Let it be known that my family now gifts me Qurans. I’m not complaining, they’re incredibly useful and rather beautiful books to have on my shelves. For my birthday, my husband found for me a Yusuf Ali translation of the Quran. For just because, my in-laws bought for me Muhammad Asad’s translation of the Quran.
These are really nice resources, rooted in Islamic scholarship, but I’ve been on the fence about how to use them with this blog. They are more than just translations, they are commentaries (or tafsir, in Arabic). The text within is heavily footnoted to explain, supplement, and interpret the Quran’s content. Sometimes the explanations are to do with choices of translation, but oftentimes they are done to direct the readers’ exegesis of the text. This can prime the reader to conclusions or assumptions that aren’t inherently communicated in the text, which is something I want to avoid. Then again, I’m creating something similar with this blog, aren’t I? My own process of processing the Quran has primed me to see certain things and come to certain conclusions about the text. You can’t say that after two years of being into this thing I don’t have any conclusions at play in my interpretation. So is it time to add these commentaries into the mix?
I’m going to write this post twice, once by myself with my own takeaways, and then once again having read through the commentaries. Today’s surah, yaa siin, “Y. S.,” is 83 ayat long, and the ayat are of shorter length. Before being primed with my opinions, take a look at it yourself and see what strikes you.
To whom is this surah speaking? Muhammad. This surah is another of the type that speaks to assuage Muhammad that he is delivering Truth, that many/most people are incapable of receiving that Truth, that such is not his own fault or should be his concern, and that desserts and just desserts will be dealt to believers and disbelievers accordingly in this life and after. Believers themselves are not spoken to specifically. The only appearances of believers in this surah serve to emphasize their minority standing, and to chastise disbelievers with images of the pleasure they will be missing sorely.
Muhammad is reassured that he is “among the messengers,” which emphasizes that he is of a class of people with special vocation, and not an unprecedented trailblazer in the history of the world. His vocation as messenger is elaborated upon in a story of a group of messengers preaching against an unrepentant city (ayat 13-29). This story is presented as a mathalan, “an example/analogue/parable,” and I’m curious as to whether it should be taken as a work of non-fiction or instructive fiction. It reads as a narrative, but has no names or specific details that would indicate non-fiction. Moreover, I’m not sure that I remember this story reappearing elsewhere in the Quran. The word mathalan is common in the Quran and has been used often in this kind of proverbial sense. God presents a concept with an image, like the multiplying benefits of good deeds being like planting grain or the habitual evils of disbelievers being like the habitual panting of the dog, and this image is called a mathal. So it’s the same concept as Jesus’s parables, which were grounded in material that people could relate to but which were not particularly literal. I had guessed that the “Parable of the Two Gardens” in Al-Kahf 32-44 was didactic fiction, but today’s parable is a little harder to feel as such because it blends in with the bank of other prophetic cycles.
What does this example have to offer that is distinct from other prophetic cycles? Well, primarily it is that strengthening the power of the notification –this time with manpower– still doesn’t affect disbelievers. There are no miracles here, which is something that the other prophetic cycles primarily offer, and thus the work is more relatable to Muhammad. Even if Muhammad had more reinforcements, the parable comforts, the work would still be mostly in vain. Not entirely in vain, however, as the parable provides one convert to exemplify the ease and joy of conversion. The convert is described as having run from the farthest end of the city. Presumably this detail communicates that the messengers’ tidings have saturated the city and achieved all it possibly could. On a positive note this story presents the repentance of one man as being worthy success in God’s eyes, even if it took three messengers fighting a doomed fight with the rest of the city. Even the smallest success in the world’s eyes was considered a worthy object of effort in God’s eyes. Then again, the other desirable goal of revelation as stated later in ayah 70 is just to justify the condemnation of the disbelievers, so even without this convert the messengers’ mission still fulfilled its goal.
