I have in my possession three physical copies of Quranic translations. One is a compact translation by Sahih International, lacking the original Arabic and with only occasional footnotes to corner the meaning within a certain dogma. The other two are my beautifully bound translations by Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Muhammad Asad. Both of these volumes contain the Arabic text in tandem with their English translations. Asad also includes very precise transliterations of the Arabic in order to provide a means for those who cannot read Arabic to follow his explanations of Arabic words. Both translations are heavily footnoted, which effectively doubles the size of the surah as a whole, maybe even more than doubles.
Some day it would be good for me to do a survey of Quranic translators and their works. Today is not that day. This is my follow-up to last week, wherein I read and commented my impressions of Surah Y.S. by my usual methods and resources. Today, I’m revisiting the surah again to factor in the perspectives of these two esteemed Muslims.
It is a different experience reading the Quran with commentaries rather than just the translation and Arabic. Reading a hard copy will be similar to reading a study Bible, if you have experience with those to reference. The pages are positively cushioned with footnotes and reference text by the translator. Something nice about footnotes is that they make for an optional reading experience. You can read only the text of the translation, then follow a footnote only if you feel a need for greater elaboration. Suwar each have an introduction, and for this surah, the translators both emphasize the cultural role of the surah (it is recited in funerary rituals) and which topics they think are most central. Ali thinks the central topics are the foundational figures of Islam (messengers, but specifically Muhammad) and foundational doctrine of revelations and resurrection. Asad thinks the surah is about the moral responsibility of man and the certainty of resurrection and justice.
If you’d like to read the translations and commentaries, here is a link to a PDF of Ali’s and another link to an elegant website for Asad’s. I’m afraid that my experience reading hard copies will be different than yours through reading the online resources. The online format is verse-by-verse, making fluid reading impossible and the footnotes nigh unavoidable. This does make an interesting experience, however, in that it shows you just how much commentaries inflate the substance and volume of the surah. Sometimes small sentences or turns of phrases become the jumping points for sermon-like material, or require large explanations that increase their representative size within the text. Though the difference between commentary and scripture is explicitly signaled through border and text coloring, nonetheless in memory the messages get mingled together.
As to the nature of the translations themselves, both are prone to adding in words to smooth out the syntax. These additional words are usually demarcated by brackets or parentheses, though not always. Ali leans hard into the “Sacred Scripture Genre” by translating into archaically styled English and dividing up the surah into sections with precluding summaries to help his readers see structure and coherency as they read. Because his style reads archaic, and English archaic syntax is less formulaic than modern English, maybe Ali felt less need to add in words to the extent Asad does. Asad interjects many additional words to massage the syntax from the clumpy Arabic clauses into something more prose-like. An interesting exercise is to read their translations and skip everything in parenthesis, then read it again paying specific attention to what the parenthesis add. This helps you see where theology and tradition exist around each scripture. While Ali does not adjust the syntax as much as Asad, he does include more and much longer comments upon the text, sometimes to the brink of breaking out in a sermon. Asad’s comments are more concise, and frequently related to the Arabic meanings.
I rarely pay attention to mystical letters anymore because they don’t really communicate insomuch as they tease. The letters at the beginning of this surah provide the title, quite literally Y.S., and would be pronounced in Arabic as Yaa Siin. In tradition there has been some contention as to whether these actually are mystical letters, however, with there being opinions that the letters are actually a little dialectal form of greeting. Yaa in Arabic equates to “O!” in English, but it is very prevalent in even common language. Siin, it is debated, might be an abbreviation of the word insaan, “human,” (specifically Muhammad) in which the “s” is taken as the representative letter. Ali considers this tradition but still treats these letters as one of the category of “mysterious” and falls back upon the neutral policy established among Muslims that “no dogmatic assertion can be made” (C.3943). Asad really commits to yaa siin as a functional statement, listing out all the scholars who he agrees with in this conclusion and going father to consider whether there was a dialectal word in play. He goes so far as to name the surah “O Thou Human Being,” and also considers this to be an address to Muhammad, one that emphasizes his humanity since that’s a picking point in the upcoming parable. Since Asad does not consider these letters to be mystical letters but rather functional words, he is willing to make assertions. Personally, I’m a little incredulous of Asad’s route, since that option seems out of the manner and medium of the Quran. If there were greater precedence for the Quran abbreviating words or using such slang (imagine it addressing Muhammad as “O M!”), then maybe. Furthermore, the Quran was originally presented to the public as a recited document, while abbreviations of the nature Asad perceives are much more a convention of writing (you pronounce “Dr.” as “Doctor” out loud, not “D.R.”). Even if you hold that the Quran was a document first, it was relayed through Muhammad by recitation and would’ve been received and recorded by the people as pronounced words. Meanwhile against this idea, a great precedent exists for the Quran to open its suwar with strings of letters, for which we can’t find any consistent meaning, and so upon that precedent I would evaluate Y.S.
