Some notes on Surat al-Shu`ara’

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi

This surah addresses theintense anxiety that God’s Messenger, salla l-lahu `alayhiwa-sallam, suffered on account of the kinds of negative response that he got when he conveyed to the people the message that God commanded him to convey. It seems that he blamed himself (v. 26:3). The Prophet grieved that, though some of the people were his relatives, and all of them Arab speakers, the message did not so touch and move their hearts that they would be eager to believe. Was the message not clear enough? Was he failing in his responsibility of conveying it and making it clear? Why did they only mock and ridicule him as they would ridicule others who ‘just made things up’ – madmen, poets, liars, frauds and charlatans like conjurers and sorcerers, who seemed able to say or do impossible, wonderful things which, on inspection and reflection, turned out to be either fraud or pointless entertainment.

The surah answers this anxiety in a number of ways, which I try to indicate in summary form in these notes.

It states firmly (26:2) that with this sending down from God, the message of all the Books is made plain, comprehensible and practicable. Yet the people still do not believe, and the Messenger grieves over the fact. They ridicule the tidings that the Messenger brings, the promise hereafter of reward for belief, and the threat hereafter of punishment for unbelief. Because promise and threat are alike related to the hereafter (the reality that will follow and justify all that is and happens in the natural world), the people can see no presentreason to be even respectful of the message, let alone believe it and act upon it. This attitude is a cause, and itself an example, of two human failings in particular.

The first is that people cannot see their own existence and the prior existence of the whole universe on which their existence depends as a cause of wonder and gratitude greater than any miracle that they could ever imagine. In other words, they do not grasp that the natural is one effect of the supernatural, one effect of the Will and Compassion of God: nothing, living or non-living, can produce its own existence or life, it comes to be after some earlier existing or living something. So, following affirmation (26:2) that there is nothing in the message that is not clear, and that the problem is with the people (they will not to believe), God affirms (26:4) that He has willed that mankind shall not be compelled to believe, though it is within His power to compel them. This freedom of will is the highest expression of Compassion, the basis of human responsibility, of being answerable, toGod. For one who is compelledcannot be called to account, only the one that compelled him. This freedom ends with accounting for it: those who (26:5-6) turn down the offer of belief and forgiveness, and do so mockingly, will have happen to them what they deny can happen. Because these people refuse His power and authority hereafter, He asks about them (26:7-8): are they blind to all that, around them, is vibrant and fruitful with such prolific variety and abundance of life?

The second human failing is that people suppose that if the message and the Messenger were true, then he should be able to show that he has special protection, special favour, and special powers from the source of the message. As it is, the Messenger cannot even defend himself from their mockery and rejection of him, so his message cannot be true. Their disposition, either to not notice or to mock what is not present to their senses in some tangible way, has narrowed their horizons.Therefore it is beyond them to grasp that the source of this message is the same as the source of themselves and the whole creation, all of which indicates a power far greater than the greatest human emperor who might send a messenger of the kind such as people would readily take notice of: the kind who carries visible tokens of the emperor’s authority, perhaps special clothes, impressive transport arrangements, ceremonial fanfares, and an armed force of uniformed soldiers. For such people, it is as if the Messenger were like someone who came to them and asked them to invest their money in some far-off project, and promised them good returns on their investment in some other life, some other dimension of reality. Of course they refuse that. But the Messengers do not come asking the people to give them their money or to rob them of their powers and authority: they come to teach them a change of heart so that they acquire and use their wealth, powers and authority in ways pleasing to God rather than displeasing.

For people trapped in the inability tosee the reality of what the Messengers are offering them, there is no way to connect with that reality. A hadith tells us that the Prophet once explained to his people, if I told you that the enemy was over the hill and coming fast, you would listen and prepare. So too, if he warned them of fire, they would act quickly to protect themselves from it, because he was someone they trusted implicitly. But when he warns of the Fire hereafter, and the need to rethink some of their habits of mind, and adjust some of their customs,dietary habits, andcommercial and legal practices, so that they may be relieved of that Fire, their trust in him vanishes. It vanishes because they cannot imagine the reality of that Fire or the reality of the Garden. The hereafter is beyond their horizons.

Verse 26:9 is a refrain that punctuates the surah, marking a shift from one section to another. In it God refers to Himself as ‘your (singular) Lord’. The translation of rabb as Lord is okay so long as we remember that the Arabic conveys not just dominion and sovereignty but all the attributes that are expressed in English as caring, cherishing, protecting, providing life and all the means of sustaining it. This address to the Prophet himself, which runs through the surah, is assurance that he need not be so troubled with the negative response of the people, their mockery or their threats, because his Lord is all-mighty and all-compassionate. His power to do all He wills through His Word is fused in unity with His compassion, and that compassion requires that mankind shall not be compelled to believe.

Between the different occurrences of the words of 26:9 throughout the surah, there arethe compact accounts of how earlier Prophets and Messengers,`alayhim as-salam, were received and treated by their people: 26:10-68, the confrontation of Moses and Pharaoh demonstrates refusal to believe, even in the face of evidently supernatural signs, until too late, in the jaws of death; 26:69-103,the confrontation of Abraham with the idolatry of his father and his people highlights his grief and concern for them; 26:104-121, the suffering of Noah at the hands of his people, the flood, and his being rescued with the fewwho were believers shows that  the great majority did not, and would not, believe even as the waters rose); 26: 23-129, the confrontation of Hud with the `Ad, whose tyrannical elite weretoo arrogant and proud of their technology, architecture and agriculture to heed any message that did not improve them in these worldly things;  26:141-158, Salih’s confrontation with his people, who admired him and hoped great things for him, once more demonstrates that evidently supernatural signs do not cause belief, rather belief and unbelief are the fruit of the heart’s free action; 26:160-174, the trials of Lot (Lut) illustrate how the obsession or infatuation of the heart with evil life-ways is a cause of unbelief and inability to repent, and therefore leads to destruction; 26:176-189, Shu`ayb asks of his people only that they repent of unjust dealings and deal with others equitably, but this is too much for them,they demand the punishment for rejecting their Messenger, and it comes to them, shutting off their hearts’ freedom to repent and reform. 

