Surah 23: The Believers

Ayah 1: Qad ‘aflaḥ al-mu’minuun, “Already the Believers succeed.”

Something of interest in the Quran is how rarely it calls its adherents Muslims. Muslim comes from the roots s-l-m, which build words themed around peace, freedom, surrender, and submission. Though the world by and large has settled on the word “Muslim,” the Quran chooses to define its adherents using words built from the roots ‘-m-n, which build words relating to belief, trust, and security. Rather than muslimuun, the Quran far more often calls its adherents mu’minuun or “those who believe.” For the Quran, belief/trust is the defining trait of the adherents. Compare the frequency with which submission appears in the Quran to the frequency with which it mentions belief or those who believe/d and you’ll see the latter is far far more favored as the central issue.

Surah al-mu’minuun, “The Believers,” continues to add to our familiar theme of contrasting those who believe with those who turn over Muhammad’s message. In 118 ayat the lens will pan from the upright character of the believers, to those who refuse to believe in the prophets, to the crookedness of the disbelievers and their fates.

Believing is Being…

Above I said that the Quran more frequently identifies its adherents as believers than submitters, which perhaps is a symptom of the viewpoint that belief produces submission and thus is the starting point for defining submission. We can kind of see this viewpoint in the first 11 ayat of the surah. While the first ayah defines the community as believers, the believers are then defined by the kinds of actions and restrictions they take upon themselves. They are humble in their prayers, limit their language, practice charity, concern themselves with chastity, and honor their pledges and trusts/deposits (a word also derived from ‘-m-n). It is interesting that the believers are here being defined by their behavior with no comment on their beliefs. This isn’t saying that correct belief doesn’t matter as much as correct response (the following ayat will make that clear), but it is instead more equivalent to the Christian scripture that “faith without works is dead,” (James 2:26). The Quran wants it to be clear that correct mind and action are required to earn Paradise. It is saying that believing is being morally upright in these ways.

(Note on Paradise, the word used in ayah 11 is Firdaus. Arabic has no “p” sound, and its listeners often substitute either “b” or “f” in foreign words with P. With that in mind, can you see the word “paradise” in “firdaus.” Check out the etymology of Paradise, it’s actually a Persian word.)

Within the nine ayat that describe the requisite moral characters of believers, three of them are on the topic of sexual restriction…of some sort. “Those who –of the space between their legs– are protectors,” is the more literal translation of ayah 5, and it can be taken to refer directly to modesty or euphemistically to chastity. Ayah 6 and 7 explain that there is no blame if you don’t follow ayah 6 in regards to your spouses and those your right hand possesses, i.e. slaves. Note that the surah does not actually say “their wives,” ‘azowjaatuhum, but “spouses,” ‘azwaajahum. This ayah is speaking to a default audience of unspecified gender (masculine plural always potentially includes mixed company). There is a way of specifying “wives” but the Quran has not done so, moreover the euphemism for slave, “those whom your right hand possesses,” has no specific gender either. If this ayah is referring to sex, it allows plenty of room to interpret that women can have sex with their husbands and their slaves free of condemnation. Given some assumptions about the culture (not to mention the proclaimed guilt of Mrs. al-Aziz for trying to seduce her slave) it is possibly the case that this surah is making a concession for some of the limits to modesty in a household. Spouses can see you intimately naked, and slaves can too, probably while they help you bathe or get into fancy dress. That being said, how would this reading of the ayah apply to children? And what about grown children who have to take care of aged parents? That sometimes involves situations where covering intimate areas doesn’t work either. If this ayah is about modest covering, it is not sufficient for all life’s necessities. If this ayah is about sex, it uses poor word choice that provides moral license in ways the culture (and Surah Yusuf) does not approve of.

…And yes, it also would be giving people permission to have sex with their slaves. This is one of those things that we recognize as injustice today, but was just taken for granted in its times. Legal rules around reproduction were implied to be about making sure the man was held responsible for any childbearing the woman underwent as a result of his good time, with slavery and marriage both deemed a suitable framework to ensure his provision. These legal rules did not provide justice for the woman’s will in the matter, but they did provide security.

Divine Flexing

I’ve decided “divine flexing” is a good way to encapsulate this recurring content in the Quran where God describes His own power. As in the last surah, God here describes the process of gestation so as to demonstrate His authority over the unseen aspects of human life. The process of gestation here is somewhat like the process last surah, but with the addition of the development of the skeleton. It goes like thus: humankind from clay (again possibly meaning the original creation), then a lodged sperm-drop, sperm drop to clinging/blood clot, clot to bite-sized-lump-of-flesh, lump-of-flesh to bones, then the bones are clothed with meat/muscle. This description of the skeleton getting clothed with muscle isn’t quite in line with current knowledge that the skeleton grows within and alongside muscle and is still converting from cartilage to bone well after birth while the baby is learning to use its muscles. Do I think the Quran is thus debunked? No, you can extend grace to it and say that it’s not being a scientific textbook; you shouldn’t take its words so literally as to imagine a bare skeleton inside the womb awaiting flesh to grow around it. The ayah lacks textbook specificity, and thus does not demonstrate particular scientific insight, but it again does not exceed the limits of gracious interpretation.

