Sura 32, “The Prostration,” dates from the middle of the Meccan period, and repeats many familiar preoccupations we have seen in other chapters of the Qur’an. Maududi says that “the main theme of the Surah is to remove the doubts of the people concerning Tauhid [the absolute oneness of Allah], the Hereafter and the Prophethood, and to invite them to all these three realities.”
The attentive reader of this Blogging the Qur’an series, particularly over the last few weeks, may have noticed that these themes — removing doubts of the people concerning the unity of Allah, the Day of Judgment, and Muhammad’s status as a prophet — are concerns of many, many other passages of the Qur’an outside of this chapter, and so sura 32 essentially stands as a kind of recapitulation and review of many things we have seen thus far. Repetition, of course, is a pedagogical tool, particularly in an oral culture.
And so we hear again in it that the Qur’an is true beyond doubt and Muhammad has not forged it (vv. 1-2); and that Allah created everything in six days and no one will protect or intercede for anyone else on the Day of Judgment (v. 4); and that Allah knows everything (v. 6); and that human beings were created from clay (v. 7); and that the unbelievers deny the resurrection of the dead (v. 10); and that Allah will taunt the unbelievers on the Day of Judgment and when he casts them into hell, telling them to “taste the penalty” of their evildoing (vv. 14, 20); and that those who believe pray and give alms (vv. 15-16) and will receive a reward (v. 17). (Incidentally, when Muslims hear v. 15’s reference to prostration, and other verses of the Qur’an that refer to prostration, they themselves are supposed to make a prostration; some editions of the Qur’an come with a sign in the margins by each prostration verse, so that the reader can be prepared for what is coming.)
In connection with all this, an early Muslim, Mu’adh bin Jabal, once asked Muhammad: “O Prophet of Allah, tell me of a deed that will grant me admittance to Paradise and keep me away from Hell.”
Muhammad replied: “You have asked about something great, and it is easy for the one for whom Allah makes it easy. Worship Allah and do not associate anything with Him, establish regular prayer, pay Zakah, fast Ramadan and perform pilgrimage to the House.” Then he asked Mu’adh: “Shall I not tell you of the greatest of all things and its pillars and pinnacle?” When Mu’adh replied in the affirmative, Muhammad said: “The greatest of all things is Islam, its pillars are the prayers and its pinnacle is Jihad for the sake of Allah.” And he told Mu’adh that all that depends on restraining one’s tongue.
The unbelievers are not equal to the believers (v. 18) – for indeed, the believers are the “best of people” (3:110) while the unbelievers are “the most vile of created beings” (98:6).
We see something new in the statement that everything Allah created is good (v. 7). This appears to contradict the idea that Allah created many jinns and men for hell (7:179 and v. 13 of this sura). However, the Imam Malik says that this only means that “he created everything well and in a goodly fashion,” not that everything he created is itself good. In v. 13 is also repeated the assertion that Allah would have guided all human beings to the truth if he had so desired – indicating here again that Allah does not, unlike the God of the Bible, will “that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:3).
The unbelievers will be punished in this life as well as the next (v. 21). This is an idea that has implications for the political aspect of Islam – since the dhimmis, that is, the People of the Book (primarily Jews and Christians) in the Islamic state are to offer “willing submission” to the Muslims and “feel themselves subdued” (9:29), it becomes the responsibility of the Islamic state to make sure that that happens, so that they taste the penalty for their unbelief not just in the next life but in this one also. Ibn `Abbas and many others have explained the idea of v. 21 in this way: “The near torment means diseases and problems in this world, and the things that happen to its people as a test from Allah to His servants so that they will repent to Him.” These tests are in part to be instituted by the Islamic state, imposing second-class status and institutionalized discrimination upon the dhimmis in order to move them to repentance and conversion. For there is no worse sinner than one who ignores Allah’s signs (v. 22) — which, as we have seen, include the verses of the Qur’an.
More familiar themes follow: Allah reminds Muhammad that he gave a book to Moses (v. 23), although we are not here given yet another recapitulation of the whole story of Moses or any significant portion of it. However, as it was in earlier retellings of incidents in Moses’ career (as we have seen on more than one occasion), Maududi says that the point here is about Muhammad again: “Then it is said: ‘This is not the first and novel event of its kind that a Book has been sent down upon a man from God. Before this the Book had been sent upon Moses also, which you all know. There is nothing strange in this at which you should marvel. Be assured that this Book has come down from God, and note it well that the same will happen now as has already happened in the time of Moses. Leadership now will be bestowed only on those who will accept this Divine Book. Those who reject it shall be doomed to failure.’”
Pickthall translates the next clause of v. 23 as “so be not ye in doubt of his receiving it,” but the Tafsir al-Jalalayn and others have it as “do not be in doubt concerning the encounter with him,” and consider it to refer to Muhammad’s Night Journey to Paradise, during which he met Moses and other prophets. Allah appointed leaders for the Children of Israel (v. 24), and on Judgment Day will judge between their squabbling factions (v. 25). Don’t they realize the lesson in the people Allah has previously destroyed (v. 26)? Don’t they see the signs in the things of nature (v. 27)? Yet they scoff, asking when the Day will be (v. 28). Allah tells Muhammad to tell them that it won’t do any good to become a believer on that Day (v. 29).
Next week: Sura 33, “The Confederates,” about Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis – no wait, it’s actually about several key battles in the early history of Muhammad’s Medina period, and even includes Allah’s orders to Muhammad to marry his former daughter-in-law. That incident, which is touched upon only obliquely in sura 33, is one of the most notorious incidents in Muhammad’s entire tumultuous prophetic career, and a hot topic of discussion ever since among both Islamic apologists and their opponents.
(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.)