Islamic scholars are divided over whether this sura 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.
Verses 1-24 are 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 Dauy 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.
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).
(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.)