Surah 21: The Prophets, Part 2

So about half of this surah’s material is about the prophets, and we looked at this last week. Now it’s time to zoom out, and what do we find?

This surah has a much bigger message than the existence of prophets. They are there for all the reasons I stated last week, but are really just part of a world that is descending into Judgement. Today we’re going to look at this material and how the Surah wants its audience to envision itself within this picture.

Creation Theology

Why did God create? This is an awkward question to address in the Abrahamic religions because our view of God in some ways seems incompatible with the concept Him making creation a separate entity. (This is a common picking point from Hindus in forum conversations.) That God exists outside time and matter makes Him so alien to our experiences that it is hard to reconcile our physical existence with His sheer… let’s create the word “omnity” from omniity. If He is whole and complete, why would He do anything or make anything that is separate from Himself? The Quran hasn’t given us any direct statements for why God created. The Quran does feature a creative God, a “plotting” God –like an author who builds a world and writes a narrative– so we can extrapolate from this that God created because creativity is one of His attributes. Is it acceptable to say that God creates because His nature would be incomplete or unfulfilled if He didn’t? The Quran has not commented positively on any ideas that God has needs.

God’s motivations peek into view in ayat 16-18, which deny that God created out of a sense of play. These days, in western culture, play has positive connotations of refreshing one’s inspiration, practicing skills that one finds intrinsically rewarding, and perhaps bonding with other people. These positive connotations do not exist in classical Arabic’s concept of l-ʕ-b, which gets translated as “play” but which is more like our English concept of “dally” or “fritter.” The only function of dalliance is to produce hedonistic enjoyment, and the Quran uses words built from these roots in that sense. It is denied that God would create the world for playing. At first this seems a rebuttal about people wasting their earthly existence for selfish pleasures, but then it becomes clear that the ayat are referring to God’s motivations, i.e. that He didn’t make the earth to amuse himself. The argument is that God is too complete a being to need something external to Himself for supplying Him with pleasure. It is the concept of God’s omnity that debunks His wanting pleasure from creating. So God is creative, but it is not clear why God should want to create if not for His own enjoyment/fulfillment.

The Science of Creation

So while we don’t know why God created, the Quran has been happy to tell us what God created and give little hints at how He created. It isn’t clear to me still how much the Quran gives credence to Genesis’s creation stories. We know the Quran has affirmed a six-day/era creation and has a Garden Story that vaguely fits within the Genesis version. I say “vaguely” because so far the Quran has committed to only select details or additive information but has not tried recreating portrayals of these stories in full, particularly regarding the processes of creation. This surah adds a few details concerning the process. Ayah 30 posits that all creation was one once substance, and that God split that substance into two: the heavens and Earth. God then made all lifeforms out of water. Ayat 31-32 go on to describe the functions of created things rather than the process by which God created them: mountains were created to prevent the earth from convulsing, valley paths were created to guide people, and the sky was made to serve as a protective ceiling. Ayah 33 describes the creation of day and night, with the sun and moon each swimming in an orbit.

Sometimes these passages, particularly ayah 30, are favored by those who want to credit the Quran with scientific insight beyond its time. There is a theory that scientific evidences are planted in the Quran for the sake of future generations. Not only will the science-y passages of the Quran inspire theories and investigations in its adherents, but as science is explored mysterious images or word choices in the Quran will be revealed to relate to previously unknown facts. So that ayat 31-33 say the heavens and Earth are created from one substance, that the earth has a protective ceiling, and that life was made of/from water is seen as anticipating the discovery of the Big Bang, the ozone layer and magnetic shield, and the evolutionary origins of life in the water. This is flaunted by apologists as proof from God prepared for our modern age to testify that the Quran is divinely sourced. The earthquake-preventing nature of mountains has not aged so well, but still some Muslims are willing to believe that these passages are predicting a yet-unknown scientific truth that will become a sign to another generation.

What this line of thought does not mention is that the Quran’s science-y passages are equally compatible (or more directly compatible) with older scientific understandings. They weren’t actually very mysterious images to their original listeners, and we must assume this given that the Quran is presenting these images for the sake of convincing its original audience. Let’s look at the cosmology of the time. There were two geocentric models of the universe (flat-earth and celestial-spherical) and both had concepts of multiple layers of heaven fixed above Earth’s ground, with a final ceiling beyond which the stars existed (or were fixed to). This ceiling was called in English the firmament, and was a common feature in ancient cosmologies (see the Goddess Nut). The firmament was a protective ceiling that maybe held back rainwater or suspended the stars. For a period of time, the religious were at a loss to define this ceiling concept once our understandings of stars and space changed. In Christian circles, theologians and apologists tried suggesting the “firmament” was an atmospheric ceiling, and that the Bible always meant such (long and most excellent survey of history and rebuttal argument here). Then the discovery of the ozone layer and magnetic fields came along and conveniently filled the functional gap, since both those things protect us from star damage and thereby help contain our planet’s waters and atmosphere.

