Lecture 1: Introduction to Islam
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Islam is based on teachings in the Qur'an. Knowing the teachings of Islam helps us to understand the uniqueness of the teachings of Christianity and the perspective of Muslims.
I. Islam: The Religion of the Qur'an
II. Great Qur'anic Passages: #1 - Surah 59:23, 24
A. Grand Theme of the Qur'an
B. 99 Beautiful Names of Allah
III. Islam in the Context of the 20th and 21st Centuries
A. Islamic growth numerically vs. percent of the world
B. Islam and Christian growth compared
IV. Why Study Islam?
A. It is crucial to our obedience to the Great Commission.
B. We live in a global village.
C. Islam is a window to view the uniqueness of our own faith.
D. Islam has been misunderstood and feared in the West.
V. Great Qur'anic Passages: #2 - Iron 57:1-4
A. Allah as Creator
B. 99 Beautiful Names
C. Creation in six days
D. Mounting His Throne
Course: Introduction to Islam
Lecture: Introduction to Islam
I. Islam: The Religion of the Qur’an
Welcome to Introduction to Islam. The purpose of this class is to provide an introductory study of the structure of beliefs and practices of the religion of Islam. One of the things we’ll try to make clear right at the beginning of this class is that Islam is both a religion about a historical movement (that we’re all perhaps familiar with to some degree), but more importantly, for our purposes, it’s the story of how a people who had no book of revelation came to regard themselves as a “people of the book” – this is the expression they’ll use repeatedly, in their own self-designation – how a people, in this case on the Arabian Peninsula, came to have a book called the Qur’an, which they believe represents the highest expression of God’s will. So, part of this class will involve not only more or less your standard introduction to Islam – historically, the rise of it, the key features and figures in the religion, but also a very careful study of the Qur’an. We’ll spend a lot of time actually studying the Qur’an, looking at key verses and passages in the Qur’an, and by the end of the course, we will have covered a lot of the major texts in the Qur’an, so that when you get through with the class, you not only have a clear view of the beliefs of Muslims, but also a good working view of the Qur’an – what’s actually taught in the Qur’an. Muslims are famous for quoting the Qur’an in various situations when in fact, they’re not quoting the Qur’an. It’s very helpful having read the Qur’an enough so that you can know whether, when someone quotes something to you, it’s actually in the Qur’an or not.
II. Great Qur’anic Passages: #1 – Surah 59:23,24
A. Grand Theme of the Qur’an
So, what we’ll do is each time we’ll begin each lecture with at least one or two, what I call, Great Qur’anic passages. Before we start our formal lectures, I do want to begin with our first Qur’anic passage. If you can turn in your Qur’ans to Surah 59:23 & 24 – and I have to immediately say, that’s a strange thing to say: “Surah 59, Ayah 23” – the Muslims do not speak of their Qur’an in chapters and verses the way we do. We talk about the Bible and we divide it into chapters and verses, they had a similar type thing: the Qur’an divided up into what we would call 114 different chapters and thousands of verses. But they, rather than using the words “chapter” and “verse”, which to them is a static kind of designation, they prefer the terms surah and ayah. The word surah, as you’ll soon come to see, as we develop the course, is a word which means “step” or “gradation”. It basically has the idea that every time you cite a chapter of the Qur’an, you’re moving one step closer to Allah, to God. Every verse is called an ayah, which means a “sign” or “pointer”, so every verse is a pointer toward Allah. And so, the Muslims actually envision the Qur’an – the language, the way they talk about the Qur’an – rather than using a word like chapter and verse, which is more static, they use the words surah and ayah which is more dynamic and mobile. It has the believer, as they read, actually moving closer to Allah. Therefore, it’s appropriate to open with Surah 59: 23, 24 – the way that we begin as our first great Qur’anic passage, because this actually reveals one of the key themes in the Qur’an, which is Allah himself. This is one of the things that will be repeatedly exalted throughout the Qur’an, is the nature and character of Allah, so I’ll begin my reading ayah 23, 24 of Surah 59:
“He is Allah, than Whom there is no other god.”
That’s “beside whom”, that’s what it means here, “beside Him there is no other God”, sounds very familiar to Biblical language there.
