Surah al-Furqaan, “The Criterion,” introduces itself by praising God for sending down to his slave the furqaan with which to warn the world. That word, furqaan, means “distinction” or “differentiation” and has likewise been used to describe the Torah and Gospel. Though the word gets treated as a singular item I would speculate from the –aan ending (which usually indicates a dual plural) that a suitable translation would be something along the lines of “the dichotomy.” Mercy and damnation. Believers and concealers. The Quran is a book of extremes and contrasts with which to sort mankind. However harsh and scornful the Quran is of Muhammad’s opposition, it becomes soft as velvet where concerns it’s followers.
This dichotomy was easier for the Quran to paint in its Meccan era, such as what we’re reading today. In Mecca, there was no fear that hypocrites were entering the faith for purposes of financial speculation or security in the face of a growing military coalition. In Mecca, being pagan was the easy way, the advantageous way, the ostensibly intellectual way. In Surah al-Furqaan we’ll see the Quran contrast the current order of Meccan society to the promised order of the Judgement.
Note: Sahih makes some very strange translation choices in this surah. They certainly aren’t making these choices for clarity. Today, I’d recommend adding Abdul Haleem to your translation options.
A considerable portion of the surah is devoted to listing out the objections and dismissals of Muhammad’s message and authority. Most of the things in the list are familiar from previous suwar: he’s getting his material from other sources; his material consists of old legends and myths being dictated to him; he is under the effects of magic; he is simply too mundane to be taken seriously as a prophet; God has given Muhammad no physical validation to indicate support; if God sent an angel to one man why not send it to all of them; Muhammad is trying to take control of their religion and contradicting all their ancestors. In usual form, the surah does little to answer these except to dismiss them and answer with warnings of hellfire.
One small point in ayah 5 caught my attention. This objection seems to assume that Muhammad is a literate person who is capable of writing down dictation. That is interesting since, though certain Muslim communities desire to believe Muhammad was literate, it is more broadly believed that he was illiterate. Also, the charge in this ayah and the one before suspects Muhammad of being taught material by other people. This is a good time to remember that a similar charge was present in An-Nahl 103, which further speculated that Muhammad was being taught by someone foreign. I want to explain why Muhammad being taught a monotheist religion would be damning in the Meccan’s eyes. To the north of Arabia were the Romans (or Byzantines) and the Sassanians (think Persians if it helps). Each of these empires wielded their monotheistic religions for political consolidation. Any Arab who wished to jump ranks in society by receiving imperial gold and support would also likely court the religious institutions of the empire. In the north of the peninsula, religious and financial politicking had already created a client state for each empire. In the region where Mecca was situated the city-states were still unincorporated and independent. Muhammad’s proposals to replace the local culture with a monotheism that he personally administered might’ve looked pretty suspicious to the Meccan authorities wary of those who would court with empires.
Ayah 32 puts forward a heretofore novel question as to why the Quran wasn’t revealed in totality from the beginning. The Quran does give a response to this, which is that the revelation is coming in doses in order to space out the encouragement. This answer is apropos to Muhammad’s Meccan situation, where a large number of years passed with very little gains to the Muslims. The constant revelation of new material would have been the greatest sign of progress with which to validate the religion. Otherwise, there was no economic prosperity, no successful social reform, no rising social status available to encourage believers. I’m not even sure how many converts within the Meccan population there were, but they must’ve been small enough in number that when the population slipped away to Medina within the span of two months the Meccans paid little notice. In face of this lackluster evidence of worldly blessings, the progressive and repetitive revelation of scriptures promising them victory and divine favor would have been the greatest encouragement available. It is interesting, however, to imagine what they would have thought of the Quran had they heard from the very beginning its full range of content. At least some of the Muslims were not thrilled when their peaceful and charitable religion pivoted to demand their participation in warfare.
The opposition is here represented (both in the debates and the prophetic cycles) through their denial and cynicism, not violence or immorality. The surah rebukes their attitudes and ideas more than their cultural behavior or religious ritual. Their polytheism is the only element of their religion that is criticized. The deities are treated in ayat 17-19 as real beings, with the text seeming to suggest at least some of the deities are really mythologized ancestors. Otherwise in ayat 28-29, the disbelievers are said to lament taking Satan, or someone else serving Satan, as their ally upon witnessing the coming of the judgement. It is possible that it is only at that last moment the disbelievers recognize it was Satan they were in league with.
The disbelievers are yet again reduced and dehumanized as cattle. Later on we’ll read about the virtues of the believers, and since they are positioned in contrast to the disbelievers I cannot help but read those virtues as being denied in the disbelievers. The surah ends by telling the disbelievers that God has no value for them if He’s not receiving their prayer requests.
