|Structure||5 rukus, 88 verses|
Saad was sent to Muhammad by God while he was coping with rejection from his tribe, the Quraysh, and struggling to keep his own faith. It recounts stories of previous prophets, describes the splendors of heaven, and warns of the monstrosities of hell. The sura dates to the 2nd Meccan Period, meaning it was written only five or six years into the development of Islam. Though many of the stories referenced are vague, they can sometimes be explained via the self-referentiality of the text.
- 1 Historical Context
- 2 General Divisions of Sura 38
- 2.1 Part One: Verses 1-11
- 2.2 Part Two: Verses 12-64
- 2.3 Part Three: Verses 66-88
- 3 Forgiveness
- 4 References
- 5 External links
- 6 Other Information
Sura 38 substantiates Muhammad’s role as Prophet through concrete examples of previous messengers of God and the evils that have befallen the people who did not heed sacred messages. Angelika Neurwirth terms these “retribution legends” (McAuliffe, 105). They “prove that divine justice is at work in history, the unjustly harassed being rewarded with salvation, the transgressors and unbelievers punished by annihilation” (McAuliffe, 106). Through regular reference to biblical characters and a self-assertive tone praising both Muhammad and God, the reader can attribute this sura to the 2nd Meccan Period, according to Noldeke’s chronology . The coherent text builds up to descriptions of both heaven and hell on the Day of Judgment. The wide scope of historical figures—ranging from Old Testament characters such as David, Solomon, and Job, to the devil of Islam, Iblis—were designed to resonate with a wide audience in the face of the disbelief among the Quaryash, Muhammad’s clan; as Ernst poignantly states, Muhammad was likely dealing with “religiously well-informed skeptics” . Like many contemporary passages, Sura 38 attempts to convert the reader to a monotheistic religion honoring Muhammad as Prophet by promising salvation for true believers on the Day of Judgment.
General Divisions of Sura 38
Most Middle and Late Meccan suras can be divided into three sections by content and style- a tripartite division. Examination of the structure of a sura can make what seems like an elliptical compilation of sentences far more comprehensible. Symmetrical structure, also known as ring composition, can help the both the novice and experienced reader find the central message. Sura 38 can first be divided into three primary sections: the first from verses 1-11; the second, 12-64; the third, 66-88. The first and third sections, similar in length, remind the reader of the power of God and the Qur'an by describing destruction and hell, the third section going so far as to describe the creation of evil: the fall of the angel Iblis, who becomes Satan.
The larger center section (12-64) gives examples of biblical figures like David, Solomon, and Job to Muhammad as Messengers who also faced adversity. In the middle portion of the sura, God concisely tells Muhammad to “Remember Our servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all men of strength and vision. We caused them to be devoted to Us…with Us they will be among the elect, the truly good…This is a lesson” (Q38:45-49). The historical context of the sura confirms that this is indeed its central message: supposedly, Muhammad was struggling with rejection from his tribe, the Quraysh, so God sent this revelation to support and encourage him. As entrance to heaven is the final goal of Islam, nothing could serve as better inspiration to Muhammad to persevere in the face of adversity. Nevertheless, one must keep in mind that as Islam gained followers and adapted to continue its growth, the clear divisions within suras blur and texts slowly become lengthier and more expansive works; the reader cannot always find three, let alone two, clear-cut sections. Even within Sura 38, the subject and tone can shift every few verses from general descriptions of heaven and hell to short examples of specific prophets.
Part One: Verses 1-11
The sura opens with generalized comments made by nonbelievers, who seem confused by the Prophet’s portents.
Verse 8: By verse 8 it is clear that God is bitter because the nonbelievers do not even try to understand his warnings: they blatantly “doubt” (Q38:8) them. God’s disgust escalates as he sputters that they “have not tasted My torment yet” (Q38.8). He tells Muhammad to “bear their words patiently” (Q38.17), given the historical context of disbelief among the Quaryash. But by verse 17, God is done generalizing about the disbelieving peoples of the past and begins recounting stories of specific messengers to the Prophet.
