Muhammad was especially proud of sura 17, which goes by the titles “The Night Journey” and “The Tribe of Israel.” Of suras 17, 18, and 19 he said: “They are among the earliest and most beautiful Surahs and they are my treasure.” And according to his favorite wife, Aisha, he “used to recite Bani Isra’il [sura 17] and Az-Zumar [sura 39] every night.”
After the cryptic allusion to the Night Journey in verse 1, the chapter continues (in verses 2-8) with a warning to the Jews. Allah previously warned them that twice they “would they do mischief on the earth and be elated with mighty arrogance” (v. 4). Ibn Kathir elaborates: “Allah tells us that He made a declaration to the Children of Israel in the Scripture, meaning that He had already told them in the Book which He revealed to them, that they would cause mischief on the earth twice, and would become tyrants and extremely arrogant, meaning they would become shameless oppressors of people.” The crime of “mischief on the earth,” fasaad fi al-ardh, is punishable according to Qur’an 5:33 by crucifixion, or the amputation of hands and feet on opposite sides.
Who were the servants of Allah “given to terrible warfare” who entered the homes of the Jews? Ibn Kathir doesn’t trust accounts from Jewish sources, apparently including Jewish Scriptures: “some of them are fabricated, concocted by their heretics, and others may be true, but we have no need of them, praise be to Allah. What Allah has told us in His Book (the Qur’an) is sufficient and we have no need of what is in the other books that came before. Neither Allah nor His Messenger required us to refer to them.” For the Jews’ disobedience to Allah “their humiliation and subjugation was a befitting punishment.”
Then Allah repeats warnings of the impending judgment (vv. 9-21). No one can bear another’s burdens (v. 15) — although 29:13 says that the unbelievers will “bear their own burdens, and burdens along with their own.” Allah always sends messengers to a disobedient people before he destroys it (v. 16), and warns Muslims that those who long for the transitory things of this life will be given them, but will be punished in hell (v. 18).
After that, Allah enunciates a moral code (vv. 22-39), the “wisdom wherewith thy Lord hath inspired thee” — that is, Muhammad (v. 39). Muslims should:
1. Worship Allah alone (v. 22);
2. Be kind to their parents (v. 23);
3. Provide for their relatives, the needy, and travelers, and not be wasteful (v. 26);
4. Not kill their children for fear of poverty (v. 31);
5. Not commit adultery (v. 32);
6. Not “take life — which Allah has made sacred — except for just cause,” and to make restitution for wrongful death (v. 33 — see the discussion here of 2:178);
7. Not seize the wealth of orphans (v. 34);
8. “Give full measure when you measure, and weigh with a balance that is straight” (v. 35);
9. “Pursue not that of which thou hast no knowledge” (v. 36);
10. Not “walk on the earth with insolence” (v. 37).
Allah thereupon once again excoriates the unbelievers for their perversity (vv. 40-71). The unbelievers “utter a most dreadful saying” in claiming that Allah has daughters, while they have sons (v. 40). The Qur’an reveals the truth, but only makes them resist it even more (v. 41). All creation reveals Allah’s glory (v. 44). Allah prevents the unbelievers from understanding the Qur’an (v. 46), and they accuse Muhammad of being “bewitched” (v. 47). They deny that Allah can restore the dead to life (vv. 49-52, cf. 98-99), yet their idols have no power (vv. 56, 67). All populations will be destroyed utterly or at least punished (v. 58), but Allah doesn’t send a miracle to confirm Muhammad’s message because others rejected miracles in the past (v. 59). The refusal of Satan to bow down to Adam is retold in vv. 61-65 — see the discussion of 7:11-25. The unbelievers should be mindful that Allah might bring a natural disaster upon them (vv. 68-69).
The unbelievers even tried to tempt Muhammad away from the truth (verses 72-77). There are varying accounts of what form this temptation took. The Ruhul Ma’ani says that the pagan Quraysh asked Muhammad to replace the verses announcing Allah’s punishment with verses about his mercy, and vice versa — which would make the verses of mercy much more plentiful. But Allah kept Muhammad from being thus beguiled.
Allah then once again reiterates many of the same themes, returning most often to the wonders of the Qur’an itself (vv. 78-100). The Qur’an is “a healing and a mercy to those who believe,” while “to the unjust it causes nothing but loss after loss” (v. 82). The “whole of mankind and Jinns,” working together, couldn’t produce anything like it (v. 88). Yet still men are ungrateful (v. 89) and demand a miracle, which they will not get (vv. 90-96). No one can guide one whom Allah leaves straying (v. 97).
More repetition follows, as Allah returns to the story of Moses with Pharaoh, recounting that Allah gave Moses “nine clear signs,” but Pharaoh remained obstinate and denied Moses’ claims in language reminiscent of the Quraysh’s dismissal of Muhammad in v. 47 (v. 101). Allah gives the children of Israel the land (v. 104) — that is, Jordan and Palestine, according to the Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas. There are several prominent “moderate” Muslims who have made much of this, telling Jewish groups that the Qur’an guarantees Jews the land of Israel without getting around to telling them also that the Qur’an also says Jews are accursed for rejecting Muhammad (2:89) and that the Muslims are the true children of Abraham (3:67-68) and thus the true inheritors of this promise.
Allah concludes the sura with more praise of the Qur’an, which has brought the truth, such that the pious receive it with grateful humility (vv. 105-109). Then comes Allah’s instruction to Muhammad to say, “Call upon Allah, or call upon Rahman [the Compassionate]: by whatever name you call upon Him, for to Him belong the Most Beautiful Names” (v. 110). Apparently, the Meccans thought that Al-Rahman, the middle term of the Islamic invocation Bismillah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim, “In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful,” was a deity distinct from Allah, and Muhammad is instructed to tell them that they are but two different names for the same being. According to Ibn Kathir, “one of the idolators heard the Prophet saying when he was prostrating: ‘O Most Gracious, O Most Merciful.’ The idolator said, he claims to pray to One, but he is praying to two! Then Allah revealed this Ayah [verse, or sign].” Several historians have noted that Al-Rahman was the name of a pagan god in pre-Islamic Arabia, and was also used frequently by Jews and Christians — suggesting that Muhammad was trying to bring together several conceptions of the divine in order to unite the peoples of Arabia under Islam. There is even a hint of this in the Qur’an, when the unbelievers exclaim: “Has he made the gods (all) into one Allah? Truly this is a wonderful thing!” (38:5).
(Revised June 2016)