At the beginning of the Medinan sura 58, Allah tells Muhammad that he has heard the pleas of the woman whose husband attempted to divorce by telling her, “You are to me as my mother’s back.” A woman thus divorced could not remarry, and indeed had to remain in her ex-husband’s household as, effectively, a domestic servant. Allah directs that such a divorce is not final, but can be reversed if the husband frees a slave (v. 3), fasts for two months, or feeds sixty poor people (v. 4).
According to Islamic tradition, the woman mentioned here was named Khawlah bint Tha’labah, and her husband Aws bin As-Samit, and Gabriel gave this Qur’anic passage to Muhammad after Khawlah complained to the Islamic prophet about her plight. Here again, then, the reader of the Qur’an faces two choices: either Muhammad was fabricating revelations that he said were from the supreme God in order to solve problems and settle issues he encountered in the course of his daily life, such that what claims to be an eternal book is actually filled with incidental minutiae from Muhammad’s life, or every detail of his life was mapped out for all eternity by the deity in order to teach some eternal truths, and he was therefore the most important person who ever existed. There is no other alternative.
Later come more indications of the incidental and ad hoc nature of the Qur’an (or, alternatively, the minute divine planning of every detail of Muhammad’s life). According to Qatadah, v. 11 “was revealed about gatherings in places where Allah is being remembered. When someone would come to join in assemblies with the Messenger, they would hesitate to offer them space so that they would not lose their places. Allah the Exalted commanded them to spread out and make room for each other.” And then Allah tells believers to make contributions before private meetings with Muhammad (vv. 12-13).
This sura also includes familiar Qur’anic themes, including the bellicose promise that “those who resist Allah and His Messenger will be humbled to dust” (v. 5). Allah sees and knows all things, including the secret meetings of the unbelievers, and will punish them on the Day of Judgment (vv. 7-10). Those who befriend those who are accursed by Allah are the party of Satan (v. 19) and will suffer in hell (v. 17). (And of course, those accursed by Allah include Jews and Christians, as per 9:30). No one who loves those who resist Allah and Muhammad will enter Paradise (v. 22).
Sura 59 was revealed, according to Islamic tradition, after Muhammad had the Jewish an-Nadir tribe exiled from Medina. Allah “cast terror into their hearts, so that they destroyed their dwellings by their own hands and the hands of the Believers” (v. 2). Ibn Kathir explains:
When the Messenger of Allah migrated to Al-Madinah, he made a peace treaty with the Jews stipulating that he would not fight them and they would not fight him. They soon betrayed the treaty that they made with Allah’s Messenger. Therefore, Allah sent His torment down on them; it can never be averted, and His appointed destiny touched them; it can never be resisted. The Prophet forced them to evacuate and abandon their fortified forts that Muslims did not think they would ever control. The Jews thought that their fortifications will save them from Allah’s torment, but they did not help them against Allah in the least. Then, that which they did not expect came to them from Allah, and Allah’s Messenger forced them to leave Al-Madinah…
According to the historian Tabari, the betrayal of the treaty was actually a conspiracy to kill Muhammad by some members of the Banu Nadir. Rather than appealing to the Nadir leaders to turn over the guilty men, Muhammad sent word to the Nadir: “Leave my country and do not live with me. You have intended treachery.” When the men of the Nadir protested and invoked that covenant, Muhammad’s messenger replied: “Hearts have changed, and Islam has wiped out the old covenants.”
Abdullah bin Ubayy and some of the others that the Qur’an designates as “hypocrites” urged the Banu Nadir not to go, and promised to come to their aid if attacked (vv. 11-12, 16). Relying on this, the Nadir told Muhammad: “We will not leave our settlements; so do as you see fit.” With the displacement of responsibility onto the enemy that would become characteristic of jihad warriors throughout the ages, Muhammad told the Muslims, “The Jews have declared war.” Allah then promised Muhammad that he would strike “terror” into the Jews” hearts (v. 13) and told him that both the hypocrites and the Jews would end up in hell (v. 17).
The Prophet of Islam ordered his Muslims to march out against the tribe and lay siege to them. During the siege, he ordered that the date palms of the Banu Nadir be burnt. The Nadir Jews, surprised, asked him: “Muhammad, you have prohibited wanton destruction and blamed those guilty of it. Why then are you cutting down and burning our palm-trees?” Allah justified Muhammad’s action by explaining that he cut down the trees “by Allah’s leave” (v. 5). Islamic apologists frequently cite Muhammad’s prohibition against wanton destruction — but don’t mention Muhammad’s own violation of this decree, and Allah’s endorsement of the violation.
