Surah 26: The Poets

Almost a year back I made this chart to envision whether it was ever going to get easier writing content about the Quran’s suwar. It’s a bad chart, and that’s mostly because it assumes that the Quran’s ayat have a fairly consistent size across suwar. Even at that time, this fallacy should have been obvious, but today’s situation particularly makes it clear. The last surah we covered, Surah al-Furqan, was 77 ayat long. Today’s is 227. Yet they feel very similar in length because today’s Surah ashShuʕaraa’, “The Poets,” is divided into very tiny ayat. So despite the sight of such a large number, be not dismayed, this surah is in fact pretty short.

It is also pretty repetitive, delving back into the prophet cycles. Because this is material I’ve seen before, and also because this material is more structured than usual, I’d recommend that you pick at least one section and read it yourself. I’m aware that most of my readers haven’t read the Quran, and are mostly enjoying my commentary. I’d feel better if you experienced at least some of the Quran directly, though, so that you have experience with which to judge whether I’m writing in proportion to the text itself. So pick one section, at the least, and give it a try.

1-9 Opening

We once more have context-less letters opening the surah. The second ayah goes. “These are the ayat of the clear Book.” A lot of suwar beginning with these context-less letters follow with some kind of statement of veracity. Some sources I have read claim that the statement of veracity is speaking backwards about the opening letters, interpreting the word ayat to mean “signs” rather than “verses,” and that the letters are in themselves signs from God (as that is one of the available meanings for ayat). I disagree with this idea –that the statement of veracity is connected to the letters– because many of the statements in other suwar (such as Al-Baqarah or Al-ʕaraaf) focus instead on the kitaab, “writing” or “book.” Blending both statements are others that say something along the line of “signs/verses of the book” or “book of clear signs.” I think these statements of veracity are aiming forward to the coming content, the book being recited, not backwards to the letters. For theories about the letters, the topic’s Wikipedia page has been updated within the past year to include new theories of interest.

Why do you think the Quran would preserve in its text statements of Muhammad’s emotional distress in his ministry? It speaks of him as being driven to the point of self-harm in his desire to convert his rejectors. It is hard to decisively say whether this is supposed to commend or chastise Muhammad. On the one hand, a show of mercy and emotional distress makes Muhammad more sympathetic, portraying him as really caring about his opponents in a way that contrasts their disdain of him. But because the surah goes on to describe God’s disdain for the opposition, one also gets the sense that Muhammad is supposed to be in sync with God and hold the same aloof contempt for the disbelievers as God does.

Note on words and connotations. The adjective translated as “clear” in ayah 2 is a common one in the Quran, mubiin. Its roots, b-y-n, have to do with delineation and making distinction through separation, often between two things, but the word is not confined to that. When the Quran is describing itself as mubiin, it’s saying that it sets things apart, makes distinctions, and creates definition through which to see the world. Later on the word Sahih translates as “kind” (referring to kinds of creatures) in ayah 7 is zawj, a word that predominantly refers to paired sets (particularly mating pairs). These word choices speak to me of the Arabic culture that generated this language having a view of things in absolutes. Things are seen as separate from each other and not really in spectrums or combinations. All creatures are paired, in sets, and in a fixed order.

Ayat 10-68 Moses

My how the Quran loves Moses! In most suwar with the prophets, Moses gets set apart from the others through placement at either the front or rear of the list. This is somewhat understandable, since Moses’ ministry is very different than the other prophets’ and comes pre-equipped with a much larger lore. Since his story is so frequent in the Quran, and told with more detail, we can assume that it was the most central to how Muhammad’s ministry was meant to be interpreted. Today’s surah is understood to be a Meccan one, with Muhammad still on home turf and arguing with the Meccan leadership (which was his own family). Mind you, Muhammad was “thrice orphaned” as his various caretakers died, and he grew up on his extended family’s charity. That ties in well with Moses’ upbringing under the charity of Pharaoh. Probably the Meccan leadership considered Muhammad indebted and ungrateful as well.