“The sovereign Lord, the holy one, peace, the keeper of faith, the guardian, the majestic, the compeller, the superb – glorified be Allah from all that they ascribe as partners unto him. He is Allah, the creator, the shaper out of nothing, the fashioner. To him belong the most beautiful names. All that is in the heavens and the earth glorifies him and he is the mighty, the wise.”
B. 99 Beautiful Names of Allah
Now that passage, as you readily recognize, list a number of names or descriptions of Allah. If you go through the entire Qur’an, you’ll find, at least symbolically, I think there’s actually more than that, but they have symbolically said, as a community, that Allah is given 99 beautiful names in the Qur’an. Here, you have a good list of them right here. You’ll notice the phrase, “To him belong the most beautiful names.” So, Muslims in the marketplace, if you’re in any Muslim city throughout the world, you’ll see Muslims holding in their hand a little string with 33 beads on it. It’s a little thing they call the Subha. A Subha is essentially a prayer chain, prayer beads. If you have any background in Catholicism, you’ll of course know that Catholics often will have prayer beads. The Catholics, it’s widely believed – there’s some dispute over this, naturally – observe this practice from the Muslims. This is something they believe the Catholics actually got from the Muslims, rather than the other way around. Now that’s a matter of some dispute, but the subha generally will have 33 beads on it. Every bead, you will announce one of the names of Allah. If you go around the subha three times successfully, then you will have recited all 99 names of Allah. So, this is one of the main texts they cite to support the doctrine of the 99 beautiful names of Allah, particularly this phrase in the 24th ayah “to him belong the most beautiful names”. Now you may wonder why 99 – why not 100? Why not 50, whatever? Well, you have to know a little bit of Arabic – everybody here will learn a little bit of Arabic right now, Arabic numbers.
If you look at your hand, unless you have an unusual hand, you should find in your hand one line that goes straight up, and then one little figure that looks like a hat or an upside down “V”. Do you see that? The single line is the number one in Arabic, the upside down “v”, the little triangular shape there is the number eight. So, actually, they would say that everybody has the number 18 written on their hand. You look at your other hand, of course, it’s the exact reverse – you have on the left-hand side, you have the upside down “v” then you have the straight line. If you add 18 and 81, what do you get? 99. So, they believe that, symbolically, everybody has the numbers 18 and 81 on their hands, represents 99, and that Allah has actually inscribed himself onto the palms of our hands. It’s a theological point that Muslims make. Of course, from my point of view, it’s quite remarkable in the sense that the prophets in the Old Testament make the observation that, in fact, it is we who are inscribed on the hands of Yahweh, just citing his love for us. That says a lot about the differences right away between Islam and Christianity. But if you take time to look at the 99 beautiful names, and I have them here before me, you don’t have to take time to look at all of these, but if you were to go through and look at the names of Allah, for example, “the Compassionate, the Merciful, the Holy One, the King, the Peace, the Protector, the Mighty One, the Fashioner, the Forgiver, the Dominant One, the Provider” – these are all descriptions that we would find quite in keeping with Christian belief. There are very few of these that we would scratch our heads at and say, “This is something that is inconsistent with what we would say about God.” I think what I would say about the 99 beautiful names of Allah, having studied them, is not so much what do they say about God that we would disagree with in the case of the names or description of Allah, but what amazes me is what they leave out that we would find very important for us: the whole idea of God as Father, for example, is not something that appears in the 99 names of Allah. He doesn’t have that kind of relationship with his people. Obviously, not the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, either.
