Trivia: In Arabic, most words are based off of three root consonants. The prefix “mu-” added before the roots turns the concept into a participle, like saying “one who…” Thus the roots s-l-m, which contain the concept of peace, combined with the prefix mu- combine to make muslim, or “One Who has Peace.” Those same roots are also used to form the word for “submit” or “resign” and so muslim can also mean “one who submits.” The roots H-m-d contain the concept of praise. Thus, Muhammad’s name literally means “One Who is Praised.” Although given to him at birth, Muhammad’s name would indeed describe his destined status.
SSurah an-Nisa meanders through many of the same topics and phrases as the previous chapters. It establishes true religion largely by criticizing the failures of other peoples and by calling attention to the authority of God and Muhammad. The criticism part is not so targeted here, with a little attention paid towards everyone, but the most noticeable attention is paid to defining and denouncing al-munaafiquun, “the hypocrites.”
Linguistic trivia: Arabic is a language of elisions. Vowels can elide forward into the vowel leading the next word, and consonants can elide backwards (!) replacing the consonant preceding them. Take a look at my transliteration of The Introduction and you’ll see many hyphens. Each of those hyphens represents a place where the words technically break, but the speech flows uninterrupted. The prime victim of elision is the word al (“the”). Often the A will be absorbed into the preceding vowel. The L might be replaced by the following consonant, but only if that consonant occurs on the tip of the tongue, the same place where Arabs produce their L sound. In the right setting, al can be reduced to a mere syllabic pulse. These elisions happen naturally when you talk fast, and it is now a formally understood quirk of Arabic pronunciation.
Case in point: Surah an-Nisa. It is written al-nisa, but say that fast enough with an Arabic accent and the L disappears into the N. Thus we transliterate it that way. And what does an-nisa mean?
There are two grander themes in Surah an-Nisa: social welfare and true religion. So yet again, I shall divide this surah into two analyses, consolidating messages scattered amongst the 176 ayat. Today I’ll tackle the social welfare.
Last week, we looked at the historical battles of Badr and Uhud, around which a considerable portion of this surah is focused. Yet adjacent to this battle commentary there is a long section expositing the history of Mary, naturally leading into the birth and life of Jesus (“Isa” in Arabic). The greater half of Surah al-Imran reads much like the first portion of Surah al-Baqarah. However, whereas the Al-Baqarah focused mostly on Jews, this third surah focuses mostly on Christians. The Jews were judged for rebelling against their own beliefs, but judgement against Christians seems to focus on them holding the wrong beliefs altogether. Thus, the Quran now retells Christian stories in order to convict Christians of their departure from the truth.
Surah al-Baqarah ended its closing prayer with this request: “You are our protector, so give us victory over the disbelieving people,” (Sahih International, 2:286). Surah al-Imran (200 ayat long) is in many ways the manifest version of that prayer. The Muslims of Medina are starting to break into the world as a political and military force, not just a pious one, and this surah captures the dawning of this new nature. There are two events contemporary to the text that must be explained to understand its content. I’m going to step outside the text of the Quran for a moment to explain the Battles of Badr and Uhud.
Today we are doubling down to finish Surah al-Baqarah. In part 1 we read of God’s authority as creator, and his plans for believers, unbelievers, and hypocrites (with special attention given to the failures of Jews to obey God’s law). In part 2 we examined the alternate Abrahamic heritage of Muhammad through Ishmael and religious practice centered around The Sacred Mosque at the heart of this heritage. To complete the proposed arch form, the following section should focus on the new precedent to be established by Muhammad’s students, and then continue examining God’s authority as judge and creator.
But the more I tried, the harder it was to make this arch form work with the content. I only decided this as I was examining this chart of Section C’:
As you see from his analysis, I’ve already dabbled in some topics from this proposed section and as if they were part of Section D’, oops! The Hajj/Ka’ba centrality of those passages made sense to me as counterparts to the Ka’ba narrative of Section D. But I was perhaps trying too hard to read form into the content. Compare the analysis above to proposed arcs of Section C:
There is still some similarity in theme. The message of C was that Israel couldn’t keep the law even as they were receiving it, and that of C’ is that Muslims are receiving a law which they will be able to uphold. However, if we look farther forward, we can see that the themes of B and B’ do not align at all, except by the very broadest of strokes, and the same could be said of the A and A’, which are vastly different in size and scope. So I am going to discard that arch form in today’s post. Law and obedience is by far the ruling topic to the end of the surah. To get today’s material, you might as well reread some ayat from last week, maybe starting around ayah 168, and go to the end.