Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 3, “The Family of Imran,” verses 121-200

posted at 9:00 am on August 12, 2007 by Robert Spencer

Verse 121 begins a discussion of lessons of the Battle of Uhud and the Battle of Badr. At Badr in 624, the Muslims overcame great odds to defeat the pagan Quraysh tribe of Mecca; in a return engagement at Uhud the following year, the pagans defeated the Muslims, and Muhammad was slightly wounded. Allah reminds Muhammad that when he and the Muslims set out for the battle at Uhud, two groups of Muslims almost deserted. They shouldn’t have been afraid, for “Allah was their protector,” and the believers should trust in him (v. 122). After all, when the Muslims were a “contemptible little force” (v. 123) at Badr, Allah granted them victory. According to Islamic tradition, 313 Muslims defeated a much larger force at Badr, because Allah sent down three thousand angels to fight alongside the Muslims” (v. 124). This is one reason why superior American military might doesn’t overawe jihadists today.

According to Ibn Ishaq, when the Quraysh arrived at Badr, nearly a thousand strong, Muhammad cried out to Allah: “O God, if this band perish today Thou wilt be worshipped no more.” But shortly later Muhammad told his follower Abu Bakr: “Be of good cheer, O Abu Bakr. God’s help is come to you. Here is Gabriel holding the rein of a horse and leading it. The dust is upon his front teeth.” Muhammad then strode among his troops and issued a momentous promise — one that has given heart to Muslim warriors throughout the ages: “By God in whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, no man will be slain this day fighting against them with steadfast courage advancing not retreating but God will cause him to enter Paradise.” One of the assembled Muslim warriors, ‘Umayr bin al-Humam, exclaimed: “Fine, Fine! Is there nothing between me and my entering Paradise save to be killed by these men?” He flung away some dates that he had been eating, rushed into the thick of the battle, and fought until he was killed. Muslim warriors have fought with similar courage throughout history, knowing that if they are victorious they will enjoy the spoils of war (about which there is much discussion in sura 8), and if they are killed they will enjoy Paradise.

And the key to earthly victory is obedience to Allah: “if ye persevere, and keep from evil, and (the enemy) attack you suddenly, your Lord will help you with five thousand angels sweeping on” (v. 125). Verses 126-129 emphasize that the decision of victory or defeat belong to Allah alone.

Verses 130-139 turn to a condemnation of usury, and exhort the Muslims to piety, obedience, and generosity, telling them to ask Allah to forgive their sins. Allah invites the believers to “travel through the earth, and see what was the end of those who rejected Truth” (v. 137). This is one of the foundations of the Islamic idea that pre-Islamic civilizations, and non-Islamic civilizations, are all jahiliyya – the society of unbelievers, which is worthless. V. S. Naipaul encountered this attitude in his travels through the House of Islam. For many Muslims, he observed in Among the Believers, “The time before Islam is a time of blackness: that is part of Muslim theology. History has to serve theology.” Naipaul recounted that some Pakistani Muslims, far from valuing the nation’s renowned archaeological site at Mohenjo Daro, saw its ruins as a teaching opportunity for Islam, recommending that Qur’an 3:137 be posted there as a teaching tool. V. 139 then promises “mastery” to those who are “true in Faith” – as Ibn Kathir puts it, “surely, the ultimate victory and triumph will be yours, O believers.” However, according to Ibn Abbas, some of the Muslims at Uhud took this as meaning that the believers would be “elevated” over the unbelievers – whereupon they climbed a mountain and put a group of the Quraysh to flight.

Verses 140-179 take up the question: But why did the Muslims lose at Uhud? It’s a test from Allah (v. 141) – a test for both the believers and the hypocrites (vv. 166-7). Did the believers really think they would enter Paradise without Allah testing those who “fought hard” – jahadoo (جَاهَدُو), waged jihad (v. 142)? Even if Muhammad himself were killed, the Muslims should fight on (v. 144), for no one can die except by Allah’s permission (v. 145). Look to the prophets, who didn’t waver even “if they met with disaster in Allah’s way” (v. 146). Muslims should not obey the unbelievers (v. 149), for Allah will soon cast terror into their hearts (v. 151).

