The Audacity of the Quran

Is the essence of monotheism still respectable?

Image by Steven Su, from Unsplash

The Quran is likely the most read or recited book that happens also to be the most repetitive and tiresome work of literature.

There’s no over-arching story in the Quran, like in the Torah or the Gospels. The Quran is more like the Q source or the Gospel of Thomas, a gushing stream of sayings, including dialogues, parables, and lists of commandments and warnings. The Quran’s chapter or surah headings, such as “The Cow” or “The Moon” relate only to a conspicuous, often small portion of each section; the rest rambles on and on in covering the Quran’s main themes.

The repetitiveness and seeming randomness which make the Quran mind-numbingly tedious to read is partly due to the fact, as Muslims say, that translations leave out the poetry and musicality of the Arabic original. The Quran was intended not to be read in English but to be recited or read in Arabic, a language that preserves the text’s rhymes and connotations.

Moreover, as Norman O. Brown showed in The Challenge of Islam, the message of the Quran is apparent from its medium: language is “crushed” in the Quran as God seems to break into our world with a transcendent warning. To box in that message, as in a Christian work of systematic theology with its duly-marked sections and subsections, would be to trivialize the purported supernatural content, since the speaker is supposed to be God himself or at least the angel Gabriel, speaking through Muhammad.

Indeed, to attempt to take in the kaleidoscopic chapters of the Quran is to be on the verge of the same bewilderment and dizziness you might have while wandering through an Islamic temple, with its wild colours, arabesques, and soaring geometric architecture.

But there’s a more specific theological lesson to be drawn here. The Quran takes itself to be the essence of monotheism, the purity of Abrahamic revelation given to Jewish and Christian prophets, including Moses and Jesus, which was then corrupted by those religions. If that’s so, we’re left with the question whether monotheism itself deserves to be revered or condemned and ridiculed.

The Message of the Quran

Due to its repetitiveness, the Quran’s themes are worn on its sleeve, as it were, in that they’re all present on virtually every page. The message of the Quran is perfectly clear, which is likely why Muslims have had more difficulty reconciling themselves to modernity than have Jews or Christians, since Muslims can’t take refuge in any ambiguity or obscurity of their primary scriptures.

The Quran says — over and over and over and over and over again — that God exists, that there’s only one god, and that he created the world as a blessing for us, proving that he exists not just by giving us water to drink and bodies to inhabit, but by sending us guidance through the prophets. But we’ve been ungrateful, scorning or killing those spiritual leaders, ignoring their teachings and following Satan in his arrogance, unbelief, and rebellion against God.

That lack of gratitude is profoundly foolish, according to the Quran, because God watches and knows everything we say or do, including our secret thoughts, and a Day of Doom approaches when God will reward only those who fervently fulfill certain moral and religious duties. Those duties are laid out in the Quran and include fair and honourable dealings in war, marriage, and the market, as well as the giving of charity, the saying of prayers, the pilgrimage to Mecca, and the renouncing of all idols such as material wealth and pleasure.

On that day God will also punish evil-doers with eternal hellfire, as the Quran says literally hundreds of times — and “evil” here includes every conceivable form of secular moderation. It goes without saying that the Quran considers atheism or freedom of thought and the rejection of Islam, in particular, to be sufficient evils meriting that punishment. Only absolute submission to the simplicity and purity of Islam, the underlying message of both Judaism and Christianity can earn us Heaven and save us from Hell.

And that’s essentially it. That’s the Quran in a nutshell.

Teleology and Human Ungratefulness

Here’s a passage that helpfully combines several of those themes (all quotations are from Dawood’s translation):

In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are signs for men of sense; those that remember God when standing, sitting, and lying down, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth, saying: ‘Lord, You have not created this in vain. Glory be to You! Save us Lord, You have not created this in vain. Glory be to You! Save us from the torment of the Fire. Lord, those whom You will cast into the Fire You will put to eternal shame: none will help the evil-doers’…Their Lord answers them, saying ‘I will deny no man or woman among you the reward of their labours.’” (3:190–195)

That reference to “signs” in nature is the Quran’s main proof of God’s existence and of our deservingness of God’s wrath for our disbelief, since we would have no excuse: nature is awesome in its apparent design, so the theistic explanation of nature is taken as self-evident.

