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Sunday, 26 April 2009

Blogging the Qur'an - Part 2 - al-Baqarah

The Cow

And so we continue with the second surah of the Qur’ân, the longest, and possibly most boring introduction to the Qur’ân ever. The compilation of the Qur’ân consists of the longer revelations received during Muhammad’s stay in Yathrib (known later as Madinah) at the start, with the shorter, more mystical revelations from Makkah (Mecca) towards the end. So if you want more of a decent experience perhaps you should read the Qur’ân backwards…

It opens with three ‘Arabic letters: alif lâm mîm. It has an asterisk next to it, linking it to a glossary at the back which states that “Twenty–nine chapters of the Qur’an begin with the names of Arabic letters in various combinations. These are the so–called ‘mysterious letters’ of the Qur’an whose meaning, according to most exegetes, is best left with God.” In other words, you can theorise, but muslims don’t have the slightest clue what they mean!

A Qur’ânic dictionary I have, compiled from various sources by ‘Abdul Mannân ‘Omar, differs in opinion on this. The entry for ‘alif lâm mîm’ refers to it as an ‘abbreviation for Anâ Allâh ‘Alam’, which means ‘I am allah the all–knowing’. He cites 13 different Islâmic scholars by name and claims they ‘all agree in interpreting the abbreviated letters’ in that way.

I have happed upon much more convincing theories, however. Theodor Nöldeke refers to the compilation of the Qur’ân’s bits and pieces by Zâid ibn Thabit into a structural form. Nödelke calls the letters monograms of the people from whom Zâid obtained the portions prefixed by them. E. H. Palmer (whose translation of the Qur’ân I’ve mentioned previously), notes this and adds in a footnote: “They may have been mere numerical or alphabetical labels for the boxes of scraps on which the original was written”, something I believe carries merit.

Most surahs which come prefaced with ‘mysterious letters’ start with a triumphant declaration along the lines of “By the Book!” or “These are the glorious verses sent down”, or something similar in sentiment. Perhaps the scraps belonged to various people (surah 42 carries two such monograms, the first of 2 letters, the next of 3 letters), and each featured a written introduction of some kind about it as a revelation from god that will prove the truth? As a quick couple of examples:

Surah 10 — Alif Lam Ra Behold the revelations of the Wise Book!
Surah 26 — Ta Sin Mim Behold the Revelations of the Manifest Book!

So… on with the whole surah! As I have mentioned, the layout in paragraphs of various lengths and styles makes it very easy to read, as does the language which sounds modern, and certainly doesn’t try for the mock–KJV thing a lot of early translations of the Qur’ân tried for.

Already I run into problems when it comes to ayat (verse) 2:26 (I think — he doesn’t have completely consistent numbering, unlike in the Bible {or Muhammad Abdel Haleem’s translation of the Qur’ân}, but numbers some of the verses every 5 or so). It discusses disbelievers, then goes on to add:

God thereby leads many astray,
And guides many.
But the dissolute alone He leads astray.
Do you see the problem with this? Despite repeated talk about the whisperings of Satan influencing people, this particular passage marks the start of many which clearly state that none other than allah leads disbelievers astray! Other passages talk about allah sealing up people’s hearts and eyes, and suchlike, to compound their error. Yes, occasional passages do mention how people deceive themeselves. Others say that false idols lead them astray, but many others claim that those who reject allah have no other patron or helper. Which should, of course, completely absolve unbelievers and apostates of their actions of disbelief.

This sort of Calvinist, predetermined future means that allah cannot possibly justify torturing people forever in Hell for something that it made them do, and definitely cannot hold them responsible for actions of kufr (disbelief)! Mind you, I believe that any god who would burn and torture people literally for all eternity (especially for something it made them do) cannot represent justice and most certainly cannot epitomise mercy in any way, as claimed otherwise repeatedly throughout the Qur’ân.

2:109 — “Forgive and pardon — that is,
until God reveals His command.
This really struck a note with me because it sounds extremely sinister to my mind. And god certainly did do that later, what? Asking people to forgive… until it revealed commands of death and slaughter, such as Surah 9 opening without the basmala and an actual declaration of war against unbelievers present at that time.

2:111–2 — “He who surrenders his face to
God in all piety shall receive his reward from his Lord.
I note that Tarif Khalidi has used the literal translation of the ‘Arabic when he mentions surrendering your ‘face’. It marks an idiom wherein the face represents the whole of the person. If you think about it, it does act as a conceptual metaphor for the rest of you. If someone says they will show you a picture of their child and presents you with a photo of someone’s knee, you wouldn’t feel you’d really seen that person, would you? Yet if you see a picture of the child’s face you feel rest assured that you’ve seen him or her.

