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Tracking the moral trajectories of the juz ‘amm (last one thirtieth part) of the Qur’an

 

       A must read for all non Arabic Muslims on the moral paradigms of the Juz ‘amm of the Qur’an they read patiently and diligently in their childhood.

 

       A reminder to all humanity regardless of religion, of some of the fundamental moral imperatives intrinsic to all divinely inspired religions and upheld even by the conscientious irreligious/ atheist.

 

       A reminder and warning to the moulvis, imams and ulama who keep Muslim masses ignorant of the essence of what they recite to them of the Qur’an:  

“And the example of those who are bent on effacing the truth (kafaru) is that of one (the beast) who, when the shepherd calls, hears in it nothing but shouts and cries. Deaf, dumb and blind - they do not use reason” (2:171).

 

By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam

Co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009

 May 26, 2012

There will be few Muslim households –except among the newly converts, in which a child is not taught the recitation of the last (1/30th) part of the Qur’an comprising the short Suras 78-114 that date from the early Meccan period (610-612/613) (with exception of the 98th and 110th Suras). There will be even lesser households in the non-Arabic Muslim world where the grown up men and women – let alone children – including those having gone through the traditional madrasa education will be familiar with the moral imperatives as embedded in some of these Suras that they may have recited or listened to hundreds if not thousands of times in their daily as well as Congregation (Friday) prayers all across the Muslim world.

This essay attempts to bring across the moral trajectories of these Suras to familiarize the present day non-Arabic Muslim readers with the introductory moral imperatives of the Qur’an that it gradually elucidated and expanded with the progress of the revelation, particularly in the Medinite (622-632). Since the Suras covered predate the historically turbulent, politically volatile and socially and legislatively formative phase of the revelation – the Medinite period (622-632) - “they speak most directly to every human being regardless of religious confession or cultural background” [1] and therefore this exposition may be of interest and profit to all humanity, believing or non-believing.  

 1.   Agenda and Scope of early revelations

The main thrust of the early revelations was to challenge some of the fundamental notions and beliefs of its immediate audience – the pagan Arabs. They were proud of their idol worship and tribal mores. They did not believe in the Resurrection and in the final reckoning of their deeds before God. They were deeply sceptical about the revelation that they thought was no more than a jumble of dreams (21:5). They also could not reconcile with the idea that God will send a man of no importance like Muhammad (43:31) as His messenger. Thus, at its early stage to which the concluding juz of the Qur’an relates, it had a totally different agenda than expounding the details of its message. Accordingly, its Suras abound in ontological arguments, imageries of the punishment of hell and delights of paradise, allusions to the fate of the errant tribes of the region the Arabs were familiar with - besides proclaiming the glory of God and the truth of the revelation. As a proof of its divine origin, the Suras are laid out in a language of unsurpassable beauty, uncanny subtlety (evoking wonder and fear), swinging rhythm and sweeping lyricism and often led by vibrant imageries and powerful and enigmatic oaths heralding and reinforcing their themes. Any elaboration of these features may hardly serve any purpose as it is simply impossible to capture the beauty and subtlety of Qur’anic diction – let alone any classical work, in a foreign tongue while the Qur’an is “by far the finest work of Arabic prose in existence” [2]. However, the 81st Sura (at-takwir) is rendered below to illustrate the Qur’an’s style:

“When the sun is folded up (81:1), And when the stars fall lustreless (2), And when the mountains are vanished (3) And when the pregnant she-camels are neglected (4); And when the wild beasts are gathered together (5); And when the oceans overflow (6); And when the souls are joined with their bodies (7); And when the female (infant) buried alive (as the pagan Arabs used to do) is asked (8) For what sin she was killed?” (81:9)…

 2.   The broader Agenda of the Qur’an  

The Qur’an had a far greater challenge in the offing: “to bring humanity out of darkness (the era of jahilliyah) into light (an era of enlightenment) (14:1) – in order to “lift from humanity their burdens and shackles that were upon them (before) (7:157). This called for eradicating the prevalent unjust, patriarchal, feudalistic, barbaric and arbitrary tribal mores and suffocating taboos, and establishing divinely ordained just, gender neutral, egalitarian, compassionate and upright moral laws (din al qayyimah – 98:5, din al huqq – 9:29) and liberating spirit. This was to be accomplished under the ambit of divine guidance (hada Llah – 2:120) leading to the upright path (sirat al mustaqim – 1:6, 36:4).

