Surah 19: Mary, Part 2

I mentioned last week that Surah Maryam is loaded with the work of being ambassador to the Christians. The precedence for this was set down in Islamic traditional history. One of the first encounters that Muhammad’s followers had with a Christian community was when a number of Meccan Muslims sought sanctuary from Qurayshi persecution in the Kingdom of Axum (Ethiopa). The story, as told a hundred years after the fact by Ibn Ishaq, is that the Quraysh sent emissaries who tried bribing the king of Axum to extradite the refugees back to Mecca. The king brought the Muslims in for evaluation, whereupon they presented some of Surah Maryam to him, and he declared their message truth and sent the polytheists back to Mecca.

We don’t have any historical confirmation of this story, knowing very little about the king at that time except that he minted coins, which we may or may not have extant copies of.

And if these are his coins, well…

The Quran itself makes no allusion to the first emigration or any intended purpose for the surah besides redacting the perceived errors of Christians and rebuking them. It starts with Zechariah, Mary, and Jesus, but then goes back to list the other patriarchs in order to open its rebuke to wider audiences.

The Second Half

The second half of the surah begins with a story of Abraham attempting to teach his father to reject idol worship, even going so far as to say that his father is worshiping Satan. Abraham declares that he has special knowledge which he wants to teach his father in order to save him from God’s punishment. While what Abraham is proposing is essentially a reversal of societal order –the son having authority over the father– Abraham is acting out of a desire to protect his father from God’s punishment and being thrown into Hell with Satan. His father immediately reacts by threatening to execute Abraham if he won’t worship the household gods, and tells Abraham to get out of his sight. Abraham’s response is to wish peace upon his father and agree that they should go separate ways in order to practice their religions as they choose. His response is so gentle and gracious that I am again struck by how exceedingly merciful Abraham’s character is, more so than any other character in the Quran.*

Ayat 49-58 mention a number of different patriarchs and jump around in time considerably. First we start with Jewish patriarchs: Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Aaron. Then come some patriarchs that are more Arabic in character: Ishmael and another prophet named Idrees. Idrees is frequently linked to Enoch by Muslim tradition, but he lacks anything here to connect him to the Biblical narratives. That his name seems to be derived from Arabic suggests that he is someone in Arabic lore. The little subsection culminates in mentioning how these men were all prophets from the descendants of Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Israel. I suspect that this roundup of patriarchs is meant to catch the attention of Jews (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron), Arabs (Abraham, Ishmael, Idrees), and then widen the scope to implicate everyone (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel). When the verse continues, it says that after these prophets came successors who essentially undo the prophet’s work by neglecting religious duties and following their lusts.

The surah winds itself out comparing the punishments of the criminals/disbelievers to the rewards of the blessed. This is all standard fare and I do not have much comment to make on it. I almost got to the end of the surah without something to comment on, but right at the end, a clash of scope caught my attention. Ayat 93-96 take this all-encompassing view of mankind’s subjection to God and declare that all men will come before God at the resurrection and that He will reward those who believe and have good deeds. Then follows ayah 97, which is translated by Sahih as meaning, “We have only made Qur’an easy in the Arabic language…” and –wait a second. A key difficulty of the Quran is that it is in Arabic, moreover an obscure form of Arabic with very few parallel examples to help contextualize turns of speech and period definitions of words. Making the Quran a fixedly Classical Arabic revelation has in no way made it easy, and certainly reduces the audience down to a very small and privileged few. It is hardly the language of the world. However, by my own parsing, the literal phrase is more like “we made it easy in/by/with your tongue” (Arabic prepositions are hard to connect to English’s, sorry). Thus the Quran could easily be saying that God has made the message easy to recite, or that He has facilitated revelation through Muhammad, and it is not concerned with elevating Arabic as the best tool of transmission to the whole wide world.

