This is the 20th part of this series, reading The Qur’an; A New Translation by Abdel Haleem. We’ll occasionally compare that to other translations and with tafsirs for clarification. We’re also reading each “chapter” [surah] in order of revelation [mostly] rather than the order in which they are typically printed. If you missed some of this series, you can see:
my 2nd post on surahs 96, 68 & 73.
my 3rd post on surahs 74, 111 & 81.
my 4th post on surahs 87, 92, 89, 93, 94 & 103.
my 5th post jumping to surah 18.
my 6th post on surahs 100, 108, 102, 107, 109 & 105
my 7th post was on surahs 113, 114, 112 & 53.
my 8th post on surahs 80, 97, 91, 85, 95 & 106.
my 9th post on surahs 101, 75, 104 & 77.
my 1oth post on surahs 50, 90 & 86.
my 11th post on surah 54,
my 12th post on surah 38,
my 13th post on surah 7,
my 14th post on surah 72,
my 15th post on surah 36,
my 16th post on surah 25,
my 17th post on surah 43,
my 18th post on surah 35.
and my 19th post on surah 19.
Sūrah 20 (Ta-Haa) “Oh man”
Not “ta-Da” and not “Tee-hee”. What does this mean? Every other translation I’ve seen says that this sura begins—as some others have—with a number of Arabic letters, and that God only knows why this is. However translator Abdel Haleem cites Razi to say that in this case, it might not be isolated letters but the phrase, “O man!” in the Yemeni dialect of Akk. I’m sure it doesn’t matter that I don’t believe that, because why would we suddenly switch from Arabic to Yemeni and immediately back again?
2It was not to distress you [Prophet] that We sent down the Qur’an to you, 3but as a reminder for those who hold God in awe, 4a revelation from the One who created the earth and the high heaven, 5the Lord of Mercy, established on the throne. 6Everything in the heavens and on earth, everything between them, everything beneath the soil, belongs to Him. 7Whatever you may say aloud, He knows what you keep secret and what is even more hidden.
The idea that God could read minds must have been a powerful tool for manipulation back then. Because even before we had video surveillance or knew how to identify fingerprints, some people still had a guilty conscience. Although strangely, it seems that only relatively decent people have a conscience at all, while narcissists and psychopaths don’t seem to be aware of their own guilt, or they feel righteously justified both in what they’ve done and in lying about it.
8God––there is no god but Him––the most excellent names belong to Him.
A friend of mine, Rev. Ivan Stang started the Church of the Sub-Genius, offering eternal salvation or triple your money back! His god’s name is Bob.
9Has the story of Moses come to you [Prophet]? 10He saw a fire and said to his people, ‘Stay here––I can see a fire. Maybe I can bring you a flaming brand from it or find some guidance there.’
Some interpret the burning bush to be a volcanic event rather than a flaming shrubbery, since the Bible describes God as a volcano over and over again. I always thought that the only way it made sense to talk to a burning bush is if it happened to be hashish or opium.
11When he came to the fire, he was summoned, ‘Moses! 12I am your Lord. Take off your shoes: you are in the sacred valley of Tuwa.
The Valley of Tuwa is another detail that the Qur’an adds to the Biblical mythos that was not in the original. However this may be appropriate at least in that some Christians believe that the Bible got a few details wrong, and that the reason there is no evidence of an exodus of Jews out of Egypt is that Mount Sanai is actually a volcano in Saudi Arabia, and that Moses might have begun his journey from there instead; not that there is any evidence of that either. The only historic Hebrew exodus was out of Babylon in the 6th century BCE. Of course there was no volcano there. So that trope must have come from someone else’s story. After many re-tellings around many camp fires, details of different heroes and their adventures are confused or recounted incorrectly, until we get the corrupted version in the Bible which is now parroted with further embellishments in the Qur’an.
13I have chosen you, so listen to what is being revealed. 14I am God; there is no god but Me. So worship Me and keep up the prayer so that you remember Me. 15The Hour is coming––though I choose to keep it hidden––for each soul to be rewarded for its labour. 16Do not let anyone who does not believe in it and follows his own desires distract you from it, and so bring you to ruin.’
