Sura 78, “The Announcement,” is similar, warning of that terrible Day of Sorting (v. 17), and containing Allah’s warning that those damned to hell will be made to drink a “boiling fluid and a fluid, dark, murky, intensely cold” (v. 25), while the righteous in the garden will enjoy “voluptuous women of equal age” (v. 33). According to Ibn Abbas, Mujahid and others, “This means round breasts. They meant by this that the breasts of these girls will be fully rounded and not sagging, because they will be virgins, equal in age. This means that they will only have one age.”
More of the same comes in sura 79, “Soul Snatchers,” which begins with Allah swearing by heavenly bodies and angels in language that could refer to both or either. Allah makes many such oaths in these short, chronologically early chapters of the Qur’an — a curious practice, to be sure, and one that calls into question the Islamic dogma that Allah is the sole speaker of every word of the Qur’an, since it would make much more sense for Muhammad to be the one making these oaths. Why does Allah need to back up his own word with an oath on anything? Pharaoh’s disobedience of Moses’ warning, and his subsequent punishment, is once again invoked (vv. 15-25), as a clear analogy to the hazards of rejecting Muhammad’s message, since he, like Moses, is a “warner” for those who fear the Day of Judgment (v. 45).
The Qur’an frequently tells Muslims to obey Muhammad (3:32; 3:132; 4:13; 4:59; 4:69; 4:80; 5:92; 8:1; 8:20; 8:46; 9:71; 24:47; 24:51; 24:52; 24:54; 24:56; 33:33; 47:33; 49:14; 58:13; 64:12) and offers him as an “excellent example” for the conduct of individual Muslims (33:21) — yet it also takes for granted that he is capable of sin. One of the clearest indications of Muhammad’s susceptibility to sin comes in sura 80, “He Frowned,” in which Allah rebukes Muhammad for turning away a poor blind man while lavishing attention on a rich man (vv. 1-12). In yet another oddity involving the speaker and audience of the Qur’an, the sura begins by speaking of Muhammad in the third person, although elsewhere in the Qur’an Allah usually addresses his prophet directly, with a few notable exceptions.
Allah follows this with praise of the Qur’an (vv. 13-16) and a meditation on the perversity of humanity in rejecting Allah, whose signs are everywhere in the natural world (vv. 17-42).
Sura 81, “The Overthrowing,” paints a vivid and arresting picture of the Day of Judgment, when the natural world will be rolled up (vv. 1-6), the souls will be sorted out (v. 7), and the female infant who was buried alive will be asked for what crime she was executed (vv. 8-9). Muslims have pointed to this with pride throughout Islamic history, asserting that Islam put an end to the pagan Arab practice of burying female babies alive.
Allah identifies Muhammad as “a most honorable messenger, endued with power, with rank before the Lord of the Throne” (vv. 19-20), who is not possessed or mad (v. 22) and is not conveying the words of an evil spirit (v. 25). His message will profit “whoever among you wills to go straight (v. 28), but no one can so will “except as Allah wills” (v. 29) — another denial of human free will.
Sura 82, “The Cleaving,” paints a picture of the Day of Judgment very similar to that in sura 81, warning of the end of the world and excoriating those who “reject Right and Judgment” (v. 9). And on that dreadful Day, “no soul shall have power to do anything for another” (v. 19).
Sura 83, “Defrauding,” explains that on that Day, the written record of the deeds of wicked (Sijjin, vv. 7-9) and the written record of the deeds of the righteous (Illiyin, vv. 18-21) will be opened, and everyone will be sent to Paradise or hell. The sinners used to laugh at the righteous and make fun of them, but on that Day the righteous will laugh at the unbelievers (vv. 29-34).
Very similar to these is sura 84, “The Sundering,” which begins with another recounting of the natural catastrophes that will attend the Day of Judgment (vv. 1-5), moves on to speak of the written records of the deeds of each individual (vv. 6-12) and of the hollowness of the earthly happiness enjoyed by those who reject Allah (vv. 13-15). Then the wonders of the natural world are again invoked as proof of the reality of Allah (vv. 16-18) and the sura concludes with more warning of the penalty that awaits the perverse unbelievers (vv. 19-25).