True to its broader mission, the Qur’an chips in precepts of it divine guidance since its debut. Thus, the second revelation (in chronological order) that commanded the Prophet (addressing him by the title Mudaththir) to publicly announce his mission was not without a moral dimension (74:5/6).  

“O you enwrapped (Mudaththir) (in your thoughts) (74:1)! Arise and warn (your people) (2). Magnify your Lord (3). Purify your inner self (thiyab) (4). Shun all defilements (5). Do not bestow favour, seeking gains (6). And turn to God in patience” (74:7). 

 The subsequent revelations are also punctuated with one or the other elements of divine guidance/ moral imperatives as summarized below.  

78:31. “As for the muttaqin (the morally upright), a supreme fulfilment is in store for them.  

79:40-41. “Anyone who stands in awe of God and restrains his ego (nafs) from whims and lowly desires (hawa) (79:40) – his abode is the Garden (79:41).” 

83:1-3. “Woe to the cheaters (83:1) – who demand in full (measure) when they receive by measure from people (2) - but when they measure out for them, or weigh for them, cheat (them)” (83:3).  [Note in today’s context when fiat money has replaced the barter system of old, the exhortation will translate to making fair payment for goods and services.]

84:25. (An awesome punishment is in store for humanity) “but those who believe and do good deeds (‘amel us sualihat) will have unending reward.”

 85:11. “As for those who believe and do good deeds (‘amel us sualihat) – there are Gardens for them with streams running below – that will be a supreme fulfilment.”

87:14-15. “Only those will attain a happy state (flah) who attain to zakah (purify their ego/ nafs by curbing their lowly desires) (87:14), remember God and pray (unto) Him” (87:15).   

 89:14-20. “Surely, your Lord (O Muhammad) is ever Watchful (87:14). As for man, when his Lord tests him with His generosity and His blessing, he says: ‘My Lord has been generous to me’ (15). But when He tests him by restricting his provision, he says: ‘My Lord has disgraced me!’ (16). But that is not all! ‘You are not generous to the orphans (89:17), and have no urge (lit., ‘do not urge each other’) to feed the poor (89:18). You consume your inheritance with all-consuming passion (89:19) and love your wealth with compelling obsession” (89:20).  

90:10-16. “(We lead humanity) to the two highways (good and evil) (90:10). But he does not brave the steep one (90:11). And what will tell you what the steep one is? (90:12). (It is) the freeing of a slave (90:13), and feeding during famine (14) an orphaned relative (15), or the needy (lying) in the dust” (90:16). Then he will be among those who believe and enjoin patience and enjoin compassion (90:17). It is they, who will be the inmates of the paradise” (90:18).  

91:7-10. “God has intricately balanced (sawwaha) [3] human ego (nafs) (90:7) and imbued it with both moral depravity and moral uprightness (taqwa) (91:8). Only those will attain to a happy state who attain to zakah (purify their ego/ nafs by curbing their lowly desires) (91:9).  And lost are those who corrupt it” (91:10).

92:4-13. “Anyone who is generous and stands by taqwa (moral uprightness) and enjoins good (92:6) - We shall facilitate him to the easy way (92:7). But one who is niggardly and self-cantered (92:8) and gives a lie to all that is good (92:9) - We shall facilitate him to the hard way (92:10). His wealth will not avail him when he falls (92:11). Surely, guidance is up to Us (92:12), and the end and the beginning belong to Us” (92:13). 

