The second verse of the longest surah in the Quran, Surat Al-Baqara, states the following:
Dhalikal-Kitabu la rayba fih. Hudal-ilmuttaqin.
This Divine writ – let there be no doubt about it - is a guidance for all the God conscious. (2:2)
As Muslims, we accept this as a literal truth. And yet, the Quran presents us with a paradox. It claims itself to be a book for all those who are conscious of God. And yet, it came in the language of one specific people, with a very specific culture. As Muslims in the 21st century we cannot escape this paradox: the Quran is our holy book, and yet it was not revealed to us. The more I study the words of Quran – in English and in Arabic - the more I realize how specifically it addressed one Prophet and his community as they grappled with the circumstances engendered by its revelation.
The language in Quran is uniquely tailored to the 7th century Arabs. Poetry was the creative form of expression they used and admired above all. The poet or sha’ir filled the role of historian, soothsayer and propagandist - poets were the “rock stars” of that era. The sha’ir represented an individual tribe's prestige and importance in the Arabian Peninsula, and mock battles in poetry or zajal would sometimes stand in lieu of real wars. ‘Ukaz, a market town not far from Mecca, would play host to a regular poetry festival where the craft of the sha’irs would be exhibited.
The Quran not only capitalized on that cultural norm, it took poetic expression to a whole new level, with the introduction of hundreds of words previously unknown in the Arabic language, with an elegance of phrasing that could communicate complex ideas in astonishingly few words, and turns of phrase that could communicate ideas on multiple levels simultaneously. Quran even challenges the Arab poets to produce anything comparable.
Surat 2, Al-Baqara:
And if you doubt any part of what We have bestowed from on high, step by step, upon Our servant Muhammad, then produce a surah of similar merit, and call upon any other than God to bear witness for you – if what you say is true. [2:23]
And if you cannot do it – and most certainly you cannot do it – then be conscious of the fire whose fuel is human beings and stones which awaits those who deny the truth! [2:24]
The words of Quran also reflect the culture and sensibilities of 7th century Arabs. Tribes frequently fought each other; life was harsh and dangerous. Intra-tribal and inter-tribal relationships were governed by a complex code of social conduct in which there was the ever-present menace of death, especially untimely death. Religious ideas were little developed before the Quranic revelations.
One of the early collections of pre-Islamic poetry related to war is contained in the Hamasa, an anthology compiled by Ilabib ibn Aus at-Ta'i, surnamed Abu Tammam. The collection includes poems descriptive of constancy and valor in battle, patient endurance of calamity, steadfastness in seeking vengeance, and manliness under reproach and temptation. This poetry was full of vivid portrayals of violence; graphic descriptions of fighting and killing. An illustrative example from this collection is a verse by the poet Qais bin al-Hatim al-Ausi:
Out of vengeance I wounded Abdalqais with a spear and made a wound so great that it would have been filled with light had not blood poured from it on all sides. I kneaded in it (the wound) with the palms of my hands and widened the opening, so that there could be seen what lay behind it.
This is the kind of language that is referenced in some of the verses of the Quran. It seems to be tailored to resonate with the tribal Arabs at an emotional level. It seems to have been crafted to make sense to them. But Quran uses this language to illustrate concepts about faith that the Prophet was instructed to share with his community. I am going to take verses out of context here, which I do not normally advocate. Every verse has its own story, and it will be useful to explore those stories elsewhere, but now I am citing them just to make the point about the language used in them.
There are 83 references to fighting in God’s cause in Quran, (as indexed in M. Asad’s The Message of the Quran). Some of the main themes are “fighting is ordained for you” (2:216-218), “fight in God’s cause” (2:243-245, 4:71-76 and 84-85, 8:5-10), “rewards for those fighting in God’s cause” (4:95-104), “those slain in God’s cause are protected in heaven (47:4-10), “those who fought are above those who did not” (57:10), and references to the hypocrites who refused to fight in the Battle of Uhud (3:152-155). Here are some of the examples:
Surah 2, Al-Baqara:
Fighting is ordained for you, even though it be hateful to you; but it may well be that you hate a thing the while it is good for you, and it may well be that you love a thing the while it is bad for you: and God knows, whereas you do not know. [2:216]
Surah 4, An-Nisa:
Hence, let them fight in God’s cause – all who are willing to barter the life of this world for the life to come: for unto him who fights in God’s cause, whether he be slain or be victorious, We shall in time grant a mighty reward. 4:
Those who have attained to faith fight in the cause of God, whereas those who are bent on denying the truth fight in the cause of the powers of evil. Fight, then, against those friends of Satan: verily, Satan’s guile is weak indeed! [4:76]
Fight thou, then, in God’s cause – since thou art but responsible for thine own self – and inspire the believers to overcome all fear of death. God may well curb the might of those who are bent on denying the truth: for God is stronger in might, and stronger in ability to deter. [4:84]
The language of God as punisher was the language needed to communicate the idea of consequences to 7th century tribal Arabs. The language of burning flesh and scalding water were apt metaphors to describe to them the agony of dying in a state of disbelief. Quran promises that those who fight in God’s cause will attain paradise, and those who defy God will go to hellfire, from which there will be no escape.
