paper reviews

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 [as] (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.

Does God really laugh? A study of the hadiths on God’s laughter

A review of Livnat Holtzman’s article “Does God Really Laugh? Appropriate and Inappropriate Descriptions of God in Islamic Traditionalist Theology.”1

There are a few hadith narrations that mention the laughter of God, which is something not mentioned in the Quran. One of the best-known hadiths mentioning God’s laughter is the following from Abū Hurayra:

So Allah will bring him near to the gate of Paradise, and when he sees what is in it, he will remain silent as long as Allah will, and then he will say, 'O Lord! Let me enter Paradise.' Allah will say, 'Didn't you promise that you would not ask Me for anything other than that? Woe to you, O son of Adam ! How treacherous you are!' On that, the man will say, 'O Lord! Do not make me the most wretched of Your creation,' and will keep on invoking Allah till Allah will laugh and when Allah will laugh because of him, then He will allow him to enter Paradise, and when he will enter Paradise, he will be addressed, 'Wish from so-and-so.' He will wish till all his wishes will be fulfilled, then Allah will say, All this (i.e. what you have wished for) and as much again therewith are for you.' " Abu Huraira added: That man will be the last of the people of Paradise to enter (Paradise).

Sahih al-Bukhari 6573

As part of my review of Livnat Holtzman’s article, I decided to do a quick survey of the major hadith collections (including the Musnad) for hadiths that mention the word yaḍḥaku (“he laughs”), I then gathered all of the hadiths that use this word in reference to God. Below is the result:

According to my probabilistic hadith verification methodology, here are the reliability indicators of the hadiths:

  • Abū Hurayra 22.7%
  • Abū Hurayra 26.5%
  • Jābir b. ʿAbdallāh 10.88%
  • Abū Razīn 5.85%
  • Abū Saʿīd al-Khudrī 1.94%
  • Nuʿaym b. Hammār 4.66%

The strongest hadith is the second one at 26.5% which falls between ḥasan and ṣaḥīḥ in my methodology (ṣaḥīḥ starts at 30%).

We can then do a final step to combine all of these probabilities. Since we are combining different hadiths, each probability is first halved.

1−((1−0.227÷2)(1−0.265÷2)(1−0.1088÷2)(1−0.585÷2)(1−0.0194÷2)(1−0.0466÷2))

= 0.50236594

The result is that all of these hadiths together have a probability of 50.2% that the crux of their meaning is authentic, which is much higher than the 30% necessary for ṣaḥīḥ. So the conclusion is that the support for God’s laughter is quite strong in the hadith literature. Note that this is only a partial survey, a complete survey will likely enhance this probability upwards of 60%.

Interpreting God’s laughter

The Ashʿarite theologians considered it problematic to attribute laughter to God, so they reinterpreted God’s laughter as a reference to His mercy. The traditionalists (the major group of them being the Ḥanbalites), however, considered reinterpretation unacceptable, so they taught that God’s laughter should be interpreted literally even if we do not exactly understand its nature.

Below is a statement of creed (ʿaqīda) attributed to Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (d. 855 CE, after whom the Ḥanbalī school is named) and mentioned by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya in his Hādī al-arwāḥ (The guide of souls):

We believe that God sits on His throne. However, He is not confined to limitations of space. We believe that God sees and hears and talks and laughs and is joyful.

The hadith scholar Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wāḥid (d. 1149 CE), when asked about God’s laughter, said that it is hypocrisy and apostasy to attempt to interpret it.

The Ḥanbalī scholar Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201 CE) criticized members of his own school for believing that God laughs until His molar “teeth” can be seen (as is narrated in a weak narration). He says that the anthropomorphic descriptions of God found in the Quran and Hadith (such as God having “hands” or laughing) were only intended to help new converts to Islam connect with God. Had God been described to them theologically as not being a body, not being in any place, having no dimension, and not moving, the new converts would have become perplexed and unable to relate to Him.

So Ibn al-Jawzī takes a path similar to the Ashʿarites in interpreting God’s laughter metaphorically, as referring to His mercy and grace.

Ibn Taymiyya’s interpretation of God’s laughter

The most interesting contribution of Holtzmann’s article is her discussion of Ibn Taymiyya’s views on the issue. Whenever we see Ibn Taymiyya apply his vast intellect to a question, we can be sure to hear something original and interesting.

According to Ibn Taymiyya, it is wrong to consider laughter an imperfection in God as the theologians do. A person who laughs is more perfect than a person who cries. And a person who is capable of both love and hatred is more perfect than a person who is only capable of love. Part of perfection is to have the ability to respond to each situation in the most appropriate way possible.

Here he uses the same technique that he used to overturn Islamic theological orthodoxy and show that a God who acts in time is superior to a God who does not (see my essay Reconciling Free Will and Predestination in Islam with al-Māturīdī and Ibn Taymiyya). As Jon Hoover shows in his Ibn Taymiyya’s Theodicy of Perpetual Optimism, Ibn Taymiyya is dedicated to a juristic agenda whose first principle is to always seek to find ways to think of and describe God in the most perfect way possible.

So according to Ibn Taymiyya, while we should not attempt to exactly understand God’s laughter, we should also avoid the theological mistake of thinking that something that is imperfect in humans is imperfect when applied to God. Laughter can be a perfection for God. It is just one of the numerous ways in which His perfection becomes manifest to humans.

The Unleashed Thunderbolts of Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya by Yasir Qadhi

A review of Shakh Yasir Qadhi’s paper “‘The Unleashed Thunderbolts’ of Ibn Qayyim al-Ǧawziyyah: An Introductory Essay.”1

This 2010 paper by Yasir Qadhi is a study of Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya’s al-Ṣawāʿiq al-mursala ʿalā al-Jahmīya wa-l-Muʿaṭṭila (The Unleashed Thunderbolts against the Jahmites and the Negators [of Divine Attributes]). I will focus on Ibn al-Qayyim’s positions as transmitted by Yasir Qadhi.

