Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Qur’an Surah 17: The Night Journey

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn. 

The 17th surah of the Qur’an is named after one of the most important events in the life of Muhammad—the Night Journey.  Though the Qur’an itself doesn’t go into much detail about this event, later traditions (known as Hadith literature) developed the story in more detail.  Here’s the story of Muhammad’s night journey…

One night in the year 621 C.E., while Muhammad was living in Mecca, he was awakened by the angel Gabriel, who filled him with wisdom and belief.  The angel gave the prophet a white animal to ride, named Buraq.  This animal was sort of like Pegasus, because it could fly!

Buraq, the prophet's trusty steed.

Gabriel and Muhammad (riding Buraq) flew to Jerusalem, to the site of what would become the Al Aqsa Mosque (or, the Temple Mount).  In Muslim tradition, the city of Jerusalem is the third holiest place in the world (after Mecca and Medina).  There, the prophet prayed.  Gabriel tested Muhammad by offering him milk and wine to drink.  The prophet chose wisely (milk), and he was blessed.

Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem

Then Gabriel, Muhammad, and his trusty steed Buraq took a tour of the seven levels of heaven, stopping at each level to meet important prophets from the past.  They met Adam, Jesus, John the Baptist, Joseph, Idris, Aaron, Moses, and Abraham.  Each prophet warmly greeted Muhammad and said, “You are welcomed, O brother and a Prophet.”

Journey to the seventh heaven.

Finally, they reached the highest (seventh) level of heaven and came to God’s house, where they found a holy tree and four sacred rivers.  God told Muhammad to have his followers pray five times a day.  Originally, God wanted them to pray 50 times a day, but Moses helped bargain the Almighty down to five (I’m sure Muslims today are grateful for that!)  This is the origin of the Muslim tradition of salat, or praying five times a day.  Then Muhammad returned to his home in Mecca.

Salat, or praying five times a day, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.

The story of the Night Journey is very important to Muslims.  The event is celebrated annually in a festival known as the Lailat al Mi’raj, which usually involves lots of lights, candles, prayer, food, and treats.  Some Muslim traditions interpret the story literally, while others see it as a more mystical, symbolic journey.

Muslims in Turkey celebrate Lailat Al-Mi'raj with prayers.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Qur'an Surah 16: The Bee

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn. 

This surah takes its name from a brief meditation on the bee, and how this insect reveals God's presence in the world: "And your Lord inspired the bee, saying, 'Build yourselves houses in the mountains and trees and what people construct.  Then feed on all kinds of fruit and follow the ways made easy for you by your Lord.'  From their bellies comes a drink of different colors in which there is healing for people.  There truly is a sign in this for those who think."  The bee serves as a metaphor for God's provision for humanity, and the response of praise (aka honey) that is the natural result of this provision.

Throughout the surah are references to aspects of the natural world that are beneficial to humans: horses, mules, donkeys, water, grain, olives, palms, vines, the sun, moon, stars, the sea, fish, rivers, mountains, etc.  All of this is seen as coming from the grace of God.  It makes sense that these natural provisions are deeply connected to the life of tribal society in 7th century Arabia, where the Qur'an was written.

Like many other surahs, this one encourages monotheism and condemns idolatry, saying that those who attribute the wonders of the world to other gods are not showing proper respect to the One God.  The surah also states that those who do not believe in and follow the One God will be judged and punished in the afterlife. 

The Qur'an's idea of what happens after you die is more in line with Christianity than Judaism.  In the Hebrew scriptures, there is a very foggy and vague idea of the afterlife.  In the Hebrew Bible, God judges people in this life.  The idea of judgment after death (along with notions of heaven and hell) did not develop until after the completion of the Hebrew Bible.  This division of the spiritual realm into heaven and hell was drawn largely from Zoroastrian dualism.  From these Persian ideas, Christian and Muslim thinkers would eventually develop their own unique ideas about the afterlife.

I'll end on a more positive note.  "The Bee" contains this lovely verse: "God commands justice, doing good, and generosity towards relatives and he forbids what is shameful, blameworthy, and oppressive."


Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Qur’an Surah 15: Al-Hijr

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn. 

Like the Bible, the Qur’an has several recurring themes: the oneness of God, the importance of faithfulness, the futility of idolatry, etc.  One recurring theme is the rejected prophet.  The 15th surah of the Qur’an, “Al-Hijr,” focuses on this theme.

