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Surah 100 - The Cavalry

Even with the cavalry snorting,
and the sparks flying
as the zealots at dawn
make the dust rise
as they pass through the midst of the host...
Really, humanity is ungrateful to its Master.
They themselves prove this:
their own love of wealth is intense.
Do they not understand that when the graves are emptied
and what is in their hearts is revealed,
of course, their Master will know everything?

Commentary

This is a particularly difficult surah to translate due to some very unusual vocabulary ('zealots' is an imaginative guess for a word that features only once in the entire Qur'an) and some very tight repetitive rhymes.

The poetic scheme in this surah includes both internal and end rhyme:

Three lines of -ati ... -han.
Two lines consisting of -n ... bihi ... -'an.
A single transitional line of -ood.
Two lines then ending in -eed.
Two lines of ma fee ... -oor (a nice parallel: 'what is in graves/heart')
And a final line ending -eer.

What this surah appears to do is to juxtapose the successes of a raiding party with a lack of gratitude for the divine aid that brought it about.

Surah 101 - The Alarm

The alarm:
what's 'the alarm' going to be like?
What will explain 'the alarm' to you?
On that day people will behave like moths fluttering about.
Mountains will be like wool that is blown around.
And he whose morality weighs heavily in the balance will be in Paradise,
Whilst the one whose morality weighs lightly,
his home will be a bottomless pit.
And what will explain what that is like?
It will be a raging fire.

Commentary

'Alarm' seems a fair rendering of the more traditional 'striking calamity'. One might almost translate it as 'the wake up call'. The image seems to represent the Islamic equivalent of the Last Trump in the Christian Apocalypse and the theme is a similar urgent call to repentance lest one succumb to eternal punishment.

A number of words seem to me to deviate from standard Arabic orthography, perhaps in order to achieve the considerable rhyme-scheme.

'Fluttering about' and 'blown around' rhyme on suitably breezy -ooth sounds; 'paradise', 'pit' and 'fire' rhyme on -iya, interspersed by repeated -uh sounds for 'scales' and the penultimate interrogative question. This surah is clearly a single piece of text, finely crafted, designed for oral performance with repeated rhetorical questions.

Surah 104 - The Bully

Woe to everyone who picks on you or gets at you,
who hoards a fortune and calculates its value
counting on it to save him from death.
Oh no! He's going to be utterly destroyed.
And do you want to know what that will be like?
A blaze God himself lit
that overwhelms hearts
and envelops them.

Commentary

Another translation attempt is here where I try to bring out the heavy rhyme scheme. This is a surah that requires a little more flexibility in translation to capture the wrath of God sense whilst avoiding over-literalism. Thus I don't translate several repeated words and massage a word sometimes rendered 'the crusher' with a phrase instead: 'utterly destroyed'.

Surah 102 - Profit

Profit will distract you
right up until you all reach the graveyard.
But no, soon you will understand.
Really: soon you will understand.
If you only understood the truth
that you will experience hell.
You will see it for sure.
And then on that day you will be questioned about your luxuries.

Commentary

Fire and brimstone meets Sermon on the Mount.

Rhyme: fitting assonance on 'profit' and 'graveyard', both ending on - r sounds.

Significant repetition of 'soon', 'no' 'understand' and words around 'certainty' up the moral imperative. This is slightly lost in my translation as I choose to vary the translation of the words to achieve the sense of rising intensity, rather than conform to the Arabic which relies on simple restatement.

Surah 103 - At the End of the Day

At the end of the day
mankind really is lost
with the exception of those who remain faithful, do the right things
and commend righteousness and endurance.

Commentary

I take enormous liberties with the first expression/title, but the alternative is the meaningless literalism 'by the day/afternoon' or possibly something to do with pressing grapes. The metaphor seems to be about completion: when the day is over, when things are spent. The English colloquialism 'when all's said and done...' might fit, too.

There is rhyme here, but effectively it is merely a sequential repetition of the same verbal ending -oo (remain, do, commend) which serves to emphasise the importance of practical action.

The verb 'to be', as in many languages, is omitted which introduces a problem of tense: making this a future judgement ('will be lost') could make sense, but keeping the present tense adds something of a preordained certainty to the surah making this more of an ontological statement of eternal judgment.

Surah 105 - Elephant

Haven't you reflected on how your Master dealt with the Elephant battalion?
Didn't he make their plans go awry?
He sent hoards of birds against them
shooting at them with stones of clay.
And so he made them like straw that has been flattened. 

Commentary
There is some peculiar vocabulary in this surah that has stumped most translators. I've played around with the meanings of different words slightly to form a coherent overall image (e.g. 'companions' becomes 'battalion'). The impression appears to be the triumph over a heavy land-based army that included an elephant by multiple lighter small airborne forces (birds). The imagery thus has something of a supernatural David-and-Goliath feel playing with several kinds of opposites (single/multiple; heavy/light; land/air).

The 'stones of clay' are very odd - the word might even derive from that used to describe a baked clay writing tablet, i.e. something small and hard. The final image I have reworked as 'flattened' straw; the original is 'eaten up' (perhaps harvested or destroyed?). I've gone for the image of a hail-storm devastating crops.

There is a significant degree of rhyme here: the first four verses all end with a long -eel sound (elephant, astray, hoards, clay), then the final verse shifts to -ool (flattened or eaten).

Also unusual, this surah is spoken in the second person singular, rather than to a group of people. The battle itself is supposed to be that which took place around the year of Muhammad's birth in 570 between the Christian Yemeni king Abraha against the Quraish of Mecca. One could imagine that the account might have drawn on volcanic imagery: falling rocks...?

Surah 106 - Quraish

For Quraishi safety -
Their safety during the passing of winter and summer -
let them worship the Lord of this house.
It is He who feeds them so they do not hunger and protects them so they do not fear.

Commentary

'Quraish' is usually thought to be the name of Muhammad's tribe, but the lack of 'al-' suggests it may not be the name of a tribe so much as a description, perhaps of those Arab tribes that were Roman foederati (mercenaries paid by the Roman administration to police the border).

This is an odd little surah which has no obvious rhyme. Usually translations refer to 'winter and summer caravans' referring putatively to the Quraishi's mercantile habits, but I wonder instead if the wider sense is the annual care of the people throughout the cycle of the seasons: it is their movement not that of the people that is being described. They are being invited to recognise their security and respond with worship and service. The word translated 'house' could more metaphorically mean 'people' rather than the Ka'aba sanctuary in Mecca (or anywhere else).