The Meccan sura 46 is the last of the “Ha Mim” series of suras (40-46), and hews closely to the themes of the others: the Qur’an is revealed by Allah (v. 2); Allah created the heavens and the earth for a just purpose, but the unbelievers reject faith (v. 3); those whom they pray to besides Allah are powerless (vv. 4-5); the unbelievers dismiss the Qur’an as “sorcery” (v. 7) or forgery.
Allah tells Muhammad to respond to this by noting that Allah would punish him if he were falsely attributing words to Allah that he did not say (v. 8). Muhammad brings no new message — an implicit affirmation of the Islamic proposition that Islam was the original religion of all the earlier prophets, e.g., Abraham, Moses, Jesus, etc., but their wicked followers corrupted their messages. To support this argument the Qur’an invokes “a witness from among the Children of Israel” who “testifies to its similarity” to the Jewish scriptures (v. 10).
Islamic tradition recorded by Muhammad’s first biographer, Ibn Ishaq, and the hadith collector Bukhari identifies this as Abdullah bin Salam, a rabbi who was an early convert to Islam. As a rabbi, Abdullah was intrigued by Muhammad, and went to see him. Admitted to Muhammad’s presence, he asked him “about three things which nobody knows unless he be a Prophet. What is the first portent of the Hour? What is the first meal of the people of Paradise? And what makes a baby look like its father or mother?”
Rather than point out the contradictory aspect of the question — that Abdullah would only know if Muhammad’s answers were correct if he himself were a prophet, Muhammad told him, “Just now Jibril (Gabriel) has informed me about that.”
Abdullah was surprised. “Gabriel?”
“Yes,” said Muhammad.
“He, among the angels is the enemy of the Jews,” noted Abdullah, whereupon Muhammad recited a verse of the Qur’an: “Say: Whoever is an enemy to Gabriel — for he brings down the (revelation) to thy heart by Allah’s will, a confirmation of what went before, and guidance and glad tidings for those who believe — Whoever is an enemy to Allah and His angels and messengers, to Gabriel and Michael, lo! Allah is an enemy to those who reject Faith” (2:97).
Then he proceeded to answer Abdullah’s three questions:
As for the first portent of the Hour, it will be a fire that will collect the people from the east to west. And as for the first meal of the people of Paradise, it will be the caudite (i.e. extra) lobe of the fish liver. And if a man’s discharge preceded that of the woman, then the child resembles the father, and if the woman’s discharge preceded that of the man, then the child resembles the mother.
Hearing these answers, Abdullah immediately converted to Islam and excoriated his own people, exclaiming: “I testify that La ilaha illallah (none has the right to be worshipped but Allah) and that you are the Messenger of Allah, O Allah’s Messenger; the Jews are liars, and if they should come to know that I have embraced Islam, they would accuse me of being a liar.”
Abdullah recounted that he “became a Muslim, and when I returned to my house I ordered my family to do the same.” He asked for Muhammad’s help in laying a trap for the Jews: “The Jews are a nation of liars and I wish you would take me into one of your houses and hide me from them, then ask them about me so that they may tell you the position I hold among them before they know that I have become a Muslim. For if they know it beforehand they will utter slanderous lies against me.” Muhammad agreed, summoned the Jewish leaders with Abdullah present but hidden, and asked them what they thought of Abdullah. They replied: “He is our chief, and the son of our chief; our rabbi, and our learned man.”
Muhammad asked them, “What would you think if Abdullah bin Salam embraced Islam?”
The Jewish leaders answered, “May Allah protect him from this!”
The trap was sprung. Abdullah appeared and cried: “I testify that La ilaha illallah (none has the right to be worshipped but Allah) and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. O Jews, fear God and accept what He has sent you. For by God you know that he is the apostle of God. You will find him described in your Torah and even named. I testify that he is the apostle of God, I believe in him, I hold him to be true, and I acknowledge him.”
But the Jews now said: “Abdullah is the worst of us, and the son of the worst of us.”
