Surah 28: The Stories, Part 3

While the past two posts have been full of tidbits and curiosities concerning the story of Moses, Surah al-Qaṣaṣ, “The Stories,” contains more than just content relating to Moses. In today’s post I’ll address some final points and a new story in the surah, but one that is also vaguely Biblical. Why does the Quran spend so much time retelling Biblical material? Is it trying to appeal to Jew and Christians through their own stories? Is it deliberately redacting those stories to correct Jews and Christians? Or it is just laying out exposition with the preppy conceit of saying “I know stuff too, you guys”?

The Quran lays out its narratives with an agenda. It is never short of didactic intent. Is there one agenda that explains the odd set of stories in this surah?

Muhammad is not Moses

When the Quran recounts the tales of other prophets, it usually is doing so in order to apply the social commentary of those stories to Muhammad’s audience. All prophets are opposed by the authorities of their communities, it says, and see how those authorities ended up? The point is to draw an analogy between those prophets and their opposition with Muhammad and his opposition. The frequency with which Moses’ story gets told speaks to the fact that Muhammad was really likening himself to Moses. Champion, liberator, bringer of Law. The backfire of these stories, though, is that they also point out an embarrassing contrast between Muhammad and these other prophets: miracles. Moses had miracles, big miracles, many miracles to validate his ministry. Where are Muhammad’s miracles?

Expositing the prequel events of Moses’ life bring Moses into contrast with Muhammad. Muhammad had a pretty simple, normal life before his prophethood. His community was under no great humanitarian crisis, just the normal social imbalances between the privileged and the poor. He grew up under his family’s charity, that’s true, but this was not a hardship in the sense that he suffered. Nor was he anything more or less than a lawful member of the community when he became adult. This stands apart from the history of Moses, whose race was being systematically culled, who was thrown into a river as a child, and who committed murder/manslaughter as a young adult.

This desire to contrast Muhammad from Moses can be seen in ayat 44-46. This section uses pretty obtuse rhetoric, requiring the translators to assume a lot of implied meanings and words, but it sets up the contrast between Moses and Muhammad. Usually when we’ve seen “you weren’t there when…” statements in prior suwar they were verifying that God is the only witness available for the story, therefore no one can contest the provided details of revelation. Ayah 44 could still be interpreted in this light, but ayah 45 makes its point that Muhammad is removed from Moses in both time and location. 46 makes the contrast explicit by highlighting that Moses’ prophetic commission on the side of the mountain, a story told in this surah, had nothing to do with Muhammad. Muhammad wasn’t there. Muhammad’s commission is to reform a community with no prophetic history. He has no obligation to replicate the ministry of Moses or be measured against him. Thus when it’s mentioned in ayah 48 that the people are demanding of Muhammad deeds and products like Moses’, the Quran has already supplied its answer.

Then again, this story still does have some comparisons to Moses. Muhammad was never thrown into a river, but he was raised under the patronage of the leadership of Mecca (who were his own family). I already mentioned that the one-of-the-two-women who Moses married potentially resembles Khadija, who first employed Muhammad and then proposed to him through the appropriate male representative. Then there is also that Moses’ ministry didn’t start until he was older and with a family. And Muhammad was also called into ministry on the side of a mountain, though a different mountain than where Moses was called. Moses shows some reluctance or fear in going into his ministry, which did resemble Muhammad’s initial reaction too. So maybe my case that this story was told in the spirit of contrast is not so strong. It could be that this surah is just filling out Moses’ backstory for the sake of doing so.

When I come to think of it, very few of the Quran’s prophets have origin stories. Joseph, Jesus, Abraham, and Moses are the only ones whose ministry have more introduction than “and we sent to such-and-such the prophet so-and-so.” Joseph’s ministry least resembles any other prophet in that he does not set out to convert and reform. He doesn’t have a moment of prophetic commission, but rather his story is more a case of stuff happening to him and God guiding him through it all. Jesus is an active prophet literally from birth, so Mary kind of receives his prophetic commission for him. Abraham is the closest thing to a self-made prophet in that he comes to monotheism rationally and then acts upon that conviction. We never see him receive a commission though. In the end, there’s quite a bit of diversity in the origin stories of these prophets. They are also characters who are very fleshed out in the traditional and scriptural materials of Jews and Christians.

See How I Glitter

There is another story in this surah spanning ayat 76-83, that of a new character, Qarun. (Sorry dyslexics, for this section only just assume that any incident of Qarun is referring to the character and not the book.) Qarun is described as being from the people of Moses, but I don’t know where he’s placed in the timeline. “People of Moses” could just simply mean “Hebrews” regardless of timeline relative to Moses. There’s easy arguments to be made for him living before, with, or after Moses. I’m going to guess he’s supposed to post-date Moses, since the text positions him as having some kind of authority over the other people and Moses’ authoritative role doesn’t figure in. There’s not really enough detail to anchor him to anything though.

