Here’s something new: this surah is named with a verb! There’s one other surah ahead with such distinction, and it’s fascinating that there are these two exceptions to the conventional naming scheme of proper nouns (even last surah’s “Forgiver” was used as a proper noun.) I like the idea of something being titled for what it is doing; it communicates that the text is alive in a way. The verb in question is “fuṣṣilat,” which is a finnicky word to translate into English. Let’s parse this: the roots f-ṣ-l connote parting; the morphology of doubling the middle consonant into f-ṣṣ-l makes the verb causative and/or intensive, thus “made parted,” or “parted further”; the -at at the end signifies the past tense and indicates that the one doing is feminine/neutral, as all Arabic verbs build in pronouns to connect them to that which is doing. So in English we could translate this idea as “it parsed, subdivided, dissected,” and keep the etymological root of separation and parting, though unfortunately those verbs often are confined to some technical area like linguistics, math, or anatomy. “Distinguish” could be a great fit etymologically, except that it doubles to mean the elevation of something and that’s not meant here. The usual translations of this title is “explained in detail” but I’m going to take issue with that option. It looks like an adjectival phrase and not a verbal one. We need to include the pronoun to preserve the verbal nature of it. The verb “detail” is… okay for the purposes of translation. It comes to English through French and derives from the idea of cutting things into pieces, so not terribly different in base concept from “parting.” So “detail”…meh. Fine, it’ll do.
So what does Surah Fuṣṣilat detail?
The surah opens with four ayat of introduction. There are the “mysterious letters” of ayah 1, ḥaa-miim, and then a declaration of the Quran’s substance:
2A Revelation from the Most Gracious, THE Merciful:
3a Writing, its signs detailed an Arabic recitation (for understanding people),4a tiding, and a boding…”Surah Fuṣṣilat 2-4a, Own translation (and sorry, I couldn’t resist the word “boding,” even though it’s obscure English, because I like how it rhymes like the Arabic bashiiran wa-nadhiiran)
It’s worth remembering that “ayah” (pl. “ayat”) is best translated as “sign, signal, evidence,” a thing that you can physically sense that communicates something conceptual. You see a man’s walking stick turn into a snake and that tells you that there is a supernatural force at work; that miracle is an ayah. Lane’s lexicon includes that this “signal” can include a “message,” so for the Quran to describe its content as “signals/signs” does not break with the potential usage of “ayah.” However, translators will often translate “ayah” as “verses” and this is bad translation. “Verses” is a purely literary term, referring to a structural unit of words. “Ayah” is not a word applied to any other units of literature besides books categorized by the Quran as scripture. “Ayah” isn’t supposed to mean a unit of words in itself but to categorize those words as signs of greater concepts (God, His activity in the world, His coming judgement). It is important to recognize this, because describing its own contents as “ayat/signs/evidences” is part of the Quran’s self-conception: each idea or sentence is a self-evident thing that communicates something conceptual.
With this meaning of “ayah” in mind, when the surah returns to the topic of the Quran later (39-45) it starts with an ayah drawn from nature. By calling both the content of the Quran (as said in 3) and an example from nature (as said in 39) “signs,” the Quran has conflated its own words with the natural world. The words are as self-evident as the world around you. As I’ve challenged before, the frailty of the concept of an “ayah” is that while we can agree on the objective part (the rain kicks off a seasonal bloom in the desert), we can disagree on the concept is signifies to us (God’s power over nature vs. nature takes care of itself). This is something the Quran doesn’t allow or acknowledge, and perhaps that is why the next verse condemns “those who deviate in our signs.” The cautionary example in verse 44 is of the People of Moses, who had a book but differed in their interpretation of it, thus almost bringing disaster upon themselves like any other pagan society. Finding a different meaning in a sign means you are violating it. Though contextually verse 40 follows the sign of the desert bloom, the Quran has so successfully conflated its words with the observable phenomena of nature by using the term “signs” that a lot of translations apply verse 40 to be about adding to/misinterpreting the words of the Quran.
Another way that the Quran synonymizes itself with the reality of nature is its assertion that it has always existed. It is not new information, but rather “the reminder.” It is “a book,” which implies that its contents are ordered and immutable. The strength of a book is that you can return to it and every time you do it will say the same thing. Verse 43 declares that Muhammad’s revelation has no novelty, but is the same as what other prophets were told. We must presume that this refers to the religious concepts of the Quran, and not the words of the book itself. After all, the Quran says things about the past, but for many of those past figures those things would be of the future. And it addresses some situational matters that would be irrelevant to receptors of scripture (Jesus doesn’t need to know why the battle at Uhud was lost). It is this self-identity as content/religion being unchanged and unchangeable that makes “innovation” a damnable concept in Islamic theology. You don’t need something new, you just need to remember what has always been.
