Surah 39: The Groups

Here’s a weird word: زمر, zumar, from which the title of today’s surah, “The Groups,” comes. It’s not a word with strong connotations or nuances, and indeed is so different from its seeming relatives that I might suspect it of being a word borrowed from another language. Other words built from the roots z-m-r I would judge to have connotations equivalent to the English words “piping” (as in “piping hot”) or “reedy” (as in reedy voice). It’s a root primarily about flutey-screechy sounds and things. It doesn’t get used in the Quran beyond this chapter –a distinction that makes it fit for a title by Quranic standards– and doesn’t even have any relatives present in the concordinance. The zumar, “groups,” of today’s surah have nothing to do with high-pitched, screechy things or musical instruments, but are by all context and intentions the two opposite groups of believers and unbelievers, entering their respective afterlives in successive waves.

Yes, it’s another surah about there being only two kinds of people in the world and their fates in the hereafter. It’s 75 ayat, take a read.

Fear of the Lord

“Fear” in The West has been coded as an evil word without redemptive value. It has been identified as a manipulative emotion, destructive and ignorant, the antithesis of love and joy. And all those things are true… But, fear is also a healthy emotion. It exists to keep us safe, to keep us comfortable, to keep us fit and discerning. Fear is necessary for survival, as without it we are otherwise somewhat lacking in adequate cost-benefit evaluation to judge whether a risk is worth taking. A lack of fear could be attributed to the person who gambles away their fortunes, who commits adultery when feeling immune to exposure, who neglects hand-washing and immunizations because they aren’t afraid of sickness. Perhaps our emphasis on the negative, manipulative aspects of fear comes from the lessened presence of fear in our individual ordinary lives. Fear is unpleasant to experience, whether healthy or unhealthy, and we shy away from the unpleasant. But if you live in poverty and constant danger, as did Muhammad’s followers and the rest of the Arabs surviving in their hostile habitat, then fear cannot be avoided. But while a fear of the unknown and uncontrollable is stressful, a fear of something known and avoidable is actually quite comforting.

Fear of The Lord” is a shared concept in the Abrahamic monotheisms, and though it is not named as such in this surah it is the central substance. The nature of this fear is drawn quite explicitly: you should fear God because He alone is powerful and there is no other force available to resist Him, and because He has prepared a terrible Hell and will throw you into it. The Fear of the Lord in this surah is explicitly the Fear of Getting Caught. It is a fear of consequences to your own self, particularly the afterlife consequences. You need to have fear, because if you don’t fear getting caught then what’s going to stop you from doing something evil? And if you do something evil or inappropriate, are you not putting yourself in danger of the Terrible Truth that exists whether you believe in it or not? The comforting thing that this surah claims regarding the Fear of The Lord is that the boundaries and nature of this fear are knowable, unlike fears of calamities in the natural world which are hard to anticipate or prepare against. That is why the Quran is presented as such a mercy: it reveals Truth by explaining the dangers and making them knowable.

The ironic concept of Fear of The Lord is that such a fear, once known, is nullified at an emotional level. Ayah 23 describes the believers shivering with Fear of the Lord upon hearing the Quran, but then relaxing into comfortable remembrance of God. So compared to the more inevitable and wild fears of the world, the Fear of The Lord is a desirable and comfortable fear. Once you have it, you don’t need it, for in being afraid you are rewarded and the fear is assuaged with assurances that the thing you fear can be avoided. That is why the Quran presents itself as such a mercy: having made the Truth known it imbues believers with appropriate Fear and guidance to avoid the terrible outcomes, and thus they have nothing to fear.

Fear is a healthy thing so long as it is accurate (e.g. you don’t build on the side of an demonstrably active volcano because you fear its inevitable eruption), and that is why the Quran must buckle down on its assertions that it speaks infallible Truth and is painting for you the most comprehensive and accurate picture of your circumstances. By the Quran’s measure, the great danger is if one denies/adulterates Truth, thus deluding oneself into lacking or miscalculating one’s Fear of The Lord.

