An alert Muslim will point out that I need to just look ahead a few verses in this sura and the problem introduced in verse 98 will find its solution in verses 101-103.
Surely you and what you worship besides Allah
are the firewood of hell; to it you shall come.
-- Sura 21:98
Surely (as for) those for whom the good has already gone forth from Us,
they shall be kept far off from it;
They will not hear its faintest sound, and they shall abide in that which their souls long for.
The great fearful event shall not grieve them,
and the angels shall meet them: This is your day which you were promised.
-- Sura 21:101-103
It is now necessary to look carefully at the occasion for the revelation of this verse. It is described in detail in Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah, translated as "The Life of Muhammad" by A. Guillaume, page 163:
The apostle sat one day, so I have heard, with al-Walid b. al-Mughira in the mosque, and al-Nadr b. al-Harith came and sat with them in the assembly where some of Quraysh were. When the apostle spoke al-Nadr interrupted him, and the apostle spoke to him until he silenced him. Then he read to him and to the others: "Verily ye and what ye serve other than God is the fuel of hell. You will come to it. If these had been gods they would not have come to it, but all will be in it everlastingly. There is wailing and there they will not hear".
Then the apostle rose and `Abdullah b. al-Ziba`ra al-Sahmi came and sat down. Al-Walid said to him: "By God, al-Nadr could not stand up to the (grand)son of `Abdu'l-Muttalib just now and Muhammad alleged that we and our gods are fuel for hell" `Abdullah said: "If I had found him I would have refuted him. Ask Muhammad, `Is everything which is worshipped besides God in Gehenna with those who worship it?' We worship the angels; the Jews worship `Uzayr; and the Christians worship Jesus Son of Mary." Al-Walid and those with him in the assembly marvelled at `Abdullah's words and thought that he had argued convincingly. When the apostle was told of this he said: "Everyone who wishes to be worshipped to the exclusion of God will be with those who worship him. They worship only satans and those they have ordered to be worshipped." So God revealed concerning that "Those who have received kindness from us in the past will be removed far from it and will not hear its sound and they abide eternally in their heart's desire", i.e. Jesus Son of Mary and `Uzayr and those rabbis and monks who have lived in obedience to God, whom the erring people worship as lords beside God. And He revealed concerning their assertion that they worship angels and that they are the daughters of God, "And they say the Merciful has chosen a son, (exalted be He above this); nay, they are but honoured slaves, they do not speak before He speaks, and they carry out His commands", as far as the words, "and he of them who says, I am God as well as He, that one we shall repay with Gehenna. Thus do they repay the sinful ones."
As we can see, the contradiction was identified by the critics of Muhammad on the very day the verse was uttered. And Muhammad gave a response which supposedly solves the issue. ... Or does it?
What is the problem with this story?
Every contradiction can be saved and reconciled when we allow to add in or add on some extra information, or some conditional clause ("except...") or similar constructions.
IF this text from 21:98 to 21:101 had been revealed together, in one sitting, then I would say, yes, verse 101 dissolves the problem. And God surely knew that verse 98 by itself would be contradicting both reality and the other passages of the Qur'an.
Knowing that this is contradictory and that God does not give contradictory revelation [cf. Sura 4:82], would it not be reasonably to assume that God would have revealed all of it at once to make sure his revelation is free of contradiction at any given given time?
But as it is, and ackowledged in al-Sirat, Muhammad was caught in this contradiction first and then in response to it he brings another verse. Obviously he claims that this is just the next part of revelation from God. But I hope you can see that this looks awefully like Muhammad patching up the faulty text.
Does God make errors?
Humans make errors. And if these humans are reasonable they will acknowledge they were wrong and correct their errors.
Here some "revelation" had to be repaired by an extra piece of "further revelation" to dissolve a contradiction. That looks very much like a human being would act - not like the nature of God, the All-Wise. Do you think the Quraish caught God by surprise? No. Do you think they could catch Muhammad by surprise with a clever question/conclusion? They certainly could. And they clearly did.
This is not a 100% proof that this part of the Qur'an is made up by Muhammad. You always can say: I cannot explain it, but who am I to question Allah if he in his wisdom chooses to reveal in bits and pieces and in response to the Quraish ... Allah does as he pleases ...
But such a response could be used to cover anything, even the worst nonsense. "Allah knows better" solves everything for the one who already believes ... and is determined not to let anything shake his faith and confidence.
But if you don't have already predecided that the Qur'an is from God, then how do you test this? The above story could be part of the test and one indication that something is wrong here.
Essential question: Would Allah be in need to repair a faulty revelation? And if the author of the Qur'an apparently is in this need, then, maybe, he is not the God he claims to be?
This is something to think about.
Contradictions in the Qur'an
Answering Islam Home Page