Purana 1.2

Based on this brief purana, Sarasvati is my favorite goddess. She is the goddess of knowledge and “without worshiping her no one can be a learned person.” (Purana 1.2.1)

“Without literature and music,” the purana records a sage as saying, “a man is not more than an animal.” (Purana 1.2.2) As a writer and a painter, a lover of the arts, this feels true in the very center of me. What is it, I ask, that holds us apart from the other creatures of this world? Some would say that it is some indefinable thing given to us by God, a soul, immeasurable, unprovable, uncertain. This sage doesn’t ask me to believe in that which cannot be seen, but rather that what separates us from other things is our ability to read and to create art.

Sarasvati represents that with a book in one hand, and a lyre in two others. The goddess of all knowledge, carries with her the objects through which we gain knowledge of the world and of ourselves.

That’s beautiful.

 

sarasvati.jpg

Image found here

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Purana 1.1.1

I had a very difficult time when we tried to read the Rig Veda. It had little meaning for me because I didn’t know any of the background. All the characters were little more than names with no distinction for me that I could not help but flounder through the reading. So I was excited to jump into the Puranas instead. I was thinking of mythology as stories, and expecting a creation story. I suppose I got the creation of a god when the first line read “Brahmaji was born on the lotus that had arisen from the navel of eternal brahma-hindu-godommipresent Lord Narayan Vishnu.” (Purana 1.1.1)

From there the rest of the Purana was still confusing to me and I am still floundering, just outside my experience level. I think we’ve found what teachers would call my “zone of proximal development” the place where I can learn something new because the material is challenging, but not so challenging I can’t work it out.

I can’t wait to start!

The image is of Lord Brahma, described in this section as a four faced god judging the creatures, and deciding their next incarnation based on their deeds in this one. He hold the vedas to remind of the indestructibility of the truth, and the rosary to remind us to keep on saying the name of god. The bowl is coconut shell and holds water to symbolize a hassle free existence, and the lotus, rising from “the muck” is a reminder to be pure no matter where we come from. The image was acquired from I Love India.

Al-Baqarah 226-241

Towards the end of Al-Baqarah is a section on how women are to be treated in case of divorce or widowhood. The laws on divorce didn’t surprise me, they are exactly what I would have expected based on my understanding of the culture. Men can divorce their wives fairly simply. In theory they are meant to be allowed to take any gifts they were given during the marriage (Al-Baqarah 228). A waiting period is to be enforced between the last time the man and wife are intimate and when the divorce is finalized/the wife is allowed to remarry, to ensure she is not pregnant (Al-Baqarah 228). Even child support is mentioned, that the now ex-wife should be supported by the ex-husband for up to two years while she weans a child.

Basically, as I was taught, women are not given equal rights, by any means. But they are given more rights than in other cultures in the same area and time. As a student of history, I know that I can’t judge a culture with my own values, and by the values of the time and place these rules were recorded, this is an advancement for women.

And yet, I know that in practice these rules were probably not held up as they sound. Take, for instance, Al-Baqarah 240,

If any of you die and leave widows, make a bequest for them of a years’ maintenance without causing them to leave their homes; but if they leave of their own accord, you will not be blamed for what they may reasonably choose to do with themselves. God is almighty and wise.

I can’t help but wonder, based on what I know of how women are treated by the fundamentalists of the religion in the current times, how often a woman was mistreated or threatened until she left “of her own accord.”

I want to believe that if I remove the prejudices of my own times, that women were treated the way they were meant to be treated and that these rules that sound as if they were designed to protect women, were followed. I know, from having studied the founding of Islam that the Prophet’s first wife was a business woman, wealthy in her own right, and that women were allowed to work and move around in society. I also know that it isn’t long into reading that the Prophet will have a revelation that the wives of the prophet should be veiled and modest in front of the people. And I know that this revelation is the source of modern veiling laws. And so I am left to believe that these laws didn’t actually protect women the way they sound and I desperately want to understand.

In a culture where a woman had no standing, I can understand why she would hold on to this religion that gave her rights in case of divorce. I can understand why it wouldn’t even dawn on her to ask for more. But it’s no longer the seventh century and I want to understand the modern implications and the modern believer, and how these things impact the world I live in.

