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    Period of Revelation: This Surah (Chapter), revealed at Madinah, consists of three discourses. The first discourse (vv. 1-32 and vv. 64-120) appears to have been revealed soon after the Battle of Badr. The second discourse (vv. 33-63) was revealed in 9 A.H. when the deputation from the Christians of Najran visited the Prophet. The third discourse (vv. 121-200) was revealed after the Battle of Uhud. Major Issues, Divine Laws and Guidance:

    • Allah’s testimony about Himself.
    • Decisive vs. Allegorical verses of the Qur’an.
    • The True religion in the sight of Allah is only Islam.
    • The only religion acceptable to Allah is Islam.
    • Live Islam and die as a Muslim in order to get salvation.
    • Followers of Isa (Jesus) were Muslims.
    • Birth of Maryam (Mary), Yahya (John) and Isa (Jesus) peace be upon them.
    • ‘Mubahla’ (calling for Allah’s decision if the birth of Jesus is disputed). He was born without a father, as Adam (first man) was born without parents and Eve (first woman) was born without a mother.
    • Life and death is from Allah.
    • There is no escape from death.
    • Those who are killed in the path of Allah are not dead, but are alive.
    • Muhammad (pbuh) is no more than a Rasool/ Prophet of Allah.
    • Prohibition to take the unbelievers as protectors.
    • Critical review and lessons taught during the Battle of Uhud.
    • The first House of Allah ever built on earth is that of Ka’bah at Makkah.
     As in Surah Al-Baqarah, the Jews were invited to accept the guidance. Similarly, in this Surah, the Christians are admonished to give up their erroneous beliefs and accept the guidance of the Qur’an. At the same time, the Muslims are instructed to nourish the virtues that may enable them to carry out their obligation of spreading the Divine guidance.The believers had met with all sorts of trials and hardships about which they were forewarned in Surah Al-Baqarah. Even though they had come out victorious in the Battle of Badr, they were not out of danger yet. Their victory had aroused the enmity of all those powers in Arabia which were opposed to the Islamic movement. Threatening events had begun to appear on all sides and the Muslims were in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety. This state of emergency was also adversely affecting its economy which had already been badly disturbed by the influx of Muslim refugees from other places.The Jewish clans, who lived in the suburbs of Madinah, started discarding the treaties of alliance which they had made with the Prophet at his arrival from Makkah. They had discarded the treaties to the extent that during the Battle of Badr, these “People of the Book” sided with the pagan Quraish, in spite of the fact that their fundamental Articles of Faith – such as Oneness of Allah, Prophethood and life after death – were the same as those of the Muslims. After the Battle of Badr, they openly began to approach various Arab clans against the Muslims. The magnitude of the peril may be judged from the fact that even the life of the Prophet himself was always in danger. His Companions used to sleep in their armor and keep watch at night to guard against any sudden attack. Whenever the Prophet happened to be out of sight, even for a short while, they would at once set out in search of him.Jews even approached the Quraish and challenged their ego to avenge the defeat that they had suffered at Badr and promised to help them from within. As a result, the Quraish marched against Madinah with an army of three thousand warriors and a battle took place at the foot of mount Uhud. The Prophet marched out of Madinah with one thousand men to fight the enemy. On their way to the battlefield, three hundred hypocrites deserted the army and returned to Madinah to discourage the believers. A small bond of hypocrites, however, remained among the seven hundred who accompanied the Prophet. They played their part and did their best to create mischief and chaos in the ranks of the believers during the battle. This was the first clear indication of the fact that within the fold of Muslim community there was quite a large number of saboteurs who were always ready to conspire with the external enemies to harm their own brethren.These devices of the hypocrites, played a major role in the setback at Uhud, even though the weakness of the Muslims also contributed to it. The Muslims were a new community, formed on a new ideology and had not as yet gotten thorough moral training. Naturally, in this second hard test of their physical and moral strength, some weaknesses came to the surface. That is why a detailed critical review of the Battle of Uhud is made in this Surah which was needed to warn the Muslims of their shortcomings and to issue instructions for their reform.

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    it is easy to identify immediately the subject matter of this surah. It revolves around two major issues: the debate with the People of the Book, the Jews and the Christians, of whom the Jews were Madinah natives incited to oppose Islam; and a review and assessment of the humiliating and tragic defeat suffered by the Muslims at the battle of U^ud in 625 ac. The two issues are treated separately to begin with, but halfway through the surah they are brought together and from then on are discussed as almost one sub- ject. The outcome of the whole discussion seems to focus on the fact that perseverance and steadfastness are required to face both issues: the scheming of the Jewish establishment inside Madinah and the attacks by the infidels from outside it.

    Islam is a religion addressed to all human societies without coer- cion or discrimination. Whoever responds positively is taken into the fold, while those who turn away are left in peace. However—as mentioned earlier—those who commit aggression against Islam and the Muslims are boldly confronted. This is clear from the verse:

    If they argue with you, say: “I have surrendered myself to God and so have those who followed me.” As for those who had received the scriptures and the illiterates [pagan Arabs with no revealed scrip- tures], ask them: “Have you surrendered yourselves to God?” If they have they shall be rightly guided; but if they turn away, then your only duty is to deliver the message to them. God is watching His servants. (20)

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    The surah begins by stressing that Islam is a universal guidance, and the Qur’an a confirmation of all previous revelation. God’s rev- elation is one, in the sense that it sets the truth apart from falsehood in a sharp and unequivocal manner. The surah highlights the fact that Moses, Jesus and Muhammad have trodden the same path, and that the scope of Islam encompasses all other revealed religions regardless of their time and place. The Torah and the Gospel are both referred to here as “God’s revelation [or messages].” This phrase occurs ten times in the surah, as in verse 4 which says: “Those who deny God’s revelations [messages], grievous suffering awaits them; for God is Mighty and capable of retribution,” and verse 199, towards the end of the surah:

    There are among the People of the Book [Jews and Christians] those who believe in God and what has been revealed to you and to them. They humble themselves before God and do not exchange God’s revelations [messages] for a trifling price.

