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.
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Surah al-Hijr, 99 ayat long, presents us with a review of other materials. It emphasizes the stubbornness and doom of the unbelievers, like a less lingering version of the material I covered in The Cattle, Part 1. It follows with the fall of Iblees, as in The Cow, Part 1, and The Traditions, Part 1. We read again of the early prophets and the messengers to Abraham and Lot, like I covered in Prophet Hud. And it cites the ingenuity of God’s creation to prove His existence, like in The Thunder. This is not too surprising by now, for we have already seen that the Quran references the same materials multiple times throughout its text. The stories as told here do not raise any new questions, and neither do they answer any of the questions raised in their last seen iterations. As such, I don’t have much to say about this surah.
Back when I was taking college elementary-education classes, my professors often liked prompting us to let our future students draft up their own classroom rules. The point of this was to give students a small sense of power and investment in the organization and welfare of their classrooms. The predicted hitch: children are rather draconian creatures on the topics of fairness and justice. We teachers-to-be were warned that we might be shocked at the strict standards our students –never once considering their likeliness to run afoul of their own rules– would set for themselves and the punishments they’d proscribe, and that we’d probably need to intercede and temper things out a bit. This is true of broader society as well: people are likely to be more comfortable with setting up and living in a world full of harsh rules and punishments as long as they think it’ll never apply to them.
The Quran sets up some harsh punishments for unbelievers. Today’s surah is going to be marred by some very vivid and cruel images of Hell. Their purpose is to scare the unbelievers and make them receptive to Muhammad’s guidance. The point of the Quran’s insistence upon Hell is to convince people that they really need to listen to the things that will get them to heaven. It is also a reminder to believers that their response to God is supposed to be gratitude for making the effort to guide them away from Hell. In the midst of the surah we’ll listen in to a prayer of Abraham’s (Ibrahim‘s) and observe the gratitude and grace of a man who knows God guides and listens to him.
Those who don’t expect to be punished often don’t stop to think about the harshness of the punishments they are backing. Yet these things reflect the proposed character of the God or world they believe in, and today’s surah shall stir some old questions about God as Islam sees Him.