About that Arabic though…

Arabic Poetry in Maryam

I’ve been waiting to see some poetry show up in the Quran. I observed a loose rhyming scheme in al-fatihah, there have been times of nice imagery, and a few nice turns of phrases. But has there been poetry in the first half of the Quran? I honestly have not been able to tell, but that is in no small part due to my ignorance on the subject. A good example of a parallel situation is looking at the poetry of Beowulf. If you have ever read Beowulf, you’ll know that it doesn’t look like an English poem (old English aside); there is little to no rhyming, and no fixed syllabic structure from line to line. To an uneducated reader the “poetry” of Beowulf just looks like stilted verbosity. But in truth there is manipulated structure in Beowulf –within each verse. Each verse is divided in half, and the first half alliterates with the second half. (I think there’s a rule about the same number of pulses in each half, though they’re not metrically governed.) It’s an easy thing to miss if you do not know what to look for, and easier to miss if you only have access to a mere translation of the meaning. Seamus Heaney tries to capture these mechanics in his translation of the Old English, but that is not easy to pull off nor can it match the original script’s accomplishments.

So have we seen poetry in the Quran? None that I have detected, but that might be more a fault of my awareness than the Quran’s technique. And unfortunately, I have not found any resources telling me what structures and mechanisms are important to Arabic poetry or the Quran. Meter, syllabic count, alliteration, rhyming? A few resources that I have found are in the academic field and assume academic usage with their heavy jargon, so if anyone has some suggestions I’d be grateful. Now while I still mostly work off a translation of the meaning of the Quran (classical Arabic is exhausting folks) I do try and spend a lot of time with the Arabic as well. The murattal (the sung recitations) have remained inaccessible to me as I haven’t been able to connect with their musicality, but I have tried listening to them and reading through the Arabic with them. Looking up any information about the poetic quality of the Quran is rough because it turns out there are a lot of dogmatic opinions about this subject, given that some Muslims perceive poetic form as something that would suggest the Quran is imitable (or worse, imitative). Indeed, this makes sense perhaps of why I never find qualitative explanations for what makes the Quran inimitable: diagnosis threatens the possibility of replication.

Surah Maryam, however, contains a blatant manipulation of language that constitutes something poetic: every ayah ends the same. There are no syllabic limits or meters on the ayat that I can tell, but for the majority of the surah the ayat end with -iyya, starting with Zechariah’s own name, zakariyya. From there, the majority of the final words have been morphologically manipulated into singular indefinite nouns or adjectives, which fixes them into a shape that receives the relevant -iyya ending. In Arabic, morphology usually exerts some influence on the word’s full meaning. I would suspect that shape-shifting these words should have some implications in this regard, but it is well outside my knowledge to guess how.

One exception to this rhyming scheme is in ayat 34-40. The rhyming takes a break as the ayat end in –uun, -iim, or -iin syllables which are common endings in the Arabic language. Why this disruption of the pattern? The conclusion I find most repeated online is that it draws attention to the rebukes to Christians. Since the Quran has no fourth wall to break, this contrast is perhaps intended to give an equivalent feeling. The other exception starts at ayah 75 and continues to the end, with every ayah ending in either a -daa or zaa syllable. The Wikipedia article summarizes a resource (that I do not have access to) that claims this “d” sound is harsher and communicates finality, doubling the consonant on verses that criticize and threaten the disbelievers. I found no other sources to restate this idea, and it’s troubled by the fact that the surah neither does this consistently (see 75, 92, 98 for a few) and that this doubled consonant appears at times in the good tidings (76, 96). Also, the surah is materially doing the same thing (confronting and condemning) before and after this change. So I have no explanation to offer except to notice the change, and there’s nothing that says there needs to be a reason anyways.

Not Much Else to Say

And that’s about it for this surah. There wasn’t much that I found new or interesting in the second half. Abraham’s gracious response to his father was nice, but with so much novel material at the surah’s front and the concentrated focus on Christians right there in the middle, it feels extraneous that the surah should keep going on without any new information after that. Again, it reinforces to me that the suwar are more like accumulated sermons rather than a through-written book. In church sermons it is common that no matter what subject constitutes the meat of the preacher’s focus, every denouement must include some statement of the essentials of faith and an invitation to conversion. This often comes across as trite, extraneous, and rehearsed by accident of its repetition each week. I think this surah closes out the same.

So happy Advent Season, everyone! I won’t do a new Quran post until after Christmas, so Merry Christmas and Happy New Year as well!

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