    There could be no contradiction nor differences in the basic tenets and principles of divine faith, nor in what was revealed to Muhammad and his earlier brothers in the line of prophets, Moses and Jesus. Contradictions can exist only between God’s revelation and the false notions and philosophies that people put forward. Belief, as presented in the Qur’an, applies to what has been revealed to the Muslims and to those before them. Those who deviate from it ought to repent and return to the straight path. The “People of the Book” is a term that refers to Jews and Christians. Unlike the debate with the Jews, that with the Christians in Madinah was calm and unhurried. The Jews had their own settlements inside Madinah itself and in other parts of northern Hijaz. Their elders resisted Islam, gainsaid God’s revelations and berated His Messenger. Moreover, they collaborated with the pagan Arabs in their insidious efforts and fights against Islam and the Muslims. They were encouraged by

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    their wealth and economic power and the strong foothold they had secured in Madinah. This was repeatedly condemned in the surah (10, 21, 116, 196, 197), for excessive wealth and affluence would lead individuals as well as nations to ignore God and overreach themselves in pursuit of power and influence.

    Although the Jewish settlements in Hijaz were much more developed and economically prosperous than other cities and towns in Arabia, they had never used any of their wealth or expertise for the development and welfare of the region as a whole. With its well- established traditions of self-dignity, honesty, and hospitality, the pagan Arab society could, in fact, be said to have been more liberal and charitable than other communities in their midst. When Prophet Muhammad began to spread his teachings, he proved to be more persuasive and endearing, and less condescending, than the Jewish spokesmen who had been exposed as arrogant and self-cen- tered. Their attitudes and conduct had in the end led to their defeat and the end of their influence and existence in the area.

    The Jews had enjoyed the honor and privilege of custodianship of God’s revelation for several successive generations. They had been entrusted with it for so long that they had come to nurture the false belief that God’s revelation belonged to them and to them alone—a nation that would have the eternal indisputable right to hold and interpret God’s revelations and reap their benefit for ever. They were hopelessly mistaken. Honor, privilege, status, and leadership in the world have to be earned through devotion and hard work.

    By the time Prophet Muhammad had emerged, the Jews’ capaci- ty to carry God’s revelation forward had reached its nadir. Their rabbis’ hearts had turned hard, morals had deteriorated, and selfishness had gained the upper hand; greed for material and world- ly possessions and privileges had become their sole preoccupation. Worse than that, they had also displayed signs of insolence and insubordination towards and rejection of God and the mission with

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    which He had entrusted their race. And so it was necessary to trans- fer the responsibility and the trust to another human group, which was better qualified and which would give it the effort and devotion it deserved. The surah expresses this in the following verse:

    Say, “Lord, Sovereign of all creation, You bestow sovereignty on whom You will and take away from whom You will. You raise whomever You will and abase whomever You will. All Goodness lies in Your hands. You have power over all things.” (26)

    This fundamental assertion is preceded by elaborate reasons and considerations such as:

    Have you not taken note of those who received portions of the Book [revelation]? When they are called upon to accept the judg- ment of God’s Book, some of them turn away and take no heed. It is because they said, “We shall suffer the fire for a few days only.” (23–24)

    They were so overcome by that false sense of security that they turned to open rebellion, squandering the divine injunctions and reneging on their commitment to them.

    God’s response to that was to confirm divine justice towards all people and to dispel the erroneous idea that God was biased towards any particular ethnic or racial group, saying: “What will they do when We gather them all together upon a day that is sure to come, when every soul will be given what it earned with no injustice whatsoever?” (25). In God’s eyes, people are all equal; each shall reap his or her just rewards according to their behavior and conduct. When humankind is brought before God for judgment, each human being shall face the Creator alone. The one thing that would redeem any of them shall be their piety, and the depth and sincerity of their belief in God.

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    It is important to keep in mind that although those words are addressed to Jews in Arabia, they also serve as a subtle reminder to other human groups. God was not going to chastise the Jews for their deviation, and overlook the misdemeanor of the Arabs if they were to follow their example. Similar actions and activities would earn similar reactions and responses. The pitfall in which errant Jews were caught was their misconception that the Torah had been graced by them rather than the other way around, and this had led to their fateful fall from God’s grace and favor. Today, there are Arabs who refuse to be associated with Islam and try to separate it from Arab culture and history. Their fate could not be any different from that of the misguided Jews of Madinah before them. God does not make any undue or unmerited preferences among humans.

    The debate with the People of the Book is covered over a large part of this surah, and apart from a fleeting allusion in verse 6 to the birth of Jesus, was mainly directed at the Jews of Arabia whose ani- mosity towards the early Muslims was much more pronounced. In saying: “It is He who creates you as He pleases inside the mothers’ wombs; there is no god but Him, the Mighty, the Wise,” the surah outlines God’s stupendous power to create human beings and shape their form, soul, and body, and in the same breath alludes to the fact that Jesus’ miraculous birth was but one of a multitude of feats and incredible acts of God. He has shown humankind veritable signs of superiority and ingenuity in His creation, endowing some people with higher qualities and aptitudes than others. Jesus’ fatherless conception and birth were but two of these extraordinary and exceptional acts. This is a subject which we shall come to discuss later.