An Arabic Quran

The surah leans into much explicit self-testimony because it needs to establish itself as pertaining to Truth. It describes itself as a book, meaning that its contents are fixed even though Muhammad wasn’t presenting them in written form. It describes its contents as internally consistent and repetitive. It paints itself as sufficient, having provided manifold didactic evidences. It reprimands those who reject Truth when it has come to them. It described itself as an arabic recitation, an Arabic Quran, without any crookedness. Now, this application of “Arabic” could be taken to assert a deliberate choice of the Arabic language as the ideal medium for revelation, but there is also a popular line of interpretation which asserts that the very roots ʕ-r-b of the word ʕarab connote clarity and that this is a testimony to the quality of the message. I will say that in my experience witnessing religious Quran studies, a large part of the proceedings involve geeking out over the Arabic language. Fair enough, I like geeking out over the Arabic language too. However, whether naming the language of the Quran or asserting the clarity of the Quran, we can interpret from both ideas that “Arabic Quran,” means it’s supposed to be usable. The Quran is making claims to be accessible to its adherents, who at the time were exclusively Arabs or Arabized peoples, and not something esoteric and requiring farther arbitration. However far that now is from modern reality, that is the Quran’s declared self-image and that is the fundamental point it strives to make in order to lay out other points. After all, the Quran only had itself to lean upon, as God wasn’t sending affirming miracles down, was He?

The Quran seeks at base to assert the fundamental points that “There is no God but The God” and that He will administer a Day of Judgement upon all mankind. It wants to present these two points as axioms that can be established from the raw observation of the world. There is the usual hand-waving at nature as Creation that testifies to a Creator. There is the usual handwaving at the ruins of dead civilizations and the finitude of human society. However, the frailty of this evidence is that it is all interpretive –nothing about a dead civilization or the presence of reality is in itself a testimony to the existence of The God who will judge mankind. Rather, such things are fully capable of supporting the interpretations of Atheism, for example, and other religions certainly make use of the same materials. Indeed, as I’ll bring up in a moment, all human perception of reality is an interpretation. In order to buy into the interpretation, you have to buy into the one doing the interpreting.

The actual fundamental point of the Quran is the factuality of the Quran. You have to agree that the Quran is unquestionable in order to put your trust in its interpretations of reality. It does commit to the concept of The God as an axiom that doesn’t need the Quran’s testimony to arrive at, but it bolsters such an axiom with its own interpretations of the evidence. The conclusions that the Quran holds as obvious can only be drawn if you already accept what the Quran tells you about the evidence. Thus the fundamental point of the Quran is its own pedigree and truthfulness. If you don’t believe in its truthfulness, then suddenly all this talk of “fear” starts reading as manipulative. Its extreme dependency on the emotion of fear to drive its arguments is what makes it such a divisive book, and it’s no wonder that both in Muhammad’s time and today people who don’t accept its claims are so suspicious of it.

The Fun of Fundamentalism

When I first read through this surah, I was delighted with ayah 29.

God strikes an example: a man with whom are quarreling partners, and a man exclusive to a man. Are they equal examples? All praise to God! Nay, most of them don’t know.

Az-Zumar 29, my own translation

Now, the syntax and word choice of this ayah is a little odd and gets translated along various lines, but the sentiment is always the same: is conflict and complexity equal to simplicity?

I love this ayah as a character study, as a nutshell example of fundamentalism. I grew up within the gravitational well of fundamentalism (of the Christian variety) and am very familiar with it. Being less in that community now, it’s always weird for me to hear “fundamentalists” or “fundamentalism” ballied about with the tone of a slur. “Fundamentalists” are actually very proud to identify as such. It’s not one of those titles that the opposition brands their enemies with and the enemies despise. It’s not even the slur that has been appropriated by the slurred with gleeful irony. Fundamentalists genuinely are pleased to describe themselves as such, and it’s part of a package of ideas in which they take great joy and comfort. In the interval of time between first reading this ayah and now arriving at it in my Quran project, my thoughts on fundamentalism have grown into their own bloated amount of content that I’m currently trying to wrestle into a contained, coherent post, but I’ll make a small statement of its essentials here:

The human brain only has a finite amount of energy and memory, and when you think of it, it is far too small to comprehend most of the things it experiences in life. Everything in life can be questioned, and every answer we find is merely the starting point for the next level of questions. Probably in life you’ve experienced some amount of exhaustion after contemplating some really complex or difficult issue. That is because although we culturally categorize “thinking” as a non-strenuous leisurely activity, it takes a lot of energy and clogs up the capacity of our finite brain power in any given moment. Thinking too much about a thing detracts from your ability to think about other things –sometimes important survival matters even– and moreover subtracts from your ability to rest, be passive, and have a simple experience. And in the end, the flesh-machine limits of our body might make coming to an objective, unquestionable conclusion about any element of reality impossible.