There are 160 references to punishment in Quran, such as:
Surah 2, Al-Baqara
…If they who are bent on evildoing could but see – as they will when they are made to suffer – that all might belongs to God alone, and that God is severe in punishment. (2:165)
Surah 12, Yusuf
…never can Our punishment be averted from people who are lost in sin. (12:110)
Surah 13, Ar-rad
Nay, goodly seems their false imagery to those who are bent on denying the truth, and so they are turned away from the [right] path: and he whom God lets go astray can never find any guide. (13:33)
For such, there is suffering in the life of this world; but truly [their] suffering in the life to come will be harder still, and they will have none to shield them from God. (13:34)
And the descriptions of God’s punishment in Quran are at times quite graphic. There are 122 references to hell in Quran, described as an “evil,” or “vile resting place,” for those who fail to grasp the Truth.
Surah 4, An-Nisaa:
And nothing could be as burning [as the fire of] hell: (4:55) For verily, those who are bent on denying the truth of Our messages We shall, in time, cause to endure fire: [and] every time their skins are burnt off, We shall replace them with new skins, so that they may taste suffering [in full]. Verily, God is almighty, wise. (4:56)
Surah 9, At-Taubah:
on the Day when that [hoarded wealth] shall be heated in the fire of hell and their foreheads and their sides and their backs branded therewith, [those sinners shall be told:] “These are the treasures which you have laid up for yourselves! Taste, then, [the evil of] your hoarded treasures! (9:35)
Surah 11, Hud:
[as for those who refuse to avail themselves of divine guidance,] that word of thy Sustainer shall be fulfilled: “Most certainly will I fill hell with invisible beings as well as with humans, all together!” (11:119)
Surah 14, Ibrahim:
And [thus it is:] every arrogant enemy of the truth shall be undone [in the life to come], (15) With hell awaiting him, and he shall be made to drink of the water of most bitter distress (16) Gulping it [unceasingly,] little by little, and yet hardly able to swallow it. And death will beset him from every quarter – but he shall not die: for [yet more] severe suffering lies ahead of him. (14:17)
Surah 17, Al-Isra:
…for those whom He lets go astray thou canst never find anyone to protect them from Him: and [so, when] We shall gather them together on the Day of Resurrection, [they will lie] prone upon their faces, blind and dumb and deaf, with hell as their goal; [and] every time [the fire] abates, We shall increase it for them [its] blazing flame. (17:97)
We cannot escape the fact that, in English translation as in the original Arabic, the Quran is filled with language that glorifies fighting, and provides graphic descriptions of eternal suffering for those who deny God, and vivid descriptions of the paradise waiting for those who fight in God’s cause. I accept that these are the words revealed to the Prophet. And yet, I have to understand them in context.
It would not have worked for God to send a message to 7th century Arabs in a way that speaks to me now. If God had communicated something along the lines of – “There are spiritual laws of cause and effect just like there are physical laws of action and reaction, and you came into physical being subject to those laws, but you have the power to separate yourself from this life-giving Creative Spirit – the
Source of all things - and if you cut yourself off from belief in One Creator and life beyond the physical realm, you will have one heck of a time when you ultimately pass from life in this world” – or something to that effect – it would have gone right over their heads.
Quran did not come to us in our own native languages and does not refer to events in our own time and culture. God put us in the position of being, of necessity, interpreters of Quran. I thank God for the gift of a brain, a brain designed to be put to use to understand how revelation applies to me today. And as I study, the miracle of Quran becomes all the more apparent to me…. the miracle that an opening to the Creative Force beyond our earthly existence was manifested through human language at a certain point in time, in linguistic and cultural perfection, to change the course of human civilization.