The name of this late Meccan sura is Al-Furqan (الفرقان), which is variously translated as the criterion, the canon, the standard. The word appears in v. 1, where it is identified as the Qur’an. The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that the Qur’an is “called thus [al-furqan] because it has discriminated (faraqa) between truth and falsehood.”
Allah sent it to Muhammad, the Tafsir al-Jalalayn continues, “that he may be to all the worlds, [to] mankind and the jinn, but not the angels, a warner, a threatening of God’s chastisement.” Why not to the angels? Perhaps because the angels “resist not Allah in that which He commandeth them” (66:6), and thus have no need of Muhammad’s warning. But he has been sent to everyone on earth, as he himself explains in a hadith: “Every Prophet used to be sent to his nation only but I have been sent to all mankind.”
The opening verse of this sura is also one of the apparent (and unacknowledged by Islamic commentators) exceptions to the rule that Allah is the lone speaker in the Qur’an — unless he is blessing himself for delivering the Qur’an to Muhammad. Following this there comes in verses 2-10 yet another passage chastising the unbelievers for rejecting Muhammad’s message. Allah has dominion over all things and has no son (v. 2), yet the unbelievers have taken along with him other gods that can create nothing and do not have his power over life and death (v. 3). From this it would appear that the unbelievers don’t reject Allah — they just worship other gods with him. This could be a reference to the Christian Trinity or to the pagan Arabs who worshipped Allah along with many other gods, or both.
The unbelievers charge Muhammad with lying (v. 4) and say that in his Qur’an he is merely repeating “tales of the ancients, which he has caused to be written: and they are dictated before him morning and evening” (v. 5). These charges stung Muhammad, as they’re often rebutted in the Qur’an. In another place we learn that the man who was allegedly dictating to Muhammad was a foreigner: “We know indeed that they say, ‘It is a man that teaches him.’ The tongue of him they wickedly point to is notably foreign, while this is Arabic, pure and clear” (16:103). Then there is an unnamed figure who, according to a hadith, “was a Christian who embraced Islam and read Surat-al-Baqara [sura 2] and Al-Imran [sura 3], and he used to write (the revelations) for the Prophet.” That is, he used to transcribe Muhammad’s Qur’anic recitations. Evidently this experience disabused him of the notion that they were divinely inspired, for “later on he returned to Christianity again and he used to say: ‘Muhammad knows nothing but what I have written for him.’”
Allah reacted with fury to one person who made these charges: the deity pointed out that the man was illegitimate (“base-born”) and promised to brand him on the nose (68:10-16). He also calls down divine woe upon “those who write the Book with their own hands, and then say: ‘This is from Allah,’ to traffic with it for miserable price!” (2:79). And when speaking of the People of the Book, Allah tells Muhammad: “There is among them a section who distort the Book with their tongues: (as they read) you would think it is a part of the Book, but it is no part of the Book; and they say, ‘That is from Allah,’ but it is not from Allah!” (3:78). These and other passages suggest that some people around Muhammad mocked his prophetic pretensions by representing their own writings, or folkloric or apocryphal material, as divine revelation, and selling them to him.
The unbelievers also complain that Muhammad is an ordinary man, and ask why an angel wasn’t sent down instead (v. 7). Muhammad, they scoff, doesn’t even have a garden (v. 8), although Allah tells him he could give him the Gardens of Paradise (v. 10). Then verses 11-34 warn of the dreadful Day of Judgment, when the unbelievers will lament, “Oh! would that I had taken a (straight) path with the Messenger!” (v. 27) and will realize the terrible mistake they made in taking the Qur’an to be “foolish nonsense” (v. 30). Meanwhile, as the fearsome Day unfolds, the believers will rest in the Garden (v. 24). In verses 35-42 Allah briefly recalls Moses and Noah, and notes that the people to whom they and other prophets were sent received them with scorn also, and were utterly destroyed (vv. 36, 39). Yet they continue to mock Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet, and will soon receive their penalty (vv. 40-41).
Verses 43-77 then detail some of Allah’s powers in governing the natural order of the earth — but the unbelievers are “like cattle” (v. 44) who are insensate amid all this evidence. Allah could have sent a prophet to every town (v. 51) — but of course we have already seen that he has sent Muhammad for all people (v. 1). Muhammad should “strive against” the unbelievers “with the utmost strenuousness” (v. 52) — in Arabic, “jihad against them a great jihad” (جَاهِدْهُمْ بِهِ جِهَادًا كَبِيرًا). According to the Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs, this should be done “by means of the Qur’an” and “by the sword.”
Allah has created mankind from water (v. 54), but the idols are powerless (v. 55). Muhammad has been sent to give good news and a warning (v. 56) — “meaning,” says Ibn Kathir, “a bringer of good news to the believers, a warner to the disbelievers; bringing good news of Paradise to those who obey Allah, and bringing warnings of a dreadful punishment for those who go against the commandments of Allah.” Allah created everything in six days (v. 59), although it seems to take eight days in 41:9-12. The unbelievers refuse to do Muhammad’s bidding — they won’t prostrate themselves to Al-Rahman, the Merciful (v. 60). Ibn Kathir explains that this comes from the time of the Treaty of Hudaibiyya between Muhammad and the pagan Arabs of Mecca. When Muhammad ordered that the treaty begin with “In the Name of Allah, Ar-Rahman (the Most Gracious), Ar-Rahim (the Most Merciful),” they responded: “We do not know Ar-Rahman or Ar-Rahim. Write what you used to write: ‘Bismika Allahumma (in Your Name, O Allah).” This, along with v. 3, is another indication that Allah was one of the gods worshiped by the pagans before the advent of Islam. V. 60 is also one of the verses of prostration: the believer is to make a prostration whenever the verse is recited.
Those who “invoke not, with Allah, any other god, nor slay such life as Allah has made sacred except for just cause, nor commit fornication” (v. 68) will escape punishment, but those who do these things will receive double penalty on the Day of Judgment (v. 69). Allah will turn the evil done by those who repent, believe and do good works into good (v. 70). But Allah is not made uneasy by the unbelievers’ refusal to accept Islam; however, because they have rejected him, punishment is inevitable (v. 77).
Next week: Sura 26, “The Poets.” Will Muhammad torment himself to death with grief that his foes do not become Muslims?
(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.)