As mentioned in the introduction to Surah An-Naml, according to Ibn Abbas and Jabir bin Zaid, Sürahs Ash-Shu'ara, An-Naml and Al-Qasas were revealed one after the other during the middle stage of the Prophet's residence at Makkah.
Major Issues, Divine Laws, and Guidance:
• The story of Fir'aun (Pharaoh) who plotted to kill all the male children of the Israelites. How Allah saved Musa (peace be upon him) and arranged for him to be brought up in Fir'aun's own household.
• Youth of Prophet Musa (peace be upon him), his folly of killing a man, his escape to Madyan, his marriage, his seeing a fire at Mount Tûr, and his assignment as a Rasool towards Fir'aun.
• The stories of prior generations are related in the Qur'an as an eye opener for the disbelievers to learn a lesson.
• Unbiased Jews and Christians - when they hear the Qur'an, can recognize the Truth and feel that they were Muslims even before hearing it.
• Guidance is not in the hands of the Prophets; it is Allah Who gives guidance.
• The fact that on the Day of Judgement, disbelievers will wish that they had accepted guidance and become Muslims.
• Allah has not allowed the mushrikeen to assign His powers to whom they want.
• The story of Qaroon, the legendary rich man.
• Allah says that the revelation of the Qur'an is His mercy, a believer should let no one turn him away from it.
This Surah removes the doubts and objections that were being raised against the Prophethood of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and invalidates the excuses which the unbelievers had for not believing in him. Then the story of the Prophet Musa (peace be upon him) is related to emphasize that Allah is All-Powerful and can provide the means for whatever He wills to do. He arranged for the child (Musa), through whom Fir'aun was to be removed from power to be brought up in Fir'aun's own house and he did not know whom he was fostering.
The unbelievers wondered about the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) - how he could be blessed with the Prophethood all of a sudden. This is explained through the example of the Prophet Musa (peace be upon him) who was given the Prophethood unexpectedly during a journey, while he himself did not know what he was going to be blessed with. In fact, he had gone to bring a piece of fire, but returned with the gift of Prophethood.
The unbelievers were wondering why Allah would assign the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) this mission without any special help or supernatural forces to aid him. Again, the example of the Prophet Musa (peace be upon him) is used to explain that a person from whom Allah wants to take some service always appears without any apparent helper or force behind him, yet he can put up with much stronger and better-equipped opponents. The contrast between the strengths of Musa (peace be upon him) and that of Fir'aun is far more extreme than that between Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the Quraish; yet the whole world knows who came out victorious in the end and who was defeated.
The unbelievers were referring to the Prophet Musa (peace be upon him) again and again, saying: "Why has Muhammad not been given the same which was given to Musa (peace be upon him)?" That is to say, the miracles of the Staff and the Shining Hand; as if to suggest that they would readily believe only if they were shown the kind of the miracles that Musa (peace be upon him) showed to Fir'aun. The disbelievers are admonished, that those who were shown those miracles did not believe even after seeing the miracles. Instead they said: "This is nothing but magic," for they were full of stubbornness and hostility to the Truth just like the disbelievers of Makkah. Then a warning is given by citing the fate of those who disbelieved after witnessing those miracles. This was the background against which the story of the Prophet Musa was narrated and a perfect analogy is made in every detail between the conditions then prevailing in Makkah and those which were existing at the time of the Prophet Musa (peace be upon him).
In conclusion, the disbelievers of Makkah are admonished for mistreating those Christians who came to Makkah and embraced Islam after hearing the verses of the Qur'an from the Prophet. Instead of learning a lesson from their acceptance of Islam, the Makkan's leader, Abu Jahl, humiliated them publicly. Then the real reason for not believing in the Prophet is mentioned. The disbelievers were thinking, "If we give up the polytheistic creed of the Arabs and accept the doctrine of Tawheed (Oneness of God), it will be an end to our supremacy in the religious, political and economic fields. As a result , our position as the most influential tribe of Arabia will be destroyed and we shall be left with no refuge anywhere in the land." This was the real motive of the chiefs of the Quraish for their antagonism towards the Truth, and their doubts and objections were only a pretense invented to deceive the common people.
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This surah continues from where the preceding one, al-Naml, left off and opens with reassuring words for the believers about the future as well as asserting the dark and gloomy end await- ing the transgressors and unbelievers. It afﬁrms that patience shall be well rewarded, and that the oppressed and persecuted shall be set free and their shackles broken.
