Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 20, “Ta Ha”

This early Meccan sura “has no rival,” says Muhammad Al-Ghazali, “in its uncompromising affirmation of the Absolute Unity of Allah.” It takes its name from the two Arabic letters that begin it, ta (ﻁ) and ha (ﻩ). Ibn Abbas and other early commentators have suggested that ta ha (طه) is actually a phrase from an ancient Arabic dialect, meaning “O man,” in which case it may be that here Allah is addressing Muhammad, as he does in v. 2 — where once again consoles his downcast prophet, telling him he is not being given the Qur’an in order to distress him. Everything belongs to Allah (v. 6) and he knows all secrets (v. 7), for he has the best names – that is, the highest attributes (v. 8).

Then verses 9-99 tell yet again the story of Moses, which has already been touched on in suras 2, 7, 10, and 17. But, as Al-Ghazali observes, “every time the story appears different aspects of it emerge. Each version has details which are not included in any other version.” But the repeated aspects have their usefulness as well. Al-Ghazali also points out that this sura is very concerned with reminding and bidding the faithful to remember truths that they have already learned: the Qur’an itself is a reminder (v. 3); the believers should pray regularly so as to remember Allah (v. 14); Moses asks Allah to be given Aaron as a helper, so that together the brothers can praise and remember him without ceasing (vv. 29-34); Allah grants this, and warns Moses not to grow slack in remembering him (v. 42); Allah instructs Moses to go speak to Pharaoh so that perhaps Pharaoh will remember or show some fear of Allah (v. 44); Allah never forgets (v. 52), but after the mysterious Samiri fashions the idol of the calf, he tells the people that this is their god, but that Moses has forgotten that (v. 88); Allah tells Muhammad that he told him the whole story of Moses again as a reminder (v. 99); Allah gave the world the Qur’an so as to bring some people to remember him (v. 113); Adam forgot his covenant with Allah (v. 115); Allah will forget on the Day of Judgment those who forgot his signs (ayat, or verses of the Qur’an) in this world (v. 126).

Sufis say that when Moses approached the Burning Bush and heard the voice of Allah (vv. 10-17), he attained the states of fana, or absorption of the self into the deity, and baqaa, life in union with Allah. His shoes, they say, represented his separation from Allah, which is why Allah tells him to take them off (v. 12). According to Ibn Masud Baghavi in Ma’alimut-tanzil, what Moses saw wasn’t actually fire at all, but the heavenly light (Nur) of Allah.

Anyway, Allah equips Moses with the staff that turns into a snake (v. 20) and a hand that would turn brilliant white “without disease” (v. 22), and sends him off to confront Pharaoh. Allah grants Moses’ request to take Aaron along (v. 36) and tells him the story of how he was plucked out of the river by “one who is an enemy to Me and an enemy to him” (v. 39) as a baby and returned to his mother (v. 40). The story is told as if the hearers are already familiar with the outline of the story of Moses from the Book of Exodus.

When Allah tells Moses and Aaron again to go to Pharaoh (v. 44), they respond that they’re afraid “lest he hasten with insolence against us, or lest he transgress all bounds” (v. 46). Allah responds that they should not be afraid, for he is with them, and sees and hears everything – recalling the message of consolation he gave to Muhammad in vv. 5-7. So Moses and Aaron do their duty, telling Pharaoh that Allah is the only God and has “made for you the earth like a carpet spread out” (v. 53), and that punishment awaits the disbelievers (v. 48). But Pharoah rejects their message (v. 56) and says he can match their miracles (v. 58). When his magicians, however, profess their faith in Allah (v. 70), Pharaoh threatens them in language that eerily foreshadows Allah’s own recommended punishment (revealed later) for those who make war against Allah and Muhammad (5:33): he tells them he’ll crucify them, or amputate a hand and a foot on opposite sides (v. 71). Evidently the punishments are fine – the only problem is the person administering them, and for what reason.

Allah saves the Israelites from Pharaoh by parting the sea so that they pass on dry land (vv. 77-79). Moses ascends the mountain to meet Allah, but doesn’t receive the Ten Commandments. Instead, Allah asks him why he hurried up the mountain in advance of his people (v. 82) and tells him that he is testing Moses’ people by allowing Samiri to lead them astray (v. 85). Moses scolds Aaron for doing nothing when he saw them beginning to go astray (v. 92). Samiri explains that he took “a handful (of dust) from the footprint of the Messenger” to fashion the calf (v. 96). Muslim commentators generally agree that he took this dust from one of the hoofprints left by the angel Gabriel’s horse, as Gabriel led the Israelites in battle. Moses punishes Samiri, telling him “thy punishment in this life will be that thou wilt say, ‘touch me not’ (v. 97). Ibn Kathir explains: “This means, ‘Just as you took and touched what was not your right to take and touch of the messenger’s foot print, such is your punishment in this life, that you will say, ‘Do not touch (me).’ This means, ‘You will not touch the people and they will not touch you.’” This may be a hint that Samiri is a Samaritan – a people who generally did not (and do not) intermingle with outsiders.

Verses 100-112 warn about the dreadful Day of Judgment. Then verses 113-123 tell us that Allah has sent down an “Arabic Qur’an” so that people may fear him (v. 113) – this is one of the verses that establishes the proposition that the Qur’an is essentially in Arabic and cannot be translated. Allah tells Muhammad “be not in haste with the Qur’an before its revelation to thee is completed” (v. 114). This is because, says Ibn Abbas, Muhammad would recite revelations rapidly as they were being revealed, trying to remember them. He should trust in Allah’s power to make him remember. After that the Qur’an returns to the story of Adam’s fall; Satan tempts Adam to eat from the Tree of Eternity (v. 120) – not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as in Genesis. Allah expels Adam and Eve from the Garden but tells them that those who follow his guidance will not lose their way (v. 123).

Verses 124-135 conclude the sura with more warnings: the disbelievers will be raised up blind on Judgment Day (v. 125); Muhammad should be patient with the unbelievers (v. 130), because their punishment is coming (v. 129); nor should Muhammad envy their worldly goods (v. 131); the unbelievers ask for a sign, but they have ignored all of Allah’s previous revelations (v. 133).

Next week: Sura 21, “The Prophets”: “Closer and closer to mankind comes their Reckoning, yet they heed not and they turn away.”

(Here you can find links to all the earlier “Blogging the Qur’an” segments. Here is a good Arabic/English Qur’an, here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)