Surah 40: Forgiver

Surah Ghaafir, “Forgiver,” opens with some royal titles for God in ayah 3: “Forgiver of Sin and Acceptor of Repentance, Severe of Punishment, Owner of the Abundance…” These titles aptly start a chapter which includes some very strong statements about God. God’s forgiveness is declared and the alternative to His forgiveness is explicitly given. This surah speaks to Muhammad and the believers about the disbelievers, making a moral out of them. It is in most ways a very typical surah.

Sometimes this surah is called Surah al-Mu’min, “The Believer,” because its longest stretch is devoted to the compassionate appeals of one Egyptian who believed Moses. This is distinctive in a document characterized with so many special heroes. Though the protest of the prophets is always “we are men like you,” in some ways they are not. They’ve had an interaction with the divine and received direct revelation. They’ve become named characters and centralized actors in their stories. But today’s believer goes unnamed, has no direct experience with the divine, and is operating from second-hand revelation. How far can ordinary faith get you in God’s earthly schemes?

Take a read and see.

Intercessions and Damnation

Ayat 7-9 glorify God and elaborate His forgiveness through the literary device of borrowing other voices. The speakers are “Those who carry the Throne and those around it.” Sahih’s translation assumes that such are the angels, which would align with the use of angels as carriers and surrounders of the Throne elsewhere. Still, some translations prefer to leave this body open so as to include believers of humanity and jinn as well. The idea that angels carry God’s throne (understood to be a placeholder and symbol of authority rather than a practical piece of furniture) and surround it like courtiers is familiar from the Bible. Ezekiel sees God’s throne carried by winged “living creatures” and Isaiah see’s God’s throne surrounded by seraphim. The impact of this imagery ascribes magisterial grandeur to God’s running of the world. The angels serve him as ministers, and like ministers their job is to do His work and to intercede on behalf of those they represent. This court of intercessors is a little at odds with the Quran’s theology and rebuttal of pagan versions of intercession, which is why the Quran as a whole must clarify that the only intercessions that can be made are those that have God’s permission, i.e. are already granted, or (as with Abraham’s intercessions for his father) are taken to be good for one’s character but useless for actual intercession. The things that the angels are asking for the believers are already things that God has decreed: forgiveness [for believers] from sins, places in paradise surrounded by [believing] family, immunity [for believers] from the consequences of their own sins. The point of this “intercession” is not that they are swaying God, introducing merciful ideas to Him, or challenging Him to extend His mercy to new reaches. Instead, this allows the surah to list God’s mercy in a way that emphasizes His generosity.

The other literary function that the interceding court provides is to establish that believers have advocates, setting up that the disbelievers do not. Instead, for the disbelievers are anti-advocates, whether an un-named voice speaking on God’s behalf or “the keepers of Hell.” Their words torment the disbelievers, injecting emotional despair into the physical torment. When the speaker responds in ayah 12 to the pleas of the damned in ayah 11, it doesn’t address the latter’s pleas. Instead ayah 12 seems to be a continuation of the condemnation in ayah 10, explaining why God should hate the damned so strongly. Skipping ayah 11 actually makes ayat 10 and 12 more coherent, as if the pleas of the damned are an interruption to be ignored. When the damned plead with keepers of Hell in ayah 50, the guardians respond with an indifferent statement regarding the nonsense of pleading. In the last scene, the speaker mocks the absence of the interceding deities that the damned used to worship in life. And so three times we have it brought forward that for the disbeliever there are only anti-advocates. For the damned disbeliever there will only be harsh words, apathy for their suffering, mocked and heightened loneliness.

Ayah 10 includes a very harsh statement: the people going into hell hate themselves (to be read either as individual self-hatred or as ingroup hatred of each other), but God hates them even more than that. The word used for “hate” is maqt, which is an extreme kind of hatred (though to be clear, there is no ranked level of “hate” synonyms in the lexicons). This extreme word only appears six times in the Quran, and half of those appearances are in this surah. The sources in Lane’s lexicon always emphasize that this kind of hatred is reactive. The object is not inherently hateable, but has committed some action that makes it hateable. This aligns with the instances in the Quran, where some action (marrying a step-mother, disbelief, disputing God’s signs, acting inconsistent to one’s words) is provided to justify the hatred. So while the hatred is extreme, it’s also implied to have been earned. I pause to note the severity of hatred indicated by the word maqt only because several translations opt for milder English terms like “contempt,” “aversion,” or “disgust.” I wonder if this indicates an unwillingness in Islamic subcultures to attribute hatred to God, which is a trend very present in Christian subcultures (and arguably mainstream here in America). Hatred is broadly categorized as an evil thing, and thus it’s taboo to attribute such to God. Thus the preference for less loaded synonyms. However, the surah portrays God as extreme both in mercy and wrath. Given that His nature is that He is MORE than any created thing, His ability to hate is also expected to be greater than man’s. Because the Quran says the work of God’s maqt is justly deserved and justly administered, then by its own logic this does not attribute to God any evil qualities but is merely a natural part of of His justice/goodness.