III. Islam in the Context of the 201t and 21st Centuries
A. Islamic Growth Numerically vs. Percent of the World
So, there are some major differences there, but I would say more by omission than by what’s included in the 99 beautiful names of Allah. So, that text is one that we will use to kind of start off our first lecture. Now, why do we want to study Islam? What is the context which brings us to a class like this? If you look on the handout, which describes the growth of Islam and Christianity in the 20th and 21st centuries, you can see some remarkable reasons why Islam deserves particular attention from Christians today. One of the things you often hear discussed a lot is whether or not Christianity or Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. You hear frequently on websites and popular publications that Christianity is growing at twice the rate of Islam, etc. Well, I think we have to be more careful in analyzing this data to understand how we actually talk about religious growth in this field of study. In point of fact, when you talk about the growth rate of a movement that involves the world population, you have to address that not by asking what is the numerical growth of Christianity versus Islam, versus Hinduism, or versus Buddhism. If you ask the question numerically, then you’re almost always going to be led astray. Because numerical growth does not take into consideration the fact that the world itself is exploding with growth. If you had a room full of 100 people, and five of them were Gordon-Conwell students, and you wanted to see if you could get the growth rate to go from five to ten, it would make perfect sense to count numbers and come back a year later and they had the same 100 people but now ten of them were Gordon-Conwell students. You could say, “Well we’ve gone five per cent to ten per cent of this room.” But what if you had five people in the room that were Gordon-Conwell students, there were 100 people in the room – you came back a year later and you had gone to ten, but now the room had 1000 people in it. It changes the whole dynamic of how you look at that number. Because the growth rate of the world is growing so rapidly, that in order to maintain a percentage of the world, one had to grow at a tremendous numerical rate in order to keep up with world population growth.
B. Islam and Christian Growth Compared
For example, in just the 20th century, the world grew numerically from 1.6 billion to 6 billion. That’s a tremendous growth of the world population rate. Christianity, during that same timeframe, went from 558 million in 1900 to 2 billion in the year 2000. That's a tremendous growth rate numerically for Christianity – but if you actually divide up the numbers and ask what percent of people in the world call themselves Christians in 1900, the number is 34.4%. So, a little over a third of the world called themselves Christians in the year 1900. Even though we grew from 558 million to 2 billion, in fact, we actually are a slightly less percent of the world that call themselves Christians: 33.2% – still roughly a third of the world, but slightly less than the year 1900. Even though you could say, “Well, we’ve grown by 400%”, in fact, we’ve only maintained, and even lost, a percent that we had when you actually factor in the growth of world population. In order for a religion just to maintain its status, in the case of Christianity, we would have to have grown by 1.5 billion numbers just to maintain our 34% of the world.
Islam, on the other hand, started in 1900 with roughly12.35% of the world. That is almost identical, interestingly, to the percentage of Hindus in the world in the year 1900. Both Islam and Hinduism started out in 1900 at 12% of the world – 12.3%, 12.5%. But, by the year 2000, Islam had grown from 12% of the world to 20% of the world who called themselves Muslims. Whereas Hinduism had gone from only 12.5% to 13%, only half-percent growth. So, the result is, when you look at the growth rate of Islam, it’s actually grown by almost 8% over world population growth. When you look at that figure, you begin to recognize the truly remarkable growth of Islam, even compared to Christianity and other religions in the 20th century. The bottom line behind all of this is that Islam is, in fact, the fastest growing religion in the world, and I think the numbers, when analyzed properly, back that up. So, that means we do have to take very seriously the growth of Islam as a global movement because it is not something that is in any way in a declining state around the world.
IV. Why Study Islam?
A. It is Crucial to Our Obedience to the Great Commission.
There are other reasons why we should study Islam – I normally hand out several reasons why we should study Islam. First of all, it is crucial to our obedience to the Great Commission. The Great Commission commands us to go to all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature and make disciples of all nations. In order to do that, it cannot be done without penetrating the bastions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam throughout the world. If you look at the world from the “nation” point of view, “Biblical nation” is not what we call a “nation”. When we refer to the word “nation”, we often refer to a political unit, and there are currently around 200 to 240, 250 political units in the world today that we call countries or nations. But Biblically, the word “ethnē” or “nation” refers to ethnic groups. The Bible is actually commanding us to go and plant churches and preach the Gospel and disciple people in all of the ethnic groups of the world. Considering the fact that we have roughly 24,000 ethnic groups in the world today, then we recognize that the Great Commission is a very powerful and far-encompassing command indeed. We ask ourselves, how many people groups in the world – how many ethnic nations – belong to Islam? The answer comes out to roughly around 4,000 people groups in the world today – 4,000 ethnic groups currently belong to Islam. The 10-40 window – the area from 10 degrees north to 40 degrees north of the equator – represents 900 million Muslims that fall in that area of the world. In order to fulfill the Great Commission, we cannot assume that there are millions of people out there who are just waiting to receive the Christian Gospel and are in kind of a spiritual no-man’s land. If you actually look at the global situation and you ask, especially the 10-40 window, where are the non-Christians, what is their status? You find that invariably, with only a few exceptions, that most of the 10,000 unreached people groups already belong to another world religion. Again, 4,000 of these are Muslim groups. We cannot realistically strategize to present the Gospel to them without taking into account that they are already members of a world religion. They already belong to Islam, and therefore, they would need to be addressed within that context. Muslims, by virtue of that, already have certain predispositions regarding what Christianity is and attitudes about Christianity. That’s the first major reason I think it’s critical to obey the Great Commission today to understand the religion of Islam, especially in light of its growth.
