"Above it are nineteen"
In The Caliph’s House, Tahir Shah’s marvelous account of his adventures moving his family to Morocco and buying and refurbishing a home in Casablanca, Shah is repeatedly amazed by the belief of the locals (including Westernized Moroccans whom he believes to be sophisticated) in the existence of jinn, the mischievous spirit beings who interfere in human affairs. And their invariable reply to his astonished inquiries is “It’s in the Qur’an.”
One of the most prominent treatments of the jinn in the Qur’an is in the Meccan sura 72. In verses 1-15 they recount their hearing of a wonderful “recitation,” or “Qur’an,” which leads them to profess belief in Allah who “has taken neither a wife nor a son” (v. 3). Then verses 16-28 contain warnings for the unbelievers: if only they had accepted Islam, Allah would have sent them rain – indicating once again that obedience to Allah brings earthly prosperity. The “places of worship are for Allah alone” (v. 18) – as Qatadah explains: “Whenever the Jews and Christians used to enter their churches and synagogues, they would associate partners with Allah. Thus, Allah commanded His Prophet to tell them that they should single Him out alone for worship.” The sura ends with warnings that while Muhammad may seem weak, Allah’s promises are sure, and the unbelievers will taste hell (vv. 23-24).
The Meccan sura 73 begins with Allah addressing Muhammad as “you who are wrapped in garments” (v. 1), as Muhammad was holding vigil in prayer during the night. Allah gives him instructions about how long he should pray (vv. 3-4, 20) and a promise of further revelations (v. 5). Allah commands Muhammad to give him his full devotion (v. 8), and to be patient with the unbelievers (v. 10) who will suffer the tortures of hell (vv. 13-14). Muhammad is a messenger as was Moses to Pharaoh, and those who refuse to accept his message will be punished as was Pharaoh (vv. 15-16). The believers should read as much of the Qur’an as is easy for them, as Allah knows they’re busy with jihad, or some may be ill or traveling (v. 20).
Sura 74, also Meccan, begins in a similar fashion: Allah addresses Muhammad as “you wrapped up in your cloak” (v. 1) and commands him to deliver his warning (v. 2). Muhammad should keep himself pure (vv. 4-5) and not expect any material gain from preaching Allah’s word (v. 6). Then Allah describes the ruin and damnation of an unbeliever who scoffed at Muhammad’s message, culminating in his torture in hellfire (vv. 8-29).
After that comes a cryptic and famous verse: “Above it are nineteen” (v. 30). Above what? Nineteen what? The text offers no clear answer, and that is where the fun begins. Here is a discussion that airs out many theories regarding this verse, including the theory of the Qur’anic scholar Günther Lüling, who suggests a slight emendation of the text to make it a simple reference to the gates of hell – which works in context. But the existing cryptic verse has become the foundation for numerous elaborate flights of Islamic numerology, attempting to show that this verse contains a hidden number-based key that demonstrates the Qur’an’s miraculous character. The verse has also led to the development of a mysticism surrounding the number nineteen -- such that some have opined, despite the many nominees for the role of “twentieth hijacker,” that there is no such person, and the number of nineteen hijackers was chosen for the September 11, 2001 jihad missions because of the mystical significance of the number.
The following verse looks as if it dropped in from somewhere else, as it is lengthy and discursive in the middle of what is otherwise a sura full of clipped, poetic verses. It reinforces the mysticism surrounding the number nineteen saying of the angels who act as “Guardians of the Fire” that Allah has “fixed their number only as a trial for unbelievers, in order that the People of the Book may arrive at certainty, and the believers may increase in Faith” (v. 31). If this is meant to say that the number of angels guarding hell is nineteen, how would that fact help the Jews, Christians, and other People of the Book become certain that Muhammad was a prophet, and strengthen the Muslims’ faith? That question is left unanswered in the text, but in Islamic history it is where the numerological mysticism begins. And the object of it is always to demonstrate the truth of the Qur’an, so as to show the People of the Book that, as Ibn Kathir puts it, Muhammad “speaks according to the same thing that they have with them of heavenly revealed Scriptures that came to the Prophets before him.” But ultimately Allah is absolutely sovereign regarding who will accept Muhammad’s message and who doesn’t, for the verse repeats again the often-repeated Qur’anic adage, “Allah leaves to stray those whom He pleases, and guides those whom He pleases.”
Then the sura concludes (vv. 32-56) with more warnings of hellfire, with the unbelievers lamenting that they landed there because they didn’t pray (v. 43) or feed the poor (v. 44). Instead, they used to talk vanities (v. 45) and deny the Day of Judgment (v. 46), on which no one will be there to intercede for them (v. 48).
The Meccan sura 75 is a poetic meditation on the resurrection and divine judgment, and on those who doubt that they will come. Allah can reassemble the bones of the dead (vv. 3-4, 40), and when the Day comes, man will find no refuge from judgment (vv. 10-11, 34-36). Instead, he will be evidence against himself even as he makes excuses (vv. 14-15). Those who gave nothing in charity, did not pray, and rejected the truth will be damned (vv. 30-32).
Allah also tells Muhammad not to try to memorize the Qur’an hastily as it is being revealed to him (vv. 16-19). As the Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains: “God, exalted be He, says to His Prophet: Do not move your tongue with it, with the Qur’ān, before Gabriel is through with [reciting] it, to hasten it, fearing to lose it.” Allah will make sure he remembers it, as Ibn Kathir says: “Allah would make sure to collect it in his chest, and He would make it easy for him to recite it in the same way that it was revealed to him.” This passage doesn’t discuss the possibility that Allah might cause some parts of the Qur’an to be forgotten, as mentioned in 2:106.
Sura 76, Meccan as well, dwells on the rewards of the righteous. Because they helped the needy (vv. 8-10) they will be delivered from evil on the Day of Judgment (v. 11) into a decidedly physical Paradise: Allah will reward them with a place in the Garden, where they will wear silk garments (vv. 12, 21) and sit on thrones, protected from the heat and the cold (v. 13). They will enjoy low-hanging fruit (v. 14) and drink from silver vessels and crystal goblets (v. 15) a wine mixed with ginger (v. 17) while immortal boys like pearls serve them (v. 19).
Allah has revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad in stages (v. 23); Muhammad should therefore be patient and not listen to the unbelievers (v. 24), remaining constant in prayer (vv. 25-26). Those who love this fleeting life should be warned: they will suffer a grievous penalty (vv. 27-31).
(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.)