92:17-20 “The morally upright (atqa: given to taqwa) will be kept away from the blaze (of hellfire) (92:17) – those who give of their wealth to attain to zakah (purify their ego) without any favour to be repaid to anyone (92:19) – except to seek the acceptance of their Lord – the Supreme (92:20). And such in time will be well pleased” (92:21).   

95:4-6. “We have created man in the finest order (95:4). Then We debased him to the lowest of the low (95:5) – except for those who believe and do good deeds (‘amel us sualihat) - they will have unending reward” (95:6).

96:6-14. “Indeed man is prone to commit excesses (96:6). He thinks he is self-sufficient (96:7). Indeed his return is to your Lord (96:8). Have you seen (O Muhammad) the fellow who forbids (96:9) the devotee when he turns to pray (unto God) (96:10). Do you think he is guided aright (96:11) or upholds taqwa (96:12)? Do you see (Muhammad) he gave it a lie and turned away (96: 13). Does he not know that God sees it” (96:14)?

Note: Commentators agree that ‘the fellow’ specifically referred to in this passage is Abu Jahal, a prominent Meccan leader who was bitterly opposed to the revelation. Thus oblique historical allusion underlines a principle of non-violence – a devotee when prevented from doing his prayer by an oppressor is not to go into any confrontation but let the matter rest with God who sees and knows everything.  

99:6-8. “On that day, humans will be sorted out and shown their deeds (99:6):  whoever does an iota of good will see it (99:7); and whoever doe an iota of evil will see it” (99:8).

100:6-8. “Indeed man is ungrateful to his Lord (100:6) and he bears witness to that (by his ingratitude) (100:7) for he is intense in his love for wealth (and does not want to share it with the needy as God enjoins)” (100:8).

103:2-4. “Indeed man is bound to be a loser (103:2) - except those who believe and do good deeds (‘amel us sualihat) (103:3) and enjoin truth and enjoin patience” (103:4). 

104:1-4. “Woe to all slanderers and fault-finders (104:1) (And woe to) those who amass wealth and multiply it (104:2) thinking his wealth would make him last (104:3). But he will be given over to an agonizing punishment (at the Resurrection)” (104:4).   

107. “Do you see the one who gives a lie to the din (religion/moral laws) (107:1)? It is he who rebuffs the orphan (2), and has no urge (lit., ‘does not urge each other’) to feed the poor (3). So, woe to those prayerful (4) – those who are heedless of their prayer (5), - those who aim to be seen (in public) (6) but hold back from helping (others)” (107:7).

4. Recapitulation / Reminder

The listed verses are cut and dry and not laid out thematically – though covering the cardinal moral imperatives and themes that, as the Qur’an warns, are not to be taken lightly (86:14). The Qur’an, which is 30 times the length of the juz covered in this discourse, offers all kinds of illustrations (17:89, 18:54, 30:58, 39:27) and explanations (38:5, 50:2) to make its message clear and distinct (12:1, 15:1, 16:64, 26:2, 27:1, 36:69, 43:2, 44:2). It was dealing with a highly recalcitrant audience that needed repeated exhortations and a great deal of convincing to take the Qur’anic message seriously – they were the kuffar of Mecca, the nomadic Arabs and the Arab Christians and Jews. The present day Muslim readers are, barring some converts, born Muslims. Though almost stark ignorant of what they read / recite of the Qur’an, they hardly need any Biblical and historical allusions and repeated reminders on the same theme. Therefore, the tabled exposition may be enlightening if he reads through them with an open mind.  However, to assist the comprehension of the present day highly stretched reader, the contents of the tabled verses are further summarized below in a topic-wise fashion beginning with its four cardinal tenets followed by a list of traits and attitudes that stand in conflict with the Qur’anic message.

4.1. Good Deeds (‘amel us sualihat). The believers who are active in good deeds are promised great rewards (84:25,85:11) and are not going to be the losers (103:2). As the revelation advanced through the Medinite period, the doing of good deeds was marked out as the sole criterion for earning God’s approval and paradise for all believers in God regardless of confessional affiliations [4].    