B. We Live in a Global Village
The second major reason is, of course, that we are now living in a global village. One of the most dramatic changes in the last 100 years has been the changing immigration rates into North America. As you may know, the United States, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries had massive immigration patterns from European countries, primarily. They came from people groups that for the most part had Christian origins, either Catholic or Protestant, or Jewish origins. This has now completely changed. Our country passed laws in the 20th century which changed the legal restrictions on who could immigrate to the United States and now we have a policy to allow the same quotas for all parts of the world. The result, practically speaking, has however been an explosion of Asian people who have migrated into the United States. For example, since the 18th and 19th centuries, the number one religious group in America after Christianity was of course Judaism. Many, many large cities in America have large Jewish populations. But as of the year 2000, for the first time in American history, Islam now matches the numbers of Judaism in America. That means that Islam is represented in a very significant and growing way in these immigration patterns in America. This is also applied, to a lesser degree, for Hindus and Buddhists who are also migrating into the country. By the way, if you ever go to New York City, everyone should visit Ellis Island because that’s now a museum, which shows you – you can actually visually see a number of wonderful graphics they have there – physical graphics showing the immigration patterns into the US. You can see the European immigration is off the charts in the 18th, 19th centuries, and in the 20th century, especially in 1950s and ‘60s, the Asian people groups are off the charts. The face of our country is in fact changing – by the way, the recent just-completed census of Boston is legally now, by the US government acknowledged as, no longer a predominantly white city, right here in Boston. So, it’s happening all around the country. For the first time in the history of the Boston census, there are now more non-white residents in Boston than white residents in Boston. This has been demonstrated all over the country. What that means, therefore, is that Islam is no longer something that is way over there somewhere, in a place like Africa or in the Middle East, Indonesia. In fact, Islam is now right in our midst. We have Muslim neighbors, Muslim friends who go to school with us, they work with us, we do business with them, they are now in elected offices across the country. This is important just in terms of the context that we’re in. As Christians, right here, even if you never go overseas or get involved in mission work – you’ll be meeting Muslims. In fact, they say this generation is the first generation to grow up that will be intimately acquainted with friends who are members of major world religions like Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. In my parents’ generation, people like believers of Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists were something you read about or studied in a class like this, but you didn’t actually know any Muslims. I grew up in the Jewish part of Atlanta, so I grew up in a community completely surrounded by Jews. I grew up in the context of a Jewish part of Atlanta. But I never actually met a Muslim or a Hindu or Buddhist until much later in my life. Today, that’s highly unlikely. If you go to any grammar school in America, and you actually look at those schools, you’ll find increasingly that young Muslim boys and girls, Hindu boys and girls are right there in the seat next to your own children. That’s a global village dynamic that’s happening that makes it even more important that Christians are aware of what Muslims believe.
C. Islam is a Window to View the Uniqueness of our own Faith.
Thirdly, Islam of course is a window to the uniqueness of our own faith. I think one of the best ways to understand Christianity is actually to take time to study Islam or Hinduism, Buddhism, another religion. It’s like really, how do you learn English? People often say they never really learn English until they study Greek because when you study Greek, or even a modern language, you finally begin to see things about your own language that you never thought about. It is really true – you don’t really know English until you learn a second language. It’s the same way with Christianity. You don’t really understand Christianity, in my view, until you understand another religion. Because you really see how other religions deal with similar problems, how they have very different perspectives on a number of issues, how they resolve theological issues which the Gospel also addresses. It brings about a relief: what makes Christianity similar to and what makes it dramatically different from the Christian faith.
