Surah 11: Hud

Surah [of the Prophet] Hud (123 ayat long) has been a little bit of a stumbling block in my writing cycle. In here we find the same sequence of early prophets lined out in Surah al-A’raf, and which I glossed through in this post. This repetition means that I don’t have large quantities of new material to tell you. Because I know that not many of you are reading through the Quran yourselves, I cannot not summarize the bulk of today’s content. Thus I’ve been stuck trying to come up with content that is minimally redundant and yet thorough. On the plus side, this quandary has forced me to rest on this surah and look longer at it, which is one of the reasons why I find blogging my experiences with the Quran so useful. If I was just reading the book straight through by myself, I definitely would just glaze over this surah and push forward for something more drastically interesting. Having to develop a presentable opinion and impression brings me at least a little closer to the people who read this surah ritually over and over again and delve out meaning.

While al-A’raf skimped on the earlier prophets and spent most of its time on Moses, Hud will inverse the emphasis by glossing Moses’s account and telling more about the people before. This will provide us with more details and a few more themes, particularly about who is saved and how faith shapes relationships. As for general context, this surah comes from the Meccan phase and includes the basic Meccan themes: the perfectness of the Quran, the worship of The God, the reality of judgement, the pagans’ disbelief.

Patriarchs

In the lore of this surah we spend time with the prophets Noah, Hud (cue title card), Salih, Shu’ayb, and Moses. Most of the new information appears in Noah’s account, as this is the first time that the building of the ark and the flood are described in any detail. Otherwise, most of the expansion comes through the dialogues between each prophet and his respective opposition. The stories are told in chronological order and demonstrate the pattern of warning-resistance-judgement that Muhammad is preaching to the Meccans.

The exception to this pattern comes between the stories of Salih and Shu’ayb, as the surah follows the angels who are sent to evacuate Lot from his people (the names Sodom and Gomorrah are never used). As in the Genesis account, the angels travel through Abraham’s tents on their way to evacuate Lot. Like in the Bible story, it is odd that angels should be traveling on their way to a place in human form. The storytelling is also similar to the Bible in that we are not painted a complete emotional picture of our characters, and so the story looks more a like a screenplay that could be directed into very different tellings.

The messengers come to Abraham’s tents and they all exchange a greeting of peace. Abraham immediately shows his hospitality by feeding them a roast. What kind of men do these angels look like? Does Abraham know who they are at this point? If he does, does he think that angels can eat food? The angels do not eat the roast he prepares and Abraham is troubled. Is this the point where he starts suspecting the messengers are not men? Or does he perceive them as human and begins to worry they are plotting something? Why did the angels let Abraham cook for them if they were not going to eat? Can angels eat? The angels allay Abrahams fears by telling him that they are just passing through on their way to Lot’s people.

At this point Sarah, who has been standing and is not part of the conversation, laughs. Why does she laugh? Is her laugh out of relief for her household or glee for the fate of Lot’s people? Her laughter turns the messenger’s attention on her, whereupon God tells Sarah of her future household through Isaac and Jacob (no Esau). Sarah’s first response is “Woe to me!” She expresses her shock at the idea of giving birth when she and Abraham are so old. Do those first words express disbelief? Or even horror as she sees her life expectations be turned upside down? The angels chastise her amazement and pray for God’s mercy and blessings upon the house.

After this Abraham argues with the angels over the fate of Lot’s people. In the Bible this scene is famous for the repetitive way that Abraham barters God’s wrath down to a lower threshold, so that God promises not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if there are even ten righteous inhabitants. There are several similar stories in the Bible, and they are problematic to the understanding of an eternal and unchangeable God. One line of interpretation is that stories like these showcase that humankind has both agency and compassion. That God would give humans the opportunity to contest His intention and lets Himself be swayed by their arguments could thus be a way of showing He enjoys and encourages those traits. The Quran’s account showcases this same element of human character. Abraham argues with the messengers and the Quran describes him as patient, compassionate, and always advocating to God. By positive interpretation, this line is a compliment to Abraham’s character and the desired attitude of believers. By negative interpretation, Abraham’s compassion only enables evil and thus the need for God’s harder lines and guidance to justice. God is not swayed and it is reinforced that nothing can affect God’s judgement, which reinforces the Quran’s portrayal of God as an eternal and consistent being.