Qarun’s story is told as a cautionary tale. The key to his character is right in his introductory sentence, where it says that Qarun baghaa over the people of Moses. That word derives from roots that have to do with seeking, and in this case has to do with self-exaltation, seeking one’s own glory. This gets translated as “tyrannized” by Sahih because it’s assumed someone who is so covetous would behave like a tyrant, but that’s a bit inaccurate. Qarun’s defining sin is not that he’s powerful and bossy. He’s incredibly rich, incredibly blessed by God, but it’s never enough for him. He wants to be envied by and elevated above the people.

Qarun’s sin also is not a false sense of self-sufficiency, as has been the case with other past villains. He knows that his blessings come from God, and in his mind that is all the more reason why his blessings should be seen and recognized. It is a perversion of the gratitude he is supposed to be feeling.

Since Qarun’s sin is elevating himself over other people thanks to his riches, it is only suitable that his opposition in this case is the ordinary people. This is the first time we’ve really seen the common masses being proactive in their religion. The Quran has largely been a book of central protagonists, of prophetic leaders who do all the work. The role of the people has thus far only been to submit to their leaders or be punished for not doing so. This story is a case of the people refusing to submit to an unjust leader and taking him to task. In one sense they are still passive, since God does all the work for them of actually taking Qarun to task, but still their refusal to be led astray is not something we’ve seen before.

Qarun is usually understood as an analogue to the character Korah from the Biblical Book of Numbers. The scope and setting of these stories was so different that it makes no sense comparing/contrasting. Korah is a very interesting character in Jewish tradition, often positioned as a reasonable and relatable opposition to Moses. There would be a lot to dissect, unload, and establish about him before I could compare/contrast him to this Qarun. But by the broadest of strokes, the stories both communicate a condemnation of seeking your own prestige and glory, however much you might think you deserve it, and both versions die with God cracking the earth beneath them.

Talking to Meccans

Who is the intended audience of this surah? The introduction is talking to the singular “you” that is Muhammad, but it is intended that Muhammad will relay these words to the Meccan opposition of his early ministry. We know this because ayah 57 describes their location as a safe place, but one where food has to be brought. Mecca’s geopolitical situation was that it was enclosed in a defensible valley, but one that was poorly suited for agriculture. It had water springs which attracted caravan routes, and a religious temple that attracted religious pilgrimages, providing a lively trade economy in which food and resources were always passing through the area. When the Quran does address a “y’all,” it is chastising people who have not accepted its words and who worship multiple deities, so we know that the audience is not directly believers, but disbelievers.

I point this out because some people believe that when the Quran is retelling Biblical stories that it is talking to People of the Book, i.e. Jews and Christians. I’ve heard it said that the Quran tied Biblical material into its text in order to appeal to Jews and Christians. In this instance it is not. Notice that when People of the Book do get mentioned, they are held in contrast to the audience at hand. People of the Book accept the words being presented, ayat 52-54 claim, and they will get double the reward because of their belief before and after this revelation. The People of the Book are positioned to inspire envy in the intended audience. Their legacy is being laid claim to by the Quran to compete with the cultural legacy of the pagans in Mecca. They are not being interacted with, they are just being used to debate the intended audience, the pagans.

Do I doubt that People of the Book endorsed the Quran? No. I actually imagine that they probably were quite excited for it at first contact. With the Quran existing orally as a series of sermons first, it’s fully plausible that they weren’t aware they were seeing a distinct scripture and religion forming. Discrepancies between the Quran’s stories and their own religious literature might have been discounted as due to the fluidity of oral presentation, not something that challenged their written words. When you consider that Mecca was a polytheist community, quite other than either Christianity or Judaism, you can imagine how pleased these religious groups were when they heard their stories and theologies being taught. People like seeing someone growing more like them. Jews might be pleased to hear tirades against idols and para-deities. Christians would be thrilled to hear the resurrection preached. Note that just as the Quran is using their testimony to validate its message, they are using Muhammad’s preaching to validate their own faith and say “Yes! We’ve been doing this all along!”

Conclusion

So is there one uniting theme that encapsulates this surah? Well, my original impulse had been that this surah was making a statement about how only God gets to elevate individuals, and how the best leaders are men who do not want to be leaders. Qarun exalted himself and God destroyed him and made a moral lesson out of him. The pagans exalt themselves and feel secure, but God promises to destroy them. You could creatively interpret that Moses maybe tried exalting himself into a savior role by taking to violence against the Egyptians, and that backfired. Instead, God only made Moses into a prophet when he least expected or wanted it. Ayat 85-86 portray Muhammad as a reluctant prophet who did not expect the Quran but rather had it “imposed” upon him, and thus is being exalted by God while not seeking it.

But in the end, I don’t know if you can account for all the material with that theme. It isn’t really clear what Moses was trying to do when he helped the quarrelous Hebrew fight those Egyptians, but I don’t think it looks like Moses was envisioning himself as a budding revolutionary leader. He’s too remorseful or reluctant sounding even then. Most of the sermon material between spanning ayat 43-75 doesn’t serve this idea that the leader God desires is the man who doesn’t want it. Instead, it just focuses on telling the pagans they are wrong about everything and they’ll regret it.

So I guess at the end of all this, I don’t have a conclusion about this surah as a whole. It exists mostly to scold and threaten the pagans, but elevates general moral behavior. For as much unique material as it offers, it is at the same time very familiar.

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