With the significance of the rise of Islam and my focused examination on its inciting document, it’s easy to lose view of the fact that Muhammad’s ministry was for a long time just a tiny remote squabble on the fringes of civilization. Indeed, news of Muhammad’s activity hardly rippled into the broader world as far as we can see in surviving records. It wasn’t until Muhammad’s state erupted from the Arabian Penninsula after Muhammad’s death that chroniclers were forced to take notice. Though the rise of Islam would have the most significance in hindsight, the real battle of the fates as thought at the time was between the (Eastern) Romans and (Sasanid) Persians.
Though Mecca was a remote oasis location, it still was connected to the bigger world through trade and felt the ripples of those politics. In today’s surah, Ar-Rum, “The Romans,” we’re going to see fleeting peek of the world politics surrounding the Quran. Yet still, the Quran’s fight was with Mecca primarily, all the more so because today’s surah was still revealed in relation to Meccan conflicts. While the surah starts with this glimpse of larger politics, its substance promptly returns to Meccan fare.
Two years of semi-weekly writing, 57 posts written, two-thirds of the way through the Quran, 29 suwar down and…
…85 suwar to go.
Okay, sorry for reusing that joke, but it is a real weight on my mind these days. I walked into this Quran project blind and unprepared. I tried preparing, but what can I say? Like getting a Skittle in a bowl of M&Ms, Google choked on my sudden interest in this niche of Quran scholarship and didn’t know what search results to feed me. I went into this project terribly unaware of the effort it would require of me and just how slow the project would go. By my original thought, there are 114 suwar in the Quran, and if I went through those at roughly a weekly pace I would get through them all in a little over two years.
Two years later I still have at least two years of work ahead of me, and I’m afraid it is growing degrees more frustrating and joyless. So what should I do?
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?
There is still another chapter ahead in the story of Moses’ journey to prophethood. He must journey to Midian, become a tribal shepherd, and start a family. Then he can return to Egypt. Interestingly, this surah has very little to say about Moses’ conflict with Pharaoh in Egypt. There is no mention of the showdown with the priests, no plagues, no retaliation from Pharaoh. I would say that this surah is interested in showing us anything but what the Quran usually frames as the central conflict of Moses’ ministry.
Today’s blog post will again be confined to combing the small details from a small segment of the surah. We’ll start where we left off after Moses fled from the retribution of the Egyptians. Try reading through ayat 22-43 to see what details pop out to you.
Here’s a question: Will the Quran change up it’s material in the future? When I opened up this surah and saw that, yet again, it told a Moses-centric narration, I began to question how often in the future I’d be re-reading this material to the end of the book. From a search on this concordance, many times are still ahead, but fewer and farther than they have been. In the meantime, today’s Moses narrative is actually a rare thing to enjoy discovering because it provides a rather distinct insight into Moses: his life before prophetic commission.
Moses’s pre-prophetic life is something that the Quran hasn’t explored much as of yet. We did get a brief flash-back type narrative of his journey down the Nile in a basket back in Surah Ṭah Ha, but the most scandalous story of his youth has only received fleeting comment: the murder. And so I’m interested to go forward and read these events told in narrative form. How will the Quran reconcile Moses’ youthful murder with the paragon character it expects of a prophet?
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 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.
“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 let’s 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.