I’m a British humanist reading The Qur’an (Tarif Khalidi’s translation) and blogging about it as I go. I’m doing my best not to make assumptions, apart from assuming it was written – not necessarily in the order given – by a man (or men) in Arabia in the 7th century. I realise that some Muslims will consider the whole exercise blasphemous, and some anti-theists will say it’s not critical enough. The aim is not to be offensive, but simply to share a personal, non-scholarly, view of one of the most influential texts of our time. [More…]
Chapter 33 (“The Confederate Troops”) seems an important chapter. It has the war-time flavour of some of the earlier chapters, and in it the author makes a strong claim for his God-given leadership position and his entitlement to privileged status.
Obedience to the Prophet (aka the author and military leader) is essential: “It is not for any believer, man or woman, if God and His Prophet decide some matter, to have liberty of choice in action. Whoso disobeys God and His Prophet has strayed far into manifest error.”
And he names himself: “Muhammad is not the father of any man among you, but he is the Prophet of God and the Seal of Prophets. God has knowledge of all things.” The Seal of Prophets is apparently taken to mean that he is the final prophet. Given this is so important, it’s strange that the Qur’an does not actually say that’s what it means. A parallel interpretation is that Mohammed had a birthmark on his back which was the “seal” to prove his prophethood, or that he put his seal of approval on previous prophets.
Believers have to be duly deferential when visiting the prophet: “…do not enter the chambers of the Prophet for a meal unless given leave, and do not wait for it to be well-cooked. Rather, if invited enter, and when fed disperse, not lingering for conversation. This behaviour irritates the Prophet, who is embarrassed to tell you, but God is not embarrassed by the truth. And if you ask his wives for some favour, do so from behind a screen; this is more chaste for both your hearts and theirs. You must not offend the Prophet, nor must you ever marry his wives after him, for such would be a mighty sin in the sight of God.” I found it important to remember here that the author of all this is the prophet himself.
There’s also a lot about the special position of the Prophet and his wives, and of the superiority of blood relations over other types of relationship. Adopted children are different to your own children and are to be called by their fathers’ names. And “Kinsmen by blood are more caring for one another in the Book of God than the believers and Emigrants, unless you wish to bestow some act of kindness upon your clients. This is inscribed in the Book”.
The Prophets’s wives are not supposed to be interested in worldly things, and their piety will be doubly rewarded. But “if any of you commits a proven indecency, torment shall be multiplied upon her twice over” – hard to imagine given the horror of the standard torment. They are urged not to “speak enticingly” to avoid stirring lustful thoughts, to “remain in your homes” and not to “display your adornments, as was the case with the earlier Age of Barbarism” (the pre-Islamic period).
The Prophet gives himself rules about who he can have sex with: “We have made licit for you the wives to whom you have given their bridal money, as also the slaves that God assigned you as war booty, the daughters of your paternal uncles and aunts, the daughters of your maternal uncles and aunts, who emigrated with you [presumably from Mecca to Medina], and also a believing woman if she offers herself to the Prophet, provided the Prophet wishes to marry her…”. This is all “a special dispensation to you [Mohammad] only, but not to the believers”.
On the other hand, “Henceforth it is not licit for you to take more wives, nor to exchange them for other wives even if you admire their beauty – except for slaves.” The women, of course, appear to get very little say.
It seems this is a period of war. The “Confederates” of the title is the name given to “infidels” who fought Mohammed and also those who fought the ancient prophets such as Noah. The “Hypocrites” also feature here. According to my translation, they were believers from Medina who refused to accept Mohammad’s political leadership. As in earlier chapters, there is no adequate description of battle scenes, for example: “Remember when they attacked you from higher ground and lower, when eyes were transfixed, and hearts reached up to throats, and you thought evil thoughts of God. It was then that the believers were tested and convulsed a mighty convulsion. It was then that the Hypocrites and those sick in heart said: ‘God and His Prophet promised us nothing but delusion’…” In the end “God repelled the unbelievers, and He spared the believers combat…He compelled those who aided them from among the People of the Book to come down from their strongholds, and cast terror in their hearts – some of them you killed, others you took prisoner. And He made you inherit their lands, their homes and their wealth, as well as a region you had never set foot in before.”
Presumably people at the time knew to what all this was referring. But as a narrative document, the Qur’an here, and in other similar places, is incomplete.
There are also problems of internal security: “If the Hypocrites, and the sick in heart, and those who spread panic in the city, do not desist, We [God] will give you sway over them …Accursed they shall be; wherever they are found they shall be captured and killed outright.”
It’s a tough, confident – perhaps even hubristic – chapter.