Surah 32: The Prostration

Something that I haven’t called attention to in the Quran is the little symbols that smatter the text. They are symbols relevant only to the practice of recitation, dictating to the reciters when to pause or what action to take. There is a vocabulary of pauses to the Quran, and maybe I regret not having buffed up on them and paying them more heed as I’ve processed the book. Being a musician, I fully appreciate that silences and motions have an important role in controlling the meaning and energy of the sounds they create and punctuate. The title of today’s surah comes from the application of one of these markings: a complete bowing down to the floor.

The symbol ۩, shaped like the Persian-style archway typical of many mihrabs (that is, the niches or archways in mosques that point worshipers towards Mecca for prayer), is a written command for the performance of sajdah, “prostration,” (pl. sujud) while reciting the two words overscored within this verse: kharruu sujjadan, “fall down prostrating.”

By the Quran’s measure believers are those who fall down in prostration when they hear the reminders of God’s ayat. So what reminders do the thirty ayat of this surah have for us today?

Short and Familiar

This surah is pretty short and unoriginal. The forms of divine flexing are incredibly common in content, phrasing, and vocabulary. The threats of punishment are there, but not descriptive and with no new detail. The reactions of the unbelievers are redundant of other passages. The references to the prophetic cycles are barely there except in their capacity as threats. The prescribed virtues are general encouragements of prayer, charity, and humility. This is going to become a regular thing as we go forward into the next 82 suwar, where on some days there is content that will take a while to unpack, but many other days the material will be of the kind we have seen before. I have to imagine that during Muhammad’s ministry the repetition of content within suwar had the benefits of adding new energy to the religious movement. Though the revelations were being memorized and recited by Muhammad’s followers, a new surah was still probably more exciting and attention holding to his adherents. If a new surah repeated old material, it provided a consistency in the community and a new energy to old ideas. In book form, there isn’t the same excitement about reading the same thing over and over again, but we’ll come back to that in a moment.

One quote that I wish would not get the weight of reiteration appeared today in ayah 13. It is a citation from a story not told here, from the dialogue between God and Iblees when the latter is expelled from Paradise (a story told in Al-ʕaraaf). Iblees declares to God that he’ll prove mankind stupid and ungrateful, wherein God agrees with this idea. Here are the four times that quote appears in the Quran:

  • Al-ʕaraaf 18: “…Whoever follows you [Iblees] among them – I will surely fill Hell with you all, all together.”
  • Hud 119: “…I will surely fill Hell with jinn and people all together.”
  • As-Sajdah 13: “…I will surely fill Hell with jinn and people all together.”
  • Aṣ-Ṣaad 85: “I will surely fill Hell with you and those of them that follow you all together.

Inherent to me is discomfort with the idea that God is punishing those who He refused to save, but the reason I really dislike this quote is it’s part of a story in which God colludes with The Satan to send humans (and jinn) to perpetual torment. Iblees came up with the idea to prove mankind ungrateful, whereupon not only does God agree that Iblees is actually correct in his predictions, but He enables Iblees’ course of action and adds to the deal Hell with great gusto. So I’m not thrilled that this moment of collusion between God and Satan appears multiple times in the Quran. In counterpoint, it must be mentioned that there are far more often mentions of God being merciful, with almost every surah opening with the basmala, an invocation of that fact. Yet still, I don’t like that God’s moment of collusion gets multiple reinforcements, and it does discolor those statements of His mercy.

If there was one item of novelty in this surah it was ayah 5, which was in content and function much like 2 Peter 3:8. Of course, the 2 Peter quote says a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day to God, and this ayah says a day to God is a thousand years to men. But, in content and purpose this ayah is obviously intended to communicate God’s sense of time not being bound to man’s, and the machinations of His work being beyond man’s time-scale. I can agree with that.

Sometimes reiteration is made interesting by the presence of variety. The change that caught my attention this surah was particularly subtle, but very noticeable given how often and consistent the phrase has appeared elsewhere. A common enough refrain provided to Muhammad/the believers is to command the disbelievers –so hellbent on getting a proof from God as they are– to wait, as indeed the believers are waiting (examples 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Since the disbelievers are usually the targets being censured in these passages, it always rings ominous of a “wait and see…” in which the surprise is truly horrifying. Today’s surah, at the very end in ayah 30, flips the direction of the command around so that it is Muhammad who is told to wait, as indeed the disbelievers are waiting. The disbelievers are still being demonstrably pushy, so their waiting is still characterized by impatience. However, since this ayah is censuring Muhammad (or the community for whom he is the representative) it feels much more like a reining in of his impatience. Perhaps Muhammad is starting to fall short of the passive prophetic principle of waiting for God?

