Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 33, “The Confederates,” verses 21-73
posted at 7:50 am on July 13, 2008 by Robert Spencer
During the Battle of the Trench, Muhammad’s trust in Allah when things looked bleak for the Muslims stood him in good stead. Allah tells the Muslims to imitate him, for in him is “a beautiful pattern” of conduct (v. 21). This is the foundation of Muhammad’s singular position in Islam as the supreme example for behavior. Muqtedar Khan of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy explains:
No religious leader has as much influence on his followers as does Muhammad (Peace be upon him) the last Prophet of Islam….And Muhammad as the final messenger of God enjoys preeminence when it comes to revelation – the Qur’an – and traditions. So much so that the words, deeds and silences (that which he saw and did not forbid) of Muhammad became an independent source of Islamic law. Muslims, as a part of religious observance, not only obey, but also seek to emulate and imitate their Prophet in every aspect of life. Thus Muhammad is the medium as well as a source of the divine law.
Allah sometimes seem anxious to grant his prophet his heart’s desires. In verses 28-35 Allah addresses Muhammad’s wives, enjoining upon them modesty and piety; then verses 36-37 refer obliquely to one of the most notorious incidents of Muhammad’s prophetic career. Zaynab bint Jahsh had been married to Muhammad’s adopted son Zayd bin Haritha. According to the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, Muhammad asked for Zaynab’s hand on behalf of Zayd; Zaynab and her brother “were loathe” to agree, “for they had thought that the Prophet (s) wanted to marry her himself.” But they ultimately agreed because of the admonition that “it is not fitting for a Believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by Allah and His Messenger to have any option about their decision: if any one disobeys Allah and His Messenger, he is indeed on a clearly wrong Path” (v. 36).
The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that Muhammad “caught sight” of Zaynab “and felt love for her,” while Zayd “lost his affection for her” and told Muhammad, “I want to part with her.” But Muhammad told him: “Keep thy wife to thyself, and fear Allah” (v. 37). Aisha later remarked, “If Allah’s Apostle were to conceal anything (of the Quran) he would have concealed this Verse” – because it shows him unwilling to accept Allah’s will, which was that he marry Zaynab. Then one day, according to Tabari, an esteemed, if not the most esteemed, historian and expositor of the Qur’an, Muhammad went to Zayd’s house and found her wearing only a chemise. Muhammad hastened away, murmuring, “Glory be to God the Almighty! Glory be to God, who causes hearts to turn!”
Soon afterward, according to Tabari, Muhammad was talking with Aisha when “a fainting overcame him.” Then he smiled and asked, “Who will go to Zaynab to tell her the good news, saying that God has married her to me?” He then recited the revelation Allah had just given him, scolding him for being concerned about what people might think and thus refusing to marry Zaynab (v. 37). The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains what Allah is telling Muhammad here: “But you had hidden in your heart what God was to disclose, [what] He was to manifest of your love for her and of [the fact] that should Zayd part with her you would marry her, and you feared people, would say, ‘He has married his son’s wife!’, though God is worthier that you should fear Him, in all things, so take her in marriage and do not be concerned with what people say.”
According to Tabari, Aisha said: “I became very uneasy because of what we heard about her beauty and another thing, the greatest and loftiest of matters—what God had done for her by giving her in marriage. I said that she would boast of it over us.” Zaynab did, saying to Muhammad’s other wives: “You were given in marriage by your families, while I was married (to the Prophet) by Allah from over seven Heavens.”
Verses 38-48 continue defending Muhammad. Muhammad cannot be criticized for doing what Allah has given him as a duty (v. 38). Muhammad is the seal of the prophets (v. 40); as he himself explained, “Messengership and Prophethood have come to an end, and there will be no more Messengers or Prophets.” Muhammad is a witness, a bearer of good news, and a warner (v. 45), and should not obey the unbelievers (v. 48) – such as those who say he did wrong in marrying Zaynab.
Then follow (verses 49-52) regulations concerning marriage. A man may divorce a woman before consummating the marriage (v. 49). Muhammad may marry women who offer themselves to him; believers do not share this privilege (v. 50). ‘Ikrimah explained: “This means, it is not permissible for anyone else to marry a woman who offers herself to him; if a woman offers herself to a man, it is not permissible for him (to marry her) unless he gives her something.” Muhammad may go to his wives in any order he chooses, and may postpone the turn of any of them if he wishes (v. 51). When this verse was revealed, Aisha said acidly to Muhammad: “I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires.”
Verses 53-59 reinforce Muhammad’s exalted position. Allah tells believers to be circumspect about barging into Muhammad’s house or staying there too long after dinner, for such behavior “annoys the Prophet”; they should also only speak to his wives from behind screens (v. 53). Allah and his angels bless Muhammad, and the believers should also (v. 56), while those who annoy him are cursed in this world and the next (v. 57). It is also a serious sin to annoy the believers (v. 58). Muhammad’s wives and daughters should cover themselves when in public (v. 59).
Verses 60-73 return to familiar themes. Allah has cursed the hypocrites (v. 61) and unbelievers (v. 64). Men scornfully ask when the Day of Judgment will come (v. 63); in hell they will regret that they disobeyed Muhammad (v. 66) and will ask Allah to give their leaders a double penalty (v. 68). The believers should not be like those who insulted Moses (v. 69). Ibn Kathir explains that Moses “was a shy and modest man who would never show anything of his skin because of his shyness,” which led some of Jews to claim: “He only keeps himself covered because of some defect in his skin, either leprosy or scrotal hernia or some other defect.” So Allah, wanting to clear Moses, did so one day when Moses “was alone, so he took off his garment and put it on a rock, then he took a bath. When he had finished, he turned back to pick up his garment, but the rock moved away, taking his garment with it.” Moses chased the rock “until he reached a group of the Children of Israel, who saw him naked and found that he was the best of those whom Allah had created. Thus he was cleared of what they had said about him.”
Allah offered the al-amanah, the obedience of created things, to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they refused it. Man took it, but performed badly – so now Allah must punish the hypocrites and unbelievers (vv. 72-73).
Next week: Sura 34, “Sheba”: the unbelievers ridicule Muhammad’s message.
(Here you can find links to all the earlier “Blogging the Qur’an” segments. Here is a good Arabic Qur’an, with English translations available; 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.)