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The Unlettered Prophet (18)
Khalid Masud
(Tr. by:Nikhat Sattar)


Warning of God’s Punishment to the Quraysh


Trials for the people of Makkah

When a prophet’s nation oppresses him and his followers as a show of its arrogance, God inflicts lesser and greater punishments on them to cut them down to size, so that this might weaken their hearts, they might turn to God and listen to His message in the light of which they try to reform themselves. This is a law of God that has been implemented on all nations to whom prophets have been sent. The Qur’an explains this as follows:

 And We sent to no city a prophet [who was denied], except that We seized its people with poverty and hardship that they might humble themselves [to God]. Then We exchanged in place of the bad [condition], good, until they increased [and prospered] and said, “Our fathers [also] were touched with hardship and ease.” So, We seized them suddenly while they did not perceive. (7:94-95)

At another place, it says clearly that the Quraysh shall continue to face trials and difficulties until the final conclusive phase is reached.

And those who disbelieve do not cease to be struck, for what they have done, by calamity – or it will descend near their home – until there comes the promise of God. Indeed, God does not fail in [His] promise. (13:31)

This statement in the Qur’an shows that, many trials came upon the Quraysh, but they have not been recorded in history. Imam al-Bayhaqi has mentioned only one of these; during this period of obduracy and arrogance of the Quraysh, they were struck by a severe famine, to the extent that people would see a sort of smoke between the skies and the earth, due to extreme hunger. It is possible that the Quraysh suffered trade losses also during this period that were not recorded in history.


God’s Law about Divine Punishment

It is an immense favour from God for any nation to have a prophet born within its people. The prophet is well aware of the nature, traditions and customs of his people, and when he communicates the message of God in their own language, it is the greatest wealth he could distribute amongst them. It enables them to not only improve their lives in this world, but also to become eligible for rewards in the Hereafter. It is a matter of great misfortune for a nation that it refuses to listen to and obey their prophet. In such a situation, these people convert a huge divine favour, into a great suffering for themselves. They, then, become the addressees of God’s message as a result of the advent of the prophet, because their carelessness and disregard means that they are disdainful of the Ruler of the universe and their own Creator, and His guidance. This act is rebellion against God, and that nation cannot save itself from its repercussions. If the people respond positively to the message, God opens the doors of His mercy even wider, the earth spews its treasures and the heavens play their part to make them more prosperous. This is why prophets are called the proclaimers of glad tidings and warners. The prophet gives good news of God’s blessings to those who accept the truth and warns those who do not, of their ignominious end. 

It is evident from the Qur’an that a period of time is allotted to a nation during which it is given freedom to choose and accept the message of its prophet, after he has been declared one. This period is known only to God; even the prophet is unaware. When people ignore the message, it is the responsibility of the prophet to warn them of the negative consequences of their stubbornness. He tells them that they shall be punished in this world, and shall also be considered criminals in the next. The Prophet (sws) would explain very kindly to his people that, by negating God’s message, they were making themselves worthy of the same punishment that was accorded to the extinct nations of ‘Ād and Thamud. People would ask him; when would this punishment come? They wanted to see it. The Prophet (sws) would, very truthfully, tell them that he could only commit to the coming of the punishment; he could not say anything about its timing, because that was known only to God.


Signs of Impending Punishment to the Quraysh

As the Quraysh constantly insisted on the punishment to be shown to them, the Prophet (sws) was informed through revelation that, while the punishment would be a reality, the knowledge of its timing could not be given. It was possible that he could witness it partially during his lifetime, and it was also possible that he would not see what may happen to his detractors while he lived. Therefore, he was not to say anything to those who queried him on this matter. It is said in Surah Yunus:

And whether We show you some of what We promise them, [O Muhammad], or We take you in death, to Us is their return; then, [either way], God is a witness concerning what they are doing. And for every nation is a messenger. So when their messenger comes, it will be judged between them in justice, and they will not be wronged. And they say, “When is [the fulfillment of] this promise, if you should be truthful?” Say, “I possess not for myself any harm or benefit except what God should will. For every nation is a [specified] term. When their time has come, then they will not remain behind an hour, nor will they precede [it].” Say, “Have you considered: if His punishment should come to you by night or by day – for which [aspect] of it would the criminals be impatient?”

