Arabian rhapsodies

Surah 88 (Al-Ghashiyah/The Overwhemling Event) 1-24

1. Has word reached you of the Enfoldment?

2. That day some faces will be diffident,

3. Labouring and defeated,

4. Admitted to a Fire vehement,

5. Given drink from a Fount fulminant!

6. For food only thorns and bracken,

7. That will not satisfy their hunger nor fatten.

8. That Day some faces will be jubilant.

9. Their efforts their source of contentment,

10. In a lofty garden recumbent,

11. Free of idle prattlement,

12. And graced with a Fountain effluent.

13.There couches will be loftily conveyed,

14. Cups carefully displayed,

15. Cushions plentifully arrayed,

16. Carpets beautifully laid.

17. Do people not wonder how camels were fashioned?

18. How the high heavens were fastened?

19. How mountain cliffs were battened?

20. How the earth was flattened?

21. Go ahead and remind them! You were sent to remind,

22. To dictate and not mind,

23. But to those who turn and disbelieve,

24. They will receive God’s punishment without reprieve!

[2015, Shawkat M Toorawa, Cornell University ]

It is universally accepted that with the possible exception of the first surah of the Qur’an, which may have been a later-added framing text, the shorter and more poetic surahs of the Qur’an were the first to be composed and that with the passage of time surahs became longer and composed of longer and increasingly prosaic verses.


Surahs 73 to 114, a part comprising one third of the Qur’an’s surahs but considerably less than one tenth of its total text, the content is expressed in striking but, for the modern reader, often highly cryptic imagery. These surahs were once thought to be the product of ecstatic mystical experiences, which is why one nineteenth century orientalist, Sir William Muir referred to them as Muhammad’s ‘rhapsodies’. Another early scholar of Islam, Theodor Nöldeke, wrote:

In the pieces of the first period the convulsive excitement of the Prophet often expresses itself with the utmost vehemence. He is so carried away by his emotions that he cannot choose his words; they seem rather to burst from him. Many of these pieces remind us of the oracles of the old heathen soothsayers …

Muhammad speaks of visions and appears even to see angels before him in bodily form. There are some intensely vivid descriptions of the resurrection and the last day, which must have exercised a demonic power over men who were quite unfamiliar with such pictures. Other pieces paint in glowing colours the joys of heaven and the pains of hell.


Muir sees in eighteen of these surahs – 1, 82, 89-95, 99-106 and 108 – no indication at all of the claim to divine authorship that would later come to be the Qur’an’s dominant feature, and consequently he regards these eighteen rhapsodies as having been the first surahs to have been composed, ‘before Mahomet conceived the idea of a Divine mission.’


The overarching theme of these early surahs is that of the coming apocalypse: God’s imminent winding up of the world, which, they insist, is as certain as His creation of it, to be followed by His allocation of its past and present inhabitants between Gardens of Paradise and the Hellfire. This is especially strong in Surahs 87, 88, 90, 92, 99, 101 and 102. The insistence that the end is nigh are urgent and emotive:

{102.3}  Nay, soon you will know.

{102.4}  Indeed, soon you will know.

{102.5}  Nay if you knew with the knowledge of certainty,

{102.6} You would surely see Hellfire.

Nine of Surah 77’s fifty verses consist of the refrain: ‘Woe that day to the deniers!’ These deniers may attempt to ‘turn away from the Reminder, as if they were frightened asses fleeing from a lion’, {74.49-51} but even death offers no escape, for ‘Does man suppose that We shall not gather his bones?’, {75.2}, in order that he might even then be compelled to face ‘the spine crushing Calamity’, {75.24}.