The account of the angels’ visit to Lot is actually not as explicit as the Bible. The material is still explicit, I’m just referring to the wording, which remains sinister all the more for being coy. The angels come to Lot and he’s immediately worried for their sakes, lamenting “This is a bad day.” When the people come knocking on his door to seize the messengers, Lot offers to them his daughters as a purer alternative (which emphasizes the homosexuality of the mob rather than their hostility). I am actually surprised that this is in the Quran, which I’ve observed making effort to expunge the character of its prophets. Lot, no favorite in the Bible, is usually vilified in commentaries for this action of offering his daughters, since this action is inconsistent with the Law. Daughters get their twisted revenge in the end…Genesis is weird. Anyhow, Lot’s offering of his daughters to a mob is also in the Quran story. The mob rejects his daughters with the creepy phrase, “You know what we want.” Lot either has a lapse of faith, or does not understand who his guests are, as he laments that he has no way to protect himself from the mob. This also surprises me since all the other prophets in similar situations use these moments as opportunities to declare their trust in God’s strength and will. Where others remember God, Lot despairs; thus Lot is least commendable amongst the Quran’s prophets.

The angels then step in, declare themselves, and evacuate Lot’s family (except for his wife) before the city is turned upside down and crushed with stones.

Who is Family?

Remember that Muhammad’s own family was in charge of Mecca. He was of the Qurayshi tribe that for generations administered city affairs. He was also of a sub-clan within that tribe, the Hashimite clan, that was in charge of hospitality and pilgrimage to the Ka’ba (and still remains influential as the rulers of modern Jordan). So when Muhammad starts upsetting the religious and thus economic life of Mecca, it is his own family that tries to pull him in line. Traditionally it is told that while Muhammad closest family were supportive (or at least tolerant), only the poorest and least-enfranchised members of Meccan society were willing to follow Muhammad’s teaching. Through the stories of these early prophets, we’ll see that this all is part and parcel with the nature of prophethood.

That Islam does not select on principle of social status is illustrated very clearly in Noah’s ministry. Noah’s critics scoff that his followers were of low status and without intellectual rigor. Noah defends himself by declaring not only his lack of financial interest in his converts, but that it would be wrong to force anyone into faith and also wrong to drive anyone away from faith. His answer relies solely upon predestination theory, where only God chooses who converts and who doesn’t, and in which the agency of the converts or unbelievers is negated. Who God does or doesn’t choose is not up for a prophet to evaluate. Struggling against peoples’ inclinations is equal to struggling against God and thus a waste of energy. In time, God tells Noah that he has maxed out the number of believers from the community, and to build an ark for them all to survive the coming flood. Granted, in ayah 40 God tells Noah to load two of every animal and his family onto the boat, with no mention of this followers. One way to reconcile this is that either Noah’s followers were killed off by the unbelievers, or–in a more positive vein–that by following Noah they became his family.

Blood and marriage ties are rejected as means of protection or as the appropriate connections with which to define families. In Noah’s story, his son refuses to believe in his father’s teaching. When the flood comes, Noah calls to his son again but the son prefers to try climbing a mountain rather than literally and figuratively getting into the boat. After the flood, Noah kinda-sorta-not-really scolds God for drowning his son, but God corrects him and says that those who do other than good are not family. In Lot’s family, his wife is left behind to die with the city. Her case doesn’t have any details or psychology to evaluate (maybe another surah will shed more light) but again it is made clear that family bonds play no part in God’s mercy or wrath. Shu’ayb’s enemies declare that they would not tolerate him except that they respect his family. This case is directly parallel to Muhammad’s, where the one relative with legal right to kill him was quite tolerant of his monotheism, and thus the rest of the family could not take action without starting a blood feud. Despite this protection, Shu’ayb holds in horror that the people should fear his family more than God. He invokes his standing with God as the real source of protection to take stock in. This further devalues the bonds of family when compared to faith.

