Surah 37: The Ranks, Part 2

Last week I grouped together those elements of Surah 37, “The Ranks,” which I thought were meant to appeal to the poetic side of the culture to which Muhammad was originally preaching. This week I’m going to group together the remaining material, which approaches the people from a more argumentative side. It still is pretty artistic, having several recurring turns of phrase and literary patterns, but in purpose it is much more interested in using the right information to get the right response.


Last week I mentioned that there is a tendency to look at oaths in the Quran and try to explain them as evidences supporting a logical conclusion. One reason for doing this is that such would be an extension of the Quran’s usual behavior. One of the Quran’s frequent recourses is centering attention upon either a marvel of nature or life, or an event of history, and claiming such as evidence that supports its theology. That kind of thing happens in the broader content of today’s surah.

Right after the opening oaths, ayat 6-12 examine the created world to provide evidence for God’s ability and competency. It is a rather mythologized version of nature, and though it doesn’t align to science it still can be taken as a visual metaphor to communicate a spiritual reality. In its own view, the stars form a kind of barricade in “the earthly sky.” Though oft translated as “nearest/lowest heaven,” the word for “sky” and “heaven” is the same in Arabic, and the word translated as “nearest” is literally the mundane “world.” It’s little-h “heaven” and not capital-H “Heaven.” In old cosmology there was a sense that the spiritual realm of Heaven was located farther from Earth and above the earthly heaven, and so perhaps in speaking to that concept the Quran is presenting the stars in heaven as guardians protecting Heaven from trespass from the satans/jinns confined on Earth. For indeed, such is the picture the surah paints: a barricade of stars with shooting stars hunting down any satan that infiltrates Heaven. (This is not the first time we’ve seen this idea in the Quran, but I think the articulation here is clearer than elsewhere.) It is rather awkward that despite God’s designs, satans are still sometimes successful at foiling God’s defenses and must be smitten down retroactively. This concession is why some might suspect the passage of being a “just so” explanation, extending its logic to cover unexplained things in nature.

Science explains to us what shooting stars are these days, but that doesn’t mean these ayat are “debunked” and lose their communicative value. There is the potential that these ayat employ imagery from the physical world to help us imagine a spiritual reality. The image at hand doesn’t have to be scientifically accurate to communicate, but it does require preserving the original understanding of that image to teach the metaphor. One interpretation is that there is a Holy Space in Heaven, in which no evil is allowed, and which is protected through both a strong defense and retributive offense. Another is a reassurance that Holy Revelation is divinely protected, and that all sly attempts to tamper with it are made obvious with repudiation. The Quran secures believers’ good will by contrasting Muhammad’s appropriate reaction with unbelievers’ inappropriate reaction. Muhammad (singular “you” in the text) accepts the evidence with wonder, while disbelievers (plural “they” in the text) mock the evidence. So if you read these ayat and find yourselves critical, you are lumped in with the maligned/mal-aligned “they.” Thus you need to adjust your interpretation to the point where you align with Muhammad and feel awe. And there is plenty of room in this instance to find a comfortable interpretation.

Prophetic Cycles

The other evidences in this surah are a series of prophetic cycles spanning ayat 71-148. Their stories demonstrate God’s power and serve to support Muhammad’s claim that he and his audience are in the midst of such a cycle. Something curious is that all the prophets cited are Hebrews: Noah, Abraham, Moses and Aaron, Elijah, Lot, Jonah. None of the traditionally Arab prophets are included, which is curious if we assume a pagan audience is being appealed to. Unlike many other instances of prophetic cycles in the Quran, these prophets’ narratives are not rendered generic but are each described by some distinct trait or event. Noah survives the flood; Abraham repudiates and escapes polytheism, passes God’s test to sacrifice his promised son, and also has a promised son; Moses and Aaron saved the Hebrews from affliction and were given Scripture; Elijah repudiates Ba’al worship; Lot is saved from destruction; Jonah is eaten by a fish, vomited up, then goes on to successful ministry. These distinct ministries are narratively unified through similar introductions and identical conclusions, though no “Peace be upon ___” gets declared upon Lot or Jonah.