There’s a curiosity in the plea of the damned in ayah 11. They plea to God that in His power He could provide them a path to exit Hell. By literal translation, the appeal to His capability is “You caused us to die twice and you caused us to live twice.” This way of glorifying God’s capability is not unique, with the resurrection often mentioned in a sequence along the lines of “He caused y’all to live, then causes y’all to die, then causes y’all to live.” The curiosity in ayah 11 is that death also is cited as occurring twice. The rationalization given traditionally is that before you are born you are dead, and thus the individual has been dead twice. Still, it is a weird thing to say “you caused me to die” when nothing before your birth caused you to be dead. It’s just the nature of mortality to not exist until you exist. I’d judge this weird phrasing to be more for the sake of poetic aesthetic than to express a precise theological idea, which is probably why it never gets used elsewhere in the Quran.

The harshness of damnation within this surah is brutal and graphic, which helps to make attractive the alternative of repenting and submitting to God. God speaks to declare His readiness to accept the repentance of disbelievers, but also his readiness to humiliate them in Hell should they not respond. God’s readiness to be The Forgiver exists within a finite window, the period of time in which there is room for disbelievers to doubt. Once the disbelievers witness anything really decisive –the kinds of evidences that will only happen upon their doom– then the window is closed.

The Believer

This surah uses multiple references of the prophetic cycles –told and untold– to affirm that the disbelievers will be destroyed. The longest continual segment of the surah is the appearance of a new character in the story of Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh. Pharaoh is portrayed doing his usual violent and conspiratorial things, but starting in ayah 28 he is rebuked by one member of his own family who believes Moses. This believer is unnamed and at first is presented as someone who believes in secret. His approach is based in fear of being judged by God, but he starts small and escalates to more extreme statements. His first suggestion is somewhat similar to that of Gamaliel’s in “Acts of the Apostles:” if Moses is a liar he’ll have a punishment awaiting him from God, but if he’s from God, then you are only fighting God and earning your own punishment. After a mild pushback from Pharaoh, the believer’s resistance notches up in certainty. He ties in other prophetic cycles and condemns the Egyptians’ skepticism and their lack of authority. After Pharaoh pushes back again, the believer starts to take on the role of a prophet: he recruits for his own following (“follow me” in ayah 38), rebuts opponent theology as damnable supposition, promises reward in the Hereafter, and must entrust his safety to God when they plot evil for him.

Pharaoh’s pushback, as portrayed here, is secular. He rejects Moses’ signs as magic and lies, and leans upon “what I see.” He commissions a tower from Haman (something I’ve already examined in another post), which we must understand within the cosmology of the time would count as a scientific endeavor. That is, the point of building a tower was to penetrate through the perceived solid “ceiling” of the firmament (a viewpoint shared by this surah) and look into Heaven. Pharaoh wants independently verifiable proof, something that could be revisited again and again by any person for the sake of understanding Heaven and the deities that may or may not live there. Pharaoh doesn’t have any authoritative way of proving that Moses’s God isn’t real, and building this tower is an attempt to build that authority through independent verification. This general approach is why the believer rebukes Pharaoh and the Egyptians as a whole for being “skeptic” (ayah 34). To be clear, I’m not saying that this surah is opposed to science. It is opposed specifically to the use of science to test God or revelation rather than to praise and affirm those things. Looking at nature to appreciate God is a frequent task of this surah, and it speaks of the architecture of the earth, conception in the womb, and other natural benefits for that purpose. The disbelievers throughout this surah are condemned for doubting divine revelation, with Pharaoh’s insistence on testing it through a scientific idea serving as a case study. The crime of the disbelievers is that they prefer the knowledge they have already accumulated, whether knowledge attained through secularism or alternate religion, and they’re refusal to discard this and trust in revelation.

