After several suras have recounted the message and reception of various prophets in strikingly similar terms, sura 21, “The Prophets,” discusses the phenomenon of prophecy and the way it is received in general (usually with scoffing). It also touches on several prophets specifically, including Abraham, David, Solomon, Job, and Zechariah. Sura 21 is a late Meccan sura, and was revealed against the backdrop of the ongoing strife between Muhammad and the leaders of the pagan Quraysh tribe of Mecca — a tribe of which Muhammad was a member, but which had rejected his prophetic claim. This sura is full of both direct and implied references to their skepticism, as well as replies to their objections.
In verses 1-47 Allah speaks generally of how the unbelievers always scorn the signs of his creative power, and the messages of the prophets. We hear their dismissals of Muhammad’s prophetic pretensions, and in vv. 4, 24, 42 and 45, Allah tells Muhammad what to say to them. The unbelievers claim that Muhammad is bringing witchcraft, and assume that to be a prophet he would have to be “more than a man like yourselves” (v. 3). But the earlier prophets were just ordinary men, as the unbelievers can discover by asking the Jews and Christians (“those who possess the Message”) (vv. 7-8).
The unbelievers say that Muhammad is a poet who has invented the Qur’an, and that if he were really a prophet he would work a miracle (v. 5). But Allah has destroyed entire populations in the past (v. 6) and has done what he promised to do, and saved “those whom We pleased, but We destroyed those who transgressed beyond bounds” (v. 9). Now Allah has revealed a book with a message for mankind — that is, the Qur’an (v. 10). And this is no game: Allah didn’t create everything just to play (v. 16). If he had wanted to do find a pastime, he “could have found it in Our presence” (v. 17). That is, according to the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “Had We desired to find some diversion, that which provides diversion, in the way of a partner or a child, We would have found it with Ourselves, from among the beautiful-eyed houris or angels.” The “beautiful-eyed houris” are the fabled virgins of Paradise.
But instead, in a jarringly violent image, “We hurl the Truth against falsehood, and it knocks out its brain, and behold, falsehood perishes!” (v. 18). Even the beings that stand in Allah’s presence aren’t too proud to serve him (vv. 19-20). The unbelievers can’t be right that their objects of worship are really gods besides Allah, because this multiplicity would create confusion not only in heaven, but also on earth (v. 22) — a verse that may reveal why Islamic societies have always tended toward authoritarianism and never been hospitable to democracy.
Allah, meanwhile, the absolute ruler, “cannot be questioned for His acts” (v. 23). Says Ibn Kathir: “He is the Ruler Whose rule cannot be overturned and none can object to it, because of His might, majesty, pride, knowledge, wisdom, justice and subtlety.” Those who say “Allah has begotten offspring” (v. 26) are not just the Christians, but the pagan Arabs who worshipped the daughters of Allah — whom we shall hear more about later, notably in sura 53. Allah’s servants — that is, the prophets — intercede only for those who are acceptable to him (v. 28), and if any of those servants claimed to be a god, he would be go to hell (v. 29).
Haven’t the unbelievers realized the signs of Allah’s creating hand in the things of this earth (vv. 30-33)? Yet they dare to ridicule Muhammad (v. 36), heedless of the fact that the Day of Judgment will inevitably come (vv. 37-44). Everyone will be dealt with justly on that Day, and his smallest good deed, even the size of a mustard seed, will not go unnoticed (v. 47).
Then in verses 48-93, Allah cites some of the significant events in the lives of some of the prophets, again with numerous parallels to Muhammad’s own situation with the Quraysh. Allah gave Moses and Aaron the criterion (al-furqan, الْفُرْقَانَ) (v. 48) — that is, the true guidance. Al-furqan is in Islamic tradition identified with the Qur’an itself, but here it applies to the earlier prophetic message — the Torah that was delivered to Moses. In Islamic tradition both the Torah and the Gospel were identical in substance with the Qur’an before they was corrupted by the perverse and unbelieving followers of Moses and Jesus.
