Andrew Seligson: Understanding Intertextuality through Sura 55

The importance of intertextual readings of the Suras is as important as reading any other sacred scripture. For example, the recurring dreams in the Hebrew bible in the story of Joseph and Daniel creates an internal coherence of the text. At each point in time of writing of these sources and tales, it gives us clues into the fact that the writers and the experiences are in dialogue with each other, the text itself, as well as the eternal significance of the text in its relationship to the political challenges that trouble each particular time period. In short, by recognizing the intertextual basis of sacred texts, especially the Qur’an, we gain further insight into the historical, social, and spiritual underpinnings that underlie each Sura. This essay will look into the specific Sura 55 The All-Merciful. In a book as poetic and intentionally up for interpretation as the Qur’an, it is important to be able to come to conclusive interpretations of the text in order to integrate the ethical lesson into orthopraxis: “As will be seen in the course of the discussion, studying the Sura in the light of context and internal relationships explains away such difficulties and removes any reasonable need for such conjectures”[1]

Sura 55 very much functions as a summation of the many lessons and promises of other Suras. As we discussed in class, one of these lessons are that creation was created in perfect harmony, and that there is no randomness in Allah’s creation: “The sky He raised, and established the balance, So that you do not infringe the balance, But measure in fairness, and not shortchange the balance”[2]. Another is that all of nature, from the trees, to the sky, to the letters on this page, all praise God: “All in the heavens and earth beseech Him; He is ever engaged upon some matter”[3]. This idea that God is in constant relationship to creation, that God is not a retired watchmaker, is echoed throughout the Qur’an. For example, in the Sura The Forgiver, it is stated that “He casts down the Spirit, by His command, upon whomever He wishes of His servants, to warn against the Day of Encounter”[4]. As we discussed in class, we are created to relate to each other. For this purpose, there is a cosmological duality in all things, just as there is Man and Women created equally, just as there were different tribes created. This is echoed in the duality of the verses in Sura 55. The reference to the two gardens, for example, creates the distinction between the lesser believers and the more devout believers: “The two gardens described here are for the second class of believers and are for the second class of believers and are lower in rank of quality… the divine testimony of their having done well is reserved for those in the first gardens. The pairing structure, is, nevertheless, maintained throughout, as is the refrain”[5]. This idea of the world being split into pairs, between paradise and hellfire, between the believer and the non-believer, is deeply characteristic of the theology of the Qur’an.

Equally important is to recognize the broader context, be it social or political. Allah, although addressing the entire humanity in the eternal word of the Qur’an, was also referring to a specific political context that had to be recognized: “Tamman Hassan points out that when scholars of balagha recognized the concept of maqam, they were a thousand years ahead of their time. When Malinowski coined his famous term ‘ the context of the situation’ he had no knowledge of his work”[6]. The notion that gardens, fig trees, and other natural and fertile objects are sacred ought to be seen within their context of the Arabian desert. In an environment with very little natural resources, the promise of a lush garden with olive trees took on a spiritual and sacred significance. As Sells points out in his commentary on the Sura The Fig: “The Fig begins with an oath invoking the fig, the olive, and a precinct or ground that was viewed as sacred… In the Arabian Peninsula, fig and olive trees are the visible symbols of life and fertility… The focus at the end of this Sura is clearly on din as the moment of truth in which each human will find his or her most secret and most ultimate reality revealed with finality”[7]. This notion of the sacredness and spiritual significance of certain natural symbols such as gardens, trees, and other symbols create intertextual links and coherence within the Qur’an itself. For example, in the Prophet’s ascension to the 7th level of paradise, he witnessed Sidrat al-Muntaha, the sacred tree which no person can pass save Allah and the Prophet. For Muhammad, [he] was ordered to go back to earth, but he left the self in heaven and his spirit at the Lote-tree, and his heart in the unutterable divine presence while his secret was left suspended without place”[8]. Thus, by gaining context of the environment, the political situation, and other religious factors in the Arabian Peninsula, we can see how the Prophet integrated these same divine and religious symbols from his environment into the Qur’an itself.

[1] Muhammad Abdel Haleem, “The Qur’an Explains Itself” in Understanding the Qurʼan: Themes and Style, (Cairo: American Univ. in Cairo Press, 2011), 59.

[2] Sura 55:6-9

[3] Sura 55:29-30

[4] Sura 40:15

[5] Muhammad Abdel Haleem, “The Qur’an Explains Itself” in Understanding the Qurʼan: Themes and Style ,177

[6] ibid, 160.

[7] Michael Sells, Approaching the Qurʼan: The Early Revelations. (Ashland, Or: White Cloud Press, 1999), 95

[8] Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, “Sidrat al-Muntaha” in Angels Unveiled: A Sufi Perspective. (Chicago, IL: Kazi Publications, 1995). Accessed on February 28th, 2016 through