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.

Revelation and Science

The first seventeen ayat of this surah are heavy with images from nature being used to prove the reality and power of The God. The images are not scientific, and those who want to find nitpicks about clashes between scientific fact and the language used here will find plenty of material: there is the potentially geocentric language for the solar system, the assumption that all fruits are dioecious, and the asserted regular divine manipulation of weather and crops. Though scientific exploration has given us better models, more thorough awareness, and new explanations for these things, it has to be noted that adherents to the attacked scriptures have several simple rebuffs. Here are some:

We know through scientific exploration that Earth is moving around the Sun. All models of the solar system and galaxy are magnitudes easier to follow if you do not make the earth the fixed point of reference. But still, velocity is relative.

train
Ridiculous, but valid.

While using the Earth as your reference point to determine the position of celestial bodies is utterly unhelpful in terms of describing the universe, it still holds validity for the simpler descriptions of the times of day. The suns “rises” and “sets” after all. That the Quran or Bible uses geocentric language does not mean it is speaking authoritatively on the science of celestial organization. It is just speaking from (although I suppose Islam would deny “from” and say “for”) the human vantage point. This surah, furthermore, does not have any words committing to geocentric theory. Both models of the universe feature the sun and moon in motion.

The wording of the ayat suggest God is influencing the world in real time, crediting Him for generating acts of God like deadly thunderbolts and good harvests. Science instead shows the Earth to be like a large Rube-Goldberg machine, in which physics constantly cascade to bring about events and results that continue to cascade towards future events. For some people, this means that God has no influence in the world’s events and that He isn’t present. Those who believe in an omnipotent God look at this Rube-Goldberg machine and say that, being all-knowing, He knew what results His creation would bring about when He set it in motion. This becomes tantamount to directly bringing those events out, and thus such things are considered to further glorify the intricacy of God’s creation and the ingenuity of His authorship.

The last common rebuff I’ll provide today: the point of these ayat is not to teach science. The ayat don’t describe scientific processes at all. For example, ayah 8 declares that God knows the contents of a woman’s womb. That’s the kind of thing that we have only very recently gained any insight into through science, and at that time it really was a mystery to the people. But the ayah gives no insight about what is going on inside the woman’s womb to prove God’s omnipotence in the matter. The point is merely to posit and impress, not to prove. Some statements in the Quran and Bible do fit decently well into scientific discovery, and believers are quick to promote those statements as far as they can. Less compliant sections are explainable as literary devices consistent with the intent to communicate a spiritual message, rather than kick start the next era of human technology à la Space Odessey Monolith.

These answers are not complete shut-downs of the debate, but for those predisposed to reconcile the scriptures, they are enough. I’ve posited these arguments from my own Christian background, but I must acknowledge that they might not represent how Muslims explain things. The Bible (usually) gets some leeway for (usually) being understood as written through the minds of men –thus the use of human-centric perspective and time-constrained understandings in its communication. The Quran, however, rejects such arbitration having affect on its given knowledge, and so perhaps we can question why God would choose to speak using imprecise or flawed knowledge. For example, we know that not all fruits are dioecious, so why does God say in ayah 3 that they all are? Again, the point of that verse is to impress God’s power, not reveal the reproductive methods of fruit species, but the statement is in itself not true (apricots, almonds, plums, and some figs are examples of the contrary). And if God wanted the Quran to be the final, perfect, definitive document to guide humankind through all its future, why did He communicate in a way that appeals specifically to the knowledge of its original era?

This Life and the Afterlife

A few ayat in this surah suggest that God consistently punishes the wicked in this life in a way that correlates to their wickedness (31, 34, and 41, and maybe 13 depending on the translation). Statements like these are hard to reconcile with the world, where many awful people regularly get to go through life with more personal happiness than many good people. On the other hand, in this and prior suwar the Quran asserts that God gives the wicked goodness in this life as a small mercy before they face Hell. There is the opposite message for the righteous: that they will enjoy good times for good living, but that bad times are a test to prove their worthiness for the future good times of Heaven. Thus the Quran provides an answer for every situation, but also makes it impossible for a person to tell what message from God they are getting in their circumstances. Are they being punished for doing wrong, or tested for doing right?

