I can’t read – in The Bible and The Qur’an


I can’t read

This sentence appears in Isaiah.

It also shows up in the explanation of Sura 96 in the Qur’an.  While Sura 96 may seem to be pretty far into the Qur’an, it’s actually the very first one in chronological order – meaning it’s at the very beginning.

Coincidence?  Or not?

I came across this yesterday, while writing “I muttered prayers for the first time in many years”.  No – not me – at least not today.  Many years ago – but not today.  Anyway – when I read the passage about ‘I can’t read’ – it hit me that those very same words are in “The Message Of The Qur’an” – which is the version passed out by CAIR (Council on American – Islamic Relations).  
As with yesterday’s topic where I mentioned how the reference verses were totally appropriate to the situation, but not always applied correctly – I can’t help but wonder if the same isn’t true for these two situations: Isaiah and The Qur’an interpretation.

So – here we go.

Isaiah 29

The chapter starts off with some scary words for the people of “David’s City” –

Woe to David’s City

Isa 29:1 Woe to you, Ariel, Ariel,
the city where David settled!
Add year to year
and let your cycle of festivals go on.
Isa 29:2 Yet I will besiege Ariel;
she will mourn and lament,
she will be to me like an altar hearth.
Isa 29:3 I will encamp against you all around;
I will encircle you with towers
and set up my siege works against you.
Isa 29:4 Brought low, you will speak from the ground;
your speech will mumble out of the dust.
Your voice will come ghostlike from the earth;
out of the dust your speech will whisper.

Indeed, it does sound bad.

However – when we quote from this part of the passage and ignore what comes next – as we saw yesterday, we get the wrong picture – tell people the wrong things – because we reached the wrong conclusions by stopping prematurely.

Isa 29:5 But your many enemies will become like fine dust,
the ruthless hordes like blown chaff.
Suddenly, in an instant,
Isa 29:6 the LORD Almighty will come
with thunder and earthquake and great noise,
with windstorm and tempest and flames of a devouring fire.
Isa 29:7 Then the hordes of all the nations that fight against Ariel,
that attack her and her fortress and besiege her,
will be as it is with a dream,
with a vision in the night—
Isa 29:8 as when a hungry man dreams that he is eating,
but he awakens, and his hunger remains;
as when a thirsty man dreams that he is drinking,
but he awakens faint, with his thirst unquenched.
So will it be with the hordes of all the nations
that fight against Mount Zion.

Oops. The message of woe and doom has turned into one of future hope.

But it’s still not time to stop reading.  There’s more –

Isa 29:9 Be stunned and amazed,
blind yourselves and be sightless;
be drunk, but not from wine,
stagger, but not from beer.
Isa 29:10 The LORD has brought over you a deep sleep:
He has sealed your eyes (the prophets);
he has covered your heads (the seers).

Yes – the people of David’s city, who have strayed so far from God – are going to be stunned and amazed by what God’s going to do.

I can’t read

Then we get to the verse in question – I can’t read –

Isa 29:11 For you this whole vision is nothing but words sealed in a scroll. And if you give the scroll to someone who can read, and say to him, “Read this, please,” he will answer, “I can’t; it is sealed.” 12 Or if you give the scroll to someone who cannot read, and say, “Read this, please,” he will answer, “I don’t know how to read.”

It’s a vision – sealed in a scroll.

When the scroll is given to someone who cannot read, that person will answer – “I don’t know how to read”.

It’s interesting to look at The Message translation of this passage, using words more in line with the type of speech prevalent when both The Message Bible translation and The Message Of The Qur’an were written –

You Have Everything Backward

Isa 11-12 What you’ve been shown here is somewhat like a letter in a sealed envelope. If you give it to someone who can read and tell her, “Read this,” she’ll say, “I can’t. The envelope is sealed.” And if you give it to someone who can’t read and tell him, “Read this,” he’ll say, “I can’t read.”

Coincidence?  Or not?

The passage continues –

Isa 29:13 The Lord says:
“These people come near to me with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me
is made up only of rules taught by men.
Isa 29:14 Therefore once more I will astound these people
with wonder upon wonder;
the wisdom of the wise will perish,
the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.”
Isa 29:15 Woe to those who go to great depths
to hide their plans from the LORD,
who do their work in darkness and think,
“Who sees us? Who will know?”
Isa 29:16 You turn things upside down,
as if the potter were thought to be like the clay!
Shall what is formed say to him who formed it,
“He did not make me”?
Can the pot say of the potter,
“He knows nothing”?

Isa 29:17 In a very short time, will not Lebanon be turned into a fertile field
and the fertile field seem like a forest?
Isa 29:18 In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll,
and out of gloom and darkness
the eyes of the blind will see.
Isa 29:19 Once more the humble will rejoice in the LORD;
the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.
Isa 29:20 The ruthless will vanish,
the mockers will disappear,
and all who have an eye for evil will be cut down—
Isa 29:21 those who with a word make a man out to be guilty,
who ensnare the defender in court
and with false testimony deprive the innocent of justice.

Who are “these people”?

This is the same as one of the questions from yesterday’s article.