The Quraysh were warned that they should not consider themselves different from the earlier nations.  Whenever a prophet was sent to a nation, a conclusive phase always came. If God decided to punish it in this world, He did not look at its predecessors nor its status and strength of numbers. It met the same fate that came to the nations of ‘Ād, Thamud and others that became worthy of punishment.

But if they turn away, then say, “I have warned you of a thunderbolt like the thunderbolt [that struck] the ‘Ād and the Thamud. [that occurred] when the messengers had come to them before them and after them, [saying], “Worship not except God.” They said, “If our Lord had willed, He would have sent down the angels, so indeed we, in that with which you have been sent, are disbelievers.” (41:13-14)

The Prophet (sws) would worry, seeing the stubborn behavior of his people, and wonder if it was due to some fault of his that they were not accepting his message. The Qur’an reassured him that this was not so. He was making even greater efforts in spreading the message than was expected of him. His responsibility was to communicate God’s guidance to people; it was not a part of his duties to ensure that people accepted it wholeheartedly, or that they changed their attitudes accordingly. If they did not accept it, they were the ones who would be punished. The Quraysh could not understand how, with all their grandeur, riches and high society status, they could be annihilated through divine punishment, and how the Muslims, who had no support, could claim victory. At this, the Qur’an invited them to observe how Islam was spreading around Makkah and how the city was being surrounded by supporters of Islam. 

And whether We show you part of what We promise them or take you in death, upon you is only the [duty of] notification, and upon Us is the account. Have they not seen that We set upon the land, reducing it from its borders? And God decides; there is no adjuster of His decision. And He is swift in account. (13:40-41)

These verses indicate very clearly that the Quraysh would be defeated by the Prophet (sws) and his followers, and Makkah would be won by the latter. Those who reflected could already see the signs. The influence of Islam within the surroundings of Makkah, its acceptability in Abyssinia and the increasing number of people who were accepting Islam, and, after going through extensive suffering for its cause, had become even more fervent, were indications that with each passing day, the circle around the Quraysh would be tightened. However, the issue of whether the Prophet (sws) would himself be able to witness this situation or not was left ambiguous.  

Are your disbelievers better than those [former ones], or have you immunity in the scripture? Or do they say, “We are an assembly supporting [each other]”? [Their] assembly will be defeated, and they will turn their backs [in retreat]. But the Hour is their appointment [for due punishment], and the Hour is more disastrous and more bitter. (54:43-46)

 It is worth noting that these verses of Surah al-Qamar, too, indicate that the group of the disbelievers would be defeated in the battle with Muslims and they would turn and run away from them, despite the fact that when this surah was revealed, the Muslims were under great pressure, and the Quraysh were not even willing to let them live.  Under such circumstances, the Quraysh found it incomprehensible to accept this prediction as a statement of fact. But the huge relief and satisfaction which the Muslims must have experienced as a result can only be imagined.

The impending punishment that the Quraysh were being warned against was not meant to destroy them completely, as clarified by God, but to help them turn towards God and provide a demonstration of what could be their fate if they did not accept the message of Islam. It was an invitation to people to see those who had been punished earlier, take heed and reform themselves in time so that they could protect themselves.

And we will surely let them taste the nearer punishment short of the greater punishment that perhaps they will repent. And who is more unjust than one who is reminded of the verses of his Lord; then he turns away from them? Indeed We, from the criminals, will take retribution. (32:21-22)

As conditions in Makkah continued to worsen, the threats of punishment too became more severe and the Quraysh were warned that when the punishment came, it would not be possible for them to escape it. They were asked if God were to make the earth below their feet cave in and cause them to sink to the depths, who would save them? If a strong wind pelting them with stones was imposed on them, who would direct it away from them? If God were to take the ground water deeper into the earth, who would obtain fresh water to drink for them? Thus, to be protected from punishment, they should hang on to the Prophet (sws), leading their lives in his guidance. That was the only way for them to be saved.


