Traditionally, Muslims list suwar 40-46 consecutively in their chronological sequences. These suwar all start with the mystical letters haa-miim, although today’s surah includes three letters beyond that, ʕain-siin-qaaf. However, I don’t feel a distinct continuity between these suwar. There is between suwar 41 and 42 a shift in emphasis and some novelty of perspective that relates better to the later needs of Muhammad’s ministry rather than his strictly Meccan phase. The title of surah 42, Ash–Shuuraa, “The Consultation,” emphasizes a noun in this chapter pulled from a passage wherein the Muslims are being attributed their own ability to mediate justice. The have more self-determination and agency now, reflecting an independent society governing themselves, deferring their rulings to God, capable of achieving retribution, and justified in fighting tyranny. The conversation is no longer localized to its immediate listeners, but has expanded to “The Mother of Cities and those around it,” (Ayah 7). This is indeed a shift from the days in which the oppression they were fighting was merely other people trying to talk louder than Muhammad’s recitations. The Muslims are in transition from a faith community seeking to save itself from a local day of judgement to a centralized polity with a purpose to free the world from lies and oppression.
Take a read, it’s merely 58 ayat.
General Themes vs. Contextual Forms
Where there are similarities between this surah and the others that start with Haa-Miim, it is in the same ways that one surah resembles every other surah in the Quran. The Quran’s monotheism, eschatology, emphasis on prayer and virtue, and misanthropic view of non-Muslims is distributed throughout the book. Like in surah 40, “The Forgiver,” today’s surah starts with a glorification of God, whose court of angels praise Him and intercede for mankind. As in surah 41, “It Detailed,” it also includes the Quran’s self-description as a book and revelation recited in Arabic. However, even these things are not distinct to these suwar and can be found elsewhere. Is there a pattern to where these ideas are found? Can we associate usage of any of these motifs with a certain period of Muhammad’s ministry? That is an interesting exercise, although it’s scope is beyond what I have time to achieve in this project. Any such endeavor is bound to be complicated by the way that the Quran was edited as an oral document within Muhammad’s lifetime, with verses being added or abrogated in the course of his ministry. As I regularly say, there’s no structural rigidity in the Quran’s prose to prevent or make obvious that kind of thing. So without being able to consistently rearrange the Quran into a chronology based on structural or linguistic progression, the easier thing to analyze is the contextual clues, whether a reference to specific events or indications of how much power the Muslims have.
Let me give my summary of how I understand the broad strokes of Muhammad’s ministry. It started in the city of Mecca. Mecca is nested in a rocky valley with little to no horticultural ability, though it did have wells with which to water people and livestock. The city’s main economy was based on the reception of pilgrimages, and pilgrims would often combine commercial interests with their religious duties as they negotiated with other members of the community under the sacred protection of ritual law (bans on violence, gods to swear by, witnesses to pledge before). Social regulation in Mecca was run by consensus of its heads-of-family, with certain lineages having more social responsibilities and influence due to historical circumstances. The big family was The Quraysh, but that family was divided into clans such as Muhammad’s own, the Banu Hashim/Hashimites. Muhammad first preached in private, then expanded into public preaching, and then became a public nuisance that received escalating suppression. Pilgrims from the nearby city of Medina invited Muhammad to move his ministry into their community. Thus the Muslims fled Mecca to Medina. Medina was a horticultural community divided between five big families –three Jewish, two Arab– and Muhammad was given license to mediate between them all in his middle ground as an Arab monotheist. The host Arabs converted and became known as Al-Ansaar, “the Allies,” while escalating conflict between the Jews and Muhammad resulted in their exile and destruction. In combination with this political role, Muhammad expanded his mission to neighboring communities by sending emissaries, with the imperative that individual converts migrate to Medina. Meanwhile, the Muslims avenged their persecution and loss of property in Mecca by raiding Meccan caravans. Success brought wealth to the Muslims, and this in turn attracted new converts, which led to the growing paranoia and problem that hypocrites were entering into the community with disingenuous motives. The raiding escalated into battles, and eventually a ceasefire was reached between Muhammad and the Meccans in a way that humiliated Muhammad, but allowed Muslims access to the Ka’aba for pilgrimage. During this ceasefire, the Muslims took to conquering neighboring communities (most notably the wealthy oasis of Khaybar), and amassed enough alliances and power that when they returned to conquer Mecca, the Meccans immediately folded and converted en masse. Muhammad started to direct his warfare to the rest of the Arab world (including north into those allied to the East Romans), but then died.