    As to the hostility exhibited towards the Muslims by the Jewish establishment in Madinah, its main underlying reason was the

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    transfer of prophethood from their patriarchs to Muhammad. That prophethood had given them such a special and unique status over all the rest of humankind, and seeing it being taken away from them and entrusted to the Arabs enraged them and fired up their fury and hatred towards them. Their reaction was severely and immediately condemned in the Qur’an: “People of the Book! Why do you deny God’s revelations when you are witnesses to their veracity? Why do you confound the true with the false and hide the truth knowingly?” (70–71). It is clear from the tone of this reprimand that the Jewish priests and elders were aware that Muhammad was genuine in his claim of relaying God’s words and being His spokesman. It is also implicit in the address that they were guilty of transgression against God, that they rejected a reconciliation with Him, that they persist- ed with their refusal to acknowledge Muhammad’s prophethood, and went on to oppose and resist it with arms, seditious scheming, and active collaboration with his other enemies, the pagan Arabs. The reproach is repeated several times in the surah: “How would God guide people who rejected the faith after believing in it and having borne witness that the Messenger is true and after receiving veritable signs!” (86). Elsewhere God’s Messenger is directed to ask them, saying:

    “People of the Book, why do you deny God’s revelations, when God is witness to what you do?” Say, “People of the Book, why do you drive believers away from God’s path, seeking to mislead and confuse, when you yourselves are witnesses? God is not unaware of what you do.” (98–99)

    To countermand this criticism, some Jews came up with the bril- liant stratagem of feigning their acceptance of Islam in order to conceal their antagonism and prove their tolerance and fair-mind- edness towards the new religion. The logic of their argument would lead them to say that their rejection of, and opposition to Islam had

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    come as a result of direct firsthand experience of it. The surah says: “Some of the People of the Book said [to one another], ‘Believe in that which is revealed to the faithful in the morning and abandon it in the evening, so that they may themselves go back on their faith’” (72). The surah also exposes this group’s determined rejection of the new revelation and their dogged resentment of the transfer of divine trust away from the Hebrews, by reporting their statement: “Believe in none except those who follow your own religion” (73). The inference here is that they firmly believed in the superiority of their religion over all others.

    So it was clear that the rabbis were not happy with God’s decision to give preference to the Arabs and choose them this time round to be the custodians of His revelation. If they only could, they would force God to go back on that choice and change the course of history by restoring the leadership of humankind to them. God’s response was clear and decisive: “Grace is in the hand of God; He bestows it on whom He will. God is Munificent and All-Knowing. He favors with His mercy whom He will. His grace is immense” (73–74). However, the group had acquired several vices, not least their self-importance, hard-headedness, and conceit, that could at times of weakness turn into deep-seated hatred and, at times of pros- perity and triumph, into open hostility and belligerence. These characteristics seem to have colored much rabbinical writing, driv- ing the Jewish people into isolation and making them tragically vulnerable to persecution by other societies and groups. The surah offers the explanation that “they [the Jewish elders] say, ‘We are not bound to keep faith with the unlettered [the Gentiles].’ They know- ingly tell lies about God” (75). The Arabic term ummiyÏn used in this verse literally means “unlettered,” but could also mean “non- Jews” or Gentiles (Hebrew: Goyim). In the one case it would be a reference to the Arabs, while in the other it would be a reference to non-Jewish communities in general. Jewish religious script- ures, especially the Torah and the Talmud, as well as parts of their

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    literature, do advocate the idea of the superiority of the Jewish nation over other nations, and propound the concept of Jews as the ‘chosen people of God.’ The Qur’an explains very clearly that the relationship between God and humans cannot be based on false claims, but rather on sound ethical grounds, and on faith and trust. In it we read: “Indeed, for those who keep their covenant and fear God, God loves the righteous” (76).

    At this point in the surah we may inquire why the subject of the pilgrimage is suddenly brought up for discussion halfway through it, having covered the debates with the People of the Book and their behavior. Indeed, we may even ask why the subject of permitted and forbidden foods is raised here also. After a great deal of reflec- tion, and with reference to Shaykh Muhammad RashÏd Ri\¥’s commentary in al-Man¥r, I was able to find the answer. As Islam was being introduced to the Jews, they questioned the idea of adopting a religion which allowed them to eat certain foods that their own reli- gion had forbidden them. The answer they were given was that the embargo imposed on them regarding the consumption of certain foods had been temporary, and had come about as punishment for earlier intransigence and insubordination to God’s commands. This is covered more fully in surah al-An¢¥m where it is stated:

    Such is the penalty We imposed on them for their misdeeds. What We declare is true. If they do not believe you say, “Your Lord’s mercy is vast, but His punishment cannot be averted by the trans- gressors.” (al-An¢¥m: 146–47)

    Jesus, as we know, sought to relieve the Jews of some of the burdens placed upon them. This is given in verse 50 of this surah, which quotes Jesus as saying to the Jews: “‘I come to confirm the Torah already revealed and to make lawful to you some of what was for- bidden you.’” The Qur’an restored the divine law to its original form, forbidding only certain types of carrion meat, swine flesh, spilt

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    blood, and the meat of animals slaughtered without invoking God’s name—all other types of food would be permissible. Verse 93 of the surah says: “All food was lawful to the Israelites except what Israel [Jacob] forbade himself before the Torah was revealed.”