Here’s another example of the teleological argument that’s meant to support the charge of our evil lack of gratitude:

Do you not see how God sends down water from the sky and forthwith the earth turns green? Gracious is God and all-knowing. His is all that the heavens and the earth contain. Surely God is the Selfsufficient, the Glorious One. Do you not see how God has subdued for you all that is in the earth? And the ships which sail the sea at His bidding? He holds the sky from falling down upon the earth: this it shall not do except by His own leave. Compassionate is God, and merciful to mankind. It is He who has given you life, and He who will cause you to die and make you live again. Surely man is ungrateful. (23:23–26)

As with all of these themes, examples from the text can be multiplied many times over. See, for example, 13:2–3 and surahs 40, 55, 56, and 76.

But back to that first passage. Note also the hyperbole of saying that those who are saved from God’s punishment are expected to “remember God when standing, sitting, and lying down.” That, too, is repeated elsewhere, as in, “When your prayers are ended, remember God standing, sitting, and lying down” (4:103).

The idea is that God isn’t looking for blind obedience and that our moral deeds have to be done with the right intention. Thus, “A kind word with forgiveness is better than charity followed by insult” (2:63).

In general, the right intention for the Quran is one of submissiveness to God. In the following, for example, the first clause seems to stand for the more specific clauses that come afterward: “Those who submit to God and accept the true Faith; who are devout, sincere, patient, humble, charitable, and chaste; who fast and are ever mindful of God — on these, both men and women, God will bestow forgiveness and a rich recompense” (33:35).

Hellfire and God’s Compassion and Mercy

As for the warning about Hell, that’s the most repeated proclamation in the book. The words “punishment” and “fear” make the top ten most repeated words in the Quran (excluding stop words). “Punishment” is sixth and “fear” is eighth. “Reward” is twenty-ninth. To be sure, descriptions of punishment in Hell are often paired with those of reward in Heaven. The latter reward features flowing water, fresh fruit, soft cushions, and virgins — which seems like an oasis especially for desert-dwelling, patriarchal males.

But the warnings about Hell are mainstays of the Quran. Just to take one of them at random: “As for the unbelievers, neither their riches nor their children will in the least save them from God’s wrath. They shall become fuel of the Fire” (3:10). The word “fire” alone is used 168 times in the Quran (at least in my translation), almost all of which are synonyms for “Hell.”

One peculiarity is that the Quran emphasizes God’s “compassion” and “mercy” almost as much as it does the inescapability of Hell. Sometimes, the two references stand side by side, which should discombobulate the listener or reader.

For example, “Say: ‘Whether you hide what is in your hearts or reveal it, it is known to God. He knows all that the heavens and the earth contain; God has power over all things.’ The day will surely come when each soul will be confronted with whatever good it did. As for its evil deeds, it will wish they were a long way off. God admonishes you to fear Him. God is compassionate towards His servants” (3:28–30, my emphasis).

In the same breath, then, it says that we should fear God and that God is compassionate and merciful, at least towards Muslims. Indeed, the warnings about hellfire are sprinkled liberally throughout the Quran, and every chapter opens with, “In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.” This strange, unmistakable juxtaposition calls for an explanation.

God as All-Knowing and All-Powerful

Another of the Quran’s refrains is found in verses like these: “God hears all and knows all” (2:181), “Know that God has knowledge of all your thoughts” (2:235), “God observes your actions,” (2:237), “Nothing on earth or in heaven is hidden from God” (3:5), and “They plot, but their plots are known to God, even if their plots could move mountains” (14:46).

Couple those implications of God’s omniscience with the stated consequences of his omnipotence, as in, “All who dwell in the heavens and on the earth shall prostrate themselves before God: some willingly, some perforce; and their very shadows, morning and evening” (13:15); “To God shall all things return,” (22:76); and “Do you not see that God has created the heavens and the earth with truth? He can remove you if He wills and bring into being a new creation: that is no difficult thing for God” (14:19).

Indeed, that last reference to God’s power to replace the world with a new creation is spelled out elsewhere in almost science-fictional terms: “Nor would your Lord destroy the nations without just cause and due warning. They shall be rewarded according to their deeds. Your Lord is never heedless of what they do. Your Lord is the Self-sufficient One, the Merciful. He can destroy you if He wills and replace you with whom He pleases, just as He raised you from the offspring of other nations” (35:16, my emphasis).

