Archive for July, 2010

Al-Masad: Gettin’ Personal

July 31, 2010 Leave a comment

This is part of what I love about reading the Qur'an: it gets super personal in places, and that reveals a lot about what was going on in Muhammad's day.

First, the text of this super short sura.

Destroyed will be the hands (power) of Abu Lahab,
and he himself will perish.
Of no avail shall be his wealth, nor what he has acquired.
He will be roasted in the fire,
And his wife, the carrier of firewood (tales of evil and slander?),
Will have rope twisted around her neck.

actually combining bits of the Ahmed Ali and Ali Unal translations,
as… well, I like the Ahmed Ali translation because he translates what
he thinks is the intent the text, not just the literal meaning of a
metaphor, which is confusing. But when I look at other translations,
Ahmed Ali loses interesting nuggets, to which Ali Unal is a bit more
faithful. I think I'll be doing this a lot).

So there's this guy, Abd al-Uzza b. Abdul Muttalib, who had red cheeks so was nicknamed Abu Lahab or "Father of Flame." He wasn't just some guy, though. He was also Muhammad's uncle, though it was more like Uncle with a capital U. When Muhammad's father passed away, his brother, Abdul Muttalib was Muhammad Godfather, responsible for raising the infant as if he were his own son.

The Qur'an doesn't actually identify Abdul Muttalib as Abu Lahab (or if it does, I haven't found it yet), let alone describe what it was that he and his wife, Umm Jamil, did to deserve this special place in the fire. A lot of the context and interpretation of the Qur'an–including the putative order in which they were revealed–is based on something called hadith, or reports of things Muhammad did and said as told by a chain of individuals. The shorter the chain, the more reliable the people in the chain, and the closer the initial teller was to Muhammad make the chain more "true" than others.

In this case, Abd Allah b. Abbas, a cousin of Muhammad's on his father's side, related the following:

When the Verse:–'And warn your tribe of near-kindred, was revealed, the Prophet
ascended the Safa (mountain) and started calling, "O Bani Fihr! O Bani 'Adi!"
addressing various tribes of Quraish till they were assembled. Those who could
not come themselves, sent their messengers to see what was there. Abu Lahab and
other people from Quraish came and the Prophet then said, "Suppose I told you
that there is an (enemy) cavalry in the valley intending to attack you, would
you believe me?" They said, "Yes, for we have not found you telling anything
other than the truth." He then said, "I am a warner to you in face of a terrific
punishment." Abu Lahab said (to the Prophet) "May your hands perish all this
day. Is it for this purpose you have gathered us?" Then it was revealed: "Perish
the hands of Abu Lahab (one of the Prophet's uncles), and perish he! His wealth
and his children will not profit him…." (111.1-5)

Basically, Muhammad went up a neighboring mountain used by watchman to spot incoming raiding parties, and raised the warning cry of an impending attack. He gets everyone there, and then starts preaching, not of the danger of physical attack, but of spiritual torment. Muhammad had sort of cried wolf, and Abu Lahab responded with "Dude, WTF?" and then (maybe) throw a few rocks at Muhammad. Another time, Abu Lahab apparently even goes so far as to ask Muhammad if he (Abu Lahab) would receive preferential treatment from this new god. Muhammad counters by saying that all men are equal in the eyes of god, so, "No." There's even a story of Abu Lahab tossing entrails on Muhammad when he was praying at the Ka'aba.

Umm Jamil wasn't quite as confrontational, but apparently, she spread a lot of gossip and slander to try to drive wedges among the small, nascent Islamic community in Mekkah.

In short, Abu Lahad and his wife, Umm Jamil were vocal and active opponents of Muhammad and his new faith. They also violated the accepted social bonds of the Mekkan and Arab community: Muhammad was basically their son, and while they had the option of rejecting his religion, their open and active opposition was socially beyond the pale.


al-Mudathir: Hell Sucks

July 29, 2010 1 comment

Hell sucks, right? Cuz it's Hell. It defines suckage. The Urban Dictionary covers suckage pretty well, for example:

  1. Total state of suck. Where everything in sight is teh sux0r.
  2. Something that goes well beyond the normal extent of misery or sucking.
  3. An EXTREMELY bad situation.

The Urban Dictionary doesn't actually mention Hell, but… I mean, Hell is teh sux0r, right?

Al-Mudathir has some details in ayas 27-29:

What do you think Hell-fire is?
It leaves nothing, nor does it spare;
It glows and burns the skin.

Suckage. Hot, burning, you-ain't-got-no-epidermis suckage. 

OK, ok, I'm being a little facetious. In fact, Al-Mudathir doesn't have much about the particulars of Hell beyond those three lines. Most of it's about how you get there, namely, sinning and Judgment Day.

But there are two interesting bits I want to call out.

First, the matter of "Peoples of the Book" and whether they go to Hell. "Peoples of the Book" is a term used to describe those who follow revelation revealed by a previous Messenger from God such as Moses or Jesus.

The People of the Book and believers may not be deceived.

