Noncoding verses? The functions of repetitive passages about rejecters

Verses in the Quran claim that the Quran can only be produced by God, contains signs, guidance, and remedy, but just look at the Quran itself: there’re lots of repetitive passages—repeated over and over again—about how people reject the message and how God judges people. So where can what makes the Quran special go? Where can it go, as there isn’t much detail or many sets of rules? What’s more, even those super repetitive passages are called “signs.” So in what way are they “signs”? In this article, I’m suggesting some functions of those seemingly repetitive passages, beginning from the most apparent to the least apparent in each point I make.

“Junk” DNA, which is found to be not all junk Image credit: www.forbes.com

“Junk” DNA, which is found to be not all junk Image credit: http://www.forbes.com

Function 1: As signs and warnings

Most apparently, those stories of the rejecters are signs and warnings. (Following how Noah was saved on the ship while the rejecters were drowned) “In this are signs, and We will always test.” (23:30) “Did they not roam the earth and note how was the consequence for those who were before them? And they were even more powerful than they in strength. But nothing can inhibit God be it in the heavens, or the earth. He is Knowledgeable, Omnipotent.” (35:44) “Is it not a guide to them how many generations We had destroyed before them, which they are walking now in their homes? In that are signs for the people of understanding” (20:128).

The most apparent conclusion drawn is that if you don’t obey God, then you will get punished[1], but there’s more about this: In what ways are the rejecters transgressing? From how they transgress, we know what we should not do, as the Quran is a warner to all people, but only those who take heed can get warned (35:18):

  • We should not consider God a tool of blessings who shows His presence by miracles

This also shows the characteristics of God. What’s ordinary and natural often turn out to be extraordinary, and these are frequently cited as signs of God. See an earlier article on what God is not. Correctly understanding God is important for us, since understanding God as a tool of blessings means that now we are the lord, while God should serve us, instead of us serving Him. This cultivates arrogance and self-indulgence. An example is in 18:33-43, showing that a mere belief in the existence of God is not enough, and that an incorrect understanding about God leads to transgression. Decoupling God and natural law means that in our deepest of mind, God is no different from an idol by nature and idols can’t do anything unless God permits. In other words, decoupling God from natural laws means that we think natural laws govern God, which is not the case.

  • We should consider what will happen in long term

Rejecters often ask the messenger to hasten the retribution, and claim that there’s nothing but this worldly life. Linked to the worldly life is the idea of hereafter, which is in fact an attitude that when we do something, we should remember that we will be responsible for it. Going one step further, we find that we should not construe the scripture too literally while forgetting about the essence of the message—this is what the rejecters are doing. What they see is literally a resurrection and judgment, while what they should have seen is responsibility to what they do. A side note: related to indulged in the appearance while forgetting about the essence is forbidding what God did not forbid in the name of God, as this kind of prohibitions are usually very ritual-centered. If we don’t remember the responsibility, then this very bad attitude will be cultivated: I can do whatever I want as long as I think I can escape from the consequence. Even if you don’t immediately see the consequence, this attitude leads to decay in morality, whose consequence will ultimately be manifest, both in personal and in national levels.

  • Wealth and social status are not what we should use to judge people, and should not be obtained with the cost of righteousness

They said: “Shall we believe to you when the lowest type of people have followed you?” (26:111) So they rejected Noah. Also see Qarun in Chapter 28, and the expectation of rejecters in 17:90-93. In sum, the attitude of the rejecters is “Do they not think why We are extending them with wealth and sons? We are quick to give them the good things. But they do not perceive” (23:55-56). And “For those who have responded to their Lord is goodness. As for those who have not responded to Him, if they had all that is on the earth twice over, they would ransom it to be saved. For these will be a terrible reckoning, and their abode is Hell; what a miserable abode” (13:18). Also recall 35:44 that I cited in the opening of this article. Wealth and power are nothing in front of God, but righteousness is.

This is also linked to the correct understanding of God. God owns the whole universe, including every atom in your body, so your wealth doesn’t count as wealth compared to the whole universe, while thinking that wealth will help in front of God implies that God does not own the universe, which is not the case. This is also true for power—you think you’re powerful if you rule a nation, but God rules the universe, so your power doesn’t count as power.

Going a step further, we see that fearing the wealthy and the powerful is not an excuse not to follow God; the magicians who followed Moses did not give up the truth even if Pharaoh threatened to kill them. Here, the same conclusion is derived from two different pathways—one indirect, through the characteristics of God and one direct, from story of Moses, testifying to the consistency within the Quran.

Note that this section doesn’t mean that we’re not allowed to be wealthy or powerful. Solomon was wealthy and powerful, but he was also righteous. The important part is how to use the wealth.

