Surah 44, al-Dukhan, “The Smoke,” is a simple and straightforward surah. Usually when I draft my posts I try and find themes that flow together or that are worth examining at great length, but for this week that wasn’t coming together. Instead, I came away with a few items of trivia, though nothing particularly exciting, and some concepts worth noting but with little to explore. This is a problem of coming up to a surah that is…typical. There is nothing distinctive in here, no ideas that stand alone. Everything here adds volume to things already stated elsewhere in the Quran, but no novelty or exploration. I’ll return to that at the end of this post. So instead of rambling upon these points, I decided to present them in a concise list.
And the list won’t make sense unless you start off with a read of the short and straightforward 59 ayat.
Does God lead through action, or inaction? How does He direct people? That is a question at the heart of the conflict between the pagans and Muhammad in this surah. The pagans have a way of life that has been formed and tested through survival in the harsh peninsula. They’ve learned their way of life through the lessons and lives of survivors, and worship the gods that they believe have aided in that survival. And of the Arabs, the Quraysh not only survived, but thrived. Isn’t the fact of this success a sign that God approves of them? Wouldn’t a moral God operating a moral world have warned them off bad ideas with bad results, rather than the success they’ve come into? Meanwhile, Muhammad is telling them to abandon these proven traditions. Their success doesn’t mean anything, the Quran insists, and it is not a sign of God’s approval. The Quran’s view is of a God who is active in guiding His people, who sends prophets and scriptures, and does not just let men feel out truth through trial and error. And if you don’t feel God’s punishment Today then that is a mercy, for you’ll get your punishment Tomorrow.
This surah is a little bit longer than the last, but take a read.
Traditionally, Muslims list suwar 40-46 consecutively in their chronological sequences. These suwar all start with the mystical letters haa-miim, although today’s surah includes three letters beyond that, ʕain-siin-qaaf. However, I don’t feel a distinct continuity between these suwar. There is between suwar 41 and 42 a shift in emphasis and some novelty of perspective that relates better to the later needs of Muhammad’s ministry rather than his strictly Meccan phase. The title of surah 42, Ash–Shuuraa, “The Consultation,” emphasizes a noun in this chapter pulled from a passage wherein the Muslims are being attributed their own ability to mediate justice. The have more self-determination and agency now, reflecting an independent society governing themselves, deferring their rulings to God, capable of achieving retribution, and justified in fighting tyranny. The conversation is no longer localized to its immediate listeners, but has expanded to “The Mother of Cities and those around it,” (Ayah 7). This is indeed a shift from the days in which the oppression they were fighting was merely other people trying to talk louder than Muhammad’s recitations. The Muslims are in transition from a faith community seeking to save itself from a local day of judgement to a centralized polity with a purpose to free the world from lies and oppression.
Here’s something new: this surah is named with a verb! There’s one other surah ahead with such distinction, and it’s fascinating that there are these two exceptions to the conventional naming scheme of proper nouns (even last surah’s “Forgiver” was used as a proper noun.) I like the idea of something being titled for what it is doing; it communicates that the text is alive in a way. The verb in question is “fuṣṣilat,” which is a finnicky word to translate into English. Let’s parse this: the roots f-ṣ-lconnote parting; the morphology of doubling the middle consonant into f-ṣṣ-l makes the verb causative and/or intensive, thus “made parted,” or “parted further”; the -at at the end signifies the past tense and indicates that the one doing is feminine/neutral, as all Arabic verbs build in pronouns to connect them to that which is doing. So in English we could translate this idea as “it parsed, subdivided, dissected,” and keep the etymological root of separation and parting, though unfortunately those verbs often are confined to some technical area like linguistics, math, or anatomy. “Distinguish” could be a great fit etymologically, except that it doubles to mean the elevation of something and that’s not meant here. The usual translations of this title is “explained in detail” but I’m going to take issue with that option. It looks like an adjectival phrase and not a verbal one. We need to include the pronoun to preserve the verbal nature of it. The verb “detail” is… okay for the purposes of translation. It comes to English through French and derives from the idea of cutting things into pieces, so not terribly different in base concept from “parting.” So “detail”…meh. Fine, it’ll do.
Surah Ghaafir, “Forgiver,” opens with some royal titles for God in ayah 3: “Forgiver of Sin and Acceptor of Repentance, Severe of Punishment, Owner of the Abundance…” These titles aptly start a chapter which includes some very strong statements about God. God’s forgiveness is declared and the alternative to His forgiveness is explicitly given. This surah speaks to Muhammad and the believers about the disbelievers, making a moral out of them. It is in most ways a very typical surah.