Look at the beginning of this surah again. Why does the Quran specify itself as an Arabic recitation? Verse 44 presents how the disbelievers would have reacted if hypothetically the Quran had been in a non-Arabic language. They would have challenged why the language hadn’t been parsed for them, and laughed at the combination of foreign speech with an Arab man. It is in answer to this hypothetical objection that the surah introduces itself with the declaration that its signs are “detailed” or “parsed.” I’ll point out that the word for “foreign language,” ‘aaʕjamiyy, derives from roots that connote “gnawing,” and is used for thick accents or speech impediments that mar the quality of one’s Arabic. This verse isn’t about defeating an argument in another reality, but rather saying that if the Quran was in deficient Arabic the disbelievers would have an excuse for not internalizing it. However, the verse continues that fault lies with the deficient ears and eyes of the disbelievers. So in describing itself as an Arabic Quran, the book means to say “your lack of understanding is not my fault.” Of course, now we do need the Quran to be parsed for us, which is why Islam has its volumes of scholars, commentaries, and translations to aid even those who want to hear.
The Quran has stated multiple times that God completed all creation within six days. In the past, there were no details regarding these days and so it was natural for me to assume that this was a reference to the Genesis 1 creation story, in which all creation happens within six days. However, this may no longer be possible, given the details provided in ayat 9-12. Now we have an account of the earth being created in two days, the mountains and sustenance in four days, and the system of heavens in two. That doesn’t map to the Genesis 1 account, particularly the four days of creating the mountains (or to extend the word’s intention, all geography) and sustenance (which I’m going to allow to mean all life given that everything is eaten by some thing or other) upon it.
So as with many things in the Quran, it compares to the Bible in broad strokes but the difference is in the details. This is not problem for Muslims, given that any Biblical difference with the Quran is assumed to be introduced error. Yusuf Ali contrasts the Genesis account with the Quran’s and draws from it theological differences and evidences of corruption (e.g. the Bible is corrupted by Bablyonian cosmology, Bible’s God “rests” while Quran’s God is ever active, Bible places mankind’s creation with the animals). Few commentators actuall spend times with this comparison however, because there are more pressing matters to attend to: there are eight days of creation here. Though not committed to Genesis 1’s order of things, the Quran is committed to six days. So, starting with the assumption that the Quran is internally consistent and that God can do math, how do we reconcile this?
My first impulse was to treat the two days in ayat 11-12 as an elaboration of the two days in ayah 9. After all, ayah 11 has God speaking the heaven and the earth into creation, and if we thus say that he created the heaven and earth in the two same days the math is reconciled to six days of creation total. However, that doesn’t work for two reasons. The first is in the text itself, ayah 11 starts with the sequential “then” or “furthermore,” putting it as an event that comes after the events of the prior two verses. (This requires us to consider that the creation of the earth in 11 is included to clarify that earth was created in the same method as the heavens, but not at the same time). Also, since any explanation needs to be in accord with the rest of the Quran, we need to factor in Al-Baqarah 29, in which the heavens are created only after the earth’s contents. So we can’t collapse the two sets of two days into each other.
Thus, every commentator I’ve read categorizes the two days of ayah 9 as a subset of the four days in ayah 10. This is reasonable, as there are no sequential words used to force a reading of the four days following the two. Thus the convention is to say that God created the earth in two days, and by the time he added the mountains and sustenance he had reached day four. So it isn’t impossible to reconcile these ayat in total to a sequence of six days. Yes, the Quran does express itself poorly. Because ayah 9 is a complete statement (one centered far more on shaming the pagans than on the act of creation) it is functionally distinct from the complete statement of ayah 10 (which concerns the acts of creating and not at all with shaming disbelievers), there is a division in the material that makes it unintuitive to apply the four days to include the first two. They communicate themselves as separate ideas and events. However, there is otherwise no barrier to reconciling the two verses as Muslims do.
So where does science fit in with this? In truth, I’m not particularly concerned with reconciling this to modern science, nor the efforts of modern Muslims to do so. You could blame this on a burn-out of my own history in a community that furiously struggles to reconcile its own creation texts to scientific theory. More than burn-out, though, I can’t look at these texts and see a modern worldview. Evidence point to a Quranic view that the spiritual world is a merely deeper extension of the physical. It is made of and can be found in the physical. Remember, jinn (and angels?) are created beings made from physical material. The “seven heavens,” is a very classic theory of cosmology in which spiritual realms spatially occupy areas above the Earth. The mundane heaven is adorned with stars for beauty and protection [of the heavens from satans] –their function is a physical manifestation and mechanism of spiritual forces. I would not contest any Muslim’s desire to find in these things a metaphorical message, but I don’t think it’s valid to take these passages as directly scientific and then selectively demure that the more explicitly unscientific statements within them are then only spiritual or poetic in meaning. A divide between the physical and spiritual doesn’t look like part of the Quran’s view. There is a divide between the created and the Creator, but even spiritual things are in the category of “created” and follow the logic and rules of creation. They are part of the Quran’s science, even if beyond man’s comprehension, and when the Quran speaks of spiritual things it is still making statements about the shape and function of nature. It is much more interesting and productive to contemplate what these things would have meant to the original audience (God’s authority and otherness to nature, the categorization of spiritual beings as created and not creators, the rationality of their world, the smallness of their knowledge relative to the scope of creation) than to selectively subject their meanings to modern scientific theories for no new information.