4.2. Taqwa (78:31, 91:8, 92:6, 92:17, 96:12). It epitomizes the positive human instinct of moral uprightness that counterpoises his negative instinct of ‘moral depravity’ (91:8). Thus, the muttaqi (who practices taqwa) will be one who restrains himself from all kinds of vices, indulgences and temptations – one who remains fully aware of his universal social, moral and ethical responsibilities [5]. The Qur’an connects taqwa with scores of its commandments that were to come later in course of the revelation (not covered in this limited exposition), and promises God’s final acceptance and rewards to the muttaqin (78:21).

4.3. Zakah. As for taqwa and Good Deeds (‘amel us sualihat), zakah is yet another universal tenet of the Qur’an that punctuates its entire text. In close synergy with taqwa, it may be conflated conscious human effort to curb the lowly desires and thus purify his ego (nafs) (87:14, 91:9). The plural form of zakah – the Zakat, that was expounded at a later phase of the revelation (Medinite period) is one of the avenues for discharging zakah. But the Qur’an uses the word zakah for all kinds of humanitarian deeds [6].  

It is worth noting that the Qur’anic vocabulary is immensely rich. Its noted core imperatives (taqwa, zakah, sualiha) have overlapping shades of meaning depending upon the context and the linguistic form – for the Qur’anic words are often derived from a common root. Commentators have interpreted these words and their derivatives using their own interpretational sources, vocabulary, speculative meditation and judgment – though God alone knows His speech best and the Qur’an offers the best explanation (25:33) as attempted in this work.

4.4. Free will. In its parable of two highways (90:10) and the polarity of human ego (nafs) between moral depravity and moral uprightness (taqwa – 91:8) the Qur’an brings across its divine scheme of free will or freedom to chose the right path or go astray in any transaction of life. Since this freedom is divinely ordained and thus draws on the will of God, human choice – whether he takes the right path or goes astray is a reflection of the will of God (81:29). However, as God is above all human associations, the term will as understood by humans may not hold for God and any attempt to comprehend the notion of ‘will of God’ may at best be speculative.        

4.5 Attributes and traits that conflict, or are not in tune with the Qur’anic message:

·        Slandering and fault-finding (104:1).

·        Not being generous to the orphans (and the needy) (89:17).

·        Not urging one another to feed the orphans (and the needy) (89:18, 107:3).

·        Obsession to accumulate and consume wealth (89:19, 104:2).

·        Public display of prayer to gain popularity without helping others (107:4).

·        Giving oneself to whims and lowly desires (79:40).

·        Underpaying for goods and services but demanding the utmost (83:1-3)   

·        Succumbing to whims and lowly desires (79:40)

·        Giving oneself to excesses (96:6).

·        Expecting return while bestowing favour and financially helping others (74:6, 92:19).

·        Responding ungracefully or violently in the event the authority in power imposes restrictions in religion for God sees all (96:9-14). 

Commentators have taken great pains to elucidate these Qur’anic imperatives, based on their mindset, experience, knowledge, worldview, and vocabulary and there are many traditions and accounts giving flash to these bare propositions. However, the Qur’an declares that the core elements of its message, such as those covered in this exposition are clearly stated (3:7).

“He is the One who has revealed to you (O Muhammad,) the Book which contains (some) clear verses that (form) the essence of this Book, while others are allegorical. As for those with perversity in their hearts, follow that which is allegorical seeking confusion and seeking an interpretation. No one knows its interpretation, except God. Those, who have knowledge, say: ‘We believe in it; it all comes from our Lord;’ yet none is mindful of this, except the prudent”(3:7)

Therefore, any open-minded reader in any era and any civilisational setting can comprehend them and relate them to their own circumstances except those bent on denying/ effacing the truth – of whom the Qur’an says:

“And the example of those who are bent on denying/ effacing the truth (kafaru) is that of one (the beast) who, when the shepherd calls, hears in it nothing but shouts and cries. Deaf, dumb and blind - they do not use reason” (2:171).       