Al-Baqara

 

In coming to a close with the Qur’an, I have discovered an overall peacefulness to this religion. There are obviously points which cause me discontent, but that is so with every book we have read so far. There are traits to Allah which are welcoming and open-minded. He seems to appreciate all people, even those who do not believe in Him. This is something that I admire in what I have seen of Allah thus far. Allah does not seem to ask much of his followers and he seems to be understanding.

“And make not Allah, by your oaths, a hindrance to your being righteous and observing your duty unto Him and making peace among mankind, Allah is Hearer, Knower. Allah will not take you to task for that which is unintentional in your oaths. But He will take you to task for that which your hearts have garnered. Allah is Forgiving, Clement” (Al-Baqara 224-225)

Here we are told that Allah does not want to be a barrier between us and righteousness. Nor between us and our duties to Him. Nor between us and making peace among mankind. It is more important to Allah that we make moral decisions, follow His simple guidance, and make peace among all people. We are told that Allah will forgive the mistakes in our words. We are told that if we say something we do not mean, Allah will not hold that against us. Allah will only judge us based on the what we harbor in our hearts. Later we are told that Allah will not challenge us beyond our capabilities.

Allah tasketh not a soul beyond its scope. For it (is only) that which it hath earned, and against it (only) that which it hath deserved. (Al-Baqara 286a)

I have heard many Christians in my life say that God only gives us what we can handle. That may be true. I have yet to read any such thing so explicitly stated in The Bible, but it may be in there. Personally, I enjoy how quickly it is that the Qur’an tells us so. This is the final passage of the Al-Baqara; the reminder that we will be forgiven for falling short, we will be burdened only by our own decisions, and we will only carry hardship that we are strong enough to bear.

 

 

Divorce and Women

The second half of Al-Baqara had many things that stood out to me, which made it much harder for me to decide what I wanted to write about this week. However, when scrolling back through the Qur’an on my e-reader I found I had underlined an entire page worth of text. I read it again and I knew that it was an important matter to me. The passages I had underlined were 226-233. Everything in this passage has to do with the way men should treat women if they are divorcing one another. I read this and had to try very hard to not apply my modern moral expectations upon a culture of the past. Much easier said than done.
 
The first thing that caught my attention is the fact that there is no point in the verses which addresses any protocol if a woman desires to divorce her husband. In fact, the section is begun, “Those who forswear their wives must wait four months; then, if they change their mind, lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (Al-Baqara 226) The context of all the divorce laws mentioned here surround the premise that a man wants to divorce his wife. Or what happens if a man changes his mind about divorce. Or when a man can remarry his ex-wife if he so chooses. The only mentions of women in the verse come about in expectations of how the woman must behave if she is divorced, or the way a man must take care of his ex-wife.
 
Another thing I found surprising was a list of rules given to women about how they must tend to their bodies.  
 
“Women who are divorced shall wait, keeping themselves apart, three (monthly) courses. And it is not lawful for them that they should conceal that which Allah hath created in their wombs if they are believers in Allah and the Last Day. And their husbands would do better to take them back in that case if they desire a reconciliation.” (Al-Baqara 228a)
 
This is the first of a couple of the rules placed upon a woman’s body regarding marriage and divorce. If you are divorced you must wait three menstrual cycles to be married to another man, and if you find that you are pregnant you are not allowed to keep that information to yourself. While I am generally of the mind that a father has the right to know about the existence of a child, most women who choose to conceal this information have a good reason. The divorce may have been the man’s decision, but such a divorce may have benefitted the woman’s health and well-being. So, if that man was abusive and she is expecting a child, she has to disclose that to him and risk being brought back into his home where she and her child may be abused by him.
This is one of the instances in which I have difficulty not conflating my ideals and the ideals of the historic period. During the time the Qur’an was written, abuse was not an understood concept. A woman would not consider her safety in terms of abuse, nor her child’s because the options of the time were much different than they are today.
 