    The same argument applies in the case of the qiblah, or the direc- tion faced by Muslims during salah. As verse 96 affirms, the Ka¢bah at Makkah was the first and only qiblah for all humankind. And although Jerusalem, for certain temporary reasons, had been chosen as the qibla for worshipers of God, those reasons no longer applied and the Ka¢bah was reinstated as the legitimate qiblah for all believers. Putting differences between various religions and human ideolo- gies aside, the fact remains that sound moral and ethical discipline and education have proved to be the basis for human progress at all phases of human history. We find reference to this very early in the

    surah where God says:

    Men are tempted by the allure of women and offspring, of hoarded treasures of gold and silver, of splendid horses, cattle and vast planta- tions. These are the comforts of this life, but to God is the best return. (14)

    True, for human life to continue, the satisfaction and pursuance of these desires is necessary. Without the sexual relationship between men and women, human existence would have ceased long ago. The same can be said of all other human desires. The crucial point here is that they should be pursued in moderation, with discipline, and within a framework of reason and common sense. Islam has per- mitted all that is good and useful to people, and forbidden what is harmful. Islamic laws and teachings are built on the foundation of faith in God and positive action, and they have provided for a great deal that would nurture people’s relationship with God and main- tain their awareness of the hereafter.

    We are used nowadays to hearing national leaders warning their

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    citizens against the AIDS virus and advising them to take certain precautions during illicit sexual acts. They no longer call for proper lawful sexual relationships between people because they no longer believe that these are possible. This is only true in a society that has lost its faith and trust in God. Followers of formal religion shall con- tinue to suffer from their uncontrollable desires, unless they heed the words of God, especially when He says:

    Say, “Shall I tell of better things than these? For the righteous their Lord has gardens beneath which rivers flow, where they shall dwell forever, spouses of high purity and God’s grace.” God is aware of His servants, those who say: “Our Lord, we believed in You, so for- give us our sins and save us the torment of the hellfire,” those who are steadfast, sincere, devout, charitable and who pray for forgive- ness during the small hours of the night. (15–17)

    So we find the surah opening with a statement addressed to the People of the Book that salvation could come only with a faith based on the belief in “God, there is no god but Him, the Living, the Ever-Existing one” (2), and in a way of life that acknowledges human nature within a discipline of decency and virtue that discou- rages all forms of excessive deprivation or overindulgence; a dis- cipline that renders enlightened life in this world a natural and meaningful prelude to the life that is to come.

    Mary was a virgin throughout her pregnancy, having miraculously conceived Jesus. When some people began saying that Jesus was the son of God, it was clear that a groundless myth, a fallacy, was being created, pointing towards the existence of a special and intimate relationship between God and Mary, the outcome of which was Jesus. This outrageous notion reflects a deep-seated ignorance of

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    the nature and status of God and the exaltation and glorification that humans owe Him. Surely, God could not be conceived of as an agent of reproduction in such a crude and salacious manner, for as God says in the Qur’an: “Were God to have offspring, He would have chosen the best of His creatures at will; Glorified is God, the One, the Almighty” (al-Zumar: 4). It is true that Jesus’ conception and birth were abnormal and extraordinary events. Such was the will and wisdom of God in order to show humankind that God is not bound by the natural laws of causality, but rather He overrides and controls these laws. The story of Jesus and his mother is related following that of Zachariah and his wife, which had also entailed certain miraculous aspects.

    Mary’s own conception and birth were unexpected by her mother. As soon as she knew that she was pregnant, she dedicated her baby to serving the temple in Jerusalem, and to worshiping and being devoted to the service of other worshipers. The Qur’an quotes her as saying: “‘Lord, I completely dedicate to Your service that which is in my womb. Accept it from me; You are All-Hearing, All- Knowing’” (35). However, contrary to her expectation, the baby turned out to be a girl and would not, therefore, be of much use in fulfilling that task which required men of strength and endurance. In the circumstances, the son she was hoping to have would have given more happiness than a daughter who would herself probably need care and looking after. Naturally, the mother was not to know that her newly born daughter was destined to be the mother of a highly regarded and noble human being and would have the privilege of nursing him in his infancy, just as Moses and Muhammad were nursed by their respective mothers. It is interesting to note in passing that these three great senior prophets had been respectively reared by mothers of humble means and status who had to seek and depend on God’s help alone. History is witness here as elsewhere that women too can reach great heights in society with their nobility, magnani- mity, and strong belief. Mary’s mother prayed to her Lord saying:

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    “Lord, I have given birth to a daughter”—and God knows well of what she was delivered, and that a male is not like a female,—“and I have named her Mary. I seek Your protection for her and her off- spring against Satan, the accursed one.” Her Lord graciously accepted her and made her grow up a goodly child. (36–37)

    Mary was brought up by Zachariah, an old and frail man, and his as yet childless wife. Zachariah was himself melancholy and heartbro- ken for not having children of his own to inherit the leadership of the Israelites in whom he had little faith, but for whose future he was concerned. Despite his frailty, though, Zachariah struggled and per- severed in bringing up the new addition to his family. However, Zachariah began to notice some unusually fortunate developments taking place within his household and certain provisions coming to the possession of the new girl, and so he asked her: “Mary, how did you come by this food?” She replied, “It is from God, who gives to whom He wills without stint” (37).

