After the nightmare of Repentance, with the teacher who wrote that book attacking the concept of teachers, the familiar opening of Jonah feels like coming home:
In the Name of God, the All-beneficent, the All-merciful.
Alif, Lam, Ra. These are the signs of the Wise Book.
Relatively little space is given to the obligatory attacks on Judaism and especially Catholicism. Instead a universal pattern of apostleship is given, where men produce elaborations upon the Book such as the Torah, the Gospels, and the Qur’an. Water, the life of this world, is either the source from which the next world will be found, or is the graveyard of the unbeliever. This is shown through three biblical stories, those of Noah, Moses, and Jonah.
Intercession and Apostleship
As if to emphasize this, the rhetoric softens radically, with intercessors denied except if or when God permits them. At first glance this allow both a Jewish view of Moses, and a Catholic view of the intercessory role of Mary and the Church.
Your Lord is indeed God, who created the heavens and the earth in six days, and then settled on the Throne, directing the command. There is no intercessor, except after His leave. That is God, your Lord! So worship Him. Will you take then take admonition!
But there seems to be a parallel with the angels who speak — perhaps the only intercessors are those that elaborate on the Heavenly Book to man, if not the books such as the Torah that elaborate on the Book itself:
When Our manifest signs are recited to them, those who do not expect to encounter Us say, Bring a Lectionary other than this, or alter it. Say, I may not alter it of my own accord. I follow only what is revealed to me. Indeed, should I disobey my Lord, I fear the punishment of a tremendous day.
Say, Had God wished, I would not have recited it to you, nor would He have made it known to you, for I have dwelt among you for a lifetime before it. Do you not exercise your reason?
Like some Protestants, the Qur’anic author refers to Catholic veneration of the saints as ‘worship.’ The author’s perspective, that created beings are unable to help themselves or others, means that this veneration is pointless — no intercession from a human to any creature is possible.
They worship besides God that which neither causes them any harm, nor brings them any benefit, and they say, ‘These are out intercessors with God.’ Say, ‘Will you inform God about something He does not know in the heavens or on the earth?’ Immaculate is He and far above any partners that they ascribe!
Indeed, the venerated may be unaware of the veneration. Given the Qur’anic author’s affection for Mary, this is striking, as it implies Mary is in a form of semi-consciousness or soul-sleep and unable to understand or know about this affection until the Last Day:
On the day when We gather them all together, We shall say to those who ascribe partners, ‘Say where you are — you and your partners!’ Then We shall set them apart from one another, and their partners will say, ‘It was not us that you worshiped. God suffices as a witness between you and us. We were indeed unaware of your worship.’ There every should will examine what it has sent in advance,d and they will be returned to God, their real master, and what they used to fabricate will forsake them.
The rhetoric hardens, limiting even the educational role of intercession. This is in keeping with the previous chapter, Repentance, but underscores the apparent rhetorical purpose of this chapter’s more gentle opening.
There is no guide, no teacher, no intercessor except for the elaborations of the Book. These elaborations, such as the Torah, the Gospels, and the Qur’an, may be trustworthy, even if the humans who teach from them often are not.
Say, “is there anyone among your partners who may guide to the truth?’ Say, ‘God guides to the truth. Is He who guides to the truth worthier to be followed, or he who is not guided unless he is shown the way? What is the matter with you? How do you judge?’
According to Catholics, Mary is the Spouse of God the Holy Spirit, and the Church is the Spouse of God the Son. But these partners do not have teaching authority — a direct assault against the Church’s magisterium.
They say, ‘God has offspring! Immaculate is He! He is the All-sufficient. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth. You have no authority for this. Do you attribute to God what you do not know?
The Parable of Water
This is so central to this chapter I’m going to repeat it word for word: According to the Qur’anic author, the parable of the life of this world is that of water.
The parable of the life of this world is that of water which We send down from the sky. It mingles with the earth’s vegetation from which humans and cattle eat. When the earth puts on it luster and is adorned, and its inhabitants think they have power over it, Our edict comes to it, by night or day, whereat We turn it into a mown field, as if it did not flourish the day before. Thus do We elaborate the signs for a people who reflect.
“Life of this world” is what is purchased with the broad that “comes down,” the living bread that “came down,” from heaven. The “life of this world” is obtained by bread which is somehow like rain water:
I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”
Like water, the life of this world can be formless nothingness, as well as the life-giving source:
Every soul shall taste death, and you will indeed be paid your full rewards on the Day of the Resurrection. Whoever is delivered from the Fire and admitted to paradise has certainly succeeded. The life of this world is nothing but the wares of delusion.
Water has a universal archetypal meaning that matches these extremes, both the maternal and the chaotic:
The domain of the unfamiliar might be considered the ultimate source of all things, since we generate all of our determinate knowledge as consequence of exploring what we do not understand. Equally, however, the process of exploration must be regarded as seminal, since nothing familiar can be generated from the unpredictable in the absence of exploratory action and conception. The domain of the known — created in the process of exploration — is the familiar world, firm ground, separated from the maternal sea of chaos.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning p. 94.
This world is water, chaos, and the origin point of spiritual growth. The soul can continue to God and onto dry land, or be thrown back into the water. This can be seen by central moments in the lives of three apostles involving water: Noah gathering his family into the ark, Moses crossing the Red Sea, and Jonah during the storm.