Allah then returns to the story of Abraham, once again recounting his refusal to worship his father’s idols (vv. 51-73). He confronts the idolaters of his own people, who scoff at him in just the way that the Quraysh have scoffed at Muhammad. They even go so far as to try to burn him to death, but Allah makes the fire cool and saves his prophet (vv. 68-69). Then follow in quick succession brief references to Lot (vv. 74-75); Noah (vv. 76-77); David and Solomon (vv. 78-82); Job (vv. 83-84); Ishmael, Idris (Enoch), and Dhul-Kifl (Ezekiel) (v. 85); Dhu’n-Nun (Jonah) (vv. 87-88); Zechariah (vv. 89-90); and Mary and Jesus (v. 91), all of whom, we are reminded here, remained faithful to Allah through various kinds of difficulty and distress (and, often, scorn from unbelievers). All shared a single religion, Islam (v. 92), although those who followed after these prophets “have broken their religion (into fragments)” (v. 93). The original religion of all the prophets was Islam, and when someone claims to follow one of those prophets — Abraham, Moses, Jesus — but rejects Islam, he is rejecting the true message of those prophets in favor of a later corrupted version.
Allah then warns of the Judgment Day (vv. 94-112). When Gog and Magog are let loose (see sura 18:94), then the unbelievers will realize that all this was true (v. 97). As they enter hell, they will see that their false gods are useless to keep them out of it (vv. 98-100). But the believers will not suffer any of this, or even hear the damned screaming in hell; instead, the angels will greet them (vv. 101-103). Allah will produce a new creation in the same way that he produced the first one (v. 104). The righteous — i.e., the Muslims — will inherit the earth (v. 105). The Qur’an is a message for those who want to worship Allah (v. 106), and Muhammad is sent “as a mercy for all creatures” (v. 107). Muhammad should tell the people that he has delivered the warning he was commanded to deliver, but he doesn’t know when the promised Judgment will come (v. 109).
Islamic scholars are divided over whether sura 22 dates from the Meccan or Medinan period of Muhammad’s prophetic career. Ibn Kathir and Maulana Muhammad Ali say it’s Meccan, while the Tafsir Anwar ul-Bayan, Daryabadi and others say it’s Medinan. Maududi splits the difference by noting a stylistic change between verses 1-24 and verses 25-78, and postulating that the first part comes from Mecca and the second from Medina.
Allah issues in verses 1-24 another warning about the dreadful Day of Judgment (vv. 1-2, 4, 7) and excoriation of the perversity of the unbelievers (vv. 3, 5-6, 8-13). The righteous will be admitted to luxuriant Gardens (vv. 14, 23-24). Those who doubt that Allah will help Muhammad in this world and the next should hang themselves (v. 15). “This,” says Ibn Kathir, “was also the view of Mujahid, Ikrimah, Ata, Abu Al-Jawza, Qatadah and others. The meaning is: whoever thinks that Allah will not support Muhammad and His Book and His Religion, let him go and kill himself if it annoys him so much.” Allah has sent down clear signs — a reference to the verses (ayat, or signs) of the Qur’an — and guides to the truth those whom he wills to guide (v. 16). Jews, Christians, and others will all be judged (v. 17); “Allah will decide on the Day of Judgement between them,” says Maulana Bulandshahri in the Tafsir Anwar ul-Bayan, “and disclose to them that only the Muslims were guided aright.”
Even the sun, moon, stars, and all created beings worship Allah (v. 18). In fact, Muhammad was once asked where the sun went when it set. He replied: “It goes (i.e. travels) till it prostrates itself underneath the Throne and takes the permission to rise again, and it is permitted.” How dreadful will the Judgment and hellfire be? Allah luridly describes the horrors of hell — scalding water, iron whips (vv. 19-22). According to a hadith, Muhammad says that 999 out of every thousand people will be sent to hell. On that Day, Adam will ask Allah: “O Allah! How many are the people of the Fire?” Allah will answer: “From every one thousand, take out nine-hundred-and ninety-nine.” Muhammad explained that that one person saved would be a Muslim, telling his companions: “Rejoice with glad tidings; one person will be from you and one-thousand will be from Gog and Magog.”
Maududi suggests that verses 25-78 were revealed not long after the Muslims migrated from Mecca to Medina, and around the time of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, were feeling particularly homesick. The pagan Quraysh controlled Mecca at that time, and had barred the Muslims from making the pilgrimage. “Therefore, they might even have been praying for and expecting Divine permission to wage war against those tyrants who had expelled them from their homes and deprived them of visiting the House of Allah and made it difficult for them to follow the way of Islam. It was at this psychological occasion that these verses were sent down.”
Those who are keeping the Muslims from making the pilgrimage will suffer a grievous punishment (v. 25). Allah directed Abraham to the site for the Sacred Mosque in Mecca and told him that it would be a place of pilgrimage for those who believe in Allah and do not associate partners with him (vv. 26-31). All people should perform sacrificial rites, sacrificing animals to Allah (vv. 32-38).