Part Two: Verses 12-64
Transition from general warnings to exemplar People of the Book and, later, a description of the Day of Judgment and hell.
Patience (Verse 17): Muhammad is told to 'bear their words patiently' (Q38.17) by God, “they” referring to the Quraysh, given the historical context of their disbelief. This marks the transition from generalizations about the disbelieving peoples of the past to stories of specific messengers.
Verses 17-26: Story of David and the Two Litigants
The tone and style of Sura 38 become more specific, both in examples of previous prophets and their stories. For example: verses 17-26 chronicle David as he errs during a test God gives him, but quickly “fell down on his knees, and repented” (Q38.24). Unlike those of the early Meccan Period, suras of the 2nd Meccan Period often reference biblical characters as Muhammad tried to convert the Judeo-Christian population to Islam by finding common ground between their faiths. Though there is no evidence to prove this, it is believed that Muhummad was illiterate. Muhummad’s inability to read supports the authenticity of his revelations from God as uninfluenced by any knowledge he could have gained from texts of the time. Muhummad’s biblical references could have been common knowledge, but their broad range and sufficient clarity point to an omnipotent source greater than Muhummad alone, a role that God fits. Nonetheless, Muhammad’s retelling of the story of David in Sura 38 leaves to the readers imagination for what exactly David begs forgiveness.
The crowds to whom Muhammad spoke likely already knew the story of David. According to the bible, the story of David and the Two Litigants was a test of God. The Qur'anic version of the story differs slightly from the biblical version, but the ultimate message is the same. In the Muslim tradition, though David already has many wives, he asks a man to divorce his only wife because David wants her for himself. Disapproving of David’s selfishness, God sends two brothers, one with ninety-nine ewes, the other with only one, to David. He is asked to decide whether it is fair for the brother with ninety-nine ewes to take the only ewe of his brother, a clear parallel to David taking another man’s only wife. As David tells the men that it is wrong for the one with many ewes to take the only ewe of his brother, he realizes the error of his own ways and begs God for forgiveness. The lack of integral details in Sura 38 exemplify, again, the role of the Qur'an as a guiding tool, not a narrative.
Verses 30-40: Story of Solomon
The Qur'an also references Solomon, son of David, as a devoted Messenger who realizes the error of his ways and is forgiven by God. With further research, one uncovers the story referred to in Sura 38: Solomon is more devoted to his horses than to God, and misses prayer sessions while indulging in the hoofed creatures’ company. He justifies his obsession, saying, “My love of fine things is part of my remembering my Lord!” (Q 38:32). God knows this is not true, is displeased with the king and “[reduces] him to a mere skeleton on his throne” (Q38.34) as punishment. Eventually Solomon realizes that God has been testing him. According to Muslim legend, Solomon slaughters all his horses to prove his devotion to God, and God forgives him, granting him great power over the earth.
Like the Qur'an does of David, Solomon’s positive attributes are emphasized, even though he too “yielded to certain temptations on the road to faith” (Tottoli, 35). However, Solomon was granted even greater powers by God than his father was. A particularly miraculous one was his over the wind, so that he could travel over his immense territory quickly. Solomon could speak to animals and was commander over a rank of jinn, or invisible spirits. The bible even claims that God made Solomon so wise that kings from all over the land traveled to hear him speak. (2 Chronicles 9:14).
Verses 55-64: The Day of Judgment
One does not have to be a prophet to have a decadent afterlife. Through verse 49, the Qur'an repeats that the reward for devout followers “will be nearness to Us, and a good place to return to” (Q38.49). The reader is tantalized by descriptions of heaven through verse 54, in which rich words like “bliss” and “abundant” are used. Such enticing information becomes particularly important when contrasted with a long description of Hell, lasting from verses 55-64, which includes a bone-chilling description of what hell tastes like: “a scalding, dark, foul fluid” (Q38.58). The Qur'an describes this Day of Judgment with increasingly vivid descriptions as Islam develops. This one is particularly scaring, arresting multiple senses and capturing the reader in a dark, seemingly inescapable cloud of perpetual agony.
