Then, also as in Genesis, the men go on to Sodom and Gomorrah, which are not named here, but are identified as a “guilty people” (51:32) who will be destroyed (51:33) after the righteous are evacuated (51:35). Then follow more precedents of the destruction of unbelievers: Pharaoh (51:38-40); the people of Ad (51:41-42); the people of Thamud (51:43-45); and Noah’s people (51:46).
Allah then once again rehearses some of the signs of his presence in the natural world (vv. 47-49), and then in verses 50-53, apparently tells Muhammad how to address the unbelievers. There is, however, no indication in this passage, as there is in so many other places in the Qur’an, that Allah is telling Muhammad to say these things, and yet Muhammad speaks in the first person — making this another problematic passage for the Islamic belief that Allah is the sole speaker in the Qur’an. Then in verses 54-60, Allah reassures Muhammad, telling him to turn away from the unbelievers, and that it isn’t his fault that they don’t believe (v. 54). They will be punished on that dreadful Day (v. 60).
Sura 52 is also Meccan and deals with many of the same themes. Allah begins with still another discussion of hell and Paradise (vv. 1-28). The unbelievers will be sent to the hell they denied (v. 14) and asked if the fire that is burning them is fake (v. 15). The blessed will enjoy the women of Paradise, who have “beautiful big and lustrous eyes” (v. 20), and will be joined by their families (v. 21). Ibn Kathir and the Tafsir al-Jalalayn agree that this has to do with the levels of Paradise: the believing children of pious people will be admitted to the levels their parents attained, even if they weren’t as pious. The righteous will also be served in Paradise by beautiful boys (v. 24). The Tafsir al-Jalalayn elaborates: “And there will circulate from all around them, for service, youths, delicate [in demeanour], of their own, as if, in terms of their beauty and immaculateness, they were hidden pearls, preserved inside shells, because when it [a pearl] is inside it, it is better than one that is not.”
Allah then once again offers an excoriation of the unbelievers, who accuse Muhammad of being demon-possessed (v. 29) and a poet (v. 30), and of fabricating the Qur’an (v. 33). But they can’t produce anything like it (v. 34). Did they create the heavens and the earth (v. 36)? Even if they saw a piece of the sky falling on them, they would say it was mere clouds (v. 44). So Muhammad should leave them alone (v. 45) and be patient (v. 48), for the unbelievers will get theirs on the Day of Judgment (v. 46).
Most people associate “the Satanic verses” with the notorious novel by Salman Rushdie. In 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie for writing this book — and this death sentence has been perpetually reaffirmed by Iranian leaders, though no assassin has yet carried it out.
But Rushdie did not invent the “Satanic verses.” The term actually refers to an incident, recorded in Islamic tradition and referred to in sura 53, in which Satan, not Allah, spoke through Muhammad’s mouth. The verses that the devil gave to the Prophet of Islam have been known thereafter as “the Satanic verses.”
According to Muhammad’s biographer Ibn Ishaq, in a section of his biography preserved by Tabari, “the apostle was anxious for the welfare of his people” — the pagan Quraysh — and “longed for a way to attract them.” However, ultimately it was the leaders of the Quraysh who came to him with an offer. They would give him wives and money, and even make him their king — if he would in turn accept their condition. “This is what we will give you, Muhammad, so desist from reviling our gods and do not speak evilly of them. If you will not do so, we offer you one means which will be to your advantage and to ours.”
“What is it?” asked Muhammad.
“You will worship our gods, al-Lat and al-Uzza, for a year, and we shall worship your god for a year.”
After initially rejecting the offer, Muhammad received a revelation saying that it was legitimate for Muslims to pray to al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat, the three goddesses favored by the pagan Quraysh, as intercessors before Allah. The Quraysh were elated, and prostrated themselves before Allah along with Muhammad and the Muslims after Muhammad finished reciting the new revelation. Ibn Ishaq recounts:
Then the people dispersed and Quraysh went out, delighted at what had been said about their gods, saying, “Muhammad has spoken of our gods in splendid fashion. He alleged in what he read that they are the exalted Gharaniq whose intercession is approved.”
The Gharaniq were high-flying cranes. Muhammad meant that they were near Allah’s throne, and that it was legitimate for Muslims to pray to al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat as intercessors before Allah.
Word traveled quickly among the Muslims: “the Quraysh have accepted Islam.” Since peace seemed to be at hand, some of the Muslims who had earlier fled to Abyssinia for their safety began to return. But one principal player in the drama was not at all pleased: the angel Gabriel, the one whose appearance to Muhammad had given birth to Islam. He came to Muhammad and said: “What have you done, Muhammad? You have read to these people something I did not bring you from God and you have said what He did not say to you.”
