Main Themes of Surah al-Shu’ara’ (the Poets)

By Spahic Omer

Surah al-Shu’ara’ is the 26th surah in the Qur’an. It has 227 verses (ayat) which are divided into eleven sections. It was revealed in the middle Makkah period, about six to seven years before the migration (hijrah) to Madinah. It was revealed when the contact of the light of Islam and Prophet Muhammad’s prophet-hood with the milieu of polytheist and pagan Makkah was testing the Makkans in their most arrogant mood (Yusuf Ali, 1990). The surah is so called after the keyword “al-shu’ara’” (the poets) in verse 224.

The salient recurring theme of the surah is that the conflict between the truth (haqq) and falsehood (batil) on earth is perennial. It is tantamount to a law of the terrestrial existence. It assumes different forms and spares no segment of human life. At the forefront of such segments stand political leadership and authority, economy and trade, religion, creed and morality, social structure, entertainment, art and architecture. Some examples of the conflicts have been given wherein some of the most prominent prophets featured, such as prophets Musa (Moses), Ibrahim (Abraham), Nuh (Noah), Hud (Eber or Heber), Salih (Shelakh), Lut (Lot) and Shu’ayb (Jethro).

The story of each prophet represents an aspect of the persistent and ubiquitous conflict between good and evil, and between the truth and unbelief and their respective protagonists. The stories and their embedded lessons make up a mosaic of profound cultural and civilisational disorders and how they are to be effectively dealt with.

They further illustrate the authentic meaning and significance of life, culture and civilisation, in addition to the types and magnitude of the challenges and obstacles that lie ahead of every bona fide human development and society as well as civilisation-building processes. The surah, thus, is a microcosm of the whole spectacle of life with all of its ups and downs, and its message a microcosm of the cosmic truth.

The truth is always in the end victorious

Another lesson to be deduced from the content of the surah is that all conflicts of falsehood and its people with the truth and its own people are vain. In each case, it is the truth and its ardent followers that eventually emerge victorious and prevail, while falsehood and unbelief with their own adherents are brought low and made perish.

It is yet another principle of life that falsehood and unbelief cannot permanently vanquish the truth. They may have their day and score some initial victories, but the ultimate triumph will always belong to the truth and its camp. The truth may lose some battles, but will win the wars.

Hence, there is no book, or any other epistemological or religious source, that promotes positive thinking and attitude, and inspires as well as motivates, better than the Qur’an. It reiterates that nonbelievers, polytheists, oppressors, corruptors and all types of villains will not succeed because they pit themselves against Almighty God. Whereas the believers and doers of good, the God-fearing and the righteous will in the end succeed because they have aligned themselves with the natural and primordial order of things and have God on their side.

The truth is the standard and rule; falsehood and unbelief are anomalies and aberrations. The Qur’an proclaims: “And say: “The truth has (now) arrived, and falsehood perished: for falsehood is (by its nature) bound to perish” (al-Isra’, 81).  Also: “Say: “The truth has arrived, and falsehood neither creates anything new, nor restores anything (or, falsehood shall vanish and shall not come back)” (Saba’, 49).

Thus, according to Surah al-Shu’ara’, Pharaoh vehemently rejected the teachings of Musa. However, in the end, Pharaoh’s magicians, who had been brought forth to support the case of Pharaoh and make him triumph over Musa, bowed to the truth, while Pharaoh and his army were drowned (verses 10-68).

Nor did Ibrahim’s disobedient people gain anything by their resisting the truth he preached (verses 69-103). Nuh’s people also perished by their rejection of their prophet’s message (verses 105-122). Moreover, both Hud (verses 123-140) and Salih (verses 141-159) warned their respective peoples against their widespread mischief and against reliance on their material strength — including the built environment — for perpetrating and propagating the former. In the end, in both cases, the evil ones were destroyed.  Lut (verses 160-175) likewise had to put up with his people’s horrendous delinquencies, and Shu’ayb (verses 176-191) with corruption, disobedience and fraudulent dealings. Their teachings were intensely repudiated, but the wrongdoers were eventually annihilated (Yusuf Ali, 1990).