Those who have been expelled from their homes and victimized in other ways have permission to fight against those who have wronged them (vv. 39-40). According to Mujahid, Ad-Dahhak, Ibn Abbas, Urwah bin Az-Zubayr, Zayd bin Aslam, Muqatil bin Hayan, Qatadah and others, this was the first verse revealed about jihad — that is, says Maududi: “v. 39 is the first verse that grants the Muslims permission to wage war.” This verse is also the epigraph of Osama bin Laden’s October 6, 2002 letter to the American people, in which he details his motives and goals.
Then Allah says: “For, if Allah had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques — in which Allah’s name is abundantly extolled would surely have been destroyed” (22:39–22:40). This would seem to be a blanket prohibition against the destruction of churches; proof that jihadists who commit that act do so in defiance of their religion.
Unfortunately, though, this is not all that the Quran says. The Quran many times reaffirms that its message is the same as that of the Torah and the Gospels, and calls on Jews and Christians to note that and accept it as divine revelation. Allah tells Muhammad: “And We have revealed to you the Book in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a criterion over it” (5:48), after affirming that in the Gospel was “guidance and light, confirming that which preceded it of the Torah as guidance and instruction for the righteous” (5:46). Those who do not accept the new revelation are castigated and threatened with punishment: “Indeed, they who disbelieved among the People of the Scripture and the polytheists will be in the fire of Hell, abiding eternally therein. Those are the worst of creatures” (98:6).
Note that this passage from sura 22 specifies that houses of worship in which “Allah’s name is abundantly extolled” not be destroyed. While Allah’s name may be abundantly extolled in the churches and synagogues of those who acknowledge Muhammad and the Quran, the same cannot be said of the churches and synagogues of “they who disbelieved among the People of the Scripture.” This is how the Islamic State, in destroying churches and other houses of worship in Iraq and Syria, can justify its actions on solid Islamic grounds.
The Muslims, “if We establish them in the land, establish regular prayer and give regular charity, enjoin the right and forbid wrong” (v. 41) — that is, they establish the proper ordering of society. But those who reject the message of the Muslims will ultimately be destroyed, as were the disbelievers of bygone ages (vv. 42-48). Allah tells Muhammad how to address the unbelievers, telling them that he is just giving them a warning: follow the way of righteousness or face hellfire (vv. 49-51).
Satan has interfered with the messages of all previous prophets, but Allah abrogates whatever falsehood he throws in (vv. 52-53). Ibn Kathir says at that this point many commentators of the Qur’an discuss the Satanic Verses incident, in which Muhammad, hoping to reconcile with the pagan Quraysh tribe of Mecca (of which he was a member and who had rejected his prophethood) was said to have declared three goddesses worshipped by the Quraysh as the “daughters of Allah.” Then, realizing he had compromised his message of monotheism, he retracted the verses in question, saying that in that instance he had been inspired by Satan. Ibn Kathir, however, doesn’t believe that any of the accounts of the incident are reliable. We will return to this when we come around to sura 53, in which the beginning part of Muhammad’s revelation about the goddesses still appears, although of course the “Satanic” elements are not there.
Allah guides believers to the straight path of Islam (v. 54), while those without faith will never accept Islam, until finally judgment comes upon them (vv. 55, 57). Those who are killed in jihad warfare will be rewarded (v. 59). Those who have retaliated only in proportion to the injury they suffered, and then are attacked again, will receive help from Allah (v. 60). Ibn Kathir explains: “Muqatil bin Hayan and Ibn Jurayj mentioned that this was revealed about a skirmish in which the Companions encountered some of the idolaters. The Muslims urged them not to fight during the Sacred Months, but the idolaters insisted on fighting and initiated the aggression. So the Muslims fought them and Allah granted them victory.”
Allah has power over all things, and all things bear witness to his presence and power (vv. 61-66). Muhammad is to call all people to Islam, without arguing with them (vv. 67-69). Allah knows everything (v. 70), and yet they persist in their perversity and idolatry (vv. 71-72). The idols of the unbelievers can’t even create a fly (v. 73). The believers should worship Allah (v. 77) and fight for his cause, which is the religion of Abraham. Allah has called the believers Muslims both before this revelation and now in it also. The believers’ job is to be witnesses to Allah before all mankind (v. 78).