“Everything has an essence,” said Ibn Abbas, “and the essence of the Qur’an is the family of Ha Mim” – that is, suras 40 through 46, all of which begin with the Arabic letters ha and mim. (As always, the Muslim commentators say that “only Allah knows” the meaning of these apparently random letters that begin many of the chapters of the Qur’an.) Of the Ha Mim suras Ibn Mas‘ud added: “When I reach the family of Ha Mim, it is like reaching a beautiful garden, so I take my time.” These are all Meccan suras, and they share the general characteristics of the chapters of that period: furious denunciations of the unbelievers, but none of the exhortations to warfare against them that mark the Medinan suras, and fewer specific denunciations of the Jews and Christians than appear in the chronologically later chapters.
The first of these, Sura 40, is known as “The Believers,” from v. 28, and alternately as “The Forgiver,” from v. 3. Early Islamic authorities generally asserted that it was revealed to Muhammad right after sura 39, and it shares many of the themes of that sura. Verses 1-22 retail many of these: the Qur’an is from Allah (v. 2); there is no other god (v. 3); only unbelievers dispute his signs (v. 4), such as the people of Noah, whom Allah punished (v. 5) – they and other unbelievers are “Companions of the Fire” (v. 6).
The angels pray for the believers around the throne of Allah (vv. 7-9) and will address the unbelievers in hell, telling them that Allah hates them even more than they hate themselves (v. 10). Qatadah explained the mainstream view: “Allah’s hatred for the people of misguidance — when Faith is presented to them in this world, and they turn away from it and refuse to accept it — is greater than their hatred for themselves when they see the punishment of Allah with their own eyes on the Day of Resurrection.” Yet here again the decision as to who is guided to the truth and who remains an unbeliever is entirely up to Allah: no one can guide to the truth those whom Allah leaves to stray (v. 33) – which means, explains Ibn Kathir, that “whomever Allah sends astray will have no other guide except Him.”
The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains the unbelievers’ question, “Our Lord, You have caused us to die twice, two deaths, and You have given us life twice” (v. 11): “For they were lifeless drops of semen, then they were given life, then made to die, then brought back to life for the Resurrection.” To their question, “Is there then any way to go out” of hell, the two Jalals say that “the answer given to them will be: No!” For they rejected the idea that only Allah was to be worshipped, and associated partners with him (v. 12). Muhammad should then call on Allah even though the unbelievers hate his doing so (v. 14), and should warn the unbelievers of the impending Day of Judgment (vv. 15-18). The unbelievers should travel the earth and see what became of those who refused to worship Allah alone in previous ages – for Allah is strict in punishment (vv. 21-22, 82-3).
Then verses 23-55 tell the story of Moses and Pharaoh with emphasis on Pharaoh’s intention to kill Moses (v. 26). A believer from among Pharaoh’s people asks him: “Will ye slay a man because he says, ‘My Lord is Allah’?” (v. 28). According to Maududi, this sura came to Muhammad when the unbelievers were plotting to kill him, so the parallels are obvious: as we have seen more than once, the Qur’an tells the story of an earlier prophet solely in order to make a point about the reception of Muhammad’s message by his contemporaries. And likewise this unnamed believer and contemporary of Moses warns his people that they are risking suffering the fate of those who rejected the earlier prophets (vv. 31, 34).
Pharaoh in his pride wanted to build a tower “to mount up to the god of Moses” (vv. 36-7), but ultimately his people were cast into the Fire (vv. 45-6). In hell the unbelievers will argue with each other over whose fault it was that they ended up there (vv. 47-48). Here again the unbelievers will ask to be released from hell, but will be refused (vv. 49-50). Allah promises to make his messengers victorious (v. 51); As-Suddi explains: “Allah never sends a Messenger to a people and they kill him or some of the believers who call them to the truth, then that generation passes away, but He then sends them someone who will support their call and will seek vengeance for their blood from those who did that to them in this world. So the Prophets and believers may be killed in this world, but their call will prevail in this world.” And indeed, Ibn Kathir adds, “Allah granted victory to His Prophet Muhammad and his Companions over those who had opposed him, disbelieved in him and shown hostility towards him. He caused His Word and His religion to prevail over all other religions…This religion will continue to prevail until the Hour begins.”
Allah tells Muhammad to be patient, for his promises will prove true (vv. 55, 77) – yet again indicating his tremendous solicitude for his prophet. We have seen the centrality of Muhammad in Islam is what led to Muslims being called “Muhammadans” in the West. Muslims universally reject this term as offensive, insisting that they do not worship Muhammad, but the Qur’anic reader, both Muslim and non-Muslim, seeing Allah’s constant concern for his prophet, faces two choices: he can view the repeated Qur’anic statements of Allah’s immense concern for his prophet as an attempt by Muhammad to bolster his stature and privileges as a prophet among his followers, or he can accept the proposition that Muhammad was essentially the most important and divinely beloved human being who ever lived. There doesn’t seem to be any other choice offered.
Verses 56-85 continue excoriating the unbelievers, who are motivated by nothing but pride (v. 56) – an oft-repeated Qur’anic trope that has led many Muslims through the ages and today to assume that non-Muslims know the truth of Islam but reject it out of selfish self-interest. The believers and unbelievers are not equal (v. 58) – those who reject Allah’s signs are deluded (vv. 62-3). The design of the natural world bears witness to Allah’s care for mankind, and his power (vv. 61, 64, 67). Those who reject Allah will soon know the truth (v. 70). Those whom people worship besides Allah will fail them (v. 74). Those who profess faith in Allah after they glimpse his punishments will still be punished (v. 85).
Next week: Sura 41, “Explained in Detail”: “The Unbelievers say: ‘Listen not to this Qur’an, but talk at random in the midst of its reading, that you may gain the upper hand!’”
(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.)