Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sunday: The Spider

After finding the Catholic Bible readings for today, and not finding them any good in my evidently not-so-humble opinion, I have stepped over temporarily to the Other Side. So I will discourse of one and a half verses in our Koran (Oxford University Press, 1983), which was nicely translated by Arthur J. Arberry (1905-69). The verses in question form the beginning of the chapter, or sura, known as "The Spider."
Do the people reckon that they will be left to say
'We believe,' and will not be tried?
We certainly tried those that were before them,
and assuredly God knows those who speak truly,
and assuredly He knows the liars.
Or do they reckon, those who do evil deeds, that
they will outstrip Us? Ill they judge!
Whoso looks to encounter God, God's term is coming;
He is the All-hearing, the All-knowing.

Whosoever struggles, struggles only to his
own gain; surely God is All-sufficient
nor needs any being.
And those who believe, and do righteous deeds,
We shall surely acquit them of their evil
deeds, and shall recompense them the best of
what they were doing.
What struck me first is how very like the New Testament, or other Christian texts, these verses are. Lines 10-12 are echoes of Milton's in "On His Blindness" — "God doth not need / Either man's work or his own gifts." — or, as the Koran is the older text, rather vice versa. What also struck me was that the verses are agreeably mild, as religious texts generally have no shortage of blood-and-thunder passages.

There are two points, to diverge from literary criticism to theological criticism (if one can dignify my musings with that name), with which I take issue. The first is the concept of God testing his believers. If one argues that He is omniscient, it must follow that He already knows how people would respond to the trial. As for the trial of Job, it is hard to believe much in a God who would kill off a family and use the paterfamilias as a guinea pig in order to settle an argument with Old Nick. So, in my view, there are far more convincing ways to account for the presence of trouble in the world. But, oddly, even Voltaire accepts the concept, as he writes in Zadig, "il n'y a point de hasard: tout est épreuve ou punition, ou récompense ou prévoyance."*

The second point is that I don't believe that good deeds should be an alibi for bad deeds, though perhaps the underlying statement is that people who do bad deeds should not have to fear eternal damnation if they strive to do well.

Altogether there are no passages in these verses that will linger happily in my memory, like "Blessed are the meek," and yet the assurance that good will prevail is, I guess, heartening.

*"There is no such thing as chance; everything is a test or punishment, or reward or admonition."

"The Persian or the Scholar?" (Time article on Arthur J. Arberry, 1950)
The Koran (Index of links to Koran chapters)
"The Koran" (Encyclopaedia entry on the Koran)

No comments: