Reading the Qur’an during Ramadan 21: Juz Utlu ma uhiya, by Robert Spencer

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Allah tells Muhammad not to get into arguments with the Jews and Christians, “except by better means,” unless it is with one of them who is a wrongdoer — and to tell them that Muslims, Jews and Christians all worship the same deity (29:46). The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that this means Muslims should not argue with Jews and Christians except by “calling [them] to God by [reference to] His signs and pointing out His arguments; except those of them who have done wrong, by waging war and refusing to accept [to pay] the jizya-tax.” Muslims should “dispute with these using the sword, until such time as they submit or pay the jizya-tax,” and remind them that we all worship the same God.

Another early Muslim, Ibn Abbas, told the Muslims it was unnecessary to ask the Jews and Christians religious questions when the Muslims had the Qur’an: “Why do you ask the people of the scripture about anything while your Book (Quran) which has been revealed to Allah’s Apostle is newer and the latest? You read it pure, undistorted and unchanged, and Allah has told you that the people of the scripture (Jews and Christians) changed their scripture and distorted it, and wrote the scripture with their own hands and said, ‘It is from Allah,’ to sell it for a little gain. Does not the knowledge which has come to you prevent you from asking them about anything?”

Allah reminds Muhammad that he never read or recited any Scripture before the Qur’an (29:48) — meaning, says Ibn Kathir, that “you lived among your people for a long time before you brought this Qur’an. During this time you never read any book or wrote anything. Your people, as well as others all know that you are an unlettered man who does not read or write.” This, of course, is the substance of the miracle claimed of the Qur’an itself — that this sublime poetry came to an illiterate man. The Qur’an’s meaning is clear in the hearts of the believers (29:49): the Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains that it is clear “in the breasts of those who have been given knowledge, namely, the believers, who preserve it [in their hearts], and none denies Our signs except wrongdoers, namely, the Jews — they denied them after they were manifested to them.” The unbelievers ask for miracles, but Muhammad’s job is only to warn them about Allah’s judgment (v. 50), and the Qur’an is enough for that (v. 51). The unbelievers will be punished as Allah taunts them: “Taste (the fruits) of your deeds!” (v. 55).

Allah then promises Paradise (v. 58) to those who persevere in patient faith (v. 59). This world is just “a pastime and a game” (v. 64) — the real life is in the next world. But most people do not understand, even though they know Allah created and sustains all things (vv. 63, 65). Allah will guide to the truth those who strive (jahadoo, a form of “jihad”) in his cause (v. 69) — suggesting that one who difficulty believing should fight for Islam, and will thereby come to understand it better. As Ibn Abbas explains: “whoever acts upon what he knows,” Allah “shall give him success to know that which he do not know.”

After many passages in which the unbelievers ask Muhammad for a sign that he is a genuine prophet, but are rebuffed (6:37; 10:20; 13:7; 13:27), in sura 30 he delivers an actual prophesy — although this Meccan sura likely predates most, if not all, of the recorded demands for a sign. The prophecy regards the fate of the Byzantine Empire: the title of this surah is Ar-Rum (الرُّومُ), which literally means “The Romans,” and refers to the forces of the Eastern Roman Empire, commonly known today as the Byzantine Empire. I have thus entitled it here “The Byzantines.”

Allah says that the Byzantines have been defeated (v. 2), but will be victorious within a few years (v. 4). The Persians defeated them in 615 A.D., taking Jerusalem. According to the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, the pagan Arabs used this news to taunt the Muslims: “The Meccan disbelievers rejoiced in this [defeat of the Byzantines] and said to the Muslims, ‘We shall vanquish you as the Persians vanquished the Byzantines.’” But Muhammad was right: in 622, the Byzantines defeated the Persians and soon drove them out of Asia Minor. In 630, they retook Jerusalem.

Abdullah Yusuf Ali points out that the word translated “a few years” (بِضْعِ) means “a period of three to nine years,” although it’s not clear why Allah wouldn’t be more specific when he knows everything (6:59). Whether or not the Byzantine victories fulfill the prophecy depends on whether one wants to see in them confirmation or disconfirmation that Muhammad was a prophet. Maududi declares: “The prediction made in the initial verses of this Surah is one of the most outstanding evidences of the Quran’s being the Word of Allah and the Holy Prophet Muhammad’s being a true Messenger of Allah.” On the other hand, there is no independent evidence that the “prophecy” wasn’t written until many years after the events it supposedly predicts.

