Gardens Under Which Rivers Flow
In the translation I am reading of the Qur’an, paradise is described as “gardens under which rivers flow.” Lesley Hazelton, in her TED talk about being a “tourist” in reading the Qur’an, points out how fantastical this image was to the typical Arab of Makkah during the 600s CE. It is much the same today. Below are some recent images taken a few miles outside downtown Makkah, Saudi Arabia in three different directions:
“Gardens under which rivers flow” sounds pretty good in a town where it gets up to 100 degrees in February with four inches of annual rainfall. Islamic heaven is basically New England in the summertime (exhibit A), and goes against the stereotypical Westerner’s take on Islamic paradise (those 72 virgins and all–a number that never occurs in the Qur’an). But despite the firmament’s simplicity, the Prophet Muhammad is unequivocal about who can expect to see those gardens in the next life. ‘Adn (Eden) is reserved for believers. For those unhappy souls who do not believe, they must “fear the Fire whose fuel is men and stones.”
The Qur’an pays a great deal of attention to those who do not believe. There are several words used to describe them–Zaalimoon, Mushrikoon, and Kuffar. They are used hundreds and hundreds of times, far more than almost any other noun, except Allah, of course. It is for these people that the Qur’an speaks first. It is a scripture that is, more than anything else, a call to conversion.
To be fair, the sacred texts of the other two Abrahamic religions are also rich with Us vs Them narratives. The Israelites and the Egyptians. The Apostles and the Pharisees. But the similarity ends there. Conflict between believer and unbeliever resides largely in the narrative portions of the Torah and New Testament, but once they get into the serious nuts and bolts of law and doctrine, the focus of attention turns to the believer, and what he ought to be doing with his time.
In contrast, the entirety of the Qur’an is obsessed with those who have no belief. Certainly, there is a great deal of law-giving and discussion of God’s greatness, but the dominant theme is the clash between those who submit to Allah and those who deny him.
It is for those that believe, a guide and a healing. And for those who disbelieve there is heaviness in their ears, and the Qur’an is blindness for them.
This quickly becomes repetitive. In fact, in reading the Qur’an, I was struck again and again by the powerful literary tool of repetition. The damnation of the unbeliever; the mercy and forgiveness of Allah; the corruption of the Torah and the Gospel. On that last, it’s remarkable to see the Old Testament stories of Noah and Lot, Abraham, Moses, and David recited (with some alteration) many times. Jesus is named or referred to dozens of times, always as “son of Maryam.” The overwhelming sensation is that of a record on repeat. In a beautiful line from sura 18, Muhammad writes, “If the sea were ink for writing, the Words of my Lord, surely, the sea would be exhausted before the Words of my Lord would be finished.”
Though biblical figures are mentioned many times, their stories are never fully retold. For example, we learn that Jesus was a virgin-born prophet of Allah who preached the Gospels, and that he will come alongside Muhammad back to earth at the end of days. However, full detail in what we would consider a conventional narrative is missing. It makes me wonder if Muslims curious about these figures would look to the Bible for a fuller version of the story. Ironically, without the Torah and the Gospel, the Qur’an is incomplete. Like the Gospel, it refers back to the Torah, but unlike the Jesus narrative the Qur’an denies the Torah’s legitimacy. Moses and Jesus were great prophets, but we have nothing of their true message left, only corruptions. Thus, the Qur’an aims to correct errors in those scriptures, but it needs for them to exist in order to make its corrections.
In that way, it strikes me that the Qur’an, as a sacred scripture, is particularly pessimistic about mankind. Scriptures, for believers, are universally true. What they say to men and women of the prophet’s time, they say also to us. The commandments of Moses, the parables of Jesus, etc. The fact that the Qur’an dwells both on polytheism and the errors of Christianity and Judaism suggest that, if these are the words of God and are to be true for all time, then there will always be misguided believers and condemned pagans. And Muhammad will always be persecuted and doubted:
Indeed We have brought the truth (Muhammad with the Qur’aan), to you, but most of you have a hatred for the truth.