    This inflamed Zachariah’s heart with love for, and devotion to, God. He began to look up to God for more extraordinary acts and for such favors to be bestowed on him personally. He knew that God could make a hitherto infertile female conceive and have chil- dren and give an elderly man the virility to produce offspring, and so he prayed to God, saying:

    “Lord, grant me goodly offspring, You hear all prayers.” The angels called out to him while he was praying in the shrine, “God bids you rejoice in the birth of John, who shall confirm the word of God.” (38-39)

    Life had returned to the despairing old couple; the barren wife would be made to conceive by her elderly and infertile husband. This only goes to show that when God wills, all the laws of nature succumb to His will. He can create and cause things to happen com- pletely at will.

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    Mary grew up in that—by then—happy, pious, and blessed household, where God’s angels would be no strangers. They called on Mary with more good news:

    The angels said to Mary, “God gives you glad tidings of a word from Him, whose name is the Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary. He shall be noble in this world and in the hereafter, and shall be favored by God. He shall talk to people in his cradle and in his adulthood, and shall lead a righteous life.” She said, “Lord, how can I have a child when no man has touched me?” He replied, “Such is the will of God who creates whom He will. Once He decides on a matter, He says, ‘Be’ and it is.” (45–47)

    Thus Mary found herself on the threshold of a new and overwhelm- ing experience, which a virgin girl would naturally undergo with extreme apprehension and trepidation. At one point she wished she were dead. Nevertheless, the will of God was declared and Jesus was born in that astounding and extraordinary way. Jesus was then charged with the mission to address the Israelites with the message of God in order to reform their state of affairs, break the arrogance of their chiefs, and commit them to a humble attitude towards God and their fellow humans.

    Mary’s family was highly respected and venerated by people, and her son was held in high esteem by those who recognized the bless- ings that accompanied his coming. However, there were Israelites who took a different stand towards him. The Pharisees and skeptics rejected the miracles Jesus performed and refused to recognize him as an apostle of God. Furthermore, they claimed that his birth was no act of God, but the outcome of an illicit relationship between Mary and a suitor of hers named Joseph the carpenter. Thus they compounded their disbelief with slander. Jesus sought the support and the backing of reasonable and fair-minded people, some of whom rallied around him and offered their backing, saying: “Lord,

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    we have believed in what You have sent down and have followed the messenger, so please enlist us among the witnesses [to the truth]” (53). The Pharisees, however, went on with their intrigues against Jesus and his followers even after, having delivered his Lord’s mes- sage, Jesus had passed away and was saved from their treachery and vicious scheming.

    Although a large number of scholars believe that Jesus was raised to heaven alive, I find myself more in agreement with those scholars who say that he died a natural normal death. This would not dis- count the idea, as the scholar Ibn ¤azm says, that he could have been brought back to normal life again to pursue his mission of spreading the creed of monotheism. Jesus’ story could, in this con- text, be compared to that of the man who passed by a town which had been destroyed, and inquired: “‘How can God bring life back to this town, now that it is dead?’ Thereupon, God caused him to die, and after one hundred years brought him back to life” (al-Baqarah: 259). It also can be compared to the story of the People of the Cave, who remained dead for a few hundred years and then were brought back to life. The matter is very simple and the dispute is fickle. Jesus must be perceived as an ordinary human being, not as a god or a son of God.

    The surah recalls the visit to Madinah by a Christian delegation who went to debate with Prophet Muhammad aspects of the new religion he was advocating. They argued that Jesus was human in form, only asking, of course, that if he were human, who was his father? The Prophet replied that the absence of a human father did not necessarily mean Jesus was the son of God. Based on their rea- soning, Adam, who had neither father nor mother, would have been more eligible to divine parentage. We read in the surah that: “Jesus is like Adam in the sight of God. He created him of dust and then said to him, ‘Be’ and he was. Truth comes from your Lord; do not ever doubt it” (59–60). Nevertheless, the quibblers insisted on their viewpoint and defended it with vehemence. The Prophet

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    then proposed that the two camps, Christians and Muslims, should unite in prayer to God to curse the liars of either side. The surah continues:

    Whoever disputes with you concerning Jesus after all the know- ledge you have received, say to them, “Come, let us call out our sons and your sons, our women and your women, ourselves and yourselves, and then let us all jointly and earnestly pray that God’s curse should fall upon the liars.” This is the true version [of events]. There is no god but God; He is Mighty and Wise. (61–62)

    The Christian delegation refused to take part in that joint prayer to establish the truth regarding the nature and status of Jesus, and up to this day the two religions have continued to exist apart from one another. It seems that the matter shall be settled only by Jesus himself on his second coming to earth. He might be the one who will point out the liars and confirm that the world knows only one overpower- ing and almighty Master.

    Before closing the chapter on the People of the Book, the surah gives a critical account of the battle of U^ud, at which the Muslims of Madinah sustained a humiliating defeat at the hands of the pagan Arabs in 625 ac. These were the original enemies of the early Muslims, who had no alternative but to face them and, as has been the case ever since, fight on two fronts simultaneously. The story begins with verse 121 referring to the Prophet’s preparation for bat- tle, and then it suddenly breaks into a discussion of usury, spending, and the urgent need for repentance. Having covered these topics, the surah picks up the account of the battle of U^ud again, which takes us right to the end of the surah.

