This sura 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, “the thunder repeats his praises.” Its main theme is summed up by v. 1, in which Allah tells Muhammad, “These are the signs” — ayat, verses – “of the Book: that which hath been revealed unto thee from thy Lord is the Truth; but most men believe not.”
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 Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs say that the “most people” who will not believe according to v. 1 are the people of Mecca.
In what should they believe? Verses 2-19 emphasize Allah’s power in all things. Allah “raised the heavens without any pillars that ye can see” (v. 2) – a physical image that Ibn Kathir expands upon in a physical way: “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-Ash’ari (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 those who consider” (v. 3). Verses 2-4, 8-13, and 16-17 see 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); he shows mankind “the lightning, by way both of fear and of hope” (v. 13). But the unbelievers, perverse as ever, ask Muhammad “to hasten on the evil in preference to the good” (v. 6) – that is, they ask him in derision to bring divine chastisements upon them, according to the Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs, 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 does not change a people’s lot unless they change what is in their hearts” (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 could have guided all mankind” (v. 31); “those whom Allah leaves to stray, no one can 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: “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 Allâh 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.”
Verses 20-43 repeat 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. V. 31, with its reference to “a Qur’an with which mountains were moved, or the earth were cloven asunder, or the dead were made to speak,” refers to the unbelievers’ demand for a miracle. The Tafsir 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 doth blot out or confirm what He pleaseth: 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 [source of] 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.
Next week: Sura 14, “Abraham”: “And you will see the sinners that day bound together in fetters; their garments of liquid pitch, and their faces covered with Fire.”
(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.)