Demand for a Sign of God’s Punishment

When a prophet of God warned his nation of His punishment, and asked them to accept faith to be saved from it, the unfortunate leaders of the nation would take it as an affront and challenge to their ego. They started claiming loudly their disbelief, and demanded proof of the punishment. They said that, if the Prophet (sws) was unable to bring some proof, he should, at least, show them a sign which could prove the truth of his threat. The Prophet (sws) could never show any sign; this was not within his assigned capabilities. Signs were demonstrated only through the will of God. Thus, the warning of punishment by the Prophet (sws), but his inability to provide any physical proof, often resulted in his becoming a target of sarcasm and jeering. The Qur’an has explained at various places that demanding signs from the prophets was not justified.  God had assigned a certain period for the preaching of the Qur’an. He was watching all deeds of the disbelievers and those who were heaping taunts on the Prophet (sws), and keeping an eye on them. When the time came for punishment, no tricks of theirs would be able to save them.

And those who disbelieved say, “Why has a sign not been sent down to him from his Lord?” You are only a warner, and for every people is a guide. God knows what every female carries and what the wombs lose [prematurely] or exceed. And everything with Him is by due measure. (13:7-9)

This means that the pregnancy of a pregnant woman is known, but the exact time of delivery in not known to anyone. Similarly, it is known and given that the punishment shall come, but no one can determine the time when it will happen. This is only in the knowledge of God.

When the disbelievers asked to be shown a sign of punishment, on the one hand they claimed that they would accept the Prophet (sws)’s message if he complied. The Prophet (sws) often believed and desired that if God gave such a sign, perhaps a way of guidance for his nation would be opened up. On the other hand, when he could not meet this demand, they made him a target of their sarcasm. Such a situation was also a difficult one for the Prophet (sws), but God’s law intervened here. If the Prophet (sws) showed eagerness, God stopped him by saying that He would not change His laws for people. At one of these situations, God addressed the Prophet (sws) thus:

And if their evasion is difficult for you, then if you are able to seek a tunnel into the earth or a stairway into the sky to bring them a sign, [then do so]. But if God had willed, He would have united them upon guidance. So never be of the ignorant. Only those who hear will respond. But the dead – God will resurrect them; then to Him they will be returned. (6:35-36)

The Qur’an explained that the entire universe, the skies, the earth, animals, birds etc are all innumerable signs of God’s creation, power, wisdom, mercy and providence. God wanted people to ponder over these signs and make an effort to understand the realities of life. These signs were enough to demonstrate the oneness of God, all of his attributes, his justice and the system of reward and punishment on the day of reckoning. If people grasped this fact, there was no need for any special sign, because if such a sign were to be sent, it was also imminent that the Quraysh would be destroyed. People who did not think about daily signs also would not take heed on seeing any signs of punishment.

And there is no city but that We will destroy it before the Day of Resurrection or punish it with a severe punishment. That has ever been in the Register inscribed. And nothing has prevented Us from sending signs except that the former peoples denied them. And We gave the Thamud the she-camel as a visible sign, but they wronged her. And We send not the signs except as a warning. And [remember, O Muhammad], when We told you, “Indeed, your Lord has encompassed the people.” And We did not make the sight which We showed you except as a trial for the people, as was the accursed tree [mentioned] in the Qur’an. And We threaten them, but it increases them not except in great transgression. (17:58-60)

The she camel of the Thamud is referred to above. Salih (sws) was the prophet for this nation. When, after preaching for a long time, the people did not accept faith, Salih warned them of punishment from God. They asked for a sign, and God made Salih appoint a she camel who was not to be hurt. If they disobeyed, God’s punishment would strike them. One unfortunate person wounded the she camel, thus removing the last barrier in punishing the nation. The entire nation was wiped out.

