Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Qur’an Surah 6: Livestock

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 sixth surah of the Qur’an, entitled “Livestock” is a Meccan surah, meaning it comes from the earlier period of Muhammad’s life, when he was living in Mecca.  Before the advent of Islam, many people of Mecca and the Arabian peninsula were polytheists—they believed in many gods.  One of Muhammad’s main achievements was to transform a formerly polytheistic culture into a monotheistic one.  The surah “Livestock” is an extended argument against polytheistic belief and practice.

The prophet asserts that God is one, and that other gods do not exist and are therefore powerless.  Usually, in polytheistic cultures, people attribute various aspects of nature to the activity of gods—the rising of the sun, rain, the growth of crops, etc.  In contrast to this, the prophet asserts that God alone does all these things: “It is God who splits open the seed and the fruit stone: He brings the living from the dead and the dead from the living…He makes the dawn break; He makes the night for rest; and He made the sun and the moon to a precise measure…It is He who made the stars, so that you can be guided by them in the dark.”

This transition in the Arabian world from polytheism to monotheism closely mirrors what happened with the Israelites in Canaan.  The Israelites took the high god of the Canaanite pantheon, El, and transformed him into the one God, Elohim.  Similarly, Muhammad and the early Muslims took the high god of the Arabian pantheon, Allah (a cognate of Elohim), and made him the one God, superseding all other gods.

This connection to the ancient Israelites is further emphasized by a story told in the surah about Abraham.  In the story, Abraham (the spiritual father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) was born into a polytheistic family, but then changed his views to monotheism: “Remember when Abraham said to his father Azar, ‘How can you take idols as gods?  I see that you and your people have clearly gone astray.'  In this way we showed Abraham [God’s] mighty dominion over the heavens and the earth, so that he might be a firm believer (i.e. monotheistic).”  This decision led to conflict with his family and community.

Changing a culture from polytheism to monotheism has some benefits and some drawbacks, from a sociological standpoint.  On the one hand, it gives people a sense of unity and shared identity.  On the other hand, it can lead to intolerance and conflict when people don’t believe in this one God.  This surah, like the Bible, expresses hostility toward unbelievers.  I guess my point is that monotheistic religions have, historically, been a mixed bag of benefit and conflict.

The title of the surah refers to the practice of devoting/sacrificing livestock to God, or gods.  The author forbids Muslims from eating meat that has been dedicated to anything other than the one God.

Calligraphy from Surah 6: Livestock

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