What do we know about the Arabs to whom Muhammad was speaking? In truth, not much. Though we have some archeological findings and external testimonies, the transmission of their oral culture was interrupted and overwritten by the transmission of the Quran, the way of Islam, and the Arab conquests. Only a few cultural favorites survived long enough to be preserved as the Arab culture morphed into a literate one, and of these it was primarily the poems that survived. So if I want to know anything about the outlook of Muhammad’s audience, I know I’m going to have to get into their poetry.
First it must be said: I have no talent for poetry. I love language, yet to me poetry looks like the art of writing potent, incomplete thoughts. I’m very basic, just wanting a fun meter and rhyming scheme, and thus have never graduated beyond Shel Silversteen. So what is the likelihood that I’m going to understand the high poetry of another culture, another land, another century? Pht! Arabic classical poetry is full of place and people names, culture references, and trope imagery that I’ve had no exposure to. I know what a hyena is, but do I know what the Arabs of the 600’s thought a hyena was? So I needed a book to guide me and teach me some keys for interpretation. I chose The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritualby Suzanne Stetkevych.
My review in short: very compelling analysis and insight into the pre-Islamic culture and the post-Islamic memory of it. The book is highly academic and you’ll have to be familiar with lots of specialists and their jargon (or else have to keep Wikipedia open) in order to understand it. Also, you should understand at least the basic logic of the tri-consonantal roots system in order to engage with her analysis of the Arabic, though the more Arabic you know, the better you’ll be able to follow the book’s analysis.
A post! I’m writing a post! I’m publishing a post! It’ll be a very small one, but I need to publish something.
We bought our house back in September, and for the first three months my energy has been devoted to the process of ripping it apart and putting it back together as a home. It’s not really done –the stairs are still raw plywood– but it’s beyond the point of needing my all-consuming attention. It’s been past that point for a while, and though I’ve turned my attention to blogging I just…haven’t…sat…
It takes me about ten hours to write a blog post. I thought that if I wrote something a little more personal that didn’t need research I could turn something faster. Four hours later and that post is still in my draft bin, with at least another six hours of attention required before it’ll be fit for other eyes. This post today mightn’t be much, but it’s fast, and it’s a little step towards getting myself on screen and accountable again. It gives me a reason to do that bad thing of returning to my blog dashboard again and again for the hit of a few new views. And in returning to my blog and spending time on it again, I’m getting myself back into the swing of scheduling some life this way and returning to my regularly scheduled programming.
One thing that’s I’ve been surprised by is that traffic through this blog has been pretty steady, even in my absence.
I’m not entirely convinced that those visits are not just bots sweeping the web for a sucker, since the views are often of random posts even when from the same “visitor.” But given how dead traffic to my blog has been for the previous three years, does this mean that mere longevity is moving my blog to a different category in the database algorithms?
Oh well. The random clicks aren’t particularly interesting to me since they don’t provide feedback. Sometimes I can take a guess by the timing and origin of a view that there is a real person on the other side who actually follows my blog. (Hi Pakistan friend!) But I do enjoy seeing my world map get colored in. Here’s my map for 2020, and all the countries (and VPNs) from which a person or bot has viewed my page.
And that’s the trivial but fun kind of carrot that helps reward me in this blog. I hope this year that I might hear from some of you!
I have good news: I’m moving into a house! It’ll be the first time I live in my own property.
Bad news: it’s a fixer-upper, which means it’s been taking a lot of my time to get the place move-in ready. (Though I love it.)
I haven’t had much time at my computer (or sofa) recently, so I haven’t been able to prepare any blogs posts for this week. Or for next week. It might be another month before I have the ease of time to write some new posts. I always try to write ahead and have a stockpile reserved for times like these, but never have been able to get more than two posts ahead (and usually it’s for one surah alone and thus gets published out fairly quickly). So if you’re just visiting TwoPennyPosts for the first time and like what you see –but are worried the blog has recently died because of no recent updates– worry not, I’m still here, still thinking up opinion pieces on the Quran and other things. I’m just not in a place to fix those opinions into text for a while.
I’ve always wanted to be a morning person. There is to that idea an aura of virtue. The morning person catches the purer, cooler hours of the morning to be productive. The morning person goes to bed and finds sleep ready to embrace them. But alas, I am not a morning person, despite trying. Upon coming to grips with this, it has become apparent to me that I’ve never been a morning person. I was very much the child who knew over feature of my headboard and texture of my bedroom wall in the long wakeful lonely nights. Even napping is hard for me, except in the rare occasions where a sudden onset knocks me out for a full sleep cycle and no less.
