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World Religions: Islam – Lecture 4 – God’s Word: The Quranic Worldview

The following bits represent my notes and thoughts as I watch The Great Courses, “Great World Religions: Islam” by John L. Esposito.  A few things are worth noting:

  1. I encourage those with an interest to seek out the original source material.  You can do that on The Great Courses website.  My notes are just a pale shadow of the whole course but they might whet your proverbial whistle.
  2. These are just my notes and not an attempt to encapsulate the whole course.  As such, it should be painfully obvious that I’m no expert and at times prone to oversimplification and outright error.
  3. There is no third thing.  I just can’t stand having only two things in a list.

Lecture 4: God’s Word: The Quranic Worldview

According to the Muslim faith, The Quran is the literal and uncorrupted word of God; it was sent to the world as a correction to the Bible which had become tainted by the hand of man.  Primary among the Quran’s concerns about the Bible is that it allows for idolatry in the form of the worship of Jesus Christ.  Christianity is not considered to be properly monotheistic because of its recognition of the Trinity.

Finally collected in written form in 650, the Quran was written in Arabic and has been preserved verbatim.  From a textual standpoint, it is considered the single greatest written work in the Arabic language even today and stands as a perfect literary example.  It has even been said that some people have spontaneously converted to Islam after hearing and understanding it even once.  The Quran is the only miracle of the prophet Muhammad.  In Muslim countries reciters of the Quran are viewed as great celebrities and have been known to fill stadiums.

The Quran is 114 chapters or suras and designated as either Meccan or Medinan depending on where the prophet happened to be living when he uttered them.  The arrangement is not chronological but basically lists longer suras first followed by shorter ones.  Typically the Meccan suras cover religious practice while the Medinan ones revolve around daily life non-religious aspects of the faith.

Islam recognizes a few different classes of beings.  In no particular order:

  • Allah – God, the center of creation.  His nature is revealed through the world around us and he is merciful and just but souls will be judged.  The only truly unforgiveable sin is idolatry unless you repent before death.
  • Angels – Recorders and messengers between Allah and the rest of the world.
  • Jinn – Spirits with free will that are either good or evil.
  • Devils – Fallen angels who have been disobedient to God
  • Humans – Have special status and have been given the Earth in trust from Allah.  While Muslims believe in The Fall they do not believe that every person born since has Original Sin but that each person is judged for his or her actions in life.  Humans are therefore not saddled with guilt for past misdeeds but encouraged to simply repent and return to the path of righteousness.

The Quran speaks at length about several key topics but among the most important:

  • Society – The primary crux of the Quran is that of social justice.  All people are bound by Islamic law and as such are part of a whole that is responsible for care of the poor, widows and children.  Even charging interest is forbidden as its seen as taking advantage of the poor.  Muslims, therefore can neither earn interest from savings accounts nor pay interest on a mortgage, for example.
  • Women – The Quran abolished the ownership of women and established their rights to own property and to be financially cared for in the event of divorce.  It also established rules for when divorce was appropriate and forbade infanticide.  The most telling of quotes on the status of women is: “The best of you is he who is best to his wife.”  Previously the status of women in Middle Eastern society was tenuous at best.
  • Religious Tolerance – There is to be no compulsion for conversion of other religious faiths.  All were made different by Allah intentionally but the Muslims are to act as an example to other faiths on the right way to run a society.  Christians and Jews are “People of the Book” and therefore share a single God.  All who do right and live a righteous life will be rewarded in Heaven.  Non-Muslims living in Muslim countries are welcome but must pay a tax similar to the 2.5% that Muslims themselves must donate to charity.
  • The Lesser Jihad is a physical struggle to right injustice.  For example, if you are kicked out of your homeland, you may fight to get it back.  The Quran is very clear though that fighting is only a means of last resort:
    “[2:190] You may fight in the cause of GOD against those who attack you, but do not aggress. GOD does not love the aggressors.”  It goes on to detail rules for the treatment of prisoners and other specific situations in which the Lesser Jihad is appropriate.
  • The Greater Jihad is the struggle to stay on the path of righteousness and uphold the five pillar so Islam that have been previously detailed in another lecture.

Lastly, there is a brief discussion of what have been deemed the “Sword Verses” which many use to justify the categorization of Islam as a warlike faith.  The lecturer points out that these verses are taken out of context and incompletely quoted.


