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.
English has problems. Given. One specific problem can be found in our alphabet: how do you spell the letter “H”? It’s odd, but I really couldn’t figure out how to do it. Aich? Aitch? Eighch? Blech, that’s ugly. Also, English letter names don’t necessarily inform us about the letter itself. Looking at you again, “eitch,” what sound do you represent? Oh, “hhhh,” …..wonder where that came from. Arabic’s alphabet boasts clarity on these two levels. Not only do Arabs know how to spell the name of their letters, all their letter names start with the sound they produce. Today’s surah starts with another set of mysterious letters, the names of which are chanted in recitation, and this set was unique enough to become the surah’s title. To Arabs, this is Surat Ṭah Ha. In keeping with my custom of translating the titles, I thought about translating and spelling out the letter names in English but realized very quickly that there was no way on earth I was going to title my post “Ṭah Aitch.”
But this digression, like the letters themselves, does not contribute to the content of the surah. Ṭah Ha is retelling the story of Moses and Aaron, the Fall of Man, and the process of judgement. If you feel fatigued with this material and are expecting to be bored with old rehash, you are forgiven, but the surah is actually going to give us much more novelty than you’re expecting. We shall start today with ayat 9-55. In The Traditions, Part 2 I eschewed comparing the Quran’s account of Moses’ ministry with the Exodus account because their scope and scale were too different to cover. Today I’m going to reverse that decision and indulge in a comparison for just the shorter and more manageable sections of Moses’ origin stories. Continue reading →
I mentioned last week that Surah Maryam is loaded with the work of being ambassador to the Christians. The precedence for this was set down in Islamic traditional history. One of the first encounters that Muhammad’s followers had with a Christian community was when a number of Meccan Muslims sought sanctuary from Qurayshi persecution in the Kingdom of Axum (Ethiopa). The story, as told a hundred years after the fact by Ibn Ishaq, is that the Quraysh sent emissaries who tried bribing the king of Axum to extradite the refugees back to Mecca. The king brought the Muslims in for evaluation, whereupon they presented some of Surah Maryam to him, and he declared their message truth and sent the polytheists back to Mecca.
We don’t have any historical confirmation of this story, knowing very little about the king at that time except that he minted coins, which we may or may not have extant copies of.
The Quran itself makes no allusion to the first emigration or any intended purpose for the surah besides redacting the perceived errors of Christians and rebuking them. It starts with Zechariah, Mary, and Jesus, but then goes back to list the other patriarchs in order to open its rebuke to wider audiences.