How could anyone forget the experience of witnessing a volcano first-hand? Especially if it starts talking! However, he did say that the “hour” is coming, as if it was coming soon, but it didn’t. This was thousands of years ago! So I guess we as a people could easily forget that this “hour” is supposedly still coming—eventually, maybe.
Of course the original account didn’t say anything about this hour of resurrection and judgement. That was another element that was added by the authors of the Qur’an, but that was still like fourteen centuries ago.
17‘Moses, what is that in your right hand?’
What? You mean you don’t know? I thought you were omniscient.
18‘It is my staff,’ he said, ‘I lean on it; restrain my sheep with it; a I also have other uses for it.’
Speak softly and carry a big stick.
19God said, ‘Throw it down, Moses.’ 20He threw it down and– lo and behold!– it became a fast-moving snake. 21He said, ‘Pick it up without fear: We shall turn it back into its former state. 22Now place your hand under your armpit and it will come out white, though unharmed: that is another sign. 23We do this to show you some of Our greatest signs.
I’m curious why Moses had to put his hand into his arm pit before it would come out white? Maybe because he was using that old-fashioned powdered deodorant?
Remember that “the greatest sign” of God’s power is that the hand of Moses became white. According to the anti-Semitic hate site, Al-Islam.org, “The whiteness of the hand of this Prophet of God must have resembled the whiteness of a kind of sickness (vitiligo or leukoderma)”. So you’ve got skin pigment disorder, and that’s your greatest sign? That’ll surely convince everyone you’re on a mission from God. Yeah, right.
24Go to Pharaoh, for he has truly become a tyrant.’ 25Moses said, ‘Lord, lift up my heart 26and ease my task for me. 27Untie my tongue, 28so that they may understand my words, 29and give me a helper from my family, 30my brother Aaron– 31augment my strength through him. 32Let him share my task 33so that we can glorify You much 34and remember You often: 35You are always watching over us.’ 36God said, ‘Moses, your request is granted.
Imagine you’re a mere fallible human living in the Bronze age. You meet the omniscient almighty, and without any prior planning, you immediately tell God what to do, and God hears you and agrees that you had a good idea.
37Indeed We showed you favour before. 38We inspired your mother, saying, 39“Put your child into the chest, then place him in the river. Let the river wash him on to its bank, and he will be taken in by an enemy of Mine and his.” I showered you with My love and planned that you should be reared under My watchful eye. 40Your sister went out, saying, “I will tell you someone who will nurse him,” then We returned you to your mother so that she could rejoice and not grieve. Later you killed a man, but We saved you from distress and tried you with other tests. You stayed among the people of Midian for years, then you came here as I ordained. 41I have chosen you for Myself.
I know that the story of baby Moses being set afloat down the river was adapted from an earlier story about Sargon. I don’t know whence these other elements come, but a few scholars have told me that Moses is a composite of a number of different characters, some of whom actually lived, Sargon, Hammurabi, and the Pharaoh Snefru for example. Here we have God stitching all these originally independent elements together as if everything that ever happened to “Moses” was according to God’s plan. The Bible already did that. That’s why Moses already has so many stories, and that some of them already have him as part of the Egyptian royal family.
42Go, you and your brother, with My signs, and make sure that you remember Me. 43Go, both of you, to Pharaoh, for he has exceeded all bounds. 44Speak to him gently so that he may take heed, or show respect.’ 45They said, ‘Lord, we fear he will do us great harm or exceed all bounds.’ 46He said, ‘Do not be afraid, I am with you both, hearing and seeing everything.
Then why doesn’t God just appear and actually speak to the Pharaoh himself? Why send human messengers on a ridiculous quest with questionable “signs” like a diseased hand? I know why. It’s because God can’t do anything himself. That’s why we have to make-believe in him and retroactively attribute whatever happens to him, pretending they’re “signs”, as if he meant for whatever happens to happen.
