In another article we have looked at perhaps the most popular claimed prophecy in the Qur’an. Less discussed is a potentially false prophecy in the Qur’an.
The earlier stage – divine cataclysm
In his book (2013 ) God, Muhammad and the unbelievers, David Marshall argues that there is an evolution within the Qur’an in how it envisages the punishment of the disbelievers at Mecca. In an earlier stage Muhammad’s preaching expected a cataclysmic judgement of God’s direct punishment to fall upon the Meccans, much as they had upon other civilisations. We read in the early-Meccan Q 69:
4 The people of Thamud and ʽAd denied that the crashing blow would come: 5 Thamud was destroyed by a deafening blast; 6 ʽAd was destroyed by a furious wind 7 that God let loose against them for seven consecutive nights, eight consecutive days, so that you could have seen its people lying dead like hollow palm-trunks. … 9 Pharaoh, too [an allusion to the destruction of Pharoah’s army in the waters], and those before him, and the ruined cities: these people committed grave sins and disobeyed the messenger of their Lord, so He seized them with an evertightening grip. 10 But when the Flood rose high, 11 We saved you in the floating ship, 12 making that event a reminder for you: attentive ears may take heed. (All Qur’an translations taken from Abdel Haleem. Emphasis added. This passage discovered via Marshall, 2013 , 47-48)
As for the middle to late Meccan periods, ‘[p]erhaps the clearest example’ (Marshall, 54) is Q 41:13: ‘If they turn away, say, ‘I have warned you about a blast like the one which struck ‘Ad and Thamud’. The threat of sudden destruction appears elsewhere too:
97 Do the people of these towns feel secure that Our punishment will not come upon them by night, while they are asleep? 98 Do the people of these towns feel secure that Our punishment will not come upon them by day, while they are at play? (Q 7:97-98. Marshall, 55)
16 Are you sure that He who is in Heaven will not make the earth swallow you up with a violent shudder? 17 Are you sure that He who is in Heaven will not send a whirlwind to pelt you with stones? You will come to know what My warning means. (Q 67:16-17. Cf. also Q 16:45, 17:68-69, 34:9. Marshall, 55)
Mark Durie (2018, 49), who also utilises Marshall’s work (48-49, 53), nicely summarises the diversity of forms that God’s judgement may take:
The actual form the punishment takes varies and is determined by Allāh, through such means as airborne baked stones (the story of Lūṭ: Q 11:82; Q 15:74; Q 67:17); drowning (Nūh’s flood in Q 10:71-73 and the inundation of Firʿawn’s army in Q 10:90); earthquake or thunderbolt (both are applied to the people of Thamūd: Q 7:78; Q 51:44); violent wind (the people of ʿĀd: Q 51:41; cf. Q 2:266); a shout (Q 11:67); and fire (Q 2:266). [N.B.: except for Q 2, these are all Meccan surahs]
Impatience with the coming judgement
Yet Marshall (58ff.) notes a number of passages which recognise that this punishment has not yet come, perhaps even already in the early Meccan period:
1 A man [mockingly] demanded the punishment. 2 [that is certainly] coming to the disbelievers— none can deflect it– 3 from God, the Lord of the Ways of Ascent, 4 by which the angels and the Spirit ascend to Him, on a Day whose length is fifty thousand years. 5 So be patient, [Prophet], as befits you. 6 The disbelievers think it is distant, 7 but We know it to be close. (Q 70:1-7. Marshall, 59)
And later on:
31 Whenever Our Revelation is recited to them they say, ‘We have heard all this before— we could say something like this if we wanted— this is nothing but ancient fables.’ 32 They also said, ‘God, if this really is the truth from You, then rain stones on us from the heavens, or send us some other painful punishment.’ (Q 8:31-32. Emphasis added)
Durie (50) notes the following verses (amongst a number of others):
- 53 They challenge you to hasten the punishment: they would already have received a punishment if God had not set a time for it, and indeed it will come to them suddenly and catch them unawares. 54 They challenge you to hasten the punishment… (Q 27:53-54)
- Do they really wish to hasten Our punishment? (Q 37:176)
- If We defer their punishment for a determined time, they are sure to say, ‘What is holding it back?’ … (Q 11:8)
- Say, ‘If what you seek to hasten were within my power, the matter would be settled between you and me, but God knows best who does wrong.’ (Q 6:58)
- They say, ‘When will this promise be fulfilled, if what you say is true?’ (Q 21:38)
Even ‘the messengers lost all hope and realized that they had been dismissed as liars, [but then] Our help came to them’ (Q 12:110. Marshall, 61). Marshall (60) notes that even Muhammad himself may have not expected to live to see the coming judgement (e.g. Q 13:40. Cf. also Q 10:46, 40:77, 43:41-42).
