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.”
Sins of Fear and Doubt
The roots n-f-q embody two separate concepts in Arabic. One concept is along the lines of “sell.” The other simply means “tunnel.” To my surprise, munaafiquun derives from the latter: “Ones Who Tunnel.” There is a lizard, called a naafaqah, in the Arabian desert that digs tunnels for itself to hide in. Its tunnel has two openings, so that if attacked at one end the lizard might escape through the other. The way of this tunneling lizard is seen as the way of hypocrites in Islam. They play it safe, keep their options open, only stay around when times are good, and do not live their lives in plain sight. While our Greek word hypocrite has connotations of guile and pretense, the Arabic one seems to carry an element of cowardice as well.
The habits of hypocrites are described at great length in this surah. They are those who:
- Have glib answers for every boon or pitfall.
- Keep secrets and plot at night.
- Only listen to Muhammad when he preaches peace and charity, but whine and procrastinate when he calls them to fight.
- Do not migrate from wicked communities even though they have no handicap preventing them.
- Keep connected with the pagan authorities, even asking them for second opinions on Muhammad’s judgments.
- Make deals and compromises with unbelievers.
Being Muslim was a particularly risky thing at that time. Their clearest persecution was at the hands of the polytheist Meccans. While Muhammad was still teaching in Mecca, a few Medinians who had converted invited him to come teach and arbitrate in Medina, and so Muhammad then told his followers to migrate to that city where he was also planning to go. The surah does not specifically indicate what the call to migrate dictates, so it could possibly just mean to move out of bad communities, but I can only guess the migration to Medina is the assumed scenario. There is an ayah declaring martyrs those who die while trying to migrate to God and the Messenger (who would be stationed in Medina), so I think this is a safe guess. Many of the migrants had to abandon property and family, leaving them poor and unprotected once in Medina. The travel itself was dangerous, as is evident in this surah when God gives traveling Muslims permission to shorten their prayers if they fear attack. In such circumstances Muhammad is specifically commanded to organize prayers into shifts, with at least half the group standing guard at all times. Muslims who were too afraid to migrate were thus easily identified as hypocrites.
Living in a non-Muslim community is hazardous for the Muslim on a deeper level than mere persecution. They might be called to fight a war that is not in God’s cause, which means they are fighting for aT-Taghut (“the rebellious”). Taghut can be translated many ways: the Satanic, Leviathan, tyrants, pagans, anything that is the antithesis of Muslim. By taking actions for the benefit of these taghut causes, these once-Muslims prove themselves to be hypocrites. Social or political pressure is not taken as a justifiable excuse to do a sinful action. One ayah tells of an angel collecting the soul of a dead man and asking him how he can justify his sins. The man pleads that he was under pressure from his community. The angel rebukes him that God made the world plenty big: he could have moved. Hypocrites are not identified as believers, yet there is a passage proscribing penalty for a good Muslim who kills an opposing Muslim in battle. I am confused how there could even be such things as an “opposing Muslim” considering the above condemnations. I also wonder how this affects Muslims in modern warfare.
Of course, the hypocrites’ fear stems from their doubts about Muhammad’s authority and veracity. God tells Muhammad that the people will never be believers unless they make Muhammad their judge and obey all his judgments without any qualms in their hearts. To obey Muhammad is to obey God, and God is giving His decrees through Muhammad only. The people should even be able to obey if God’s decree was to say “kill yourselves” or “leave your homes.” Muhammad has essentially given those decrees by telling people to migrate or to risk their lives in raids and battles. If they truly believe what Muhammad teaches, then they would be assured of the reality of Paradise and not be afraid of death. Everyone must die, the surah reminds, even those in the strongest towers, and so people might as well sell the things of this life in order to secure good things in the resurrected life. For their doubts, fears, and effects on the purity of the Muslims community, hypocrites are guaranteed not just a place in hell, but the worst possible extremes of hell.