Of course when we’re talking about a volcano, then you really could get a memorable story out of that, one that would actually match all the plagues in this story. In fact, that would be so impressive that you’d have to integrate that into your historic account of the exodus just to make it more interesting.
47Go and tell him, “We are your Lord’s messengers, so send the Children of Israel with us and do not oppress them. We have brought you a sign from your Lord. Peace be upon whoever follows the right guidance; 48it has been revealed to us that punishment falls on whoever rejects the truth and turns his back on it.”’
Remember that in the Qur’an “truth” translates as “empty assertions of impossible absurdity”.
49[Pharaoh] said, ‘Moses, who is this Lord of yours?’ 50Moses said, ‘Our Lord is He who gave everything its form, then gave it guidance.’ 51He said, ‘What about former generations?’ 52Moses said, ‘My Lord alone has knowledge of them, all in a record; my Lord does not err or forget.’
Remember that the Egyptian pantheon is well more than a thousand years older than Judaism, which itself was originally polytheistic. So Pharaoh’s “former generations” are older than the Jewish god.
53It was He who spread out the earth for you and traced routes in it. He sent down water from the sky. With that water We bring forth every kind of plant, 54so eat, and graze your cattle. There are truly signs in all this for people of understanding.
Notice yet another reference to the earth in the form of a flat map.
55From the earth We created you, into it We shall return you, and from it We shall raise you a second time.
I doubt this would have made any sense to an Egyptian spiritualist, nor to a Jewish one for that matter, and this story was originally Jewish. The Qur’an has adapted it to a new theology.
56We showed Pharaoh all Our signs, but he denied them and refused [to change].
I thought God would be a more compelling speaker than that.
57He said, ‘Have you come to drive us from our land with your sorcery, Moses? 58We will confront you with sorcery to match your own: make an appointment between us which neither of us will fail to keep, in a mutually agreeable place.’ 59He said, ‘Your meeting will be on the day of the feast, so let the people be assembled when the sun has risen high.’
This is not how Cecil B DeMille depicted this scene. This is another Qur’anic revision, a newer version of an old story.
60Pharaoh withdrew and gathered his resources, a then he returned. 61Moses said to them, ‘Beware, do not invent lies against God or He will destroy you with His punishment. Whoever invents lies will fail.’
Yet religions still persist anyway.
62So they discussed their plan among themselves, talking secretly, 63saying, ‘These two men are sorcerers. Their purpose is to drive you out of your land with their sorcery and put an end to your time-honoured way of life. 64So gather your resources and line up for the contest. Whoever wins today is sure to prosper.’ 65They said, ‘Moses, will you throw first or shall we?’ 66‘You throw,’ said Moses, and––lo and behold!––through their sorcery, their ropes and staffs seemed to him to be moving. 67Moses was inwardly alarmed, 68but We said, ‘Do not be afraid, you have the upper hand. 69Throw down what is in your right hand: it will swallow up what they have produced. They have only produced the tricks of a sorcerer, and a sorcerer will not prosper, wherever he goes.’
Yet, this is the story of Moses performing the same ‘sorcery’ as the Egyptian magi, the only difference being that his snake ate theirs, which is just one more impossibility we’re expected to believe. One snake can swallow another, and it pushes the boundaries of its capacity to do that. But to swallow two? It would have to be twice as big as them.
70[So it was, and] the sorcerers threw themselves down in submission. ‘We believe,’ they said, ‘in the Lord of Aaron and Moses.’ 71Pharaoh said, ‘How dare you believe in him before I have given you permission? This must be your master, the man who taught you witchcraft. I shall certainly cut off your alternate hands and feet, then crucify you on the trunks of palm trees. You will know for certain which of us has the fiercer and more lasting punishment.’ 72They said, ‘We shall never prefer you to the clear sign that has come to us, nor to Him who created us. So decide whatever you will: you can only decide matters of this present life– 73we believe in our Lord, [hoping] He may forgive us our sins and the sorcery that you forced us to practise– God is better and more lasting.’All these ridiculous contests just to see whose imaginary friend can beat the other one.