The Qur’an, in any case, goes on to say that outcome was the will of Allah (v. 5). His promises are trustworthy, although most men don’t understand (v. 6); they don’t realize that those who rejected Allah’s previous messengers were destroyed (v. 9). Those evil people who reject and ridicule Allah’s signs (ayat, which can be understood as verses of the Qur’an as well as signs in nature), will suffer extreme evil themselves (v. 10).

Allah then repeats warnings of the Day of Judgment: those who associated partners with Allah will find no help from those partners (v. 13); the righteous will enjoy delights while those who reject Allah’s signs will be punished (v. 16). Then in verses 17-29 Allah sings his own praises, pointing out various features of the natural world as signs of his presence and power, including the creation of women as companions of men and the harmony between the two (v. 21). Ibn Kathir explains: “If Allah had made all of Adam’s progeny male, and created the females from another kind, such as from Jinn or animals, there would never have been harmony between them and their spouses. There would have been revulsion if the spouses had been from a different kind. Out of Allah’s perfect mercy He made their wives from their own kind, and created love and kindness between them.”

Other signs are the creation of heaven and earth, the variations of languages and colors (v. 22); sleep (v. 23); and lightning and rain (v. 24). But the unbelievers just follow their own lusts, rather than paying heed — and no one can guide those who Allah leaves astray (v. 29). (Here again is yet another indication that belief and unbelief are up to Allah, who, after all, has created some men just to torture them in hell — see 7:179).

In verses 30-45 Allah continues to excoriate the unbelievers for their lack of faith. The righteous should not split up their religion into sects (v. 32). Ibn Kathir says that this refers to “the Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, idol worshippers and all the followers of false religions, besides the followers of Islam.” Muhammad himself said: “The Jews were split up into seventy-one or seventy-two sects; and the Christians were split up into seventy one or seventy-two sects; and my community will be split up into seventy-three sects.” But one sect will have the truth. Ibn Kathir continues: “The followers of the religions before us had differences of opinions and split into false sects, each group claiming to be following the truth. This Ummah too has split into sects, all of which are misguided apart from one, which is Ahlus-Sunnah Wal-Jama’ah [the People of the Prophet’s Way and Community], those who adhere to the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah and what was followed by the first generations, the Companions, their followers, and the Imams of the Muslims of earlier and later times.”

Men cry to Allah when they’re in trouble (v. 33), but are otherwise ungrateful (v. 34). Allah has given man everything — which of his “partners” can do these things (v. 40)? Men should embrace the true religion before it’s too late (v. 43).

Allah then returns to the signs of his presence and power in nature — specifically, the winds (vv. 46, 48), but the unbelievers continue to be ungrateful (v. 51). The Qur’an contains every kind of parable, but the unbelievers dismiss it as “vanities” (v. 58). Allah has sealed up their hearts (v. 59).

Another Meccan sura, Sura 31 is named for Luqman the wise. Abdur-Rahman bin Harmalah told this story: “A black man came to Sa’id bin Al-Musayyib to ask him a question, and Sa’id bin Al-Musayyib said to him: ‘Do not be upset because you are black, for among the best of people were three who were black,’ including “Luqman the Wise, who was a black Nubian with thick lips.”

In verses 1-5 Allah praises the Qur’an, which is a “guide and mercy” to the righteous (v. 3). However, verses 6-11 return to the unbelievers, who ridicule Islam (v. 6) and turn away in arrogance when the Qur’an is recited (v. 7).

Luqman, by contrast, tells his son not to join partners with Allah, “for false worship is indeed the highest wrongdoing” (v. 13). The highest wrongdoing: as the Invitation to Islam newsletter explained in 1997: “Murder, rape, child molesting and genocide. These are all some of the appalling crimes which occur in our world today. Many would think that these are the worst possible offences which could be committed. But there is something which outweighs all of these crimes put together: It is the crime of shirk” — that is, associating partners with Allah. A man should be good to his parents (v. 14) unless they try to get him to worship other gods (v. 15) — as apparently some pagan Meccans were trying to do with their Muslim convert children.

