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al-A’raf: Moses and Pharaoh

February 14, 2011 Leave a comment

The story of Musa (Moses) is a long one compared to the previous sections, and I'm not going into it in detail. I assume any reader would have some knowledge of the Exodus legend–it's so deeply embedded in Western culture, after all. What I will do is highlight some of the differences, as they are critical to maintaining the chain of God's messengers.

First, it's clear from the Qur'an that the listener was already intimately familiar with the story of Musa. There is no mention of Pharaoh ordering all the male babies born to Jews be killed; nor of Musa as baby in the reeds and rescued by one of Pharaoh's daughters, as detailed in Exodus 2.

In fact, some pieces are delivered merely in shorthand from the Biblical version. For example, the New Jerusalem Bible has a long exchange between Musa and Yahweh granting Musa miraculous powers to show the new Pharaoh (Exodus 4), as well as a variety of exchanges between Musa and Pharaoh. The Qur'an jumps right to the Plagues (Exodus 7).

104: Musa said: "O Pharaoh, I have been sent by the Lord of all the worlds;
105: I am duty bound to speak nothing of God but the truth. I have brought from your Lord a clear sign; so let the people of Israel depart with me."
106: Pharaoh said: "If you have brought a sign then display it, if what you say is true."
107: At this Musa threw down his staff, and lo, it became a live serpent.
108: And he drew forth his hand, and behold, it looked white (diseased) to those who beheld it."

No clear mention of the Jews being slaves; no explanation of the white hand meaning that Musa could change it from diseased to healthy and back at will. The listener must already have known all these details. The exchange with Pharaoh's sorcerers is different, though: In Exodus, the sorcerers also turned their staves into snakes, but then Musa's snake at the sorcerers' snakes. In the Qur'an, the sorcerers "bewitch the eyes of the people and petrify them," while Musa releases them from the enchantment.

But then comes the most interesting deviation between Exodus and the Qur'an:

120: The sorcerers fell to the ground in homage,
121: And said: "We have come to believe in the Lord of all the worlds,
122: The Lord of Musa and Aaron."
123: But Pharaoh said: "You have come to accept belief in Him without my permission!…
124: I will have your hands and feet on alternate sides cut off, and have you all crucified."
125: They answered: "…
126: "The only reason you have to hate us is that we believed in the signs of our Lord as they came to us. O our Lord, give us sufficient endurance that we may die submitting (to You)."

All of a sudden, Exodus has been subtly changed to turn Musa's message into one of conversion of all people, not just escape for the enslaved Jewish tribes. It also includes the same miracle of sudden conversion upon hearing the words of a messenger of God that is central to the founding of Islam. And you have the same issue of a secular ruler oppressing those who adopt the new faith.

The plagues, Passover, the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of Pharaoh's troops are the rushed through quickly–the listener would know the story, of course–to get to the more relevant issues of faith and worship that occur on Sinai. Here's how quickly it goes:

127: And the leaders of Pharaoh's people said to him: "Would you allow Musa and his people to create disorder in the land and discard you and your gods?"
Pharaoh replied: "We shall now slay their sons and spare their women to subdue them."
130: We afflicted the people of Pharaoh with famine and dearth of everything that they might take heed.
131: Yet when good came their way they said: "It is our due;"
but when misfortune befell them they put the omen down to Musa… but surely the omen was with God.
133: So We let loose on them floods and locusts, and vermin, frogs and blood — how many different signs.
But they still remained arrogant, for they were a people full of sin.
134: Yet when punishment overtook them, they said: "O Musa, invoke your Lord for us…
If the torment is removed, we shall certainly believe in you and let the people of Israel go with you."
135: But no sooner was the punishment withdrawn for a time to enable them to make good their promise than they broke it.
136: So We took vengeance on them, and drowned them in the sea for rejecting Our signs and not heeding them.

Al-Buruj: Religious persecutors

September 16, 2010 Leave a comment

The introduction to Karen Armstrong's second, post-11-SEP-01 biography of Muhammad were fresh in my mind when I read this sura, specifically:

"We have a long history of Islamophobia in Western Culture that dates back to the time of the Crusades… Since the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, members of the Christian Right in the United States and some sectors of the Western media have continued this tradition of hostility…

"[T]his type of bigotry… is a gift to extremists who can use such statements to "prove" that the Western World is indeed engaged on a new crusade against the Islamic world."

