Reading the Qur’an: Moving on to Medina

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

Like everything else, my Qur’an blogging has been disrupted by coronavirus. We had one final week of in-person discussions after Spring Break — during which my class, full of graduating seniors and athletes, were understandably distracted by their disappointment in all that they’d be missing the rest of the year — and then moved to a discussion-board format. This was a natural fit given that I had assigned them to present short papers to the class as their primary writing requirement, so that those could be the main prompts for a text-based discussion. We are going to do a few optional video conferences in the remaining weeks, but overall the format seems to be working well. But I am still sad that this class, which I put so much work into designing, is ending in such a diminished form.

In any case! As I mentioned in the previous post, Spring Break marked the Hijra, and we are definitely in Medinan territory now. The distinction in style and focus between the Meccan and Medinan surahs jumped out at me more this time. Muhammad is very much the leader and lawgiver in these passages, no longer the voice crying in the wilderness. In many respects, these laws seem reasonably flexible, and indeed a repeated theme in the legal passages from Surah 2 is the idea that God doesn’t want to impose a burden and hence he offers an alternative means of fulfilling the various requirements (surely a relevant text for professors right now!). I now realize that my search for biblical parallels was too focused on narrative portions, however, so for my next iteration, I want to include more legal parallels (perhaps from Roman or other Ancient Near Eastern traditions in addition to the Bible) for context.

Surah 2’s more expansive version of the Iblis story gave us a chance to read the Sufi mystic Hallaj’s enigmatic reflections on the idea that Iblis is not only God’s greatest servant (since he refuses the idolatry of bowing down to Adam even when ordered directly by God) but also God’s scorned lover. The students didn’t seem to know what to make of it, but I of course loved it — particularly Hallaj’s association of Iblis with Pharaoh as another figure who is perversely admirable in his stubbornness, which fits with my theory in The Prince of This World that Pharaoh, not the serpent in the Garden, provides the ultimate root of the figure of Satan.

We also continued to work through the second half of Barlas’s “Believing Women” in Islam. Students enjoy working with a more contemporary source and clearly want to sympathize with her arguments, but I find that every time I teach this text — without really presenting it differently in any way — the students find it less and less convincing. All but two students in the class are female, so perhaps that makes a difference. But they find many of her counter-readings of the Qur’an to be a stretch and think she explains away some clearly misogynist material, making her quasi-Protestant gesture of blaming faulty traditions for the patriarchal character of actual-existing Islam less than satisfactory. Perhaps the liberal imperative to bend over backwards to see Islam in the most favorable light has fallen by the wayside in tandem with the War on Terror’s shift into a perpetual background condition rather than a national rallying point. To be clear, I fully support Barlas’s goals and hope her arguments find a receptive audience in Islamic circles, but my students’ reaction does seem to reflect the fact that she faces an uphill battle.

The post-War on Terror context (propagandistically if not in reality) might also affect students’ reaction to an aspect of Islam that past groups have found alarming and disturbing: the imperative to go to war for the faith. My students are not terrified of “religious violence” as a singular evil and they recognize that the Qur’an in many ways restricts and discourages war except in absolute self-defense. Yet it is hard to square the Qur’anic guidelines with the accounts of the various battles (so far: Badr, Uhud, and the Trench) that we find in the Life of Muhammad materials. In the case of the Battle of Badr, Muhammad almost seems to want to bloody the Quraysh’s nose for its own sake, in a situation where they no longer have any real opportunity to “persecute” him (unless excluding Muslims from the shrine counts). And in the case of Uhud — which turned out to be a rout, in which the Muslims lost many valuable men — Muhammad seems to have let himself be egged on by his followers, most notably those who had missed out on the chance for glory at Badr. Only the Battle of the Trench is purely defensive, and that one also involves very minimal fighting, due to the aforementioned trench that largely prevented the Meccans from reaching the city. The detailed accounts of what happened in the battle seem less glorious than sordid, marked by casual brutality and petty personal beefs.

Muhammad himself does not seem bloodthirsty or eager for war for its own sake, so perhaps he had to engage in some warfare to appear as a credible political leader in the context of a very warlike culture. Be that as it may, the biographical materials on the battles are far from our most edifying readings this term — though I do wonder how the students will react to the final conquest of Mecca, which will be the topic of our last class. There I think that Muhammad’s strategy is at once more clear and more subtle and interesting. From a syllabus-design perspective, though, this is another area where I dropped the ball, because a comparison with the Bible’s mandates for radical genocide (including women, children, livestock, etc.) might put the Qur’an’s approach to war in a more favorable light.

The most exciting Qur’an-related development in the last couple weeks for me personally has been my completion of my Arabic textbook and first inroads on the text of the Qur’an itself. I started with the later Meccan surahs but got through only a few before I realized that dense and fragmentary poetry-like materials were perhaps not the most suitable option for a beginner. Turning to Surah 2, I found the text to be difficult, but manageable — especially given my greater familiarity with that part of the Qur’an. A special highlight to me was reading a version of the Iblis story in the original language. It is still early days and I do not yet have any profound insights. I am still at the phase where I am getting more comfortable with the strange syntax of the Qur’an and with the practical matter of using the Arabic dictionary. But it is not radically more difficult than I found my Hebrew reading when I first sat down with the original text itself — something I credit to having taken a couple years to study Hebrew, which really is simpler in grammar and syntax. If I hadn’t worked with a related language before approaching Arabic, I don’t think I would have gotten very far at all.

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