Ibn al-Qayyim speaks against taʾwīl, the act of reinterpreting a statement in the Quran or hadith in a way that avoids its literal meaning, such as saying that when God refers to His “hand” in the Quran, this is actually a reference to His power. Ibn al-Qayyim says that there are only three possible reasons why a speaker would speak in a way that would require reinterpretation:

  • The speaker is not sincere and does not wish to express the clearest possible meaning.
  • The speaker is not knowledgeable about what he is saying.
  • The speaker is not eloquent and is unable to express himself clearly.

Naturally, since none of these apply to God or His Messenger PBUH, Ibn al-Qayyim’s conclusion is that there is no room for taʾwīl in Islam. But there is another possibility that he does not consider; perhaps God uses such expressions as tests and as encouragement for Muslims to look more deeply into the matter so that they can get to know God better.

They are tests in that they lead to disagreement among Muslims and in this way bring out their characters. Will they hold on to the tie of religious brotherhood and overcome their disagreements so that they can love those who disagree with them, or will they fail the test and use these disagreements as justifications for demonizing and dehumanizing their opponents? I believe Ibn al-Qayyim falls into the category of those who at least partially failed the test; his use of the phrase “Unleashed Thunderbolts” clearly implies that those who disagree with them deserve extreme divine punishment as Yasir Qadhi says.

Ibn al-Qayyim goes on to mention four “pillars of falsehood” (ṭawāghīt, sing. ṭāghūt) that he believes are the fundamental principles that are relied on by misguided Muslims (i.e. Ashʿarites, Muʿtazilites and philosophers) to destroy the foundations of religion.

The first ṭāghūt is the principle of the theologians such as Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210 CE) that verbal evidence do not yield certain knowledge. The theologians viewed the evidence of hadith as inherently probabilistic, since in almost all cases we can never be sure if the information was transmitted with 100% accuracy. They also viewed the process of interpreting the Quran and hadith as inherently probabilistic since we cannot always be sure that we understood the exact meaning that a verse or hadith statement is meant to convey.

Ibn al-Qayyim argues against that and says if that was really the case, life would become impossible since we could never be sure of the meaning of the statements that those around us made. Ibn al-Qayyim’s arguments as mentioned by Yasir Qadhi are all polemical and unconvincing.

The second ṭāghūt is the principle of the theologians that intellectual evidence takes priority over scripture when the two are in conflict. Ibn al-Qayyim relies on his mentor Ibn Taymiyya’s arguments against this principle, saying that reason and revelation can never be truly in conflict. Whenever reason and revelation appear to be in conflict, it is the deficiency of human reason that is to blame. Therefore when Aristotelian logic seems to support a truth that goes against revelation, the deficiency is in that logic.

This point is well made since the history of Islamic theology is full of theologians who believed that they had absolute logical proofs for their doctrines that were later proven to be logically invalid. Whenever we believe that we have discovered a fact that clearly goes against revelation, it may only take a decade or two before someone else shows us that the fact and revelation are actually not in conflict (as in the case of evolution).

Strangely, Ibn al-Qayyim goes on to argue that Hell is not eternal since it serves God no purpose to eternally punish a temporal creation. As I argue in my essay A Quranic Phenomenology of Atheism, the reason why eternal punishment may be necessary is that by disbelieving in God, a person stands up to the Infinite and asks Him to do His worst to them. It can be said that here Ibn al-Qayyim breaks all of his own principles: he ignores the literal meaning of the Quran and hadith, he prefers his own reason over revelation, and he breaks with the views of the Companions and the Salaf.

The third ṭāghūt is the concept of majāz (allegory) that is used by the Ashʿarites. Ashʿarites claim that the Quran uses allegorical language, for example when God refers to being “above” the Throne, this is merely an allegory rather than a reference to God having a direction of “aboveness” in space (since God is not in space). Ibn al-Qayyim strangely argues that statements such as “Zayd is a lion” are not actually allegorical because anyone with a sound mind can immediately understand the meaning that is meant by it; namely that Zayd is brave.

He argues that there is no textual indication that God’s attributes should be interpreted metaphorically. He says that it is demeaning to God’s exalted nature to suggest that attributes such as His being “above” do not have a literally meaning. He claims that all of the Companions and the Salaf agreed that these attributes should be interpreted literally.

The fourth ṭāghūt is the principle of the theologians that the traditions of the Prophet PBUH can only yield probabilistic knowledge. Ibn al-Qayyim’s view is that singular (āḥād) narrations (which lack multiple supporting chains) can yield certain knowledge when there is supporting evidence. I believe that Ibn al-Qayyim exaggerates the position of his opponents, since they too acted upon singular narrations despite acknowledging their probabilistic reliability. His act merely implies that his opponents are using an invalid approach to hadith–despite the fact the end result is largely the same. It is therefore merely or largely a polemical attack meant to lump together extreme rejectors of hadith with the Ashʿarites.

In his conclusion, Yasir Qadhi mentions that Ibn al-Qayyim’s attack is one of the most sophisticated ones ever launched against the Ashʿarites. He calls for reassessing common views of Ibn al-Qayyim and Ibn Taymiyya as shallow literalists. I agree that despite the failure of many of their attacks and their polemical style, they were worthy opponents of the theologians who must be taken seriously. Recent Western scholarship has continued to support this thesis, a good example being the 2010 book Ibn Taymiyya and His Times.