Today we start a new Chapter, The Heights- ‘Al A’raaf,’ so-named because of this word’s recurrence الأعراف in verses 46, 48. This chapter was also revealed in Mecca.
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1. Alif. Lām. Mīm. Sād.
Whenever disjointed ‘letters’ مقطّعات appear at the beginning of Qur’anic chapters (as we saw in HQ 2 and 3), they are usually followed by mention of the Compilation. These letters have also been called ‘Chapter Openers’ فواتح السور. Yusuf Ali discusses the matter at length in his Appendix I, and Muhammad Asad in his Appendix II.
Indeed, scholars throughout the ages have pondered and offered suggested meanings and reasons for these, most notable is that the Compilation, in all its perfection, is made up of such letters, and since no one can use the same ‘building blocks’ to create anything even near in standard, the letters will always stand as a challenge to all.
They have also suggested that each letter is linked to the specific Chapter which it introduces, both by meaning and by number of recurrences; ie.. each letter is indicative of subject-matter, and is also necessary to maintain numeric balance (as to the number of recurrences of that specific letter within this chapter).
All these suggestions are valid, and there is no doubt that these letters are of similar value to other letters in the Qur’an. But what many people have missed is that: These are not letters: they are sounds! The Qur’an, as its name denotes, is ‘articulated,’ recited, voiced and listened to. Therefore, although these letters/sounds may be written as one letter each, when read and articulated, each one of them becomes two letters or more as in…ي = ya = يا(2), and as for الم- we have to say: ا = alif = الف 3 letters ….. ل laam=3 letters لام….. مmeem = ميم3 letters. That is the only way to read them. Compare this with the letters of the first word ألم in HQ 94:1:
ألم نشرح لك صدرك-
We pronounce that ألم as ‘alam;’ 3 letters only. So the so-called ‘disjointed letters’ with which many Chapters start, are not letters at all, but human sounds.
I see this as an indication that the Qur’an is on an interactive level of its own- unlike any other compilation. Just as simple human interaction with the three ‘letters’–الم- inevitably makes them nine, whenever we read and attempt to understand the Qur’an, each word, each statement, each concept, becomes so much more!
We will soon be discussing a little-known aspect of the Arabic language: the fact that each of its letters/sounds has a distinct meaning that can be traced back to the initial stages of speech development in early Humans. (Yes, you understood it right: Arabic DOES go back that far, and that IS something we can all explore!)
2. Verse 2 directs the Messenger Muhammad regarding his duty to convey the Message whether or not his people are likely to accept it, informing him/us that it is a Reminder unto the Faithful. Here we find a hint as to the Messenger’s initial unease and constraint, which also seems to have characterized the initial stages of Prophet Moses’ mission, peace upon them both. Prophet Moses asked God to relieve him of his personal, physical constraint (not of the mission!) in HQ 20:25 رب اشرح لي صدري.
We have clear indication that Prophet Muhammad was also relieved of his personal, physical constraint in HQ 94:1 ألم نشرح لك صدرك- and was able to convey the Message regardless of recipients’ response.
In HQ 6:125 (Posting of March 30th) we got an understanding of this constraint from the recipients’ point of view.
3. In short, Verses 3-5 tell Qureish/us to follow what was sent down to them/us from Our Lord, reminding them/us of previous townships that were destroyed for their consistent wrong-doing, and only when too late did their people admit to their wrong-doing ظلم the gravest of which is ‘shirk’- ‘associating partners with God’ (see HQ 31:13).
4. Verses 6-9 take us to the Hereafter, where everyone – Recipients AND Messengers - shall be questioned, and will obtain a knowledgeable account of all that had transpired because God had never been absent (see Ali’s note 994).
Qureish, who was expert at trade and its dealings, is given a reckoning, as in a ‘scale’ whereby good/heavy and bad/light deeds are measured… at a Time when balance/weight will be in Truth (Ali/Asad).