Again, “If you do not go to war, He will punish you sternly, and will replace you by other men. You will in no way harm Him: for God has power over all things” (9:39); “Indeed, God does not need you, but you need Him. If you pay no heed, He will replace you by others who shall bear no resemblance to yourselves” (47:38); “It was We that ordained death among you. Nothing can hinder Us from replacing you by others like yourselves or transforming you into beings you know nothing of” (56:60–61); “Believers, if any among you renounce the Faith, God will replace them by others who love Him and are loved by HimSuch is the grace of God: He bestows it on whom He will. God is munificent and allknowing” (5:54).

Such is God’s control over Creation that he seems to mock our freewill and thus the moral basis of our religious duties, predestining us to Hell: “The unbelievers love this fleeting life too well, and thus prepare for themselves a heavy day of doom. We created them, and endowed their limbs and joints with strength; but if We please, We can replace them by other men. This is indeed an admonition. Let him that will, take the right path to his Lord. Yet you cannot choose, except by the will of God. God is allknowing and wise. He admits into His mercy whom He will: but for the wrongdoers He has prepared a woeful punishment” (76:27–31, my emphasis).

Again, “Nothing will befall us except what God has ordained” (9:51); “Why are you thus divided concerning the hypocrites, when God Himself has cast them off on account of their misdeeds? Would you guide those whom God has confounded? He whom God confounds you cannot guide” (4:88); “Did you not know that God has sovereignty over the heavens and the earth? He punishes whom He will and forgives whom He pleases. God has power over all things” (5:40).

Predestination, Morality, and Theodicy

There’s a conflict between emphasizing that God acts like Big Brother from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, spying on our every thought and deed as if they determined God’s judgment of us, and saying that everything is up to God’s “will,” including our fate.

The reason for the deterministic passages of the Quran, which make nonsense of the moralistic ones, is that the monotheist needs a theodicy. The Quran in particular is preoccupied with the Jews’ rejection of Islam and with the lack of recognition of prophets such as Muhammad.

Thus, it’s not hard to detect some bitterness in passages like these: “Let not the unbelievers think that We prolong their days for their own good. We give them respite only so that they may commit more grievous sins. Shameful punishment awaits them” (3:178); “And now that a Book [the Quran] conforming their own [the Jewish scriptures] has come to them [the Jews] from God, they deny it, although they know it to be the truth and have long prayed for help against the unbelievers. God’s curse be upon the infidels! Evil is that for which they have bartered away their souls. To deny God’s own revelation, grudging that He should reveal His bounty to whom He chooses from among His servants! They have incurred God’s most inexorable wrath. Ignominious punishment awaits the unbelievers” (2:89–90).

The Quran explains such evil unbelief partly by appealing to Satan’s corruptions of Creation, but also by belittling our evil and infidelity, treating them as all part of God’s plan and not granting unbelievers the dignity of any real independent opposition to God. Without some such dismissal, Islam could lapse into Manicheanism and idolatry, contrary to the Muslim’s foundational faith in God’s oneness.

The smaller and more insignificant these unbelievers become, or the more the Quran laughs off their freedom and waywardness as trifling and illusory in view of God’s complete control over the world, the more arbitrary and even insane the Quran’s litanies about hellfire and immorality. Puppets aren’t capable of evil in any sense that would merit the roasting of them.

However, if human freewill is real (as it seems to be), Muslims face the embarrassment and the mystery that Jews and Christians rejected the Quran even though that book is supposed to be the one true God’s recitation of his wisdom to a prophet. So we’ll need to figure out why unbelievers are suspicious of Islam.

To clarify what I mean, though, return to those passages about the ease with which God could replace any of us. Does that sound like a deity who’s interested in us personally? If his omnipotence entails that he could destroy us all and recreate the human species or indeed create infinite universes inhabited by infinite other intelligent species, what would be the point of his torturing any of the failed creatures for eternity?

Suppose you’re writing a novel and you go through several drafts on paper. Perhaps you get frustrated as you hit some dead ends and you take out your frustrations by scrunching up the drafts that don’t work and throwing them in the garbage bin. Your frustration would be caused in part by your limited time and energy. If you were omnipotent and could create infinite drafts of your novel in the blink of an eye, it’s hard to see why you’d care so much about any of them.

