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Al-Balad: The most concise set of commandments yet

September 27, 2010 Leave a comment

I'm writing this using the Internet Explorer 9 Beta that I have to dogfood as a Microsoft employee. Everyone says IE9 is fantastic, even the New York Times. They must have a different IE9 beta build than I do. I type faster than the IE9 can render the text on screen. How annoying. This is worse than dogfooding Office 2007, when auto-save was bugged.

Moving on:
This sura has the most concise summary of the Qur'an's early message I have see yet.

12: Ah, what will convey unto thee what the Ascent is! –
13: (It is) to free a slave,
14: And to feed in the day of hunger
15: an orphan near of kin
16: or some poor wretch in misery,
17: And to be of those who believe and exhort one another to perseverance and exhort one another to pity.
18: Their place will be on the right hand.
19: But those who disbelieve Our revelations, their place will be on the left hand.
20: Fire will be an awning over them.

How clean is that?

At-Tin: Original sin again

September 17, 2010 2 comments

When I first read Al-'Asr, I thought there was talk of original sin. Not so, the experts say, but then there's this:

Surely we created man of the best stature
Then we reduced him to the lowest of the low
Save those who believe and do good works, and this is a reward unfailing

I guess it's not sin, per se, that laid man low here. It was an explicit act of God, not the temptation and fall of man. But the idea that man is flawed in some fundamental fashion is the same, regardless of the causality.

On the other hand, I infer from this that the extreme Calvinist viewpoint about pre-destination–that some people are doomed to hell no matter the good works they do–could never hold water in Islam. Good works and belief in God are enough for rebirth on Judgment Day, no matter who you are.

Full text (different translation) after the break.

Read more…

Al-Fajr: Driving the theme of charity

September 13, 2010 Leave a comment

When I read Al-Fajr the first time, I focused on the smited peoples of ‘Ad and Thamud because I had no idea who they were and why they were important.

After reading Sells’ translation of the this sura, I feel like I also missed the core message of the text entirely. Sells does a much better job than Yusuf ‘Ali, I think.

…To the orphan your are ungiving
You do not demand food for those who hunger
You feed on inheritances and devour
You love possessions with love-consuming

Does that even need any analysis? Give to the poor. If you were born with wealth, give it away. Don’t be materialistic.

Al-‘Asr: A theme for the early suras

September 9, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about what to put in a summary post once I move past the pre-Hijra suras. What are the major commandments for the early Meccan period? What are the major sins?

Michael Sells in Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations, sees this sura as a concise summary of the four early themes of the message revealed to Muhammad.

  1. “Defending belief in the face of persecution and ridicule;”
  2. “Sharing wealth;”
  3. “Protecting those who are disinherited or in need; and”
  4. “Performing the ritual prayer, salat—the second activity explicitly mentioned in this sura.”

Sells adds an interesting point about the first theme: “To keep the faith through an active witness that exposes one to persecution and danger is, ironically, to gain refuge.”

Al-Maun: Small kindnesses

August 26, 2010 Leave a comment

This sura answer a few questions for me. First, in ad-Dhuha, I wasn't sure whether the orphan references and second, around the issue of insincere prayer–the preceeding suras, in my opinion, seemed to imply that the act of prayer was sufficient.

Seest thou one who denies the Judgment (to come)?
Then such is the (man) who repulses the orphan (with harshness)
And encourages not the feeding of the indigent.

Adh-Dhuha may have referenced Muhammad initially (it's not clear to me) but this leaves no doubt the intent of that sura was to elevate the status of all orphans.

So woe to worshippers
Who are neglectful of their prayers,
Those who (want but) to be seen
But refuse (to supply) (even) neighbourly needs.

This second bit must've meant that the small Muslim community had long since extended beyond Muhammad, Ali, Khadija and a few servants. It must have become large enough to include some people who were just going through the motions for whatever reason, or only praying some of time; as well as those who prayed but didn't extend their religious practice to the charity so frequently demanded in earlier suras.

Prior to this, it was only unbelievers and deniers in hell. Now, "believers" who missed the point (I'm thinking specifically of the massive amounts of charity work the Taliban and al-Qaeda don't deliver) are at risk of hell as well.

adh-Dhuha: Orphan(s) and/or Muhammad?

August 11, 2010 Leave a comment

This one is short and sweet, a mere eleven verses, and mainly talks about orphans. I can’t tell if it’s specific to Muhammad or more general.

For example:

Did he not find you an orphan and give you shelter?
(perhaps with his uncle Abu Talib)

He found thee in need and made thee independent
(perhaps guided him to Khadija where he found independence from his uncle managing her prosperous business)

But on the other hand:

“Treat not the orphans with harshness” seems a more general commandment. Of course, the two could be combined? God choosing an orphan to be his messenger is a message in and of itself, and fits in with the condemnation of infanticide and the imperatives to help the needy.

I guess I should add, for those who aren't familiar with Muhammad's biography: his father was named 'Abdullah, but died before Muhammad was born while on a trade caravan returning from Syria/Palestine. Muhammad's mother, Aminah, gave birth a month or two later, and she raised Muhammad until he was five or six, best as I can tell. She fell ill and died while traveling with Muhammad near Medina, and after that Muhammad was raised by his grandfather and then his uncle.

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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.