Saturday, October 9, 2010

Sura 21 - The Prophets

The title is from the fact that this sura deals with the mission and nature of the former prophets.

Date, Context and Theme

Some scholars date this is as a Meccan sura, others as a Medinan sura. Both of these dates seem to come from the contents of the sura itself which is a bit ambiguous. It feels as though Muhammad is addressing the Meccans (Meccan sura) yet there is an engagement with strong Christian themes (Medinan period). From my reading it seems that it is a Meccan sura but that the Meccans were far more Christian than we might think.


1-24 against the Meccans or maybe Christians. They are not accepting Muhammad and are sinning in their understanding of God.

Main Argument
25-29 The nature of the prophets.
30- 47 You are mortal and going to judgement.
48-50 The Qur’an is the new revelation like the revelations of Moses and Aaron.
51-71 Righteous Abraham who destroyed the idols of his tribe and was saved from his people.
72-73 Isaac and Jacob established true worship
74-75 Righteous Lot was saved from unrighteous people.
76-77 Righteous Noah was saved from unrighteous people
78-82 David and Solomon were righteous in judgement.
83-84 Job
85-86 Ishmael, and Idris, and Dhu'l-Kifl
87-88 The repentance of Dhu'n-Nun
89-90 Zechariah and John
91 Mary or Elizabeth??
92 Summary verse of the above

93- 100 Concluding remarks to the Meccans. You have rejected the true religion and are going to hell.
101-105 Believers go to paradise
106-112 The final words Muhammad is to say on this matter.

What I found interesting.

1. Rejecting Muhammad
With hearts preoccupied. And they confer in secret. The wrong-doers say: Is this other than a mortal like you? Will ye then succumb to magic when ye see (it)? 21:3

Nay, say they, (these are but) muddled dreams; nay, he hath but invented it; nay, he is but a poet. Let him bring us a portent even as those of old (who were God's messengers) were sent (with portents). Not a township believed of those which We destroyed before them (though We sent them portents): would they then believe? 21:5-6

2. The prophets were just men and nothing more. This seems to be an interaction with Christians who are claiming that Jesus is more than a prophet.
And We sent not (as Our messengers) before thee other than men, whom We inspired. Ask the followers of the Reminder if ye know not? 21:7

Say: It is only inspired in me that your God is One God. Will ye then surrender (unto Him)? 21:108

Now We have revealed unto you a Scripture wherein is your Reminder. Have ye then no sense? 21:10

Unto Him belongeth whosoever is in the heavens and the earth. And those who dwell in His presence are not too proud to worship Him, nor do they weary; 21:19

Or have they (the prophets) chosen other gods beside Him? say: Bring your proof (of their godhead). This is the Reminder of those with me and those before me, but most of them know not the Truth and so they are averse. And We sent no messenger before thee but We inspired him, (saying): There is no God save Me (Allah), so worship Me. And they say: The Beneficent hath taken unto Himself a son. Be He Glorified! Nay, but (those whom they call sons) are honoured slaves; They speak not until He hath spoken, and they act by His command. He knoweth what is before them and what is behind them, and they cannot intercede except for him whom He accepteth, and they quake for awe of Him. And one of them who should say: Lo! I am a god beside Him, that one We should repay with hell. Thus We Repay wrong-doers. 21:24-26

We appointed immortality for no mortal before thee. What! if thou diest, can they be immortal? Every soul must taste of death, and We try you with evil and with good, for ordeal. And unto Us ye will be returned. 21:34-35

3. God has the right to judge and question everyone.
He will not be questioned as to that which He doeth, but they will be questioned. 21:23

And We set a just balance for the Day of Resurrection so that no soul is wronged in aught. Though it be of the weight of a grain of mustard seed, We bring it. And We suffice for reckoners. 21:47

4. Abraham smashes the idols of his family and when questioned asks them to question the remaining idol.
They said: Is it thou who hast done this to our gods, O Abraham? 21:62