The Prophet (sws) has been told in the above verses that, when the Quraysh were informed of facts that were arguments for their defeat and the control of Muslims over them, they refused to believe. They wanted to remain under their own vain hopes. Here, three such facts, which the Quraysh did not accept, are referred to. The first was that, the message of Islam was showing results among tribes living around Makkah and they were accepting it. Slowly, Makkah would be surrounded by Muslims. At that stage, there would be no way out for the Quraysh except to accept defeat. (Several years later, when Makkah was won, the Quraysh and all those living within Makkah surrendered their arms, and this defeat led to Islam being accepted by all within the Arabian Peninsula). The second fact was that, the prediction that was given to the Prophet (sws) was not accepted by the Quraysh who ridiculed it. Here, the dream or prediction was that of the Ascension, in which God had assigned the spiritual custody of both the Ka‘bah and Bayt al-Maqdas to the Prophet (sws). This was not only a message for the Quraysh and Idolaters of Arabia but also for the Jews and Christians that, the decision to give the custody of both these holy places to the Prophet (sws) and his followers had been taken. (This decision came into effect after the victory of Makkah and during the caliphate of ‘Umar (rta). The third fact was that, the Qur’an warned those who would abide in hell, of eating of the tree of spurge (a species of thorny euphorbia). Instead of fearing this news, and coming to the guidance of Islam, the Quraysh started to make fun of this tree. Thus, they showed clearly that they were not ready to let go of their presumptions. Even if they were shown any signs of punishment, they would refute it by declaring it to be magic. The only way was for them to listen to the Qur’an carefully, and to entrust their lives to its safety.

And is it not sufficient for them that We revealed to you the Book which is recited to them? Indeed in that is a mercy and reminder for a people who believe. (29:51)

The Sign of Splitting of the Moon

The sign of punishment for the Quraysh was neither determined, nor was it displayed. However, God gave a majestic sign of His great power and the tidings given by the Prophet (sws). Narratives tell us that at the continued insistence by the Quraysh to be shown a miracle, similar to what had come to previous prophets, the Prophet (sws) asked them to look at the moon. They saw that the moon broke into two, one piece moving towards the front of Mount Nur, and the other behind it. At this, the Prophet (sws) asked them to remain witness, but they again rejected it as magic. The Qur’an referred to this incident in the following words:

The Hour has come near, and the moon has split [in two]. And if they see a miracle, they turn away and say, “Passing magic.” And they denied and followed their inclinations. But for every matter is a [time of] settlement. And there has already come to them of information that in which there is deterrence – extensive wisdom – but warning does not avail [them]. So leave them, [O Muhammad]. The Day the Caller calls to something forbidding (54:1-6)

Redress for the Prophet’s Worries

A prophet of God operates in a society that has become his enemy. It is not possible that problems are created and he not be deeply affected. The society considers his preaching to be dangerous, and its leaders leave no unturned stone to stop him. Even when threatened with the advent of punishment, the people pay no attention, but the prophet hears it coming, his worry increases. In such situations, the only Being he can rely upon is God, on whose assignment he is working. He needs God’s guidance at every step, and He, too, provides it constantly.


Divine Revelation

The Prophet (sws) used to wait eagerly for divine revelation and desired for it to come to him as soon as possible. Sometimes, while waiting for the Divine Angel, he would raise his eyes to the skies. He would think that, if he were to learn the previous revelation faster, he would become eligible for the next one sooner. Hence, when the Angel came to deliver his message, the Prophet (sws) would try to learn it quickly in order to assign it to his memory. The Qur’an stopped him from this, telling him that it was not appropriate to show impatience in matters related to revelations. There is a period of time that God has allotted for completion of the revelation and that was best. Until that time, he should pray for enhancement in his knowledge.

So high [above all] is God, the Sovereign, the Truth. And, [O Muhammad], do not hasten with [recitation of] the Qur’an before its revelation is completed to you, and say, “My Lord, increase me in knowledge.” (20:114)

To reassure the Prophet (sws), God instructed the Angel to inform him that angels do not come down, except by the will of God. The Prophet (sws) may be eager for revelation, but this was not within their power. As soon as they are instructed by God, they appear before him without delay. Hence, he should continue to pray to his God and remain steadfast. His worries could be redressed by God only.

