Verse 121 begins a discussion of lessons of the Battle of Uhud and the Battle of Badr. At Badr in 624, the Muslims overcame great odds to defeat the pagan Quraysh tribe of Mecca; in a return engagement at Uhud the following year, the pagans defeated the Muslims, and Muhammad was slightly wounded. Allah reminds Muhammad that when he and the Muslims set out for the battle at Uhud, two groups of Muslims almost deserted. They shouldn’t have been afraid, for “Allah was their protector,” and the believers should trust in him (v. 122). After all, when the Muslims were a “contemptible little force” (v. 123) at Badr, Allah granted them victory. According to Islamic tradition, 313 Muslims defeated a much larger force at Badr, because Allah sent down three thousand angels to fight alongside the Muslims” (v. 124). This is one reason why superior American military might doesn’t overawe jihadists today.
According to Ibn Ishaq, when the Quraysh arrived at Badr, nearly a thousand strong, Muhammad cried out to Allah: “O God, if this band perish today Thou wilt be worshipped no more.” But shortly later Muhammad told his follower Abu Bakr: “Be of good cheer, O Abu Bakr. God’s help is come to you. Here is Gabriel holding the rein of a horse and leading it. The dust is upon his front teeth.” Muhammad then strode among his troops and issued a momentous promise — one that has given heart to Muslim warriors throughout the ages: “By God in whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, no man will be slain this day fighting against them with steadfast courage advancing not retreating but God will cause him to enter Paradise.” One of the assembled Muslim warriors, ‘Umayr bin al-Humam, exclaimed: “Fine, Fine! Is there nothing between me and my entering Paradise save to be killed by these men?” He flung away some dates that he had been eating, rushed into the thick of the battle, and fought until he was killed. Muslim warriors have fought with similar courage throughout history, knowing that if they are victorious they will enjoy the spoils of war (about which there is much discussion in sura 8), and if they are killed they will enjoy Paradise.
And the key to earthly victory is obedience to Allah: “if ye persevere, and keep from evil, and (the enemy) attack you suddenly, your Lord will help you with five thousand angels sweeping on” (v. 125). Verses 126-129 emphasize that the decision of victory or defeat belong to Allah alone.
Verses 130-139 turn to a condemnation of usury, and exhort the Muslims to piety, obedience, and generosity, telling them to ask Allah to forgive their sins. Allah invites the believers to “travel through the earth, and see what was the end of those who rejected Truth” (v. 137). This is one of the foundations of the Islamic idea that pre-Islamic civilizations, and non-Islamic civilizations, are all jahiliyya – the society of unbelievers, which is worthless. V. S. Naipaul encountered this attitude in his travels through the House of Islam. For many Muslims, he observed in Among the Believers, “The time before Islam is a time of blackness: that is part of Muslim theology. History has to serve theology.” Naipaul recounted that some Pakistani Muslims, far from valuing the nation’s renowned archaeological site at Mohenjo Daro, saw its ruins as a teaching opportunity for Islam, recommending that Qur’an 3:137 be posted there as a teaching tool. V. 139 then promises “mastery” to those who are “true in Faith” – as Ibn Kathir puts it, “surely, the ultimate victory and triumph will be yours, O believers.” However, according to Ibn Abbas, some of the Muslims at Uhud took this as meaning that the believers would be “elevated” over the unbelievers – whereupon they climbed a mountain and put a group of the Quraysh to flight.
Verses 140-179 take up the question: But why did the Muslims lose at Uhud? It’s a test from Allah (v. 141) – a test for both the believers and the hypocrites (vv. 166-7). Did the believers really think they would enter Paradise without Allah testing those who “fought hard” – jahadoo (جَاهَدُو), waged jihad (v. 142)? Even if Muhammad himself were killed, the Muslims should fight on (v. 144), for no one can die except by Allah’s permission (v. 145). Look to the prophets, who didn’t waver even “if they met with disaster in Allah’s way” (v. 146). Muslims should not obey the unbelievers (v. 149), for Allah will soon cast terror into their hearts (v. 151).
And indeed, at Uhud the Muslims were about to “annihilate” their enemies when they were distracted: when the Muslim warriors “saw the women fleeing lifting up their clothes revealing their leg-bangles and their legs,” they began to cry out, “The booty! O people, the booty!” Disobeying Muhammad’s orders, they left their posts to pursue these women – and so Allah allowed the pagans to put the Muslims to flight, as a test (vv. 152-153). The Muslims brought defeat on themselves (v. 165). Verses 154-5 speak of the sorrow of these men after Uhud, and v. 159 commends Muhammad for being lenient with them. Verses 156-158 and 160 restate the proposition that life and death, as well as victory and defeat, are in Allah’s hands alone, and thus no one should fear fighting. For those killed in battle are not dead, but are enjoying themselves in the gardens of Paradise (vv. 169-72; see also 136, 163).
According to Ibn Kathir, v. 161 was revealed “in connection with a red robe that was missing from the spoils of war of Badr. Some people said that the Messenger of Allah might have taken it.” But this verse exonerated Muhammad: a prophet will not be untrustworthy, or embezzle. And his presence is a great favor from Allah (v. 164).
Verses 173-175 praises those who brushed aside fear and went into battle; “they returned with Grace and bounty from Allah” – that is, spoils of war in this world, and Paradise in the next. The believers are told in verses 176-179 not to be grieved over the unbelievers, who only prosper so that “that they may grow in sinfulness. And theirs will be a shameful doom” (v. 178).
Verses 180-200 excoriate the unbelievers and promise rewards to the believers. Those who claim that “Allah is poor and we are rich” (v. 181) are, according to Ibn Kathir and the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, Asad, Daryabadi, Bulandshahri, and others, the Jews. But hell awaits them, for they killed the prophets (v. 183). The People of the Book threw Allah’s covenant away, and “purchased with it some miserable gain! And vile was the bargain they made!” (v. 187). The believers should not envy them, however, even if they prosper, for Allah will send them to hell (vv. 196-197) while the believers enjoy the gardens of Paradise (v. 198). The People of the Book who accept Muhammad as a prophet and do not “sell the Signs of Allah for a miserable gain” will also be rewarded (v. 199). “Signs” here again is ayat, the word used for the verses of the Qur’an. V. 200 promises that those who obey Allah will prosper. This idea has led throughout Islamic history to disasters being ascribed to disobedience, with the prescribed remedy being a reassertion of Islamic strictness.
Next week: Sura 4, “Women”: rules for polygamy, wife-beating, and more.
(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.)