This sounds like a modified version of Gideon's story in Judges 6 but it actually comes straight from Jewish commentaries. In the Genesis Rabbah we find this story by Rabbi Hiyya to explain Genesis 11:28.
Terah was an idol-manufacturer. Once he went off on a trip and put Abraham in charge of the store. Someone would come in and want to buy an idol. He would say to him, `How old are you?' He said `Fifty years old.' He said, `Woe to that man, who is fifty years old and is going to bow down to something a day old.' So the man would be ashamed and go on his way. One time a woman came in with a bowl of flour, and said to him, `Take this and offer it before them.' He went and took a stick, and broke the idols, and put the stick in the hand of the biggest idol. When his father came back he said to you (sic), `Why in the world have you been doing these things?' He said to him, `How can I hide it from you? One time a woman came in with a bowl of flour, and said to me, "Take this and offer it before them." Then this idol said, "I'll eat first", and that idol said, "I'll eat first." One of them, the largest, got up and grabbed the stick and broke the others.' (Terah) said to him, `Why are you making fun of me! Do those idols know anything (that such a thing could possibly happen)? (Obviously not!)' He said to him, `Should not your ears not hear what your mouth is saying?' He took him and handed him over to Nimrod. He said to him, `Bow down to the fire.' He said to him, `We really should bow down to water which puts out fire.' He said to him, `Bow down to water.' He said, `We really should bow down to the clouds, which bear the water.' He said to him, `Then let's bow down to the clouds.' He said to him, `We really should bow down to the wind, which disperses the clouds.' He said to him, `Then let's bow down to the wind.' He said to him, `We really should bow down to human beings, who can stand up to the wind.' He said to him, `You are just playing word games with me. Let's bow down to the fire. So now, look, I am going to throw you into the fire, and let your God whom you worship come and save you from the fire.' Now Haran was standing there undecided. He said, `What's the choice?' If Abram wins I'll say I'm and Abram's side, and if Nimrod wins, I'll say I'm on Nimrod's side. (So how can I lose?)' When Abram went down into the burning furnace and was saved, Nimrod said to him, `On whose side are you?' He said to him `Abram's.' They took him and threw him into the fire, and his guts burned up and came out, and he died in the presence of his father. That is in line with the verse of Scripture: `And Haran died in the presence of his father, Terah' (Gen. 11:28)(Jacob Neusner, Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic Commentary To The Book of Genesis, Atlana, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1985, pp.55-56)

This identification of the original source of the story gives us some clue as to what type of literature/oral tradition Muhammad was exposed to.

5. God and Magog are part of the end of the times and coming of God’s judgement.
Until, when Gog and Magog are let loose, and they hasten out of every mound, 21:96

The Day when We shall roll up the heavens as a recorder rolleth up a written scroll. As We began the first creation, We shall repeat it. (It is) a promise (binding) upon us. Lo! We are to perform it. 21:104

6. A quote from the Gospel?
And verily we have written in the Scripture, after the Reminder: My righteous slaves will inherit the earth: 21:105

7. Qur’anic cosmology

Have not those who disbelieve known that the heavens and the earth were of one piece, then We parted them, and we made every living thing of water? Will they not then believe? And We have placed in the earth firm hills lest it quake with them, and We have placed therein ravines as roads that haply they may find their way. And we have made the sky a roof withheld (from them). Yet they turn away from its portents. And He it is Who created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. They float, each in an orbit. 21:30-33


  1. A verse I wanted to bring to your attention:

    And He it is Who created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. They float, each in an orbit. 21:33

    "orbits" of celestial bodies was an unknown concept to Man till well after the prophet pbuh. So much so that the tenth century commentator Tabari could not explain this so he said, "It is our duty to keep silent when we do not know".
    As God says:
    "This is of the tidings of the Unseen which we inspire in you (Muhammad). Neither you nor your people knew it before this". 11:49