If you’ve clicked on any of the links in my blog, you’ve perhaps seen on a few occasions some explainer videos from the channel Religion for Breakfast by Andrew Henry. Much of the material on that channel is connected to Christian history, but Henry has also taken up a cause of educating his audience about the larger religious world. Now, as I realized a long time ago, my Quran project was not going to give me a very deep insight into Islam. If you were to read my blog alone and be making judgments about Islam from what I pull out of the Quran, you would miss the reality of how most of the Islamic world thinks and functions. So today I wanted to highlight Andrew Henry’s two videos about Islam to give you an idea of how much bigger the world of Islam is compared to the Quran’s material, and hopefully give you some perspective on how little knowledge you can get of a religion when only consulting one source.
Surah an-Naml, “The Ants,” is a case study in discovering the lore of another culture. There’s a lot of weird stuff in the Bible too, I’m aware of this. Most of what I’d call weird in the Bible I’d categorize a little more as –to be colloquial– “messed up.” The Bible features some really twisted relationships and decisions, like Shakespeare but all the harder to understand because it’s from an entirely different culture. The Bible also features extra-scientific events, miracles. While I’ll admit I’m cynical of the existence of such things in my own life, the existence of such things in my religious lore does not surprise me. Indeed, I have a vaguely developed sense of what kinds of extra-scientific material fit into the Bible’s view of the world. I wouldn’t say I perceive rules for this material, but maybe instead “norms.” The miracles claimed in the Bible are shocking in their own right, but I’m familiar with them and so they cease to surprise.
Today the Quran surprised me. Though this trip through the Quran has been one of discovery, I would say that most of the things I’ve found are pretty relatable to broader religious/human lines of thought. Things have intrigued me too, but not really registered as full surprise. There is a lot of other material in this surah that I will neglect today because it is thoroughly un-surprising. Instead I’m going to focus at length on Surah an-Naml‘s version of King Solomon contained within ayat 15-44. It departs so radically from the Solomon that I know, and features such unexpected details, that it left me quite… surprised.
Americans introduce themselves by profession as a means of kind of assessing each other’s socioeconomic status right off the bat. We are such a capitalistic, sociologically oriented culture –I’m sorry, a caste oriented culture for lack of a better description– that what we want to do right off the bat is figure out who is worth listening to, who is important enough to merit respect, and who isn’t…We assess each other by visuals but we also assess each others by those non-visuals by that introduction of profession.”
N.K. Jemisin, “N.K. Jemisin’s Master Class in World Building,” The Ezra Klein Show.
My husband listens to podcasts a lot and shared with me this little clip from an Ezra Klein interview with fantasy ficton writer N.K. Jemisin. It affected him quite a bit, because he is a computer engineer working for a recognizable company. When he introduces himself and his job, he automatically gets afforded a level of respect. He’s educated. He’s making an above-average income. His job is secure. His job is considered valuable. While my husband sometimes feels awkward having to explain his job –it’s not the kind of work most people find interesting in detail– he never gets questioned as to why he chose it or whether he is a functioning citizen. And in a way, that bothers him, because he’s aware that when talking to someone who is working a less-paid, less-respected job, an implicit disparity in the respective value of each’s work comes into play and shapes the conversation. Once we met someone new and through the usual ritual of introductory chit-chat exchanged job summaries and found out that this person was working for his family business …of selling used cars. It immediately made the conversation awkward. Like the reveal at the end of a round of cards, engineer trumps used-car salesman, and from that starting point it felt awkward moving forward.
Almost a year back I made this chart to envision whether it was ever going to get easier writing content about the Quran’s suwar. It’s a bad chart, and that’s mostly because it assumes that the Quran’s ayat have a fairly consistent size across suwar. Even at that time, this fallacy should have been obvious, but today’s situation particularly makes it clear. The last surah we covered, Surah al-Furqan, was 77 ayat long. Today’s is 227. Yet they feel very similar in length because today’s Surah ash–Shuʕaraa’, “The Poets,” is divided into very tiny ayat. So despite the sight of such a large number, be not dismayed, this surah is in fact pretty short.
It is also pretty repetitive, delving back into the prophet cycles. Because this is material I’ve seen before, and also because this material is more structured than usual, I’d recommend that you pick at least one section and read it yourself. I’m aware that most of my readers haven’t read the Quran, and are mostly enjoying my commentary. I’d feel better if you experienced at least some of the Quran directly, though, so that you have experience with which to judge whether I’m writing in proportion to the text itself. So pick one section, at the least, and give it a try.
Sorry, those of you who saw a post published this morning and then saw it disappear. I have a post fully written and had is scheduled to publish today, but some things have happened that make this post inappropriate at this time, so I’ve pulled it back into draft phase until some things are sorted out.
I shall try and give you a Quran posts ASAP in lieu, but I’ll need some extra time to finish my current half-baked one.
Surah al-Furqaan, “The Criterion,” introduces itself by praising God for sending down to his slavethe furqaan with which to warn the world. That word, furqaan, means “distinction” or “differentiation” and has likewise been used to describe the Torah and Gospel. Though the word gets treated as a singular item I would speculate from the –aan ending (which usually indicates a dual plural) that a suitable translation would be something along the lines of “the dichotomy.” Mercy and damnation. Believers and concealers. The Quran is a book of extremes and contrasts with which to sort mankind. However harsh and scornful the Quran is of Muhammad’s opposition, it becomes soft as velvet where concerns it’s followers.
This dichotomy was easier for the Quran to paint in its Meccan era, such as what we’re reading today. In Mecca, there was no fear that hypocrites were entering the faith for purposes of financial speculation or security in the face of a growing military coalition. In Mecca, being pagan was the easy way, the advantageous way, the ostensibly intellectual way. In Surah al-Furqaan we’ll see the Quran contrast the current order of Meccan society to the promised order of the Judgement.
Sorry folks, but I haven’t been able to blog because my computer is in for repair. I’m writing (well “swiping) this on my phone app, which is a pretty rough experience. I usually avoid the app except for doing typo repairs.
Ideally I should’ve had a Quran post queued up to cover this week, but my attention has been diverted. Some other topics have been tickling my mind and I’ve tried typing them out with poor results. I realized that doing posts on the Quran is a little easier than writing about other topics. There are several reasons for this. It’s a little less personal than some of the topics I’ve tried, requiring less of my history to be out on display. I have some skills and materials that equip me with a little more authority than I have for other topics. Then there’s the fact that the Quran and its world is mostly new to me, meaning that my opinions are newly forming and a little isolated from my other opinions and perspectives. This makes it much simpler to write about.