not given to arrogance. For when they come to understand what has been bestowed from on high upon this Apostle, thou canst see their eyes overflow with tears, because they recognize something of its truth and they say, “O our Sustainer! We do believe; make us one then with all who bear witness to the truth.”Surah 5, verse 82
I had a very emotional reaction to this verse. As I read it, I couldn’t help but feel like I was the Christian referred to in the text. “That’s me,” I remember saying to myself.
On the God Revealed in Creation
أَوَلَمْ يَنظُرُواْ فِى مَلَكُوتِ ٱلسَّمَٰوَٰتِ وَٱلْأَرْضِ وَمَا خَلَقَ ٱللَّهُ مِن شَىْء
Have you not studied the kingdom of the heavens and the earth, and whatever things God has created?Surah 7, verse 185
تُسَبِّحُ لَهُ ٱلسَّمَٰوَٰتُ ٱلسَّبْعُ وَٱلْأَرْضُ وَمَن فِيهِنَّ وَإِن مِّن شَىْءٍ إِلَّا يُسَبِّحُ بِحَمْدِهِۦ وَلَٰكِن لَّا تَفْقَهُونَ تَسْبِيحَهُمْ إِنَّهُۥ كَانَ حَلِيمًا غَفُورًا
The seven heavens and the earth, and all being therein, declare his glory: there is not a thing but celebrates his praise; and yet ye understand not how they declare his glory! Verily he is Oft-Forbearing, Most Forgiving!Surah 17, verse 44
بِسْمِ ٱللَّهِ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ وَٱلْفَجْرِ
وَٱلَّيْلِ إِذَا يَسْرِ
هَلْ فِى ذَٰلِكَ قَسَمٌ لِّذِى حِجْرٍ
Consider the daybreak and the ten nights! Consider the multiple and the One! Consider the night as it runs its course! Considering all this—could there be, to anyone endowed with reason, a [more] solemn evidence of the truth?Surah 89, verses 1-5
خَلَقَ ٱلْإِنسَٰنَ مِن صَلْصَٰلٍ كَٱلْفَخَّارِ
وَخَلَقَ ٱلْجَآنَّ مِن مَّارِجٍ مِّن نَّارٍ
فَبِأَىِّ ءَالَآءِ رَبِّكُمَا تُكَذِّبَانِ
He has created man out of sounding clay like pottery, and he created jinns from fire free of smoke. Which then of your sustainer’s powers can you disavow?Surah 49, verse 13
During the Islamic Golden Age when Muslims were at the forefront of advances in science and mathematics, it was passages like these that Muslim philosophers relied on to spur their philosophy and discovery. The creation is a revelation of God and calls us to study it as a way to know God. In fact, the Spanish Islamic philosopher ibn-Rushd (also known as Averroes) used the passage from Surah 7:185 above to argue that the Qur’an required the use of science and philosophy to explore the creation. Indeed, the “study of existing beings and the reflection on them” was done to see them as “indications of the Artisan (or Creator).” That is, we explore the Art to learn about the One who created it. Thus, the scientific exploration of the Creation is a religious duty.
On the End of the Age
يَوْمَ نَطْوِى ٱلسَّمَآءَ كَطَىِّ ٱلسِّجِلِّ لِلْكُتُبِ كَمَا بَدَأْنَآ أَوَّلَ خَلْقٍ نُّعِيدُهُۥ وَعْدًا عَلَيْنَآ إِنَّا كُنَّا فَٰعِلِينَ
On that day We shall roll up the skies as written scrolls are rolled up; and as We brought into being the first creation, so we shall bring it forth anew—a promise which we have willed upon ourselves: for, behold, we are able to do all things.Surah 21, verse 104
There are times when reading the Qur’an, you’ve had the distinct impression that you’ve read this before. And if you have read the Christian New Testament, you have. Specifically, the Book of Revelation, chapter 6, verse 14 and chapter 21, verse 1 & 5:
“I looked on as he opened the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake. The sun became black as funeral clothing, and the entire moon turned red as blood. The stars of the sky fell to the earth as a fig tree drops its fruit when shaken by a strong wind. The sky disappeared like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved from its place.” (Revelation 6:12–14 CEB)
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. … Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1, 5 CEB)
And there are echoes of the Revelation text in the popular hymn It Is Well with My Soul: “And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight/The clouds be rolled back as a scroll…” Perhaps because of my experience with the hymn, this concept of the heavens being rolled back like a scroll felt particularly “Christian-y”—but here is the same image, right in the heart of the Qur’an.
And, of course, the motif of making a new creation is clearly articulated, as it is in the Book of Revelation. Both Christianity and Islam are in agreement that at the end of history there will be a Judgment Day when all humanity will be resurrected, judged, and granted eternal life or condemned. Most Christians, however, imagine an immediate, individual salvation or damnation after death, i.e., you die and go to heaven or hell. Resurrection is not at the front of Christian understandings of eschatology—a curious fact given that the entire religion is based on faith in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Now, whereas the idea of resurrection to judgment is most clearly expressed in the Book of Revelation, it is an idea emphasized throughout the Qur’an. As one who has long favored an eschatology of physical resurrection to new life in a restored Earth over that of the hyper-spiritualized, individualized escapist going to heaven or hell after death, I will admit I was envious of the Islamic tradition’s repeated insistence on this score.
