Friday, March 6, 2015

Sweet and Savory

A’uzu Billahi Min ash-Shaitain ir-Rajeem.
Bismillah ir-rahman ir-raheem.
Al Hamdu Lillahi Rabbil ‘Alameen.
Wasa’atu Wassalamu ‘Ala Muhammad wa ‘Ala Alihi was Sabhihi was Sallim.

Man yahdillahu fa huwal muhtad, wa man yudlill falan tajida lahu waliyan murshida. Anyone who has been guided by Allah, he is indeed guided; and anyone who has been misguided, you will never find a guardian to guide him.

Al-hamdu lillah, Ahmaduhu Wa Assta’eenuh, Wa Asstahdeenhi, Wa Asstaghfiruh, Wa oominu Bihi Jalla wa ‘Ala va Laa Akfuruh.  Praise be to Allah; I praise Him and I seek His assistance. I believe in Him, the Exhalted, and I will not disbelieve Him.

The title of my khutbah today is “Sweet and Savory”.

I was recently looking through some old family photos and I came across a series of picture of my three younger brothers when they were boys. As I looked at these boyish faces holding puppies or showing off a garden harvest of beets and carrots, I realized that these little boys don’t exist anymore. They are men now. Although I may have some photographic proof and copious memories, these little boys are no longer here. Now sometimes one of my brothers will say or do something that reminds me of the little boy that once was, but even if I am mindful of that small boy, I must also keep in mind that I am dealing with a grown man. A man who has a history and relationships that have shaped him, and current concerns and worries that never troubled that chubby-cheeked 8 year old. 
The ability to look at people you love with different filters- the filter of the distant past, the not so distant past, the imagined future, and the present, reminded me of how I feel when I read Quran. I know that there is a historical context of the Quran, there is a long tradition of interpretation and scholarship associated with the text, and there is also the current knowledge and understanding that I, myself,  bring to a personal reading. I’d like to illustrate this process with a short Surah, #95, also known as At-Tīn, “The Fig”.

Surah 95 is an early Meccan surah. This means that it was one of the earliest surahs revealed to Prophet Muhammad, and the first people who heard it were probably not much more in number than the people in this room. During the early Meccan years, Islam was something that was being created and practiced by just a few people in the privacy of their homes.

Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem
Wat-tini waz-zaytun.
Wa Turi Sinin.
Wa hadhal-baladil- ‘amin.
Laqad khalaqnal ‘insana fil ‘ahsani taqwim.
Thumma radadnahu ‘asfala safilin.
‘Illal-ladhina ‘amanu wa ‘amilus-salihati falahum ‘ajrun ghayru mammnun.
Fama yukadhdhibuka ha’du biddin.
‘Alaysal-lahu bi ‘Ahkamil-hakimin.

The English translation is:
By the fig and the olive
By Mount Sinai,
By this ground inviolate
We created the human being in the highest station
Then brought him down lowest of the low
Except for those who keep faith and work justice
Theirs is a recompense unending.
What can give you the lie then about the reckoning?
Is not God the judge most wise?

The surah opens with an oath emphasizing contrasts, with objects and locations that would have been very familiar to the early Meccan audience. Figs and olives were staples foods for the Arabian Peninsula and all over Mediterranean. Sort of like the ‘peanut butter and jelly’ of middle America. Figs have been domesticated since the time of the Ancient Egyptians (between 4000-2700 BC) and the Romans had over two dozen varieties of figs with the finest fresh ones being an expensive delicacy while cheap ones were “food of the slaves”. Olives have been cultivated since the time of the ancient Greeks, are typically served in a salty brine, and can also be pressed to extract oil for cooking or for lamps. Mount Sinai, at the very bottom of the Sinai peninsula, is the mountain where Moses retreated to for forty days to receive the Mosaic laws from God. The inviolable ground, al-balad al-amīn, is most likely referring to the sacred territory around Mecca (the haram) where tribal war and other violent acts were forbidden. In a society rift with tribal warfare, the haram was a ‘safety zone’ where people could safely negotiate trade treaties, marriage contracts, and other necessities of communal life.

The middle of the surah emphasizes the human condition. Humans were created in an exalted position, but once on earth, should they make the wrong choices, they will be brought low. People who make good choices will be rewarded in the next life.

The surah ends with two questions. The first is “What can give you the lie then about the dīn?”  Dīn can mean either religion or reckoning, but at this point in the early Meccan period, the term is probably referring to a religious belief that has the component of accepting responsibility for one’s actions. The last question, a reminder of God’s wisdom at judging, is a reminder of the Day of Judgment, a moment of truth when each human’s life will be revealed with finality.

I think the middle of the surah and ending questions are fairly straightforward, and these themes are mentioned numerous times throughout the Quran. Instead, I’d like to focus on the oath part of this surah.