If this were strictly a historical document these laws would be much easier for me to accept. It would be significantly easier for me to justify the position. Honestly, I understand it. At the time that the Qur’an was written, it was very unlikely a woman would want to divorce her husband because a woman’s husband was her sole provider; without a husband she  would have no shelter, no food, etc. I also understand that at that time, globally, most women had no say and no power. So, as a historical document, I’m saddened that women were once repressed in such a way, but I understand it. I am more disappointed that modern women have the potential to be experiencing this kind of antiquated ideal.
 
However, many other parts of this passage are about treating women with kindness. The kindness it shows makes me a little sick with the tones that “women can’t care for themselves” and “we have to write this in, because otherwise women will see no kind treatment”. However, that the kindness was a consideration is nice.
 
“When ye have divorced women, and they have reached their term, then retain them in kindness  or release them in kindness. Retain them not to their hurt so that ye transgress (the limits). He who doeth that hath wronged his soul. Make not the revelations of Allah a laughing-stock (by your behaviour), but remember Allah’s grace upon you and that which He hath revealed unto you of the Scripture and of wisdom, whereby He doth exhort you. Observe your duty to Allah and know that Allah is Aware of all things.” (Al-Baqara 231)
 
This has a strange sense of chivalry in it. If you are reconsidering your divorce from your wife, please either choose to keep her and do kindly, or let her go kindly. Do not keep her if you will harm her in any way by doing so. This has that sickening kindness. The intentions are well-meaning. It still just doesn’t seem right to me that the husband has sole power over whether she stays or goes. And I still have discomfort around the fact that these write-ins for the way believers must treat women are only written in because they fear that their believers would otherwise oppress women to an even greater scale. Which is, again, shown in this passage.
 
“The duty of feeding and clothing nursing mothers in a seemly manner is upon the father of the child. No-one should be charged beyond his capacity. A mother should not be made to suffer because of her child, nor should he to whom the child is born (be made to suffer) because of his child.” (Al-Baqara 233)

Quite frankly, maybe I’m a little bit too far up the feminism scale to look at this objectively. I’m trying my best to look at this through a more culturally appropriate lense, but I don’t think I own the correct filter for this. “And they (women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them in kindness, and men are a degree above them.” (Al-Baqara 228b) I just don’t think that this kind of statement is something that should be believed or practiced in the modern world. Maybe I don’t understand it, and if you have some other interpretation I would love to hear it.

Al-Baqarah 120-132

Al-Baqarah 120 “Neither the Christians nor the Jews will be pleased with you until you follow their ways. Say, God’s guidance is the only true guidance.’ If you followed their desires after the knowledge which has come to you, you would not have any patron or supporter against God.”

This verse stuck out to me as it brings back up my same questions from a previous post, the question of free will versus predestination. God’s guidance is true, but not everyone is granted access to it, how then can we make informed choice? How can we believe in the face of facts that seem to oppose the facts presented by the Quran? While the Quran had no official creation story of it’s own, I know the background well enough to know that they share a creation story with Jews and Christians – six days in which God created life from the void. Are we truly expected, as I felt that Ken Ham did in his debate with Bill Nye, to put aside the things that we see in science and in the world, and follow the guidance of a mysterious being we cannot know?

“My sons, God has chosen this religion for you; so do not let death overtake you, except when you are in a state of submission.” (Al-Baqarah 132b) Stay always, the Quran tells us, in a state of obedience so that when you die, you are brought to a reward with God rather than punished for disobedience.

And with that, I will continue to question pre-destination and free will for the remainder of the rotation.

Challenging My Perspective

When you pick up the Qur’an to read it from cover to cover you first come across the Al-Fatihah (The Opening), which is then followed by a section of scripture titled Al-Baqara (The Cow). Many of the passages stood out to me for various reasons. Firstly, I found the language of the English translation I have to be beautiful, but it also forced me to think about each line on a deeper level. I had to pay much closer attention to make sure I understood. (For those of you interested, I chose to read The Noble Quran written by Dr. Muhammed Taqi-ud Din Al-Hilali published by King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Quran) Even so, it was easier for me to look at the Qur’an with a more open mind than it had been to do so with the Old and New Testament. I found that, despite major misrepresentations in media as an influence, I opened the Qur’an with a deep desire to search and know and understand. My heart and my mind were truly open. 