And indeed, at Uhud the Muslims were about to “annihilate” their enemies when they were distracted: when the Muslim warriors “saw the women fleeing lifting up their clothes revealing their leg-bangles and their legs,” they began to cry out, “The booty! O people, the booty!” Disobeying Muhammad’s orders, they left their posts to pursue these women – and so Allah allowed the pagans to put the Muslims to flight, as a test (vv. 152-153). The Muslims brought defeat on themselves (v. 165). Verses 154-5 speak of the sorrow of these men after Uhud, and v. 159 commends Muhammad for being lenient with them. Verses 156-158 and 160 restate the proposition that life and death, as well as victory and defeat, are in Allah’s hands alone, and thus no one should fear fighting. For those killed in battle are not dead, but are enjoying themselves in the gardens of Paradise (vv. 169-72; see also 136, 163).

According to Ibn Kathir, v. 161 was revealed “in connection with a red robe that was missing from the spoils of war of Badr. Some people said that the Messenger of Allah might have taken it.” But this verse exonerated Muhammad: a prophet will not be untrustworthy, or embezzle. And his presence is a great favor from Allah (v. 164).

Verses 173-175 praises those who brushed aside fear and went into battle; “they returned with Grace and bounty from Allah” – that is, spoils of war in this world, and Paradise in the next. The believers are told in verses 176-179 not to be grieved over the unbelievers, who only prosper so that “that they may grow in sinfulness. And theirs will be a shameful doom” (v. 178).

Verses 180-200 excoriate the unbelievers and promise rewards to the believers. Those who claim that “Allah is poor and we are rich” (v. 181) are, according to Ibn Kathir and the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, Asad, Daryabadi, Bulandshahri, and others, the Jews. But hell awaits them, for they killed the prophets (v. 183). The People of the Book threw Allah’s covenant away, and “purchased with it some miserable gain! And vile was the bargain they made!” (v. 187). The believers should not envy them, however, even if they prosper, for Allah will send them to hell (vv. 196-197) while the believers enjoy the gardens of Paradise (v. 198). The People of the Book who accept Muhammad as a prophet and do not “sell the Signs of Allah for a miserable gain” will also be rewarded (v. 199). “Signs” here again is ayat, the word used for the verses of the Qur’an. V. 200 promises that those who obey Allah will prosper. This idea has led throughout Islamic history to disasters being ascribed to disobedience, with the prescribed remedy being a reassertion of Islamic strictness.

Next week: Sura 4, “Women”: rules for polygamy, wife-beating, and more.

(Here you can find links to all the earlier “Blogging the Qur’an” segments. Here is a good Arabic/English Qur’an, here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)


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when the Muslim warriors “saw the women fleeing lifting up their clothes revealing their leg-bangles and their legs,” they began to cry out, “The booty! O people, the booty!” Disobeying Muhammad’s orders, they left their posts to pursue these women

I thought referring to woman as “Booty” was modern American slang. Imagine.

Fascinating how his followers thought him capable of being a liar and a thief. It’s comforting to know that “Treachery with the Spoils of War was not a Trait of the Prophet.”

Thanks as always Robert. Very enlightening.

TheBigOldDog on August 12, 2007 at 9:55 AM

Interesting stuff. I always enjoy reading these things as I’m actually LEARNING. Who knew I could learn things from the Internets? Although I did learn about the 9/11 conspiracy theories on the Internet….

It is a real shame they didn’t sing “My Humps” by The Black Eyed Peas when they were singing “The booty, O People, the booty!!” Then I MIGHT have been with them. ‘Cause a catchy pop song makes everything better.

mjk on August 12, 2007 at 10:03 AM

Mr. Spencer,

I skipped ahead and read Sura 4.

What is considered “lewdness” and “indecency”? Who decides it exactly, Allah? And why does Allah give men power to punish women more severely for similar crimes. Yet when men are guilty they are given a lighter punishment, if punished at all?

004.015
SHAKIR: And as for those who are guilty of an indecency from among your women, call to witnesses against them four (witnesses) from among you; then if they bear witness confine them to the houses until death takes them away or Allah opens some way for them.

