Books on Islam are expensive. In learning any biographical material about Muhammad, one will invariably hear mention of the first-known biography of Muhammad, The Life of the Prophet by Ibn Ishaq. Of course, that resource no longer exists in its original form, and what we have comes to us through Ibn Ishaq’s student, Ibn Hisham. If you want an English translation of Ibn Hisham’s The Life of the Prophet, you’ll have to open your wallets and pay… $76! Or pay the expense and time to become fluent in classical Arabic and get the Arabic edition for upwards of $25. And while I would like to do both of those things, I’m also starting from a beginner’s place and partly just need an orientation into the early sources. After all, there’s more than Ibn Ishaq out there.
Any search for information around Muhammad’s biography will bring up results including Muhammad: His Life Based on the Early Sources, by Martin Lings. And hey, it’s affordable! So I bought the ebook early on to orient myself in an Islamic view of Muhammad and…
My bad. Metaphorically, I walked into a restaurant for a culinary lesson. Instead, they served me a sausage and now I’m demanding to know “But how was this sausage made?!”
Review in short: This books is a reassuring resource for the pious, but has no other value.
The following conversations about the structure and limits of family in the Quran are going to be hard for Americans to process. Here in America, our definitions of family have become increasingly… fluid? Sentimental? We have less reverence for blood ties and blood obligations than has been historically true of perhaps of any other civilization in favor of reverence for “the family you choose.” And yet with our widened definitions of “family” we’ve also retained a pretty traditional sense and sentiment towards incest. In a mainstream culture where sex is treated as more interpersonal-intimacy or sport, and only optionally reproductive, the reaction to incest is still:
Our bounds for incest aren’t particularly defined, really. We think it’s all about the genetics and the hazards this wreaks upon our progeny as revealed to us by modern science, but that’s a reductionist definition of our actual approach. It’s still taboo to marry a step-relative or an in-law, even though that constitutes no genetic hazard. Maybe in a hyper-sexualized world, our revulsion to incest derives from a desire to just have a sphere of people who are not an option sexually, and in our priority of emotionally-tied families that extends to types of relationships, whether the genetic hazard is there or not.
And in the face of that kind of emotion-driven definition of family and incest the Quran draws some hard lines. It is not more purely objective in definition (as regards what the basic point of incest is), but it is concrete in articulation. Combine it with some relevant ayat from previous suwar we have read, and what lines are drawn in the Islamic family?
Something I noticed very quickly when looking into Islamic history is that its written record didn’t start until about a century AH, over a generation after Muhammad’s death. When you think of it, this is not entirely surprising due to a number of factors. The Arabs were culturally fond of oral storytelling, their first generation of Muslims were not reputed to be widely literate or educated, and their first century in power was consumed with conquest and civil war. One could hypothesize that the civilization needed a growth period to both develop and assimilate the kinds of people and culture that took the time to put things down in writing. One could also hypothesize that, like Christianity, it wasn’t until those early generations started dying off that the leadership realized they needed to pin down and codify their beliefs and identity in writing. And write they did. There is a lot of Islamic literature about the rise of Islam and the expansion of its caliphate from the Arabian peninsula, but there is the quandary that it is a history told by the victors, moreover the victors whose perspective had already been shaped after a century of political drama.
So are there resources more contemporary to the rise of Islam and its State? Well, yes, but they’re complicated. Enter Robert Hoyland’s Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam. My review in short: a marvelous book but not for newcomers to the history of this era and area.
Something that I haven’t called attention to in the Quran is the little symbols that smatter the text. They are symbols relevant only to the practice of recitation, dictating to the reciters when to pause or what action to take. There is a vocabulary of pauses to the Quran, and maybe I regret not having buffed up on them and paying them more heed as I’ve processed the book. Being a musician, I fully appreciate that silences and motions have an important role in controlling the meaning and energy of the sounds they create and punctuate. The title of today’s surah comes from the application of one of these markings: a complete bowing down to the floor.
The symbol ۩, shaped like the Persian-style archway typical of many mihrabs (that is, the niches or archways in mosques that point worshipers towards Mecca for prayer), is a written command for the performance of sajdah, “prostration,” (pl. sujud) while reciting the two words overscored within this verse: kharruu sujjadan, “fall down prostrating.”
By the Quran’s measure believers are those who fall down in prostration when they hear the reminders of God’s ayat. So what reminders do the thirty ayat of this surah have for us today?
While the past two posts have been full of tidbits and curiosities concerning the story of Moses, Surah al-Qaṣaṣ, “The Stories,” contains more than just content relating to Moses. In today’s post I’ll address some final points and a new story in the surah, but one that is also vaguely Biblical. Why does the Quran spend so much time retelling Biblical material? Is it trying to appeal to Jew and Christians through their own stories? Is it deliberately redacting those stories to correct Jews and Christians? Or it is just laying out exposition with the preppy conceit of saying “I know stuff too, you guys”?
