Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Qur’an Surah 9: Repentance

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 more I read the Qur’an, the more I realize it is a product of its time and place—7th century Arabia (specifically Mecca and Medina).  A prophet named Muhammad became a religious and political leader of a group of Arabs, and he often clashed with other groups who did not believe his message and/or opposed him politically.

The 9th surah of the Qur’an, entitled “Repentance,” reflects some conflicts faced by Muhammad and his followers.  The surah begins by announcing that a specific treaty between Muslims from Medina and “idolators” (polytheists) from Mecca has been broken and is no longer valid.  Undoubtedly, this broken treaty led to violence between these groups.  In the surah, Muslims are commanded to fight the “idolators” who have broken the treaty.

The text makes reference to the Battle of Hunayn, between Muslims and a Bedouin tribe.  These early years, it seems, were years of conflict.  The Qur’an clearly states that God is on the side of the Muslims, and it is critical of “hypocrites” and “cowards” who proclaim faith, but do not fight for it.  The surah ends by discussing preparations for the Battle of Tabouk, and criticism of a group who built a rival mosque in Medina.

This surah’s harsh rhetoric of battle and criticism of “idolators” and “hypocrites” must, I think, be placed squarely in the context of 7th century Arabia.  If there are any lessons to be gleaned from this chapter, they are largely historical, as opposed to practical.  When approaching ancient religious texts like this, a contemporary reader must do the hard critical work of sorting out which parts are timeless, and which are culture-bound.  Maybe, as postmodern literary theorist Michel Foucault would say, it’s all culture-bound.

15th century manuscript page of Surah 9: Repentance (or At-Tawba)

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