Judgement through military victory
As Marshall (67) notes, in a number of places in the Qur’an, it stresses that Muhammad is only a messenger, and not responsible for the message’s reception (Q 88:21-2; 50:45; 6:107; 11:12; 42:6. In Q 13:40, where divine punishment is in view:
Whether We let you [Prophet] see part of what We threaten them with, or cause you to die [before that], your duty is only to deliver the message: the Reckoning is Ours. (Marshall, 68)
These verses which ’emphasize the line of demarcation between God and the messenger perhaps indicates that there was an impulse in Muhammad to cross this line into the territory [i.e. of bringing judgement] which the Qur’an insists is God’s alone.’ (68) This impulse may help to explain the Qur’an’s interest in the military exploits of previous prophets (Q 27:37; 21:80; 18:86) (68-69).
Regarding the Medinan period, Marshall (118) quotes Frants Buhl (Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, art. ‘Muḥammad’, 399), approvingly:
The Prophet had an account to settle with the Meccans, for by his expulsion they had triumphed over him in the eyes of the world and the punishment repeatedly threatened them had not materialized, unlike the stereotyped punishments of the godless in the stories of the prophets. … [this situation] led to a new comand, that of the holy war (…al-jihād)
Marshall (134) writes:
The point has often been made that the Qur’an interprets Badr as the coming of the threatened punishment on the unbelieving Meccans. For example, Bell writes: ‘Muhammad did not drop the idea of a special judgement upon Mecca until to his mind it had become an accomplished fact’, and Bell goes on to show that this happened at Badr: ‘The Battle of Badr was the Calamity upon the unbelieving Meccans,’ (Bell 1926, pp. 121, 124) Watt makes a similar comment… (Emphasis added)
‘Most of the Qur’anic material on Badr is to be found in surah 8’ (Marshall 134), and so it is here that we turn:
7 Remember how God promised you [believers] that one of the two enemy groups would fall to you: you wanted the unarmed group to be yours, but it was God’s will to establish the truth according to His Word and to finish off the disbelievers— 8 to prove the Truth to be true, and the false to be false, much as the guilty might dislike it.
Marshall notes the verbal parallels between this section and other passages where God punished the past civilisations (Q 10:81-82, 6:45, 7:72, 15:66. Marshall 135-136). For example, shortly before the destruction of Pharoah’s army in the waters we read:
81 When they did so, Moses said, ‘Everything you have brought is sorcery and God will show it to be false. God does not make the work of mischief-makers right; 82 He will uphold the Truth with His words, even if the evildoers hate it.’ (Q 10:81-82. Emphasis added)
The difference is that in Q 8:7-8, God’s punishment and vindication of his truth has come about through a military battle.