During his lifetime, Muhammad encountered opposition to his message.  The surah begins by stating some common objections to the prophet and his message: “They say, ‘Receiver of this Qur’an!  You are definitely mad.  Why do you not bring us the angels if you are telling the truth?”  In other words, Muhammad’s opponents demanded a miraculous sign to confirm his message.  Here, as elsewhere in the Qur’an, the scripture’s response is three-fold:

1.) Even if God gave the people a sign, they would still not believe, because their hearts are already negatively inclined: “They will not believe it…and even if we opened a gateway into the sky, they would still say, ‘Our eyes are hallucinating.  We are bewitched.’”

2.) The real evidence of God’s message is revealed in nature, with all its miracles: “We have set constellations up in the sky and made it beautiful for all to see…As for the earth, We have spread it out, set firm mountains on it, and made everything grow there in due balance.  We have provided sustenance in it for you and for all those creatures for whom you do not provide…We send the winds to fertilize, and We bring down water from the sky for you to drink…”

3.) There is a long tradition of people rejecting the true messages of God.  Muhammad’s situation was nothing new.  People rejected Abraham and Lot’s message to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible.  Other surahs tell of other prophets who experienced rejection: Jonah, Moses, Thamud, Jesus, etc.

This surah gets its title from the pre-Islamic Arabian tribe called Al-Hijr. to whom God sent the prophet Thamud, preaching a message of monotheism.  Like the prophets before him, Thamud experienced some rejection, though ultimately he was vindicated.

The point of this surah seems to be to comfort Muhammad and his fledgling community of faith amidst rejection: “We are well aware that your heart is weighted down by what they say.”  The community is encouraged to take comfort in nature, in history, and in the continuing presence of God, who is “all wise, all knowing.”  Vindication, they are told, will one day come.

Page from 17th century illuminated manuscript of the Qur'an surah Al-Hijr (British Library).

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Anti-Club Playlist 2/27/15

On Fridays, I DJ at Mulberry St. Ristorante (aka The Anti-Club) in downtown Fullerton.  Here's what I played this Friday...

“Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green


“Day Dreaming” by Aretha Franklin


“I Believe I’ll Go Back Home” by Big Bill Broonzy


“Prison Cell Blues” by Blind Lemon Jefferson


“Bessie Smith” by Bob Dylan & The Band


“Chicken is Nice” by Dave Van Ronk


“My Gal Sal” by Jelly Roll Morton


“Sweet Home Chicago” by Magic Sam


“Hermoso Carino” by Vicente Fernandez


“Good Name” by William Onyeabor


“Fuses” by Stereolab


“Space” by The Beta Band


“VHS Dream” by Deerhunter


“Many Rivers to Cross” by Harry Nilsson


“I Love My Car” by Belle & Selbastian


“Goon Squad” by Elvis Costello & The Attractions


“Bummer in the Summer” by Love


“That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” by Mission of Burma


“Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker) by Parliament


“Flash’s Theme” by Queen


“Pharaoh A Go-Go” by Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs


“1970” by The Stooges


“Planet” by The Sugarcubes


“Animals and the Weather” by Victory at Sea


“We Never Went to Church” by The Streets


“Los Mandados” by Flaco Jimenez


“JImmy’s Got a Little Bit of Bitch in Him” by Funkadelic


“Whole Wide World” by Reckless Eric


“Continental Shelf” by Viet Cong


“B.O.B.B.Y.” by RZA


“Summer Babe (Winter Version)” by Pavement


“I Get Wild/Wild Gravity” by Talking Heads


“Sound of Laughter” by T.S.O.L.


“17” by Youth Lagoon


“Reconciliacion” by Afro Cuban All Stars


“diskhat1” by Aphex Twin


“Pizza Monster” by Cherry Glazerr


“Et moi, et moi, et moi” by Jacques Dutronc


“Genesis 3:23” by The Mountain Goats


“Sueisfine” by My Bloody Valentine


“Lady Day” by Richard Swift


“The Fairest of the Seasons” by Nico


“Crucify Your Mind” by Rodriguez


“Green Grass of Tunnel” by Mum


“Driving Myself Crazy” by Looper


“I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” by A Tribe Called Quest


Star Trek Theme


“Ex Lion Tamer” by Wire


“Get Together” by The Youngbloods


“Supersonic Rocket Ship” by The Kinks


“Else” by Built to Spill