Allah then again warns about the Day of Judgment (39:30-52). The unbelievers threaten Muhammad with punishment by their false idols — and here again Allah repeats that “he whom Allah sends astray, for him there is no guide” (39:36). The unbelievers are perverse and self-contradictory, acknowledging that Allah created all things but still calling on their false gods (39:38). There is an odd statement in 39:42: “those on whom He has passed the decree of death, He keeps back (from returning to life), but the rest He sends (to their bodies) for a term appointed verily in this are Signs for those who reflect.” Qur’an translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali explains this by asserting that sleep is a little death: “Sleep being twin-brother to Death, our souls are for the time being released from the bondage of the flesh. Allah takes them for the time being. If, as some do, we are to die peacefully in sleep, our soul does not come back to the physical body, and the later decays and dies. If we still have some period of life to fulfill according to Allah’s decree, our soul comes back to the body, and we resume our function in this life.”
Allah rejects the idea that anyone can intercede for anyone else before him (39:43-44) and emphasizes again the perversity of the unbelievers: when they hear of Allah, their hearts are “filled with disgust and horror,” but they hear about their idols with joy (39:45). On the Day of Judgment the evil deeds of the unbelievers will overtake them (39:51).
In verses 53-60, Allah again tells Muhammad a series of warnings to say to the unbelievers, telling them to turn to Allah before it’s too late. Then Allah concludes the sura with more warnings of the Day of Judgment (vv. 61-75), when “the unbelievers will enter Hell in throngs,” and will again be reminded of the messengers they did not heed (v. 71), while the believers enter Paradise in throngs (v. 73) — the final outcome of their inequality.
“Everything has an essence,” said Ibn Abbas, “and the essence of the Qur’an is the family of Ha Mim” — that is, suras 40 through 46, all of which begin with the Arabic letters ha and mim. (As always, the Muslim commentators say that “only Allah knows” the meaning of these apparently random letters that begin many of the chapters of the Qur’an.) Of the Ha Mim suras, Ibn Mas’ud added: “When I reach the family of Ha Mim, it is like reaching a beautiful garden, so I take my time.” These are all Meccan suras, and they share the general characteristics of the chapters of that period: furious denunciations of the unbelievers, but none of the exhortations to warfare against them that mark the Medinan suras, and fewer specific denunciations of the Jews and Christians than appear in the chronologically later chapters.
The first of these, sura 40, is known as “The Believers,” from v. 28, but since this is the same title as that of sura 23, it is also known as “The Forgiver,” from v. 3. Early Islamic authorities generally asserted that it was revealed to Muhammad right after sura 39, and it shares many of the themes of that sura. Allah retails many of these themes at the beginning of this chapter: the Qur’an is from Allah (v. 2); there is no other god (v. 3); only unbelievers dispute his signs (v. 4), such as the people of Noah, whom Allah punished (v. 5) — they and other unbelievers are “Companions of the Fire” (v. 6).
The angels pray for the believers around the throne of Allah (vv. 7-9) and will address the unbelievers in hell, telling them that Allah hates them even more than they hate themselves (v. 10). Qatadah explained the mainstream view: “Allah’s hatred for the people of misguidance — when Faith is presented to them in this world, and they turn away from it and refuse to accept it — is greater than their hatred for themselves when they see the punishment of Allah with their own eyes on the Day of Resurrection.” Yet here again the decision as to who is guided to the truth and who remains an unbeliever is entirely up to Allah: no one can guide to the truth those whom Allah leaves to stray (v. 33) — which means, explains Ibn Kathir, that “whomever Allah sends astray will have no other guide except Him.”
The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains the unbelievers’ question, “Our Lord, You have caused us to die twice, two deaths, and You have given us life twice” (v. 11): “For they were lifeless drops of semen, then they were given life, then made to die, then brought back to life for the Resurrection.” To their question, “Is there then any way to go out” of hell, the two Jalals say that “the answer given to them will be: No!” For they rejected the idea that only Allah was to be worshipped, and associated partners with him (v. 12). Muhammad should then call on Allah even though the unbelievers hate his doing so (v. 14), and should warn the unbelievers of the impending Day of Judgment (vv. 15-18). The unbelievers should travel the earth and see what became of those who refused to worship Allah alone in previous ages — for Allah is strict in punishment (vv. 21-22, 82-3).
Then in verses 23-55, Allah returns yet again to the story of Moses and Pharaoh, with emphasis on Pharaoh’s intention to kill Moses (v. 26). A believer from among Pharaoh’s people asks him: “Will you slay a man because he says, “˜My Lord is Allah”?” (v. 28). According to Maududi, this sura came to Muhammad when the unbelievers were plotting to kill him, so the parallels are obvious: as we have seen more than once, the Qur’an tells the story of an earlier prophet solely in order to make a point about the reception of Muhammad’s message by his contemporaries. And likewise this unnamed believer and contemporary of Moses warns his people that they are risking suffering the fate of those who rejected the earlier prophets (vv. 31, 34).
Pharaoh in his pride wanted to build a tower “to mount up to the god of Moses” (vv. 36-7), but ultimately his people were cast into the Fire (vv. 45-6). In hell, the unbelievers will argue with each other over whose fault it was that they ended up there (vv. 47-48). Here again the unbelievers will ask to be released from hell, but will be refused (vv. 49-50). Allah promises to make his messengers victorious (v. 51); As-Suddi explains: “Allah never sends a Messenger to a people and they kill him or some of the believers who call them to the truth, then that generation passes away, but He then sends them someone who will support their call and will seek vengeance for their blood from those who did that to them in this world. So the Prophets and believers may be killed in this world, but their call will prevail in this world.” And indeed, Ibn Kathir adds, “Allah granted victory to His Prophet Muhammad and his Companions over those who had opposed him, disbelieved in him and shown hostility towards him. He caused His Word and His religion to prevail over all other religions…This religion will continue to prevail until the Hour begins.”
Allah tells Muhammad to be patient, for his promises will prove true (vv. 55, 77) — yet again indicating his tremendous solicitude for his prophet. We have seen the centrality of Muhammad in Islam is what led to Muslims being called “Muhammadans” in the West. Muslims universally reject this term as offensive, insisting that they do not worship Muhammad, but the Qur’anic reader, both Muslim and non-Muslim, seeing Allah’s constant concern for his prophet, faces two choices: he can view the repeated Qur’anic statements of Allah’s immense concern for his prophet as an attempt by Muhammad to bolster his stature and privileges as a prophet among his followers, or he can accept the proposition that Muhammad was essentially the most important and divinely beloved human being who ever lived. There doesn’t seem to be any other choice offered.
Allah then continues excoriating the unbelievers, who are motivated by nothing but pride (v. 56) — an oft-repeated Qur’anic trope that has led many Muslims through the ages and today to assume that non-Muslims know the truth of Islam but reject it out of selfish self-interest. The believers and unbelievers are not equal (v. 58) — those who reject Allah’s signs are deluded (vv. 62-3). The design of the natural world bears witness to Allah’s care for mankind, and his power (vv. 61, 64, 67). Those who reject Allah will soon know the truth (v. 70). Those whom people worship besides Allah will fail them (v. 74). Those who profess faith in Allah after they glimpse his punishments will still be punished (v. 85).
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.”