Verses 1-19 emphasize that Allah has created all things, and provides for all of humanity’s needs, and that all created beings bear witness to him. Ibn Kathir says that the “ways that turn aside” from the Straight Path of Islam (v. 9) are “various opinions and whims, such as Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism.” The Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs concurs, saying: “it is Allah Who guides to monotheism, and some of the religions are crooked and unjust such as Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. And if Allah had willed, He would have guided you all to His religion.” So once again, belief or unbelief is up to Allah, not to the individual.
Verses 20-42 highlight the perversity of the unbelievers, and their impending judgment by Allah. The objects of their worship are themselves created (v. 20), and they scoff that Muhammad’s revelations amount only to “tales of the ancients” (v. 24). That is, they suggest that Muhammad wasn’t receiving the words of Allah from Gabriel and transmitting them to the people, but only relating old stories: “they say,” according to the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, [that] these [revelations] are, ‘fables, lies, of the ancients’, in order to lead people astray.” On Judgment Day these people will not only bear the weight of their own sins, but “also (something) of the burdens of those without knowledge, whom they misled” (v. 25). They will be condemned to hell (v. 29), while the righteous will dwell in the bountiful gardens of Paradise (v. 32).
The unbelievers will complain that “if Allah had so willed,” they and their forefathers never would have worshipped anyone but Allah (v. 35) – a reasonable complaint, in light of the Qur’an’s repeated statements about Allah leading people astray and having the ability to make everyone believers if he had desired (see 10:99-100). But here this excuse is rejected, since Allah has sent messengers to every people, telling them to worship Allah alone (v. 36). Ibn Kathir tries to mitigate the harshness of the idea that if Allah had willed, all mankind would believe, by explaining that Allah doesn’t actually want anyone to disbelieve, and sends them messengers so that they won’t do so, but simply allows them to if they so choose: “The legislative will of Allah is clear and cannot be taken as an excuse by them, because He had forbidden them to do that upon the tongue of His Messengers, but by His universal will (i.e., by which He allows things to occur even though they do not please Him) He allowed them to do that as it was decreed for them. So there is no argument in that for them. Allah created Hell and its people both the Shayatin (devils) and disbelievers, but He does not like His servants to disbelieve.” Allah does not guide those whom “He leaves to stray” (v. 37) — that is, Ibn Kathir continues, “the one whom He has caused to go astray, so who can guide him apart from Allah? No one.” For Allah accomplishes everything he intends to do (v. 40), and “nothing,” says Ibn Kathir, “can stop Him or oppose Him.”
Meanwhile, “those who leave their homes in the cause of Allah” will be rewarded in both this world and the next (v. 41). They are, according to the Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs, the Muslims who fled Mecca with Muhammad and settled in Medina; Ibn Kathir, however, identifies them as the Muslims who earlier fled to Abyssinia to escape the persecution of the pagan Quraysh.
Verses 43-96 repeat many of these themes: Allah will judge those who plot against the Muslims (vv. 45-47; 84-89); created things bear witness to him (v. 48-50; 64-69; 79-82); Allah is the only god (v. 51); Satan is the patron of those who reject Allah’s messengers (v. 63); Muhammad’s duty is only to warn people of the impending judgment (v. 82). The polytheists even dare to say that Allah has daughters, while they themselves have sons (v. 57). The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains that “to Him they assign daughters, to whom they are averse, when [in any case] He is [exalted] beyond having offspring, while to themselves they assign sons, of their own choosing, so that the best is theirs exclusively.” Allah’s sovereignty over all is reaffirmed in v. 93, which the Tafsir al-Jalalayn glosses as: “For if God had willed, He could have made you one community, people of a single religion, but He leads astray whom He will and guides whom He will, and you will surely be questioned, on the Day of Resurrection, a questioning of rebuke, about what you used to do, so that you might be requited for it.”
Verses 97-128 defend Muhammad and the Qur’an against some of the charges of the unbelievers, and call all people again to accept Muhammad’s message, which is the message of Abraham (v. 123), and worship Allah alone. Allah laments that whenever he abrogates a verse of his revelation and replaces it with another, the unbelievers accuse Muhammad of making it all up (v. 101). But actually Muhammad’s revelations come from the Holy Spirit (v. 102) – that is, Gabriel. The unbelievers claim that Muhammad is learning the contents of the Qur’an from a man and then passing them off as divine revelation, but the one they have in mind is a foreigner, while the Qur’an is in pure Arabic (v. 103). Ibn Kathir grants that “maybe the Messenger of Allah used to sit with him sometimes and talk to him a little, but he was a foreigner who did not know much Arabic, only enough simple phrases to answer questions when he had to.” Who was this mysterious foreigner whom the Qur’an is so anxious to diminish in importance? Some suggest Muhammad’s wife’s uncle Waraqa, who first identified him as a prophet, and who used to, according to Islamic tradition, “write from the Gospel in Hebrew as much as Allah wished him to write.” Or it may have been one of Muhammad’s early companions, Salman the Persian: the Arabic word translated here as “foreign” is Ajami, which also means Persian.
Then in v. 106, in a notable departure from the Christian concept of martyrdom, Allah allows Muslims to deny their faith when under “compulsion,” as long one’s heart remains “firm in Faith.” Ibn Kathir explains: “This is an exception in the case of one who utters statements of disbelief and verbally agrees with the Mushrikin [unbelievers] because he is forced to do so by the beatings and abuse to which he is subjected, but his heart refuses to accept what he is saying, and he is, in reality, at peace with his faith in Allah and His Messenger.” This is another foundation for the idea of religious deception in Islam, which we saw in discussing 3:28.
The sura ends with a brief discussion of food laws, and instructions to Muhammad to “invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching” (v. 125).
Next week: Sura 17, “The Night Journey”: Why Islam claims Jerusalem as one of its holy cities.
(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.)