So past suwar have shown Moses faced with the opposition of solely Pharaoh as central despot, or with the Egyptian community as a whole. This surah still centers its blame upon Pharaoh. The Egyptian community isn’t active in Pharaoh’s decisions, but rather reactive to them by being easily stirred up to attack the Hebrews.

This surah is the first to make more of Moses’ early murder of an Egyptian man, something only mentioned in passing in Ṭa Ha 40. The only thing we know about this murder as per the Quran’s statements thus far are that Moses did it in his times of ignorance, was saved by God from human jurisprudence but went through trials at God’s hand, and now stands before Pharaoh exempted from accountability. I find it curious that this Pharaoh, though knowledgeable of the crime, does not pursue it as a legal means of ridding himself of Moses. Perhaps we’d call that a “plot hole” these days, but it also could be interpreted as a case of God’s intervention inhibiting Pharaoh’s judgement. This example of not being condemned for sins done before one’s conversion might’ve been encouraging for those in Muhammad’s ministry, particularly later when a number of converts were those who had formerly killed Muslims.

The story of the showdown between Moses and the priests is again recounted. Why does this story get told in such consistent detail so frequently? Now, I’m not going to pick today that it doesn’t spell out the details, only that this story is told so frequently and so similarly each time. I don’t see any new nuance being brought out in this retelling, or a different angle on the story. It serves the same purpose, hits the same points, and provides the same narrative across each telling. So why would a book be written with this kind of repetition? As a recurring story in the sermons of a preacher’s long career, this makes sense. As a through-written book existing out of time, it does not.

In contrast to the priest’s showdown, the plagues get mentioned less frequently, with less detail, and with less consistence. That is conspicuous.

What kind of status quo are you left with at the end of the story? Which is to say, what becomes of the Hebrews and of the Egyptians? The ending of this section leaves the listeners on a high note. The Egyptians are destroyed, and ayah 59 describes the Israelites as inheriting the gardens and earthly blessings of the Egyptians, but we know that such was not the case. Yet ending the story on this overstated victory leaves an impression upon Muhammad’s listeners. What would they expect from their own story in reaction to this?

69-104 Abraham

Also getting pride of place is Abraham, perhaps because his story does not fit so cleanly into the prophetic cycle as the others. The Quran makes Abraham into a harbinger prophet, something he is not in Genesis, but here it is still a softer story and less formulaic than the other Quranic prophets. Noticeably absent is the threat and fulfillment of earthly destruction upon his rejectors. Without a narrative of cataclysmic judgement, the section keeps form with the surah’s cycles by closing out with visions of the day of judgement and the experiences of the disbelievers.

Abraham is strongly represented as a man of prayer. I find the prayers of Abraham interesting because they feel like the kind of unscripted prayer you’d find in protestant communities. He intercedes for others, asks fulfillment for his own soul and desires, and includes personal reflection. Now, to call these “unscripted” is ironic, for by existing in the Quran they have become a script. From my current understanding of Muslim prayer, or at least of the traditional ritual prayers, the experience is highly scripted and is particularly concerned with quoting Quranic passages.

105-191 The Others

Sorry to give this one to you in a bigger chunk, but I read them as all basically the same. As you go through them, take note of the repetition from story to story. To delineate the story sections further:

These prophets are all preaching to their own people of a coming judgement that gets fulfilled. I noticed how repetitive their introductions are. They all start with “[So-and-so] denied their messengers, when their brother [prophet] said to them, ‘Will you not fear Allah? Indeed, I am to you a trustworthy messenger. So fear Allah and obey me. And I do not ask for it any payment. My payment is only from the Lord of the worlds.'” The only curious difference is in the case of Shu’ayb, who doesn’t get described as a brother to his people. Elsewhere he is, so I suspect this is just an odd oversight in the repetition. (Also of interest, the murattal I listened to did not repeat melodies across repetitions. I’ve yet to pick up any musical theory from the murattal, and if you know a place where I could learn about them I’d appreciate the tip.) Narrative repetition like this would strike me as being significant to Muhammad’s ministry, as setting up his preaching and practices to match the set. Yet when it comes to that refusal of fiscal concern, I do always remember those passages in Surah at-Tawba telling the believers to fight the disbelievers until they submit to making payments.

