Surah 45: The Kneeling

Surah 45, Al-Jaathiyah, “The Kneeling,” doesn’t have much by way of distict attributes. The word for “kneeling” is unique here, thus its use for a title, but a related word appears twice in Surah 19 for the same visual scene of mankind on their knees before judgement. The surah opens with the mysterious letters Haa Miim, and thus gets traditionally dated to be in chronological sequence with the previous four suwar that start with the same letter set…

…And that’s as much comment as my commentaries provided on this surah as a whole. And I, being consumed in this season with home renovations and also a little fatigued with the Quran’s general habit of repetition, couldn’t decide on anything to talk about. So I invited my readers to pick topics for me, and lo! A comment came with a series of three questions, and I’ll so my post today will be answering them. My thanks to my reader “Copperwalls” for the engagement!

It’s a short 37 ayat, take a read…

Appropriative Restorationism

45:16-17 speaks of ‘knowledge’ coming to the Jews which caused them to fall apart, although the surah stresses it wasn’t the fault of the knowledge itself! Perhaps this ‘knowledge’ is Jesus? What are your opinions?

Does al-ʕilm, “the knowledge,” of ayah 17 mean Jesus? It is tempting to correlate “the knowledge” with the concept of Jesus as “The Logos/The Word” in the Gospel of John, but while I would say that yes, it does mean Jesus, it doesn’t mean Jesus specifically. Ayah 16 is speaking of the whole Jewish legacy: the Scripture, Law, prophets (including Jesus in the Islamic view), and earthly ascendancy. All other scriptures named by the Quran were Jewish. (Remember the New Testament is not named as scripture. The “Gospel” given to Jesus is presented as a parallel to the Quran given to Muhammad, ergo an oral document, and is not equated with the four biographies that Christians call the gospels). Most of the prophets named in the Quran were Jewish. While most believing groups are given a vague epilogue of out-lasting their enemies, only Israel is shown continuing for any length of time observing law, governing themselves, and having success. None of the non-Jewish prophets get that treatment. All these things should have endowed the Jews with “the Knowledge” of what to believe and how to act, which according to the Quran would have been substantively equal to Islam.

So this starts to spin off into a topic that I really do want to examine in some length. Well, actually, two topics, but they each need their own post’s worth of consideration and can’t be handled here. The first topic is how Christianity and Islam both appropriate Judaism. We both claim to be the better version of it, Christianity by being its sequel and Islam by being its reboot. And given that Judaism has rejected us and continued on in its own identity, this results in us rejecting them with some bitter interpretation. Secondly, there is in Christianity a school of thought called Restorationism, which is the belief that sectarianism is the result of human innovation, and that if we “go back to the basics” we can reconcile all believers into one community. I hail from a community in that tradition, the churches of Christ. There is so much common ground in how my community and how the Quran thinks, that I would not hesitate to call the Quran “Restorationist.” For today, the specific Restorationist idea I’ll mention is that mankind’s grasp of knowledge and order is assumed to be degenerative. God keeps sending knowledge into the world and establishing order, but through mankind’s poor custodianship it keeps having to be “restored.” That is why the Quran associates its religion so strongly with remembrance, it’s a process of returning to old information. An embarrassing implication of Restorationism is that it makes God looks incompetent. One accusation might be that what God gave must not have been complete enough to establish self-maintaining belief and practice, which is why the Quran has to exonerate itself and other divine events as sufficient. Another explanation is that God lets humanity destroy the availability of Knowledge for future generations, though He restores it from time to time. This is why the Jewish legacy gets mentioned, to demonstrate that it is man’s fault that knowledge gets lost.

The topics of restorationism and appropriation overlap here because the Jewish legacy is one of constant gain, loss, and reform –it is a self-aware legacy that emphasizes God’s faithfulness and competence. The Quran appropriates that legacy to indict the Jews of chronic moral failure and justify putting restoration into the hands of another people. The hanging question of any restoration is “what will make this time any different”? After all, Islam wants to be the last restoration. Probably not the direct intention of these ayat, but certainly an unfortunate implication, is that the difference this time around is that God is not giving his Knowledge (scripture, law, prophethood, ascendency) through the Israelites.

His Natural Desire

I wonder who the figure in ayah 23 is? The man who has ‘taken his desire to be his god’? Is it a person alive during the life of Muhammed or perhaps a biblical figure?

Before addressing the question I want to do a little speculation on the vocabulary. What catches my attention in this passage is that the person is not deifying a thing that they desire, but that they are deifying the feeling of desire itself. Is there anything deeper to the word translated into English as “desire”?

There are several Arabic words that mean “desire”, but the word used here is hawaa. Its roots h-w-y carry meanings of descent and desire*. I sat with the derivative words for a while trying to decide whether these things were related, or whether I had a case of homonymic roots. What I began to consider is whether the word was charged with ancient observations of gravity. As far as ancient people could tell everything had a directional tendency according to its nature, whether that be earth’s tendency to fall or fire’s tendency to rise. Gravity was thought to be sourced from the object’s elemental nature, not from the influence of another object’s mass. Without intending to ascribe sentience in objects, in English we often describe these tendencies with words that suggest emotion or motivation; e.g. “The book wants to fall over.” So my question is, did the Arab world of the 600’s have a similar vocabulary? Did it express the tendency of things to fall in terms of wanting?