    This leads us to look for a reason for this brief, but intriguing,

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    digression. The explanation seems to lie in the need for a cleansing, a review, of the Muslim internal condition; to purge it of all signs of weakness and corruption in order to qualify the Muslims for victory in the battlefield. fights such as the ones the Muslims were engaged in were not personal or nationalistic wars, but wars for values and principles. This is made very clear in the surah when it says: “It is of no concern of yours [Muhammad] when He [God] should forgive or punish them. They are transgressors” (128). Reconciliation or antipathy should be perpetrated for the sake of God only; for today’s enemies could very well be the allies of tomorrow, if they recon- cile their situation with God and submit to His will and teachings. Under Islam, there is no room for private grudges or personal animosity.

    The defeat at U^ud contained a sharp lesson for the Muslims. Their earlier triumph at Badr in 624 ac had opened the door for opportunists and those with special interests to join the growing Muslim community which showed clear promise of dominating the region. One such prominent personality, ¢Abd Allah ibn Ubayy, saw it coming and recognized the victory at Badr as setting an irre- versible trend that would result in the dominance of Islam. He decided to convert and take all his followers with him. The surah comments on this by saying: “God would not leave the believers in their current plight, without separating the bad from the good; nor was God to let you in on the unknown” (179). The scene was then set for a setback, a test, that would distinguish those who were sin- cerely upholding Islam and supporting the Prophet and the Muslims through thick and thin from those who were in it merely for per- sonal gain or prestige.

    Under such circumstances, one can normally distinguish two main groups of people: those who are sincere and dedicated to the common cause, no matter what happens; and those whose main concern is their own safety and self-interest, who hold little faith in God or their fellow human beings. The surah describes these by

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    saying: “And a group who were only concerned about themselves, doubting God in their ignorant ways. They ask, ‘Do we stand to gain anything?’” (154). The latter group are always disgruntled and restless, because their views are rarely given credence and they are seldom, if ever, accorded respect or prominence. Any society, and far more an army, would be wiser to be rid of such people.

    Contrary to the opinion of some, the Muslims’ defeat at U^ud did not come as a result of bad planning or faulty tactics. It was the result of insubordination, for some Muslim fighters, at a very critical point during the battle, neglected their duties by abandoning their battle positions in pursuit of the loot. Had those fighters adhered to their orders as given by the Prophet, the outcome would have been totally different. The surah recalls:

    God fulfilled His pledge to you when, by His leave, you trounced them [the unbelievers at U^ud], until the moment when you lost heart, started squabbling among yourselves and disobeyed the Messenger just as you were close to victory. Some of you chose the gains of this world, but others chose the rewards of the life to come. (152)

    The Muslims’ attitude in the battlefield had changed and therefore the outcome had also to change. “He [God] prevented you from defeating them in order to test you. But now He has forgiven you, for He is gracious to the believers” (152).

    The defeat came as a shock to the Muslims and they were shaken by it. They questioned how and why it could have happened at all, and God’s answer was:

    Now that a disaster has befallen you, after you yourselves have inflicted [on your enemies] losses twice as heavy, you come to ask, “How could this have come about?” Say to them, “You have brought it upon yourselves.” God has power over all things. (165)

    surah 3 • ®l ¢Imr¥n

    True, the defeat sustained by the Muslims at U^ud was only half as heavy as that sustained a couple of years earlier by the Arabs and their allies at Badr, giving the Muslims a slightly higher advantage. Nevertheless, they were defeated and had to face up to the conse- quences, especially that their defeat could have been avoided if they had not become greedy and ignored their leader’s battle orders. However, the surah eloquently offers a most encouraging consola- tion for that tragic episode by saying to the Muslims:

    This often happened to others before you. Look all over the world and see what was the fate of the unbelievers. This is a proclamation to all mankind; it is also a guide and an admonition to the God- fearing. Do not, therefore, lose heart or grieve, for you shall reign supreme as long as you uphold your belief. (137–39)

    In the Qur’an, God has given the Muslims accounts of previous nations and civilizations which collapsed or were destroyed as a con- sequence of their stubborn rejection of God’s messages and their refusal to believe. The triumph of the non-Muslim Arabs at U^ud would be short-lived. Things would change, allowing Islam to pre- vail. However, for the Muslims to achieve supremacy and triumph, two things, not mutually exclusive, would be required: sincerity of intent and a proper execution of duty. Muslims are always in need of emphasizing the second condition, for some tend to imagine that good intentions and sincerity alone are sufficient to achieve success. When the Muslims’ performance is assessed, their shortcomings or lack of fighting skills are not likely to be glossed over or overlooked. They have to give their utmost, no matter how little it may be, to the cause for which they are fighting and then God will give them aid and support.

