Qur’an 33: Poetry & “The Night of Power”

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…]

The chapters are getting pretty short now. This post covers Chapters 88-98 (“The Overspreading Pall”, “The Dawn”, “The City”, “The Sun”, “The Night”, “Prime of Morning”, “Soothing”, “The Fig”, “The Blood Clot”, “Power”, and “Manifest Proof”).

“The Overspreading Pall” (chapter 88) is, of course, hell. As well as being scorched by the customary “blazing Fire” and “quaffed by a boiling spring”, we now hear that its inhabitants have no food apart from “bitter cactus that fattens not, nor assuages hunger”. Meanwhile, those in heaven enjoy the usual benefits.

Here, the reasons to believe include: “how camels were created…how the sky was uplifted…how the mountains were moored” – again the ideas that the sky is a surface raised like a canopy, and mountains are plonked on top of the earth’s surface.

In “The Dawn” (chapter 89) the author reminds us of previous tribes and leaders who ignored God’s message and were therefore destroyed: ‘Ad, Thamud, Pharoah and a new one, Iram (which might actually be a city in ‘Ad). Again the author assumes the reader will know who these are. And again he reminds us that good deeds can be “laid up” like an investment for a good afterlife.

“The City” (chapter 90) presumably refers to Mecca. Most of the chapter seems to be about what it means to “storm the Steep”, apparently referring to more challenging good deeds, with freeing a slave or feeding an orphan during a famine  given as possible examples. Those who do them “are the People of the hand dextral” – companions of the right hand.

“The Sun” (chapter 91) again starts with an oath made on a poetic list of the wonders of creation, working from the sun – perhaps as an analogue for God – to the “symmetry” of a soul, with inclinations to both piety and perversion:

“By the sun and its morning glow! By the moon, in its tow! By the day, when it burnishes it! By the night, when it cloaks it! By the sky and He Who built it! By the earth and He Who levelled it! By the soul and He Who gave it symmetry, inspiring it with its perversion and its piety! Prosperous is he who purifies it; lost is he who stifles it.”

What is not clear is who is taking the oath – presumably God – or what He is then taking it  about, providing commentators with an opening to make up an answer.

(Here, and elsewhere, my translation refers to the earth “levelled”. Others – ref Study Quran – say “spread”, so it’s not clear if this provides any basis for a “flat earth” claim.)

The final verses are a reminder of what happened to Thamud when its people called the messenger God had sent to them a liar. They were “effaced”.

“The Night” (chapter 92) starts similarly to the beginning of The Sun, this time “By the night,…..”. Most of it is about the benefits of being generous and pious and believing, as opposed to “miserly and selfish” and disbelieving. Strangely, in each case, God “eases his way” towards virtue or evil. While the Fire awaits the sinner, we are told that the pious can avoid it if he: “…hands over his wealth, hoping for purity, and none has done him any favour that merits recompense, save only his desire to find favour with his Lord”. There’s a strong emphasis here on financial charity, but the motivation is the desire to avoid an eternity of torment.

“Prime of Morning” (chapter 93) is one of the gentler of these “final” chapters, and one of a few which make me understand why some people say the Qur’an is beautiful. It’s actually probably an early one chronologically, written as God addressing Muhammed:

“By prime of morning, and night when it settles! Your Lord has not abandoned you, nor distains! The Last is better for you than the First. Your Lord shall give you, and you shall be content. Did He not find you an orphan, and sheltered you? And found you erring, and guided you? And found you dependent, and enriched you?
The orphan you must not aggrieve, and the beggar you must not revile, and your Lord’s blessings proclaim.

“Soothing” and “The Fig” (chapters 94 and 95) are short and say nothing new.

In “The Blood Clot” (chapter 96), as well as the usual injunction to wonder at God’s creation, there’s a section about “one who forbids a worshipper as he prays”, apparently referring to someone who opposed Muhammed and the practices of his followers. We are left to guess who it is, but not at the promised reaction by God “We shall summon the watchmen of hell”.

“Power” (chapter 97) is very short, but different. It’s about the “revelation” of the Qur’an itself: “We sent it down in the Night of Power” which is “better than a thousand months. In it the angels and the Spirit are sent swarming down, by their Lord’s leave, attending to every command.” Apparently Muslims believe this was “the night when the first verses of the Quran were revealed…It is one of the odd nights of the last ten days of Ramadan. Muslims believe that on this night the blessings and mercy of Allah are abundant, sins are forgiven, supplications are accepted, and that the annual decree is revealed to the angels who also descend to earth.” The idea of a single night when the Quran was “sent down”, versus the 23 years over which Muhammed is claimed to have received his revelations are reconciled by the belief that there was a two-stage process: firstly, God revealed the entire thing in one go to the angel Gabriel; he then drip-fed it to Muhammed over the next 23 years, with the first revelation also on the Night of Power.

Why this theologically important verse is buried among these repetitive final chapters is unclear.

In “Manifest Proof” (chapter 98) we are told that the “unbelievers among the People of the Book and the idolators were of diverse views until there came to them a manifest proof: a Messenger from God, reciting untainted scrolls. In them are canonical writings.” And they did not “splinter” until afterwards, with those who then blasphemed or remained idolaters destined for the Fire.

He is apparently referring to Judaism, Christianity and Islam as he goes on to explain how simple the message is: “They had been commanded only to worship God in sincerity of religion and pristine of faith, to perform the prayers, and to pay the alms. This is the canonical religion.” The implication is that the “untainted scrolls” are God’s Master Book from which, as we have heard before, the Torah, ‘Evangel’ and Qur’an are drawn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Author: HumanistJ

I'm a humanist - someone who thinks you can live a good life without believing in anything supernatural. I chair South West London Humanists, I'm a trustee of Humanists UK and its Dialogue Officer. This blog is purely my personal view.

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