Those with deeds heavy in the balance will be the Successful, whereas those with deeds light in the balance will be Losers- because of their wrong-doing.
Verse 10 is a statement to us all, in that God has ‘placed us with authority/ given us a bountiful place’ on this earth (Ali/Asad) with means of livelihood- yet we are rarely productive in gratitude!
5. Verse 11 takes us all the way back …. to the time of creation, when humans –as a species- were first created, then after a length of time, formed, then after a length of time, presented to the angels who showed respect when commanded to do so, except for Iblees/ ‘the Unforthcoming Downcast’ [i]. The conjunction ‘thumma’-ثم - indicates successive stages apart (as in HQ 71:14), separated by an interval of time as seen in footnote [ii] and in HQ 80:19-22.
As for ‘Adam,’ English-speakers will be even more amazed at the Arabic meaning of this word:
Linguistically, ‘Adam is a noun representing someone of ‘adaptability! موافقة وملاءمة’. ‘Adam’ is created from superficial earth-matter, or ‘the adamah of earth-أدمة الأرض as seen on our 1,000 year old Lexicon[iii] - in stages or intervals of time!
(In the earlier stages of creation The Qur’an calls this Being ‘bashar,’ and only at the final stage of creation does it say ‘insaan.’ We will be discussing this in time, when we encounter these two terms.)
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6. In Verses 12-15 the Unforthcoming Downcast/ Iblees, is asked why he did not show respect to the Adaptable Earth-Being/ Adam, to which he responded, “I am better than he…” seeing that he was created of ‘superior matter’ - fire which, in his opinion, was superior to wet earth طين.
We have more on this in HQ18:50: Iblees had so far been of the jinn, the hidden/concealed (although some understand this to indicate a distinct creature called ‘Jinn’, others say he was a ‘jinn,’ ‘in hiding,’ so-named for having well-hidden his arrogance from all creatures). At any rate, he breached faith ‘fasaqa’ at that point in time by disobeying God’s command and refusing to show respect to the Adaptable Earth-Being/ Adam; it is Iblees’ arrogance that led him to disobey, for which he was demoted and commanded to get out, abased and humiliated. But he asked for the postponement of his sentence, till the day when humans will be resurrected, and his request was granted.
Copy + paste: إبليس آدم and then again شيطان آدم and compare: in the initial stage of Adam’s creation (when the Deviant/ Sheytaan was not yet active) he is called ‘Iblees,’ and was called ‘sheytaan’ at the very point of becoming active against Adam! (We must keep in mind that a human who is actively deviant and aggressive is also called ‘sheytaan’ as we saw in HQ 2:14; 6:12; 121.)
Verses 16-18 narrate an exchange between Iblees and the Creator, in which he vows to lie ‘in wait/in ambush’ (Ali/Asad) for humans on the Straight Path, approaching them from the four directions.
There are four interesting points to be mentioned here:
· Iblees is not reported to have mentioned the possibility of approaching them from the top or the bottom- both directions reserved for worship!
· His exchange indicates the importance of the Straight Path, considered an area for him to concentrate on. Look back to our last Posting, and see the countless temptations related to greed and desire, all on the Straight Path!
· No wonder the ‘Opener’ Faatiha is an integral part (rukn ركن) of our Prayers! We ask God in every single unit ‘rak’ah’ ركعة of our 17 daily units (in 5 daily prayers) to guide us (to) AND grant us the Straight Path.. اهدنا!
‘Ihdina’ means both ‘guide us’ and ‘gift/grant’ us, and since, as given to us, the ‘Opener’ Faatiha does NOT include the preposition ‘to’ إلى/ل between the words ‘ihdina’ اهدنا and the ‘siraat al mustaqeem’ -this further highlights that it intends both, ‘granting us’ AND ‘guiding us!’اهدنا الصراط المستقيم
· The fourth point of interest here, is that Iblees states his expectations, in that most among humans will be found unproductive and ungrateful, to which he is told to get out disgraced and ‘expelled/disowned’ (Ali/Asad).
