The Qurʾānic Pagans and Related Matters: Collected Studies in Three Volumes, Volume 1

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 The Quranic Pagans And Related Matters
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Hanna SiuruaPatricia Crone
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How Did the Quranic Pagans Make a Living?* – intro

Among the better known essay questions set for students of Islamic subjects in the uk is the one asking for comments on the dictum that ‘The Quran is the only reliable source for the rise of Islam’. Students typically respond with an account of the formation of the canonical text and a comment that however we envisage this process, the Quran is not a source rich in historical information.

Few could disagree with that. Historians of the life and times of the Prophet use the Quran as explained in tafsīr, which supplies the names, dates, stories and other supplementary data that they need, and they unwittingly tend to do so even when they think they are using the Quran alone. But we may have reached the point of under-estimating the book as a source. Rich in historical evidence it may not be, but we are not in the habit of squeezing it for information either, presumably because the sheer abundance of the exegetical material seems to make it unnecessary.

With so many works of tafsīr, ḥadīth and sīra to attend to, one comes to think of Quranic statements as in the nature of mere captions for which the substance must be sought elsewhere. This is entirely in order for historians of readers’ reactions to the book, but it evidently will not do for those interested in the society out of which the book emerged. In what follows I shall ignore the exegetical tradition in order to look at the Quran on its own, with a view to answering one simple question: how does it envisage the mushrikūn with whom it takes issue as making a living?


In sura 36 the Prophet is told to warn a people whose fathers had not been warned and who were both heedless and unresponsive: admonished or oth-erwise, they would not believe; rather, they mocked the Messenger (36:6–10, 30). Among the signs with which the Messenger tries to persuade these obsti-nate people is that God revives dead land and brings forth grain (ḥabban) of which they eat, as well as gardens of date palms and grapes ( jannāt min nakhīl wa-aʿnāb), and that He causes springs (al-ʿuyūn) to gush forth in them so that they may eat of the fruit.

‘It was not their hands which made it, so will they not give thanks?’, he says (vv. 33–35). The same point is made at 56:63f.: ‘Have you considered the soil you till? Do you yourselves sow it, or are We the sowers?’1 In these passages the unbelievers are agriculturalists who foolishly think that they are causing grain, date palms, grapes and the like to grow. They are suffer-ing from the human propensity to arrogance, for in actual fact it is God who causes these things to appear.

One is mildly surprised by these passages, given that the Meccans, with whom the obstinate people are traditionally identified, are well known to every Islamicist as traders whose city was located in a barren spot. But they are only two out of many passages in the Quran which suggest that the Prophet’s opponents were agriculturalists, whatever else they may have been in addition.

God’s revival of dead land is a prominent theme, both as a sign of His awesome power and as a proof of the resurrection, and the reference is over-whelmingly to cultivated plants, not to the flowers that appear in the desert in spring or other wild vegetation. God causes luxuriant gardens (ḥadāʾiq dhāt bahja) to | grow (27:60; cf. 80:30).

He sends down rain, producing plants (nabāt) of all kinds, including greens (khaḍir), grain (ḥabb), date palms (nakhl), and gardens ( jannāt) of grapes (aʿnāb), olives (al-zaytūn) and pomegranates (al-rummān) (6:99), or simply fruits of all kinds (7:57; cf. 14:32). Other passages mention grain and (other) plants (78:15), gardens, grain and date palms (50:9f.), date palms and grapes (16:67; 23:19), date palms, grain, grapes and olives (16:11), and grapes, dates, olives, fruits and fodder, all of which are ‘goods for you and your cattle (matāʿan lakum wa-li-anʿāmikum)’ (80:27–32). Here the unbe-lievers are not explicitly said to be growing such things themselves, how-ever.

That they were agriculturalists is none the less clear from the fact that they had agricultural rituals of which the Messenger strongly disapproves. ‘They assign to God, out of the harvest and cattle that He has multiplied, a portion saying, “This is for God”—so they assert—and this is for our associates. But the share of their associates does not reach God, whereas that which is for God reaches their associates’ (6:136); ‘And they say, this cattle and harvest are forbidden (ḥijr), nobody should eat it except whoever We wish, as they claim’ (6:138).

