Surah 31: Luqman

Muhammad was a father. This is sometimes easy to forget, since when Muhammad’s family comes into discussion it is usually on the matter of his many wives. Indeed, for his abundance of wives, if his children get commented upon it is usually to note the scarcity of them. But he was a father multiple times over, by birth and adoption, and his children all followed him into Islam. The role and bond of fatherhood was one that Muhammad knew well.

Today’s surah, Luqman, will use the duty and limits of parent-child relationships as a vehicle for instruction about the magnitude of God. Though stern, this is a relatively gentle surah full of positive instruction (the “do’s” of Islam rather than the “don’ts”). At only 34 ayat in length, you should give it a read.

Duties and Limits

Ayat 14 teaches duty to one’s parents by emphasizing the cost of pregnancy and child-bearing upon mothers. This makes me laugh a bit, because there is the old trope of mothers guilting their children for the pain they put her through, and here it is coming from the Quran’s mouth. This is a pretty relatable and objective ground for the Quran to build the duty to one’s parents off of. One cannot always assume that there’s a family name to feel duty towards, or that the parents are worthy of respect or duty in terms of their conduct towards their child, but objectively the cost of child-bearing upon mothers is a given. No grounds are given for why a father should be respected, which is curious. Perhaps in the contemporary culture there was no need to emphasize duty to one’s father, or perhaps there’s just less objective ground to base such respect upon.

Of course, as any Jewish or Christian kid has asked, what does it mean to respect one’s parents if those parents are in the wrong?

The Quran dismisses respecting one’s parents as a reason or basis for perpetuating error (ayah 21). Parents can be misguided, it teaches, and as agents of our own destiny every individual is responsible for finding and following truth. After all, ayah 33 reminds, all individuals will be evaluated as isolated individuals at the resurrection, with no ability for family relationships to factor into the judgement. Nonetheless, even if one’s parents are in the wrong, ayah 15 requires children to still “accompany them in this world with kindness.” The word maʕruufan, “kindness” is built of the roots of ʕ-r-f, which usually build words related to “knowing.” Through its connotations of awareness, this kindness is a sort of patient benevolence empowered by knowledge of what is the right thing to do (and maybe also the nature of one’s parents). It’s the same word used for benevolent duties towards one’s divorcee.

But who is Luqman?

Our representative father in this surah is a man names Luqman. But who is Luqman? Well…… does it matter? Luqman has no biographical or narrative details outside of this surah. The only biographical details about Luqman that the Quran wants you to know is that a) he received divinely gifted wisdom and thus has sacred authority, and b) he had a son who he is instructing. For the purposes of this surah, that’s all that needs to be established.

What would the name “Luqman” have meant to Muhammad’s original audience? Well, we aren’t sure. There is a pre-Islamic figure called Luqman, but I haven’t found any of the original materials recording/referencing him to understand what kind of character he is or how well-known he was. By this book’s analysis, pre-Islamic Luqman seems to have been a hero who appeared in old poetry and provided some wise sayings. So perhaps Luqman was the “wise man” archetype native to Arabic culture. But again, I’ve not seen what kinds of feats or sayings get accredited to pre-Islamic Luqman, so I can’t comment on whether he seems suited to match the Quran’s Luqman. (That being said, the Quran appropriating figures and redacting them to be suitably Islamic is something we’ve seen plenty of times.) No further details are explained about him in the Hadith literature either. There is a lore for Luqman that was written long after the rise of Islam (some 700 years later) by Quranic scholar and historian Ibn Kathir, and that is the content summarized in the Wikipedia article.

So biography isn’t supposed to matter, and whatever connotations were associated with Luqman originally have faded away. Instead, his identity is left to the meager essentials the Quran wants of it. Sure, it’s odd that so many characters of the Quran go unnamed while this man’s name is given, but that as far as I can stretch that observation. In the context of a divinely wise father, here are the statements this surah directly attributes to Luqman:

  • Do not associate anything with God (13)
  • God is aware of even the smallest of injustices (16)
  • Establish prayer (16)
  • Enjoin what is right, forbid what is wrong (16)
  • Be patient (16)
  • Be humble (17)
  • Be moderate in action and speech (18)

And for such teachings, what greater backstory or biographical details are needed? In fact, Luqman’s only required role is to be a vehicle for the Quran’s favorite positive teachings. The teachings in ayat 16-19 that get attributed to Luqman through Sahih’s interpolation and punctuation choices don’t really stand out from the ayat that come after except that 16 and 17 begin with the vocative “O my son…” In fact, if I were to put before you ayat 18-22, you probably wouldn’t pick up that the first two ayat were attributed to a character’s voice and the latter four to God’s:

18 – And do not turn your cheek [in contempt] toward people and do not walk through the earth exultantly. Indeed, Allah does not like everyone self-deluded and boastful.
19 – And be moderate in your pace and lower your voice; indeed, the most disagreeable of sounds is the voice of donkeys.
20 – Do you not see that Allah has made subject to you whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth and amply bestowed upon you His favors, [both] apparent and unapparent? But of the people is he who disputes about Allah without knowledge or guidance or an enlightening Book [from Him].
21 – And when it is said to them, “Follow what Allah has revealed,” they say, “Rather, we will follow that upon which we found our fathers.” Even if Satan was inviting them to the punishment of the Blaze?
22 – And whoever submits his face to Allah while he is a doer of good – then he has grasped the most trustworthy handhold. And to Allah will be the outcome of [all] matters.

