Friday, April 17, 2015

Anatomy of a Surah: Surat An-Nur

Surah 24 An-Nur (The Light)
Allahu nurus-samawati wal ‘ard.
Mathalu nurihi ka-mishkatin-fiha misbah.
Almisbahu fi zujajah.
Azzujajtu ka ‘annaha kawkabun-durriyyuny-yuqadu
min-shajaratim-mubarakatin-zaytunatil-la sharqiyyatinw-wa la gharbiyyatiny-yakadu zaytuha yudil’u wa law lam tamsas-hu nar.
Nurun ‘ala nur. 
Yahdil-lahu linurihi many-yashaa.
Wa yadribulahul-amthala linnas.
Wal-lahu bikulli shay’in Alim. [35]

God is the light of the heavens and the earth. 
The parable of His light is, as it were,
that of a niche containing a lamp;
 the lamp is enclosed in glass, the glass shining like a radiant star;
[a lamp] lit from a blessed tree –
an olive tree that is neither of the east nor of the west –
the oil whereof [is so bright that it] would well-nigh give light
[of itself] even though fire had not touched it:  light upon light!
God guides unto His light whoever wills [to be guided];
and to this end] God propounds parables unto men,
since God [alone] has full knowledge of all things. [35]

We find this, one of most beautiful ayat in the Quran, in the middle of Surat An-Nur.  This is one of the metaphorical Surahs, those that use evocative images to try to communicate something of the nature of Allah to humankind.  In fact, the last words of the ayah tell us that this is exactly what Allah intentioned. 

I do find it intriguing that this ayah appears in Quran, unexpectedly, immediately following a collection of ayat which contain detailed instructions about how the Muslim community should handle some very, shall we say, terrestrial, earthbound issues.  After giving notice in ayah 1 that what is to come are plain, clear messages that should be kept in mind, Surat An-Nur gets right down to specifics with the following:

As for the adulteress and the adulterer – flog each of them with a hundred lashes, and let not compassion with them keep you from [carrying out] this law of God, if you [truly] believe in God and the Last Day; and let a group of the believers witness their chastisement. [2]

 Ayah 3 goes on to say that both the adulterer and the adulteress are equally guilty of according to their own lust a place side by side with God, and that this is forbidden to believers.

This is not the only place in Quran where passages of sublime metaphorical beauty are juxtaposed with specific instructions that seem harsh and unforgiving.  In Surat An-Nur alone there are other themes, besides hudud (punishment) for zina (adultery) that appear to be addressed to a specific context:  the accusation of adultery wrongfully attributed to Aisha, rules for the marriage of slaves and concubines, rules of courtesy when entering someone’s home, the behaviors of the hypocrites in Madinah, women’s and men’s modesty based on the dress of the time, rules about who it was appropriate to eat with.  In fact, these rules provide a fascinating series of vignettes – reflections on the lives of the followers of the Prophet. 

Let’s go back to Ayah 2, and take a closer look at how the wahy worked in the case of punishment for adultery.  The word zina used in these verses and translated as adultery means voluntary sexual intercourse between a man and a woman who are not married to each other, regardless of whether they are married to other persons.  What was the purpose of such harsh and humiliating punishment – 100 lashes in public?  Besides establishing a norm for committed sexual relationships, there was a compelling reason to contain sexual activity at that time.  The problem of orphans was out of control.  It was common practice among men and women in Arabia before Islam to have sexual partners outside of marriage.  Since birth control was unknown or ineffective, there were many children whose paternity was unknown, and who were therefore not adequately cared for.  The Prophet invoked Divine intervention when faced with any problem, and the new restrictions in 24:2-3 helped solve the problem of fatherless children.  They provided a way to organize social relationships in a more constructive manner.  But the new regulation was also constrained in its application by the subsequent verses, 24:4-5:

And as for those who accuse chaste women [of adultery], and then are unable to produce four witnesses [in support of their accusation], flog them with eighty lashes; and ever after refuse to accept from them any testimony – since it is they, they that are truly depraved! [4]
excepting [from this interdict] only those who afterwards repent and made amends:  for, behold, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace. [5]

This proof of evidence, four witnesses to the adulterous act itself, was extremely difficult, if not impossible to provide.  (Quran requires only two witnesses in all other criminal and civil cases.)  And the punishment for accusation in the absence of four eye-witnesses is almost as high as for adultery.  This punishment was so qualified that its strategic role was deterrent.  Like the nuclear option in the 20th century, the constraints on its implementation made it nearly impossible to apply.
Third party accusations relating to illicit sexual intercourse are practically precluded, leaving the proof of adultery to voluntary faith-based confession.  

