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.
Something that I haven’t called attention to in the Quran is the little symbols that smatter the text. They are symbols relevant only to the practice of recitation, dictating to the reciters when to pause or what action to take. There is a vocabulary of pauses to the Quran, and maybe I regret not having buffed up on them and paying them more heed as I’ve processed the book. Being a musician, I fully appreciate that silences and motions have an important role in controlling the meaning and energy of the sounds they create and punctuate. The title of today’s surah comes from the application of one of these markings: a complete bowing down to the floor.
The symbol ۩, shaped like the Persian-style archway typical of many mihrabs (that is, the niches or archways in mosques that point worshipers towards Mecca for prayer), is a written command for the performance of sajdah, “prostration,” (pl. sujud) while reciting the two words overscored within this verse: kharruu sujjadan, “fall down prostrating.”
By the Quran’s measure believers are those who fall down in prostration when they hear the reminders of God’s ayat. So what reminders do the thirty ayat of this surah have for us today?
Muhammad was a father. This is sometimes easy to forget, since when Muhammad’s family comes into discussion it is usually on the matter of his many wives. Indeed, for his abundance of wives, if his children get commented upon it is usually to note the scarcity of them. But he was a father multiple times over, by birth and adoption, and his children all followed him into Islam. The role and bond of fatherhood was one that Muhammad knew well.
Today’s surah, Luqman, will use the duty and limits of parent-child relationships as a vehicle for instruction about the magnitude of God. Though stern, this is a relatively gentle surah full of positive instruction (the “do’s” of Islam rather than the “don’ts”). At only 34 ayat in length, you should give it a read.
With the significance of the rise of Islam and my focused examination on its inciting document, it’s easy to lose view of the fact that Muhammad’s ministry was for a long time just a tiny remote squabble on the fringes of civilization. Indeed, news of Muhammad’s activity hardly rippled into the broader world as far as we can see in surviving records. It wasn’t until Muhammad’s state erupted from the Arabian Penninsula after Muhammad’s death that chroniclers were forced to take notice. Though the rise of Islam would have the most significance in hindsight, the real battle of the fates as thought at the time was between the (Eastern) Romans and (Sasanid) Persians.
Though Mecca was a remote oasis location, it still was connected to the bigger world through trade and felt the ripples of those politics. In today’s surah, Ar-Rum, “The Romans,” we’re going to see fleeting peek of the world politics surrounding the Quran. Yet still, the Quran’s fight was with Mecca primarily, all the more so because today’s surah was still revealed in relation to Meccan conflicts. While the surah starts with this glimpse of larger politics, its substance promptly returns to Meccan fare.
Two years of semi-weekly writing, 57 posts written, two-thirds of the way through the Quran, 29 suwar down and…
…85 suwar to go.
Okay, sorry for reusing that joke, but it is a real weight on my mind these days. I walked into this Quran project blind and unprepared. I tried preparing, but what can I say? Like getting a Skittle in a bowl of M&Ms, Google choked on my sudden interest in this niche of Quran scholarship and didn’t know what search results to feed me. I went into this project terribly unaware of the effort it would require of me and just how slow the project would go. By my original thought, there are 114 suwar in the Quran, and if I went through those at roughly a weekly pace I would get through them all in a little over two years.
Two years later I still have at least two years of work ahead of me, and I’m afraid it is growing degrees more frustrating and joyless. So what should I do?