I give this summary not as an authoritative description of his ministry (as I’m still scouting through the history), but it’s the current framework that helps me understand the contexts of Quranic passages, particularly as it involves shifting power. Explaining it to you helps you know where I’m coming from. The basic theology and worldview of the Quran is pretty simple –that’s one of the things it is most proud of. No matter the time of revelation, the theology is the same, the view of mankind is the same, the call to charity and goodness is the same. But the great shift in power dynamics can account for the shifting application and articulation. Muhammad’s centrality as a messenger is the constant theme, but his role went from a person with no secular authority meeting strong resistance, to an absolute ruler who could not be resisted. The morality of the community never stopped being centered on goodness and fairness, but general principles were given specific applications. The religion always was practiced through prayer and charity, but implementation shifted from personal lifestyle to political policy. Fighting evil is still central, but it goes from the patient endurance of the helpless self, to the crusade to liberate the helpless others. The principles are the same, the scope is different. So while this surah is traditionally taught as “Meccan,” I look at the suggested power dynamics and see indications of either a level of power that Muslims only enjoyed in Medina, or attempts at instituting such power within their life in Mecca.
Does this matter? Meh, let’s just say that is doesn’t have to matter. As I go through the things in this surah that I find related to a context, you’ll see that all arguments are circumstantial and can be made for either context. In part, questioning the context is just questioning how much history can be learned from the Quran. It is by far and wide the only direct witness to the events of Islam’s rise, and there’s hope of seeing the story within its message. However, for most believers there isn’t any desire to fix a passage to a specific context and lock in what it meant to its first listeners. That the Quran’s rhetoric is flexible and thus useful for a multiplicity of situations is part of the appeal. Life holds infinite variety, and since the Quran’s revelation was spread over a time period of rapid change, it speaks variously in ways that meet that variety. What it meant in its original context doesn’t have to matter as much as what it means to you in your context. What do you hope to do by locking the meaning down to its original application? Deny yourself an interpretation that could be useful for your current circumstances?
Peoples of the Books
The first body of text that sounds Medinian to me is ayat 13-15. This small stretch ties in the other Abrahamic faiths who have scriptures, though that does not default the timing of the revelation to be in Medina. Jews and Christians were very present in Arabia, ruling over both the northern and southern ends of the trade routes, and inhabiting a number of cities and monasteries around the peninsula. In isolation, ayah 13 still seems directed to a pagan population. Noah and Muhammad are mentioned in a way reflects an alpha-omega relationship, and then other Jewish prophets (including Jesus) are mentioned to fill in between. Since no Arab prophets are mentioned, the implication might be that the polytheists are loathe to concede a legacy that has mostly existed outside their own community. However, ayat 14 centers attention upon Peoples of the Books, making the mention of polytheists look more like a side note. Both verses primarily serve to command the Muslims to build a united and harmonious community, and to not degenerate due to internal avarice like the communities of Jews and Christians. I would imagine that a young persecuted minority is less threatened by internal pettiness than by the existential threat of the hostile forces that have power over them. At the least, the feared consequences of such are different. In persecution, internal division runs the risk of bringing one’s own extinction. The danger embodied by the divisions within Jewish and Christian communities is not existential threat, but rather a sort of un-dead perpetuity as a community that is no longer valid before God. This speaks to me that the Muslims are past the context of immediate existential dangers and are needing to be warned off the sins that can grow in complacency. In Medina, there were also different Islamic heritages: those first converts who endured Meccan persecution, the Allies who took in refugees and through whose resources Islam survived, and the later immigrants who abandoned their homes to answer Muhammad’s call. As hierarchies formed, as heroes were made, as Muhammad’s favoritism was courted, jealousy would become a real spiritual threat.
Ayah 15 speaks to Muhammad and supplies him with a manifesto to give to anyone who would try to influence him. The part that makes me suspect this surah applies to Medina is the line “I have been commanded to do justice among you.” The verb for “do justice” is ‘aʕdil, a verb that can mean “act justly,” or “balance.” Again, this isn’t decisively something only relevant in Medina. Acting justly was always a hallmark of Muslim morality. The prepositional phrase bainakumu, “among you [all]” could also be translated “between you all.” So one sense of this sentence could be that Muhammad is called to live with personal integrity amongst his neighbors. With that interpretation, the statement “For us are our deeds, and for you your deeds,” is merely a reference to the individual accountability of each soul to God, and the “there is no argument between us and y’all” is a shut-down in the “you can’t argue with Truth” vein of things, which would then get reinforced in the next ayah, “And those who argue concerning Allah after He has been responded to – their argument is invalid with their Lord, and upon them is [His] wrath, and for them is a severe punishment.” This line of thought, of shutting out the “haters” (to use a modern term) and living your best life in moral superiority would never grow obsolete in Islam. However, the other potential is that Muhammad’s manifesto includes his role in early Medina as mediator between the communities. The “our deeds/your deeds” and “no argument” statement could be terms of religious plurality in a shared space, with all religious quarrels suspended until God judges for Himself. The following verse could then possibly read as a condemnation of anyone (including believers) who presses on quarreling after this ruling. So if this section is Medinian, it could be about balancing a pluralistic society and preferring harmonious coexistence to argument. I’d be curious to know if this ayah comes up in Islamic law to inform how to administer a pluralistic society or relate to other religious communities.