If the Meccans repent, then hostilities will cease (Q 8:38-39. Marshall, 144). But their failure to do so means that they are to be fought and punished at the hands of the believers (Q 9:13-4; Marshall, 146):
13 How could you not fight a people who have broken their oaths, who tried to drive the Messenger out, who attacked you first? Do you fear them? It is God you should fear if you are true believers. 14 Fight them: God will punish them at your hands, He will disgrace them, He will help you to conquer them… (Emphasis added)
This is not to suggest that God is no longer involved in the judgement himself. God had many times actively helped the believers on the battlefield and punished their enemies (Marshall, 150):
25 God has helped you [believers] on many battlefields, even on the day of the Battle of Hunayn. … 26 Then God sent His calm down to His Messenger and the believers, and He sent down invisible forces. He punished the disbelievers— this is what the disbelievers deserve—
Indeed, the Qur’an stresses that at Badr:
It was not you who killed them but God, and when you [Prophet] threw [sand at them] it was not your throw [that defeated them] but God’s, to do the believers a favour (Q 8:17. Cf. also Q 8:9, 12. Marshall, 137)
So, is there a contradiction between the earlier stage where the expectation seems to be for a divine cataclysmic judgement, and the later stage where in fact divine judgement comes through the hands of the believers on the battlefield? Or is this a form of ‘progressive revelation’, where God does not make the ultimate reality obvious from the start, but gradually reveals certain truths (Christians see this happening in the Old Testament)? Or is there less of a development than Marshall sees? Is the Qur’an open to a military judgement right from the start, as evidenced by those Meccan passages (Q 27:37; 21:80; 18:86, assuming it is Meccan) indicating an interest in previous prophets and warfare which Marshall highlighted? (68-69).
We leave such questions to the reader to answer, who may be interested to read Marshall’s work where his case is made more fully. But let me draw my own tentative conclusions:
- Muslims who use secular scholarship to critique the Bible should be aware that secular scholarship goes both way. Secular scholarship can be used to find developments in language and theology within the Qur’an, which to many will seem like very human features.
- The argument above could be seen as an example of ‘failed prophecy’ – Muhammad expected a natural disaster to seize the Meccans, but it never came, and so military victory came to be seen as a substitute form of punishment. This would count against Muhammad as a prophet.
- If we are to be more charitable readers of the text, and to find not contradiction but instead an outworking and reshaping of earlier themes, perhaps we will also want to be charitable to the New Testament, where critics of the New Testament often claim that the New Testament is mistaken in expecting Jesus’ imminent return and the end of the world. More charitable readings of the New Testament, such as a preterist reading, claim that there are more nuanced and accurate ways to read these passages.
NB: This was always a tentative post, and true to that, some helpful comments that have made me rethink Marshall’s thesis can be found here. At the very least they suggest that even if Marshall has detected broad trends, certain verses (Q 16:126-127, 7:167, 17:5-7, 6:65, taken from Durie, 58. The helpful commentator highlighted Q 17:7 and Q 54:44-45, though we debate the meaning of the latter) should be the added to the list of Meccan passages which foreshadow the shift that is to come. It should be noted that both Marshall and Durie do acknowledge some verses before the hijrah/transition that anticipate later shifts. Whether such anticipations simply foreshadow a genuine shift or challenge whether such a shift occured, will be in the eye of the beholder based on the totality of relevant verses on this topic. Readers are still encouraged to read Marshall and Durie’s works.
Durie, Mark. The Qur’an and Its Biblical Reflexes : Investigations into the Genesis of a Religion. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2018.
Norris, H. T. “Book Review: God, Muhammad and the Unbelievers: A Qur’anic Study. By David Marshall. Pp. 222. Richmond: Curzon Press, 1999.” Journal of Qur’anic Studies 2, no. 1 (2000): 127-31.
Marshall, David. God, Muhammad and the Unbelievers. London & New York: Routledge, 2013. Originally published in 1999 by Curzon Press.
McAuliffe, Jane Dammen. Review of God, Muhammad and the Unbelievers: A Qur’anic Study, David Marshall. Die Welt des Islams 43, no. 2 (2003): 292-94.
Whittingham, Martin. “Book Review: Marshall, David, 1999, God, Muhammad and the Unbelievers.” https://www.cmcsoxford.org.uk/resources/book-reviews/marshall-david-1999-god-muhammad-and-the-unbelievers.