Sura 34 dates from the Meccan period, during a time when, according to Maududi, “the Islamic movement was being suppressed…by resort to derision and ridicule, rumor mongering, false allegations and casting of evil suggestions in the people’s minds.” It is noteworthy how large such incidents loom in Islamic sacred history, and helps illuminate the furious reaction some modern-day Muslims have had to mild ridicule in the form of political cartoons. In any case, objections to Muhammad’s message are repeated, each introduced by the phrase “the unbelievers say,” in verses 3, 7, 29, 31, and 43, and Allah at each point answers them.
Verses 1-9 warn the unbelievers of Allah’s omniscience and the coming Judgment. Given the universal Islamic teaching that Allah is the sole speaker throughout the Qur’an, v. 1 may seem jarring, what with Allah saying, “Praise be to Allah.” Such a phrase would be much more natural in the mouth of Muhammad – but having Muhammad speak would be inconsistent with the idea that the Qur’an is the perfect word of Allah that existed forever with him. In any case, this has never posed any difficulty for Islamic exegetes. Ibn Kathir is typical in ignoring the difficulty and glossing the verse as meaning that “Allah tells us that all praise belongs to Him alone in this world and in the Hereafter.”
In any case, despite Allah’s knowledge of everything (v. 2), the unbelievers deny that the Hour of Judgment will ever come (v. 3). Allah tells Muhammad to swear “by my Lord” that it will indeed come – as he does also in two other places: 10:53 and 64:7. Those who work against Allah’s signs (ayat, the word that is also used for verses of the Qur’an) will be painfully punished (v. 5).
These unbelievers ridicule the idea of a physical resurrection (v. 7) and ask if Muhammad is inventing lies about Allah (v. 8). Allah responds by saying that those who disbelieve in the afterlife are the ones who are wrong (v. 8), and that the fact that he can destroy the earth is a sign from Allah for the believers (v. 9).
Verses 10-21 invoke David (vv. 10-11), Solomon (vv. 12-14), and the people of Sheba (vv. 15-21). Allah orders the mountains and birds to join David in singing Allah’s praises (v. 10): Ibn Kathir says that Allah had blessed David “with a mighty voice. Such that when he glorified Allah, the firm, solid, high mountains joined him in glorifying Allah, and the free-roaming birds, who go out in the morning and come back in the evening, stopped for him, and he was able to speak all languages.” Then follows a list of Allah’s blessings to Solomon (vv. 12-14). The people of Sheba were also blessed with two bountiful gardens (v. 15), but when they rejected Allah, he turned the gardens’ fruit bitter (v. 16). Allah never does such things except to the ungrateful (v. 17) – a verse that strongly supports the commonly held idea in the Islamic world that piety in Islam will equal earthly success, and rejecting Allah will bring disaster in this world as well as in the next. Said Mujahid: “He does not punish anyone except the disbelievers.”
In verses 22-31 Allah tells Muhammad various things to say to the unbelievers: their idols are powerless (v. 22); no one will intercede for them on the Day of Judgment (v. 23). In v. 25, according to Ibn Kathir, Muhammad is instructed to disown the unbelievers, “saying, ‘you do not belong to us and we do not belong to you, because we call people to Allah, to believe that He is the Only God and to worship Him alone. If you respond, then you will belong to us and we to you, but if you reject our call, then we have nothing to do with you and you have nothing to do with us.’” Allah will ultimately judge between the believers and the unbelievers (v. 26). Muhammad is a universal messenger (v. 27); the Indian Qur’an commentator Maulana Bulandshahri records a hadith in which Muhammad says, “By Allah! The person, be he a Jew or a Christian, who does not believe in me after hearing of me shall be of the inmates of hell.”
Verses 32-54 continue these themes: the arrogant reject Muhammad’s message, but they will believe when they taste Allah’s punishment (v. 33); wealth holds people back from following Allah (vv. 34-37); but Allah decides who is wealthy and who isn’t (v. 39); the angels will disavow those who worshipped them (vv. 40-41); Muhammad seeks no reward from men, but only from Allah (v. 47).
Sura 35 is also Meccan, and repeats many familiar themes. Says Maududi: “The discourse is meant to warn and reprove the people of Makkah [Mecca] and their chiefs for their antagonistic attitude that they had then adopted towards the Holy Prophet’s message of Tauhid [the unity of Allah].” It also starts with the curious “Praise be to Allah” (v. 1). In it, Allah affirms his omnipotence (vv. 1-3) and tells Muhammad that if he is rejected, so were the earlier prophets (v. 4). Men should not be deceived by this present life (v. 5) or by Satan (v. 6); the unbelievers will suffer terrible punishment (v. 7); the believers and unbelievers are not equal, “for Allah leaves to stray whom He wills, and guides whom He wills,” so Muhammad shouldn’t waste his time grieving over the unbelievers. (v. 8).
Verses 9-17 and 27-28 detail Allah’s power as manifest in the natural world, in contrast to the powerlessness of the idols (vv. 13-14). Verses 18-22 stress the sharp contrast between believers and unbelievers. No one can bear another’s burdens; everyone must come to Allah individually (v. 18). Verses 23-26 are addressed to Muhammad, and he is reminded that he is only to warn the people of Allah’s punishment (v. 23); if they reject him, they rejected also the earlier prophets (v. 25). Verses 29-35 promise bountiful rewards to the righteous, and verses 36-37 return once again to the torments of hell, when the damned will cry to Allah for help and he will remind them that he sent them a messenger to warn them (v. 37).
Verses 38-45 conclude the sura with more warnings. The Muslims are “inheritors in the earth,” so those who reject Allah are simply cheating themselves (v. 39). Those whom people worship besides Allah are powerless, and don’t even have a book (as does Muhammad) (v. 40). The arrogant should travel through the earth and see how those who rejected Allah in earlier generations were destroyed (v. 44). Yet even so, Allah doesn’t punish men as they deserve (v. 45).
Next week: Sura 36, “Ya Sin,” which contains yet another ringing denial of free will: “And We have put a bar in front of them and a bar behind them, and further, We have covered them up; so that they cannot see. The same is it to them whether thou admonish them or thou do not admonish them: they will not believe.”
(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.)