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What the Qur'an Teaches: What punishment for turning away

Published: 23/07/2010 09:31:00 PM GMT
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Published: Jul 9, 2010 23:25 Updated: Jul 23, 2010 20:52

We adorned the sky nearest to the earth with lights, and made them secure. Such is the design of the Almighty, the All-Knowing. If they turn away, say: ‘I warn you of a thunderbolt like the thunderbolt that struck the Aad and Thamud.’ There came to them, from all directions, messengers saying: ‘Worship none but God.’ They answered: ‘If our Lord had wished, He would have sent down angels. We will never believe in your message.’ (Clearly Expounded; Fussilat: 41: 12-14)

As we said last week, the sky nearest to the earth can have several meanings. It could be the nearest galaxy to us, known as the Milky Way, which has a diameter of about 150,000 light years. It could mean something else that comprises stars and planets that shine for us like lights. These skies are ‘made secure’ from devilment, as can be understood from other references in the Qur’an. Quite what this entails is beyond our grasp and hence our knowledge is limited to what the Qur’an tells us.

“Such is the design of the Almighty, the All-Knowing.” Can anyone other than Him design all this. Can anyone other than the Almighty who knows all control the whole universe and conduct its affairs?

Given this is the state of the entire universe, what position should be assigned to those who reject God’s oneness and attribute partners to Him? How should their reckless arrogance be requited? “If they turn away, say: ‘I warn you of a thunderbolt like the thunderbolt that struck the Aad and Thamud.’ There came to them, from all directions, messengers saying: ‘Worship none but God.’ They answered: ‘If our Lord had wished, He would have sent down angels. We will never believe in your message.’”

A warning against the type of thunderbolts that struck the peoples of Aad and Thamud strikes fear in their hearts. It suits the terrible offence they commit. It answers the idolaters’ arrogance referred to at the beginning of the surah showing them to be the only ones in the universe who reject the truth.

What sort of effect did this warning have on the unbelievers in Makkah? Ibn Ishaq, an early biographer of the Prophet (peace be upon him), gives us the following story:

One day, as Utbah ibn Rabeeah, one of the Quraysh chiefs, was sitting with a group of Quraysh notables, he noticed the Prophet sitting alone close to the Kaabah. Utbah suggested to his friends: “Shall we go to Muhammad and make him some offers? He may accept one or the other. If he does we will give him that and put an end to our problem with him.”

This idea was greeted with unanimous approval. As Utbah sat with the Prophet he addressed him: “My nephew, you know you command a position of high esteem and noble birth among us. You have brought into the life of your community something very serious indeed. You have thus caused disunity to creep into their ranks; you have belittled their ideals, ridiculed their gods and their religion and spoken ill of their forefathers. Now listen to me. I am making you some offers which I would like you to consider. You may, perhaps, find some of them acceptable.”

The Prophet asked him to make his proposals, and listened attentively. Utbah said: “My nephew, if you have started this affair hoping to make money out of it, we are all willing to give you some of our own wealth so that you will be the richest among us. If it is honor and position you want, we will make you our master and seek your advice in all matters. If it is a throne you are after, we will make you our king. If, on the other hand, you are possessed and are unable to resist what overwhelms you, we will spare no expense in seeking a medical cure for you.”

When Utbah stopped, the Prophet asked him whether he had finished. As Utbah affirmed that he had, the Prophet asked him to listen to what he had to say. The Prophet then recited the first 38 verses of Surah 41 of the Qur’an (the surah we are discussing), and Utbah listened attentively. When the Prophet finished his recitation, he prostrated himself in humble devotion to God, before saying to Utbah: “You have heard what I have to say and you can make up your own mind.”

Utbah left quietly and went to his people, who realized as they saw him approaching that a change had come over him. They looked up at him curiously, listening to his words: “I have heard something the like of which I have never heard in my life. It is neither poetry nor sorcery. Take up the suggestion I am making to you, and lay the blame for the outcome at my door. Leave this man alone. What I have heard from him will certainly bring about great events. Should the rest of the Arabs kill him, you would have been spared the trouble. If he wins, whatever glory he achieves will be yours.” They retorted: “He has certainly bewitched you.” He said: “I have stated my opinion, and you can do as you wish.”

Another report by Jabir suggests that when the Prophet recited these verses, Utbah listened. When the Prophet read verse 13 which says: “If they turn away, say: I warn you of a thunderbolt like the thunderbolt that struck the Aad and Thamud,” Utbah put his hand on the Prophet’s mouth and appealed to him by the ties of kinship to his people to do nothing of the sort. Then Utbah left him, went home and stayed in doors. His people talked to him later about this and he explained his position: “When Muhammad spoke this warning, I appealed to him not to do so. You know that when Muhammad says something, he does not lie. I feared that such punishment be inflicted on you.”

Although the proposals Utbah made sounded worthless, the Prophet listened attentively, without interrupting his interlocutor. He remained calm and friendly. When Utbah stopped speaking, the Prophet then graciously asked him: “Have you, Abu al-Walid, finished what you have to say?” Then when Utbah confirmed that he had finished, the Prophet said: “Then listen to me.” He waited until Utbah said, “I will do,” before he read to him God’s own words. Throughout he was friendly, calm, confident and reassured. This is typical of how the Prophet always captured his audience’s attention, even though they might at the beginning jeer him and take a hostile stand. His was always a most admirable attitude. ¬

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