Archive for the ‘Sura 53: an-Najm / The Star’ Category

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.