The surah relates an episode from the story of Moses and his people as an illustration that the laws of history retain their validity despite the passage of time. It says: “These are the verses of the perspicuous Book. We truthfully recount to you tales of Moses and Pharaoh for the beneﬁt of those who believe” (2–3). The Pharaoh referred to here is most likely to be Ramses II who ruled Egypt around the thirteenth century bc and whose kingdom extended to the Danube river in south-east Europe. The surah says of him:
Pharaoh ruled with tyranny in the land and divided its people into castes, one group of which he persecuted, killing their sons and sparing only their daughters. Truly, he was an evil man. (4)
Killing the male and sparing the female children was indeed a vile and criminal method of ethnic cleansing, but despite these measures the Pharaoh was not to achieve his goal of annihilating the Israelites. The surah asserts that: “It was Our will to favor those who were
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oppressed in the land, to make them leaders, to bestow on them a noble heritage and to give them power in the land...” (5–6).
These words came to be a great consolation for the early Muslims who were being hounded and persecuted by the Makkan Arabs, giving them conﬁdence and hope in the future. Towards the end of the surah, Muhammad and his followers were promised that they would return to Makkah triumphant. The surah says:
He who has revealed the Qur’an to you will surely bring you home [to Makkah] again. Say, “My Lord best knows those who are rightly-guided and those who are hopelessly led astray.” (85)
This is reported to have been revealed to Muhammad whilst he was on his way from Makkah to Madinah, in 622 ac. Ten years later Muhammad was to lead the Muslims in triumph back to Makkah, with all its inhabitants embracing Islam.
The following episodes from the history of Moses and the Israelites narrated in this surah were not covered in the previous two. These are:
- The birth of Moses and the difﬁculties he encountered during his early life.
We guided Moses’ mother saying, “Nurse him, but if you are concerned about his safety, then cast him into the river. Have no fear and do not worry; for We shall bring him back to you and We shall choose him as a messenger.” (7)
Needless to say, for a mother to place her baby in a river is not an easy thing to do, but with much trepidation Moses’ mother obeyed the instructions given to her because she had faith and trust in God:
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An aching void grew up in the heart of the mother of Moses, and she would indeed have disclosed all about him had We not endowed her heart with enough strength to keep alive her faith [in Our promise]. (10)
- The reception Moses was given when he was picked up from the river by the Pharaoh’s household. Moses had enough charm and promise to beguile the Pharaoh’s wife who took an immediate liking to him, saying to her hus- band: “‘This child may bring joy to me and to you. Do not kill him, he might be of use to us, or we may adopt him as our son’” (9).
Thus Moses was spared, and as soon as his sister, who was following the news of his progress, found out that he had been picked up, alive and well, by the Pharaoh’s household, she offered to ﬁnd him a suitable nurse to look after him. It came to pass that as Moses refused the breasts of the palace nurses a suitable nurse was found for him, who, by the will of God, happened to be his natural moth- er. Moses’ secret remained intact.
- Moses grew up among the Pharaoh’s household. Not only had his life been spared, but he had also been brought up in comfort and freedom, to prepare him for the hard task that lay ahead. “When he came of age and had grown to man- hood We bestowed on him wisdom and knowledge. Thus We reward the righteous” (14).
At this stage in his life, Moses had an unfortunate expe- rience which made his existence in Egypt very difﬁcult. One day, as he entered the town, he saw an Israelite being forced by an Egyptian to carry a load which was far too heavy for him. A quarrel ensued between them, and: “The one who was of his [Moses’] own race appealed for help
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against his enemy, so Moses struck him and rendered him dead” (15).
Moses was a strong man, but had not intended to kill the Egyptian. He realized his mistake and appealed to God, saying: “‘My Lord! I have wronged myself, so please for- give me.’ And God forgave him” (16). When Moses felt that God had forgiven him, he was grateful and vowed to ﬁght tyranny and defend the oppressed.
It appears that the Pharaoh’s men came to know of the incident and began to hatch a plot to kill Moses in revenge for the death of the Egyptian. However, he was informed of the plan by a sympathizer and, realizing that his life was in danger, decided to ﬂee Egypt to travel to Madyan in north-west Arabia.
- In Madyan, Moses met with a hospitable man who, on learning of his ordeal, gave him a place to stay and said to him: “‘Fear nothing. You are now safe from those wicked people’” (25). He offered Moses employment and gave him his daughter’s hand in marriage. The Israelites have yet to forgive Moses for marrying a non-Hebrew woman.