Abdullah exclaimed, “O Allah’s Messenger! This is what I was afraid of!” He later recounted: “I reminded the apostle that I had said that they would do this, for they were a treacherous, lying, and evil people.”
Such tales would only reinforce for Muslims throughout history the idea that the Jewish (as well as Christian) Scriptures really did bear witness to Muhammad in clear terms. Ibn Sa’d recounts that Muhammad once went to a Jewish seminary, where he challenged the most learned rabbi: “Do you know that I am the Apostle of Allah?”
The rabbi answered, “By Allah! Yes, and the people know what I know. Verily your attributes and qualities are clearly mentioned in the Torah, but they are jealous of you.” It was only the sinful obstinacy of the Jews and Christians that prevented them from acknowledging this — indeed, that sin was so great that ultimately it led them to alter their Scriptures in order to remove all references to Muhammad. The idea of Jews and Christians as sinful renegades from the truth of Islam would become a cornerstone of Islamic thought regarding non-Muslims.
The Qur’an goes on to say that the unbelievers demean the believers, asserting that if Islam were true, people of such low quality as the believers would not have been the first to accept it (v. 11). Yet the Qur’an confirms in Arabic the Book of Moses (v. 12). Those who confess faith in Allah will not grieve, but will enjoy the Gardens of Paradise (vv. 13-14).
A good Muslim should honor his parents; some unbelieving children, however, rebuke their parents for their Islamic faith — they will be “utterly lost” (vv. 15-18). The unbelievers have pleasure in this world, but will be in hell in the next (v. 20). There they will acknowledge the truth of Islam, and pay the penalty for rejecting it (v. 34). The prophet Hud (see suras 7, 11, and 26) reappears to underscore this — he warns his people (v. 21) but they do not heed, and are destroyed (vv. 24-25). Allah then tells Muhammad that a crowd of jinns listened to him reciting the Qur’an (v. 29), and went back and warned their fellow jinns that those who do not accept the message are in error and will face the penalty (v. 32). Allah concludes the sura by telling Muhammad to be patient and persevere in preaching his message; the unbelievers will soon face the divine punishment.
The Medinan sura 47 is alternatively known as Al-Qital, “The Fighting” — and indeed, it is much preoccupied with war against unbelievers. It affirms of those who oppose Islam that Allah will “render their deeds vain” (vv. 1, 8-9, 28, 32). Bulandshahri explains: “Even though the disbelievers may carry out many good deeds and render great services to mankind, these deeds will not be recognized on the Day of Judgment on account of their disbelief.” By contrast, Allah will improve the condition of the believers (vv. 2, 7, 35).
Teachings such as these lead to the common Islamic idea that Islamic purity will lead to worldly prosperity, and unbelief conversely to ruin in this life. For Allah protects the believers, while the unbelievers have no protector (v. 11). In a hadith in An-Nasai’s collection — one of the six collections Muslims consider most reliable — Muhammad prays, “O Allah, I seek refuge with you from unbelief and poverty.” Someone asked him, “Are they equal?” Muhammad answered, “Yes.” This connection is often clearly refuted by reality, but is tenaciously held nonetheless.
Then come Allah’s instructions to behead the unbelievers when the believers meet them in battle (v. 4). The literal understanding of this verse is paramount among Islamic commentators. Ibn Kathir says that it means that when Muslims “fight against” unbelievers, they should “cut them down totally with your swords.” The Tafsir al-Jalalayn spells it out further: “in other words, slay them — reference is made to the ‘striking of the necks’ because the predominant cause of being slayed is to be struck in the neck.” Zamakhshari takes “strike at the necks” to mean that Muslims should strike non-Muslims specifically on the neck rather than elsewhere, so as to make sure they are dead and not just wounded.
The twentieth-century Qur’an translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali likewise takes the injunction literally, justifying it by saying, “You cannot wage war with kid gloves.” However, Muhammad Khatib, a modern Sunni commentator, says that this command applies only to Muhammad’s day, although Shi’ites “think it is a universal precept.” Modern-day Sunni jihad groups such as Zarqawi’s Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in Iraq a few years ago pointed to this and other Qur’anic verses as justifications for their beheadings.
