When I first set out on this Quran project, I intended it to be merely a journal of my reactions and residual thoughts. Turns out, that’s not how I work and it basically became a series of essays. Because it’s been taking so long to do, I decided some months ago to revise my approach and read ahead to the end of the Quran, just jotting my first impressions down in notes. I did this, using my English-only Quran since it’s small and easy to carry. Months later, now that I’ve come in my blog to Surah 38, ص, “Ṣaad,” (pronounced like “psalm” but with the LM swapped out for a D), I re-read the surah and then re-read my earlier notes:
Yeah, those notes hold up. This is basically my same reaction re-reading Surah Ṣaad for the second time.
So let’s unpack this. If you want a more coherent experience than my own, I’d suggest you read Yusuf Ali’s translation, rather than my usual recommend of Sahih International. He smooths out some of the more surprising wrinkles without reshaping too much of the text. Though there is a lot of interesting theological material and linguistic trivia in this surah, I’m going to center in today on the narratives that most caught my attention: David, Solomon, Job, and Iblees.
Let’s make clear that Sahih International does not make good translation choices in this surah, and the reactions within my initial readings are largely due to poor word choices on Sahih’s parts. This doesn’t mean that the Arabic itself is more clear in meaning, but only that the chosen translation is very un-English. It’s a curious thing, because Sahih was translated by native English speakers (three American women who converted to Islam and moved to Saudi Arabia), and you’d think that they’d have been a little more vested in keeping the English a little more… English, honestly. However, Sahih has a very recognizable translation philosophy, and their word choices are consistent with that philosophy. Someday I’ll do a review of Sahih International’s translations and explain.
David’s limelight spans ayat 17-26. It starts off with familiar material that combines David’s faith with the sort of supernatural natural praise of nature. Its transition into narrative in ayah 21 disorients the reader right away by describing “the adversaries, when they climbed over the wall of his prayer chamber.” The word choice and the situation all sound like an assassination attempt is being described, resulting in a zany moment when these adversaries turn to talk about sheep. However, this is a fault of Sahih International’s for translating the word khaṣm as “adversaries,” when the situationally more correct word would be “litigants,” a translation along the lines of which most other translations opt for. “Adversaries” connotes something more hostile and violent when compared to similar options like “quarrelers,” or “opponents,” and since the object of these people is getting at David, your natural expectation is “they wanna kill him.” Situationally, “litigants” is more appropriate in all ways, as it’s accurate to the roles of these wall-climbers and their relationship to each other. Hearing “litigants” makes more available to understanding that these people are in quarrel with each other, and not necessarily with David, thus making their shift into dialogue about sheep ownership less of a surprise.
Anyhow, the translation being what it was, I was disoriented by the “adversaries” breaking into a plea for sheep ownership. Because I was in the context of the Quran, my mind jumped back to the other time in which David (and Solomon) were said to have settled a court case involving some trespassing sheep. That mention was brief, and so I thought this was going to be an elaboration of that tale, especially since traditional material on that story is much more developed. However, as the case and story unfolded, I had to reorient myself again when I realized my mind was again in the wrong context. I needed to be in a biblical context: this story is very much a version of Nathan’s incrimination of David for having taken a woman in an affair and killing off her husband when the affair was going to be revealed (Bathsheba and Uriah, told in II Samuel 11-12).
Notice that the Quran’s convicts David of his guilt, but never mentions the source of the guilt. Exactly what David is guilty of, who knows? By the text alone you could believe that David was repenting of his own judgement upon the sheep case, suggesting he failed to come to the right conclusion, even though such a repentance would conflict with the tone of the case. You’d need to know the biblical story to realize the source and extent of David’s guilt. Something of this story was probably in circulation enough around Muhammad’s community, and the Quran is relying upon that context. We can speculate reasons as to why the story is presented without actual description of David’s sin. For one, David’s affair with Bathsheba is grotesque. There is no detail in that story that does not condemn David. It’s a particular clump of moral failures that, once mined for didactic value, I find often gets diminished in Christian dialogues by the following moral that “God can make good grow even from the ashes of sin.” After all, Bathsheba was to be the mother Solomon eventually. (Though you know what I think about Solomon.) But in the bigger picture of David’s life, this incident is the tipping point when he transitions from “God’s favored underdog” to “sordid, conflicted power-holder.” David does not get a glowing outro to his reign, and this often gets downplayed by Christians and Jews since he is so important to our typologies. Perhaps by not mentioning the details of David’s sin, the Quran is likewise lessening consciousness of the negative in David’s legacy. Moreover, David in this story guides himself to correction, whereas in the Bible Nathan has to outright draw the connection. Thus David’s character is more generously painted in the Quran than in the Bible, pulling him into alignment with what Islam considers appropriate in a believer and prophet. His sin is less relevant to the story than his repentance.
