Does God lead through action, or inaction? How does He direct people? That is a question at the heart of the conflict between the pagans and Muhammad in this surah. The pagans have a way of life that has been formed and tested through survival in the harsh peninsula. They’ve learned their way of life through the lessons and lives of survivors, and worship the gods that they believe have aided in that survival. And of the Arabs, the Quraysh not only survived, but thrived. Isn’t the fact of this success a sign that God approves of them? Wouldn’t a moral God operating a moral world have warned them off bad ideas with bad results, rather than the success they’ve come into? Meanwhile, Muhammad is telling them to abandon these proven traditions. Their success doesn’t mean anything, the Quran insists, and it is not a sign of God’s approval. The Quran’s view is of a God who is active in guiding His people, who sends prophets and scriptures, and does not just let men feel out truth through trial and error. And if you don’t feel God’s punishment Today then that is a mercy, for you’ll get your punishment Tomorrow.
This surah is a little bit longer than the last, but take a read.
Tradition vs. Scripture
The Quran denies the value of tradition, dismissing it as the product of guess-work and ignorance. That the pagans adhere to this religion, even when they can see that the thing the prophets teach are better, is merely taken as proof that they prefer ignorance even against their own good conscience. Abraham’s claim to fame in this surah is that he was willing to reject his father’s traditions and start a new one for his own descendants. There is in this a question: why follow the life patterns of ignorant ancestors, but not of the ancestor Abraham? Again, we see the portrayal of pagans as in willful ignorance and denial of their own consciences. The pagans object that God would not have allowed them to go into error. The Quran does not have an answer for this except to scoff, then promote scriptures and prophets as real guidance by God. The implication is that God guides through active leadership, not passive permission.
Of course, Muhammad does not have a book either –physically. Upon him, the only semblance of a book is his ability to recite things repetitively and with consistency. Thus, this surah includes in its opening pedigree a citation, “By the clear Book. Indeed We have made it an Arabic Qur’ān that you might understand, and indeed it is, in the Mother of the Book with Us, exalted and full of wisdom.” (Ayat 1-3). “The Mother of the Book,” is a phrase for which the Quran includes no explanation, but we can easily infer that it is a master copy. This phrase has appeared only once before in a section of ayat very similar to the content of today’s surah (being on the same topic of God’s employment of prophets and scriptures, not traditions, to guide people). It is important for Muhammad to be understood by his audience not merely as a street preacher, but someone who has access to an impersonal and immutable source of authority. What we are missing as modern readers is the sermons and studies that Muhammad would have conducted around these recitations, which probably would’ve elucidated and expanded upon jumping-off points such as “Mother of the Book.”
The particular tradition that this surah attacks is the assignment to God in the Meccan pantheon of three daughters: Allat, Manat, Al-Uzzah. I believe these daughters were also considered angels, which is why the Quran also expresses some outrage at the pagan view of angels. In attacking this topic, however the surah broaches the topic of femininity. There are misogynistic words in here, but they can be either condemnations of or complicity in a cultural misogyny –it all depends on what you want them to be. The value or character of femininity is not actually the intended topic of these passages, but rather the inaccuracy of the Meccans’ polytheism. The argument is that giving authority to female gods or angels while considering women shameful wastes of humanity betrays one’s own illogical nature. Unfortunately, the words in question are not clearly voiced nor are they directly commented upon. So is the Quran scorning the misogyny of the pagans? Or is it leaning into the misogyny in order to emphasize the degeneracy of their religion? Here is the passage in question, and I’m going to use my own overly literal translation:
16Or has He taken from what He creates daughters, and ordained them with sons?
17And when betides one of them of that he struck for The Merciful a likeness, his face becomes dark, and he is brooding.
18So then is whom they raise in jewelry…? And he in the dispute is unclear.
19And they made the angels, which themselves are servants of The Merciful, females. Did they witness their creation? Their testimony will be recorded, and they will be questioned.Surah 43: 16-19
As always when I provide my own translation, my apologies for the clunky English, but it helps me explain the Arabic and the ambiguity in the Arabic to you. There are more straightforward ways to say these things in Arabic, and that is why Classical Arabic is often related to English speakers as “Shakespearean.” For each verse, if you click on the number you’ll be linked to a collection of translations so that you can see the variety of opinion on what they mean. I’m going to center my discussion on ayah 18, because that is the verse of which most variety can be found.
I specifically chose to interpret the first half of ayah 18 to be a hanging question. The only other question in the Quran with the same opening word, ‘awaman, “and is who…?” introduces a question of comparison (not much different from the similar ‘afaman, “then is who…?”), however in this surah no comparison follows. The Quran uses this hanging technique elsewhere, such as here and here, wherein the question is so outrageous/common that it doesn’t need to be completed for us to understand it. Unfortunately, we cannot assume to know how this question would’ve been finished (though by consulting other questions initiated by “then is who…?” or “and is who…?” one would expect a comparison of opposites: “…like to one raised [in manly things]?”). There is some confusion in how to translate the pronouns in ayah 18, given that none of the ones in the text are feminine and the grammar at play doesn’t identify the object of raising. I read the “he” of ayah 18 to be the same “he” of ayah 17, and thus read this half-question to be the words of the man’s brooding. Some translations don’t take ayah 18 to refer to daughters at all, since there are no explicitly feminine pronouns, but merely to be mocking some representative pagan for being a spoiled and inarticulate rich-kid. Conversely, many translators take this whole ayah to be about daughters and attribute this unfitness for debate as one of their lacking qualities. How the “he” pronoun could be construed to apply to a female human is beyond my level of Arabic, but since Arabic lacks an “it” and grammatical gender rules are complicated there’s a chance that this isn’t unprecedented.