7. Verses 19-22 tell us about Adam/ the Adaptable Earth-Being and his mate (unnamed in the Qur’an). If we let go of our preconceptions, and the influence of ‘Biblical’ as well as ‘Traditional Islamic’ narratives, we’ll better understand this according to the Qur’an.
The Adam and Mate story, in brief, as attested by Arabic Linguistics and Qur’anic context:
They were given the Garden to live in, finding protection and sustenance everywhere; where all within it was theirs to pick except one tree, which they were told not to approach. ‘Sheytaan’ (who prior to that was known as Iblees) insinuated to them to disobey, addressing their two major human impulses: Eternal Possession and Existence (verse 7:20). Also in HQ20:120:
“So the Deviant/Sheytaan insinuated unto him, saying: "O Adam! Shall I lead you to the tree of Eternity; and a kingdom that will never decay?"
The result was that by disobeying, they came face to face with what had hitherto been concealed from them of their own fallibility/ vulnerability سوءة. In the Lexicon of Al Asfahaani (deceased 503 A.H. see footnote) the word سوأ [iv] is opposite of "hassana – "حسن and denotes “Everything that causes us physical or psychological injury or distress..”!! Their distress/injury was both:
· Physical (possibly related to discovering human needs, including the need for protection from the elements).
· Psychological/ spiritual (possibly related to discovering the importance of honoring Trust, coupled with guilt and feelings of loss).
As we have seen, the Arabic word “saw’ah” denotes human fallibility, and is totally unrelated to the Biblical or Traditionally maintained concept of ‘private-parts’ (as we saw in the story of Adam’s two sons, when the same word was mentioned HQ 5:31- March 10th). We have also noticed that, unlike the Biblical version, the Female was not responsible for initiating wrongdoing, nor was the tree named (the Bible calls it the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil). So what made the narrative more like a ‘fairy-tale’?
Our forefathers may have misunderstood - but what is OUR excuse?
The last two verses in today’s Reading tell us that Iblees/ Sheytaan actually ‘promised’ them that he was offering sound advice, and then we see the pair thatching some of the garden’s foliage upon themselves (NOT their privates), and being called upon and questioned by their Lord.
The narrative continues in tomorrow’s Reading.
Our next Reading is from HQ7:23-37.
Peace unto all!
[i] (بلس) فالأصلُ اليَأْسُ، يقال أبْلَسَ إذا يَئِسَ. قال الله تعالى: إذَا هُمْ فِيهِ مُبْلِسُونَ [المؤمنون 77]، قالوا: ومن ذلك اشتُقّ اسم إبْليس، كأنَّهُ يَئِسَ مِنْ رحمة الله. ومن هذا الباب أبْلَسَ الرجُلُ سَكَت، ومنه أبْلَسَتِ النّاقة، وهي مِبْلاَسٌ، إذا لم تَرْغُ مِنْ شِدَّةِ الضَّبَعَة. فيقال إنَّ البَلَسَ الواجم.
الراغب الأصفهاني: الحزن المعترض من شدة البأس. ولما كان المبلس كثيراً ما يلزم السكوت وينسى ما يعنيه قيل أبلس فلان إذا سكت وإذا انقطعت حجته.
[iii] (أدم) الموافقة والملاءمة، وذلك قول النبي صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم للمُغيرةِ بن شُعْبة- وخَطَب المَرْأَةَ-: "لو نظَرْتَ إليها، فإنّه أحْرَى أن يُؤْدَمَ بينكما". يقال طعام مَأْدوم. قال أبو عبيد: ويقال آدَم اللهُ بينهما يُؤْدِم إيداماً فهو مُؤْدَمٌ بينهما. والأدَمَةُ الوسيلة إلى الشيء. وناس تقول: أديم الأرض وأَدَمَتُها وجهها.