I was very interested in whether these commentaries would read the story of the City of Three Messengers as literal or as a parable, and they both went with the latter. Ali mentions his own rebuttal of one traditional opinion that the city was Antioch. He doesn’t explain why some think that the city was Antioch, which I’d be curious to know, but only that Antioch was a highly successful case of Christian evangelism, and thus doesn’t conform to the city of the parable. (Of interest is that Ali positively portrays Paul, who is regularly scapegoated in Internet Islam as the force that corrupted Christianity from pure faith.) Asad ventures a much more allegorical potential for the surah: that the city is the whole world, that the original two prophets are Moses and Jesus, whose messages have to be supported by a third Messenger. One might quibble with Asad that more than two messengers (with and without a scripture) were sent according to the Quran. However, the Quran does voice preference for Moses and Jesus in general (David and his Psalms tend to show up more sporadically), and allegories usually favor broad symbols over one-to-one correlations.
Both commentaries read symbolism into the lone convert from the “far side of the city.” Ali’s perspective reminded me how different the structural nature of cities are in America to old world cities. He took “far side of the city” to mean outskirts, with connotations of poverty and marginalization. In America, the outskirts of a city might be more representative of people with money and cars and new homes, thus the stereotype of the bourgeois suburb where people are constantly trying to exercise affluence and remake the earth in their own generic image. It doesn’t tend to give an impression of marginalization. I don’t know much about old cities, but I’d expect the outskirts, being distant from the flow of commerce and political administration in the city’s center, would be more connected to poverty and underprivilege. So for Ali, the significance of the lone convert was his social station, and how true faith most often appeals to those who are not distracted by or reliant upon earthly life. (I couldn’t help but notice that Ali, in c. 3972, goes way beyond the text to characterize the man as someone who loved and respected his original culture and community, thus infusing other didactic purpose for this man that was not present in the text.) For Asad, more significant than where the convert came from was the effort he expended running across the whole city to confirm the prophets. The convert represents the lonely and unavailing struggle of true believers to change the minds of men. The reward of this work is not what it achieves on earth, but what it earns at the resurrection.
Though I said that Asad attends to the Arabic more frequently in his comments, Ali won my kudos in ayat 19-20. I appreciated his comment upon the words taṭayyar, “augur” and ṭaa’ir, “omen/fate,” which both derive from the roots ṭ-‘y-r, which have to do with flying and birds. (Think Altaïr/Aṭ-Ṭaa’ir, from “Assassins Creed”.) So what connections do birds have to do with omens? Well, one method of fortune telling was to watch the movements and behaviors of birds. I had known of this word in Arabic before, but what I enjoyed in Ali’s comment was that he related the concept to the Latin-derived word auspicious, which also links watching birds’ behavior to fortune-telling. One thing marvelous to see across languages is shared ideas and histories, even though represented within different phonemes. That Ali demonstrates this is good culture bridging.