In verses 20-34, Allah returns to the perversity of the unbelievers in not reckoning with the many signs of his reality. He tells Muhammad not to grieve over the unbelievers (v. 23), for they will soon be subjected to unrelenting punishment (v. 24), for they know Allah created all, but do not understand that must obey him (v. 25). His words are inexhaustible (v. 27), and men should not be deceived by this present life into ignoring them (v. 33).

Sura 32, “The Prostration,” dates from the middle of the Meccan period, and repeats many familiar preoccupations we have seen in other chapters of the Qur’an. Maududi says that “the main theme of the Surah is to remove the doubts of the people concerning Tauhid [the absolute oneness of Allah], the Hereafter and the Prophethood, and to invite them to all these three realities.”

The attentive reader of this series, particularly over the last few weeks, may have noticed that these themes — removing doubts of the people concerning the unity of Allah, the Day of Judgment, and Muhammad’s status as a prophet — are concerns of many, many other passages of the Qur’an outside of this chapter, and so sura 32 essentially stands as a kind of recapitulation and review of many things we have seen thus far. Repetition, of course, is a pedagogical tool, particularly in an oral culture. If all the repetitive passages in the Qur’an were removed, the book would be much, much shorter.

And so we hear again in it that the Qur’an is true beyond doubt and Muhammad has not forged it (vv. 1-2); and that Allah created everything in six days and no one will protect or intercede for anyone else on the Day of Judgment (v. 4); and that Allah knows everything (v. 6); and that human beings were created from clay (v. 7); and that the unbelievers deny the resurrection of the dead (v. 10); and that Allah will taunt the unbelievers on the Day of Judgment and when he casts them into hell, telling them to “taste the penalty” of their evildoing (vv. 14, 20); and that those who believe pray and give alms (vv. 15-16) and will receive a reward (v. 17). (Incidentally, when Muslims hear v. 15’s reference to prostration, and other verses of the Qur’an that refer to prostration, they themselves are supposed to make a prostration; some editions of the Qur’an come with a sign in the margins by each prostration verse, so that the reader can be prepared for what is coming.)

In connection with all this, an early Muslim, Mu’adh bin Jabal, once asked Muhammad: “O Prophet of Allah, tell me of a deed that will grant me admittance to Paradise and keep me away from Hell.”

Muhammad replied: “You have asked about something great, and it is easy for the one for whom Allah makes it easy. Worship Allah and do not associate anything with Him, establish regular prayer, pay Zakah, fast Ramadan and perform pilgrimage to the House.” Then he asked Mu’adh: “Shall I not tell you of the greatest of all things and its pillars and pinnacle?” When Mu’adh replied in the affirmative, Muhammad said: “The greatest of all things is Islam, its pillars are the prayers and its pinnacle is Jihad for the sake of Allah.” And he told Mu’adh that all that depends on restraining one’s tongue.

The unbelievers are not equal to the believers (v. 18) — for indeed, the believers are the “best of people” (3:110) while the unbelievers are “the most vile of created beings” (98:6).

We see something new in the statement that everything Allah created is good (v. 7). This appears to contradict the idea that Allah created many jinns and men for hell (7:179 and v. 13 of this sura). However, the Imam Malik says that this only means that “he created everything well and in a goodly fashion,” not that everything he created is itself good. In v. 13 is also repeated the assertion that Allah would have guided all human beings to the truth if he had so desired — indicating here again that Allah does not, unlike the God of the Bible, will “that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:3).

The unbelievers will be punished in this life as well as the next (v. 21). This is an idea that has implications for the political aspect of Islam — since the dhimmis, that is, the People of the Book (primarily Jews and Christians) in the Islamic state are to offer “willing submission” to the Muslims and “feel themselves subdued” (9:29), it becomes the responsibility of the Islamic state to make sure that that happens, so that they taste the penalty for their unbelief not just in the next life but in this one also. Ibn Abbas and many others have explained the idea of v. 21 in this way: “The near torment means diseases and problems in this world, and the things that happen to its people as a test from Allah to His servants so that they will repent to Him.” These tests are in part to be instituted by the Islamic state, imposing second-class status and institutionalized discrimination upon the dhimmis in order to move them to repentance and conversion. For there is no worse sinner than one who ignores Allah’s signs (v. 22) — which, as we have seen, include the verses of the Qur’an.

