This sura comes from the middle of Muhammad’s Meccan period, during the time of a famine in Mecca, which is referred to obliquely in vv. 75-6. Umar, the second caliph of the Muslims after Muhammad, reported: “This Surah was revealed in my presence and I myself observed the state of the Holy Prophet during its revelation. When the revelation ended, the Holy Prophet remarked, ‘On this occasion ten such verses have been sent down to me that the one who measures up to them, will most surely go to Paradise.’ Then he recited the initial verses of the surah.”
Those Paradise-enabling verses (verses 1-11) promise success to the believers (v. 1) – recalling the muezzin’s call to prayer from the minaret, which says in part: “Come to prayer, come to success.” Allah enumerates the characteristics of those who will go to Paradise: they pray humbly (v. 2) and faithfully (v. 9); they shun vain talk (v. 3); they’re charitable to the poor (v. 4); they keep their word and their covenants (v. 8); and they’re chaste (v. 5) – except with their wives and slave girls (v. 6). The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains: “except from their spouses, that is, to their spouses, and what [slaves] their right hands possess, that is, concubines, for then they are not blameworthy, in having sexual intercourse with them.” Maududi asserts that “the fact that the people who have accepted the Message of the Holy Prophet have started acquiring such and such noble qualities of character is a practical proof of the truth of the Message.”
Then verses 12-22 point to various elements of the natural world as proof of Allah’s power: the creation and growth of human beings from “a product of wet earth” (vv. 12-14); and various features of the natural world: the rain, trees, cattle, etc. (vv. 17-22). According to a hadith recorded in the Mishkat al-Masabih, Muhammad offers a determinist view of why some people are good and others evil. It’s all because of the type of sand they were made from: “Allah took a handful of sand from all over the earth and mixed it with water so that it became mud. Allah then cast the mould of Sayyidina [Master] Adam from this mud. Allah then blew the soul into it. The progeny of Sayyidina Adam will therefore be like the portion of sand they were created from. Among them are reddish people, white people, black people and others between these complexions. Some of them are soft, others hard, some good, others bad (according to the type of sand).”
Verses 23-52 return to the stories of various prophets: Noah (vv. 23-30); an unnamed prophet in the generation after Noah (vv. 31-41); other unnamed prophets sent to other people (vv. 42-44); Moses and Aaron (vv. 45-49); and Jesus (v. 50). As we have seen elsewhere in the Qur’an, these accounts frequently recall Muhammad’s own experience with those who rejected his message. Muhammad thereby puts his opponents on notice that they are doing the same thing that the enemies of the prophets of old did, and that they will face the same divine judgment. Noah’s enemies scoff that he is just “a man like yourselves” (v. 24), and the critics of unnamed prophet say the same thing (v. 33). And of course, Muhammad is just an ordinary man (18:110). They say Noah is possessed (v. 25) – and that’s the same thing they say about Muhammad (44:14). The unbelievers deny that the dead will be raised (v. 37), just as they did to Muhammad (19:66).
Another message here is that Muhammad’s message is the same as that of the earlier prophets, and “this Brotherhood of yours is a single Brotherhood” – that is, the Brotherhood of the Prophets (v. 52).
More warnings to the unbelievers come in verses 53-90. Those who enjoy prosperity in this life (vv. 55-56) will not escape the judgment. Those who believe in “the signs of their Lord” – that is, the verses of the Qur’an (v. 58) and do not associate partners with Allah (v. 59) will be saved. Allah gives no soul a burden greater than it can bear (v. 62). The unbelievers will “groan in supplication” on the Day of Judgment (v. 64), but Allah will not help them (v. 65), because when the verses (“signs”) of the Qur’an were recited, they would turn their backs (v. 66) and scorn the Qur’an itself (v. 67). The message that has come to them from Allah is the same as the one sent to their fathers of old (v. 68). They accuse Muhammad of being possessed (v. 69), just as Noah’s enemies said of him (v. 25), but actually Muhammad has simply brought them the truth – but most of them hate the truth. Muhammad is calling them to the straight path (v. 73), which is Islam, but even if Allah removed from the unbelievers the present distress they are suffering (because of the famine in Mecca), they would not believe (vv. 75-76). The unbelievers doubt that the dead will be raised for judgment (vv. 82-83), but everything belongs to Allah and will return to him (vv. 84-89).
Verses 91-118 conclude this sura with further warnings to the unbelievers. Allah has not begotten a son, and if he had, each god would have fought with the others on behalf of what he himself had created (v. 91). Ibn Kathir explains: “If it were decreed that there should be a plurality of deities, each of them would have exclusive control over whatever he had created, so there would never be any order in the universe. But what we see is that the universe is ordered and cohesive, with the upper and lower realms connected to one another in the most perfect fashion.” Interestingly enough, the idea of cooperation among the members of a group doesn’t seem to come up.
Allah tells Muhammad to seek refuge with him against the unbelievers (vv. 93-100). On Judgment Day the scoffers will have no one to help them (v. 101). Those whose good deeds outweigh their evil deeds will be saved (v. 102), but those whose evil deeds are heavier will go to hell (v. 103), where they will grin horribly after their lips are burnt off (v. 104), as the Tafsir al-Jalalayn says: “The Fire will scorch their faces, it will burn them, while they glower therein, their upper and lower lips having receded from their teeth.” Allah will then ask them “Were not My Signs [ayat, verses of the Qur’an] rehearsed to you, and ye did but treat them as falsehood?” (v. 105), and the damned will make excuses (v. 106) and plead for another chance (v. 107), which Allah will not grant (v. 108), because they used to ridicule his servants (vv. 108-109). Life is short (v. 113), and Allah will ask the unbelievers, “”Did ye then think that We had created you in jest, and that ye would not be brought back to Us (for account)?” (v. 115).
Next week: Sura 24, “The Light”: “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty…”
(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.)