In terms of defending the Quran’s pedigree, ayah 69 denies that Muhammad was being inspired with poetic skill. To credit Muhammad with poetic ability, even if that poetic ability was derived from God, would still mean that Muhammad was in some way responsible for the content of the Quran. This would be more akin to some theories of the inspiration of scripture in Jewish and Christian circles. In Arabic culture this probably would also equate to the roles of oracles and soothesayers, who were thought of as spiritually enhanced. I actually don’t know much about Arabic poetry yet, though I’ve found a book that I hope will give me good information and will get to it once I’ve caught up on my past reading in my bibliography. Muslim sources have much to say about pre-Islamic poetry but I’m hesitant to take them at their words. I know from my own culture that there is a tendency to render scandalous and barbaric any other culture that is not like us, in no small part so that we can position ourselves as the superior pinnacle of human development. I catch a whiff of that in Muslim portrayals of pre-Islamic Arabia, debasing the pre-Islamic Arabs in order to further contrast their own enhanced civility and accomplishments. Also remember that Surah Ash-Shuʕara swerved in its conclusion to categorically denounce poets as demonic, which leads me to suspect that a burden was put upon Islamic society to demonize poets in their memory to reinforce this declaration. So I’d like to get more into the sources before I present what poets and poetry meant to Muhammad’s contemporaries.
Whatever the cultural roles of poetry were, the Quran wants to distance Muhammad from it, and goes so far as to say that poetry is not yanbaghii for him. That Arabic word can be translated several ways. Sahih chooses to translate it as “befitting,” and thus communicates that poetry is not appropriate. Another way to translate it is “permisible,” which gives the impression that poetry is not halaal. Another way to interpret it is “achievable” (and when the word appears later in the surah it is for this meaning), and this communicates that Muhammad does not have any inherent skill for poetry, let alone extrinsic, divinely-sourced skill. (Though among the translations on my usual website, only Abdul Haleem goes with this latter one.) This passage is specifically describing Muhammad, and there’s no indication that poetry is to be seen as not “befitting/achievable” for other prophets or for Muslims categorically. However, in combination with that segment at the end of Surah Ash-Shuʕara, this idea has biased certain schools of Islam against poetry as a whole.
The divine flexing in this surah is uncomfortably close to the language of abuse, primarily in that the threats are particularly proactive and malicious on God’s part. The good things God provides are presented –crops, mates, cosmology, Noah’s Ark, tamed animals, kindling– and mankind is questioned for their ingratitude. In contrast to the good things that God has provided, the Quran presents threats as to what God could do instead, if He so willed: drown them, obliterate their eyes and leave them in a wandering panic, deform them in such a way that renders them immobile. I am mindful that the Quran is out to make people feel small and helpless, and to make clear that God simply is God, a being with no limits, and that such truth must be accepted even if it is not flattering or comforting to mankind. But God openly entertaining this sadism does not reflect well upon God.
Now, some of my distaste for these images is definitely rooted in coming from a culture that has and is grappling with power abuse, particularly in marriages. In abusive marital relationships, part of the language of control is the man (historically the power holder) denying the justness of the woman’s sore feelings by impressing upon her that she should be grateful instead. And then another element of that control is impressing the woman with fears of what he could do instead, if he so wanted. So to read the Quran presenting both those things in combination, with really sordid hypotheticals, puts a yikes flag on how I perceive the Quran envisioning our relationship with God. But again, if this is the nature of God, what can you do about it? Humanity’s fate might just have to be feeling grateful to God for what they get and avoiding his creative wrath.
These hypotheticals are in opposition to how the rest of the surah portrays God working, however. At a few different points the simplicity and ease of God’s actions are conveyed through brevity. When God destroys the city of the parable, it is not with a descending horde of armies, but with one blast. When God summons the dead from their graves, it is with one blast. When God creates a thing, it is with one word. These succinct actions do not reflect the hypothetical, drawn-out, sadistic applications of God’s power. (Though Hellfire is mentioned, the terrible things the Quran has imagined for disbelievers in that hellfire are not depicted here.) So while the surah is malicious enough to imagine the terrible things that God could do to us, in actual action it depicts God as operating with merciful brevity.
I want to examine the cosmology of this surah particularly because I think it’s something the commentaries might want to expend energy on to reconcile to modern cosmology. I also just like engaging with older conceptions of outer space. Living in the USA –so proud of our NASA program– the modern understanding of sun, moon, and stars, of orbits and light years and planetary systems, can feel axiomatic. So to rewind into the past and challenge yourself to actually see the sky without those concepts is interesting. I already explored the Quran’s word choices and questioned their scientific value in an earlier post, and I’m not really interested in doing a scientific nitpick today. What I’d prefer to do is just think about what the sky looked like to an average person in Muhammad’s time, and consider how these passages of the Quran would’ve resonated with them. Because no matter how you care to read the Quran now, whether critically or affirmatively, it still is interesting to think of how they would’ve responded to these words then.