The same verse goes on to call for the taking of prisoners and allowing for “either generosity or ransom” of prisoners of war. This has been enshrined in Islamic law: Umdat al-Salik, a manual of Islamic jurisprudence certified by Al-Azhar University in Cairo (the most respected authority in Sunni Islam) as conforming “to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community,” lays out four options for prisoners, in line with this verse: “When an adult male is taken captive, the caliph considers the interests … (of Islam and the Muslims) and decides between the prisoner’s death, slavery, release without paying anything, or ransoming himself in exchange for money or for a Muslim captive held by the enemy” (o9.14).
Then comes an oft-repeated refrain: Don’t the unbelievers travel around the earth and see how Allah has destroyed earlier unbelieving peoples (vv. 10, 13)? Allah will admit the believers to the gardens of Paradise, while the unbelievers will eat as the cattle eat and drink boiling water that will cut their bowels to pieces (vv. 12, 14-15). Some listen to Muhammad but are insincere (v. 16), and some even ask that a chapter of the Qur’an be sent down for them — but when one is sent down that commands fighting, they draw back (v. 20). Ibn Kathir explains that “Allah mentions that the believers were hoping that Jihad would be legislated. But when Allah ordained it, many of the people turned back” — and he explains why they did so in a way that makes it clear that the jihad in question involves hot war: they drew back, says Ibn Kathir, because of “their fear, terror, and cowardice concerning meeting the enemies.”
Then come more excoriations of unbelievers, with familiar charges reissued: Allah has cursed the unbelievers and made them deaf and blind (v. 23); their hearts are locked so that they cannot understand the Qur’an (v. 24); and they apostatize from Islam because Satan beguiles them (v. 25). This life is mere “play and amusement,” but those who obey Allah will not have to give up their worldly goods (v. 36), but they should not hesitate to spend money in Allah’s cause (v. 38).
Sura 48 is also from Medina. The “victory” from Allah in v. 1 is for some the Muslim conquest of Mecca late in Muhammad’s life; for others it is the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, which Muhammad concluded on disadvantageous terms with the pagan Quraysh tribe of Mecca before he conquered that city. Umar, one of Muhammad’s closest followers, asked him about this three times, got no answer, and then went away in fear that a passage of the Qur’an would be revealed about him! But instead there came this sura, telling Muhammad that Allah would forgive his past and future sins (v. 2) and would admit the believers to Paradise (v. 5), while the hypocrites and polytheists will go to hell (v. 6).
Those who pledge loyalty to Muhammad pledge loyalty to Allah (v. 10). Those who refused to go with Muhammad to meet the Quraysh, fearing that they would be massacred, make excuses, but Allah knows that they hoped Muhammad and the Muslims would not return (vv. 11-12). Allah tells Muhammad to tell them that they will be called upon to fight against a powerful people, unless they submit to Islam; if they fight then, they will be rewarded (v. 16). Islamic scholars differ as to which powerful people is meant — some suggested the Persians and Byzantines. The blind, lame, and ill need not fight in jihad warfare, but those who do will go to Paradise (v. 17). Allah is pleased with the believers who pledged fealty to Muhammad under the tree (v. 18) — Ibn Kathir says there were 1,400 Muslims who did so, under a tree near Hudaybiyya. Allah sent them as-sakinah (v. 18), which is the presence of God in the Old Testament but is understood simply as “tranquility” by Muslim commentators. He also promises the believers much booty (v. 19), which they soon collected in the raid on the Jewish settlement at the oasis of Khaybar.
