Surah al-An’am translates two ways: Chapter of the Cattle, Chapter of the Gifts. Considering the value of cattle, it is easy to see how an’am could evolve to communicate “gifts,” “assets,” or “boon.” Muslims would regard the messages in this surah as such things. However, “The Cattle” seems to be the more traditional way that the Muslim community reads it, ostensibly named after a discourse on some livestock practices of the pagans. Personally, I am reminded more of Al-Baqarah 171, in which ministering to unbelievers is likened to shouting at cattle and sheep. Much of the coming content will be about the pagan Arabs’ resistance to Muhammad’s messages, and the futility of his efforts on their behalf.
This is our first Meccan surah of any real size. Our only other Meccan surah was “The Introduction,” which was a seven-verse prayer. Al-An’am is a whopping 165 ayat, and tradition states that it was revealed all at once (whereas the previous big ones were put together from several sources or revealed gradually). A really good introduction to this surah and general Meccan revelations can be found here. I’d encourage you to read the opening section of that link, as it sets up the ways that scholars date each surah, and also Muhammad’s likely situation and state of mind as he was reciting this one in particular. Despite coming from a different time period than the Medinian suwar, the nature of today’s surah is very similar to prior material: denouncing those who do not agree with Muhammad and declaring their fate in Hell. The target people are polytheists (and general unbelievers), with only one tiny jab at the Jews. I think that the arguments leveled at the polytheists and atheists are a bit more revealing about the Muslim view of God. Some of the passages are very powerful and paint a picture of God that Christians, despite being in agreement with, are not used to contemplating.
While I was already familiar with Christian and Jewish history and religion, the extinct Arabic paganism has been a new thing for me to explore. I wanted to have some context (besides Wikipedia) as I was reading Muhammad’s approach to anti-pagan arguments. Regretfully, I haven’t yet dug into any books or resources that go in-depth with primary sources about the old religions and polytheisms. Some of those primary resources are from inscriptions and old poems, but from just my light readings, much of our information comes filtered through Muslim historians dating 100+ years A.H. As such, I don’t know whether those accounts are considered particularly reliable, given how religious/political sources have a known tendency to exoticize, exaggerate, or reinterpret competing communities or ideologies.
[Speaking of exoticizing, exaggerating, and reinterpreting, I must mention the “Moon-otheist” fringe theory only so that I can link you to this refutation, which is chalk-full of primary archaeological resources from pre-Islamic Arabia and neighboring cultures. Very cool.]
Skeptics could interpret some of Muhammad’s teachings as being a sort of retcon explanation of Arabic religious culture. This is how I’ve heard Arabic paganism described through Muslim heresay (“History of Islam Podcast” specifically): Abraham and Ishmael founded a monotheistic community. People would pray to God, but it was acknowledged that God favored the prayers of the most pious. As such, people would ask the pious to pray on their behalf. If someone particularly pious died and was thought to be in heaven, then they could also be prayed to as intercessors in God’s court. Eventually this built a layer of sub-deities interceding between mankind and God. Now, when I heard this explanation, it struck me as a process eerily similar to beatification, canonization, and veneration of Saints. As a skeptic of Islam, I wonder if Muhammad might have observed Christian saint veneration and applied it as a likely process for an Arabic descent from monotheism to polytheism. Combining such veneration with folk cults and other religions could easily create a pantheon, and the Catholic Church has to fight such regional syncretism today.
Check out this list of Arabic deities compiled from various textbooks and sources to get a hint at how large and loose their pantheon was. Note that Al-Llah, “The God,” was indeed a name in the pantheon. He could have been the original God of the Arabs as the Quran teaches, or He could’ve been absorbed into the pantheon through exposure to Arabian Jews and Christians who were already using the term “Allah” before Islam arose. The Arabian peninsula did not have a unified native religion and many religious beliefs were formulated according to the preferences of each tribe. Mecca’s pre-Islam Ka’ba was filled with idols, seemingly trying to have something for everyone. It drew a lot of polytheist worshipers and we can guess Muhammad mostly dealt with them at this faze of his ministry.