The Tyranny of Allah

Obviously, that tension between glorifying God and allowing for human freedom and moral responsibility affects the Quran’s tone. The speaker in that book is hardly neutral or calm and collected, as if he really were in control of the universe. Compare, for example, the demeanor of the Daoist tortoise Oogway from the animated movie Kung Fu Panda, to the ranting speaker of the Quran. God (through the angelic messenger Gabriel) in the Quran is bitter, resentful, and defensive as well as vindictive, violent, and patriarchal. In short, the speaker, rather, is evidently a sixth century Arab man.

To be sure, Muhammad or whoever wrote or compiled the Quran likely believed the book channeled revelation from God. But the Quran’s tone and preoccupations hardly seem like those of a deity who’s solely in charge of everything, including his pettiness. The Quran’s numerous afterthoughts that God is “compassionate and merciful” seem like so many gaslighting exercises in doubletalk, to match the totalitarian megalomania of that deity.

Still, the Quran may indeed capture the essence of monotheism, even if its words aren’t literally God’s. There’s little reason to think the monotheist’s solitary, supreme God would have anything like Oogway’s relaxed, neutral demeanor. At least, I defy anyone to read the Quran without thinking that the speaker comes across as Trumpian. All the apparent psychological elements are in place for that assessment: the self-entitlement, the grandiosity, the petty resentments, the smugness, even the incompetence. Judging from history, any actual despot becomes more or less monstrous, since such a person is corrupted by his impunity.

How could God be incompetent, as I suggested, when he boasts in the Quran that he’s wise enough to have created the universe? The incoherence in the Quran I’ve touched on is a mark of incompetence on the author’s part. Another mark is the presumption that the teleological argument would always pass muster or count as a “proof” of God’s existence, entailing the perverse ingratitude of unbelievers.

From naïve animism and Aristotle’s anthropocentric teleology to Darwin, Einstein, and Werner Heisenberg — and with that brief reminder of how history has developed, the Quran’s proof is disposed of.

Yes, the world seems as if it’s designed for the dwelling of living things, but we’ve since learned that the design of that fitness is only an illusion. Organisms evolve to take advantage of opportunities to survive in the available environments, requiring much suffering and trial and error over the generations in nature’s amoral selection of fit members of species.

The universe is far larger than our little hospitable planet and solar system, and the monotheist’s childlike narrow-mindedness doesn’t age well. To think that only agency could explain why the rain falls, the sun shines, and why we live in our animal bodies, that it’s obvious a wise person is responsible for the existence of the world is to be ignorant of quantum mechanics, natural selection, and the nature of causality. Obviously God wouldn’t be so.

The theistic cosmology is empty since it only pushes the problem back to the question of where God’s distinguishing features came from, such as his compassion, mercy, and vindictiveness. The more effective and meaningful explanations of natural phenomena are the scientific ones that are reductive and amoral.

A third mark of the Quran’s incoherence is its presumption that sixth-century intuitions about teleology in nature would suffice for all time, since the Day of Judgment was supposed to have been “approaching,” as it was for the authors of the New Testament several centuries earlier. Of course, that day still hasn’t arrived, which means God apparently gave us centuries upon centuries to prove he was bluffing, as it were, since he allowed us to learn how nature really works, falsifying the Quran’s pseudo axioms and deflating its sanctimonious warnings.

The Animality of Islamic Submission

What, then, is the essence of monotheism which the Quran so ably represents? In the religious myths, God’s character — his compassion, resentfulness, and so on — must be only figurative, to appeal to sociable creatures like us. What’s crucial to the Quran’s message is the irreversible inequality between God and us; God is all-powerful and inescapable, and our destiny is to submit to that dominator.

That kernel of monotheism is about power; with that in mind, the Quran seems not so much to channel any supernatural revelation but to exploit our animality. When threatened, we’re wired to fight or to flee, to attempt to dominate or to submit. Like all creatures that have no divine assistance but only nature’s mindless creativity and destructiveness to rely on, we compromise to get by under hazardous circumstances.

We knuckle under, allying with others in our extended family or tribe, living under the tyranny of an aggressive leader for our safety, because of our fear of the greater enemy which is the wilderness’s palpable indifference to matters of life and death. We form social dominance hierarchies to distribute power efficiently and to avoid the random destruction found outside groups in the anarchic wilderness. We submit to tyrants because we fear their whims and the threat of their reprisals or we’re lured by our greed for the luxuries they can bestow on their enforcers or servants. We also fear the unknowns of death, of course, which the Quran exploits.