The next block of text that reads to me as Medinian spans ayat 36-43. These ayat speak of the believers as an organized community, capable of enacting retribution and fighting tyranny. That the believers conduct their matters via shuuraa bainahumma, “consultation between themselves,” does not necessarily mean they have a government. Shuuraa comes from roots that connote “extraction,” and means the extraction of opinions via debate or public discussion. This exact word does not get used elsewhere in the Quran, but via a related word we can see this practice of debate used in deciding terms of child-custody upon divorce. There’s nothing in the text to signify how formal this consultation is, but the great takeaway is that the believers get along by consensus –something denied of People of the Book– and furthermore through rationality and self-determination. The believers settle their differences in public through expressions of opinion and reason. Implicitly, this would contrast the practice of using divining arrows or other mechanisms of chance/divine intervention. The believers do not need to consult a whimsical God to get His input for every tiff, but have been given all the means to determine their own courses of action. Through submission to a consistent God who has laid out rules, reason becomes a means for men to determine justice amongst themselves.
Speaking of justice, that is a thing that the believers are told to pursue for themselves. The word translated in ayah 39 as “tyranny,” baghyu, is at base about illicit desire, about wanting what others have and rebelling/oppressing the other. The response of believers is no longer patient endurance or attempts at converting the other through friendship, but tit-for-tat justice. I was struck by the contrast between ayah 34 of the prior surah and ayah 40 of today’s:
And not equal are the good deed and the bad. Repel [evil] by that [deed] which is better; and thereupon the one whom between you and him is enmity [will become] as though he was a devoted friend. But none is granted it except those who are patient, and none is granted it except one having a great portion [of good].Surah 41, Al-Fuṣṣilat, ayah 34-35 (Sahih International)
And the retribution for an evil act is an evil one like it, but whoever pardons and makes reconciliation – his reward is [due] from Allah. Indeed, He does not like wrongdoers.Surah 42, Ash-Shuuraa, ayah 40 (Sahih International)
These ayat do not contradict: they are both consistent with the principle mercy at best, justice at least. Both sections are promoting patience and mercy as meritorious, but there is a shift in promoted policy. In context (ayat 33-36), the top ayat are in a section of the surah promoting the moral superiority of Muhammad/Muslims –a superiority that is reflected in the expectation that Muslims will take the higher road. The policy is to overcome evil through kindness, patience, and reconciliation, and believers are challenged to have the depth of virtue required to find success. In today’s verse, the context (36-43) is also promoting the moral superiority of the Muslims (which includes resolving anger with forgiveness), but this time policy is to exact justice for oneself. I see in this shift the potential that either the status of the Muslims is so low that revolution is now coming into view (for after all, isn’t the language of revolution always about overthrowing oppressors and exacting justice?), or that the Muslims have gained enough power that they can now muster retribution. When the Muslims moved to Medina, they turned to raiding Qurayshi caravans. This is traditionally understood to be a pre-emptive move against Meccan hostilities and also retribution for the property that the Meccans seized from the homes the Muslims left behind. These lines of the Quran would inform a policy of understanding the violence as acts of justice, in which the avenging victims are in the right so long as their actions are equivalent.
There are ayat within this surah that seem suited to life in Mecca, but they too only make a circumstantial case and can hypothetically apply to both sides of Muhammad’s ministry. Ayah 7 declares the Quran’s pedigree and intent as a warning to “the Mother of Towns and those around it,” a phrase that is contextually pretty sure to mean Mecca. This phrase only appears once elsewhere in the Quran, and that is in Surah “The Cattle,” ayah 92, for the same message. My memory of “The Cattle” is that it read as a very frustrated surah, in which Muhammad has to be reassured that the disbelief of the pagans is not his fault nor that he has any responsibility over them. It was a surah very grounded in the frustration and powerlessness of Mecca. However, even when Muhammad left Mecca, his origin as a prophet sent to that city was not dropped or obsolesced. Indeed, one could argue that his focus shifted from waiting for God to judge the Meccans to embodying that judgement through war. I do wonder why this description of Mecca only appears twice in the Quran, and what is intended by the term Ummu al-Quraa, “Mother of Cities?” This term has an entry in Lane’s Lexicon, wherein Lane collects opinions of the traditionalists that this title refers to the placement of Mecca at the center of the earth, or to mean “metropolis” as the center of a larger civic area (i.e. “those around it”), or for its greater character in the same idiom of emphasis as saying “the motherlode,” “mothership,” or “mother—-.” I would also call attention to the Arabic word ‘ummah, “Mother-group,” which is used to express one’s communal identity (whether religious, national, or familial), and note that word does appear today in ayah 8 wherein it is stated that God could have made mankind into one ‘ummah. Calling Mecca an Umm, “mother,” perhaps intends to highlight Mecca as the heart and beginning of the Muslim ‘ummah, which speaks to the Quran taking a bigger view of Muhammad’s ministry than mere local reformation. Maybe there is the beginning idea of a nation for which the heart and center is Mecca. Modern Islam naturally has extended the phrase “and those around it” to include the entirety of the world.