Along a similar vein many ancient cultures portrayed heaven as a dome or layers of domes above the earth. As discovery advanced in middle-eastern and western civilization, each layer of heaven’s dome was assigned a celestial body such as a planet or the moon. And if you watch the night sky you can imagine why this developed, for the stars all seem to rotate around the sky in unison while objects like the moon, planet, and sun follow their own paths. With this in mind I want to return to ayah 33 and the word translated as “orbit.” That word is falak, which according to Lane’s Lexicon (pages 2443-2444, فلك) relates to hemispherical things, particularly things that resemble the whorl of a spindle.

A whorl is defined both by its shape (which varies from a disc to a hemisphere) and its function as a weight to maintain the momentum of a spinner’s spinning. In Arabic, the roots f-l-k morph to communicate whorl-like things such as rounded buttocks, kneecaps, and breasts. Anyhow, all this to say that the sun and moon each swimming in a falak could mean that they each are in their own hemisphere and/or they each are in rotation around the earth. The text here is compatible with a geocentric model of the cosmos –and would’ve been understood in its original time as presenting such– but is still vague enough to reapply to more modern theories of science.

That the Quran’s more approximately science-y passages can fit multiple phases of scientific discovery is potentially affirming for its adherents. The Quran claims its purpose is to be understood by its listeners. As scientific discovery developed, the Quran’s words didn’t need to change but were flexible enough to accommodate new meanings. To believers this could mean the Quran is successful at being understood even across new eras of knowledge. The strictly orthodox might find some peril in telling people that the Quran perhaps intended some of its words to change meaning, but it is also a source of hope and satisfaction for many modern Muslims to think that God’s language is not limited to one era of culture and knowledge.

Of course, the Quran isn’t trying to be a scientific textbook here, it’s trying to assert the existence of only one god and is describing the beauty and functionality of creation for that purpose. Polytheists are the direct audience here, not Jews, Christians, or modern atheists. Ayah 22 declares that the existence of multiple gods would ruin the world. We can imagine that this assumption comes from one or two places. Islam probably takes issue with the short-sightedness of the gods of polytheistic pantheons. After all, divine characters in polytheist pantheons seem to have limited omniscience, being at times unaware of each other’s behaviors or unable to predict the future. Polytheist lore is also rich with conflicts between its characters, with different gods at odds in their motives and personalities. Perhaps from these two observations (though the surah does not explain its assumptions) the Quran rejects that such short-sighted and dysfunctional pantheons would be capable of building and maintaining a viable world. Only one, omnipotent God could be capable of making such a long-lasting, functional, and beautiful earth.

Eschatology

Is the end far or nigh? That is a good question for this surah. Though never differentiated, there seem to be two destructions proposed. One destruction is a local judgement. We’re assuming that the audience is the Meccan leadership and general populace, given the surah’s tone and content generally fitting Muhammad’s Meccan ministry. The general Meccan populace is rejecting Muhammad and the Quran, and therefore the surah equates them to other specific city-states/nations that were destroyed for rejecting their respective prophets. One the other hand, there is a far greater general destruction that potentially threatens the existence of everything. Both of these destructions can be talked about simultaneously because, regardless of the time of destruction, all men are going to face the same judgement together. That’s my impression of the surah’s end-times predictions. Let’s look at the specific content now.

Muhammad’s audience, which is portrayed here as flippant to his message, is being scolded for frittering their last days away. As I said last week, Mecca is already grouped with the cities that were destroyed for unbelief in ayah 6. Its destruction is an assumed thing now. The divine judgement of these past people is told in ayat 11-15, where they are portrayed fleeing from their houses, being taunted by God, and dying in remorse. I am always aware that the judgements referenced to support Muhammad’s ministry always happened within their prophets’ lifetimes and always involved cataclysmic destruction en masse. This stands out to me because Mecca never received such a judgement. While a number of Mecca’s leadership died in skirmishes with the Muslims, Mecca peacefully capitulated to Muhammad at a point when there was every socioeconomic advantage for doing so. Only a tiny skirmish disturbed the otherwise exultant entry of the Muslims into Mecca. The Qurayshi leadership that once opposed Muhammad converted and became very handy in administrating the Islamic State (particularly note Abu Sufyan, who was the leader of the caravan Muhammad intended to raid at Badr, and an opponent of Islam until right up to negotiating for the peaceful conquest of Mecca). In fact, Islamicized Qurayshis ruled the Islamic Empire for as long as it was ruled by Arabs.

