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al-Jinn: Back to the simply and easy suras

February 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Jinn (which became the West's genies) are spirits akin to angels, except that their realm is the earth, rather than the heavens.

Anyway, in this sura, the Jinns (or a group of them) hear the Qur'an and return to their worship of God. Interestingly, the Jinns were led astray by men, not by themselves:

05: We [the Jinns] had in fact thought that men and jinns would never speak a lie about God,
06: But some men used to seek refuge with some jinns, and this increased [the Jinns'] waywardness;
07: So they began to think, even as you [humans] do, that God would not resurrect any one.

This sura also includes a forceful reiteration of tawheed, or the oneness of God:

20: Say: "I call on my Lord alone and I don not associate any one with Him."
21: Say: "Neither is your loss within my power nor bringing you to guidance."
[it is God's power alone]

22: Say: "No one [not even another deity] can save me from God, nor can I find a place of refuge apart from Him."

Interestingly, this sura also talked specifically about the timing of the Day of Resurrection:

25: Say: "I do not know if what is promised you is near, or if my Lord prolongs its term."

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al-A’raf: Thamud’s fall

October 20, 2010 Leave a comment

073: We sent to Thamud their brother Saleh. "O you people," said he, "worship God, for you have no other god but He. Clear proof has come to you already from your Lord
074: Remember, how you were made leaders after the people of 'Ad… so that you could… carve dwellings out of mountains…
075: The chiefs among the people who were arrogant towards the weaker ones among them who believed, asked: "Do you really know that Saleh has been sent by his Lord?" They replied "Indeed we believe in the message he has brought."
076: Those who were arrogant answered: "We do not believe in what you believe."

Again, the set-up with Thamud is a direct parallel to Muhammad's message and the Qurayshi response.

Then we get to the camel.

073: Salih said "…this she-camel of God is the token for you. Leave her free to graze upon God's earth… lest a grievous punishment should befall you."
077: Then [the arrogant disbelievers] hamstrung the she-camel and rebelled against the command of their Lord, and said: "Bring, O Saleh, on us the affliction you promise, if you are one of the sent ones."
078: Then they were seized on by an earthquake…
079: Saleh turned away from them and said: "O my people, I conveyed to you the message of my Lord and warned you; but you do not like those who wish you well."

I shared an explanation about what this meant in a post a month ago, but I'm going to repeat the Michael Sell's explanation again here.

In disobeying their prophet, Salih, the people of Thamud slaughtered God’s camel mare. Nothing was more taboo in ancient Arabia than the unjustified killing of a camel mare. The central ritual of pre-Islamic poetry was the camel sacrifice and distribution of the meat throughout the tribe. The improper slaying of a camel mare was a sacrilege or abomination of such enormity that it led to tribal wars that lasted generations.

By slaughtering God’s camel mare, the people of Thamud committed what was by both ancient tribal standards and Qur’anic standards an abomination.

Final note: the bit about "carving dwellings out of mountains" is a reference to the Nabateans who carved beautiful facades of buildings in walls of what is today called Petra.

al-A’raf: ‘Ad’s fall

October 19, 2010 Leave a comment

065: And we sent Hud, their brother, to the people of 'Ad. He said: "O you people, worship God, for you have no other god but He…"
066: The chiefs of his people who were infidels replied: "We find you full of folly, and a liar to boot."
070: "Have you come to say to us that we should worship only one God, abandoning those our ancestors had worshipped? If so, bring on us what you threaten us with, if what you say is true."
071: Hud said…"Why dispute with me about names [of other deities] invented by you and your ancestors for which no sanction was sent down? So wait (for what is to come), I am waiting with you."
072: Then We saved him and those on his side by Our grace, and destroyed to the very last those who rejected Our signs and denied the truth.

Not a lot of detail in this one, beyond 'Ad denying the message and the messenger. This is perhaps the "fall" that is the most similar to the back-and-forth that Muhammad and the Quraysh were having.

Not much else to add here.

al-A’raf: Noah and the Flood

October 18, 2010 Leave a comment

The story of the flood is ingrained in the Abrahamic tradition, so much so that there's a scientific debate dating back to 1996 about whether a sudden flood in the Black Sea 7,000 years ago could have been the root event of a variety of flood mythologies, from Gilgamesh to Noah (as well as causing the spread of agriculture in Europe and the Middle East).

I have a pretty strong recollection of Noah from Bill Cosby. He's probably the main source of my understanding of the story. What's clear is that Noah never went out and talked to anyone, he was never a prophet. God told him to build an Ark to save a remnant of God's creation.

Let's go to the New Jerusalem Bible (Genesis:6) again:

Yahweh saw that human wickedness was great on earth and that his heart contrived nothing but wicked schemes all day long. Yahweh regretted having made human beings on earth… and Yahweh said, "I shall rid the surface of the earth of the human beings whom I created… But Noah won Yahweh's favour… Noah was a good man, an upright man among contemporaries, and he walked with God…

God said to Noah… "Make yourself an Ark…" For my part I am going to send the flood, the waters… to destroy all living things.

