Surah al-Hijr, 99 ayat long, presents us with a review of other materials. It emphasizes the stubbornness and doom of the unbelievers, like a less lingering version of the material I covered in The Cattle, Part 1. It follows with the fall of Iblees, as in The Cow, Part 1, and The Traditions, Part 1. We read again of the early prophets and the messengers to Abraham and Lot, like I covered in Prophet Hud. And it cites the ingenuity of God’s creation to prove His existence, like in The Thunder. This is not too surprising by now, for we have already seen that the Quran references the same materials multiple times throughout its text. The stories as told here do not raise any new questions, and neither do they answer any of the questions raised in their last seen iterations. As such, I don’t have much to say about this surah.
Except to share some trivia. Do you like trivia?
The title of the surah, al-Hijr, can reference several different things in the surah. Its basic meaning is “stone, rock,” but can also be used for “partition.” That’s thematically relevant since the pagans are stonewalling Muhammad (and vice versa at this point). Also the title is relevant to the form of doom brought upon the past unbelievers mentioned here, namely being hailed upon with rocks or destroyed by seismic activity. Sometimes the title is given an expanded interpretation in which the title is elaborated to mean “The Rocky Tract,” since the societies mentioned here are said to have existed along the highway and built their homes in the rocks. The more specific and intended application is in ayah 80, where al-Hijr is actually a reference to the people of Thamud as “the people of the rock.”
As I pointed out at the end of The Traditions, Part 1, Muslims like to use the Nabatean ruins along the routes north of Medina to confirm the Quran’s accounts of the Thamudi. There are references in this surah as to the destroyed cities of the early prophets being visible from highways. Although Thamud isn’t given such a description this time around, the unbelievers have regularly been challenged to look at the vacant homes along their highways to confirm the Quran’s stories. It seems that these archeological ruins are indeed being claimed by the Quran as its evidence, and tradition has carried on this idea by naming the sites north of Medina as both al-Hijr and Madaa’in Saleh, “Saleh’s Cities.” I find that popular Islamic opinion is that the Nabateans and Thamudi are the same people. Given that the Nabateans are contemporaries of Ancient Greece and Rome, it would be hard to say they are the same people who lived before Abraham. The Thamudi people are also attested to in archeology (being mentioned in foreign records and having left lots of graffiti) but are less defined a people except that they were recognized as Arabs. At any rate, for both these groups we have records of their existence –their thriving existence in the case of the Nabateans– well beyond the points of time in which the Quran asserts they were destroyed. Another popular Islamic opinion is that the Thamudi built the structures and the Nabateans inhabited them afterwords. Since the structures show a multicultural blend of architecture, it is likewise hard to claim that these ruins pre-date Abraham.
All this said, there is no reason to disbelieve that there were a Thamudi people living and destroyed at the time of the Quran’s description. At the same time there is also no reason to believe that those people existed there and then either except that the Quran says so. And for Muslims, that is enough.
Breath of God
Ayat 28-29 stand out as one of the rare times that God refers to Himself using singular first person, rather than the more common royal “we.” If you want to do a TON of reading, you can follow these two (1, 2) articles on Islamic Awareness that explain the rationale interpreted into these kinds of grammatical shifts. (One of those articles is written by Abdul Haleem himself, whose Quranic translation I’m partial to.)
Those ayat are also notable for including in the creation of man the idea that God breathed into man a spirit –of His own spirit (rooH-ii, “spirit/breath” + possessive pronoun meaning “my”). You’ll note that some translations are keen to clarify that man’s spirit is created and different than God’s. This demonstrates why the Quran usually isn’t translated, in that translation allows someone to insert their own theology into the text. These interpreters are trying to insert ideas that make sure you do not run afoul of their preferred orthodoxy, but that still involves not letting the text speak for itself. In terms of the original text, rooH is more related to vitality than identity (which would be covered more by the word nafs, “soul/self”). God breathing life into man is not likely to mean that God is imparting a piece of Himself (an idea in pantheism, in which all life is the diaspora of a whole god-substance) as much as that God is the source of life. But translators do not trust their readers, and intervene with their word choices in order to dictate orthodoxy.
(P.S. I’ve already noted that the Hebrew and Arabic word for “spirit” are cognates. Genesis communicates the same idea that God imparted spirit into Adam. The Bible also communicates that animals have ruach.)
Perhaps the most confusing ayat of the surah are 16-18, which are translated by Sahih International to be about constellations. It is very hard with just the text to figure out what is being talked about. The closest thing I could imagine was that God had made the heavens in order to help people navigate at night (something asserted multiple times in other suwar), and that he protects these guiding points from the Satans (remember, “Satan” is a category while Iblees is a specific Satan). Thus devils who try to “steal a hearing” –which maybe means they try to give false information when someone consults the stars to navigate– are thrown down in a way that explains the incidence of meteors. That interpretation of mine sounds fairly superstitious, and I doubt Muslims today look at falling stars and say, “another Satan’s mischief flouted.” I turned to some tafsir to find some contemporary interpretations in the Muslim community.
- This tafsir tries explaining the ayat as literal facts by using scientific and spiritual argument. It postulates that while the subject word of ayah 16, buruuj, can mean “constellations” it is here being combined with its other meaning, “fort/tower.” Thus the tafsir reads the ayah as positing that the universe is divided into sections/”spheres” and that Satans can only move throughout Earth’s particular sphere of space because God has removed all others from their access. The tafsir is a little muddled in how to apply the words of ayat 18 to its interpretation. The strength of this tafsir is that it flows well into the following ayat about God’s administration of creation, but otherwise in content it struggles with pseudo-scientific contortions.
- This tafsir actually recognizes a reading like my own but tries explaining it as a parable for the way God protects His guidance. The stars represent points of Truth and guidance established by God to lead people to Himself. If a Satan tries to muddle with those points of Truth and confuse someone’s investigations, God not only protects the evidences but makes the attempts to falsify guidance obvious. The strength of this tafsir is that it is free of scientific and pseudo-scientific contortions and that it would be thematically united to a prior ayah about God’s protection of the Quran. The tafsir gets a little awkward, however, when it starts putting people in God’s place of calling out “Satan figures.”
Quick note about an interpretive leap by Sahih International and many other translations. Ayah 71 once again features Lot offering his daughters to the rape-intending mob. Several translators insert words or phrases to convert this into an offer to marry his daughters to the mob (which would require either a small mob or a lot of daughters) or that Lot is actually telling the men to go out and marry women (daughters of the nation). I’ve checked some databases which list this as the last mention of Lot offering his daughters in the Quran; so these interpretive leaps are not in reference to another ayat we’ve yet to read. They have no origins in the text. You don’t have to take my word for it. The link for “daughters” is broken on that sight, so here is a link to the word’s roots in the Quranic Corpus, where you’ll see that the word banāt only otherwise appears in scriptures concerning incest laws or God being attributed sons and daughters, and thus the word always appears in its literal biological sense.
Interpretive inserts like this show that modern Muslims do not want to perceive in their prophets any flaws or sin. Yet still, Lot stands as a weak example of righteousness, even in the Quran.
So this surah lacks new material to flesh out my understanding of the Quran’s Islam. As someone exploring the religion and eager for the next new thing, that is a little vexing. For Muslims, however, the repetition is part of the miracle. Because this surah tells the same stories again without contradicting or changing the material, and because this surah was revealed at a different time than the other suwar, Muslims take this as a sign that God is the one revealing the suwar. The expectation is that no human consistently could tell from memory the same story more than once under such conditions.