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.
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.
English is a rather rubbish language, don’t you think? I love it, but it can be so difficult to explain at times. Today’s issue bumps into that. Not only am I trying to understand an odd grammatical situation in Arabic, but I have to combine it with the difficulty of translating into an odd grammatical situation in English. To put it simply, in what tense is the hypothetical? Specifically hypotheticals in the “if…then…” formulation?
If I wish, then I will.
If I wished, then I would.
If I wished, then I will.
If I wish, then I would.
What tense are those in? How many of those make sense, and why? If you, like me, have a bit of a hard time articulating those rules for English, then brace yourself for examining the equivalent in Arabic.
I have in my possession three physical copies of Quranic translations. One is a compact translation by Sahih International, lacking the original Arabic and with only occasional footnotes to corner the meaning within a certain dogma. The other two are my beautifully bound translations by Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Muhammad Asad. Both of these volumes contain the Arabic text in tandem with their English translations. Asad also includes very precise transliterations of the Arabic in order to provide a means for those who cannot read Arabic to follow his explanations of Arabic words. Both translations are heavily footnoted, which effectively doubles the size of the surah as a whole, maybe even more than doubles.
Some day it would be good for me to do a survey of Quranic translators and their works. Today is not that day. This is my follow-up to last week, wherein I read and commented my impressions of Surah Y.S. by my usual methods and resources. Today, I’m revisiting the surah again to factor in the perspectives of these two esteemed Muslims.
Let it be known that my family now gifts me Qurans. I’m not complaining, they’re incredibly useful and rather beautiful books to have on my shelves. For my birthday, my husband found for me a Yusuf Ali translation of the Quran. For just because, my in-laws bought for me Muhammad Asad’s translation of the Quran.
These are really nice resources, rooted in Islamic scholarship, but I’ve been on the fence about how to use them with this blog. They are more than just translations, they are commentaries (or tafsir, in Arabic). The text within is heavily footnoted to explain, supplement, and interpret the Quran’s content. Sometimes the explanations are to do with choices of translation, but oftentimes they are done to direct the readers’ exegesis of the text. This can prime the reader to conclusions or assumptions that aren’t inherently communicated in the text, which is something I want to avoid. Then again, I’m creating something similar with this blog, aren’t I? My own process of processing the Quran has primed me to see certain things and come to certain conclusions about the text. You can’t say that after two years of being into this thing I don’t have any conclusions at play in my interpretation. So is it time to add these commentaries into the mix?
I’m going to write this post twice, once by myself with my own takeaways, and then once again having read through the commentaries. Today’s surah, yaa siin, “Y. S.,” is 83 ayat long, and the ayat are of shorter length. Before being primed with my opinions, take a look at it yourself and see what strikes you.