The unbelievers, if they fight the Muslims, will flee (v. 22). Allah protected the believers from the unbelievers at Hudaybiyya, giving them “tranquility” (vv. 24-26) — and the truce he concluded with the Meccans at Hudaybiyya will allow Muhammad and the Muslims to visit the Ka’aba (v. 27). Those who follow Muhammad are merciful to believers but harsh to unbelievers (v. 29) — a stark contrast to Jesus’ injunction in the Sermon on the Mount to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
The late Medinan sura 49 begins with Allah telling the believers how to behave in the presence of Muhammad (vv. 1-5). One may wonder why a perfect and eternal book that contains religious and ethical instruction that is valid for all time would contain a section that applied only to people who lived in the first generation of Islam, but the answer to this is implied by the instruction to Muslims not to put themselves forward in Muhammad’s presence (v. 1). This means, says Ibn Kathir, that they should “not rush in making decisions before him, rather, follow his lead in all matters.” After Muhammad’s death Muslims can do that by heeding their prophet’s directives as recorded in the authentic ahadith — a fact that traditional Muslims use to rebuke contemporary Muslims who declare that they follow the Qur’an alone.
Allah follow this with more general instructions to the believers (vv. 6-18). They should not believe the report of a wicked person (v. 6). Muhammad is among them, and if he obeyed the believers’ every wish — instead of Allah’s commands — there would be trouble (v. 7). Believers should not fight against one another, but they should join together to fight against a rebellious group until it returns to Allah’s truth (v. 9): this is a principal justification for infighting among Islamic sects. The true believers, however, are a single brotherhood (vv. 10, 13) — one that transcends all other ties, including the national and even familial. Maududi explains that “the national and racial distinctions that cause universal corruption in the world have been condemned.”
Then follows the chastising of a group of Bedouins whose faith is imperfect; they are exhorted to obey Allah and Muhammad (v. 14).
Muhammad used to recite the Meccan sura 50 every Friday during his Friday sermon, and on Eids — the festivals at the end of Ramadan and the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca. It begins with an oath — “By the glorious Qur’an” (v. 1) — but it is unclear who is swearing or what the oath is about. Ali suggests in a parenthetical note that it is an oath that Muhammad is a prophet: “By the Glorious Qur’an (you are Allah’s Messenger).” The Tafsir al-Jalalayn, in contrast, has it as an oath about the unbelievers: “By the glorious Qur’an, by the noble Qur’an, the disbelievers of Mecca have certainly not believed in Muhammad (s).”
But who is doing the swearing? Allah is according to Islamic doctrine the only speaker in the Qur’an, but it is curious that he the all-powerful deity would need to swear on things lesser than himself to establish his veracity. Yet such oaths proliferate in the latter part of the Qur’an (as it is arranged, not chronologically).
Allah then repeats again the wonders of the natural world as evidence of Allah’s power, and criticize the unbelievers for doubting the resurrection of the dead (vv. 2-14). Allah lists some earlier groups he destroyed — people who also rejected the resurrection and his messengers (vv. 12-14). Then Allah issues yet another warning of the Day of Judgment and hellfire (verses 15-30). Each person is accompanied by two angels, one who records his good deeds and the other his bad deeds (v. 17). Those who reject Allah and worship other gods will be sent to hell (vv. 24, 26). The righteous, in contrast, will enter the gardens of Paradise (verses 31-35). Thus Muhammad should be patient (v. 39), for the Day of Judgment is coming (v. 42); the Qur’an is a warning (v. 45).
The Meccan sura 51 is a poetic meditation on the judgment, hell, and Paradise. Allah swears by the winds (v. 1) that what Muhammad has been promised is true (v. 5). The unbelievers are deluded (v. 9) and those who spread falsehood are accursed (v. 10) — that is, those who scoff and ask when the Day of Judgment will come (v. 12). They will taste hell (v. 14), while the righteous will enjoy Paradise (v. 15), because they rose early to pray (v. 18) and gave alms to the needy (v. 19).
Allah tell the story of Abraham’s “honored guests” — an account reminiscent of the visitation of the Lord and the “three men” to Abraham in Genesis 18 (vv. 24-37). As in Genesis, the visitors tell Abraham that his wife will give birth to a son (v. 28), and she laughs derisively, as she is old and barren (v. 29).