A Latent Crisis

Most of early Meccan surahs are found on the final pages of the Qur’an. They are likely to be missed by Western readers who are only superficially interested in the Muslims’ Holy Book; altogether impossible to properly perceive. Most of the earliest surahs are short and hardly understandable at all; enigmatic, often scary and apparently apocalyptic (e.g., Q100, Q101). Another contains a hymn-like refrain (Q55), possibly evidence for being used in liturgy.

Angelika Neuwirth has long tried to retrieve an assumed close interaction between the messenger and his audience in particular in the forty-three earliest Meccan surahs. Her recent publication (within the series of already published and to be published works produced at Corpus Coranicum,  a research project founded in 2007 at the German Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanity), what she calls Handkommentar (“at hand” commentary; similar to existing commentaries of the Old and New Testament), indeed dissects these surahs in order to catch their form as ‘notes of a revelation’ and interprets their basic message against the background of the developing model answer (Erwartungshorizont) of a real audience, i.e., a congregation. It’s a so far unprecedented undertaking (Der Koran – Band I: Frühmekkanische Suren. Verlag der Weltreligionen, Berlin 2011).

It is not just another (meaning superfluous) translation of the Qur’an as was somewhat frivolously feared by Neuwirth’s colleague, Tilman Nagel; but another commentary, after Nöldecke, Paret, Khoury, Bell etc. Neuwirth’s working hypothesis is the primarily open-ended process of the creation of the book. The real corpus of the text is certainly not the canonical one (an arbitrary assemblage of surahs according to their length) but a virtual Corpus, i.e., the sequence of surahs as they had been performed by the Prophet in front of a growing congregation. This concept had actually been introduced 150 years ago in Theodor Nöldecke’s Geschichte des Qorans, but Neuwirth tries to substantially expand it by taking into account not only stylistic but also discursive criteria, i.e., tracing already formulated thoughts in later surahs. This must collide, of course, with faithful Muslims’ view of the “uncreatedness” of the Qur’an.

Traditionally, the short early Meccan surahs represent a small portion of the Qur’an which is still being printed independently and mainly utilized in ritual prayers and meditation. Their often catastrophic, eschatological scenes may help to self-identify with the Prophet’s personal crises known to Muslims from the sira (as certain psalms may allow a personal approach to David for faithful Jews).

The commentary to each surah is structured into five sections. Fortunately, the Arabic text is transcribed into Latin which may easily reveal rhymes and rhyme changes. What follows is a literary critical discussion of structural unity, or possible disruption which might point to a secondary composition; the functionality of rhymes; rhyme schemes according to classic Arabic poetry; discussion of traditions of major schools (Damascus, Kufa, Basrah, Makkah, Madinah) as regards numbering the verses. Questions about composition and structure are followed by cursory commentaries for every verses of the surah put them into a broader perspective of both the assumed time when they were formulated and entire Qur’an itself.

What is notable is Neuwirth’s hypothesis of the messenger’s close interaction with a growing audience, be it his followers in a congregation, or the increasing numbers of enemies apparently addressed, in particular, in newly organized subgroups (by Neuwirth’s colleague Nicolai Sinai) within group I where subtle traces of growing conflicts with pagan Meccans may be identified.

While consolation and praise in group I (a) surahs 93, 94, 97, and 108 strongly recall the language of psalms, in particular eschatological aspects of surahs 99-101 are usually perceived as deeply disturbing and frightening poetry using uncommon, well, never heard participles. This (and others) might in fact be considered as part of the icğaz, the Qur’an’s claimed inimitability, which has been emphasized by German scholar Navid Kermani in his dissertation Gott ist schön (C. H. Beck, Munich 1999). Poetic prophecy, as the subtitle of Neuwirth’s book suggests. The effect here is even enhanced when surahs with a similar topic are read one after another. Neuwirth’s grouping of the surahs is not entirely chronological. Within a subgroup, however, it may be.  A few examples. Translations of the Qur’an are generally not considered valid by Muslims. The exact meaning in Arabic can apparently not be caught. See, for example Q 101, Al Qâr’iah (The Calamity).

1-The Striking Calamity.
2-What is the Striking Calamity?
3-And what can make you know what is the Striking Calamity?
4-It is the Day when people will be like moths, dispersed,
5-And the mountains will be like wool, fluffed up.
6-Then as for one whose scales are heavy [with good deeds],
7-He will be in a pleasant life.
8-But as for one whose scales are light,
9-His refuge will be an abyss.
10-And what can make you know what that is?
11-It is a Fire, intensely hot.

The root q-r-c has various meanings (beating, shocking, striking). However, Al Qâr’iah is the feminine, singular participle of the verb, a hardly translatable coinage. In German, nice tries have been Die Klopfende, or Die Pochende.

