Reading the Qur’an during Ramadan 13: Juz Wa ma ubarri’u


quran-and-gun

The ruler’s wife confesses her wrongdoing (12:51) and so Joseph is freed and rewarded (12:54-56). Joseph’s brothers come to him for help during the famine, not recognizing him (12:58); Joseph demands that they bring their youngest brother (12:60).

Muhammad Asad explains how the story then unfolds: “Joseph had wanted to keep Benjamin with himself, but under the law of Egypt he could not do this without the consent of his half-brothers.” But when the goblet is discovered in his brother’s bag, “Benjamin appeared to be guilty of theft, and under the law of the land Joseph was entitled to claim him as his slave, and thus to keep him in his house.” The point of the Qur’anic story is that Allah orders all events, and none can thwart his will: “Thus did We plan for Joseph. He could not have taken his brother within the religion of the king except that Allah willed” (v. 76). Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers (v. 90), who beg Allah’s forgiveness (v. 91) and receive it (v. 92, 98). Jacob and his brothers go live with Joseph in Egypt (vv. 99-100).

Allah emphasizes that all this is a warning (vv. 102-111). Allah tells Muhammad that he revealed the story of Joseph to him “by inspiration,” for Muhammad was not present when Joseph’s brothers plotted against him, so how could he know how it happened unless he is a true prophet (v. 102)? Still, most will not believe (vv. 103, 105, 106), although this is not an invented tale, but a confirmation of existing Scripture (v. 111) — which Scriptures, of course, to Muhammad’s great vexation, did not actually confirm his message.

Sura 13 dates, like suras 6, 7, 10, 11, and 12, from late in the Meccan period, the first period of Muhammad’s career as a prophet. Its name comes a phrase in v. 13, “And the thunder exalts with praise of Him.” Its main theme is summed up by v. 1, in which Allah tells Muhammad, “These are the verses” — ayat, signs — “of the Book; and what has been revealed to you from your Lord is the truth, but most of the people do not believe.”

Ibn Kathir sees the four Arabic letters that begin this chapter, and similar unexplained letters beginning many suras of the Qur’an, as confirmation of its miraculous character: “Every Surah that starts with separate letters affirms that the Qur’an is miraculous and is an evidence that it is a revelation from Allah, and that there is no doubt or denying in this fact.” Despite the mystery of these letters, however, he goes on to assert that the Qur’an is “clear, plain and unequivocal,” and that “most men will still not believe, due to their rebellion, stubbornness and hypocrisy.” The Tafsir al-Jalalayn and the Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas say that the “most people” who will not believe according to v. 1 are the people of Mecca.

In what should they believe? In verses 2-19 Allah emphasizes his power in all things. Allah “erected the heavens without pillars that you see; then He established Himself above the Throne and made subject the sun and the moon, each running for a specified term. He arranges matter; He details the signs that you may, of the meeting with your Lord, be certain.” (v. 2) The idea that the heavens rest on unseen pillars, presumably fixed on earth, manifests a prescientific understanding that belies contemporary Islamic apologists’ claims that the Qur’an shows awareness of modern cosmology and other aspects of modern scientific understanding that weren’t discovered until centuries after it was written. Ibn Kathir expands even more upon this when he writes in explanation of this verse: “The distance between the first heaven and the earth is five hundred years from every direction, and its thickness is also five hundred years. The second heaven surrounds the first heaven from every direction, encompassing everything that the latter carries, with a thickness also of five hundred years and a distance between them of five hundred years.”

This is not to say that Islam envisions a physical Allah — the Allah whom “no vision can grasp” (6:103) and who is “nearer than the jugular vein” (50:16) is not physical, but this is the subject of some Sunni-Shi’ite polemics. Some argue that even though Allah is nearer than the jugular vein, he is not everywhere. Some modern Muslims argue that to affirm otherwise would be to fall into pantheism and shirk: the association of partners with Allah, the cardinal sin in Islam. They argue this from the fact that Allah has “mounted the Throne” (v. 2; also 7:54). The Imam Abul Hasan al-Ashari (874-936) argued against the claim of the rationalist-minded Mu’tazilite sect that this verse meant that Allah was everywhere. “If it were as they asserted,” he asked, “then what difference would there be between the Throne and the earth?” And the tenth century scholar of hadith Ibn Khuzaymah declared: “Whoever does not affirm that Allah is above His heavens, upon His Throne and that He is distinct from His creation; must be forced to repent. If he does not repent, then he must be beheaded and then thrown into a garbage dump, so that the Muslims and the Ahl-Dhimma (the Christians and the Jew) will not suffer from his stinking smell.”

