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at-Tariq: A twist on turning the other cheek

October 6, 2010 Leave a comment

At this point, I've noticed a distinct turn in phrase and tone with respect to those who questioned Muhammad's message. At least, it seems that way: earlier suras referred to doubters and persecuters, but I don't recall much of a need to preach patience to early Muslims, and vengeance wasn't even referenced (except for a few special individuals).

But the last three lines of this sura suggest to me that the persecution had escalated, and the early converts were feeling much more negative pressure to strike back:

15: Lo! They plot a plot (against thee, Muhammad)
16: And I (Allah) plot a plot (against them)
17: So give a respite to the disbelievers. Deal thou gently with them for a while.

It's not what I understand to be the Christian version of turning the other cheek–my understanding is that there isn't any implied divine intervention at a later date. But the practical concept is the same: if someone is persecuting you, you don't suddenly have the right to strike back at them. Quite the reverse.

Considering what I've read about Hijaz culture in the 500s and 600s CE, revenge, an eye-for-an-eye, was the rule. In a harsh region with minimal agricultural output, you had to strike back for survival. It almost feels like the hints of divine retribution here are a way of satisfying a tribal culture's learned need to strike back, without enacting the actual revenge. God will handle that later if it's warranted. Almost a way of saving face in the short term to achieve the more important moral goal of treating others (even persecuting disbelievers) the way any human should be treated–with respect.

Nice. I like it. I mean, every one feels a little need to strike back at people who hurt you over what you believe. Knowing they might get a little divine payback helps release the pain and move past it, rather than getting all petty on the dude.

Beyond that, this sura hits on the major themes of Allah creating life, Judgment Day, and the veracity of the Qur'an. You can read the full text here.

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Al-Abasa: Wherein someone is scolded

September 10, 2010 1 comment

Short version: Muhammad preached to some influential peeps, but was interrupted by a blind man who wanted to understand the message. Muhammad ignored him. This was wrong. All Muslims (or potential Muslims) are equal before God, no matter their wealth, power, disability, etc. To put it in American terms, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

Long version:

Someone is scolded by God, but the issue is the subject. Who is the subject? First two lines, three translations:

  1. Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall:
    He frowned and turned away
    Because the blind man came unto him.
  2. Ali Unal:
    “He (a hypocritical disbelieving, haughty man) frowned and turned away,
    Because (while a group of leading unbelievers, including him, was talking with the Messenger) the blind man approached him.
  3. ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali
    (The Prophet) frowned and turned away,
    Because there came to him the blind man interrupting

The parentheticals mean it isn’t in the text, it’s something the translator inserted to help elucidate the passage.

Looking at the Arabic, the first line is a mere two words, “frowned,” and “turned away” separated by “and.” The subject—third person singular—is implied by the conjugation of both verbs, but never appears.

The dealio here is that Muhammad was preaching (Ali Unal say he was preaching to prominent Qurayshis who might bring over the entire tribe if converted) and a blind man walked up. What happened next: someone turned away from the blind man, even though the blind man “might grow (in spiritual understand)… and the teaching might profit him… but as for him who comes to you striving earnestly, and with fear (in his heart), of him you were unmindful.”

At the same time, the Qurayshis that Muhammad wanted to convert—men “who regard [themselves] as self-sufficient” and free from the need of submitting to Allah, “To him do you address yourself (as if you wished his conversion), [but] does it really matter you if he does not (accept faith and) grow in purity?

I’m mixing all three translations in there, but… I think Ali Unal’s translation is wrong. God is scolding Muhammad here for turning his back on the blind man who wanted to submit to God in favor of skeptical Qurayshis who would never convert, but would give Muhammad a political victory.

Egalitarianism, equality of all before God regardless of birth or education or disability, is a core concept of Islam, and in this sura, God is reminding Muhammad that he has a duty to accept all comers, no matter what short-term political gain the Messenger might have. Preach to whomever is willing to listen, not to those whose conversion would give you gain.

The rest of the sura is a concise summary of man, his/her creation, life, death, rebirth on Judgment day, and assignment to heaven or hell.

Woe to man! What hath made him reject Allah?
From what stuff hath He created him?
From a sperm-drop: He hath created him, and then mouldeth him in due proportions
Then doth He make His path smooth for him
Then He causeth him to die, and putteth him in his grave;
Then, when it is His Will, He will raise him up (again)
 
[then a bunch of lines about God providing water and grain and such to enable life]

Every man that day will have concern enough to make him heedless (of others).
Some faces that Day will be beaming
Laughing, rejoicing
And other faces that Day, with dust upon them,
Veiled in darkness
Those are the disbelievers, the wicked

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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