Surah 7: The Traditions, Part 1

The best titles are those that can have many meanings and nuances. We favor titling things with puns, quotations, and metaphors in order to load as much meaning into as few words as possible. It’s like an efficient story-before-the-story that primes the reader for the coming material. Suwar don’t come with official titles, so the naming process has fallen to the popular choice of its readership, and thus they can get multiple titles. Surah 7 of the Quran is called in English, “The Heights.” Now, I really like this title. It comes most explicitly from a parable within the surah, but applies in some more symbolic ways. Much of this surah will feature people falling from the heights of their egos, potential, or ideal conditions. It also suggests a high vantage point from which one can see clearly the differences between good and evil. While this title is very good, I am going to give deference to the Arabic one, since its connotations will perhaps be spread across the broader Islamic culture.

In Arabic the surah is al-a’raaf. This word alone has many translations. Google translates a’raaf as “Customs, Traditions, Norms, Mores, Conventions, Habits, Rules,” amongst other definitions. Which one to choose? This is my deductive process:

  • A’raaf (أعراف) is plural of ‘araf (عرف)
  • The roots ع ر ف (‘-r-f) carry meanings of knowledge and awareness. ‘arafa as a verb means “he knew” and ‘arrafa means “he informed.” In the area of nouns, ma’rifa means “information, lore, knowledge.”
  • Because this surah is heavier in lore than law, I settled on “traditions,” since that word includes meanings of transmitted knowledge as well as behaviors.

There aren’t actually any direct prescriptions for Muslim customs and behaviors in these 206 ayat, so one thing I’d say the title doesn’t refer to is Islamic ritual tradition. While the usual requirements of prayer, tithe, and theological orthodoxy are here, the terms of what such things should look like or how they are to be done aren’t described. Instead, the surah lays out lore and knowledge for Muslims to build their conventional knowledge and behaviors upon. Through this lore we also get the sense that human cultures always trend towards disobedience and arrogance. Sinful beliefs and behaviors are described as traditions passed through generations of people and societies. So a title like “The Traditions” can be taken to mean “The Conventional Knowledge of Islam” or also “The [Degenerative] Norms of Humankind.”

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