Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Contradictions in Religious Texts?

Eleventh-Century North African Qur'an
Housed in British Museum
(Image from Wikipedia)

A former student of mine posed the following query about a 'contradiction' in the Qur'an:
I was reading Koran and I came across a contradiction . . . . Please compare Albagharah (Second surah) 6-7 to Al-Anfal 12, 13, 14, and 39. Do you think this is a sound argument if one is trying to disapprove Koran?
I wonder if my former student really meant "disapprove" . . . or possibly "disprove." Anyway, I don't know the Qur'an very well . . . though I have read it. I'm a bit doubtful about finding contradictions in literary texts since so much depends upon interpretation of ambiguous words, but I sought online for a Qur'an and found this one, which conveniently supplies both Arabic and various English translations. Selecting Shakir's translation for no good reason other than its being listed first -- i.e., at random -- I found the following for al-Baqara 6-7:
Sura 2, Aya 6:

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ سَوَاءٌ عَلَيْهِمْ أَأَنذَرْتَهُمْ أَمْ لَمْ تُنذِرْهُمْ لاَ يُؤْمِنُونَ

Shakir 2.6:

Surely those who disbelieve, it being alike to them whether you warn them, or do not warn them, will not believe.

Sura 2, Aya 7:

خَتَمَ اللّهُ عَلَى قُلُوبِهمْ وَعَلَى سَمْعِهِمْ وَعَلَى أَبْصَارِهِمْ غِشَاوَةٌ وَلَهُمْ عَذَابٌ عظِيمٌ

Shakir 2.7:

Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing and there is a covering over their eyes, and there is a great punishment for them.
Okay, sounds as though Allah prevents belief among some individuals. As for al-Anfaal 12, 13, 14, and 39:
Sura 8, Aya 12:

إِذْ يُوحِي رَبُّكَ إِلَى الْمَلآئِكَةِ أَنِّي مَعَكُمْ فَثَبِّتُواْ الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ سَأُلْقِي فِي قُلُوبِ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ الرَّعْبَ فَاضْرِبُواْ فَوْقَ الأَعْنَاقِ وَاضْرِبُواْ مِنْهُمْ كُلَّ بَنَانٍ

Shakir 8.12:

When your Lord revealed to the angels: I am with you, therefore make firm those who believe. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.

Sura 8, Aya 13:

ذَلِكَ بِأَنَّهُمْ شَآقُّواْ اللّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ وَمَن يُشَاقِقِ اللّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ فَإِنَّ اللّهَ شَدِيدُ الْعِقَابِ

Shakir 8.13:

This is because they acted adversely to Allah and His Messenger; and whoever acts adversely to Allah and His Messenger -- then surely Allah is severe in requiting (evil).

Sura 8, Aya 14:

ذَلِكُمْ فَذُوقُوهُ وَأَنَّ لِلْكَافِرِينَ عَذَابَ النَّارِ

Shakir 8.14:

This -- taste it, and (know) that for the unbelievers is the chastisement of fire.

. . .

Sura 8, Aya 39:

وَقَاتِلُوهُمْ حَتَّى لاَ تَكُونَ فِتْنَةٌ وَيَكُونَ الدِّينُ كُلُّهُ لِلّه فَإِنِ انتَهَوْاْ فَإِنَّ اللّهَ بِمَا يَعْمَلُونَ بَصِيرٌ

Shakir 8.39:

And fight with them until there is no more persecution and religion should be only for Allah; but if they desist, then surely Allah sees what they do.
Okay, sounds as though Allah orders believers to fight unbelievers and slice off their heads and fingertips (fingertips?) . . . in what context, I don't know. Anyway, after looking at these verses, I replied to my former student:
[Y]our question prompted me to locate an online Qur'an.

As for contradiction . . . do you mean between Allah preventing the belief of some individuals (Al-Bagharah [Second Surah] 6-7) yet also punishing individuals for unbelief (Al-Anfal [Eighth Surah] 12, 13, 14, and 39)?