For me, however, this phrase marks another thing prevalent in Islâm: slavery. I don’t refer to humans owning slaves, but humans themselves as slaves. ‘Islâm’ comes from a root word meaning ‘submission’ (not ‘peace’ as some claim). You see it in the first chapter of the Qur’ân where the faithful declare: “You alone we serve/worship”, in ‘Arabic iyyaka n‘abudu.

As you may well know, muslims must pray certain ritual prayers 5 times a day, more if they have to make up for missed ones (which usually happens because you have to start praying without missing any from puberty onwards), though they can appeal to allah with supplications (du‘a) at any time and in any language (though ‘Arabi remains the preferred option, naturally).

These prayers, called salah, exemplify the attitude of complete subservience and, rather more menacingly, engender this as a mindset through years of the same ritual repeated over and over again. I would go so far as to call it an insidious form of brainwashing.

The opening sections of the salah feature ritualised supplications to allah followed by a series of bowing and prostrations. The bowing (rukuu‘) almost makes you feel as though you bow in honour to the superiority of allah. You repeat a specific supplication 3 times (subhana rabbi al–‘azeem = How perfect my Lord is, the Supreme), bowing, humbled before the awesome power of god.

The prostration itself, the sujuud, I would liken to experiencing allah in all its majesty. You prostrate and surrender your face in front of the one who created it, and press it into the ground. The true might and majesty of allah forces you to obliterate your face completely and, like the masses around you, degrade yourself into nothing in front of your Lord: complete islâm, the ultimate in submission, and marking yourself as an ‘abd–allah, nothing more than a slave of allah without personal identity of your own — because the ready–made Islâmic answers to all queries must suffice as hallmarks of your own identity. I call this the epitome of abasement. And this applies to every single muslim who takes part in this ritual.

I don’t believe in it, and have certainly never experienced any such might or felt the presence of god, even when performing salah. As a brief, but related aside, Edward Said springs to mind in his essay ‘Consolidated Vision’ from his book Culture & Imperialism. From a section entitled ‘Narrative and Social Space’ he has this to say:

Redemption is found in the self–justifying practice of an idea or mission over time, in a structure that completely encircles and is revered by you, even though you set up the structure in the first place, ironically enough, and no longer study it closely because you take it for granted.
Coming across that really made me think of salah and what Muhammad made it into. Indeed, what every single muslim who partakes in it makes it into. This notion of ‘redemption’ goes a step over and above salvation. You don’t simply feel ‘saved’ by it, but you feel that you actively save yourself through repeating a ritualised structure over and over again… eventually purely for its own sake.

2:124 — Remember when his Lord tested Abraham…
If this represents allah speaking to someone about itself in the 3rd person it certainly does sound bizarre!

2:126 — Sanctify My House for those who circle around it…
This refers to the ritual of circumambulating the K‘abah, but the verse marks allah speaking to Abraham to go to Makkah to sanctify its special mosque. One question springs to mind: although a very old ritual that pre–dates Islâm, did people really circumambulate the K‘abah in Abraham’s time? In which case why did he need to go and sanctify it? The common legends of Islâm state that Adam built the K‘abah first, on god’s instructions, but it ended up damaged after the Flood (something from the Jewish and Christian stories, and actually based on Sumerian mythology), and so Abraham had to rebuild it.

To me this clearly sounds like a later interpolation retconned to the time of Muhammad to show that he simply followed in the tradition of Abraham.

2:138The hue of God is upon us! And what better hue
than God’s?
It is Him we worship.
OK, these words CLEARLY don’t come from god now, do they? Or has god decided to worship itself while crying out about how god’s hue has descended upon it? These sound more like the words of muslims, or perhaps even angels. Again, the word used for ‘worship’ comes from the ‘Arabic word meaning to ‘serve/venerate’.

Now here comes an interesting section! Passages 2:168–9 and 2:172 refer to dietary laws. Interrupting them, though, lie 2:170–1 and 2:173–6, which deal with suppressing god’s laws and following the wrong commands that your ancestors did. The passages as I’ve numbered them make complete sense when taken together as above, but when read in the context of the Qur’ân you have something about dietary law, then following the wrong law of your ancestors, then back to dietary law, then spiel about suppressing god’s law and going to Hell for it.

When I used to follow Islâm I would explain it as a majestic intrusion, a reminder of god’s power to strengthen the food laws. Seeing it now with a more critical eye, especially in light of Khalidi’s lovely prose and poetry paragraph–based arrangement, it seems obvious to me that the food laws intrude unannounced due to some human (and not divine!), rushed cut–and–paste job when piecing the verses together.