If you can’t be certain about anything, then how are you supposed to make decisions? How are you supposed to define right or wrong? From where can you build a system of ethics, a societal structure, or geesh! just pick an entree for dinner?

Enter the fun of Fundamentalism: certainty. Fundamentalism is taking something and holding it unquestionable, which makes is a starting point for all your worldview from which you can make easy, comfortable, unquestionable decisions. It is establishing something as Truth, which enables you to make other decisions in-so-long as they can be derived form that Truth. There is great power to be gained from asserting Truth, but also great relief as you are free to drop a lot of cognitive load, rest from the thinking, and simply enjoy life. It is preempts that endless trail of answers that beg new questions, allowing you to take action rather than spiral down an endless slide of pondering. If you fundamentally are a beef eater, then bring on the beef! There’s no need to question the environmental, humanitarian, or health consequences when the simple answer is that you. eat. beef. That is why the Quran so strongly needs to assert its own infallibility. It need needs to be the fundamental axiom of the world it is forming. Once it gets accepted as the fundamental starting point, it can make claims and fundamentals out of anything it wants, including The God and His Day of Judgement.

That desire for certainty is what ayah 29 is tapping into. Interpreting this ayah in isolation, it is easy to think the Quran is merely asking the pagans why they would submit to the contradictory and temperamental pantheon of gods rather than the will of a single god, and that is why translations will often insert explicit slave/owner relationships into their translations. However, this verse comes after an assertion of the Quran’s perfection in terms of scope and facility, so I can’t help but read it as speaking back to the purpose of the Quran. It is here to be your one source, the one voice of which you can be certain. Would you rather be merely another one amongst the quarrelsome many groups with their interpretations? Or would you rather live in the peace, completion, and submission to one source of truth? Do you need to re-invent the wheel every time you make a decision as you navigate the infinite range and depths of questioning reality? Or wouldn’t you rather submit to a unified, single, unquestionable principle? Isn’t simplicity preferable to complexity?

This is All Very Familiar

I completely recognize this surah in content and sentiment. The thing is, I recognize it from beyond the constant iteration and reiteration of these threats and assertions throughout the Quran. As I get closer to the end of the Quran, I feel ever more comfortable comparing the Quran’s view of the world to that of Christianity –particularly views that are derived from or resemble Christianity as formulated by John Calvin. Just take a look at Wikipedia’s summary of Calvinism to see some very Quran-compatible concepts. That’s why I have so many thoughts on “fundamentalism” as an ideological tendency. That’s why I’m so familiar with the Fear of The Lord and how believers react to and process it. I’m privy to a different brand of the same thoughts. And alas, that’s also why I know just how easily and happily believers of both communities are to accept and not examine the terrible things they are telling people about God and Hell.

The thing is, if you believe yourself to be immune from Hell, having through appropriate thought and action aligned yourself to God’s merciful side, there ceases to be a reason to be disturbed by Hell. Ironically, looking at Hell and imagining the horror and pain of it becomes even more attractive and appealing. After all, the worse Hell is, the greater the amount of mercy you can read into your own avoidance of it. The worse Hell is, the more motivation you can draw from it for denying one’s tendencies for criminal and unjust behavior. So long as you don’t have to be afraid of Hell –because you know you’ve gained God’s mercy and avoided it– it doesn’t matter to you how horrible you imagine it to be. It is a very self-interested perspective, and indeed the Quran wants to keep things that way.

This is the divide that makes the Quran unrelatable to many non-adherents. Non-adherents are struck by the unspeakable horror of its Hell, and cannot see how the book and its God that promulgates such suffering could be just and merciful. Meanwhile, adherents see all such suffering and feel encouraged by their distance from it, thus seeing a God whose Mercy and Justice only scales proportionate to the level of suffering they have avoided. To non-adherents, this can look like believers taking pride and satisfaction in the suffering of others, not realizing that on the whole believers aren’t thinking about this in terms of how it affects others (accept for socially acceptable specifics like Hitler). Because once believers stop leveraging their thoughts on Hell and its suffering to augment their view of God’s Mercy and flatter themselves, they’ll have to question whether such an extent of suffering is just. And the Quran to them already has an answer.

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