[*And also air. Since h-w-y built words like “pit, chasm,” they extended to the meaning “void,” and the substance of supposed emptiness, “air.”]

This view of hawaa, of a natural downward tendency, does match with the Quran’s application. As far as the Quran’s usage goes (excepting cases regarding air flow), words built off of h-w-y have negative moral value. Sinking downward, after all, is usually a symptom of exhaustion or decay: tired animals lay down, buildings settle and topple, water pools in the lowest places. It all suggests a path of least resistance, a limit of mortality, a collapse. The one exception to this pattern of negativity is that when Abraham prays to God concerning the settlement he and Ishmael establish in Mecca, he prays that the hearts of the people will tahwii to his descendants in that city; that is, that people will desire to descend into the valley of Mecca to sustain his descendants with an economy of pilgrimage. It’s a new and holy trajectory for their gravity. Otherwise, God ahwaa, “threw down,” the damned cities; peoples’ ahwaa’, “desires,” inhibit or detract from their acceptance of God’s hard truth; another name for Hell is Al-Haawiyah, “The Pit.” When the Quran criticizes the man who clings to the earth and follows his “desire,” saying that such is as inherent to his nature as panting is to a dog, it is sounding eerily like it is using old gravitational theory to express his moral condition. So when this surah portrays a man making his “desire” his god, it is suggesting more than superficial whim. It’s inherent and automatic, the path of his mortality.

As to making that desire his god? Perhaps the use of “god” is functional, a god is a thing you love and sacrifice to. He serves himself, pure and simple. Or perhaps “god” is being used more philosophically, in the sense that it is his concept of ultimate reality. Both ideas lead into the philosophy of the opposition in the next ayah, in which they say that there is nothing more to earthly life than to live and die. That is their view of ultimate reality and how they live accordingly.

Returning to Copperwalls’s question, I didn’t take the man of ayah 23 to be a literal man, but rather an archetype. If there was a specific person being alluded to when this was originally recited, the context or details were not preserved and have faded into irrelevance. Modern audiences are left to fill in the blanks from their own experiences or imaginations. Unfortunately, within this gap of imagination this archetype becomes available as a straw man. While true egoists do happen, our own tendency is to project such egotism onto other people with the intent to dehumanize and disregard them. Disregarding other people makes our lives simpler; it removes the need to challenge our own perspectives with that of others. This ayah is suggesting that some people can be disregarded, for in their egotism they have already secured from God damnation. There’s nothing you can do, God’s will is enacted upon him. Make a moral lesson of him and simplify your life by ignoring his perspective.

Nothing New under the Sun

As an aside, I do enjoy reading the ‘rational’ rebuttals that the Quran addresses in ayah 24-26. Especially, when these sceptics ask for their forefathers to be resurrected to prove the veracity of the Quran’s claims! The cynical sense of ‘There is not but our worldly life; we die and live, and nothing destroys us except time’ was quite powerful for me.

What a great aside to pick! I too was struck by this view of the opposition, but didn’t want to go into it because of how the Quran handles it. The opposition is making the rational, scientific argument here. The human death rate holds at 100%, and the stay-dead rates holds at …100%! (Rounding up, wink-wink.) Even those who have recovered from declared death end up dying again. By all observable, reproduceable evidence, dead humans stay dead, and there is no recovery from the process of rot. As such, the extent of their assumption is that the universe is consistent, predictable, and within their ability to observe, which is the base assumption of all scientific process. So these advocates of pure mortality are indeed being rational, and they are demanding the rational proof against their evidence: bring back some dead people.

The reason that I didn’t want to cover this topic initially is because the Quran’s response is not rational. Though asserting an active and all-capable God, it refuses to do anything more than assert. It requires a greater package of assumption to take the Quran at its word, since the only thing that the Quran is offering is its word. The Quran argues that its word is self-evident, that God exists whether they believe in Him or not, and delights in imagining how stupid they are going to look when they are left kneeling before the judgement as the believers enter into Paradise. Though a written statement without performative cues, the content in ayah 32 matches the kind of insult wherein you pretend to be your opposition and parrot a reductive version of their ideas in a nasal, whiny voice:

“And when it was said, ‘Indeed, the promise of Allah is truth and the Hour [is coming] – no doubt about it,’ you said, ‘We know not what is the Hour. We assume only assumption, and we are not convinced.'”

Surah 45, “The Kneeling,” ayah 32 (emphasis mine)

It’s so petty, it makes me feel petty having to repeat and dissect it. And yet, like the Quran fixating on the disbelievers it has told believers to disregard, I too cannot help but fixate on this pettiness. This is the kind of content that has made me exhausted with the Quran and my own role examining and questioning it.

