Moses, Pharaoh, praying at night, more abrogation, and the assembling of the Qur’an


 

In the 3rd Sura of the Qur’an, we are again sent to the Old Testament to understand the background of these verses. This time – Moses and Pharaoh. There is also an interesting command to pray at night. Finally, we see 6 verses stricken and replaced by others.  Once more, the stricken verses seem to replace forgiveness towards unbelievers with harsh penalties.  There is a pattern developing – even in these first three Suras.  To understand this pattern, we’ll also look at how the Qur’an came to be a written document.

 Below is Sura 73 – as originally revealed.  (More or less.  I say this, because there are disagreements as to whether all of the verses were part of the original revelation.  Some feel [73:20] was actually a later revelation, but was included as part of this Sura.)

Sura 73, Cloaked

— part 1a – praying at night

[73:0] In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

[73:1] O you cloaked one.

[73:2] Meditate during the night, except rarely.

[73:3] Half of it, or a little less.

[73:4] Or a little more. And read the Quran from cover to cover.

[73:5] We will give you a heavy message.

[73:6] The meditation at night is more effective, and more righteous.

[73:7] You have a lot of time during the day for other matters.

[73:8] You shall commemorate the name of your Lord, to come ever closer and closer to Him.

[73:9] Lord of the east and the west; there is no other god besides Him. You should choose Him as your advocate.

— part 2 – God can take care of Himself

[73:10] And remain steadfast in the face of their utterances, and disregard them in a nice manner.

[73:11] And let Me deal with the rejectors, who have been generously blessed; just give them a little time.

[73:12] We have severe punishments, and Hell.

[73:13] Food that can hardly be swallowed, and painful retribution.

[73:14] The day will come when the earth and the mountains will quake, and the mountains will turn into a weightless pile.

— part 3 – Moses and Pharaoh

[73:15] We have sent to you a messenger, just as we sent to Pharaoh a messenger.

[73:16] Pharaoh disobeyed the messenger and, consequently, we punished him severely.

[73:17] If you disbelieve, how can you evade a day so terrible that it makes the infants gray-haired?

[73:18] The heaven will shatter therefrom. His promise is true.

[73:19] This is a reminder; whoever wills, let him choose the path to his Lord.

— part 1b – praying at night 

[73:20] Your Lord knows that you meditate during two-thirds of the night, or half of it, or one-third of it, and so do some of those who believed with you. GOD has designed the night and the day, and He knows that you cannot always do this. He has pardoned you. Instead, you shall read what you can of the Quran. He knows that some of you may be ill, others may be traveling in pursuit of GOD’s provisions, and others may be striving in the cause of GOD. You shall read what you can of it, and observe the contact prayers (Salat), give the obligatory charity (Zakat), and lend GOD a loan of righteousness. Whatever good you send ahead on behalf of your souls, you will find it at GOD far better and generously rewarded. And implore GOD for forgiveness. GOD is Forgiver, Most Merciful.

How The Qur’an was “assembled”

First – note the use of the word assembled.  Muhammad did not write down each Sura as it was revealed to him.  In fact, as far as I can tell, he never wrote down any of it.  Initially, it was all transmitted by word of mouth.  Later, different parts of it came to be written down by various people.  It was during the time of the third Khalifa that the Qur’an was assembled.  This was somewhere between the years 642 and 656, so not that long after the death of Muhammad.  However – much had changed during those few years.  In fact, much changed even before his death.

While in Mecca, there was an assassination plot against Muhammad – bur he was able to escape.  

We read about what happened in Mecca from Destiny Disrupted, by Tamin Ansary.  This is a really good book if you want to understand more about this period of time and a history of Islam from the eyes of an Afghan Muslim.

Mecca’s business leaders came to feel threatened by Mohammed because they were making good money from religious tourism; if this only-one-god idea took hold, they feared, the devotees of all the other gods would stop coming to Mecca and they’d be ruined. (Today, ironically, over a million people come to Mecca each year to perform the rites of pilgrimage at the Ka’ba, making this the biggest annual gathering on earth!) 

Besides, Mecca profited from drinking dens, gambling, prostitution, and other such attractions, and the tribal power brokers could not tolerate a man railing against the very entertainments that brought in their wealth, even if he had merely a smattering of followers, many of them powerless poor people and slaves. Well, for one thing, not all his followers were poor people and slaves: they included the wealthy and respected merchants Abu Bakr and Othman, and soon they even included the physically imposing giant Omar, who started out as one of Mohammed’s most bitter enemies. The trend looked disturbing. 