The believers, as the opposite of the unbelievers, are fittingly placed at the opposite end of the surah, starting in ayah 63. When reading these ayat, I am reminded again how different the experience of a believer reading the Quran must be to my own experience. These ayat are quite nice and encouraging, crediting many good qualities to the members of the community. The behaviors and attitudes believers are held to are all exemplary and constructive. Like I’ve said before, I can understand why someone would want to be a Muslim.
I wrote in the past about how the Quran prefers the term mu’minuun, “believers,” over the term muslimuun, “submitters.” Yet the latter term is by far the more culturally popular and I think this section of the surah encapsulates why that is. While belief is the key thing that divides people between Paradise and Hell, believers are called to a way of life in consequence of their belief. The roots of the term muslim are rich in connotations, ranging from submission to liberty to pacification (and reaching into its origins in proto-semitic, completeness). In this surah, the Muslims are prescribed a life of submission to law, moderation, and personal pacificity. Believers are described as leading dignified lives, neither retaliating to insults nor reacting to ill speech. They are receptive to their scriptures and lay their requests before God in prayer. They avoid extremes in spending and to take joy in their families. It is not a life of asceticism or opulence, but one of living your earthly life humbly and with simple pleasure. Submitting yourself to higher order creates freedom to enjoy life and a peaceful existence.
[There is one ayah that refers to striving against disbelievers with a great “striving,” jihaad, and it caught my attention because that wording is usually expected in Medinian suwar. It is a time to remember that jihaad is not inherently about warfare, and refers more to effort and expenditure. The command is also built to say “you strive” with a singular “you” and thus would be understood as directed specifically to Muhammad alone, not the community. This is probably why interpreters add “with the Quran” into their text despite it not being in the Arabic, since the Quran would’ve been Muhammad’s main ammunition at that time.]
So the question remains: why would you resist entering that placid, secure submission?
As I said in today’s introduction, in the society contemporary to the revelation of this surah the polytheist Meccans were the advantaged majority and the Muslims were the disadvantaged minority. This viewpoint is one way to contextualize what the Quran is trying to do when it portrays the sorting of souls in the resurrected world: it is envisioning for its adherents a world in which the status quo will be reversed. Christians will recognize this sentiment and tactic in Jesus’ teachings too, but what makes the Quran feel so different is the far greater extent to which it envisions the experience of those on each side of the sorting.
So let’s start with Hell: fire. Roaring, furious fire. Chains and tight confines. Being dragged on your face. Torment. The people are said to “abide/remain” therein. The word behind that meaning, khalid, connotes an indefinite amount of time, with translators usually favoring “abide eternally” in their translation since the word is equivalently applied to life in Paradise and such life would be understood as perpetual. This surah perhaps makes the hardest case against conditionalism since it tells those who are suffering and asking for destruction to ask for not one destruction but “many destructions.” This awkward phrasing I take to be a contrivance so that each ayah can end with this surah’s long-vowel+consonant+aa soft rhyming scheme. (Ayah 17 is the only non-rhyming ayah.) What I presume this phrase means is that the Quran is telling the people to want total destruction, perhaps of themselves and their neighbors. This communicates that the people are still being portrayed as selfish in Hell for not sympathizing with their suffering peers, and also suggests through implication that the people are being denied this destruction.
Paradise is called the jannat-ul-khuld, “Garden of Eternity,” and later on the “chamber, room.” In it, believers are greeted with salaam, “peace,” and granted whatever they wish. Believers reject Hell as a saa’at mustaqarraan wa-muqaamaan, “an evil settlement and resting place,” and are being promised a ḥasunat mustaqarraan wa-muqaamaan, “a good settlement and resting place.”
There is far less said about life in Paradise than life in Hell, and this perhaps reflects that the surah is targeting and preaching to disbelievers. It also reflects a tendency in the Quran to perceive fear of Hell as the bigger motivator than Paradise. Even the prayers of the believers in this surah are focused on pleading that God will spare them from Hell. While this message is perhaps targeted at disbelievers, it offers comfort and reward for the believers both in the form future reward and contemporary encouragement. The envisioned reversal of circumstances, in which the advantaged majority loses in the most ultimate form while they themselves not only avoid this suffering but gain the highest advantage, could be a delightful prospect to those who were suffering real insult and persecution.
A Dichotomy in Readership
This surah does not offer us anything new in substance, but I would classify it as “classic Quran.” If someone asked me “what is the Quran like” I would offer this surah to them as the perfect sample. It actually carries a little bit of everything we’ve already discussed in past suwar. There are no specific attempts at pecuniary or penal code or heightened calls to warfare, but those items are actually a minority pie-slice in the Quran’s pie chart of material. Instead it is samples the majority content of the Quran thus far –divine flexing, dismissing opposition, resurrection threats and tidings, prophetic cycles– for the usual effect of pitting non-believers against believers.