Unlike the consistent messages of the messengers, the oppositions have diverse sins and responses. This paints the prophetic side as united and timelessly consistent, while painting the opposition as diverse and situational. Hubris is the constant trait of the opposition, whether they are hostile or apathetic to their prophets.

What role do the believers play in these cycles? Well, they are largely invisible, if existent at all. The converted priests of Moses’ story demonstrate that the followers will undergo persecution, but it is a passive and patient persecution. I would imagine it would have shocked these Meccan believers to read the later Medinian ayat demanding their possessions for purposes of war, their active hands at killing, and their blood on the battlefield to achieve their enemies’ judgement. It doesn’t match the way that God called upon the communities of Noah, Abraham, Moses, Salih, et al.

I guess to shorten what I’m saying, I see the prophetic stories of this surah as all serving the in-moment needs of Muhammad in Mecca. They validate his ministry and excuse him from turning people away from God through his fiery message. I don’t see them as reaffirming his whole ministry too well, especially not the political and militant way it turned by the end. God’s messengers do not demand payments for themselves or their cause. God’s messengers are sent to their own people, in their own language, not to foreign nations who cannot understand the revelation’s language or context. God does not deliver the persecuted by turning them into soldiers. God validates his prophets with miracles. The later turn of Muhammad’s ministry makes me cynical of that command “obey me.”

192-220 And Indeed

So perhaps if you’ve read multiple sections you have noticed each ends with a particular couplet phrase: “And indeed, in that is a sign, but most of them were not to be believers. And indeed, your Lord — He is the Exalted in Might, the Merciful.” This statement can be found at the end of each of our sections: 8-9, 67-68, 103-104, 121-122, 139b-140, 158-159, 174-175, 190-191. Considering that each couplet appears after a description of judgement, how do you react to those names of God, “the Exalted in Might, the Merciful,” or how would a Muslim react? The ending section of this surah is an expanded form of the couplet, while also recapping the material of the introductory section, while also placing Muhammad’s ministry within the cycle of the prophets.

The section opens itself with “and indeed,” continuing on to attest to itself as a sign and expand upon comments from the introductory section. Punishment is expanded upon, including added themes of earthen futility carried over from the prophetic cycles. The prophetic cycles are summarized with a pretty strong set of statements to the effect of, “at any time, through any prophet, to any people, most people will be disbelievers.” This is a very pessimistic view of humanity, and transmits to the believer that they will always be in the minority against a hostile world. This sub-section also closes by telling Muhammad how to properly handle preaching to his relatives: warn them, take care of your supporters, wash your hands of your rejectors.

Ayah 217 almost wraps up the surah with a tidy bow by commanding Muhammad (though the Arabic grammar there is odd) to rely upon “the Exalted in Might, the Merciful.” It would be a rather perfect bow, but the ayat roll on a little farther, still targeted at the singular “you” of Muhammad. It proceeds to warn Muhammad that God is watching him, every move he makes, every step he takes, and then closes with another set of names for God: the Hearing, the Knowing. This ending misses the nice literary ending of 217, but still is suitable. By mentioning that God is watching Muhammad, the surah reinforces that God is protecting His revelation by monitoring his prophet and is consistent with that idea of God being mighty (capable of protecting His revelation) and merciful (providing and preserving His revelation). But then…

221-227 Poets

I rather read the last seven ayat as a coda tacked onto the end of the surah. It is speaking to a general “you” rather than the singular one of the immediately preceding ayat, and this is available to support reading a shift in the material. There is some continuity with the preceding ayat that describe the revelation as being transmitted by a pure spirit and set apart from the reach of demons, while these closing ayat describe who deamons transmit to in lieu. But tonally this section is much more targeted, and much less tight with the thematic material of “you won’t be believed, and that’s not your fault” of the majority content. It’s hard to draw a thematic line in how this coda differs from the rest of the surah, because the Quran has an established pattern of inconsistency. By it’s own logic, nothing is not relevant to the themes of the Quran.