In short, social animals create idols or false gods, out of necessity, and monotheism only extends that dynamic to the question of our ultimate relationship with the universe. God is the quintessential alpha male, the reification of the concept of primitive domination. To speak of God is to speak of a biological universal, just as to speak of a divine purpose of rain is to overextend our inborn pattern detector.

Effectively, the dichotomy between the supernatural and the natural corresponds to imagined divisions in rank between God and his angels (the alpha and his lieutenants or betas), on the one hand, and physical creatures (the slaves or omegas) on the other.

Psychedelic Theophany

The Quran’s audacity is breathtaking, and the most charitable way to account for that is to say the prophet had a religious experience due to altered states of consciousness. In extreme cases, psychoactive drugs can cause revelatory hallucinations, but so too can meditation, chanting, fasting, or isolation in the dark (like in a sensory deprivation tank). Islamic tradition says “Muhammad received his first revelation in the Cave of Hira during one of his isolated retreats to the mountains.”

The Torah says Moses, too, received his revelation alone on a mountain when he saw God as a burning bush. The Gospel of Mark says Jesus had a vision of God during his baptism, and then “the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him” (1:12:13).

Whether these theophanies happened as represented isn’t even the point. The point is that the traditions testify to the assumption that religious experiences occur under those trying conditions, which can submerge the ego in a flow of awe-inspiring hallucinations.

There are a couple of intriguing passages that suggest the Quran was based on such an altered or peak state of consciousness. For example, “No, there shall be no refuge. For to your Lord, on that day, all shall return. Man shall on that day be told of all his deeds, from first to last. Indeed, man shall bear witness against himself, plead as he may with his excuses” (75:10–15, my emphasis).

It’s well-established you can have a good or a bad trip on a psychoactive drug, depending on your mental health. If you try to control the experience rather than surrendering your ego and submitting to what always seems like revelation, the experience turns against you, and symbols of your doubt and insecurity (monsters, demons, or insectile aliens) plague you.

In a description of his trip on psilocybin, Sam Harris says,

There definitely is a fear of death or madness to overcome here because resistance is just futile and very painful. And there’s no doubt that many religious ideas in some way relate to this domain of experience. For instance, one could say that to recoil from the beatific vision is to be cast into hell. Alternatively one could say that one gets forced out of the Garden of Eden and thereafter there’s an angel with a flaming sword at one’s back, and then one is left wandering this desiccated world of egoism and craving and confusion.

The Quran’s point about man bearing witness against himself would make sense especially if divine judgment were all in our mind, if “God” were just our unconscious self that’s often in conflict with our misled personas. The Day of Doom would happen not at the end of time but in the peak state of consciousness, in the “theophany” that’s brought on by religious training or by the shortcut of drug use, and we confirm in that state whether we’re worthy of the revelation from the unconscious, depending on whether we can overcome the fear of death, go with the flow, and withstand the strangeness.

Another relevant passage is this one: “I swear by the turning planets, and by the stars that rise and set; by the night, when it descends, and the first breath of morning: this is the word of a gracious and mighty messenger, held in honour by the Lord of the Throne, obeyed in heaven, faithful to his trust. No, your compatriot is not mad. He saw him on the clear horizon. He does not grudge the secrets of the unseen; nor is this the utterance of an accursed devil” (81:15–25, my emphasis).

Muhammad says he received the Quran from the archangel Gabriel, but here he is defending himself against the charge that he’s mad. Of course, anyone in the throes of a psychedelic experience can appear insane. If you head over to Erowid, you’ll find many firsthand accounts of strange psychedelic experiences, but I doubt any of these reports is as obnoxious as the Quran. Most people today who have drug-induced religious experiences don’t start a cult or harangue the audience with condescension and abuse.

There’s a major difference in setting, since psychoactive drug use in the West is typically recreational, whereas Muhammad wasn’t just a prophet, but was also a political revolutionary and a military commander. He needed a message to convince fellow monotheists in the region to die for their cause of unifying and revitalizing Arabic culture. The sayings that made up the Quran served that purpose as a matter of historical fact.

But it’s doubtful whether this Islamic essence of monotheism is still as self-evident or even as respectable as it once was. Perhaps that’s why most Jews and Christians went with the flow of secularization and modernized their faith, turning their back on the disappointing implications of monotheism.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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