Christian scriptures contain two versions of Jesus’s parable of the Great Banquet. Matthew‘s version is a lot more elaborate and hyperbolic, while Luke‘s is simpler and more generalized. I prefer the simplicity of Luke’s version. In it, a man prepares a great feast and invites many people. Those who he invites decline one by one, and so the host redirects his invitation to the social rejects and foreigners, aiming to leave not one seat unfilled. Matthew’s version spreads the analogy thinner by adding grander details, going out of its way to include a condemnation of Israelite history, and putting caveats on those accepted at the table. This parable was clearly in my mind as I read Surah al-Ma’idah, or “The Feast.” The resemblance is not something the surah explicitly words in itself, but the title and some of the content suggested it to me, particularly of Matthew’s version. Al-Ma’idah takes time to set up an image of the literal and metaphorical feast of Islam, denounce those who failed to come or refused to listen, and set expectations and rules for those who do come.
Last week I wrote about the parts of the surah targeted towards Muslims: the foods they are welcome to, some of the guidelines for how they are to handle justice in their society, and their responsibility to only convey the existence and message of the Quran. This week I’m going to focus on the messages within Surah al-Ma’idah concerning Jews and Christians about their failure to respond to God’s invitations.
My translation “The Feast” is a little interpretive leap from the literal title of today’s surah, al-Maa’ida (“the table”). The understood meaning is a “table spread with food,” and honestly that is quite a wonderful title for this chapter. In the most literal sense, part of the Surah’s objective is to spell out what kinds of foods Muslims are allowed to eat. There is also a story of God sending a feast from heaven to validate Jesus’s ministry. Lastly, the surah reminds me a little of Jesus’s parable of the Great Banquet, where the original guests declined coming to the celebration and so other people were invited instead. This surah indeed spends much of its time decrying the Jews and Christians who have failed their faiths, and are to be supplanted by Muslims, although this week we will look mostly at the laws and codes that are being laid out to define Islam as its own religion.
The Quran is understood to be the infallible, divinely protected, decisive word of God. It establishes the personal beliefs of Muslim individuals and sets the principles on how their society is to be administered. It formed the original Islamic State, a theocracy in which God ruled by speaking through Muhammad. Yet while the Quran speaks on many subjects and gives much guidance, it is not comprehensive.
When Muhammad was alive, the Muslims could take any confusion over interpretation or application to him and receive God’s answer. In fact, the Quran directly refers Muslims toward the prophet Muhammad for such guidance. Once Muhammad died, the religion went on, but it’s practitioners had to adapt substitutes for their living prophet.
In The Women, Part 1 I devoted my time to examining the passages in this surah that dealt with social justice: inheritance, orphans, marriage, divorce, and general charity. Last week I looked at the passages that developed the standards of True Religion: devotion versus hypocrisy, belief in Divine Justice, doing good and avoiding sin (the worst sin being to misrepresent God), and the duty to fight oppression. That’s a lot of variety in one surah, laid out in a rather scatter plot way. Trying to prioritize information and draw thematic lines resembles solving those old math problems I hated.
Which am I doing? Read the 176 ayat and check my work.
Organizing all the bits and pieces of information takes a long time because it’s easy to start chasing threads into circles. One topic in this surah kept popping up as important to the other ones: the centrality of Muhammad as administering prophet. I couldn’t even mention it last week as was writing without exploding the post. So I reserved to for today, sharing space with some other miscellaneous material concerning Jesus as prophet, and prophethood in general.