The examinations of nature in the Quran have overwhelmingly been case studies on how things beyond mankind’s control serve to benefit mankind. In today’s case the surah describes how God created seven paths in the sky (probably a reference to the movements of the seven classical planets), the rain, horticulture (particularly dates, grapes, and what seems to be olives), dairy animals, cargo animals, and naval passage. At first I looked askance at the connection of olive trees to Mount Sinai, as Sinai is a barren land. The ayah seems to suggest Mt. Sinai is the original place from which God provided olives trees, perhaps even making olives a symbol of the Law through this link. I could find no evidence that olives were ever native to Sinai, but you cannot write off this passage as debunked because there are still facts available to give it meaning. As it turns out there are a number of gardens and orchards cultivated in the Sinai valleys. They are incredibly man-made gardens, being the creations of Byzantine monks, hermits, and Bedouin, yet the existence of these little agricultural pockets in such a cruel desert does look miraculous. They are products of human ingenuity, but the Quran has given God credit for such before and does so later when it credits God for naval voyages. Though you can’t definitively say that olives originated from Mt. Sinai, you can’t say they don’t grow there either.

https://cdn.britannica.com/700x450/51/126951-004-9E21C59D.jpg

St. Catherine’s Monastery by Mount Sinai

Prophets

The surah has set up that believers are promised success, called to goodness, and provided goodness by a God who has been good to humankind. From this starting point the focus starts shifting over to the people who resist the God-sent prophets who preach monotheism to this God. The only specific prophets mentioned are Noah and Moses/Aaron, with the unnumbered intervening generations between all encapsulated in identical narratives. (Mary and son are name-dropped, but they are not included in the prophetic cycles.) Only Noah’s ministry gets narrative detail. The two-by-two collection of animals from the Genesis story finds affirmation here. There is an odd word choice in saying that God caused the “oven” to overflow with floodwater, which perhaps derives from rabbinic lore that says the floodwater gushed from hot springs. I did note that God forbids Noah from trying to advocate for mercy towards the people. This is in line with when God forbids Abraham from pleading for Lot’s cities in Surah Hud and in other ayat banning prophets from asking God to widen His predetermined mercy.

The blanket summary of all these tales is that the prophets came teaching correct belief, and that the leaders of their consecutive communities successfully dissuaded their communities from heeding the prophet. Emphasis always falls upon the leaders of “those who kafaruu.” Kafaruu is a word related to concepts of rejection, turning over soil, and concealing (see كفر, p.2620-2623). It implies not just rejection, but actively working against and trying to conceal that which is being rejected. The leaders of those who kafaruu level an intellectual counter to the prophets, questioning why God would communicate through an ordinary –perhaps even insane– man rather than an angel and rejecting the ideas of an afterlife or resurrection. A nice summary of the disbelievers’ stances is in ayah 23: “Surely he is but a man who invented a lie about God, and not do we in him believe.”

Again, I have to say that the resistors are, as presented here, intellectually valid on their own grounds. These prophets (excepting Moses and Aaron who are given signs) are not said to be demonstrating miracles. It is fair to question why, if God only communicates with men through angels as Islam traditionally holds, He would send an angel to only one man and not to the whole community. There is also no reason to believe in the resurrection, as the Quran has not yet told of resurrected characters in its lore (unlike Christianity). Whether you believe God can resurrect has no comment on whether you believe God will resurrect. And again we have the unbelievers citing the examples and teaching of their ancestors, an argument that has strength out of familial respect and the belief that survival surely indicates credibility. These rejectors have no reason to change their intellectual framework on grounds of evidence before them. It really is one man’s word against a whole culture’s history and experience.

This portion of the surah is interesting because the disbelievers are being defined more by their lack of ‘amiin, “belief, trust,” in each prophet rather than by their evil character, polytheism, or deeds. Here, Noah’s people only shrug him off and say something along the lines of “time will tell.” Their reaction is reasoned, their conclusions about the prophet are that he isn’t right in the head, and they take a passive live-and-let-live stance. They hardly seem to deserve the glee Noah shows when he praises God for delivering him from the “wrongdoers.” The implied many generations of similar events plays out with the same conflict of intellectual disagreement. It isn’t until the Egyptian court that the disbelievers are specifically described as arrogant and suppressive. Otherwise, the only aspect of their kafarru and wrongdoing to be mentioned is merely disagreeing with and distrusting the motivations of the prophets. And the stories still conclude that this is enough to warrant their violent destruction.