004.016
YUSUFALI: If two men among you are guilty of lewdness, punish them both. If they repent and amend, Leave them alone; for Allah is Oft-returning, Most Merciful.

kiakjones on August 12, 2007 at 10:17 AM

Very interesting and informative, Robert Spencer.

I look forward to these ‘Sunday morning studies’ much the consternation of my pastor. That knowledge raised his eyebrow, but I’m quite certain neither he nor the congregation will kill me for heresy.

I drift back to my original assessment about these writings of mohammed – a blood feud, plain & simple, but now a blood feud with benefits?

And the historical prescription of V 200 explains a lot: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

A nice segue for next week. Keep posting and I’ll keep studying.

locomotivebreath1901 on August 12, 2007 at 12:43 PM

kiakjones:

I skipped ahead and read Sura 4.

What is considered “lewdness” and “indecency”? Who decides it exactly, Allah? And why does Allah give men power to punish women more severely for similar crimes. Yet when men are guilty they are given a lighter punishment, if punished at all?

Stay tuned for more. 4:15 generally refers to sexual immorality, and 4:16 to homosexual activity. Why do men get a lighter punishment? Well, perhaps because they are greater than women (4:34).

Robert Spencer on August 12, 2007 at 1:46 PM

So I’m to understand that when Muslims go to battle, the outcome…win or lose…is the will of Allah. If the battle is won, it’s because Allah willed it so. If lost, then it is a test. Yet we see Muhammed say to God that if this battle (Badr) is lost, “thou wilt be worshipped no more”. Has such an ultimatum been given to Allah since?

If victory or defeat is the sole decision of Allah…by what standards is Allah supposed to be using? I mean, exactly what reason would Allah have to will victory or defeat?

JetBoy on August 12, 2007 at 2:33 PM

Robert-

I would not call fanatical enthusiasm “courage” but a “fatalistic disregard for life”.

Courage is when you are uncertain of your fate, and still fight.

These are more like unhesitating zombies, killing and being killed, with no concern for themselves or others, because their brainwashing is so successful.

Reckless abandon, yes. Bloodthirsty bravado, yes. Morbid hubris, yes.

Courage? Nah.

profitsbeard on August 12, 2007 at 3:18 PM

003.187
YUSUFALI: And remember Allah took a covenant from the People of the Book, to make it known and clear to mankind, and not to hide it; but they threw it away behind their backs, and purchased with it some miserable gain! And vile was the bargain they made!

What is this referring to by a miserable gain purchased? Clearly it is not the rejection of Christ as savior, because Mohammed is guilty of the same.

pedestrian on August 12, 2007 at 3:38 PM

Mr. Spencer,

Verses 156-158 and 160 appear (to me, at least) as explicitly Norse, which itself has roots in Persian mythologies. How extensively does Islam borrow from the various ancient (polytheist) mythologies of the Middle East? Is anything to be gleaned by examining such roots?

Also, you write, “Verses 180-200 excoriate the unbelievers and promise rewards to the believers.” Can this indicate that only Allah can judge a person’s worthiness? It seems to me that jihad can only be a verdict that is not, and cannot be one’s decision.

cadetwithchips2 on August 12, 2007 at 3:44 PM

No wonder the poor believers fell into a wild panic and ran after the booty when they saw ‘it’ taking off, bangles and all. Since Moh always grabbed the best ‘booty’ for himself (and then his lieutenants), there was surely precious little muslim booty to go around amongst his sex-starved troops.

Aylios on August 12, 2007 at 4:46 PM

Thanks as always Robert.

What a jumble. I read the bible through yearly (either OT or NT) so I’m quite familiar with the writings collected in it. By comparison the Koran is such a stream of consciousness.

Question: Is the writing style of the Koran consistent with other ancient styles? Are most ancient non-biblical texts as jumbled as the Koran?

Mojave Mark on August 12, 2007 at 5:08 PM

JetBoy:

Has such an ultimatum been given to Allah since?

I’m not sure, but I would doubt it. Who would be in a position to give him such an ultimatum once Islam had spread — as it did so quickly after Muhammad’s death — to the far corners of the globe?