74Hell will be the reward of those who return to their Lord as evildoers: there they will stay, neither living nor dying.
Remember that the Jewish and Greek concepts of Hell were similar to the Mesopotamian notion, wherein there was only one land of the dead where everyone went when they died, and there they would sleep, because they’re all dead. Christianity changed that, reaching way back into Zoroastrianism to borrow the concept that good people are resurrected to ascend to somewhere else and be alive again, while the bad people descend to tortured forever. Islam is based on an early version of Christianity. That’s why it includes a merciless damnation of unbelievers. Whereas Zoroastrians threatened damnation against wicked liars instead.
75But those who return to their Lord as believers with righteous deeds will be rewarded with the highest of ranks, 76Gardens of lasting bliss graced with flowing streams, and there they will stay. Such is the reward of those who purify themselves.
So we will not be supernatural beings made of eternal spiritual energy, we’ll still be the same as we are, having to eat and drink in order to stave off the pangs of starvation and dehydration—forever.
77We revealed to Moses, ‘Go out at night with My servants and strike a dry path for them across the sea. Have no fear of being overtaken and do not be dismayed.’ 78Pharaoh pursued them with his armies and was overwhelmed by the sea. 79Pharaoh truly led his people astray; he did not guide them.
Actually this story was stolen from a Pharaoh who lived more than a thousand years before the time that most people now assume for Moses. In the Westcar Papyrus is the tale of the Pharaoh Sneferu, who took his barge out for a relaxing cruise on the lake. He manned his craft with dozens of buxom young women and had them rowing his vessel topless for his amusement. It’s good to be the king. One of these girls dropped a turquoise bauble over the side and became so upset about it that Sneferu called on his mage, Djadjaemankh to do something about it. Once ashore, Djadjaemankh cast a spell on the lake so that they could lift the water and fold it over itself like a blanket, to retrieve the maiden’s jewelry. Again, not quite Cecil B DeMille, but we can see a much more original idea, that was probably where the story of parting the Red Sea came from.
80Children of Israel, We rescued you from your enemies. We made a pledge with you on the right-hand side of the mountain. We sent down manna and quails for you, 81‘Eat from the good things We have provided for you, but do not overstep the bounds, or My wrath will descend on you. Anyone on whom My wrath descends has truly fallen. 82Yet I am most forgiving towards those who repent, believe, do righteous deeds, and stay on the right path.’
Imagine that you’re God; except that instead of being imaginary, you really are the ultimate almighty power behind everything in the universe. Nothing can threaten you. Nothing can resist or contest you. How could you ever get mad at anything? Especially anything so trivial as when someone doesn’t believe the inane absurdities coming out of your piss-poor prophets? Now imagine judging someone to be evil just because they’re too wise to believe all that nonsense. You know exactly why someone like me cannot believe anything as stupid as these fables, and you know it’s your fault that I don’t believe it. So how could you punish me for your own inexcusable failure there?
83[God said], ‘Moses, what has made you come ahead of your people in such haste?’ 84and he said, ‘They are following in my footsteps. I rushed to You, Lord, to please You,’ 85but God said, ‘We have tested your people in your absence: the Samiric has led them astray.’ 86Moses returned to his people, angry and aggrieved. He said, ‘My people, did your Lord not make you a gracious promise? Was my absence too long for you? Did you want anger to fall on you from your Lord and so broke your word to me?’ 87They said, ‘We did not break our word to you deliberately. We were burdened with the weight of people’s jewellery, so we threw it [into the fire], and the Samiri did the same,’ 88but he [used the molten jewellery to] produce an image of a calf which made a lowing sound, and they said, ‘This is your god and Moses’ god, but he has forgotten.’ 89Did they not see that [the calf] gave them no answer, that it had no power to harm or benefit them? 90Aaron did say to them, ‘My people, this calf is a test for you. Your true Lord is the Lord of Mercy, so follow me and obey my orders,’ 91but they replied, ‘We shall not give up our devotion to it until Moses returns to us.’