Happy endings are most fulfilling

There is nothing more fulfilling and looked-forward-to than happy endings, irrespective of the amount of time and efforts needed for their realisation. That is exactly what people live for. A happy ending is the neutraliser and annihilator of all earlier problems, sadness and desolation.

Similarly, an unhappy ending is the neutraliser and annihilator of all earlier comforts, delights and pleasures. When a happy ending arrives, it is as though there was nothing else before. By the same token, when an unhappy ending comes, it is as though there was nothing else before.

Hence, the Prophet (pbuh) advised Muslims to remember frequently “the destroyer of pleasures, i.e., death” and to act and prepare themselves accordingly (Sunan Ibn Majah).

The message thus communicated to the rejecters of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the final revealed message: the Qur’an, is that, consistent with the established laws of life and history, the truth will again emerge victorious. The rejecters and disobedient ones will not succeed in suppressing it and extinguishing its light. Their end, especially in the Hereafter, will be as distressing and chastening as that of their earlier counterparts.

That is so because the Qur’an is the Creator’s revealed Word and Guidance to humankind: “Verily this is a revelation from the Lord (and Sustainer) of the worlds. With it came down the Spirit of faith and truth (trustworthy Jibril or Gabriel), upon your heart that you (O Muhammad) may be (one) of the warners” (al-Shu’ara’, 192-194).

According to Maududi, the mentality of the disbeliever has been the same throughout the ages. Their arguments and objections, and their excuses and subterfuges for not believing have been similar and ultimately the fates that they met have also been the same. Likewise, the prophets in every age presented the same teachings, their personal character and their reasoning and arguments against their opponents were the same, and they were all similarly blessed with mercy by Almighty God. Both these patterns of behaviour and conduct are found in history, and the disbelievers could themselves see as to which respective patterns they and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) belonged.

The Qur’an then in most emphatic terms rejects the prospect of it being a form of poetry (verses 224-227). In terms of its contents, the qualities and virtues of its personnel — including the Prophet (pbuh) himself — and the generated impact on individuals and society, in no way can the truth enshrined in the Qur’an be equated with vain poetry. Nor is the Qur’an brought down by devils (verses 210-212). It is a serious divine message with serious eternal consequences. The Qur’an is the main cause of the Prophet’s and believers’ success. Its opponents’ failure, on the other hand, is due to their rejection of the Qur’an and adoption of other inadequate ideological alternatives instead.

Signs (ayat) permeate all creation

The surah also highlights that for the monotheistic truth, which is so repeatedly and obstinately rejected by numerous nations, innumerable signs (ayat) have been presented. They have been sent down or created, and every aspect of creation, including human life and history, has been imbued with them.

The signs attest to the presence, greatness and benevolence of the Creator and Lord of the universe. They are easily accessible and obtainable. They just need to be sincerely and dispassionately read, understood and acted upon, so that man could fulfil his honourable vicegerency (khilafah) mission on earth.

However, man’s inherent impulses and weaknesses — which he refuses to tackle and overcome – and his proneness to heedlessness and self-deception often get the better of him. It plunges and sustains him in the abyss of spiritual blindness and illiteracy.

Thus, the surah speaks about the signs (ayat) of the Qur’an (verse 2), the signs in the natural world (verse 8), the exceptionally great signs that God, if He wants, can send down from the heaven (verse 4), the signs given to Prophet Musa (verse 15), the signs in the stories of all the seven prophets mentioned above (verses 67, 103, 121, 139, 158, 174 and 190), and the signs in the lives and conducts of the learned scholars of the Children of Israel who had known that the Qur’an is true and so, embraced Islam (verse 197).

Al-Shu’ara’, it goes without saying, is the surah of signs (ayat). It contains fourteen references to signs: twelve as the singular (ayah) and two as the plural (ayat) noun. Its main themes and repetitive references to signs are meant to serve as antidotes for certain people’s adamant denial of the obvious and compelling truth.***

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