The beginning of Al-Baqarah brings up for me a question that was the beginning of the end of my faith. In the church it was the question of Calvinism (the belief that people come to God through his self-revelation) versus free will, that one had to seek in order to find, but that God could seal the hearts of non-believers and keep them from seeking to truly find. Here again, so early in the Quran, I find myself confronting the same question.
“As for those who are bent on denying the truth, it makes no difference to them whether you warn them or not, they will not believe. God has sealed their hearts and their ears, and over their eyes there is a covering. They will have a terrible punishment.” (Al-Baqarah 6-7) Here at least, the non-believers are represented as those who start off not believing, but God seals them off from ever learning his truth, thus damning them to “a terrible punishment.”
The section goes on to list the ways that these non-believers are wrong, that they lie and spread corruption. “When they meet those who believe, they say, ‘We believe.’ But when they are alone with their evil leaders, they say ‘We are really with you; we were only mocking. God will requite them for their mockery, and draw them on, for a while, to wander blindly in their insolence.” (Al-Baraqah 14-15) For those who know they do not believe, and who pretend to give themselves benefit, I can easily understand the punishment of God. But for those who genuinely seek, or who think they know and yet do not see, the punishment of God bothers me.
I’m a teacher, and I have been for twenty years. If a student tells me that they know something and they are wrong, I gently guide them to the right answer. I don’t punish the student for being wrong because that doesn’t help the child to grow. If a student tells me “I don’t know, but I’m willing to learn” (usually that last part is implied by behavior), I don’t turn the child in the wrong direction and keep them from the truth. I help guide them to the ability to find the answer themselves.
Why then is this God so willing to take his creation, the people he breathed into existence, seal their hearts, set them away from learning, and then punish them for not knowing?