So it is tonight that I yet again, even after a full day of physical labor, cannot make myself sleep. Which perhaps is good, as I don’t have a blog post finished for tomorrow and I’m feeling guilty about that. So with these unwanted extra hours, I shall do something productive and tell you a serious reflection about another wakeful night a couple of weeks ago. It features a very drunk man, a wrong door, and two cops. Though that sounds like the setup to a joke or anecdote, I’m sorry to say that it was a serious incident, and so here is where I’m going to process it.
Here’s a weird word: زمر, zumar, from which the title of today’s surah, “The Groups,” comes. It’s not a word with strong connotations or nuances, and indeed is so different from its seeming relatives that I might suspect it of being a word borrowed from another language. Other words built from the roots z-m-r I would judge to have connotations equivalent to the English words “piping” (as in “piping hot”) or “reedy” (as in reedy voice). It’s a root primarily about flutey-screechy sounds and things. The word zumar doesn’t get used in the Quran beyond this surah –a distinction that makes it fit for a title by Quranic standards– and doesn’t even have any relatives present in the Quran’s concordance. The zumar, “groups,” of today’s surah have nothing to do with high-pitched, screechy things or musical instruments, but are by all seeming context and intentions the two opposite groups of believers and unbelievers, entering their respective afterlives in successive waves.
Yes, it’s another surah about there being only two kinds of people in the world and their fates in the hereafter. It’s 75 ayat, take a read.
When I first set out on this Quran project, I intended it to be merely a journal of my reactions and residual thoughts. Turns out, that’s not how I work and it basically became a series of essays. Because it’s been taking so long to do, I decided some months ago to revise my approach and read ahead to the end of the Quran, just jotting my first impressions down in notes. I did this, using my English-only Quran since it’s small and easy to carry. Months later, now that I’ve come in my blog to Surah 38, ص, “Ṣaad,” (pronounced like “psalm” but with the LM swapped out for a D), I re-read the surah and then re-read my earlier notes:
Yeah, those notes hold up. This is basically my same reaction re-reading Surah Ṣaad for the second time.
So let’s unpack this. If you want a more coherent experience than my own, I’d suggest you read Yusuf Ali’s translation, rather than my usual recommend of Sahih International. He smooths out some of the more surprising wrinkles without reshaping too much of the text. Though there is a lot of interesting theological material and linguistic trivia in this surah, I’m going to center in today on the narratives that most caught my attention: David, Solomon, Job, and Iblees.
Last week I grouped together those elements of Surah 37, “The Ranks,” which I thought were meant to appeal to the poetic side of the culture to which Muhammad was originally preaching. This week I’m going to group together the remaining material, which approaches the people from a more argumentative side. It still is pretty artistic, having several recurring turns of phrase and literary patterns, but in purpose it is much more interested in using the right information to get the right response.
There is beautiful simplicity in Islam. Take the basic confession of faith:
Laa ‘ilaaha ‘illaa-l-laah
“No god except The God”
What a beautiful phrase! It’s so open, so light, so concise. You can see why it’s not just the theology of Islam that’s appealing, but the draw of the Arabic language that can present this simplicity so beautifully. Poetry was very present in Arab culture of Muhammad’s time, and served as the various communities’ family registers, historical records, and transmitters of cultural values. The Quran had to speak to this poetic culture. The above confession comes from ayah 35 of today’s surah, aṣ-Ṣaaffaat, “The Ranks.” It is a surah that comes from and appeals to the Arabs around Muhammad at their poetic hearts.
I was born a Christian. “Impossible” say most Protestants, “no one can be born a Christian, but you have to be born again.” Christianity, after all, is a faith of Knowledge and Ideas. It’s a set of beliefs you must opt, that you must “confess,” which then manifests in a distinct way of life. Or at least, that’s the popular self-conception. Yet still, when I look at my life I really can only draw the conclusion that I was born a Christian. More specifically, I was born into the community of white evangelical protestant Christians, which is a very distinct culture. It is one riddled with paradoxical ideas, suppressed anxiety, good intentions, and mixed results.
I’ve thought about explaining my spiritual background to you, my readers, because it is integral to my view of the world and is very relevant to contextualize my interests and reactions to the Quran in my Quran project. But with each attempt to lay such out, I have always gotten hung up on needing to explain the context for my context. So here is my attempt to lay a foundation for a later personal self-exploration. Grant me a little grace and patience as I try to introduce you, briefly, to the paradox of being born into a confessional faith.