Dialoging With the Divine on Divine Justice in the Qur’an: Recovering What Has Been Forgotten and Remembering What Is To Be Recovered

Basit B. Koshul, University of Virginia and Concordia College Lecturer in Comparative Religion

In their respective papers Watson and Wolfson weave their discourse on the theme of divine justice, as it relates to Genesis 18, around (or out of) a number of theological, legal, historical and hermeneutical points. Making no pretensions of addressing these points in any great detail, this presentation will pick up on a particular few. These points being: a) the horizontal/vertical issue as it relates to the three visitors (raised by Watson), b) the issue of the dispensation of Divine justice and c) the particular/universal issue (raised by Wolfson).

In one part of the Qur’an the visit by the angels is described in these words:

There came Our Messengers to Abraham with glad tidings. They said, “Peace!” He answered “Peace!” and hastened to entertain them with a roasted calf. (69) But when he saw their hands went not towards the (meal), he felt some mistrust of them, and conceived a fear of them. They said: “Fear not: We have been sent against the people of Lut.” (70) And his wife was standing (there) and she laughed: But we gave glad tidings of Isaac, and after him, of Jacob. (71) She said: “Alas for me! Shall I bear a child, seeing I am an old woman, and my husband here is an old man? That would indeed be a wonderful thing!” (72) They said: “Do you wonder at Allah’s decree? The grace of Allah and His blessing on you, O ye people of the house! For He is indeed worthy of all praise, full of all glory!” (73)

When fear had passed from [the mind of] Abraham and glad tidings had reached him, he began to argue/plead with Us for Lut’s people. (74) For Abraham was, without doubt, forbearing [of faults], compassionate, and given to look to Allah. (75) O Abraham! Seek not this. The decree of your Lord has gone forth: for them there comes a penalty that cannot be turned back! (11:69-76, trans. Yousuf Ali)

Traditional Muslim commentators have struggled with the wording of ayah 76. It is clear that the visitors are angels and Abraham is dialoguing with them up till ayah 73. As this dialog is recorded here, there is a rupture between ayah 73 and 74. In the first part of the dialog the members of the household are told by the angels that they have been sent “against the people of Lut”. After offering this clarification, the angels inform Abraham and Sarah that they will be blessed with a son in spite of their advanced years. Both of these discussions are clearly between the angels and the members of Abraham’s household. But in ayah 74, it appears that Abraham is discoursing, or more accurately “arguing” with Allah. The evidence that suggests that Abraham is discoursing/arguing with Allah at this point is the use of the phrase “he began to argue with Us” – the “Us” in this phrase appears to be the use of the “royal We” that is often employed in the Qur’anic narrative. How does one account for, explain and/or understand the apparent change of Abraham’s dialog partner/s that a plain sense reading of the text suggests?

In light of their knowledge of classical commentaries, the early 20 th century commentators Hasan and Usmani note that the phrase “he began to argue/plead with Us” has been the subject of a great deal of discussion among the commentators. For their part they state that this phrase is a rhetorical device that has been employed to convey the intensity of the discussion, and the deep-felt compassion on the part of Abraham for the people of Lut. But Hassan and Usmani remain silent on who the “Us” refers to. Asad, another commentator from the early 20 th century, is very clear in his commentary on this ayah: “According to all commentators, this means ‘he pleaded [lit. “argued”] with Our messengers and not with God Himself”. Asad makes the statement without giving any further detail, but as the comments by Hassan and Usmani demonstrate the matter is not as clear-cut as Asad is presenting it to be. In spite of Asad’s claims to the contrary, Muslim commentators have also been challenged by the horizontal/vertical issue when commenting on the Qur’anic text that is a retelling of Genesis 18.

Thus a plain-sense reading of the ayaat has posed an exegetical challenge for Muslim commentators, just as Genesis 18 has challenged Jewish and Christian commentators. It is helpful to refer to other passages in the Qur’an that may allow one to be better informed/situated when dealing with this particular passage. One part of Abraham’s dialogue on Divine justice is recorded in Surah 29.

When Our Messengers came to Abraham with the good news, they said: “We are indeed going to destroy the people of this township: for truly they are (addicted to) crime.” (31) He said: “But there is Lut there.” They said: “We know very well who is there: we will certainly save him and his followers – except his wife: she is of those who lag behind!”(29:31-2)

In this passage it is clear that Abraham is dialoguing with the angels. In this particular instance, his plea is for the safety of Lut. While the angels assured him of Lut’s deliverance they also make it clear to him that the people of “the township” will not be spared. It is entirely possible that after having gotten all he could get from the angels, he turned to Allah and addressed his plea to Allah directly – and it is this dialog that is recorded in Surah 11. In addition, 11:75 describes some of Abraham’s personal characteristics – compassionate, always willing to look past faults and constantly turning to Allah. This being the case, it appears that when his dialog with the angels did not produce the desired results from Abraham’s perspective – not only did he want Lut to be saved from Divine wrath because Lut was an upright individual, he also wanted Lut’s community to be spared from Divine punishment in spite of the fact that the community was steeped in sin – Abraham turned directly to Allah and pleaded/argued with Him.