These compact accounts are a second consolation for the Prophet, salla l-lahu `alayhiwa-sallam. Being a believer he knows how great were the souls of the Messengers before him; since their reception by their people was the same as his reception by his people, it means that he need not feel that there is some deficiency or flaw in the way he is conveying God’s message. Rather, there is strong commonality, strong continuity, in the message from the first to the last of the Messengers, and strong similarity in the response to it in different settings and times. The surah returns to this theme, near the end (26:196-200), confirming that the unbelievers do not believe only because they will not to believe, not for any lack of plainness in the message, or because the message is somehow unfamiliar to them. This helps to re-capitulate clarify, deepen and extend, the meaning of the opening eight verses: the Prophet is assured that the message is true, conveyed by the True Spirit, in clear Arabic, directed first to the pagan Arabs (because the Arabs and non-Arabs of the people of the Book may be too stubborn in their misguided distortions of the religion to receive it). So heshould feel assured and trust in God who is not (like Pharaoh and others) a tyrant; rather, He is compassionate and concerned for His creatures, and sends them revelation, which traverses their hearts, enabling them to believe if they will, and be saved from His punishment and eligible for His forgiveness and reward. Thus, the Prophet is urged to renew his call, to his people and his family, with good heart; to be humble with the believers; to consider and declare himself innocent of what even his family may say and do when rejecting belief, for none carries the burden of another. He should know that God sees his prayers and worship, and He sees and hears and knows all things, within his creatures and around them.

I will comment more on each of the compact narratives, the details of which are of the highest significance. In these notes, I want to highlightwhat is given prominence in all of the narratives, namelythe exposition of the different elements and strategies of the unbelievers so that they can hold on to their unbelief.For example, when Moses says to Pharaoh: Your Lord and Lord of your ancestors, Pharaoh is amused. He calls the Prophet a madman because after all he (Pharaoh) knows and the world knows that the God for Pharaoh and the Egyptians is Pharaoh and the Pharaohs before him. Similarly again, when Musa says: Lord of the East and the West, meaning there is no boundary to His dominion, Pharaoh responds as if to prove Moses is wrong,by threatening to imprison Moses and his brother. By this he means Moses’ God is not strong enough to protect him from Pharaoh’s God which is himself and his will. This tells us what a narrow conception of God Pharaoh has; he thinks that whoever enjoys the material power over a land and its people is their God. It is at this point that Moses asks what if I bring a sign? If Musa can show Pharaoh that there is a power beyond his range of comprehension, he might begin to question his own certainty. In fact as we know, those who will not to believe will not believe whether they are presented information or arguments or miracles. In this case, Pharaoh interprets the miracle as a conjuring trick, such as the sorcerers of his court used to perform, and later, when the sorcerers are able to distinguish fraud from truth, he accuses them and God’s Messengers of a political conspiracy to challenge his authority and rob him of his power. His power proves to be of no avail to him at all.

The refrain which separates the different narratives about the Prophets states as a matter of fact: here is truth, a clear sign, but most of them are not believers, and indeed your Lord is the Mighty One, the Merciful. Hence He will not hasten the punishment; but nevertheless the deferment of punishment does not mean that unbelievers will escapethepunishment. The deferment is time for the message of God to be allowed to enter and travel over the hearts of wrongdoers (26:200).It is a consolation that all the Prophets have been through the same thing, namely rejection, ridicule, persecution and ultimately failure of the mission.For we see the fact that Pharaoh is drowned and the terrible rain rains down on `Ad, and other examples. But these examples do not tell us that those peoples became believers; it only tells us that, since they believed after the time for them to believe closed for them, they were punished.

What the Prophets are asked is to speak truth and to do the right things, even though they will fail in the purpose of doing do. So why do so? The reason is that you must speak the truth and do the right thing because it is the truth and the right thing, and not because it will succeed in the world.

At the very end of the surah, God returns to a common strand in the unbelievers’ accusationsagainst the Messengers. They liken the truth revealed to God’s chosen Messengers with other kinds of inspirations that seem to come frombeyond the normal run of the world, the words of madmen and poets.The Arabs used to believe that the jinn or devils descended on or briefly possessed the hearts and minds of poets or madmen or fortune-tellers, so they would allow themselves to be impressed by what then came out of their mouths: the poets and madmen ‘listen avidly’ to the voices they hear but what they hear is not the truth, it is falsehood and error, and spreads error to others (26:221-224). The devils or jinn can only possess and influence those whoare inclined to sin and error. Those who follow the poets, perhaps reciting their lines as they wander the valleys, say words which they do not perform, and which indeed cannot be performed (26:226): they promise things like being in love for ever, or being able to win great battles and great fame that last for ever, and of coursethose who say such things cannot perform them, that is partly why they say them with such intensity and excess of art. As for fortune-tellers, their predictions are only ever correct by chance, and they have no sure knowledge of what is to come.The Arabs were charmed and misled by such people, and willing to be so because such people do not demand of them that they repent and reform their hearts, and do the right things with the hereafter in mind. Those who are saved from the influence of lying poets and fortune-tellers (the last verse of the surah, 227) are, as we would wish and expect, inclined to faith and righteousness, they remember God much, and stand up for the right, and strive to put things right.