A Tale of Two Qurans: A Thematic Analysis
In the post-9/11 era, Islamist terrorist attacks have elicited predictable reactions across the political spectrum. The ideological right invokes Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, positioning the so-called Judeo-Christian West as an entity inherently and permanently opposed to Islam, thus attributing terrorism to a grander eternal battle between East and West (Said, 2001). Meanwhile, the liberal moderates, along with most major Muslim-diaspora organizations, adopt a rhetoric of anti-generalization and reiterate the “Islam is a religion of peace” mantra (Meyer, 2016). Both aforementioned positions ignore context and history, favouring a superficial understanding of religion and culture.
The Left interprets Islamic terrorism as the fruit of Western imperialism and colonialism. Despite being partially accurate, this position ignores the theological justifications for Islamist Salafism. Furthermore, it occupies an ahistorical niche by ignoring the hundreds of years of pre-European colonialism during which various hardline Islamist schools of thought existed. Incidentally, , Ibn Taymiyyah — whose scholarship is the cornerstone of all modern Salafist movements — lived long before modern European colonialism. Thus, understanding modern Islamism as a function of Islamic history and theology is essential to combat the shallow positions espoused by the Right and the Centre; such positions rely on cherry-picking verses out of literary and historical context. Consequently, no perspective is complete without a study of the Quran, and the historical environment to which it was revealed, in order to discuss the roots of modern Islamist politics.
The Quran, for those who have been sleeping in their world religions classes, is Islam’s holy book. It contains the word of God (Allah) delivered to the Prophet Muhammad via the angel Gabriel (Jibreel) over a period of twenty-odd years. Though Muhammad himself was illiterate, he conveyed these words to his followers, who wrote them in the form of chapters (surah) comprised of verses (ayah). These chapters can be classified chronologically as Meccan (makkiya) or Medinan (madaniya), depending on whether the revelations occurred before or after the Hijra in the year 622 AD, when Muhammad and his followers emigrated from Mecca to Yathrib (later renamed Medina) (McAuliffe, 2006). Whereas the Quran itself is organized by the descending length of the surah, each chapter is classified as either Meccan or Medinan (Siddiqui, 2008). Through this chronological split, one can best observe the relevant broader historical and social currents.
Meccan chapters are best identified through their short verses, with emphasis on allegory and rhythm (McAuliffe, 2006). Because pre-Islamic Arabian society strongly valued poetry and the literary arts, the heavily poetic nature of the Quran’s earlier verses holds special significance, as it was meant to show God’s unparalleled poetic abilities (Ernst, 2011). In other words, the early revelations transcended the composing abilities of the non -Muslim poets in rhythm and style, thus insinuating their divine nature.
Content-wise, Meccan chapters predominantly focus on the stories of Creation, Adam and Eve, the Fall of Satan (Shaytan/Iblis), the mythos of past Prophets — from Noah to Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary— from which believers should extrapolate exemplary personal behaviours, the depictions of Judgement Day and the afterlife, and moral guidelines for being a good Muslim.
Hence, both the content and lyrical style of the Meccan chapters reflect the birth of Islam as a supreme spiritual movement (Ibid.). This burgeoning faith prioritized conversion and expansion; as such, the Quran’s heavy allegorical style and rhythm deliberately appealed to the eminence of poetry in Arab society, highlighting the flawless and unrivalled prose of the Divine. Meanwhile, the Quran’s content provided a moral compass for this fledgling religious movement, especially within a heavily imbalanced, decadent, and corrupt society. The text constantly references charity, humility, kindness, honesty, and community. Ergo, this stage of Quranic revelation is best characterized as a spiritual call for rebellion against the Quraysh establishment.
On the other hand, Medinan chapters rely less on allegory and rhythm to convey their message; instead, flaunt simpler grammar and longer verses (Ibid.). Most jarring in difference, however, is their content. Whereas Meccan chapters offered a moral guideline while urging conversion, Medinan chapters revolve around laws of marriage, inheritance, taxation, usury, warfare, criminal codes, and the controversial jihad (McAuliffe, 2006). Even the manner of addressing readers undergoes a notable change; there is a sharp increase in the explicit phrase “oh you who believe” (ya ayuha alatheena amanoo) in Medinan chapters as opposed to the more general “oh people” (ya ayuha al nas) within the Meccan verses (Ibid.). In summary, Medinan chapters form the basis of Islamic jurisprudence, replacing moral goodness with socio-political guidance as the fundamental theme.
Why was this guidance necessary? Essentially, the Hijra marks the single most important event in Islamic history: the birth of Islam as a nation. Though Islam began as a subversive spiritual movement persecuted in every corner of Mecca by the city’s establishment, it later evolved into a fully-fledged and rapidly-growing legislative state. Consequently, the content and tone of the Quran shifts as spiritual enlightenment and faith give way to matters of governance and materialism (McAuliffe, 2006).