Noah did… exactly as God commanded.

And then the flood came for forty days and forty nights, etc., etc. You know the story.

Here's the Qur'anic version:

059: We sent Noah to his people, and he said: "O people worship God; you have no other god but He; for I fear the retribution of the great Day may fall on you."
060: The elders of his people replied: "We see clearly that you (Noah) have gone astray."
061: "I have not gone astray, O my people," Noah said, "but have been sent by my Lord, the creator of all the worlds…
063: "Do you wonder that a warning has come to you from your Lord through a man who is one of you, and warns you to take heed for yourselves and fear God?…"
064: But they called him a liar, and We saved him and those with him in the Ark, and drowned the others who rejected Our signs…

The Biblical Noah reacted to God, followed his commands to build an Ark, but brought no message to his people to save them. God had already judged.

The Qur'anic Noah brought a message to his people to save them, but was spurned, so God saved Noah and his family by placing them on the Ark.

The stories are the same, and yet so profoundly different. The Qur'anic Noah is clearly a Messenger just like Muhammad, and the result of rejecting of Noah's message shows what will happen if Muhammad's message is rejected as well.

al-A’raf: Man’s fall

October 15, 2010 Leave a comment

019: "And you, O Adam, and your spouse, live in the Garden and eat your fill wheresoever you like, but do not approach this tree, or you will become iniquitous."
020: But Satan suggested (evil) to them, in order to reveal their hidden parts of which they were not aware and said: "Your Lord has forbidden you this tree that you may not become angels or immortal."
022: …When they tasted of the tree their disgrace became exposed to them; and they patched the leaves of the Garden to hide it. And the Lord said to them: "Did I not forbid you this tree?…"

Read Genesis:3, and you'll get much the same story, albeit expanded, including a better explanation of what eating the fruit of the tree gave Man (the ability to tell good from evil, not just modesty and immortality).

But here's where it gets interesting; where the Qur'an forks from the Bible. First, Adam and Eve beg for forgiveness in the Qur'an, rather than making excuses about who tempted whom in Genesis.

023: They said: "O our Lord, we have wronged ourselves, If You do not forgive us and have mercy upon us, we shall certainly be lost."
024: "Go," said God, … "and live on the earth for a time ordained, and fend for yourselves."
025: You will live there, and there will you die," He said, "and be raised from there on Judgment Day."

The Bible moves right on to Cain and Abel after the explusion, but the Qur'an does something else entirely, which snaps to the entire narrative thread about Man being lost, and forgetting or garbling the message of God. The sons of Adam, the entire future lineage of mankind, is brought forth to receive a warning from God.

027: O sons of Adam, let not Satan beguile you as he did your parents out of Eden,… we have made the devils the friends of those who do not believe,
028: … [W]hen they (some of the sons of Adam) commit (future) shameful acts…
029: Tell them: "My Lord has enjoined justice, devotion in all acts of worship…"
033: Tell them: "My Lord has forbidden repugnant acts… sin and unjust oppression…
035: O sons of Adam, when apostles come to you from among you, who convey My messages, then those who take heed and amend will have neither fear nor regret.
040: …Those who deny Our signs and turn away in haughtiness from them, the gates of heaven shall not be opened, nor will they enter Paradise, until the camel passes through the needle's eye…
042: As for those who believe and do good… they are men of Paradise where they will abide forever.

From the moment of man's expulsion from Eden, all men and women not yet born received a warning from God about how to conduct their lives. More important, they are advised to heed future prophets from God, as it is likely that they will lose their way without guidance.

It's a stunning moment. Time is removed from the equation, and at one moment, every soul yet unborn receives a direct message from God.

al-Qamar: The Fate of Deniers, from Noah to Lot

October 8, 2010 Leave a comment

And in truth We (Allah) have made the Qur'an easy to remember, but is there any that remembers?

That question brings to a close each story of a civilization destroyed for failing to heed God's messenger to them. More importantly, it serves both as a literary device stressing the consistency of God's message over time, and a method to establish Muhammad's place as just one of a long string of messengers to different peoples.

The sura itself is about the consequences for when the message (or warning) is ignored or forgotten. Each story is brief: the listener must already have known the details. The content of God's message isn't explained either. Just the denial and the destruction by water, wind, earth or sound.

The sura is a litany of deniers–Noah's people, 'Ad, Thamud, Lot's neighbors, Pharoah and the Egyptians–that at the end pointedly asks the current listener, likely a leader of Qurayshi unbelievers:

43: Are your disbelievers better than those ('Ad, Thamud, Pharoah, etc.) or have ye some immunity in the scriptures?

Heed Muhammad's warning, the sura says, as you are no better than prior disbelievers.

Read more…

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.