There is beautiful simplicity in Islam. Take the basic confession of faith:
Laa ‘ilaaha ‘illaa-l-laah
“No god except The God”
What a beautiful phrase! It’s so open, so light, so concise. You can see why it’s not just the theology of Islam that’s appealing, but the draw of the Arabic language that can present this simplicity so beautifully. Poetry was very present in Arab culture of Muhammad’s time, and served as the various communities’ family registers, historical records, and transmitters of cultural values. The Quran had to speak to this poetic culture. The above confession comes from ayah 35 of today’s surah, aṣ-Ṣaaffaat, “The Ranks.” It is a surah that comes from and appeals to the Arabs around Muhammad at their poetic hearts.
Semitic languages are beautifully set up for poetry. Their common feature is building words out of symbolic clumps of (usually) three consonants that denote some kind of general meaning. To make a specific meaning, you pad those consonants with vowels and other filler syllables, often following some kind of formula that represents a grammatical function (noun, adjective, verb, reflexive verb, etc.). A language with such shapes and materials is thus richly blessed with both sound similarities and metrical similarities to shape into fun-to-say phrases. We can get this in English sometimes, like the phrase “akin to kindness kindled twixt kin, kind, and kindred,” but since English is such a mutt language, built of so many other languages, this can be harder to do. I cannot say much about the other semitic and afro-asiatic languages that use root systems, but Arabic (and particularly the more codified and internally consistent Standard and Classical Arabic) uses its root systems and morphologies to make very musical poetry.
Consider the first three ayat of today’s surah:
1 wa-ṣ-ṣaaffaati ṣaffan
2 fa-z-zaajiraati zajran
3 fa-t-taaliyaati dhikran:
4 ‘inna ‘ilaaha-kum la-waaḥidun
5 rabbu-s-samaawaati wa-l-‘arḍi wa-maa baynahumaa wa-rabbu-l-mushaariqi!
Notice in ayat 1-3 the tendency to repeat consonants within a line and to replicate rhythms. This is poetry, or at the very least it’s poetic.
(And yes, for those in the know, I know that you’re supposed to drop the last ḥarakaat of a phrase from pronunciation. But my wrist has also been slapped for doing that very thing, so I’m here erring on the side of completion and pronouncing everything.)
These ayat are an example of the oaths that sometimes prelude a surah. The oaths are, like the isolated letters, somewhat of a substantive and theological mystery. In substance they are hard to address because, while linguistically beautiful, they don’t communicate inasmuch as they evoke. You’re impressed by them, but they don’t actually have much in particular to say. It’s incredibly difficult to translate ayat 1-3 into English because there are utterly no verbs in play, not even in the implied equational manner of most other verb-less Arabic sentences. There are only clauses in which a definite feminine plural verbal noun is followed by an indefinite masculine plural verbal noun. There is no perfectly equivalent grammar to this in English. Here’s my own inadequate interpretation, which prioritizes structural consistency and lack of verbs:
By the name of God, the Most Merciful, THE Merciful.
1 and the ranked of ranks
2 hence the enforcers of forces
3 hence the repeaters of reminders:
4 Verily, your God is verily one
5 Lord of the Heavens and of the Earth and what’s between both, Lord of the points of sunrise!
This is all not only hard to interpret syntactically across two languages, but even substantively within its native language. Indeed, the confusion within the native language manifests in the variety translated into another language. What exactly is being sworn by, and how does this connect to the thesis? Scholarly interpretations will bounce between these ayat describing either believers or angels, with others thinking it’s the verses of the Quran itself. Sometimes interpreters will have the subjects being the ones who are proclaiming the thesis in ayat 4-5, though in terms of grammar the subjects of ayat 1-3 are passively being sworn by and are not grammatically indicated to be the subjects doing the swearing; they are rather a continuation of the bismallah oath that opens almost every surah.
