Sura 15 is entitled Al-Hijr, which is translated variously as “The Valley of Stone,” “Stoneland,” “Rock City,” “Rocky Tract,” etc. Many translations do not render it in English at all, since it is a place name, referred to in v. 80 — Al-Hijr was yet another place that rejected the messengers of Allah and was destroyed. This is another late Meccan sura, revealed at a time of great tension between the Muslims and the pagan Quraysh of Mecca — and at a time when Muhammad himself was apparently feeling a bit discouraged, so that Allah makes some effort to cheer him up.
Allah begins in characteristic fashion, by excoriating the perversity of the unbelievers. The Qur’an “makes things clear” (v. 1), and those who reject Islam will one day wish they had become Muslims (v. 2). According to Ibn Abbas and Anas bin Malik, as well as Abu Musa, this verse responds to the taunts of the unbelievers to the sinful Muslims in hell. When the idolaters tell the Muslims that “what you used to worship on earth has not helped you,” Allah will be angry, and will remove the sinful Muslims from hell — and then the unbelievers, left in hell, will wish they had accepted Islam. But meanwhile, Muhammad should let the unbelievers enjoy life (v. 3), knowing that no one can escape the doom decreed by Allah (vv. 4-5). This sura seems to envision that doom as coming on the Day of Judgment, but later in Muhammad’s prophetic career, as we have seen in sura 9 and elsewhere, he began to see himself and the Muslims and instruments of Allah’s wrath for the unbelievers, including Jews and Christians (see 9:14-15: “Fight them; Allah will punish them by your hands…”).
The unbelievers mock Muhammad, calling him a madman (v. 6) and asking him for a miracle — to show them the angels (v. 7). But Allah doesn’t send angels to earth without good reason, and if he did, it would be to punish the unbelievers (v. 8). Allah will protect the Qur’an (v. 9), “against,” says the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “substitution, distortion, additions and omissions.” That is why the prospect of alternate Qur’anic texts is so dangerous from a Muslim perspective — genuine alternate readings of the Qur’an would negate Allah’s promise in this verse.
Ibn Kathir explains vv. 11-13: “Consoling His Messenger for the rejection of the disbelieving Quraysh, Allah says that He has sent Messengers before him to the nations of the past, and no Messenger came to a nation but they rejected him and mocked him. Then He tells him that He lets disbelief enter the hearts of those sinners who are too stubborn and too arrogant to follow His guidance.” Here again, disbelief is a matter of the will of Allah, which cannot be rejected or overridden. But the unbelievers will not accept Islam even if they see tremendous visions (vv. 14-15).
Allah then speaks of his creative power in fashioning the universe (vv. 16-27). He reminds that he created various things, culminating in this arresting passage: “And indeed, it is We who give life and cause death, and We are the Inheritor” (v. 23) — that is, the one who survives when all else perishes. Allah guards mankind from “every devil expelled” from Allah’s presence (v. 17), except “one who steals a hearing and is pursued by a clear burning flame” (v. 18). This is explained more fully in sura 37:7-10, where we learn that the rebellious spirits try to listen in to the goings-on of the “Exalted Assembly,” but cannot, as they are repulsed by a bright flame. Allah created human beings “out of clay from an altered black mud” (v. 26), and the jinn from “scorching fire” (v. 27).
Then the deity again recounts the creation of Adam (vv. 28-42), paralleling suras 2:30-39 and 7:11-25. Satan refuses Allah’s command to prostrate himself before Adam (v. 31), and is duly expelled from Paradise (v. 34), but is granted respite (v. 37), whereupon he vows to spend his time leading human beings astray (v. 39) — except Allah’s servants (v. 40), although Allah reveals one exception, telling Satan: “Indeed, My servants – no authority will you have over them, except those who follow you of the deviators” (v. 42). The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains that the two groups in this verse are simply believers and unbelievers: “in other words, truly over My servants, that is, believers, you shall have no warrant, [no] power, except those who follow you from among the perverse, the disbelievers.”
