After many passages in which the unbelievers ask Muhammad for a sign that he is a genuine prophet, but are rebuffed (6:37; 10:20; 13:7; 13:27), in sura 30 he delivers an actual prophesy – although this Meccan sura likely predates most, if not all, of the recorded demands for a sign. The prophecy regards the fate of the Byzantine Empire: the title of this surah is Ar-Rum (الرُّومُ), which literally means “The Romans,” but refers to the forces of the Eastern Roman Empire, commonly known today as the Byzantine Empire. I have thus entitled it here “The Byzantines.”
Allah says that the Byzantines have been defeated (v. 2), but will be victorious within a few years (v. 4). The Persians defeated them in 615 A.D., taking Jerusalem. According to the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, the pagan Arabs used this news to taunt the Muslims: “The Meccan disbelievers rejoiced in this [defeat of the Byzantines] and said to the Muslims, ‘We shall vanquish you as the Persians vanquished the Byzantines.’” But Muhammad was right: in 622, the Byzantines defeated the Persians and soon drove them out of Asia Minor. In 630, they retook Jerusalem.
Abdullah Yusuf Ali points out that the word translated “a few years” – bid’ (بِضْعِ) – means “a period of three to nine years,” although it’s not clear why Allah wouldn’t be more specific when he knows everything (6:59). Whether or not the Byzantine victories fulfill the prophecy depends on whether one wants to see in them confirmation or disconfirmation that Muhammad was a prophet. Maududi declares: “The prediction made in the initial verses of this Surah is one of the most outstanding evidences of the Quran’s being the Word of Allah and the Holy Prophet Muhammad’s being a true Messenger of Allah.”
The outcome was the will of Allah (v. 5). His promises are trustworthy, although most men don’t understand (v. 6); they don’t realize that those who rejected Allah’s previous messengers were destroyed (v. 9). Those evil people who reject and ridicule Allah’s signs (ayat, which can be understood as verses of the Qur’an as well as signs in nature), will suffer extreme evil themselves (v. 10).
Verses 11-16 repeat warnings of the Day of Judgment: those who associated partners with Allah will find no help from those partners (v. 13); the righteous will enjoy delights while those who reject Allah’s signs will be punished (v. 16). Then verses 17-29 sing Allah’s praises, pointing out various features of the natural world as signs of his presence and power, including the creation of women as companions of men and the harmony between the two (v. 21). Ibn Kathir explains: “If Allah had made all of Adam’s progeny male, and created the females from another kind, such as from Jinn or animals, there would never have been harmony between them and their spouses. There would have been revulsion if the spouses had been from a different kind. Out of Allah’s perfect mercy He made their wives from their own kind, and created love and kindness between them.”
Other signs are the creation of heaven and earth, the variations of languages and colors (v. 22); sleep (v. 23); and lightning and rain (v. 24). But the unbelievers just follow their own lusts, rather than paying heed – and no one can guide those who Allah leaves astray (v. 29). (Here again is yet another indication that belief and unbelief are up to Allah, who, after all, has created some men just to torture them in hell – see 7:179).
Verses 30-45 continue to excoriate the unbelievers for their lack of faith. The righteous should not split up their religion into sects (v. 32). Ibn Kathir says that this refers to “the Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, idol worshippers and all the followers of false religions, besides the followers of Islam.” Muhammad himself said: “The Jews were split up into seventy-one or seventy-two sects; and the Christians were split up into seventy one or seventy-two sects; and my community will be split up into seventy-three sects.” But one sect will have the truth. Ibn Kathir continues: “The followers of the religions before us had differences of opinions and split into false sects, each group claiming to be following the truth. This Ummah too has split into sects, all of which are misguided apart from one, which is Ahlus-Sunnah Wal-Jama’ah [the People of the Prophet’s Way and Community], those who adhere to the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah and what was followed by the first generations, the Companions, their followers, and the Imams of the Muslims of earlier and later times.”
Men cry to Allah when they’re in trouble (v. 33). They turn “back” to him at such times because all were originally Muslim. A hadith says: “There is none born but is created to his true nature (Islam). It is his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Magian.” But men are ungrateful (v. 34). Allah has given man everything – which of his “partners” can do these things (v. 40)? Men should embrace the true religion before it’s too late (v. 43).
Verses 46-60 return to the signs of Allah in nature – specifically, the winds (vv. 46, 48), but the unbelievers continue to be ungrateful (v. 51). The Qur’an contains every kind of parable, but the unbelievers dismiss it as “vanities” (v. 58). Allah has sealed up their hearts (v. 59).
Another Meccan sura, Sura 31 is named for Luqman the wise. Abdur-Rahman bin Harmalah told this story: “A black man came to Sa‘id bin Al-Musayyib to ask him a question, and Sa‘id bin Al-Musayyib said to him: ‘Do not be upset because you are black, for among the best of people were three who were black,’” including “Luqman the Wise, who was a black Nubian with thick lips.”
Verses 1-5 praise the Qur’an, which is a “guide and mercy” to the righteous (v. 3). However, verses 6-11 return to the unbelievers, who ridicule Islam (v. 6) and turn away in arrogance when the Qur’an is recited (v. 7).
Luqman, by contrast, tells his son not to join partners with Allah, “for false worship is indeed the highest wrong-doing” (v. 13). The highest wrongdoing: as the Invitation to Islam newsletter explained in 1997: “Murder, rape, child molesting and genocide. These are all some of the appalling crimes which occur in our world today. Many would think that these are the worst possible offences which could be committed. But there is something which outweighs all of these crimes put together: It is the crime of shirk” – that is, associating partners with Allah. A man should be good to his parents (v. 14) unless they try to get him to worship other gods (v. 15) – as apparently some pagan Meccans were trying to do with their Muslim convert children.
In verses 20-34, Allah returns to the perversity of the unbelievers in not reckoning with the many signs of his reality. He tells Muhammad not to grieve over the unbelievers (v. 23), for they will soon be subjected to unrelenting punishment (v. 24), for they know Allah created all, but do not understand that must obey him (v. 25). His words are inexhaustible (v. 27), and men should not be deceived by this present life into ignoring them (v. 33).
Next week: Sura 32, “The Prostration”: Has Muhammad forged the Qur’an?
(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.)