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.
The Light Demands of God v. The Degenerative Human Norms
Between the stories of Adam and Noah, the surah takes a long break to outline the conflict between God’s vision for humanity and the one that mankind (and the jinn) makes for themselves. God’s vision is summarized succinctly in ayah 29, in which those who are just and reverent during life will be returned to mankind’s original state in Paradise. Multiple times it is stated that God’s censures upon humanity are only minimal, and that the only things He bans are things that are objectively bad. The surah, while discouraging extravagance, enjoins believers to dress themselves well, eat, drink, and enjoy this life as a preview of the next life. I find these ayat meaningful because they build into Islam a defense against the asceticism that Christianity was prone to. Christianity, with its narrative of sacrifice and purposeful suffering, has long had a tendency to idealize the suffering believer. When Christian persecution slumped, some members of society felt the need to induce their own suffering in order to prove their faith, and thus they’d take up radical lifestyles of asceticism.
These ayat’s emphasis on the ease of God’s demands and the comfort of the Muslim lifestyle serves to justify the strength of God’s punishments. If following God is so easy, then it must take some deliberate willpower or wickedness to go wrong…or so it would seem, except that my impression from this surah overall is that mankind seems just guilty of haplessness. When challenged about the reason for their beliefs either in life or in the afterlife, humans are said to defend themselves by saying they only did what they learned from the previous generations (i.e. that they were just living by their traditions). This could be read as petty excuse-making, but there is truth in that many people passively inherit their beliefs and behaviors, without choosing them one way or the other. As to where did false traditional knowledge come from, it says many men are misled by jinn, thinking themselves guided in doing so. It is noted that those who believe in God will be able to spot the deception of a jinn, however, and so anyone duped by a jinn is perhaps understood to be already astray or ignorant. And there still are many vague instances in the Quran of people who rebel just to rebel, despite being well-taught and well-aware of what they are doing.
While some of the incorrect beliefs of humankind are attributed to the trickery of evil jinn and people, a more relatable path is outlined in part of the description of Israel’s descent. Despite receiving the law, taking a covenant, witnessing signs of the reality of God, the Israelites get into the habit of compromising rules because they take God’s mercy for granted. This path of errancy seems to apply more to the daily life of a religious person. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all heavily emphasize that God is a merciful being (remember the first lines of Surah al-Fatihah), and within their ranks are many examples of people who take this mercy for granted and stop fearing judgment. The Quran has already emphasized forgiveness for smaller sins if the major ones are avoided, and also pictures heavenly judgment as a scale in which one’s good deeds are able to outweigh the bad, so I can imagine that there is temptation among individuals to think themselves safe for a little trespass or self-indulgence. So this view of Judaism serves to warn Muslims away from that mentality. The surah ends by enjoining believers to regard God with humility and fear, a state which should keep believers from assuming they have done enough to get by.
There is evidence that the Quran takes seriously that inherited tradition and jinn-trickery are reasons for men to never come to guidance. It is acknowledged that no men would know how to earn Paradise if it weren’t for God’s intervention (ayah 43). By this scripture, I might think that the Quran believes the default state of mankind is ignorance, and that God’s intervention really is a mercy mission to save people from their default destiny, but here comes the point where I shall lay out some of the things I find problematic.
For one, we find that God states He created some men and jinn deliberately for Hell. These people are likened to cattle (hey look, 179! al-an’am!) or dogs who will pant whether they are running or standing still, but are in fact described as being even worse than that. In ayah 182-183, God declares that He gradually and invisibly leads them towards their fate, giving them time on Earth but with their destiny firmly in His mind. I find these kinds of statements very dissonant with the character of a wholly good and merciful God.
Lastly, there is no differentiation given in Hell for those who originated errant traditions (active forces) and those who merely followed what they were taught (passive forces). Perhaps the one passage that defends this way of things comes in ayah 172. It is enigmatic, with the “when” and “who” questions unclear. I had to look for a tafsir to help me understand, and this is what I found. According to that tafsir, there is a speculated event at the creation of the world in which God gathered all of Adam’s future progeny and had them testify that they recognized Him as Lord. In the surah, God cites this enigmatic event as His preemptive way of destroying ignorance, making belief in Him the default state to err from. So whether you learned bad tradition or originated it, each individual is assumed to have chosen error over their original statement of faith in that early event. One must ask, though, what the point of such an event is if none have a memory of it from which to benefit? And the question must also be asked, does this mean that mankind’s default destiny is to Paradise, except that men make choices that lead them otherwise? Choices that God might have had influence in?