When fear had passed from [the mind of] Abraham and glad tidings had reached him, he began to argue with Us for Lut’s people. (74) For Abraham was, without doubt, forbearing [of faults], compassionate, and given to look to Allah. (75) O Abraham! Seek not this. The decree of your Lord has gone forth: for them there comes a penalty that cannot be turned back! (11:74- 6)

When he was talking to the angels in Surah 29, Abraham specifically mentioned Lut. But in Surah 11, Abraham is pleading on behalf of “Lut’s people.” In addition, 11:75 describes some of Abraham’s personal characteristics compassionate, always willing to look past faults and constantly turning to Allah. This being the case, it appears that when his dialog with the angels did not produce the desired results from Abraham’s perspective not only did he want Lut to be saved from Divine wrath because Lut was an upright individual, he also wanted Lut’s community to be spared from Divine punishment in spite of the fact that the community was steeped in sin Abraham turned directly to Allah and pleaded/argued with Him. Consequently the “Us” in the latter part of the passage from Surah 11 refers to Allah, and in this particular part of the dialog Abraham is directly communicating with the Divine, whereas the passage in Surah 29, and the earlier ayaat of Surah 11 are a record of his dialog with the three visitors.

To make the claim for this alternative reading of the two passages objectively possible, supporting evidence has to be presented from either the exegetical tradition or from within the text itself. Since I cannot offer evidence from the exegetical tradition, I have to present evidence from the Qur’anic narrative. There is another dialog with the Divine about Divine justice recorded earlier in Surah 11. This demonstrates that Surah 11:74-6 is not the first time that such a dialog had taken place between Allah and one of his Prophets. On at least one other occasion one of the Prophets of Allah argued with Him regarding the issue of the dispensation of Divine justice. This other dialog took place with Noah in the aftermath of the flood.

So the Ark floated with them on the waves (towering) like mountains, and Noah called out to his son, who had separated himself [from the rest]: “O my son! Embark with us, and be not with the unbelievers!” (42) The son replied: “I will betake myself to some mountain: It will save me from the water.” Noah said: “This day nothing can save from the Command of Allah, any but those on whom he has mercy!” – and the waves came between them, and the son was among those overwhelmed in the Flood. (43) Then it was said: “O earth! Swallow up your water, and O sky! Withhold (thy rain)!” And the water abated and the matter was ended. The Ark rested on Mount Judi, and it was said: “Away with those who do wrong!” (44) And Noah called upon his Lord, and said: “O my Lord! Surely my son is of my family! And Thy promise is true, and Thou art the Most Just of Judges!” (45) He said: “O Noah! He is not of thy family: for his conduct is unrighteous. So ask Me not that of which you have no knowledge! I give thee counsel, lest you act like the ignorant!” (11:42-6)

After seeing one of his sons perish in the flood before his very eyes, Noah pleads with Allah regarding the justice of the judgment. But the reply from Allah is very pointed and direct – because he was unrighteous, the “son” was not a part of Noah’s “family” and therefore not covered by the promise of protection that Allah had made to Noah concerning his “family” members. This dialog with Noah and the latter one with Abraham establish a “ground rule” for the dispensation of Divine justice: the dispensation of Divine justice will be carried out according to standards independent of genealogical considerations.

This ground rule on the dispensation of Divine justice needs to be especially emphasized to Abraham because of the fact that he has received another promise from Allah – that his progeny will be especially blessed and many Prophets will issue forth from his descendents. The conditionality of considerations of descent is emphasized in 2:124 in the specific context of Abraham being chosen to be a leader of nations. After being blessed with this noble status, Abraham makes a plea on behalf of his descendents. Allah’s reply to this plea is a modified form of His response to the plea of Noah on behalf of his drowned son:

And recall when Abraham was tried by his Lord with certain commands, which he fulfilled: He said: “I will make thee an Imam (leader) to the nations.” He pleaded: “And also (Imams) from my offspring!” He answered: “But my promise is not within the reach of evil-doers.” (2:124)