The apocalyptic theme expressed in these surahs stems from a genre of Jewish literature that had first developed to console the Israelites after the destruction of their temple by the Babylonians a millennium before. The consolation offered to a defeated and enslaved people by a message that could transform their suffering into a test and part of a divine plan that might, if only they hold fast to their faith, result in their vindication and the punishment of their persecutors is obvious. Jewish interest in anticipation of the apocalypse had then undergone a revival after the invasion of Judea by Rome and the ministry of Jesus who had proclaimed that ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matthew 3.2 , 4.17 , Mark 1.15 ; also Matthew 24.34 and 26.64 ) and by the destruction of the Second Temple in 135. The words of Jesus had inspired over a dozen specifically Christian apocalypses, of which one, the Book of Revelation, had been accepted by the Church into the New Testament. The early surahs of the Qur’an feature not only the core ideas of the Jewish and Christian apocalypse literature but also several specific motifs: the heralding of the Last Day by a trumpet fanfare 〈96.〉 reflects the seven angelic trumpeters in the Book of Revelation (chapters 8-11), God’s rolling ‘up the sky like the rolling of scrolls for writing’, {21.104}, is taken directly from Isaiah 34.4 Revelation 6.14 , whilst the snorting war horses that are depicted thundering down upon humanity, sparks flying from their hooves, in Surah 100, recall the four horsemen of the apocalypse (Revelation 6).


Other verses use even more esoteric language and imagery, as a means of conveying the terror of the indescribable vision that the seer has foreseen. ’When the sky is cleft asunder and when the stars are dispersed{82.1-2}, the earth shall be ‘ground up, grinding upon grinding’, {89.21}, and all upon it reduced to ‘blackened stubble’ with mountains ‘scattered’, {87.5}, and made like tufts of ‘carded wool’, {101.5}.

A common motif is to tease the audience with a rhetorical question  concerning some ambiguous word or phrase:

{101.1}   The Calamity

{101.1}   What is the Calamity

{101.1}   And what shall apprise thee of the calamity?


Similar ‘What shall apprise thee of…’ questions are asked concerning ‘the Undeniable Reality’, {69.1-3}, ‘Saqar’, {74.27},  ‘the Day of Division’, {77.13-14},  ‘Sijjin’, {83.7-8},  ‘That which comes by night {86.1-2}, ‘the steep path’,{90.12}, ‘the night of Power’, {97.1-2} (discussed below), and ‘the crushing Fire’   {104.5}


Some passages confound imagination altogether:

{77.30}  Away to a threefold shadow,

{77.31}  That provides no shade nor avails against the flame.

{77.32}  Indeed, it throws up sparks like massive tree trunks,

{77.33}  As though they were yellow camels.


Ultimately, it seems to be the discombobulating effect of the words on the listener that is the aim of the compositions, rather than their literal meaning or rational coherence. Islamic tradition has sought to explain some of the more obscure passages, by weaving a web of narrative accounts, although what their efforts in fact tell us is that these surahs had been just as mysterious to the Muslim scholars of the first centuries after Muhammad, as they had been to Muir and Nöldeke. The following are five of the best-known exegetic expansions.
In Surah 80, the opening words:

{80.1}  He frowned and turned away,

{80.2}  Because the blind man came to him.

is given the banal interpretation that it was a rebuke to Muhammad for, on one occasion, frowning and turning away from a particular blind follower, Abdullah ibn Umm Maktum, whom, for some unspecified reason, the prophet is said to have found to be irritating.


The opening words of Surah 94 – ‘Did We not expand for thee thy breast …?’ have given rise to a pious legend that in Muhammad’s youth, angels opened his chest and physically cleansed his heart from sin with water drawn from Mecca’s Zamzam well, before replacing it.


An unidentified item that in Surah 97 was ‘sent down in the Night of Power’ has been identified as the Qur’an itself, sent down from heaven (or most of the way at least, see 〈4.〉) on a specific night. Because of the description of this night as ‘better than a thousand months’, each year Muslims pray on the evening of the 27th day of Ramadan in the belief that the efficacy of prayers performed on that auspicious date will be increased a thousandfold over a month of prayers offered in ordinary time.