God declares He accepts no excuses from hypocrites, and reprimands those who try to sympathize with or excuse them: that would constitute engaging in a degree of hypocrisy. The Muslims, and Muhammad specifically, are not to interact with hypocrites except to reprimand them with “far reaching words.” God has abandoned hypocrites to set their own dooms, and believers are ordered to do the same. Hypocrites try and justify themselves with excuses of good intentions and achieving harmony in the community, but those excuses are not to be listened to. It is expected that negotiating with disbelievers only leads one into sin (as it is understood that all unbelievers strive to bring people to their same level). Therein lies another reason to migrate.
Paradise and Hell
The reality of reward and punishment are central to the message of Islam, or else the messages about obedience and rebellion are meaningless. After all, it is pretty clear that justice is not always executed within people’s lifetimes, and so there must be some consequences after life. The descriptions of heaven and hell are fairly repetitive, certainly with what we have already seen in the other chapters. I want to look at some particular details that appear in this surah, even though they may have appeared already in other places.
Heaven and Paradise, I want to clarify, are not the same things. This is a significant misunderstanding even in Christianity, by the way. If you want to hear the Christian distinction of the two places (usually Paradise is called The Kingdom), I’d recommend this 40 min. podcast from “The Bible Project.” From the pieces I’ve observed in this much of the Quran, I’m going to hazard a guess that Islam’s perspective is not much different. The idea is that heaven is a non-material place where God’s will is perfectly followed and thus there is no sorrow. This place exists like a separate dimension, completely incomprehensible to our material existence. The words heaven/samaa’ can also mean sky or outer space, which were once things and places beyond the comprehension of humans. They were still separate concepts from spiritual heaven, and linguistically “heaven” often shows up in plural form to encompass all the definitions (usually in asserting God’s complete dominance over known and unknowns). Paradise is a material dimension that is united with the order of spiritual heaven. The ultimate destiny of earth is to be purified/resurrected into a Paradise for purified humans to live in. Now, the point between a human’s death and the “End of the World” is a little fuzzy. This is when many Christians think souls will live in some preview of The Kingdom. I am not clear yet whether Islam thinks souls will wait in a preview of Paradise until the resurrection. It could be that they believe you die and in a seeming instant awaken to judgement and reward.
And I want to clarify something of the “purified spouses” issue. One of the rewards of paradise is receiving purified spouses. Arabic has two linguistic genders: male and female. If a plural grouping contains mixed or undetermined genders, then the default is to use the masculine plural form. In this surah and in a similar passage in al-Baqarah, the Arabic plural word for “spouses” is in masculine form. If it had been feminine, then we would know that the spouses would only be female, and that presumably only men would be receiving this reward. Because the word is masculine plural, we can guess this reward is offered to women as well. Perhaps the intent is to communicate that marriage is eternal, going on into heaven (unlike it’s purely temporal status in mainstream Christianity). At the same time, Islam’s more casual permission of divorce seems to conflict with that interpretation. It is not clear whether these spouses will be earthly spouses carried over from life or new beings created for the purpose of reward.
As to hell, this surah contains graphic depiction of hell’s punishment. Descriptions of hell have been present throughout the past few chapters. Hell is a fire. Hell is eternal. Hell is inescapable. The fuel of its fire is stones and the souls of unbelievers. Descriptions like these can be construed as metaphorical, or at the least as descriptions of hell only and not the literal nature of its torture. Hell’s occupants are told to be in agony and unable to do anything for themselves. I don’t remember reading any passage yet that describes the agony. In this surah the agony is described as having one’s skin roasted off, whereupon God replaces the skin so that the process can repeat infinitely. I think this graphic image disturbs me most because it involves God taking active role in the punishment. The harshest and most graphic descriptions of hell I’ve ever heard still have only featured God as a judge and not an active punisher. The modern idea held in many Christian circles is that the humans who spend their lives walking away from God are “granted their wish” and left to themselves, whereupon they find that such existence is agony. (Like I said within my earlier post, there are many arguments debating the justice of this.) This ayah seems to say that Islam’s view of hell is not a place where God just leaves you alone.
