Just this past week my husband introduced me to “The Prophet’s Song” by Brian May of Queen.
…And now I’m a little obsessed with it.
It so happens that the next surah I’ll be reviewing in my Quran series is called “The Prophets.” As I’m digesting and organizing my thoughts on that surah, this song resonated deep with my experience reading the Quran. The music and lyric content are so on point with the tone and themes, it’s just blowing my mind right now.
Look at those lyrics! Phrases like “cold night will fall…summoned by your own hand,” “these kings of beasts,” “married his own, his precious gain…and death all around will be your dowry,” “hopes of the young in troubled graves,” “So grey is the face of every mortal,” scream loud to me. The prophet condemns the world for having lost its grasp of love and charity in its love for material things. There is a call to purge in order to reap a fortune of peace. The rejectors who rely on their treasure are guaranteed destruction and a destination in hell.
And yet, while this song fits the Quran to a T, it clearly is derived from Genesis imagery. Then again, its vision of prophethood doesn’t derive from Genesis at all. This song comes from an understanding of apocalyptic prophethood, and it is very interesting to pause for a moment and recognize how ingeniously Brian May writes his own apocalypse in much the same way as biblical prophets. Continue reading →
Surah Ṭah Ha provides us a good opportunity to discuss the difference between proper nouns and common nouns. In general principle, for a noun to be “proper” it must apply to one and only one person, place, or thing. Everything else is a common noun, even if it can’t be used in Scrabble. Common nouns usually get used in combination with some other qualifier like “a” “any” “some.” To make a common noun specific, you need to add the definite article “the” to the front or it, whereas a proper noun never needs a “the” because specificity is implied. Sure, you might say “the Agatha Christie” in some conversations, but such application would be for emphasis (it was signed by the Agatha Christie) or stylistic choices (like implying a joke that there might be another Agatha Christie out there in the world but you are referring to, you know, the Agatha Christie). It isn’t good grammar to blend definite articles and proper nouns, but it can be good style.
The difference and usage between proper and common nouns is the same in English and Arabic. Notice that most suwar have Arabic’s definite article “al-” or some elided version in the title, but when the title features a name there is none, like Surah Hud. That is because specificity with a proper name is already implied. So in Surah Ṭah Ha, we have two names whose grammatical use raise some controversial questions: as-Saamiriyy and Firʕawn. The first name is a common noun, but often gets translated as if a proper noun. The second name is always seen as a proper noun, but should probably function at times as a common noun.
Last week I spent a lot of time on a little content because I was combing details to compare with the Exodus account. It was more achievable to do that comparison with material from the origin stories alone. Moving forward today it is more useful to compare how Surah Ṭah Ha narrates Moses and Aaron’s ministry versus the account in Surah al-Aʕraaf 103-154. Through the details you can see that each is telling the story with a different purpose in mind. Al-Aʕraaf is a little more concerned with societal judgement, linking Moses’ ministry in with the judgements of a whole community like the prophets before him. Today’s surah will set up more emphasis on the influence of wicked leaders, setting up the concept of the anti-prophet.
Though this surah exemplifies and condemns anti-prophets, it still continues the normal sermon that each person fully responsible for earning their own fate. Though there are individuals to blame for removing large masses of people from guidance, God allows no excuses or intercessors at the Day of Judgement, and so the individual should watch for the trap of such false leaders.
English has problems. Given. One specific problem can be found in our alphabet: how do you spell the letter “H”? It’s odd, but I really couldn’t figure out how to do it. Aich? Aitch? Eighch? Blech, that’s ugly. Also, English letter names don’t necessarily inform us about the letter itself. Looking at you again, “eitch,” what sound do you represent? Oh, “hhhh,” …..wonder where that came from. Arabic’s alphabet boasts clarity on these two levels. Not only do Arabs know how to spell the name of their letters, all their letter names start with the sound they produce. Today’s surah starts with another set of mysterious letters, the names of which are chanted in recitation, and this set was unique enough to become the surah’s title. To Arabs, this is Surat Ṭah Ha. In keeping with my custom of translating the titles, I thought about translating and spelling out the letter names in English but realized very quickly that there was no way on earth I was going to title my post “Ṭah Aitch.”
But this digression, like the letters themselves, does not contribute to the content of the surah. Ṭah Ha is retelling the story of Moses and Aaron, the Fall of Man, and the process of judgement. If you feel fatigued with this material and are expecting to be bored with old rehash, you are forgiven, but the surah is actually going to give us much more novelty than you’re expecting. We shall start today with ayat 9-55. In The Traditions, Part 2 I eschewed comparing the Quran’s account of Moses’ ministry with the Exodus account because their scope and scale were too different to cover. Today I’m going to reverse that decision and indulge in a comparison for just the shorter and more manageable sections of Moses’ origin stories. Continue reading →
I mentioned last week that Surah Maryam is loaded with the work of being ambassador to the Christians. The precedence for this was set down in Islamic traditional history. One of the first encounters that Muhammad’s followers had with a Christian community was when a number of Meccan Muslims sought sanctuary from Qurayshi persecution in the Kingdom of Axum (Ethiopa). The story, as told a hundred years after the fact by Ibn Ishaq, is that the Quraysh sent emissaries who tried bribing the king of Axum to extradite the refugees back to Mecca. The king brought the Muslims in for evaluation, whereupon they presented some of Surah Maryam to him, and he declared their message truth and sent the polytheists back to Mecca.
We don’t have any historical confirmation of this story, knowing very little about the king at that time except that he minted coins, which we may or may not have extant copies of.
The Quran itself makes no allusion to the first emigration or any intended purpose for the surah besides redacting the perceived errors of Christians and rebuking them. It starts with Zechariah, Mary, and Jesus, but then goes back to list the other patriarchs in order to open its rebuke to wider audiences.
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-‘Azeez’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.