“The Messenger of Allah,” said `Abdullah bin `Umar, “used to command us to make our prayers short and he used to recite As-Saffat [“The Ranks,” i.e., this sura] when he led us in prayer.” This Meccan sura begins (verses 1-11) with a heavenly vision: the angels “ranged about in ranks” (v. 1), repelling evil (v. 2) and thus proclaiming Allah’s message (v. 3). That message, of course, is that Allah is one (v. 4) and is Lord of all (v. 5).
The angels are apparently ranged in ranks in order to keep the rebellious demons from listening in to the Exalted Assembly (vv. 7-8) – that is, says Ibn Kathir, “they cannot reach the higher group — which refers to the heavens and the angels in them — when they speak of what has been revealed by Allah of His Laws and decrees.” Some devils, however, do manage to hear and snatch away a bit of Allah’s revelation (v. 10); Ibn Abbas explains that “when they heard the revelation, they would come down to earth and to every word they would add nine of their own.” This may be the cosmic derivation of the Scriptural corruptions that the Jews (5:13) and the Christians (5:14) engaged in.
Verses 12-39 return to the very familiar themes of the scorn of the unbelievers for Muhammad’s message, which they dismiss again as “mere magic” (v. 15) while they dismiss the messenger himself as a “poet possessed” (v. 36). They again deny the resurrection of the dead (vv. 16-17). They will accuse each other of leading them all astray as they realize that Allah’s word was true (vv. 28-32). For Muhammad’s message is true and confirms the messages of the earlier prophets (v. 37) – a statement which, as we have seen, requires the idea that the earlier prophets who are listed in the Qur’an, including Biblical figures such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, etc., taught Islam — until their messages were corrupted by their venal followers.
Then verses 40-49 turn to the blessed in Paradise. They will drink from a “clear-flowing fountain” (v. 45), which will, says the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, be filled with “wine that flows along the ground like streams of water, white, whiter than milk, delicious to the drinkers, in contrast to the wine of this world which is distasteful to drink.” Ibn Kathir adds that “Zayd bin Aslam said, ‘White flowing wine,’ meaning, with a bright, shining color, unlike the wine of this earth with its ugly, repulsive colors of red, black, yellow and turbid shades, and other features which are repugnant to anyone of a sound nature.” This wine won’t even cause drunkenness (v. 47). They will also enjoy the company of chaste, beautiful women (v. 48), like “eggs closely guarded” (v. 49) – that is, according to the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “in terms of [the starkness of their white] colour, hidden eggs, of ostriches, sheltered by their feathers from dust, the colour being that whiteness with a hint of pallor, which is the most beautiful of female complexions.” These are the fabled virgins of Paradise, in search of whom Muslims have fought against unbelievers and sought death throughout history, knowing that Paradise is guaranteed to those who “kill and are killed” for Allah (9:111).
In verses 50-59 one of the blessed will turn to another in Paradise and start telling him about his friend who scoffed at Islam (vv. 51-53). Then a voice will direct him to look down and see his old friend suffering in hellfire, whereupon he will chastise him for almost getting him sent to hell also (vv. 54-59). Verses 60-73 dwell on the torments of the damned. At the heart of hell they will find the Zaqqum tree, with its fruit like devils’ heads (v. 65), and they will drink boiling water (v. 67). Allah sent messengers to the people who were ultimately damned (v. 72), but they did not heed (v. 73).
Verses 74-148 then hail Allah’s believing servants: Noah (vv. 75-82); Abraham (vv. 83-111); Isaac (vv. 112-113); Moses and Aaron (vv. 114-122); Elijah (vv. 123-132); Lot (vv. 133-138); Jonah (vv. 139-148).
Abraham sees in a dream that he must sacrifice his son (v. 102) but Allah stops him just before he is about to do it (vv. 104-105); it was all a test (v. 106). The son is not named in the Qur’anic text, but Isaac’s birth follows (v. 112), which strongly implies that he was Ishmael. Ibn Kathir explains the view of virtually all Islamic scholars: the sacrificial son was Ishmael, and the Jews and Christians corrupted the text of their Scriptures to make the claim that he was Isaac:
According to their Book, Allah commanded Ibrahim to sacrifice his only son, and in another text it says his firstborn son. But here they falsely inserted the name of Ishaq [Isaac]. This is not right because it goes against what their own Scripture says. They inserted the name of Ishaq because he is their ancestor, while Isma’il is the ancestor of the Arabs. They were jealous of them, so they added this idea and changed the meaning of the phrase ‘only son’ to mean ‘the only son who is with you,’ because Isma’il had been taken with his mother to Makkah [Mecca]. But this is a case of falsification and distortion, because the words ‘only son’ cannot be said except in the case of one who has no other son. Furthermore, the firstborn son has a special status that is not shared by subsequent children, so the command to sacrifice him is a more exquisite test.
As in the Bible, Jonah is swallowed by the big fish (v. 142). He is spat out onto a shore (v. 145), preaches to a hundred thousand people (v. 147), and they believe, whereupon Allah “permitted them to enjoy their life for a while” (v. 148). In the Bible, they “repent,” but here, they “believe” – which is the all-important act in the Qur’an, that of accepting the message.
The story of Jonah then segues neatly in verses 149-182 into a polemic against the pagan Arabs who worshipped “daughters of Allah.” Allah instructs his prophet to ask them if they really think that Allah has daughters while they themselves have sons (v. 149) – because everyone knows, of course, that sons are superior to daughters, and so this would be attributing an inferiority to Allah. Those who say Allah has begotten children are liars (v. 152). Those who claim otherwise should produce their proof from Scripture (v. 157). In reality those whom people worship besides Allah are powerless (vv. 161-163). But those ranged in ranks (whose return is a nice bit of poetic rounding) declare Allah’s glory (vv. 164-166). Allah’s forces will be victorious (v. 173) – as the Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains: “assuredly Our hosts, namely, the believers, they will indeed be the victors, over the disbelievers by [their being given] the definitive proofs and assistance against them in this world. And if some of these [believers] are not victorious over them in this world, then assuredly in the Hereafter [they will be so].”
Next week: Sura 38, “Sad”: “the unbelievers are steeped in self-glory and separatism.”
(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.)