Sura 85, “Constellations,” pronounces woe upon “the makers of the pit” (vv. 4-10), who were enemies of the believers. Ibn Kathir explains: “This is information about a group of people who were among the disbelievers. They went after those among them who believed in Allah and they attempted to force them to give up their religion. However, the believers refused to recant, so they dug a ditch for them in the ground. Then they lit a fire in it and prepared some fuel for it in order to keep it ablaze. Then they tried to convince them (the believers) to [apostatize] from their religion (again), but they still refused them. So they threw them into the fire.” Then follows praise of Allah and more lamentation over the perverse rejection of him by the unbelievers (vv. 11-20), followed by praise of the Qur’an as glorious and “inscribed on a Preserved Tablet” (vv. 21-22) — a foundation of the Islamic doctrine that the Qur’an is eternal.
Sura 86, “The Morning Star,” invites men to ponder their creation “from a drop emitted” (v. 6) as proof that Allah can raise the dead on the Day of Judgment (v. 8). The Qur’an is a “conclusive word” (v. 13) — the last word on all disputed questions — and is “no joke” (v. 14). The unbelievers are plotting against the Muslims (v. 15), but Allah is likewise plotting against them (v. 16), so Muhammad should give them a break for awhile (v. 17). “This means,” says Ibn Kathir, “that you will see what befalls them of torment, punishment and destruction.” That torment will not fail to materialize, and no man can hold it back.
There is yet more doom and judgment in these Meccan suras: in Sura 87, “The Most High,” Allah tells Muhammad to glorify Allah for his ordering of creation (vv. 1-5). Then Allah assures Muhammad that he will teach him the Qur’an in sections, so that he won’t forget “except as Allah wills” (vv. 6-7) — which recalls Allah’s later promise that he won’t cause any part of the Qur’an to be forgotten unless he replaces it with something better or just as good (2:106). Muhammad must warn the people; those who fear Allah will heed the warning (v. 10), while those who do not will be cast into the fire (vv. 12-13). This message, the Qur’an asserts, is the same as that which is contained in earlier revelations, specifically the books of Abraham and Moses (vv. 18-19). Islamic apologists take the fact that the Qur’anic message turns out not to be the same as that of the existing books of Moses as evidence that the Jews have corrupted their Scriptures.
Sura 88, “The Overwhelming Event,” has Allah offering a succinct recapitulation of the central themes of many of these suras: the unbelievers will suffer tortures in hell (vv. 1-7); the believers will enjoy the pleasures of the gardens of Paradise (vv. 8-16); the creation bears witness to Allah’s creating hand (vv. 17-20); Muhammad’s role is simply to warn of what is to take place, not to manage men’s affairs, and Allah will punish the unbelievers (vv. 21-26).
Maududi says that sura 89, “The Dawn,” “was revealed at the stage when persecution of the new converts to Islam had begun in Makkah.” Accordingly the sura rehearses the scourges that Allah brought upon those who had rejected the word of earlier prophets (vv. 6-14) and warns the unjust man who loves wealth and does not feed the poor that the Judgment and hell will inevitably come upon him (vv. 15-30).
In sura 90, “The City,” Allah calls Mecca to witness (v. 1), and Muhammad is a resident of Mecca (v. 2), and the bond between parent and child (v. 3), that he has created mankind for a life of labor (v. 4), and so therefore a man should not think that he is responsible to no greater power (vv. 5-10). But such a man has not tried to take the ascending path (vv. 11-12), which involves freeing the slave (v. 13), feeding the hungry (v. 14), and caring for the orphaned (v. 15) and poor (v. 16). Those who do these things will be blessed (vv. 17-18), while those who do not will suffer in hell (vv. 19-20).
