This is yet another late Meccan sura. Its name comes from v. 35, where Abraham appears and prays, but following the convention of the naming of Qur’an chapters, this name has little to do with the content of this sura; more is said about Abraham elsewhere in the Qur’an.
Verses 1-4 celebrate the “Book which We have revealed unto thee” (v. 1) — which is, of course, the Qur’an that was delivered to Muhammad. In the words of Ibn Kathir, it is “the most honored Book, that Allah sent down from heaven to the most honored Messenger of Allah sent to all the people of the earth, Arabs and non-Arabs alike.”
With this Book, Muhammad can “lead mankind out of the depths of darkness into light” (v. 1) – the light of Allah – but of course for the unbelievers there is a terrible penalty in store (v. 2): “woe to them on the Day of Judgment because they defied you, O Muhammad, and rejected you,” says Ibn Kathir. For they dared to prefer this world to the next and to keep people from the path of Allah, and they “seek therein something crooked” (v. 3) – that is, they are, in the words of Maulana Bulandshahri, “ever vigilant to expose any defect that they hope to find in the religion (D’in) of Islam.” Yet Allah has sent messengers to people speaking in their own language so they can understand the message clearly (v. 4), but after that, says the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “God then sends astray whomever He will and He guides whomever He will.”
Then verses 5-15 return to the stories of Moses (vv. 5-8) and some of the other prophets (v. 9). The unbelievers “thrust their hands into their mouths” (v. 9) on hearing the messengers’ clear proofs. “It is said,” explains Ibn Kathir, “that they pointed to the Messengers’ mouths asking them to stop calling them to Allah, the Exalted and Most Honored. It is also said that it means, they placed their hands on their mouths in denial of the Messengers. It was also said that it means that they did not answer the call of the Messengers, or they were biting their hands in rage.” Then comes a dialogue between the unbelievers and the messengers (vv. 10-15) that appears to be meant to apply to all the experiences of all the prophets Allah has sent to the world, but which once again, as we have seen in other late Meccan suras, closely traces and universalizes Muhammad’s dealings with his own people, the pagan Quraysh of Mecca. Maulana Maududi makes this clear when he explains that v. 13, “The disbelievers warned their Messengers, ‘You shall have to return to our community or we will assuredly expel you from our land,’” is a reference to a threat the Quraysh had issued to Muhammad: the verse “clearly indicates,” he says, “that the persecution of the Muslims was at its worst at the time of the revelation of this Surah, and the people of Makkah were bent on expelling the Believers from there like the disbelievers of the former Prophets.”
But Allah will turn the tables on the unbelievers: “Verily we shall destroy the wrong-doers, and verily We shall make you” – that is, Muhammad and the Muslims – “to dwell in the land after them” (vv. 13-14).
This leads to more warnings for the unbeliever in verses 16-23: “In front of such a one is Hell, and he is given, for drink, boiling fetid water” (v. 16). They will suffer “chastisement unrelenting” (v. 17) and their work in this world will come to nothing (v. 18). Allah can even replace the entire creation if he wishes (v. 20). On Judgment Day, the weak will blame the arrogant (v. 21), and Satan will acknowledge that while both he and Allah made promises to people, he – Satan – proved to be a betrayer (v. 22). According to Ibn Jarir, Satan will tell the unbelievers at that point, when it’s too late: “I deny being a partner with Allah, the Exalted and Most Honored.” And “Iblis [Satan],” says Ibn Kathir, “may Allah curse him, will stand and address” those whom he led astray, “in order to add depression to their depression, sorrow to their sorrow and grief to their grief.” No mention is made, however, of the conundrum created by Allah’s leading people astray. The righteous, in any case, will enter “gardens beneath which rivers flow” (v. 23).
Verses 24-27 compare the word of Allah to a strong tree and the “evil Word” to a tree without roots, reminiscent of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7:17-19 (see also 7:24-27). Muhammad once told his companions, “There is a tree among the trees which is as blessed as a Muslim,” and explained, “It is the datepalm tree.” This may have been because of the spiritual powers of dates. Muhammad also said: “He who eats seven ‘Ajwa dates every morning, will not be affected by poison or magic on the day he eats them.” Allah will strengthen the believers in this world and the next (v. 27); Muhammad explained: “When a Muslim is questioned in his grave, he will testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s Apostle, and that is what is meant by Allah’s statement” in v. 27.
Verses 28-34 again warn the unbelievers of hellfire and remind them of Allah’s blessings. In a hadith, Muhammad identifies “those who have changed the favor of Allah into blasphemy” (v. 28) as “the disbelieving pagans of Mecca,” thus reinforcing Maududi’s impression of this sura as a warning to the Quraysh when tensions between them and the Muslims were high.
In verses 35-41 Abraham prays that Allah will make Mecca a city of “peace and security” (v. 35) and for his children, some of whom he has made to “dwell in a valley without cultivation, by Thy Sacred House” – that is, the Ka’aba, which Abraham built, according to Islamic tradition. That the land is barren makes them dependent upon the good will of those in the area: Abraham asks Allah to “fill the hearts of some among men with love towards them, and feed them with fruits” (v. 37). However, according to Ibn ‘Abbas, Mujahid and Sa‘id bin Jubayr, this is restricted to Muslims only: “Had Ibrahim said, ‘The hearts of mankind’, Persians, Romans, the Jews, the Christians and all other people would have gathered around” the Ka’aba. But Abraham, they explain, said “some among men,” thus “making it exclusive to Muslims only.”
According to one of Muhammad’s companions, Abdullah bin Amr, Muhammad recited part of Abraham’s prayer here – “They have indeed led astray many among mankind” (v. 36) – and wept, crying out three times: “O Allah, Save my Ummah [community]!” In another indication of the importance of Muhammad to Allah, he sent Gabriel to the prophet with these instructions: “Go to Muhammad and tell him this; ‘We will make you pleased with your Ummah, O Muhammad, and will not treat them in a way you dislike.’”
Verses 42-52 repeat that the sinners who remain heedless of Allah’s truth will nonetheless face his dreadful judgment.
(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.)