Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Qur'an Surah 10: Jonah

The following is from a work-in-progress called The Qur'an: a Book Report, in which I read each surah of the Qur'an and write about what I learn.  I will also include some original Arabic text, because it is very beautiful.

The tenth surah of the Qur'an has a few major themes: the power and oneness of God, the futility of idolatry, the tradition of people rejecting God's prophets, and an encouragement to believe in God and his prophets.

The surah begins with a meditation on God's power, as expressed in creation: "It is He who made the sun a shining radiance and the moon a light, determining phases for it so that you might know the number of years and how to calculate them."  There is a long tradition of Islamic science, astronomy, and math.  The numbers we use today, for example, are Arabic.  Muslims, historically, have seen not contradiction between religion and science.  While Christian Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages, Muslim scholars in Baghdad and artists in Cordova were making breakthroughs in the sciences and arts, paving the way for the Renaissance.

This surah, like many others, is harshly critical of idolatry (or polytheism).  Muhammad sought to replace the polytheism of his day with monotheism.  The repeated references in the Qur'an to idolatry suggests that such a transformation was a long and difficult one.  It's hard, I imagine, to get people to change their theological outlook, especially when that outlook has existed for generations, and is deeply connected to culture.

The surah ends with a meditation on the biblical tradition of the rejected/misunderstood prophet.  The text discusses figures like Noah, Moses, Aaron, and Jonah--prophets who delivered important messages to their people, to save them from some impending disaster.  Muhammad clearly saw himself as part of this tradition.  He had a message from God which some believed, and others their peril.

The brief reference to Jonah in v. 98 (from which this surah derives its title) is reminiscent of a quote from Jesus in the gospels.  Unbelievers ask Jesus to perform a sign to validate his message (a demand people also made of Muhammad).  Jesus replies that they should recall "the sign of Jonah."  That is, they should remember the story of the Hebrew prophet who told people to repent and return to faith in God.  Muhammad, this surah implies, is a prophet like these former prophets, preaching a revolutionary, controversial, and ultimately transformative message.

The House of Wisdom in Baghdad, a major center of Islam learning during the Middle Ages.

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