While the tafsir al-Razi has suggested a number of alternate identities for “the Samiric”, and all of them unsubstantiated, translator Abdel Haleem reminds us that it can only be Moses’ own brother, Aaron, whom he left in charge. In the original Hebrew, it was Aaron who first turned away from his brother’s god. It was Aaron who melted everyone’s jewelry to fashion the golden calf that he was already worshiping during Moses’ brief absence. Yet in the Qur’an, Aaron was tasked by God directly and has even less excuse for this behavior under the new story line.
92Moses said, ‘When you realized they had gone astray, what prevented you, Aaron, 93from coming after me? How could you disobey my orders?’
That’s what happens when God appears in your brother’s mind but not in yours too.
94He said, ‘Son of my mother– let go of my beard and my hair!– I was afraid you would say, “You have caused division among the children of Israel and have not heeded what I said.”’ 95Moses said, ‘And what was the matter with you, Samiri?’ 96He replied, ‘I saw something they did not; I took in some of the teachings of the Messenger but tossed them aside: my soul prompted me to do what I did.’
Interesting. As opposed to “the devil made me do it”. Where is our free will if our souls can prompt us to do things when our mere physical brains know we should not?
97Moses said, ‘Get away from here! Your lot in this life is to say, “Do not touch me,” but you have an appointment from which there is no escape. Look at your god which you have kept on worshipping– we shall grind it down and scatter it into the sea. 98[People], your true god is the One God– there is no god but Him– whose knowledge embraces everything.’
Note that even though Aaron turned to his false god even in the original Hebrew, he was not outcast. Immediately after God wrote the commandment “thou shalt not kill”, he ordered Moses to “kill every man and his brother” over the issue of this golden calf. However even though Aaron is the only brother who logically should have been killed in that story, on the next page we see that he was inexplicably spared and forgiven, having taken his position as an exalted high priest.
99In this way We relate to you [Prophet] stories of what happened before. We have given you a Qur’an from Us. 100Whoever turns away from it will bear on the Day of Resurrection a heavy burden 101and will remain under it. What a terrible burden to carry on that Day!
Someone should have told these human scribes pretending to speak for God in these scriptures that if all they do is repeat this same threat constantly in every single surah, it just makes the scriptures more boring and makes God sound increasingly desperate. Instead of a calm, confident and commanding baritone, I now hear a shrill screeching falsetto almost on the verge of tears.
102When the trumpet is sounded and We gather the sinful, sightless, 103they will murmur to one another, ‘You stayed only ten days [on earth]’– 104We know best what they say– but the more perceptive of them will say, ‘Your stay [on earth] was only a single day.’
No, if that day ever happened, no one would say any of these things.
105They ask you [Prophet] about the mountains: say, ‘[On that Day] my Lord will blast them into dust 106and leave a flat plain, 107with no peak or trough to be seen.
This reminds me of how my father used to talk about nuking the Middle-Eastern desert: “We oughtta turn the whole damned place into a glass bowl”.
108On that Day, people will follow the summoner from whom there is no escape; every voice will be hushed for the Lord of Mercy; only whispers will be heard. 109On that Day, intercession will be useless except from those to whom the Lord of Mercy has granted permission and whose words He approves– 110He knows what is before and behind them, though they do not comprehend Him– 111and [all] faces a will be humbled before the Living, Ever Watchful One. Those burdened with evil deeds will despair, 112but whoever has done righteous deeds and believed need have no fear of injustice or deprivation.’
As long as you’re careful never to have a rational thought of reasonable inquiry. Every religion threatens to punish that. Also notice that we can’t name anyone in the Bible who firmly believed but who never faced injustice or deprivation. Sometimes they faced these simply BECAUSE they believed. That feeds into religious people’s beloved persecution complex.
113We have sent the Qur’an down in the Arabic tongue and given all kinds of warnings in it, so that they may beware or take heed–
But you neglected to provide any evidence, literally no reason to believe any of it.
114exalted be God, the one who is truly in control. [Prophet], do not rush to recite before the revelation is fully complete but say, ‘Lord, increase me in knowledge!’