I guess that the possibility of contradiction depends upon how one interprets these verses.

Why does Allah prevent the belief of some individuals? Are they being punished for prior unbelief that they themselves chose? If so, then the apparent contradiction fades away.

But let's say that Allah predetermines unbelief, then punishes the individual for this unbelief. There is only a contradiction if one assumes that Allah is good, for the contradiction lies in one's expectations of what a most-perfect being would do. Yet . . . perhaps Allah is not good. If not, then the contradiction fades. Allah himself emerges as the problem in this case, however, though one response would be that Allah himself is ground of the distinction between good and evil, the point being that one cannot judge Allah. That response might not satisfy the unbeliever, but unbelievers are cursed by Allah anyway, so who cares what they think?

Just kidding.

Anyway, these are a couple of ways out of a potential contradiction. But I am not qualified to argue precisely about the issue, for I know neither the hermeneutics on these verses nor the Arabic necessary to read them for their nuances.
My former student replied:
Maybe it is not a contradiction but the way I read it, Allah sounds very cruel by ordering to cut off fingers of infidels eventhough Allah, himself, is preventing them from learning the truth! It seems to me simillar to punishing mentally disabled people for not fulfilling their obligations as healthy people ,if the analogy makes sense. Maybe the contradiction is not among these verses but I see it with the nature of 'the compassionate and the mercyful'.
Allah, of course, is often called "the compassionate, the merciful" in the Qur'an I replied:
[I]n literary texts -- broadly understood as literary -- contradictions are hard to pin down, and the Qur'an is a literary text, among other things.

One just has to keep asking questions, which is something that the Islamists don't like, but if questions are politely posed, they have to answer.

Except for those Islamists who prefer to shoot the questioner. For that sort, we need harder questions . . .
And a bullet-proof vest.

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At 1:44 AM, Anonymous bayezid said...

interesting blog.

id say you're being too hasty in caling ALLAH cruel.

its a human condition to blame others for our shortcomings. its easy. i used to do it a lot back hwen i was 13.
we cant possibly encompass ALLAH with our minds, but we can study our own natures and easily confirm the words of ALLAH as truth.

ALLAH does give us full control to make decisions. can decide to be a believer (muslim) and make a journey for jannah.
the fact that you're not doing it, should you blame ALLAH for it or yourself ?
HE didn't stop you from making that decision to be a believer.

so yes ALLAH misguides us if HE wills, but our existence in which we make the choice wilfully justifies it.

At 5:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Bayezid, thanks for the comment.

I'm no expert in Islamic anthropology (in the medieval sense of that term), but I was under the impression that human beings lack free will. There may be differences among Muslims sects, of course, but I thought that the general Muslim view was similar to that of the five-point Calvinists and denied free will.

Your position seems to affirm free will, for you state, "ALLAH does give us full control to make decisions."

One problem that I have with the position that we cannot depend upon our judgment in reflecting upon God's word is that it presupposes that we know that some words are from God, but how could we judge some words to be from God without having a prior judgment of God's nature?

If we have a prior judgment that God is good, then upon encountering a claim that some words are from God, we have to read that text and arrive at a judgment about the claim, and I think that we could only do so by submitting the meaning of the words to the same criteria of goodness that we judge to be characteristic of God.

To deny that we can use our judgment in this matter would leave me wondering about what basis remains for concluding that some words are from God.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Salam, my name is Qasim, from last 26+ years Allah and Muhammad s.a.w keep coming into my dreams, over 460+ times Allah comes in my dreams and 250+ times Mohammad s.a.w comes in my dreams, Muhammad S.A.W is the last Messenger of Allah and i am the Ummati of Prophet Muhammad S.A.W, many dreams related to Muslim Ummah, World and the Judgment Day, I have shared few dreams on my fb Allah and Muhammad s.a.w in my Dream - Allah and Muhammad saww in my Dream

At 8:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dream on, Qasim.

Jeffery Hodges

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