This is a Meccan sura; its name comes from v. 224, which tells us that only those who are going astray follow the poets. The import of this is that Muhammad, of course, is not a poet, and the Qur’an not merely a poetical work, but a divine revelation, although the pagans of Mecca persistently refuse to accept this.
And that refusal causes Muhammad constant distress (verses 2-9). Allah worries that Muhammad will fret himself to death over their unbelief (v. 3), and assures him that if he willed, he could send down a sign that would make them all believe (v. 4). However, there no sooner comes a new message from Allah than they reject it (v. 5) – but soon they will discover that it really is true (v. 6). Haven’t they even seen on earth the many signs of Allah’s power (vv. 7-8)?
Then verses 10-68 return yet again to the story of Moses, which we have already seen in suras 2, 7, 10, 17, and 20. The comparisons to Muhammad’s own story are frequent and unmistakable. When Allah tells him to go to preach to “the people of Pharaoh” (v. 11), Moses says to Allah: “I do fear that they will charge me with falsehood” (v. 12), just as they charged Muhammad (25:4). Moses is afraid the unbelievers will kill him (v. 14), just as they plotted to kill Muhammad (8:30). After Moses preaches to him, Pharaoh says Moses is a “veritable madman” (v. 27), just as the pagan Arabs have said about Muhammad (15:6).
Then follows the story of Moses’s miracles, and the attempts by Pharaoh’s sorcerers to replicate them. After Moses wins over Pharaoh’s sorcerers and they profess belief in Allah (vv. 47-48), Pharaoh warns them that he will punish them by amputating their hands and feet on opposite sides or crucifying them (v. 49) – the same punishment that Allah commands for those who “wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land” (5:33). But the sorcerers stand firm, hoping that Allah will forgive them for their past sins (vv. 50-51). Moses parts the sea (v. 63) and the Children of Israel pass to safety.
Verses 69-104 return to the story of Abraham (also told in suras 15, 19 and 21), again showing him confronting his people in their worship of idols. The idolaters readily tell Abraham that their idols are useless, and that they’re only worshiping them because their fathers did (v. 74). “They knew that their idols could not do anything,” says Ibn Kathir, “but they had seen their fathers doing this, so they made haste to follow in their footsteps.” This recalls Ibn Ishaq’s account of a delegation of Christians who came from the Yemeni city of Najran to see Muhammad. One of the leaders of this delegation was a bishop, Abu Haritha ibn ‘Alqama, who received money, servants, and other favors from “the Christian kings of Byzantium.” Abu Haritha, says Ibn Ishaq, knew that Muhammad was a prophet, and told the other members of the delegation that he was, but refused to accept him for fear of losing the loot that the Byzantines were lavishing upon him.
In other words, whether out of cultural inertia or love of money, the unbelievers are in bad faith: there is no consideration of the possibility that people might reject Islam simply because they don’t think it is true. Everyone knows it is true, but some find it inconvenient, for various reasons, to admit that. Says Maududi: “The mentality of the disbeliever has been the same throughout the ages; their arguments and their objections, and their excuses and subterfuges for not believing have been similar and ultimately the fates that they met have also been the same.”
Then comes, in verses 105-122, the story of Noah (also in suras 10, 11, and 23). Noah tells the unbelievers that he is only a “plain warner” (v. 115) – exactly like Muhammad (7:184). Noah then appeals to Allah to judge between himself and his people, and the people are accordingly drowned while he is saved in the ark (v. 119). This is a sign, but most still persist in unbelief (v. 121). In verses 123-140 there follows another account of the prophet Hud, whom we have met in suras 7 and 11. He too warns his people, but they reject him, and Allah destroys them (v. 139). Likewise in verses 141-159 the unbelievers reject the message of the prophet Salih (who also appears in suras 7 and 11), and are also destroyed (v. 158). Here is told again the story of the “she-camel of Allah,” a miraculous beast Salih brings forth in answer to the people’s demand for a sign (vv. 154-155). Says 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. 157), for which they were duly punished.
The pattern continues. Verses 160-175 tell the story of Lot (also in suras 7 and 15). Lot castigates the unbelievers for their homosexuality (vv. 165-166) and Allah destroys them all (v. 172), rescuing Lot and his family – all except for one old woman (v. 171), a vestige of Lot’s wife of Genesis 19:26. Verses 176-191 return to the prophet Shu’aib (who also appears in suras 7 and 11). The unbelievers charge that he is bewitched (v. 185), just as they say about Muhammad (17:47), as well as a mortal man like them and a liar (v. 186) – again, just like Muhammad (17:93, 25:4).
The sura culminates with verses 192-227, which makes the point explicit: this is a revelation from Allah (v. 192), in plain Arabic (v. 194), as was prophesied in the earlier Scriptures (v. 196). Isn’t it a sign that the Children of Israel recognized it as such (v. 197)? That is, says Ibn Kathir, “is it not sufficient witness to the truth for them that the scholars of the Children of Israel found this Qur’an mentioned in the Scriptures which they study?” He asserts that “the fair-minded among them admitted that the attributes of Muhammad and his mission and his Ummah were mentioned in their Books, as was stated by those among them who believed, such as ‘Abdullah bin Salam, Salman Al-Farisi and others who met the Prophet.”
The unbelievers wouldn’t have believed a non-Arab messenger (vv. 198-199), and indeed, they will not believe until they taste hell (v. 201). Destruction will come suddenly, but Allah never destroys a population without warning it first (v. 208). So believe in Allah alone (v. 213), not the accursed poets (v. 224).
Next week: Sura 27, “The Ant” – featuring a talking ant!
(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.)