However! Quran aside, the worldview of this opposition is profound and interesting. It is quite bold, because such statements often receive stigma. To the ears of the religious, this belief in pure mortality constitutes some kind of toxic individualistic anarchy. No afterlife means no chance of accountability for those whose lives were optimized at the expense of others. If you are only what you experience, then who cares what came before you, what happens after you, and the experiences of others beyond your view. And unfortunately, Frederich Nietzsche articulated the perfect bogeyman to confirm the horrified imaginations of how such nihilism would manifest in society. But I will defend the nihilist and say that, with a healthily developed power of empathy and awareness of the inter-dependency of humanity, they don’t default into gluttonous individualists who take their own pleasure at societal expense. I can say that because…

…the book Ecclesiastes says that.

The Hebrew Bible lacks any articulated vision of an afterlife, that’s one of its quirks that gets overshadowed by the ideas of Christianity and modern Judaism. While the Hebrew Bible reflects a range of theological diversity from book to book, it skews by vast majority towards equating death with annihilation. No book is as clearly in this camp as Ecclesiastes, in which the cynical character of “The Teacher” muses on what constitutes a life well lived when weighed against the inevitable annihilation of death. Though The Teacher has faith in a just God, despite stating how he sees no direct evidence of such, he derives his wisdom not through divine law or expectation of retribution, but through the lens of mortality. How does one minimize the suffering of life and the loss of death? His answer is –in my cheap paraphrase– to roll with the punches, forgo all excess (yes, even excess of pleasure), and get along with people. That is hardly Nietzsche’s hyper-individualist.

Why does finding an ancient secular outlook on life feel surprising? Perhaps we think of this kind of secular morality as something modern, as post-religion, and the surprise is in finding it in an ancient context. Or perhaps the surprise is sourced from its rarity. The other stigma that this blunt outlook on mortality invokes is our modern aversion to death. Despite increasing secularism, we do promote aspirational immortality by cocooning ourselves from death and eschewing direct discussions of individual death. Even an atheist flagship like “Star Trek: TNG” would not bring itself to directly assert the finality of death. It’s chronic enough that Death Positivity has become a form of activism. Though past cultures might have been more open and confronted with their mortality, there still is the oddity that most cultures articulate some view of an afterlife. No one really agrees what this afterlife looks like, but the rarity of “pure mortalism” could have made for an appropriate response from the Quran. It’s not a conclusive argument, but it is an equally rational one. Something in mankind feels that death is an error or an illusion. Asking believers and unbelievers alike to ponder our hunger for immortality is ground on which to engage an opposing view, rather than shut it out. It is also a source for introspection, not a projection of evil upon the other.

For Having Nothing to Say…

Well I sure said a lot, didn’t I?

This reminds me of how there is always something interesting to find in the written word. Just the act of using language results in interest, because language is inherently complicated. Language expresses ideas, is often developed specifically for those ideas, and then gets connected to other ideas because ideas intersect with each other. This encodes words with a whole worldview and history. While sometimes the user deliberately picks words according to that encoding, other times the encoding indicates assumptions that the user hasn’t noticed they’ve had. With the Quran, I think there is a lot of truth in the belief that it has chosen its words deliberately. One of my Arabic teachers used to preach that “there are no true synonyms in the Quran.” This view is a little self-fulfilling, as it motivates you to see and read import into every word choice. However, I do believe much of that import is there, and a lot of what gets me through this Quran study is finding and unpacking the encoding of its language.

And also, there is no such thing as an idea that doesn’t lead to something interesting. One of my favorite YouTubers is Jenny Nicholson, the great fan of fandoms. A recurring activity on her channel is to read and process fan-fiction and fan-fiction-esque works. These documents are all poorly thought out nonsense. What I appreciate in Jenny is her ability to look at something nonsensical and read the sense in it. She isn’t just making sport of the typos, fallacies, and ham-handedness; she draws evidence from the material to understand the work and what it is trying to do. Perhaps my favorite instance of this is when she reads a horrifying “Jeff the Killer” fanfic and contextualizes it as the product of a child trying to claw into adulthood through grittiness but without the maturity to handle it. Even works of nonsense come from an understandable perspective.

I’m not saying the the Quran is nonsensical, but it does have the same inherent quality of being interesting. It is the product of a worldview. When I look at a surah and cannot find anything worth saying about it, that is because I’m too tired to put in the work. Plus, I do feel embarrassed by my own repetition, as though I’m punching down. Having someone with the energy find the points of interest and direct my attention to them was very helpful for this surah. So thank you very much, Copperwalls! You had a good eye, and picked some good places where the Quran intersects with broader schemes and worldviews. I hope that you enjoyed my responses to them.

One thought on “Surah 45: The Kneeling

  1. Hello! Thank you for your detailed and fascinating post. Your posts always open new avenues into understanding the Quran in its religious and social context for me. I very much enjoyed reading your response to my queries!

    Best, Copperwalls.

    Liked by 2 people

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