Series Guide

IslamView back-to-back on the YouTube Playlist
Lecture 1– Islam Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Lecture 2 – The Five Pillars of Islam
Lecture 3 – Muhammad-Prophet and Statesman
Lecture 4 – God’s Word-The Quranic Worldview
Lecture 5 – The Muslim Community-Faith and Politics
Lecture 6 – Paths to God-Islamic Law and Mysticism
Lecture 7 – Islamic Revivalism-Renewal and Reform
Lecture 8 – The Contemporary Resurgence of Islam
Lecture 9 – Islam at the Crossroads
Lecture 10 – Women and Change in Islam
Lecture 11 – Islam in the West
Lecture 12 – The Future of Islam

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Book Reviews: The Wife of John the Baptist (*****)

As usual I received this book free in exchange for a review, this time from the author. Also as usual I will give my absolutely candid opinions below.

This novel is a rather unique blend of religion, history and the supernatural. Our protagonist is the daughter of a rich Greek merchant who can sense the history of people and objects merely by touching them. This by itself is a sufficiently unusual beginning to pique most interest and it only gets better from there.

On the positive side, this book is full of intricate historical details but doesn’t really assume that you know anything about the life of everyday people during the life of Christ. The author very patiently explains everything from wedding rituals and menstruation to bathing habits. If nothing else this book is a grand history lesson. If that’s not enough, the book is also a passionate story of love found and lost and found again. One could easily and happily take this whole book in in a single sitting.

To the negative, there’s not much to say but for the span of 10 pages or so there’s a prolonged recital of John’s history that made my eyes glaze over and I almost put away the book. It struck as a discordant note in the narrative and I had to flip ahead several pages to avoid it. Also, it should be noted that I don’t really know the true history of any of these events so I can’t speak to their accuracy but I will say that nothing in the book rang out as obviously contrived. It seems to keep very truly to its primitive historical roots.

In summary, a beautifully wrought and detailed fiction wrapped around one of the most noted names in all of history. If you’re religious or just love a good historical fiction then this is highly recommended as long as you’re not easily offended by a lot of sexual references because apparently they do that quite a bit in the first century A.D.

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An agnostic view on The Ten(Twelve) Commandments

This post is a re-edit of one I wrote years ago for my other blog.  As would be obvious to any of my readers who have hung about for a while, I’m a religious agnostic who is intensely curious about others religion and welcome an open discussion of same with anyone who cares to have it.  Unlike many who claim the moniker of agnostic or atheist, I’m respectful (hopefully) and appreciate the views of others.  In this spirit, I’m putting this post up to prompt my Christian friend Grant Dawson to begin the project we’d agree upon that pits us both head-to-head in a discussion of modern Christian faith.  Help me in motivating him by visiting his blog.  He has a lot of great posts but he has one in particular that I consider his writing “hook”.  Read that, follow his blog and let’s get this party started.

Firstly, it should be noted that while the Christian faith is keen to claim the Ten Commandments as their own invention, the concepts embodied in those rules predate Christ by tens of thousands of years.  The Christians are certainly the best known codifiers of these somewhat obvious laws of behavior but by no means did they invent them.  Just for grins though, let’s look at each one in detail.

#1:  I am the Lord your God

This one is rather obvious.  In order to have a religion of any merit whatsoever, you have to have a cohesive leadership.  It also establishes the speaker as GOD and lends weight and influence to the other commandments.  It’s a good start, though somewhat predictable.

#2: You shall have no other gods before me

Somewhat redundant with #1 really and undermining of the speaker’s position.  It seems to admit to the existence of other gods and attempts to subordinate them.  A real king of kings doesn’t need to do this.  He stands on the mountain and says, “I AM KING, tough cookies”.  This commandment seems like a throw away.  The speaker’s position would be stronger without it.  If you must say something, say I am the ONLY God or depending on your position on the trinity question, say that you’re God, father of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.   Either way, this one doesn’t work.

#3: You shall not make for yourself an idol

Alright, this one bugs me.  As I would understand this, the speaker is forbidding his followers from creating anything which constitutes a stand-in for him.  In other words, you can’t make a physical representation of God and worship that instead.  You must worship the unembodied idea of  god but you can’t construct a golden cow or anything else in an attempt to give him a material representation on this earth.  If that’s the case, then isn’t the cross itself a violation of this?  Isn’t this a physical representation of the holiness of god that is treated with veneration?  Similarly, what about graven images?  I see a lot of portrayals of Jesus in churches.  This seems like a violation of that commandment.  Even worse, I’ve seen people dressed up as Jesus for various reenactments and that seems like it would violate the spirit of the commandment entirely.  I’d be interested to have someone explain this one to me.  As commandments go though, not a bad one.

