With the significance of the rise of Islam and my focused examination on its inciting document, it’s easy to lose view of the fact that Muhammad’s ministry was for a long time just a tiny remote squabble on the fringes of civilization. Indeed, news of Muhammad’s activity hardly rippled into the broader world as far as we can see in surviving records. It wasn’t until Muhammad’s state erupted from the Arabian Penninsula after Muhammad’s death that chroniclers were forced to take notice. Though the rise of Islam would have the most significance in hindsight, the real battle of the fates as thought at the time was between the (Eastern) Romans and (Sasanid) Persians.
Though Mecca was a remote oasis location, it still was connected to the bigger world through trade and felt the ripples of those politics. In today’s surah, Ar-Rum, “The Romans,” we’re going to see fleeting peek of the world politics surrounding the Quran. Yet still, the Quran’s fight was with Mecca primarily, all the more so because today’s surah was still revealed in relation to Meccan conflicts. While the surah starts with this glimpse of larger politics, its substance promptly returns to Meccan fare.
Little Ripples of a Big Wave
War between Eastern Rome and Sasanid Persia was a fact of life in late antiquity, and Muhammad’s life span overlapped with two separate conflicts. Take a look at the map of these two empires at the advent of the 600s, only a decade after resolving their last big conflict.
After only eleven years of peace, Emperor Khosrow II of Sasanid Persia started a campaign to conquer Eastern Rome. Steadily, over the span of twenty years, Khosrow II took control of The Holy Land (all those relics!), Egypt (the breadbasket of Rome), and Anatolia. He was also well on his way to attacking Rome’s capitol city of Constantinople.
So what does the Quran record of this? Well, ayat 2-6 do not say much except that it is happening. The only detail is that the defeat was in “the nearest land,” but is that Judea or Egypt? Anyhow, given the long-running victory of Khosrow II, one might cynically expect mortal Muhammad to back the Sasanid Persians in order to claim some insight into God’s will. However, the Quran actually predicts a Roman success “within a few years.”
The Arabic word I’ve translated as “few” is an interesting case study. Biḍʕa is a common enough word for “few” in Arabic, so I was surprised to find that Sahih translated it as “three to nine.” I looked up the etymology in Lane’s Lexicon. The word is related to terms like “portion,” “the giving/taking of a portion,” “the cutting of a portion.” That seems general enough, but for the specific entry biḍʕa comes this definition: any number that is equal to or greater than three, but less than or equal to nine. Another proposed definition is plural single-digit numbers of the odd category. Yet another definition also includes numbers from the range of 11-19. And yet another definition is just that biḍʕa just means “undefined portion.” Thus biḍʕa seems to hold a similar semantic function to our words “couple” or “dozen.” The word “couple” might literally indicate two, but when we say “give me a couple of minutes,” we don’t literally mean two minutes. Same with the word dozen, which literally means “twelve” but which we use for guestimates in the tens range, e.g. “there were dozens of birds.”
So the Quran predicts the Roman resurgence, but does it pick a side? Well, sort of. It says that Roman victory is in God’s plan, and it says the believers will rejoice with the Roman victory. The reason to take interest in this is because both the empires above Arabia had banked their identities upon claims of divine right: Eastern Rome through Christianity and Sasanid Persia through Zoroastrianism. In terms of propaganda, each empire touted their authority and military prowess as proof of divine sanction, and each looked forward to a divinely guaranteed future of world domination. This propaganda is so intense through the historical records of these empires that in picking a side the Quran cannot help but incidentally endorse those divine claims as well.
That the Quran pictures God ordaining Roman victory and the believers rejoicing in response does not have to point entirely to support of Eastern Rome’s religious claims. After all, the surah does not comment upon those claims or even mention the Christian religion. It is possible to imagine the believers rejoicing just for having seen their Quran validated with a correct prediction. The Quran making a successful prediction bodes well for its other promises being fulfilled, and that is a thing that would make believers rejoice. Looking in hindsight, it’s also possible to interpret the Roman victory as enabling the Islamic conquests. This war is generally given credit for enabling the Islamic invasions, since both empires were so exhausted and disordered from this back-and-forth wave of conquest. Persia, destabilized by its losses at Roman hands, would fall completely to the Islamic invasion and become a rich source of civilization and culture for the Arabs to assimilate. Meanwhile, Eastern Rome would continue to survive Arab conquests (even if it was not a glorious survival) and be a source of embarrassment for the Arab Islamic caliphates. They never managed to defeat it, and it was the Ottoman Turks who took over the situation and finally squashed Constantinople’s niggling remains in the 1400s.