It is important to know that Allah, “The God,” was already a name in the pagan pantheon, and that He was regarded with a different status than the other gods, or else this surah will be very confusing. Several of the arguments in this surah run along the lines of “The God is so great, why do you believe/need other gods? See, logic.” That is not the kind of logic you could use for someone who either didn’t believe in The God, or who had gods of similar rank to The God. Otherwise they could answer “your ‘The God’ isn’t real,” or “my god, so-and-so, is just as great.” Instead, the Quran understands itself as engaging in their beliefs rationally, pointing out how The God is so powerful that the other gods are extraneous or insulting to His existence. I think the argument that most strongly uses this logic is when God tells Muhammad to challenge the pagans by asking them to whom, when times are really, really desperate, do they pray? He accuses that, when humbled by desperation, they do in their hearts pray to only The God, thus betraying that when they are honest with themselves they do acknowledge that only He has meaningful power.
We don’t know how the polytheists responded to these arguments. It could be, like with some of the prior arguments against Christians (Jesus was not conceived via intercourse) and Jews (they find their laws punishing), that Muhammad is arguing moot points or misunderstands the beliefs and attitudes of the pagans. The Quran does record some of the pagans’ rebuttals of Muhammad, however. Some people say they can produce revelations equal to Muhammad’s. The Quran’s response is to picture those people in Hell. Muhammad is told to ask the pagans to testify that their practices were inspired by God, but he is also told to disregard their testimonies when they say as much. I think that the pagans’ most powerful challenge is how they can be called wrong if their actions were done according to God’s will? It is frequently stated throughout the surah that God has made the people to be hardhearted, and that He is directly keeping them from believing Muhammad’s teachings. So it is a good question to ask why they should be held at fault for acting according to the will of an all-powerful God. Rather than respond to the question, Muhammad is told to rebuke them by calling them supposers and liars. Ironically, the next verse immediately repeats that God has the last word, and says that if God had willed it the pagans would have been guided.
The pagans demand verification from Muhammad. The essential statements are that they need to see it in order to believe it. In the usual vein of declaring miracles useless, God describes what would happen if He did provide the miracles. If they saw the actual Quran that Gabriel teaches Muhammad from, for example, they would just call it sorcery and mistrust it. They demand seeing an angel, but God declares that if He did give them such conclusive proof as that, then the time of judgement would commence and it would be too late for their confession to be accepted. Only those who have already believed, and furthermore have had time to earn some good credit with their belief, will be saved from judgement. Near the end of the surah, in ayah 158, this idea of proof only at the end of times is given a stronger repetition: no sign from the Lord shall appear until the Day of Judgement. This hints at some value for freedom of will, suggesting that one has to choose to believe rather than be defaulted into it. Such a value is not stated however, and it is not clear why a God who performed validating miracles would cease believing in their usage by Muhammad’s ministry.
There is a section rebuking the practice of consecrating animals, from which the surah is said to get its name. The surah accuses the pagans of consecrating animals for selfish purposes, the example for which is when they lay hands on a pregnant animal and declare that the unborn animal to be sacred and for male consumption only. If the animal is born dead then the consecration is nil and the women can eat it too. Muhammad is ordered to challenge the pagans by constructing a blind test in which two of each kind of livestock (sheep, goats, cattle, and camels) are brought forward, including pregnant specimens, and the pagans are supposed to differentiate which ones are sacred and which ones aren’t. The goal seems to be to prove that all animals are the same, that the sacred categories are arbitrary, and that animals should just be regarded as food for everyone. Despite laying out this challenge, the surah predicts that the pagans will not budge and that Muhammad’s efforts will have no effect.