The gist of these four ayat is that the Meccans have their theology all backwards, that they don’t like frilly daughters and believe that God created sons superior, and yet they believe that God took daughters from among the female angels He created. The whole point is that the pagans are being inconsistent. By their own standards, they have debased God. But in presenting this inconsistency, has the Quran affirmed the misogyny? It fails to rebut such, only concerning itself with the insult of false attribution to God. The result is that many, many men who have translated the Quran (and women, given that Sahih International was wrought by three women) have agreed to this view. It is merely the next level of outrage that not only do they associate other beings with God, but that they should associate daughters with Him. And among certain Muslim scholars, the Quran is confirming these attributes in women and that is why women are allowed to dress ornamentally. However, it is equally valid to put these words in the mouth of the pagan –or believe that the Quran is aping the thoughts of the pagan sarcastically– and thus read this misogyny as part and parcel with the whole pagan culture being denounced. I think the framing “he” subject sentences make a good case for this. But regardless of what I think, this ayah in isolation is very much at the mercy of its interpreters.
Again, it must be pointed out that Muhammad only had surviving daughters. As such, even the cynic would have a hard time believing that Muhammad would promote any idea that daughters were shameful. However, this doesn’t make him exempt from condescension towards women. One doesn’t have to believe that women are bad to believe that women are lesser. If we look to the Quran to supply its own context, it has portrayed women as petulant and ditzy. Though the Quran affirms the value of women believers and protects their property rights, it also trusts them with less responsibility and less rights relative to men of equal rank, nor is their projected reward in Paradise equivalent. I don’t see in the Quran malice or hatred of women –rather, women are recognized as essential and valuable– but it does portray them as handicapped in intellectual and emotional competence.
But What About Jesus?
The Quran makes claim to Jesus in its prophetic ancestry, and there is in this a difficulty. While Muhammad is preaching a very “hard” (firmly defined, no qualifiers) monotheism, Christianity is a bit more… “mushy” in the terms of its monotheism. And certainly in the seventh century around Muhammad, Christianity as a monotheism was very mushy. Besides the ever-going quarrels on what proper Greek words and concepts to use for the trinity, there was a diversity of patron saints and local saint cults. Extra-canonical lore about saints or Jesus himself was everywhere, and employment of images, shrines, and rituals was a major component of Christian practice. In laying a claim upon Jesus’s legacy, the Quran was also associating itself with a religion visibly laden with a pantheon of intercessionary heroes and worship of The Son of God.
And the pagans noticed this.
In ayat 57-61 is a little insight into the saturation of Christianity in Muhammad’s community. Though probably not Christians themselves, Christianity was an unescapable force in the Arabian peninsula. The luxury spices and perfumes that provided the basis of Arabian trade were sourced from regions in the peninsula’s south where Christian communities resided and where a few Christian kings had ruled within the past century. The northern passages of the trade routes were also governed by Christian Arab tribes, and the desert within was spotted with solitary Christian monks. With Mecca’s pagan shrine being at the heart of its economy and survival, it’s not clear how many Christians would have lived there, though Muhammad’s uncle-in-law Waraqah was reputed in tradition to have been Christian. At any rate, through trade and travels, the Meccans had plenty of opportunity for exposure. So in hearing mention of Jesus, the pagans are quick to challenge how their gods can be different than a Son of God. They are conflating Muhammad with Christian preachers, which is amusing to me because I often hear in Muhammad’s preaching the fire-and-damnation rhetoric that Christian street-preachers are known for. (I especially like putting in a southern accent to get those third-person-plural “y’alls”.) I wonder if the pagans ever sat through a Sunday sermon while up in Syria or had been assailed by street missionaries in market places. It gives me new ideas as to how and why they would’ve reacted to Muhammad as they did, as someone encountering something that was already familiar, disruptive, and unpleasant. Perhaps their thoughts upon hearing Muhammad’s fiery street preaching was, “oh come now, it’s bad enough to endure this while away on business, but must I now be assailed in my homeland and sanctuaries?” And those experiences might be why they suspect that Muhammad is under foreign influence, a thing the Quran has had to deny.