In sura 91, “The Sun,” Allah swears by the sun (v. 1), the moon (v. 2), the day (v. 3), the night (v. 4), heaven (v. 5), earth (v. 6), and the soul (v. 7) that one who purifies the soul will succeed (v. 9) and one who corrupts it will fail (v. 10). Then follows (vv. 11-15) another reference to the prophet Salih and the story of the she-camel of Allah, which also appears in suras 11 and 26. Explains Ibn Kathir: “A crowd of them gathered and demanded that he immediately bring forth from the rock a she-camel that was ten months pregnant, and they pointed to a certain rock in their midst. Allah’s Prophet Salih made them promise that if he responded to their request, they would believe in him and follow him. So they agreed to that. The Prophet of Allah Salih, peace be upon him, stood and prayed, then he prayed to Allah to grant them their request. Then the rock to which they had pointed split open, revealing a she-camel that was ten months pregnant, exactly as they had requested. So some of them believed, but most of them disbelieved.” Indeed, some of them set upon the camel and hamstrung it (v. 14), for which they were duly punished.
Sura 92, “The Night,” is an exhortation to charitable giving. The one who “gives and is dutiful” (v. 5) will be rewarded with “Bliss” (v. 7), while the “greedy miser” who “thinks himself self-sufficient” (v. 8) will end up only in “misery” (v. 10).
Then the focus returns to Muhammad himself. Allah consoles Muhammad in sura 93, “The Morning Hours,” telling him he has not forsaken him, and is not displeased with him (v. 3). Allah told this to Muhammad in response to a woman who taunted Muhammad: according to a hadith, “The Prophet became ill, so he did not stand for prayer for a night or two. Then a woman came and said, ‘O Muhammad! I think that your devil has finally left you.'” Or, in another version that comes from Ibn Abbas, “When the Qur’an was revealed to the Messenger of Allah, Jibril [Gabriel] was delayed from coming to him for a number of days (on one occasion). Therefore, the Messenger of Allah was affected by this. Then the idolaters began to say, ‘His Lord has abandoned him and hates him.'”
Allah reminds Muhammad that he was an orphan, and that at that time Allah cared for him (v. 6) and that therefore he should be kind to orphans (v. 9). Ibn Kathir explains: “This refers to the fact that his father died while his mother was still pregnant with him, and his mother, Aminah bint Wahb died when he was only six years old. After this he was under the guardianship of his grandfather, Abdul-Muttalib, until he died when Muhammad was eight years old. Then his uncle, Abu Talib, took responsibility for him and continued to protect him, assist him, elevate his status, honor him, and even restrain his people from harming him when he was forty years of age and Allah commissioned him with the prophethood.” Of course, as we have seen, many of the Meccan suras involve replies to the objections and scorn of Muhammad’s own people, the pagan Quraysh of Mecca.
In sura 94, “Solace,” Allah consoles his prophet and once again reminds Muhammad of his favors to him. He has removed his burden (v. 2) and raised him to a position of esteem (v. 4). He has “expanded his breast” (v. 1) — which is akin to Allah’s promise that “those whom Allah wills to guide, He opens their breast to Islam” (6:125).
Allah warns in sura 95, “The Fig Tree,” that man, although created in the “best of moulds” (v. 4), will be utterly abased to become the “lowest of the low” (v. 5) — except those who do righteous deeds (v. 6). Here again is another basis for the contempt for unbelievers that marks so much of Islamic discourse to this day — those who disbelieve are in Allah’s own words the “lowest of the low.”
According to Islamic tradition, when Muhammad, a prosperous Arabian merchant from the Quraysh tribe of Mecca, was forty years old, he was praying in a cave in the mountains near Mecca. As he passed the entire night in devotion, an angel came to him and commanded him to read and recite what he read. Muhammad replied, “I do not know how to read.”