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The ritual seems to consist in the consecration of the first fruits of agriculture and the first offspring of domestic animals to the divine, and it is one of the many passages showing that the mushrikūn believed in the same God as the Messenger.2 Apparently, the portions dedicated to God and His

‘associates’ were left to be eaten by ‘whoever God wished’, perhaps meaning the poor and travellers. They were in any case forbidden to the owners of the first fruits/offspring themselves.

The Messenger responds partly by denying that God would receive any of it

(all would go to the ‘associates’, i.e. the lesser divine beings, who are implicitly identified as demonic here) and partly by setting out how one should actually behave. He reiterates that it is God who is responsible for the growth of gardens, date palms (al-nakhl), seed produce (zarʿ) of various kinds, olives (al-zaytūn), and pomegranates (al-rummān) and adds: ‘eat of their fruits when they fructify and pay the due (ḥaqqahu) thereof on the day of their harvest, and do not be prodigal: God does not like the prodigal. And of cattle some are for burdens and others for meat.

Eat of what God has provided you with and follow not in the footsteps of Satan’ (6:141f.). Once again, it is clear that we are in an agricultural community. Both the infidels and the believers have fields, gardens and cattle; both harvest grain, olives and pomegranates, but they have different views on how God wishes the harvest to be handled.

The pagans also had other rituals to do with cattle. There were animals on which it was forbidden to ride and others over which they would not mention the name of God (i.e. when they slaughtered them); apparently, slaughter was normally hallowed (6:138).

There was also a custom of reserving the unborn young of some animals for the men of the community, forbidding their wives to eat of them unless the young were stillborn, in which case they would share them (6:139). Apparently, it was pairs of animals that were set aside in one or all of these rituals, for the Messenger responds by listing pairs of sheep (al-ḍaʾn), goats (al-maʿiz), camels (al-ibl) and cows/oxen (al-baqar), sarcastically asking exactly what it is that God is supposed to have forbidden: two males or two females, or the unborn young of two females?

 And were the unbelievers present when God ordered such a thing? All this, he says, is something they have falsely attributed to God in order to lead people astray | (6:143f.). Once 389 again, he responds by setting out the truth: nothing is forbidden unless it is carrion, blood, pork, or meat hallowed to other than God (6:145). Elsewhere, he tells a warning parable culminating in the same rules (16:112–116).

Here, then, we see that it was not just camels that the infidels kept, but also sheep, goats, cows and oxen. ‘He has created cattle for you. In them is warmth (difʾ) and benefits and you eat of them’, as sura 16:5 says; ‘and there is beauty in them for you, when you bring them home to rest (in the evening) and when you drive them forth abroad to pasture (in the morning) (wa-lakum fīhā jamāl ḥīna turīḥūna wa-ḥīna tasraḥūna)’ (16:5).

The reference here is to the flocks that one can still see being driven to and from villages on a daily basis in the Middle East, and the remark that their owners found them beautiful is particularly suggestive: we are in a rural community in terms of values too. When the owners are said to derive warmth from their cattle, the reference is to the goods made ‘of their wool, fur, and hair’ listed among the benefits of cattle in another passage (in which they are not however described as their owners) (16:80). On the day of judgement mountains will be ‘like carded wool’ (101:5).3 People are told not to break their covenants with God and thus behave like a woman who unravels the thread she has spun4 (16:91f.), while the infidels are reminded that cattle provide them with food and drink, and that they ride on them (23:21; 36:71–73, where they are explicitly described as owning them). They also had horses, mules and donkeys, on all of which they rode (16:8).

