Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 38, “Sad”

This Meccan sura takes its name from the Arabic letter sad, with which it begins. As always, the letters that begin many suras are left unexplained, and the commentators say that Allah alone knows what he means by these letters. Then verses 1-16 once again excoriate the unbelievers for their scorn and rejection of Muhammad’s message. Allah quotes the unbelievers’ objections; they ask, “Has he” – that is, Muhammad – “made the gods (all) into one Allah?” (v. 5). The question reflects their puzzlement over Muhammad’s assertion that pre-Islamic pagan gods such as Al-Rahman (“The Merciful”) were in reality simply attributes of the one true God. Some historians believe that Muhammad actually enjoined worship of Al-Rahman only for some time, later replacing that name with the name “Allah” – “the God” — and calling al-Rahman one characteristic of Allah.

The scoffers also complain that they never heard the like of Muhammad’s teaching “among the people of these latter days” (v. 7) – that is, according to Ibn ‘Abbas, “We have not heard of this from the religion of these later days (meaning Christianity); if this Qur’an were true, the Christians would have told us about it.” But they have not yet tasted Allah’s punishment (v. 8), and they will ultimately be put to flight (v. 11). In sum, as Maududi puts it, “Allah says that the actual reason with those people for their denial is not any defect in the message of Islam but their own arrogance, jealousy and insistence on following the blind.” This is a very common stance toward nonbelievers to this day among serious Muslims: the idea that one may reject Islam in good faith is difficult for them to accept, as it is so decisively rejected in the Qur’an. Those who rejected the earlier prophets were all punished (v. 14) — and so will be those who reject Muhammad.

Verses 17-29 turn to David, retelling the parable that the prophet Nathan tells the King in 2 Samuel 12:1-9. In the Bible, the point of the story of the rich man with many ewes who takes the single ewe of the poor man is to bring home to David the enormity of his having had Uriah the Hittite killed so that he could take Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. In the Qur’an is none of this, however, except the story of the rich man who took the poor man’s ewe, followed by David’s realization that Allah had tried him (v. 24). The story clearly depends on the Biblical story of Bathsheba — Ibn Kathir says, “In discussing this passage, the scholars of Tafsir [Qur’an commentary] mention a story which is mostly based upon Isra’iliyat [Israelite] narrations. Nothing has been reported about this from the Infallible Prophet that we could accept as true.” The Tafsir al-Jalalayn reveals the dependence in saying: “And David thought, in other words, he became certain, that We had indeed tried him, that We had caused him to fall into a trial, that is, a test, through his love for that woman. So he sought forgiveness of his Lord and fell down bowing, in other words, prostrate, and repented.”

Then follow, in verses 30-40, an account of David’s son Solomon. Regarding Solomon’s horses (v. 31), Ibn Kathir recounts an incident in which Muhammad happened upon one of the toys of his child bride, Aisha: a horse with cloth wings. He asked her, “Did you not hear that Sulayman, peace be upon him, had a horse that had wings?” – and then, says Aisha, “the Messenger of Allah smiled so broadly that I could see his molars.” Embarrassed by their implications, Islamic apologists in the West often deny the Islamic traditions that specify that Aisha was nine when Muhammad (the man they hold up as the supreme example of human conduct) consummated his marriage with her. They say that Aisha was actually 19 when she married Muhammad – but they do not explain why a young woman in her twenties would still be playing with toys, as in the story of her winged horse.

Allah says that he placed on Solomon’s throne a “lifeless body” (v. 34); the Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains that this was a “jinn, disguised as Solomon,” and that the incident was part of Allah’s punishment of Solomon “because he had married a woman [solely] out of his desire for her.” The jinn impersonated Solomon and fooled the birds and others with whom Solomon used to converse, frustrating him. But after Solomon asks for Allah’s forgiveness (v. 35), Allah subjects even the winds to his power (v. 36).

Verses 41-48 again goes through the roster of the prophets: Job (vv. 41-44); Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (vv. 45-47); and Ishmael, Elisha, and Dhul-Kifl, who is sometimes identified with Ezekiel (v. 48). Allah tells Job to strike his wife with a handful of grass (v. 44); according to al-Qurtubi, this was because while Job was afflicted, Satan told his wife “a word of disbelief,” which she then told Job. Job was angry, and vowed to give her one hundred lashes; Allah ordered him to fulfill his oath by striking her with this bundle of grass.

The in verses 49-54 Allah again describes the pleasures of Paradise, followed in verses 55-64 with the pains of Hell. The “chaste women” of Paradise will be of “equal age” (v. 52), which the Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains as meaning that they will be “girls who are thirty three years of age.” Meanwhile, the damned will be forced to drink both “a boiling fluid, and a fluid dark, murky, intensely cold!” (v. 57). Those who followed the “misleaders” into Hell will reproach them (v. 60) and the leaders and followers will engage in mutual recriminations (v. 64).

Allah tells Muhammad what to say to the unbelievers (verses 65-70): he is just a warner, and Allah is the only God (vv. 65, 70) and he has no knowledge of what the “Highest Chiefs” say (v. 69) – which seems to be a reference to the Exalted Assembly of Allah and his angels (37:7-8).

Verses 71-85 return to the story of the creation of mankind and Satan’s refusal to bow down to Adam, which we have seen before in 2:30-39; 7:11-25; and 15:28-42. It is, of course, a vestige of the Biblical idea that human beings are created in the image of God. But Satan won’t prostrate himself before Adam because, he tells Allah, “I am better than he: thou createdst me from fire, and him thou createdst from clay” (v. 76). Allah thereupon curses him (vv. 77-78), but then Satan asks for and receives a reprieve until the Day of Judgment (vv. 79-81) and vows to lead astray all mankind except Allah’s “single-minded slaves” (v. 83). Allah then vows to fill Hell with Satan’s followers (v. 85).

The sura ends with Allah telling Muhammad to warn the unbelievers that they will all see the truth of his message “after awhile” (v. 88).

Next week: Sura 39, “Throngs”: “The Unbelievers will be led to Hell in throngs.”

(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.)