In my conclusion of The Night Journey, Part 2, I had voiced some uneasiness with the Quran’s portrayal of non-Muslims. My proposal was that I would re-read all of the Quran’s material covered thus far and inventory what it said about non-Muslims. This became a document that took me six weeks to compile, in part due to other life circumstances and in part because it was a mental labor to appraise so many ayat. It took me a couple weeks more to figure out what I was trying to say and show with this document. Before I begin I want to be clear that I am not making any case against Islam or Muslims. I do believe that the core of Islam’s religious philosophy is constructive: justice at least, mercy at best. The scope of my distress with the Quran is much smaller and more personal. It’s just about the Quran and me.
There are things within the Quran that I disagree with. That’s fine. I came to the Quran wanting to understand it, not argue with it. What has bothered me is that the Quran ascribes motives to my disagreements –dark motives. It does this in how it portrays disbelievers: their motivations, their actions, their base character and potential. I wanted to compile these portrayals in order to substantiate my uneasiness and defend that I am not taking a mere few ayat out of proportion. The Quran takes issue with those who challenge it, and it answers them by discrediting their character. I am one such person.
The Quran’s lore has thus far surprised me in being so generally familiar. Most of the stories we’ve read have related to biblical accounts. Their didactic value may be different, and occasionally additions or alterations come out of nowhere (like Mrs. Al-‘Azeez’s banquet), but they are nonetheless familiar. While some non-Biblical inclusions like Hud and Shu’ayb should stand out as new, their stories have been presented to us in repetitive chains of prophets and aren’t distinct stories in and of themselves. This retold material has been plenty interesting, but I also think it is hard for me to take it for its own merit. I cannot read the Quran’s accounts without supplementing or comparing them to their Biblical counterparts. Like I said in al-A’raaf, I don’t need the Quran to spell out the actions of Moses’ showdown with the court magicians because the Biblical account fills the imagery in for me. I understand the divisions between Jacob’s sons because I know the drama of Jacob’s marriages. Though I don’t know how much the Quran intended to rely on this, it cannot be escaped. I cannot read the stories without comparing and contrasting my own knowledge, and lamenting the Biblical themes which I think they lack.
Surah al-Kahf provides an alternative. Here we have four stories, none of which share any narrative in the Bible. This is exciting, because it gives me a chance to read a Quranic narrative without preconceptions as to what the story should be. It perhaps gives me better chance to be focused on what the narratives do say rather than what they do not. And it also gives me the ability to evaluate how complete a Quranic story feels within its own words.
I’m only going to focus on the stories today. Transitioning in and out of these stories are the usual sermons and sayings about the earthly temptations, The Day of Judgement, Paradise and Hell, the role of prophets, and condemnations of shirk. While that material constitutes about 38% of the 110 ayat, I did not find anything that adds to or disrupts my accumulated understanding of those themes. There are some high points and low points in those sermonettes that I could point out, but I’d rather trust you to read it and spend my writing time looking at the fresh material.
Above is one of the most widely known depictions of Muhammad’s Night Journey. It is a product of a less restricted phase of Iranian artistic culture in the 1500’s AD. I had seen this picture before I started my Quran project, and it comes to my mind foremost when I hear al-israa w-al-mi’raaj, particularly that odd human-headed animal (al-buraq). Yet all of it, all of it, comes from tradition. Last week, I said that one ayah of the surah explicitly mentioned The Night Journey and that two others very likely were references to the event. I looked around online to find when we will get more, but could only locate one future surah, the 53rd, with one more chunk of mysterious ayat that probably reference events from the journey. And that seems to be it for the Quran.
So if the lessons from the event didn’t make it into the Quran, what are Muslims supposed to get from al-israa w-al-mi’raaj? How important is it to them? What purpose does it even serve in the religion? Well, the ayah I referenced in closing last week will give us one answer, and I’ll get to that by the end of today’s post. But first, we must take note of the majority content of this surah, which is full of details and subtexts that set up the relationships of Islam.
Today’s surah has two common titles: al-israa or bani isra’iil. While those names sound similar they are radically different. Al-Israa means “the night journey.” Perhaps it tells us something about the world of Arabia that they have a special word for traveling at night. The title bani isra’iil means “Children of Israel.”
Ever since seeing that there was a surah ahead called “The Night Journey,” I’ve been excited to get to it. Muhammad is credited with only two miraculous signs in his lifetime, one being the Quran and the other being an event known as al-israa w-al-mi’raaj, “the night journey and the ascension.” I know it’s an important miracle to Muslims and so I have been eager to read the Quran’s account of it. Alas, as happens so often, the title is relevant to only one ayah out of the 111. Still, a mention of the Night Journey is a much rarer event in the Quran than recounts of the bumpy history of the Children of Israel, and thus I’ll follow popular usage and call this surah by its more distinctive feature.
Recently I came to notice that the Quran’s disjointed style, grammatical quirks, and POV changes have ceased to phase me as much as they used to. There are some idioms and uses of language that I have seen enough of to assume their meaning without pause. How much I have become inured only became clear to me since my husband started reading along at Surah Yusuf. Whereas I’d praised that surah as the most consistent, linear, readable one yet, my husband was bowled over at the frequent changes of attention, the fuzzy pronouns, and the preachy interjections. I had seen those things with a sort of “meh, it’s the Quran” shrug. So it’s fair to say that I am now getting used to the Quran. I’m not at all claiming mastery (far from it!), but I have a forming sense of its themes, idioms, and core ideas and how they fit into Muhammad’s ministry and environment.
When I read Surah an-Nahl I came into a little fresh confusion. Part of having a sense of the Quran includes being a little aware of what themes were relevant to his initial ministry in Mecca and what was relevant to his ministry in Medina. An-Nahl is categorized officially as a Meccan surah, but by the end of reading I felt that I was in a Medinian one. While writing last week’s post, I occasionally found myself confused about the location of some of the ayat, conflating a few of them with other suwar. So today I’m going to take the opportunity to better spell out the distinctions between ayat revealed in Mecca and Medina, something that I couldn’t do when I first started out on this project and hadn’t enough knowledge to choose good search terms and discern good resources. Then I will look at the material in an-Nahl that seems, even if only superficially, to come from a later point in Muhammad’s ministry.
surah an-naHl, “The Bees,” struck a different chord with me at first. If I had to pin down the source of this, I would say that’s becausea sizable portion of it targets the good believers. The majority of our past suwar have been densely saturated with rebukes and condemnations for Muhammad to pass along to unbelievers, hypocrites, or even believers who have failed to show good character. This surah talks at length to a body of believers who are not in a bad way spiritually but are still undergoing persecution and rejection. Large chunks of ayat smart with resentment of the unbelievers, but others focus on the good things provided by God without any mention of avenging justice. The ultimate message of this surah to believers is to be grateful to God for the good things of the creation, the good things they are called to practice in lieu of idolatry, and (yes) the justice that awaits the unbelievers. Many of the 128 ayat are sweet enough to be worthy of cross-stitching onto pillows and crafting into children’s projects.
This is a letter to my friends on Facebook, all of you, and also to any new readers who maybe stumbled upon this in the WordPress search engine. I would like to invite you to join me as I investigate one of the most relevant topics of present America: the Quran. Continue reading →