Surah 16: The Bees, Part 2

Recently I came to notice that the Quran’s disjointed style, grammatical quirks, and POV changes have ceased to phase me as much as they used to. There are some idioms and uses of language that I have seen enough of to assume their meaning without pause. How much I have become inured only became clear to me since my husband started reading along at Surah Yusuf. Whereas I’d praised that surah as the most consistent, linear, readable one yet, my husband was bowled over at the frequent changes of attention, the fuzzy pronouns, and the preachy interjections. I had seen those things with a sort of “meh, it’s the Quran” shrug. So it’s fair to say that I am now getting used to the Quran. I’m not at all claiming mastery (far from it!), but I have a forming sense of its themes, idioms, and core ideas and how they fit into Muhammad’s ministry and environment.

When I read Surah an-Nahl I came into a little fresh confusion. Part of having a sense of the Quran includes being a little aware of what themes were relevant to his initial ministry in Mecca and what was relevant to his ministry in Medina. An-Nahl is categorized officially as a Meccan surah, but by the end of reading I felt that I was in a Medinian one. While writing last week’s post, I occasionally found myself confused about the location of some of the ayat, conflating a few of them with other suwar. So today I’m going to take the opportunity to better spell out the distinctions between ayat revealed in Mecca and Medina, something that I couldn’t do when I first started out on this project and hadn’t enough knowledge to choose good search terms and discern good resources. Then I will look at the material in an-Nahl that seems, even if only superficially, to come from a later point in Muhammad’s ministry.

Sorting Meccan and Medinian

The essential factor of whether a verse is Meccan or Medinian is at what phase of Muhammad’s ministry they were revealed. The timing of some ayat/suwar can be found within the hadith accounts, but there isn’t a log of precise information that covers each ayah individually. Indeed, we do not have a definitive description of how suwar were compiled and what mixture of ayat were combined into them, and that includes not knowing how much the timing of a revelation factored into the compilation. So at some point textual analysis has to be brought in to parse material for elements that seem thematically related to a historical place, time, or need in the Muslim community. It is not a hard science, and it is important to recognize that the resulting lists and conclusions of these kinds of analyses can at most be reasonably speculated, but not decisive.

Wikipedia’s article on Meccan suwar (though please recognize that it relies mostly on Western secular resources) gives a detailed talk-through of themes and material found in Muhammad’s Meccan revelations. It subdivides Meccan revelations into three phases, but some general highlights include that they talk a lot to the unbelievers, use forceful language on topics of monotheism and resurrection, emphasize the early prophets, and call people to universal moral principles. These themes are understandable if we consider that, in Mecca, Muhammad was largely in a recruiting position. He had to convince people to believe in monotheism, resurrection, and his prophethood. Focus on the Day of Judgement added urgency to his message and put consequences in place for rejection. While moral principles were being set up, there seems to be few exact moral codes with punishments that might drive away converts. One could argue that the community was needing to be eased into the new morality since there was no supporting culture yet in existence to help individuals reshape their habits. Furthermore, Muhammad was not in a position with political authority to decide punishments should someone transgress, thus punishments were entrusted to God’s care.

The Wikipedia article concerning Medinian revelations is much smaller, since they are fewer in number and did not have as distinct of phases. Medinian revelations tend to be lengthier, contain more laws and civil matters, worry about hypocrisy and transgression among believers, argue with People of the Book, and are concerned with struggling and fighting. Historically speaking this is relevant because Muhammad’s move to Medina put him into an administrative position over civil and military matters, which required him to have grounds with which to make judicial decisions and to require more specific actions of loyalty. Laws and punishments became more feasible, not to mention the large community started needing arbitration between its members. These new roles also brought Muhammad into contact with Christians and Jews, necessitating a need to define Islam’s relationship with them.

So last week’s material we can see was concerned with inspiring believers to gratitude and monotheism. It also focused a lot on the final resurrection and what that meant to the pagans. Those themes are recognizably Meccan, though still fairly universal to all of Muhammad’s ministry. Let’s look at the material that struck me as Medinian and whether my sense was justified.


Most noticeable were the things directed towards the Jews. When I was imagining the ayat being recited in a Meccan context, having the Jews brought up felt like a clash of cultures. Weren’t the Meccans all pagans? Actually, the Arabian peninsula was religiously diverse and had a fair number of Christian and Jewish communities, so it is not impossible that Mecca saw more than just pagans within it’s city limits. Remember old Uncle Waraqah, the Christian and scholar of Hebrew! Although the Ka’ba made Mecca a very pagan hub, it also had economic value because of the trade that combined with pilgrimage. The city of Yathrib was near enough to Mecca that its Jewish residents might have traveled to and from for business. Muhammad might have had dealings with some Jews while in Mecca and that might be why they appear here. Still, Jews were much more relevant when Muhammad moved to Yathrib and started transforming it into Muslim Medina. In that setting, the Jews were politically and religiously competitive with Muhammad, so it is understandable that the Quran would take time to rebuke them. Finding rebukes towards Jews is thought to be a reliable indication of an ayah being revealed in Medina.

