Archive for February, 2010

Second sura and I’m already stumped

February 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Al-'Alaq or The Clot is supposed to be the first revelation Muhammad received from God via the Angel Gabriel. Every year, Muhammad retired to a cave on Mount Hira to fast and pray, but in 610 C.E., he came back and confided with his wife and a close Christian friend that he had been visited by the Angel Gabriel and compelled to memorize the words of al-'Alaq.

And that sura just stumps me. I didn't think it would be this soon: I'm a pretty smart guy. But the first sura, the first revelation… if I had been the third, after Khadija (Muhammad's wife) and Waraqa ibn Nawfal (her Christian cousin), to hear Al-'Alaq, I don't think I would've grokked it.

Honestly, it feels like two separate verses.

The first reads as follows:

Read in the name of your Lord Who creates
creates man from a clot!
Read, for your Lord is most Generous;
[it is He] Who teaches by means of the pen
teaches man what he does not know
However man acts so arrogant
for he considers he is self-sufficient
Yet to your Lord will be the Return!

To me, it says a) one God created you from basically nothing, b) this one God gave man knowledge via the written word, and c) man is flawed.

Mecca of 610 C.E. was a pagan place, but there was a particular cult that worshipped al-Lah, or the high god, who was also considered to the the god of Jews and Christians. The first two lines seem to establish that al-Lah was the creator, entirely responsible for the existence of mankind–no other god could claim creation. Lines three through five… teaching men via the pen must be an allusion to the written revelations of Judaism and Christianity, with which Muhammad had some exposure. The final three lines sounds like a warning about the Return, or Judgment Day, given to men who believe they can survive without the protection of al-Lah.

Now that sounds like a nice clean first revelation: God created you, God taught you with his earlier revelations, but now you think you can get along without God.

My confusion comes from the second portion.

Have you seen someone who stops
a worshipper as he prays?
Have you considered whether he is [looking] for guidance
or ordering heedfulness?
Have you seen whether he has rejected [the message] and turned away?
Does he not know that God sees [everything]?
Of course not! Yet if he does not stop, We shall catch him by his forelock!
Such a lying, sinful forelock!
Let him appeal to his henchmen:
We shall appeal to the avenging [angels].
Of course, do not obey him; bow down on your knees, and come closer!

This feels like a retort to those who opposed Islam in the early days, but in Karen Armstrong's A Short History of Islam, she asserts that Muhammad did not share his revelations beyond Khadija and Waraqa for at least two years. It's like this was revealed as an addendum years later, both reassuring Muhammad's early followers that oppression from the contemporary, anti-Muslim ruling class in Mecca was nothing compared to the retribution that God's angels would ultimately deliver to that oppressive ruling class; and urging those opposed to Islam to respect the prayers and beliefs of the early Muslim community seeking guidance and help from God.



February 11, 2010 Leave a comment

When I read Katie's post about al-Fatiha, I was really surprised at the translation. The first six or so lines are extremely simple Arabic, and here's how I translate them:

In the name of God
The Merciful, the Compassionate,
Thanks be to God
Lord of the worlds
The Merciful, the Compassionate,
The King of the Day of Judgement

Where did "Lord sustainer of the worlds" come in? And what about "all-caring?" An awkward phrase in my opinion.

So I looked up several other translations to check the differences (see below). The basic message is pretty straightforward, but the variations in the words from translation to translation… well, is it benevolent or merciful or gracious? Master or King or Sovereign? Favored or blessed or "bestowed grace"? 

The Arabic in the Qur'an is 1400 years old, and substantively different from modern standard Arabic. Just thinking comparitively, in England they were speaking a tongue that would be as unintelligible to Americans today as German.

One of the challenges for this endeavour is that I don't speak Qur'anic Arabic, so I have to rely on multiple translations. The Qur'an is also poetry, so the translations all try to retain at least a semblance of the rhythm and prose. Finally, the languages are so different, that something that takes a single word to say in Arabic can take several words in English.

Here's an example of four translations of the Fatiha.

In the name of God

The All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate

All praise and gratitude are for God

The Lord of the worlds

The All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate

The Master of the Day of Judgment.

You alone do We worship,

And from You alone do we seek help.

Guide us to the Straight Path,

The Path of those whom You have favored,

Not of those who have incurred (Your) wrath,

Nor of those who are astray


In the name of Allah

Most benevolent, ever-merciful

All praise be to Allah,

Lord of all the worlds,

Most beneficent, ever-merciful

King of the Day of Judgment

You alone we worship,

And to You alone turn for help.

Guide us (O Lord) to the path that is straight,

The path of those You have blessed,

Not of those who have earned Your anger,

Nor those who have gone astray

In the name of Allah

Most Gracious, Most Merciful

Praise be to Allah

The Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds

Most Gracious, most Merciful

Master of the Day of Judgment

Thee do we worship

And Thine aid we seek.