After the pagans did convert to Islam, there still seems to have been some partiality for keeping these traditions regarding sacred animals. I had neglected explaining a related ayah an in al-Ma’idah, when Muhammad scolds some Muslims for trying to advocate practicing “bahira, saiba, wasila, or hami.” Those were names for some categories of ritual animals. Considering how Islam affirms Abrahamic roots in some other pagan rituals (pilgrimage to the Ka’ba, circling the Ka’ba seven times counterclockwise, walking between the hills of Safa and Marwa), I can see why some Muslims would envision finding Abrahamic roots in other pagan practices too.
Near the end, the surah contrasts the Quran’s teachings with the pagan practices. Besides the things already noted, other features of pagan practice in this surah include not believing in the afterlife, sacrificing children (once described as in order to avoid poverty, but the rest of the time it seems connected to idolatry), and consecrating too many things as sacred. In contrast, Islam’s practices are light and liberating: pray regularly, eat anything (excepting the usual haram foods), uphold life as sacred, only act in justice, give charity (which is only demanded in precise and relatively small amounts), believe that you will be rewarded in the afterlife. Again, Islam is presented as a feast of pleasant things, and it is true that the religion sounds easy and good in its daily practice. When Islam is expressed with such simple theology and practice it certainly sounds appealing.
“Messengers were mocked before you [Muhammad], and those who mocked them were engulfed by the very punishment they had mocked.” – Al-An’am 11 (Abdul Haleem)
This one ayah represents to me the general spirit of this surah. Most of it is about Muhammad being rejected, and promising that the rejectors will be punished. After my first read through, I had the impression that the surah felt like an open letter from God to Muhammad. While the Quran as a whole could be read that way, this surah felt different because it seemed particularly direct. God dictates phrases, ordering Muhammad to “say…” I tried on my second read through to pay attention to the pronoun “you” and other verbs commanding Muhammad’s actions. Arabic has separate pronouns for “you” and “y’all,” and I found that many of the words were directed to a singular “you.” Pronouns are also built into Arabic’s verbs, and many verbs are singular in instances such as “And if you obey most of those upon the earth, they will mislead you from the way of Allah” (116). Because the surah is, for the most part, speaking directly and singularly to Muhammad, I read the surah to be a sort pep talk to encourage him and comfort him. God acknowledges Muhammad’s grief as he’s being rejected, comforting Muhammad by reminding him that it is God, not Muhammad, they are rejecting. God also soothes Muhammad’s conscience by making clear that Muhammad is not accountable for the disbelief and aggression of others, and providing him with a cathartic image of their future torment.
Rather than any fault of Muhammad’s teachings or character, the pagans’ disregard is blamed on other things. For one, the pagans are described as consummate liars (24 and 28), so flawed in character that they cannot help themselves. God predicts that this propensity to lie is so great that even when the pagans stand to face Him at judgment, knowing hell to be their destiny, they will try to lie to God that they did not revere other gods. Furthermore, He predicts they will also ask God for a chance to return to life, saying that if given such a chance they will know better and become virtuous. God declares that also is a lie, and that (despite having a direct experience with God, judgment, and afterlife) they would immediately return to their polytheist ways.
Another thing to blame are spiritual forces fighting against Muhammad’s teachings, including spirits called jinn (“genies”). I don’t think we have seen jinn before in the Quran, although they will certainly show up later as surah 72 is called “Al-Jinn.” They are not described here, except for being mortal in that they were created and shall also face eternal judgment, but their name literally means “hide,” suggesting that they are invisible beings. Several passages suggest that jinn are the source of the spiritual experiences that delude men into creating cults and false gods. They are not entirely blamed for men’s wickedness (because they delude those who are already wicked), but they are said to deliberately collaborate with men against God’s messengers. Satan is also in the mix, making sinners find their sinfulness affirming and attractive (43).
In some places God starts sounding eerily similar to Satan. In ayah 108 it says (with wording highly similar to Satan’s passage in ayah 43) that God makes every nation find their doings attractive. It is regularly mentioned that unbelievers reject Muhammad because God Himself has prevented them from being able to accept His teachings. Ayah 9 records God as saying He would only send an angel down by disguising the angel as a man. It sounds rather impish, like the rabbit trick of the leprechaun in Darby O’Gill, and combines negatively in my mind with the “I-only-tricked-you-into-thinking-you-killed-Jesus” story from an-Nisa. With jinn, Satan, and even God working to delude and deafen unbelievers, Muhammad is taught not to be discouraged when they don’t convert.
