Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 21, “The Prophets”

After several suras have recounted the message and reception of various prophets in strikingly similar terms, this sura, “The Prophets,” discusses the phenomenon of prophecy and the way it is received in general (usually with scoffing). It also touches on several prophets specifically, including Abraham, David, Solomon, Job, and Zechariah. Sura 21 is a late Meccan sura, and was revealed against the backdrop of the ongoing strife between Muhammad and the leaders of the pagan Quraysh tribe of Mecca – a tribe of which Muhammad was a member, but which had rejected his prophetic claim. This sura is full of both direct and implied references to their skepticism, as well as replies to their objections.

Verses 1-47 speak generally of how the unbelievers always scorn the signs of Allah’s creative power, and the messages of the prophets. We hear their dismissals of Muhammad’s prophetic pretensions, and in vv. 4, 24, 42 and 45 Allah tells Muhammad what to say to them. The unbelievers claim that Muhammad is bringing witchcraft, and assume that to be a prophet he would have to be “more than a man like yourselves” (v. 3). But the earlier prophets were just ordinary men, as the unbelievers can discover by asking the Jews and Christians (“those who possess the Message”) (vv. 7-8). The unbelievers say that Muhammad is a poet who has invented the Qur’an, and that if he were really a prophet he would work a miracle (v. 5). But Allah has destroyed entire populations in the past (v. 6) and has done what he promised to do, and saved “those whom We pleased, but We destroyed those who transgressed beyond bounds” (v. 9).

Now Allah has revealed a book with a message for mankind – that is, the Qur’an (v. 10). And this is no game: Allah didn’t create everything just to play (v. 16). If he had wanted to do find a pastime, he “could have found it in Our presence” (v. 17). That is, according to the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “Had We desired to find some diversion, that which provides diversion, in the way of a partner or a child, We would have found it with Ourselves, from among the beautiful-eyed houris or angels…” The “beautiful-eyed houris” are the fabled virgins of Paradise.

But instead, in a jarringly violent image, “We hurl the Truth against falsehood, and it knocks out its brain, and behold, falsehood doth perish!” (v. 18). Even the beings that stand in Allah’s presence aren’t too proud to serve him (vv. 19-20). The unbelievers can’t be right that their objects of worship are really gods besides Allah, because this multiplicity would create confusion not only in heaven, but also on earth (v. 22) – a verse that may reveal why Islamic societies have always tended toward authoritarianism and never been hospitable to democracy. Allah, meanwhile, the absolute ruler, “cannot be questioned for His acts” (v. 23). Says Ibn Kathir: “He is the Ruler Whose rule cannot be overturned and none can object to it, because of His might, majesty, pride, knowledge, wisdom, justice and subtlety.” Those who say “Allah has begotten offspring” (v. 26) are not just the Christians, but the pagan Arabs who worshipped the daughters of Allah – whom we shall hear more about later, notably in sura 53. Allah’s servants – that is, the prophets — intercede only for those who are acceptable to him (v. 28), and if any of those servants claimed to be a god, he would be go to hell (v. 29).

Haven’t the unbelievers realized the signs of Allah’s creating hand in the things of this earth (vv. 30-33)? Yet they dare to ridicule Muhammad (v. 36), heedless of the fact that the Day of Judgment will inevitably come (vv. 37-44). Everyone will be dealt with justly on that Day, and his smallest good deed, even the size of a mustard seed, will not go unnoticed (v. 47).

Then verses 48-93 cite some of the significant events in the lives of some of the prophets, again with numerous parallels to Muhammad’s own situation with the Quraysh. Allah gave Moses and Aaron the criterion (al-furqan, الْفُرْقَانَ) (v. 48) – that is, the true guidance. Al-furqan is in Islamic tradition identified with the Qur’an itself, but here it applies to the earlier prophetic message – the Torah that was delivered to Moses. In Islamic tradition both the Torah and the Gospel were identical in substance with the Qur’an before they was corrupted by the perverse and unbelieving followers of Moses and Jesus.

Vv. 51-73 return to the story of Abraham, once again recounting his refusal to worship his father’s idols. He confronts the idolaters of his own people, who scoff at him in just the way that the Quraysh have scoffed at Muhammad. They even go so far as to try to burn him to death, but Allah makes the fire cool and saves his prophet (vv. 68-69). Then follow in quick succession brief references to Lot (vv. 74-75); Noah (vv. 76-77); David and Solomon (vv. 78-82); Job (vv. 83-84); Ishmael, Idris (Enoch), and Dhul-Kifl (Ezekiel) (v. 85); Dhu’n-Nun (Jonah) (vv. 87-88); Zechariah (vv. 89-90); and Mary and Jesus (v. 91), all of whom, we are reminded here, remained faithful to Allah through various kinds of difficulty and distress (and, often, scorn from unbelievers). All shared a single religion, Islam (v. 92), although those who followed after these prophets “have broken their religion (into fragments)” (v. 93). The original religion of all the prophets was Islam, and when someone claims to follow one of those prophets – Abraham, Moses, Jesus – but rejects Islam, he is rejecting the true message of those prophets in favor of a later corrupted version.

Verses 94-112 warn of the Judgment Day. When Gog and Magog are let loose (see sura 18:94), then the unbelievers will realize that all this was true (v. 97). As they enter hell they will see that their false gods are useless to keep them out of it (vv. 98-100). But the believers will not suffer any of this, or even hear the damned screaming in hell; instead, the angels will greet them (vv. 101-103). Allah will produce a new creation in the same way that he produced the first one (v. 104). The righteous – i.e., the Muslims – will inherit the earth (v. 105). The Qur’an is a message for those who want to worship Allah (v. 106), and Muhammad is sent “as a mercy for all creatures” (v. 107). Muhammad should tell the people that he has delivered the warning he was commanded to deliver, but he doesn’t know when the promised Judgment will come (v. 109).

Next week:, Sura 22, “The Pilgrimage”: More about the dreadful Day when “thou shalt see mankind as in a drunken riot, yet not drunk.”

(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.)