There is also maybe a desire to make the story more universal. David’s story is one of adultery and murder, but the lesson of one who has taking away from one who hasn’t is broadly applicable to many kinds of interactions: the kid who wants all the toys, the rich who only works to get richer, the empire that overwhelms its neighbor. Not revealing David’s particular sin helps keep the story from getting contained to one specific application. Also, whereas the rich man in the Biblical story takes his neighbor’s sheep by casual theft, the rich man in the Quran’s story overwhelms his neighbor with words. That suggests that there was understood to be a legal veneer to the rich man’s acquisition of the sheep, and that the transaction was set up to be honored legally even though it was a case of abused power. Such an abuse of power is still counted as unjust even if technically legal, and that’s a very applicable ruling to many modern social evils! It’s good for Islam to have a story with the moral that power abuse is wrong even when within technically legal bounds.
I think that David’s response to the case is interesting in the terms of oral storytelling. It transitions from David declaring the unjustness of the situation, to a reflection that such unjustness is common in relationships, and a comment that such exceptions are only amongst believers, and that such a subset is few in number. I can’t help but note again that this passage is casting shade upon general unbelievers as unjust, but setting my particular sensitivity aside, there is a sort of epiphany occurring in David. The words tell an internal story of David realizing that he, in some act of inequity, has placed himself outside the exclusive company of believers. This is a passage that I think would be powerful to perform in an oral recitation. You could really reflect in your performance of David’s voice the onset of guilt and horror.
So, was Solomon maiming and slaughtering horses? That is how Sahih International renders it, but there is a lot of ambiguity at play. This anecdote in the Quran is a case where one has to assume that there was an oral story already in circulation, whether in culture in from Muhammad’s personal teachings. The account here calls upon images and ideas that were probably recognizable to the original listeners (or it expected the listeners to rely on elaboration by Muhammad) as there is considerable clarity and detail missing in the text.
The lack of detail turns this passage into an interesting case study, because resulting interpretations testify to the way that religions often bypass or demote the importance of literal factuality in favor of didactic usefulness. In the story of Solomon and the horses, we can get three entirely different stories and didactic messages from the same ambiguous information. Here are the doses of information:
- Solomon would inspect his fine horses
- He declares that he loved love of the good ʕan God’s remembrance
- Something is hidden by a barrier
- Solomon calls them back and in some way handles their necks and legs
Ambiguity abounds within this information. First, there is that preposition ʕan, which doesn’t actually have an equivalent in English. Indeed, the classical linguists categorized the word as having ten meanings, including things like “away from, sourced from, instead of, about, for.” It is a rather multi-purpose preposition. Then there is the thing concealed by a barrier. No subject is given for the verb “hidden.” The verb is feminine, so it could refer to the horses or, as is the way of Arabic, could just be neuter and refer to any inanimate thing. Potentially “it” can be taken to mean the sun, and you’ll see that in many interpretations. Lastly there is the way that Solomon handles the horses once they are brought back to him. The word masḥaa generally means “wiping, stroking,” particularly with one’s hand, but it can also mean “wiping” with one’s sword, i.e. slitting or slaying. So that’s a lot of ambiguity! And so in service of several different didactic morals, these details can be variously interpreted thus:
First moral: Love of good things is sourced from, enhanced by, and appropriate to one’s remembrance of God. Solomon loved his horses –a love that was sourced from his knowledge of God– and he loved them so much that no sooner would they be put away from his sight then he would call for them again so that he could pet them.
Second moral: You can love good things as long as you remember your duty to God. Solomon loved his horses –a love that was sourced from and in service to his knowledge of God– and would admire them from noon to sunset. He would send them away before the sun disappeared below the horizon in order to complete his ʕaṣr prayers, and then summon them back once he’d fulfilled his duty and resume petting them.
Third moral: You should destroy the things you love if they distract you from remembering God. Solomon loved his horses so much he would admire them for great lengths of time. One day, he realized that his love of goods had backfired and replaced his remembrance of God when the sun disappeared and he realized he missed ʕaṣr. Or, he deludes himself by thinking his love of goods is sourced from God, and it isn’t until he realized he missed ʕaṣr or when he feels the absence of his horses too strongly that he sees his error. Either way, he then destroys the horses to remove a vulnerability in his faith.