#4: You shall not make wrongful use of the name of your God

This is your basic, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain or use it to sell vegetable choppers on late-night television.  I get this.  If you’re the boss you don’t want people sullying your good name.  Does strike me as a tad vain, however.

#5: Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy

Well, this is certainly open for interpretation.  Personally, I like the Jewish interpretation of this commandment.  Jews can’t even turn on a light switch during the Sabbath because it would be considered ‘starting a fire’.  I really respect that because they go to a LOT of trouble to keep this.  I can’t help but admire anyone who goes to a lot of trouble to obey such a rule.  I like the Jewish faith.  From a commandment perspective though, this says, “dedicate a day to me and me alone.”  Not a bad idea, especially if that day is also a day of leisure.

#6: Honor your father and mother

This one isn’t all surprising considering that the promulgation of religion primarily from parent to child.  Even if it wasn’t in the Bible per se, I suspect an enterprising parent would add this commandment themselves just to keep the young people in line.  It’s also worth noting that this commandment represents a transition from the previous ones which were designed to establish the authority of God and those which are intended to confer a competitive advantage to the adherents of the religion.  From an evolutionary standpoint, this has a lot to be said for it.  Previous generations are invaluable to the child-rearing process.  It would be a distinct evolutionary advantage to foster those relationships.  Say what you will about the Bible, it has a fairly good grounding in simple practicality.

#7: You shall not murder

Continuing in the vein of practicality, we have the prohibition on murder.  I can almost hear a primitive man, millions of years ago talking to a friend around a roaring fire: “You know Both, me no like Gorth.  Me want kill Gorth but if kill Gorth, Gorth no hunt, no bring food.  Me think not good kill Gorth.”  And thus was this commandment was born.  The simple fact is that we all do better when we get along and don’t slaughter each other.  Again, simple practicality.

#8: You shall not commit adultery

This one is actually an oddball in that in strictly biological terms, it works AGAINST the group.  Promiscuity is actually a POSITIVE trait from an evolutionary perspective.  Males and females of the species are likely to bear more healthy offspring if they have several sexual partners.  The only problem, of course, is that possessive males, when they find their brides violated, tend to violate the previous commandment.

#9: You shall not steal

Similar to murder and adultery, there’s an advantage to cooperating and not filching each other’s stuff.  Adultery is actually a subset of the concept of theft in this case and it’s simple good sense to get along, keep your hands off other people’s stuff and not subject yourself to the potential for murder.

#10: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor

As with #9, we have to just find some way to get along.  More than that though, we have to be honest with each other.  Of all the commandments, this one is probably the deepest and most meaningful for me.  It’s a lot of wasted energy to be anything BUT truthful so the optimal and most efficient state is to just start out that way.  When we’re all straight up with each other, we all benefit.

#11: You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife

#12: You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor

These two are merely subsets of one another, recognized as separate, according to Wikipedia anyway, only by the Catholic faith.  This seems to simply say that you must not even CONTEMPLATE breaking commandment #9.  If you covet, that will inevitably lead to theft.  So the origin of this falls directly in line with the idea that we have to get along and not get ourselves murdered.

Looking back over the list in general, it’s really somewhat disappointing.  Everything that God has to say to us in these 10(12) snippets of wisdom is obvious to any school child.  There are variations to these (cannibalistic, polygamist tribes) rules but in general all societies that live in groups adhere to these laws quite naturally.  Sure there’s an occasional primitive tribe that shares wives between all the males but in general they don’t go around killing each other for no reason.  The rules are basic common sense even to the most unrefined.

The fatuousness of these rules makes me question the very motives of any God who would hand them out.  Why proclaim with such formality something which is so obvious?  Is this is the best that God can do with all the forces of omniscience on his side?  How about some rules about which berries to eat and which are poisonous?  Something we can use but not pick up on any street corner?  Further, why is God so insecure that he spends nearly half of the commandments trying to solidify his own position?  If I’m God, omnipotent and omnipresent, I might spare one commandment to say, “Look, I’m watching you.  I see everything so don’t even THINK about breaking my commandments” but *5*?!  To me this indicates a certain level of narcissism on god’s part.  He spends half the time talking about himself and only after he’s done telling you why he’s the only god you’ll ever need does he get down to the business of telling you anything useful.  Frankly, it’s a disappointment.

