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.
A popular talking point between Muslims and Christians is the very different nature of the history of their sacred text verses ours (which from my vantage means Quranic textual history vs. New Testament textual history). The Christian canon weathers rigorous academic criticism that batters and breaks the faith of many Christians who want to feel certain of a scripture untouched by human hands. And because The West is broadly post-Christian, there is a lot of interest, history, and groundwork in textual criticism with which to challenge and test Christian self-narratives that might’ve otherwise gone untested. Many Muslims on the internet are delighted to walk into this post-Christian territory and find that the work of challenging Christian scripture is already well-worked and popularized in our culture.
But what happens when those tools so well sharpened on Christian manuscripts get turned to the Quran? Enter Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts by Keith E. Small. My review in short: a very interesting exercise in manuscript academia, but too reliant on other resources to be useful to non-academics.
The times when the Quran most appeals to me are its moments of taking stock of the natural world. I am always in awe of nature, and so when the Quran likewise takes in the natural world with awe, I am drawn sympathetically to it. Today’s surah looks at the natural world and draws from it praises for God. As such, it is fitting that the opening ayah names God Faatir, “Originator,” and that this name is taken for the surah’s title. So please, take some time to read the brief 45 ayat of today’s surah, and then compare your impressions with mine below.
Where is Sheba, the wealthy land of that legendary Biblical and Quranic Queen? In certainty, we don’t actually know, and since there are many motivated reasons for people to take or be given that legacy, it’s hard to find researched facts confirming any specific place as that location. We do have records of a civilization self-identified as Sabaa’, generally accepted to be what the Bible intended by the name “Sheba”, and that thrived in the southern Arabian Penninsula that we today called Yemen. Of course, Ethiopia claims its own civilization is the continuation of Sheba.
Again, there’s a lot of motivated cognition at work in identifying Sheba.
The Quran’s mention of Saba’ in today’s eponymous surah is completely divorced from that ancient, mystical lore. The event it records was much more contemporary and verifiable. However, the story read earlier in an-Naml links Saba’ to Sheba explicitly, so today’s surah title likewise gets translated as “Sheba.”
What’s a prophet to do? Muhammad’s success is catching up to him. Everyone wants to watch him in order to imitate him. Everyone wants to watch him in order to criticize him. And that “everyone” is growing more and more as his mission draws converts, and his commands to emmigrate bring them close. His totalitarian reach is also catching up to him. Access to God means that everyone has a question for him. His centralized power makes him a target for challenge and usurpation. His increasing command of wealth and military are attracting pretenders.
And he has a growing number of pretty wives.
So what’s a prophet to do? Set up walls, screens, and veils. Ensure the privacy and exclusivity of Muhammad and Muhammad’s. This week we’re closing out this surah with the ayat that seek to protect Muhammad’s privacy primarily as concerns the outlets of his wives.
Quite a number of hadith exist to try and pin down the revelation of a specific ayah or surah to a distinct occasion within Muhammad’s biography. Often not much gets added by this, and indeed sometimes the connection of the circumstance to the ayah is laughable. But there is a circumstance behind the revelation of Surah al-Aḥzab, “The Militia,” and not one that you need to go to the hadith to find. Muhammad has married his adopted son’s ex-wife. This is a completed event, something that has already happened, and the Quran is now speaking up on the issues raised by the marriage. We have already dealt with how this surah has redefined relationships of adoption and incest. Today we’ll look at the event itself.
The following conversations about the structure and limits of family in the Quran are going to be hard for Americans to process. Here in America, our definitions of family have become increasingly… fluid? Sentimental? We have less reverence for blood ties and blood obligations than has been historically true of perhaps of any other civilization in favor of reverence for “the family you choose.” And yet with our widened definitions of “family” we’ve also retained a pretty traditional sense and sentiment towards incest. In a mainstream culture where sex is treated as more interpersonal-intimacy or sport, and only optionally reproductive, the reaction to incest is still:
Our bounds for incest aren’t particularly defined, really. We think it’s all about the genetics and the hazards this wreaks upon our progeny as revealed to us by modern science, but that’s a reductionist definition of our actual approach. It’s still taboo to marry a step-relative or an in-law, even though that constitutes no genetic hazard. Maybe in a hyper-sexualized world, our revulsion to incest derives from a desire to just have a sphere of people who are not an option sexually, and in our priority of emotionally-tied families that extends to types of relationships, whether the genetic hazard is there or not.
And in the face of that kind of emotion-driven definition of family and incest the Quran draws some hard lines. It is not more purely objective in definition (as regards what the basic point of incest is), but it is concrete in articulation. Combine it with some relevant ayat from previous suwar we have read, and what lines are drawn in the Islamic family?
There is a lot of history behind today’s surah, al-Aḥzaab, “The Confederates” or “The Militia.” When a surah dates to the times of Mecca, despite the twelve-year range of Muhammad’s ministry in that city, there are fewer events to map Quranic statements to. When Muhammad transplanted his ministry to the next city north, Yathrib, life picked up its pace and lots of activity unfolded. (It’s really important that you remember Yathrib and Medina are different names for the same city.) Muhammad went from a preacher whose only power was in words, to the absolute head of a political state. The morality he preached shifted from general values of humility and charity to specific legalities and situational edicts. The God-wrought justice he preached grew to include to some more immediate, earthly, man-wrought justice. The contrast is even echoed in his family life: he went from the nuclear family of a monogamous marriage to a rather complicated set of polygamous relationships.
Within today’s surah we get a pie-slice of some of the most polarizing facets of Muhammad’s life: his preaching on hypocrites, his treatment of his enemies, his personal exceptionalism, his women, his expectations of Muslim women, his consolidation of absolute power. I’ve rather been dreading this surah, so buckle in for 73 ayat of controversy.
Something I noticed very quickly when looking into Islamic history is that its written record didn’t start until about a century AH, over a generation after Muhammad’s death. When you think of it, this is not entirely surprising due to a number of factors. The Arabs were culturally fond of oral storytelling, their first generation of Muslims were not reputed to be widely literate or educated, and their first century in power was consumed with conquest and civil war. One could hypothesize that the civilization needed a growth period to both develop and assimilate the kinds of people and culture that took the time to put things down in writing. One could also hypothesize that, like Christianity, it wasn’t until those early generations started dying off that the leadership realized they needed to pin down and codify their beliefs and identity in writing. And write they did. There is a lot of Islamic literature about the rise of Islam and the expansion of its caliphate from the Arabian peninsula, but there is the quandary that it is a history told by the victors, moreover the victors whose perspective had already been shaped after a century of political drama.
So are there resources more contemporary to the rise of Islam and its State? Well, yes, but they’re complicated. Enter Robert Hoyland’s Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam. My review in short: a marvelous book but not for newcomers to the history of this era and area.