Read through this sampling of translations, and you’ll see this range of interpretation and didactic implications being presented. And in the end, none of these morals are exactly un-Islamic. Solomon’s ostentatious enjoyment of wealth and power has been condoned elsewhere due to his remembrance of God. Holding to one’s duty to God while also enjoying one’s earthly life has likewise been stated elsewhere. Shedding of possessions and people in pursuit of pure faith has also been advocated. So none of these morals are un-Islamic –but none of these stories are the same. Which one is factually true? Do you even care? Do you even have to care? The inability of the story to communicate its intended truth becomes irrelevant so long as people can make any truth out of the story that confirms their religious beliefs. And to greater or lesser extents, that is how a lot of scripture works. It is not the material, but what people decide about the material.
There is also the curious case of the random lifeless body on Solomon’s throne. Whose body? Sometimes scholars try to account for the source of the corpse, sometimes they read it as Solomon having been tested/punished by having his thrown temporarily usurped by a corrupt ruler, or that he was personally reduced by illness to a corpse-like state, or that Solomon was tested with a vision of his own corpse. This occurrence, whatever it is, drives Solomon to turn to God and pray for forgiveness and a kingdom of which the likes would never be seen again. This prayer becomes the basis for why God subjects the winds to Solomon’s service, provides a host of skilled jinn slaves, and grants him with absolute power. Solomon is a glorification of the political theory that absolute power belongs to The Right Man. However, there also is a hint that such heights in decadence and power would never be possible after Solomon. After all, he described his desired reign as one which would belong to no one after himself. Solomon is both a glorification of the Absolute Monarch and a denial that anyone gets to be such in the same way ever again.
Job gets sparse treatment in the Quran. His Islamic name Ayyub appears twice in lists of prophets, and twice in very simple narratives. There is no element of God testing Job, or of an agreement between God and the satan to the testing of Job’s faith, or the nature and depths of his sufferings, or the biting despair of his wife, or his arguments with his friends. It is always a tale of Job crying out to God for relief from suffering, and God providing relief. In today’s instance the adversity is pinpointed to have come from Satan. God answers Job by telling him to strike the ground with his foot to reveal a spring of water for relief, then granting him a family and like community. The paucity of does seem to beg for more elaboration to justify why Job’s suffering should be considered more notable than the general human experience. I did notice that in Wikipedia’s two entries on Islamic Job (1,2) even when speaking of the Quran’s account the writers couldn’t help but let slip in more details than the Quran gives, like the extended length of his suffering, the extents of his losses, the doubling of his prosperity. None of that is in the Quran. However, though the Quran’s words on Job are sparse, it is nonetheless a complete story.
Less complete is the postscript to Job’s story in ayah 44, in which God commands Job to complete his oath by striking with a ضغث ḍighth, “handful of grass/herbs/greenery.” What oath? What is being struck? Why a handful of greenery? What is this accomplishing? Here is where traditional accounts must fill in, because we have a set of details with no context, setup, or payoff. (And by tradition I am now meaning general internet hearsay, as none of the accounts I’ve found have cited which traditional resource they are drawing from or pull in quotes from the sources they do cite.) This tradition usually elaborates that someone aggravated Job in the midst of his suffering and illness, and that in such a state of agony he swore that he would beat that person should he ever recover. Commonly believed is that the person was his wife and that his oath was to beat her with one hundred lashes. A lot of modern internet versions emphasize that Job’s wife was actually loving and well meaning, and that Job only swore to beat her from some misunderstanding and his mental exhaustion from misery. Whatever the case, when he recovers he is unsure about how to proceed and is understood to be regretting his oath. Thus what ayah 44 prescribes is thought to be a lessening of the act by substituting something flimsy for the weapon of beating and/or by doing one blow with a hundred things rather than a hundred blows with one thing.
Two comments. If this story is true, why is God holding Job accountable to his oath at all? Surah al-Ma’idah 89 says that God is not concerned with holding men to their meaningless oaths, and this internet tradition insinuates that Job’s oath was just such a case.