[Gabriel said], “And we [angels] descend not except by the order of your Lord. To Him belongs that before us and that behind us and what is in between. And never is your Lord forgetful – (19:64)

When the revelations came, they guided the Prophet (sws) on how to address the problems he was facing and respond to objections raised by the opponents. This gave a new strength to him, with which he was able to fight his circumstances with fortitude and determination.


Advice to Practice Extra Prayers and Patience

Amongst the chaos created by the resentment of the Quraysh, God also sent him instructions for his personal development. In particular, he was told to perform the prayers more frequently, for this was the key to his success. The more he turned to his God, the more his reliance and trust on Him would increase. When he entrusted himself and his affairs to His control, He would protect him. Similarly, it was necessary to show persistence in his own belief in the truth of his claims and arguments. If someone does not let go of patience in the most trying of circumstances, every additional challenge creates new resolve and closer links with his point of view. Narratives of previous prophets in which they handled their trials with great fortitude were related to the Prophet (sws) to guide him. Some instructions given to him were:

O you who wraps himself [in clothing], Arise [to pray] the night, except for a little – half of it – or subtract from it a little Or add to it, and recite the Qur’an with measured recitation. Indeed, We will cast upon you a heavy word. Indeed, the hours of the night are more effective for concurrence [of heart and tongue] and more suitable for words. Indeed, for you by day is prolonged occupation. And remember the name of your Lord and devote yourself to Him with [complete] devotion. [He is] the Lord of the East and the West; there is no deity except Him, so take Him as Disposer of [your] affairs. And be patient over what they say and avoid them with gracious avoidance. And leave Me with [the matter of] the deniers, those of ease [in life], and allow them respite a little. (73:1-11)

Cloistered in clothing means someone who is worried by his circumstances and is in deep thought. This was how the Prophet (sws) has been pictured. He was saddened by the obduracy of his people and wondered how he could communicate the message of God to them, that they would understand and accept guidance. He would pull his clothing around himself, and thus removing himself from the world, would go into deep thought. At this, God instructed him to pray during various stages of the night and to recite the Qur’an slowly, so that he would understand the real depths of its meaning and develop complete trust in God. At another place, it was said:

So be patient over what they say and exalt [God] with praise of your Lord before the rising of the sun and before its setting; and during periods of the night [exalt Him] and at the ends of the day, that you may be satisfied. And do not extend your eyes toward that by which We have given enjoyment to [some] categories of them, [its being but] the splendor of worldly life by which We test them. And the provision of your Lord is better and more enduring. And enjoin prayer upon your family [and people] and be steadfast therein. We ask you not for provision; We provide for you, and the [best] outcome is for [those of] righteousness. (20:130-132)

So remain on a right course as you have been commanded, [you] and those who have turned back with you [to God], and do not transgress. Indeed, He is Seeing of what you do. And do not incline toward those who do wrong, lest you be touched by the Fire, and you would not have other than God any protectors; then you would not be helped. And establish prayer at the two ends of the day and at the approach of the night. Indeed, good deeds do away with misdeeds. That is a reminder for those who remember. And be patient, for indeed, God does not allow to be lost the reward of those who do good. (11:112-115)

Consideration for Followers

The Prophet’s friends and followers who had accepted Islam were a great consolation to him. Whenever the Prophet (sws) was concerned about the conspiracies being hatched by the Quraysh, God would advise him to take solace from the presence of his colleagues, take interest in their affairs and ignore the disbelievers. These faithful friends were the group that would be enough for him.

In the verse from Surah Hud above, the Prophet (sws) was instructed not to be swayed towards the tormentors. This did not mean that he was not to speak with them at all. Meeting the disbelievers and communicating his message was among his responsibilities. Normally, when some people accept a message, the attention diverts from those who have understood, to those who are still unwilling to listen and understand. But it was important to recognize that the former group, which may have given up its families and all its interests in order to follow the prophet, needed his special attention in recompense. He was to console them in their troubles and give them glad tidings of the consequences of remaining steadfast in their faith. If he had to ignore the leaders of the disbelievers to achieve this objective, he was to follow this course. The Qur’an gave special instructions to the Prophet (sws) on this.

