The year is 2020. Quarantine year. It has already been over a month since we bid farewell to Ramadan. This year, Alhamdulillah, I essentially re-embraced Islam. It took a lot to get here – to this state of Yaqeen (conviction). Much exploration, many helpful conversations and realisations.
This blog series of mine will document my attempts at developing a far stronger bond with the Qur’an, first and foremost. I mean, I am trying to learn Arabic [fun fact: you know how vast and complex the English language and its vocabulary are? Well, Arabic is more complex and contains at least 20 times the number of words that English does! Over 12 million words, in comparison to English’s approx. 600,000…] and I do believe – well, it is known – that fluency in this beautiful language allows for a better connection with our Holy Book. I do hope to become fluent in it one day, Insha Allah (God-willing) and to then acquire a good grasp on classical (Fus’ha) Arabic – the language of the Qur’an.
Perhaps I will write and publish a ‘revised edition’ of this article sometime in the future, once I have (again, Insha Allah) actually mastered the Qur’anic language. For now, however, this series will comprise some of my notes on the Pickthall explanatory translation of the Qur’an. I will include some random facts and some of my thoughts. And I would greatly appreciate it if you shared your own thoughts, questions, and other additions, too [you can leave a comment below, or you can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org].
The Qur’an is a fascinating book. Of course it is. Even many secular scholars – linguists and the like – find themselves utterly enthralled by it. Its words are undeniably symphonic and rich with meaning. It is a book of guidance for humanity, and so, naturally, it contains information on things like social rights and responsibilities; matters of Law and of Philosophy; economic and political guidance, and more. Linguistically, terms and idioms from other languages – like Ethiopian, Syrian, Assyrian, and Persian – are also employed in the Qur’an.
For more about the Qur’an – about the questions it presents, historical information, structural methods, contextual points, and more – do check out this wonderful (highly recommended) book, made available for free by the iERA [the Islamic Education and Research Academy]: https://iera.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/iERA-The-Eternal-Challenge-Shop-EBook.pdf
The articles in this ‘Notes on the Qur’an’ series will mostly be in bullet-pointed form. I will include, for the articles on individual Surahs (and there are 114 of them!) a link to some live recitation, as well as an English translation [and do bear in mind that English translations are markedly ‘less than’ the essence that can only be conveyed through Arabic – the language it has originally been authored in], followed by some of my own notes, thoughts and findings.
Bueno. Let us begin, then.
Muhammad (SAW)’s Early Life / More Background Info
- Muhammad (SAW), son of Abdullah, son of Abdul Muttalib, had been born to the tribe of Quraysh, in Makkah. His father had died before he was born; he was looked after first by his foster mother, Halima tus-Sadia, and, after the death of his mother Āminah (when he was six years old) he had been looked after first by his grandfather Abdul Muttalib, and then (after his grandfather’s death) by his uncle, Abu Tālib.
- The Makkans claimed descent from Abraham through Ishmael (indeed, Arabs today are known as ‘Ishmaelites’, while Jews are known as being ‘Israelites’). The Ka’bah had been built by Abraham for the direction of worship towards One God – a God unimaginable and not wholly intelligible to we mortal and fallible beings, what with our limited frames of reference and capacities for understanding.
- During Abraham and Muhammad (SAW)’s times, respectively and alike, many people had been given to worshipping idols. Indeed, Abraham had used his capacities for reasoning to arrive at the conclusion that his father and those around him had been wrong to direct their worship towards inanimate beings. He left his father’s house, and decided to abandon the culture that he had been born into.
Aristotle had been correct in saying that the thing that separates humankind from other animals is our ability to reason. Our capacities to use logic, to arrive at various conclusions and decisions. Abraham had used his personal reasoning faculties – those abstract processes that we collectively refer to as the ‘mind’ – to arrive at the conclusion of monotheism, even in spite of the fact that everyone around him had been given to other practices.
Once, when there was nobody inside the community’s temple, Abraham crept inside, and used an axe to destroy the idols there. He demolished all but one of them – the biggest one. He left his axe hanging around this remaining statue’s neck.
