Sura 36, “Ya Sin,” is a Meccan sura that takes its name from the two Arabic letters that begin it (v. 1) – and as with all the chapters that begin with such letters, in the words of the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “God knows best what He means by these.” Muhammad said: “Whoever recites Ya Sin in the night, seeking the Face of Allah, will be forgiven,” and “Surah Ya Sin is the heart of the Qur’an.” Maududi explains that this because it “presents the message of the Qur’an in a most forceful manner, which breaks the inertness and stirs the spirit of man to action.”
Muhammad also said that “Reciting Ya-Sin at the beginning of the day makes the rest of the day easy for the person till night approaches. Also, reciting it with the approach of the night makes the rest of the night easy till the next day.” He directed his followers to “recite Surah Ya Sin to the dying ones among you.” This should be done, says Maududi, “not only to revive and refresh the whole Islamic creed in the mind of the dying person but also bring before him, in particular, a complete picture of the Hereafter so that he may know what stages he would have to pass through after crossing the stage of this worldly life.” And indeed, this sura does indeed “revive and refresh the whole Islamic creed,” as it sounds a goodly number of the same themes that we have seen in many other suras.
Allah swears by the Qur’an (v. 2) – that is, according to the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “the “Definitive Qur’an, made definitive by its marvellous arrangement and unique meanings.” The deity addresses Muhammad in verses 2-12, reassuring him that he is indeed one of the prophets (v. 3), sent to warn a people who had not been warned before (v. 6) – that people is, says Ibn Kathir, “the Arabs, for no warner had come to them before him.” However, he adds, “the fact that they alone are mentioned does not mean that others are excluded,” and “the mission of the Prophet is universal.” And once again denying that human beings have free will even when it comes to belief or unbelief and avoiding hellfire, Allah says he has set barriers around the unbelievers so that they “cannot see,” (v. 9); the Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that this depicts “the way in which the paths of faith are closed to them.” The Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs agrees, saying that this verse means that Allah has “covered the insight of their hearts (so that they see not) the Truth and guidance.” Abdur-Rahman bin Zayd bin Aslam also concurs: “Allah placed this barrier between them and Islam and Iman [faith], so that they will never reach it.” Ibn Kathir paraphrases this passage as “We [i.e., Allah] have blinded their eyes to the truth.” So whether Muhammad warns them or not, they will continue in unbelief (v. 10) – as Ibn Kathir says: “Allah has decreed that they will be misguided, so warning them will not help them and will not have any effect on them.” Thus only believers will benefit from Muhammad’s warning (v. 11).
Then verses 13-29 recapitulate in the form of a parable the story that has been told many times before in the Qur’an, in connection with specific prophets: messengers come to a city (identified as Antioch by many Muslim commentators), but the people reject them, saying they’re only “men like ourselves” (v. 15) – as those who rejected Noah said about him (11:27; 23:24). And of course, Muhammad is also just an ordinary man (18:110). They respond by saying that their “duty is only to proclaim the clear Message” (v. 17) – just as is Muhammad’s (5:92; 5:99). Another man then comes up to warn the people, and is rewarded with Paradise, whereupon this messenger, enjoying Paradise, wishes that people knew what he knows (v. 26).
Verses 30-46 repeats warnings to the unbelievers. Mankind rejects and mocks Allah’s messengers (v. 30); don’t they see how many people Allah has destroyed (v. 31)? Everyone will face the judgment (v. 32); they don’t see the signs of Allah’s power in the natural world (vv. 33-42). One of these signs is that the sun runs its fixed course daily, but only “for a period determined for him” (v. 38). About this Muhammad explained that at sunset, the sun “goes (i.e. travels) till it prostrates itself underneath the Throne and takes the permission to rise again, and it is permitted and then (a time will come when) it will be about to prostrate itself but its prostration will not be accepted, and it will ask permission to go on its course but it will not be permitted, but it will be ordered to return whence it has come and so it will rise in the west. And that is the interpretation of the Statement of Allah: ‘And the sun runs its fixed course for a term (decreed)’ [v. 38].”
Allah could drown the unbelievers and no one would be able to help them (v. 43). Verses 47-54 repeat some of the scornful remarks of the unbelievers: they don’t need to feed the poor, because Allah would have fed them if he had so willed (v. 47), and they ask Muhammad when the Day of Judgment will come (v. 48). But once it comes upon them, they will cry out in woe (v. 52). But the believers, in verses 55-58, will enjoy Paradise, reclining on couches with their wives (v. 56) — the famous virgins appear in the next sura.
In verses 59-64 Allah addresses the unbelievers on the Day of Judgment, telling them to depart from his presence (v. 59) and reminding them that he warned them not to worship Satan (v. 60) and now Satan has led them astray (v. 62) and they must enter hell (vv. 63-64). In verses 65-68 Allah discusses the unbelievers: on the dreadful Day they will be unable to speak (v. 65), and he could have blotted out their eyes (v. 66). Ibn Abbas paraphrases this as “If We willed, We could have misguided them all away from true guidance, so how could they be guided” – which of course Allah says that he does in many places in the Qur’an (including, but not limited to 7:179; 10:99-100; 16:37; 32:13).
In verses 69-83 Allah emphasizes the miraculous nature of the Qur’an (vv. 69-70); the signs in the natural world (vv. 71-73; 77-81); and the powerlessness of the idols (vv. 74-75). He tells Muhammad not to let the unbelievers get him down (v. 76), as he does also in 3:176; 15:88; 26:3; and 31:23. For Allah has power over all things (vv. 82-83).
Next week: Sura 37, “The Ranks.” Meet the houris: in Paradise, the blessed “will sit with bashful, dark-eyed virgins, as chaste as the sheltered eggs of ostriches.”
(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.)