Surah 44: The Smoke

Surah 44, al-Dukhan, “The Smoke,” is a simple and straightforward surah. Usually when I draft my posts I try and find themes that flow together or that are worth examining at great length, but for this week that wasn’t coming together. Instead, I came away with a few items of trivia, though nothing particularly exciting, and some concepts worth noting but with little to explore. This is a problem of coming up to a surah that is…typical. There is nothing distinctive in here, no ideas that stand alone. Everything here adds volume to things already stated elsewhere in the Quran, but no novelty or exploration. I’ll return to that at the end of this post. So instead of rambling upon these points, I decided to present them in a concise list.

And the list won’t make sense unless you start off with a read of the short and straightforward 59 ayat.

My list

  • Ayah 3: “Blessed night”
    • If the Quran was revealed progressively, why is there this statement that it was sent down in a night? Well, one rationalization is that the Quran was learned by Muhammad progressively, whether through dictation from Gabriel or direct inspiration, but the whole book was always present from the beginning. Remember, the Quran has identified itself as a whole book derived from a master copy.
  • Details within the divine interactions with pre-Hell disbelievers
    • There is a prophesy of fake-out apocalypse in which “smoke” descends from the sky and torments people into repentance. The actual meaning of “smoke” is variously interpreted, with some taking it as a metaphor for famine or plague. Especially since the smoke can be taken as a metaphor for many kinds of general suffering, there is also the question of whether this prophecy was fulfilled or will be fulfilled yet. Since there is no timeline, is there anything to learn if we view this as eschatological? Though these questions are tempting to explore, the simple truth is that the Quran cares naught about them. For its own purposes, the only value of this story is not its literal information but its didactic assertion. This is just another variation of God declaring the futility of miracles or experiences to dissuade disbelievers. The only way to make a disbeliever heed God is to make them suffer, but even that belief cannot benefit them because they’ll always return to their disbelief once the suffering is lifted. Thus, disbelievers cannot be saved from Hell, nor should they be.
    • Egypt’s lands and resources will be passed on to another “people.” Who are these people? The Quran has a lot of words for “people,” with at least four that I can think of, and I’d love to do a word study of which words it uses where and what nuances that includes. But that was too much work for the scope of this post considering it’s a passing phrase neither unique to this surah nor particularly meaningful to the story. Of note is that the Quran has before asserted that it was the Israelites who inherited this land, the gardens, the residences rather than envisioning the Israelites departing into the wilderness and migrating to a different land.
  • After-life
    • Hell is so very spiteful and malicious. It’s hard to read this and see justice, since “pure justice” in the idealized Western sense is expected to be dispassionate, measured, and corresponding to the crimes. Hell in this surah is full of arbitrary punishments, disproportionate (it’s very one-size-fits-all), and explicitly capricious.
    • This is the first time we will see the phrase ḥuur ʕiin, “white eyes.” The pluralized adjective huur means “white” but implies a brilliancy of white perceived through juxtaposition and contrast. I relate this to my thoughts on “Modest Mystique” in which contrasts between light and dark draw one’s attention and exudes mystery. The eyes of these spouses (who are gender-less, given that they are represented in synecdoche) reflect some kind of cultural idealized beauty, maybe preference for sanpaku eyes, dark irises, dark hair or complexion. That there is a physical idealization of beauty in Paradise is a concept that troubles me, as it implies that people will have to be physically rectified to an aesthetic standard, and thus that God isn’t “body-positive.” This is one of the questions that does trouble Resurrection/Afterlife theologies: in what version of your body will you be resurrected? And does your answer for that merely reveal a false (maybe even toxic!) standard of beauty in your culture? However, it must be stated that outside the Quran’s own text, in the traditions of later Muslims, the ḥuur ʕiin became a kind of non-human being call a “Houri.”
  • Ayah 58: “Eased it in your tongue”
    • Here is an explicit mention of one of the things that is supposed to make the Quran miraculous: that Muhammad was able to recite it freely and consistently. The ability of people to memorize and recite the Quran, even without understanding it, is still considered miraculous evidence today.

Conclusion

This blog post epitomizes to me the limits of analyzing the Quran surah by surah. I’ve debated to what extent I should treat each post as an individual, self-contained reading experience. Currently my posts are full of back references to previous material, given that so much of what we see now has been seen before. And yet my series is so long that a casual reader probably doesn’t want to commit to reading its volumes. From the stats WordPress feeds me, I know that most people access the posts individually without visiting others in the series. Perhaps they read a surah and just want a basic internet opinion about some aspect of its content. They don’t want to slog through hours and hours of reading the rest of my material. Shouldn’t I adapt my posts to better serve them by isolating my attention to each surah as a contained unit?

But therein lies a difficulty with the Quran. It is hard to isolate my attention to a surah because the meaning of individual parts is so greatly informed by the reiterative context of the whole book. Looking at this surah in isolation, you might read the story of the smoke as a prophecy with literal value. However, when you factor in times where the Quran has told the same exact story arc with childbirth, famine, or Hell itself as the experience of suffering that brings temporary belief, it becomes clear that the details are not as important as that underlying moral that disbelievers (those who are pre-destined to Hell by God) cannot be saved by any means. And when you see that the Quran uses this arc multiple times and merely swaps out the details, it becomes clear how little those details matter. They are but vehicles for the message and otherwise have no literal value. Is the “smoke” a literal substance or a metaphor? Is this a prophecy that has since been fulfilled or is still impending? Is there any pragmatic value to answering these questions? The Quran doesn’t care: the point was to teach a conclusion about disbelievers. It takes a whole view of the Quran to see that.

So when I come across a post that’s full of data points but no self-contained conclusions, it makes sense for me to log the data and my observations of them succinctly, and then move on. Someday, I’ll return and start compiling the Quran’s reiterations to draw representative conclusions, but the scope of that is too big for me to attempt post by post, again and again. And in writing things as lists, rather than complete essays, I hope that encourages you to read the surah directly. They’re not that long a read anymore.

Then perhaps if something in the surah struck you, and you want to talk about it, you can write to me in the comments?

3 thoughts on “Surah 44: The Smoke

  1. I found the references to clothing in heaven quite interesting in this surah. Especially, the references to ‘rich brocade and silk’. I suppose that as Mecca was on an important trade route, the exotic silk and brocade destined for Byzantium and Persia was a source of fascination.

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    1. Perhaps! I’m not entirely sure how much brocade and silk would have been passing through Mecca, as I think their route was particularly dependent on aromatics and spices from the south of Arabia, plus pragmatic materials like leather and dates. If anything, I imagine the silks that came through Mecca might have been heading towards the elite in Yemen. But I don’t doubt that they were aspirational materials that were sought after by the rich!
      In thinking about that, I wonder how much plant-based textile, like linen or cotton, would’ve even been worn in the area. I don’t think Arabia had that kind of farming… Would they have been dependent upon animal fibers for most of their clothing?

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      1. That’s a really good point. I think these more ‘mundane’ aspects of history are often forgotten. I would say that palm fibre was probably quite important for things like rope making (as it famously appears in Surah 111!) and camel hides for tent covers. Perhaps linen clothing would have been more comfortable in the desert heat, and would have come from Egypt (just across the Red Sea, maybe?). There are references to sailing that often appear in the Quran which I found a bit confusing at first as I assumed they would have only traded with caravans.

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