Muhammad began to realize just how severely he had compromised his monotheistic message: “I have fabricated things against God and have imputed to Him words which He has not spoken.” He “was bitterly grieved and was greatly in fear” of Allah for having allowed his message to be adulterated by Satan. But Allah reassured him: “Never did We send a messenger or a prophet before thee, but, when he framed a desire, Satan threw some vanity into his desire: but Allah will cancel anything vain that Satan throws in, and Allah will confirm and establish His Signs” (Qur’an 22:52). Allah, says Ibn Ishaq, thereby “relieved his prophet’s grief, and made him feel safe from his fears.” He also sent down a new revelation to replace Satan’s words about al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat in sura 53, repeating the scorn that the Qur’an has elsewhere for the idea that Allah would have daughters while earthly men have sons (vv. 19-23).
Not surprisingly, Muhammad’s about-face only inflamed tensions with the Quraysh all the more. Ibn Ishaq recalls that the polytheists began to use this episode against him:
When the annulment of what Satan had put upon the Prophet’s tongue came from God, Quraysh said: “Muhammad has repented of what he said about the position of your gods with Allah, altered it and brought something else.” Now those two words which Satan had put upon the apostle’s tongue were in the mouth of every polytheist and they became more violently hostile to the Muslims and the apostle’s followers.
The Satanic verses incident has naturally caused Muslims acute embarrassment for centuries. Indeed, it casts a shadow over the veracity of Muhammad’s entire claim to be a prophet. After all, if Satan could put words into Muhammad’s mouth once, and make him think they were revelations from Allah, who is to say that Satan did not use Muhammad as his mouthpiece on other occasions? Thus Islamic scholars, apologists, and historians have attacked the Satanic verses with particular ferocity. Muhammad Husayn Haykal argues in his Life of Muhammad that the incident never happened at all, and indeed could not have happened, for after all, Muhammad is a prophet:
This story arrested the attention of the western Orientalists who took it as true and repeated it ad nauseam”…It is a story whose incoherence is evident upon the least scrutiny. It contradicts the infallibility of every prophet in conveying the message of his Lord.
He marvels that even some Muslim scholars take it to be true. And its roots in the traditional sources are firm. It is hard to see how and why such a story would have been fabricated and accepted as authentic by such pious Muslims as Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa’d, and Tabari, as well as by the later Qur’anic commentator Zamakhshari (1074-1143), who is unlikely to have recounted it if he did not trust the sources, if it were not authentic. Here, as in many other areas, the witness of the early Islamic sources is compelling. Those who would wish away the Satanic verses cannot get around the fact that these elements of Muhammad’s life were not the inventions of his enemies, but were passed along by men who believed he was indeed the Prophet of Allah.
Besides this oblique reference to the Satanic verses incident, the Meccan sura 53 contains an account of two of Muhammad’s visions of the angel Gabriel, along with a challenge to the unbelievers to disprove the authenticity of those visions (vv. 1-18). Then after the denial of the three goddesses (vv. 19-23), Allah explains that unbelievers give the angels female names (v. 28) and that Muhammad should shun them (vv. 29-30).
Allah follows this with a discourse on the differing outcomes of belief and unbelief. Allah will forgive those who avoid major sins (v. 32), but the one who turns back after embracing Islam (vv. 33-34) ignores what was told to Moses (v. 36) and Abraham (v. 37) — that no one will intercede for anyone else on the Day of Judgment (v. 38) and everyone will receive their just deserts (v. 39). Allah controls everything (vv. 43-49) and destroyed earlier populations of unbelievers (vv. 50-54). People then should heed Muhammad’s warning, for the Judgment is coming soon (vv. 55-62).
Ibn Kathir reports that Muhammad would recite sura 54, as well as sura 50, “during major gatherings and occasions because they contain Allah’s promises and warnings, and information about the origin of creation, Resurrection, Tawhid [the oneness of Allah], the affirmation of prophethood, and so forth among the great objectives.” Sura 54 takes its name from its first verse, which refers to the splitting of the moon — a miracle that, according to a hadith, took place during Muhammad’s lifetime. As the Muslims looked agog at the moon split into two parts, Muhammad cried, “Witness, witness (this miracle).”
Some modern-day Muslims, however, claim that this verse constituted a prophecy that was fulfilled during Neil Armstrong’s moon landing in 1969, when the astronauts dug up a bit of the lunar soil and brought it back — although, despite their imaginative forays into numerology in connection with this claim, it is more than a stretch to consider that gathering of a small amount of soil as amounting to a splitting of the moon.