So as I expected, these scholars were happy to elaborate on the natural wonders cited in this surah. Consistent with their theology that the Quran is an omnipotent document, they did not consider the perspective of the original listeners but saw the Quran as describing modern scientific insights. They didn’t go about this by trying to snap the language directly onto scientific concepts, however, but let the text remain poetic and indirect. This method is reasonable, and I’m not inclined to be as harsh with it as if they were trying to make the Quran some kind of textbook that scientific theories have had to catch up with. There’s a certain streak of Biblical and Quranic apologetics that really want to promote their scriptures as scientifically precise, and I have little patience for them due to their pettiness and shoving of square pegs into round holes. Both Asad and Ali let the text remain broadly poetic and thus read the poetry as apropos in its own way to modern concepts. Now, last week I focused only on the four ayat in this section that had to do with cosmology, being one of the places where I most frequently see Quran apologists jump to claim superiority over the Bible, but the examination of nature is actually a bigger section than that, spanning ayat 33-42.
Ayat 33-35 marvel at the habitability of the earth, that as a dead thing it is able to carry and support life. The habitat envisioned is a distinctly Arabian one, in which oases and dates palms are the central marvel, though grain and vines also gain mention. Asad has no comment upon this, but Ali takes more time to rejoice in it. He’ll build upon these images later in descriptions of Paradise, and also he connects them to other parables for the resurrection which have also focused on life growing out of death.
Ayah 36 praises God for making all the yieldings of the earth come in ‘azwaaj, “mates.” I niggled somewhere in an earlier post that not all things on the earth come in pairs, since many things do not reproduce sexually, which is why any interpretation of this language would need to be poetic and not literal. This verse intimates that there are more things out there that will be found in pairs, and upon this statement both Ali and Asad are eager to bring other dualistic things in nature like polarity, opposite energies, matter and anti-matter, heat and cold, light and darkness into this evaluation. Ali continues in this vein when he comments upon the removal of light from darkness in ayah 37 as another example of this dualism. Now, my personal reaction to this is a little hesitancy and musing on the philosophy of dualism. Both Ali and Asad in their footnotes conflate dualities in which there are two complementary things and dualities in which one thing is really just the lack of the other. Male and female organisms are two different but compatible things. Darkness is not a compatible substance with light but merely the absence of light, just as cold is merely the absence of heat. Now, one could say that ayah 36 focuses only on compatible opposites, and ayah 37 is a separate example of incompatible opposites, so that it is the commentators and not the Quran making this conflation. The reason for distinguishing between these types of opposites is that they often serve as model for theological concepts, models that the Quran has used in comparing guidance/ignorace, good/evil. And though these passages are directly about inspiring gratitude and admiration, Ali does assert that believers can mine spiritual truths from these natural truths. Depending on your goal, this may or may not be a wise thing. The Quran is emphasizing in its glorification of these things that they are requisite for life. In a book that is so characterized by ethical dualism, the idea that opposites work in harmony or balance –and that such opposition is in the end a good thing– is a challenge to the Quran’s definitions of good and evil. It’s great for mysticism, but bad for pragmatic laws of conduct.
[As fun, bonus trivia that’s tangential to gardening, date palms, and mates: meet Methuselah, the male date palm sprouted from a 2000 year old seed. They’re hoping to pair him with some anciently sourced females and revive a breed of date palms from him.]
Back to the texts, I was intrigued by the comments on ayah 38 about the sun’s running and resting place. Ali translated mustaqarr as “a period determined” in line with the idea that the “resting place” is merely the point of reaching a full circuit and not an actual stopping point. In his own comments, Ali is gentle upon those who in the past have interpreted the word as a point or place of rest by agreeing that it may look like such from the human’s point of view. This is pretty close to envisioning the Quran as entering into the perspective of men to form its similes, and approximates my approach of imagining how this would resonate with an ancient audience. Very interesting to me was Asad’s approach. In his translation, he rendered mustaqarr as “orbit,” which leans more upon connotations in the roots that equate “rest” with “stability.” Deriving from the etymology a meaning along the lines of “place/thing of stability,” conceivably allows mustaqarr to mean an orbit. Then Asad relays in his footnote a variation taught by one transmitter of the Quran that the phrase li-mustaqarrin laha, “to a mustaqarr for it” was actually laa mustaqarrin laha, “without a mustaqarr for it.” The interest is that it (a) promotes a variation of the Quran, and (b) requires you to read mustaqarr as “resting place” which contradicts Ali’s and Asad’s endeavors to make the word less restricted to connotations of stillness and rest.