Comments upon Abraham: This is the one time God’s trial to Abraham to sacrifice his promised son gets told in the Quran. The name of the son in question is not given, which is why some Muslims do actually believe Isaac is the son involved despite mainstream Islam promoting Ishmael. After all, Isaac is generally understood to be the son of good tidings” and the story of those tidings is told in the Quran, while Ishamel has no such story associated with him. However, after the story of the sacrifice is told the Quran iterates that Abraham received good tidings of a son, Isaac. This leaves plenty of room to say Isaac’s foretelling and birth comes sequentially after the trial, which potentially implies Ishmael to be the son of the preceding text. A key ingredient in the Islamic telling is the complete knowledge and submission of both Abraham and the son in this story, whereas in Genesis Abraham is indirect about his goals and binds Isaac to the altar when the moment comes. It’s the same kind of significance of Mary getting her moment of consent in the Gospel of Luke, with no such moment in the Quran. There is more positive meaning to be mined from stories in which all parties participate through consent.

Comments upon Elijah/Elias*: Although ayah 123 spells the prophet’s name with the normative ‘Ilyaas, ayah 130 spells it in two words, ‘Il Yaasiin. One proposed explanation by scholars is that ‘Ilyaasiin is a plural rendering to mean “Elias and his people,” on par with the term “Mohammedans” or “Christians.” Thus the blessing is not be spoken over Elijah alone, but also his adherents (which would extend to include Muslims by the Quran’s own logic). None of the other prophets get this treatment, so why the break with formula? Well, this is the last time this blessing is used in this surah, so perhaps the plural is meant to extend beyond Elias. The unanswered problem remains, however: why it is written as two words? The discussion on Quranic Corpus over this question could only answer in the sentiment of “it’s not our job to question, but preserve.” The only answer I can speculate is that it’s a wordplay to pun Elias’s name with Yaa Siin, the eponymous isolated letters of the Surah Y. S.. This pun would only have been brought about at the point when the Quran was written down, as the written division creates no aural effect unless the speaker really breaks the words up to deliver it like a dad joke. Why someone would want to make a pun that references Yaa Siin? Well, given that we don’t know exactly what yaa-siin means, we also can’t be quite sure what would be intended by an attempt to pun ‘Ilyaasiin with ‘Il YaaSiin. As it stands, there is no individual meaning available for ‘Il in the sentence’s context. What is being done here is anyone’s guess.

Comments on Lot: the member of Lot’s family that does not get saved by destruction is only mentioned as “an old woman.” Ouch.

Comment on Jonah: This is the only narration of Jonah’s story we are told in the Quran. It’s pretty sparse, and rather dependent upon the Biblical version for explanation. (Otherwise, why did Jonah draw lots? High stakes gambling?) It lacks the biblical versions’ commentary on the dissonance between religious nationalism/exclusionism and God’s universal sympathy.

Challenges to Pagans

Some time is spent attacking the pagan vision of spiritual reality in ayat 149-166. The first item it attacks is the prominence of female figures in the pagan pantheon, despite the preference for males in society. This inconsistency occurs in two ways. God is said to have fathered daughters and to have created the angels as females. Of course, it could be that these two points are one and the same depending upon whether God’s daughters were counted as angels. This is easy ground for Islam to attack because the preference of the pagans themselves is for men and male children. So why would they “degrade” their God by saying His offspring are the culturally less valued females? And that He surrounds Himself with females to do His bidding?

It’s an interesting question, because to my knowledge there is no polytheist pantheon –no matter how misogynistic the society– that doesn’t include female members. The irony even exists in Western culture. Despite a record of limited and highly regulated female participation in public life, the preferred images for ideals such as Justice, Liberty, or Nationhood were nonetheless women. So in some way there actually might be some kind of correlation between the idealization of women and their strict regulation in society. If women are perceived as symbolic paragons of virtue (or the epitomes of lechery), there isn’t room for the actual humanity of women to participate in society. Her perfection becomes a thing to be protected, and her failures at protection become a thing to be punished –disproportionately so because of her disappointment of the Ideal. And also, the mysterious nature attributed to women –what with their lives shrouded in privacy, emotions, and unseen biological functions– makes great fodder to imagine a mystical deity. I’m sure anthropologists have some theories on this phenomenon, if I knew where to look.

We do not get the pagans’ explanations of their female deities or their misogyny of women, so while we can cheer the Quran for identifying this inconsistency of worldview, we also can’t understand how the pagans reconciled it.

An awkward dynamic created with the force of this argument is that the Quran seems to be leaning in to the perceived shame of femininity. “Why would you denigrate God with female offspring/angels?” This in the hands of anti-Quran polemicists helps argue that the Quran perceives femininity as a degradation. This is not necessarily the case. In this instance, the Quran is using the pagans’ culture to convict them of the contradiction in their theology. It isn’t necessarily embracing that culture, and many Muslims would say that the Quran is throwing both the theology and the culture out together. Muhammad, after all, only had female surviving offspring, and thus we would presume him to be invested in elevating daughters and downplaying the idea that such were a shame to their father. There might be something to read in whether the Quran views angels as male-only (or sex-less, as what does sex even mean in this case), but again, this is still centrally a passage challenging the pagans with theological hypocrisy and not directly building the Islamic viewpoint.