The spiritual being, however, would brook no objections. According to a hadith recorded by Bukhari, he pressed his will upon Muhammad in a terrifying fashion, even going so far as to menace him physically:
(The Prophet added), “The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it anymore. He then released me and again asked me to read, and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it anymore. He then released me and asked me again to read, but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read (or, what shall I read?).’ Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me and then released me and said, ‘Read! In the Name of your Lord, Who has created (all that exists). Has created man from a clot. Read! And Your Lord is Most Generous…[unto]…that which he knew not.'” (V. 96:5)
This is the famous first revelation of the Qur’an, now found as sura 96:1-5. In the standard Islamic version of this event, it was the angel Gabriel who appeared to Muhammad, but the earliest Islamic sources present a slightly more complex picture. The ninth-century Islamic historian Ibn Sa’d records a Muslim tradition asserting that an angel named Seraphel originally visited Muhammad, and was replaced by Gabriel after three years. He also records the fact that “the learned and those versed in Sirah literature” contradicted this tradition, and maintained that only Gabriel ever appeared to Muhammad. Nevertheless, it is hard to see how anyone would have gotten the idea that another angel was involved with Muhammad if Islamic tradition had been absolutely certain from the first moment that it was Gabriel.
At the beginning Muhammad regarded his spiritual encounter with considerable agitation. According to Ibn Sa’d, he “suffered much pain and his face turned dust-coloured.” According to the eighth-century Islamic historian Ibn Ishaq, he wondered if he had been demonically possessed, and even contemplated suicide:
I will go to the top of the mountain and throw myself down that I may kill myself and gain rest. So I went forth to do so and then when I was midway on the mountain, I heard a voice from heaven saying: “O Muhammad! Thou art an apostle of God and I am Gabriel.” I raised my head towards heaven to see (who was speaking) and lo, Gabriel in the form of a man with feet astride the horizon, saying, “O Muhammad! Thou art the apostle of God and I am Gabriel.”
Muhammad returned to his wife Khadija in tremendous distress. According to Aisha (via Bukhari):
“Then Allah’s Messenger returned with that (the Revelation), and his heart severely beating; (and the) muscles between his neck and shoulders were trembling till he came upon Khadija (his wife) and said, ‘Cover me!’ They covered him, till his fear was over, and after that he said, ‘O Khadija! What is wrong with me? I was afraid that something bad might happen to me.’ Then he told her all that had happened.”
Ibn Ishaq says that he repeated to her his initial fears: “Woe is me, poet or possessed.” He meant “poet” in the sense of one who received ecstatic, and possibly demonic, visions. But according to Bukhari, Khadija had more confidence in Muhammad than he did in himself. She took Muhammad to see her uncle Waraqa, a Nestorian Christian priest, who told Muhammad the identity of his angelic visitor: “This is the same one who keeps the secrets (angel Gabriel) whom Allah had sent to Moses.”
Without the care of Khadija (who remained Muhammad’s only wife until her death) and the affirmation of Waraqa, the world might never have known Islam. Soon after Waraqa identified the being who had appeared to Muhammad, the old man died. And not long after that the prophet he had effectively anointed was again plunged into a despair so intense that he again contemplated suicide. According to Bukhari:
But after a few days Waraqa died and the Divine Revelation was also paused for a while and the Prophet became so sad as we have heard that he intended several times to throw himself from the tops of high mountains and every time he went up the top of a mountain in order to throw himself down, Gabriel would appear before him and say, “O Muhammad! You are indeed Allah’s Messenger in truth,” whereupon his heart would become quiet and he would calm down and would return home.
This scenario evidently played out again whenever Muhammad had to wait too long for Gabriel to reappear. Bukhari also records a tradition in which “whenever the period of the coming of the Revelation used to become long, [Muhammad] would do as before, but when he used to reach the top of a mountain, Gabriel would appear before him and say to him what he had said before.”
In another Bukhari hadith, Muhammad reacted to the resumption of the revelations in the same way he reacted to the first one. He explained:
The Divine Inspiration was delayed for a short period but suddenly, as I was walking, I heard a voice in the sky, and when I looked up towards the sky, to my surprise, I saw the angel who had come to me in the Hira Cave, and he was sitting on a chair in between the sky and the earth. I was so frightened by him that I fell on the ground and came to my family and said (to them), “Cover me! (with a blanket), cover me!”