As I read this sura, I found myself a bit in the mind of one of those extremists, and saw all of us in these lines (full text is below the jump):

As for those who put to the trial the men of faith and the women of faith,
     remorseless for the wrong they did–
     for them is the pain of
Jahannam and the pain of the burning
And as for those who kept the faith and worked justice–
     for them are gardens with rivers flowing underground

Have you heard about the armies marching
Pharoah and Thamud?

To an Muslim extremist, we are the modern Thamud and 'Ad and Pharaoh–a civilization that denies the word of God. In their eyes, we persecute the men of faith and the women of faith–the Islamophobia in our media and our political leaders would be clear evidence that our political and military actions in the Islamic world over the past sixty years (supporting brutal regimes in Saudi, Iran, Egypt, Iraq; our invasions of Iraq & Afghanistan; our support of Israel) are based on a hatred of Islam, no more no less. And we show no remorse, at least, not in a way a Muslim extremist would understand.

The Muslim extremist, he believes he keeps the faith, and somehow, in his twisted mind, he has taken Muhammad's view of justice (protecting/feeding the weak, education/literacy, treating women well, honesty in business etc.) and turned it into retribution against the West for it's persecution (both imagined and real) of Muslims.

Have we heard the armies marching?

Perhaps it just my state of mind, but I find this sura a sad vision, not because of its actual message, but because of how the entire text that I have read so far seems so badly corrupted, and how easily the evil empires of Muhammad's time could be replaced by us. And by how those who are so desperately afraid of Islam here at home unwittingly aid and abet the few thousands (out of 1.6 billion Muslims) who defame Islam with the actions they take against us in Allah's name.

<sigh/>

Beyond my impressions, Michael Sells had a few interesting points.

Regarding "By the sky with its mansions" this isn't some description of mansions in Heaven. Instead, he writes:

In the night sky of the desert, without lights, trees, or clouds to obscure them, the stars take on an overwhelming presence. The stars were guides for the bedouin who used them to navigate the trackless desert.

I also didn't get the bit about "gardens with rivers flowing underground." Apparently, it's a metaphor for an oasis:

"The imagery is clearly based on the lifo of the inhabitants of Arabia, where gardens were found in oases fed by underground rivers… To anyone who has ever walked into an oasis from the desert, the reference is clear. To those who have not it must be imagined: after insufferable heat, dust and glare, the air suddenly becomes fragrant with blossoms and fruit. The sounds of birds and the rippling of streams replace the howl and lash of wind-whipped sand.

Read more…

Al-A’la: The Theme Continues

August 3, 2010 Leave a comment

I'm sensing a theme: God created the universe and he can destroy it. In fact, at some point, he will destroy it–on Judgment Day. So everyone should heed his message. Those who don't will burn in hell after Judgment day. Those who do heed the word will live an eternal afterlife that apparently is awesome.

I'm not making light of this, I'm just surprised at the simple explicitness of it. From what I recall of the Bible (and I haven't read much of that either) it's much more story and allegory. But I guess it fits the early context of Islam: Muhammad was trying to warn the Quraysh to change their ways. Or else. He was also trying to make a big jump: paganism to monotheism. Judaism took millennia to move from paganism to monolatrism (worshiping a single god among many, specifically the only god worth worshiping) to monotheism (there is only one god).

Two interesting points: first, "We will make you recite. You will not forget" is a core tenet of Islam, memorizing the word of god. Now, I take it from the translation that this is God talking to Muhammad, but at the same time, it feels like God is also talking to all Muslims.

The other bit is the stress on Abraham and Moses: again, this highlights the idea that Muhammad is one in a long line of Messengers from God, with Abraham and Moses receiving the same Message.

Beyond that, not much to add on my part. I'm looking forward to change of theme.

Holy be the name of your lord most high
Who created then gave form
Who determined then gave guidance
Who made the meadow pasture grow
then turned it to a darkened flood-swept remnant

We will make you recite. You will not forget
   except what the will of God allows
He knows what is declared
   and what lies hidden
He will ease you to the file of ease
So remind them if reminder will succeed
Those who know awe will be brought to remember
He who is hard in wrong will turn away
He will be put to the fire
neither dying in it nor living
He who makes himself pure will flourish
who remembers the name of his lord and
   performs the prayer

But no. They prefer the lower life
Better is the life ultimate, the life that endures
As is set down in the scrolls of the ancients
the scrolls of Ibrahim (Abraham) and Musa (Moses)

al-Muzammil, part 2

July 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Continuing…

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
Him
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
an
apostle to the Pharaoh.
But the Pharaoh disobeyed the apostle; so We seized him with a grievous
punishment.
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
Lord.

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.