That we are in an agricultural community is confirmed by two parables. One is about a group of people who own a garden and decide to collect its fruit the next morning; they resolve to do so without saying ‘God willing’, however, and the garden is ruined during the night (ṭāfa ʿalayhā ṭāʾif min rabbika); ignorant of this, they set out the next morning, determined to prevent poor people from getting into the garden first, and when they find it ruined, they turn to God in repentance, expressing the hope that He will give them a better garden than this (i.e. in the next world, 68:17–33).5

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 The moral, as so often, is that humans must learn to recognize their own impotence vis-à-vis God, who here manifests His power through some destructive force of nature. The second parable, which is much longer, concerns two men, who prove to be a believer and an unbeliever (18:32–44).

God gave two gardens to one of them (not, as one expects, a garden to each, though this was probably how an earlier version was told). The gardens were of grapes, each garden was surrounded by date palms (nakhl), and there was a field (zarʿ) and a canal (nahr) in between. Both gardens produced abundant produce.

We are not told what the other man received, but he clearly was not doing as well, for the owner of the two gardens boasted to him of his superior wealth and power. The wealthy man also wronged himself by going into his garden (now in the singular), saying, ‘I do not think that this will ever perish, nor do I think that the hour is coming (qāʾima); and if I am really to be returned to my Lord, I will surely find something better there in exchange’. The poor man responded by asking him whether he did not believe

in God, who had created him from a sperm-drop, though the wealthy man had not denied God’s existence: here as so often, kufr seems to lie not in unbelief, but rather in failure to take account of God in one’s thought and action.

The wealthy man had apparently compounded his | arrogance with shirk, however, 390 for the poor man continued by affirming that ‘He is God, my Lord and I do not associate anyone with my Lord’. The poor man also told the wealthy man that the latter should have said, ‘as God will, there is no power except in God’, when he went into his garden thinking that it would never perish, and that although he was not himself well endowed with wealth and sons, the Lord might give him something better than this garden (i.e. in the next world).

The poor man added that God might also send a thunderbolt against the wealthy man’s garden, turning it into mere sand, or He might make the water run off underground so that he would never be able to find it again; and God apparently did just that, for the continuation tells us that the rich man’s fruits were destroyed (uḥīta), and that he went around wringing his hands and wailing, ‘If only I had not associated anyone with my Lord’. There was nobody to help him apart from God Himself, the only source of protection.

This is a portrait of the archetypal mushrik. Here, as elsewhere in the Quran, he is a man well endowed with wealth and sons (68:14; cf. 8:28, 18:46; 57:20) who believes in God, but ascribes partners to Him, only to find out that the supposed partners cannot or will not help him against God (e.g. 16:27; 26:92ff.; 28:62ff.; 46:5). Here as elsewhere, too, he denies that the day of judgement is about to come anytime soon or at all (e.g. 17:51; 25:11; 34:3; 45:32) and has his doubts about the resurrection. Often, the mushrikūn reject the idea of bodily resurrection out of hand (e.g. 13:5; 17:49–52, 98; 22:5; 36:78), or perhaps even the afterlife (e.g. 6:29, 150; 34:8); at the very least they did not fear any reckoning

(ḥisāb) (78:27). Here there is no reference to the form that afterlife might take, and the idea of a return to God is not positively ruled out, but the possibility of other-worldly punishment is denied. As so often, it is by arrogance that the mushrik wrongs himself:6 he is too pleased with himself, too confident in his own all too human power, and too lacking in fear of God to listen to warnings when they come.

 ‘He thinks that his wealth will make him last for ever’, as 104:3 puts it. God duly inflicts disaster on him, destroying his garden in much the same way that He destroyed past nations. The Messenger repeatedly warns his infidel opponents that a similar disaster will soon overtake them too.

The archetypal mushrik is an agriculturalist, then. In line with this, the nations to whom earlier prophets were sent are also depicted as agriculturalists. Hūd told his people that God had given them cattle and sons, gardens and springs (26:133f.), promising them abundant rain if they would repent (11:52); Ṣāliḥ asked his people if they would remain secure in their gardens, springs, fields and date palms with spathes almost breaking with the weight of the fruit (26:146–148).