So how much of the Quran am I reading in Arabic nowadays? Well, bits and chunks. I try and read each surah through at least once in the Arabic, which is getting easier as the suwar are getting shorter, but my attention while doing so is inconsistent. English is full of meanings that I recognize and can follow. Arabic is still alien enough to me that there’s not enough meaning registering in my brain to hold my attention. It generally doesn’t transmit meaning directly to me, but it does inform how I understand the translations and give me many a merry rabbit hole to fall down. Sometimes I stumble upon interesting linguistic trivia by directly examining the Arabic, but oftentimes it is a quirk of the translation that directs my attention towards the Arabic. That’s why I’ve stuck with Sahih International’s translation in the end, because they put the least work into covering up their seams and Anglicizing the Quran’s grammar. Sometimes they call my attention to the Arabic by simply refusing to translate it. Ayah 30 leaves untranslated the word fiṭrah, a word which seems to mean “creation.” Except later on in the ayah is another word that also means “creation,” khalq. So what’s the difference between these words, and why is one left untranslated as jargon?
Let’s start with khalq as the Quran’s arguably more default choice for the meaning of “creation.” A read through Lane’s Lexicon (pp. 799-803) doesn’t provide a sense of a unified set of meaning for these roots, kh-l-q, but favors connotations relevant to tailoring and refinement, and in this case imbue khalq with the meaning of “creation” with a sense of “making to measure.” By contrast, Lane’s Lexicon entry for f-ṭ-r (pp. 2415-2417) show more apparent meanings associated with these roots along the lines of “breaking” or “eruption.” There are entries related to bread baked before complete leavening, pimples, milking camels, budding fruit, cracked swords, and eating breakfast. Breaking/eruption might sound like a destructive act, and sometimes the words created by these roots are destructive, but sometimes it is generative, like the bursting of blooms from a bud. So fiṭrah is “creation” but in the sense of sudden appearance as from an eruption. There is also a sense of freshness connected to the word, to the point of even under-ripeness or immaturity.
So here we have two words meaning “creation,” but one has connotations of refinement and the other immaturity. What idea is being spoken about here, and why is one left untranslated?
Well, ayah 30 is making assertions about the inherent religious beliefs of humankind. My own (ungainly) translation is “So establish your face to the upright religion: God’s fiṭrah, [in] which He faṭar the people. Don’t alter God’s khalq…” Sorry for how ugly that is, I just like to keep the structure similar to the Arabic for myself. So the first sentence there is making claims about correct religion being original to the human condition. It helps to have those connotations of freshness and even immaturity, of this religion being inherent in mankind from even before his formation was complete. Then when it comes to making alterations, the Quran uses the word for creation that has connotations of refinement and made-to-measure attention, so as to impress what an offence any adjustment to such careful tailoring would actually be. This is good theological Arabic here, and that word fiṭrah has thus ascended into theological jargon, which is why Sahih left it untranslated. Also, it’s a hapex legomenon, and thus gets a little attention for feeling like a really deliberate, specific word choice that cannot be translated with equal specificity.
That humans were molded with Islam in them, then put into this made-to-measure universe, and then ruined it, seems to indicate that mankind has free will. That humans choose disbelief and thus deserve their punishment, both earthly and eternal, is a fairly large talking point of this surah. God created mankind oriented towards upright religion and He provides every signal and opportunity for mankind to return to upright religion. The disbelievers just want to invent their own religion and deny reality.
This seems to indicate that men have free will… but there was a moment of “Then who can guide the one whom God has sent astray?” in ayah 29, and the penultimate ayah their choices to err still get traced backwards to God’s active will. The Quran is caught in the middle of the Problem of Evil theological struggle, but is it self-aware of this?
Wind, Rain, and Thunder
God’s role in the creation and supervision of nature is so recurrent in the Quran that I have categorized it as “divine flexing” because the essential boast is “God can do whatever He wants.” It’s hard to tell exactly what the substance of the Quran’s boasting is in some places. What I mean is, it’s hard to tell whether the Quran is calling something in nature a miraculous work directly controlled by God or an example of the clockwork mechanisms which God instated from the point of creation. There is a broad range of things that are credited to the agency of God, like the existence of creation, the events of one’s life or death, the workings of nature, or the products of human effort and technology. With this range, it is hard to pinpoint whether the Quran is promoting some God of the Gaps theology and interpreting unexplained scientific events as being the exact action of God puppet-mastering the earth, or whether God’s role as author of creation makes Him responsible for the clockwork results of that creation but not exclusively/directly involved in its happenings. One particular example of this is God’s control over the winds. When you think of it, winds are a pretty mysterious thing to observe from the tiny human vantage point. They are felt but not seen, with no solidity and yet capable of catastrophic force. It wouldn’t be until the advent of objective measuring technology and larger communication networks that we would begin to understand the origins and components of weather and climate. (Kudos to the Islamic sciences for their attempts and contributions, though.) When the Quran starts talking about God’s control of the wind –whether that be to drive clouds and provide rain, hold birds up in the sky, or to propel boats through the sea– it makes me question how directly these things are being attributed to the intervention of God or His angels. They seem to be pretty direct attributions, but that is something the Quran makes hard to argue by the nature of its wide range of boasting.