The rest of the sura comes from a later date, and is preoccupied with the ingratitude of man: he thinks he is self-sufficient (v. 7) when actually he depends upon Allah (v. 8). The man who tries to prevent someone from praying (vv. 9-10) is turning his back on the truth (v. 13) but will face Allah’s punishment (vv. 15-16), and no one will aid him (v. 17). Muhammad, however, should pay no attention to him, but devote himself to the worship of Allah (v. 19). Ibn Kathir says that “all this referred to Abu Jahl, may Allah curse him. He threatened the Prophet for performing Salah [Islamic prayer] at the Ka’bah.”
Sura 97, “The Night of Power” (more precisely “Decree” or “Destiny”) is disputed as to whether it comes from the Meccan or Medinan period, but this is of little moment, since the chapter contains nothing decisive doctrinally. The “Night of Power” was the occasion of Muhammad’s first revelation (v. 1) — the one recorded in 96:1-5. It is “better than a thousand months” (v. 3), for on this night the Spirit came down — that is, according to the Tafsir al-Jalalayn and others, Gabriel.
In Islam the Night of Power is a special night for prayer, generally observed on one of the last ten days of the month of Ramadan.
Sura 98, “Evidence,” is probably Medinan, and shares the bellicosity and contempt for the People of the Book (primarily Jews and Christians) of the Medinan suras. Maududi says that its placement after suras 96 and 97 is “very meaningful. Surah Al-Alaq  contains the very first revelation, while Surah Al-Qadr  shows as to when it was revealed, and in this Surah it has been explained why it was necessary to send a Messenger along with this Holy Book.”
Why was it necessary? Because Jews and Christians aren’t going to forsake their falsehoods without clear evidence (v. 1), and that evidence is Muhammad and the Qur’an (v. 2). Yet when Muhammad came, the People of the Book became divided over him (v. 4) — as the Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains: “Before his arrival they had all agreed to believe in him when he would come; then those who disbelieved in him from among them became envious of him.” They have been commanded to worship Allah, “establish regular prayer,” and practice “regular charity” — three of the five Pillars of Islam. Those Jews and Christians who reject Muhammad and Islam are the “most vile of created beings” (v. 6) — a cardinal verse among the Qur’an’s many verses dehumanizing unbelievers — while the righteous are the best of creatures (v. 7).
Sura 99, “The Earthquake,” foretells earth’s final convulsion (vv. 1-5) and the separation of the good from the evil (vv. 6-8). Are you a southpaw? The Tafsir al-Jalalayn reports that “on that day mankind shall issue forth, they will depart from the site of the Reckoning, in separate groups, divided up, so that those taking it [their book] by the right hand will go to Paradise, while those taking it by the left hand will go to the Fire…”
Five suras follow with similar warnings. Sura 100, “The Chargers,” notes mankind’s ingratitude to Allah (v. 6) and warns of the Day of Judgment (vv. 9-11). Sura 101, “The Calamity,” also dwells on the Day of Judgment, noting that one’s good deeds must outweigh one’s bad deeds on a scale in order to enjoy “a life of good pleasure and satisfaction” rather than the Fire (vv. 6-11). Sura 102, “Competition,” criticizes those who compete for worldly goods (v. 1) and ignore the imminence of death (v. 2) and hell (v. 6). Sura 103, “The Declining Day,” asserts that mankind is lost (v. 2) except for those who have faith and do good deeds (v. 3). The jurist Ash-Shafi’i said: “If the people were to ponder on this Surah, it would be sufficient for them.” Sura 104, “The Traducer,” calls down woe upon those wealthy (v. 2) people who gossip and sow scandal (v. 1), thinking their wealth would make them immortal (v. 3). They will be thrown into hellfire (vv. 4-6).