To my great relief, the commentators did clear up for me what ayah 38 meant by attributing to the moon manaazil, “mansions.” I was perplexed that this was the word used, and furthermore that some translators even carried through with this meaning, including Yusuf Ali. Asad does like Shahih and swaps these “mansions” with the word “phases.” I’d done my best to extend manaazil to some idea of “abodes/pitstops” and thus to “stages of decline” –but it turns out, there’s an ever simpler answer! Lunar mansions, also known as lunar stations or houses, are an old zodiac concept. Just as the sun’s path across the sky changes across the year, so does the path of the moon (see ecliptics) and the position in the sky that it will inhabit each night. Lunar mansions are stars and constellations that provide landmarks for tracing the route and position of the moon, thus helping define the calendar for many different cultures, including Babylon, China, Persia, and India. It’s a zodiac system, but one based on the moon and not the sun. And since the Arabs dated time via the moon and not the sun, it would make sense that they’d be in tune with such a lunar zodiac. By the middle ages, Islamic scholars had become quite versed in the zodiacs.
Lunar mansions are merely a tool of astronomy, obsolete but not invalid. However, their use is really deeply linked with the occult science of astrology and horoscopes, and even to this day you’ll mostly find information about them on mystic websites. So even though there’s no reason for translators of the Quran to avoid this concept –it’s just using the stars to develop your calendar system– it does also reek of a pseudo-science you mightn’t want your holy scriptures associated with. And since the lunar mansions correlate in time to the lunar phases, I can also see why you’d want to change the words to speak of the more scientifically respectable concept. But that changes the meaning of the text, which is actually praising the beauty and function of the stars in conjunction with the moon, and thus the usefulness and beauty of the whole night sky.
Okay, I must confess that as regards the rest of this verse, I grew so distracted by the word manaazil, “mansions,” that I completely neglected to follow through to the other words in the ayah. (Seriously, I wrote and deleted that paragraph three times trying to think of a way the moon could be conceived as having “mansions.” My life is very unconnected to the night sky, and I obviously have not observed it much.) Ali and Asad both call attention to the latter half, which speaks of the moon either returning “like the old (and withered) part of the date stalk” (Ali) or becoming “like an old date stalk, dried up and curved.” The words in Arabic were حَتى عاد كالعُرون القَديم, ḥataa ʕaad k-al-ʕurjuun-il-qadiim. All but one of those words were already in my vocabulary, with the unknown one being the word relevant to dates, and since Sahih’s translation seemed in line with the other words I didn’t investigate further. My mistake. The one word I didn’t know referred not just to a date palm but to a specific part of it.
So it’s explicitly about the sickle shape of the fruiting part of a plant as it withers, and not some resurrecting shoot of an old stump like I’d imagined. The other source of my mistake was that in already being familiar with the word ʕaad in its capacity to mean “returned,” I didn’t realize that it also can mean “became.” And even still, one could say that the moon “returned [on the horizon] like an old raceme.” So thank you, Ali and Asad, for clarifying the imagery and giving me a more accurate picture.
As to the sun and moon both swimming in their orbits, never catching up to the other, Asad makes no comment. He does translate the sun and moon as floating “in space,” thus keeping the “outer space” connotation of the word falak but leaving out the antiquated connotations of celestial spheres and even the spinning of orbits (for the sun doesn’t literally orbit). Ali comments upon the beauty of the imagery, but denies solar eclipses as impinging upon the meaning of the ayah since there are no physical collisions.
