Friday, September 12, 2014

The Relativity of Revelation

Surah Al-Masad (The Twisted Strands)

Tabbat yadaa Abi Lahabinw-wa tabb. 
Maa aghna anhu maluhu wa ma kasab. 
Sayasla naran-dhata lahab. 
Wam-ra’ atuhu hammalatal-hatab.  Fi jidiha hablum-mim-masad.

Doomed are the hands of the glowing countenance, and doomed is he! [1]
His wealth will not benefit him, nor all that he has gained. [2]
[In the life to come] he shall have to endure a fire fiercely glowing, [3]
together with his wife, that carrier of evil tales, [4]
[who bears] around her neck a rope of twisted strands. [5]

This surah refers to one of the Prophet’s uncles, Abd al-Uzza, whose nickname was Abu Lahab, “he of the flame,” because of his “glowing countenance.”  In addition to great physical beauty, he was possessed of great wealth and power, and many sons.   

According to several authorities, including Bukhari and Muslim, this early surah (the 6th in order of revelation) came in response to a series of incidents between the prophet and his tribe, the Quraysh.  Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, on one day climbed the hill of As-Safa in Mecca and called together all of the Quraysh who could hear him.  He asked them “O sons of Abd al-Muttalib! If I were to inform you that enemy warriors are about to fall upon you from behind that hill, would you believe me?”  They answered:  “Yes, we would.”  Then he said:  “Behold then, I am a messenger to you, to warn you of the coming of the Last Hour!”   At that,  Abu Lahab yelled out, “Was it for this that you summoned us?  Tabban laka!  May you be doomed!

I chose to focus on this surah today, because there are several very interesting aspects in it, which help to illuminate for us the nature of the revelations of Prophet Muhammad.  

First is the interactive nature of the revelations – the ayahs in this surah.  The first ayah is phrased in direct response to Abu Lahab’s reaction to the Prophet’s warning to his tribe.  Abu Lahab cried out “Tabban laka!”  The revelation came back with an elaboration of the exact same wording, “Tabbat yadaa Abi Lahabinw-wa tabb.”

Abu Lahab responded to this first ayah by saying that Muhammad was wrong in saying he was condemned, because he would be protected by his wealth and his sons.  The next ayah came in response to that, “Ma aghna anhu maluhu wa ma kasab,”  His wealth will not benefit him, nor all that he has gained. 

Then the rest of the surah was revealed, which also refers directly to Abu Lahab’s wife, who was also saying bad things about the Prophet.  She had an expensive necklace that she was known to wear all the time.  She was heard to have said that she would sell her necklace and use the money to “raise hell” on the Prophet.  The last ayahs of the surah refer to these incidents, and Abu Lahab and his wife are both damned to hellfire. 

Abu Lahab’s wife then went looking for the Prophet, found instead and accosted Abu Bakr, asking him if “his friend” had cursed her.  He responded that he had not.  In fact, Prophet Muhammad had not cursed her, but revelation had condemned her. 

This is the only surah revealed in Mecca that mentions one of the Prophet’s contemporaries by name.  [The only other then living person mentioned by name in Quran is Zaid, in one of the Medinan surahs].  The question is, why was Abu Lahab mentioned by name, and why was he condemned to hell in revelation?  No other person is condemned in revelation.  In fact, the rest of Quran leaves the possibility of redemption open to everyone, including those who tried to kill the Prophet for years.  Some of the Prophet’s staunchest enemies among the Quraysh ended up being his strongest supporters in the end.  Why, in the earliest years of revelation was Abu Lahab not allowed the possibility that he might change?  Was Allah really condemning his to hell?  This ayah is usually interpreted as miraculous in the sense that it foresaw Abu Lahab’s death almost ten years later in the Battle of Badr while fighting the Prophet still an unbeliever.  But that interpretation contradicts the recurring theme of Quranic revelation – that everyone has the possibility to change their destiny by accepting God’s omnipotence, right up until the last breath of their lives. 

The condemnation of Abu Lahab in Surah Al-Masad seems more coherent with the overall message of Quran if we understand it in a different way, as a response to a need of the Prophet and his followers at a very critical time and in a very critical situation.  The message was still relatively new when this surah was revealed.  The Prophet was still struggling at that time to find any encouragement from his community in sharing what had become by then an unalterable mission.  He and his small group of believers needed unequivocal reinforcement.  Abu Lahab was a formidable opponent.  He was one of the most influential members of the tribe.  His condemnation must have been devastating, and could have been debilitating if revelation had not intervened.  Abu Lahab and his wife were blocked, blow for blow, with everything they tried to use to counter the Prophet’s message.  No more, no less.  Their condemnation in this surah has to be seen in that light, not as a prediction from Allah about their fate, but as an appropriate response to the condemnation they were hurling at Allah’s Prophet.  This understanding is more congruent with the compassionate, merciful message of Islam. 