And all this is applied to Muhammad. Ayah 112 exhorts Muhammad to stand firm in his course with the people who turned with him and who do not transgress. They are reminded of the rewards they will earn in paradise, while those who reject the guidance of the Quran are warned of their rewards in hellfire.

Other Thoughts

The Quran has commanded regular prayer, but it hasn’t yet defined how regular prayer needs to be. At last, ayah 114 dictates three times: at “two ends of the day” and at the approach of night. Two ends of the day would be dawn and dusk, with the approach of the night being understood as post-sunset. Prayers to The God and good deeds are the hallmarks of Islamic faith in today’s surah, and all focus is on surviving judgement day rather than setting up a society. This makes me more interested in reading the Quran in a chronological arrangement, even though those arrangements are going to be speculative to some degrees. Reading the Quran out of chronological order obscures the progression of revelation and perhaps some evolution of Muhammad’s ministry. The stories of these early prophets are all local events, restricted to affect only a certain group of people or city. At this point, did Muhammad think of himself that he was a minister only to Mecca?

Today’s surah also reinforces my difficulty with seeing the Quran as a coherent book. It is easier for me to read it as a disorderly collection of sermons from a man’s ministry. This is largely because of the lack of progression in the material. Perhaps in a chronological arrangement there would be more progression of ideas, where we could see the Quran establishing a base of knowledge and reiterating upon that base as Muhammad’s circumstances progressed and his followers grew spiritually. The traditional arrangement of the Quran negates the relevance of history in its material, but I find that ahistoricism hard to buy into.

This is not a challenge to Muslims, who can find multiple benefits to the scattered and repetitive distribution of material. The lack of progression in the Quran is bewildering to me specifically as a newcomer. I imagine to someone who has grown up in the religion this is not noticeable. They would already know what is in the rest of the book and be ingrained with supplementary teachings, so their minds would likely fill in the gaps without them even realizing that is what is happening. I know that such is my history with the Bible, and every so often someone blows my mind my revealing to me my assumptions and giving me a new perspective. I hope my outsider musings may in some way affect a committed Muslim’s perspective likewise.


Post Script: God’s Throne

I’m not sure what to do with this, but I imagine this is an awkward concept in Islamic discussion: God has a throne. In ayah 7 of this chapter, the six-day creation story is mentioned in passing and states that God’s throne was over the waters. That God has a throne is a common concept in Jewish and Christian writings. The Ark of the Covenant is usually understood as a throne for God, a physical placeholder for humans to fixate their rituals upon, and its design is even akin to the stylization of political thrones. Its fine line away from idolatry is that it does not depict God Himself but just represents His presence. The Book of Ezekiel describes a bizarre chariot-throne to symbolize God’s presence in the life of Israel and its diaspora.

2018-06-01 11_53_31-Window
Ezekiel 1, as interpreted by The Bible Project

The Bible is less averse to anthropomorphising God and showing Him in direct and physical interaction with His created world. For Christians, this gets radical when God inserts Himself into the created world as Jesus.

In Islam, I wonder how this concept of God’s throne functions in their theology, in which (as I understand) God’s otherness and omni-presence defies usage of any physical representation. So is the throne a part of God? It could easily be interpreted as poetic expression for “dominion” and thus be thought of as an attribute of God. Going back to ayah 7, that God’s throne is “upon the waters” in reference to the creation story is very reminiscent of God’s spirit hovering over the waters during creation in Genesis 1:2, and likewise communicates that God was at work through creation (or before, check out the intriguing footnote in Ala Maududi’s translation). But when “throne” occurred back in Q7:54, it was something that God ascended onto after creating the earth, an image which clashes with the idea that the throne is one of His attributes since it is something He interacts with positionally and temporally. Thrones also have connotations of repose, since they are chairs. In Genesis, there’s the idea of a Sabbath day after creation in which God “rests,” and it could be in reference to this that Q7:54 says God ascends onto his throne. But even in Judaism there is a lot of question over what it means for God to “rest,” and Islam would have the same struggle.

I’m only interested in pointing this out because my understanding of Islam is that its central theology is not just the one-ness but complete otherness of God. That the Quran still uses some stock images and anthropomorphization to describe and glorify God signifies to me how difficult it is for humans to hold that conception.

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