Robert Spencer's Blogging the Qur'an: Sura 7, 'The Heights'

Did you know that you were born Muslim?

It's right in Sura 7, “The Heights,” which also contains a number of Bible stories from the Qur'an, all designed to -- you guessed it! -- excoriate unbelievers.

"The Heights" is another Meccan sura, dating from around the same time as Sura 6: Muhammad’s last year in Mecca before the Hijra to Medina. It begins, as do several other chapters, with a first verse consisting of mysterious Arabic letters -- the meaning of which, we're told, is known only to Allah. Then follows Allah telling Muhammad not to doubt the Qur’an, for it is “a Book revealed to you, so let there not be in your breast distress therefrom” (v. 2). After thus consoling his prophet, Allah gives us yet another warning of the dreadful judgment (vv. 3-10), when those whose good deeds outweigh their evil deeds will enter Paradise, while others will go to hell “for what injustice they were doing toward Our verses” (v. 9)  — that is, ayat, or verses of the Qur’an. They will be condemned (vv. 3-10).

Allah boasts: "And how many cities have We destroyed, and Our punishment came to them at night or while they were sleeping at noon" (v. 4).

Such verses about divine judgment do not necessarily refer solely to thunderbolts from heaven. The Qur'an also says: "Fight them; Allah will punish them by your hands" (9:14). Consequently, jihad terrorists consider themselves to be the instruments of Allah's judgment, destroying cities and punishing unbelievers in accord with the Qur'an.

Then comes the story of Satan (verses 11-25).

It begins with the creation of Adam, and Allah’s command that the angels prostrate themselves before this new creation. A hadith has Muhammad informing us that when Allah created Adam, he made him 60 cubits tall -- that is, about 90 feet. “People,” he said, “have been decreasing in stature since Adam’s creation” (Sahih Bukhari 4.55.543).

However, Muhammad is also depicted as telling us that the first inhabitants of Paradise will be Adam’s size: “The first group of people who will enter Paradise, will be glittering like the full moon and those who will follow them, will glitter like the most brilliant star in the sky. They will not urinate, relieve nature, spit, or have any nasal secretions. Their combs will be of gold, and their sweat will smell like musk. The aloes-wood will be used in their centers. Their wives will be houris. All of them will look alike and will resemble their father Adam (in statute), sixty cubits tall” (Sahih Bukhari 4.55.544).

He did not explain why they will sweat but not spit or urinate. The houris, of course, are the fabled virgins of Paradise.

Satan refused to prostrate himself before Adam (v. 11; we also saw this in 2:34). When Allah asks him why, he answers pridefully: “I am better than him. You created me from fire and created him from clay." (v. 12). Ibn Kathir explains that Satan was wrong about this. Satan, he says, “lost hope in acquiring Allah’s mercy” because “he committed this error, may Allah curse him, due to his false comparison. His claim that the fire is more honored than mud was also false, because mud has the qualities of wisdom, forbearance, patience and assurance, mud is where plants grow, flourish, increase, and provide good. To the contrary, fire has the qualities of burning, recklessness and hastiness. Therefore, the origin of creation directed Shaytan [Satan] to failure, while the origin of Adam led him to return to Allah with repentance, humbleness, obedience and submission to His command, admitting his error and seeking Allah’s forgiveness and pardon for it.”

Allah banishes Satan -- from Paradise, according to most commentators -- but allows respite, which Satan then says he will use to spend his time tempting the Muslims away from the straight path (vv. 16-17).

What exactly is Satan? That’s unclear.

Allah here groups him among the angels (v. 11), as he does elsewhere in the Qur'an (2:34; 15:28-31; 20:116; 38:71-74). However, Allah also says “he was one of the jinns” (18:50). The angels “do not disobey Allah in what He commands them but do what they are commanded” (66:6).

Many of the jinns, however, “have hearts with which they do not understand, they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear. Those are like livestock; rather, they are more astray. It is they who are the heedless.” (7:179).

This creates a difficulty. If Satan is an angel, how can he disobey Allah? But if he is a jinn, why does Allah blame him in Sura 7 and its cognate passages for disobeying a command Allah gave not to the jinns, but to the angels?