Here Abdel Haleem notes that Muhammad was repeating everything the angel Gabriel told him, except that he became so enthusiastic that he began reciting things the angel had not told him yet. So Gabriel had to tell him to slow down.
115We also commanded Adam before you, but he forgot and We found him lacking in constancy.
An infallible creator built his masterpiece and found it to be inconsistent? Whose fault is that?
116When We said to the angels, ‘Bow down before Adam,’ they did. But Iblis refused, 117so We said, ‘Adam, this is your enemy, yours and your wife’s: do not let him drive you out of the garden and make you miserable. 118In the garden you will never go hungry, feel naked, 119be thirsty, or suffer the heat of the sun.’
The parable of Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden is that once we develop an understanding of morality, we cannot remain child-like as we were, and we can never go home again. Whoever wrote that parable surely did not think anyone should treat it as if it was a literal history with magical trees and a talking snake.
120But Satan whispered to Adam, saying, ‘Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and power that never decays?’
Why didn’t the serpent show Adam the tree of eternal life? Because if Adam had eaten of that first, then he would have been immortal. Then the serpent could show them the other tree and know that he had beaten God at his own game.
121and they both ate from it. They became conscious of their nakedness and began to cover themselves with leaves from the garden. Adam disobeyed his Lord and was led astray– 122later his Lord brought him close, accepted his repentance, and guided him– 123God said, ‘Get out of the garden as each other’s enemy.’
Remember that the Bible never implies that the serpent could have been Satan, or Iblis. It was never supposed to be anything but a snake, and was apparently adapted from the “serpent who could not be tamed” from the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Whoever follows My guidance, when it comes to you [people], will not go astray nor fall into misery, 124but whoever turns away from it will have a life of great hardship.
Have you ever noticed that everyone who had ever gone on a mission from God was besieged with great hardship? Why is that?
We shall bring him blind to the Assembly on the Day of Resurrection 125and he will say, ‘Lord, why did You bring me here blind? I was sighted before!’
Every religion tends to have that effect on people.
126God will say, ‘This is how it is: You ignored Our revelations when they came to you, so today you will be ignored.’ 127This is how We reward those who go too far, and who do not believe in their Lord’s revelations. The greatest and most enduring punishment is in the Hereafter. 128Do they not draw a lesson from the many generations We destroyed before them, through whose dwelling places they now walk? There truly are signs in this for anyone with understanding!
The “signs” indicate that there have been many civilizations and that different cultures have experienced catastrophes of one sort or another for purely natural reasons but which superstitious wanna-believers pretend to be caused by their god.
129If it were not for a preordained Word from your Lord [Prophet], they would already have been destroyed. Their time has been set, 130so [Prophet] be patient with what they say– celebrate the praise of your Lord, before the rising and setting of the sun, celebrate His praise during the night, and at the beginning and end of the day, so that you may find contentment– 131and do not gaze longingly at what We have given some of them to enjoy, the finery of this present life: We test them through this, but the provision of your Lord is better and more lasting.
Not one description yet given implies that being with God could be better than there never having been any gods in the first place.
132Order your people a to pray, and pray steadfastly yourself. We are not asking you to give Us provision; We provide for you, and the rewards of the Hereafter belong to the devout.
There is no “hereafter”, and praying to an imaginary being is just a way of convincing yourself that it’s not just your own imagination, even when it definitely is no more than that, an autodeceptive delusion.
133The disbelievers say, ‘Why does he not bring us a sign from his Lord?’ Have they not been given clear proof confirming what was in the earlier scriptures?
No, we have not been given any evidence of that at all.
134If We had destroyed them through punishment before this Messenger came, they would have said, ‘Lord, if only You had sent us a messenger, we could have followed Your revelations before we suffered humiliation and disgrace!’
Since your messengers have all always failed, why not give up on them and talk to the entirety of humanity all at once yourself?
135[Prophet], say, ‘We are all waiting, so you carry on waiting: you will come to learn who has followed the even path, and been rightly guided.’
How could an already omniscient being ever “come to learn” anything?
Likewise, when will the faithful ever come to learn that their faith was misplaced?