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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.

Read more…

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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.

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.