2:178–9O believers, retaliation for the slain is ordered
upon you…
The prospect of retaliation saves lives.

This, to me, sounds like using capital punishment as a deterrent. I can’t recall what the tafsir (interpretation) of the verse actually says about it. I’ll have to look that up I suppose, but for the moment I simply want to log my reactions to reading this translation of the Qur’ân.

2:183 — O believers, the fast is ordained upon you, as it was
ordained upon those who came before you — perhaps you will fear

2:185 — The month of Ramadan is the one in which the Qur’ân was
sent down.
These two, in fact, mark very accurate translations of the ‘Arabi. I know that for 2:183 a lot of people translate ‘perhaps you will fear/obey’ as ‘for self–restraint’ in reference to fasting but the literal doesn’t say that at all. In fact it doesn’t even say the word ‘god’, but certainly implies that through its absence.

I picked these two lines because I used to believe one thing as a muslim, but now as an unbeliever I see these in a different light. I used to take the reference to ‘those who came before you’ who fasted as indicating Jews (who also fast). Now, though, after reading much of the Qur’ân’s canonical compilation probably taking a couple of hundred years, it sounds like a later interpolation to me. Certainly post–Muhammad. 2:185 give this away for me. I grew up amongst an Islâmic community hearing a lot about how allah sent down the Qur’ân during the month of Ramadan, hence why muslims hold it so dearly and fast during it.

As I learnt more about Islâm and read into it, asked questions, and so on, I discovered that the Qur’ân didn’t descend as a magical book in a month, but piecemeal, a few passages at a time, over a period of almost 23 years — and I sincerely doubt that all these revelations only took place during Ramadan!

So to me it sounds like a reminder of the religion of Islâm back in Muhammad’s time, and how people at the time of the passages quoted above should now fast as muslims used to do after the sacred month of the complete Qur’ân.

2:186 — I answer the prayer of him who prays when he prays to
Oh really? Then why doesn’t allah ever heal amputees?

So let them obey Me, and believe in Me —
perhaps they will be guided aright.

To me this sounds distinctly dodgy. Purportedly the words of allah, the passage deletes the speaker in the second ½ of the declaration. They will magically ‘be’ guided aright? Who guides these people? According to various passages of the Qur’ân, none other than allah guides people. So it leaves room for the possibility that those who believe in allah and obey it may receive guidance from allah… or indeed, they may not! Pretty fickle and random, I’d say. Surely if you give your all to your Lord and do everything it asks for then you should have proper guidance? Yet with Islâm it seems that you could still randomly go to Hell. Some ahadith (traditions) of Muhammad feature him quaking in fear and fervently praying to allah lest he go to Hell himself. You know, a chosen man of god, and yet fearing he may go to Hell? Doesn’t make sense to me.

2:191 — Apostasy by force is indeed more serious than slaying.
This passage ties in with 2:256’s declaration about no compulsion in religion. However, as attested by the contexts of the revelations, these lines actually apply ONLY to muslims, and how other people shouldn’t try to force them to abandon Islâm! They do not in any way endorse freedom of religion for everyone, and certainly do not allow a former believer to abandon Islâm.

At this point I would like to jump a few verses forward to #217 because it ties in very closely with the extract from 191 quoted above:
2:217 — ‘Forcing people into unbelief is a graver sin than
I would like to point out that in both instances this refers to people trying to force muslims to give up Islâm (and not, for example, furnishing any rights to a muslim who wants to convert to Christianity) and also gives muslims the right to defend themselves to the death if people try to make them abandon their religion. The conclusion to ayat #217 goes like this:
He among you who retracts his religion and dies an unbeliever,
these are people whose works shall come to nothing in this world and
the next.
These are the people of the Fire, in which they shall abide for ever.
This mentions the muslim apostate, the murtad, literally one who ‘turns away’. As an ex–muslim, this remains a sore point with me because the supposedly merciful and just allah will banish me and others like me to eternal Hellfire simply for my beliefs, my thoughts. I don’t even have to have murdered or raped anyone, I will repeatedly die and come back to life, only to die again in eternal torment for what amounts to thought crimes and spiritually disagreeing with Muhammad’s view of god and how to live a morally sound life. Which, to me, makes the Islâmic hell nothing other than a political prison.

The line about how apostates’ ‘works shall come to nothing in this world’ carries a sinister edge to my ears. You could almost see in that room for punishment on earth, which means that in this sense you could view the Qur’ân as sanctioning execution of apostates from Islâm (something which the ahadith most definitely do).