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 ‘Have they not travelled in the land and seen how those before them ended up?’, the Messenger asks, noting that the nations in question wronged themselves and came to a bad end even though ‘they were more powerful than them; they tilled the land and developed it more than they have done’ (wa-athārū ʾl-arḍ wa-ʿamarūhā akthara mimmā ʿamarūhā, 30:9 and, more briefly, 40:21). Sabaʾ had two gardens and were told to ‘eat of the sustenance [provided] by your Lord’, but they turned away from God, so He sent a flood which destroyed their gardens (34:15f.). The people that Moses took out of Egypt were also agriculturalists: they left behind gardens, springs and fields (44:25f.; cf. 26:57–59).

All the suras adduced so far are classified as Meccan, though there is dis-agreement about 6:141 (‘eat of their fruits when they fructify and pay the due thereof on the day of their harvest’).7 The division of the suras into Meccan and Medinese comes from the tradition, of course, and no attention has been paid to it so far; but readers wondering if the many references to agriculture could date from after the Prophet’s hijra to the agricultural oasis at Yathrib should know that as far as the tradition is concerned, the answer is ‘no’.

We do, however, hear about agriculture in the suras identified as Medinese as well. Thus a parable likens those who spend in the path of God to a grain of corn that sprouts seven ears, each containing a hundred grains: in the same way, God grants manifold increase to whom He will (2:261). Or those who spend in God’s path are like a garden on a hill which doubles its produce when it is hit by heavy rain and manages perfectly well with dew at other times (2:265), whereas those who spend to show off to human beings are like a rock covered by a thin layer of soil: heavy rain washes it away so that they can do nothing (2:264). What the infidels spend on this world is like a freezing wind that ruins the harvest of men who have wronged themselves (3:117).

There are people who speak agreeably about this world, but actually aim to spread corruption and ruin harvests and offspring (al-ḥarth waʾl-nasl, 2:205). And who would want to have a garden of date palms, grapes and fruits of all kinds with canals flowing underneath when he is stricken with old age and has weak offspring, only to have it destroyed by a whirlwind with a fire, the Messenger asks in a likeness that escapes me (2:266). All this is much as before, except that the canals in the last passage are running underneath the gardens (presumably in the form of qanāts), as they also do in Paradise, rather than between them (in the forms

of springs and canals), as they do among the mushrikūn. The cow that the Israelites were commanded to sacrifice is envisaged as ‘not broken in to plough the soil or water the cultivated land’ (lā dhalūl tuthīru ʾl-arḍ wa-lā tasqī ʾl-ḥarth)(2:71), and the desirable things of this world still include cattle and cultivated land (al-anʿām waʾl-ḥarth) (3:14).

‘Agriculture and vegetation figure prominently in the Qurʾān, reflecting their significance in the environment in which the text was revealed’, Waines re-marks in an article anticipating most of what I have said so far.8 So indeed they do. How are we to reconcile this with the traditional claim that the mushrikūn lived in a barren valley? ‘The Qurʾān suggests less severe austerity’, Waines observes. The entire area may have been more fertile than it looks thanks to sophisticated irrigation techniques, Heck adds: the remains of as many as nineteen dams or more are still extant in the Ḥijāz.9 But leaving aside that these dams were largely or wholly built after the rise of Islam and that none of them seems to be in Mecca, we do not actually solve the problem

by postulating that Mecca was fertile, for it is the Quran itself that describes the Abrahamic sanctuary as located in an uncultivated valley (wādin ghayr dhī zarʿ) (14:37), just as it is the Quran itself that places the mushrikūn in a fertile setting.

This clearly poses the question of whether the Quran envisages the Abra-hamic sanctuary as the residence of the mushrikūn. It is certainly not impossi-ble, for it says that when Abraham settled offspring by the sanctuary, | he asked 392 God to feed them with fruit (14:37): maybe the assumption here is that agri-culture emerged later. Alternatively, does the Quran envisage the Abrahamic sanctuary as deserted except for a small family of custodians maintained by pilgrims and other visitors, implying that the agricultural community of the…..

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