Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 7, “The Heights,” verses 1-102

Sura 7, “The Heights,” is another Meccan sura, dating from around the same time as sura 6: Muhammad’s last year in Mecca before the Hijra to Medina. It begins, as do several other chapters, with a first verse consisting of mysterious Arabic letters – the meaning of which, we’re told, is known only to Allah. Then follows Allah telling Muhammad not to doubt the Qur’an, for it is “a Book revealed unto thee, so let thy heart be oppressed no more by any difficulty on that account” (v. 2). Verses 3-10 contain yet another warning of the dreadful judgment, when those whose good deeds outweigh their evil deeds will enter Paradise, while those who “wrongfully treated Our signs” – that is, ayat, or verses of the Qur’an – will be condemned. Allah reminds Muhammad of cities he has destroyed for their disobedience (v. 4).

Then comes the story of Satan (verses 11-25). It begins with the creation of Adam, and Allah’s command that the angels prostrate themselves before this new creation. Muhammad informs us that when Allah created Adam, he made him 60 cubits tall – that is, about 90 feet. “People,” he said, “have been decreasing in stature since Adam’s creation.” However, Muhammad also tells us that the first inhabitants of Paradise will be Adam’s size: “The first group of people who will enter Paradise, will be glittering like the full moon and those who will follow them, will glitter like the most brilliant star in the sky. They will not urinate, relieve nature, spit, or have any nasal secretions. Their combs will be of gold, and their sweat will smell like musk. The aloes-wood will be used in their centers. Their wives will be houris. All of them will look alike and will resemble their father Adam (in statute), sixty cubits tall.” The houris, of course, are the fabled virgins of Paradise.

Satan refused to prostrate himself before Adam (v. 11; we also saw this in 2:34). When Allah asks him why, he answers pridefully: “I am better than he: Thou didst create me from fire, and him from clay” (v. 12). Ibn Kathir explains that Satan was wrong about this. Satan, he says, “lost hope in acquiring Allah’s mercy” because “he committed this error, may Allah curse him, due to his false comparison. His claim that the fire is more honored than mud was also false, because mud has the qualities of wisdom, forbearance, patience and assurance, mud is where plants grow, flourish, increase, and provide good. To the contrary, fire has the qualities of burning, recklessness and hastiness. Therefore, the origin of creation directed Shaytan [Satan] to failure, while the origin of Adam led him to return to Allah with repentance, humbleness, obedience and submission to His command, admitting his error and seeking Allah’s forgiveness and pardon for it.” Allah banishes Satan – from Paradise, according to most commentators – but allows respite, which Satan then says he will use to spend his time tempting the Muslims away from the straight path (vv. 16-17).

What exactly is Satan? That’s unclear. Verse 11 groups him among the angels, as does 2:34; 15:28-31; 20:116; 38:71-74. However, 18:50 says “he was one of the jinns.” The angels “resist not Allah in that which He commandeth them, but do that which they are commanded” (66:6). Many of the jinns, however, “have hearts wherewith they understand not, eyes wherewith they see not, and ears wherewith they hear not. They are like cattle, nay more misguided: for they are heedless (of warning)” (7:179). This creates a difficulty. If Satan is an angel, how can he disobey Allah? But if he is a jinn, why is he blamed in sura 7 and its cognate passages for disobeying a command Allah gave not to the jinns, but to the angels? This has led to some ingenious explanations throughout Islamic history. The Tafsir Al-Jalalayn says Satan was “the father of the jinn, who was among the angels.” Muhammad Asad identifies the jinns with the angels (see also here), but this contradicts the passages of the Qur’an that say the angels are not disobedient. The contemporary Islamic apologist Dr. Zakir Naik contends that while Satan is grouped with the angels, he is never actually called an angel, and so there is no contradiction. He says that Satan is nevertheless held responsible for disobeying a command that is addressed to the angels because Allah meant it collectively — all the angels as well as Satan should obey it. The strains of this interpretation are many.

Verses 19-25 recount the temptation of Adam and Eve, their sin, and their banishment from the garden. Then verses 26-41 then warn the Children of Adam to heed the commands and signs (ayat) of Allah, and to avoid sin. Verses 42-50 recount a conversation between the “Companions of the Garden” and the “Companions of the Fire.” The Companions of the Garden will point out that Allah’s promises have proven true (v. 44); the Companions of the Fire will ask for “water or anything that Allah doth provide for your sustenance,” but the Companions of the Garden will reply: “Both these things hath Allah forbidden to those who rejected Him” (v. 50). Verses 51-58 remind believers to acknowledge and obey Allah.

Then come in verses 59-95 some stories of other prophets: Noah (vv. 59-64); the extrabiblical figures Hud (vv. 65-72) and Salih (vv. 73-79); Lot (vv. 80-84); and another extrabiblical prophet, Shu’aib (vv. 85-95). These stories all follow the same pattern: the prophets warn the people to whom they are sent in language much like Muhammad’s, and they are scorned in rejected in much the same way that Muhammad was by those who are characterized in the Qur’an as hypocrites and unbelievers. For example, Shu’aib tells the arrogant people of the Madyan that he and the Muslims would “invent a lie against Allah if we returned to your ways after Allah hath rescued us therefrom” (v. 89) – just as earlier Allah says to the Children of Adam: “Who is more unjust than one who invents a lie against Allah or rejects His Signs?” (v. 37). Lot’s story bears traces of the Sodom and Gomorrah incident in the Bible, as Lot tells his people: “Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For ye practise your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds” (v. 81). Verses 96-102 warn again of the destruction that will come to towns that reject Allah. For “there came indeed to them their messengers with clear (signs): but they would not believe what they had rejected before. Thus doth Allah seal up the hearts of those who reject faith” (v. 101).

Next week: “So We sent plagues on them: wholesale death, locusts, lice, frogs, and blood…”

(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.)