Surah al-ʕankabuut, “The Spider,” is traditionally labeled as a Meccan surah, that phase of Muhammad’s ministry where he was trying to reform his hometown and being suppressed by its mainstream community. Yet as I read, there were things in the surah that struck me as more relevant to Muhammad’s Medinian ministry: concern about hypocrites, passing references to conflicts with People of the Book, emigration, and striving. So I looked up the traditionally chronology and found this surah is placed as the penultimate surah Muhammad revealed in Mecca. This is interesting, because it reinforces my impression that this surah captures a state of transition in Muhammad’s ministry.
Muhammad’s ministry is changing, so how did that start to happen?
“Well, the Bible has that too,” is a common response people have when you try and discuss the question of weird passages in the Quran. It is a pretty solid way to shut down the conversation. This is not because it is necessarily a good point of contention, but because it reveals a wide chasm of understanding that must be bridged before the conversation can be resumed. It reveals a lack of knowledge of the individual nature of religious documents and an assumption that “Sacred Scripture” is a genre in which you can find the same general similarity of content, form, style, and intent.
Genre : a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.
“genre,” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2019. Web. 13 September 2019.
Sacred scripture is an incredibly diverse category. If I was to submit a definition for “scripture,” it would be “any writings set apart and given authority by a group of people to determine their culture.” The nature of the writings can have a lot of variety, and furthermore there is even more variety in how its adherents set about interpreting and implementing it. I wish I could tell you something about all the Sacred Scriptures out there, but my experience as of writing this is only with the Bible, two-thirds of the Quran, and a smidge of Book of Mormon. But material in the Christian Bible alone is diverse enough to examine the variety I’m describing. So let’s take a look at the Bible: what genres does it contain? What materials does it use? What attitudes do its adherents hold about those materials? And why does this matter when comparing religious documents?
While the past two posts have been full of tidbits and curiosities concerning the story of Moses, Surah al-Qaṣaṣ, “The Stories,” contains more than just content relating to Moses. In today’s post I’ll address some final points and a new story in the surah, but one that is also vaguely Biblical. Why does the Quran spend so much time retelling Biblical material? Is it trying to appeal to Jew and Christians through their own stories? Is it deliberately redacting those stories to correct Jews and Christians? Or it is just laying out exposition with the preppy conceit of saying “I know stuff too, you guys”?
The Quran lays out its narratives with an agenda. It is never short of didactic intent. Is there one agenda that explains the odd set of stories in this surah?
There is still another chapter ahead in the story of Moses’ journey to prophethood. He must journey to Midian, become a tribal shepherd, and start a family. Then he can return to Egypt. Interestingly, this surah has very little to say about Moses’ conflict with Pharaoh in Egypt. There is no mention of the showdown with the priests, no plagues, no retaliation from Pharaoh. I would say that this surah is interested in showing us anything but what the Quran usually frames as the central conflict of Moses’ ministry.
Today’s blog post will again be confined to combing the small details from a small segment of the surah. We’ll start where we left off after Moses fled from the retribution of the Egyptians. Try reading through ayat 22-43 to see what details pop out to you.
Here’s a question: Will the Quran change up it’s material in the future? When I opened up this surah and saw that, yet again, it told a Moses-centric narration, I began to question how often in the future I’d be re-reading this material to the end of the book. From a search on this concordance, many times are still ahead, but fewer and farther than they have been. In the meantime, today’s Moses narrative is actually a rare thing to enjoy discovering because it provides a rather distinct insight into Moses: his life before prophetic commission.
Moses’s pre-prophetic life is something that the Quran hasn’t explored much as of yet. We did get a brief flash-back type narrative of his journey down the Nile in a basket back in Surah Ṭah Ha, but the most scandalous story of his youth has only received fleeting comment: the murder. And so I’m interested to go forward and read these events told in narrative form. How will the Quran reconcile Moses’ youthful murder with the paragon character it expects of a prophet?
If you’ve clicked on any of the links in my blog, you’ve perhaps seen on a few occasions some explainer videos from the channel Religion for Breakfast by Andrew Henry. Much of the material on that channel is connected to Christian history, but Henry has also taken up a cause of educating his audience about the larger religious world. Now, as I realized a long time ago, my Quran project was not going to give me a very deep insight into Islam. If you were to read my blog alone and be making judgments about Islam from what I pull out of the Quran, you would miss the reality of how most of the Islamic world thinks and functions. So today I wanted to highlight Andrew Henry’s two videos about Islam to give you an idea of how much bigger the world of Islam is compared to the Quran’s material, and hopefully give you some perspective on how little knowledge you can get of a religion when only consulting one source.
Surah an-Naml, “The Ants,” is a case study in discovering the lore of another culture. There’s a lot of weird stuff in the Bible too, I’m aware of this. Most of what I’d call weird in the Bible I’d categorize a little more as –to be colloquial– “messed up.” The Bible features some really twisted relationships and decisions, like Shakespeare but all the harder to understand because it’s from an entirely different culture. The Bible also features extra-scientific events, miracles. While I’ll admit I’m cynical of the existence of such things in my own life, the existence of such things in my religious lore does not surprise me. Indeed, I have a vaguely developed sense of what kinds of extra-scientific material fit into the Bible’s view of the world. I wouldn’t say I perceive rules for this material, but maybe instead “norms.” The miracles claimed in the Bible are shocking in their own right, but I’m familiar with them and so they cease to surprise.
Today the Quran surprised me. Though this trip through the Quran has been one of discovery, I would say that most of the things I’ve found are pretty relatable to broader religious/human lines of thought. Things have intrigued me too, but not really registered as full surprise. There is a lot of other material in this surah that I will neglect today because it is thoroughly un-surprising. Instead I’m going to focus at length on Surah an-Naml‘s version of King Solomon contained within ayat 15-44. It departs so radically from the Solomon that I know, and features such unexpected details, that it left me quite… surprised.