This has led to some ingenious explanations throughout Islamic history. The Tafsir Al-Jalalayn says that Satan was “the father of the jinn, who was among the angels.” Muhammad Asad identifies the jinns with the angels, but this contradicts the passages of the Qur’an that say the angels are not disobedient. The contemporary Islamic apologist Dr. Zakir Naik contends that while Satan is grouped with the angels, he is never actually called an angel, and so there is no contradiction. He says that Satan is nevertheless held responsible for disobeying a command that is addressed to the angels because Allah meant it collectively -- all the angels as well as Satan should obey it. The problems with this interpretation are many.

Allah then recounts the temptation of Adam and Eve, their sin, and their banishment from the garden (vv. 19-25). Then he warns the Children of Adam to heed the commands and signs (ayat) of Allah, and to avoid sin (vv. 26-41).

He recounts a conversation between the “Companions of the Garden” and the “Companions of the Fire” (vv. 42-50). The Companions of the Garden will point out that Allah’s promises have proven true (v. 44); the Companions of the Fire will ask the Companions of the Garden to "pour upon us some water or from whatever Allah has provided you," but the Companions of the Garden will reply: “Indeed, Allah has forbidden them both to the disbelievers" (v. 50). Allah reminds believers to acknowledge and obey him (vv. 51-58).

Then Allah tells some stories of other prophets (vv. 59-95): Noah (vv. 59-64); the extrabiblical figures Hud (vv. 65-72) and Salih (vv. 73-79); Lot (vv. 80-84); and another extrabiblical prophet, Shu'aib (vv. 85-95).

These stories all follow the same pattern: the prophets warn the people to whom they are sent in language much like Muhammad’s, and they are scorned and rejected in much the same way that Muhammad was by those who are characterized in the Qur’an as hypocrites and unbelievers.

For example, Shu'aib tells the arrogant people of the Madyan: “We would have invented against Allah a lie if we returned to your religion after Allah had saved us from it. And it is not for us to return to it except that Allah, our Lord, should will" (v. 89) -- just as earlier Allah says to the Children of Adam: “And who is more unjust than one who invents about Allah a lie or denies His verses?” (v. 37).

Lot’s story bears traces of the Sodom and Gomorrah incident in the Bible, as Lot tells his people: “Indeed, you approach men with desire, instead of women. Rather, you are a transgressing people” (v. 81). Allah warns again of the destruction that will come to towns that reject him (vv. 96-102) -- yet their unbelief is Allah's doing: "Those cities -- We relate to you some of their news. And certainly did their messengers come to them with clear proofs, but they were not to believe in that which they had denied before. Thus does Allah seal over the hearts of the disbelievers.” (v. 101).

He sealed over their hearts, so how could they believe even if they wanted to?

Allah then spends a considerable amount of time telling the story of Moses (vv. 103-171). He begins with a retelling of the story of Moses and Pharaoh, told in a way that suggests the hearers have heard it before: for example, we see Moses telling Pharaoh to “send with me the Children of Israel” (v. 105), but it is assumed that the reader will know that the Israelites were at this time oppressed as slaves in Egypt.

Moses performs various miracles before Pharaoh, as in the Biblical account -- although when Moses' hand becomes “white for the observers” (v. 108), Ibn Abbas says this was “not because of leprosy,” which is contrary to Exodus 4:6. The Ruhul Ma'ani says that Moses' hand shone brighter than the sun. Pharaoh, as in the Biblical story, is unimpressed.

But Pharaoh’s magicians are, and say: "We have believed in the Lord of the worlds, the Lord of Moses and Aaron" (vv. 121-122). Pharaoh then threatens to cut off their hands and feet on opposite sides and crucify them (v. 124) — the same punishment Allah prescribes for those who wage war against Allah and Muhammad (5:33). The magicians pray that Allah will “pour upon us patience and let us die as Muslims” (مُسْلِمِين, v. 126).

This is another reminder that the Qur’an considers the Biblical prophets all to have been prophets of Islam whose messages were later corrupted to create Judaism and Christianity.

As Pharaoh threatens Moses and his people, Moses tells them: “Perhaps your Lord will destroy your enemy and grant you succession in the land and see how you will do” (v. 129) -- and of course, the Jews fail the test. Allah does indeed destroy their adversary: he sends plagues upon the Egyptians, again enumerated as if the hearers are already familiar with the story: “the flood and locusts and lice and frogs and blood” (v. 133), drowns Pharaoh’s men in the sea (v. 136), and makes the Jews, “the people who had been oppressed,” the inheritors of “the eastern regions of the land and the western ones, which We had blessed” (v. 137).