More familiar themes follow: Allah reminds Muhammad that he gave a book to Moses (v. 23), although we are here spared yet another recapitulation of the whole story of Moses or any significant portion of it. However, as it was in earlier retellings of incidents in Moses’ career (as we have seen on more than one occasion), Maududi says that the point here is about Muhammad again: “Then it is said: ‘This is not the first and novel event of its kind that a Book has been sent down upon a man from God. Before this the Book had been sent upon Moses also, which you all know. There is nothing strange in this at which you should marvel. Be assured that this Book has come down from God, and note it well that the same will happen now as has already happened in the time of Moses. Leadership now will be bestowed only on those who will accept this Divine Book. Those who reject it shall be doomed to failure.’”

Pickthall translates the next clause of v. 23 as “so be not ye in doubt of his receiving it,” but the Tafsir al-Jalalayn and others have it as “do not be in doubt concerning the encounter with him,” and consider it to refer to Muhammad’s Night Journey to Paradise, during which he met Moses and other prophets. Allah appointed leaders for the Children of Israel (v. 24), and on Judgment Day will judge between their squabbling factions (v. 25). Don’t they realize the lesson in the people Allah has previously destroyed (v. 26)? Don’t they see the signs in the things of nature (v. 27)? Yet they scoff, asking when the Day will be (v. 28). Allah tells Muhammad to tell them that it won’t do any good to become a believer on that Day (v. 29).

Sura 33, from Medina, provides a principal foundation for the central role of Muhammad, and hence of the Hadith (traditions of his words and deeds), in the formulation of Islamic law. It also contains a dramatic example of Allah’s solicitude for his prophet, further solidifying his pivotal role.

In verses 1-8, Allah tells Muhammad not to listen to the unbelievers and hypocrites (v. 1), but rather to follow divine inspiration (v. 2). We get a hint of what this is about when Allah says that no man has two hearts, a man cannot make his wife his mother, and a man cannot make an adopted son a real son (v. 4). In those days men would divorce their wives by telling them, “You are to me like the back of my mother” — the Qur’an is saying that this doesn’t affect any real change or make them actually into their mothers, but the point here is not about divorce. Rather, the passage is intended to end the practice of adoption, starting with Muhammad’s own family.

Ibn Kathir explains: “This was revealed concerning Zayd bin Harithah — the freed servant of the Prophet. The Prophet had adopted him before prophethood, and he was known as Zayd bin Muhammad. Allah wanted to put an end to this naming and attribution.” An adopted son should be known by the name of his natural father: he can never truly enter into his adoptive household (v. 5).

Why was Allah so intent on ending the practice of adoption? Because Muhammad wanted to marry Zayd’s ex-wife, Zaynab bint Jahsh — and as a result of his dalliance with his former daughter-in-law, says Maududi, “the hypocrites and the Jews and the mushriks [unbelievers] who were already bent on mischief would get a fresh excuse to start a propaganda campaign against Islam.” So Allah here emphasizes that an adopted son cannot be a true son, and so by extension Zaynab was never really Muhammad’s daughter-in-law at all, and there is no cause for scandal.

This sura will return to this subject later, but at this point Allah turns, in verses 9-27, to a discussion of the Battle of the Trench. Anticipating an attack by the pagan Arabs, Muhammad had a trench dug around Medina. According to Muhammad’s earliest biographer, Ibn Ishaq, once when Muhammad was helping the trench diggers, he wielded a pick at a large rock, and every time he hacked at the rock, lightning shot from the pick. One of the Muslims asked Muhammad: “O you, dearer than father or mother [cf. v. 6], what is the meaning of this light beneath your pick as you strike?”

Muhammad replied: “The first means that God has opened up to me the Yemen; the second Syria and the west; and the third the east.”

As the Quraysh, along with another tribe, the Ghatafan (known collectively in Islamic tradition as “the Confederates,” as in v. 20), laid siege to Medina, the trench prevented the invaders from entering the city. Yet the Muslims were unable to force them to end the siege. Then to make matters even worse, a tribe of Jews in Medina, the Banu Qurayzah, according to Islamic tradition broke their covenant with Muhammad (perhaps after seeing how Muhammad had exiled two other Jewish tribes, the Banu Qaynuqa and Banu Nadir) and began collaborating with the Quraysh.