There is also a belief among the pagans that the jinn –which are spiritual creatures that the Quran validates as real– are lesser descendants of God. This is hinted to be a deliberate fabrication of the jinn in order to elevate themselves in the eyes of men. I’ll note that the word translated as “begotten” is “begotten” in the generic sense, not necessarily the Christian theological sense. Some people, when they see the translation “beget” anywhere in the Quran think this means it is talking specifically to Christians in such instances. After all, in modern English you’ll only hear the word “beget” in Christian circles via readings from the King James Version and credal statements. It’s clearly not talking to Christians in this instance; the whole context is pagan theology.

The pagans are also challenged to justify how they came about their vision of the spiritual world. Who witnessed these things? How were they transmitted? Remember that the Quran presents itself as a written book, and presents Muhammad as one who merely repeats what he was taught from the pages. In some sense it’s a little contradictory to challenge the pagans with “where is your book?” It’s no surprise that the pagans would challenge Muhammad to produce his claimed book and source of knowledge, which is why Surah 6:7-8 has to deny its own accountability to produce a physical book by saying such would be useless in the eyes of the unbelievers. This challenge does remind me of the curious case of most surviving religions being anchored in written scriptures these days. There are religions —Yoruba comes to mind– that still rely on oral and experiential transmission, but by and large the major religious communities to my knowledge have associated themselves with written works. And as I’ve said, sacred scripture is not a genre, and there are many attitudes, methods, and values that these books can have. Still, the stability of the written word is seized in modern times as crucial, even if not all religions commit to their scriptures being essential. Islam set out precisely with this value for the written word in its heart, even while its own scriptures were not committed to physical form.

The Victory

All these challenges and claims of evidence are declared victorious in the final ayat of the surah, ayat 161-182. The error of the pagans has been denounced and intellectually attacked, and in the Quran’s view their error can deceive no one except for the person already destined for Hell. Harkening back to the oaths at the beginning of the surah, a united group free from error declares their solidarity with the cry:

164 No one is among us except for him is a station known
165 And verily we, yea we are the ranks
166 And verily we, yea we are the exalters

My translation

And there later follows the Quran’s agreement with these voices:

171 And verily Our word has gone ahead for our slaves, the messengers
172 Verily they, yea they are the victorious
173 Verily Our host, yea they are the conquerors

My translation

I let the identity of the subjects being sworn by in the oaths remain nebulous last week because there was nothing in the text to commit “The Ranks” to any specific subject. It really could mean and has been taken to mean angels, believers, or the verses of the Quran. In this conclusion, which reflects back upon those oaths, I see why so many translators (including Sahih) prefer inserting angels into the text as the subjects. The surah winds to a close with a prediction of the time God’s punishment will descend upon the territory of the disbelievers. It is a punishment that envisions a more instantaneously divine intercession, and this militant language conjures to imagination a descending host of angels.

Muhammad himself is called to passivity and patience. Twice the surah commands him:

174 So retreat from them until a time
175 And perceive, then they will perceive

178 And retreat from them until a time
179 And perceive, then they will perceive

My translation

This is a time where Muhammad is to be patient and passive, leaving room for God to handle the punishment. But in the surah’s lack of commitment to a specific subject, there was also room for Muhammad to have to retreat and then deliver the wrath himself in later times.

*The name “Elijah” in English is our usual mispronunciation of the Latin “j”, which would really be spoken as “Eliyah.” This comes from the Hebrew phrase “My God is Yah(weh)”:

god (generic)first-person possessive suffixname of God
‘el-iiYah, shortened for YHWH

I think a direct translation of this meaning into Arabic would be Ilaahiillaah:

god (generic)first-person possessive suffixname of God

That’s a rather lovely name, I think. Though if you wanted to translate the meaning of yahweh, “he be,” to Arabic I think the word is yakuun: ‘Ilaahiiyakuun. But then if you also shortened it like the Hebrew you’d get ‘Ilaahiiyak, which… isn’t quite as poetic admittedly.

Anyhow, the Arabic name ‘Ilyaas is actually a transliteration of the Greek version of Eliyah, Elias.

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