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.”
I am going to follow through the lore in a mostly chronological form. Surah al-A’raaf lays out a sequence of narratives from creation to Moses, then extrapolates forward to predict Muhammad as a continuation or culmination of these narratives. This is a long surah, though not much longer than anything we’ve already seen, but if it motivates you to read along by taking only smaller chunks at a time, then reading only up to ayah 102 will cover you for most of today’s material.
We first have an expanded creation narrative. Way back in al-Baqarah 29-39 we had a telling of the story, and while that one focused more on the placement of mankind over the angels and did not include the fall of mankind, this one focuses more on Iblees’s story. Iblees is the specific name of the devil, it seems, whereas the name shaytan is more categorical, like “devil” is in English. This is the same as the Hebrew, by the way, in which שָּׂטָן satan means “opponent” and is not a proper name, nor is there an other-worldly name for him in the Bible (all other names come from earthly languages and often are allegorical). Iblees itself might derive from the Greek word diablos, which in itself is just another generic word for “devil.” I wonder if Muslims accept this etymology, or if they believe that Iblees is a purely other-worldly name.
The content of ayat 10-27 runs parallel to the Garden of Eden scene in Genesis 3. While there aren’t really any conflicts of narrative, the accounts are very different in detail. Genesis centers more on the dynamic between God and mankind, but this surah focuses more on the dynamic between God and Satan in a Milton’s Paradise Lost type story. Because of these different vantages, one could argue that the Quran account dovetails into the Genesis account, and that between the two you have a whole story. That being said, the Genesis story takes place in a mystical but earthly realm of Eden, while the Quran story takes place in Paradise and mankind is banished with the order “descend.” Whether this is the same Paradise men are promised resurrection into, I do not know, but if so it would challenge my assumption that Islam conceptualizes Paradise as a revisioning of the current world.
Now, I could do a whole post about the differences between al-A’raaf’s and Genesis’ creation messages, but there is much lore to cover and so I’ll reduce my thoughts to bullet points:
- Satan is a jinn
- It is unclear whether angels and jinn are the same things. God commands the angels to bow to Adam, so it is not clear why a jinn should be punished for not following a command not directed to him (unless jinn are angels too).
- Jinn are made of fire, which is why Iblees refuses to bow to Adam, who is made of dirt.
- God and Satan negotiate the terms of his punishment
- Satan asks that his punishment be delayed and God grants it.
- Satan declares he’ll use his borrowed time to prove mankind is ungrateful, which was what the angels foretold of mankind in al-Baqarah.
- During the course of the negotiation, Satan gets himself banished twice.
- Despite being twice-banished, Satan is still in Paradise to tempt the humans.
- A’raaf is more egalitarian
- Except for the order of creation, in which man is made alone and first (we do not see Eve’s creation), the first man and woman are treated as a unit.
- They are tempted, succumb, and repent in unison.
- This could spare Islamic culture the narrative of “Eve blaming” that hangs around Christian culture.
- Even before the Fall, the resurrection and mortality were given concepts
- Satan asks for his punishment to be delayed until the time of the resurrection.
- Satan tempts the humans by telling them the fruit will make them immortals.
- This suggests that mankind were already mortal and destined to be judged.
Now, what I’m going to say is a controversial statement for some groups of Christians, but it is otherwise accepted that Genesis has two different creation narratives: the six-day creation in which mankind is the last creation, and the Eden story in which one man is the first lifeform created and one woman the last. Surah al-A’raaf preaches using material from both narratives but includes little detail from either and thus shows no such contradiction in the order of creation. Farther beyond this Iblees story, ayah 54 testifies that God created the world in six days without describing any order or process. Moreover, since there is no process laid out for any point in its creation stories, I wonder whether Islam has the same conflict with old-earth science theory as much as some strains of Christianity do. The Arabic word for “day” is yawm, which is an exact cognate of the Hebrew yom, and can mean hours of daylight, a circuit of the sun, or an era. Without any order or process proposed for creation, Muslims can easily understand the language to support an old universe. From some web searches (1, 2, 3), it looks like Islam has some diverse understandings of evolution, but in general adapts to it easily.
Then comes a string of stories about the earliest prophets. The stories are repetitive, always starting with a group of disobedient people being sent a prophet from their own number, a back-and-forth dialogue between the prophet and the leaders of the community, ending in the obliteration of that civilization excepting those with the prophet. Two of the prophets are characters familiar to the Old Testament and three are new. In sequential order we have Noah to everyone, Hud to ‘Aad, Salih to Thamud, Lot to…his people (Sodom and Gomorrah are not named), and Shuayb to Midian.
