Restoring the original interpretation of Surat Quraysh (Quran 106)

A review of Uri Rubin “Quraysh and their winter and summer journey: On the interpretation of Sura 106.”1

Surat Quraysh is often translated as follows in English:

  1. For the security of Quraysh.
  2. Their security during winter and summer journeys.
  3. Let them worship the Lord of this House.
  4. Who has fed them against hunger, and has secured them against fear.

This translation (and the Arabic interpretations it is inspired by) have always seemed unsatisfactory to me; the message seems too weak to me for a Meccan sura.

The sura starts in a strange way: li-ilāfi quraysh (“for the security of Quraysh”). The starting li can be interpreted as means “for”, as in the above translation. But many exegetes considered it a lām al-taʿajjub, meaning that it is used to express wonder, or even reservation. Thus the meaning could be “Wonder you at the security of Quraysh!”, or “Woe to the security of Quraysh!”.

The word ilāf also means “habituation”, “preoccupation”, besides “security” and “safety”. Thus the meaning could be “Wonder you at the preoccupation of Quraysh!”. And this is the interpretation proposed by Uri Rubin. Thus the original meaning of the sura may be as follows:

  1. Woe to the preoccupation of Quraysh! / Wonder you at the preoccupation of Quraysh!
  2. Their preoccupation with the winter and summer journeys.
  3. Let them worship the Lord of this House.
  4. Who has fed them against hunger, and has secured them against fear.

To me, now the sura’s message has the expected strength; the sura is an attack on Quraysh’s preoccupation with trade and a call for them to get busy with the task God has chosen for them: to be caretakers of His sanctuary. Of course, we have no guarantee that this is the correct interpretation, but it seems likely.

Rubin argues that the Quranic view is Quraysh is wrongful to be preoccupied with trade. By endowing Quraysh with a ḥaram (sanctuary) to which pilgrims carry provisions from all over Arabia, Quraysh has no need for trade since God has already answered the prayer of Abraham (mentioned elsewhere in the Quran) to provide the sanctuary with food and goods. God is saying that Quraysh should be busy taking care of the sanctuary and its pilgrims rather than leaving it to seek worldly profits.

Since this original interpretation placed Quraysh in a very negative light, later Muslims sought other interpretations that preserved the good image of Quraysh. Thus the sura was interpreted as saying that God was recounting His favor upon Quraysh by enabling them to securely and easily engage in their trade journeys.

Uri Rubin argues that the Sura started out as an admonishment against Quraysh that was later reinterpreted to preserve a good image of the tribe.

Footnotes

  1. Download it here.
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