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Second sura and I’m already stumped

February 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Al-'Alaq or The Clot is supposed to be the first revelation Muhammad received from God via the Angel Gabriel. Every year, Muhammad retired to a cave on Mount Hira to fast and pray, but in 610 C.E., he came back and confided with his wife and a close Christian friend that he had been visited by the Angel Gabriel and compelled to memorize the words of al-'Alaq.

And that sura just stumps me. I didn't think it would be this soon: I'm a pretty smart guy. But the first sura, the first revelation… if I had been the third, after Khadija (Muhammad's wife) and Waraqa ibn Nawfal (her Christian cousin), to hear Al-'Alaq, I don't think I would've grokked it.

Honestly, it feels like two separate verses.

The first reads as follows:

Read in the name of your Lord Who creates
creates man from a clot!
Read, for your Lord is most Generous;
[it is He] Who teaches by means of the pen
teaches man what he does not know
However man acts so arrogant
for he considers he is self-sufficient
Yet to your Lord will be the Return!

To me, it says a) one God created you from basically nothing, b) this one God gave man knowledge via the written word, and c) man is flawed.

Mecca of 610 C.E. was a pagan place, but there was a particular cult that worshipped al-Lah, or the high god, who was also considered to the the god of Jews and Christians. The first two lines seem to establish that al-Lah was the creator, entirely responsible for the existence of mankind–no other god could claim creation. Lines three through five… teaching men via the pen must be an allusion to the written revelations of Judaism and Christianity, with which Muhammad had some exposure. The final three lines sounds like a warning about the Return, or Judgment Day, given to men who believe they can survive without the protection of al-Lah.

Now that sounds like a nice clean first revelation: God created you, God taught you with his earlier revelations, but now you think you can get along without God.

My confusion comes from the second portion.

Have you seen someone who stops
a worshipper as he prays?
Have you considered whether he is [looking] for guidance
or ordering heedfulness?
Have you seen whether he has rejected [the message] and turned away?
Does he not know that God sees [everything]?
Of course not! Yet if he does not stop, We shall catch him by his forelock!
Such a lying, sinful forelock!
Let him appeal to his henchmen:
We shall appeal to the avenging [angels].
Of course, do not obey him; bow down on your knees, and come closer!

This feels like a retort to those who opposed Islam in the early days, but in Karen Armstrong's A Short History of Islam, she asserts that Muhammad did not share his revelations beyond Khadija and Waraqa for at least two years. It's like this was revealed as an addendum years later, both reassuring Muhammad's early followers that oppression from the contemporary, anti-Muslim ruling class in Mecca was nothing compared to the retribution that God's angels would ultimately deliver to that oppressive ruling class; and urging those opposed to Islam to respect the prayers and beliefs of the early Muslim community seeking guidance and help from God.

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Suras 1 and 96

February 7, 2010 Leave a comment

So, the Quran, according to Mike and a few books we bought on the subject, is ordered by length (longest to shortest) not chronology. This is of course different than the Old or New Testament. We are trying to read the Suras in roughly the order they were revealed to Mohammad. I've found two decent websites (thank you Google) that list the Suras in order.

I like this one because it gives the names of the Suras in English. However, I like that this site shows both the chronological order and the order than they appear in the Quran. So, even though this weekend we read Suras 96 (The Clot/Embryo oralaq in Arabic) and 1 (The Opening or fatiha) we were actually reading the first and the fifth.

We started with the Opening because, well, it opens the Quran. It's also a beautiful prayer. The book I am currently reading the Suras from, Approaching the Qu'ran: The Early Revelations, by Michael Sells (he writes the commentary) compares the Opening to the Lord's Prayer, which, even I, a lapsed Methodist, still can recite by heart. As translated in this book, the text reads:

In the name of God
The Compassionate the Caring
Praise be to God
lord sustainer of the worlds
the Compassionate the Caring
master of the day of reckoning
To you we turn to worship
and to you we turn in time of need
Guide us along the road straight
the road of those to whom you are giving
not those with anger upon them
not those who have lost the way

Compared to the Lord's Prayer (there are a few versions, but this is the one I know. It's longer that the version Catholics use and different than the Protestant version which replaces "trespasses" with "debtors".) which is as follows:

Our father, who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For thine is the kindgom, the power, and the glory forever

The two are actually pretty similar. They both start by praising God, both mark him as a sort of judge ("Thy will be done" vs. "Master of the day of reckoning."). Both ask for guidance ("Guide us along the road straight" vs. "And lead us not into temptation.") and ask for protection (from evil vs. those with anger upon them).

I think what resonates most from The Opening is the line "To you we turn to worship and to you we turn to in a time of need/Guide us along the road straight." I think this is what most people seek from their Deity - comfort during times of pain, confusion, or sorrow and guidance on how to live our lives well. At least, this is what I seek when I pray.

I am left confused by the last two lines "not those who with anger upon them/not those who have lost the way." Another translation, on the Wiki site linked above, translates this line as "The path of those whom Thou hast favoured; Not the (path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray." I think this makes a bit more sense. If religion defines a group of the faithful, you would want to be guided on a path that leads closer to God, not away from God. What seems lacking in this Sura as compared to the Lord's Prayer is the idea of forgiveness of sins.

In general, after reading this prayer, I felt comforted. Reading it out loud, it's very pretty and I was touched by it in an way that I didn't expect.

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