What the Jews couldn’t carry with them became Muhammad’s personal property, which he distributed to the needy (vv. 6-9). He also kept some, as Umar later recounted: “The properties abandoned by Banu Nadir were the ones which Allah bestowed upon His Apostle…These properties were particularly meant for the Holy Prophet…He would meet the annual expenditure of his family from the income thereof, and would spend what remained for purchasing horses and weapons as preparation for Jihad.”
The sura ends with a warning to fear Allah, for the “Companions of the Fire” and the “Companions of the Garden” are not equal (v. 20), and with praise of the Qur’an, which would have made even a mountain bow down if it had been revealed on a mountain (v. 21), as well as praise of Allah himself, “the Sovereign, the Holy One, the Source of Peace, the Guardian of Faith, the Preserver of Safety, the Exalted in Might, the Irresistible, the Supreme” (v. 23), “the Creator, the Evolver, the Bestower of Forms,” to whom “belong the Most Beautiful Names” (v. 24). These are among the legendary ninety-nine names of Allah found in Islamic tradition.
The Medinan sura 60 calls for an examination of the all-important but completely overlooked question of frames of reference: what is said is not always heard the way it is meant. Consider these remarks by former President George W. Bush and Karen Hughes, former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, on the Islamic Feast of Eid al-Adha, which commemorates the end of the Hajj and Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son.
In December 2006, Bush issued a statement that read in part:
For Muslims in America and around the world, Eid al-Adha is an important occasion to give thanks for their blessings and to remember Abraham’s trust in a loving God. During the four days of this special observance, Muslims honor Abraham’s example of sacrifice and devotion to God by celebrating with friends and family, exchanging gifts and greetings, and engaging in worship through sacrifice and charity.
And the previous January, Hughes said:
Eid is a celebration of commitment and obedience to God and also of God’s mercy and provision for all of us. It is a time of family and community, a time of charity….I want to read to you a message from President Bush: “I send greetings to Muslims around the world as you celebrate Eid al-Adha. When God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham placed his faith in God above all else. During Eid al-Adha, Muslims celebrate Abraham’s devotion and give thanks for God’s mercy and many blessings.”
In speaking of Abraham, even when doing so in the context of Eid al-Adha, Bush and Hughes were probably thinking of Genesis 22:15-18, in which Abraham is rewarded for his faith and told he will become a blessing to the nations: “by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”
But the Muslim audiences that Bush and Hughes were addressing didn’t read Genesis. They read the Qur’an. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son (who is not named) is recounted in 37:102-109. And in sura 60, Allah says that Abraham is an “excellent example” (uswa hasana, أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ, a term applied also to Muhammad in 33:21) for the believers when he tells his pagan family and people that “there has arisen, between us and you, enmity and hatred for ever, unless ye believe in Allah and Him alone” (v. 4). The same verse goes on to say that Abraham is not an excellent example when he tells his father, “I will pray for forgiveness for you.” Hatred is held up as exemplary; forgiveness is explicitly declared to be not exemplary.
Bush and Hughes were thus reinforcing a worldview that takes for granted the legitimacy of everlasting enmity and hatred between Muslims and non-Muslims — and were doing so precisely in the context of trying to build bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims. This demonstrates once again how vitally important it was for them and all subsequent U.S. officials, as well as for the rest of us, to have a detailed understanding of the theological and cultural frame of reference of jihadists and Muslims in general. But for lack of this, not only are statements issued that could have and should have been much more carefully worded, but policy errors keep multiplying.
According to Islamic tradition, this sura was revealed after Muhammad and the Muslims set out to conquer Mecca, and a Muslim named Hatib bin Abi Baltaah notified the Meccans of the impending attack because he had relatives in Mecca. Hatib bin Abi Baltaah was a veteran of the Battle of Badr, and so Muhammad declined Umar’s request for permission to behead him, saying, “He attended Badr. What can I tell you, perhaps Allah looked at those who attended Badr and said, ‘O the people of Badr, do what you like, for I have forgiven you.'” But then Muhammad received this sura, which takes Hatib to task for taking as his friends the enemies of Allah (v. 1) and tells him that his relatives will not help him on the Day of Judgment (v. 3). He, and Muslims generally, should emulate Abraham’s hatred of his unbelieving relatives, and not his forgiveness of them (v. 4).