The identity of Moses’ host has not been revealed, and I do not believe, as has been suggested by others, that he was the prophet Shu¢ayb. The man said to Moses:
“I will give you one of my two daughters in marriage, provided you stay eight years in my service. If you stay ten years that will be up to you. I do not wish to overburden you; God willing, you will ﬁnd me an upright man.” (27)
From a young man growing up in a Pharaoh’s palace, Moses ended up as a shepherd in the Arabian desert. But such tribulations did nothing to diminish his stature. Great men are never affected by material or social status; their integrity, honor, magnanimity and
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quality of character are established by their actions and behavior rather than by their position. The years Moses worked as a shepherd must have given him a chance to think and reﬂect on what he had been through. They must also have enabled him to think about his people and what would become of them. It was a period of mental preparation for the task that lay ahead. The surah tells us that:
When he fulﬁlled his term and was journeying with his wife, Moses saw a ﬁre on the side of Mount >‰r. He said to his wife, “Stay here. I can see a ﬁre. Perhaps I can bring you news.” (29)
This ﬁre was the beacon that was to lead him to greatness. “When he arrived close to it, a voice called out to him from a tree in a blessed spot on the right-hand side of the mountain, and said, ‘Moses, I am God, Lord of all creation…’” (30). This was another great turning point in Moses’ life for, having been working as a humble shepherd, he now became a messenger of God with a mis- sion to free a whole nation from slavery and lead them to glory. At this moment Moses remembered what had happened to him in Egypt and so asked God to provide him with manpower for sup- port. God said: “‘We shall give you your brother to help you, and will give both of you such power that no one shall be able to harm you. Supported by Our signs, you, and those who follow you, shall triumph’” (35).
Moses went back to Egypt and, as we learnt in more detail in al-A¢r¥f, >¥ H¥ and al-Shu¢ar¥’, spectacularly prevailed over the Pha- raoh’s sorcerers in the famous public duel that took place between them. The surah afﬁrms that: “When Moses came to them with Our clear signs, they said, ‘This is nothing but contrived sorcery; we have never heard of anything like it from our forefathers’” (36).
The surah also relates another confrontation between Moses and the Pharaoh. The latter ordered his chief right-hand man, H¥m¥n, to help him ﬁnd the God to whom Moses had referred:
And Pharaoh said, “Nobles, you have no other god that I know of except myself. H¥m¥n, build me a tower from bricks of clay that I may climb and see the god of Moses. I suspect that he is deﬁnitely lying.” (38)
The foolish Pharaoh believed that God resided in the sky or some- how sat above the clouds. Although this notion may sound comical or silly, it is a belief still held surprisingly by some people today. On returning from a space voyage, a Soviet cosmonaut was quoted as saying that he had looked for God in space but had not found Him. The only thing he had seen was his fellow cosmonaut! How can people be so naive and absurd? Who has claimed that God is restricted to the heavens or the skies? God is the Creator and Gover- nor of the whole universe, and His power and signs are evident everywhere for all to see. The Pharaoh and his like, who deny the existence of God shall: “Lead others to the ﬁre, and on Resurrec- tion Day shall have none to help them. In this world We laid Our curse on them, and on Resurrection Day they shall be held in dishonor” (41–42).
The fact that Prophet Muhammad was relating these details of Moses’ life and the Israelites’ history to the Arabs should have been sufﬁcient proof that what he was telling them had come from anoth- er source. Muhammad was an illiterate man who had grown up in an idol-worshiping environment. How could he have come by all these historical accounts and details? The surah says:
You [Muhammad] were not present on the western side of the mountain when We charged Moses with his commission, nor did you witness the event. We raised many generations thereafter but time has caused them to forget. You were not among the people of
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Madyan, reciting to them Our revelations, but it was We who have chosen you as a Messenger. (44–45)
God gave Muhammad a Book which revived earlier messages and restored their credibility, but many people refused to accept it. They asked for miracles like the ones Moses performed. But what good did these miracles do? The unbelievers persisted in their refusal, even after witnessing them. About these people God says:
When the truth had come to them from Us, they said, “Why is he not given the same as was given to Moses?” But do they not deny what was given to Moses? They say, “Both [the Qur’an and the Torah] are works of sorcery complementing one another!” And they say, “We will believe in neither of them.” (48)
As for those who followed Moses out of Egypt, having been saved by God from drowning in the Red Sea, they had the audacity to ask Moses to make them a god to worship and certainly seem to have lost the point of his message altogether.
The believers among the Arabs opened their hearts to the Qur’an and beneﬁted from it in understanding their role in the world and in charting their way through history, leading humankind to God and His guidance.