Secondly, a lot of internet traditions emphasize this beating as gentle and ritual. This fits the story of Job being reluctant to beat someone, particularly versions where he realizes that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime or where the person doesn’t actually deserve punishment, and so the punishment is rendered meaningless beyond its completionist value and some embarrassment on the subject’s behalf. However, the word at play does not have connotations of gentleness. Ḍarab is a rather infamous word in the Quran –it’s the word at play in the passage that suggests striking your wives if they’re resistant to non-violent discipline. However, it’s also a really common word with a range of meanings that are very comparable to those of our English word “strike.” “Strike” does mean sharp blow by first definition, but there’s also “strike down” which means kill or bring an end to, “strike out for” means to embark on a journey, “a strike” can mean either a hit or a miss, to “go on strike” means dissentious non-participation, to “strike coin” means to generate it, to “strike a pose” means to suddenly adopt it, to “strike gold” means to find and extract value, to “strike that” means to cancel. Similarly, the word and roots of ḍarab can be used for a variety of purposes, often depending on what combination of prepositions and objects it is interacting with. It can mean –amongst many other things– a mortal blow, an act of securing, the beginning of a journey, impact with the ground, the falling darkness of dusk, to ratify a bargain. That being said, as with the English word “strike,” the other meanings are still closer or farther derivations from the first definition, “hit,” and that remains the more straightforward definition and is the one that translators still favor.
It is to Muslims’ credit that they approach the passage on wife-beating and this passage on Job’s oath with intentions to soften or confine the meaning to one of the derivative meanings, and there is precedence for a wide variety of usages that are less violent. Indeed, it is this passage’s suggestion of using some non-rigid material like grass or fronds that helps Muslims render other passages about striking to mean a more gentle and symbolic kind of beating. Again, the material of scripture is subject to the decisions of the people, because it is through the interpretations of people that any word has a meaning.
Iblees at the creation of man. It’s one of the most recurring stories in the Quran and once of the earliest to appear. You’d think that in coming across yet another iteration of it I would simply shrug it off as repetition. This version doesn’t even give us any new details: God creates man and tells all the angels to bow, all the angels bow except for Iblees (though elsewhere he’s called a jinn and not an angel); God questions Iblees for his defiance and Iblees objects that he is made of better material than man; God expels Iblees, upon which Iblees requests that his damnation be delayed until the final Day of Judgement and God agrees; Iblees declares that he’s going to use his respite to bring most of mankind into damnation, and God confirms that He’s at the ready to throw them all into Hell.
God agrees with Iblees, The Satan.
The Problem of Evil, or the question of “why is there suffering/evil in the world?” and its implications concerning the existence of an all-knowing-all-good-all-capable God is a big one and is a debate that is much bigger than this story. It’s a meta-theological question built into the very fiber of Abrahamic religions –of which my own is a representative– and none of them escape its quandaries. In talking about this story, it’s all too easy to dismiss my objections to it by escaping up a level from its specific theology to the meta-theology that riddles all Abrahamic religions and thus to put me on the defensive. Nonetheless, while there is always reason to debate God’s complicity in the ongoing pain and sorrow of existence, this story offers a defined picture that is more vivid than the off-screen theoretical. Its contribution to Islam’s theological struggle with The Problem of Evil still deserves analysis.
I think one reason what I still haven’t found this story passe despite having seen it so much is that each encounter with it strikes afresh in my mouth the foul taste of God’s role in this story. This story upgrades God’s complicity in the ongoing suffering and evil in the world to outright perpetration and exacerbation. It also is frustrating because it doesn’t give God any reason to elevate mankind, despite having the angels bow to the first man. Iblees diagnoses mankind as a faulty product and God doesn’t argue with him on the matter –rather He agrees with him by proposing their general destiny in hellfire. He has no plan to salvage mankind, He poses no narrative of struggle between good and evil, He even confirms Iblees’ intention to bring about their damnation. God is not interested in saving mankind insomuch as He plans on reserving a few chosen favorites. He doesn’t care about the majority, and is satisfied to make their existence worse by putting them under the influence of a malevolent enemy. There are no stakes here, there is no meaning to the suffering. It’s not part of a narrative about good fighting evil. It’s just that God has created a group of people and decided not to care about the majority of them.
I get that the presence of the snake in Genesis’ Eden story begs for an origin story, but I’m going to come down hard upon this one and say it’s a terrible option.
Okay, so I came down hard on Iblees’ story in this surah, but you could say that it’s tried my patience by appearing so much without any greater range of nuance. The other stories, however, I thought were genuinely interesting and entertaining to contemplate. Narratives are really rich and powerful ways to communicate messages of morality, and I like seeing the Quran use them. Of course, there were other elements of non-narrative material in this surah that were very interesting, but this week I’ll leave them up to you to contemplate and process. If something comes to your attention, write it down below! I’d love to have someone to talk with about those things, they just didn’t seem as great to monologue upon when compared to these narratives. I’m still looking for a friendly fellow Quran nerd…