Back to the ordered programme:
2:194 — A Holy Month will substitute for a Holy Month, and sacrilege
calls for retaliation.
I had to look this section up in an ‘Arabi Qur’ân (Khalidi’s version contains no actual parallel ‘Arabi text) and yes, the bit about calling for retaliation does represent a literal and accurate translation. A lot of muslims accuse those criticising the Qur’ân as taking verses out of context (though they think nothing of doing so themselves when it comes to the Jewish and Christian holy books), but if fundamentalist muslims took this out of context they could use it to… I dunno, politically assassinate poets who satirised Muhammad, or something.
2:195 — Do not, with your own hands, hurl yourself into
Well, there we have it. One of two places in the Qur’ân that — at least in this (so far) excellent translation — sound like they condemn suicide.

2:196 onwards then refers to the Hajj, or pilgrimage that each muslim must make (if they have the capability to do so) at least once in their lifetime to visit the K‘abah in Makkah. However, the rules on what to do (fasting, not shaving your head until the animal sacrifice, etc.) end with this line: “So fear God and know that God is severe in punishment.” This represented a real WTF?! moment for me. It sounds like an utterly random and downright ludicrous conclusion on a discussion of pilgrimages. It makes the preceding rules EXTREMELY important, doesn’t it? Better get that head–shaving thing spot–on first time, eh?
2:201 — “Lord grant us good in this world and good
in the world hereafter, and spare us the torment of the Fire.”
Khalidi has written this section in quotation marks to denote it as something that allah sent to muslims for them to repeat. When I followed Islâm I used to love this phrase and recite it over and over again. Not for its meaning, no! When I fell in love with it I didn’t actually know what it meant. I learnt that later when I took more of an active interest in the Qur’ân and in the ‘Arabi language. No, I loved it for how it rolled off the tongue, with all its vocal assimilations and other effects. “Rabbana atina fid–dunya hasanata wa fil–akhirati, hasanata waqina ‘adhabannar.
2:212–3 — For those who disbelieve, the present life has been made
to appear attractive… God bestows His bounty on whomsoever He wills,

Then God guided the believers to the truth regarding which they
differed, by His leave. God guides whomsoever He wills to a path that is
This almost numbed my mind. Not only do you encounter another passage in which allah freely admits to guiding people at random without consequence, but 212 actually states that allah actively makes this present life seem attractive to those who do not believe! Why would a just and merciful deity set out to deceive its own people (whose hearts none other than IT has sealed up!) like that? It makes no sense.

The latter ½ of verse 2:231 and all of verses 2:238–9 represent more random anomalies that don’t sit right in the context. They refer to the ritual salah prayers, but appear suddenly within passages referring to laws on how to enact divorce. It seems as though someone didn’t know where to put these passages so slotted them in a convenient place.

A theory I prefer, however, features the possibility that the intruding passages ended up written on the backs of the leaves/shoulderblades/whatever that had the divorce verses on them. So when canonising the work, they copied out a portion on divorce, flipped the page over, copied out the passage on prayer, went to the next page on divorce, etc.

I actually need to get to bed. I’ve worked on this since yesterday, actually, and I’ve flagged for quite a while now! Don’t worry, however, since Surah 2 marks the longest surah in the entire Qur’ân — it should gradually get shorter from here on out!

I’ll end with a few quick comments. As I’ve noted earlier in this post, 2:256, one of the most quoted passages in the Qur’ân, refers to muslims having the right to keep to their own religion without others trying to convert them, NOT the other way around! “There is no compulsion in religion. Right guidance has been distinguished from error.

2:263–4 — A kind word followed by magnanimity is better than
charity followed by rudeness…

O believers, nullify not your alms–giving by demanding gratitude or
causing offence, like one who spends his wealth in order to flaunt

I give the above passage a five star rating! In terms of its message, this represents the best thing I’ve encountered in the Qur’ân so far. It says, in other words, when you do a good deed, don’t take the piss! Don’t help someone out and then keep reminding them of it, making yourself out as some awesome hero. Better to give a kind word and then treat the other person graciously. Why don’t more passages like this appear more often in the Qur’ân?

I will conclude this section with the final words of the second Surah:
2:286 — Our Lord,
Take us not to task if we forget or err.
Our Lord,
Do not lay upon us a heavy burden, as You laid upon those who came
before us.

Our Lord,
Do not lay upon us what we have no power to bear.
Pardon us, forgive us, be merciful towards us.
You are our Patron, so grant us Your support against the

Now tell me… Do these sound like the words of god? Or of mortal man?


Stallions said...

You asked if vrse 2:286 looked like words of God or words of men. If you had any brain, you could easily see that see that these are words God gave to men. God is teaching through Prophet Mohamed mankind how to pray properly.

Kodanshi said...

Nice with the abusive ad hominem. Really contributes to the discussion…

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