When a community loses its direction in life and is ruled by whims and desires, it can only fail and disintegrate. Islam faced strong resis- tance from the pagans of Arabia and only a small minority saw the truth from the very beginning and embraced the new faith. The Jews and the Christians, however, were another matter. The Qur’an treated them with utmost fairness and courtesy, and those of them who embraced Islam were welcomed with open arms. God says:
A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an
Those to whom We gave the Book before believe in it [the Qur’an]. When it is recited to them, they say, “We believe in it. It is the truth from our Lord. We submitted ourselves to God even before it came.” These shall be given their reward twice, because they have endured with fortitude. (52–54)
In the same context, the Prophet was reported to have said that God would double the reward of three types of people including: “a Jew or a Christian who believed in his prophet and lived to believe in me and follow me.”34
When Islam began to spread outside Arabia, Western Asia and North Africa were largely populated by Jews and Christians living under Roman rule and large numbers of these embraced Islam as soon as they were introduced to it. However, in contrast, the pagans of Arabia put up a strong resistance to the new faith and waged war against its followers. This hurt the Prophet and caused him a great deal of pain and anguish, but God consoled him saying: “You cannot guide whomever you please: it is God who guides whom He will...” (56). This verse is believed to refer to Muhammad’s uncle, Ab‰
>¥lib, who, despite his nephew’s sincere wishes, had not embraced Islam. He acknowledged the efﬁcacy and the truth of Islam, and the integrity of Muhammad, but remained strongly attached to the tradi- tions and religious beliefs of his forefathers. Reports also speak of some Makkan Arab dignitaries expressing concern that, were they to embrace Islam, the rest of the Arab tribes would drive them out of Makkah. To this God replied:
And they say, “If we accept your guidance, we shall be driven from our land.” But have We not given them a sanctuary of safety where fruits of every kind are brought as a provision from Us for them? Indeed, most of them are ignorant. (57)
- Narrated by al-Bukh¥rÏ.
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But as the Arabs persisted in their resistance to Islam, the Qur’an warned them, saying: “Many a rebellious and ungrateful nation We have destroyed! The dwellings they left behind are almost deserted; We have outlived them” (58).
The surah continues in a similar vein, promising and warning: “All that you have been given is trivial worldly enjoyment and God’s reward is better and more lasting. Do you not understand?” (60). The truth is that most people are reckless and do not heed such advice. The Pharaohs could have ruled with justice and benevolence and could have added to their achievements and glory. On the other hand, their subjects could have resisted and refused to submit to their tyranny. The Qur’an deplores the attitude of both camps, saying:
On that day God will call them and ask, “Where are the gods whom you alleged to be My partners?” The condemned masters will reply, “Lord,these are the people we misled; we led them astray as we our- selves were led astray. We plead innocence before You; it was not us they worshiped.” And the others will be told,“Call on your idols!” And they will call on them, but they shall get no answer. As they see the scourge, they will wish they were rightly guided. (62–64)
The surah then introduces more scenes from the Day of Judgment, emphasizing the fact that God has created people with different capabilities and aptitudes, and that it is He who decides the fate appropriate for everyone. It says: “Your Lord creates and chooses as He will. No one else can choose. Gloriﬁed and exalted be He above their false gods!” (68). The surah then brieﬂy draws our attention to God’s power as manifested in the natural world. “Say, ‘If God should extend the night for you until the Day of Judgment, what other god could give you light? Will you give heed?’” (71). God has made light and darkness for a purpose, and every human being, rich or poor, master or slave, who has ever lived shall be accountable for his or her life on this earth. From
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political tyranny, the surah goes on to deal with economic oppres- sion, making it clear that every human society should be free from both these evils.
The following passage recounts the story of Korah (Q¥r‰n), a contemporary of Moses who was an extremely wealthy man. But wealth in itself is neither good nor bad. It is simply a means to an end and can be beneﬁcially used or abused. Korah is described as owning treasure chests stacked with gold and silver, but he was warned not to:
exult in your riches; God does not love the exultant. Seek, by means of what God has given you, success in the hereafter but do not neg- lect your share in this world. Be good to others as God has been good to you, and do not strive to perpetrate evil in the land. God does not love the evil-doers. (77)
The generosity of some rich people knows no bounds and they seek to help others in every possible way, without ﬂaunting their wealth or being ostentatious. They would give before they are asked and acknowledge God’s kindness towards them by not using their wealth to abuse or exploit others. But, as we see in this surah, Korah decided that he had earned his wealth by sheer genius and personal hard work alone, and that he was therefore justiﬁed in doing with it as he pleased. “He said, ‘I have been given all this on account of the knowledge I possess.’ Does he not realize that God had destroyed before him generations of people who were mightier and more avaricious than he? The transgressors shall not even be asked about their sins” (78).