So this section seems to think of itself as pulling back the veil upon the source of poetry and puts the poets in the same class as liars. We can suspect reasons for literally demonizing poets here. One is that the Quran claims as evidence its “clear Arabic language” and that good examples of artful poetry challenge this claim to linguistic superiority. Another is that Muhammad gets dismissed as merely a poet, and so there’s perhaps a need to distance himself from the poetic community. And another, one that is traditionally held, is that the poets were satirizing Muhammad and the Muslims. Art is expression, and there is no ideology that can’t be challenged or derided through artistic expression. Historical records elevate poetry as the favorite art of the Arabs, well suited to their pride of their language and the transient lifestyle of their herders and nomads. The incorporeal art of poetry, passed around through migrant populations and stored in memory, would make poetry particularly frustrating as an art form to combat in contrast to others. If poetry was being used to satirize Muhammad and Islam, then we can perhaps see why the Quran would include such a generalized statement to dismantle it.

Regardless of the situation that triggered this denunciation, it is sloppy. By providing no context or qualifiers, it creates a blanket accusation of all poets and interprets all poetry as demonic. It calculates in no sense of poets and their ability to be wholesome or lecherous, libelous or laudatory. Obviously, this gets embarrassing for Muslims, who can find in Arab and all assimilated cultures rich poetic heritages that cannot be summed up as demonic influences. And even in the traditions there are mentions of Muhammad elevating some simple couplets that praise God, and of poets existing in the early Muslim community. So there became a need to build a permissible place in these ayat for some kind of poetry.

There is a clause for the availability of repentance in ayah 227. The translation of that sentence at its essentials is thus:

“Except those who believe, and do righteous deeds, and remember God much, and they defend themselves from after [i.e. in response to, according to] what they were wronged.”

Ayah 227a

At base, this ayah is offering a path of repentance by requiring the same kinds of duties and morality demanded of believers: belief, righteous deeds, mindfulness of God, measured and reactive self-defense. Due to the loose pronouns and multiple subjects available in the preceding ayat, it is possible to read this path as available to any of the listed subjects: the liars, the poets, the deviants. Assuming that it is specifically talking about the poets, however, there is nothing in this clause of repentance that addresses their poetry, for or against.

Several interpreters seek in this gap to add meanings that would make explicit in the surah what they hope is implicit: that poetry is acceptable and non-demonic when used for God’s purposes. The most defensible option is to explicitly define “those who” as the poets, and thus establish that poets get to maintain their identity as such throughout their conversion. In addition to this, several translations interpret the act of defending oneself to be through the application of poetry, with some translations even broadening the scope of this defense to be a noble defense of all Muslims. This would make explicit a positive role for poetry. Another traditional explanation (present more in tafsir than translations) is that the surah is referring to soothesayers, not poets categorically, and so the entirety of poets should not be read into the word “poets.” These are all interpretive leaps, adding into the text meanings that aren’t there, but they manage to save poetry as a viable art without bringing into question the Quran’s judgement on the issue.

My Reflection

This surah almost acheived standing in my mind as an elegant surah. It opened with a clear set of close themes and stuck to them. It set out to console Muhammad with the ideas that most men are destined to reject God’s revelation, and thus will earn damnation, and that it’s not the prophet’s fault. It follows with stories of other prophets facing rejection, always punctuated by that uniting thesis, “And indeed, in that is a sign, but most of them were not to be believers. And indeed, your Lord — He is the Exalted in Might, the Merciful.” The closing reassures Muhammad that no matter who, no matter when, no matter where, prophets have always been rejected by most of their audience and that God is responsible, for God planted disbelief in the hearts of men. It reinforces Muhammad’s credibility by declaring him free of demons and monitored by God. It reminds that the judgement does not calculate in any earthly stature, but only one’s standing before God. These things are all tight and consistent throughout the surah. Then the surah veers off-course to go run over some poets, and this robs the surah of its elegant consistency.

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