Sura 11, “Hud,” dates (like sura 10) from late in the Meccan period, the first part of Muhammad’s prophetic career. Its name comes from verses 50-60, which tell the story of the prophet Hud, who was according to Islamic tradition sent to the ‘Ad people of Arabia around 2400 BC. Sura 11 repeats in stronger terms the warnings of sura 10 concerning Allah’s judgment. That, according to a hadith, caused Muhammad anxiety. Once one of his leading followers, Abu Bakr, said to him, “O Messenger of Allah, verily your hair has turned gray.” Muhammad replied that Sura 11, along with suras 56, 77, 78, and 81, all of which deal with judgment day, “have turned my hair gray.”
This hair-graying sura begins (verses 1-24) with a recapitulation of many themes touched on in sura 10, including the wisdom of the Qur’an itself (v. 1). Mujahid, Qatadah, and Ibn Jarir, among others, explained this verse as meaning that the Qur’an is “perfect in its wording, detailed in its meaning. Thus, it is complete in its form and its meaning.” For, says Ibn Kathir, “this Qur’an descended, perfect and detailed, with the purpose of Allah’s worship alone, without any partners.” The Qur’an is also inimitable: the challenge to produce a sura like it is repeated in v. 13. Stressed: the necessity to worship only Allah (v. 2) and the dependence of all creatures upon him (v. 6); the worthlessness of idols (v. 14); the deceptive glamour of this life (v. 15); the dreadful punishment (vv. 16, 22) that awaits those who “invent a lie against Allah” (v. 18), and the delightful gardens that await the blessed (v. 23).
Verse 5 contains a strange statement: “At the very moment when they cover themselves with their clothing, Allah knows that which they keep hidden and that which they proclaim.” What would covering themselves with clothing have to do with Allah knowing them? Well, it appears that some people wore clothes to conceal themselves from Allah, particularly during intimate moments: Ibn Abbas explains that “there were people who used to be shy to remove their clothes while answering the call of nature in an open space and thus be naked exposed to the sky. They were also ashamed of having sexual relations with their women due to fear of being exposed towards the sky. Thus, this was revealed concerning them.”
Then follow the stories of various prophets, all revolving around their rejection by perverse and obstinate unbelievers. Verses 25-49 tell the story of Noah and the ark, with a significant difference from the Biblical story. In Genesis 6-9, Noah has nothing to do with the unbelievers at all; God tells him, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth” (Genesis 6:13), and tells him to build the ark, but he doesn’t tell him to go warn the people about the flood. But in the Qur’an, Noah comes to his people with a “clear warning” (v. 25) that they should “serve none but Allah” (v. 26). So the corruption and violence of which the people are guilty in the Biblical account in the Qur’an become simply idolatry, or more precisely, shirk, the association of partners with Allah.
Of course, Muhammad came to his people with a clear warning (14:52) that they should serve none but Allah (3:64), and so in this account Noah is kind of a proto-Muhammad, preaching a message identical to his. And that is, indeed, how Islam views all the Biblical prophets. They, like Muhammad, taught Islam – it was their followers who corrupted their teachings to create modern Judaism and Christianity. Even the reception Noah receives resembles how the pagan Quraysh received Muhammad. The unbelievers tell him he is just a man and charge him and his followers with lying (v. 27), and even claim he is forging the messages he claims are from Allah (v. 35). Noah counters by saying that it won’t matter what he says to them if Allah has determined to lead them astray (v. 34). This, of course, almost exactly replicates Muhammad’s experience: Allah tells him to tell the unbelievers that he is just a man (18:110); they charge him with lying (42:24) and with forging the Qur’an (v. 13); and of course Muhammad also teaches that if Allah wills to lead someone astray, no one can guide him (7:186).
Noah is, then, essentially a stand-in for Muhammad. Indirectly emphasized are the identity of the messages of all the prophets, and the obstinacy of the unbelievers before the manifest truth of Allah. One of those unbelievers is Noah’s son, who declines to enter the ark and instead says, “I will betake myself to some mountain: it will save me from the water” (v. 43). His son dies in flood, and Noah reminds Allah of his promise to save his family (which came in v. 40): “O my Lord! Surely my son is of my family!” (v. 45). But Allah tells him, “O Noah! He is not of thy family: for his conduct is unrighteous” (v. 46). Belief and unbelief in Islam supersede even family ties. Ibn Kathir explains: “Thus, for his son, it had already been decreed that he would be drowned due to his disbelief and his opposition to his father.”
The story of Hud (verses 50-60) follows a roughly similar pattern. He tells the people of ‘Ad to repent (v. 52), but they complain that he has brought them no clear sign (v. 53), and are destroyed – although Hud and his people are saved (v. 58). Verses 61-68 repeat the same pattern in telling the story of Salih, who was sent sometime after Noah’s time to the Thamud people, who lived in northern Arabia. Allah gives them a sign of his power: the “she-camel of Allah is a symbol to you” (v. 64) – which according to some traditions emerged miraculously from a mountain. The Thamud are told not to harm it, but they do anyway (v. 65) and are destroyed (v. 67), except for Salih and the believers (v. 66).
Verses 69-83 retell the Biblical story of Abraham, Sarah and Lot, culminating in the destruction of an unnamed Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 82) with a strong hint of an unnamed crime of sodomy (v. 79). Verses 83-95 tell the story of Shu’aib, prophet to the Midianites, in language very similar, and with an identical outcome, to the story of Hud.
Then verses 96-123 recapitulate many themes of the entire sura, with passing reference to Moses and Pharaoh (vv. 96-98). Both those who reject Allah and those who accept him will face a fearsome judgment, leading to hellfire for the unbelievers and Paradise for the believers (vv. 103-108). Allah gave Moses the Torah, but there are disputes about it (v. 110), which Allah would have already settled except that he has decided to “delay His chastisement from your nation,” according to the Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs. The believers should pray and be steadfast (vv. 114-115), for all this is Allah’s will: “If thy Lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one people: but they will not cease to dispute” (v. 118). Yet believers must trust in him (v. 123).
Next week: Sura 12, “Joseph”: signs and symbols for seekers after truth.
(Here you can find links to all the earlier "Blogging the Qur'an" segments. Here is a good Arabic Qur’an, with English translations available; here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)