On Metaphor and Mystery
وَيَضْرِبُ ٱللَّهُ ٱلْأَمْثَٰلَ لِلنَّاسِ وَٱللَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَىْءٍ عَلِيمٌ
God propounds parables unto men, since God [alone] has full knowledge of all things.Surah 24, verse 35
This is an important reminder that not all of what we encounter in religion is literal. In fact, this passage reminds us that “God [alone] has full knowledge of all things.” That means that our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and the language we use to describe the things we do not know about perfectly is metaphorical and parabolic. (I could write a book on this topic. Oh, wait! I have!) This is a strong reminder of the need for humility in matters of religion.
On Dealing with Adversaries
وَعِبَادُ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلَّذِينَ يَمْشُونَ عَلَى ٱلْأَرْضِ هَوْنًا وَإِذَا خَاطَبَهُمُ ٱلْجَٰهِلُونَ قَالُوا۟ سَلَٰمًا
For true servants of the Most Gracious are they who walk humbly on the earth, and who, whenever the foolish address them, reply with words of peace.Surah 25, verse 63
وَجَزَٰٓؤُا۟ سَيِّئَةٍ سَيِّئَةٌ مِّثْلُهَا فَمَنْ عَفَا وَأَصْلَحَ فَأَجْرُهُۥ عَلَى ٱللَّهِ إِنَّهُۥ لَا يُحِبُّ ٱلظَّٰلِمِينَ
But (remember that an attempt at) requiting evil may, too, become an evil: hence, whosoever pardons [his foe] and makes peace, his reward rests with God—for, verily, he does not love evildoers.Surah 42, verse 40
وَلَمَن صَبَرَ وَغَفَرَ إِنَّ ذَٰلِكَ لَمِنْ عَزْمِ ٱلْأُمُورِ
But withal, if one is patient in adversity and forgives, this, behold, is indeed something to set one’s heart upon.Surah 42, verse 43
Again, refuting the idea that Islam is a religion hellbent on revenge and violence, here the text clearly makes the case for forbearance and forgiveness.
On the Wonders of Creation
حَتَّىٰٓ إِذَآ أَتَوْا۟ عَلَىٰ وَادِ ٱلنَّمْلِ قَالَتْ نَمْلَةٌ يَٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلنَّمْلُ ٱدْخُلُوا۟ مَسَٰكِنَكُمْ لَا يَحْطِمَنَّكُمْ سُلَيْمَٰنُ وَجُنُودُهُۥ وَهُمْ لَا يَشْعُرُونَ
…till when [Solomon and his company] came upon a valley full of ants, an ant exclaimed: “O, you ants! Get into your dwellings, lest Solomon and his host crush you without being aware of you!”Surah 27, verse 17
The First and the Last
هُوَ ٱلْأَوَّلُ وَٱلْءَاخِرُ وَٱلظَّٰهِرُ وَٱلْبَاطِنُ وَهُوَ بِكُلِّ شَىْءٍ عَلِيمٌ
He is the First and the Last, and the Outward as well as the Inward: and he has full knowledge of everything.Surah 57, Verse 3
Compare: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 22:13 NRSV)
On Reconciliation with Enemies
عَسَى ٱللَّهُ أَن يَجْعَلَ بَيْنَكُمْ وَبَيْنَ ٱلَّذِينَ عَادَيْتُم مِّنْهُم مَّوَدَّةً وَٱللَّهُ قَدِيرٌ وَٱللَّهُ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
لَّا يَنْهَىٰكُمُ ٱللَّهُ عَنِ ٱلَّذِينَ لَمْ يُقَٰتِلُوكُمْ فِى ٱلدِّينِ وَلَمْ يُخْرِجُوكُم مِّن دِيَٰرِكُمْ أَن تَبَرُّوهُمْ وَتُقْسِطُوٓا۟ إِلَيْهِمْ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ يُحِبُّ ٱلْمُقْسِطِينَ
But it may well be that God will brought about [mutual] affection between you [O Believers] and some of those you [now] face as enemies: for God is infinite in his power—and God is much forgiving, a dispenser of grace. As for such [of the Unbelievers] as do not fight against you on account of [your] faith, and neither drive you forth from your homelands, God does not forbid you to show them kindness and to behave toward them with full equity: for verily God loves those who act equitably.
On Distractions from what is Good
وَإِذَا رَأَوْا۟ تِجَٰرَةً أَوْ لَهْوًا ٱنفَضُّوٓا۟ إِلَيْهَا وَتَرَكُوكَ قَآئِمًا قُلْ مَا عِندَ ٱللَّهِ خَيْرٌ مِّنَ ٱللَّهْوِ وَمِنَ ٱلتِّجَٰرَةِ وَٱللَّهُ خَيْرُ ٱلرَّٰزِقِينَ
Yet [it does happen] that when people become aware of [an occasion for] worldly gain or a passing delight, they rush headlong toward it, and leave thee standing [and preaching].Surah 62, verse 11
It appears that this verse is based on an event that happened to Muhammad while he was giving the Friday sermon. A trade caravan came by and apparently people left prayers to go out to see what they might buy. The incident becomes a metaphor for the temptation that the faithful face from worldly distractions.
