Surah 2:1-24: “If ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a Sura like thereunto”

As you will recall from the introductory posts, the Qur’an is not ordered, as the Bible is, in any kind of chronological order or even thematically-consistent order. Rather, its chapters (surahs) are ordered from longest to shortest, with the exception of the Opening. Surah 2, the Heifer (Yusuf Ali’s translation is “the Cow”) is therefore the longest chapter in the Qur’an, coming in at a whopping 286 verses, compared to a scant seven for the Opening.

Because the Surah is so long and it is so rich in historical context for the Qur’an, I will take it in sections. The chapter abounds with stories, theology, and laws; it is a very diverse chapter that any modern editor would probably have advised be broken up even further that it might have retained some measure of thematic consistency. I am going to start with the first 24 verses of this massive chapter because it strikes me as a discrete section; it opens the chapter with a challenge to non-believers like me, and as you will see in the next post, it transitions immediately into a set of legal and moral commands that are totally unrelated to the content of this first group of 24 verses. And they are (as always, from Yusuf Ali’s translation):

1. A.L.M.
2. This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah.
3. Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them;
4. And who believe in the Revelation sent to thee, and sent before thy time, and (in their hearts) have the assurance of the Hereafter.
5. They are on (true) guidance, from their Lord, and it is these who will prosper.
6. As to those who reject Faith, it is the same to them whether thou warn them or do not warn them; they will not believe.
7. Allah hath set a seal on their hearts and on their hearing, and on their eyes is a veil; great is the penalty they (incur).
8. Of the people there are some who say: “We believe in Allah and the Last Day;” but they do not (really) believe.
9. Fain would they deceive Allah and those who believe, but they only deceive themselves, and realise (it) not!
10. In their hearts is a disease; and Allah has increased their disease: And grievous is the penalty they (incur), because they are false (to themselves).
11. When it is said to them: “Make not mischief on the earth,” they say: “Why, we only Want to make peace!”
12. Of a surety, they are the ones who make mischief, but they realise (it) not.
13. When it is said to them: “Believe as the others believe:” They say: “Shall we believe as the fools believe?” Nay, of a surety they are the fools, but they do not know.
14. When they meet those who believe, they say: “We believe;” but when they are alone with their evil ones, they say: “We are really with you: We (were) only jesting.”
15. Allah will throw back their mockery on them, and give them rope in their trespasses; so they will wander like blind ones (To and fro).
16. These are they who have bartered Guidance for error: But their traffic is profitless, and they have lost true direction,
17. Their similitude is that of a man who kindled a fire; when it lighted all around him, Allah took away their light and left them in utter darkness. So they could not see.
18. Deaf, dumb, and blind, they will not return (to the path).
19. Or (another similitude) is that of a rain-laden cloud from the sky: In it are zones of darkness, and thunder and lightning: They press their fingers in their ears to keep out the stunning thunder-clap, the while they are in terror of death. But Allah is ever round the rejecters of Faith!
20. The lightning all but snatches away their sight; every time the light (Helps) them, they walk therein, and when the darkness grows on them, they stand still. And if Allah willed, He could take away their faculty of hearing and seeing; for Allah hath power over all things.
21. O ye people! Adore your Guardian-Lord, who created you and those who came before you, that ye may have the chance to learn righteousness;
22. Who has made the earth your couch, and the heavens your canopy; and sent down rain from the heavens; and brought forth therewith Fruits for your sustenance; then set not up rivals unto Allah when ye know (the truth).
23. And if ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a Sura like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (If there are any) besides Allah, if your (doubts) are true.
24. But if ye cannot- and of a surety ye cannot- then fear the Fire whose fuel is men and stones,- which is prepared for those who reject Faith.

Lets start with a mystery. What is going on in verse 1 of the Heifer? Three free-floating letters, A.L.M., seem to be doing nothing but taking space before Muhammed launches into an aggressive work of pre-emptive apologetics, attacking not just unbelievers in general, but their most contemptible sub-group: apostates.