After that, Allah returns again to another one of his favorite themes, the pains of hell and the joys of Paradise (vv. 43-50). Hell has seven gates (v. 44). According to the Ruhul Ma’ani, the Jews, the Christians, the polytheists, the hypocrites and others each get their own gate. Then in verses 51-77 Allah tells the story of Abraham, Lot, and the unnamed Sodom and Gomorrah — paralleling the account found in Genesis 17-19. Like other Qur’anic retellings of Biblical stories, the Qur’anic account is streamlined and shorn of subplots, so as to focus sharply on one sole theme: the rejection of truth and subsequent punishment of the disbelievers. Abraham’s visitors, messengers from Allah (v. 57), tell him that he will become a father despite his advanced age (vv. 53-55) and that they have come to rescue Lot and his people, except his wife (v. 60), as they punish the evildoers. Those evildoers come looking for the young men (v. 67) — that is, the messengers — but Lot pleads with them to take his daughters instead (v. 71). The city is destroyed (v. 74). Allah recounts the similar destruction of the “Companions of the Wood” (v. 78) and the “Companions of Rock City” (v. 80).
Finally, in verses 85-99, Allah consoles Muhammad for the rejection and ridicule that he has encountered from the unbelievers. He has shown great favor to Muhammad and the Muslims, giving them the “seven oft-repeated” verses — that is, sura 1, the Fatihah, the most often-repeated prayer in Islam, and the Qur’an. They should not be envious of what Allah has given to other men, or grieve over the unbelievers (v. 88) — the Muslims should, in the words of Ibn Kathir, “be content with the Grand Qur’an that Allah has given to you, and do not long for the luxuries and transient delights that they have.” Those who have “made the Qur’an into portions” (v. 91) are, according to Ibn Abbas, “the People of the Book, who divided the Book into parts, believing in some of it, and rejecting some of it.” Others, however, say that it refers to the Quraysh, who, by charging that Muhammad was insane or possessed, were making the Qur’an into parts. According to Ibn Ishaq, the Quraysh held a meeting on who they thought Muhammad really was, considering the possibility that he might be a soothsayer, or crazy, or a poet, or a sorcerer, before finally deciding on the latter and triggering the revelation of v. 94), until “there comes to you the certainty” — death (v. 99).
Sura 16, “The Bee,” is another in the string of late Meccan suras that began with sura 10. Its title comes from v. 68, which tells us that Allah taught the bee to do what bees do.
Allah begins by emphasizing that he has created all things, and provides for all of humanity”s needs, and that all created beings bear witness to him (vv. 1-19). Ibn Kathir says that the “ways that turn aside” from the Straight Path of Islam (v. 9) are “various opinions and whims, such as Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism.” The Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas concurs, saying: “it is Allah Who guides to monotheism, and some of the religions are crooked and unjust such as Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. And if Allah had willed, He would have guided you all to His religion.” So once again, belief or unbelief is up to Allah, not to the individual. So why does Allah roast in hell those whom he has decided will go there, through no fault of their own? Only he knows.
Despite that fact that he made them that way, Allah then turns to highlighting the perversity of the unbelievers, and their impending judgment by him (vv. 20-42). The objects of their worship are themselves created (v. 20), and they scoff that Muhammad’s revelations amount only to “legends of the former peoples” (v. 24). That is, they suggest that Muhammad wasn’t receiving the words of Allah from Gabriel and transmitting them to the people, but only relating old stories: “they say,” according to the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, [that] these [revelations] are, “‘fables, lies, of the ancients’, in order to lead people astray.” On Judgment Day these people will not only bear the weight of their own sins, but also “some of the burdens of those whom they misguide without knowledge” (v. 25). They will be condemned to hell (v. 29), while the righteous will dwell in the bountiful gardens of Paradise (v. 32).
The unbelievers, at least some of them, know that this game is fixed: they will complain that “if Allah had willed,” they and their forefathers never would have worshipped anyone but Allah (v. 35) — a reasonable complaint, in light of the Qur’an’s repeated statements about Allah leading people astray and having the ability to make everyone believers if he had desired (see 10:99-100). But here this excuse is rejected, since Allah has sent messengers to every people, telling them to worship Allah alone (v. 36).
Ibn Kathir tries to mitigate the harshness of the idea that if Allah had willed, all mankind would believe, by explaining that Allah doesn’t actually want anyone to disbelieve, and sends them messengers so that they won’t do so, but simply allows them to if they so choose: “The legislative will of Allah is clear and cannot be taken as an excuse by them, because He had forbidden them to do that upon the tongue of His Messengers, but by His universal will (i.e., by which He allows things to occur even though they do not please Him) He allowed them to do that as it was decreed for them. So there is no argument in that for them. Allah created Hell and its people both the Shayatin (devils) and disbelievers, but He does not like His servants to disbelieve.” Allah does not guide those whom “He sends astray” (v. 37) — that is, Ibn Kathir continues, “the one whom He has caused to go astray, so who can guide him apart from Allah? No one.” For Allah accomplishes everything he intends to do (v. 40), and “nothing,” says Ibn Kathir, “can stop Him or oppose Him.”