Show us the straight way,

The way of those on whom

Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace,

Those whose (portion)

Is not wrath,

And who go not astray.

Praise be to God,

Lord of the Universe

The Compassionate, The Merciful

Sovereign of the Day of Judgment

You alone we worship,

And to you alone we turn for help.

Guide us to the straight path,

The path of those whom You have favoured,

Not of those who have incurred Your wrath

Nor of those who have gone astray.


Al-Fatiha / The Opening

February 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Technically, the Fatiha is not the first sura (or chapter) revealed to Muhammad. It's the fifth, according to But it's the one sura that doesn't go by the longest-first ordering of the Qur'an, and it's the most commonly memorized and recited sura in the Qur'an, so it seemed right to start there.

In my second-year Arabic class, our professor, Farouq Mustafa, required us all to memorize three short suras from the Qur'an (or if we wanted to tackle longer suras, three verses–called an aya). For those of us who weren't Muslim, the Fatiha had to be one of the three. In addition to the Fatiha, I memorized al-Kafirun (the Faithless) and al-Ikhlas (Monotheism) because they were among the shortest (I can still recite the latter, but not the former).

The Fatiha was different for me, though. I've memorized lots of different bits of language, from Shakespeare to Monty Python to modern Arabic poetry. I can recall most of them at will. The Fatiha, though… if I start thinking about it, the words echo inside my skull, over and over and over and over and over again. The words echo, the rhythm echoes, the long rhyming vowels that end each phrase echo. It's almost supernatural, the way the Fatiha sticks with me. Honestly, I barely know what the words mean (though I can translate the first few lines myself), and I don't think I ever even looked at an English translation of it until reading Katie's entry today. But once my mind starts in on the words, it can take minutes before they fade.

The Qur'an wasn't a written document at the outset. It's poetry, and thus meant to be read aloud. In fact, the Arabic root from which the word Qur'an is derived, Qaf-ra-alif, means to recite (as well as to read). Muhammad–who was supposedly illiterate–memorized the Qur'an as it was passed to him by the angel Gabriel, and Muhammad's early companions memorized the suras from him.

The point of this blog is to write about what I think is the meaning of the text (and get it wrong), but for this sura, I'm not going to do that. The sound of it is what matters to me. This recording isn't what it sounds like to me, but it's quite beautiful (and much better than what's in my head). It will at least give you an idea of the rhythm and the sound of the Qur'an. Just click the link below to hear one recording by Muhammad Khalil al-Husari, and included on the CD from the book we bought, Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations.


Suras 1 and 96

February 7, 2010 Leave a comment

So, the Quran, according to Mike and a few books we bought on the subject, is ordered by length (longest to shortest) not chronology. This is of course different than the Old or New Testament. We are trying to read the Suras in roughly the order they were revealed to Mohammad. I've found two decent websites (thank you Google) that list the Suras in order.

I like this one because it gives the names of the Suras in English. However, I like that this site shows both the chronological order and the order than they appear in the Quran. So, even though this weekend we read Suras 96 (The Clot/Embryo oralaq in Arabic) and 1 (The Opening or fatiha) we were actually reading the first and the fifth.

We started with the Opening because, well, it opens the Quran. It's also a beautiful prayer. The book I am currently reading the Suras from, Approaching the Qu'ran: The Early Revelations, by Michael Sells (he writes the commentary) compares the Opening to the Lord's Prayer, which, even I, a lapsed Methodist, still can recite by heart. As translated in this book, the text reads:

In the name of God
The Compassionate the Caring
Praise be to God
lord sustainer of the worlds
the Compassionate the Caring
master of the day of reckoning
To you we turn to worship
and to you we turn in time of need
Guide us along the road straight
the road of those to whom you are giving
not those with anger upon them
not those who have lost the way

Compared to the Lord's Prayer (there are a few versions, but this is the one I know. It's longer that the version Catholics use and different than the Protestant version which replaces "trespasses" with "debtors".) which is as follows:

Our father, who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For thine is the kindgom, the power, and the glory forever

The two are actually pretty similar. They both start by praising God, both mark him as a sort of judge ("Thy will be done" vs. "Master of the day of reckoning."). Both ask for guidance ("Guide us along the road straight" vs. "And lead us not into temptation.") and ask for protection (from evil vs. those with anger upon them).

I think what resonates most from The Opening is the line "To you we turn to worship and to you we turn to in a time of need/Guide us along the road straight." I think this is what most people seek from their Deity - comfort during times of pain, confusion, or sorrow and guidance on how to live our lives well. At least, this is what I seek when I pray.