There is no academic consensus as to the meaning of the three characters, which are altogether called muqatta’at, that open the Heifher; 28 other chapters have their own combination of the “mysteries letters” (one translation of muqatta’at). One scholar, Amin Islahi, speculates in his work that the letters, in their original meaning, may signal certain themes in the chapters they open. Otto Loth claimed in his book Tabaris Korankommentar to have discovered some numerological connection to pre-Islamic Assyrian and Babylonian languages. And the Sufi tradition holds that they are secret mystical references to the names of God. Who knows?

One theory with which I am perfectly comfortable is that the letters are simply secretarial marks by some scribe trying to keep track of which manuscript is which. If these letters were of divine significance, we would hope that God would do us the favor of actually explaining what they mean to us (since, as verse 2 tells us, the Qur’an is “of guidance sure”). If they are thematic markers, is Islahi telling us that a whopping 86 surahs of the Qur’an (those that do not open with such letters) have no themes worth talking about? And if they are some numerological oddity, that still does nothing to explain why only about one fourth of the chapters have them.

When Muhammed died, there was no extant written version of the Qur’an. The actual origin of the Qur’an is in a series of oral recitations by Muhammed to his followers, who may or may not have reduced these recitations to writing or who may have committed them to memory and spread them to others before the final written versions were later crystallized. Certain clues lead me to believe that Muhammed directly recited the Qur’an to transcribers (for example, it would have been much easier to whitewash the so-called “Satanic Verses,” which I’ll discuss when we get to surah 53, had there been no original written record of them). Whether or not Muhammed was, as tradition holds, illiterate, is of little consequence to me either way but I am inclined to doubt it because there is evidence in the Qur’an that Muhammed was fairly fluent in pre-Islamic Arab poetry, Jewish and Zoroastrian theology (though he had an atrociously inaccurate understanding of Christianity, the Trinity in particular, as we’ll see), and because that same tradition holds that Muhammed was a successful merchant, indicating that he should at least know how to read numbers.

Back to the story. As time went on, a number of inconsistent compilations of the words of Muhammed had begun to proliferate across the early Islamic world. Scholars today call them the “Metropolitan Codices,” and they were all ordered destroyed and replaced by the early Caliph Uthman (the Caliphs were leaders of the Islamic world in its early days; there is no analogy in Christianity, though if the Pope were also a king of a nation that would be fairly close). Uthman’s text has since morphed into the modern Qur’an. (I say “morphed” because there is still a rich lineage of textual variation between Uthman’s compilation and the modern day; it is traced with pointed criticism by the immensely talented and mercifully anonymous Ibn Warraq in his vast polemic Why I Am Not A Muslim, which you should buy and read here).

Because we must view Uthman’s codex as an attempt to bring multiple different manuscripts under a single umbrella, it stands to reason that we are talking about a compilation of the work of many different authors. It is not inconceivable that any of these authors might have used these letters as index markers or as mnemonic devices for the orally-recited verses they were attempting to translate. I don’t know for sure, obviously – this is something of a pet theory, but it sings much more soundly in my ears than the song of magic mystical numbers advocated by the more superstitious bards.

Lets return to the next. Surah 2 is one of what are called the Medinan surahs. This refers to those chapters that were written after Muhammed’s return to (or conquest of, depending on who you ask) Medina. There is a lot to say about the differences between the two “kinds” of Surah, but for right now it will suffice to say that Surah 2: the Heifer comes from an era in Muhammed’s life where his political and military positions were stronger; in this latter part of the formation of Islam, Muslims were more numerous and were rapidly displacing their political opponents throughout the Arabian peninsula.

The aggressive tone of this opening sequence therefore makes sense, since the stronger you are, the less conciliatory your rhetoric need be. He rails against “hypocrites” (ie, those who claim to believe but don’t act like it), apostates, and unbelievers, nonsensically stating that the merciful and compassionate Allah has willfully sealed up their hearts to forbid their belief… and they should be excoriated because of this. There is a ringing parallel to the story of Moses and the fictional slavery of the Jewish people in Egypt in the Bible, where Pharoah’s recalcitrance in the face of Moses’s use of holy fury against Pharoah and his people is explained by God’s deliberately hardening Pharoah’s heart against Moses.