Nevertheless, Allah holds out the possibility that one day the Muslims and the Quraysh will reconcile (v. 7) and tells the Muslims that they are not forbidden to deal kindly and justly with those among the Quraysh who have not fought them (v. 8) — that is, says Ibn Kathir, “those who did not have a role in your expulsion,” the expulsion of the Muslims from Mecca. But they must not turn in friendship to those who did fight against them (v. 9). This passage has been invoked by jihadists today to justify what they describe as a defensive jihad against the United States, which is, in their view, fighting against Muslims.
Then the sura turns to the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, which Muhammad had concluded in 628 on disadvantageous terms with the pagan Meccans. Muhammad had shocked his men by agreeing to provisions that seemed highly unfavorable for the Muslims: those men fleeing the Quraysh and seeking refuge with the Muslims would be returned to the Quraysh, while those men fleeing the Muslims and seeking refuge with the Quraysh would not be returned to the Muslims. But according to Ibn Ishaq, when a woman of the Quraysh, Umm Kulthum, joined the Muslims in Medina, and her two brothers came to claim her in accord with the provisions of the treaty, Muhammad refused to return her: Allah had forbidden him to do so with a new revelation saying that Muslim refugees should not be returned to those whom they had fled — a revelation now enshrined in vv. 10-13.
In refusing to send Umm Kulthum back to the Quraysh, Muhammad broke the treaty. Although Muslim apologists have claimed throughout history that the Quraysh broke it first, this incident came before all those by the Quraysh that Muslims point to as treaty violations. A Muslim biographer of Muhammad, Yahiya Emerick, asserts that Muhammad based his case on a bit of legal hair-splitting: the treaty stipulated that the Muslims would return to the Quraysh any man who came to them, not any woman. Even if that is true, Muhammad soon — as Emerick acknowledges — began to accept men from the Quraysh as well, thus definitively breaking the treaty. The breaking of the treaty in this way would reinforce the principle that nothing was good except what was advantageous to Islam, and nothing evil except what hindered Islam. Once the treaty was formally discarded, Islamic jurists enunciated the principle that truces in general could only be concluded on a temporary basis of up to ten years, and that they could only be entered into for the purpose of allowing weakened Muslim forces to gather strength to fight again more effectively.
This principle is tremendously relevant in today’s geopolitical situation, whenever and wherever the State Department or any other non-Muslim political entity indicates a willingness to conclude a treaty with a Muslim group that is clearly committed to traditional Islamic principles. But as relevant as it is, this principle is universally ignored.
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.
Sura 63 begins in the usual fashion, with Allah excoriating the hypocrites who opposed Muhammad in Medina (vv. 1-6). According to Maududi, it came to Muhammad in response to the machinations of one of the leaders of the hypocrites, Abdullah bin Ubayy. When the Jewish Qaynuqa tribe surrendered to the Muslims, some of the Qaynuqa who had made alliances among the Muslims came forward to plead their case before Muhammad. According to Tabari, Muhammad wanted to have all the men of the tribe put to death. However, Abdullah bin Ubayy implored Muhammad: “O Muhammad, deal kindly with my clients.” Muhammad ignored him, so Abdullah repeated the request, whereupon the Prophet of Islam turned his face away from Abdullah. Abdullah bin Ubayy then impetuously caught Muhammad by the collar of his robe, whereupon, according to Ibn Ishaq, “the apostle was so angry that his face became almost black.” Muhammad said to Abdullah, “Confound you, let me go.”
But Abdullah replied, “No, by God, I will not let you go until you deal kindly with my clients. Four hundred men without mail and three hundred mailed protected me from all mine enemies; would you cut them down in one morning? By God, I am a man who fears that circumstances may change.” Muhammad then granted him his request, agreeing to spare the Qaynuqa as long as they turned over their property as booty to the Muslims and left Medina, which they did forthwith.
Still, Muhammad was unhappy with the alliance Abdullah had made with the Jewish tribe. It was at this point that he received a key revelation about the relationships that should prevail between Muslims and non-Muslims: “O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors: They are but friends and protectors to each other. And he among you who turns to them is of them. Truly Allah does not guide an unjust people” (5:51). And Allah scolded in harsh terms those who, like Abdullah bin Ubayy, feared a loss of business prospects because of the misfortune of the Qaynuqa (5:52). In sura 63, Allah criticizes them for discouraging people to contribute money to the cause of Islam (vv. 7, 9-10).