For nearly twelve years, Mohammed’s uncle Abu Talib defended him against all criticism. According to most Muslims, Abu Talib never converted to Islam himself, but he stood up for his nephew out of personal loyalty and love, and his word had weight. Khadija also backed her husband unstintingly, which gave him precious comfort. Then, in the course of a single devastating year, both these major figures in Mohammed’s life died, leaving God’s Messenger exposed to his enemies. That year, seven elders of the Quraysh tribe decided to have Mohammed killed while he slept, thereby getting rid of the troublemaker before he could do real damage to the economy. One of Mohammed’s several uncles spearheaded the plot. In fact, all seven plotters were related to Mohammed, but this didn’t soften their resolve.

Fortunately, Mohammed caught wind of the plot and worked out how to foil it with help from two close companions. One was his cousin Ali, now a strapping young man, who would soon marry Mohammed’s daughter Fatima and become the Messenger’s son-in-law. Another was his best friend, Abu Bakr, Mohammed’s first follower outside his immediate family circle and his closest adviser, soon to become Mohammed’s father-in-law.

From there, he went to Medina.  In Medina, things changed –

What makes moving from one town to another so momentous? The Hijra takes pride of place among events in Muslim history because it marks the birth of the Muslim community, the Umma, as it is known in Islam. Before the Hijra, Mohammed was a preacher with individual followers. After the Hijra, he was the leader of a community that looked to him for legislation, political direction, and social guidance. The word hijra means “severing of ties.” People who joined the community in Medina renounced tribal bonds and accepted this new group as their transcendent affiliation, and since this community was all about building an alternative to the Mecca of Mohammed’s childhood, it was an epic, devotional social project.

This social project, which became fully evident in Medina after the Hijra, is a core element of Islam. Quite definitely, Islam is a religion, but right from the start (if “the start” is taken as the Hijra) it was also a political entity. Yes, Islam prescribes a way to be good, and yes, every devoted Muslim hopes to get into heaven by following that way, but instead of focusing on isolated individual salvation, Islam presents a plan for building a righteous community. Individuals earn their place in heaven by participating as members of that community and engaging in the Islamic social project, which is to build a world in which orphans won’t feel abandoned and in which widows won’t ever be homeless, hungry, or afraid.

Once Mohammed became the leader of Medina, people came to him for guidance and judgments about every sort of life question, big or little: how to discipline children . . . how to wash one’s hands . . . what to consider fair in a contract . . . what should be done with a thief . . . the list goes on. Questions that in many other communities would be decided by a phalanx of separate specialists, such as judges, legislators, political leaders, doctors, teachers, generals, and others, were all in the Prophet’s bailiwick here.

 For a while, everything seemed pretty stable.  Eventually, some the the Jewish people resisted.  We’ve already seen some important differences between Judaism and what was being taught by Muhammad.  There were also disagreements starting to come from some of the Arab tribes.  Then came the start of the battles that were famous from that period of time.  We’ll talk more about them when we get to that period of the Qur’an.

The takeaway from these events though is this – these events seemed to shape the contents of the visions.  The abrogation of earlier verses started to take affect after the move, after the disagreements and after the battles.  Rather than being prophesy – as the Jewish Old Testament is – the visions seem to change after the fact, removing what could be considered coexistence, if not downright friendly, cooperation with others – and replacing them with verses similar to the sword verse we saw in the last article.  We’ll see that same verse replacing others in this Sura as well.

After the death of Muhammad, there were controversial changes in the leadership of Islam.  We’ll get more into that later, but suffice it to say that there was always some intrigue as each new Khalifa took power.

It was the third Khalifa (Muhammad did not have this title – it was his first successor that was it was given to) was a man named Othman.

One great project Othman saw to fruition during the first half of his khalifate was the preparation of a definitive edition of the Qur’an. He set scholars to work combing out redundancies among the copies that existed, resolving discrepancies, and evaluating passages whose authenticity was subject to doubt. The final product was compiled into a book in which the verses were arranged more or less in order of length (rather than thematically or chronologically). All other compilations, competing versions, and rejected verses were destroyed. From then on, every Qur’an would be the same, word for word, and that’s the Qur’an all Muslims have today. You can see why this had to be done if the priority was to keep the community unified, but you can also see why this project might have disgruntled some Muslims, especially if they already had suspicions about Othman’s intentions—as some did.