Amazingly, the Qur’an does not exempt the Prophet himself from this and in verse 1-10 of the 80th Surah is a rebuke of Muhammad who, upon seeing a blind man approach him yet again to ask a question, frowned and turned away to talk with the powerful business interests with whom he was trying to forge some agreement, even though they were not at all interested in hearing the message of Islam. According to tradition, the revelation recorded in this surah came upon Muhammad swiftly after he had turned away from the blind man.
بِسْمِ ٱللَّهِ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ عَبَسَ وَتَوَلَّىٰٓ
أَن جَآءَهُ ٱلْأَعْمَىٰ
وَمَا يُدْرِيكَ لَعَلَّهُۥ يَزَّكَّىٰٓ
أَوْ يَذَّكَّرُ فَتَنفَعَهُ ٱلذِّكْرَىٰٓ
أَمَّا مَنِ ٱسْتَغْنَىٰ
فَأَنتَ لَهُۥ تَصَدَّىٰ
وَمَا عَلَيْكَ أَلَّا يَزَّكَّىٰ
وَأَمَّا مَن جَآءَكَ يَسْعَىٰ
فَأَنتَ عَنْهُ تَلَهَّىٰ
He frowned and turned away because the blind man approached him! Yet for all thou didst know, [O Muhammad], he might perhaps have grown in purity, or have been reminded [of the truth], and helped by this reminder. Now as for him who believes himself to be self-sufficient, to him thou didst give thy whole attention, although thou art not accountable for his failure to attain to purity, but as for him who came unto thee full of eagerness and in awe of God—him thou didst disregard!Surah 80, verses 1-10
This passage reminded me of the passage in Mark’s gospel (Mark 7:24-30) where Jesus is corrected by a Syrophoenician woman on the issue of the worthiness of non-Israelites to receive the blessings of God. The story has what Biblical scholars refer to as the quality of “embarrassment,” meaning that given the embarrassing nature of the story, it’s unlikely for such a story to have been invented by the early church in the case of Mark’s gospel or the early Islamic community in the case of this Surah, and speaks favorably for its historicity.
On the Imago Dei
وَٱلضُّحَىٰ وَٱلَّيْلِ إِذَا سَجَىٰ مَا وَدَّعَكَ رَبُّكَ وَمَا قَلَىٰ وَلَلْآخِرَةُ خَيْرٌ لَّكَ مِنَ ٱلْأُولَىٰ وَلَسَوْفَ يُعْطِيكَ رَبُّكَ فَتَرْضَىٰٓ أَلَمْ يَجِدْكَ يَتِيمًا فَـَٔاوَىٰ وَوَجَدَكَ ضَآلًّا فَهَدَىٰ وَوَجَدَكَ عَآئِلًا فَأَغْنَىٰ فَأَمَّا ٱلْيَتِيمَ فَلَا تَقْهَرْ وَأَمَّا ٱلسَّآئِلَ فَلَا تَنْهَرْ وَأَمَّا بِنِعْمَةِ رَبِّكَ فَحَدِّثْ
Consider the bright morning hours, and the night when it grows still and dark. Your Sustainer has not forsaken you, nor does he scorn you: for indeed the life to come will be better for you than this earlier part [of your life]! And indeed, in time will your sustainer grant you [what your heart desires], and you shall be well pleased. Has he not found you an orphan and given you shelter? And found you lost on your way, and guided you? And found you in want, and given you sufficiency? Therefore, the orphan shall you never wrong, and him that seeks [your] help shall you never chide, and of your sustainer’s blessings shall you [ever] speak.Surah 93
The ethic of caring for widows, orphans, and the needy is one found across all major religions and Islam is no exception. And here we encounter the reader being reminded of the grace the reader has received and the command, then, to share that blessing with those in need.
So much of what I have shared here and so much more of what I have not gave me a real feeling of familiarity—a sense that I had read this before. Now, strictly speaking, I had not; I had read things that were like what I had read in the Qur’an—many of the echoes and evocations that I’ve made reference to, above.
But on a deeper level, I had read this before. Whether in the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible, or in the Gospels, or in the Epistles of the New Testament, I had read these words. And this is what the Qur’an means when it talks about the Book. The Book is not referring only to the literal books of the Torah or of the Gospels, but to the imperishable, eternal Book that is God’s revelation for humanity. That Book I have read not only in sacred writ but on the hearts of every person of faith—Jew, Christian, Muslim, Bahá’í, and so on—who lives out a life of faithfulness, justice, mercy, compassion, and love. That is the Book that we are called to read every day of our lives, and that is the book of whose words I have read in the Torah, in the Gospels, and in the Qur’an.