Robert Spencer's Blogging the Qur’an: Sura 13, 'The Thunder'

Think creationists are crazy? What about a group that thinks the sky rests on pillars set on the Earth?

This Sura dates -- like Suras 6, 7, 10, 11, and 12 -- from late in the Meccan period, the first period of Muhammad’s career as a prophet. Its name comes from a phrase in v. 13: “And the thunder exalts with praise of Him.” Its main theme is summed up by v. 1, in which Allah tells Muhammad:

These are the verses ("ayat," signs) of the Book; and what has been revealed to you from your Lord is the truth, but most of the people do not believe.

Ibn Kathir sees the four Arabic letters that begin this chapter, and similar unexplained letters beginning many suras of the Qur’an, as confirmation of its miraculous character:

Every Surah that starts with separate letters affirms that the Qur’an is miraculous and is an evidence that it is a revelation from Allah, and that there is no doubt or denying in this fact.

Despite the mystery of these letters, however, he goes on to assert that the Qur’an is “clear, plain and unequivocal,” and that “most men will still not believe, due to their rebellion, stubbornness and hypocrisy.” The Tafsir al-Jalalayn and the Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas say that the “most people” who will not believe according to v. 1 are the people of Mecca.

In what should they believe? In verses 2-19, Allah emphasizes his power in all things:

[Allah] erected the heavens without pillars that you see; then He established Himself above the Throne and made subject the sun and the moon, each running for a specified term. He arranges matter; He details the signs that you may, of the meeting with your Lord, be certain. (v. 2)

The idea that the heavens rest on unseen pillars, presumably fixed on Earth, manifests a prescientific understanding that belies contemporary Islamic apologists’ claims that the Qur’an shows awareness of modern cosmology and other aspects of modern scientific understanding that weren’t discovered until centuries after it was written.

Ibn Kathir expands even more upon this when he writes in explanation of this verse:

The distance between the first heaven and the earth is five hundred years from every direction, and its thickness is also five hundred years. The second heaven surrounds the first heaven from every direction, encompassing everything that the latter carries, with a thickness also of five hundred years and a distance between them of five hundred years.

This is not to say that Islam envisions a physical Allah. The Allah whom “no vision can grasp” (6:103) and who is “nearer than the jugular vein” (50:16) is not physical, but this is the subject of some Sunni-Shi’ite polemics. Some argue that even though Allah is nearer than the jugular vein, he is not everywhere.

Some modern Muslims argue that to affirm otherwise would be to fall into pantheism and shirk: the association of partners with Allah, the cardinal sin in Islam. They argue this from the fact that Allah has “mounted the Throne” (v. 2; also 7:54). The Imam Abul Hasan al-Ashari (874-936) argued against the claim of the rationalist-minded Mu’tazilite sect that this verse meant that Allah was everywhere. “If it were as they asserted,” he asked, “then what difference would there be between the Throne and the earth?” And the 10th century scholar of hadith Ibn Khuzaymah declared:

Whoever does not affirm that Allah is above His heavens, upon His Throne and that He is distinct from His creation; must be forced to repent. If he does not repent, then he must be beheaded and then thrown into a garbage dump, so that the Muslims and the Ahl-Dhimma (the Christians and the Jew) will not suffer from his stinking smell.