It has been a curiosity to me that I’ve seen anti-Son-of-God passages in the Quran in both Meccan and Medinian contexts. While Muhammad obviously had intimate contact and argument with Jews, he isn’t recorded to have had many encounters with Christians. There are a few traditional child-of-destiny narratives wherein some desert monk mystically recognizes young Muhammad to be a messiah, which is what some people think the Quran means when it commends Christian monks for being closer to the Muslim faith. Within Muhammad’s ministry, most contact came in times after the Conquest of Mecca as Muhammad’s Islamic state was solidifying alliances and expanding its empirical vision. There is, notably, the embassy of the Najrani Christians to settle terms of the community’s surrender (which the Quran alludes to in mentioning the mubaahala), and a few conquests into the northern territory of the Ghassanids, Christian tribes allied to Eastern Rome. I’ve also pondered that the Quran hasn’t provided many Jesus-centric stories, and the few that are there bear little resemblance to things in Christian canon (though some resemble things in Christian non-canon). I’ve taken from this scarcity that Muhammad encountered few arguments regarding gospel stories or teachings, and thus didn’t need to be supplied with Islamic redactions in the same way that he had need for Jewish stories. But with this surah I’ve realized that it is a mistake to look at all the times that the Quran denies Jesus’ divinity and expect it to be a refutation to Christians. Rather instead, in some cases it makes sense to see them as a refutation of Christians to pagans. This surah seems to show that the pagans are conflating Muhammad with a Christian missionary, and thus Muhammad is having to disentangle himself from Christianity’s complicated tradition while also laying claim to its founder. The means of doing such is simple –just preach Jesus as “mere” prophet– but the ongoing need to do so doesn’t fade away.
Prestige of the Enemy
So there was during the timespan of Muhammad’s ministry in Mecca a conundrum: why were the pagans the prosperous ones? This question is posed by the Meccans themselves, challenging why God would send a prophet who was not “a great man from the two cities.” (What is meant by the “two cities” is not clear. Tradition holds that the cities are Mecca and its neighbor Ta’if.) Muhammad’s status in the community can’t really be dismissed as a nobody. He came from the upper echelon of Meccan society, the Quraysh, the Hashemites, a “royal family” or priesthood in many ways since their duty was to manage the pilgrims. He was not impoverished or without responsibility either. However, he wasn’t in a traditional place of authority to demand the kind of central role he was requiring as a prophet. Demanding such upset the status quo, and given that the status quo is what justified the pagans in their own worldview, you can understand why this was their objection. It’s not just snobbery for snobbery’s sake, but part of their discernment, like the prosperity gospel. And so the Quran must dismiss the viability of success to evaluate the viability of one’s tradition, and in fact must undermine it. It takes three tacks:
- God did play a role in the formation of social hierarchies, including giving the Meccans leadership and rank to benefit from the labor of others… but he didn’t bless them that much. This is where the title of the surah, Az-Zukhruf, “the [golden] ornaments,” comes from. God has the power to put men in silver palaces with couches and golden ornaments. He hasn’t done so, because true decadence would lead all mankind into disbelief. God has blessed the Meccans, sure, but not enough to really constitute endorsement. He has instead kept their success at a level that is surpassed by other civilizations, past and present. And has that success protected those other civilizations from disaster? It was enough to delude Pharaoh, but did it save him?
- Tradition is not actually the product of men, but of demon companions. God does not passively let traditions form through men’s trial and error, but appoints demons to exploit those who disbelieve.
- What does the prosperity of Today matter, relative to the prosperity of Tomorrow? The kinds of things that God has denied the Meccans in earthly life will rather be enjoyed by the believers in the afterlife. The disbelievers will be thrown into Hell and must plead with an indifferent Malik.
(Note on the name “Malik.” It suggests a pun. M-l-k roots in Arabic connote authority, with Maalik essentially meaning “owner.” However, those roots also are used to build the word Mal’aak “Angel.” So the pun and joke is that the pagans believe in effeminate angels (mal’aakaat) who would intercede for them but will later plead to a masculine master (maalik) who is indifferent.)
The Things Not Said
Last surah we had an ayah which broadly stated that all disaster is brought upon oneself –that the world is run by principles of deservedness– with the caveat that any lack of disaster is from the intervention of God’s mercy. In reality, this view is not really any different than that of the pagans. If their forefathers had for some time been in the wrong, would not they have been punished by what their hands had done? They believed that their success indicated they were acting upon Truth, that they’d found the gods to please and the means to please them, and they used the status quo to measure their rightness. By the end of Muhammad’s ministry, did not Islam measure itself the same way?
But I’m missing the frankness of Ecclesiastes, or the brutality of Job, in which the authors portray an inscrutable God who does not run the world by simple moral metrics. Bad things happen to good people, and it’s not because God is on a campaign to teach you or teach others by you. It isn’t that I don’t believe that God is just or will do justice, but I do dislike the creation of a culture wherein we contextualize each others’ successes and failures with some meta-morality. And what kind of moral measurements does the Quran leave us with anyways? Success only means approval when applied to the believers, failure only means disapproval when applied to the disbelievers. Success in the lives of the disbelievers merely indicates that God is showing them mercy before their eternal horror, or even winding them up to make their dismay all the greater. Failure in the lives of believers merely indicates that God is putting them through a growth process, a test. There is an interpretation for everything and a metric for nothing. In the end, you can’t viably judge your moral standing before God by your circumstances.
So what is God really doing?