Classical commentators have argued that the reference to figs and olives is actually a metaphor for the religious teachings of Jesus, Mount Sinai is a symbol for Moses, and the ground inviolate is actually Mecca and the revelations Muhammad received. Thus, the oath is a reminder of the spiritual revelation legacy of Moses-Jesus-Mohammad.

My own reading of this oath is a bit different. When I read about the figs and olives, I am reminded of the very different biology of each of these plants. Fig trees cannot reproduce on their own. They require a particular species of wasp for fertilization. No wasp, no fig fruit. Olive trees aren’t as fussy about their pollinators, but they do require a very long time to reach maturation, about five to eight years before they bear their first olive, and up to 65-80 years for stable production. Olive trees are typically handed down within families. Because it takes olives such a long time to become mature fruit-bearing trees, the Greeks considered it an act of sacrilege and ruthlessness to destroy an enemy’s olive trees in time of war. We have two very different tasting fruits, which require for maturation either a helper-wasp or plenty of time. 

When I consider the differences between Mt Sinai and the haram of Mecca, I look at this as a metaphor of individual silent contemplation (Mt Sinai) versus the peaceful give and take of human interaction (al-balad al-amin). My overall approach to this oath is that God has given us different things (figs and olives) and different opportunities (isolation and socialization) in which to make our choices. If we can understand and appreciate the differences between these things and situations, then we will be able to make good choices. For example, if we understand the nature between figs and olives, then we might try making a figgy pudding but steer clear of attempting that olive pudding. And I would go further and say that we need both – the sweet of the fig, the savory of the olive or the quiet of isolation, the lively energy of discussion- in order to fully appreciate and be grateful for what God has given us.

Finally, in thinking about our future, we are often told that in the next life, in paradise, the righteous will be surrounded by orchards and fruits. These fruits are taken to mean, metaphorically, the fruition of one's good deeds. So it could be that there will be good deeds that you do that will see fruition right away, perhaps in your actions towards one particular person or project. And there may be other good deeds that you do which will take a lifetime, or even several lifetimes to see their ripened completion.


Al-Hamdu Lillahi Rabbil ‘Alameen Wassalutu Wassalmu ‘Alakhairil Mursaleen; Muhammadin Al-Nabiyil  Ummiyee, wa ‘Ala alihi wa mahbihi Ajma’een.
Praise be to Allah, the lord of the universe; May the greeting and peace of Allah be upon the best Messenger, Muhammad, the unlettered Prophet; and upon His family and upon all of His companions.

There are many references to brotherhood in the Quran: Joseph and his many brothers, Musa and Harun, and of course, Cain and Abel. Unfortunately, there are no sisterhood examples I can give you from Quran. While Joseph and Musa were able to successfully navigate their brothers’ envy and incompetence, the failure of Cain and Abel to mediate their dispute became a warning to all mankind.
The Quran states in 5:30-32:

“But (Cain’s) mind imposed on him the killing of his brother, so he slew him and became one of the losers. Then Allah sent a raven scratching up the ground, to show him how to hide his brother’s naked corpse. He said: Woe unto me! Am I not able to be as this raven and so hide my brother’s naked corpse? And he became repentant. For that cause We decreed for the Children of Israel that whosoever killeth a human being for other than man-slaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.” (M. M. Pickthall translation)

Cain’s envy, and his deeper problem that of feeling inadequate, was not solved with Abel’s murder. These problems were simply transferred into different forms which were much harder to negotiate; guilt, remorse, and exile. Death does not solve anything, it simply mutates the problems into a different form.

Although there are examples from the life of Prophet Muhammad where he exiled, banished, or killed his enemies, when examined in historical context, these were measures of a last resort. The Prophet’s default, knee-jerk reaction was to be gentle and merciful. There are numerous examples in the hadith and sirah where he was criticized for being too lenient, too willing to listen, too eager to negotiate for peace and too generous to followers of questionable loyalty. When Muhammad emmigrated to the city of Medina, it was not as a triumphant warlord, it was as a mediator of disputes, a peace-maker.

We are all brothers and sisters to one another. This isn’t just some whoo-whoo religious talk, this relationship is ingrained into every cell in our body, in our DNA. We all come from that same Eve in Africa. Remember the warning of Cain and Abel, remember the forgiveness of Musa and Joseph, and reflect upon the example of mercy and gentleness of Muhammad.

“…whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.”

I’d like to end my khutbah today with a du’a from 3:8:

Our Lord! Do not make our hearts deviate after You have guided us and bestow on us mercy. Truly You alone are the Giver.

Rabbana la tuzigh qulubana ba’da idh hadaitana wa hab lana min ladun-ka rahma, innaka antal wahhab. Ameen


“Approaching the Qur’an: the Early Revelations”, introduced and translated by Michael Sells (White Cloud Press, Ashland OR), 1999
“The Oxford Companion to Food” by Alan Davidson, 2nd edition edited by Tom Jaine (Oxford University Press, Oxford) 2006
“The Message of the Qur’an” translated and explained by Muhammad Asad (The Book Foundation, England) 2008.

No comments:

Post a Comment