This sura dates, like suras 6, 7, 10, 11, and 12, from late in the Meccan period, the first period of Muhammad’s career as a prophet. Its name comes a phrase in v. 13, “And the thunder exalts with praise of Him.” Its main theme is summed up by v. 1, in which Allah tells Muhammad, “These are the verses” — ayat, signs — “of the Book; and what has been revealed to you from your Lord is the truth, but most of the people do not believe.”
Ibn Kathir sees the four Arabic letters that begin this chapter, and similar unexplained letters beginning many suras of the Qur’an, as confirmation of its miraculous character: “Every Surah that starts with separate letters affirms that the Qur’an is miraculous and is an evidence that it is a revelation from Allah, and that there is no doubt or denying in this fact.” Despite the mystery of these letters, however, he goes on to assert that the Qur’an is “clear, plain and unequivocal,” and that “most men will still not believe, due to their rebellion, stubbornness and hypocrisy.” The Tafsir al-Jalalayn and the Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas say that the “most people” who will not believe according to v. 1 are the people of Mecca.
In what should they believe? In verses 2-19 Allah emphasizes his power in all things. Allah “erected the heavens without pillars that you see; then He established Himself above the Throne and made subject the sun and the moon, each running for a specified term. He arranges matter; He details the signs that you may, of the meeting with your Lord, be certain.” (v. 2) The idea that the heavens rest on unseen pillars, presumably fixed on earth, manifests a prescientific understanding that belies contemporary Islamic apologists’ claims that the Qur’an shows awareness of modern cosmology and other aspects of modern scientific understanding that weren’t discovered until centuries after it was written. Ibn Kathir expands even more upon this when he writes in explanation of this verse: “The distance between the first heaven and the earth is five hundred years from every direction, and its thickness is also five hundred years. The second heaven surrounds the first heaven from every direction, encompassing everything that the latter carries, with a thickness also of five hundred years and a distance between them of five hundred years.”
This is not to say that Islam envisions a physical Allah — the Allah whom “no vision can grasp” (6:103) and who is “nearer than the jugular vein” (50:16) is not physical, but this is the subject of some Sunni-Shi’ite polemics. Some argue that even though Allah is nearer than the jugular vein, he is not everywhere. Some modern Muslims argue that to affirm otherwise would be to fall into pantheism and shirk: the association of partners with Allah, the cardinal sin in Islam. They argue this from the fact that Allah has “mounted the Throne” (v. 2; also 7:54). The Imam Abul Hasan al-Ashari (874-936) argued against the claim of the rationalist-minded Mu’tazilite sect that this verse meant that Allah was everywhere. “If it were as they asserted,” he asked, “then what difference would there be between the Throne and the earth?” And the tenth century scholar of hadith Ibn Khuzaymah declared: “Whoever does not affirm that Allah is above His heavens, upon His Throne and that He is distinct from His creation; must be forced to repent. If he does not repent, then he must be beheaded and then thrown into a garbage dump, so that the Muslims and the Ahl-Dhimma (the Christians and the Jew) will not suffer from his stinking smell.”
In all of creation are “signs for a people who give thought” (v. 3). Allah expatiates upon his power in creation: the sun and moon are subject to him (v. 2, a verse to ponder for those who equate Allah with the moon god); he sees all things (vv. 8-9); Zeus-like, he “sends thunderbolts and strikes therewith whom He wills while they dispute about Allah” (v. 13). But the unbelievers, perverse as ever, ask Muhammad “bring about evil before good” (v. 6) — that is, they ask him in derision to bring divine chastisements upon them, according to the Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas, and demand miracles (v. 7). Each believer, meanwhile is guarded by angels (v. 11). Ibn Kathir says that there are four: two guards, one in back and one in front, and two who record the Muslim’s good and bad deeds. The believer greets the recording angels during prayer, turning to his right and left shoulder and saying each time, “Peace be upon you.”
The same verse suggests that people really do have free will: “Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (v. 11). The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains: “He does not deprive them of His grace — unless they have altered the state of their souls, from [their] comely nature, through an act of disobedience.” Yet it is hard to see how this fits in with the idea that “had Allah willed, He would have guided the people, all of them” (v. 31); “whomever Allah leaves astray – there will be for him no guide” (v. 33); and other passages that state that one’s belief or unbelief is up to Allah (10:99-100). In Islamic history the idea of free will was early on declared heretical. The twelfth-century Hanbali jurist Ibn Abi Ya’la describes the Qadari sect, which affirmed free will, as the worst of heretics for making such a claim: “They are those who claim that they possess in full the capacity to act (al-istitâ`a), free will (al-mashî’a), and effective power (al-qudra). They consider that they hold in their grasp the ability to do good and evil, avoid harm and obtain benefit, obey and disobey, and be guided or misguided. They claim that human beings retain full initiative, without any prior status within the will of Allah for their acts, nor even in His knowledge of them. Their doctrine is similar to that of Zoroastrians and Christians. It is the very root of heresy.”
Allah then does what he does so often: repeats familiar themes. The righteous will enter Paradise (vv. 20-24, 35); those who break Allah’s covenant are accursed (v. 25); the unbelievers demand a sign (v. 27) and will be punished in this world and the next (v. 34); the unbelievers ascribe partners to Allah (v. 33) and reject part of the Qur’an (v. 36), while the believers do the opposite. He dismisses the unbelievers’ demand for a miracle: “And if there was any qur’an by which the mountains would be removed or the earth would be broken apart or the dead would be made to speak, but to Allah belongs the affair entirely” — that is, the Qur’an is better than a miracle. The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains that it was “revealed when they said to him, “If you are [truly] a prophet, then make these mountains of Mecca drift away before us, and make for us rivers and springs in it, that we may plant and sow seeds, and resurrect for us our dead fathers to speak to us and tell us that you are a prophet.” But even if those things happened, they still wouldn’t believe.
The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that the phrase “Allah eliminates what He wills or confirms, and with Him is the Mother of the Book.” (v. 39) refers to the Qur’an: “God effaces, of it [the Book], whatever He will and He fixes therein whatever He will of rulings or other matters, and with Him is the Mother of the Book, its [source of] origin, of which nothing is ever changed, and which consists of what He inscribed in pre-eternity (azal).” This remains the orthodox view of the Qur’an: that it is a perfect, unchanging copy of the Mother of the Book that has existed forever with Allah.
(Revised July 2015)