    We have seen wars between equally equipped sides that go on for years or decades, and others that are brought to an end in a matter of days or weeks. The worst defeat is that which comes from within, as

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    a result of internal faults and weaknesses, rather than due to an enemy’s strength or superiority. And so it is with Muslims all through their history. Their reversals have most often been self- inflicted, being a result of disunity and internal squabbling rather than the power of their enemies. Once they overcome those weak- nesses, they regain the initiative and move ahead. The surah stresses this point very strongly when it says:

    Do not, therefore, lose heart or grieve, for you shall reign supreme as long as you uphold your belief. If you have sustained casualties and loss, so has the other side, and that is how We alternate [victory and defeat] among people so that God may distinguish the true believers and choose martyrs from among you; for God does not love the transgressors. (139–40)

    Human history is a continual struggle between the forces of good and evil, beauty and repugnance, meanness and nobility. God says in the Qur’an: “They will remain at odds [with one another], except for those to whom your Lord has shown mercy, and that is what He created them for” (H‰d: 118–19), and “We made some of you as means to test others, to see if you would endure, and your Lord is ever aware of all” (al-Furq¥n: 20). God is no doubt capable of destroying false beliefs and their adherents, but that would negate the role of the believers and undermine their efforts and the favors they would receive from God, who says: “Had God willed, He could Himself have dispersed them, but He so ordained it that He might test some of you by means of others” (Mu^ammad: 4). And so it has been with all the previous prophets and messengers and their followers. Every achievement made on earth on behalf of God has come about as a result of human effort and endeavor. God asserts:

    For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, [all] monasteries and churches and synagogues and

    surah 3 • ®l ¢Imr¥n

    mosques—in [all of] which God’s name is abundantly extolled— would surely have been destroyed [ere now]. (al-¤ajj: 40)

    So God most wisely recalled these facts in the present surah to Muhammad’s followers when He was consoling them over their ordeal at U^ud. He said:

    Many a prophet went into battle supported by multitudes of devo- tees, but they were never daunted by what befell them for the sake of God. They neither weakened nor let up abjectly; God loves the steadfast. Their only words were, “Our Lord, forgive us our sins and our excesses, give us strength and victory over the unbelievers.” (146–47)

    The surah then continues to dress the Muslims’ wounds and raise their morale and prompt them to regain their unity and self- confidence. It is important to recall here that the defeat at U^ud had uncovered some high-caliber individuals who had displayed extreme courage and self-denial, and cared nothing for worldly gains. There were men who held to their positions even as things looked very desperate. Women too entered the battlefield with a tenacity and valor like that of the men. The battle claimed a number of martyrs, men and women, who sacrificed their own lives for the cause of God and His Messenger. The battle of U^ud was to remain engraved in the memory of Muslims, generation after generation. Muhammad himself was to remember U^ud constantly for the rest of his life, saying, “U^ud is a mountain that loves us as we love it.”

    Martyrdom commands a place of very high regard in Islam. Martyrs are chosen by God Himself, as the surah confirms, saying: “And [God] chooses martyrs from among you” (140). Those chosen are usually the believers who give God’s cause precedence in their actions over all else and who devote their whole life to the promo- tion, reinforcement, and defense of their faith and the Islamic way of

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    life. We have some exceptional examples among the martyrs of U^ud. Take Mu|¢ab ibn ¢Umayr, for instance, who was one of the most handsome and well-to-do youths of Makkah. He adopted Islam, left all his wealth behind, and spent the rest of his days in poverty; instead of silk, he was reduced to wearing clothes made of sheepskin. He emigrated to Madinah very early and was charged with teaching the new religion to its inhabitants. He spared no effort to carry out that task. But there he was dying in U^ud, unable to afford his own burial cloth. And look at ¢Abd Allah ibn ¤aram, father of a son and six daughters, who asked his son to stay and look after his sisters because he did not want to remain behind when the Messenger went to battle. He joined the fighters and was killed.

    Martyrs were extolled in the surah as God says:

    Never think that those who were slain in the cause of God are dead. They are alive and well provided for by their Lord. They are pleased with God’s gifts and rejoicing for those they left behind that they should have nothing to fear or to regret. (169–70)

    God has thereby reassured those who were martyred that their fel- low Muslims will continue to uphold the true faith and support the cause of God and His Messenger, and that they will eventually join them in Paradise.

    During the battle of U^ud, the Muslim camp became extremely dangerously exposed when the archers abandoned their positions. In a desperate struggle, seventy of their number were killed and rumor had spread that the Prophet himself was among them. Despite the Muslims’ defeat, the Arab tribes were not able to pro- ceed to enter Madinah and were forced to return to Makkah. It is important, moreover, to remember here what the Muslims did after their defeat at U^ud. They regrouped, tried to rise above their wounds, and made their way towards Makkah, chasing their Arab enemies who were still contemplating a return to Madinah to

    surah 3 • ®l ¢Imr¥n

    complete their attack on it. When they realized that they were being followed by the Muslims, the Arabs hastened their pace and made for Makkah. This was noted in the surah which says: “As for those who after sustaining defeat responded to the call of God and the Messenger, those of them who do what is right and fear God shall be richly rewarded” (172).

    At this point the surah, for a while, turns back to recount the behavior of the local Jews, and we note that the discussion alternates between them and the pagan Arabs. This is not surprising, since the Muslim community was facing both camps at the same time, as the surah itself indicates:

    You shall be tested in your possessions and your persons, and you shall hear much that is hurtful from among those to whom the Book was given before you and from the pagans. However, if you perse- vere and remain God-conscious, then that will indeed be a com- mendable act. (186)

    The Jews of Madinah had by then overreached themselves. In the Qur’an, God calls on the Muslims to spend of their wealth for the cause of God, whether to support the war effort or to provide welfare and help for their needy and poor people. This appeal is made in another surah with such eloquence and with a powerful incentive. It says: “Who will grant God a generous loan? He will repay him many times over. God retains and He gives abundantly and to Him you shall all return” (al-Baqarah: 245). Some Jews in Madinah, nonetheless, were saying something different. They were claiming that God was in need of people’s aid, and that He was resorting to usury while condemning it. Surah ®l ¢Imr¥n quotes them as saying: “‘God is poor, but we are rich.’ We [God] shall record what they have said” (181). Such statements were more sui- ted to people who had neither faith in God nor consciousness of Him, and were symptomatic of a group who lived on corruption

