Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 15, “Rock City”

Sura 15 is entitled Al-Hijr, which is translated variously as “The Valley of Stone,” “Stoneland,” “Rock City,” “Rocky Tract,” etc. Many translations do not render it in English at all, since it is a place name, referred to in v. 80 – Al-Hijr was yet another place that rejected the messengers of Allah and was destroyed. This is another late Meccan sura, revealed at a time of great tension between the Muslims and the pagan Quraysh of Mecca – and at a time when Muhammad himself was apparently feeling a bit discouraged, so that Allah makes some effort to cheer him up.

Verses 1-15 excoriate the perversity of the unbelievers. The Qur’an “makes things clear” (v. 1), and those who reject Islam will one day wish they had become Muslims (v. 2). According to Ibn ‘Abbas and Anas bin Malik, as well as Abu Musa, this verse responds to the taunts of the unbelievers to the sinful Muslims in hell. When the idolaters tell the Muslims that “what you used to worship on earth has not helped you,” Allah will be angry, and will remove the sinful Muslims from hell – and then the unbelievers, left in hell, will wish they had accepted Islam. But meanwhile, Muhammad should let the unbelievers enjoy life (v. 3), knowing that no one can escape the doom decreed by Allah (vv. 4-5). This sura seems to envision that doom as coming on the Day of Judgment, but later in Muhammad’s prophetic career, as we have seen in sura 9 and elsewhere, he began to see himself and the Muslims and instruments of Allah’s wrath for the unbelievers, including Jews and Christians.

The unbelievers mock Muhammad, calling him a madman (v. 6) and asking him for a miracle – to show them the angels (v. 7). But Allah doesn’t send angels to earth without good reason, and if he did, it would be to punish the unbelievers (v. 8). Allah will protect the Qur’an (v. 9), “against,” says the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “substitution, distortion, additions and omissions.” That is why the prospect of alternate Qur’anic texts is so dangerous from a Muslim perspective – genuine alternate readings of the Qur’an would negate Allah’s promise in this verse.

Ibn Kathir
explains vv. 11-13: “Consoling His Messenger for the rejection of the disbelieving Quraysh, Allah says that He has sent Messengers before him to the nations of the past, and no Messenger came to a nation but they rejected him and mocked him. Then He tells him that He lets disbelief enter the hearts of those sinners who are too stubborn and too arrogant to follow His guidance.” Here again, disbelief is a matter of the will of Allah, which cannot be rejected or overridden. But the unbelievers will not accept Islam even if they see tremendous visions (vv. 14-15).

Verses 16-27 speak of Allah’s creative power in fashioning the universe. We are reminded that he created various things, culminating in this arresting passage: “And verily, it is We Who give life, and Who give death: it is We Who are the Inheritor” (v. 23) – that is, the one who survives when all else perishes. Allah guards mankind from “every cursed devil” (v. 17), except “any that gains a hearing by stealth, is pursued by a flaming fire, bright” (v. 18). This is explained more fully in sura 37:7-10, where we learn that the rebellious spirits try to listen in to the goings-on of the “Exalted Assembly,” but cannot, as they are repulsed by a bright flame. Allah created human beings from “potter’s clay of black mud altered” (v. 26), and the jinn from “the fire of a scorching wind” (v. 27).

Verses 28-42 recount the creation of Adam, paralleling suras 2:30-39 and 7:11-25. Satan refuses Allah’s command to prostrate himself before Adam (v. 31), and is duly expelled from Paradise (v. 34), but is granted respite (v. 37), whereupon he vows to spend his time leading human beings astray (v. 39) – except Allah’s servants (v. 40), although Allah reveals one exception, telling Satan: “For over My servants no authority shalt thou have, except such as put themselves in the wrong and follow thee” (v. 42). The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains that the two groups in this verse are simply believers and unbelievers: “in other words, truly over My servants, that is, believers, you shall have no warrant, [no] power, except those who follow you from among the perverse, the disbelievers.”

Verses 43-50 return to the pains of hell and the joys of Paradise. Hell has seven gates (v. 44). According to Ruhul Ma’ani, the Jews, the Christians, the polytheists, the hypocrites and others each get their own gate. Then verses 51-77 tell the story of Abraham, Lot, and the unnamed Sodom and Gomorrah – the account found in Genesis 17-19. Like other Qur’anic retellings of Biblical stories, the Qur’anic account is streamlined and shorn of subplots, so as to focus sharply on the rejection of truth and subsequent punishment of the disbelievers. Abraham’s visitors, messengers from Allah (v. 57), tell him that he will become a father despite his advanced age (vv. 53-55) and that they have come to rescue Lot and his people, except his wife (v. 60), as they punish the evildoers. Those evildoers come looking for the young men (v. 67) – that is, the messengers – but Lot pleads with them to take his daughters instead (v. 71). The city is destroyed (v. 74). Verses 78-84 recount the similar destruction of the “Companions of the Wood” (v. 78) and the “Companions of Rock City” (v. 80).

Finally, in verses 85-99 Allah consoles Muhammad for the rejection and ridicule that he has encountered from the unbelievers. He has shown great favor to Muhammad and the Muslims, giving them the “seven oft-repeated” verses – that is, sura 1, the Fatihah, the most often-repeated prayer in Islam, and the Qur’an. They should not be envious of what Allah has given to other men, or grieve over the unbelievers (v. 88) – the Muslims should, in the words of Ibn Kathir, “be content with the Grand Qur’an that Allah has given to you, and do not long for the luxuries and transient delights that they have.” Those who have “made the Qur’an into parts” (v. 91) are, according to Ibn ‘Abbas, “the People of the Book, who divided the Book into parts, believing in some of it, and rejecting some of it.” Others, however, say that it refers to the Quraysh, who, by charging that Muhammad was insane or possessed, were making the Qur’an into parts. According to Ibn Ishaq, the Quraysh held a meeting on who they thought Muhammad really was, considering the possibility that he might be a soothsayer, or crazy, or a poet, or a sorcerer, before finally deciding on the latter and triggering the revelation of v. 94), until “there come unto thee the Hour that is Certain” (v. 99).

Next week: Sura 16, “The Bee”: “He has created man from a sperm-drop; and behold this same man becomes an open disputer!”

(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.)