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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…

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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.

Al-Qadr: The night of destiny

September 14, 2010 Leave a comment

There’s no point in me even trying to interpret this one without help. Here’s the text:

We sent him down on the night of destiny
And what can tell you of the night of destiny
The night of destiny is better than a thousand months
The angels come down—the spirit upon her—
         by permission of their lord from every order
Peace she is until the rise of dawn.

According to Michael Sells in Approaching the Qur’an: the Early Revelations, this “exquisite” sura recalls the night of the Prophet’s revelation, and how the spirit came down during or upon that night.

Here’s some more details from Sells:

Constructed around this Sura is the ritual of the night of qadr, one of the last odd-numbered nights of the holy month of Ramadan. The festival of the night of qadr is often the time for a child’s first attempt at fasting during Ramadan. It is also the occasion of a vigil during which the individual, family or community may stay up through the night in prayer and meditation. The night of qadr comes at the end of a month of celebration and fasting during which the normal rhythms of day and night, eating and sleeping are transformed. This night is one of the more mystical moments of Islamic life. It’s celebrants consider it a moment when the divine and human are particularly close to one another.

I'm also reading Karen Armstrong's new biography of Muhammad, and she states that the night of destiny is what Muhammad used to refer to the first night of his revelation, not just any night of revelation.

An-Najm: Making gods of angels

September 7, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m almost done with the short ones. A handful left, and then they get longer and longer. I’m not sure how I’ll handle that, but excerpts seems the way to go. At least, that’s what I’m going to try here.

This sura seems mainly focused on validating Muhammad’s message, the source of the revelations, and tying it to prior prophetic traditions.

Your companion is neither astray nor misled
It is no less than inspiration sent down to him
He was taught by one Mighty in Power…
     … for he appeared
While he was in the highest part of the horizon
Then he approached and came closer,
And was at a distance of but two bow-lengths.
So did God convey the inspiration to His servant…
The Prophet… in no way falsified that which he saw.

The passage above conveys a core concept of Islam: the message was burned directly into Muhammad’s memory by God. According to this sura, God did the deed Himself at least twice, but the tradition I learned is that Gabriel was the intermediary most of the time. The message isn’t interpreted, it’s not distorted, not even by Muhammad. And it didn’t come to Muhammad via intermediaries–except for Gabriel, but an Angel wouldn’t fudge things.

Have ye see Lat and Uzza
And the third Goddess Manat?

These are but names which ye have devised, you and your fathers, for which Allah has sent down no authority.

Those who believe not in the hereafter name the angels with female names.
But they have no knowledge therein; they follow nothing but conjecture; and conjecture avails nothing against truth

Those three names are pre-Islamic gods, I believe. Now, this sura doesn’t deny the existence of these gods. It implies instead that they are angels, not gods. What’s interesting is the obsession over gender, and it seems to me the key piece is the bit about “names which ye have devised.” It says, to me, that those angels were deified solely by the imagination of man, who gave them names, their powers, genders, everything. in short, that pagan religions are ones wherein man makes their gods in their own images.

Those who avoid great sins and shameful deeds and shameful deeds, only falling into small faults, verily thy Lord is ample in forgiveness.

I like that. You don’t need to be pure and perfect. God will forgive the little things, as long as you avoid the big ones.

The rest of the sura is a list of God’s powers, and of those he condemned. Among the powers:

  • Laughter and tears
  • Death and life
  • Creation of male and female
  • Great wealth and satisfaction
  • The North Star

I guess the last isn’t a power, per se, but it’s importance to a mercantile people who have to navigate through the desert on a regular basis… If you haven’t tried to wander in a desert, you may not get how easy it is to become lost. At White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, there are signs warning hikers to always keep an eye on where their car is parked, and ideally keep it in sight if possible, so you don’t become lost. I have a pretty good sense of direction, and made a point of trying to reorient myself to the parking lot and the sand dunes in between. Regardless, I hiked for hours in what I thought was about a mile radius from the parking lot. When I finally walked back to where I thought my car was parked… I found the road to the parking lot, and had over a mile to walk back. I can only imagine what it would be like over multi-day treks. The North Star would be a power in and of itself.

Among the destroyed:

  • ‘Ad
  • Thamud
  • Sodom
  • Gomorrah
  • All of Noah’s contemporaries except for Noah.

This is the first mention of Noad and the Flood that I’ve encountered. Same with Sodom & Gomorrah. Again, there are no details, suggesting Muhammad’s contemporaries were wholly familiar with these stories, and it underlines the continuity of the Abrahamic prophetic tradition.

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.