"If this teaching be from Allah, and you reject it, and a witness from among the Children of Israel testifies to its similarity with earlier scripture..."
The Meccan sura 46 is the last of the “Ha Mim” series of suras (40-46), and hews closely to the themes of the others: the Qur’an is revealed by Allah (v. 2); Allah created the heavens and the earth for a just purpose, but the unbelievers reject faith (v. 3); those whom they pray to besides Allah are powerless (vv. 4-5); the unbelievers dismiss the Qur’an as “sorcery” (v. 7) or forgery.
Allah tells Muhammad to respond to this by noting that Allah would punish him if he were falsely attributing words to Allah that he did not say (v. 8). Muhammad brings no new message – an implicit affirmation of the Islamic proposition that Islam was the original religion of all the earlier prophets, e.g., Abraham, Moses, Jesus, etc., but their wicked followers corrupted their messages. To support this argument the Qur’an invokes “a witness from among the Children of Israel” who “testifies to its similarity” to the Jewish scriptures (v. 10).
Islamic tradition recorded by Muhammad’s first biographer, Ibn Ishaq, and the hadith collector Bukhari, identifies this as Abdullah bin Salam, a rabbi who was an early convert to Islam. As a rabbi, Abdullah was intrigued by Muhammad, and went to see him. Admitted to Muhammad’s presence, he asked him “about three things which nobody knows unless he be a Prophet. What is the first portent of the Hour? What is the first meal of the people of Paradise? And what makes a baby look like its father or mother?”
The Prophet coolly told him, “Just now Jibril (Gabriel) has informed me about that.”
Abdullah was surprised. “Gabriel?”
“Yes,” said Muhammad.
“He, among the angels is the enemy of the Jews,” noted Abdullah, whereupon Muhammad recited a verse of the Qur’an: “Say: Whoever is an enemy to Gabriel—for he brings down the (revelation) to thy heart by Allah’s will, a confirmation of what went before, and guidance and glad tidings for those who believe—Whoever is an enemy to Allah and His angels and messengers, to Gabriel and Michael, lo! Allah is an enemy to those who reject Faith” (2:97).
Then he proceeded to answer Abdullah’s three questions:
As for the first portent of the Hour, it will be a fire that will collect the people from the east to west. And as for the first meal of the people of Paradise, it will be the caudite (i.e. extra) lobe of the fish liver. And if a man's discharge preceded that of the woman, then the child resembles the father, and if the woman's discharge preceded that of the man, then the child resembles the mother.
Hearing these answers, Abdullah immediately converted to Islam and excoriated his own people, exclaiming: “I testify that La ilaha illallah (none has the right to be worshipped but Allah) and that you are the Messenger of Allah, O Allah’s Messenger; the Jews are liars, and if they should come to know that I have embraced Islam, they would accuse me of being a liar.”
Abdullah recounted that he “became a Muslim, and when I returned to my house I ordered my family to do the same.” He asked for Muhammad’s help in laying a trap for the Jews: “The Jews are a nation of liars and I wish you would take me into one of your houses and hide me from them, then ask them about me so that they may tell you the position I hold among them before they know that I have become a Muslim. For if they know it beforehand they will utter slanderous lies against me.” Muhammad agreed, summoned the Jewish leaders with Abdullah present but hidden, and asked them what they thought of Abdullah. They replied: “He is our chief, and the son of our chief; our rabbi, and our learned man.”
Muhammad asked them, “What would you think if ‘Abdullah bin Salam embraced Islam?”
The Jewish leaders answered, “May Allah protect him from this!”
The trap was sprung. Abdullah appeared and cried: “I testify that La ilaha illallah (none has the right to be worshipped but Allah) and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. O Jews, fear God and accept what He has sent you. For by God you know that he is the apostle of God. You will find him described in your Torah and even named. I testify that he is the apostle of God, I believe in him, I hold him to be true, and I acknowledge him.”
But the Jews now said: “Abdullah is the worst of us, and the son of the worst of us.”
Abdullah exclaimed, “O Allah's Messenger! This is what I was afraid of!” He later recounted: “I reminded the apostle that I had said that they would do this, for they were a treacherous, lying, and evil people.”
Such tales would only reinforce for Muslims throughout history the idea that the Jewish (as well as Christian) Scriptures really did bear witness to Muhammad in clear terms. Ibn Sa‘d recounts that Muhammad once went to a Jewish seminary, where he challenged the most learned rabbi: “Do you know that I am the Apostle of Allah?”
The rabbi answered, “By Allah! Yes, and the people know what I know. Verily your attributes and qualities are clearly mentioned in the Torah, but they are jealous of you.” It was only the sinful obstinacy of the Jews and Christians that prevented them from acknowledging this— indeed, that sin was so great that ultimately it led them to alter their Scriptures in order to remove all references to Muhammad. The idea of Jews and Christians as sinful renegades from the truth of Islam would become a cornerstone of Islamic thought regarding non-Muslims.
The Qur’an goes on to say that the unbelievers demean the believers, asserting that if Islam were true, people of such low quality as the believers would not have been the first to accept it (v. 11). Yet the Qur’an confirms in Arabic the Book of Moses (v. 12). Those who confess faith in Allah will not grieve, but will enjoy the Gardens of Paradise (vv. 13-14).
A good Muslim should honor his parents; some unbelieving children, however, rebuke their parents for their Islamic faith – they will be “utterly lost” (vv. 15-18). The unbelievers have pleasure in this world, but will be in hell in the next (v. 20). There they will acknowledge the truth of Islam, and pay the penalty for rejecting it (v. 34). The prophet Hud (see suras 7, 11, and 26) reappears to underscore this – he warns his people (v. 21) but they do not heed, and are destroyed (vv. 24-25). Allah then tells Muhammad that a crowd of jinns listened to him reciting the Qur’an (v. 29), and went back and warned their fellow jinns that those who do not accept the message are in error and will face the penalty (v. 32). Allah concludes the sura by telling Muhammad to be patient and persevere in preaching his message; the unbelievers will soon face the divine punishment.
Next week: Sura 47, “Muhammad”: “When you meet the unbelievers in battle, strike at their necks…”
(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.)