This surah represented to me a standing point from which to recognize how different the reading experience is for a believers rather than a unbeliever. As I read this surah from my perspective as an unbeliever, I see the portrayed pig-headedness of the disbelievers, the dismissal of their intellectual validity, the way that they are denied virtue through negative contrast, and the lingering threats that trend too close to gloating. What I imagine a believer would get out of this, however, is a feeling of gratitude to look at all the chaos and suffering they have avoided, the arrogance they are not party to, the intellectual and moral superiority they are credited, the peace and good living they are called to, the future that will make up for the suffering of this current life. I understand why a Muslim would want to be Muslim, and at least here I can imagine how they could read these passages and miss what implication I am finding abhorrent. It’s easier to not think about things that aren’t being applied to you. A person’s placement in this dichotomy does affect what they get out of the Quran.
In truth, I think that is the central mechanism and intent of the Quran at this point in its history, and the reason why it talks in extremes. It seeks to rouse up its opposition into self-incrimination, and bully you into proving you aren’t that way by submitting to it. According to the Quran, if you don’t like what’s in the text, it’s because you relate too much to the non-believers, probably because you are one. It’s not the Quran, it’s you. You should become a believer, it’s as easy as repentance and a life of peaceful, moral submission. Then these harsh ayat will stop bothering you –they’ll flatter and encourage you instead. So why aren’t you becoming a believer? Don’t you care about virtue and honesty? Don’t you want God to care for you? What, is Hell better than Paradise?
Sorry, if you thought the post was done, but I have some comments on the divine flexing present in this surah and it wasn’t sufficient for its own post. Nothing in this batch is particularly novel, so you don’t have to read this, but perhaps it’ll improve your reading experience? Anyways, here it is.
Some of the divine flexing in this surah serves as a response to the cynicism of the disbelievers. A number of their jabs at Muhammad involve God seeming apathetic or unable to validate His messenger. Thus the surah in flexing is asserting that just because God hasn’t done something, it doesn’t mean He isn’t able to. God hasn’t provided for Muhammad a sustaining garden –but that’s not because He can’t do so! God is only using one messenger –but that’s not because He couldn’t send more! Why God will or won’t do something is held beyond questioning though, as evidenced by the surah never raising or answering that question.
Today’s brief prophetic cycles fall into the category of divine flexing. They are not told here in a narrative fashion, not even being brought up in any order or mentioning all the names of the prophets involved. The resulting emphasis is on the destruction of these communities and the power that God showed in doing so. Just like the examples from nature, the known ruins of one of the dead towns is held up for contemplation. These might be the ruins of Mada’in Saleh that we’ve seen referenced in the Quran a few times before, but it is worth noting that the destruction here is called “a rain of evil,” which aligns more with how the Quran will later describe the destruction of ‘Aad. The Quran links Mada’in Saleh with the Thamudi people who it described as being annihilated by seismic destruction. So perhaps it is another abandoned town the Quran is referencing. Anyhow, the emphasis is far more upon the destruction God is capable and willing to execute, so that the only moral driven home is “don’t mess with God.”
Though the images in today’s flexing are familiar, they do show a welcome variety in presentation. We’re used to seeing God lauded for His command of time, but today’s adulations measure that time by shadows more than celestial bodies. I want to note that ayat 45-46 demonstrate a weird translation choice on Sahih’s part and I don’t understand it. Perhaps it is because the text says God draws the shadow “toward Us,” and this idea is hard to make sense of when God is an omni-present non-spatial being. Sahih just seems to have preferred replacing it with an unrelated idiom. The whole image is strangely put anyways, as the sun is said to be made “for it” (for the shadows?). I take it all to mean at a deeper level that God is able to manipulate time, which would be read through shadows and the position of the sun, and that control over shadows isn’t actually the substance of the boast.
There’s also the usual references to the six-day creation, the command of weather, the creation of mankind from water, and the existence of the sun and moon. I find it interesting my copy of Sahih International explains the “water” that man is created from to be semen. Many Quran-science apologists seize upon the idea that the Quran already knew about the primordial soup, but perhaps Sahih is concerned because the Quran has also said mankind is created from clay? Perhaps it doesn’t want to alienate its readers who believe that (whether or not the rest of life evolved) God directly created mankind. The sun and moon ayah is also significant in the Quran-science discussion because the sun is desribed as a “fiery lamp” and the moon as “luminous.” Is the Quran demonstrating unprecedented scientific knowledge the the moon’s light is reflective? There’s a whole lot of semantic argument around that one, and it deserves its own post with a wider view. Another time.