About the Medinan sura 61, Abdullah bin Salam, one of the Companions of Muhammad, tells this story: “We asked, ‘Who among us should go to the Messenger and ask him about the dearest actions to Allah?’ None among us volunteered. The Messenger sent a man to us and that man gathered us and recited this Surah, Surat As-Saff, in its entirety.”
So what are among the “dearest actions to Allah”? Allah “loves those who fight in his Cause in battle array” (v. 4). He dislikes those believers who say they have done things they didn’t do. Ibn Kathir explains: “Some said that it was revealed about the gravity of fighting in battle, when one says that he fought and endured the battle, even though he did not do so. Qatadah and Ad-Dahhak said that this Ayah [verse] was sent down to admonish some people who used to say that they killed, fought, stabbed, and did such and such during battle, even though they did not do any of it.”
Allah reminds these phonies that Moses warned his people not to annoy him, since they knew he was Allah’s messenger. But once they did, Allah let them go astray (v. 5). He also reminds them that Jesus came to tell the Jews that his message confirmed that of the Torah, and that he was the precursor of a messenger who would come after him, whose name would be Ahmad. But the people would dismiss Jesus’ miracles as “sorcery” (v. 6) — recalling their dismissal of Moses (28:36) and Muhammad (28:48).
“Ahmad” means “the Most Praised One,” and it is etymologically related to Muhammad, which means “Praised One.” Pickthall drives the connection home by translating “Ahmad” simply as “Praised One.” And Muslims universally understand the verse as depicting Jesus predicting the coming of Muhammad.
Muslims contend that this prophecy is the uncorrupted version of the words of Jesus that survive in corrupted form in John 14:16-17, where Jesus says: “And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.”
“Counselor” here is παρακλητος, Paracletos or Paraclete. Some Islamic apologists have claimed that this is a corruption of περικλυτος, Periclytos, which means “famous” or “renowned,” i.e., “Praised One.” However, there is no textual evidence whatsoever for this: no manuscripts of the New Testament exist that use the word περικλυτος in this place. Nor is it likely that the two words might have been confused. That kind of confusion may be theoretically possible in Arabic, which does not write vowels and hence would present two words with identical consonant structures. But Greek does write vowels, and so the words would never in Greek have appeared as even close to identical.
Then Allah excoriates the man who “invents falsehood against Allah, even as he is being invited to Islam” (v. 7) — that is, says Ibn Kathir, “none is more unjust than he who lies about Allah and calls upon rivals and associates partners with Him, even while he is being invited to Tawhid [the divine unity] and sincerely worshipping Him.” They want to extinguish Allah’s light and hate his religion (v. 9), but, in the words of the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “it is he who has sent his messenger with the guidance and the religion of truth, that he may make it prevail, that he may raise it over all other religions, over all the religions which oppose it, though the disbelievers be averse to this.”
Indeed they are — at least some of them.
Allah will admit the believers to Paradise (v. 12) and grant them victory (v. 13). One of the Jews believed in Jesus and some didn’t — Allah granted victory to those who did (v. 14). This is referring, of course, to Jesus the prophet of Islam. In explaining this verse, Ibn Kathir outlines the Muslim view of both Jews and Christians. The Jews “rejected what Isa [Jesus] brought them, denied his prophethood and invented terrible lies about him and his mother. They are the Jews, may Allah curse them until the Day of Judgment.” The Christians, meanwhile, “exaggerated over Isa, until they elevated him to more than the level of prophethood that Allah gave him. They divided into sects and factions, some saying that Isa was the son of Allah, while others said that he was one in a trinity, and this is why they invoke the father, the son and the holy ghost! Some of them said that Isa was Allah…”
The Medinan sura 62 features the claim that Muhammad was illiterate (v. 2). Islamic apologists refer frequently to this claim in order to throw into sharp relief what they consider to be the miraculous character of the Qur’an. This sublime book of poetry, they say, could not have been written by any ordinary man — and certainly not by one who was illiterate.
However, this claim has no actual Qur’anic support at all. As Daniel Ali has pointed out, Islamic commentators base their claims on the Arabic word ome, which they translate as “illiterate.” This is one meaning of the word. However, it has another meaning that has nothing to do with reading or writing. The Qur’an’s use of the word establishes that this meaning is the one it is using. In v.2, Allah says, “It is he that sent forth among the omeyeen [the plural of ome] an apostle of their own….” This same word is repeated in many other places in the Koran, including 2:78, 3:20, 3:75, and 7:157-158. Almost all Muslim scholars interpret the word omeyeen in these passages as meaning “illiterate.”
Yet if the word omeyeen refers to illiteracy, v. 2 would be saying that Allah sent forth to all illiterates one of their own. The unlikelihood of this is reinforce by the fact that in classical Arabic, omeyeen never referred to illiterates or to illiteracy. It refers to non-Jewish people: v. 2 is saying that Allah has sent a gentile apostle to the gentiles. Omeyeen is an adjectival form of the Arabic noun for gentiles, and not all gentiles were illiterate during the time of Muhammad.
The rest of the sura contains Allah’s usual excoriations of unbelievers, plus a reminder to respond to the Call to Prayer on Friday (vv. 9-11). There is a chilling statement: “Say: ‘O you who stand on Judaism! If you think that you are friends to Allah, to the exclusion of other men, then express your desire for death, if you are truthful!” (v. 6). This has become a staple theme of contemporary jihadism: not long after 9/11, an Afghani jihadist declared: “The Americans lead lavish lives and they are afraid of death. We are not afraid of death. The Americans love Pepsi Cola, we love death.” Such love, according to this verse, is a sign of friendship with Allah.
(Revised June 2016)