In both Arabic and Hebrew (and even to some degree Latin), the concepts of “wind” “breath” and “spirit” are all embodied in the same word: rooḥ (Arabic) or ruakh (Hebrew). All those things are unseen-but-felt forces. While the word can be used without committing to all those meanings all at once all the time, the presence of all those meanings in one word does make rich material for poetic and theological thought. They also make it a little hard to pinpoint whether only one specific meaning is being intended. In ayah 46, it’s a little hard to tell whether spirits (angels qualify as spirits) or the wind is being intended. The riyaaḥ (plural of rooḥ) mentioned are described as bringing good tidings, mercy, and moving ships. Well, the Quran has told us of angels who bring tidings, including the verses of the Quran, which is for men a source of mercy. So are these angels also moving the ships through which men seek from God’s bounty (aka, work for profit/sustenance)? Or is it the movement of air which moves the clouds of rain (which is often described as a form of God’s mercy) and also propels ships in the sea? The verses following this one include references to sending messages (inferred to be done through angels) and controlling weather, so there’s little to pin ayah 46’s use of rooḥ to one concept or the other. Does it matter? No, not really, because there’s no decisive conclusion to draw. The Quran is merely flexing, which we’ll get to in a moment, but these statements do render blurry how much the Quran has science in view when it is drawing its examples from earthly events.
The intent of divine flexing in the Quran is a varied blend of impressing gratitude upon men, or else making men feel small. The Quran frequently calls attention to all the things upon earth that benefit humankind and credit them to God. In this surah we have things like the existence of spousal relationships (characterized as a loving relationship), sleep, work, and the stability of earth and heaven which seem to be mentioned in order to inspire gratitude. Then there are descriptions of the cycle of life and weather, and God’s fickle command of weather, to make men feel small.
The way the Quran flexes is meant to shift man’s anthropocentric view of the world towards God. Men aren’t the center of the world, God is. You humans are helpless little beings within creation, dependent upon God –so aren’t you grateful that God has provided for you? This is a kind of truth I think all humans are aware of, though on different scales and through different lenses. Perhaps you don’t believe in a higher/highest power, but even still I imagine you recognize that you are helpless in the face of nature and hopefully are grateful for the benefits that you receive from nature nonetheless.
So the Quran argues with men to feel helpless and to rely on God for help (and stop turning to paganism when He does!) At the same time the Quran’s argument is with men, and so perhaps for that reason it views the world with an anthropocentric bias. All the ways that God has controlled nature in this surah (and the broader Quran) has been with the benefit of mankind in its heart (whether for teaching, rewarding, punishing, testing). There is a lack of concern with the existence of nature for nature’s sake, or of natural elements that distinctly do not help mankind. When nature punishes men, it gets characterized as an event corralling men away from their sins and towards God. Interestingly enough, this surah does not feature so much direct language of God sending the hardship as much as “letting them taste part of what they have done that perhaps they will return to righteousness” (ayah 41). So this surah is avoiding attributing natural hardship to God’s work, and instead emphasizing a God who only provides mercy, aid, and then judgement at the end.
How you respond to the Quran’s divine flexing might be more a reaction to its tone than its essence. When I added that Calvin and Hobbes strip and you first started reading it, did you first think I was positioning Calvin to reflect upon God or mankind?
From Every Example
As I was writing the above two sections, I found myself having to calculate in some exceptions. I realized yesterday as I was struggling to organize this post that the exceptions were both from the ending segment of the surah, ayah 46-end. It starts off in accord with patterns and motifs of the preceding material. The ayah opens with “And of our signs…” which was the recurring phrase that opened every consecutive ayah from 20-25. The divine flexing is themed around the weather, which had occurred previously in ayah 24. So this seems like it is opening a divine flexing section as before. Those sections were very much about highlighting the good things God provided for men.
Thus it feels a little discordant when this ending section begins in the same vein, then turns by ayah 53 to observe how, when God uses nature to chagrine man, it increases the man’s disbelief in God. There isn’t any motivation behind why God would send winds to destroy crops, just a sort of “the Lord gives and He taketh away,” fickleness. The example serves to rebuke humanity’s sense of entitlement to God’s attention; it chides men for disbelieving in God if God does not use nature to serve them. But! the rest of the surah has been building just that image of the world, telling men to believe in God because of how the world He has designed serves their pleasure. It has been telling them to use the good provision in nature to draw their conclusions about the existence and character of God. Then the example of the fickle wind concedes that nature/God is not kind to men, but denies men the right to use this example of nature to draw conclusions about God. In fact, this example also contradicts the usual behavior predicted of disbelievers, which is that they turn to God in times of hardship but return to disbelief upon relief (ayah 33).
That discord is a hazard of the Quran’s approach to arguing for its theology. As it boasts in ayah 58, it is presenting every kind of example to the disbelievers. It reaches for any argument that supports its overall thesis of Obey The God whether that be free will or predestination, the tininess of man or the central place of man in nature, or even the foxhole fallacy that I harped upon last surah. This surah promotes very good values and practices. I have no issue with what kind of religion it is wanting men to practice or the humility it wants them to adopt; it is trying to promote a good cause. In reaching to promote its good cause, it is reaching for any argument that provides support, but sometimes without discerning how that argument interacts with other arguments it has implemented.