“These people” does not specifically refer to anyone.

No doubt, Jews, Christians and Muslims will have their own interpretation of who “these people” are.

However – if we keep reading, this time to the end of the chapter – the context is there to determine who “these people” refers to –

Isa 29:22 Therefore this is what the LORD, who redeemed Abraham, says to the house of Jacob:
“No longer will Jacob be ashamed;
no longer will their faces grow pale.
Isa 29:23 When they see among them their children,
the work of my hands,
they will keep my name holy;
they will acknowledge the holiness of the Holy One of Jacob,
and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.
Isa 29:24 Those who are wayward in spirit will gain understanding;
those who complain will accept instruction.”

The first line mentions Abraham.  He is claimed as the “father” of all three religions – so that doesn’t really help.

But the second line – there we see Jacob – who was later renamed by God to Israel.

Finally, the Gospels are full of references as to how God’s chosen people, the descendants of Abraham and Jacob – rejected the Messiah they had been waiting for.  And so final salvation would come through Jesus – for everyone – meaning for Jews and Muslims and everyone else as well.

Sura 96

While this Sura has 19 verses, only the first 5 are actually part of the first revelation to Muhammad.  Verses 6-19 are included, but were not from that first vision.  BTW – note – this was a vision.

IN THE NAME OF GOD, THE MOST GRACIOUS, THE DISPENSER OF GRACE:
(1) READ in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created – (2) created man out of a germ-cell!
(3) Read – for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One (4) who has taught [man] the use of the pen – (5) taught man what he did not know!
 1)Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Qur’an (Kindle Locations 16558-16567). The Book Foundation. Kindle Edition.

This, by itself, doesn’t really make the connection.  However – it’s important to also know the following –

THERE IS no doubt that the first five verses of this sūrah represent the very beginning of the revelation of the Qur’ān. Although the exact date cannot be established with certainty, all authorities agree in that these five verses were revealed in the last third of the month of Ramaḍān, thirteen years before the hijrah (corresponding to July or August, 610, of the Christian era). Muḥammad was then forty years old. At that period of his life “solitude became dear unto him, and he used to withdraw into seclusion in a cave of Mount Ḥirā’ [near Mecca] and there apply himself to ardent devotions” consisting of long vigils and prayers (Bukhārī). One night, the Angel of Revelation suddenly appeared to him and said, “Read!” Muḥammad at first thought that he was expected to read actual script, which, being unlettered, he was unable to do; and so he answered, “I cannot read” – whereupon, in his own words, the angel “seized me and pressed me to himself until all strength went out of me; then he released me and said, ‘Read!’ I answered, ‘I cannot read….’ Then he seized me again and pressed me to himself until all strength went out of me; then he released me and said, ‘Read!’ – to which I [again] answered, ‘I cannot read….’ Then he seized me and pressed me to himself a third time; then he released me and said, ‘Read in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created – created man out of a germ-cell! Read – for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One…’”: and so Muḥammad understood, in sudden illumination, that he was called upon to “read,” that is, to receive and understand, God’s message to man. The above excerpts are quoted from the third Tradition of the section Bad’ al-Waḥy, which forms the introductory chapter of Bukhārī’s Saḥīḥ; almost identical versions of this Tradition are found in two other places in Bukhārī as well as in Muslim, Nasā’ī, and Tirmidhī.  2)Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Qur’an (Kindle Locations 16540-16554). The Book Foundation. Kindle Edition.

Now – we have a more complete picture.

But – there’s more.

This sequence comes from a book titled “Destiny Disrupted”

He developed a habit of retreating periodically to a cave in the mountains to meditate. There, one day, he had a momentous experience, the exact nature of which remains mysterious, since various accounts survive, possibly reflecting various descriptions by Mohammed himself. Tradition has settled on calling the experience a visitation from the angel Gabriel. In one account, Mohammed spoke of “a silken cloth on which was some writing” brought to him while he was asleep.1 In the main, however, it was apparently an oral and personal interaction, which started when Mohammed, meditating in the utter darkness of the cave, sensed an overwhelming and terrifying presence: someone else was in the cave with him. Suddenly he felt himself gripped from behind so hard he could not breathe. Then came a voice, not so much heard as felt throughout his being, commanding him to “recite!”

Mohammed managed to gasp out that he could not recite.

The command came again: “Recite!”

Again Mohammed protested that he could not recite, did not know what to recite, but the angel—the voice—the impulse—blazed once more: “Recite!” Thereupon Mohammed felt words of terrible grandeur forming in his heart and the recitation began:

Recite in the name of your Lord Who created,
Created humans from a drop of blood.
Recite!
And your Lord is most Bountiful.
He who taught humans by the pen,
taught humans that which they knew not.
3)Ansary, Tamim.  Destiny Disrupted, A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes

 

There are some differences in the translation – but then, that happens with everything.  Everyone puts things into the language of their time / place / lifestyle.  BTW – Ansary grew up as a Muslim in Afghanistan – and he did not consider himself a “fundamentalist”.