That Muhammad is being reined in could have added connotations depending on how one translates a word in the preceding ayat of 28-29. In those ayat, the disbelievers are asking Muhammad to make a hard prediction about “the fatḥ.” The roots of that word, f-t-ḥ, build roots related to the concept of “opening.” For example, ones keys as tools of opening are called mafaatiḥ. Opening something usually means revealing what was within or removing of the defenses for what was within, and thus words built around the roots f-t-ḥ can also include words about revelation and conquest. And whereas English might say that a case is “closed” once its matters are all revealed to the point of making a decision, Arabic might say that the case is “opened” instead. When the Quran uses the noun fatḥ in this instance, translators waver between meanings of decision (in the spirit of all matters being revealed) and conquest (in the spirit of all defenses being breached). Most translators have chosen “decision,” but a few chose the more militant terms “victory” or “conquest.” If this surah indicates the matter of conquest has come up, then that would suggest Muhammad is at this point envisioning a future in which he has to be more directly involved in bringing judgement upon the disbelievers. Thus the final ayah commanding him to wait is the Quran saying, “not yet, not yet.” The noun fatḥ almost exclusively appears in Medinian suwar, where military action often contextualized the word into “victory/conquest.” However, the one Meccan instance of fatḥ is in service to the story of Noah’s flood, where there was no military conquest involved. Thus one shouldn’t be too hasty in concluding that the appearance of the noun here is wrapped up in military meaning.

Repetition

So the Quran is repetitive, but isn’t that part of being a reminder? Reminders are by definition repetitions. That thought doesn’t really satisfy me. Though the Quran was primarily recited at its first revelation, it always self-identifies as a book.

[This is] the revelation of the Book about which there is no doubt from the Lord of the worlds – ayah 2

A surah like this today reinforces to me that the Quran is a book…of sermons. It is an anthology with very loose order of material, not a through-written literary work. It is a book that doesn’t know how to be a book except to be written down (indeed, the Arabic word for “book” fickly escapes easy translation by applying to writing in general). The reminding power of a book is not in saying the same things again and again and again but in its ability to be read again and again and again. Within the book, repetition is a bad thing unless it’s structured in such a way as to develop meaning. Repetition without structure becomes disengaging, a white noise. I don’t see in the Quran’s repetition a sense of structure, weight, or direction. From surah to surah there is a lot of distinct material and a margin of variety, but also one gets the sense that in reading one surah one has read the whole Quran. Those moments of distinctive content or trends of thought are the debris and currents in a directionless sea of stick-and-carrot rhetoric, divine flexing, and general moral principles.

Granted, some potential structure in this anthology could be confounded by the sermons not being presented in roughly chronological order (pure chronology would be impossible given that the older revelations were sometimes redacted/expanded within Muhammad’s lifetime). The evolving needs and nature of Muhammad’s ministry would provide some direction to the appearance and development of ideas. Perhaps if ordered chronologically, we would also see some of the repetitive material spaced in such a way that their appearance comes at timed intervals, not clumps and droughts. Perhaps if ordered chronologically some of the ideas in this surah would have been new to our eyes, rather than having been “spoiled” (in the “spoiler alert” sense) through anticipation by chronologically later suwar.

Okay, we’ve got a lot of repetition ahead and I’m resolved not to repeat this motif of exasperation with the Quran’s repetition. It might come up again, but I think I have articulated well enough how I feel about it and will just put a citation to what I’ve said here and move on. The next challenge is to find ways to use the Quran’s repetition to jump off into exploring other areas of Islam. Maybe times of repetition will be times to widen my scope to the tafsir, “commentaries,” that mediate the Quran to Muslims. I don’t want to dwell in my exasperation because it doesn’t have anywhere further to go within the scope of this blog project. My feelings are just part of what places me over the line in the sand that the Quran has drawn.

Only those believe in Our verses who, when they are reminded by them, fall down in prostration and exalt [Allah] with praise of their Lord, and they are not arrogant. ۩

Surat-ul-Sajdah 15, Sahih International

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