The temptation of wealth has been a crucial test in every human civilization, including the contemporary one. Whole political, eco- nomic, and social systems have been based on class and discri- mination between rich and poor and have brought nothing but injustice and misery to the world. Differences in wealth and fortune
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are natural and necessary in human society. Even prophets enjoyed different fortunes: some were well off whilst others lived on the edge of poverty; some were kings in their own right and had great wealth under their control whilst others had next to nothing. However, the ones who were poor never despaired or complained of their situation and the ones who were rich never abused their wealth for personal enjoyment or used it to gain power illegally over others.
Islam strikes a balance and regulates the earning and spending of wealth in such a way that beneﬁts society as a whole. The key prin- ciple is expressed in the surah thus:
The hereafter We assign to those who do not seek to perpetuate tyranny or corruption in this world. The God-fearing shall meet with ultimate success. Whoever does good shall receive a better reward; and whoever does evil shall only be requited according to his deeds. (83–84)
Society cannot be organized properly without authentic religious guidance. Man-made laws and regulations can never ensure justice and equal opportunity for all, or prepare people well enough for accountability before God in the hereafter. Passive religious belief, or lip-service to Islam, is of no consequence. It is not enough to believe and keep one’s faith to oneself. Islam is not a philosophical idea or an intellectual concept, but it is a holistic and comprehensive system covering every aspect of human life.
The surah closes with a few strong words addressed to Prophet Muhammad himself. They stress the weight of his responsibility and point him in the right direction to help him succeed in shoul- dering it. It says:
You never hoped that this Book would be revealed to you. Yet through your Lord’s mercy you have received it. Therefore lend no
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support to the unbelievers. Let no one turn you away from God’s revelations, now that they have been revealed to you. Call others to your Lord, and serve none besides Him. Invoke no other god with God; there is no god but He. All things shall perish except Him. His is the judgment, and to Him you shall all return. (86–88)
Theoretical knowledge and scientiﬁc information by themselves are not sufﬁcient to guarantee order and justice in society. Satan was fully cognizant of God, but still refused to submit to Him and obey His commands, leading him to be condemned and damned for ever. A truly Islamic society must nurture among its members a deep and enlightened faith in God as well as the will and the desire to act according to the imperatives of that faith, and to prepare for the life hereafter.
تِلْكَ آيَاتُ الْكِتَابِ الْمُبِينِ
نَتْلُو عَلَيْكَ مِن نَّبَإِ مُوسَىٰ وَفِرْعَوْنَ بِالْحَقِّ لِقَوْمٍ يُؤْمِنُونَ
إِنَّ فِرْعَوْنَ عَلَا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَجَعَلَ أَهْلَهَا شِيَعًا يَسْتَضْعِفُ طَائِفَةً مِّنْهُمْ يُذَبِّحُ أَبْنَاءَهُمْ وَيَسْتَحْيِي نِسَاءَهُمْ ۚ إِنَّهُ كَانَ مِنَ الْمُفْسِدِينَ
وَنُرِيدُ أَن نَّمُنَّ عَلَى الَّذِينَ اسْتُضْعِفُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَنَجْعَلَهُمْ أَئِمَّةً وَنَجْعَلَهُمُ الْوَارِثِينَ
وَنُمَكِّنَ لَهُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ وَنُرِيَ فِرْعَوْنَ وَهَامَانَ وَجُنُودَهُمَا مِنْهُم مَّا كَانُوا يَحْذَرُونَ
وَأَوْحَيْنَا إِلَىٰ أُمِّ مُوسَىٰ أَنْ أَرْضِعِيهِ ۖ فَإِذَا خِفْتِ عَلَيْهِ فَأَلْقِيهِ فِي الْيَمِّ وَلَا تَخَافِي وَلَا تَحْزَنِي ۖ إِنَّا رَادُّوهُ إِلَيْكِ وَجَاعِلُوهُ مِنَ الْمُرْسَلِينَ
فَالْتَقَطَهُ آلُ فِرْعَوْنَ لِيَكُونَ لَهُمْ عَدُوًّا وَحَزَنًا ۗ إِنَّ فِرْعَوْنَ وَهَامَانَ وَجُنُودَهُمَا كَانُوا خَاطِئِينَ
وَقَالَتِ امْرَأَتُ فِرْعَوْنَ قُرَّتُ عَيْنٍ لِّي وَلَكَ ۖ لَا تَقْتُلُوهُ عَسَىٰ أَن يَنفَعَنَا أَوْ نَتَّخِذَهُ وَلَدًا وَهُمْ لَا يَشْعُرُونَ