Surah 105‘s reference to the destruction of ‘the masters of the elephant’ inspired a story that Abraha, the Christian king of Himyar, 〈1.〉, launched a military expedition against Mecca in the year that Muhammad had been born, accompanied by an elephant called Mahmut that had been brought along to tear down the Ka’aba. Ibn Ishaq describes that it was Muhammad’s own grandfather Abd al-Mutallib who organised the evacuation of the city to nearby mountains from whence they watched as:

God sent upon (Abraha’s army) birds of the sea like swallows and starlings. Each bird carried three stones, like peas and lentils, one in its beak and two between its claws. Everyone who was hit died but not all were hit. They withdrew in flight by the way they came…


The seething invective of Surah 111 against the accursed hands of Abu Lahab and his wretched wife is said to have been directed at Muhammad’s treacherous uncle whom, it is said, organised opposition to his nephew’s mission, and towards his wife, whom, Ibn Ishaq informs us, was called ‘the wood-carrier’ by God ‘because she carried thorns and cast them in the apostle’s way where he would be passing.’


In Evolution of the Early Qur’an, from Anonymous Apocalypse to Charismatic Prophet by Daniel Beck, the above verses have been shown to contain complex layers of meaning that do not require any such creative myth-weaving to make sense of.


The ‘blind man’ of Surah 80, Beck suggests, is a reference to Hormizd IV, the Sassanian Shah of Persia, whose eyes had been put out in 590 during the palace coup that put his son Kusrow II on the throne, see 〈1.〉 above. The moral of the surah is that the presence of his blinded father should have acted as a warning to Kusrow about the inevitable fate of those who put their faith in treacherous schemes rather than righteous conduct.


Kusrow is also, Beck argues, the ‘master of the elephant’ of Surah 105. Even if one were prepared to accept the miraculous element of Ibn Ishaq’s story, Beck argues, and the rather awkward scenario of God smiting a monotheist king for attempting to destroy a pagan shrine, it made absolutely no sense that a Yemeni army might have marched an elephant hundreds of miles across the Arabian desert merely to pull down a modest wooden structure. Rather, Beck argues, the elephant represented the military might of Persia, which frequently used war elephants in battle and adopted the elephant as a symbol of their imperial splendour. Amongst those who knew their scripture, the elephant motif would also have evoked 2 Maccabees 15 in which, with God’s favour, Judas Maccabeus defeated a Seleucid army that had used elephants against Israel. The flock of ‘birds’, Beck argues, should in fact be read not as swallows and starlings, but as a flight of warrior angels (the word Arabic word ‘ṭayran’ from the root t-y-r: to fly, means simply ‘fliers’), delivering God’s Judgment against the Persians inscribed not through dropping tiny stones upon them but by reading from inscribed clay tablets.


Abu Lahab (literally ‘the father of the flame’) is yet again, according to Beck, Kusrow. The flame of his epithet links Kusrow’s Zoroastrian faith to his ultimate fate in the Hellfire. Abu Lahab’s ‘wife’ is a more difficult metaphor to unpack, but the symbolism of her, possibly as an avatar for his sin, carrying kindling for his immolation takes no great decryption, and has nothing to do with Muhammad pricking his feet on scattered thorns.


Surah 94‘s idiom of an ‘expanded chest’ is a straightforward idiom meaning courage, and is clearly used in this sense by Moses elsewhere in the Qur’an at {20.25}.


Finally, the wording of Surah 97 is at times similar to verses 1-3 of St Ephrem’s Nativity Hymn Number XIV :

Nativity Hymn No. XIV

1. Of the birth of the Firstborn, let us tell on His Feast Day …

2. Let us not count our vigils like the vigils of every day. His feast, its reward exceeds a hundredfold …

3. Today the angels and archangels descended to sing a new song on earth…


Surah 97

{97.1}  Truly We sent it down in the Night of Power (‘qadr’).

{97.2}}  And what shall apprise thee of the Night of Power?

{97.3}  The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.

{97.4}  The angels and the Spirit descend therein, by the leave of their Lord, with every command,

{97.5}  Peace it is until the break of dawn.

