I’m sorry to not have posted in a few weeks. As the pandemic has been coming under control in my region, life outside my house is opening up again and my time is diminished by other demands. Plus, I’m still knee-deep in remodeling work inside my home. It’s a case of spending 90% of time time on the last 10% of the work, and not enjoying the work. The paint I’m using on our trim and doors is sticky and dries just a little too fast, which makes it hard to get a smooth texture on the doors I’m painting. For the sake of getting things done, I’m trying not to care too much, but in a way that has shut off other parts of my drive and a lot of my other errands are falling slack too.
And on top of that, I’m just struggling to form any opinion on the next surah in my Quran series. I can’t even really form a bullet-list of items to comment upon. This is due probably to some fatigue on my side but also a facet of the Quran’s repetition. Even my two commentary sets don’t have much to say about Surah 45. Can you help me? Anyone want to read surah 45 and come up with some items you’d like me to research or talk about?
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.
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.
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.
I don’t know about you, but I often have a hard time looking at new books and getting excited to buy them. I walk through bookstores or libraries and find my enthusiasm smothered by the wealth of catchy titles and artsy covers. All that packaging doesn’t tell me what I want to know about the books. It has stopped meaning anything to me. And then I realized, the books that I find “sexy” now all tend to look like this:
But what a great title! It immediately tells you its content: probably informative rather than narrational, with a scope of material so big that you can expect a lot of generalizations inside. This books sells not because its packaging piques your interest but because it’s immediately recognizable to someone so interested. And that is my case. I’m wanting to get a grip on who the Arabs were before the rise of Islam, and what kind of world and heritage they lived in. I’d already read two books by Robert Hoyland and was impressed with his work, so this book was an easy sell to me. Did it pay off its dry title?
Review in short: A great introductory resource for anyone who wants to understand this generally overlooked part of the ancient world.
Books on Islam are expensive. In learning any biographical material about Muhammad, one will invariably hear mention of the first-known biography of Muhammad, The Life of the Prophet by Ibn Ishaq. Of course, that resource no longer exists in its original form, and what we have comes to us through Ibn Ishaq’s student, Ibn Hisham. If you want an English translation of Ibn Hisham’s The Life of the Prophet, you’ll have to open your wallets and pay… $76! Or pay the expense and time to become fluent in classical Arabic and get the Arabic edition for upwards of $25. And while I would like to do both of those things, I’m also starting from a beginner’s place and partly just need an orientation into the early sources. After all, there’s more than Ibn Ishaq out there.
Any search for information around Muhammad’s biography will bring up results including Muhammad: His Life Based on the Early Sources, by Martin Lings. And hey, it’s affordable! So I bought the ebook early on to orient myself in an Islamic view of Muhammad and…
My bad. Metaphorically, I walked into a restaurant for a culinary lesson. Instead, they served me a sausage and now I’m demanding to know “But how was this sausage made?!”
Review in short: This books is a reassuring resource for the pious, but has no other value.
Here’s something new: this surah is named with a verb! There’s one other surah ahead with such distinction, and it’s fascinating that there are these two exceptions to the conventional naming scheme of proper nouns (even last surah’s “Forgiver” was used as a proper noun.) I like the idea of something being titled for what it is doing; it communicates that the text is alive in a way. The verb in question is “fuṣṣilat,” which is a finnicky word to translate into English. Let’s parse this: the roots f-ṣ-lconnote parting; the morphology of doubling the middle consonant into f-ṣṣ-l makes the verb causative and/or intensive, thus “made parted,” or “parted further”; the -at at the end signifies the past tense and indicates that the one doing is feminine/neutral, as all Arabic verbs build in pronouns to connect them to that which is doing. So in English we could translate this idea as “it parsed, subdivided, dissected,” and keep the etymological root of separation and parting, though unfortunately those verbs often are confined to some technical area like linguistics, math, or anatomy. “Distinguish” could be a great fit etymologically, except that it doubles to mean the elevation of something and that’s not meant here. The usual translations of this title is “explained in detail” but I’m going to take issue with that option. It looks like an adjectival phrase and not a verbal one. We need to include the pronoun to preserve the verbal nature of it. The verb “detail” is… okay for the purposes of translation. It comes to English through French and derives from the idea of cutting things into pieces, so not terribly different in base concept from “parting.” So “detail”…meh. Fine, it’ll do.
Surah Ghaafir, “Forgiver,” opens with some royal titles for God in ayah 3: “Forgiver of Sin and Acceptor of Repentance, Severe of Punishment, Owner of the Abundance…” These titles aptly start a chapter which includes some very strong statements about God. God’s forgiveness is declared and the alternative to His forgiveness is explicitly given. This surah speaks to Muhammad and the believers about the disbelievers, making a moral out of them. It is in most ways a very typical surah.
Sometimes this surah is called Surah al-Mu’min, “The Believer,” because its longest stretch is devoted to the compassionate appeals of one Egyptian who believed Moses. This is distinctive in a document characterized with so many special heroes. Though the protest of the prophets is always “we are men like you,” in some ways they are not. They’ve had an interaction with the divine and received direct revelation. They’ve become named characters and centralized actors in their stories. But today’s believer goes unnamed, has no direct experience with the divine, and is operating from second-hand revelation. How far can ordinary faith get you in God’s earthly schemes?
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.