The Qur’an’s sixth sura, “Cattle,” dates from Muhammad’s last year in Mecca, before the Hijra, or Flight, to Medina during the twelfth year of his prophetic career. In Medina he became for the first time a political and military leader as well as a religious one; at Mecca, he had been solely a preacher of his new and uncompromising monotheism, in an atmosphere of increasing antagonism with his own tribe, the Quraysh, who were pagans and polytheists. Sura 6 is preoccupied with that antagonism, and features, among imprecations against the unbelievers, Allah speaking to Muhammad to console him for the Quraysh’s rejection of his message.
Verses 1-12 reaffirm that the unbelievers have rejected the truth of their Creator. Allah warns: “See they not how many of those before them We did destroy?” (v. 6). Allah mocks their unbelief, saying that if he had sent Muhammad a “a written message on parchment,” the unbelievers would have dismissed it as “obvious magic” (v. 7), and if he had sent an angel in the form of a man, they would have just been confused (v. 9). Nothing will satisfy them: they are inherently perverse.
Then verses 13-32 emphasize the oneness of Allah, and claim that “those to whom We have given the Book” – that is, the Jews and Christians – “know this” – that is, the truth of Muhammad’s message – “as they know their own sons” (v. 20). This is because, says Ibn Kathir, “they received good news from the previous Messengers and Prophets about the coming of Muhammad, his attributes, homeland, his migration, and the description of his Ummah.” That is, their unbelief in Islam is not a sincere rejection based on honest conviction, but sheer perversity: they “lie against their own souls” (v. 24).
And there is nothing worse than this. Nothing. Allah asks, “Who doth more wrong than he who inventeth a lie against Allah or rejecteth His signs?” (v. 21). “Signs,” once again, is ayat, the name used for the verses of the Qur’an. This verse emphasize that there can be no greater sin than shirk, the association of partners with Allah. The Tafsir al-Jalalayn asks, “And who, that is, none, does greater evil than he who invents a lie against God, by ascribing to Him an associate, or denies His signs?”
There is no greater evil. In 1997 the “Invitation to Islam” newsletter asserted:
Murder, rape, child molesting and genocide. These are all some of the appalling crimes which occur in our world today. Many would think that these are the worst possible offences which could be committed. But there is something which outweighs all of these crimes put together: It is the crime of shirk.
Some people may question this notion. But when viewed in a proper context, the fact that there is no crime worse then shirk, will become evident to every sincere person.
There is no doubt that the above crimes are indeed terrible, but their comparison with shirk shows that they do not hold much significance in relation to this travesty. When a man murders, rapes or steals, the injustice which is done is directed primarily at other humans. But when a man commits shirk, the injustice is directed towards the Creator of the heavens and the earth; Allah. When a person is murdered, all sorts of reasons and explanations are given. But one thing that the murderer cannot claim, is that the murdered was someone who provided him with food, shelter, clothing and all the other things which keep humans aloft in this life.
Yet those who commit this worst of all sins are still doing so because Allah has “thrown veils on their hearts,” so that they do not understand Muhammad’s message (v. 25). Hellfire awaits them (vv. 26, 30).
Muslims should be careful not to value the things of this world, for “What is the life of this world but play and amusement?” (v. 32). Says the Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs, “Do you not comprehend that this world is evanescent and that the Hereafter is everlasting?”
Many do not. In verses 33-73 Allah consoles Muhammad for the unbelievers’ rejection of his message: “We know indeed the grief which their words do cause thee” (v. 33), but they are “deaf and dumb” (v. 39), and wouldn’t believe even if they witnessed great miracles (vv. 35, 37). The fact that Allah, in a perfect book that has existed from all eternity, is so solicitous of his prophet and concerned about his grief at being rejected, is for pious Muslims only further confirmation of Muhammad’s importance and exalted status. Allah’s solicitude for Muhammad became the springboard for an exaltation of Muhammad in the Islamic mystical tradition. The Persian Sufi mystic Mansur Al-Hallaj (858-922) said that Allah “has not created anything that is dearer to him than Muhammad and his family.” The Persian poet Rumi (Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, 1207-1273) said that the scent of roses was that of the sweat of the Prophet of Islam:
Root and branch of the roses is
the lovely sweat of Mustafa [that is, Muhammad],
And by his power the rose’s crescent
grows now into a full moon.
Likewise a modern Arab writer opined that Allah “created Muhammad’s body in such unsurpassable beauty as had neither before him nor after him been seen in a human being. If the whole beauty of the Prophet were unveiled before our eyes, they could not bear its splendor.”
In verses 40-49 Allah discusses how he has sent messengers all over the world, warning of punishment to those who disbelieve. Verses 50-58 instruct Muhammad to issue various warnings to the unbelievers. Verses 59-69 emphasizes Allah’s absolute sovereignty, with v. 59 making a succinct statement of his omniscience: “And with Him are the keys of the Invisible. None but He knoweth them. And He knoweth what is in the land and the sea. Not a leaf falleth but He knoweth it, not a grain amid the darkness of the earth, naught of wet or dry but (it is noted) in a clear record.” (Similarly, “We have neglected nothing in the Book,” v. 38, is believed by some Islamic interpreters to refer to the Lawhul Mahfuz, the Protected Tablet, on which Allah has written everything that occurs in the universe, even the minutest actions of animals and birds.) Allah tells Muhammad to “leave alone those who take their religion to be mere play and amusement, and are deceived by the life of this world” (v. 70).
Then verses 74-83 depict Abraham rejecting polytheism by noting the deficiencies of various pagan objects of worship: the stars, the moon, the sun. Those who glibly associate Allah with the moon-god – a pre-Islamic Arabian god of war – should note v. 77: “When he saw the moon rising in splendour, he said: ‘This is my Lord.’ But when the moon set, he said: ‘unless my Lord guide me, I shall surely be among those who go astray.’”
Next week: How can Allah have a son if he has no wife?
(Here you can find links to all the earlier “Blogging the Qur’an” segments. Here is a good Arabic/English Qur’an, here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)