After that revelation, Destiny Disrupted continues –

Mohammed came down from the mountain sick with fear, thinking he might have been possessed by a jinn, an evil spirit. Outside, he felt a presence filling the world to every horizon. According to some accounts, he saw a light with something like a human shape within it, which was only more thunderous and terrifying. At home, he told Khadija what had happened, and she assured him that he was perfectly sane, that his visitor had really been an angel, and that he was being called into service by God. “I believe in you,” she said, thus becoming Mohammed’s first follower, the first Muslim.  4)Ansary, Tamim. Destiny Disrupted, A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes

Just to put everyone on the same page, so to speak, here’s a short description of jinn / evil spirits the way they are interpreted in the Qur’an –

In the usage of the Qur’ān, which is certainly different from the usage of primitive folklore, the term jinn has several distinct meanings. The most commonly encountered is that of spiritual forces or beings which, precisely because they have no corporeal existence, are beyond the perception of our corporeal senses: a connotation which includes “satans” and “satanic forces” (shayāṭīn – see note 16 on 15:17) as well as “angels” and “angelic forces,” since all of them are “concealed from our senses” (Jawharī, Rāghib). In order to make it quite evident that these invisible manifestations are not of a corporeal nature, the Qur’ān states parabolically that the jinn were created out of “the fire of scorching winds” (nār as-samūm, in 15:27), or out of “a confusing flame of fire” (mārij min nār, in 55:15), or simply “out of fire” (7:12 and 38:76, in these last two instances referring to the Fallen Angel, Iblīs). Parallel with this, we have authentic aḥādīth to the effect that the Prophet spoke of the angels as having been “created out of light” (khuliqat min nūr: Muslim, on the authority of `Ā’ishah) – light and fire being akin, and likely to manifest themselves within and through one another (cf. note 7 on verse 8 of sūrah 27).  5)Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Qur’an (Kindle Locations 17155-17178). The Book Foundation. Kindle Edition.

Where does that leave us?

Isa 29:11 For you this whole vision is nothing but words sealed in a scroll.

I can’t read!
or
I can’t recite!

Normally, when told to recite, we think of reading something or simply repeating words. 
There’s no reason to think the words were said to Muhammad and that he subsequently couldn’t repeat them.  A number of sources specifically state that Muhammad could not read, (not unusual at that time, so memorization was often used to allow people to “read” from memory what had been taught to them) so the natural thing for us – and for him at the time – was that he was expected to read something and then say it out loud while reading.  So he says he can’t read.  It’s only after saying that (more than once) that he (and we) learn some other possibility may exist other than reading.

 

I think we should also look at the Hebrew word for “vision” that was used in this passage from Isaiah –

2380 חָזוּת [chazuwth /khaw·zooth/] n f. From 2372; TWOT 633d; GK 2607; Five occurrences; AV translates as “vision” twice, “notable” twice, and “agreement” once. 1 vision, conspicuousness. 1A vision, oracle of a prophet. 1A1 agreement. 1B conspicuousness in appearance.  6)Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

So it’s something that, according to dictionary.com is “easily seen or noticed; readily visible or observable

 

In any case – we seem to have one (or both) of the scenarios from Isaiah –

Isa 11-12 What you’ve been shown here is somewhat like a letter in a sealed envelope. If you give it to someone who can read and tell her, “Read this,” she’ll say, “I can’t. The envelope is sealed.” And if you give it to someone who can’t read and tell him, “Read this,” he’ll say, “I can’t read.”

Conclusion?

Again – coincidence or not?

And who are “these people”?

That very first revelation – fits the scenario given in Isaiah’s vision.

Muhammad himself isn’t even sure whether his vision came from an angel or a jinn (evil spirit).
It’s Khadija, his wife, who tells him it’s an angel.
And there’s no escaping his belief was that it was a jinn.

Before you reach your conclusion, I want to leave you with one more thing.  This is from a vision of Abram (Abraham to Muslims) –

Ge 15:1 After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”

So often in the Bible, when God, or the Angel of The LORD appear to someone – they are afraid.
But does God reinforce that fear?  Or does He say something to tell the person not to be afraid?

We see God saying either these exact words, or something very close to them – “do not be afraid” – so often it seems like God’s way of saying “Hello”.

But do we see that “do not be afraid” type of greeting in this Sura – the spirit’s first interaction with Muhammad?
No – we don’t.
We see the spirit reinforcing the fear – gripping him from behind, and not lightly.  In fact – gripping so tight that he couldn’t breathe.
Hardly a welcoming introduction.

Conclusions?

You know where I stand.
I leave it to you to reach your own conclusion.

Pray to the God of Abraham.  
Pray to Jesus.
They will answer.

 

 

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References   [ + ]

1. Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Qur’an (Kindle Locations 16558-16567). The Book Foundation. Kindle Edition.
2. Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Qur’an (Kindle Locations 16540-16554). The Book Foundation. Kindle Edition.
3. Ansary, Tamim.  Destiny Disrupted, A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes
4. Ansary, Tamim. Destiny Disrupted, A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes
5. Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Qur’an (Kindle Locations 17155-17178). The Book Foundation. Kindle Edition.
6. Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.

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