Ibn Kathir reports that Muhammad would recite sura 54, as well as sura 50, “during major gatherings and occasions because they contain Allah’s promises and warnings, and information about the origin of creation, Resurrection, Tawhid [the oneness of Allah], the affirmation of prophethood, and so forth among the great objectives.” Sura 54 takes its name from its first verse, which refers to the splitting of the moon — a miracle that, according to a hadith, took place during Muhammad’s lifetime. As the Muslims looked agog at the moon split into two parts, Muhammad cried, “Witness, witness (this miracle).”
Some modern-day Muslims, however, claim that this verse constituted a prophecy that was fulfilled during Neil Armstrong’s moon landing in 1969, when the astronauts dug up a bit of the lunar soil and brought it back — although, despite their imaginative forays into numerology in connection with this claim, it is more than a stretch to consider that gathering of a small amount of soil as amounting to a splitting of the moon.
The rest of the sura centers around the refrain, “And We have indeed made the Qur’an easy to understand and remember: then is there any that will receive admonition?,” which appears in vv. 17, 22, 32, and 40. A secondary refrain is “how (terrible) was my Penalty and my Warning,” which appears in vv. 16, 18, 21, and 30. Around these are familiar themes: the unbelievers turn away from Allah’s signs and scorn them as magic (v. 2); Muhammad should turn away from them and leave them alone until the Day of Judgment, when they will be punished (vv. 6-8). Noah and his flood are a warning to the unbelievers of Muhammad’s day (vv. 9-16), as is the destruction of the people of Ad (vv. 18-22); the people of Thamud (vv. 23-31); Lot’s people (vv. 33-39); and Pharaoh and his people (vv. 41-42). Are the unbelievers who reject Muhammad better than they (v. 43)? They think they will be able to defend themselves if they band together (v. 44) but they will not escape the Day of Judgment (v. 46).
The Meccan sura 55 is organized around a poetic refrain that is repeated much more frequently than are those in sura 54: “Which of the Lord’s blessings will you deny?” (vv. 13, 16, 18, 21, 23, 25, 28, 30, 32, 34, 36, 38, 40, 42, 45, 53, 55, 59, 61, 65, 67, 69, 77) — somewhat resembling Psalm 136, with its recurring “For his mercy endures forever,” although even here the Qur’an is focused on magnifying, refuting, and even mocking the perversity of the unbelievers’ rejection of Islam. Says Maududi, “This is the only Surah of the Qur’an in which besides men the jinn also, who are the other creation of the earth endowed with freedom of will and action, have been directly addressed.” The jinn are addressed with humans in v. 31.
In the first part (vv. 1-30), Allah yet again emphasizes his creative power and his control of earthly phenomena; in the second part (vv. 31-78) he yet again warns of the Day of Judgment, and again describes hell and Paradise. Little is said that has not been said many other times in the Qur’an. The “two Easts and two Wests” of v. 17 refer, says Ibn Kathir, to “the sunrise of summer and winter and the sunset of summer and winter” — a decidedly geocentric point of view.
Sura 56, another Meccan sura, once again features Allah warning about the Day of Judgment (vv. 1-7) and describes the rewards of the Companions of the Right Hand — that is, those who enter Paradise (vv. 10-40; 88-91). These include, of course, the legendary virgins (v. 36), who are a “special creation” (v. 35). One way in which they are special, according to Islamic tradition, is that their virginity is endlessly renewed, so that the believers” experience of them is always just like the first. After this comes yet another description of the tortures of hell (vv. 41-56; 92-94), and a warning to mankind based on the signs of Allah’s power in the natural world (vv. 57-76). The sura concludes with Allah praising the Qur’an as a divine revelation that only those who are ritually pure should touch (vv. 77-80) — which is why American guards at Guantanamo, bowing to Islamic norms, would only touch the Qur’an while wearing gloves.
Allah taunts the unbelievers by asking them that if they believe the Qur’an to be false and consider themselves independent of him and his power, why don’t they intervene when a man is dying (v. 83) and call his soul back into his body (v. 87)?
The Medinan sura 57 was revealed after the Muslims conquered Mecca and faced few significant barriers to becoming the masters of all Arabia. It begins with a paean to Allah’s power and a question to the unbelievers: “What ails you that you do not believe in Allah?” (v. 8). The costs of the conquest may have left the Muslims short of funds, for Allah exhorts the Muslims to contribute to the Islamic cause, although he tells them that those who did so before the conquest of Mecca will be rewarded more abundantly than those who jumped on the bandwagon only when the Muslims had definitively defeated their enemies (vv. 10-11). Maududi explains: “Those who sacrifice their lives and expend their wealth to further promote the cause of Islam when it is already strong cannot attain to the rank of those who struggled with their lives and their wealth to promote and uphold the cause of Islam when it was weak.”
The righteous will be rewarded with the gardens of Paradise (vv. 12, 21), while the hypocrites will be punished (v. 13) with hell (v. 15). The Muslims should not be like the Jews and Christians, who received divine revelation but whose hearts grew hardened (v. 16). Instead, they should give generously (v. 18), for this world is just play and amusement, and earthly life is just deception (v. 20). Allah decrees and controls all earthly events (v. 22) — as the Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains: “No affliction befalls in the earth, by way of drought, or in yourselves, such as illness, or the loss of a child, but it is in a Book, meaning, the Preserved Tablet (al-lawh al-mahfūz), before We bring it about, before We create it.” Allah invokes earlier prophets, along with the gift of iron, to show his solicitude for mankind (v. 25). One of these earlier prophets was Jesus, but his followers invented monasticism, which Allah had not commanded. They should instead have sought his will alone; many of the Christians are “rebellious transgressors” (v. 27). The Jews and Christians have no power over Allah’s grace (v. 29) — as the Tafsir al-Jalalayn says, this is “contrary to their claims that they are God’s beloved and those who deserve His beatitude.” Ibn Kathir explains that this verse means that “they cannot prevent what Allah gives, or give what Allah prevents.”
(Revised June 2016)