One strength(?) I find in Jewish scriptures is that, because they do not have a direct view of an afterlife, some of them are willing to look at the way suffering affects righteous and wicked people equally and take such things seriously. As an angsty teen I needed the affirmation that Ecclesiastes gave me that the world was intrinsically unfair, but that a simple and good life was worth living anyways. Islam and Christianity place the burden of justice more upon the judgement at the resurrection, and thus their scriptures maybe aren’t as good for validating the dismay of those who see the injustice being done in this world. But they do provide comfort that justice shall be done, and this is part of the reason why so many people believe in them.

As regards Paradise and Hell, many ayat today speak on the topic, indeed the topic of unbelievers going to Hell is as persistently central as ever. There is nothing new that I caught in the descriptions of Hell. Paradise, however, is depicted with some new details. Believers are going to be surrounded by believing members of their family (note the word “spouses” might suggest that marriage continues into Paradise). Angels shall greet all believers by congratulating them for having earned their place in such gardens.

Free Will and the Mother Book

In ayah 11 we find the strongest assertion of human free will than has appeared anywhere in our prior suwar. It is almost a different way of saying “God helps those who help themselves.” Muhammad has frequently been told not to try to win the faith of those who do not believe him, and God is voicing this same policy in His own actions upon mankind: only tend to those who turn to you. Ayah 27 also gives a similar kind of statement, in which God leaves people astray according to His will, but guides to Himself those who turn. It is the turning of an individual that invites God’s guidance. These two ayat stand out for me for emphasizing the ability of people to determine their own fate. All roads lead to Hell, so turning to God is the only true way to choose one’s own destiny. This contrasts many other passages in the past that emphasize only God’s role in determining who will or will not be saved.

Besides the natural imagery of this surah, ayat 37-39 were the most interesting to me. Ayah 37 makes clear that the Quran was deliberately revealed as an Arabic source of authority. Ayah 38 tells Muhammad that he is the latest in a chain of prophets. The prophets are depicted a normal human beings with wives and children, blending with the idea that God’s revelation comes through ordinary means and vernacular language [rather than omens and epics]. When it says that each era has received a decree from God, we might assume it is meaning that is has always been through these normal looking people using common languages.

The curious next phrase in ayah 39 is that God “eliminates or confirms what He wills” and that He possesses “The Mother of Books.” This is the most direct description of something that I have only known about through traditional sources until now. The Mother Book is understood to be the master copy of all holy scriptures. It is odd to me that this revelation of the Mother Book comes right after a sentence about God eliminating and confirming (with context suggesting it is revelation that He is acting upon). Does this suggest that God edits the Divine Books? This also reminds me of al-Baqarah 109, in which God declares that He wills some things to be forgotten so that He can replace it (with something similar or better). This idea defends how God could let prior revelations be maimed into incomplete and near-useless states, as the Torah and Gospels are understood to be.

Conclusion

These are the only things I found to pay particular attention to. The natural imagery left the strongest impression on me. Although I’ve noted how these passages are not about teaching science, they do set a precedent of looking into science for proof of God. I’ve heard in the past that Islam inherently encourages scientific research, but always discounted the idea. I figured rhetoric elevating Islam as particularly pro-scientific was in the same vein as rhetoric promoting Christianity as particularly pro-scientific: propaganda that’s not necessarily wrong but yet is overstated. But now I am willing to concede that the intent of using the natural world to prove God’s existence does give Islam an inherently stronger motivation to understand nature. While I do not think this line of reasoning is ever going to prove God’s existence –how could it, if God exists outside the science He created?– it can affect the culture’s drive to explore. Islam’s emphasis on being guided by knowledge also puts a high value on learning and having all the facts. In these ways, the Quran does encourage scientific exploration.

Otherwise, this is a very short surah with much less content to tease through. Indeed, today’s post really is more of a journal of thoughts I had after reading through the surah, rather than a detailed analysis of the material. If you read through it yourself, as I think you should, please comment upon anything that you found interesting or what thoughts you were left with!

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