The Quran slips in and out of Luqman’s voice with little distinction between his words and God’s. Luqman’s fatherly character becomes a way for the Quran to step into the voice of a mentor who is loving and gentle, to indirectly address followers as children, but without crossing into Christian territory and formalizing into language the relationship of father-child between God and believers. Luqman is a stand-in for God, and his blank persona serves that purpose.

Shared Vocabulary

Within the divine flexing of this surah there were some overlaps in vocabulary with Christian vocabulary. The application does not overlap, but it is a reminder that Islam and Christianity share common ground in their cultural roots and lines of thought. Granted, Muhammad lived 600 years after Jesus and in a world greatly shaped by Christian thought. Phrases migrate and transform at that point of saturation, just as in today’s rhetoric having P.L. Travers shouting “One cannot live on cake alone!” down the hallways in the Disney film “Saving Mr. Banks” can be easily recognized as a mutation of Jesus’ “Man shall not live on bread alone,” while also having nothing to do with that quote. So this section is purely for my own amusement, not for any academic concern of whether something is “derivative.”

In ayah 16, Luqman warns his son that God knows and reprimands error even if it were as small as a mustard seed. Mustard seed? This catches my attention because the Quran slightly more favors using specks/fibers/membranes on date-seeds in its similes for “the smallest thing” rather than mustard seeds. And of course, mustard seeds catch my attention for their use in Jesus’ sayings. There’s the parable of the mustard seed, in which the seed stands in for God’s kingdom starting as something small and insignificant and then growing into something greater. Much more in vein with the Quran’s usage is using a mustard seed to represent a really tiny amount, when Jesus says faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains.

Ayah 18 teaches that one should not turn one’s cheek towards people. In a Christian context, turning one’s cheek means receiving persecution or injustice with tolerance and acceptance. Now, the Quran doesn’t really accept such a stance, but for the record this ayah has nothing to do with receiving persecution. Given the context of the rest of the ayah and the word choice in play, it is rather more along the lines of “wrinkle your nose.” The ayah is clearly concerned with ego and contempt for one’s fellow humans, not with weathering hostility. Furthermore, the word used for “turn” here only occurs once in the whole Quran, and Lane’s lexicon shows the meaning has connotations of distortion, contempt, anger. So the similarity is only tenuous once you dig deeper than the translation.

Lastly, ayah 27 gives a beautiful phrase for the capacity of God’s knowledge and instruction. I’ll draw quick attention to the fact that this surah is much more inclined to view of God from man’s vantage point. Rather than divine flexing coming from the standpoint of God boasting about Himself, most of the praises here treat God in the third person. Anyhow, the ayah says that if every tree was a pen writing with seven seas’ supply of writing liquid, still there would not be enough materials to write God’s words. This is kind of like John 21:25, in which it’s said that the world could not hold all the books containing Jesus’ teachings and deeds, but much more to my mind was the similarity to an old American hymn:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were ev’ry stalk on earth a quill,
And ev’ry man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole
Tho’ stretched from sky to sky.

The Love of God,” by Frederick M. Lehman

Rather striking, isn’t it? And now here’s the question reversed: was Lehman’s language choice affected by the Quran? Well, as traditionally understood (which is to say, as stated online without citations), Lehman by some chance means encountered and appropriated these lines from words written by a prisoner/patient on a cell wall. Of older provenance are some quotations from Jewish music and literature that resemble these quotes. Again, while I can find names of a Jewish author (Meir ben Isaac Sheli’aḥ Ẓibbur, also called Nehorai) who wrote a recognizably similar poem, there is no citation providing specific sourcing. There are also allegations of a similar quote by a Jewish Talmudic scholar (Yohanan ben Zakai), but I can’t follow up the sources. Sooo…. who knows? The poetry clearly pre-dates the hymn, and the metaphor potentially pre-dates the Quran, but just where it came from is unknown. Metaphors and poetic ideas have a way of trickling across cultures, and the monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have a deeply entwined history.

Closing Thoughts

I can read and re-read this surah without a building unease. The content is almost entirely positive directions to the believers, with little concern for the disbelievers. For the topics of the ordinary life and attitude of believers Islam is indeed a very pleasant and positive source of ethics and values, and suwar like this exemplify that kind of heart. Disobedience leading to punishment is mentioned, but not gratuitously so and without the vindictive tone that has put me off elsewhere. It really isn’t the basic concept of judgement and punishment that I mind in the Quran. Given how unjust our mortal world really is, I want to believe in a time where justice is fulfilled and people feel the responsibility of their error. The scale and purpose of that punishment as portrayed in the Quran is what I take issue with, namely the question of whether such is “justice,” but those things weren’t in play here.

I found this surah very easy to read, in fact, quite likable. It demonstrates shared values and language, a kinder heart within Islam, an awe of God that comes from a more human vantage-point rather than first-person flexing, and introduces a distinctly Islamic character who doesn’t brush against or shove aside the familiar lore of other cultures. When I first encountered the Quran it was through someone’s misguided idea that Surah Maryam would be the most relatable to my Christian background. That was a grave error. Instead, I think today’s surah would’ve been a friendlier introduction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.