Monday, March 30, 2015

The Qur’an Surah 24: Light

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. 

The 24th surah of the Qur’an was composed in the context of some domestic problems Muhammad was having.  Aisha, the prophet’s wife, was left behind by a caravan, found by a young man, who escorted her home to Medina.  Immediately, rumors began to circulate that the prophet’s wife was sleeping with this man.  With this situation as its context, “Light” is primarily a meditation on marriage, adultery, and privacy.

The punishment for adultery is harsh—one hundred “strikes.”  However, one can only be convicted of adultery on the testimony of four witnesses—a pretty rigorous standard.  The prophet refers to the “false accusations” against his wife, and says that she is innocent, because her accusers could not produce the necessary four witnesses.  He further says that those who bring slanderous and false accusations are “rejected by God.”

The surah also gives regulations regarding domestic privacy: “Believers, do not enter other peoples’ homes until you have asked permission to do so and greeted those inside.”  A bit later, regulations for hospitality are given: “When you enter any home, greet one another with a greeting of blessing and goodness as enjoined by God.”  I find it interesting that the prophet uses the occasion of a terrible breach of privacy and trust, to lay down some guidelines for maintaining privacy and trust among his community of faith.  This seems very wise.

This surah also contains a famous passage which some fundamentalist Muslims have used as justification for (almost) totally covering up women.  However, reading the full passage makes this interpretation problematic.  It says; “Tell believing men to lower their eyes and guard their private parts: that is purer for them…And tell believing women that they should lower their eyes, guard their private parts, and not display their charms beyond what is acceptable to reveal.”  This passage is about the modesty of both men and women, the main difference being that women must cover their “charms”, which seems to be jewelry.  The idea for women to completely cover themselves comes not from the Qur’an, but from later Hadith literature.

The surah takes its title from the very beautiful “Verse of Light” (v. 35-36) which I will close with: “God is the Light of the heavens and earth.  His Light is like this: there is a niche, and in it a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, a glass like a glittering star, fueled from a blessed olive tree from neither east not west, whose oil almost gives light even when no fire touches it—light upon light—God guides whoever He will to his Light; God draws such companions for people; God has full knowledge of everything—shining out in houses of worship.”

Ottoman Qur'an manuscript from 1869

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