Chapters 1 through 9 of the Qur’an contain the book’s primary doctrinal content. The suras immediately following sura 9 begin to focus more on telling stories of prophets, with an eye toward shoring up Muhammad’s prophetic claim — and the same furious denunciations of unbelievers that fill so much of suras 1-9 continue.
Surah 10, “Jonah,” dates from late in the Meccan period, the first part of Muhammad’s prophetic career. Its name comes from v. 98, where the prophet Jonah is mentioned in passing. After another set of three mysterious letters, the chapter begins by declaring, “These are the verses of the wise Book” (v. 1). “This indicates,” says Ibn Kathir, “that these are verses of the Qur’an, in which the wisdom of judgment is clear.”
Allah sums up that “wisdom of judgment” via a series of assertions: he made all things (vv. 5-6); the idols that the unbelievers worship are worthless (v. 18); some people are ungrateful to Allah (v. 12); Allah destroyed earlier generations of unbelievers (v. 13); the unbelievers will burn in hell (vv. 8, 27); and the believers will enjoy the gardens of Paradise (vv. 9, 26).
The skins of the blessed will be white, and that of the damned black (vv. 26-27). Ibn Kathir quotes a hadith to this effect: “When the people of Paradise enter Paradise,” we’re told, “a caller will say: ‘O people of Paradise, Allah has promised you something that He wishes to fulfill.'” Then the blessed will answer: “What is it? Has He not made our Scale heavy?” — that is, has he not judged that our good deeds outweigh our bad ones? “Has He not made our faces white and delivered us from Fire?” For “no blackness or darkness will be on their faces during the different events of the Day of Judgment. But the faces of the rebellious disbelievers will be stained with dust and darkness.” Though some have tried to make this into a racial statement, there is nothing in the mainstream Muslim Qur’an commentaries to support this; it is clearly a moral judgment, not a racial one.
Allah then expatiates upon the excellence of the Qur’an, and how Muhammad should respond to those who challenge it (vv. 37-41). He tells Muhammad that the Qur’an could only have been produced by Allah, and that it is a “confirmation of what was before it and a detailed explanation of the Scripture” — that is, the Torah and the Gospel that came before it, “about which there is no doubt, from the Lord of the worlds” (v. 37). Allah issues the famous challenge to the unbelievers, to imitate the Qur’an if they think it is not a divine book: “Or do they say, ‘He invented it?’ Say, ‘Then bring forth a surah like it and call upon whomever you can besides Allah , if you should be truthful'” (v. 38). Ibn Kathir expatiates on this:
The Qur’an has a miraculous nature that cannot be imitated. No one can produce anything similar to the Qur’an, nor ten Surahs or even one Surah like it. The eloquence, clarity, precision and grace of the Qur’an cannot be but from Allah. The great and abundant principles and meanings within the Qur’an — which are of great benefit in this world and for the Hereafter — cannot be but from Allah. There is nothing like His High Self and Attributes or like His sayings and actions. Therefore His Words are not like the words of His creatures.
It confirms earlier books, he explains, “and is a witness to them. It shows the changes, perversions and corruption that have taken place within these Books” — reflecting the mainstream Islamic belief that the Jewish and Christian Scriptures of today are merely corrupted versions of the original messages of the Muslim prophets Moses and Jesus. The Qur’an corrects these corruptions.
Why issue a challenge like “bring forth a surah like it”? Because the eloquence of its Arabic is considered to be a sign of the Qur’an’s divine provenance. Ibn Kathir explains: “eloquence was a part of the nature and character of the Arabs. Arabic poetry including Al-Mu’allaqat — the oldest complete collection of the most eloquent ancient Arabic poems — was considered to be the best in the literary arts. However Allah sent down to them something whose style none were familiar with, and no one is equal in stature to imitate. So those who believed among them, believed because of what they knew and felt in the Book, including its beauty, elegance, benefit, and fluency. They became the most knowledgeable of the Qur’an and its best in adhering to it.” This is one of the principal reasons why traditional Islamic theology says that the Qur’an cannot be translated: losing the music of the Arabic language, it loses part of its essence.
Here, in any case, are a number of attempts to take up the Qur’anic challenge.
Allah then goes on to repeat many of the same themes, continuing to criticize people for failing to heed his messengers, which have been sent to every nation (v. 47). Allah’s eternal punishments should move the sinners to repent (vv. 50-54), for he gives life and takes it, and to him all shall return (v. 56). All creatures belong to Allah, and the idolaters invent lies against Allah (v. 66).
The unbelievers even dare to claim that Allah has a son, when actually he is self-sufficient (v. 68). The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains: “They, that is, the Jews and the Christians, and those who claim that the angels are the daughters of God, say, ‘God has taken [to Him] a son.'” But in fact, “He is Independent, [without need] of anyone, for only he who has need of a child would desire [to have] one. To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth, as possessions, creatures and servants.”
Then in verses 71-93, Allah tells the stories of Noah (vv. 71-74) and Moses (vv. 75-93), without significant variation from the versions in sura 7. Both Noah and Moses are cast in roles much like Muhammad’s: prophets whose messages go unheeded by their insolent and spiteful hearers, who are duly punished. Moses actually prays here that Allah not have mercy on Pharaoh: “Deface, our Lord, the features of their wealth, and send hardness to their hearts, so they will not believe until they see the grievous penalty” (v. 88). Allah accepts their prayer (v. 89), although when Pharaoh repents (v. 90), Allah saves him (v. 92). He “settled the Children of Israel in an agreeable settlement,” but began to “differ” among themselves (v. 93). According to a hadith, “the Jews separated into seventy-one sects, and the Christians separated into seventy-two sects, and this Ummah [the Muslim community] will separate into seventy-three sects, one of which is in Paradise, seventy-two in the Fire.”
The sura concludes with reassurance for Muhammad and affirmations of Allah’s sovereignty, in verses 94-109. Allah tells Muhammad to “ask those who have been reading the Scripture before you” if he doubts the revelations he has been receiving (v. 94). The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that this means that Muhammad should “question those who read the Scripture, the Torah, before you, for it is confirmed [therein] with them and they can inform you of its truth.” This assumes, of course, that uncorrupted versions of the Jewish (and Christian) Scriptures were available in Muhammad’s day — a contention that creates immense difficulties for the Islamic claim that they were corrupted at all, since copies exist from that era, and they are not different from the Jewish and Christian Scriptures as they exist today.
But ultimately, it is up to Allah who believes and who doesn’t (vv. 99-100). Why he would create human beings only to torture them in eternal fire is left unexplained.
(Revised June 2015)