The Meccan sura 64 repeats, yet again, oft-repeated themes: Allah has dominion over all things (v. 1); he knows the secrets of every person’s heart (vv. 2, 4); those who reject Allah’s messengers will suffer a terrible punishment (vv. 5-6); they doubt that they will be raised from the grave and judged (v. 7), but they will, and the righteous will enter Paradise (v. 9) while the damned will go to hell (v. 10). No calamity befalls anyone unless it is Allah’s will (v. 11), so obey Allah and Muhammad, but Muhammad is not responsible for those who reject his message (v. 12). The warning that one’s enemies may be his own wives and children (v. 14) arose from an incident recounted by Ibn Abbas: “There were men who embraced Islam in Makkah and wanted to migrate to Allah’s Messenger. However, their wives and children refused to allow them. Later when they joined Allah’s Messenger, they found that those who were with him (the Companions) have gained knowledge in the religion, so they were about to punish their wives and children” — whereupon Allah counseled them to forgive them (v. 14 also).
The sura ends with another appeal to give money for the cause of Islam (vv. 16-17).
The Medinan sura 65 lays down rules for divorce. If a man wishes to divorce his wife, he has to wait through two menstrual periods to make sure she isn’t pregnant first (v. 1) — or three months for those who are post-menopausal (v. 4). The talk about taking them back (v. 2) refers to the fact that in Islamic law a man can take his wife after divorcing her twice, but after the third divorce he cannot take her back so easily. Muhammad directed that in such a case, the divorced woman would have to consummate a marriage with another man and be divorced by him — only then could she return to her first husband if he wished her to do so:
The wife of Rifa’a Al-Qurazi came to the Prophet and said, “I was Rifa’a’s wife, but he divorced me and it was a final irrevocable divorce. Then I married AbdurRahman bin Az-Zubair but he is impotent.” The Prophet asked her, “Do you want to remarry Rifa’a? You cannot unless you had a complete sexual relation with your present husband.”
Then the sura concludes with more warnings of the destruction of unbelieving populations (v. 8) and the impending, unavoidable Judgment (v. 10).
Ibn Abbas once asked Umar, the renowned Companion of Muhammad and his second successor as leader of the Muslim community, about the beginning of the Medinan sura 66: “O Chief of the believers! Who were the two ladies from among the wives of the Prophet to whom Allah said: ‘If you two return in repentance (66.4)’?”
Umar replied, “I am astonished at your question, O Ibn Abbas. They were Aisha and Hafsa.” According to Umar, Hafsa, one of Muhammad’s wives, had been angering Muhammad by talking back to him. So when Umar learned that Muhammad had divorced all his wives, he was not surprised; in fact he was jubilant and exclaimed: “Hafsa is a ruined loser! I expected that would happen some day.”
Umar then went to Muhammad, who initially declines to receive him and then relents. “I greeted him and while still standing, I said: ‘Have you divorced your wives?’ He raised his eyes to me and replied in the negative.” Umar explained to Abdullah that “the Prophet did not go to his wives because of the secret which Hafsa had disclosed to Aisha, and he said that he would not go to his wives for one month as he was angry with them when Allah admonished him (for his oath that he would not approach Maria). When twenty-nine days had passed, the Prophet went to Aisha first of all.”
The background of this is that Hafsa had caught Muhammad in bed with his concubine, Maria the Copt, on the day he was supposed to spend with Hafsa. Muhammad promised to stay away from Mary and asked Hafsa to keep the matter a secret, but Hafsa told Aisha. Then Allah stepped in with the revelation of the threat of divorce that we now find in vv. 1-6, freeing Muhammad from his oath to stay away from Mary.
Another tradition explains the same verses as concerning only his wives’ jealousy (or perhaps Muhammad’s bad breath) and his oath to stop drinking honey. In this case what the Prophet has held forbidden that Allah has made lawful for him would be honey. That is, Muhammad tried to please his consorts by promising to give up honey, and Allah is allowing him to break this oath and threatening the errant wives with divorce.
Then Allah concludes sura 66 with still more warnings of hell for the unbelievers (vv. 7-12). Allah tells Muhammad to “strive hard” (jahidi, جاهد) against the unbelievers and hypocrites. Ibn Kathir explains: “Allah the Exalted orders His Messenger to perform Jihad against the disbelievers and hypocrites, the former with weapons and armaments and the later by establishing Allah’s legislated penal code.”