After that, Allah repeats warnings to the unbelievers (36:30-46). Mankind rejects and mocks Allah’s messengers (36:30); don’t they see how many people Allah has destroyed (36:31)? Everyone will face the judgment (v. 32); they don’t see the signs of Allah’s power in the natural world (vv. 33-42). One of these signs is that the sun runs its fixed course daily, but only “for a period determined for him” (v. 38). About this Muhammad explained that at sunset, the sun “goes (i.e. travels) till it prostrates itself underneath the Throne and takes the permission to rise again, and it is permitted and then (a time will come when) it will be about to prostrate itself but its prostration will not be accepted, and it will ask permission to go on its course but it will not be permitted, but it will be ordered to return whence it has come and so it will rise in the west. And that is the interpretation of the Statement of Allah: ‘And the sun runs its fixed course for a term (decreed)’ [v. 38].”
Allah could drown the unbelievers and no one would be able to help them (v. 43). In verses 47-54, he repeats some of the scornful remarks of the unbelievers: they don’t need to feed the poor, because Allah would have fed them if he had so willed (v. 47), and they ask Muhammad when the Day of Judgment will come (v. 48). But once it comes upon them, they will cry out in woe (v. 52). But the believers, in verses 55-58, will enjoy Paradise, reclining on couches with their wives (v. 56) — the famous virgins appear in the next sura.
In verses 59-64, Allah addresses the unbelievers on the Day of Judgment, telling them to depart from his presence (v. 59) and reminding them that he warned them not to worship Satan (v. 60) and now Satan has led them astray (v. 62) and they must enter hell (vv. 63-64). In verses 65-68, Allah discusses the unbelievers: on the dreadful Day they will be unable to speak (v. 65), and he could have blotted out their eyes (v. 66). Ibn Abbas paraphrases this as “If We willed, We could have misguided them all away from true guidance, so how could they be guided” — which of course Allah says that he does in many places in the Qur’an (including, but not limited to 7:179; 10:99-100; 16:37; 32:13).
In verses 69-83, Allah emphasizes the miraculous nature of the Qur’an (vv. 69-70); the signs in the natural world (vv. 71-73; 77-81); and the powerlessness of the idols (vv. 74-75). He tells Muhammad not to let the unbelievers get him down (v. 76), as he does also in 3:176; 15:88; 26:3; and 31:23. For Allah has power over all things (vv. 82-83).
“The Messenger of Allah,” said Abdullah bin Umar, “used to command us to make our prayers short and he used to recite As-Saffat [“The Ranks,” i.e., sura 37] when he led us in prayer.” This Meccan sura begins (37:1-11) with a heavenly vision: the angels “ranged about in ranks” (37:1), repelling evil (37:2) and thus proclaiming Allah’s message (37:3). That message, of course, is that Allah is one (37:4) and is Lord of all (37:5).
The angels are apparently ranged in ranks in order to keep the rebellious demons from listening in to the Exalted Assembly (vv. 7-8) — that is, says Ibn Kathir, “they cannot reach the higher group — which refers to the heavens and the angels in them — when they speak of what has been revealed by Allah of His Laws and decrees.” Some devils, however, do manage to hear and snatch away a bit of Allah’s revelation (v. 10); Ibn Abbas explains that “when they heard the revelation, they would come down to earth and to every word they would add nine of their own.” This may be the cosmic derivation of the Scriptural corruptions that the Jews (5:13) and the Christians (5:14) engaged in.
Allah returns in verses 12-39 to the very familiar themes of the scorn of the unbelievers for Muhammad’s message, which they dismiss again as “mere magic” (v. 15) while they dismiss the messenger himself as a “poet possessed” (v. 36). They again deny the resurrection of the dead (vv. 16-17). They will accuse each other of leading them all astray as they realize that Allah’s word was true (vv. 28-32). For Muhammad’s message is true and confirms the messages of the earlier prophets (v. 37) — a statement that, as we have seen, requires the idea that the earlier prophets who are listed in the Qur’an, including Biblical figures such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, etc., taught Islam –until their messages were corrupted by their venal followers.