1-Die Klopfende.
2-Was ist die Klopfende?
3-Weißt Du, was die Klopfende ist?
4-Am Tage, da Menschen sein werden wie auffliegende Motten,
5-da Berge sein werden wie zerflockte Wolle:
6-Wessen Waagschalen dann schwerer wiegen,
7-wird volles Leben haben.
8-Wessen Waagschalen aber leicht wiegen,
9-dessen Zufluchtsort ist der Abgrund.
10-Weißt Du, was ist der Abgrund?
11-Loderndes Feuer!   

The novel, highly alarming poetry of the text is obvious. The circumstances under which these verses have first been uttered must have been serious. This is a warning which clearly addresses an audience.

Surah Q 101 follows surah Q 100 (Al-cĀdiyāt) which has inimitably been translated by 19th century German poet Friedrich Rückert (here slightly modified by Angelika Neuwirth to further emphasize expressive and, with units of meaning, changing rhymes):

1-Bei den schnaubend Jagenden,
2-mit Hufschlag Funken Schlagenden,
3-den Morgenangriff Wagenden:
4-die Staub aufwühlen mit dem Tritte
5-und dringen in der Scharen Mitte.
6-Der Mensch ist widerspenstig gegen seinen Herrn
7-und ist sich selbst darüber Zeuge,
8-und heftig liebt er den Gewinn.
9-Weiß er denn nicht: Wenn das im Grab ist aufgeweckt
10-und das im Herzen aufgedeckt,
11-dass nichts vor seinem Herrn dann bleibt versteckt?

The catastrophic event in the beginning is an attack by horses. A similarly ambitious English translation may be found:

1-By the snorting coursers,
2-Striking sparks of fire
3-And scouring to the raid at dawn,
4-Then, therewith, with their trail of dust,
5-Cleaving, as one, the centre (of the foe),
6-Lo! Man is an ingrate unto his Lord
7-And lo! He is a witness unto that;
8-And lo! In the love of wealth he is violent.
9-Knoweth he not that, when the contents of the graves are poured forth
10-And the secrets of the breasts are made known,
11-On that day will their Lord be perfectly informed concerning them.

Under which circumstances have these apocalyptic verses been uttered (just leaving aside what is believed by Muslims) for the first time? Apocalyptic texts, for instance those by Isaiah, Daniel, or the Book of Revelation of the New Testament, had been written at times of deep crisis, in case of the latter shortly before or after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans (or even later, during the time of Emperor Hadrian when, after the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136 CE), even Jewish Christians, who believed that the true Messiah was Jesus Christ, were barred from Jerusalem as were Jews).

What kind of emerging crisis (ecological, social, economical?) can be traced in early Meccan surahs? As far as we know (but what has basically been questioned), 6th century Makkah had been a flourishing urban center of trade and pilgrimage. The (or one) physical center of the cult (or different cults) was the Ka’aba. In Makkah, the messenger’s adversaries were generally pagans, not Jews or Christians. Neuwirth emphasizes the first mentioning of “older scriptures”, those of Abraham (Ibrāhīm), and Moses (Mūsā), e.g. in Q 87:18-19, in group II of her virtual canon, which might be considered both part of the heavenly scripture or inventory book to which the Qur’an apparently belongs, and a record book, diligently documenting the deeds of every human being which will be read on Judgment Day.

Apparently, tensions grew as the messenger is asked by his adversaries, in group III surahs, when Judgment Day will be. Graphic descriptions of Gehenna (jahannam) awaiting the deniers of the message and lovely ones about gardens for the just. Eventually, in group IV surahs lovely-eyed virgins, i.e. houris, hūruncin, are introduced. Q 53 with its polemic directed toward goddesses is said to have contained the infamous, soon removed, Satanic Verses,

19-Have ye thought upon Al-Lat and Al-‘Uzzá
20-and Manāt, the third, the other?

These are the exalted gharāniq (cranes), whose intercession is hoped for, a likely concession vis-à-vis pushily inquiring Meccans.

More than one third of the 43 early Meccan surahs, in fact 16, contain additions made later in Madinah, indicating developing content and changing reception, demands and inquiries of the growing congregation. It can be expected that the following four volumes of Neuwirth’s commentary on the Qur’an will address when and under which circumstances the exegetical reading and communication of biblical texts took place. Early Meccan surahs mainly suggest psalms. The same might apply to the Qur’an’s relation to early Arabic poetry.

As Tilman Nagel stresses in his review, the present volume deals with not more than nine per cent of the Holy Book.

Last update February 5, 2012.

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