Sūrah Group: The Last Ten Suwar (Part 2)
Part 2 of observations on the ordering and arrangement of the last ten suwar
Last week we began our look at how the final ten suwar of the compiled Quran appear to progressively develop and establish a single theme: the restoration of Abrahamic monotheism to (and through) its capital in Mecca. Those ten suwar, which we have analyzed individually in past posts, are as follows:
As a reminder, we must turn to Abraham’s prayer from Sūrah al-Baqarah to best understand the logic in their ordering. The prayer is:
When Abraham said, “My Master, make this a secure city (baladan ‘āminan), and provide its people with fruits—whoever among them believes in God and the Last Day.” Allah said, “As for whoever disbelieves, I will give him enjoyment for a little while, and then I will force him into the punishment of the Fire (nār). What a terrible destination!”
When Abraham was raising the foundation of the House, and Ishmael: “Our Master, accept from us. Truly You are the Hearing, the Knowing.
Our Master, make us submitters to you and make from our descendants a nation submitted (muslim) to you. Show us our rites and accept our repentance. Truly You are the Returner, the Merciful.
Our Master, send them a messenger from among them who will recite your āyāt, teach them the Scripture and wisdom, and purify them. Truly You are the Almighty, the Wise.” (2:126-130)
Last week’s post focused on suwar 105-107. This week we continue and observe how the next four suwar (108-111) are logically connected.
They represent, respectively: a divine promise of victory and of the enemy’s destruction; the contrast between the religion of monotheism and the religion of the enemy; the victory of the religion of monotheism; and the destruction of the enemy. As we will see, it is also likely that these suwar logically represent four stages of the Messenger’s career; the low point, the turning point, the final victory, and the enemy’s demise.
Sūrah 108, Sūrah al-Kawthar (The Abundance) is the shortest sūrah of the Quran. Most scholars regard it as Meccan, viewing it as a consolation to the Messenger ﷺ during the low point of his career, when he and his followers were weak, powerless, small in number, and faced with powerful opposition of the Quraysh leadership. Early commentators have further related that the Messenger’s infant son had died, leaving him without a male heir—a terrible humiliation in Arabian tribal society. As a result, his enemies—including none other than his own uncle Abu Lahab—made fun of his situation, boasting that his legacy was “cut off” and that his efforts to reform his society were doomed to failure.
Sūrah al-Kawthar is a small mirror structure, consisting of only three short āyāt:
In the first āyah, Allah ﷻ assures the Messenger ﷺ that He has already given him full success and victory in this world and the next: he just has to wait to see it. In the last āyah, Allah ﷻ also informs him that it is his enemies who are truly “cut off” from all good, for they will be defeated and will have to suffer the consequences for their actions in the next life.
In the center, the Messenger ﷺ is commanded to express his gratitude to Allah ﷻ through two actions; prayer and sacrifice—the two modes of worship most directly associated with the legacy of Abraham—just as the Quraysh were ordered to “worship the Master of this House” in Sūrah 106.
The fulfillment of these prophecies is illustrated in the next three suwar. The next sūrah, Sūrah al-Kāfirūn (The Disbelievers), marks the end of the Messenger’s attempts at inviting the leaders of the Quraysh to Abrahamic monotheism in Mecca:
Say: “Disbelievers! I do not worship what you worship. And you are not worshipers of what I worship. Nor will I be a worshiper of what you worship. And nor will you worship what I worship. To you be your religion (dīn), and to me by my religion (dīn).”
The disavowal of the Quraysh would lead to the Messenger’s departure from Mecca, which would end up being a major turning point in his mission—to the extent that the Islamic calendar used to this day begins with it. Were it not for the disavowal put forward by this sūrah, the Muslims would never have been able to form an independent community in Medina and the political and military confrontations between the Muslims and the disbelievers of the Quraysh could not have taken place.
It follows neatly from this that the next sūrah, Sūrah an-Naṣr (The Great Help), describes the victory of the Messenger ﷺ and his community over the Quraysh, foreshadowed by the first āyah of Sūrah al-Kawthar above. This victory was the Conquest of Mecca and the entry of most of the tribes of Arabia into Islam:
When the help of Allah comes and the Conquest, and you see the people entering the religion (dīn) of Allah in droves, then exalt your Master with praise and ask for His forgiveness. Truly, He is the Returner.
Additionally, the word for “religion,” dīn, which the previous sūrah ended with—”To you be your dīn, and to me by my dīn”—is picked up again in this sūrah, where it is made clear which of the two religions is the victorious and divinely-aided one. This sūrah represents the fulfillment of Abraham’s prayer to raise among his descendants a muslim nation: “Our Master, make us submitters to you and make from our descendants a nation submitted (muslim) to you. Show us our rites and accept our repentance. Truly You are the Returner, the Merciful.”
The next sūrah graphically illustrates the prophecy in the last āyah of Sūrah al-Kawthar: “Truly your enemy is the one who is cut off.” Sūrah 111, Sūrah al-Masad (The Palm-Fiber) (also called Al-Lahab (the Flame)) concerns ʿAbd al-ʿUzza ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib, who was the most vicious leader of the Quraysh in his hostility against the Messenger ﷺ, despite being his uncle. ʿAbd al-ʿUzza was known by his nickname, “Abu Lahab,” “Father of the Flame” because of the bright, ruddy complexion of his face. His wife supported him in his hatred: it was said that while carrying firewood, she would cast thorns bound with twisted palm fiber into the Messenger’s path. The sūrah prophesies Abu Lahab’s destruction and then satirically describes the couple’s punishment in the afterlife:
The hands of Abu Lahab will perish and he will perish. His wealth and gains will not avail him. He will burn in a fire (nār) of flame (lahab). And his wife, the firewood-carrier: Around her neck is a rope of twisted palm fiber (masad).
According to Muslim sources, Abu Lahab died a gruesome death. Shortly after the Battle of Badr (624 CE), in which the Muslims won their first victory, Abu Lahab became sick with the plague. He was quarantined and no one approached him until days after he died. The smell of his decomposing body was so off-putting that his sons had to hire laborers to dispense of his body. Sūrah al-Masad serves as a commentary of Allah’s response to Abraham’s prayer: “As for whoever disbelieves, I will give him enjoyment for a little while, and then I will force him into the punishment of the Fire (nār). What a terrible destination!” The same word for “fire” is also used in this sūrah.
Next week we’ll conclude our analysis of the coherence of the last ten suwar of the Quran.
والله أعلم - And Allah knows best
Ali Khan, Nouman and Sharif Randhawa. Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran as Literature. Bayyinah Institute, 2016