And do not send away those who call upon their Lord morning and afternoon, seeking His countenance. Not upon you is anything of their account and not upon them is anything of your account. So were you to send them away, you would [then] be of the wrongdoers. And thus We have tried some of them through others that the disbelievers might say, “Is it these whom God has favored among us?” Is not God most knowing of those who are grateful? And when those come to you who believe in Our verses, say, “Peace be upon you. Your Lord has decreed upon Himself mercy: that any of you who does wrong out of ignorance and then repents after that and corrects himself – indeed, He is Forgiving and Merciful.” (6:52-54)

Do not extend your eyes toward that by which We have given enjoyment to [certain] categories of the disbelievers, and do not grieve over them. And lower your wing to the believers. (15:88)


Displeasure at the Arrival of Ibn Umm Maktum

Surah ‘Abas contains reference to an event in which the Prophet (sws) was speaking to a group of Quraysh leaders and communicating the message of the Qur’an, when a companion, ‘Abdullah ibn Umm Maktum arrived. He was a maternal cousin of Khadijah (rta), and was blind. His arrival in the midst of the meeting with the Quraysh during his preaching displeased the Prophet (sws). He was concerned that this would provide an opportunity to the Quraysh to say that he was only being supported by the disabled and poor; that he had been able to convince them and now wished that they too, would come down to their level. Thus, they would never accept his message. With these thoughts regarding the requirement of preaching, the Prophet’s forehead was creased. The Qur’an addressed this as follows:

The Prophet frowned and turned away. Because there came to him the blind man, [interrupting]. But what would make you perceive, [O Muhammad], that perhaps he might be purified. Or be reminded and the remembrance would benefit him? As for he who thinks himself without need, To him you give attention. And not upon you [is any blame] if he will not be purified. But as for he who came to you striving [for knowledge] While he fears [God], From him you are distracted. No! Indeed, these verses are a reminder; So whoever wills may remember it. (80:1-12)

It is clear that, overwhelmed with emotions of compassion and mercy, and a desire to fulfill his responsibilities, the Prophet (sws) was worried lest the arrival of Ibn Maktum provide an excuse to the Quraysh to leave the gathering, and this led him to turn away from his companion, momentarily forgetting the guidance that had been revealed through the above verse from Surah al-Hijr. The style of address in Surah ‘Abas indicates as if the anger is directed towards the Prophet (sws), but it is not him, but the disbelievers who are addressed here. Imam Hamid Uddin Farahi clarifies this in his tafsir:

 To understand this situation, consider a simile. Imagine a shepherd who is very dedicated and vigilant, and one of his sheep wanders away from his herd and is lost. The shepherd goes out to search for it, finding the signs of its feet and hearing its bleating too from various parts of the forest. The shepherd goes far, hoping to find it soon and apparently forgets his herd. On return, his master reproaches him for leaving his whole herd and going after a single sheep needlessly. He should have left it to its devices, and it would have served it well had it been eaten by a wolf. Where is the anger directed here – at the shepherd or the sheep? Obviously at the lost sheep, because love is expressed towards both the shepherd and his herd. The same situation occurs here. It only appears that the addressee is the Prophet (sws), whereas, in actual fact, the burden of the censure is on all those who have continued to disbelieve. For the Prophet (sws), there are hidden expressions of love and kindness in these words.”1

Thus, the Prophet (sws) was directed in the surah, not to use any means below his noble status, and unworthy of the Qur’an, to attract the proud and arrogant people towards Islam. People who were turning away from this great blessing were unworthy of being given any importance. Only those who had entered the fold of Islam and wished to adopt better and nobler characters, learn and to purify themselves, were the ones who needed his attention the most.



(Translated by Nikhat Sattar)





1. Hamid al-Din al-Farahi, Majmu‘ah tafasir Farahi,  257.

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