Allah then turns in verses 40-49 to the blessed in Paradise. They will drink from a “clear-flowing fountain” (v. 45), which will, says the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, be filled with “wine that flows along the ground like streams of water, white, whiter than milk, delicious to the drinkers, in contrast to the wine of this world which is distasteful to drink.” Ibn Kathir adds that “Zayd bin Aslam said, ‘White flowing wine,’ meaning, with a bright, shining color, unlike the wine of this earth with its ugly, repulsive colors of red, black, yellow and turbid shades, and other features which are repugnant to anyone of a sound nature.” This wine won’t even cause drunkenness (v. 47). They will also enjoy the company of chaste, beautiful women (v. 48), like “eggs closely guarded” (v. 49) — that is, according to the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “in terms of [the starkness of their white] colour, hidden eggs, of ostriches, sheltered by their feathers from dust, the colour being that whiteness with a hint of pallor, which is the most beautiful of female complexions.” These are the fabled virgins of Paradise, in search of whom Muslims have fought against unbelievers and sought death throughout history, knowing that Paradise is guaranteed to those who “kill and are killed” for Allah (9:111).
In verses 50-59, one of the blessed will turn to another in Paradise and start telling him about his friend who scoffed at Islam (vv. 51-53). Then a voice will direct him to look down and see his old friend suffering in hellfire, whereupon he will chastise him for almost getting him sent to hell also (vv. 54-59). Verses 60-73 dwell on the torments of the damned. At the heart of hell they will find the Zaqqum tree, with its fruit like devils’ heads (v. 65), and they will drink boiling water (v. 67). Allah sent messengers to the people who were ultimately damned (v. 72), but they did not heed (v. 73).
Allah then hails his believing servants: Noah (vv. 75-82); Abraham (vv. 83-111); Isaac (vv. 112-113); Moses and Aaron (vv. 114-122); Elijah (vv. 123-132); Lot (vv. 133-138); Jonah (vv. 139-148).
Abraham sees in a dream that he must sacrifice his son (v. 102), but Allah stops him just before he is about to do it (vv. 104-105); it was all a test (v. 106). The son is not named in the Qur’anic text, but Isaac’s birth follows (v. 112), which strongly implies that he was Ishmael. Ibn Kathir explains the view of virtually all Islamic scholars: the sacrificial son was Ishmael, and the Jews and Christians corrupted the text of their Scriptures to make the claim that he was Isaac:
According to their Book, Allah commanded Ibrahim to sacrifice his only son, and in another text it says his firstborn son. But here they falsely inserted the name of Ishaq [Isaac]. This is not right because it goes against what their own Scripture says. They inserted the name of Ishaq because he is their ancestor, while Isma’il is the ancestor of the Arabs. They were jealous of them, so they added this idea and changed the meaning of the phrase “only son” to mean “the only son who is with you,” because Isma’il had been taken with his mother to Makkah [Mecca]. But this is a case of falsification and distortion, because the words “only son” cannot be said except in the case of one who has no other son. Furthermore, the firstborn son has a special status that is not shared by subsequent children, so the command to sacrifice him is a more exquisite test.
As in the Bible, Jonah is swallowed by the big fish (v. 142). He is spat out onto a shore (v. 145), preaches to a hundred thousand people (v. 147) and they believe, whereupon Allah “permitted them to enjoy their life for a while” (v. 148). In the Bible, they “repent,” but here, they “believe” — which is the all-important act in the Qur’an, that of accepting the message.
The story of Jonah then segues neatly in verses 149-182 into a polemic against the pagan Arabs who worshipped “daughters of Allah.” Allah instructs his prophet to ask them if they really think that Allah has daughters while they themselves have sons (v. 149) — because everyone knows, of course, that sons are superior to daughters, and so this would be attributing an inferiority to Allah. Those who say Allah has begotten children are liars (v. 152). Those who claim otherwise should produce their proof from Scripture (v. 157). In reality those whom people worship besides Allah are powerless (vv. 161-163). But those ranged in ranks (whose return is a nice bit of poetic rounding) declare Allah’s glory (vv. 164-166). Allah’s forces will be victorious (v. 173) — as the Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains: “assuredly Our hosts, namely, the believers, they will indeed be the victors, over the disbelievers by [their being given] the definitive proofs and assistance against them in this world. And if some of these [believers] are not victorious over them in this world, then assuredly in the Hereafter [they will be so].”
Sura 38, which is Meccan, takes its name from the Arabic letter sad, with which it begins. As always, the letters that begin many suras are left unexplained, and the commentators say that Allah alone knows what he means by these letters. Then in verses 1-16, Allah once again excoriate the unbelievers for their scorn and rejection of Muhammad’s message. Allah quotes the unbelievers’ objections; they ask, “Has he” — that is, Muhammad — “made the gods (all) into one Allah?” (v. 5). The question reflects their puzzlement over Muhammad’s assertion that pre-Islamic pagan gods such as Al-Rahman (“The Merciful”) were in reality simply attributes of the one true God. Some historians believe that Muhammad actually enjoined worship of Al-Rahman only for some time, later replacing that name with the name “Allah” — “the God” — and calling al-Rahman one characteristic of Allah.