Other Biblical References
God also references Noah, Job, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael, and Elijah in Sura 38. Of these characters, he only elaborates on the story of Job, providing a third major example of overcoming “adversity” (Q 38:44) to become a noteworthy messenger of the past.
In verse 63, God repeats to Muhammad that he must warn the masses against this Day of Reckoning, that God will forgive those who seek forgiveness but only if they heed the Prophet’s warnings.
Part Three: Verses 66-88
The Sura ends with three short verses maintaining the holiness and validity of the Qur’an, just as it begins with a verse saying “By the Qur’an with its reminding” (Q38.1). The ring composition of this Sura gives it a more narrative feeling than contemporary Suras.
Verses 71-85: Story of Iblis and Hell
To prove humility is key to acceptance in heaven, God recounts the story of Iblis’ rejection from heaven and God’s generous compromise with him, giving him “respite till the Appointed Day,” though God will then “fill Hell with you and all those that follow you” (Q38.80-85). The passage proves that God shows compassion even to those who have betrayed him with the most serious offenses. Yet God’s absolute power gives a good sentiment a frightening undertone, worrying the reader that perhaps his future, like that of Iblis, is already sealed.
However, there is a more interesting explanation for the creation of Satan. He exists to tempt us, and prove our true devotion to God. God warns humans that Satan will tempt them: in other suras, even Adam and Eve are advised to beware of temptation from the devil, yet they err nonetheless. Without Satan, mankind would not be so easily led astray; there would be no draw to worship any other gods; there would be few ways to show the most strict devotion to God.
Whilst God in Islam is described as "Oft-Forgiving", He is also regarded as just, punishing those who have done wrong, as judged by Him. In Sura 38, God speaks of entire civilizations that he wiped out because they did not believe in him (e.g. Q:38 10-17). However, the Sura suggests that God will forgive a believer if is his faith is strong and true and he repents for his misdeeds. Messengers sin but are ultimately flawless; despite human imperfection, we, too, can be saved by God and given a place in heaven on the Day of Judgment.
However, Sura 38 is unique in the number of concrete examples it gives of biblical figures who have served God well. Though Muhammad faces adversity among his own people, the tone of this Sura is more confident in the essential truth behind Islam than earlier Suras. This faith is exemplified by the emphasis on forgiveness for all, typical in Suras from the 2nd Meccan period, as opposed to worship of Allah by a small group of followers. Though the reader can have no doubt God’s wrath on the disbeliever and his power, the Sura wishes primarily to draw readers by enforcing the generosity and kindness of God through forgiveness.
- Robson, James, UNCHANGEABLE WORD, The Manchester Guardian, 24 January 1956
- Neuwirth, Angelika. "Structural, Linguistic, and Literary Features." The Cambridge Companion to the Qurʼān. Ed. Jane McAuliffe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2006. 97-111. Print.
- Ernst, Carl W.. How to Read the Qur'an : A New Guide, with Select Translations. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Ebook Library. Web. 24 Sep. 2013.
- Ernst, 12.
- Donner, Fred M. “The historical context.” The Cambridge Companion to the Qurʼān. Ed. Jane McAuliffe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.
- Newsom, Carol A., and Pheme Perkins. "2 Samuel Chapter 12." The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Comp. Michael D. Coogan. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. 12206. Print. Tottoli, Roberto, and Ebook Library. Biblical Prophets in the Qur'an and Muslim Literature. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2013. 35-38. Print.
- Tottoli, Roberto. Biblical Prophets in the Qur'an and Muslim Literature. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2013. 30-32. Print.
- Haleem, 126-129.
- Surah Sad (Complete text in Arabic with English and French translations)
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