Comparing Believers to Disbelievers

The section on the prophets transitions fairly smoothly to a comparison between Believers and Disbelievers. God commands the messengers to eat good things, do good deeds, and be of one ‘ummah, “community” or “religion.” This word ‘ummah comes from the roots ‘-m-m, which build words themed around fundamental identity. Sometimes the identity is established through themes of ‘umuumah, “motherhood,” but often it is established though behavior. A lot of the related words in the long Lane’s Lexicon entry (p.88-92) have to do with setting a precedent, exemplifying a precedent, or conforming to a precedent. In contrast, ayat 52-54 depict a “them” cutting their instructions into pieces, with everyone getting zuburan, “a sheet,” for themselves and building their tribe around this partial information. God lets these confused communities prosper and falsely feel successful in their…genuine success. Ayat 54-56 paradoxically mock earthly success: Do you think God gives you good things because He intends to give you good things?

We get another description of the believers, this one featuring more belief in the mix of behaviors and characteristics. They live cautiously out of fear/respect for God, they believe in His signs, they do not attribute things with God, and they tithe because they fear God and know He will judge them on the basis of their charity –in fact, they give more than other people do. This description is contrasted with a short description of the unbelievers, who the surah has remembered to attribute bad actions to now. Ayah 63 is very hard to read in Arabic. Literally it says: “Nay, their hearts [are] in [a state of] engulfment from this, and for them a deed from besides that they for it [are] doers.” This grammatical yoga is probably done to end the sentence with “doers,” which matches the light syllabic rhyming scheme present in this surah and a few other past suwar. (This is also why most native speakers of Arabic can’t read the Quran.) My takeaway from this is that the “they” being held in contrast to the believers are doing deeds beyond what was prescribed for them.

The people recognize God when He comes to destroy them, but He scorns their recognition as too late in the face of how they handled His prior warning, in that they turned on their heels from the rehearsal of the signs/verses. Ayah 67 includes a word that I looked up, saamir, which interestingly enough means “night conversations.” I liked finding this as it gave me fresh insight into the old Arabic world. Just as they had a word for “night journeys,” ‘israa, they also have a word for conversations/storytelling/revelry that happens at night. It’s like if the British Islanders had a specific word to encapsulate an evening spent with friends in the pub. That’s essentially what’s being communicated here but in an Arabic context. The people are going out (the last word, translated as “speaking evil,” is actually the word “foresakening” or “going out” by my parsing) from hearing the signs and mocking it in their evening gatherings. Later on we get an ayah where God declares that it is because the disbelievers laughed at the believers that they forgot to remember God, a statement which indicts satire as both an expression and driver of disbelief.

Here We Go Again…

So from here on out the surah is focused on the damnation of the disbelievers, their reactions to judgement, their pleading for a second chance, their identity as liars, their physical misery as they burn, their inability to remember the length of their lives in contrast to eternity. We have more accusations of their ingratitude for the things that God has provided for them. We have more paradoxes of disbelievers being either deluded by their prosperity or deluded by their hardships, and both prosperity and hardship being equal omens to destruction. The idea of a pantheon of deities is once more declared impossible in the face of a functioning world. This is all remixed material of things we have heard before. The penultimate statement of the surah is that, indeed, the disbelievers are not succeeding.

I want to mention one section that feels calmer and I think works well as an establishing argument for Islam’s monotheism. Ayat 84-90 lists questions that appeal to the identity of one superior god in the pantheon. The questions are definitely leading questions, dismissive of any nuance in the answers or apologetics of their audience, but I think they do create a base for a decent argument. If in a pantheon there is one deity who is the answer to all the leading questions of the ayat, then why would there need to be other deities? What purpose would those other deities serve? Protestants talk to Catholics like this, so I’m familiar with the tactic and understand the perspective. I do think that there are valid explanations of other deities/saints in such a framework. For example, a god as powerful as The God coordinates so very many matters –of which my life is probably of little significance– that maybe it helps to have the advocacy of someone who matters more in the grander scheme of things. There’s that question that even if God can do something for me, whether He will do something for me is a different consideration. And there’s also the possibility that just as God created humans on the earth, He potentially created and oversees other intelligent agents who can provide aid to human beings. While I don’t agree with either of those perspectives since I don’t believe that God has done such things or that such aligns with His will, I cannot assert that people are being unreasonable in holding them. Both sides of the issue are equally justified in shouting to the other: “But where’s your evidence?!

