Blogging the Qur’an: Suras 49, “The Chambers,” 50, “Qaf,” 51, “The Winnowing Winds,” and 52, “The Mount”

“They will recline on Thrones arranged in ranks; and We shall join them to Companions, with beautiful big and lustrous eyes.”

The late Medinan sura 49 begins by telling the believers how to behave in the presence of Muhammad (vv. 1-5). One may wonder why a perfect and eternal book that contains religious and ethical instruction that is valid for all time would contain a section that applied only to people who lived in the first generation of Islam, but the answer to this is implied by the instruction to Muslims not to put themselves forward in Muhammad’s presence (v. 1). This means, says Ibn Kathir, that they should “not rush in making decisions before him, rather, follow his lead in all matters.” After Muhammad’s death Muslims can do that by heeding their prophet’s directives as recorded in the authentic ahadith — a fact that traditional Muslims use to rebuke contemporary Muslims who declare that they follow the Qur’an alone.

Then verses 6-18 follow with more general instructions to the believers. They should not believe the report of a wicked person (v. 6). Muhammad is among them, and if he obeyed the believers” every wish — instead of Allah’s commands — there would be trouble (v. 7). Believers should not fight against one another, but they should join together to fight against a rebellious group until it returns to Allah’s truth (v. 9): this is a principal justification for infighting among Islamic sects. The true believers, however, are a single brotherhood (vv. 10, 13) — one that transcends all other ties, including the national and even familial. Maududi explains that “the national and racial distinctions that cause universal corruption in the world have been condemned.”
Then follows the chastising of a group of Bedouins whose faith is imperfect; they are exhorted to obey Allah and Muhammad (v. 14).

Muhammad used to recite the Meccan sura 50 every Friday during his Friday sermon, and on Eids — the festivals at the end of Ramadan and the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca. It begins with an oath — “By the glorious Qur’an” (v. 1) — but it is unclear who is swearing or what the oath is about. Ali suggests in a parenthetical note that it is an oath that Muhammad is a prophet: “By the Glorious Qur’an (Thou art Allah’s Messenger).” The Tafsir al-Jalalayn, in contrast, has it as an oath about the unbelievers: “By the glorious Qur’an, by the noble Qur’an, the disbelievers of Mecca have certainly not believed in Muhammad (s).”

But who is doing the swearing? Allah is according to Islamic doctrine the only speaker in the Qur’an, but it is curious that he the all-powerful deity would need to swear on things lesser than himself to establish his veracity. Yet such oaths proliferate in the latter part of the Qur’an (as it is arranged, not chronologically).

Verses 2-14 repeat again the wonders of the natural world as evidence of Allah’s power, and criticize the unbelievers for doubting the resurrection of the dead. Allah lists some earlier groups he destroyed — people who also rejected the resurrection and his messengers (vv. 12-14). Then follows a warning of the Day of Judgment and hellfire (verses 15-30). Each person is accompanied by two angels, one who records his good deeds and the other his bad deeds (v. 17). Those who reject Allah and worship other gods will be sent to hell (vv. 24, 26). The righteous, in contrast, will enter the gardens of Paradise (verses 31-35). Thus Muhammad should be patient (v. 39), for the Day of Judgment is coming (v. 42); the Qur’an is a warning (v. 45).

The Meccan sura 51 is a poetic meditation on the judgment, hell, and Paradise. Allah swears by the winds (v. 1) that what Muhammad has been promised is true (v. 5). The unbelievers are deluded (v. 9) and those who spread falsehood are accursed (v. 10) — that is, those who scoff and ask when the Day of Judgment will come (v. 12). They will taste hell (v. 14), while the righteous will enjoy Paradise (v. 15), because they rose early to pray (v. 18) and gave alms to the needy (v. 19).

Verses 24-37 tell the story of Abraham’s “honored guests” — an account reminiscent of the visitation of the Lord and the “three men” to Abraham in Genesis 18. As in Genesis, the visitors tell Abraham that his wife will give birth to a son (v. 28), and she laughs derisively, as she is old and barren (v. 29). Then, also as in Genesis, the men go on to Sodom and Gomorrah, which are not named here, but are identified as a “guilty people” (v. 32) who will be destroyed (v. 33) after the righteous are evacuated (v. 35). Then follow more precedents of the destruction of unbelievers: Pharaoh (vv. 38-40); the people of “˜Ad (vv. 41-42); the people of Thamud (vv. 43-45); and Noah’s people (v. 46).

Verses 47-49 rehearse some of the signs of Allah in the natural world, and then in verses 50-53, Muhammad addressed the unbelievers. There is no indication, as there is in so many other places in the Qur’an, that Allah is telling Muhammad to say these things, and yet Muhammad speaks in the first person — making this another problematic passage for the Islamic belief that Allah is the sole speaker in the Qur’an. Then in verses 54-60 Allah reassures Muhammad, telling him to turn away from the unbelievers, and that it isn’t his fault that they don’t believe (v. 54). They will be punished on that dreadful Day (v. 60).

Sura 52 is also Meccan and deals with many of the same themes. Verses 1-28deal with hell and Paradise. The unbelievers will be sent to the hell they denied (v. 14) and asked if the fire that is burning them is fake (v. 15). The blessed will enjoy the women of Paradise, who have “beautiful big and lustrous eyes” (v. 20), and will be joined by their families (v. 21). Ibn Kathir and the Tafsir al-Jalalaynagree that this has to do with the levels of Paradise: the believing children of pious people will be admitted to the levels their parents attained, even if they weren’t as pious. The righteous will also be served in Paradise by beautiful boys (v. 24). The Tafsir al-Jalalayn elaborates: “And there will circulate from all around them, for service, youths, delicate [in demeanour], of their own, as if, in terms of their beauty and immaculateness, they were hidden pearls, preserved inside shells, because when it [a pearl] is inside it, it is better than one that is not.”

Verses 29-48 excoriate the unbelievers, who accuse Muhammad of being demon-possessed (v. 29) and a poet (v. 30), and of fabricating the Qur’an (v. 33). But they can’t produce anything like it (v. 34). Did they create the heavens and the earth (v. 36)? Even if they saw a piece of the sky falling on them, they would say it was mere clouds (v. 44). So Muhammad should leave them alone (v. 45) and be patient (v. 48), for the unbelievers will get theirs on the Day of Judgment (v. 46).

Next week: Sura 53, “The Star”: The real “Satanic verses” incident.

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