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.
Surah al-Furqaan, “The Criterion,” introduces itself by praising God for sending down to his slavethe furqaan with which to warn the world. That word, furqaan, means “distinction” or “differentiation” and has likewise been used to describe the Torah and Gospel. Though the word gets treated as a singular item I would speculate from the –aan ending (which when applied as a suffix to nouns often indicates a dual plural) that a suitable translation would be something along the lines of “the dichotomy.” Mercy and damnation. Believers and concealers. The Quran is a book of extremes and contrasts with which to sort mankind. However harsh and scornful the Quran is of Muhammad’s opposition, it becomes soft as velvet where concerns it’s followers.
This dichotomy was easier for the Quran to paint in its Meccan era, such as what we’re reading today. In Mecca, there was no fear that hypocrites were entering the faith for purposes of financial speculation or security in the face of a growing military coalition. In Mecca, being pagan was the easy way, the advantageous way, the ostensibly intellectual way. In Surah al-Furqaan we’ll see the Quran contrast the current order of Meccan society to the promised order of the Judgement.
“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it,”
Gospel according to John 1:5
I imagine light is an obvious metaphor for religions to employ. Maybe it isn’t, maybe my world is just too inundated with Christianity and Star Wars for me to not assume that everyone gets “light” as a symbol for goodness, awareness, and hope. In Islam, light is also a big symbol, and one we haven’t yet stopped to examine. The name of this surah is an-nuur, “The Light,” and within its content it gives a little sermon that visualizes God as a light and light-giver. For a religion that has stayed so successfully aniconic as Islam, it is almost radical to have a sermon that visualizes God as anything. So today let’s close out this surah’s material by examining its sermon about God as a light, and what life is like without that light, with closing words about some final material concerning the peoples’ obligations towards Muhammad.
So last surah I looked at the laws dealing with extra-marital marriage and prosecution of adultery. These two sections of the surah were not only contained in a close space to each other, but were obviously related to specific historical events involving the community of believers. Beyond that first section of surah there are still many more moral commands to be described. They seem much more general and sedate than the first material, though perhaps one could argue that they are still related to the topic. Having forbidden extra-marital sex, categorized it as legally punishable, and declared its practitioners to be outside the community, the surah does still have a few comments related to marriage in the community. Then there are also some rules concerning personal boundaries like the domestic privacy rights and the proper modes of dress.
There is in the middle of all this a sermon on light and darkness, and a final set of commands about honoring Muhammad, but I’m going to make that its own post next week. Today, we are just going to finish looking at these more personal obligations, seeing where they hold up to their claims of clarity and what sort of society they anticipate creating.
After the last surah, I vented my frustration at finding the Quran to be so often directed towards disbelievers, telling them they were going to Hell for rejecting its teachings –which seemed to largely be teachings about them going to Hell.
Surah an-Nuur, “The Light,” is the Quran’s answer to my complaint! The first ayah shows remarkable self-awareness, describing itself as an obligatory surah consisting of clear ayaat for them to remember. This is as close to a “through the following arguments in this essay I shall…” thesis statement as we have seen since the “let me tell you a story” analogue of Surah Yusuf. This surah opens by prepping its audience that it is full of obligations. That is accurate to the following material, in which there are absolutely no narrations of prophetic cycles and minimal rants about unbelievers. Instead, the surah sets up directives for practical matters like sexual misconduct, gossip, court testimony, privacy, and dress code.
However, this surah is not without a narrative, only the narrative is not included in the text. Today we’re only going to cover the first 26 ayat, throughout which we can catch allusions to a dramatic story that shook the believing community.
Ayah 1: Qad ‘aflaḥ al-mu’minuun, “Already the Believers succeed.”
Something of interest in the Quran is how rarely it calls its adherents Muslims. Muslim comes from the roots s-l-m, which build words themed around peace, freedom, surrender, and submission. Though the world by and large has settled on the word “Muslim,” the Quran chooses to define its adherents using words built from the roots ‘-m-n, which build words relating to belief, trust, and security. Rather than muslimuun, the Quran far more often calls its adherents mu’minuun or “those who believe.” For the Quran, belief/trust is the defining trait of the adherents. Compare the frequency with which submission appears in the Quran to the frequency with which it mentions belief or those who believe/d and you’ll see the latter is far far more favored as the central issue.
Surah al-mu’minuun, “The Believers,” continues to add to our familiar theme of contrasting those who believe with those who turn over Muhammad’s message. In 118 ayat the lens will pan from the upright character of the believers, to those who refuse to believe in the prophets, to the crookedness of the disbelievers and their fates.
The thing I find most rewarding about this series is taking journeys down the rabbit holes. If I was just doing a straight reading of the Quran, I would pass by these moments with only fleeting thought and probably leave my reading with just a dismissive, “whatever,” as I have seen in the reactions of many other people who have read the Quran. But by writing a post I am forced –or rather, encouraged– to stop, look, and put some effort into understanding the material. There are a number of great resources available for reading the Quran, resources that help interpret the language and tradition, and in consulting these resources I enjoy getting to sit in another culture and trace its puzzles and eccentricities. Within Surah al-Hajj there were a lot of little moments where I read something, paused and went, “…huh,” before reading forward further. I noted these things down, but then didn’t find a place to include them in my last post.
So today is going to be my inventory of all the little things that made me go, “…huh.”
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.