The problem of persuasion in the Qur’an

As my class slowly works its way through the Meccan revelations, we have arrived in the large group of surahs that recount the missions of the prophets. It is striking how consistent the pattern is. God judges a city or nation’s behavior to be beyond the pale and sends a prophet from among that group to warn them to change their ways. They scoff at the message, being unable to take seriously the idea that God could send a mere human messenger from their tribe. Ultimately, they are destroyed. The exact nature of the sin varies, but the outcome (with the exception of Jonah) does not.

Western ideology inclines us to see these passages as evidence of the violence of Islam, but what stands out to me is the extended meditations on the problem of persuasion. God clearly wants the people to be sincerely convinced by the sheer moral plausibility of the prophets’ message. Being persuaded by miraculous signs or converting under duress (as Pharaoh attempts to do in one passage) does not “count” — hence the claim that Muhammad’s only miracle is the message itself, the very clarity, persuasiveness, and beauty of the Qur’an.

I think that it’s in this context that we should understand the Qur’an’s approach to the infamous “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.” This happens whenever God’s miraculous signs prompt Pharaoh to go along with Moses’ demands. In these cases, he is on the verge of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons — he is not intrinsically convinced of Moses’ message, but is only acting out of fear. Hence God isn’t constraining his will so much as returning it to its natural course.

To explain why people are usually not convinced, the Qur’an doesn’t need to resort to any extraordinary metaphysical explanations like the doctrine of original sin. It relies on characteristics of humanity that we are all familiar with: laziness, forgetfulness, thoughtlessness, stubbornness, pride… The role of Iblis/Satan is to prey on those weaknesses, but he is not consistently mentioned — in principle, we’re fully capable of screwing everything up all on our own. And if we weren’t, if there weren’t something in us that resists correction, then the persuasion wouldn’t be sincere when it does happen. It’s as though the only way to stack the decks in favor of sincere persuasion is to stack the decks against it.

4 thoughts on “The problem of persuasion in the Qur’an

  1. As for the ideological impulse towards reading everything as evidence of the ‘violence of Islam’, the Qur’an’s passages about God’s destruction of previous nations (many also present in the Bible) ought, if anything, counter that impulse: it is God alone, never humans acting on God’s command or on God’s behalf, that does the destroying. The ‘merely human’ prophets and messengers sent by God are unable to guide ([10:42-43] [27:81] [28:56] [30:53] [43:40]), their task is but to convey the message ([3:20] [5:92, 99] [13:40] [16:35, 82] [24:54] [29:18] [36:17] [42:48] [64:12]). Beyond the much quoted ‘no compulsion’ verse [2:256] that follows Ayat al-Kursī, [10:99] perhaps even more strikingly rules out coercion.

    As for the issue of cognitive bias vs free will, it is for this reason that habit and habitual action plays a central part in Muslim belief (Īmān), which itself is traditionally conceived as a variable that comprises three parts: thought/faith-in-the-heart, speech/declaration of faith, action/righteous deeds. Just as the aforementioned vices (laziness, forgetfulness, thoughtlessness, stubbornness, pride) and others come as a result of certain bad habits becoming solidified as aspects of character, so too can good oft-repeated habits (ablution, the five daily prayers, routine remembrance of God with or without prayer beads, fasting, etc) become solidified as aspects of character, resulting in a second-nature inclination toward the right path. It is the persistence, or lack thereof, if either kind of habit that gives Īmān its variable nature.

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