If anything, I’d say this is just more evidence that god, if he existed, had nothing to do with the commandments at all.  A real god wouldn’t bother.  He’d tell us something useful rather than spouting obvious truths.  If this is God’s best work, then I’m sadly disappointed.  Of all the things to be promulgated among the mass of humanity, this is a poor effort.  Perhaps he’ll do better at the second coming.  Not that anyone would care at that point, of course.

Now that you’ve suffered through that, read Grant’s response from the Christian perspective.

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Books – Ehrman, Bart: Misquoting Jesus

Ehrman, in this brief little book covers a topic near and dear to my heart: the textual tradition of the Bible. Even the most lax reader of this blog will realize that this topic isn’t dear to me for any religious reason but rather for a literary one. The Bible, as I’ve said before, is THE piece of great literature in the Western World. More of our culture has poured out of this book than from any other source. The West as we know it is built on this book whether anyone wants to admit it or not. That’s why it’s of such particular fascination that anyone should tinker with it.

In Misquoting Jesus, the author breaks down the tinkering into a few basic types:

The first type isn’t really tinkering so much as it is a difficulty of determining exactly what version of the text was correct in the first place. To understand this, it’s important to remember that the Bible isn’t just one book by one author, it’s a collection of writings. Even each separate ‘book’ of the Bible wasn’t written and distributed the way books are today but were more likely the compilation of innumerable smaller writings by Christian authors of the period. Before there even WAS a Bible, these bits and pieces that would later become a single book were floating around, being copied and distributed by hand (no printing presses in these days) so the same document in one part of the world may look entirely different from the same document in another part of the world. Copying anything by hand is a laborious process to be sure and prone to mistakes of an unintentional nature. So if a text is subject to regional differences, how do you decide, when making your Bible for the first time, which one is correct?

The second bit of tinkering seems to have been caused by scribes who sought to improve the Bible. The most startling of the author’s examples appears at the end of Mark. The last twelve verses of this book don’t actually appear in the earliest copies of the text. Later copies that include those verses show an abrupt change in writing style indicative of a change of authorship. Ehrman theorizes that a scribe simply added the extra verses (Chapter 16 verses 9 – 20) to tie the story together and provide a less abrupt ending to the book! In less blatant cases, scribes may have changed the text to try to avoid a misunderstanding or improve the construction of a sentence or phrase in the text. Terrifyingly, this means that the Bible text we know today could have been determined on the whim of a 5th century scribe rather than the original author. Even the Lord’s Prayer, appearing in Luke 11:2-4 falls victim to such improvement. Originally it was much shorter but later lengthened to match the version found in Matthew 6:9-13.

Other changes are more subtle. Many fall simply into the realm of typographical errors caused because words look very much the same on the written page. In some instances, multiple copies of a book were made by having the original read aloud and several scribes writing what they heard. In these cases, even words that sounded the same could be confused. The author’s personal favorite source of typographical inaccuracy seems to be ‘periblepsis occasioned by homoeoteleuton.’ This is the technical term for omission of a line of text because it ends with the same words as the line immediately above it. Many early texts have been found missing entire lines of text because of this phenomenon.

Most upsetting of all the changes are those that were perpetrated for a theological reason. Many of those responsible for transmitting Biblical texts had a particular system of beliefs that they personally wanted to promote so they took the opportunity to add a bit here or there to support their version of things.

The Adoptionists believed that Christ was a flesh-and-blood human and that he only became Christ when God adopted him by baptism. Since the Adoptionists were not mainstream Christians, they didn’t get the opportunity to modify the Bible in their favor but there is evidence that Orthodox Christians did so in order to counteract their ideas. Modern versions of Mark 1:11 read “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” In earlier versions of the text, this passage read, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” The original could have been used as a strong Adoptionist argument that Jesus was not in fact the son of God but instead adopted. The text ran contrary to the thinking of Christian officials so it was promptly changed.

At the opposite end of the argument, the Docetists believed that Jesus was not actually a man at all. They argued that he simply had the appearance of a man outwardly but really he was a divine spirit. These too were non-Orthodox Christians so while their modifications don’t appear in the Biblical texts we do see modifications away from their beliefs. Luke’s version of the crucifixion seems to have been modified from the original to make Jesus seem more human including references to Jesus’ sweat and great anguish at his coming execution. Even the passages in Luke 22 referring to the Body and Blood of Jesus at the last supper never appeared in the original texts but were apparently added to make him seem more human.

Though this book doesn’t cover it, there’s also the issue of the other writings of the time that simply weren’t deemed appropriate for the Bible because they failed to agree with mainstream Christian doctrine. God may very well watch over his own word, but it seems evident that for the most part, he’s just watching.

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