Surah Al Alaq – What’s in a name?
Surah Al Alaq contains the earliest revelation to the Prophet Muhammad, therefore its the beginning point of my Millennial Quran Study Project (MQSP), formally the Quran Year Project (QYP). I realized, while I was in Pakistan, that there was no way I was going to read the Quran, the way I was going through it, in a year. Reflection is a funny thing in that sense, I just couldn’t do much of it during my two months of wedding festivities and illness that left me bedridden for several days at a time while in Karachi. Moving forward with the project required a name change to accommodate this new reality and a coarse correction when it came to blogging.
Not being able to regularly blog about the spiritual and intellectual processing I am experiencing as I move forward with the project, I designed these “Field Notes” posts as my running notes on what I am gleaning, unfiltered to an extent, from the project. It serves as the first order of learning from this project for me. As such, I hope you view these particular blog posts as “Cliff’s Notes” to the project.
Also a quick note on the name change. I consciously chose to incorporate “Millennial” into the name because I felt that my project was as much motivated by the environment I am in as much as the internal factors I have already shared in previous posts. Most people approach the Quran for study as a private affair. Here I am doing the most Millennial thing possible, publicly studying the Quran on my blog for all to read. I also took out the whole deadline aspect, a year was an unrealistic self imposed timeline and if I have learned anything from my failure with the 105 Book Reading Challenge from last year, its that sometimes when things require savoring and marinating over a longer period of time, it does not make sense to hurry it along.
Surah Al Alaq -The Chapter on The Clot (Part 1)
The beginning verses mark the period in which the Prophets old life of searching for the truth and Oneness of God instantly transformed to become a mission of sharing revelation over the next 23 years of his remaining life. In that sense, all Muslims going to Sunday school as kids, have this story drilled into them.
Thats also the point of departure for me on this #OccupyQuran journey. To begin to experience the Prophets life is to breath in the essence of the Quranic revelation as they came down. The first five verses of revelation were from what is the first five verses of the Chapter on The Clot, or in Arabic, Surah Al Alaq. The rest of the verses for this chapter came down at a later point according to the order of revelation or tanzil that I am following [here]; you can read more about MQSP here, other logistical information can be found [here].
- I didn’t realize that the chapter was not revealed in one go. I, for some odd reason, was under the impression that the entirety of the chapter was revealed during that first moment of revelation. The first five verses of this chapter are all that were revealed to the Prophet, who then went home shaking from the experience.
- There is no explanation of who God is in these initial verses. Rather, the Prophet is told that these verses are from God, and that God created him. This implies to me that the Prophet already had an understanding of God and the Unity of God, making these verses more an acknowledgement to the Prophet that his belief was right. Which in itself says a lot about the Prophet and his journey to this point.
- These first few verses basically establish the idea that religion and knowledge go hand in hand, and that without God there is no capacity for humans to advance themselves.
- Finally, its fascinating that the first revelation is about the human embryo. The embryo basically is the point of biological evolution that a human physically experiences, but this has its spiritual significance in that this point is the place where a Muslims spiritual birth begins. Recognizing their dependence on God, just as God is telling the Prophet that “knowledge sets man apart from all other creation” and that humans are inherently deficient in knowledge, dependent on God, a Muslim begins to grow closer to God.
- Muadudi points out that the Prophet was asked to physically read the verses. Which makes sense, however, I never had that imagined that way. I assumed it was a matter of “reciting” rather then “reading.” Therefore, the Prophets response that he couldn’t read was appropriate, and totally makes sense as he was shown a script to read by the Angel Gabriel and was unable to read it. (Asad also agrees with this interpretation.)
- It seems that the Prophet had no pretensions to Prophethood, rather he was a seeker for personal salvation from what he saw happening around him in Mecca at the time. He understood that the reality of Mecca was not spiritually clean, striking the wrong chord as Maududi refers to it, so he sought a break from all of it by going up into the mountains around Mecca to meditate and pray- to seek. To do so, he withdrew himself not only from Mecca’s social environment, but from his family life, forgoing everything in order to seek (Asad explains this a bit better).
- Muadudi goes at length to point out that these five verses of the chapter give no mission or purpose to the Prophet. In fact, rather they establish the point of origin in transforming thought and life.
- According to the Muadudi, there is a break in revelation after these five verses (something I didn’t know, or might have forgotten from Sunday school?).
- For all the recorded tradition that is handed down over the centuries, one important aspect not properly recorded but usually guesstimated are dates. Asad states that “the exact date cannot be established with certainty, all authorities agree in that these fie verses were revealed in the last third of Ramadan, thirteen years before Hijra (migration from Mecca to the city of Medina by the Muslim population of Mecca).” This puts the Christian date to revelation around July-August of the year 610.
- The Prophet was forty years of age when revelation occurred. Asad points out this gem “[a]t that period of his life ‘solitude became dear unto him, and he used to withdraw into seclusion in a cave of Mt. Hire and there apply himself to ardent devotions consisting of vigils and prayers'(Bukhari).”
- Going back to my misunderstanding of the mechanics of the situation: Being in the cave and having been in his devotions, the Angel Gabriel came to him and showed him written script, speaking to him to “Read!” Asad states that “Muhammad understood, in sudden illumination, that he was called upon to ‘read’, that is to receive and understand, God’s message to man.” Which suggests the true nature of reading- you just don’t ‘read’ something and toss it, reading is an active action not passive. It revolves around the idea of getting knowledge and then digesting it in order to make sense of it. The difference in reading and reciting is significant, therefore, it makes sense that the Prophet was shown something to read and had the response he had, that he couldn’t read what he was shown by Gabriel. I don’t know why I never saw these events in this light up until now!
I want to thank Qashif Masud for allowing me the use of his picture above. He creates these amazing wood pieces for custom orders and he kindly let me use the picture from his site of a Quran box with the first verse from Surah Al Alaq on the lid. The brother is an amazing designer and craftsman, he epitomizes what the maker movement is all about. He even states on his site that that is “all about the love for all things handmade.” In a way this is a reflection of the continuing engagement Muslims have with the Quran, as all works – from writing to architecture to this humble Quran box- are a ‘tafsir’ of the Word of God. This philosophy is visible in the special care put in to the pieces he creates, do check him out at his site here.