Within the past year, one of my husband’s co-workers came up to him jocularly and held up five fingers. Ticking off each finger, he took inventory of my husband’s status. “Well my boy, you’ve got a job, you’ve got a wife, you’ve got a house, you’ve got a dog…” With a loaded silence and stare he then tapped the remaining finger. Well, he can now tap that finger off too, for I am pregnant. At this point, I am very pregnant, with a due date around Easter. The situation is a simultaneous surprise and long-anticipated event. Indeed, it is a surprise precisely because it has been long-anticipated.
I have always been one to shy away from rigid, long-term commitments in expectation of this change. I grew up in the gravitational well of American evangelical fundamentalism and have been told what to expect. But I don’t agree with all I was told, and I don’t know what to expect. As I try to get some vision on what my future might look like, I have to also wrestle with my patterns of hesitancy and acquiescence, and my disagreements with some contexts of my upbringing that will soon have to be proven through application.
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!
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.