In all of creation are “signs for a people who give thought” (v. 3). Allah expatiates upon his power in creation: the sun and moon are subject to him (v. 2, a verse to ponder for those who equate Allah with the moon god); he sees all things (vv. 8-9); Zeus-like, he “sends thunderbolts and strikes therewith whom He wills while they dispute about Allah” (v. 13). But the unbelievers, perverse as ever, ask Muhammad “bring about evil before good” (v. 6) — that is, they ask him in derision to bring divine chastisements upon them, according to the Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas, and demand miracles (v. 7). Each believer, meanwhile is guarded by angels (v. 11). Ibn Kathir says that there are four: two guards, one in back and one in front, and two who record the Muslim’s good and bad deeds. The believer greets the recording angels during prayer, turning to his right and left shoulder and saying each time, “Peace be upon you.”

The same verse suggests that people really do have free will: “Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (v. 11). The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains: “He does not deprive them of His grace — unless they have altered the state of their souls, from [their] comely nature, through an act of disobedience.” Yet it is hard to see how this fits in with the idea that “had Allah willed, He would have guided the people, all of them” (v. 31); “whomever Allah leaves astray – there will be for him no guide” (v. 33); and other passages that state that one’s belief or unbelief is up to Allah (10:99-100). In Islamic history the idea of free will was early on declared heretical. The twelfth-century Hanbali jurist Ibn Abi Ya’la describes the Qadari sect, which affirmed free will, as the worst of heretics for making such a claim: “They are those who claim that they possess in full the capacity to act (al-istitâ`a), free will (al-mashî’a), and effective power (al-qudra). They consider that they hold in their grasp the ability to do good and evil, avoid harm and obtain benefit, obey and disobey, and be guided or misguided. They claim that human beings retain full initiative, without any prior status within the will of Allah for their acts, nor even in His knowledge of them. Their doctrine is similar to that of Zoroastrians and Christians. It is the very root of heresy.”

Allah then does what he does so often: repeats familiar themes. The righteous will enter Paradise (vv. 20-24, 35); those who break Allah’s covenant are accursed (v. 25); the unbelievers demand a sign (v. 27) and will be punished in this world and the next (v. 34); the unbelievers ascribe partners to Allah (v. 33) and reject part of the Qur’an (v. 36), while the believers do the opposite. He dismisses the unbelievers’ demand for a miracle: “And if there was any qur’an by which the mountains would be removed or the earth would be broken apart or the dead would be made to speak, but to Allah belongs the affair entirely” — that is, the Qur’an is better than a miracle. TheTafsir al-Jalalayn explains that it was “revealed when they said to him, “If you are [truly] a prophet, then make these mountains of Mecca drift away before us, and make for us rivers and springs in it, that we may plant and sow seeds, and resurrect for us our dead fathers to speak to us and tell us that you are a prophet.” But even if those things happened, they still wouldn’t believe.

The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that the phrase “Allah eliminates what He wills or confirms, and with Him is the Mother of the Book.” (v. 39) refers to the Qur’an: “God effaces, of it [the Book], whatever He will and He fixes therein whatever He will of rulings or other matters, and with Him is the Mother of the Book, its origin, of which nothing is ever changed, and which consists of what He inscribed in pre-eternity (azal).” This remains the orthodox view of the Qur’an: that it is a perfect, unchanging copy of the Mother of the Book that has existed forever with Allah.

The claim circulates now and again among those who grasp at straws to be optimistic that the Qur’an promises the land of Israel to the Jews. This sura, unfortunately, undercuts their optimism.

Sura 14 is yet another late Meccan sura. Its name comes from v. 35, where Abraham appears and prays, but following the convention of the naming of Qur’an chapters, this name has little to do with the content of this sura; more is said about Abraham elsewhere in the Qur’an.

Allah begins by celebrating the “Book which We have revealed to you” (v. 1) — which is, of course, the Qur’an that was, according to Islamic tradition, delivered to Muhammad. In the words of Ibn Kathir, it is “the most honored Book, that Allah sent down from heaven to the most honored Messenger of Allah sent to all the people of the earth, Arabs and non-Arabs alike.”

With this Book, Muhammad can “bring mankind out of darknesses into the light” (v. 1) — the light of Allah — but of course for the unbelievers there is a terrible penalty in store (v. 2): “woe to them on the Day of Judgment because they defied you, O Muhammad, and rejected you,” says Ibn Kathir. For they dared to prefer this world to the next and to keep people from the path of Allah, and they are “seeking to make it deviant” (v. 3) — that is, they are, in the words of Maulana Bulandshahri, “ever vigilant to expose any defect that they hope to find in the religion (D’in) of Islam.” Yet Allah has sent messengers to people speaking in their own language so they can understand the message clearly (v. 4), but after that, says the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, echoing the Qur’an itself, “God then sends astray whomever He will and He guides whomever He will.”

