Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 7, “The Heights,” verses 103-206

Sura 7 continues the accounts of the prophets with the longest of all these accounts, in verses 103-171: the story of Moses and his people. It begins with a retelling of the story of Moses and Pharaoh, told in a way that suggests that the hearers have heard it before: for example, we see Moses telling Pharaoh to “send the Children of Israel with me” (v. 105), but it is assumed that the reader will know that the Israelites were at this time oppressed as slaves in Egypt. Moses performs various miracles before Pharaoh, as in the Biblical account – although when Moses’ hand becomes “white to all beholders” (v. 108), Ibn Abbas says this was “not because of leprosy,” which is contrary to Exodus 4:6. The Ruhul Ma’ani says that Moses’ hand shone brighter than the sun. But Pharaoh, as in the Biblical story, is unimpressed. But Pharaoh’s magicians are, and when they profess belief in “the Lord of the Worlds, the Lord of Moses and Aaron” (vv. 121-122), Pharaoh threatens to cut off their hands and feet on opposite sides and crucify them (v. 124) – the same punishment Allah prescribes for those who wage war against Allah and Muhammad (5:33). The magicians pray that Allah will “take our souls unto thee as Muslims” (مُسْلِمِين, v. 126) in another reminder that the Qur’an treats the Biblical prophets all as prophets of Islam, whose messages were later corrupted to create Judaism and Christianity.

As Pharaoh threatens Moses and his people, Moses tells them that “It may be that your Lord is going to destroy your adversary and make you viceroys in the earth, that He may see how ye behave” (v. 129) – and of course, the Jews fail the test. Allah does indeed destroy their adversary: he sends plagues upon the Egyptians, again enumerated as if the hearers are already familiar with the story: “wholesale death, locusts, lice, frogs, and blood” (v. 133), drowns Pharaoh’s men in the sea (v. 136), and makes the Jews, “the folk who were despised,” the inheritors of “the eastern parts of the land and the western parts thereof which We had blessed” (v. 137). But the Jews, encountering idolaters in their new land, immediately turn to idolatry themselves (v. 138). Moses goes up on Mount Tur (28:46) to converse with Allah and receive laws, which the Qur’an does not enumerate, on stone tablets (v. 145). Moses’ people, meanwhile, are worshipping the “image of calf” (v. 148).

Moses prays for Allah’s forgiveness (v. 155), and Allah promises mercy to “for those who do right, and practise regular charity, and those who believe in Our signs” (v. 156). Charity is zakat (زكاة), Islamic charity, and signs ayat (آيات), the word used for verses of the Qur’an – again indicting that Allah shows mercy to those who are Muslims. Underscoring this is the further elaboration that Allah shows mercy to “those who follow the messenger, the Prophet who can neither read nor write, whom they will find described in the Torah and the Gospel (which are) with them” (v. 157). This is, of course, Muhammad, whom Muslims contend was prophesied and described in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures before they were corrupted. Says Ibn Kathir: “This is the description of the Prophet Muhammad in the Books of the Prophets. They delivered the good news of his advent to their nations and commanded them to follow him. His descriptions were still apparent in their Books, as the rabbis and the priests well know.” The rabbis and priests well know: here again is the Islamic belief that the Jews and Christians, or at least their leaders, know that Muhammad is a true prophet, but obstinately refuse to accept him; they aren’t rejecting him in good faith.

It is Muhammad who “commands them what is just and forbids them what is evil; he allows them as lawful what is good (and pure) and prohibits them from what is bad (and impure)” (v. 157). This is one of the foundations for the belief in the hadith, the traditions of Muhammad’s words and deeds: Muslims are told to follow what Muhammad commands, and only in the hadith can those commands be discovered.

Among the Jews “there is a section who guide and do justice in the light of truth” (v. 159), but “the transgressors among them” altered their Scriptures: they “changed the word from that which had been given them so we sent on them a plague from heaven” (v. 162). They disregarded Allah’s command to observe the Sabbath, whereupon he transformed them into “apes, despised and rejected” (v. 166) and “broke them up into sections on this earth” (v. 168).

Verses 172-206 warn against idolatry and the perils of rejecting Allah. Everyone on earth is born Muslim (v. 172), as Muhammad also says in a hadith: “No child is born but has the Islamic Faith, but its parents turn it into a Jew or a Christian.” In another hadith, Allah produces all of the multitudes of the children of Adam from his back and asks them, “Am I not your Lord?” (Alastu Bi Rabbikum). All affirm that he is. Therefore, says Bulandshahri, “none will be able to claim that he had no knowledge of the fact that Allah is his Lord.” This is another reason why some Muslims often assume that non-Muslims are dealing in bad faith: they know the Qur’an is true and Muhammad is a prophet, but refuse to acknowledge it.

Allah tells Muhammad to recite the story of a man to whom Allah gave revelations but he rejected them (v. 175). This is, according to Abdullah bin Mas’ud, a reference to the story of Bal’am, a Jew who received revelations but abandoned them. This appears to be Balaam, the reluctant prophet of Numbers 22:2-24:25.

Allah has created a large number of men and jinns for hell, for their “having hearts wherewith they understand not, and having eyes wherewith they see not, and having ears wherewith they hear not.” Indeed, they’re entirely bestial: “These are as the cattle – nay, but they are worse!” (v. 179). The believers, on the other hand, shall guide mankind with Allah’s truth and establish justice by means of it (v. 181). Muhammad is not insane (v. 184) and has no knowledge of the unseen world. He is just a messenger (v. 188). Allah alone protects people and can help them; idols can do nothing (v. 197). Allah tells Muhammad to “Hold to forgiveness; command what is right; But turn away from the ignorant” (v. 199). According to Abdur-Rahman bin Zayd bin Aslam, “Allah commanded [Prophet Muhammad ] to show forgiveness and turn away from the idolators for ten years. Afterwards Allah ordered him to be harsh with them.” As we shall soon see.

Next week: Sura 8, “Booty”: the spoils of war are at the disposal of Allah and his messenger.

(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.)

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David Strom 3:21 PM on March 24, 2023