In my last post I briefly talked about the differences between the holy books of Islam, in comparison to those of Judaism and Christianity. I pointed out that the equivalent of the Qur’an in these latter religions isn’t the Bible, but Jesus himself. Both are ‘The Word’ of God (I’ll go into this significance in another post). By understanding this it starts to become clear why the idea of Islam ‘having it’s own Reformation’ is theologically impossible.
I want to be clear before I continue though – what I’m about to explain doesn’t automatically apply to every Muslim. This isn’t my PC ‘Get out of jail free’ card either. If I was PC I wouldn’t be writing this blog. It’s just that religion is complicated and has as much to do with a sense of family and identity as beliefs.
This means that Muslims themselves can ignore or redefine their religion out of ignorance or convenience. I’m a Roman Catholic and when I attend mass there are empty pews with families of only one or two children, yet the Church’s teachings are clear about contraception. This can’t possibly all be down to infertility!
For many people religion is itself a cultural association; for years Catholicism was to me my mother, her sisters and midnight mass. It provoked warm feelings, I dipped in an out of it participating in Lent, but not mass – a weekly commitment was too much and I’d persuaded my self that ‘if God’s everywhere I can worship Him anywhere’. Unfortunately this would often be in bed on a Sunday morning. However I would have defended the existence of God, regularly in the pub in fact! If you where unnecessarily rude about the Church I would defend it too.
With this awareness of the limitations of applying the conclusions you may draw from what I’m about to say to all Muslims, I’m going to continue explaining in this post precisely why the Bible has room for interpretation.
The Bible is from Greek and its original meaning was simply books, an accurate description of just what the Bible is – a set of books or scrolls as they were first. These books have varying importance, yet even those considered the most important have the ability to be interpited as the Bible itself is not meant to be The Word of God. As Timothy H. Lim (a professor of Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism at Edinburgh University) makes clear it is not a ‘magic book’, as these books were not written by God but humans. As a result although they are divinely inspired this is through acts of revelation, not dictation. Consequently man’s humanity taints God’s will; although Christians and Jews alike believe that God’s will is revealed within it, rather like St Paul’s description of the Christian, moral journey;
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
(1 Corinthians 13; 11-12)
For Christians God is fully know in Jesus, The Word; for Muslims God is fully known in The Qur’an.
The Bible itself spans from about 1500 BC and the book of Revelation has an (disputed) estimated date of around 100 AD. As previously stated its authors are from all walks of life and have different purposes for writing. For example the Psalms are songs or poems of praise and documenting the personal fate of David as well as that of Israel. Proverbs is a book of wisdom. Their are historical books recounting the fate of Israel and its relationship with God. There are books of the prophets which prophesy about Israel’s fate as well as prophesy the Messiah.
As I stated all of these books are considered to have varying relevance; however for Jews the most important part of the Bible is the Torah, or Pentateuch – the five Books of Moses. These are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Yet even in these books we can find a clue to how these books were treated as inspired by God. In the very first book of the Bible, Genesis, we can see that despite these books being named as written by Moses they have evolved over some centuries.
At the commencement of Genesis are two creation stories. The first in the books order is the 7 day creation story and is often attributed by Biblical scholars to ‘Priestly’ writers. This is primarily because its tone is very sedate and measured, and the facts of creation are revealed in a methodical pattern.
It’s worth remembering here that when I’m referring to ‘Priestly’ writers I’m actually referring to scholars. Due to the Post-Enlightenment emphasis on the primacy of science and the challenge of any sort of knowledge beyond the scientific method (itself an article of faith) we have come to see priests as only educated in areas of scripture at best, with others referring to their work as listening to ‘sky-fairies’ and the like. However priests and other religious have always been and still are extensively educated, including the sciences. The Big Bang theory was first developed by a religious for example, Georges Laimêtre, a Catholic priest.
This is the case with this first seven day creation story which is a logical application of the natural sciences and follows an evolutionary pattern, even if not one that focuses on the origin of the species from one life form. In this account even the nature of God is different; Elohim, the Hebrew word denotes a generic plural word for God. The earth itself is created in six days, starting with light on the first day and ending with mankind on the sixth. It is significant that in this account man and woman is made at the same time and independently of each other. This Plural God then rests on, blesses and sanctifies the seventh.
In the second story it’s as of the record is reset and the tone changes into one of a storyteller. God, now referred to as Yahweh, creates Adam, the first man, from dust and places him in the Garden of Eden, where he is given authority over and care for the animals. Eve, the first woman, is created from Adam and as his companion.
The positioning of these books are significant as the latter Adam and Eve story is historically the oldest, so its place communicates that its Truth is not literal, but metaphysical. Whereas the younger, more scientifically accurate account is first because it is more reflective of reality as well as communicating Truths of mankind and Creation. As such a precedent for reading the Bible as being inspired by God is set. The story of Adam and Eve is maintained because of the Truths it reveals, but the scientific Truth of the seven day creation story is placed fist.
Islamic tradition relates that Muhammad received the Qur’an’s first revelation in the Cave of Hira during one of his isolated retreats to the mountains. This is a region that Muhammad deplored because of it’s debauchery and licentiousness, and he would go to the area without his far older, wealthy wife to pray and meditate for day at a time.
The first revelations to Muhammad weren’t immediately communicated to anyone. Evidently though Muhammad’s wife became disturbed by his frequent visits to the cave and questioned him about his activities there and he eventually disclosed that the Angel Jibril (Gabriel) had appeared to him, unrolled a scroll which was written as if in flames and commanded him to recite the first lines. The miracle that shows for Muslims that this was a divine action was that Muhammad was illiterate.
This first recitation becomes chapter 96 of the Quran. Muhammad’s experience is mentioned in the Koran 53:4–9:
- “It is no less than inspiration sent down to him:
- He was taught by one Mighty in Power,
- Endued with Wisdom: for he appeared (in stately form);
- While he was in the highest part of the horizon:
- Then he approached and came closer,
- And was at a distance of but two bow-lengths or (even) nearer;”[Quran 53:4–9]
As it is clear from this passage, this is seen as direct communication from God and, furthermore, this direct communication is stated as needed by Muhammad as a corrective to the inaccuracies within the Jewish and Christian scriptures.
The Qur’an was delivered over a period of 23 years, including laws which were revealed daily.
As it was initially spoken, the Quran was recorded on tablets, bones, and the wide, flat ends of date palm fronds. However, the Quran did not exist in book form at the time of Muhammad’s death in 632. There is agreement among scholars that Muhammad himself did not write down the revelation.
Even though this is the case it is seen by Muslims to be the exact words delivered supernaturally to Muhammad and the words within are the words of god. So if the Qur’an says the punishment for theft is to cut off someones hand, it is necessarily indisputable. Whereas if Leviticus says you cannot wear mixed fibres, the Bible’s inspired nature and its treatment throughout history demonstrates that in these passages it is acceptable to debate this.