Noah: Just a warner
The Meccan sura 67 contains brief repetitions of many familiar and oft-repeated themes of the Quran: Allah controls all things and designed his creation perfectly (vv. 1-5); the unbelievers will suffer the pains of hell and will at that point regret having rejected Allah’s messengers (vv. 6-11); the righteous shall be rewarded (v. 12); Allah knows what is in everyone’s heart (vv. 13-14); Allah sustains all things and death can come without notice, so it is better to be mindful of Allah and obey him than to ignore him (vv. 15-22). The sura concludes with Allah giving Muhammad six things to say to the unbelievers in response to their skepticism about whether and when the Day of Judgment will come (vv. 23-30).
Likewise sura 68, an early Meccan sura, traverses very familiar ground. Allah consoles Muhammad over the unbelievers’ rejection of his message, assures him that he is not mad or possessed (v. 2) but actually has an exalted character (v. 4). According to Aisha and others, this refers to the fact that Muhammad’s character conformed entirely to the Qur’an, such that he was the living embodiment of its ethos. Those who accuse Muhammad of madness are the ones who are mad (v. 6). Muhammad should not listen to them (vv. 8, 10). Muhammad’s unnamed accuser is a violent, cruel slanderer (vv. 11, 13) who rejects the signs (verses of the Qur’an) of Allah as “tales of the ancients” (v. 15) – but soon Allah will brand him on the nose (v. 16)! Islamic tradition identifies this unfortunate man as al-Walid ibn al-Mughira, an opponent of Muhammad from among the pagan Quraysh. Of him Ibn Abbas says: “We know of no one whom God has described in the derogatory way in which He describes him, blighting him with ignominy that will never leave him.” Was this curse fulfilled? The Tafsir al-Jalalayn informs us that “his nose was chopped off by a sword at Badr.”
Then follows a parable. Allah blessed the “people of the garden” but they were ungrateful and ignored the warning of a man who invited them to glorify Allah (v. 28); thus they lost their garden, and only then did they realize that they needed to repent and return to Allah (vv. 17-33). The message is that failure to heed Muhammad’s words will lead to ruin in both this life and the next (v. 33). Allah in then taunts the unbelievers with questions (vv. 34-41, 46-47)– do they have a sacred book that tells them everything they want to hear (vv. 36-38)? Can they produce the partners they worship along with Allah (v. 41)? The Day of Judgment will surely come (vv. 42-45), so Muhammad should wait in patience and not be like the complaining Jonah – the “companion of the fish” (v. 48), even when the unbelievers try to trip him up with their eyes (v. 51). They were, says the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “looking at you in a severe way, almost hurling you to the ground or making you fall from your place, when they hear the Reminder, the Qur’an, and they say, out of envy: ‘He is truly a madman!’, on account of the Qur’an that he has brought.”
Before embracing Islam, one day I came out of my house with a view to causing trouble to the Holy Prophet, but he had entered the Masjid al-Haram before me. When I arrived I found that he was reciting surah Al-Haaqqah [sura 69] in the Prayer. I stood behind him and listened. As he recited the Qur'an I wondered at its literary charm and beauty. Then suddenly an idea came to my mind that he must be a poet as the Quraish alleged. Just at that moment he recited the words: "This is the Word of an honorable Messenger: it is not the word of a poet." I said to myself: Then, he must be a soothsayer, if not a poet. Thereupon be recited the words: "Nor is it the word of a soothsayer: little it is that you reflect. It is a Revelation from the Lord and Sustainer of the worlds. On hearing this Islam entered deep into my heart.
The sura opens by asserting the divine judgment as a “sure reality” (vv. 1-3); then it lists some of the disobedient peoples punished on earth by Allah for their rejection of his messengers (v. 10): the Thamud and ‘Ad people (vv. 4-8); the people of Pharaoh (v. 9); and the people of Noah (vv. 11-12). Then follows a description of the Day of Judgment (vv. 13-18) and of the fate of the righteous (vv. 19-24) and of the damned (vv. 25-37). The sura concludes (vv. 38-52) by assuring us again that this a true revelation from Allah, not the word of a poet (v. 41) or a soothsayer (v. 42). Nor did the messenger invent it – for if he did, Allah would cut the artery of his heart (vv. 44-46).
The early Meccan sura 70 is similar. It begins with the assurance that no one can ward off the punishment that Allah (“Lord of the Ways of Ascent”) has in store for the unbelievers (vv. 1-4). So Muhammad should be patient, because the Day will certainly come (vv. 5-7). The dreadful Day is described again (vv. 8-18). Then the unbelievers are contrasted with the righteous: the unbelievers are anxious and stingy (vv. 19-21), while the believers are steadfast in prayer (v. 23), help the needy (v. 25), believe in the Day of Judgment (v. 26), guard their chastity except with their wives and slave girls (vv. 29-30), respect their treaties and covenants (v. 32), and are attentive in worship (v. 34). The unbelievers don’t even long to enter the Gardens of Delight (v. 38), but the Day will surely come upon them anyway (vv. 42-44).
The Meccan sura 71 contains Noah’s message to his people and then his prayer to Allah. Here again there are strong parallels to Muhammad’s message, with the oblique lesson being that those who reject Muhammad will suffer the same fate as those who rejected Noah. Like Muhammad, Noah is a “warner” (v. 2), but his hearers are obstinate and refuse to listen (v. 7). Like Muhammad, Noah tells the unbelievers that Allah will bless them in this world (vv. 11-12) but they still won’t listen. Like Muhammad, Noah invokes the signs of Allah’s power in creation (vv. 13-20). As they plot against Muhammad, so the unbelievers plotted against Noah (v. 22). So the unbelievers are drowned in the flood (v. 25), as Noah prays that none of them be left on the earth (v. 26), for they will only mislead the believers (v. 27). Noah prays that Allah bless the believers while increasing the destruction and punishment of the unbelievers (v. 28).
(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.)