I am left confused by the last two lines "not those who with anger upon them/not those who have lost the way." Another translation, on the Wiki site linked above, translates this line as "The path of those whom Thou hast favoured; Not the (path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray." I think this makes a bit more sense. If religion defines a group of the faithful, you would want to be guided on a path that leads closer to God, not away from God. What seems lacking in this Sura as compared to the Lord's Prayer is the idea of forgiveness of sins.

In general, after reading this prayer, I felt comforted. Reading it out loud, it's very pretty and I was touched by it in an way that I didn't expect.

Read more…

Genesis and Exe-whatever

February 4, 2010 Leave a comment

And then there's me. Unlike Mike, I know very little about the Quran. Probably more than the folks on Fox news, but a lot less than my co-blog-author who actually studied in it college and lived in Palestine. I, on the other hand, know a lot of Judeo-Christianity. While Mike may have been born to a former Jesuit, I'm the one who actually spent quite a bit of my childhood inside of a church. Like Mike, though, I have a fascination around the mythologies that are the foundation of culture. I've been drawn to Judeo-Christianity because, having been raised with it, I wanted to understand – the real stories behind the myth. While I don't believe the stories, there is something comforting about them – it's nice knowing that the memory of an entire people still exists.

Difference number two between Mike and me is that I still believe in God, except not in the way that I did as a Methodist teenager. The jury is still out (but mostly in) for Mike. I'm wondering how this will influence our separate readings of the Quran.

As Mike said, we'll probably get a lot of wrong. I'll probably especially get a lot of it wrong, since my knowledge is so limited. But, I think that's part of what will make this experiment of ours interesting.

Hopefully, we'll come out of this without ruffling too many feathers. That isn't the intent. The intent is to learn, to try to understand. To perhaps, in some small way, contribute to a bridge between cultures.

So that's me. And this is our task. Read the book. Blog about it from our two opposing perspectives (be it gender, culture, religion, what have you), and hopefully still be speaking to each other at the end of it.

Thanks for tagging along.

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Genesis and Exegesis

February 4, 2010 Leave a comment

Here's the plan: I'm going to read the Qur'an, sura by sura, and write about what I think. This means that I will get it wrong. Way wrong. For some very simple reasons.

First, a lot of any religion isn't written down in its holy book, and since I'm not a Muslim, I don't have that cultural context outside of the book. All I have is the book, and the book can be misleading. Try, for example, to find a line in the Old Testament prohibiting the consumption of a turkey sandwich with a glass of milk. Or a sura in the Qur'an requiring a woman to wear a burqa. Or a verse in the New Testament about Jesus being born on 25 December. You won't. You may find a bit that people have subsequently interpreted to mean that. But the literal words do not exist.

Second, the Qur'an isn't a chronological story like Genesis or Matthew/Mark/Luke: The Qur'an is organized roughly by length. The first suras are super long, the last ones just a few lines. There's not a clean narrative, and it's going to make it confusing. To make matters easier for me, I'm going to read them in chronological order of their revelation, as if I were sitting beside Khadija or Ali and hearing it for the first time. But it's not like I've got a clear roadmap or anything.

Third, suras were revealed to Muhammad individually and independent of each other, and they can be specific–super specific–to the political situation faced by the Prophet and his community at the time of revelation. I simply won't know this background. Of course, there are advantages to this. Unlike the Old and New Testaments, the Qur'an was codified and finalized by people who knew the Prophet personally, so I can read some secondary sources to help me understand exactly what was going on. I plan to do this, but at first reading, I'll get it wrong.

Fourth, I'm reading in translation. Even if I were fluent in Arabic, Qur'anic Arabic is like Middle-English. It's almost a different language. And the Qur'an is not just a religious text, it's poetry, and I'll miss that entirely.

In short, Quranic exegesis is a risky proposition for a non-Muslim. But that's the whole point of the blog. The Qur'an is not easily accessible to a Judaeo-Christian audience, not even to someone–like me–that has studied the history of Islamic civilization, speaks some Arabic, and has lived in the Middle-East. I'm just going to dive in, and see what comes out. It will be messy, and that's the whole point.

I should also point out: I have a few axes to grind.

First, I'm one of those anti-religious nuts. For all the good things that religion has done for humanity, I have trouble seeing past the bigotry and murder and destruction that history proves go hand-in-hand with faith spun out of control.

Second, I'm deeply bothered by the widespread prejudice in the United States that Islam is a religion of bigotry and murder and destruction. Because it's done a lot of great things for humanity. Even if it is a religion–just like Christianity and Judaism and Hinduism–that has spawned it's fair share of bigotry and murder and destruction. Just less bigotry and murder and destruction than some other religions, in my humble opinion.

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