Theologically these ayat are difficult to address because there’s the question of why God would be swearing an oath by created things. The usual mechanism of oaths among mortals is to cite one’s own accountability to external factors. Perhaps your are accountable to an enforcing higher power or to a body of external evidence that confirms your truthfulness. Or perhaps in swearing by something, you are creating accountability by conceding things that may be taken away from you if your oath is untruthful. But from a theological standpoint, God has no higher power, nor does His testimony need any evidence, nor can He be held accountable for anything. Why would God need to swear oaths at all? If the oath is a citation of evidence, what is the logical link between the things being sworn by and the thing being sworn? And why would He use poetry for such evidence, when He has elsewhere dismissed poetry as either (by kindest interpretation) inadequate or (by harshest interpretation) forbidden?
Islamic-Awareness.org (a Muslim-run apologetics website) provides a paper on some aspects of this topic if you want some further reading. It largely explains traditional viewpoints of the oaths as rhetorical mechanisms (namely, that the Quran is building up a sense of glory with its oaths and then transferring that glory to the thesis), and explores how much logical connection can be made between the thing being sworn by and the thing being sworn. The conclusion of the article concedes that we cannot really understand how these oaths work because we cannot understand the worldview of the original audience with what evidence is available to us. All explanations are speculative, which is the same conclusion made about the instances of leading isolated letters.
The point that I think must always be fallen back upon is that these ayat are performative for human benefit. Sure, God doesn’t need to back up His statements with evidence, but the Quran supplies evidences anyhow for humans to appreciate. And these oaths are aurally/orally fun and substantively mysterious– both of those things are attention-grabbing and memorable to humans. They would appeal to the poetic sensibilities of Muhammad’s poetic culture, though I cannot judge whether they would come across as skillful or cheesy. Yet in some ways, these moments of concentrated poetic sensibilities supports the Quran’s own statement last surah that poetry is unfit for revelation –if the goal of revelation is to educate and instruct. When the Quran goes all in on poetry here, it also becomes less communicative and practical.
Perhaps in history these poetic oaths appealed to some sort of ritual or cultural sensibility familiar to the original listeners, even though that context did not get passed on with the words themselves. As with many things in the Quran, the ultimate takeaway is not to understand the how, but the what. The point of these oaths is that you the listener hear and accept its claims. How the oath works is less relevant than that you accept the oath.
A Poet’s Paradise
It’s becoming more normal in the Quran to see more carnal depictions of Paradise. The rewards are appearing in experiential items like food, drink, and women. Gardens, fruits, honor, and emotional bliss have been a common theme always. Today’s surah adds to that depictions of a social gathering in which everyone sits across from each other in thrones, gazing and socializing and partaking of a shared cup. The drink is explained to be non-intoxicating and “white.” I take note of the whiteness, because a symbolic parallel is often drawn between red wine and blood. In pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, there is a lot of parallel imagery comparing red wine and blood. A sword “drinks” blood. The spilling of blood –whether in the defeat of one’s enemies or the slaughter of an animal for food– is required to keep one’s tribe alive. The communal spilling of wine likewise is a leader’s duty to nurture and bond the tribe together. So when you see believers drinking white non-toxic wine in Paradise, you see wine that has the “blood” cleaned out of it. In this picture of thriving society, no one has to die.