But if that is so, the conundrum Ibn Kathir intended to solve remains: Allah condemns some people to eternal torture in hell because of their unbelief, but they don’t believe because it is Allah’s will that they don’t.
Meanwhile, “those who emigrated for Allah after they had been wronged” will be rewarded in both this world and the next (v. 41) — that is, those who leave their homelands to bring Islam to a new land, as we are seeing today in America and Europe. The first of these, according to the Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas, were the Muslims who fled Mecca with Muhammad and settled in Medina; Ibn Kathir, however, identifies them as the Muslims who earlier fled to Abyssinia to escape the persecution of the pagan Quraysh.
Allah, true to form, then repeats many of these themes: Allah will judge those who plot against the Muslims (vv. 45-47; 84-89); created things bear witness to him (v. 48-50; 64-69; 79-82); Allah is the only god (v. 51); Satan is the patron of those who reject Allah’s messengers (v. 63); Muhammad’s duty is only to warn people of the impending judgment (v. 82). The polytheists even dare to say that Allah has daughters, while they themselves have sons (v. 57). The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains that “to Him they assign daughters, to whom they are averse, when [in any case] He is [exalted] beyond having offspring, while to themselves they assign sons, of their own choosing, so that the best is theirs exclusively.” Allah’s reaffirms his sovereignty over all in v. 93, which the Tafsir al-Jalalayn glosses as: “For if God had willed, He could have made you one community, people of a single religion, but He leads astray whom He will and guides whom He will, and you will surely be questioned, on the Day of Resurrection, a questioning of rebuke, about what you used to do, so that you might be requited for it.”
After that, Allah defends Muhammad and the Qur’an against some of the charges of the unbelievers, and call all people again to accept Muhammad’s message, which is the message of Abraham (v. 123), and worship Allah alone (vv. 97-128). Allah laments that whenever he abrogates a verse of his revelation and replaces it with another, the unbelievers accuse Muhammad of making it all up (v. 101). But actually Muhammad’s revelations come from the Holy Spirit (v. 102) — that is, Gabriel. The unbelievers claim that Muhammad is learning the contents of the Qur’an from a man and then passing them off as divine revelation, but the one they have in mind is a foreigner, while the Qur’an is in pure Arabic (v. 103). Ibn Kathir grants that “maybe the Messenger of Allah used to sit with him sometimes and talk to him a little, but he was a foreigner who did not know much Arabic, only enough simple phrases to answer questions when he had to.”
Who was this mysterious foreigner whom the Qur’an is so anxious to diminish in importance? Some suggest Muhammad’s wife’s uncle Waraqa, who first identified him as a prophet, and who used to, according to Islamic tradition, “write from the Gospel in Hebrew as much as Allah wished him to write.” Or it may have been one of Muhammad’s early companions, Salman the Persian: the Arabic word translated here as “foreign” is Ajami, which also means Persian.
Then in v. 106, in a notable departure from the Christian concept of martyrdom, Allah allows Muslims to deny their faith when under “compulsion,” as long one’s heart remains “firm in Faith.” Ibn Kathir explains: “This is an exception in the case of one who utters statements of disbelief and verbally agrees with the Mushrikin [unbelievers] because he is forced to do so by the beatings and abuse to which he is subjected, but his heart refuses to accept what he is saying, and he is, in reality, at peace with his faith in Allah and His Messenger.” This is another foundation for the idea of religious deception in Islam, which we saw in discussing 3:28.
The sura ends with a brief discussion of food laws, and instructions to Muhammad to “invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching” (v. 125). That sounds wonderful, but in a hadith, he tells Muslims to follow up the “invitation,” if refused, with a second invitation asking non-Muslims to enter the Islamic social order as dhimmis, with institutionalized second-class status; or if they refuse both, to go to war with them: “Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. Make a holy war…When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action. If they respond to any one of these you also accept it and withhold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them…. If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight them. (Sahih Muslim 4294)