At the beginning of the Medinan sura 58, Allah tells Muhammad that he has heard the pleas of the woman whose husband attempted to divorce by telling her, “You are to me as my mother’s back.” A woman thus divorced could not remarry, and indeed had to remain in her ex-husband’s household as, effectively, a domestic servant. Allah directs that such a divorce is not final, but can be reversed if the husband frees a slave (v. 3), fasts for two months, or feeds sixty poor people (v. 4).
According to Islamic tradition, the woman mentioned here was named Khawlah bint Tha’labah, and her husband Aws bin As-Samit, and Gabriel gave this Qur’anic passage to Muhammad after Khawlah complained to the Islamic prophet about her plight. Here again, then, the reader of the Qur’an faces two choices: either Muhammad was fabricating revelations that he said were from the supreme God in order to solve problems and settle issues he encountered in the course of his daily life, such that what claims to be an eternal book is actually filled with incidental minutiae from Muhammad’s life, or every detail of his life was mapped out for all eternity by the deity in order to teach some eternal truths, and he was therefore the most important person who ever existed. There is no other alternative.
Later come more indications of the incidental and ad hoc nature of the Qur’an (or, alternatively, the minute divine planning of every detail of Muhammad’s life). According to Qatadah, v. 11 “was revealed about gatherings in places where Allah is being remembered. When someone would come to join in assemblies with the Messenger, they would hesitate to offer them space so that they would not lose their places. Allah the Exalted commanded them to spread out and make room for each other.” And then Allah tells believers to make contributions before private meetings with Muhammad (vv. 12-13).
This sura also includes familiar Qur’anic themes, including the bellicose promise that “those who resist Allah and His Messenger will be humbled to dust” (v. 5). Allah sees and knows all things, including the secret meetings of the unbelievers, and will punish them on the Day of Judgment (vv. 7-10). Those who befriend those who are accursed by Allah are the party of Satan (v. 19) and will suffer in hell (v. 17). (And of course, those accursed by Allah include Jews and Christians, as per 9:30). No one who loves those who resist Allah and Muhammad will enter Paradise (v. 22).
Sura 59 was revealed, according to Islamic tradition, after Muhammad had the Jewish an-Nadir tribe exiled from Medina. Allah “cast terror into their hearts, so that they destroyed their dwellings by their own hands and the hands of the Believers” (v. 2). Ibn Kathir explains:
When the Messenger of Allah migrated to Al-Madinah, he made a peace treaty with the Jews stipulating that he would not fight them and they would not fight him. They soon betrayed the treaty that they made with Allah’s Messenger. Therefore, Allah sent His torment down on them; it can never be averted, and His appointed destiny touched them; it can never be resisted. The Prophet forced them to evacuate and abandon their fortified forts that Muslims did not think they would ever control. The Jews thought that their fortifications will save them from Allah’s torment, but they did not help them against Allah in the least. Then, that which they did not expect came to them from Allah, and Allah’s Messenger forced them to leave Al-Madinah…
According to the historian Tabari, the betrayal of the treaty was actually a conspiracy to kill Muhammad by some members of the Banu Nadir. Rather than appealing to the Nadir leaders to turn over the guilty men, Muhammad sent word to the Nadir: “Leave my country and do not live with me. You have intended treachery.” When the men of the Nadir protested and invoked that covenant, Muhammad’s messenger replied: “Hearts have changed, and Islam has wiped out the old covenants.”
Abdullah bin Ubayy and some of the others that the Qur’an designates as “hypocrites” urged the Banu Nadir not to go, and promised to come to their aid if attacked (vv. 11-12, 16). Relying on this, the Nadir told Muhammad: “We will not leave our settlements; so do as you see fit.” With the displacement of responsibility onto the enemy that would become characteristic of jihad warriors throughout the ages, Muhammad told the Muslims, “The Jews have declared war.” Allah then promised Muhammad that he would strike “terror” into the Jews” hearts (v. 13) and told him that both the hypocrites and the Jews would end up in hell (v. 17).
The Prophet of Islam ordered his Muslims to march out against the tribe and lay siege to them. During the siege, he ordered that the date palms of the Banu Nadir be burnt. The Nadir Jews, surprised, asked him: “Muhammad, you have prohibited wanton destruction and blamed those guilty of it. Why then are you cutting down and burning our palm-trees?” Allah justified Muhammad’s action by explaining that he cut down the trees “by Allah’s leave” (v. 5). Islamic apologists frequently cite Muhammad’s prohibition against wanton destruction — but don’t mention Muhammad’s own violation of this decree, and Allah’s endorsement of the violation.
What the Jews couldn’t carry with them became Muhammad’s personal property, which he distributed to the needy (vv. 6-9). He also kept some, as Umar later recounted: “The properties abandoned by Banu Nadir were the ones which Allah bestowed upon His Apostle…These properties were particularly meant for the Holy Prophet…He would meet the annual expenditure of his family from the income thereof, and would spend what remained for purchasing horses and weapons as preparation for Jihad.”
The sura ends with a warning to fear Allah, for the “Companions of the Fire” and the “Companions of the Garden” are not equal (v. 20), and with praise of the Qur’an, which would have made even a mountain bow down if it had been revealed on a mountain (v. 21), as well as praise of Allah himself, “the Sovereign, the Holy One, the Source of Peace, the Guardian of Faith, the Preserver of Safety, the Exalted in Might, the Irresistible, the Supreme” (v. 23), “the Creator, the Evolver, the Bestower of Forms,” to whom “belong the Most Beautiful Names” (v. 24). These are among the legendary ninety-nine names of Allah found in Islamic tradition.
(Revised June 2016)