  • We should not blindly follow

One excuse that rejecters use to reject the message is that they would follow their fathers of old, or they’ve never seen something like the message from their fathers of old. A closely related scene is followers blaming leaders and leaders rejecting followers on Day of Judgment, and the leader can be Satan. Expecting intercession is also related to this point. We will be responsible for ourselves, and nobody can help us in front of God. This means that, we should at least think on our own.

  • We should not distort God’s message to fit some ideology

“And We gave Moses the Book, and after him We sent the messengers. And We gave Jesus, son of Mary, the clear proofs, and We supported him with the Holy Spirit. Is it that every time a messenger comes to you with what your souls do not desire, you become arrogant? A group of them you deny, and a group of them you kill!” (2:87) “And if the truth were to follow their desires, then the heavens and the earth and all who are in them would have been corrupted. No, We have come to them with their reminder, but from their reminder they are turning away” (23:71).

One implication is that, although it’s impossible for anyone to be absolutely objective, we should ground our assertions on evidence. For instance, we can’t take verses out of context and claim that we should kill all non-Muslims, ignoring that we should not force the system onto others while it’s God’s business to punish the rejecters.

Another implication is more important to scientists. Fabricating or changing data to fit hypothesis is against this commandment. This leads to another aspect of the basic mentality of Monotheists: step back and reflect. Ian Hacking suggested dynamic nominalism, when the name itself and the reality interact; using the name reinforces what the name defines, such as racism makes people from different races more different due to different social status, while race has no biological basis, or the name itself can cause bias when collecting data. To prevent unknowingly manipulating data, we should step back and not take theories as absolute truth. A hypothesis is but what we suggest to explain a phenomenon and science is constantly testing hypotheses, getting us closer to the truth.

  • No dishonesty (people of Midyan), and no adultery (people of Lot). I don’t think there is much to elaborate on these, yet. It’s pretty apparent.
  • When reading the Scripture, we should always take it seriously

“When a reminder comes to them from their Lord that is recent, they listen to it while playing” (21:2). “And similarly, We have sent down to you the Book. Thus, those whom We have given the Book will believe in it. Also, some of your people will believe in it. The only ones who mock Our revelations are the rejecters” (29:47). These characteristics of rejecters, along with verses about characteristics of the Quran, remind us to take the Quran seriously when reading it. For my fellow students: It’s very tempting to think “there’s just one page left, and then I can go on Facebook” (I know we often think that way when doing course reading) or just read a chapter to feel better and then forget about the content of the chapter after reading it. Or are you more focused when you’re doing your homework than when you’re reading the Quran? The purpose of the Quran is guidance for people (2:2), and the guidance lies in the content. If you don’t follow the guidance, then the consequence is much worse than a bad grade. The characteristics of God are still at work here: how shall we not take God’s law seriously, if God is the Lord of the universe? Of course nobody knows what the Quran talks about if the content is ignored while reading becomes a ritual, just like in the Facebook example mentioned above.

  • We should appreciate the signs in the heavens and earth

Rejecters are often described to be ignorant of God’s signs in the heavens and the earth, or even if they know that those are God’s signs, they deliberately dismiss them. “And if you ask them: ‘Who has created the heavens and the earth, and put the sun and the moon in motion?’ They will say: ‘God.’ Why then did they deviate? God expands the provision for whoever He chooses from among His servants, and withholds it. God is fully aware of all things. And if you ask them: “Who sends down water from the sky, thus reviving the land after its death?’ They will say: ‘God.’ Say: ‘Praise be to God.’ But most of them do not comprehend” (29:61-63). One counter example is in 3:190-191. Some of the signs are beneficial to us, such as the ships and foods. We should seek God’s bounty, and be thankful (30:46). Some of the signs, including God’s bounties for us, are natural phenomena, and they can also have metaphorical functions in the Quran, such as how water revives the land, and the development of the embryo. The signs in nature also point to the characteristics of God: which god other than God can do anything like that? And what are we compared to God? Regarding God’s signs in nature, I’m also asking you a philosophical question: Why do most humans enjoy scenery?

I’ve spent pages to talk about implications of what rejecters actually did. Now let’s move on to other functions of the stories of rejecters:

Function 2: We should not grieve over this sinful world

“And We tell to you from the news of the messengers with which We strengthen your heart. In this has come to you the truth and a lesson and a reminder for the believers” (11:120). “Perhaps you grieve yourself that they do not become believers. If We wish, We could send down for them from the heavens a sign, to which they would bend their necks in humility” (26:2-3). “As for he whose evil work is adorned for him so he sees it as being good; for God thus misguides whom He wills, and He guides whom He wills. So do not let yourself grieve over them. God is fully aware of what they are doing” (35:8). We should note not only what happened to the rejecters, but also what happened to the messengers who got rejected. God saved them from the rejecters.