But perhaps my favorite part of this section is verse 23’s dare to any who question the absolute perfection of the Qur’an to produce “a like Sura,” to produce a copy that’s just as good. Beyond the bevy of grammatical oddities in the Qur’an that will be discussed in later posts as they occur, I of course believe that I am stepping to that challenge with every word I write here: I believe that the Jefferson Qur’an is superior to the Qur’an. And here is how I believe one should produce a superior 2:1-24:

1. A.L.M.
2. This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah.
3. Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them;
4. And who believe in the Revelation sent to thee, and sent before thy time, and (in their hearts) have the assurance of the Hereafter.
5. They are on (true) guidance, from their Lord, and it is these who will prosper.
6. As to those who reject Faith, it is the same to them whether thou warn them or do not warn them; they will not believe.
7. Allah hath set a seal on their hearts and on their hearing, and on their eyes is a veil; great is the penalty they (incur).
8. Of the people there are some who say: “We believe in Allah and the Last Day;” but they do not (really) believe.
9. Fain would they deceive Allah and those who believe, but they only deceive themselves, and realise (it) not!
10. In their hearts is a disease; and Allah has increased their disease: And grievous is the penalty they (incur), because they are false (to themselves).
11. When it is said to them: “Make not mischief on the earth,” they say: “Why, we only Want to make peace!”
12. Of a surety, they are the ones who make mischief, but they realise (it) not.
13. When it is said to them: “Believe as the others believe:” They say: “Shall we believe as the fools believe?” Nay, of a surety they are the fools, but they do not know.
14. When they meet those who believe, they say: “We believe;” but when they are alone with their evil ones, they say: “We are really with you: We (were) only jesting.”
15. Allah will throw back their mockery on them, and give them rope in their trespasses; so they will wander like blind ones (To and fro).
16. These are they who have bartered Guidance for error: But their traffic is profitless, and they have lost true direction,
17. Their similitude is that of a man who kindled a fire; when it lighted all around him, Allah took away their light and left them in utter darkness. So they could not see.
18. Deaf, dumb, and blind, they will not return (to the path).
19. Or (another similitude) is that of a [See the] rain-laden cloud[s] from the sky: In it are zones of darkness, and thunder and lightning[.]: They press their fingers in their ears to keep out the stunning thunder-clap, the while they are in terror of death. But Allah is ever round the rejecters of Faith!
20. The lightning all but snatches away their sight; every time the light (Helps) them, they walk therein, and when the darkness grows on them, they stand still. And if Allah willed, He could take away their faculty of hearing and seeing; for Allah hath power over all things.
21. O ye people! Adore your Guardian-Lord, who created you and those who came before you, that ye may have the chance to learn righteousness;
22. Who has made the earth your couch, and the heavens your canopy; and sent down rain from the heavens; and brought forth therewith Fruits for your sustenance; then set not up rivals unto Allah when ye know (the truth).
23. And [I]f ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a Sura like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (If there are any) besides Allah, if your (doubts) are true.
24. But if ye cannot- and of a surety ye cannot- then fear the Fire whose fuel is men and stones,- which is prepared for those who reject Faith.

2:8 Of the people there are some who say: “We believe in Allah and the Last Day”; but they do not really believe.
2:11 When it is said to them: “Do not make mischief on the earth,” they say: “Why, we only want to make peace!”
2:13 When it is said to them: “Believe as the others believe:” they say: “Shall we believe as the fools believe?”
2:19 [See] the rain-laden cloud from the sky: in it are zones of darkness, and thunder and lightning.
2:23 And if you are in doubt as to what Muhammed wrote, then produce a Sura like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers if your doubts are true.