The first mention of the Jews here is in ayah 118, the context for which seems to start at ayah 114. The list of haraam foods that constitute Muslim dietary practices is set and God condemns anyone who adds further restrictions. Jewish food codes are much more restrictive than Muslim ones, and for this reason perhaps ayah 118 mentions that “[the Jews] were wronging themselves.” Its point seems to be that the Jews added other restrictions into their kosher diet, and thus were depriving themselves without need. God denies involvement. Going outside this surah we’ll remember that the strictness of Jewish Torah has also been described as a punishment to the Jews for their waywardness. In that line of thought the phrase “and We did not wrong them,” might not be God denying involvement, but God denying injustice in having censured the Jews from otherwise good foods.

In the same vein as that last idea, we find ayah 124. It declares that the Sabbath day was only appointed for those who “differed over it.” The topic preceding ayah 124 is Abraham’s exemplary belief, and so the phrase by proximity means to differ from Abraham’s beliefs. (Also, “differed over it” is one of those idioms that I always assume to mean “disagreed with revelation.”) Thus the Sabbath is being described like a punishment for error. If you are a Jew or Christian, this idea is odd. The Sabbath concept is a day of rest and is regarded as a provision of divine kindness. The great hiccup is that considerable legalism results when people try and define “rest” and “work.” Do intellectual pursuits constitute “work?” Does entertainment constitute “rest?” The only Biblical passage that seems to dictate what should be done on the Sabbath is Isaiah 58:13-14, and if you explore interpretations you’ll see that they range in various degrees from “all sense of self on the Sabbath is sin” to the less restrictive “submit your affairs/business affairs to God’s call to rest.” The remainder of the Bible doesn’t really describe the Sabbath except to mandate its importance and relate it as a social good. It is hard to read into the philosophy of a day of rest an intent to punish. So perhaps the Quran’s subtext is that a pure acceptance and application of God’s guidance has such intrinsic social good that a day of rest does not need to be mandated upon its adherents. In other words, it presupposes that good Muslims will treat each other fairly and generously in a way that provides plenty of rest in daily life.

Emigration and Oaths

Last week I mentioned a reference to emigration, but there are actually two references: ayat 41 and 110. This might seem a dead clue that these chunks of ayat were revealed at Medina, when converts were being called to emigrate from their homes to Muhammad’s budding state, but this is not necessarily the case. There were at least two groups of early Muslims who found asylum in Ethiopia (also known as Abyssinia) before Muhammad was invited to Medina. Plus, Muslims had started migrating to Medina before Muhammad did so himself. Thus there are several points in history which this ayah could be referring to, whether Meccan or Medinian.

Ayah 41 is vague about the whereabouts and circumstances of those who emigrated. They are not emigrating “to the prophet” as in the other Medinian suwar, making it believable that the people referenced are those who went to Ethiopia and are out of the Meccan’s line of contact. The ayah is reassuring the Muslims that those who left are blessed in their new land. It also seems to express some concern for the future faith of those emigrants, mentioning that they are going to need to persevere despite their lack of access to reminders of their heavenly rewards. Ayah 110 is about emigrants who have fled by compulsion. This mention of compulsion is a better indication that the emigration is contemporary to Muhammad’s ministry in Mecca. Remember that one very Medinian surah, Surah an-Nisa, spent considerable time denouncing the hypocrites. One category of hypocrites were people who did not voluntarily emigrate to their prophet. The emigration in today’s surah is not voluntary, it is one compelled by hostility. Emigration in ayah 110 seems to be treated more like an act of cowardice that can be forgiven if the person thereafter fights (it’s jaahad, “strives/struggles,” and not qatal, “kills,” in this verse) and is patient [for God]. Alternately that verse could be upholding emigration as an act that earns God’s mercy, not one that requires forgiveness itself.

Certainly emigration in the Meccan suwar would have a more complicated moral value. They still require sacrifice on part of the emigrant, who has to give up everything to move and preserve their faith from persecution, but they also take that emigrant away from the miracles of the Quran and the guidance of their prophet. These ayat show concern that the emigrants need to remember and endure in their faith. We can see that element of moral complication and reasonably conclude that these ayat are still Meccan in revelation, rather than the solidly commendable emigration-to-the-Prophet of Medinian suwar.

Punishments and Oaths

I suspect that ayah 126 comes from Medina. It is mandating that punishment must match the crime committed. Achieving legal justice was a little beyond the reach of Muslims in Meccan society. If we are to believe that the majority of Muhammad’s Meccan converts were from the lower social strata, then justice was out of their reach in a might-made-right system. Telling believers to rein in their punishments makes more sense in a Medinian setting where Muslims had better ability to seek retribution for themselves. This verse could be telling the unbelievers of Mecca to change their justice system, but since the verse also calls people to patience we can assume the ayah is talking to believers. When unbelievers are called to patience, they are not promised a reward.

