Surah al-ʕankabuut, “The Spider,” is traditionally labeled as a Meccan surah, that phase of Muhammad’s ministry where he was trying to reform his hometown and being suppressed by its mainstream community. Yet as I read, there were things in the surah that struck me as more relevant to Muhammad’s Medinian ministry: concern about hypocrites, passing references to conflicts with People of the Book, emigration, and striving. So I looked up the traditional chronology and found this surah is placed as the penultimate surah Muhammad revealed in Mecca. This is interesting, because it reinforces my impression that this surah captures a state of transition in Muhammad’s ministry.
Muhammad’s ministry is changing, so how did that start to happen?
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?
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.
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.