Surah an-Naml, “The Ants,” is a case study in discovering the lore of another culture. There’s a lot of weird stuff in the Bible too, I’m aware of this. Most of what I’d call weird in the Bible I’d categorize a little more as –to be colloquial– “messed up.” The Bible features some really twisted relationships and decisions, like Shakespeare but all the harder to understand because it’s from an entirely different culture. The Bible also features extra-scientific events, miracles. While I’ll admit I’m cynical of the existence of such things in my own life, the existence of such things in my religious lore does not surprise me. Indeed, I have a vaguely developed sense of what kinds of extra-scientific material fit into the Bible’s view of the world. I wouldn’t say I perceive rules for this material, but maybe instead “norms.” The miracles claimed in the Bible are shocking in their own right, but I’m familiar with them and so they cease to surprise.
Today the Quran surprised me. Though this trip through the Quran has been one of discovery, I would say that most of the things I’ve found are pretty relatable to broader religious/human lines of thought. Things have intrigued me too, but not really registered as full surprise. There is a lot of other material in this surah that I will neglect today because it is thoroughly un-surprising. Instead I’m going to focus at length on Surah an-Naml‘s version of King Solomon contained within ayat 15-44. It departs so radically from the Solomon that I know, and features such unexpected details, that it left me quite… surprised.
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 usually 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 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.