Another ayah that might be called upon is ayah 23, wherein Muhammad is given another manifesto: “I am not asking you for it payment except affection in kinship.” The word for “kinship” is qurbaa, from the roots q-r-b which connote “nearness.” Qurbaa is used in the Quran for relatives in general. Thus, this would fit into Muhammad’s Meccan situation, wherein his opponents were the leaders of Mecca, who were all related to him. His paternal half-uncles were some of his greatest opponents, and one day we’ll come to a surah that wholly exists to damn a specific half-uncle and aunt to hell. Taken in a Meccan context, ayah 23 is Muhammad speaking to his belligerent family, denying in himself corrupt motives or intention of destroying the family. Since it was through kinship that Arabs of Muhammad’s times were provided human rights, many exegetes (check the “learn” button available on Quranhive.com) take this passage to mean that Muhammad was merely asking for the rights his family owed him. However, this passage –by its own words– is asking for al-mawaddah, “the love/affection,” a word that asks for something more sentimental and positive than merely asking “just leave me alone, just give me my rights.” Muhammad is asking for emotional bond. Perhaps the meaning is that Muhammad is in fact asking for something: a loving family. As an orphan who came to be rejected by most of his family for his faith (I’ll always emphasize that his closest uncle took a stance of patient tolerance), and furthermore whose followers were likewise exiled from their families, perhaps this ayah speaks to a vision of the believers as a loving family. This vision of the community as Muhammad’s family would be fulfilled in Surah al-Aḥzaab wherein the Muslim tribes are arranged under Muhammad as patriarch with Muhammad’s wives as their “Mothers.”
To close out my thoughts on this surah, I’d like to dwell on how it reassures and builds up the believers. On the whole I found this surah upbeat and positive, and this is linked with the importance of God’s administrative powers and presence. Ayat 26 speaks of him answering the supplications of good believers, though ayah 27 follows with the caveat that God is still careful with what He provides and meters such out, lest He spoil people and they transgress. Ayah 30 says that disaster is earned punishment, but that a lot of disaster is averted by God’s mercy. This smacks of “everything happens for a reason” logic (yuck!), but let’s take it in the spirit of a non-categorical statement of God’s direct involvement in earthly matters, which is supposed to be comforting. God in this surah is present and active –accessible even. Ayah 10 tells the people to take their disagreements to God to receive a ruling. Presumably that means to God through Muhammad, which in modern times would be approximated by consultation of the Quran and traditions of Muhammad as understood by legal experts. Otherwise it could also be left to God in the passive sense, as in abandoning the argument to be resolved on the Day of Judgement. It still isn’t “direct” communication in the sense that any individual can access God. Ayah 51 explains that no human can communicate with God except through revelation, from “behind a partition,” or through a messenger. While that second mode is rather mysterious sounding, Muslims from Muhammad’s time had both a revelation (Quran) and a messenger (Muhammad) through which to seek God’s input, and the surah closes by commending both the Quran and Muhammad as guidance to God.
Accepting God as an administrator provides relief to the Muslims and Muhammad. The message of God’s administration is in essence, “don’t mind them, leave them to me, they cannot escape me.” So the relief is that believers do not have to obsess over the unbelievers and are not responsible for them. While this is a message that occurs throughout the Quran, I think it is a message that gets undermined by the Quran’s obsession with dehumanizing and tormenting the disbelievers at great length and frequency. It’s one thing to say “don’t mind them” and another to say “don’t mind them… but let me bring them to your attention over and over and over and over….” This surah on the whole is very mild on the damnation language and imagery. Its content aligns better with “don’t obsess over the disbelievers.” It includes a higher concentration of positive direction for the believers, complimenting their ideal character and enabling of them to be active in improving their own circumstances. This surah is taking steps to build something, not just tearing others down.