Surah at-tawba, “The Repentence,” is one of the last revealed chapters of the Quran. Tradition holds that this surah was revealed nine years after Muhammad’s relocation to Medina. At that point, the Muslims had successfully conquered Mecca, destroyed the pagan idols surrounding the Ka’ba, and had allied together most of the Arabian peninsula. Yet Muhammad’s state still looked more like a loose confederation than a nation. Members were unified around Muhammad, but did not have a group identity. Many allied tribes were still non-Muslim, perhaps following Muhammad out of fear for the Muslim military, or to ride on Muslim successes, or for access to the all-significant Ka’ba. With such a dynamic, members less beholden to Muhammad posed a considerable risk, as they were likely to take opportunity of any foreign invasions or internal conflicts in order to release themselves from taxes or the suppression of their historical (pagan) culture. And so to these less-beholden people Surah at-Tawba draws the line: repent, or else.
The main threats to Muhammad’s authority are the munafiquun and the mushrikuun. I already covered the etymology of the munafiquun, “ones who tunnel,” (hypocrites) within this post. The word mushrikuun is usually translated as “polytheists” or “pagans” in the Quran, though it literally translates as “ones who associate.” The key roots are sh-r-k, which are harmless enough roots in other Arabic words but are most critically used in the name of the sin shirk, which means to associate anything with God. Today’s post will focus on the call to people who shirk, a category extending from the pagans to the Jews and the Christians.
Surah al-Anfal, “The Spoils of War.” In name and content, this surah is about battle and victory. Although not named, multiple ayat indicated to me that this surah concerns the aftermath of the Battle of Badr, an event which we already heard some about in Surah al-‘Imran: there is a caravan in a valley, a surprise meeting of armed forces, and a stunning victory. Surah al-‘Imran, if you’ll remember, was about the battle lost at the foot of Mt. Uhud, and it referenced the first victory at Badr to indict the Muslims of their failure. Because of that, I wonder why al-Anfal is placed after and thus far away from al-‘Imran. For Muslims reading according to the traditional 30-day Juz’ schedule, the messages are separated by five days. If al-Anfal and al-‘Imran had been placed one after the other, historical order of events would have been preserved, and the cautionary messages here would have combined with the reprimands in al-‘Imran into a very poignant joint reading.
Despite being about a stunning victory, there are very few congratulations in Surah al-Anfal. Victory has brought loot, and loot has awakened divisions and a sense of deserving amongst individuals. To employ an English turn of phrase, the spoils have spoiled things. Muslims are given permission to enjoy their victory, but always they are reminded that the victory belongs to God and to His Prophet. Authority is being reinforced, and the words “God” and “Messenger” appear in frequent parallel to drive home who has the authority.
My current observation of Surah al-A’raaf is that it is the most focused of the suwar I have yet read. You can still find a wealth of theological weeds and off-shoot sermons in the crevices of each story and sentence, but on the whole I am left with the impression of a more focused ramble through the lore of Islam. Much of the surah (I’d estimate three-quarters without counting through ayat or words) is focused on the chronological stories recounted in my last two posts and they mostly run back-to-back. Today, however, I shall deal with the other pieces of lore and sermons in ayat 161 to the end that are less historical in setting, but still consistent with the theme of “God’s intervention in the continual decline of human nature.” Some of the lore is less narrative in form and more in line with visionary events, parables, and other less specific ways of generalizing human populations and behaviors.
It is hardly fair to compare the Torah’s and the Quran’s accounts of Moses and Aaron. The scale and significance is entirely different. Four whole books of the Torah’s five are devoted to the life, teachings, and ministry of Moses (and Aaron, but he’s secondary and mostly implied as a spokesperson), and it is all told as part of the epic founding of Israel as a nation favored by and bound to God. In Surah al-A’raaf, Moses serves mainly as an archetype with which to validate Muhammad. No biographical information or historical placement is necessary for this purpose. While Moses is still an important prophet –being one of the only four to receive a divine book– he bears the implicit shadow of failure. His ministry and teachings fell short of creating lasting change, necessitating the need for future prophets and ultimately the more perfect ministry of Muhammad.
Now, in some sense Christians have a similar attitude as Muslims concerning Moses’s ministry and the Torah books. We largely use them to prophesy our own religion, and struggle with whether and how to apply the substance of their teachings. Christians might reinterpret the meanings of Torah scriptures, but claim no prophetic right to retool the Jewish writings. Islam does claim such a right, however, and the Quran contradicts Torah accounts regularly. There is no known historical evidence for Moses, leaving no decisive way to argue the matter. In today’s post, I’m going to try and steer clear of pointing out contradictions between Surah al-A’raaf and Kitaab al-Kharouj (The Book of Exodus). The narrative importance traditionally ascribed to all the small details in Exodus are just too many to bog down this post with. Besides that, I need to brush up on my knowledge of Exodus and get my facts straight…