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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-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…

Qaf: Shoulder Angel/Devil. It’s like a cartoon!

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Devil+and+angel+homer2 17: Remember that the two recording angels, seated on the right and on the left, receive and record.
18: Not a word does he utter but there is a watcher by him, ever-present.
21: And every person will come (before the Supreme Court) with one (angel) driving, and one (angel) bearing witness
23: And the one (the witnessing angel) who accompanies him say: "This is (his record) that I keep ready with me."
27: His companion (the devil who accompanied him into the world and seduced him into evil) will say: "Our Lord! I did not cause him to rebel and transgress, but he himself was far astray."

Seriously, did this sura just put an angel and a devil on every person's shoulder? How cool is that! That's such an iconic image. I'm sure someone has written a Ph.D. on where that first came from. Probably some Greek god thing or something.

Anyhoo, this whole sura covers exactly what will happen on the Day of Judgment (after a bit of recap on the validity of the revelation, fallen civilizations, etc.). First, these two "angels" have been eavesdropping on everything–even doing a little nudging and pushing sometimes–and they bear witness to one's deeds. The baddies, God asks "is Hell full yet?", but Hell replies "there's always room for one more." The goodies… I think this may actually be the first reference to what Paradise will look like:

31: And Paradise will be brought near for the God-revering, pious…
32: This is what was promised for you — for everyone who was penitent, careful in keeping his duties (to God).
34: Now enter [Paradise] in peace. That is the Day of immortality
35: Therein will be for them everything that they desire, and in Our Presence there is yet more.

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…

Ash-Shams: Fleshing out Thamud

September 15, 2010 Leave a comment

When I first read Al-Fajar and an-Najm, I had no idea who the Thamud were, though it was clear it was a collapsed “civilization” or city that was smoteth.

Here’s Michael Sell’s summary:

“By the time of Muhammad, ‘Ad and Thamud had become symbolic of great civilizations that had risen and fallen in times past. In the Qur’an, they become, along with the civilization of the Pharoah, emblematic of those peoples who refused to hear the reminders of their prophets and ultimately came to ruin.” (my emphasis)

“In both early Islamic poetry and the Qur’an, the destruction of Thamud became a parable for the passing of civilizations. The poets attributed the passing of the civilization to the incessant work of fate/time, which wears down all things and thwarts human aspirations. The Qur’an attributed the destruction of Thamud to the refusal of its people to heed the words of their prophet [Salih]…”

This second half of this sura goes into the details of what Thamud did:

The people of Thamud called truth a lie in their inhumanity
when they sent out their worst
The messenger of God said God’s camel mare, give her water!
They called him liar and hamstrung her for slaughter
Then their lord rumbled down upon them for their crime and wiped them away

Sells explains (because I wouldn’t have understood why a camel mare was so important):

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.

Finally, Sells suggests there are two warnings in the example of Thamud:

  1. “The ephemeral nature of human grandeur… and the ruin that comes to civilization that refuses to hear the words of their prophets.”
  2. “The fact that sometimes wrongdoers seem to prosper and those who do right and follow the prophets remain oppressed.”

I did a bit of additional reading, and it’s thought that Thamud was associated with the Nabateans of Petra (remember the closing scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? The Valley of the Crescent Moon? The place where ornate buildings were carved out of the rock of the valley wall? That’s Petra).

The first half of ash-Shams sets up a near personification of the sun which is quite beautiful:

By the sun and her brightening
By the moon when it follows her
By the day when it displays her
By the night when it veils her
By the sky and what constructed her
By the earth and what shaped her
By the soul and what formed her
and revealed her debased and revealed her faithful
Whoever honors her flourishes
Whoever defiles her fails

Al-Fajr: Driving the theme of charity

September 13, 2010 Leave a comment

When I read Al-Fajr the first time, I focused on the smited peoples of ‘Ad and Thamud because I had no idea who they were and why they were important.

After reading Sells’ translation of the this sura, I feel like I also missed the core message of the text entirely. Sells does a much better job than Yusuf ‘Ali, I think.

…To the orphan your are ungiving
You do not demand food for those who hunger
You feed on inheritances and devour
You love possessions with love-consuming

Does that even need any analysis? Give to the poor. If you were born with wealth, give it away. Don’t be materialistic.

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.