It's a single line, but it implies one of the central tenets of Islam; that Jews and Christians received the same message from God (albeit garbled over time) and that they, just like Muslims, will do well on Judgment Day.

The second, it's a nifty little detail about who presides over Hell. It's not the devil (at least, not in this sura).

Over [Hell] we have appointed nineteen (guards)
We have not appointed anyone but angels
as Keepers of Hell…

Nineteen. Nineteen? Hell's a big place, right? You're gonna need more than 19 to cover all that territory. Or, well, maybe the angels are a bit more omnipresent. So maybe three should be enough, working alternating 8-hour shifts? OK, they might want vacations, so five or six angels would be better.

Nineteen. Gimme a break.

Wait, there's a tad bit more about the nineteen.

…and their number that We have fixed
is to make it a means of contention for disbelievers…
and the skeptics and infidels may say:
"What does God mean by this parable?"
That is how God leads whosoever He will astray…
None knows the armies of your Lord save Himself.
This is no more than reminder for mankind.


Infidel. That's me. Ok, man, you got me. Good one.

al-Mudathir: This Dude Bites

July 29, 2010 Leave a comment

OK, so my Ali Unal translations claims that ayas 11-26 refer to Walid ibn al-Mughirah–the leader of the Makhzum clan of the Quraysh tribe responsible for security in Muhammad's time. I can't find much about Walid, except that a) he lead Qurayshi forces at the Battle of Badr, and b) his son, Khalid, was a leading general for the early Islamic Empire serving under Abu Bakr and 'Umab b. Al-Khattab.

The Battle of Badr is a big deal, and I believe there's even a whole sura about it. So I'm not going to get into it here.

The short summary of ayas 11-26 is that Walid got loads of money and kids (a good life), but he was a major figure opposing Muhammad. So God's sending him to hell. Eventually.

Al-Mudathir: Do this stuff

July 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Another sura about someone enfolded or wrapped or whatever.

This is a pretty long one–56 verses, some of which are many lines long–so I am going to have to take further steps than just breaking it up, and start skipping entire sections (or just summarize them super quick).

I'm going to break this one down into three sets of ayas: "do this stuff, not that stuff" (1-10,42-47), "this dude bites" (11-26) and "hell sucks" (27-41, 48-56).

I'm mostly going to skip the bits about hell sucking. I mean, it's hell. It's the poster child for suck. The specific number of angels making sure you embrace the suck (19, actually) isn't all that revealing. Having one angel more or less isn't likely to change the relative suckiness to any great degree.

"This dude bites"–if I can find more information about the dude, could be really interesting.

So now, on to the "do this, not that."

O you Enfolded in your mantle of reform,
Arise and warn,
Glorify your Lord,
Purify your inner self,
And banish all trepidation.
And persevere in the way of your Lord.
For when the trumpet blows
It will be a day of distress,
Dolorous for the unbelievers

[ask the evil-doers in hell]
"What was it that brought you to Hell?"
They will answer: "We did not fulfill our devotional obligations,
And did not feed the needy,
And plunged into useless things (sin) with those who were obstinate (sinful),
And rejected the Day of Judgment as a lie
Until the certainty of death had come upon us."

That's actually pretty clear:

  1. Glorify God
  2. Pray and meet your devotional obligations
  3. Give to those less fortunate than you
  4. Don't get all into the sin
  5. Believe in Judgment Day

This actually covers most of Islam's "Five Pillars"; that is, the five duties that are required of every Muslim.

Daily prayer (2) and Ritual fasting (4) fall under the rubric of "devotional obligations." Giving to those less fortunate is zakat (3), which requires you to donate 2.5% of your income to the needy or, if you can't afford the minimum amount, donate your labor to help others. Perhaps even the Hajj pilgrimage (5) falls under devotional obligations,
though to me, it feels like this is something separate. The Shahadah, the first pillar, is a one-time thing where you testify in front of two other Muslims that you are a Muslim, and then you are.

Pretty cool. I mean, I want to see the other requirements detailed out, but there it is. The third revealed sura, and there are the beginnings of the Five Pillars.

al-Muzammil, part 3

July 27, 2010 Leave a comment

The 20th aya of this sura (after the break) seemed quite out of place from the rest. Its single verse is far, far longer than the first 19 verses. And it jumps from Muhammad being wrapped in a cloak or blanket, to he and his followers staying up much of the night to pray.

A footnote in my copy of Ali Unal's translation gives a little context:

"The Night Prayer" was enjoined on the Messenger… in the early years of his Messengership. He kept such long vigils that his feet swelled up. Some of the believers followed him in keeping long vigils, although it was not obligatory upon them. But it was difficult for them to pray for two-thirds of the night, or half the night, or even one-third of the night, and so in Madinah, God eased this burden. Although the night prayer is not obligatory upon Muslims, it is a highly recommended prayer. It is sometimes said that those who have dedicated themselves to God's cause should observe it."

We haven't encountered the night prayer yet in the Qur'an. I'd never even heard of it before this footnote. So I can't really add to Ali Unal's explanation.