Another example of the contextual relevance of revelation can be seen in Surah Al-Ma’un:

Ara ‘aytal-ladhi yukadhdhibu biddin. [1]
Fadha-likal-ladhi yadu ‘ul-yatim [2]
Wa la yahuddu ‘ala ta ‘amil-miskin [3]
Fawalul-lilmusallin. [4]
Alladhina hum an-salatihim sahun. [5]
Alladhina hum yuraa-un. [6]
Wa yamna ‘unal-ma ‘un. [7]

Have you not considered [the kind of] man who gives lie to all moral law?
Behold, it is this [kind of man] that thrusts the orphan away,
And feels no urge to feed the needy.
Woe, then, to those praying ones
Whose neglect their prayers
Those who want only to be seen
And deny anything of benefit [to their fellow humans].

The question of the provenance of the parts of this surah was addressed by classical commentators.  Some argue that ayahs 4-7 were revealed in Medinah, others that the surah came in its entirety in the early phase of Meccan revelations.  Careful consideration of the ayat lends more credence to the two-part revelation theory. 

The first three ayat refer to those in Mecca who were rejecting the faith, i.e. the message of the Prophet “al- ladhi yukadhdhibu biddin.”  They are further described as those who were, at that time, mistreating orphaned children and ignoring the needs of the poor.   These messages are consistent with the early Meccan revelations that were educating the nascent community about the nature of belief and unbelief, and the character of believers and unbelievers.

The next four ayat, however, refer to “ilmusallin,” “the praying ones,” who neglect their prayers and want only to be seen praying but provide nothing of benefit to others.”  Prayer was not yet an obligation (fard) for the Muslims in Mecca, so these ayat must refer to those who were praying regular communal prayers with the Prophet in Medina.  In Medina, the community faced the challenge of dealing with a new group of people, hypocrites who professed to be believers, but only to gain the advantages they could reap by making that claim.  The last three ayat of the surah refer directly to them - those who neglected their prayers except to be seen, without providing any help to others.  Understood in this way, we see this surah as a direct response to the reality and needs of the community as it evolved. 

How does the analysis of these surahs help us better understand the nature of revelation?  I would like to apply a metaphor here to a scientific principle – Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity – a theory that had a profound impact on the way we understand our world, and the advances we have been able to make because of that understanding.  Grossly over-simplified, the Theory of Relativity states that space and time in the universe are dependent on frames of reference.  Objects in space, and their gravitational pull, have a measurable impact on space/time, such that how you experience time is dependent on where you are located in space, and what is around you.

One example of how profoundly the application of this theory has changed our lives is a small device that most of us now carry around all the time and no longer know how we could live without – our cellphone.  The Global Positioning System (GPS) that our cellphones use to work is made up of three components:  the space component, the control component, and the user component.  The space component consists of a station (tower) to which all of the data from space is sent, which is then sent to the specific user components – us.  The frames of reference for each of these components – the different satellites and the control tower – are all influenced by the gravitational pull of the earth and the way in which it is distorting space/time where each component is located.  Because mass - gravity - affects time in space, clocks on the satellites run at slightly different speeds, depending on where they are located relative to the earth.  They need to be calibrated and synchronized relative to each other in order for their signals to hit the control tower, for our cell phones to work on the ground.  GPS systems work with such precision because of the Theory of Relativity.

We have no trouble – no moral angst – about using this little device every day; a devise that works because we came to understand and apply relativity in the domain of physics.  I do believe that a close and careful reading of Quran and the circumstances in which it was revealed demonstrates the relevance of relativity to revelation as well.  Revelation worked for the Prophet and his followers because it was specifically calibrated to their needs and frame of reference, to their time (history) and space (culture).

Surah Al-Masad was perfectly calibrated to fortify the Prophet against one of his strongest critics.  Surah Al-Ma’un was perfectly calibrated to provide clarity for the Muslims about the nature, first of those who were rejecting the message of the Prophet, and then of those who were trying to deceive him.  The language – the ayat of the surahs and their interpretation are the record of a miraculously relevant, and relative phenomenon, one that we can study and learn from.  Quran presents a collection of windows into the past, and to the miracle of messages from Allah becoming manifest in the world.  Those messages reflect the world into which they came – they became manifest in a responded to that world.  It is only by understanding how carefully calibrated they were to their context, I believe, that we can glean the full impact of the miracle of the Quran. 

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