If victory or defeat is the sole decision of Allah…by what standards is Allah supposed to be using? I mean, exactly what reason would Allah have to will victory or defeat?

His will is beyond our fathoming.

Robert Spencer on August 12, 2007 at 5:22 PM

profitsbeard:

Reckless abandon, yes. Bloodthirsty bravado, yes. Morbid hubris, yes.

Courage? Nah.

Point taken. But nonetheless, one man’s mortal hubris is another man’s courage — which is only a statement about perceptions, not a declaration of moral relativism.

Robert Spencer on August 12, 2007 at 5:23 PM

pedestrian:

What is this referring to by a miserable gain purchased? Clearly it is not the rejection of Christ as savior, because Mohammed is guilty of the same.

No, clearly it isn’t, because Islam does not regard Christ as savior. It is referring to the gain the Christians received by rejecting Muhammad — such as the Najran delegation’s alleged rejection of Muhammad because of the goods and money they received from the Byzantines, which I discussed a couple of weeks ago.

Robert Spencer on August 12, 2007 at 5:25 PM

women fleeing lifting up their clothes revealing their leg-bangles and their legs,” they began to cry out, “The booty! O people, the booty!”

The origin of the booty call?

v. 161 was revealed “in connection with a red robe that was missing from the spoils of war of Badr. Some people said that the Messenger of Allah might have taken it.” But this verse exonerated Muhammad

Wow. that’s too hilarious. Mo pinches a red robe from the spoils, then has a convenient revelation explaining he’s not to blame.

Re: asking for Allah’s forgiveness: I have often asked and never had a muslim be able to explain any sort of islamic theology for forgiveness. If you are able to highlight relevant passages as we get to them, I’d appreciate it, Robert. They do seem to associate the slaughter of animals on Idul Adha (I only know the Indonesian terms, but they are ususally phoneticised Arabic) with forgiveness of sin, but that’s about it.

TexasDan on August 12, 2007 at 5:28 PM

cadetwithchips2:

Verses 156-158 and 160 appear (to me, at least) as explicitly Norse, which itself has roots in Persian mythologies.

Explicitly Norse? I’m sorry, but I don’t see any explicit avowal of a Norse influence. I wouldn’t doubt that there is a Persian influence, as there is ample Persian influence all over the Qur’an, but I would doubt that Norse mythology as such would have been available in 7th century Arabia.

How extensively does Islam borrow from the various ancient (polytheist) mythologies of the Middle East?

Quite extensively. See “Sources of the Qur’an” by William St. Clair Tisdall, which you’ll find here.

Is anything to be gleaned by examining such roots?

Yes, a great deal. Ibn Warraq has done some important work in this area. Others have also. Illuminating the origins of Qur’anic material can go a long way toward providing a context for its reevaluation by honest Islamic reformers.

Also, you write, “Verses 180-200 excoriate the unbelievers and promise rewards to the believers.” Can this indicate that only Allah can judge a person’s worthiness? It seems to me that jihad can only be a verdict that is not, and cannot be one’s decision.

I’m sorry, but I don’t understand the question, or the statement following the question.

Robert Spencer on August 12, 2007 at 5:30 PM

Mojave Mark,

Question: Is the writing style of the Koran consistent with other ancient styles? Are most ancient non-biblical texts as jumbled as the Koran?

There is a huge variety of material. The Qur’an shares some similarities with pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, but is singular in numerous ways.

Robert Spencer on August 12, 2007 at 5:32 PM

TexasDan:

Eid ul-Adha is a reenactment of Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram in place of his son (whether Ishmael or Isaac, depending on which tradition you’re dealing with).

There is no theology of atonement or redemption in Islam. Allah is merciful, however, and one can hope that one’s good deeds outweigh one’s bad deeds.

Robert Spencer on August 12, 2007 at 5:34 PM

Mr. Spencer, if the battles and other important historical narrative context aren’t included in the Qur’an, what are the Muslim sources? Ibn Ishaq? Sections of the hadith collections?

Pilgrim CW on August 12, 2007 at 5:52 PM

Pilgrim CW:

Mr. Spencer, if the battles and other important historical narrative context aren’t included in the Qur’an, what are the Muslim sources? Ibn Ishaq? Sections of the hadith collections?