The congregation’s response to Hymn XIV is: ‘Blessed be He who became beyond measure low, that he might make us beyond measure great’. ‘Qadr’ in Surah 97 literally means a measurement, but here the angels have descended not to carol with churchgoers on Christmas Eve, but to convey a command from God. Beck argues, it is suggested persuasively, that the dawn that will bring peace to an end is the dawning of the Last Day and that the commands that the angel bear are not the Qur’an but nothing less than God’s command to bring about the apocalypse.


Clearly these final (as one reads the Qur’an) or first (in order of their announcement) forty surahs are complex and heavily laden with theological and political messages. Nonetheless, it is suggested that they are the best place for the Qur’an reader to start their exploration of the Qur’an. Since they are short, all forty can be comfortably read in one or two sittings. They are also the best place to start to consider the nature of the Qur’an and the community to which it was originally directed.


Compared with what would come later, explicit biblical references in these surahs are few and fleeting. Surah 95 mentions Mount Sinai (below), ‘the scriptures of Abraham and Moses’ are mentioned in {87.15}, and Moses is referred to a second time in {79.15}, alongside pharaoh who is also cited independently of Moses in {89.10}. However, even these few references, seem strangely presented. Moses is placed in the otherwise unknown valley of Tuwa, {79.16}, and the pharaoh appears alongside ‘tent poles’ or ‘tent pegs‘, as though out on expedition. The biblical allusions are more than matched by references with no known Biblical associations: ‘Ad, Iram and Thamud (for all of which see 〈26.〉 below), the more surreal Saqqar (Hell), Sijjin and Illyan (repositories for the records of men’s deeds), and, in their sole appearance in the Qur’an, the people traditionally presumed to be Muhammad’s own tribe, the Quraysh, {106.4}.


Moreover, the early surahs involve dozens of introductory ‘oaths’. Neuwirth has divided these into three types:

tableaux (animate but supernatural, undefined and generally threatening entities):

By the panting chargers…’, {100.1}, (see above),

By those that wrest violently…’, {79.1} 〈26.〉 ,

by the Calamity…’ [‘the knocker’ Neuwirth, ‘the striker’ per Qutb, ‘the noise and clamour’, Yusuf Ali], {101.1};

sacred sites (again usually unspecified):

By the Mount…’, {52.1},

By this land…’, {90.1},

By the fig and the olive,
By Mount Sinai …’, {95.1-2};

and celestial phenomena and time:

By the night as it enshrouds,
By the day as it discloses…’, {92.1-2},

By the sun and its morning brightness
By the moon when following it’, {91.1-2},

By the declining day…’, {103.1}.


Why God should swear by such aspects of His creation is hard to rationalise. Humans may swear by such phenomenon in an attempt to increase the forcefulness of their words but the words of God cannot be increased in this way. Islamic interpretation of these verses is reduced to treating them as conveyers of esoteric wisdom or mere poetic devices. In Surahs 113 and 114, such phenomena attach to God, in a style that is common in pre-Islamic inscriptions, as he is described as ‘Lord of the daybreak’, {113.1}, and

{114.1}  I seek refuge in the Lord of mankind,

{114.2}  The King of mankind,

{114.3}  The God of mankind,


Although the early Qur’an was informed by Judeo-Christian themes and its audience was expected to recognise major biblical characters, the rarity of explicit biblical references, the relocation of those Old Testament figures who do feature into a landscape that is, for Jews and Christians, unfamiliar, and the prevalence of oaths and references to God by aspects of His dominion, all suggest that the Qur’an began as a preaching of the coming apocalypse to an audience that was neither Jewish nor Christian. The majority of short surahs contain little or no indications of a claim to divine authorship that could not have been added later. If the only parts of the Qur’an that had been preserved were Surahs 1 and 74-114, the conclusion that these were evidence of an endeavour by a ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher, inspired by Jewish apocalyptic literature but employing the style of a soothsayer, to put the fear of God into a pagan audience would hardly be controversial.

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