The last thing that made me think of Medina was ayah 91-95. According to Muslim historians, Muhammad was invited by some Muslim converts from Yathrib to settle a longstanding conflict between the Jewish tribes, the pagan tribes, and the Muslim immigrants living in that city. The result was a document now called the Constitution of Medina. We do not have the original document, but Muslim historian Ibn Ishaq (c.704-767) recorded a summary that is generally relied upon today. Some other approximations can be read here, but I have no idea which version, if either, is more accurate. In this constitution we can infer a similarity to the covenant mentioned in ayat 91-95. There is a plurality of communities not united in beliefs or equal in strength, but bound by oath to a common God that they will act as a mutual ummah, “community.” Their unity provides them with strength/security, and that is why this surah enjoins them to not fall into in-group fighting and betrayal. It is less likely that these ayat are talking in Meccan times because one of the concerns in the ayat is that some communities are more numerous than others. I’ve never heard of the Meccan Muslims being divided into sub-communities, let alone them being in competition against each other in face of the immediate presence of Qurayshi pagans.

Why Does this Matter?

Why does it matter if the ayah or surah is Meccan or Medinian? Well, largely because understanding such tells you who the surah is talking to. The Quran often addresses a general “y’all.” Sahih International often makes sure to add “O mankind/believers/People of the Book” after the “y’alls” in order to ensure readers know who is being talked to or reprimanded. My Arabic teacher explained that this helps Muslims understand how to talk to each other as well, since it would be inappropriate to charge a fellow believer with a Meccan ayah that condemns pagans.

There is also the question of abrogation, something that we haven’t explored because it’s more of a meta-concept of the Quran. It does have to do with that question of substituting verses in place of verses that we read about last week. Because the Quran was revealed over a period of time, transitioning a community of believers into a new way of life, it is rationalized that the Quran eased in some teachings little by little. The favorite example of this is alcohol. In this surah, ayah 67 casually mentions intoxicants within the lists of beneficial items provided by God. In Surah an-Nisa 43, drunkenness makes you unfit for prayer, but public appearance even in a mosque is tolerated. In Surah al-Baqarah 219 intoxicants are granted some beneficial properties but warned against. Surah al-Ma’idah 90, however, ranks intoxicants among Satanic defilements. This variety of attitudes can be explained in terms of abrogation; i.e. God was weaning Muslims off of alcohol.

A complication of abrogation is that you have to figure out how to disarm abrogated ayat so that believers won’t act upon them or ask about them. Back to today’s ayah 67: how does one translate that so a believer won’t take it as permission to enjoy wine? Several translators have pulled the classic American-Protestant move of reading wine and inferring juice. Alas for them, while the word sakar, “intoxicant,” is related to the word sukkar, “sugar,” it still is distinctly about alcohol. To convert it to “sugar/sweetness” one would need to challenge whether the Quran has been voweled correctly, and that calls into question how well the Quran has been preserved. Taking another approach, those translators who don’t challenge “intoxicant” address the problem by assuming “good” only applies to “provision.” The grammatical situation in Arabic is exactly like saying “good provision and wine” in English. (If you read that backwards you get the exact Arabic syntax.) Does “good” apply to both the words “provision” and “wine,” or just the former? While “good” could potentially only be intended for “provision,” it is poor communication to write the phrase this way. The precise way in both languages to express such would be to arrange the words so that the adjective could apply only to the relevant noun. In English, this would require the wording to be “wine and good provision,” and the translators took the liberty of choosing that word order. It is a valid interpretation, but not the truest to the original Arabic. Contextually, to not call the wine good does not match the immediately surrounding ayat, in which good things from God are being mentioned. For believing Muslims, however, this arrangement does remove the awkward idea that God might be calling something “good” here which He later calls Satanic in Surah an-Nisa, and thus this harmonizes the ayah with the broader context of the whole Quran.

A complication of abrogation is that it affects our ability to determine the timeline of ayat and suwar. If you read this tafsir for ayah 118 in this study Quran you’ll find a good example of retroactive insertion blurring our discernment of timeline. Yet we see that this order of history is very important in understanding the Quran. Not only does it affect what you can understand within the Quran (like the oblique description of the qibla change in al-Baqarah), but it also affects how you understand and act upon it. Do you act upon a verse, or has that verse been obsolesced by a newer one? Which one is newer? Unfortunately, the order of revelation is not historically obvious, with today’s surah making a decent point on the topic. Speculating the order of revelation requires in-depth knowledge of historical context. I’m learning that it is common and recommended in Muslim communities to entrust interpretation and policy-making to only the most academically entrenched scholars and clerics.

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