The scoffers also complain that they never heard the like of Muhammad’s teaching “among the people of these latter days” (v. 7) — that is, according to Ibn Abbas, “We have not heard of this from the religion of these later days (meaning Christianity); if this Qur’an were true, the Christians would have told us about it.” But they have not yet tasted Allah’s punishment (v. 8), and they will ultimately be put to flight (v. 11). In sum, as Maududi puts it, “Allah says that the actual reason with those people for their denial is not any defect in the message of Islam but their own arrogance, jealousy and insistence on following the blind.” This is a very common stance toward nonbelievers to this day among serious Muslims: the idea that one may reject Islam in good faith is difficult for them to accept, as it is so decisively rejected in the Qur’an. Those who rejected the earlier prophets were all punished (v. 14) — and so will be those who reject Muhammad.
Allah then turns to David (vv. 17-29), retelling the parable that the prophet Nathan tells the King in 2 Samuel 12:1-9. In the Bible, the point of the story of the rich man with many ewes who takes the single ewe of the poor man is to bring home to David the enormity of his having had Uriah the Hittite killed so that he could take Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. In the Qur’an is none of this, however, except the story of the rich man who took the poor man’s ewe, followed by David’s realization that Allah had tried him (v. 24). The story clearly depends on the Biblical story of Bathsheba — Ibn Kathir says, “In discussing this passage, the scholars of Tafsir [Qur’an commentary] mention a story which is mostly based upon Isra’iliyat [Israelite] narrations. Nothing has been reported about this from the Infallible Prophet that we could accept as true.”
The Tafsir al-Jalalayn reveals the dependence in saying: “And David thought, in other words, he became certain, that We had indeed tried him, that We had caused him to fall into a trial, that is, a test, through his love for that woman. So he sought forgiveness of his Lord and fell down bowing, in other words, prostrate, and repented.”
Then follows, in verses 30-40, an account of David’s son Solomon. Regarding Solomon’s horses (v. 31), Ibn Kathir recounts an incident in which Muhammad happened upon one of the toys of his child bride, Aisha: a horse with cloth wings. He asked her, “Did you not hear that Sulayman, peace be upon him, had a horse that had wings?” — and then, says Aisha, “the Messenger of Allah smiled so broadly that I could see his molars.” Embarrassed by their implications, Islamic apologists in the West often deny the Islamic traditions that specify that Aisha was nine when Muhammad (the man they hold up as the supreme example of human conduct) consummated his marriage with her. They say that Aisha was actually 19 when she married Muhammad — but they do not explain why a young woman in her twenties would still be playing with toys, as in the story of her winged horse.
Allah says that he placed on Solomon’s throne a “lifeless body” (v. 34); the Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains that this was a “jinn, disguised as Solomon,” and that the incident was part of Allah’s punishment of Solomon “because he had married a woman [solely] out of his desire for her.” The jinn impersonated Solomon and fooled the birds and others with whom Solomon used to converse, frustrating him. But after Solomon asks for Allah’s forgiveness (v. 35), Allah subjects even the winds to his power (v. 36).
In verses 41-48, Allah again goes through the roster of the prophets: Job (vv. 41-44); Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (vv. 45-47); and Ishmael, Elisha, and Dhul-Kifl, who is sometimes identified with Ezekiel (v. 48). Allah tells Job to strike his wife with a handful of grass (v. 44); according to al-Qurtubi, this was because while Job was afflicted, Satan told his wife “a word of disbelief,” which she then told Job. Job was angry, and vowed to give her one hundred lashes; Allah ordered him to fulfill his oath by striking her with this bundle of grass.
The in verses 49-54, Allah again describes the pleasures of Paradise, followed in verses 55-64 with the pains of Hell. The “chaste women” of Paradise will be of “equal age” (v. 52), which the Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains as meaning that they will be “girls who are thirty three years of age.” Meanwhile, the damned will be forced to drink both “a boiling fluid, and a fluid dark, murky, intensely cold!” (v. 57). Those who followed the “misleaders” into Hell will reproach them (v. 60) and the leaders and followers will engage in mutual recriminations (v. 64).
Allah tells Muhammad what to say to the unbelievers (verses 65-70): he is just a warner, and Allah is the only God (vv. 65, 70) and he has no knowledge of what the “Highest Chiefs” say (v. 69) — which seems to be a reference to the Exalted Assembly of Allah and his angels (37:7-8).
