According to Muhammad’s first biographer, Ibn Ishaq, sura 41 was revealed to Muhammad after Utba bin Rabi’a, a chieftan of the pagan Quraysh, offered Muhammad a series of proposals to “which if he accepts in part, we will give him whatever he wants, and he will leave us in peace.”
Utba approached Muhammad and reminded that he was of the Quraysh tribe (although they had rejected his prophetic claim). “If what you want is money, we will gather for you of our property so that you may be the richest of us; if you want honor, we will make you our chief so that no one can decide anything apart from you; if you want sovereignty, we will make you king, and if this ghost which comes to you, which you see, is such that you cannot get rid of him, we will find a physician for you, and exhaust our means in getting you cured, for often a familiar spirit gets possession of a man until he can be cured of it.”
Muhammad replied by reciting verses 1-37 of this sura. Then, Ibn Ishaq recounts, “when Utba returned to his companions they noticed that his expression had completely altered, and they asked him what had happened. He said that he had heard words such as he had never heard before, which were neither poetry, spells, nor witchcraft. ‘Take my advice and do as I do, leave this man entirely alone for, by God, the words which I have heard will be blazed abroad. If (other) Arabs kill him, others will have rid you of him; if he gets the better of the Arabs, his sovereignty will be your sovereignty, his power your power, and you will be prosperous through him.'”
The other Quraysh chiefs were scornful, saying “He has bewitched you with his tongue.” But Utba stood his ground, saying only: “You have my opinion, you must do what you think fit.”
What so impressed Utba was another repetition of many frequently-repeated themes of the Qur’an. The Qur’an is clear and in Arabic (v. 3) — which has given rise to the idea that the Qur’an cannot be translated, but is essentially in Arabic, and only its meaning can be rendered in other languages. It gives good news and warning, which most do not heed (vv. 4-5). Allah tells Muhammad to tell the unbelievers that he is just an ordinary man and that Allah is one, and they should not associate other gods with him (v. 6). One sign of his presence and power is that Allah created the universe in eight days (vv. 9-12) — contradicting 7:54, 10:3, 11:7, and 25:59, in which he created it in six days.
Allah destroyed the people of Ad (vv. 15-16) and the disbelievers from among the Thamud (vv. 17-18). Then Allah describes some of the torments of the unbelievers in hell, where even their skins will reproach the unbelievers for their rejection of Islam (vv. 19-25). The unbelievers try to drown out the recitation of the Qur’an (v. 26), but they’ll get their punishment in hell (vv. 27-28). The unbelievers in hell will ask Allah to show them who misled them, so they can torment them further (v. 29). The angels, meanwhile, protect the believers (vv. 30-32). Goodness and evil cannot be equal (v. 34); the unbelievers should not prostrate themselves before the sun and moon, but before Allah (v. 37).
Allah then concludes the sura by excoriating the unbelievers for rejecting Islam (vv. 38-54). They are arrogant (v. 38), and are known to Allah (vv. 40-41). The Qur’an is a book of exalted power, containing no falsehood (vv. 41-42) and containing the same message as previous revelations (v. 43) — which, as we have seen, leads to the mainstream Muslim idea that the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, because they do not contain the same message as the Qur’an, have been corrupted. If the Qur’an had been revealed in a language other than Arabic, the unbelievers would have complained about that (v. 44). Allah gave Moses “the Book” (the Torah), but disputes arose about it; “had it not been for a Word that went forth before from thy Lord, their differences would have been settled between them” (v. 45). Ibn Kathir says that this means that if Allah had not decreed to “delay the Reckoning until the Day of Resurrection,” then “the punishment would have been hastened for them. But they have an appointed time, beyond which they will find no escape.”
On that day the idols the unbelievers invoke will leave them in the lurch (v. 48). When Allah makes a man prosper, he forgets that he will one day die and be judged (v. 50).
Then in sura 42, Allah repeats that Muhammad is inspired, as were the earlier prophets (v. 3). The Qur’an is sent in Arabic to warn the Mother of Towns (that is, Mecca, so called “because it is nobler than all other lands,” says Ibn Kathir) of the judgment day, of which there is no doubt (v. 7). If Allah had willed, he could have made mankind a single people, but to some he chooses to extend mercy, while wrongdoers will have no one to help them (v. 8). Ibn Kathir sees this as more evidence of absolute determinism: Allah could have made human beings “either all following guidance or all following misguidance, but He made them all different, and He guides whomsoever He wills to the truth and He sends astray whomsoever He wills.” V. 44 affirms this again.
None of the Qur’anic passages that insist that Allah guides whom he wills and leads others astray, preventing them from coming to the truth, explain how he can be just in then punishing those who reject the truth with eternal hellfire.
Allah will judge all disputes (v. 10) — the Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains: “And whatever you may differ, with disbelievers, in, of religion or otherwise, the verdict therein belongs, it will return, to God, on the Day of Resurrection.” Muhammad’s religion is the same as that of Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus (v. 13), but their followers “became divided only after Knowledge reached them, through selfish envy as between themselves” (v. 14) — buttressing the Islamic idea that the prophets of Judaism and Jesus must have taught Islam, and their message was corrupted by their followers. Muhammad is to call the people to Islam and to “judge justly” between them (v. 15). But those who argue about Allah after acknowledging him will be punished (v. 16) — an attitude which can, of course, be a hindrance to asking questions about the faith. Allah continues in this vein in verses 17-29, promising Paradise to believers and hell to unbelievers.
Then Allah declares that “whatever misfortune happens to you, is because of the things your hands have wrought” (v. 30) — that is, says Ibn Kathir, “because of sins that you have committed in the past.” This leads to the notion that the path to good fortune in this world is more fervent adherence to Allah’s laws — as we see playing out these days in Pakistan and all over the Islamic world.
Allah then expounds upon his power and the certainty of his judgment (vv. 31-39). Then in v. 40 he says that an equal injury should be inflicted in retaliation for an injury — but Allah will reward those who forgive. However, taking revenge is not sinful (v. 41). Then Allah concludes the sura by reaffirming that the unbelievers will be punished (v. 45) and will have no protector on the Day of Judgment (v. 46) and that Muhammad is inspired (vv. 51-52).
(Revised June 2016)