Sin and Virtue
Despite the harsh images, God promises that His judgement is exact but that He intends to be forgiving to those He deems deserving. He acknowledges at several points that He knows men are weak and thus the Quran’s laws are easy for them, even pleasant to execute even in this life. God says the only reason the Torah Laws were so restrictive is because He was actually punishing the wayward Jews with them. There is a lot of emphasis placed on doing good deeds and avoiding sins. I get the sense that Divine Justice works much like a scale, weighing a person’s good against their bad. You can ask for God’s forgiveness in order to alleviate the bad, and God even declares that He is inclined to forgive smaller sins if the person avoids the bigger ones.
The surah does not clarify how big the category of “major sins” is or what falls into it, but there is one sin specifically declared the worst and the only completely unforgivable one: misrepresenting God. This could be done (as far as I can infer) by attributing items to His worship (idolatry), misrepresenting His nature, or revering other entities as His equals or associates. The goddesses and the rest of the Arabian pantheon are rejected as creations of Satan himself. Naturally Christians are criticized and told to confess that Jesus is only a messenger whose soul was created by God with a word to Mary. They are told to stop saying “three.” Oh-how-I-wish that the surah would express more arguments against the Trinity! I want to understand what Islam thinks the Trinity is, whether Christians are still classified as monotheist in their eyes, or whether we are thought to be committing the ultimate sin of misrepresenting God. I’m curious whether Islam can perceive any Christian being admitted into Paradise given that the Godhood of Jesus and the Trinity are so deeply entrenched in our history and beliefs.
God promises to make acceptance to Paradise easier by multiplying the value of good deeds. My impression is that the surah is giving the baseline acts of charity and justice, and encouraging Muslims to extend their actions beyond its own guidance. This idea of setting a minimum behavior that should be improved upon can be seen in the ayah stating that anyone who is greeted well should respond with a better greeting, or at least give an equal one. Stinginess is condemned in favor of spending for God. I am not sure whether the social justice laws are to be applied outside the believing community (like whether an unbeliever can receive official charity), but general virtuous conduct certainly is. One of the criticisms leveled at the People of the Book is that they will renege on deals made with members outside their community. This behavior is always condemned, and Muslims are told to honor all agreements always. Muslims are to accept all greetings of peace that come from non-Muslims, even if they went to meet those people in war.
Struggling in God’s Cause
Some kinds of good deeds get particular praise, such as deeds that involve giving up personal benefits. The mujahideen (“Ones Who Struggle”) are promised particular blessings compared to those who stay home. If you are in any amount savvy to Western-Muslim interactions you will maybe recognize the form of “jihaad” within that word. It is important to note the the roots j-h-d do not connote war or antagonism, rather struggle and labor. Jihaad has several meanings in Arabic, and warfare is not directly one of them. In fact, despite all the passages about battle and fighting we have already seen, this is the first time I spotted any word relating to j-h-d in the Quran. We can be pretty sure the term “mujahideen” is specifically military here because the surah acknowledges that some Muslims cannot participate due to infirm bodies. Plus, the rewards are described in terms of rank. However, the roots are frequently used to build non-military words. Please take a look at this resource to see how modern Islam regards jihaad.
Islamic scholars often point out that the laws of military jihaad in the Quran are equivalent or compatible to Western theories of “Just War.” Surah an-Nisa argues very strongly that the only causes to fight for are those that relieve oppression. In Muhammad’s time, when all neighbors were violently persecuting the converts, this argument was used to justify warfare. We’re going to see, next post, how such uses might be difficult to apply now. Judaism has to adjust itself to unfolding history all the time, and Islam might suffer some of the same difficulties.
This mission statement to relieve oppression marks a good place to stop this week. Next week, I’ll be focusing on the roots from which all this stems: Muhammad’s vocation as prophet.