D. Islam Has Been Misunderstood and Feared in the West.
Fourth and finally, we need to study Islam because it’s been a highly misunderstood and feared religion in the west, almost from its inception. If you know the history of the Islamic advance, and we’ll explore it later in the class, but in the 7th century, Islam literally just exploded out of the Arabian Peninsula and marched forth heading up a massive military advance of Islam that took eventually the heart of the Christian world, which at that time was north Africa and eventually took what is now called the Holy Land, the whole cradle of Christianity. It took over, eventually, the whole of Paul’s missionary journeys, northern Mediterranean basin, eventually crossing over from North Africa into Europe, right into the heart of Europe itself, and eventually was stopped at the Battle of Tours by Charles Martel. But that advance of Islam, what they call the 100 Glorious Years of their expanse, was never really turned back – in fact, to this day has not been turned back in many ways in much of that part of the world – that created a lot of fear in Christians because many Christians of that time period believed that it would be impossible for Muslims to take Jerusalem, for example: “That’s the Holy Land, it’s impossible for them to take Constantinople”, and other very famous Christian cities. Well, these cities, one by one, fell to Islam. So, it developed in the western world a lot of fear about Islam and what it represented for Christianity. This later gave rise to the Crusades, which was a military response to Islam, to try to defeat Islam militarily. It’s a disastrous chapter in our history, motivated largely out of fear. The Muslims also controlled the shipping lanes of the Mediterranean for centuries, and they cut off the Silk Route, which connected east and west. Because of that, Christians didn’t know what Muslims were doing. There was a lot of lack of information. There was a lot of fear involved. Even by the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther, in much of his writings, he reflects and talks a lot about the fears that people have about Islam. In those days, days of Martin Luther, the Muslims actually outnumbered the Christians in the 16th century. It was by no means assured that Christianity would retake the initiative, as it actually did, numerically in the 16th century. The result has been a long-standing misunderstanding regarding Muslims – what they believe, what they look like. In the modern period with the rise of terrorism in the Muslim world, this is further contributed to a lot of stereotyping in the west about what a Muslim does and are like. If you interview people, as has been done, ask people in polls, “What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘Muslim’?” People will say things like, “Somebody in the streets throwing rocks. Somebody bowing down in the prayer formations (which we will look at later in the course). Someone, a woman, dressed in a complete black chador, all you see is her eyes.” All these images generally taken from the Arab world are brought out. Maybe some sheikh out in a desert on a camel or something, juxtaposed in front of an oil rig or something. These are the kinds of images that are conjured up in people’s minds. Interestingly, just to flip the coin, if you go to the Muslim world and ask, “What is a Christian like? What comes to your mind when you say the word ‘Christian’?”, similar distortions are brought out. “Oh, it’s a wealthy person from America. It is a woman who has very loose morals.” It is a widely-believed perception of what a Christian woman is, because of the dress patterns that they observe from the east. So, it goes both ways. It may be quite a surprise to you if you know, as you should in this class, that in fact, the Arab Muslims represent the minority. There are far more non-Arab Muslims in the world than Arab Muslims. You have to break down a lot of the Middle Eastern stereotypes of what the Muslims look like and what kind of dress they have. The largest Muslim country in the world is actually Indonesia, with 175 million Muslims. Bangladesh: 115 million Muslims. Nigeria: 120 million Muslims. 100 million Muslims in Pakistan. These are dramatic numbers, as opposed to a place like Kuwait, which has only a million Muslims. There are far more Muslims in the United Kingdom than there are in Kuwait, for example. The United Kingdom probably has 1.5 million Muslims, Kuwait, only 1 million. You have to rethink what Muslims look like, culturally. Of course, Iran, a major Muslim country, is not Arab. Iranians are a Persian people group, so even the Middle East, you cannot put a tag of “Arab” on Muslims. Then you have countries like India, where even though Islam is a minority religion, even India has 110 million Muslims, especially in the north. So, you have a lot of Muslims in places like that. In China, 90 million Muslims in China and 85 million Muslims in Russia. The vast majority of Muslims actually live outside the Arab world and even the strict confines of what we call the Middle East. Because of that, we have to realize that Muslims are all over the world. They are deeply embedded in the cultures of many African people groups, especially in the eastern portion of sub-Saharan Africa and the north of the Sahara. You have Islam well-entrenched in places as far east as Indonesia and China, even in Japan, as well as places in the west like America and Latin America. The Muslims have made their presence known around the world, even though they have this cultural center in the Arabian world that we’re so familiar with.
