According to Muhammad’s favorite wife, Aisha, “The Messenger of Allah used to fast until we would say, ‘He does not want to break fast,’ and he would not fast until we would say, ‘He does not want to fast.’ And he used to recite Bani Isra’il [Al-Isra’] and Az-Zumar every night” – that is, suras 17 and 39.
Sura 39 once again emphasizes the evil of worshipping others alongside Allah, and castigates the unbelievers for doing so. It takes its title from verses 71 and 73 — the “throngs” in question are the unbelievers crowding into hell and the believers crowding into Paradise. The recurring theme of this sura is that those whom the unbelievers worship are worthless – they can’t help those who pray to them, and in the end those who relied on them will regret it. This is a Meccan sura that was revealed fairly early in Muhammad’s career. According to the Ruhul Ma’ani, it was revealed around the time that a group of Muslims left Arabia and sought refuge in Abyssinia, to escape persecution from the pagan Quraysh tribe.
Verses 1-29 repeat many familiar themes. Allah repeats that he revealed the Qur’an (vv. 1-2). Then he dismisses the core assumption involved in the intercession of the saints – that they bring one closer to God (v. 3) — with greater precision and accuracy than he demonstrated in his dismissal of the idea of the Trinity (5:116). If Allah wanted a son, he could have chosen one from those he created, but he is above that (v. 4). The workings of the natural world show his presence and power (vv. 5-6, 21). Allah does not need human beings, but he dislikes ingratitude (v. 7). When men are in trouble they pray, but in good times they forget him and worship others along with him – such people are headed for hell (v. 8).
The believer and the unbeliever are not equal (vv. 9, 22, 24). This oft-repeated notion has many implications; the emphasis in this sura is on the fact that they will not receive equal treatment on the Day of Judgment. At the same time, however, the absolute way in which the statement is made underscores the idea that the Muslims are the “best of people” (3:110) and the unbelievers are the “vilest of created beings” (98:6). There is no compatibility of this with the idea of the equality of dignity of all people as created by the same God. Instead, there is a sharp dichotomy between believer and unbeliever that runs through all of Islam – including its laws for the governance of states. In light of this, it should come as no surprise to anyone that there is not a single Muslim-majority state in the world today, even though Islamic law is not fully enforced in almost all of them, where non-Muslims enjoy absolute legal equality with Muslims. Even in secular Turkey there are restrictions on conversion from Islam to another religion, and immense amounts of red tape involved in trying to get official permission to build a church. This is no accident: it is a cultural hangover of the deeply ingrained traditional idea that non-Muslims in a state that Muslims control should “feel themselves subdued” (9:29), in accordance with the dictum that they are not equal to the believers, and should be made in every possible way to remember their perversity in rejecting Islam.
Allah tells Muhammad a series of things he should say to the unbelievers, emphasizing that he is simply Allah’s messenger and would face his wrath as they will if he disobeyed him (v. 13). Allah tells Muhammad to say, “And I am commanded to be the first of those who are Muslims” (v. 12) – which would seem to contradict the Qur’an’s (chronologically) later claim that Abraham was a Muslim (3:67), as were the other prophets. However, Islamic exegetes smooth over the contradiction by saying that this refers to Muhammad’s community specifically, not to the earlier communities of believers. “The Ummah [community] of the Holy Prophet,” explains Maulana Bulandshahri, “is the last Ummah to appear on earth. The first believer of this Ummah was none other than the Holy Prophet himself.”
Then Allah contrasts the fates of the believers (Paradise) and the unbelievers (Hell) (vv. 16-20). He says that the Qur’an is “the most beautiful Message in the form of a Book, consistent with itself, (yet) repeating (its teaching in various aspects)” (v. 23). Mujahid explained: “This means that the entire Qur’an’s parts resemble each other and are oft-repeated” – and of course, truer words were never spoken. The Qur’an contains numerous parables, by way of warning (v. 27). It is in Arabic, with no crookedness (v. 28) – that is, says the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, no “contradiction or variance.”
Verses 30-52 again warns about the Day of Judgment. The unbelievers threaten Muhammad with punishment by their false idols – and here again Allah repeats that “he whom Allah sendeth astray, for him there is no guide” (v. 36). The unbelievers are perverse and self-contradictory, acknowledging that Allah created all things but still calling on their false gods (v. 38). There is an odd statement in v. 42: “those on whom He has passed the decree of death, He keeps back (from returning to life), but the rest He sends (to their bodies) for a term appointed verily in this are Signs for those who reflect.” Qur’an translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali explains this by asserting that sleep is a little death: “Sleep being twin-brother to Death, our souls are for the time being released from the bondage of the flesh. Allah takes them for the time being. If, as some do, we are to die peacefully in sleep, our soul does not come back to the physical body, and the later decays and dies. If we still have some period of life to fulfill according to Allah’s decree, our soul comes back to the body, and we resume our function in this life.”
The idea that anyone can intercede for anyone else before Allah is again rejected (vv. 43-44) and the perversity of the unbelievers again emphasized: when they hear of Allah, their hearts are “filled with disgust and horror,” but they hear about their idols with joy (v. 45). On the Day of Judgment the evil deeds of the unbelievers will overtake them (v. 51).
In verses 53-60 Allah again tells Muhammad a series of warnings to say to the unbelievers, telling them to turn to Allah before it’s too late. Then verses 61-75 conclude the sura with more warnings of the Day of Judgment, when “the unbelievers will enter Hell in throngs,” and will again be reminded of the messengers they did not heed (v. 71), while the believers enter Paradise in throngs (v. 73) — the final outcome of their inequality.
Next week: Sura 40, “The Believer”: the first of seven suras known as “The Family of Ha Mim.” Said Ibn Mas’ud: “When I reach the family of Ha Mim, it is like reaching a beautiful garden, so I take my time.”
(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.)