One cannot underestimate the significance of the Hijra. In one stroke, Islam transformed from a fringe radical movement into a nation-state entity with notable political and economic power under the auspices of the Prophet Muhammad. The thematic differences between Meccan and Medinan chapters perfectly illustrate this transition. To quote the character Abu Sufyan who addresses the former Lord of Medina, Ibn Salul, in the movie The Message: “Mohamed has become a nation. He has received a city, entered into pledges and treaties, and you, Ibn Salul, who claims to be King of Medina, have lost the city while you were in bed” (Buck, et al., 1976). While the historical veracity of this exchange is debatable, there is no question as to how historically monumental the Hijra was to the development of the Islamic nation.
Most contemporary Muslim schools of thought operate under the notion that Quranic interpretation requires input from learned scholars. Such assumptions are built on the logic of a single Quranic verse: the seventh ayah of chapter three, Surat Al Imran. It declares:
It is He Who sent down the Book upon you. In it are verses precise in meaning: these are the very heart of the Book. Others are ambiguous. Those in whose heart is waywardness pursue what is ambiguous therein, seeking discord and seeking to unravel its interpretation. But none knows its interpretation save God, while those deeply rooted in knowledge say: ‘We believe in it. All is from our Lord.’ Yet none remembers save those possessed of minds. (The Quran, 3:7)
In this verse, God specifically instructs Muslims to behold the material discipline within the Quran. As He ways, the Quran is comprised of some verses “precise in meaning” while others are “ambiguous”. However, the primary focus of the dominant schools of thought lies in the last part: “Yet none remembers save those possessed of minds.” This particular line lends legitimacy to the idea that scholars are necessary to interpret the Quran to the masses. Unfortunately, modern political Islamism is designed under the very auspices of this hierarchical organization of Islam, which grants scholars an exclusive monopoly on religious — and in many cases political — guidance.
Moreover, extremist terrorist groups use the statist themes of Medinan Islam to advocate restructuring modern society to resemble that of Medina in 700 AD. In fact, even the term “Salafism” itself derives from the Arabic term “Salaf” which means “holy ancestors,” thus revealing an ideological basis historical reversion. For this reason, one must problematize the modern hegemonic structure of Islamic communities and argue for an anarchist, Meccan-inspired Islam, so to speak.
The need to reimagine Muslim communities within a non-hierarchical framework likewise requires an examination of the thematic delineation between Medinan and Meccan chapters. Meccan chapter Surat Al Fajr offers an illuminating example of Mecca’s themes, declaring:
And as for man, if his Lord tries him, honours him, and prospers him, he will say: “My Lord has honoured me”; If He tries him, and constricts his livelihood, he will say: “My Lord has demeaned me”; No, indeed; You do not honour the orphan; Nor urge one another to feed the poor; You consume an inheritance to the last mouthful; And you love wealth with a love inordinate; No indeed, when the earth is crushed, pounded, pulverized; And your Lord and the angels arrive, row after row; And hell that Day is brought in tow, the Day man will surely remember, but how will it profit him to remember; He shall say: “If only I had laid up good deeds for my afterlife”; That day none shall torment as he Torments, none shall bind as he binds; O soul at peace; Return to your Lord, well pleased, well pleasing; And enter among My worshippers; And enter my garden. (The Quran, 89: 15–30)
Surat Al Fajr, otherwise known as chapter 89 of the Quran, here epitomizes the so called “Meccan Quran”. With short verses and repetitive rhythm, the chapter elucidates the importance of helping the poor and the needy. An example is made of those who hoard wealth and avoid charity, whereupon the chapter transitions into vivid descriptions of Judgement Day. The chapter ends with a clear distinction between those who fulfill their moral obligations and are thus rewarded, and those who exhibit greed and thus suffer eternal punishment. Essentially, Surat Al Fajr embodies both the literary style and moral focus of the Meccan Quran.