As the first nineteen ayas were, apparently, revealed in Mecca, this is definitely a later addition. Other than that, it seems pretty straight forward: "I appreciate all the long praying at night and all that, but what matters is that you do it, not how many hours you do it. Do what you can easily, and the go to sleep." 

The last bit will be familiar to Christians: "what you give in this life you shall receive back tenfold in the next."

The matter of zakat I'm sure we'll encounter later.

Read more…

al-Muzammil, part 2

July 26, 2010 Leave a comment


The next bit seems to be a recurring theme: a day of reckoning for
those who enjoy the fruits of the earth but don't worship Allah.

But recite the name of your Lord withdrawing yourself from
everything, devoting
yourself exclusively to Him.
He is the Lord of the East and the West. There is no god but He. So take
alone as your protector.
Bear with patience what they say, and gracefully come away from them.
Leave those to Me who deny, the lovers of ease and comfort; and bear
with them
for a while.
Verily We shall have fetters with Us, and a roaring furnace,
And food that will stick in the throat, and painful torment
On the day the earth and mountains will rock violently, and the
mountains turn
to a heap of poured-out sand.

They. They must be the unbelievers, the early Qurayshi community that doubted Muhammad was the Messenger of a new religion that should replace the pagan practices of the Arabs. Those two lines, about "gracefully come away from them / Leave those to Me who deny, the lovers of ease and comfort" say a lot when you consider the social context of the period.

The Quraysh tribe–Muhammad's tribe–had achieved a level of economic dominance that was unheard of in the Hijaz up to that time. More critical, the Qurayshi tribal chieftains had turned away from the traditional tribal egalitarianism, and had concentrated wealth within a few families, rather than sharing it with other members of the tribe as would have happened in the past in a region where the resources to sustain life were so scarce. You learned to share surpluses when you had them, because next year, you could be the one struggling to eat. The Qurayshi leadership broke with this and rejected the message Muhammad was delivering, that this greed was wrong (and that they should worship God, not gods).

But relax, Allah tells Muhammad: there will be a day of reckoning when these unbelievers will pay. For example, "remember what I did to Pharoah?"

We have sent an Apostle to you as a witness against you, as We had sent
apostle to the Pharaoh.
But the Pharaoh disobeyed the apostle; so We seized him with a grievous
How then, if you disbelieve, will you preserve yourselves on the day
which will
even turn the children gray-headed?
The heavens itself will be rent asunder (on that day). His promise is
bound to
be fulfilled.
Verily this is a reminder. So let him who desires take the way to his

Pharoah? Wasn't that Moses?

From a theological perspective, this oblique reference to Moses and the Pharoah highlight that Muhammad was the most recent of a long line of messengers from Allah. It also sets the stage for Muhammad's future conflicts with Jewish tribes: Muslims and Jews worshiped the same God, they received the same message… should not the Jews of the Hijaz join with the Muslims, as they were the same?

There's another piece that I find fascinating: The lack of detail about Pharoah and Moses. The listener was expected to know the story of Passover, or the punishment the Pharoah and his people received would have been meaningless. There were quite a number of Jewish tribes in the Hijaz, and the Quraysh clearly had enough interaction with them to have heard and understood the stories from the Jewish Bible, and known a great deal about Jewish religious practice.

There's more, but I'll get to that later.

Now we’re talking: al-Muzammil

July 25, 2010 Leave a comment

al-Muzammil, or the "enwrapped one" is getting into comfortable territory for me.


Parts of it.

I see three separate pieces to this sura.

This sura was, according to several commentators, delivered to Muhammad at night when he was wrapped in a cloak or blanket, unable to sleep due to the weight of concerns over his community. Now, I find this a little surprising from a chronological perspective, as my understanding is that Muhammad did not reveal the first revelations outside his immediate household for quite some time, so his concerns would have been far more parochial than the Muslim community. But putting that aside (apparently, suras were expanded upon at later dates), the message is really quite soothing for a man unable to calm his brain and catch some much-needed shut-eye.

O you (Prophet Muhammad) wrapped,
rise (to pray) the night except a little
half the night, or a little less
or a little more; and with recitation, recite the Koran
We are about to cast upon you a weighty Word.
Surely in the watches of the night the soul is most receptive and words more telling.
You have by day prolonged occupations.

In short, seems to mean to me, that Allah is telling Muhammad to forget his worldly troubles for a little by praying and reciting the words Allah has already revealed to him. I can't help but think that the recommended repetition has several purposes. First, of course, is the explicit message that in the dead of night, away from the hustle and the bustle of the day, the mind is more likely to absorb the words and the meaning behind them. But I also see a bit of a benevolent god here, knowing that one way to solve what a friend of my called "gerbil brain" is to take control of the thought processes, whether by reading, or counting sheep, or whatever. Something that commands enough brain capacity to put aside those racing thoughts keeping you awake. 

I suspect serious commentators would scoff at that interpretation, but I myself have recited memorized passages–Shakespeare, the Qur'an, etc.–to wrest control of my brain when I can't sleep.

The rest of the sura will come another day.