Then Allah returns to the story of the creation of mankind and Satan’s refusal to bow down to Adam, which we have seen before in 2:30-39; 7:11-25; and 15:28-42 (vv. 71-85). It is, of course, a vestige of the Biblical idea that human beings are created in the image of God. But Satan won’t prostrate himself before Adam because, he tells Allah, “I am better than he: you created me from fire, and him you created from clay” (v. 76). Allah thereupon curses him (vv. 77-78), but then Satan asks for and receives a reprieve until the Day of Judgment (vv. 79-81) and vows to lead astray all mankind except Allah’s “single-minded slaves” (v. 83). Allah then vows to fill Hell with Satan’s followers (v. 85).
The sura ends with Allah telling Muhammad to warn the unbelievers that they will all see the truth of his message “after awhile” (v. 88).
According to Muhammad’s favorite wife, Aisha, “The Messenger of Allah used to fast until we would say, ‘He does not want to break fast,’ and he would not fast until we would say, ‘He does not want to fast.’ And he used to recite Bani Isra’il [Al-Isra] and Az-Zumar every night” — that is, suras 17 and 39.
Sura 39 once again emphasizes the evil of worshipping others alongside Allah, and castigates the unbelievers for doing so. It takes its title from verses 71 and 73 — the “throngs” in question are the unbelievers crowding into hell and the believers crowding into Paradise. The recurring theme of this sura is that those whom the unbelievers worship are worthless — they can’t help those who pray to them, and in the end those who relied on them will regret it.
This is a Meccan sura that was revealed fairly early in Muhammad’s career. According to the Ruhul Ma’ani, it was revealed around the time that a group of Muslims left Arabia and sought refuge in Abyssinia, to escape persecution from the pagan Quraysh tribe.
Allah begins by yet again repeating many familiar themes (vv. 1-29). He repeats that he revealed the Qur’an (vv. 1-2). Then he dismisses the core assumption involved in the intercession of the saints — that they bring one closer to God (v. 3) — with greater precision and accuracy than he demonstrated in his dismissal of the idea of the Trinity (5:116). If Allah wanted a son, he could have chosen one from those he created, but he is above that (v. 4). The workings of the natural world show his presence and power (vv. 5-6, 21). Allah does not need human beings, but he dislikes ingratitude (v. 7). When men are in trouble they pray, but in good times they forget him and worship others along with him — such people are headed for hell (v. 8).
The believer and the unbeliever are not equal (vv. 9, 22, 24). This oft-repeated notion has many implications; the emphasis in this sura is on the fact that they will not receive equal treatment on the Day of Judgment. At the same time, however, the absolute way in which the statement is made underscores the idea that the Muslims are the “best of people” (3:110) and the unbelievers are the “vilest of created beings” (98:6). There is no compatibility of this with the idea of the equality of dignity of all people as created by the same God. Instead, there is a sharp dichotomy between believer and unbeliever that runs through all of Islam — including its laws for the governance of states.
In light of this, it should come as no surprise to anyone that there is not a single Muslim-majority state in the world today, even though Islamic law is not fully enforced in almost all of them, where non-Muslims enjoy absolute legal equality with Muslims. Even in secular Turkey there are restrictions on conversion from Islam to another religion, and immense amounts of red tape involved in trying to get official permission to build a church. This is no accident: it is a cultural hangover of the deeply ingrained traditional idea that non-Muslims in a state that Muslims control should “feel themselves subdued” (9:29), in accordance with the dictum that they are not equal to the believers, and should be made in every possible way to remember their perversity in rejecting Islam.
Allah tells Muhammad a series of things he should say to the unbelievers, emphasizing that he is simply Allah’s messenger and would face his wrath as they will if he disobeyed him (v. 13). Allah tells Muhammad to say, “And I am commanded to be the first of those who are Muslims” (v. 12) — which would seem to contradict the Qur’an’s (chronologically) later claim that Abraham was a Muslim (3:67), as were the other prophets. However, Islamic exegetes smooth over the contradiction by saying that this refers to Muhammad’s community specifically, not to the earlier communities of believers. “The Ummah [community] of the Holy Prophet,” explains Maulana Bulandshahri, “is the last Ummah to appear on earth. The first believer of this Ummah was none other than the Holy Prophet himself.”
Then Allah contrasts the fates of the believers (Paradise) and the unbelievers (Hell) (vv. 16-20). He says that the Qur’an is “the most beautiful Message in the form of a Book, consistent with itself, (yet) repeating (its teaching in various aspects)” (v. 23). Mujahid explained: “This means that the entire Qur’an’s parts resemble each other and are oft-repeated” — and of course, truer words were never spoken. The Qur’an contains numerous parables, by way of warning (v. 27). It is in Arabic, with no crookedness (v. 28) — that is, says the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, no “contradiction or variance.”