Reading the Qur’an: Surah 31, Luqman

Surah 31, entitled “Luqman” after the legendary wise man who appears in it, is about wisdom. The question is whether there is any content to wisdom beyond simple adherence to Islam, and initially the answer may seem to be no. Luqman’s first line of dialogue, delivered to his son, reads, “O my son! join not in worship (others) with Allah. For false worship is indeed the highest wrong-doing” (v. 13). Yet as the surah unfolds, it seems to me, we begin to discern the shape of a form of human wisdom that — while ultimately compatible with Islam — is not determined by its historical revelation, nor indeed by the historical intervention of any particular prophet into his society (interventions that as a rule occur when the society is beyond hope in any case).

This seems clearest to me in v. 17: “O my son! establish regular prayer, enjoin what is just, and forbid what is wrong: and bear with patient constancy whatever betide thee; for this is firmness (of purpose) in (the conduct of) affairs.” The first two elements are certainly characteristic of Islam, and indeed the core of Shari’a is “enjoin what is just and forbid what is wrong,” but in the second half of the verse we see a shift to a quasi-Stoic state of emotional detachment, followed by a general sense that this is the kind of person you should want to be, this is how one does things properly. Similarly, in vv. 18-19: “And swell not thy cheek (for pride) at men, nor walk in insolence through the earth; for Allah loveth not any arrogant boaster. And be moderate in thy pace, and lower thy voice; for the harshest of sounds without doubt is the braying of the ass.” There is reference to Allah, but the real emphasis seems to be, “don’t be an ass.”

The next section is the real turning point for my reading. It depends on how exactly we interpret v. 20: “Do ye not see that Allah has subjected to your (use) all things in the heavens and on earth, and has made his bounties flow to you in exceeding measure, (both) seen and unseen? Yet there are among men those who dispute about Allah, without knowledge and without guidance, and without a Book to enlighten them!” Ali’s footnotes try to tie these people without knowledge and guidance to those who are actively rejecting Islam — and makes seemingly unmotivated references to bodily passions, etc. — where I think a more natural reading is that we’re to imagine people unrelated to any historical prophetic intervention. They are not without a Book because they’re arrogant scoffers, but because no Book has been revealed to them. Those people are still accountable if the indulge in idolatry, but it’s more that they should realize that idolatry is illogical and that you shouldn’t do stuff just through the inertia of tradition: “When they are told to follow the (Revelation) that Allah has sent down, they say: “Nay, we shall follow the ways that we found our fathers (following). “What! even if it is Satan beckoning them to the Penalty of the (Blazing) Fire?” (v. 21). On the other hand, the next verse seems to hold out the possibility of righteousness even outside the prophetic sphere: “Whoever submits his whole self to Allah, and is a doer of good, has grasped indeed the most trustworthy hand-hold: and with Allah rests the End and Decision of (all) affairs” (v. 22). (Perhaps one could think of Paul’s invocation of those who seek “glory, honor, and immortality” in Romans.)

What’s striking throughout the surah is the lack of explicit references to individual prophets and to themes like the Day of Reckoning (Last Judgment). Again, Ali tries to read that back into the surah in the footnotes, particularly in v. 33: “O mankind! do your duty to your Lord, and fear (the coming of) a Day when no father can avail aught for his son, nor a son avail aught for his father. Verily, the promise of Allah is true: let not then this present life deceive you, nor let the chief Deceiver deceive you about Allah.” The Qur’an is never shy about using the term “Day of Reckoning,” so if it wanted to express that explicitly, it could have. Here, it seems to me, we could just as easily think of one’s own death, which no one can die for us — a reading that is reinforced in v. 34, where all the references are to “natural” occurences that are beyond human prediction or control: “Verily the knowledge of the Hour is with Allah (alone). It is He Who sends down rain, and He Who knows what is in the wombs. Nor does any one know what it is that he will earn on the morrow: Nor does any one know in what land he is to die. Verily with Allah is full knowledge and He is acquainted (with all things).” Moreover, throughout the surah, the evidence adduced is drawn from the orderly structure of creation, which testifies to Allah’s goodness and rule.

Overall, I think that we see here an invocation of something like philosophy. I’ve said many times before (particularly in this post) that for me the real difference between philosophy and theology is not the reference to God, but the fact that philosophy wants to base itself on what is most constant and unchanging while theology responds to decisive historical events. What the Qur’an seems to be indicating here — if my reading is correct, which it certainly may not be! — is that the true philosophy will of course wind up agreeing with revealed truth, but that revealed truth is not strictly required. Indeed, this very distinction seems shaky given that the creation of the world is in a certain sense a historical event and that Allah has granted Luqman his wisdom (v. 12). Yet that is to be expected if truth is truth — and all the moreso in a religion that doesn’t teach a doctrine of original sin.

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