Reading the Qur’an: Repeated Reminders

[This semester, I am blogging my course on the Qur’an. You can see my previous post here and the whole series here.]

We have now entered into what I consider to be the main body of the course. Having looked at biblical and historical background and dipped our toe into the water with Sells’ annotated translation, we have been systematically working through the Qur’an, working our way backward through the Meccan surahs, which will occupy us up until Spring Break (surprisingly soon!). We have taken a couple days out to work on selections from Qur’anic commentaries and, given the centrality of Moses for the Qur’an, we also devoted an entire day to a discussion of the biblical account of the Ten Plagues in Exodus.

By and large, though, it has just been the Qur’an — and today my students finally reached a bit of a breaking point with the repetition. This seems to happen to most Western readers, and certainly it happened to me on my initial reading. It is something that I continue to struggle with as I have taught the Qur’an in some form nearly every year. My solution today was to acknowledge that there is repetition that appears excessive from our perspective, but to suggest that we should go through, page by page, and see whether there is anything new. And lo and behold, we only wound up getting through three surahs in any detail, leaving us to scramble for a few highlights of the remaining portion of the day’s reading in the last ten minutes of class.

Our selections for today were surahs 30-32, 34-36, and 39 (we skipped 33 as a Medinan surah, and did 37-38 on a separate day, because they were exceptionally dense with biblical parallels). After addressing the question of whether the Qur’an genuinely prophesied the Roman reconquest of Jerusalem in the same year as the Battle of Badr, we dwelled on some verses that related to questions of predestination and free will. This has been a major theme from the very beginning of our reading, but the issue became unavoidable when we read commentaries on God’s creation of all things according to “the measure” (54:49), which they took to indicate a possible advanced determination of all events, and especially when we talked about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

Then we focused for a time on one of my favorite passages, in which God designates “love and kindness between” spouses and “the diversity of your languages and colors” as signs (30:21-22). This set up a discussion of the Qur’an’s claim that the existence of God (and our obligation to God) should be obvious from the structure of creation, which perfectly led into an analysis of Luqman, the wise man I have blogged about before. Luqman seems to hold open the prospect of a “secular” or philosophical knowledge of God, unmediated by any special revelation of prophecy — a prospect the later Islamic tradition will run with in various ways, even if it is not explicitly grounded in the figure of Luqman.

While we did not find much that was strikingly unique in Surah 32, we did notice some seemingly bizarre stories about David, Solomon, and the people of Sheba in 34. The latter story — in which the inhabitants of Sheba are ungrateful for an abundant garden and the convenience of travel and suffer as a result — seems to build on the theme of God’s generous provision for humanity (in which transportation is often included), while the stories of David (who is given the gift of metalworking to create chain mail) and Solomon (whom God grants obedient jinn to do whatever metalworking he demands) seemed more fanciful from our perspective. In any case, the lesson we were supposed to take away was less clear, particularly when it relates that Solomon died while propped up on his sfaff, and “nothing showed the jinn he was dead, but a creature of the earth eating at his stick: when he fell down they realized–if they had known what was hidden they woudl not have continued their demeaning labor” (34:14). The imagery of Solomon’s “Weekend at Bernie’s” seemed jarring, particularly the slapstick detail of his stick being chewed out from under him.

As I noted in class, I did not include biblical parallels for these passages on biblical characters because no such parallels exist. But on the many occasions when there are clear parallels, students have begun to detect the same pattern I do — namely, that the Qur’an attempts to somehow “clean up” the stories, removing any moral ambiguity from the conduct of God or his prophets. Hence, for instance, Job is presented as a straightforward victim of Satan, whom God straightforwardly rescues (38:41-43), and the story of Bathsheba is presented so allusively as to be nearly incomprehensible (38:17-26). The translator relates that commentators suggest David may have taken another man’s wife, but that is far from clear from the text, where he could have overstepped his bounds by taking any piece of property from one of his subjects. More broadly, we see every single prophet preaching explicitly — and in terms very reminiscent of Muhammad’s own message, including strong emphasis on the Day of Reckoning — even when the Bible presents them as silently obedient. Noah is repeatedly presented as preaching to his people, and Abraham explicitly exhorts his father to forsake paganism (37:83-98), using rhetoric familiar from the Hebrew Bible’s critique of lifeless, manmade idols. Even more shockingly, in 37:99-111, Abraham consults with his adult son after he has a dream in which he sacrifices him, leading the son (who is presumably Ishmael, not Isaac, since the birth of Isaac is related later, 37:112) to consent to God’s will.

The longer I teach the Qur’an, the more structural elements I begin to see in individual Surahs, as in Surah 54, where we learn of divine punishments representing each of the four elements. I will admit, though, that the rationale behind the Qur’an’s fragmentary and repetitious presentation more often eludes me, and I have challenged students with a more literary bent to devote one of their in-class presentations to the possible structure of a Surah or group of surahs. None has taken up my challenge yet.

3 thoughts on “Reading the Qur’an: Repeated Reminders

  1. Great post. The issue of repetition is interesting. Most western readers don’t like it (maybe Heideggerians do). One thing i did with students in a Religion and Art class when we did a unit on the Dome of the Rock. I found a reliable translation of the external wall inscriptions (from Grabar’s book on the Dome of the Rock). And I read them out loud. The lines contain repetitions, which when read out loud conveyed a strong aesthetic sense. In oral traditions (even ones that are scriptural) the point is to read and hear out loud. One makes and picks up tiny variations in the repetition that are “the essence”. This is reminding me of Robert Alter on word repetition in Hebrew Scripture, and Deleuze, and also music by Steve Reich. Have your students read some Difference and Rep, and then listen to Steve Reich to get a sense of serial form? Anything will do. It all sounds the same.

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