According to Ibn Abbas and Jabir bin Zaid, suras 26, 27, and 28 were revealed to Muhammad in Mecca in that order, although the subject matter of the suras themselves still does not follow any chronological order.
A brief preamble (verses 1-6) asserts that the Qur’an “makes things clear” (v. 2). Those who pray regularly and give alms are assured of Paradise (v. 3). But Allah has made the evil deeds of those who don’t believe in the afterlife seem good to them (v. 4). The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains: “Truly those who do not believe in the Hereafter, We have adorned their vile deeds for them, by making such [deeds] seem sensuous so that they then deem them wholesome, and so they are bewildered, confused about why We deem these [deeds] to be vile.” They’ll be duly punished in the next life (v. 5).
Then verses 7-14 return once again to the story of Moses, which we have already seen in suras 2, 7, 10, 17, 20, and 26. This time we get a version of the story of the burning bush from Exodus 3:2ff (vv. 7-9), but no revelation of the Name of God (Exodus 3:14). Instead, the Qur’anic account fast-forwards to Exodus 4:2-6, in which Moses at God’s bidding casts down his rod and sees it become a serpent (v. 10) and puts his hand inside his cloak, whereupon it becomes leprous and is then restored – although in the Qur’an, it merely turns white, without disease (v. 12). But Pharaoh and his court reject these signs “in iniquity and arrogance, though their souls were convinced thereof” (v. 14) – here again is a hint that people who reject Islam do so only because they are corrupt, even though they know it’s true.
Verses 15-44 turn to the story of Solomon, focusing primarily on his meeting with the Queen of Sheba. Allah gave Solomon the gift of understanding the speech of birds (v. 16). He can also understand the ants, overhearing when one ant warns the others to flee before they’re trampled by Solomon and those with him, as all the jinns, men, and birds come before him (vv. 17-19). Solomon is annoyed when he discovers that the hoopoe is not among the birds (v. 20), and vows to punish him (v. 21). However, the hoopoe comes in late with news of the Queen of Sheba, who has a magnificent kingdom (v. 23) – but she and her people are deceived by Satan and worship the sun (v. 24). The hoopoe himself is a pious Muslim (v. 26). Solomon sends the hoopoe with a letter for the Queen (v. 28), as much to test the hoopoe’s veracity as anything else (v. 27). The letter begins with the standard Islamic invocation Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim (v. 30) — In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful – and calls the Queen and her people to Islam (v. 31). The Queen consults with her advisers (v. 32) and resolves to send Solomon a gift (v. 35). Ibn Kathir explains this passage as “meaning, ‘I will send him a gift befitting for one of his status, and will wait and see what his response will be. Perhaps he will accept that and leave us alone, or he will impose a tax which we can pay him every year, so that he will not fight us and wage war against us.’”
This idea seems modeled on the jizya, the tax prescribed for the dhimmis (9:29): she seems prepared to pay a tax as a symbol of her submission to Solomon’s authority. Qatadah, one of Muhammad’s companions, marveled: “May Allah have mercy on her and be pleased with her — how wise she was as a Muslim and (before that) as an idolater! She understood how gift-giving has a good effect on people.”
But Solomon rejected the gifts (vv. 36-37), intent instead on converting the Queen to Islam. Ibn Kathir paraphrases his response to the gifts: “Are you trying to flatter me with wealth so that I will leave you alone with your Shirk [worshipping others besides Allah] and your kingdom?” He is not disposed to leave them alone, as Muslims have never been disposed to leave infidel kingdoms alone, when they had the means to confront them. Solomon asks one of his men to bring him her throne (v. 38) and gets a volunteer (v. 39). The throne received (v. 40), Solomon orders it altered slightly, to test the Queen’s powers of recognition (v. 41). She recognizes it (v. 42), which, according to Ibn Kathir, shows “the ultimate in intelligence and strong resolve.” She forsakes her other objects of worship and worships Allah alone (v. 43). Solomon devised the further test in v. 44, according to the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, to get a gander at the Queen’s legs:
“It was, also, said to her, ‘Enter the palace [hallway]’ — this was a transparent white glass floor underneath which flowed sweet water that contained fish. Solomon had it made when he was told that her legs and feet resembled the shanks of a mule. And when she saw it, she supposed it to be a pool, of water, and so she bared her legs, to wade through it. Meanwhile Solomon was seated on his throne at the front part of the palace [hallway], and he saw that her legs and feet were [in fact] fair. He said, to her: ‘It is a hallway paved [smooth] with crystal’, and thereafter he called her to submit [to God]. She said, ‘My Lord, indeed I have wronged myself, by worshipping other than You, and I submit with Solomon to God, the Lord of the Worlds’.
Solomon, says the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “wanted to marry her but disliked the hair on her legs. So the devils made a [depilatory] lime mixture (nūra) and she removed it therewith. He married her and had [great] love for her.”
Then comes in verses 45-53 the story of Salih (also in suras 7, 11, and 26), prophet of the people of Thamud, whom Allah destroys for their unbelief (vv. 51-52), and the story of Lot (verses 54-58 — also in suras 7, 15, and 26), who upbraids his people for their homosexuality (v. 55), and is saved with his family (except for his wife) while the city is destroyed (vv. 57-58).
Verses 59-65 detail some of the signs of Allah’s power in the natural world. But in verses 66-74 the unbelievers are still perverse, objecting to the possibility of the resurrection of the dead (v. 67), saying again that these are just “tales of the ancients” (v. 68) and asking when the resurrection will happen (v. 71). Allah tells Muhammad to tell the unbelievers to travel the earth see what has become of those who sinned (v. 69) and not to grieve over their unbelief (v. 70).
Verses 75-93 extol the Qur’an, for it explains to the Children of Israel the things they dispute about (v. 76) and is a guide for the believers (v. 77). Allah will confront the unbelievers on the Day of Judgment (v. 84), and they will be unable to answer (v. 85). Those who do good will be saved (v. 89), while those who do evil will be thrown into the Fire (v. 90).
Next week: Sura 28, “The Story”: “Everything (that exists) will perish except His own Face.”
(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.)