The Quran lays out its narratives with an agenda. It is never short of didactic intent. Is there one agenda that explains the odd set of stories in this surah?
There is still another chapter ahead in the story of Moses’ journey to prophethood. He must journey to Midian, become a tribal shepherd, and start a family. Then he can return to Egypt. Interestingly, this surah has very little to say about Moses’ conflict with Pharaoh in Egypt. There is no mention of the showdown with the priests, no plagues, no retaliation from Pharaoh. I would say that this surah is interested in showing us anything but what the Quran usually frames as the central conflict of Moses’ ministry.
Today’s blog post will again be confined to combing the small details from a small segment of the surah. We’ll start where we left off after Moses fled from the retribution of the Egyptians. Try reading through ayat 22-43 to see what details pop out to you.
Here’s a question: Will the Quran change up it’s material in the future? When I opened up this surah and saw that, yet again, it told a Moses-centric narration, I began to question how often in the future I’d be re-reading this material to the end of the book. From a search on this concordance, many times are still ahead, but fewer and farther than they have been. In the meantime, today’s Moses narrative is actually a rare thing to enjoy discovering because it provides a rather distinct insight into Moses: his life before prophetic commission.
Moses’s pre-prophetic life is something that the Quran hasn’t explored much as of yet. We did get a brief flash-back type narrative of his journey down the Nile in a basket back in Surah Ṭah Ha, but the most scandalous story of his youth has only received fleeting comment: the murder. And so I’m interested to go forward and read these events told in narrative form. How will the Quran reconcile Moses’ youthful murder with the paragon character it expects of a prophet?
If you’ve clicked on any of the links in my blog, you’ve perhaps seen on a few occasions some explainer videos from the channel Religion for Breakfast by Andrew Henry. Much of the material on that channel is connected to Christian history, but Henry has also taken up a cause of educating his audience about the larger religious world. Now, as I realized a long time ago, my Quran project was not going to give me a very deep insight into Islam. If you were to read my blog alone and be making judgments about Islam from what I pull out of the Quran, you would miss the reality of how most of the Islamic world thinks and functions. So today I wanted to highlight Andrew Henry’s two videos about Islam to give you an idea of how much bigger the world of Islam is compared to the Quran’s material, and hopefully give you some perspective on how little knowledge you can get of a religion when only consulting one source.
Surah an-Naml, “The Ants,” is a case study in discovering the lore of another culture. There’s a lot of weird stuff in the Bible too, I’m aware of this. Most of what I’d call weird in the Bible I’d categorize a little more as –to be colloquial– “messed up.” The Bible features some really twisted relationships and decisions, like Shakespeare but all the harder to understand because it’s from an entirely different culture. The Bible also features extra-scientific events, miracles. While I’ll admit I’m cynical of the existence of such things in my own life, the existence of such things in my religious lore does not surprise me. Indeed, I have a vaguely developed sense of what kinds of extra-scientific material fit into the Bible’s view of the world. I wouldn’t say I perceive rules for this material, but maybe instead “norms.” The miracles claimed in the Bible are shocking in their own right, but I’m familiar with them and so they cease to surprise.
Today the Quran surprised me. Though this trip through the Quran has been one of discovery, I would say that most of the things I’ve found are pretty relatable to broader religious/human lines of thought. Things have intrigued me too, but not really registered as full surprise. There is a lot of other material in this surah that I will neglect today because it is thoroughly un-surprising. Instead I’m going to focus at length on Surah an-Naml‘s version of King Solomon contained within ayat 15-44. It departs so radically from the Solomon that I know, and features such unexpected details, that it left me quite… surprised.
Almost a year back I made this chart to envision whether it was ever going to get easier writing content about the Quran’s suwar. It’s a bad chart, and that’s mostly because it assumes that the Quran’s ayat have a fairly consistent size across suwar. Even at that time, this fallacy should have been obvious, but today’s situation particularly makes it clear. The last surah we covered, Surah al-Furqan, was 77 ayat long. Today’s is 227. Yet they feel very similar in length because today’s Surah ash–Shuʕaraa’, “The Poets,” is divided into very tiny ayat. So despite the sight of such a large number, be not dismayed, this surah is in fact pretty short.
It is also pretty repetitive, delving back into the prophet cycles. Because this is material I’ve seen before, and also because this material is more structured than usual, I’d recommend that you pick at least one section and read it yourself. I’m aware that most of my readers haven’t read the Quran, and are mostly enjoying my commentary. I’d feel better if you experienced at least some of the Quran directly, though, so that you have experience with which to judge whether I’m writing in proportion to the text itself. So pick one section, at the least, and give it a try.