Now the world is full of sin. Most people do not think on their own; if they’re not a slave of religious dogma[2], then they’re often slaves of football fanaticism and stuff like that. Just open a crime map, you see robbery and sexual assaults everywhere. Then there’s shooting in one college after another. Those are not the worst crimes; there are corrupt governments brainwashing and oppressing people, such as the concentration camps in North Korea, and violent sectarian conflicts always happen… But why feel so bad for those? We shouldn’t punish ourselves with other people’s sins! If we are the direct victim, just like the messengers, then do not lose hope and we should stand upright, since God’s judgment will come eventually, and even if we die, to God we will return. And instead of grieving, we should reform to make the world a better place. “Corruption has appeared in the land and the sea at the hands of the people by what they earn. He will make them taste some of what they have done, perhaps they will return. Say: ‘Roam the earth and see how the end was for those before. Most of them were polytheists.’ So establish yourself to the system which is straight, before a Day comes from God that none can avert. On that Day they shall be separated” (30:41-43) (I recommend reading the entire Chapter 30 to better understand this concept)

Here’s an apparent contradiction regarding fight versus flight: Sometimes, we’re told to fight, while sometimes, flight is cited as a good example. The youths who escaped to the cave present an example of flight. It seems that whether fight or flight depends on the circumstances, and I don’t exactly know under what circumstance we should fight or flight. At present, I think it’s we should fight unless it’s too hard to fight.

Function 3: As a contrast to emphasis the characteristics of God and the believers

An example is 23:55-60; the believers and rejecters differ by how they perceive God’s blessings. Also see the entire Chapter 25; the believers and rejecters differ by how they perceive God and God’s revelations. This reinforces the idea that we should not be like rejecters, and rises to a higher level by stating what believers are like. Regarding God’s characteristics, God’s supremacy is emphasized as however people reject can’t harm God at all and nothing can protect the rejecters from God.


But why are those passages repeated over and over again? Moreover, some aspects of the rejecters are mentioned much more frequently than other aspects, such as aspects pertinent to characteristics of God and worldly life versus hereafter are mentioned much more frequently than forbidding what God did not forbid and distorting the Scripture. Perhaps this is because the commands embedded in the less mentioned aspects can be derived from the characteristics of God and other more frequently mentioned aspects. If the Quran is the word of God, then there should not be noncoding verses which are not coding without reason.

I suggest some answers to the question that starts the last paragraph. First, we’re constantly in contact with the sinful world and temptations, so we need constant reminder to keep upright. But this is not satisfactory—then why is the same thing repeated over and over again? Our reading something that is not repeated over and over again also serves that purpose. The second answer might be more satisfactory: Each chapter introduces something new, and the “something” may be status of being, not necessarily new commandments, and the repeated passages about rejecters remind us not to stick with a paradigm which will obstruct new insights. As the passages about rejecters don’t seem to serve very different functions in each chapter, my 2nd answer might make sense. Hardening a paradigm into a dogma is a main cause to my stagnation in exegesis, since this makes me more biased, blinding me from many aspects about the text that I’m reading. This also happened in the history of science. In the Kuhn Cycle, we first have a paradigm, then when we observe something not fitting into that paradigm, we begin by ignoring it, and then when we find more anomalies that are so great that we can’t ignore them anymore, the paradigm gets into a crisis, and then a new theory is formulated to explain the phenomena, and finally, the new theory hardens into a paradigm, and the cycle starts again. By constantly reminding us of the mentalities of rejecters, we’re also reminded of not taking our paradigms as absolute truth, while reinforcing some other very important ideas like characteristics of God, so the chance that we’re blinded by paradigms on our way through studying the whole Quran is reduced.

 

[1] Note that this is not merely claiming that the retribution is delayed in order to explain why the evil doesn’t immediately get punished. Respite gives the transgressor a chance to reflect and repent, albeit most people don’t facilitate this opportunity. In the punishments for usury, murderers, thieves, and adulterers, there is always a verse saying “except for those who repent and do good” (2:279; 4:92; 5:39; 24:5). This is also true for rejecting God’s message (3:89; 5:71; 6:54; 7:153), but when the messenger is sent, there is no excuse not to repent, so those who do not repent are punished. This opportunity to repent is stated more directly in 24:21. And this is one way to understand how God is Nobel, Merciful after punishing the rejecters (26:68, 104, 122, 140, 159, 175, 191, 217). Another way to understand this is that law takes priority over love, which means that God is not arbitrary and capricious, and that God should not be over-personified like icons in Byzantine churches.

[2] I mean by “religious” anything dogmatic, including dogmatic atheism. It doesn’t take a god to make something a religion, and the atheist Communism is no less a religion than Christianity if both taken dogmatically.

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