Fortunately everything is presented to us in a nice verse-by-verse way.
Ayah 37: “And a sign for them: The night, we strip from it the daylight. Then lo! They are those in darkness.”
I have a hard time imagining a conception in which daylight was not seen as sourced from the sun. I would be curious if there ever was a culture that imagined darkness to be a substance, because I think all of human experience teaches us that darkness is the absence of light, and that light always comes from a source. That daylight is sourced from the sun would surely be observationally transparent by the way that clouds mute the daylight and by the way that shadows fall differently throughout the day as the sun moves. So I don’t think that the lack of a sun in this explanation of night has anything to do with some idea that it is irrelevant to the day. But that night is the absence of light –that night is the default state of things– that rings very true with human experience even without scientific definitions of the sun or light. God declaring that He strips daylight from the sky to create night is artistic flare, a praise of the way the daylight and night works and a reflection upon God’s sense of balance, but probably wouldn’t have had an impact on people connecting daylight to the sun’s presence and night to the sun’s absence.
Ayah 38: “And the sun runs to a resting place for it, that is the draftsmanship of The Mighty, The Knowing.”
Okay, this is something I have a hard time imagining. I can fully understand earth-centric models of the universe, because the sky does look like a dome to the naked eye, but I still always imagine that you’d be drawn to envision the sun in perpetual motion, whether it be rotating under the earth from you or whether it inhabited one half of a disk circling over your head.
The shadows cast by the sun are always shrinking and growing, after all, and the sun always appears on a different side of the world than when you last saw it, therefore it must have been moving even when out of human view. So I have a hard time believing that even the average person would’ve thought that the sun was just standing still or resting during the night time. Or maybe I just underestimate humanity’s creativity. The theory of orbits predates the Quran, though I don’t know how popularized it was across cultures so that the average listener would envision that idea.
I’m translating these quotes on my own, by the way, and that means I’m turning to Lane’s Lexicon to study up words. As regards the word for “resting place,” mustaqarr, Lane records some of the traditional meanings Islamic scholars have derived for the word as used specifically here (see, I can’t escape tradition, it’s a necessary component to the Quran). One idea was that the word doesn’t really connote an idea of stopping, but just means fulfillment, as in fulfillment of a circuit. That’s plausible, though even the example given for that usage is of a traveler ending his journey. Another idea is that the resting place refers to the high afternoon, a point in the day when the sun does seem to slow down in motion. I have observed that the sun seems to move faster at sunrise and sunset, so I can imagine there being the idea that the sun “came to rest” at noon. At any rate, if you live in a hot place it certainly feels like the sun stands still in the midday hours. Maybe this is what the original listener would’ve thought the Quran meant by the sun’s resting place –it’s not running to night, it’s running to noon.
Ayah 39: “And the moon, we configured its stages of decline, until it returns like the old date stalk.”
I will mention that translating the word manaazil as “phases” or “stages of decline” is an interpretive leap derived from context. The word most literally means “abodes” and is often specifically applied to “mansions.” The roots n-z-l (alas, an entry in the woefully deficient posthumous sections of Lane’s Lexicon) are about descent, including descent upon resting places, and in this ayah you can clearly infer the idea that the moon is hitting stages or levels of decrease before it starts to grow again from nothing. That being said, a lot of translations insist upon the word “mansions,” and I’m curious if the commentaries next week will comment upon why.
So how much did we know about the moon back then? This and this Wikipedia sub-section loosely detail ancient knowledge of the moon, largely as it developed in Greek and Chinese cultures. Again, who knows how much those ideas had permeated through other cultures and been normalized, or even how much of those are notable for being written by a famous person but were actually just formal statements of otherwise generic ideas. Arabs frequently traveled at night, so much so that they have a special word for it, and were surely used to looking at the sky. Did they really think that the moon grew and shrank from nothing? Or did they notice the earthshine faintly illuminating the dark side of the moon in certain conditions and the knew the phases of the moon were merely the changing of shadows across a constant surface?
