Surah 14: Abraham

Back when I was taking college elementary-education classes, my professors often liked prompting us to let our future students draft up their own classroom rules. The point of this was to give students a small sense of power and investment in the organization and welfare of their classrooms. The predicted hitch: children are rather draconian creatures on the topics of fairness and justice. We teachers-to-be were warned that we might be shocked at the strict standards our students –never once considering their likeliness to run afoul of their own rules– would set for themselves and the punishments they’d proscribe, and that we’d probably need to intercede and temper things out a bit. This is true of broader society as well: people are likely to be more comfortable with setting up and living in a world full of harsh rules and punishments as long as they think it’ll never apply to them.

The Quran sets up some harsh punishments for unbelievers. Today’s surah is going to be marred by some very vivid and cruel images of Hell. Their purpose is to scare the unbelievers and make them receptive to Muhammad’s guidance. The point of the Quran’s insistence upon Hell is to convince people that they really need to listen to the things that will get them to heaven. It is also a reminder to believers that their response to God is supposed to be gratitude for making the effort to guide them away from Hell. In the midst of the surah we’ll listen in to a prayer of Abraham’s (Ibrahim‘s) and observe the gratitude and grace of a man who knows God guides and listens to him.

Those who don’t expect to be punished often don’t stop to think about the harshness of the punishments they are backing. Yet these things reflect the proposed character of the God or world they believe in, and today’s surah shall stir some old questions about God as Islam sees Him.

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Surah 13: The Thunder

Imagine when thunder was the most mysterious, impressive, ear-splitting sound humankind knew? It is hard for us to imagine a world in which there is as much silence or quietness as there was in ancient times. It is hard for me to imagine how ancient peoples understood thunder. I’ve always grown up being taught to link thunder with lightning, but how early was it when that link became assumed? Lightning is sometimes too far away for its thunder to be heard, and oftentimes I miss the sight of distant lightning even when I hear its thunder. How would and ancient mind, without knowledge of speeds of light and sound, process their observations?

Thunder alone is not the only thing mysterious to the ancient mind, and Surah al-Ra’d (43 ayat) is going to point to many other at-that-time mysterious things and see the presence of God in them. In material this comes closer to the materials of some of the Psalms (I’m thinking particularly Psalm 19). Argument and didactic intent are still very clear in the ayat, but the surah does approach a more purely worshipful tone as it marvels at the world to find God.

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