I admit that I have kept only a very snarky reading of this section. Yes, there are unbelievers. Yes, they just want to live in peace and be left alone. And yes, some of us, when asked why we don’t believe what others believe, will respond in our most irritable moments with some variant of “you want me to believe what those idiots believe?”

Not that Muslims are idiots, or Christians, or anybody else. I really don’t think that. There is a caricature of the modern secular movement that sees it as a self-righteous, aloof cabal of socially incompetent nerds who just like to dump all over religion and see themselves as smarter than everybody else. I am not one of those atheists, nor have I ever actually met one of those atheists, despite our frequent portrayal as such by many of the religious. But I do want to preserve, as an absolute right, the right to disagree with other people. I think that most Muslims would agree with this sentiment.

But sadly I think that many Islamic societies have not yet achieved a level of pluralism and religious tolerance necessary to rise to the high mantle of a later admonition of the Qur’an, which is that “there shall be no compulsion in religion.” The Islamic community has produced a vast trove of beautiful art, sublime poetry, they preserved Greek philosophy and math in mighty libraries and schools while the people of Europe were still trying to determine whether or not Jews had started the Plague by poisoning the water supply. And yet the Islamic world has also produced many societies that either have strong social pressures towards conformity or even outright bans on religious pluralism: as Muhammed says, even the beautiful clouds at night illuminated by lightning yet retain “zones of darkness.” And so that verse remains as well.

Finally, I have retained 2:23 because I like the sentiment. First of all, there are many parts of the Qur’an that really are extremely talented and beautiful poetry. I am going to criticize the text, language, grammar, syntax, even that very poetry throughout this blog, but do not confuse this in even your most defensive moment as some kind of insinuation that the Qur’an is useless, or stupid, or totally devoid of literary value. I don’t believe that, and it’s easy not to believe because it is obviously not true. But still I will rise to that challenge, and here is another small brick in the wall of that challenge.

As the next post winds deeper into the thicket of the massive second surah, I will use that opportunity to talk more about the military fortunes of the early Muslims, and to deliver some much-needed praise for some of Muhammed’s moral values as expressed therein.

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3 thoughts on “Surah 2:1-24: “If ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a Sura like thereunto””

  1. 5. They are on (true) guidance, from their Lord, and it is these who will prosper.

    Why not only strike out “, from their Lord,” rather than the entire line?

    8. Of the people there are some who say: “We believe in Allah and the Last Day;” but they do not (really) believe.

    This seems unnecessary to me given that other, more reverent references to Allah are struck out.

    9. Fain would they deceive Allah and those who believe, but they only deceive themselves, and realise (it) not!

    I don’t understand why this line was struck out entirely when keeping it would add to the previous line. Perhaps it could be “Fain would they deceive, but they only deceive themselves, and realise (it) not!”

    10. In their hearts is a disease; and Allah has increased their disease: And grievous is the penalty they (incur), because they are false (to themselves).

    Similar to line 9, why strike this out completely? Perhaps “In their hearts is a disease; And grievous is the penalty they (incur), because they are false (to themselves).”

    12. Of a surety, they are the ones who make mischief, but they realise (it) not.

    This line could be kept given that the previous line is retained.

    18. Deaf, dumb, and blind, they will not return (to the path).

    Why not keep?

    19. Or (another similitude) is that of a [See the] rain-laden cloud[s] from the sky: In it are zones of darkness, and thunder and lightning[.]: They press their fingers in their ears to keep out the stunning thunder-clap, the while they are in terror of death. But Allah is ever round the rejecters of Faith!

    I’d keep “They press their fingers in their ears to keep out the stunning thunder-clap, the while they are in terror of death.”

    “There is a caricature of the modern secular movement that sees it as a self-righteous, aloof cabal of socially incompetent nerds who just like to dump all over religion and see themselves as smarter than everybody else. I am not one of those atheists, nor have I ever actually metone of those atheists, despite our frequent portrayal as such by many of the religious.”

    Unfortunately some of the louder “atheist” youtubers are exactly this. But like you I don’t know any personally.

    Like

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