And in fact they still rule the Kingdom of Jordan

Is it good that conversion repeals destruction? Yes. It’s just that conversion is not what the Quran is predicting of these people. Remember that Muhammad was told in Q10:96-103 that, of all the prophets, only Jonah’s ministry successfully turned back destruction, and it was clear to me then that Muhammad was not being told to hope for Jonah’s fortune.

On the more worldwide scale there is the enigmatic mention of Ya’juuj wa-Ma’juuj, “Gog and Magog.” Gog and Magog are a weird topic in Judeo-Christian lore. There are two characters in separate OT genealogies named Gog and Magog, but they seem unrelated to the most famous appearance of those names in Ezekiel. Ezekiel 38-39 portrays a large allied horde –commanded by Gog from Magog– that sets upon a peaceful restored Israel and is extinguished by God. The book of Revelation also mentions this horde. Except for its role as existential threat to peaceful people living in unguarded cities (a threat that is neutralized by God), there really aren’t any details about Gog and Magog that map them to a literal people. They come from the north? Sort of? The north was the direction from which Babylon’s and Assyria’s conquest came, so “north” has some bad juju in the Old Testament and this might not be a literal prediction. We have already seen Gog and Magog in the Quran before, in Surah al-Kahf’s story of Dhul Qarnayn where they were a people who had to be restrained behind a wall of copper and iron. In ayah 96, Gog and Magog appear as a sort of cosmological doomsday. They are opened and thus descend without reference being made to where they come from or who they are. This seems to be described in ayah 97 as fulfillment of “the true promise,” suggesting a more absolute ending of the world.

Whether this surah is really concerned with a local destruction within Muhammad’s lifetime or more absolute end-of-the-world destruction, it is all really more for the point of leading to the Judgement. Death in any form leads to the Judgement, and it doesn’t matter where or when. Ayat 34-35 taunt the audience as to whether they think they can live forever. God did not even grant immortality to His prophets; all souls shall taste death. Islam is presented as an existential threat to its scoffers. Death is real, and the Quran is adamant that Judgement is real. Ayah 18 envisions God’s acts of judgement as crashing into and shattering falsehood, like a stone shattering pottery. Ayah 21 scoffs that the gods cannot resurrect the dead [which would undo God’s punishment]. Ayah 43 belittles the gods as incapable of self-defense because they aren’t real. The surah is trying to shake fear into its scoffers by shouting, “You’re going to die! Don’t know know you’re going to die? Can your gods resurrect you from death? Can they protect you from death? Don’t you know what is going to happen to you when you die?” Even believers are said to be in fear of the Day of Judgement (ayah 49), but it is their fear that commends them to God.

To be clear, it is God who is the threat here, not Muslims. God is the one punishing. God is the one weighing the souls. Ordinary Muslims are strictly in a passive role here. They are portrayed as beneficiaries of judgement, patiently waiting to inherit the recreated earth. Unlike other times where believers have been portrayed in Paradise jibing their oppressors in Hell with mocking questions, here the believers bask in Paradise remote from Hell’s terrors and unable to hear its sound. Tranquility (rather than luxury) defines Paradise in the surah. Believers are mentioned solely to contrast the current flippancy and the coming terror of the disbelievers. Moreover believers are not the audience of today’s surah and aren’t spoken to. All the text is speaking to unbelievers and warning them that becoming Muslim is the only way to survive.

Back to “Why?”

So after examining creation and destruction in this surah, once more I want to return to the question, why? Why did God create, especially if his creation was going to result in so much suffering? Ayah 23 dismisses this kind of question as off-limits. God’s actions are beyond question, the ayah says, and it’s mankind’s actions that will be questioned.

To some degree, I get this shutdown of all questions. God’s motivations are rather irrelevant in the face of His plans and ability to carry them out. Does it matter why God does what He does when the “why” doesn’t change your options for surviving? Yet that shutdown does also highlight the disquieting character of God that dissuades so many people of God’s existence. God’s aloofness, absolute power, willingness to be violent, and disposable attitude towards His creation accumulates to paint Him as an abuser. His adherents’ efforts to submit-and-like-it for the sake of survival looks more like a victim who has developed Stockholm syndrome. For many people, this toxic relationship makes an oxymoron out of a religion and destroys its credibility in their eyes.

Christianity and Judaism also struggle with this question, I’m not going to deny. One thing that they do in contrast, however, is empower their adherents to question and make demands of God. The Bible’s heroes often wrestle with God, urging Him to be more merciful, asking Him to change His will, questioning why He does what He does. God responds positively to these interactions, sometimes even changing His will and blessing the one who questioned Him. While this element certainly makes our theology confused and complicated, with adherents not always sure how to reconcile this with the omnity and omni-goodness of God, it does change how we understand our relationship with Him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.