Some thoughts on Surat Taha: 1

[Disclaimer: I know nothing about this, and am simply trying to understand a little. Don’t take this as authoritative or even reliable!]

Readers coming to the Quran from a Jewish or Christian background often expect it to be, like the Bible, primarily an account of events.  They end up puzzled: why would a single story retold in many different places?  Why would different épisodes from the same story be scattered across the book, with no one location giving a general summary?  To begin to understand this, you have to realise that the story is being invoked in a surah-specific context, which determines what aspects of it are emphasised, and that you cannot expect the context to be immediately clear on a first reading.  To make sense of it, you often need to look for external parallels to the story.  Surat Taha is as good an illustration of this as any.

This surah must have come at a time when the Prophet and his still-young community were having a hard time, as its first line suggests – in particular, when he felt that he was unable to persuade enough people, and that even some of his existing flock were backsliding.  Note that this retelling of the story of Moses emphasises Moses’ own feelings of inadequacy to the task; he asks not just for general help, but specifically for greater eloquence (and note the awkward verbosity of his speech as quoted prior to this prayer) and for his brother to be appointed to help him in his mission.  He receives not just the help he asks for, but also the reassurance he wanted – a reminder that he wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for God’s exceptional earlier mercy to him (compare Surat al-Dhuha) and that he had grown up only with his mother just as the Prophet had.

Pharaoh and his followers see Moses’ miracle, but take Moses for a magician to be vanquished by magicians.  Likewise the Quran reminds us that the Prophet was accused of being a mere magician.  But if transforming objects is the game of magicians, transformational words are normally the game of poets – and Quraysh got poets to challenge the Prophet just as Pharaoh got magicians.  In the duel of the magicians with Moses, we see that humans can cause the illusion of transformation (“their cords and their staves, by their magic, appeared to him as though they ran”), but only God can cause the real thing (“he cast it down, and lo! it was a serpent“), which inevitably vanquishes the simulacrum.  This applies well to words: note that the Qur’an’s objection to poets, seen elsewhere, is that they say what they do not do; their words project a mere image, failing to transform even their own speaker.

How not to teach

This earthly life is but a test;
Score high enough, and you’ll be blessed.
Thank God we have the answer sheet!
No need to strain to understand
The ambiguous texts of life and land;
Just cram, and keep your writing neat.

Tragedies in Utopia, or KSR’s blind spot

Kim Stanley Robinson has devoted most of his career to trying to imagine Utopia, producing some good books on the way. As a conscientious multiculturalist, he even takes pains to incorporate an impressive array of cultures around the world into his books, though all of them somehow throw up heroes feeling precisely the same feelings and striving to achieve precisely the same ideals as middle-class left-wing late twentieth century Californians. One of the most obvious common features of all his Utopias is that material tragedies like starvation, poverty, violence, or oppression will be firmly tackled, yet emotional tragedies like broken hearts, betrayals, power games, even unloved or ungrateful children will continue as an inevitable part of life. After all, fixing material tragedies is just a matter of technology and organisation, whereas emotional tragedies just happen.

The only problem with that view is that it’s absurd.  No society, including our own, leaves emotional tragedies entirely to chance.  Every society has norms (starting as basic as “Don’t covet another person’s spouse”) which help minimise particular kinds of emotional tragedies, and the norms chosen have a strong effect on the frequency and nature of emotional tragedies.  For instance, if it’s socially unacceptable to live in the same house as your parents, there will be more lonely old people around than if it’s socially unacceptable to leave your parents on their own. If young people are encouraged to try living with and comparing several partners before making any commitment, then there will be more breakups – with all the accompanying suffering that we laugh uncomfortably about – than if young people are encouraged to avoid relationships until they’re ready to get married.

No doubt you can immediately see the problems that those particular solutions would cause – what about people who don’t get along with their parents, or people who commit to a partner who’s wrong for them? But if you suggested to, say, a Bedouin that they should adopt modern Western norms, they would just as quickly point to the problems I’ve mentioned.  Did you ever make an informed decision that the trade-off is worth it?  Or did you just accept these as the way things are?

The unexamined life may be worth living, but it’s no basis for a Utopia.  We devote enormous energy to creating prosperity and safety, which is well and good – but if we seriously want a better world, we need to think about interpersonal relations too.