V. Great Qur’anic Passages: #2 – Iron 57:1-4
Let’s take a few more minutes to look at another passage from the Qur’an and say a little bit about the historical background in Mecca, and that will be the conclusion of our lecture for today. The second great Qu’ranic passage that we want to look at is taken from the 57th Surah, Ayah 1-4. Again, I’ll take a moment here to comment a little more on the Qur’an. We already talked a little bit about the reason for the words surah and ayah. This passage is a very important passage, and I want to also make the comment about how every chapter in the Qur’an, except for one, begins. The reading of this chapter actually begins:
A. Allah as Creator
“In the name of Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful, all that is in the heavens and the earth glorifies Allah and he is the Mighty, the Wise. His is the Sovereignty of the heavens and the earth. He quickens and He gives death, and He is able to do things. He is the First and the Last, the Outward and the Inward. He is the Knower of all things. He it is, who created the heavens and the earth in six days, then He mounted the throne. He knows all that enters the earth, and all that emerges from it. He knows all that comes down from the sky and all that have sins. He is with you wherever you are, and Allah sees all that you do.”
This particular surah is known by the word, the title, “Iron.” Every surah, every chapter in the Qur’an has a name, just like we have names for our books of the Bible, they have names as well. The difference is quite significant. The reason, usually, why the Qur’an is simply cited “surah” 57, 1-4 or “surah” 59, rather than the name of the chapter or the name of the surah is because it doesn’t really have the significance if we say, for example, “I Corinthians”. That says something to us because it means that’s the place where the letter was addressed. Or we talk about I Kings or Genesis – those kinds of things carry significance. For us, in terms of identifying the book. In the case of the Qur’an, the title is usually based not on a major theme of the book the way we would do it, but rather usually on something that is very insignificant in the chapter that is unique to the chapter because it was done to help the memorization process. So, certain things that were maybe unusual about the Qur’an in that chapter or certain themes that would generally become the heading of the chapter. It is not that often that you see it referred to in those official names. That’s something that’s more for the purpose of memorization, which is very important, by the way, in the Muslim world that students, young boys, if you’re in a country that’s governed by Muslim law, they will send their children to Islamic schools where, from the very beginning, they begin to learn certain surahs of the Qur’an as children. They will do just exactly as we’re doing– they will actually begin by learning certain key ones like Surah 59, Surah 57, and they’ll memorize those. By the time they graduate, they’ll know a vast amount of the Qur’an by heart. Many Muslim boys have memorized the entire Qur’an when they graduate. I have sat, when I was in Pakistan, in tents while fathers of these children proudly call their son in to the tent and he would stand there and recite the entire Qur’an, chapter after chapter. Finally, we had to say, “Stop, we believe you,” when the poor boy was going to go through all 114 chapters. At the third or fourth chapter, we said, “We believe you. Let’s now have tea.” It’s a very, very important thing, a point of pride, in many parts of the Muslim world. The memorization things are quite important.
B. 99 Beautiful Names
Another thing you’ll notice about your Qur’an is that every chapter begins exactly the same, usually in italics, above the first verse, or ayah. That is the expression, “In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.” In Arabic, that is the word Bismillah Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim – it means, “In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful”. But that brings up this term on our term sheet that is known as the Bismillah. That is the name of this formula “in the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful”. That is the head of every chapter of the Qur’an, including this one, and therefore it is an important term to be aware of because it is probably one of the most familiar phrases in Arabic that you will ever hear in the Muslim world. It’s what’s called the Bismillah. For a remarkable and interesting note, there is only one Surah in the entire Qur’an that does not begin with the Bismillah, and that is Surah 9. You can only imagine all of the points of debate about why it is not at the head of the ninth surah. The simplest reason is often that people believe that it originally was a part of the eighth surah and therefore we should continue as the eighth surah. But there are many other people who have all kinds of theological reasons why it does not appear in the ninth surah, but that is the only exception of the 114 surahs. All of them begin with the Bismillah.