“This is the scripture wherof there is no doubt, a guidance unto those who ward off evil. Who believe in the Unseen, and establish worship, and spend of that We have bestowed upon them;  And who believe in that which is revealed unto thee (Muhammad) and that which was revealed before thee, and are certain of the Hereafter. These depend on guidance from their Lord. These are the successful.” (Al-Baqara 2-4

Such an impressive passage for me. There is no grand tale about the creation of man and life to begin the book, and there is no overarching message which tells us all the tales of the followers of Allah. There are simply a few sentences which tell you the purpose of the book; to guide people away from evil and into the worship and guidance of Allah, who will take them to the Hereafter (heaven).  I have such admiration for this kind of simplicity.

I was moved immensely by this kind of “call to arms” which is typically used at the end of persuasive papers written by mostly disinterested college students. I was moved by it because it is all of the things that my previous description is not. This call to action is the very first thing you read in the Al-Baqara and it’s written by people who are passionate, interested, and engaged in what, at the very least, they believe to be the best way to help people live fulfilling and successful lives. It doesn’t tell you what rules you need to follow, or try to convince you of anything. It reads as this casual invitation to join a club, that may or may not change your life.You get to choose if you want to join the club (keep reading), or decide that this isn’t for you and walk away. If you do choose to keep reading, then it gets into some of the details of joining the club. 

“And when We gave unto Moses the Scripture and the criterion (of right and wrong), that ye might be led aright. And when Moses said unto his people: O my people! Ye have wronged yourselves by your choosing of the calf (for worship) so turn in penitence to your Creator, and kill (the guilty) yourselves. That will be best for you with your Creator and He will relent toward you. Lo! He is the Relenting, the Merciful.” (Al-Baqara 53-54

I had some difficulty deciding whether or not I wanted to discuss this passage for fear of some of the more controversial discussions about Islam. I decided that fear of a conversation only increases fear of the thing itself (nerd moment, sorry). This is clearly beginning to discuss some of the expectations of those who are faithful in Allah. It mentions the scriptures provided to Moses (also called Musa in some translations) and how the scriptures (known as the commandments in the Christian world) will help you lead a life which is abundant in righteous actions. It then goes on to say that people should kill the guilty, which will be seen as the best action by the creator, Allah. 

So, it took me a little bit of parsing to come to terms with what this was actually saying. I knew that my immediate reaction, and the potential immediate reaction of many non-Muslims, was force fed to me (and to them) by the fear based media I am exposed to as a white American. I am not proud to admit that my immediate thought was, “That is possibly one of the passages by which terrorists justify their choices.” But, I was also instantly pulled into a hunt for a better understanding. I know that not even 1% of Muslim people are terrorists, so I had to search for what the Qur’an was trying to tell me. Not what the fearful misrepresentations have told me. 

I did some reading online which helped me put the pieces together. First, I needed to understand who the people were that worshipped the calf. I came across this website (http://www.qtafsir.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1111&Itemid=62) which has tonnes of resources and references to the Qur’an on it. Here, I found the Qur’ans version of the story, and came to the understanding that the people who worship the calf are the Jews.

Which means, in this passage the Jews are called to repent to their Creator, and then we are told “kill (the guilty) yourselves.” This translation was confusing for me, as it either implied that the Jews were to kill the guilty, that the Jews were to kill themselves for being guilty, or that a secondary unnamed group of people was to kill the Jews, as they were seen as guilty. So, I found an alternate translation (http://www.qtafsir.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=351&Itemid=) on the same website. Their translation is, “So turn in repentance to your Creator and kill yourselves, that will be better for you with your Creator.” (The Quran 2:54) By this translation it is more than clear to me that the Jews are being told to kill themselves, which is also gruesome, but is clearly not a direction by, nor permission from the Qur’an to murder.  This understanding renewed my previous optimism about the way the Qur’an is presented to its followers and believers. 

On the whole, reading the first half of the Al-Baqara has been a truly eye-opening and welcome experience. I found a kindness and an accepting nature in these passages. I am grateful to have been shown that. This last passage perfectly sums up everything that I felt while reading this part of the Qur’an. 

“Lo! Those who believe (in that which is revealed unto thee, Muhammad), and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabaeans – whoever believeth in Allah and the Last Day and doeth right – surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve.” (Al-Baqara 62)