But the Jews, encountering idolaters in their new land, immediately turn to idolatry themselves (v. 138). Moses goes up on Mount Tur (28:46) to converse with Allah and receive laws, which the Qur’an does not enumerate, on stone tablets (v. 145). Moses' people, meanwhile, are worshipping “a calf -- an image having a lowing sound” (v. 148).

Moses prays for Allah’s forgiveness (v. 155), and Allah promises mercy to “those who fear Me and give zakah and those who believe in Our verses” (v. 156). Zakah (زكاة) is Islamic charity, and "verses" is ayat (آيات), the verses of the Qur’an — again indicting that Allah shows mercy only to those who are Muslims.

Underscoring this is the further elaboration that Allah shows mercy to “the Messenger, the unlettered prophet, whom they find written in what they have of the Torah and the Gospel” (v. 157). This is, of course, Muhammad, whom Muslims contend was prophesied about and described in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures before they were corrupted.

Says Ibn Kathir: “This is the description of the Prophet Muhammad in the Books of the Prophets. They delivered the good news of his advent to their nations and commanded them to follow him. His descriptions were still apparent in their Books, as the rabbis and the priests well know.” The rabbis and priests well know: here again is the Islamic belief that the Jews and Christians, or at least their leaders, know that Muhammad is a true prophet, but obstinately refuse to accept him; they aren’t rejecting him in good faith.

It is Muhammad who “enjoins upon them what is right and forbids them what is wrong and makes lawful for them the good things and prohibits for them the evil and relieves them of their burden and the shackles which were upon them” (v. 157). This is one of the foundations for the belief in the hadith, the traditions of Muhammad’s words and deeds: Muslims are told to follow what Muhammad commands, and only in the hadith can those commands be discovered.

Among the Jews there is “a community which guides by truth and by it establishes justice” (v. 159), but “those who wronged among them” altered their Scriptures: they “changed to a statement other than that which had been said to them” (v. 162) -- that is, altered Allah's revelations to them. They disregarded Allah’s command to observe the Sabbath, whereupon he transformed them into “apes, despised” (v. 166) and “divided them throughout the earth into nations” (v. 168).

Allah then returns yet again to another pet topic, warning against idolatry and the perils of rejecting him (vv. 172-206). Everyone on earth is born Muslim (v. 172), as a hadith has Muhammad saying: “No child is born but has the Islamic Faith, but its parents turn it into a Jew or a Christian” (Sahih Muslim 6426).

In another hadith, Allah produces all of the multitudes of the children of Adam from his back and asks them, “Am I not your Lord?” (Alastu Bi Rabbikum). All affirm that he is. Therefore, says Bulandshahri, “none will be able to claim that he had no knowledge of the fact that Allah is his Lord.” This is another reason why some Muslims often assume that non-Muslims are dealing in bad faith: they know the Qur’an is true and Muhammad is a prophet, but refuse to acknowledge it.

Allah tells Muhammad to recite the story of a man to whom Allah gave revelations but he rejected them (v. 175). This is, according to Abdullah bin Mas'ud, a reference to the story of Bal'am, a Jew who received revelations but abandoned them. This appears to be Balaam, the reluctant prophet of Numbers 22:2-24:25.

Allah has created a large number of men and jinns for hell: "And We have certainly created for Hell many of the jinn and mankind. They have hearts with which they do not understand, they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear." Indeed, they're entirely bestial: “Those are like livestock; rather, they are more astray. It is they who are the heedless” (v. 179). The believers, on the other hand, shall guide mankind with Allah’s truth and establish justice by means of it (v. 181).

Muhammad is not insane (v. 184) and has no knowledge of the unseen world. He is just a messenger (v. 188). Allah alone protects people and can help them; idols can do nothing (v. 197). Allah tells Muhammad to “Take what is given freely, enjoin what is good, and turn away from the ignorant” (v. 199). According to Abdur-Rahman bin Zayd bin Aslam, “Allah commanded [Prophet Muhammad ] to show forgiveness and turn away from the idolators for ten years. Afterwards Allah ordered him to be harsh with them.”

As we shall soon see.