Thursday, September 16, 2010

Qur'anathon Day 2: Alif Lam Mim & Al-Baqara (The Cow)

Welcome back to Verbosity's Qur'anathon!

Twice a week I'll be posting on my thoughts as I read the Qur'an. It's already been an enriching and educational experience. For instance, I now know that "Qur'an" is preferred over "Koran," and future posts will reflect that fact out of respect.

On Tuesday we examined a tiny portion of the history surrounding the Qur'an, and I wrote briefly about The Opening - a poetic invocation which begins the text.

Today's posting concerns two topics:

1) Alif Lam Mim, and
2) The first several ayat of the first Sura, known as Al-Baqara, or "The Cow."

Alif Lam Mim, the "words" (actually letters) that appear at the beginning of The Cow, are known as Muqatta`āt - literally translated as "abbreviated," or "shortened." If my understanding is correct, the meaning of these Muqatta`āt is unclear, but some Muslim opinion has it that their inscrutability may hide secrets of the Divine (a notion that I like very much, and which reminds me in a way of YHWH, a Hebrew abbreviation for the "true" name of God whose pronunciation was lost to time). Other sources contend that the meaning of these letters is not knowable, and that assigning "Mystical" meaning to them is pointless. You can read more about this intriguing and fittingly-obtuse phenomena by clicking HERE or HERE.

The "Chapter" title Al-Baqara (The Cow) may refer to the golden calf worshipped by the people of Moses, or it may refer to another cow which was somehow used to reanimate the dead (Reason 1 for enjoying the Qur'an: cows are used to reanimate the dead). Wikipedia seems confused on this point. No less confusing are some of the opening verses of this Sura:

"Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing and there is a covering over their eyes, and there is a great punishment for them." 2:07

"if Allah had pleased He would certainly have taken away their hearing and their sight; surely Allah has power over all things." 2:20

"And if you are in doubt as to that which We have revealed to Our servant, then produce a chapter like it and call on your witnesses besides Allah if you are truthful. But if you do (it) not and never shall you do (it), then be on your guard against the fire of which men and stones are the fuel; it is prepared for the unbelievers." 2:23-24

And now, going back to The Opening for a moment...

"Merciful to all,
Compassionate to each!"

Really? How does this (admirable, beautiful) invocation square itself with what comes after it, in Al-Baqara? If God has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing and there is a covering over their eyes.." then does that not imply that it is God who is responsible for a person's unwillingness/inability to hear the "Good News" offered by The Qur'an? And if this is so, then how may we assume that God is "Merciful to all, Compassionate to each"?

We're dealing in antitheticals here - something that Verbosity reader Katie (author of the excellent blog "All Shall Be Well," linked below in the sidebar) pointed out on Day 1. How is God merciful to all and simultaneously proactively sealing people's hearts and blinding them and making them deaf to the revelation He offered to Muhammad? If Allah is compassionate to each then what's with this whole "fire made of stones and men" (a great, grisly image) thing?

This dichotomy - between boundless mercy and endless suffering - is one that has fascinated me since I first picked up a Bible and began exploring its pages. How can a Divine being be both fully-benevolent and yet also potentially malevolent to such extremes? Philosophers and Theologians have spent millenia wrestling with these questions and have spun out countless theories to accomodate for this weird discrepency, either by explaining it or by criticizing it. This split between a God who seems to want nothing but the best for his children, but who is also creepily-eager to blind his people personally so as to prevent them from recieving his grace, is bizarre and compelling and Mystical in the capital-M sense of the word.

One way to explain this discrepency is to assign both "positive" and "negative" aspects to the Divine. Another is to claim that God is ineffable, incapable of being fully understood in aspect or in motivation. Still another is to suggest that God is "merciful to all, compassionate to each" person who accepts his Divinity and lives by "the straight path," but this explanation fails to account for the actions of a God who seems comfortable stacking the deck by making some of his children fundamentally incapable of finding said-path.

What do you think? Is this seemingly-irreconcilable split explicable? Are we dealing, ultimately, with what amounts to a description of Nature itself - both its bounty and its wrath? How do you reconcile this?


  1. Thanks for the mention!

    This was a really interesting start: the first couple ayats of Al-Baqara reminded me a lot of some of the Old-Testament prophets, both in content and in style. The threat of making people deaf and blind is a common one made by Near Eastern prophets, and the section that begins "It is he who made the Earth a bed for you, the sky a canopy" is really stylistically and thematically similar to some of the poetic interludes in the Bible. The difference that I found to be interesting, though, was that (so far) there's no real call to repentance. Instead of urging people to change their behavior, this ayat seems set up a demarcation between believers and unbelievers and doesn't do much to encourage forward progress for the latter. It makes me wonder if there's going to be an aspect of predestination to the Qur'an's theology (and if there is, if it's dealt with in similar ways to Christianity).

    I've never been a big fan of Vengeful God Theology, but it's an interesting thing to think about. I think a part of the split between merciful God / angry God can be seen in the context in which Islam and Judaism arose - they were minority religions, and when these religious texts were being written, enemies had to be smitten (smote?) in order for the religions to survive. But that's a historical solution and not a theological one, which I suppose makes it insufficient or irrelevant in the context of the Qur'an. I honestly don't know how to begin reconciling it at this point, but it's definitely something that I'm going to keep in mind as I read on.

  2. Thanks for the series. May it be blessed.

  3. Sadiq,

    Thank you for reading. I hope you continue to find my ramblings worthwhile.



  4. Alif Lam Mim means "Mahamati Prannath".
    For details, go to