Yes, Ibn Ishaq is the best and earliest source for a continuous historical narrative, complete with copious citations of the Qur’an in the context of when each verse or section was revealed. The hadith give abundant material on individual battles and various other historical events, but not in a continuous narrative.

Robert Spencer on August 12, 2007 at 5:55 PM

Whether you are devoutly religious or a confirmed atheist viewing this post solely from a historical and political perspective, one thing just about leaps off the page:

Simply put, there is one helluva a big difference between Christ and Mohammad. A vast difference. A very, very obvious difference. Not just between the Christian messiah and Mohammad, but between Mohammad and the major figures of every other major religion, from Moses to Buddha.

I don’t even need to spell it out, do I?

And now I’m starting to wonder – is that difference the fundamental factor that has led to 21st century Islamo-fascism?

Or asked another way – if Christ had led armies in slaughter instead of healing the blind and submitting to crucifixion (asked historically not theologically) … would extremist Christians be flying planes into buildings?

I just don’t think it every really hit me until today. Mohammad is pretty unusual for a messianic figure (if that label can even be applied). He seemed to really enjoy blood.

It explains a lot.

Maybe the Koran needs its own New Testament.

Professor Blather on August 12, 2007 at 6:10 PM

Professor Blather on August 12, 2007 at 6:10 PM

I share your sentiments–and the “extremist” Christians (not the nutjobs, mind you) are willing to suffer what the south koreans in Afghanistan are going through because they follow a Jesus who was willing to suffer.

On another point, and perhaps OT: there are a lot of parallels between Mohammed and Joseph Smith, including the violence, treatment of women, etc. The observations you have made about the apple not falling far from the tree in terms of what a given religion breeds are the source of unease in myself at least, and I imagine others, when it comes to having a Mormon as a national leader.

TexasDan on August 12, 2007 at 6:24 PM

I can find on Amazon only Guillaume’s translation of Ibn Ishaq, Oxford University Press, $34. There is also Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, $14. Is the Lings useful and accurate? Is there another edition out there somewhere?

Pilgrim CW on August 12, 2007 at 6:50 PM

That is, another edition of Ibn Ishaq, not of Lings. Maybe from some specialized Muslim site? I have seen some sites like that around.

Pilgrim CW on August 12, 2007 at 6:53 PM

Pilgrim CW:

Guillaume’s Ibn Ishaq is excellent.

Lings was a 20th century Englishman who became a Muslim. His biography is a bit apologetic and whitewashed, but not as much as, say, those by Karen Armstrong.

Robert Spencer on August 12, 2007 at 7:05 PM

By the way, Pilgrim CW, Lings’ book is not a translation of Ibn Ishaq. It is Lings’ own biography of Muhammad, based on Ibn Ishaq and other sources.

Robert Spencer on August 12, 2007 at 7:18 PM

It is referring to the gain the Christians received by rejecting Muhammad — such as the Najran delegation’s alleged rejection of Muhammad because of the goods and money they received from the Byzantines, which I discussed a couple of weeks ago.

Robert Spencer on August 12, 2007 at 5:25 PM

I missed last week, but now I’m caught up.

Reading some other sources on the net it looks like parts of the Qu’ran are borrowed from various apocrophia (clay igeons coming to life and Jesus talking in the crib). I’m guessing Mohammed got torqued when he found out he had been sold some bad scripture.

pedestrian on August 12, 2007 at 9:17 PM

I remembered that the Folio society had offered an edition of Ibn Ishaq. I can’t find it on their web site now. I did find references to Ibn Ishaq
here and it ratifies Mr. Spencer’s high opinion of the Guillaume. It appears that the Folio Society’s edition was an abridgement. The online copy of that abridgement mentioned in the linked page doesn’t seem to exist; or rather the entire site linked to doesn’t seem to exist.

Pilgrim CW on August 12, 2007 at 10:13 PM

Robert: For some reason I couldn’t get on here to leave you a comment when I read it on Sunday. I do want to tell you that I am learning a lot and just want to thank you for your efforts.

CCRWM on August 13, 2007 at 8:35 PM