Then Allah, never afraid of repeating himself, returns to the stories of Moses (vv. 5-8) and some of the other prophets (v. 9). The unbelievers “returned their hands to their mouths” (v. 9) on hearing the messengers’ clear proofs. “It is said,” explains Ibn Kathir, “that they pointed to the Messengers’ mouths asking them to stop calling them to Allah, the Exalted and Most Honored. It is also said that it means, they placed their hands on their mouths in denial of the Messengers. It was also said that it means that they did not answer the call of the Messengers, or they were biting their hands in rage.” Then comes a dialogue between the unbelievers and the messengers (vv. 10-15) that appears to be meant to apply to all the experiences of all the prophets Allah has sent to the world, but which once again, as we have seen in other late Meccan suras, closely traces and universalizes Muhammad’s dealings with his own people, the pagan Quraysh of Mecca. Maulana Maududi makes this clear when he explains that v. 13, “The disbelievers warned their Messengers, ‘You shall have to return to our community or we will assuredly expel you from our land.” This is a reference to a threat the Quraysh had issued to Muhammad: the verse “clearly indicates,” Maududi says, “that the persecution of the Muslims was at its worst at the time of the revelation of this Surah, and the people of Makkah were bent on expelling the Believers from there like the disbelievers of the former Prophets.”

But Allah will turn the tables on the unbelievers: “We will surely destroy the wrongdoers, and We will surely cause you” — that is, Muhammad and the Muslims — “to dwell in the land after them” (vv. 13-14). This gives the lie to the often-repeated claim that the Qur’an promises the land of Israel to the Jews. This claim is based on Qur’an 5:21: “O my people, enter the Holy Land which Allah has assigned to you and do not turn back and become losers.” But the Jews, according to the Qur’an, did turn back, earning the curse of Allah (2:89, 3:112, 9:30), and as this verse shows, the Muslims inherit the land they were promised.

Allah follows this up with more warnings for the unbeliever: “Before him is Hell, and he will be given a drink of purulent water” (v. 16). The unbeliever will suffer “a massive punishment” as “death will come to him from everywhere, but he is not to die” (v. 17), and his work in this world will come to nothing (v. 18). Allah can even replace the entire creation if he wishes (v. 20). On Judgment Day, the weak will blame the arrogant (v. 21), and Satan will acknowledge that while both he and Allah made promises to people, he — Satan — proved to be a betrayer (v. 22). According to Ibn Jarir, Satan will tell the unbelievers at that point, when it’s too late: “I deny being a partner with Allah, the Exalted and Most Honored.” And “Iblis [Satan],” says Ibn Kathir, “may Allah curse him, will stand and address” those whom he led astray, “in order to add depression to their depression, sorrow to their sorrow and grief to their grief.” No mention is made, however, of the conundrum created by Allah’s leading people astray. The righteous, in any case, will enter “ gardens beneath which rivers flow” (v. 23).

Allah then compares his word to a strong tree and the “bad word” (v. 26) to a tree without roots — a comparison reminiscent of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7:17-19 (see also 7:24-27). Muhammad once told his companions, “There is a tree among the trees which is as blessed as a Muslim,” and explained, “It is the datepalm tree.” (Bukhari 7.65.355) This may have been because of the spiritual powers of dates. Muhammad also said: “He who eats seven Ajwa dates every morning, will not be affected by poison or magic on the day he eats them.” (Bukhari 7.65.356) Allah will strengthen the believers in this world and the next (v. 27); Muhammad explained: “When a Muslim is questioned in his grave, he will testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s Apostle, and that is what is meant by Allah’s statement” in v. 27.

After that, Allah yet again warn the unbelievers of hellfire and remind them of Allah’s blessings (vv. 28-34). In a hadith, Muhammad identifies “those who exchanged the favor of Allah for disbelief and settled their people the home of ruin?” (v. 28) as “the disbelieving pagans of Mecca,” thus reinforcing Maududi’s impression of this sura as a warning to the Quraysh when tensions between them and the Muslims were high.

In verses 35-41 Abraham prays that Allah will make Mecca “secure” (v. 35) for himself and for his children, some of whom he has settled “in an uncultivated valley near Your sacred House” (v. 37) — that is, the Ka’aba, which Abraham built, according to Islamic tradition. That the land is barren makes them dependent upon the good will of those in the area: Abraham asks Allah to “make hearts among the people incline toward them and provide for them from the fruits that they might be grateful” (v. 37). However, according to Ibn Abbas, Mujahid and Sa’id bin Jubayr, this is restricted to Muslims only: “Had Ibrahim said, ‘The hearts of mankind’, Persians, Romans, the Jews, the Christians and all other people would have gathered around” the Ka’aba. But Abraham, they explain, said “some among men,” thus “making it exclusive to Muslims only.”

According to one of Muhammad’s companions, Abdullah bin Amr, Muhammad recited part of Abraham’s prayer here — “indeed they have led astray many among the people” (v. 36) — and wept, crying out three times: “O Allah, Save my Ummah [community]!” In another indication of the importance of Muhammad to Allah, he sent Gabriel to the prophet with these instructions: “Go to Muhammad and tell him this; “˜We will make you pleased with your Ummah, O Muhammad, and will not treat them in a way you dislike.”

Allah then repeat still another time that the sinners who remain heedless of his truth will nonetheless face his dreadful judgment (vv. 42-52).

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