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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.”

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al-Muzammil, part 3

July 27, 2010 Leave a comment

The 20th aya of this sura (after the break) seemed quite out of place from the rest. Its single verse is far, far longer than the first 19 verses. And it jumps from Muhammad being wrapped in a cloak or blanket, to he and his followers staying up much of the night to pray.

A footnote in my copy of Ali Unal's translation gives a little context:

"The Night Prayer" was enjoined on the Messenger… in the early years of his Messengership. He kept such long vigils that his feet swelled up. Some of the believers followed him in keeping long vigils, although it was not obligatory upon them. But it was difficult for them to pray for two-thirds of the night, or half the night, or even one-third of the night, and so in Madinah, God eased this burden. Although the night prayer is not obligatory upon Muslims, it is a highly recommended prayer. It is sometimes said that those who have dedicated themselves to God's cause should observe it."

We haven't encountered the night prayer yet in the Qur'an. I'd never even heard of it before this footnote. So I can't really add to Ali Unal's explanation.

As the first nineteen ayas were, apparently, revealed in Mecca, this is definitely a later addition. Other than that, it seems pretty straight forward: "I appreciate all the long praying at night and all that, but what matters is that you do it, not how many hours you do it. Do what you can easily, and the go to sleep." 

The last bit will be familiar to Christians: "what you give in this life you shall receive back tenfold in the next."

The matter of zakat I'm sure we'll encounter later.

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Now we’re talking: al-Muzammil

July 25, 2010 Leave a comment

al-Muzammil, or the "enwrapped one" is getting into comfortable territory for me.

Well.

Parts of it.

I see three separate pieces to this sura.

This sura was, according to several commentators, delivered to Muhammad at night when he was wrapped in a cloak or blanket, unable to sleep due to the weight of concerns over his community. Now, I find this a little surprising from a chronological perspective, as my understanding is that Muhammad did not reveal the first revelations outside his immediate household for quite some time, so his concerns would have been far more parochial than the Muslim community. But putting that aside (apparently, suras were expanded upon at later dates), the message is really quite soothing for a man unable to calm his brain and catch some much-needed shut-eye.

O you (Prophet Muhammad) wrapped,
rise (to pray) the night except a little
half the night, or a little less
or a little more; and with recitation, recite the Koran
We are about to cast upon you a weighty Word.
Surely in the watches of the night the soul is most receptive and words more telling.
You have by day prolonged occupations.

In short, seems to mean to me, that Allah is telling Muhammad to forget his worldly troubles for a little by praying and reciting the words Allah has already revealed to him. I can't help but think that the recommended repetition has several purposes. First, of course, is the explicit message that in the dead of night, away from the hustle and the bustle of the day, the mind is more likely to absorb the words and the meaning behind them. But I also see a bit of a benevolent god here, knowing that one way to solve what a friend of my called "gerbil brain" is to take control of the thought processes, whether by reading, or counting sheep, or whatever. Something that commands enough brain capacity to put aside those racing thoughts keeping you awake. 

I suspect serious commentators would scoff at that interpretation, but I myself have recited memorized passages–Shakespeare, the Qur'an, etc.–to wrest control of my brain when I can't sleep.

The rest of the sura will come another day.