The prophet’s rhetoric in each of these stories is repetitive, but the accounts grow more complex or detailed with each successor (except Lot’s, which is quite different). Noah preaches monotheism and judgment then is rejected as a liar, very simple. Dissidents are obliterated by flood. Hud’s message to ‘Aad is almost the same, but includes reference to the example of Noah. His rejectors in turn appeal to the traditions of their fathers as the source of their beliefs. Their obliteration is not specified. Salih’s preaching includes the miraculous appearance of a she-camel, and he actually gains some followers. It is the upper-class leaders and community who quarrel with Salih, even interrogating his followers and spitefully torturing the camel. They are obliterated by earthquake. Lot’s message is unlike the others in that it does not preach theology or repentance but only denounces his people of their sinfulness, explicitly citing their homosexual lusts as their defining sin. His audience responds by trying to evict all who are pure. They are obliterated by “rain.” Shuayb’s message is a more fleshed out clone of Salih’s sermons, and indeed his conflict is also with the community leaders, whose response is also a more elaborate echo of the previous one. They also die from an earthquake. One could imagine that parallels were being drawn between these stories and Muhammad’s situation with the opposing leaders of Mecca’s upper society.
This section of prophetic cycles concludes by summarizing God’s pattern of judgment. It says in ayat 94-102 that every time God sent a prophet to people, those people would suffer hard times in order to make them humble and vulnerable to the message. Once that message was rejected, God would return the good times so that they would think nothing of the hard times and would feel secure in themselves. At this point, it says, God surprises them and destroys them. The scenario sounds rather cat-and-mouse, but the point I think intended is that good times do not mean divine favor. In this scenario, both good times and bad times can be interpreted ominously and add urgency to Muhammad’s preaching.
Lot and the Patterns of Islam
That Lot is recognized as a prophet is a funny thing, coming from the Hebrew view. In Genesis, Lot is recorded as the nephew of Abraham. He is not a native of the people he’s living amongst, not a particularly good person, not accredited with any ministry or revered for his faith, and generally is regarded as having ridden off of Abraham’s favor. He’s not evil, he’s just makes regrettable choices. In Islam he is presented as a prophet to his people, and I can see the logic of this. Islam holds that God offers everyone guidance so that they cannot plea ignorance when He judges them. In Genesis, neither Sodom or Gomorrah are notified of their coming doom or called to repentance (neither are the contemporaries of Noah, by the way), and Lot is only evacuated from the city as a favor to Abraham. In Islam, Lot’s role as foreboding prophet better conforms the story to the pattern of judgment proposed in the Quran and portrays God as consistent, even though his ministry does not match that of the other early prophets.
Many of the details in the Genesis account of Sodom and Gomorrah are excluded here, including the visiting angels and the violent gang. That being said, there is a line which suggests that the angelic visit is still understood within the story. Lot preaches to the people, and the people respond by telling Lot to evict “them” because “they would keep themselves pure.” I checked, and indeed this will not be the last time we find this story in the Quran, so we’ll wait further information to observe how Islam understands that scenario. Another small detail that is different here is that Lot’s wife remains in the city and is destroyed with everyone else, rather than on her way out in a small act of disobedience.
Next week we’ll move on to Moses and Aaron, but I’ll conclude today with a quick note about material that always bugs me when I research ancient stories:
Like Judaism, Islam bears the need to prove its proposed histories. We don’t have enough details to link ‘Aad with any known civilization, but there certainly was a real Thamud (albeit that our earliest known evidence of them dates to within the time of the Kingdom of Judah). They probably started in the south of the Arabian peninsula, but their script can be found in areas encompassing Mecca and Medina. Concerning Thamud, the Surah mentions that they carved houses from mountains. In the desire to prove the Quran’s claims of history, many Muslim sources will post pictures of the Nabatean tombs as archaeological evidence for the passages about Thamud. It must be remembered that those particular tombs date around 1st century AD, created by the same civilization that carved the cliff structure from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This in no way debunks that the Thamudi were a real people who lived in the area earlier than our current evidence suggests and who carved homes in the mountains…
Seeing these kinds of desperate or lazy scratches for historical evidence eases my mind, I must admit. In my own Christian community, I am accustomed to seeing people cite lazy research, factoids, and unsubstantiated hypotheses in their hopes of finding proof with which to force people into believing the Bible’s narratives. I have long grown cynical of them, and I empathize with post-Christian atheists who take vindictive pleasure in poking holes and knocking down the flimsy theories that once were used to pin them into belief. While I despair at my fellow Christians who collect and perpetuate such evidences for their own advantages and ease of ego, I also feel a little better whenever I see another worldview engaging in the same behavior. It as least assures me that this is a general flaw of human nature, and that everyone has a hard time admitting uncertainty.