Blogging the Qur’an: Suras 77-86

When the sky is rent asunder

We have now entered into the section of the Qur’an in which the suras are Meccan, brief, poetic, striking in their vivid imagery, and generally focused on urgent warnings of the impending Day of Judgment. “Ah woe, that Day, to the Rejecters of Truth!” This is the focus and refrain of sura 77, “The Emissaries” (vv.15, 19, 24, 28, 34, 37, 40, 45, 47, 49). Woe to them, for they will be punished severely on the Day of Sorting (vv. 13, 14, 38), when Allah will separate those who rejected Islam from those who accepted it. He taunts the unbelievers, saying that on that Day, “If now you have any wit, outwit Me” (v. 39).

Sura 78, “The Announcement,” is similar, warning of that terrible Day of Sorting (v. 17), and warning that those damned to hell will be made to drink a “boiling fluid and a fluid, dark, murky, intensely cold” (v. 25), while the righteous in the garden will enjoy “voluptuous women of equal age” (v. 33). According to Ibn Abbas, Mujahid and others, “This means round breasts. They meant by this that the breasts of these girls will be fully rounded and not sagging, because they will be virgins, equal in age. This means that they will only have one age.”
More of the same comes in sura 79, “Soul Snatchers,” which begins with Allah swearing by heavenly bodies and angels in language that could refer to both or either. Allah makes many such oaths in these short, chronologically early chapters of the Qur’an – a curious practice, to be sure, and one that calls into question the Islamic dogma that Allah is the sole speaker of every word of the Qur’an, since it would make much more sense for Muhammad to be the one making these oaths. Pharaoh’s disobedience of Moses’ warning, and his subsequent punishment, is once again invoked (vv. 15-25), as a clear analogy to the hazards of rejecting Muhammad’s message, since he, like Moses, is a “warner” for those who fear the Day of Judgment (v. 45).

The Qur’an frequently tells Muslims to obey Muhammad (3:32; 3:132; 4:13; 4:59;4:69; 4:80; 5:92; 8:1; 8:20; 8:46; 9:71; 24:47; 24:51; 24:52; 24:54; 24:56; 33:33;47:33; 49:14; 58:13; 64:12) and offers him as an “excellent example” for the conduct of individual Muslims (33:21) – yet it also takes for granted that he is capable of sin. One of the clearest indications of Muhammad’s susceptibility to sin comes in sura 80, “He Frowned,” in which Allah rebukes Muhammad for turning away a poor blind man while lavishing attention on a rich man (vv. 1-12). In yet another oddity involving the speaker and audience of the Qur’an, the sura begins by speaking of Muhammad in the third person, although elsewhere in the Qur’an Allah usually addresses his prophet directly, with a few notable exceptions.

Then follows praise of the Qur’an (vv. 13-16) and a meditation on the perversity of humanity in rejecting Allah, whose signs are everywhere in the natural world (vv. 17-42).

Sura 81, “The Overthrowing,” paints a vivid and arresting picture of the Day of Judgment, when the natural world will be rolled up (vv. 1-6), the souls will be sorted out (v. 7), and the female infant who was buried alive will be asked for what crime she was executed (vv. 8-9). Muslims have pointed to this with pride throughout Islamic history, asserting that Islam put an end to the pagan Arab practice of burying female babies alive.

Allah identifies Muhammad as “a most honourable Messenger, endued with Power, with rank before the Lord of the Throne” (vv. 19-20), who is not possessed or mad (v. 22) and is not conveying the words of an evil spirit (v. 25). His message will profit “whoever among you wills to go straight (v. 28), but no one can so will “except as Allah wills” (v. 29) – another denial of human free will.

Sura 82, “The Cleaving,” paints a picture of the Day of Judgment very similar to that in sura 81, warning of the end of the world and excoriating those who “reject Right and Judgment” (v. 9). And on that dreadful Day, “no soul shall have power to do anything for another” (v. 19).

Sura 83, “Defrauding,” explains that on that Day, the written record of the deeds of wicked (Sijjin, vv. 7-9) and the written record of the deeds of the righteous (Illiyin, vv. 18-21) will be opened, and everyone will be sent to Paradise or hell. The sinners used to laugh at the righteous and make fun of them, but on that Day the righteous will laugh at the unbelievers (vv. 29-34).

Very similar to these is sura 84, “The Sundering,” which begins with another recounting of the natural catastrophes that will attend the Day of Judgment (vv. 1-5), moves on to speak of the written records of the deeds of each individual (vv. 6-12) and of the hollowness of the earthly happiness enjoyed by those who reject Allah (vv. 13-15). Then the wonders of the natural world are again invoked as proof of the reality of Allah (vv. 16-18) and the sura concludes with more warning of the penalty that awaits the perverse unbelievers (vv. 19-25).

Sura 85, “Constellations,” pronounces woe upon “the makers of the pit” (vv. 4-10), who were enemies of the believers. Ibn Kathir explains: “This is information about a group of people who were among the disbelievers. They went after those among them who believed in Allah and they attempted to force them to give up their religion. However, the believers refused to recant, so they dug a ditch for them in the ground. Then they lit a fire in it and prepared some fuel for it in order to keep it ablaze. Then they tried to convince them (the believers) to [apostatize] from their religion (again), but they still refused them. So they threw them into the fire.” Then follows praise of Allah and more lamentation over the perverse rejection of him by the unbelievers (vv. 11-20), followed by praise of the Qur’an as glorious and “inscribed on a Preserved Tablet” (vv. 21-22) – a foundation of the Islamic doctrine that the Qur’an is eternal.

Sura 86, “The Morning Star,” invites men to ponder their creation “from a drop emitted” (v. 6) as proof that Allah can raise the dead on the Day of Judgment (v. 8). The Qur’an is a “conclusive word” (v. 13) – the last word on all disputed questions – and is “no joke” (v. 14). The unbelievers are plotting against the Muslims (v. 15), but Allah is likewise plotting against them (v. 16), so Muhammad should give them a break for awhile (v. 17). “This means,” says Ibn Kathir, “that you will see what befalls them of torment, punishment and destruction.” That torment will not fail to materialize, and no man can hold it back.

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