The early Meccan sura 105, “The Elephant,” refers to an event said to have taken place in 570 A.D., the year Muhammad was born. The Yemeni Christian ruler Abrahah led a force into Arabia (a force that included elephants), intending to destroy the Ka’bah in Mecca. The guardians of the Ka’bah could offer no defense, but Allah sent flocks of birds who struck the invaders with stones (vv. 3-4). Here again is reinforced the idea that obedience to Allah will bring earthly success and prosperity, and disobedience to Allah will bring earthly ruin.
Sura 106, “Quraysh,” calls upon the pagan Arab tribe of Mecca, the Quraysh (a tribe of which Muhammad was a member), who are the custodians of the Ka’bah — at that time a pagan shrine — to worship the real Lord of the shrine, Allah (v. 3). Sura 107, “Almsgiving,” excoriates those who deny the coming Judgment (v. 1) and are unkind to orphans (v. 2) and the needy (v. 3), and neglect prayers (v. 5). Sura 108, “Abundance,” addresses Muhammad, telling him that those who hate him will be cut off, having no children (v. 3). The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that “this was revealed regarding al-Asi b. Wa’il, who called the Prophet al-abtar, ‘the severed one’, when his son al-Qāsim died.” Muhammad never had a son who lived to adulthood.
Sura 109, “The Unbelievers,” is frequently invoked today as one of the Qur’an’s statements of tolerance. According to most scholars it is a Meccan sura, revealed at a time when the Muslim were a small, weak, embattled band, feeling threatened by the pagan Quraysh — making it possibly a plea for tolerance for the Muslims, not a magnanimous granting of tolerance to an opposition group. Al-Wahidi, however, explains that this sura was a rejection of an invitation from the Quraysh: “Come follow our religion and we will follow yours. You worship our idols for a year and we worship you Allah the following year. In this way, if what you have brought us is better than what we have, we would partake of it and take our share of goodness from it; and if what we have is better than what you have brought, you would partake of it and take your share of goodness from it.” Muhammad rejected the offer: “Allah forbid that I associate anything with Him.”
In any case, the Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that this sura was revealed before Muhammad “was commanded to wage war” against idolaters. And Muhammad al-Ghazali, who is often cited as a reformist, writes ominously in his Journey Through the Qur’an about the limits of tolerance in his commentary on this sura: “Oppressing Islam and denying it the right to life cannot be tolerated. It must be explicitly stated that blood will continue to flow until this evil desire is removed and the power of Islam is restored and its Shari’a protected and its complete implementation guaranteed. Do the oppressors understand?” (Emphasis added.)
Sura 110, “Succor,” exhorts Muhammad to praise Allah and pray for forgiveness when he sees people entering Islam “in crowds” (v. 2). This was, according to Islamic tradition, the last sura revealed, when Muhammad was on his deathbed. He was master of Arabia and mass conversions were indeed taking place — so, with mission accomplished, he died.
Sura 111, “Palm Fibre,” is elucidated by a hadith (Bukhari, vol. 6, book 65, no. 4770, Darussalam edition) in which Muhammad climbs a mountain and begins calling the Quraysh. When they assembled, he told them: “I am a warner to you in face of a terrific punishment.” This annoyed Abu Lahab, Muhammad’s uncle, who shouted to the Muslim prophet: “May your hands perish all this day. Is it for this purpose you have gathered us?” Muhammad thereupon received this sura, cursing Abu Lahab and his wife to hellfire.
Sura 112, “Sincerity,” again rejects the idea that Allah “begets” (v. 3) — a repudiation not only of Christianity but of the pagan “daughters of Allah:” that Muhammad had briefly endorsed during the Satanic Verses incident.
Sura 113, “Dawn,” and sura 114, “Mankind,” are known collectively as Al-Mu’awwidhatan: the two suras of taking refuge in Allah from evil. They were probably revealed early in Muhammad’s prophetic career, and have a particular status in Islamic piety as incantations to ward off harm — since when Muhammad lay in bed with his final illness, he recited them over and over.
And thus ends the Qur’an, and Ramadan.