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.
Most of the time, I write about the Quran, not Muslims. Today, I want to highlight someone who presents on Muslims. On Slate’s Youtube channel, an American born Muslim named Aymann Ismail created a series of videos recording the perspectives and experiences of Muslims who are living and transitioning/growing up in the western world. Though I have no real authority to designate anyone’s perspective as “normative Islamic belief,” I think it’s safe to categorize Ismail as a liberal outlier. Given the season, and the freshness of Maryam in our minds, I thought it would be nice to share Ismail’s video on the inclusion of Muslims in Christmas, and the inclusion of Christmas in Muslim households.
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-Aziz’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.