“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 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.