At any rate, the poetic image is suitable. Have you ever seen a tree get diseased and die, only for a healthy new stem to grow from the base later? My mother-in-law has a mimosa tree doing that just now. Just as the moon seems to shrink and die, from its shadowy base grows a new and fresh cycle of light.
Ayah 40: Not is it achievable for the sun to overtake the moon, nor the night outstrip the daylight, but all in a whorl are swimming.
Here’s the one wherein, no matter how you want to apply it to modern science, it’s most interesting to think about it from the viewpoint of Muhammad’s contemporaries. This verse seems to cite as miraculous –or at least as some wonder of nature– that the sun cannot overtake the moon. By our modern knowledge of how far and incomparable these celestial bodies are, this statement only invites bemusement and perhaps a hearty chortle that such could be perceived as a marvel. Without the knowledge that everything in the night sky is an astronomical distance away from each other, it maybe is more understandable why this statement would tease at something marvelous. Why wouldn’t these things, if not all in pace with each other, never collide? The moon is visible during some part of the daytime much of the month.
I wonder if this “consolunarity” (as Kim Aaron dubs it in this Quora post) has to do with this ayah about the sun never overtaking the moon? As to the night never overtaking the day, that’s kind of what a solar eclipse affects, isn’t it? There was an Arabian total solar eclipse later in Muhammad’s ministry, so presumably this was something he had to reconcile and mediate to his adherents. I’ve only ever been in a partial solar eclipse, and the greyness of the light was disorienting. I’ll get to witness the 2024 total eclipse and I’m curious as to how dark the ground actually gets and how night-like it is.
At any rate, the point of this ayah (these ayat) to Muhammad’s contemporaries was in part because they didn’t understand these things, and that without the involvement or insight of mankind these workings of the universe ticked along nonetheless.
So I started this post with the question of “to whom is this surah speaking?” but I must close it with “for whom is this surah spoken?” This surah starts by speaking directly to Muhammad, and only directly speaks to not-Muhammad at two other points: once when distancing Muhammad from poetry and once at the end in a general warning to all mankind. In reading from a page this might feel a little weird, but not very weird. It’s rather like reading a letter written to someone else, something we’re accustomed to seeing on paper and in anthologies, except that this letter sometimes speaks beyond its recipient to include you as well. Now imagine this recited aloud instead. Imagine Muhammad reciting these words that are oftentimes speaking to himself, and sometimes speaking about his self in the third person. That context does make more coherent the blend of a letter talking to Muhammad and a letter talking to mankind at large. But who do you imagine in the audience listening to this open letter? For while this surah talks extensively of the disbelievers, it always is referring to them as them.
Say you are Muhammad: are you preforming this before an open audience or a closed audience? In your own home, in the home of one of your patrons, or in a public place? Because while the content of this surah is almost entirely about the disbelievers, they are not being included in its dialogue. So if Muhammad is speaking in a private place to only his followers, the references to “them” indicate a group outside of your own, not present in that space with you. If Muhammad was speaking in a public place, then he was actively pushing non-adherents out of that space by cutting them out of the audience and defaming them as “them.” Not engaging such inclusively with “you” or “you all” but dismissively as “they” and “them,” cutting disbelievers out of the communication. The polarizing strategy of this surah is to create satisfied in-group feeling amongs adherents or out-group distress and anger amongst disbelievers. You can imagine why Muhammad was earning ire from the Meccan community, if he was taking these words to public places and pushing them out with these hostile, othering words. This surah talks very little to believers, but it is worded to be performed for only an audience of believers.
Given that the “them” of this surah are indicated to be a people who worship and serve multiple entities, do not believe in life after death, and are confronted with the living ministry of a prophet, modern Muslims might not feel called to lump modern non-Muslims in with the “them” of this surah. It all depends whether you are satisfied that context confines “them” to Meccan pagans, or whether you feel directed to see “them” expanded or abstracted to apply to current non-Muslims at large. I’d guess that modern exegesis is more focused on emphasizing that in-group sense of reassurance, of being grateful for the irrelevancy of these threats in light of God’s mercy, and abstracting from the portrayals of the disbelievers the sins to avoid in your own life. So while the Quran might make you –o non-believer– feel othered and threatened, don’t make the mistake of thinking that how you read the Quran reflects how Muslims read it.