It is fair to notice how sympathetically I am treating the disbelievers. I do want to clarify that I don’t think they are particularly innocent. Though I’ve described them according to the scriptures today as demonstrating only reasonable, passive responses to their prophets (and I always assume these narratives are being applied to Muhammad’s ministry), I don’t doubt when the Quran mentions elsewhere that Muhammad’s followers were persecuted by them, that they did commit sins, that there were needs for reform in their society and religion. Such things are very human and I’ve no reason to distrust that the disbelievers in Mecca weren’t thoroughly human. Yet this surah continues the practice of ascribing virtues only to believers. By only presenting disbelievers in contrast to believers it is implied that disbelievers have no such virtue and this dehumanizes them. So because the Quran dehumanizes disbelievers in all its portrayals (I’d argue that while Joseph’s king is implied to not be a Muslim, he is also never classed as a disbeliever since he has no encounter with Joseph’s religion) I feel a need to extend empathy towards them and make up the difference.* If you can relate to the opposition, then you can absorb the teachings they failed to absorb. If you cannot relate to the opposition –say, because they are arrogant liars with no positive traits or motivations– then the only thing left to do is share God’s indifference to and loathing for them.

Also, I’m a terrible missionary. I’m more of an ambassador.

Performed Religion

So implicit in this surah is the idea that religion is not just something you believe in, but something you do. Though the Quran calls its adherents “the Believers,” it demands actions of its believers. Belief still gets priority in the title, but submission gets heavy weight in the teachings. In a way, this explicit order of belief and actions is a strength for Islam. I’ve read in forum discussions (by the way, miserable places to be), that Christians are to be pitied because they don’t know how to do their religion, and I understand this jab. Christians don’t really quite know how to do Christianity. The biographies of Jesus only preserved a fairly small core of his teachings, and that core is mostly centered around (a) his identity (b) reversing the way the world works (c) arguments that perfection is impossible on earth (d) that what the world needs is mercy, and (e) connecting all of the above to God’s will. Noticeably absent in that core are laws and rituals, with only baptism and communion having a leg in as ritual, and lo: Hey, we sprinkle! Hey, we immerse! Hey, we drink from tiny cups! Hey, we drink of from one big cup! Hey, we dip our bread! Hey, we don’t do that at all! Likewise, Christianity has many divisions over the question of how mercy and actions work in salvation. No one denies that mercy is the critical point. No one denies that Christians are called to good action. No one agrees with how to articulate the interplay of those two things. So there is a strength in Islam for having said that your identity is established by belief, but your status in Paradise is established by your actions done in that belief. It is a religion that must be performed, and your performance determines your status, and the Quran boasts that its adherents perform virtue better than anyone —they are foremost in good deeds!

But deeds are not really the central issue, and this surah exemplifies that in the way it portrays its disbelievers. They are not persecuting through force, extorting money, or breaking oaths in this surah. Instead it is their disbelief that defines them, and the fact that they argue against and mock the Quran and its messenger. Disbelief is really the only thing that matters in the scale of wrongdoing. Disbelief alone is what warrants destruction.

And this leads me to observe something that perplexes me about the Quran thus far: how little it has actually teaches its believers. We have had a few teachings about laws and rituals, but not really the comprehensive examinations that spell out the full principle or application (case in point, today’s teaching about guarding the space between one’s legs). Instead of teaching its believers, the Quran has thus far spent more time cyclically teaching its disbelievers that they are going to hell for not listening to its teachings, the bulk of which is that they are going to hell for not listening to its teachings, the bulk of which is that…

I will say that this surah is thorough-written in what I felt to be a coherent thread of thoughts. I enjoyed the initial portion of positive attributions expected of believers, and my experience was only soured once it became clear that those virtues were being used to indict non-believers: who must they be to reject these teachings of goodness? My hope is that we’ll come to future suwar with a purer focus on just being Muslim and believing in God. I hope that we’ll come across more ayat that praise the power and mercy of God without the intent to immediately indict disbelievers and say they are incapable of appreciating such things. I hope to read a surah in which the prayers to God do not revolve around being unlike the hell-bound them over there. Even al-Fatihah could not do this. Is there really nothing else to think about as a mu’min?


*This is an exercise I also practice when reading the Gospels, where the Pharisees rarely get a kind word. Jesus directs several of his teachings towards the Pharisees, with harsh wording, and these teachings have fueled their fair share of antisemitism. If you cannot empathize with the Pharisees, then you lose sight of the fact that these teachings are aimed at you too, and perceive the Pharisees as a them that needs to be dealt with. Jesus chastised the Pharisees for their legalism and use of religion as a status symbol. It does need to be noted though that Jesus does deliberately break Torah in a number of places and encourages his followers to do the same. He’s threatening more than the Pharisees’ status as power-holders, he’s flouting the Law (particularly its purity codes) they submitted themselves to and loved for fear of God. Their reaction is the same as the reaction of any religious institution, and if Christians cannot understand that then we lose the insight into how our own love of religion goes wrong. (Return to jump point)

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