 Conclusion

The truth is the permeation of the Qur’anic moral imperatives and liberating paradigms across the world (without debating the source of the inspiration behind this social transformation) and its erosion from Islam has virtually reversed the civilisational hierarchy over the last millennium. In their early history, the Muslims founded and led the greatest civilization of the era and attracted people of other faiths and lands to their faith and centres and commanded trust, respect and admiration of the non-Muslims for their personal qualities. They were active in good deeds, taqwa and zakah; honest and trust worthy in business dealings, compassionate to the poor and the underprivileged, and models of simplicity, moderation and generosity and thus epitomized the moral imperatives of the last juz (one thirtieth part) of the Qur’an as expounded in this discourse.  Today, the non-Muslims look upon them with mistrust, disgust and contempt and perceive them as a barbaric and atavistic cult that is a burden and threat to human civilization. It is therefore imperative – a life and death question, so to say, for the mullas, the ulama, the media dominating preachers and all shades and categories of theologians and custodians of faith to enlighten the Muslim masses on at the least, the moral imperative of that concluding juz of the Qur’an they unfailingly read in childhood as part of rote learning - without understanding its essence. However, if they simply ignore this exposition having sighted it, they will only act like the inveterate denier of truth (kafir) the Qur’an alluded to in its verse 2:171 quoted in the foregoing.    

 Finally it must be admitted that this exposition may fall short of even remotely reflecting the beauty, subtlety and puzzling nuances of the early revelations (the juz ‘amm included) that filled the Arabs - who were at the height of their literary glory - to such awe that they turned away from it in dread as if they were frightened donkeys fleeing a lion [74:49-51]. However, the Qur’an being a font of guidance (huda - 2:2, 2:185, 3:138, 7:52, 16:64, 27:77, 31:3) that makes itself clear and distinct (12:1, 15:1, 16:64, 26:2, 27:1, 36:69, 43:2, 44:2), the analytical approach of the work is consistent with its objective – though God knows best.       

A warning and reminder to the educated Muslims

The fashionable and enlightened educated Muslim class often derides the moulvis and ridicules the fatwa launchers for their preposterous fatwas, but fails to realize that what they ridicule and deride is rooted in the theological discourses taught in many Islamic religious schools (madrasas). Their ignorance of the essential teachings of their faith prevents the educated Muslims and influential members of their civil society from challenging such detractors and distorters of faith in an objective, orchestrated and forceful manner. It is hoped that this virtual spoon feeding of the essence of the last thirtieth portion of the Qur’an that they have repeatedly but ignorantly read or recited with great patience and diligence may strengthen their hands in challenging the moulvis, ulama and the fatwas peddlers who are virtually demeaning and demonizing the faith from their own turf.   

  Notes

1.    Michael Sells, Approaching the Qur’an, 2nd edition, Oregon 2007, p. 4.

2.    Alan Jones, The Koran, London 1994, opening page.

3. Sawwaha. This is one of the richest of Qur’anic terms that captures the culmination of the process of creation to its final stage of perfection. Thus the Qur’an uses this term while referring to the intricate balance of heaven ( 2:29, 79:29), the completion of the process of embryonic development in a woman’s uterus (82:7).

4. 2:62, 4:124, 5:69, 22:17, 64:9, 65:11.

5. Muhammad Yunus and Ashfaque Syed, Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA 2009, Ch. 8.1.

6.  Ibid., Ch. 46.3.

May 26, 2012

Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.

 URL: http://newageislam.com/ijtihad,-rethinking-islam/muhammad-yunus,-new-age-islam/tracking-the-moral-trajectories-of-the-juz-‘amm-(last-one-thirtieth-part)-of-the-qur’an/d/7457

 

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