Sometimes this surah is called Surah al-Mu’min, “The Believer,” because its longest stretch is devoted to the compassionate appeals of one Egyptian who believed Moses. This is distinctive in a document characterized with so many special heroes. Though the protest of the prophets is always “we are men like you,” in some ways they are not. They’ve had an interaction with the divine and received direct revelation. They’ve become named characters and centralized actors in their stories. But today’s believer goes unnamed, has no direct experience with the divine, and is operating from second-hand revelation. How far can ordinary faith get you in God’s earthly schemes?
What do we know about the Arabs to whom Muhammad was speaking? In truth, not much. Though we have some archeological findings and external testimonies, the transmission of their oral culture was interrupted and overwritten by the transmission of the Quran, the way of Islam, and the Arab conquests. Only a few cultural favorites survived long enough to be preserved as the Arab culture morphed into a literate one, and of these it was primarily the poems that survived. So if I want to know anything about the outlook of Muhammad’s audience, I know I’m going to have to get into their poetry.
First it must be said: I have no talent for poetry. I love language, yet to me poetry looks like the art of writing potent, incomplete thoughts. I’m very basic, just wanting a fun meter and rhyming scheme, and thus have never graduated beyond Shel Silversteen. So what is the likelihood that I’m going to understand the high poetry of another culture, another land, another century? Pht! Arabic classical poetry is full of place and people names, culture references, and trope imagery that I’ve had no exposure to. I know what a hyena is, but do I know what the Arabs of the 600’s thought a hyena was? So I needed a book to guide me and teach me some keys for interpretation. I chose The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritualby Suzanne Stetkevych.
My review in short: very compelling analysis and insight into the pre-Islamic culture and the post-Islamic memory of it. The book is highly academic and you’ll have to be familiar with lots of specialists and their jargon (or else have to keep Wikipedia open) in order to understand it. Also, you should understand at least the basic logic of the tri-consonantal roots system in order to engage with her analysis of the Arabic, though the more Arabic you know, the better you’ll be able to follow the book’s analysis.
Here’s a weird word: زمر, zumar, from which the title of today’s surah, “The Groups,” comes. It’s not a word with strong connotations or nuances, and indeed is so different from its seeming relatives that I might suspect it of being a word borrowed from another language. Other words built from the roots z-m-r I would judge to have connotations equivalent to the English words “piping” (as in “piping hot”) or “reedy” (as in reedy voice). It’s a root primarily about flutey-screechy sounds and things. The word zumar doesn’t get used in the Quran beyond this surah –a distinction that makes it fit for a title by Quranic standards– and doesn’t even have any relatives present in the Quran’s concordance. The zumar, “groups,” of today’s surah have nothing to do with high-pitched, screechy things or musical instruments, but are by all seeming context and intentions the two opposite groups of believers and unbelievers, entering their respective afterlives in successive waves.
Yes, it’s another surah about there being only two kinds of people in the world and their fates in the hereafter. It’s 75 ayat, take a read.
When I first set out on this Quran project, I intended it to be merely a journal of my reactions and residual thoughts. Turns out, that’s not how I work and it basically became a series of essays. Because it’s been taking so long to do, I decided some months ago to revise my approach and read ahead to the end of the Quran, just jotting my first impressions down in notes. I did this, using my English-only Quran since it’s small and easy to carry. Months later, now that I’ve come in my blog to Surah 38, ص, “Ṣaad,” (pronounced like “psalm” but with the LM swapped out for a D), I re-read the surah and then re-read my earlier notes:
Yeah, those notes hold up. This is basically my same reaction re-reading Surah Ṣaad for the second time.
So let’s unpack this. If you want a more coherent experience than my own, I’d suggest you read Yusuf Ali’s translation, rather than my usual recommend of Sahih International. He smooths out some of the more surprising wrinkles without reshaping too much of the text. Though there is a lot of interesting theological material and linguistic trivia in this surah, I’m going to center in today on the narratives that most caught my attention: David, Solomon, Job, and Iblees.
Last week I grouped together those elements of Surah 37, “The Ranks,” which I thought were meant to appeal to the poetic side of the culture to which Muhammad was originally preaching. This week I’m going to group together the remaining material, which approaches the people from a more argumentative side. It still is pretty artistic, having several recurring turns of phrase and literary patterns, but in purpose it is much more interested in using the right information to get the right response.
There is beautiful simplicity in Islam. Take the basic confession of faith:
Laa ‘ilaaha ‘illaa-l-laah
“No god except The God”
What a beautiful phrase! It’s so open, so light, so concise. You can see why it’s not just the theology of Islam that’s appealing, but the draw of the Arabic language that can present this simplicity so beautifully. Poetry was very present in Arab culture of Muhammad’s time, and served as the various communities’ family registers, historical records, and transmitters of cultural values. The Quran had to speak to this poetic culture. The above confession comes from ayah 35 of today’s surah, aṣ-Ṣaaffaat, “The Ranks.” It is a surah that comes from and appeals to the Arabs around Muhammad at their poetic hearts.