Three stories are used to illustrate this point: Noah, Moses, and Jonah
Noah was a non-Jew who lived among non-Jews, and
God decreed the earth to be wicked, selected Noah, and Noah led those who would follow:
And God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopherwood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and outside with pitch…
And behold, I Myself am bringing floodwaters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall go into the ark—you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you…
Then the Lord said to Noah, “Come into the ark, you and all your household, because I have seen that you are righteous before Me in this generation.
Noah’s mission was sent to save his own family, though the Qur’an adds a scene where he also castigates the unbelievers who are about to be drowned.
Relate to them the account of Noah when he said to this people, ‘O my people! If my stay be hard on you and my reminding you of God’s signs, I have put my trust in God alone. So conspire together, along with your partners, leaving nothing vague in your plan; they carry it out against me without giving me any respite.
Moses follows the same pattern, of declaring judgment, selecting Moses, and Moses being appointed a leader for those who follow:
And the LORD said: “I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows…
So He said, “I will certainly be with you. And this shall be a sign to you that I have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”
Go and gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them, ‘The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, appeared to me, saying, “I have surely visited you and seen what is done to you in Egypt;
Yet there’s a shift here. Note that now it’s not just the family, and not even Israel’s children, but even Pharaoh repents:
We carried the Children of Israel across the sea, whereat Pharaoh and his troops pursued them, out of defiance and aggression. When overtaken by drowning, he called out, ‘I do believe that there is no god except Him in whom the Children of Israel believe, and I am one of those who submit!’
This comes from an interpretation of Exodus in which it is Pharaoh, and not the narrator, who announces God’s glory after the drowning of the army:
The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; My desire shall be satisfied on them. I will draw my sword, My hand shall destroy them.’
You blew with Your wind, The sea covered them; They sank like lead in the mighty waters.
“Who is like You, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like You, glorious in holiness, Fearful in praises, doing wonders?”
The pattern is similar, though these three examples give us a fuller view of how God operates. Noah was a gentile sent to gentiles, Moses, a Jew sent to Jews and to the Gentiles (if Pharaoh did convert), Jonah was a Jew sent to the Gentiles:
Most people remember Jonah’s mission to Ninevah, which is at the end of the biblical book about his exploits. But before that he has an inadvertent mission to gentile sailors during a storm:
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.
But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up…
Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.
Then they cried out to the LORD, “Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.”
And in this case it is the stubborn Jonah, and not the initial disbelievers, who fall into chaos. The LORD was the true teacher of the gentiles, and Jonah’s lack of faithfulness meant he needed to convert his own heart as well:
So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
Recall that, in parable, water is the life of this world. By recognizing God the sailors quieted the storm and transformed the sea from the source of death to the source from which they would next enter dry land.
Why has there not been any town except the people of Jonah that might believe, so that its belief might benefit it? When they believed, We removed from them the punishment of disgrace in the life of this world and We provided for them for a time.
An Apostle for Every Nation
As with Judaism (which instructs that God gave all men the Noahide Covenant, and only a few the Mosaic covenant) and Christianity (which holds Judaism must continue to exist until the fullness of the gentile enter), the Qur’anic author view of the diversity of religious expression as willed by God:
Mankind were but a single community; then they differed. And were it not for a prior decree of your Lord, decisions would have been made between them concerning that about which they differ.
All nations are given the Book — the Heavenly Scrolls — through lesser books that elaborate upon it. The Qur’anic author calls his own book the Lectionary (lit. qur’an), and sees is elaborating the Heavenly Book:
This Lectionary could not have been fabricated by anyone besides God; rather, it is a confirmation of what was before it, and an elaboration of the Book, there is no doubt in it, from the Lord of all the worlds.
Noah, Moses, and Noah came before, announcing God and warning of the water — the life of this world:
There is an apostle for every nation; so when their apostle comes, judgment is made between them with justice, and they are not wronged.
Because the work of these men (as well as Ezra and Jesus, according to the Qur’anic author) are fundamentally united — elaborating the Book — ambiguities in one elaboration can be answered by conferring with experts in other elaborations:
So if you are in doubt about what We have sent down to you, ask those who read the Book before you. The truth has certainly come to you from your Lord; so do not be among the skeptics.
Elaborations of the Book
The message of the tenth chapter of the Qur’an is the widespread ability of man to elaborate on the heavenly Book, and the consequences of understanding that elaboration for man’s life. Without the Book, chaos will overtake man. With the book, chaos is the raw material out of which eternal life can be built.
Indeed, God does not wrong people in the least; rather, it is people who wrong themselves. On the day He will gather them as if they had not remained except for an hour of the day getting acquainted with one another. They are certainly losers who deny the encounter with God, and they are not guided.
A similar message is expressed by philosophical self-help authors, from Jordan Peterson to Peter Thiel. It’s fair to say that the Qur’anic author was a thinker as brilliant and religious heterodox as Peterson and Thiel. And all of them are taking seriously the question of how the meaning of the world expresses itself in our world.
God has gracefully given the Logos — the meaning of all things — to His creation. Catholics then and now teach that this Logos is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christ’s words and deeds are elaborated by His bride, the Church, to whom He granted teaching authority. To the Qur’anic author, the logos is the Book, elaborated upon by books such as the Torah, the Gospels, and the Qur’an. The chaos within the logos is Wisdom — the chaos outside of it is death.