And you know I cannot let the women pass by without comment. The depictions of the women of Paradise feel awkwardly tacked on, like a perk of Paradise for believing men. It’s a purity fetish, wherein the shyness of the women is understood to result from their own hyper-consciousness of sexuality and exercise of controlling it. The women are named as qaaṣiraat aṭ-ṭarf ʕiinun, “eyes restrained of gaze.” The roots q-ṣ-r connote shortness, and are used in other forms to represent women who only ever go a short distance from home. These women’s eyes likewise do not look far, and can be taken as a synecdoche for the woman as a whole. The women are likened to bayḍun maknuunun, “a sheltered egg.” This again is related to the cultural idioms of the pre-Islamic Arabs. In the Muʕallaqah of pre-Islamic poet Imru al-Qays, the poet revels in his youthful exploits of stealing young women’s virginity, describing the concealed young women as “fair ones” and “eggs.” “Eggs,” “fair,” and “white” all have the same roots, b-y-ḍ. Eggs have lots of connotations that applied to sheltered virgins in this culture: paleness (a woman of social status rarely was exposed to sunlight), delicacy, integrity, immaturity. While the cup of Paradise is a rebuttal or purification of the pagan attitudes towards wine, the women of Paradise are a confirmation and purification of the pagan attitudes towards women.
Yet it must be recognized that there is a potential the Quran is speaking to women and thinks that it is promising rewards. This is important to concede, because a lot of anti-Islamicists would rant against Muslim women as dupes who can’t see their secondary status in Islam. But these women of Paradise the Quran’s goal might have actually been to be more inclusive. To the original audience of women, these depictions of chaste eyes and egg-like quality were culturally relevant ideals of female status and prosperity. The opposite social position was that of the slave girl, who was exposed to menial labors in the sun, had no privacy or barriers from the sexual desires of men, and was by nature of her enslavement far from home. These women would hear of fair skin, demure grace, and physical perfection and probably be conditioned by their culture to think, “yeah-yeah, I want that.” And as I said in my Modest Mystique post, that appeal of feminine mystery –of demure glamour and exclusiveness– is a marketable quality that can still be sold to women today. It has a genuine appeal and there are women who will genuinely want such for themselves.
The criticism Westerners heap upon these verses is inconsistent with the “desirable femininity” that we still promote in our own culture, and frequently these women of Paradise are objected to only because they are Islamic and not because our own culture has rejected this vision of womanhood. Real criticism of these verses needs to include our own culture. Modern women now enjoy a growing degree of cultural awakening to their own full humanity. This awakening comes from the hard-fought struggles of women to enter public view, and can not happen within the terms of confinement and exclusivity idealized in this pre-Islamic society, these Quranic verses, or our own culturally preferred limits of feminine beauty. Women are capable of so much more good than such tight confines and smallness of action allows.
The other side of Paradise that puts my hackles up is the depiction of the companions of Paradise looking into Hell to check on old mates and then to turn away satisfied and grateful to have escaped those friends’ influence. There is no regret or sadness for the fallen friend, and ayat 56-59 rather read as the person in Paradise gloating to the person in Hell of his own immortality and immunity from suffering. (Though many translators insert parentheticals to have the speaker turning to their peers to gloat rather than gloating at the one suffering in Hell.) It is another drawn out “if you could but see…” moment, wherein the suffering of other men is held in view of believers so that believers can feel satisfied for themselves.
The surah’s depictions of Hell come in two forms. First, we have the moment of judgement, in which all the non-believers begin squabbling over who is to blame for their damnation. This squabble emphasizes the non-society of disbelievers. In life, one has rulers and leaders who are responsible for the welfare of their people. Once life is over, however, the falseness of the society is revealed. Misguided rulers misguide their people; they have no actual superior knowledge or character that make them deserving of leadership. Once before hell, the rulers take no responsibility for their people as they did in life (although before God such is not an option anyways). Misguided people are responsible for their own misguidance, the drama charges, since the people would not have accepted error from their leaders if they themselves had not preferred it. So unlike the social cheer of Paradise, Hell from its very introduction is a place of isolation and antipathy.