Case Study in Connotations
In ayah 40, I was surprised to find, concerning unbelievers, the phrase “nor will they enter Paradise until a camel enters into the eye of a needle.” The materials of this metaphor will ring familiar with any Christian. It is a famous metaphor in one of Jesus’ teachings and can be found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Now, too often in movies and such, the quote gets cut off there, so that the sanctimonious speaker can shame the one who isn’t giving to charity or something like that. But the quote continues:
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:23-26, LEB)
Jesus’ use of the metaphor is to communicate the difference between how men evaluate possibility and how God does. From mankind’s perspective, being rich makes it impossible to earn a place in heaven, but God is not restrained by mankind’s possibilities. Here is where that weird relationship between the Quran and the Bible come into question. Is the Quran assuming knowledge of the Bible in its listeners, as it seems to in the stories of Moses? Does it expect its listeners to hear in their own memories “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”? This could suggest to them that God might in fact let unbelievers into Paradise. I am questioning the precision of the language here, as one could argue that use of this metaphor builds in some theological wiggle-room that is not welcome in general Muslim orthodoxy. Indeed, the ayah at base value uses the metaphor to emphasize impossibility, along the lines of saying “when Hell freezes over.” Thus, it is ironic that the chosen metaphor for this ayah is one that was most famously used to refute the idea of impossibility.
More General Tales
There are three more stories in this surah that fit into the category of lore but are not placed in history and might even serve more as parables than literal images or events. I think of the stories as The People of the Heights, The Sabbath Fish, and The Pagan Birth.
The People of the Heights comes as part of a sermon on judgment. The deeds of mankind are weighed, and those whose scales are heavy with good deeds enter Paradise. Those whose scales are light in good deeds enter hell. Between Paradise and Hell there is a high wall, and standing on the heights of this wall are men. Who are they? Why are they up there? It is not said, but they look down at the suffering on one side and the bliss on the other and ask God to be spared from Hell. They taunt those in Hell by asking them what good were their earthly accomplishments. God admits these wall-people into Paradise in an act that seems framed as a rebuke to those in Hell, who during their lifetimes denied that God would show the wall-people mercy. Perhaps this indicates that the wall-dwellers were ignorant people who were kept from guidance through the actions of the unbelievers. The wall-dwellers might also be those whose scales were equal in good and bad deeds, so that this action by God is used to show His preference for mercy.
So the reason that I think The People of the Heights is more of a parable is because its imagery of the physical relationship of Paradise and Hell is problematic. The story goes on beyond the fate of the wall-people to describe that those in Hell plea for those in Paradise to give them some water or sustenance, and the people in Paradise reply back that they aren’t allowed to. It doesn’t make sense in my mind that Paradise can be a place free of ill-feeling if its inhabitants can hear the cries of the suffering just over a literal wall. A similar problematic image is used in one of Jesus’ parables, The Rich Man and Lazarus, but it is easy to understand the parable as instructive rather than literal imagery.
The Sabbath Fish is one of those murky stories that does not reflect well upon God’s character. It is only one verse long, and I’m surprised it exists at all since it does not serve a clear purpose. There is a village situated by the sea, and its inhabitants fished on the Sabbaths because those were the only days fish would appear. This event is revealed to be a trial from God because the people are disobedient. It is questionable why God would need to test someone already disobedient, or why He would aggravate disobedience by engineering an impossible scenario. I suppose that this story is supposed to be one in a surrounding chain of others about the failing character of the Israelites. This is the only story of that chain which has imagery clear enough for me to get a sense of what is happening. The others have less happening except to say that God commanded something, the people didn’t do it right, and then God punished them. There aren’t many concrete details, and so the fish story stood out in contrast for its specific imagery. This story is one of the people not doing something right, and God punishing them by inciting them into deeper sin.
I hesitate to call The Pagan Birth a story at all, since it is short, but it stood out to me as an anecdote that is supposed to be instructive in some way. It starts from a Muslim standpoint, harkening to the creation of the first woman from the soul of a man. When the two parents mate and the woman becomes heavily pregnant they promise God their gratitude if He gives them a good child. God answers their plea, but the parents then start inventing other deities to whom they credit the good birth. It is a sudden pivot to paganism, but I vaguely guess that it is trying to communicate something along the lines of the message of al-An’am: that people all deep-down know that there is only The God, but that some people just prefer to be pagan. Starting from the creation account communicates that the identity of The God is inherently built into our existence, and that when times are scary all people have this inherent inclination to plea to only The God. Giving birth to a child is about the scariest thing that most humans can expect to face in their lives (particularly for women), and so it makes a good example of a dire situation. That people would then disregard their inherent knowledge once the trouble is past becomes an insult to God, and one worthy of punishment. This anecdote also instructs believers that there are some people who just cannot be converted, since they will blindly prefer paganism.
One More Thing…
So, something that breaks my heart about doing the Quran as a topic is that I find so little opportunity to be entertaining. The material deserves proper respect and intelligent approach, and I have no desire to yuck up such an important piece of writing and the people who revere it.
That being said, I have to share a funny moment for myself when I started reading through this surah. The first ayah consists only of four context-less letters: alif, laam, miim, saud. Quite a few suwar begin with similar strings of such letters and, like I said when first encountering the ones in al-Baqarah, their meaning or purpose is unknown. Out of curiosity I plugged the letters into Google translate to see what word they approximated and…