Judgement and Reward
Spanning ayat 41-67 are descriptions of judgement and reward at the Resurrection. This surah does not describe the conditions of Hell, except to depict God commanding the disbelievers to burn therein, and so there’s not much imagery for the commentators to have to explain or add to. However, this surah contains some rich descriptions of life in Paradise, and so they do make comments upon that. One question when looking at depictions of resurrected life is whether those depictions are literal or metaphorical, and to what degree of either? Both Ali and Asad trend towards interpreting the passages as speaking metaphorically. Ali preserves the literal meaning in his translation, but explains the metaporical in his commentary. His starting point is the theological assumption that everything about life and experience in Paradise will be transformed, heightened, and unending, and from there he looks at every element of the surah’s descriptions and amplifies its meaning. The joy is unalloyed, the spouses are companions (he doesn’t comment upon whether they are resurrected earthly spouses) and symbols of a gregarious existence, the fruits are symbols of merriment. I appreciate his pointing out the link between the words “fruit” and “merriment.” These are both words I know, but hadn’t connected to each other. In Arabic, “humor” or “a humorous anecdote” is fukaahah, and “fruit” is faakiha. Both are built off the roots f-k-h, connoting enjoyment. So for Ali to read “enjoyments” and “merriments” as the symbolic essence of the fruit is a very valid interpretation, and very relevant to the original Arabic. Approaching from the opposite direction, Asad communicates the metaphorical meaning in his translation, and then explains the symbolic roots of his translations in his commentary. For him, the surah is communicating purely an emotional reward of heaven, with only the physical depictions reclining couches and spouses making it into the translation. He doesn’t address the spouses or the fruits, but centers more on the word for “shade” as a symbol of happiness. His justification of this symbol is not linguistically derived, for the roots of the word ẓilaal, “shade,” in this surah are roots that connote in every permutation…shade. But shade in the context of the Arabian deserts is a very very good thing.
Shade means protection, shade means comfort, shade means your water will last longer. It doesn’t mean happiness inherently, not even in the linguistic sense, but in the life of a hot climate the protection of shade from the sun is a thing that greatly contributes to happiness. Interpreting ẓilaal as “happiness” is probably a product of traditional conversations on the nature of Paradise. In the same way, Asad explains the “reclining couches” that he left in his translation as a symbol of inner fulfillment, borrowing from the comments of the scholar Razi. This “inner fulfillment” is not remotely based upon the etymology of the words nor as easy to connect to them, which is probably why he does not assert his metaphorical takeaways in the translation like he does with the other symbols. To be clear, a symbol does not need to have an etymological or even objectively relatable connection to the thing it symbolizes. Sometimes symbols are just arbitrary things assigned to visually represent a concept. Sometimes it is not the thing itself that represents the concept, but some hidden story associated with that thing. So I’m not calling out Asad for reading seemingly unrelated meaning into the imagery of these ayat. I just want to emphasize that he does intervene in the literary mechanisms of the text to arbitrate meaning. Depending on his philosophy of interpretation, that is fine. After all, he still includes the Arabic and perhaps puts the onus upon you to know the original language.
Now, I’m sorry that this post is late, but I went deep down the rabbit hole on the topic of what the surah was intending in ayat 66 and 67. These are the ayat that I related to abusive language in my last post. My knowledge of Arabic grammar is quite incomplete, and my dissent with Ali and Asad’s comments and translations of these ayat has largely boiled down to investigating grammar. It is a deep, ongoing search into the void of linguistics, both English and Arabic, and I’ll have to consign it to its own post, next week.
Who’d’ve thought that I’d be giving this tiny, typical surah three devoted posts?
The last leg of this surah is primarily a denunciation of the ingratitude and arguments of the disbelievers. Both commentators dwell quite a bit upon the lowly character of disbelievers and expand the Quran’s comments upon such in their footnotes.
How did these commentators understand the attitude towards poetry intimated in ayat 69-70? Ali does not regard the passage as having a negative comment upon the mechanical aspects of poetry, but instead reads it as referring to “decadent” storytelling in general. It is a matter of rejecting that the Quran could be considered imaginative, obscure, flippant, or for entertainment purposes, and then asserting that it is clear, objective, and instructional. There’s room for contention on the accuracy of the Quran’s self-image, but relevant to what I’m interested in is that this doesn’t necessarily condemn poetry. The point that Ali draws from this is not that poetry is bad, but merely that it’s childish in a way that the Quran is not. It’s less condemnation and more condescension. He does not directly address why poetry is not something that would suit Muhammad and whether that is a matter of Muhammad’s ability or character.