In contrast with the pleasures of Paradise, a sampling image of Hell is provided. As with all images of resurrected life, we can’t exactly commit to how much is allegorical or literal, but that nonetheless does not invalidate examining the symbols in a literal way. A symbol requires a tangible image to communicate its intangible truth. Today’s symbol is a meal in Hell. There is a tree of zaqquum. The roots z-q-m (زقم, bottom of page 1238) connote “gobbling,” and usually build words related to binge-able foods (though notably one derived word, zaqmah, means the gobbling plague). However, the tree of zaqquum is described as growing from the depths of Hell, with fruits like satans’ heads. Though I don’t know what the usual iconography for satan and demons was in the late 600s, I’m going to guess this means the fruit is spiky and barbed. At the very least, we understand that it is not edible in the way that fruit is supposed to be, and that it must therefore be punishing to eat. Herein we get the loaded implication of this being called the tree of “gobbling.” Not only are the people of Hell so desperate that they compulsively gobble the only food available to them, but having filled their bellies with it they are likewise gobbled by their food, torn up from within by the “satan heads” of the fruit. This tree is both opposite of the delightful fruit of Paradise and a perversion of the usual meaning of words built upon z-q-m. If the drink of Paradise has been purified, the morsels of Hell have been desecrated. Speaking of drink, the drink given to those in Hell is boiling water. This image is not dwelt upon, and right after it the people are returned to the fire, which rather implies that this is the closest thing to respite from the torment of Hell that its occupants get.
So. That is the image painted in the surah. How much of that is allegorical and how much is literal? Well, natural human discomfort with this image encourages many people to view it as highly allegorical. Afterlife imagery in Christianity and Islam on the whole tend to get viewed allegorically. In the case of Paradise/Heaven, the need to render it allegorical stems from a bit of underwhelm. Sure, the images sound nice and all, but do they not seem a little frivolous and boring when scaled up to eternity? Hell, however, needs to be rendered allegorical because it is rather too…… The things pictured for Hell would be called outright evil if manifested on Earth, and when scaled up to eternity become mentally unbearable to so much as imagine. So reading these things as allegory becomes necessary in the case of the Good Afterlife to make it more impressive and the Bad Afterlife to make it less oppressive, or at least to remove God from implication in the oppression. Yusuf Ali, for example, interprets the tree of Zaqquum to be an allegory for the self-destruction of sinfulness in earthly life.
I clumped together today the elements of this surah that struck me as most poetic. Things can be poetic in the musical sense –defined by their patterns of emphasis and their employment of similar and contrasting sounds– or they can be poetic in the allegorical sense –how much meaning can be loaded onto the words. And it is important to see that the Quran was revealed within the immediate context of a culture with a developed poetic tradition. The poetic elements of today do strike me as speaking to that poetic tradition, of bending the cultural tropes for an Islamic message.
And this is perhaps what leads the pagans to mock Muhammad as a “mad poet” in ayah 36, and is why Surah Yaa Siin had to address and denounce these claims. Remembering that the suwar that come first in the Quran’s chapter arrangement are dated mostly to later eras in his ministry, it’s interesting to reflect that images of Paradise provided there are much more concerned with gardens and fountains. The women then are merely “purified spouses,” and are not described with poetic terms like “eggs.” Wine as a whole is rejected and classified with demonic things. And there are no oaths, but instead a tendency to start with an announcement of Quranic pedigree (“These are the clear verses/This is a revelation of which there is no doubt”).
So you can see in the Quran a backfired attempt to appeal to the poetry of its first community, with its poetic qualities only presenting to the pagans a less legitimate form of a thing they already knew and were quite talented in. Thus came the Quran’s need to reject and move away from more explicitly poetic things, though keeping a general light rhyming tendency and good employment of loaded meanings. Even though Muhammad distanced himself from poetry and traditions about him emphasize his distaste and inability for poems, he did not fully abandon the worldview taught in the poetry. Though the women of Paradise stopped being described as protected eggs, Muhammad’s own wives were called to fulfill their appropriate roles as women in the topmost tier of tribal status: to stay close to their own homes, to guard themselves with physical barriers, to display their social status with concealment. This is why understanding the culture contemporary to the Quran is so important to understanding the Quran. In that context, we can see in what ways it departed from that culture and in what ways it carried it on.