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    and traded spite and envy in contravention of the teachings of the wise and pious among them. Earlier prophets could only exhort their people to lead other nations in piety, teach them God’s word, and show kindness towards them, but never look down upon them or manipulate and exploit them. The surah observes:

    God made a covenant with those to whom the Book was given that they should proclaim it to all humanity and never suppress it. But they cast it behind their backs and sold it for a paltry sum. What an evil bargain they had made! Never think that those who congratu- late themselves and love to be praised for what they had not done, will escape the scourge. A woeful chastening awaits them. (187–88)

    Then the surah takes us into a different atmosphere, far removed from the past and its bittersweet reminiscences.

    As ordinary honest human beings living in this world, experienc- ing and observing its complexities, intricacies, and marvels, are we not sometimes tempted to conclude that there is a God behind it all? Does it not then lead us to thank that God and praise Him? Let us leave religion and interreligious strife aside for a while. Let us simply use our minds and our logic and think of where we shall all end after we depart from this world in which we live. Why should people deny the existence of God and turn away from Him? Would it not be more sensible and more conducive to acknowledge and accom- modate Him in our hearts and our lives? All through human history, voices have called forth and exhorted humanity to believe in God and be close to Him. Is it not time that people stopped to think and give heed to these calls, as the surah says:

    Our Lord, we have heard someone calling to the true faith saying, “Believe in your Lord,” and we believed. Our Lord, forgive us our sins and absolve us of our misdeeds and make us die righteous. (193)

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    God replies that He will overlook none of the good actions and deeds of people, whether men or women, black or white. Race and rank do not come into this at all and only good deeds count.

    What is it, we may ask, that some people find so difficult in believ- ing a person who calls them to lead a righteous life based on surrender to God and the pleasure of His grace? What is it that drives some of us to oppose such individuals, stand in their way, and persecute them? Such was the way in which the pagan Arabs and the bigots among the People of the Book greeted the mission of Prophet Muhammad and behaved towards him and his followers. They repressed and perse- cuted them, and drove them out of their homes and homelands. The Muslims withstood all that persecution, faced up to all kinds of hard- ship, and eventually had to emigrate from Makkah and seek refuge in Madinah. Their sole concern was the preservation of their faith and the defense and protection of their new religion and their commu- nity. Accordingly, the surah reassured them:

    Their Lord answered them, saying: “I shall not deny any of you, man or woman, the reward of their labor... Those who emigrated, were driven out of their homes, suffered persecution for My sake and fought and were slain, I shall forgive them their sins and admit them to gardens with rivers running thereunder.” (195)

    Following this extensive coverage of the surah’s two main sub- jects, it closes with two verses. The first one talks about the People of the Book and the stance expected of them towards Prophet Muhammad. It says:

    There are some from among the People of the Book who truly believe in God, and in what was revealed to you and what had been revealed to them. They humble themselves before God and do not sell God’s revelations for a trifling price. These shall be rewarded by their Lord. (199)

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    The verse, as we can see, extends to the Jews and the Christians an open invitation that is there for posterity, to heed the call of the Prophet of Islam and accept the message he delivered on behalf of God to all humankind.

    The second verse, and the closing one in the surah, is addressed to the Muslims. “Believers, persevere in patience and constancy; vie in such perseverance; strengthen each other; and fear God; that you may prosper” (200). This is a directive addressed to those who believed in Muhammad and followed him to hold fast to the message he delivered and with which God had honored them. They are expected to show a much higher degree of steadfastness than their predecessors in upholding it, and to vigorously defend it, its follow- ers, and their lands at all times. They are not to give any leeway to their enemies to overwhelm or dominate them, as witnessed over the last century or so when European colonialism swept over Muslim lands and controlled the lives and destinies of hundreds of millions of Muslims for decades. It is a call addressed to Muslims everywhere and of every generation, and it is up to every one of us to respond to it.

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    اللَّهُ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ الْحَيُّ الْقَيُّومُ

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    نَزَّلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ بِالْحَقِّ مُصَدِّقًا لِّمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ وَأَنزَلَ التَّوْرَاةَ وَالْإِنجِيلَ

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    مِن قَبْلُ هُدًى لِّلنَّاسِ وَأَنزَلَ الْفُرْقَانَ ۗ إِنَّ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا بِآيَاتِ اللَّهِ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ شَدِيدٌ ۗ وَاللَّهُ عَزِيزٌ ذُو انتِقَامٍ

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    إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يَخْفَىٰ عَلَيْهِ شَيْءٌ فِي الْأَرْضِ وَلَا فِي السَّمَاءِ

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    هُوَ الَّذِي يُصَوِّرُكُمْ فِي الْأَرْحَامِ كَيْفَ يَشَاءُ ۚ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ

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    هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ ۖ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ ۗ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّهُ ۗ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا ۗ وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

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    رَبَّنَا لَا تُزِغْ قُلُوبَنَا بَعْدَ إِذْ هَدَيْتَنَا وَهَبْ لَنَا مِن لَّدُنكَ رَحْمَةً ۚ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ الْوَهَّابُ

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    رَبَّنَا إِنَّكَ جَامِعُ النَّاسِ لِيَوْمٍ لَّا رَيْبَ فِيهِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُخْلِفُ الْمِيعَادَ


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