As the siege dragged on, according to Ibn Ishaq, one Muslim remarked bitterly about Muhammad’s designs on the Persian empire of Chosroes and the Byzantine empire of Caesar: “Muhammad used to promise us that we should eat the treasures of Chosroes and Caesar and today not one of us can feel safe in going to the privy!” Allah responded by saying that those who complain that “Allah and His Messenger promised us nothing but delusion!” have diseased hearts (v. 12). Allah accused these hypocrites of demoralizing the Muslims and of treasonous plotting with the enemies of Islam (vv. 13-14). Allah also told Muhammad to tell the people that desertion would be useless (v. 16).

The Qurayzah agreed to attack the Muslims from one side while the Quraysh besieged them from the other. But then a new convert to Islam, Nu’aym bin Mas’ud, came to Muhammad offering to trick the Confederate tribes, since his own people, the Ghatafan, did not know that he had become a Muslim. Muhammad responded, according to Ibn Ishaq: “You are only one man among us, so go and awake distrust among the enemy to draw them off us if you can, for war is deceit.” Nu”aym’s deception turned the Confederates against each other and against their Jewish allies; soon afterward, they ended the siege. Nu”aym’s deception had saved Islam.

According to Aisha, “When Allah’s Apostle returned on the day (of the battle) of Al-Khandaq (i.e. Trench), he put down his arms and took a bath. Then Gabriel whose head was covered with dust, came to him saying, ‘You have put down your arms! By Allah, I have not put down my arms yet.’ Allah’s Apostle said, ‘Where (to go now)?’ Gabriel said, ‘This way,’ pointing towards the tribe of Bani Quraiza. So Allah’s Apostle went out towards them.”

Ibn Ishaq recounts that Muhammad addressed the Qurayzah Jews contemptuously: “You brothers of monkeys, has God disgraced you and brought His vengeance upon you?” (The Qur’an three times — 2:62-65; 5:59-60; and 7:166 — says that Allah transformed the disobedient Jews into pigs and monkeys.) The Muslims laid siege to the Qurayzah strongholds until, said Ibn Ishaq, the Jews “were sore pressed” and Allah “cast terror into their hearts.” Muhammad entrusted the fate of the tribe to the Muslim warrior Sa’d bin Mu’adh, who decreed: “I give the judgment that their warriors should be killed and their children and women should be taken as captives.”

Muhammad exclaimed: “O Sa’d! You have judged among them with the judgment of the King Allah.” According to Ibn Ishaq, “The apostle went out to the market of Medina (which is still its market today) and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for [the men of the Qurayzah] and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out to him in batches.” Ibn Ishaq puts the number of those massacred at “600 or 700 in all, though some put the figure as high as 800 or 900.” Ibn Sa’d says “they were between six hundred and seven hundred in number.”

One hadith summarizes Muhammad’s dealings with the three Jewish tribes of Medina: “Bani An-Nadir and Bani Quraiza fought (against the Prophet violating their peace treaty), so the Prophet exiled Bani An-Nadir and allowed Bani Quraiza to remain at their places (in Medina) taking nothing from them till they fought against the Prophet again). He then killed their men and distributed their women, children and property among the Muslims, but some of them came to the Prophet and he granted them safety, and they embraced Islam. He exiled all the Jews from Medina.”

The Qur’an refers obliquely to the massacre, saying that Allah “cast terror” into the hearts of the People of the Book who aided the pagans, “(so that) some you slew, and some you made prisoners” (v. 26). Victory came from Allah alone (vv. 9-11).

During the Battle of the Trench, Muhammad’s trust in Allah when things looked bleak for the Muslims stood him in good stead. Allah tells the Muslims to imitate him, for in him is “a beautiful pattern” of conduct (33:21). This is the foundation of Muhammad’s singular position in Islam as the supreme example for behavior. Muqtedar Khan of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy explains:

No religious leader has as much influence on his followers as does Muhammad (Peace be upon him) the last Prophet of Islam….And Muhammad as the final messenger of God enjoys preeminence when it comes to revelation — the Qur’an — and traditions. So much so that the words, deeds and silences (that which he saw and did not forbid) of Muhammad became an independent source of Islamic law. Muslims, as a part of religious observance, not only obey, but also seek to emulate and imitate their Prophet in every aspect of life. Thus Muhammad is the medium as well as a source of the divine law.

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