In the interests of brevity we will leave aside the issue of whether or not this Qur’anic passage is a “misreading” of the Torah text, as claimed by Wolfson. This would require discussing certain presuppositions regarding the origins of the Qur’an on which Wolfson bases this claim. This would detract attention from the agreed-upon topic under discussion, i.e. discoursing with the Divine on Divine justice. What is obviously clear is that this passage is a recovery/recalling of what has been forgotten and a remembering of what is to be recovered. If Noah’s son found no refuge in his biological/genealogical lineage from Divine justice, the descendents of Abraham could not/should not assume that they will be privileged just because of their ancestral link to Abraham. This linking of the dialogs of Divine justice in the Qur’an is not all that different from the linking of the Divine promises that has been made by Biblical commentators – the promise to Noah after the flood and the promise to Abraham.

Wolfson suggests that judging Surah 2:124 in its literary context indicates that it is most certainly meant to “berate contemporary Jews.” There are a number of examples where the Qur’an directly “berates” a particular group of the Jews (i.e. those who claim that Ezra is the Son of God or the Rabbis who unjustly devour money that people have entrusted to them) and particular attitudes on the part of certain Jews (i.e. those who think that their salvation in the Hereafter is guaranteed). In light of such direct “berating” of particular Jews, contemporary and otherwise, one has to question whether the primary function of this passage is to “berate” an entire group in such indirect terms. It is also worth mentioning that the Qur’an elsewhere praises certain Jews and certain Jewish attitudes. For example, Surah 3:113-115 explicitly praises all Jews and Christians who recite the holy scriptures nightly, believe in Allah and the Last Day, enjoin all that is good, oppose all that is evil, and compete with one another in doing good deeds. If anything, the passage cited by Wolfson, 2:124 is a reminder to Abraham (and all who claim to carry his spiritual legacy) of something that should never be forgotten, and should always be retrieved, because it is always in danger of being left behind. In order to be worthy recipients of the promise that was made to Abraham, the descendants of Abraham would have to be righteous individuals, first and foremost. This gives rise to the question: Who is closer to Abraham, an individual who is related to him genealogically but is an evil-doer, or one who is unrelated to him genealogically but is a righteous person? The answer is given in very stark terms in 3:67: “Without doubt, among men, the nearest kin to Abraham, are those who follow him, as does this Apostle, and those who believe. And Allah is the protector of those who have faith.”

In the dialogues of Noah and Abraham with Allah on Divine justice, there is a degree of commonality regarding the issue being discussed – but there is one very significant difference. In the case of Noah, the plea questioning the dispensation of Divine justice is made on behalf of a family member after Noah witnesses the dispensation of Divine justice. However, no concern is expressed for the others (the non-family members) who perished in the flood. In the case of Abraham, the assurance of the safety of the family member (Lut) is not enough to ameliorate a deep sense of concern. Abraham goes on to plead on behalf of the other inhabitants of “the township” who are related to neither Lut nor to himself, leaving himself vulnerable to a pointed rebuke from Allah. In the Abrahamic discourse we see the universalizing of a Noahide particularity. The concern that for Noah is directed to a particular family member becomes a universal concern for Abraham. This universalization of the particular speaks directly to the universal/particular issue raised by Wolfson. This reading of the dialog supports an interpretation that sees the universalization of a particular, not the particularization of a universal – from the Qur’anic perspective this is true for both the Divine Promise and Divine justice.

In Muslim thought the life of Abraham is the defining moment in the history of the evolution of the institution of Prophethood. When categorizing the history of the Prophets, a common division is pre-Abrahamic (i.e. Adam, Noah etc.) and post-Abrahamic (i.e. the Hebrew Prophets, Jesus, Muhammad). The Qur’an presents Abraham as the paradigm par excellence to be followed on an individual level (16:120), even for Muhammad himself (16:123). Abraham is given three honorary titles in the Qur’an: the leader of humanity ( imam-ul-naas ), the father of the Prophets ( abu-al- anbiya ) and the intimate friend of Allah ( khaleel-allah ). The central role of Abraham in Islam is easily demonstrated by looking at the rituals associated with the Hajj. The Hajj is the most corporate of all religious obligations for the Muslims (with the fast of Ramadan being the most personal/individualistic). And it is a matter of no small significance that all of the rituals associated with the most corporate of all religious obligations are re-enactments of things done by Abraham, Ishmael and Hagar – none of the rituals are associated with the life of Muhammad. At the Hajj, people from many particular families, tribes, clans and nations from around the globe gather to both claim and affirm that they belong to the universal “family” of Abraham. This is a fitting tribute to a life (Abraham’s life) that initiated the process of the universalization of the particular – a recovery of what has been forgotten, and a remembering of what is to be recovered.