When the people had returned to the temple, they expressed shock and anger, demanding to know who had done this to their ‘Gods’. Abraham wittily told them to ask their ‘God’ over there – the one with the axe around his neck. They responded to this by arguing that doing so would be absurd: the idol cannot speak, cannot hear, cannot defend itself. So Abraham questioned them: why do you worship it, then?
Abraham’s claims made sense to them. There is One God, [and it is not in the (current) nature of the finite to comprehend He who is Infinite] and He is the Source and the Cause, and the only one who is worthy of worship. Even though this message of Oneness (Tawhid – Pure Monotheism) had appealed to the God-given hearts and minds of these people, they had refused to embrace the message, as a result of pride, and because idol-worship had been the practice of their forefathers. So they became the rejectors – Kuffar [linguistically, ‘Kāfir’ comes from the linguistic root meaning, ‘to cover up’. To know the truth in one’s heart, but yet rejecting it, not rushing to embrace it, refusing to activate it, as a result of things like pride and pride in antithetical traditions].
The opposite of a ‘Kāfir’ is a ‘Munāfiq’ – a hypocrite. One who, by flipped contrast, does not accept Islam in his own mind and heart, yet outwardly claims to be a Muslim.
- Modern idol worship: We are told to worship none but Allah (SWT) – the giver and the sustainer of life. To worship something or someone is to devote one’s life to it; to think about it often, to make decisions in light of it, and to commit physical acts of servitude towards it. In modern times, it is not very common to worship idols in the sense of their being shiny or clay statues with anthropomorphic features. Rather, the idol worship of today tends to take a more abstract form: people worship (the interrelated) notions of capitalism, materialism, individualism, and more. Terrifying, and terrifyingly normalised.
You know what? Nowadays, much like how Abraham had been ostracised for his beliefs, we tend to see those who actually, devotedly, adhere to Pure Monotheism (Islam) as being ‘strange’, or ‘uncool’, or ‘no fun’. But look around: everyone is worshipping something. Some worship materialistic delusions; some worship their own reputations; some worship women; some worship capitalist structures; all these abstract ideas, these ghostly idols. These things that, rather like the idols that Abraham himself could destroy with an axe, cannot really love you back in the same way. They either have no power to, or it is not in their interest to.
Would you not rather devote yourself to the Creator of the Universe?
It is not irrational to do so – (even if the rest of the entire world manages to convince you that it is): it is quite the opposite, actually.
- Muhammad (SAW) had received revelations over a period of twenty-three years. It is important to note that, for the first thirteen of these years, the Muslims had found themselves under much persecution and humiliation, and facing ostensible failure, coupled with unfulfilled prophecies. These had been the ‘Makkan’ years. The following ten years had been remarkably different to the pre-Hijrah period. These years had been marked by a number of consecutive (and miraculous-seeming) successes. Ultimately, this one man – a shepherd, who had been offered riches and even royalty on the condition that he ceased from his preaching – managed to alter the very fabric of pre-Islamic Arabia:
In the latter ten years, Muhammad (SAW) had turned Arabia from being a society centred on idol-worship, misogyny (where baby daughters had been buried alive, and where women had the social and legal statuses of mere chattels), drunkenness, ignorance, rampant vanity, senseless violence and other immoralities, into one where men loved God, sincerity, honesty, and knowledge.
Rather interestingly, the Surahs that had been revealed in Makkah are the ones that focus on the human soul. On the command to prostrate to God, and to God alone. Pre-Hijrah, Muhammad (SAW) had been a preacher only. By a series of fortunate twists, however, he ended up becoming the ruler of a state, which then later grew to become the empire of Arabia.
The Surahs that had been revealed in Madinah contain a different nature of guidance, for the most part: they give guidance not only to the individual human soul, but to a growing social and political community, and to the Prophet as lawgiver, reformer, and an example for mankind to follow.
I really do believe that it is important to focus on the individual soul, one’s personal relationship with God, before concerning ourselves too much with the community aspect of things, though both are certainly important.
- (Human) Reason, and Revelation are the two lights of guidance that we have been granted. We must use them wisely.
Sadia Ahmed J., 2020