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.
Christian Advent is upon us! For those of us who observe the rituals of advent, it is a season of reading the messianic prophecies and the stories of Jesus’ birth. The season mostly draws from Luke’s version of the Nativity, which focuses on Elizabeth/Zechariah and Mary. How perfect could the timing be that just as I’m celebrating the Christian Advent season, I’m also reading Ṣurat Maryam? We have met the Quran’s versions of Zechariah and Mary before in Surah 3: Family of Imran. That surah covered the origin story of Mary and John the Baptist, but jumped clear over all parts of the Nativity by skipping from the annunciation to Jesus’ assumption. Today’s surah will cover, amongst other things, the Nativity.
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.