The other point you’ll notice that is found on 24 of the 114 surahs, you will begin the first two or three words will be something that will appear entirely cryptic in any translation you have. If you look at this particular chapter, for example, in many, many others you’ll find, a number of little cryptic words. The most common one tasin or Alif Lām Ra, Alif Lām Mim, Ha Him – these are all examples of these. People of course always ask, “What do these mean?” These are untranslatable, cryptic things in the Arabic. The answer is, nobody really knows for sure what they mean. Again, it’s probably functions the way the cryptic phrase in the Hebrew expression Selah – it functions exactly the same way. If you read some commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms, they’ll say with great confidence, “The word Selah means so-and-so.” The other, more honest, commentaries will tell you, “We have no idea what this means.” This is basically good guesswork. The same way, Arabic scholars who are honest will tell you they have no idea what these cryptic phrases mean. It’s probably like in the Old Testament, directions for how that particular surah was to be chanted, how it was to be spoken in certain ways or patterns. You’ll find that the writings for example, that they’ll refer to the Ha Mim surahs because there are seven surahs that begin with the cryptic beginning ha mim. So, they’ll refer to these in a group, so this kind of thing is probably the background to it and shows the poetical background to this material is very rhythmical, very poetical, it was often used for chanting and singing and recitation. So, it is not surprising, especially in light of the Old Testament and similar type things that you have some of these type of indications. But apparently, it is lost to our knowledge and we don’t know yet at this point for sure what this means. There’s been no discovery.
C. Creation in Six Days
In this particular surah, there’s something else that we need to focus in on. In many ways, you have similar things to what we found in Surah 59. You have more titles of Allah, “His Sovereignty, His Ableness, He’s the First, He’s the Last, the Outward, the Invisible, the Knower of all things.” So, the first two ayahs are very familiar to what we’ve already seen in Surah 59. This is typical of many surahs in the Qur’an where they begin to go on these utterances that give praise to Allah for his many qualities. That’s all familiar to us. In ayah 4, we find a very unique phrase here: “He it is who created the heavens and the earth in six days, then He mounted the throne.” Now we will spend a lot more time on the creation motif, but the Muslims agree with the Biblical account that Allah created the earth in six days. They accept the creation of Adam, they have different ways they talk about it, but essentially, the basic framework is very similar.
D. Mounting His Throne
But in the case of the Qur’an, they add this particular expression, “then He mounted the throne”, which over time has become a doctrine in Islam. The enthronement doctrine, which says that once Allah created the world, then He was enthroned, and He will not and He cannot come down from His throne. Which is why, in Surah 59, if you recall, one of the phrases in Surah 59 was that Allah is one that you cannot ascribe a partner to. A partner is their way of speaking of the incarnation, or any kind of manifestation of God on earth. They call this a partner. And so the idea of Allah transgressing the heavens and breaking into the human realm through, for example, incarnation is utterly considered to be heretical, absolutely – in fact for Muslims, it is the unforgivable sin to say that God has a partner or God has an incarnation. They call this the Doctrine of Shirk. So, already, we’re seeing that the Muslim theology is beginning to be developing here that Allah is the creator, but he is not the redeemer in the way that Christian doctrine would accept it. Many similarities, but dramatic differences in terms of how does God or how can God continue to interact with his people, through visitation, through incarnation, through prophets. In what way can God speak.
We’ll see some dramatic differences between Christian and Muslim views of revelation. For the Muslim, we’ll see, it never rises above the Qur’an, the Qur’an is the highest expression of revelation in the Muslim worldview – whereas in Christianity, of course, it is the incarnation. That is a fundamental difference between Islam and Christianity, and that actually is rooted back, in part, to this doctrine of enthronement, which is taught in Surah 57. Also, you’ll find this in Surah 25, Ayah 58. You’ll find this in Surah 2, Ayah 29; Surah 2, Ayah 4; Surah 10, Ayah 4; and Surah 2, Ayah 255. These, and many other passages, there are actually several others as well, all speak about this enthronement idea which has created a doctrinal idea that Allah cannot leave his throne.
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