Thoughts on the Qur’an, mostly from Sura Al-An’am

I’ve been reading the Qur’an. I’m about a quarter of the way through John Medows Rodwell’s English translation.

It’s pretty slow going for the first several suras, an impressive portion of the text being devoted to endlessly repeating that believers will go to paradise and infidels will burn in hell. The fourth sura offers this charming description: “Those who disbelieve Our signs We will in the end cast into the Fire: so oft as their skins shall be well burnt, We will change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the torment. Verily God is” (here even Muhammad seems to realize that the customary epithets “compassionate, merciful” would sound odd and opts instead for) “mighty, wise!” (4:56) This, astonishingly, is presented as a just punishment for the crime of failing to believe something — not for doing wrong, but for being wrong, for having incorrect opinions. As the Qur’an makes clear in repeated rhetorical questions, its author can imagine nothing more wicked. Now I understand why Muhammad says not to make friends with unbelievers; knowing that your friend is having his skin endlessly burnt off and replaced might interfere with your ability to properly enjoy paradise.

But I already knew that about the Qur’an. Everybody does. Here are a few interesting bits — all from the sixth Sura, it turns out — which I didn’t know about before:

It is He who taketh your souls at night, and knoweth what ye have merited in the day: then He awakeneth you therein, that the set life-term may be fulfilled . . . (6:60)

I suppose this might be talking about death, judgment, and resurrection — but the bit at the end about awakening so that the set life-term may be fulfilled makes me think that it’s talking quite literally about sleeping and waking up, saying that God takes our souls during sleep and returns them to us when we wake up. I find that interesting because it reminds me of an argument used by Sam Harris in a debate with Andrew Sullivan, who found it difficult to believe that his consciousness would simple cease at death.

Presumably, you don’t find it hard to accept that you didn’t exist before you were born, so why is it so difficult to believe that you will cease to exist after you die? . . . Or imagine dying in parts: what if you had a stroke that damaged your visual cortex-where would your faculty of sight be thereafter? If a priest said that your visual self had gone on to heaven before you, would you believe him? . . . There is simply no question that brain damage can cause any of us to lose the specific faculties that constitute our conscious selves. Why is it so hard to imagine that we can lose all these faculties at once?

Or consider the analogy of sleep: each night you fall asleep and surrender your subjectivity to oblivion. You . . . awaken each morning without any sense of having lived for most of the night. You already know, therefore, what it’s like for your experience of the world to cease. Is a permanent cessation really so difficult to imagine?

Harris’s series of analogies doesn’t actually prove anything. Instead it relies on the listener’s judgment, on his subjective sense of what is absurd. The believer always has the option of biting the bullet and saying, for example, “Why, yes, in that case I would believe that my visual self had gone to heaven before me.” Mormonism does this when it comes to our apparent nonexistence before we were born, insisting that, yes, we did exist before birth, that each human soul has always existed and is co-eternal with God, but that memory of the “pre-mortal life” is erased or suppressed at birth. The Qur’an seems to be doing the same thing with sleep, taking the idea of the afterlife to its logical (if absurd) conclusion. Consciousness seems to cease at death, but in fact the soul lives on in another world; therefore, if consciousness seems to cease temporarily during sleep, it stands to reason that in fact the soul has temporarily gone to another world. I’m not sure that this is what the Qur’an is saying — a lot obviously depends on matters of translation and interpretation — but if it is, it offers an interesting new take on the familiar prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”

This next line is one I had read before, when, many years ago, I was studying stories about Abraham from various sources (a study that culminated in my discovery that the Mormon Book of Abraham was a transparent hoax and my subsequent resignation from the Mormon church). The “he” in this passage is Abraham:

And when the night overshadowed him, he beheld a star. “This,” he said, “is my Lord:” but when it set, he said, “I love not gods which set.” (6:76)

I love that line. It has a certain Nietzschean grandeur, at least in this translation. One can’t help but notice, though that Abraham’s reason for concluding that the star is not a god is based on ignorance. The star didn’t really “set” or fall or cease to shine; all that happened was that the earth rotated until it was no longer in Abraham’s line of sight. A more astronomically literate prophet might have found in this a metaphor for the true God: If He sometimes seems to be absent, it is only because we have turned away from Him.

One more passage that caught my eye:

Revile not those whom they call on beside God, lest they, in their ignorance, despitefully revile Him. (6:108)

This comes surprisingly close to the Golden Rule and “Judge not lest ye be judged.” It would have been nice if Muhammad had pursued this line of thinking a little further and come up with “Murder not the infidels for disbelieving in your God, lest they, in their ignorance, murder you for disbelieving in theirs.” — but, in fairness, I shouldn’t assume he didn’t until I’ve finished his book.

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