God frequently calls to attention that the pagans will go to hell. In general religion, passages describing Hell are meant to effect one or some combination of these three emotions: horror, compassion, catharsis. While those who are predisposed to sympathize with the Quran might read these verses as evoking compassion, I’m afraid that many details and nuances suggested catharsis as I read it. Three times (1,2,3) after some description of the trouble the unbelievers have given Muhammad, God tells Muhammad “If you could but see…” and describes the mortification, fear, or pain that the unbelievers will feel as they enter Hell. God mocks the unbelievers as they enter Hell, asking “where are your intercessors?” and “is not [Hell] real?” It is this mocking that leaves with me the impression these passages are more to provide a catharsis to Muhammad’s resentment, rather than inspire pity for the future suffering of so many people. As if to temper or justify the catharsis, the surah also makes sure to assert that Hell is a just punishment, not excessive, and that the unbelievers will recognize their deservedness. While earlier ayat said the unbelievers would lie about their lives to avoid punishment, ayah 130 has both the jinn and unbelievers acknowledging and testifying their guilt on the Day of Judgement.
In a subliminal way, Muhammad is portrayed as being kinder and more obliging than God. Some of this comes from the way God’s voice sounds in this surah. For sure, this is my own reading and people could also find other interpretations, but I could not help but hear resentment and contempt in God’s voice. Several times, after describing the omnipotence of God or existence of Hell, God says in what sounds like exasperation “See how We explain Our revelations in various ways?” God refuses to validate Muhammad’s ministry with any miracles, describing it as futile (35). Muhammad, in the meantime, is portrayed as wanting to provide the unbelievers with miracles so that they will believe. God gives Muhammad permission to blame Himself for the lack of miracles performed, and to tell the believers he (Muhammad) would if he could (58). God seems to mock Muhammad’s exasperation in ayah 35, when He tells Muhammad, “If you find rejection by the disbelievers so hard to bear, then seek a tunnel into the ground or a ladder into the sky, if you can, and bring them a sign: God could bring them all to guidance if it were His will, so do not join the ignorant.” We also have a more fallible, human view of Muhammad than the prior suwar (which emphasized Muhammad’s absolute leadership) had provided for us. Muhammad is warned that he is susceptible to the influence of Satan, who might cause him to forget God’s commands at times (68). Perhaps without meaning to, the surah has portrayed Muhammad as sympathetically human and compassionate in contrast to a fickle and willful God.
But don’t let that be my last word on the Quran’s view of God. Today I focused on the ayat and that I found more unpleasant or problematic, and they got under my skin a good bit. It is curious to me that I found this polemic against the pagans even more off-putting than the polemics against the Jews (for whom I generally feel sympathy). Perhaps it is because there was so much emphasis on God’s will creating the pagans’ obstinacy, which only emphasizes that He is deliberately destining them for the Hell so constantly described here. The polemics against the Jews go about the same, and I find them unpleasant too, but I don’t think the doses of Hell and predestination have appeared in such great quantity. And with the Jews there is an emphasis on their disobedience, and while that disobedience is disturbingly portrayed as being on a near-genetic level, it at least has something approximating free will and being punished for things one chose to do. And as I have said before, I dislike the religious sentiment that looks at opponents and laughs, “Joke’s on them when they end up in Hell.” This surah rang too much along those lines. Indeed, ayah 158 tells the pagans who doubt the Judgment, “Wait, we are also waiting.”
There are other verses and details that I haven’t mentioned yet, so feel free to comment on them below. Next week I plan on going into the ayat that refer to the awesomeness of God and the use of reason to discover God. These passages I found more compelling, and I look forward to expounding next week on a topic that I feel more enthusiastic about.