Asad also interprets this passage as being a matter of contrast between the nature of poetry and the nature of the Quran, but his view lacks the condescension. His reasoning hinges upon translating the clause “nor would it suit him” to instead be “nor would [poetry] have suited this [message],” which is to say that he interprets the pronoun in the Arabic to be reference to the Quran and not Muhammad. He connects that point with the description of the Quran’s nature to explain that the literary devices of poetry would not suit the Quran’s objective: in poetry, meaning is subjected to the constraints of meter and rhyme, but the Quran’s objective is to communicate clear meaning and thus should not be fettered by the conventions of poetry in achieving this objective. Asad’s interpretation is far friendlier to poetry, since it neither condescends to nor condemns it, though it is a reductive view of what poetry is and does. In short, Asad says that for any objective you need to use the right materials, and that poetry merely was not the right material for the Quran’s objective.
As I was seeing it last week, the “them” of this surah is pretty specifically a polytheistic group giving grief to Muhammad. Many statements do speak universally to the condition of mankind, but ayat 74-79 also narrow the field to a specific group, denouncing how “they” have taken other gods and have argued with a singular “you,” (i.e. Muhammad), and debate the possibility of resurrection. Though the “they” of the original audience is gone, this surah remains. Ali and Asad both abstract the “them” of this surah to the wider community of all mankind and do not examine how these words would apply to the original audience. The other gods of ayah 74 are explained in comments to be either literal examples of polytheism (idols, heroes, deified persons), abstract things (science, philosophy, wealth, power), or general superstitions that people adopt for adoration or for hope of success. As to how the surah speaks directly to Muhammad not to grieve over those who argue/defame him, both Ali and Asad implicitly skip past Muhammad so that the surah is speaking to the (Muslim) reader. And the refusal of “them” to believe in the afterlife is extrapolated to represent a lack of imagination or willingness to imagine an omni-competent God. In this way, “they” can be applied to many and any community, and the instruction/retribution of the passage can be rendered timeless. These are the same kinds of methods and conclusions I see at work in Christian scriptural interpretations, and I didn’t really expect to see anything different. My main curiosity was whether the original identity and perspective of the “them” of Muhammad’s time would be factored in the commentary, and they weren’t. This is consistent with viewing the Quran as timeless. I also don’t think that there’s any doubt as to who the “them” of Muhammad’s time were, and so for some I daresay it’s redundant or uninteresting to examine such.
So will I incorporate these commentaries into my Quran process? I think so. Not in the same way as I’ve done with this surah, goodness no. It takes enough energy to form opinions on the Quran itself, let alone to form opinions on someone else’s opinions of the Quran. The irony of reading a commentary is that you’ve essentially tripled the amount of cognitive labor it takes to get through the original material. Just think about how much time it takes to read all my blog posts. By the time you’ve read them all, you might as well have read the Quran multiple times over and come up with your own conclusions.
But of course, the point for reading a commentary is not efficiency, but for sharing in someone else’s experiences and insights. I really did appreciate some of the ways that Ali and Asad were able to direct my attention to the language of the text or expand the range of possible meanings I was aware of. Plus they had information I needed. I certainly never would have made sense of “lunar mansions” or ʕurjuun-il-qadiim without their ready information. And reading their opinions together –after I’d formed my own– made it very interesting to see where we all agreed or conflicted with each other. Therein lies the trick with commentaries: they are most interesting to read after you’ve started your own internal commentary. It’s in the contrast of opinions that you get drawn into investigation and understanding, and whether that leads you to agree with them or not, it does lead you to better understand and justify yourself.
Which is why I hope that when I post the link to a surah in the introduction to my posts, that you read it for yourself too. You need your own opinions about the Quran in order to engage with mine. Reading a commentary of the Quran without your own opinions is just having the meaning dictated to you. And if you accept that, do you really know what you believe?