So the contrast that Pharaoh provides is that while he wants to take his time and empirically test revelation with no fear of judgement, the believer has accepted Moses’ miraculous proofs unchallenged out of and urgent fear for God’s judgement. Though not having experienced an interaction with the divine like Moses, by embracing revelation –even second hand revelation– he ascends to the ministry of a prophet. Something that I had to figure out is why he sets himself up as leader instead of recruiting people to follow Moses. There’s a miracle-bearing prophet still alive and in the neighborhood, but the believer tells people to follow himself. Maybe the understanding in ayah 27, right before the believer speaks up, is that Moses is withdrawing from Pharaoh’s court and is no longer involved there. Thus the believer in such a case is functioning as a successor, the last vestige of Moses’ ministry before God’s retribution strikes. This would be the only instance of succession in leadership after the departure of a prophet, and it is an empowering one. Any believer, even if not personally blessed with a divine encounter, can succeed the function of a prophet insomuch as they continue the work of a prophet: warn disbelievers to repentance, challenge misguided authority, face persecution with a reliance upon God.

Among the prophetic cycles that the believer mentions is Joseph. This is the only time outside of Surah Yusuf that Joseph’s narrative is called upon! (The only other mention of Joseph outside his surah is his inclusion in a list of prophets.) I’ve always wondered why Joseph’s story isn’t more present in the Quran, given that we’re so often revisiting Moses’ ministry to the Egyptians. With Joseph having lived with and worked for the Egyptians, one would imagine that his legacy might be cited a few times within those narratives. Perhaps the reason why Joseph is so little utilized in the Quran is that he makes an awkward fit among the prophets. Joseph lived collaboratively amongst pagans, but the Quran doesn’t have a clear vision of how he did this. Why didn’t his faith cause the kind of disruption a prophet’s faith is supposed to have in a pagan society? How can a God-minding prophet function subservient to a pagan ruler? Why wasn’t the pagan ruler or priesthood upset to have a monotheist denying their ecclesiastical authority? These questions might cause some uncomfortable reflections upon the nature of Joseph’s ministry or about the assumed hostility of disbelievers. It undermines the order of things that the Quran wants to exposit –believers versus unbelievers. Joseph’s story is only handled in a long, extensive exposé where didactic focus can be mined from smaller interactions and incidents while avoiding a larger view of his life’s work, which does not relate well to other prophetic cycles. As it is, this surah excuses Joseph’s lack of traction by saying that the Egyptians just held him in vague skepticism and were happy to move on once he died. Which I guess is a way of saying that his ministry stirred no waters?

And along the lines of name dropping, Qarun’s name is lumped in with Pharaoh and Haman’s, though he has no part in the narrative after. Qarun is a character we met back in Surah al-Qaṣaṣ, wherein his crime was being arrogant of his earthly accomplishments (wealth and knowledge) and inspiring covetousness in the community. The believers around him rebuke him and teach that righteousness before God is the only worthy thing, whereupon God causes the earth to swallow Qarun (and that is why he’s usually identified as the Quranic form of Korah). Qarun was of “the people of Moses,” which identifies him as an Israelite within the legacy of Moses, but it does not place him on the timeline. He has no interaction with Moses, has no response to or mention of Moses’ ministry, and is not rebuked in connection with anything specific to Moses. Qarun’s presence in this surah isn’t explained and he has no inclusion in the story. He’s merely a dropped name. I think that what mention of him does add, however, is a reminder that in his story it was the un-named masses that represented the resistance of the believers to wrong-mindedness. Both in this surah and in the story of Qarun it is not the prophets who are controlling the dialogue and teaching the right things but the believers, and that is an important thing to include in a book that is dominated by what could be described as Chosen One narratives.

Closing Thoughts

The space made for the ordinary believer in this surah is important. Muhammad’s ministry wasn’t that of a lonely man in the wilderness; he built a community of people with no spiritual experiences and had to rely upon them for funding, networking, and the defeat of his enemies. My mind turned to Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s best friend and one of his earliest supporters. Though there’s controversy surrounding Abu Bakr’s right to succeed Muhammad as leader of the community, it is very easy to look at him and see how he continued Muhammad’s mission much as the anonymous Egyptian continued Moses’. Muhammad might have centralized all power upon himself, but his achievements were built upon the strength and loyalty of his closest companions and the ordinary Muslim. I think this story was important to try instilling a sense of ownership in the Muslim community. I wonder if at the time it was preached –in Mecca when tensions with the pagans were escalating towards violence– Muhammad had concerns that he might die and that it would be left to someone else to challenge his enemies. Surah al-Mu’min plants that seed that if there’s no “The Prophet” to lead the reform, then maybe it should be you!

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