Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Qur’an Surah 68: The Pen

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.

This is an early Meccan surah which addresses the accusation that Muhammad was not God’s messenger, but merely insane.  The prophet’s detractors in Mecca often said this.  To be fair, if I met someone who claimed to speak for God, I would probably question his/her sanity as well.  But this surah asserts the prophet’s sanity and the truth of his message: “You (prophet) are not, by (receiving) God’s grace (or, revelation), a madman.”

Then the surah tells a parable.  The unbelievers in Mecca are compared to the owners of a garden who hoarded all the resources for themselves and did not share with the poor.  For their greed, the gardeners were punished.  These gardeners may be compared with the powerful leaders of the Quraysh tribe in Mecca who profited hugely from the religio-economic system in Mecca, and did not provide for the poor and needy.  One important feature of Muhammad’s early ministry was a call for increased social and economic justice.  This, it could be argued, was more threatening than his theology.

The title of the surah comes from the (somewhat mysterious) first verse: “By the pen!  By all they write!”  My commentary by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem explains: “This could refer to the angels and what they write down of peoples’ deeds or to the generic pen and what people write, thus swearing by the ability to write with which God endowed all human beings.”  Either way, this surah asserts the power of the written word.  Arabic calligraphy, using a "qalam" (or reed pen) is a very ancient Muslim artform.

A "qalam" is a reed pen used for Arabic calligraphy.

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