The reaction of the Prophet’s followers to the revelation of these verses was predictable. Saad ibn Obada, a leader of al-ansar, the Muslims of Madinah, immediately protested, asking the Prophet, “Are you sure these ayat came from Allah?”  The Prophet turned to his followers, offended that Saad had questioned the wahy, and said, “Did you hear what he said?” The others answered, “No, ya Rasul, he does not question the wahy, but you have to understand him.  He is so jealous he only marries virgins, and when he divorces, no other man dares to marry his wives.”  Saad said, “I cannot follow that rule – to get four witnesses if I find my wife committing adultery.  By the time I get the four, the act will be finished.  I will stop them first.” 

Sure enough, soon after this, a man, Hilal ibn Omaya, came to the Prophet and said his wife had committed adultery.  Hilal was not yet aware of the rule about four witnesses that had descended.  The Prophet asked him if he had witnesses and he said no.  The Prophet told Hilal, that he would have to get 80 lashes.  Hilal said, “I told the truth, so be it.  I believe Allah will intervene on my behalf.”   The Prophet was about to order him to be flogged when his face changed to show that he was receiving a wahy.  This is when ayat 24:6-10 were revealed.  The Prophet told Hilal he had good news for him. 

And as for those who accuse their own wives [of adultery], but have no witnesses except themselves, let each of these [accusers] call God four times to witness that he is indeed telling the truth [6] and the fifth time, that God’s curse be upon him if he is telling a lie. [7]
But [as for the wife, all] chastisement shall be averted from her by her calling God four times to witness that he is indeed telling a lie, [8] and the fifth [time], that God’s curse be upon her if he is telling the truth. [9]

Hilal and his wife came before the Prophet.  Hilal swore four times before Allah that he told the truth, and invoked God’s curse if he wasn’t.  His wife swore four times that she did not commit adultery.  On the fifth time she faltered, but then took the fifth oath.  There was no determination of guilt.  The couple then separated.


This story from the early commentators is just one illustration of the interactive nature of the wahy.  Virtually all of the ayat in Quran that describe rules of conduct came in response to problems in the Prophet’s community that needed resolution.  The Prophet was trying to form a new society and answers came from God to help him do that.  The Prophet and his followers invoked guidance from God and the guidance came – whatever they needed…. rules that carried them along the path toward a more just and equitable society, in words they could understand – that fit the language and cognitive development of 7th century Arabs… rules that they could realistically adopt, however difficult.  But toward is the operative word here.  They did not achieve a fully just and equitable society.  They made the progress that they could, at that time and in that place, with the guidance of God’s Prophet.  The project continues for us today.

And do all of the rules prescribed for the 7th century Arabs apply to us?  Of course not.  The problems humankind faces today, and the evolution of human cognition could not have been imagined in the time of the Prophet.  We need to stop fantasizing about Quran as a book of guidance whose every rule applies universally.  Understanding Quran is now, as it has always been, an interpretive project.  The Quran is a remarkable record of Divine guidance to a community.  It launched a change in human consciousness, and helped advance the course of civilization.  Reading Quran helps us think about where we have come from historically as a species, and where we might be headed.  Much of what is there evokes qualities of Divine Reality that transcend its historical context.  Those are the passages that touch our hearts today.

I return again to where I started - ayah 35 of Surat An-Nur:
God is the light of the heavens and the earth. 
The parable of His light is, as it were,
that of a niche containing a lamp;
 the lamp is enclosed in glass, the glass shining like a radiant star;

The thing about glass in a lamp is, it not only allows light to shine through.  It can also reflect whatever is in front of it.  Maybe we could think of the ayat in Quran that prescribe rules for specific circumstances as panes of glass reflecting the needs of the believers.  Maybe we can imagine new panes in that lamp that reflect our own needs, but allow God’s radiance to shine through and illuminate new paths.  

Allah is timeless – as real today as ever – and as available as ever to help us, whenever we humble ourselves and seek the meaning in our lives, and make ourselves receptive to God’s light. 

Yahdil-lahu linurihi many-yashaa.
Wa yadribulahul-amthala linnas.
Wal-lahu bikulli shay’in Alim. [24:35]

God guides unto His light whoever wills [to be guided];
and to this end] God propounds parables unto men,
since God [alone] has full knowledge of all things. [24:35]

Wa laqad anzalnaa ilaykum
Ayatim-mubay-yinatinw-wa mathalam-minal-ladhina
Khalaw min-qablikum wa maw ‘izatal-lilmuttaqin. [24:34]

And Indeed, from on high have We bestowed upon you messages clearly showing the truth,
And [many] a lesson from [the stories of] those who have passed away before you, and many an admonition to the God-conscious. [24:34]

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