Rather than match the text to the rules of science, I prefer to examine the word choices and story-telling. For example, why does ayah 11 say that heaven (and maybe earth) was made from smoke? The word dhakaan means smoke from a fire. To alternatively communicate gaseous substances there are also the words ḍabaab, “fog, mist,” or bukhaar, “fume, steam, vapor.” So why smoke? Is it because smoke has a more romantic (dare I say, mystical) weight to it, while in Arabic the word for “fumes” is so mundane it even applies to bad breath? Speaking of smoke, where and when was Hell created in this timeline? Why do we never get a creation narrative for Hell? Why does God speak to heaven and earth as things with free will before they are even created, and why do they speak of themselves as willing when they didn’t exist to have will in their own creation? There is poetry and literary quality to these ideas, which is far more productive to explore in its own context than in the context of modern science.
I have the impression from the first four ayat that this surah was publicly performed. Muhammad has stood up, perhaps alongside a road or in the commons of the Ka’aba, and called for attention with the drawn out, isolated letters “ḥaa-miim…” He then introduces the text like a royal decree “A Revelation from the Most Gracious, THE Merciful:” and then he introduces it again, “A Writing, its signs detailed an Arabic recitation (for understanding people),4a tiding, and a boding:” But rather than going strait into the tidings and bodings, the surah pivots to decry the audience response, “yet they give wide berth so they do not hear!” Like the audience of many a vehement street preacher, Muhammad’s crowd reroute their path through the public place to avoid his attention and message.
This surah portrays Muhammad’s opposition as passive or passive-aggressive. They avoid him, talk loudly to obscure his preaching and recitations, admit themselves to be uninterested in his message, and dismiss him with “you work and we will work.” Muhammad is being the aggressor, speaking harsh words out in public, and the disbelievers are resentful and resistant, but not violent. The surah condemns disbelievers even if they are patient or conciliatory, which shows that there were non-Muslims who tolerate or even try to get along with Muhammad’s movement. Despite this, the surah distinctly only ascribes good deeds to believers and bad deeds to disbelievers. Though ayah 46 says that “whoever does righteousness — it is for his own soul; and whoever does evil [does so] against it, and your Lord is not ever unjust to [His] servants,” we never hear of disbelievers being rewarded for the good they have done nor believers being punished for the bad they have done.
I am a little tired of examining the Quran’s fixation on disbelievers and cynicism for general humankind today. There is new detail added to the story of ʕaad and Thamud regarding the violence of their destruction, or new material on the anti-advocacy disbelievers will experience on the brink of hell (even their own bodies will denounce them), but it is more or less of the same nature as the things I’ve parsed earlier. I don’t feel like going through it again at this time. In this way, the Quran is self-fulfilling prophesy. You could construe that I am “giving wide berth” and avoiding the topic –although in truth I’ve spent a lot of time looking at these verses for something worth spending even more time to write about. But when spending your time with a thing involves hearing the same variations on a theme over and over, variations that are abusive and mean-spirited, it makes you evaluate what is worthwhile. Repeating a parsed form of the Quran’s abuse just didn’t seem worthwhile to me this time around. Not when I have kinder, more charitable, more constructive things to do. And to compound its abuse, the Quran’s only mechanism for keeping you there is doubling down, like an insurance salesman, with the pitch “but what if HELL.”
So let’s end this post on a high note. While the surah denies any value in the patient or conciliatory attitudes of the disbelievers, it encourages such attitudes in its believers. There was constructive attention and words for the believers today in ayat 30-38. As I always want to impress, though the Quran is mean-spirited, the community of believers are not supposed to embody this meanness. They are directed to right belief and righteousness. They have nothing to fear but God, and He regards them with compassion and Mercy. They are to look at disbelievers with hospitality, as those who are inviting other to share in their comforts. Ayah 34 teaches believers to always prefer good and pay better than they receive. Doing so might reconcile you to your enemies and bring you surprising friendships. Ayah 35 caveats that it takes a lot of patience and a lot of goodness to get these results, but it is assumed that the believers can rise to the challenge. They have God on their side and angels as allies even in earthly life, so what threat does evil pose to them? And if the disbelievers should never join them in exclusive worship to The God, it doesn’t matter, for those near to God will glorify Him endlessly nonetheless.