The rest of the sura centers around the refrain, “And We have indeed made the Qur’an easy to understand and remember: then is there any that will receive admonition?,” which appears in vv. 17, 22, 32, and 40. A secondary refrain is “how (terrible) was my Penalty and my Warning,” which appears in vv. 16, 18, 21, and 30. Around these are familiar themes: the unbelievers turn away from Allah’s signs and scorn them as magic (v. 2); Muhammad should turn away from them and leave them alone until the Day of Judgment, when they will be punished (vv. 6-8). Noah and his flood are a warning to the unbelievers of Muhammad’s day (vv. 9-16), as is the destruction of the people of Ad (vv. 18-22); the people of Thamud (vv. 23-31); Lot’s people (vv. 33-39); and Pharaoh and his people (vv. 41-42). Are the unbelievers who reject Muhammad better than they (v. 43)? They think they will be able to defend themselves if they band together (v. 44) but they will not escape the Day of Judgment (v. 46).
The Meccan sura 55 is organized around a poetic refrain that is repeated much more frequently than are those in sura 54: “Which of the Lord’s blessings will you deny?” (vv. 13, 16, 18, 21, 23, 25, 28, 30, 32, 34, 36, 38, 40, 42, 45, 53, 55, 59, 61, 65, 67, 69, 77) — somewhat resembling Psalm 136, with its recurring “For his mercy endures forever,” although even here the Qur’an is focused on magnifying, refuting, and even mocking the perversity of the unbelievers’ rejection of Islam. Says Maududi, “This is the only Surah of the Qur’an in which besides men the jinn also, who are the other creation of the earth endowed with freedom of will and action, have been directly addressed.” The jinn are addressed with humans in v. 31.
In the first part (vv. 1-30), Allah yet again emphasizes his creative power and his control of earthly phenomena; in the second part (vv. 31-78) he yet again warns of the Day of Judgment, and again describes hell and Paradise. Little is said that has not been said many other times in the Qur’an. The “two Easts and two Wests” of v. 17 refer, says Ibn Kathir, to “the sunrise of summer and winter and the sunset of summer and winter” — a decidedly geocentric point of view.
Sura 56, another Meccan sura, once again features Allah warning about the Day of Judgment (vv. 1-7) and describes the rewards of the Companions of the Right Hand — that is, those who enter Paradise (vv. 10-40; 88-91). These include, of course, the legendary virgins (v. 36), who are a “special creation” (v. 35). One way in which they are special, according to Islamic tradition, is that their virginity is endlessly renewed, so that the believers” experience of them is always just like the first. After this comes yet another description of the tortures of hell (vv. 41-56; 92-94), and a warning to mankind based on the signs of Allah’s power in the natural world (vv. 57-76). The sura concludes with Allah praising the Qur’an as a divine revelation that only those who are ritually pure should touch (vv. 77-80) — which is why American guards at Guantanamo, bowing to Islamic norms, would only touch the Qur’an while wearing gloves.
Allah taunts the unbelievers by asking them that if they believe the Qur’an to be false and consider themselves independent of him and his power, why don’t they intervene when a man is dying (v. 83) and call his soul back into his body (v. 87)?
The Medinan sura 57 was revealed after the Muslims conquered Mecca and faced few significant barriers to becoming the masters of all Arabia. It begins with a paean to Allah’s power and a question to the unbelievers: “What ails you that you do not believe in Allah?” (v. 8). The costs of the conquest may have left the Muslims short of funds, for Allah exhorts the Muslims to contribute to the Islamic cause, although he tells them that those who did so before the conquest of Mecca will be rewarded more abundantly than those who jumped on the bandwagon only when the Muslims had definitively defeated their enemies (vv. 10-11). Maududi explains: “Those who sacrifice their lives and expend their wealth to further promote the cause of Islam when it is already strong cannot attain to the rank of those who struggled with their lives and their wealth to promote and uphold the cause of Islam when it was weak.”
The righteous will be rewarded with the gardens of Paradise (vv. 12, 21), while the hypocrites will be punished (v. 13) with hell (v. 15). The Muslims should not be like the Jews and Christians, who received divine revelation but whose hearts grew hardened (v. 16). Instead, they should give generously (v. 18), for this world is just play and amusement, and earthly life is just deception (v. 20). Allah decrees and controls all earthly events (v. 22) — as the Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains: “No affliction befalls in the earth, by way of drought, or in yourselves, such as illness, or the loss of a child, but it is in a Book, meaning, the Preserved Tablet (al-lawh al-mahfūz), before We bring it about, before We create it.” Allah invokes earlier prophets, along with the gift of iron, to show his solicitude for mankind (v. 25). One of these earlier prophets was Jesus, but his followers invented monasticism, which Allah had not commanded. They should instead have sought his will alone; many of the Christians are “rebellious transgressors” (v. 27). The Jews and Christians have no power over Allah’s grace (v. 29) — as the Tafsir al-Jalalayn says, this is “contrary to their claims that they are God’s beloved and those who deserve His beatitude.” Ibn Kathir explains that this verse means that “they cannot prevent what Allah gives, or give what Allah prevents.”