Ayah 1: Qad ‘aflaḥ al-mu’minuun, “Already the Believers succeed.”
Something of interest in the Quran is how rarely it calls its adherents Muslims. Muslim comes from the roots s-l-m, which build words themed around peace, freedom, surrender, and submission. Though the world by and large has settled on the word “Muslim,” the Quran chooses to define its adherents using words built from the roots ‘-m-n, which build words relating to belief, trust, and security. Rather than muslimuun, the Quran far more often calls its adherents mu’minuun or “those who believe.” For the Quran, belief/trust is the defining trait of the adherents. Compare the frequency with which submission appears in the Quran to the frequency with which it mentions belief or those who believe/d and you’ll see the latter is far far more favored as the central issue.
Surah al-mu’minuun, “The Believers,” continues to add to our familiar theme of contrasting those who believe with those who turn over Muhammad’s message. In 118 ayat the lens will pan from the upright character of the believers, to those who refuse to believe in the prophets, to the crookedness of the disbelievers and their fates.
The thing I find most rewarding about this series is taking journeys down the rabbit holes. If I was just doing a straight reading of the Quran, I would pass by these moments with only fleeting thought and probably leave my reading with just a dismissive, “whatever,” as I have seen in the reactions of many other people who have read the Quran. But by writing a post I am forced –or rather, encouraged– to stop, look, and put some effort into understanding the material. There are a number of great resources available for reading the Quran, resources that help interpret the language and tradition, and in consulting these resources I enjoy getting to sit in another culture and trace its puzzles and eccentricities. Within Surah al-Hajj there were a lot of little moments where I read something, paused and went, “…huh,” before reading forward further. I noted these things down, but then didn’t find a place to include them in my last post.
So today is going to be my inventory of all the little things that made me go, “…huh.”
Hajj, the Greater Pilgrimage, is one of the more well known tenets of Islam. The architecture of Mecca, the videos of crowds swirling in mesmerizing orbits, the sheer awe of seeing such millions acting out the same rituals in unison makes for a great proclamation of the power of Islam and the influence of its community. Given this visibility, and the understanding that Hajj is a mandatory ritual in the life of all able-bodied able-budgeted Muslims, I have been waiting to see what the Quran says about the meanings and importance of this ritual event. We’ve only seen the pilgrimage mentioned in Medinian suwar so far: Al-Baqara, Ali ʕimran, Al-Ma’ida, and At-Tawba. It has actually been a long time since we’ve heard about the Sacred Mosque directly, and even in those mentions there has been sparse prescription of the entailed rituals. So how important is the Hajj? And what does today’s surah have to add to our knowledge of the topic? And how did the Hajj factor into Muhammad’s ministry?
But don’t get your hopes up that too many questions will be answered. Remember that the title of this surah, Al-Hajj, “The Pilgrimage,” is not a topic thesis but just an index marker coming from distinctive material. There are 78 ayat in total, most of them short, and I’d encourage you to read them and get a sense of the proportion and representation of today’s themes.
So about half of this surah’s material is about the prophets, and we looked at this last week. Now it’s time to zoom out, and what do we find?
This surah has a much bigger message than the existence of prophets. They are there for all the reasons I stated last week, but are really just part of a world that is descending into Judgement. Today we’re going to look at this material and how the Surah wants its audience to envision itself within this picture.
A frustrating thing about Arabic is its plurals. English has a few words that change radically from their singular to plural forms: mouse to mice, loaf to loaves, tooth to teeth. In Arabic, about 41% of the mainstream nouns change radically to become plural (and adjectives do this too, wah!). The word for “prophet” in Arabic is nabii, but to become plural it becomes anbiyaa’. And that’s the title of today’s surah: The Prophets.
Who are the prophets? You might laugh that we are asking that at this point in the Quran, which has spent so much time listing and describing and enjoining and praising and validating the prophets. Yet here we are again, meeting the prophets. As usual it is in the context of establishing Muhammad as the latest iteration of a legacy of God reaching out to mankind. There is an economy of message in returning to this topic today. With a sweeping look at the prophetic line, the surah is able to reprove multiple points in its opponents’ theologies, assert its own theology, and set up its lore of inspirational figures.
Surah Ṭah Ha provides us a good opportunity to discuss the difference between proper nouns and common nouns. In general principle, for a noun to be “proper” it must apply to one and only one person, place, or thing. Everything else is a common noun, even if it can’t be used in Scrabble. Common nouns usually get used in combination with some other qualifier like “a” “any” “some.” To make a common noun specific, you need to add the definite article “the” to the front of it, whereas a proper noun never needs a “the” because specificity is implied. Sure, you might say “the Agatha Christie” in some conversations, but such application would be for emphasis (it was signed by the Agatha Christie) or stylistic choices (like implying a joke that there might be another Agatha Christie out there in the world but you are referring to, you know, the Agatha Christie). It isn’t good grammar to blend definite articles and proper nouns, but it can be good style.
The difference and usage between proper and common nouns is the same in English and Arabic. Notice that most suwar have Arabic’s definite article “al-” or some elided version in the title, like Surah al-Anfal, but when the title features a name there is none, like Surah Hud. That is because specificity with a proper name is already implied. So in Surah Ṭah Ha, we have two names whose grammatical use raise some controversial questions: as-Saamiriyy and Firʕawn. The first name is a common noun, but often gets translated as if a proper noun. The second name is always seen as a proper noun, but should probably function at times as a common noun.
Last week I spent a lot of time on a little content because I was combing details to compare with the Exodus account. It was more achievable to do that comparison with material from the origin stories alone. Moving forward today it is more useful to compare how Surah Ṭah Ha narrates Moses and Aaron’s ministry versus the account in Surah al-Aʕraaf 103-154. Through the details you can see that each is telling the story with a different purpose in mind. Al-Aʕraaf is a little more concerned with societal judgement, linking Moses’ ministry in with the judgements of a whole community like the prophets before him. Today’s surah will set up more emphasis on the influence of wicked leaders, setting up the concept of the anti-prophet.
Though this surah exemplifies and condemns anti-prophets, it still continues the normal sermon that each person fully responsible for earning their own fate. Though there are individuals to blame for removing large masses of people from guidance, God allows no excuses or intercessors at the Day of Judgement, and so the individual should watch for the trap of such false leaders.