Conversely, “Medinan Quran” is best reflected in Surat Al Nisa, chapter four of the Quran. Verse eleven verse states:
God commands you regarding your children: to the male what equals the share of two females. If they are females, and more than two, they inherit two thirds of what he leaves. If it be one female, she inherits half. To the two parents of the ceased belongs a sixth each of what he leaves, if he has children. If childless, and his parents inherit, his mother receives one-third of what he leaves. If he has brothers, his mother receives one-sixth, after deducting any bequests you may bequeath, or any debts. Your parents or your children — you know not which of them is nearer to you in benefit. This is an appointment from God. In truth, God is All-knowing, All-wise. (The Quran, 4:11)
Immediately noticeable is the length of this one verse. In contrast to Meccan chapters, Surat Al Nisa is comprised of many long verses such as the one above. Furthermore, there is a distinct lack of rhyme. Instead, the Medinan chapters adopt a more prose style of expression. Vivid imagery is abandoned and a specific legal doctrine is enshrined. Further examples can be seen in Surat Al Baqara, verses stating:
Divorce can be uttered twice, to be followed either by holding her back in friendship or letting her go in fairness. It is not licit for you to take back anything you have given them unless the two of them fear that they cannot conform to the bounds of God. If you fear that the two of them will not conform to the bounds of God, no blame attaches to them both if the woman gives back that with which she sets herself free. These are the bounds set by God, do not transgress them. Whoso transgresses the bounds of God, these are indeed sinners. If he divorces her, she shall not be licit to him again until she marries another husband. If the other husband divorces her, no blame attaches to them if they return to each other, provided they believe they can conform to the bounds of God; And these are the bounds of God, which He makes plain to people who understand; If you divorce women, and they reach their appointed term [of four months], hold them back in amity or let them go in amity. Do not hold them back out of malice, to be vindictive. Whoso does this does himself an injustice. Do not treat the revelations of God as matters of for jesting. Remember the bounties of God upon you and what He revealed to you of the Book and Wisdom, wherewith he edifies and instructs you. Fear God and know that God is Omniscient; If you divorce women, and they reach their appointed term, do not deter them from marrying their former husbands, provided they both freely agree to do so, and in an affable manner. Through this commandment are edified and instructed those among you who believe in God and the Last Day. This would be better for you and more pure of heart. God knows and you do not know. (The Quran, 2: 229–232)
Much like Surat Al Nisa, Surat Al Baqara is composed of longer verses lacking in rhyme and and poetic style. This particular extract focuses on divorce, and conditions and provisions for both parties therein. Medinan Quran’s prose thus becomes the foundation of an extensive legal structure around which Medina’s Ummah constructs a political nation-state. A clear transformation can thus be traced, where the Meccan verses’ focus on piety and moral character evolves into an expansive legal jurisprudence in Medina.
Any reformation of Muslim identity must first and foremost abandon the eternality of Medina’s Quran. As Surat Al Imran stated before, some verses are “precise in meaning”. It is this precision that must be discarded in favour of the ambiguousness of Mecca’s Quran. Orthodox Sunni philosophy emphasizes specificity and operates under a chronological framework of the Quran, whereby more recent verses overwrite older verses should they contradict in perspective. An alternative approach must thus problematize this specificity and favour the broader tranquility and moral justice of Mecca’s chapters. In return, Medina’s chapters would be appreciated as an insight into history and nothing more — certainly not a divine legal constitution.
More broadly, Muslims cannot instigate a reimagination of identity from the top-down. Even a cursory glance at history reveals abject failures by governments which seek to impose secularism from above. Ataturk, Shah Pahlavi, and Gamal Abdel Nasser all tried to suppress political Islamism and yet today, Islamism governs Turkey and Iran, while the Muslim Brotherhood remains significantly popular among the Egyptian masses, despite the current regime’s best efforts at silencing dissent. Clearly, a policy-based approach alone lacks the roots to affect long-term change.
If secularism cannot be imposed, it then follows that it must be cultivated from below. To be effective, this secularism cannot proliferate without complete and absolute separation between Mosque and State. Even glorified secular autocrats like Ataturk and Abdel Nasser managed to absorb the Mosque into the State via Islamic/Religious Affairs institutions. True secularism presupposes a complete abolition of all religious apparatus as extensions of the State. In other words, just as it is necessary the Mosque does not control the State, so too should the State cede control of the Mosque. The populace must recreate the Mosque as a space of faith and worship, governed for and by the community it serves.
Beyond abolishing the Ministries of Religious Affairs, Muslims and Muslim societies must radically re-imagine their individual and communal identities. Notions of an ummah (unified community) as it existed in Medina circa 700 AD must be constantly challenged, for solidarity between Muslims and non-Muslims — or between different Muslim fellowships — will remain elusive unless excluding Islam is abolished as the single and central term of camaraderie.
It is important to note, however, that an alternative approach must not advocate for a literal reversion to Meccan Islam. Such an approach would fall into the same trap as the modern orthodoxy. Spirituality and personal fulfillment can be extracted from the Meccan Quran without calling for a complete and unquestioning construction of Meccan society.
In the current climate of Islamophobia and right-wing xenophobia, it is difficult to critique Islamic schools of thought without fuelling the fire. However, introspection is imperative to progress. An alternative narrative is direly needed to counter the hegemonic authority of Muslim institutions. Without collectively resisting the concept of authority itself in our community, we will be doomed to the whims of corruptible scholars. It is time to stop being reactive to extremism, and that begins by recognizing the existing problems before we act.
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