And so we see – even the “assembling” of the Qur’an was not without conflict.  

This conflict – as well as how the method of selecting the leader of the faith – whether Islam should be more religious or political – treatment of infidels (non-believers) – continues to this day.  One needs only to spend a few minutes looking at news to realize this.

We also see reference to the order of the Qur’an.  As I’ve said before – it’s more or less by the length of each Sura, not in chronological order.  Even the chronological order is somewhat disputed.  For instance – this current Sura, which I have as the third in order – some have it as the fourth.

And then there’s the issue of how accurately the revelations were assembled.  

One of the issues comes down to whether or not the contents of each Sura was actually revealed at the same time.  For instance, in this one, we see 

[73:20] Your Lord knows that you meditate during two-thirds of the night, or half of it, or one-third of it, and so do some of those who believed with you. GOD has designed the night and the day, and He knows that you cannot always do this. He has pardoned you. Instead, you shall read what you can of the Quran. He knows that some of you may be ill, others may be traveling in pursuit of GOD’s provisions, and others may be striving in the cause of GOD. You shall read what you can of it, and observe the contact prayers (Salat), give the obligatory charity (Zakat), and lend GOD a loan of righteousness. Whatever good you send ahead on behalf of your souls, you will find it at GOD far better and generously rewarded. And implore GOD for forgiveness. GOD is Forgiver, Most Merciful.

However – there is a question as to whether the Salat (contact prayers) and Zakat (obligatory charity) even existed at the time of this revelation.  There may have been contact prayers – or at least some sort of prayers that later came to be named Salat.  However – it would seem that the Zakat wasn’t instituted until after the move to Medina.  If that is in fact true, then this verse could not possibly have been part of Sura 73, since it’s revelation was given in Mecca!

Another issue would be related to what the original words actually were.  For instance –

[73:4] Or a little more. And read the Quran from cover to cover.

It was certainly impossible to read the Qur’an from cover to cover during Muhammad’s time.  It didn’t exist until many years after his death!  So what was it that this verse said originally?  

Finally, one really huge issue us that all copies of all documents that contained anything different from the “official” version of the Qur’an – assembled by one man – were destroyed.  While claims about the authenticity and validity of the Qur’an are certainly made – it is quite impossible to verify them.  If anything – the destruction of all documents that differed tells us only one thing:  there was most certainly not agreement as to what the Qur’an should have contained.  If there was agreement, there would have been no need to destroy anything, because there would have been no documents containing anything other than what the Qur’an assembled by Othman said.

More intrigue.

The truth of this last statement is born out today by the continuing disagreements as to what is the meaning of the verses in the Qur’an.

To be continued…

This gives a bit of the background behind how the Qur’an came to be in existence, as well as some of the history of the time.  As I said, we’ll get more into it as the relevant verses come up.

It also gives a bit of an introduction to Sura 73.  In the next posts, we’ll look into –

  • Moses and Pharaoh.  I think this one is fascinating.  Partly because of how the commentators treat it.  But largely because of what’s not said.  There’s a huge part of the message that I believe should be considered – but isn’t.  More on that in the next article.
  • Praying at night.   This one is a matter of priorities.  And there’s also the issue of what is done in the dark being revealed by the light.  Actions are one thing.  What’s in the heart is another.  Will we find that what’s in the heart depends on the treatment of abrogations by that heart?
  • God can take care of Himself.  We looked at this once already.  This will be a quick revisit of the topic, looking at the abrogations in this Sura.

 

I hope you are getting something out of this.  Would love to hear from you about questions or things for which you may want more explanation.


 

Pray about these things –
as I’ve said – not with your mind, but with your heart.

Pray to the God of Abraham,
the God who heard Hagar –
the God who heard Ishmael –
the God who said He would make Ishmael a great nation.

Pray that He will show you the path to Himself.

I’ll be praying with you – and for you.

<To be continued…>


 

This is part of a continuing series looking at The Qur’an and The Bible to see the relationship between Islam and Christianity.
Click here to see a page listing the current posts, with a short description of each.
The plan is to at least start by going through the Qur’an, in the order in which each of the Sura’s was revealed to the prophet Muhammad.

 

Please leave a comment - it's nice to hear from you