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    Period of Revelation: The period of its revelation is about the same as that of Al-An’am, the last year of the Prophet’s residence at Makkah, but it cannot be asserted with certainty which of these two was revealed earlier.   Major Issues, Divine Laws and Guidance:

    • An invitation to the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) to become Muslims.
    • A warning is given to the unbelievers about the consequences of their denial through citing the example of punishments which were inflicted upon former people for their wrong attitude towards their Rasools.
    • The Jews are warned about the consequences of their hypocritical conduct towards the Prophets.
    • Commandment to propagate the message of Islam with wisdom.
    • The Rasools as well as the people to whom they are sent will be questioned on the Day of Judgement.
    • Commandment to the Believers that they should wear decent and proper dress, and eat pure and good food.
    • Dialogue between the residents of paradise, the inmates of hell and the people of A’raf (heights between Paradise and Hell).
    • Affluence and adversity are reminders from Allah.
    • Muhammad (peace be upon him) is the Rasool for the whole of mankind.
    • The fact that the advent of Muhammad (peace be upon him) was described in Torah and the Gospel (Bible).
    • The fact that the Jews have fabricated a wrong belief about Allah’s forgiveness.
    • Mankind’s testimony about Allah at the time of Adam’s creation.
    • Allah created all of mankind from a single soul.
    • Allah’s commandment to show forgiveness, speak for justice and avoid the ignorant.
    • Allah’s commandment about listening to the recitation of the Qur’an with complete silence.
      The principal subject of this Surah is an invitation to the Divine Message sent down to Muhammad (peace be upon him). The Messenger had spent thirteen long years admonishing the people of Makkah without any tangible results, because they had turned a deaf ear to his message and had become so antagonistic that Allah was about to command the Prophet to leave them alone, migrate and turn to other people. That is why they are being admonished to accept the message and a warning is given about the consequences of their wrong attitude. Now that the Prophet was about to receive Allah’s commandment to migrate from Makkah, the concluding portion of the address has been directed towards the People of the Book with whom he was going to come into contact in Madinah. During the course of the address to the Jews, the consequence of their hypocritical attitude towards the Prophets is also pointed out clearly, for they professed to believe in Prophet Musa (Moses) but their practices were opposed to his teachings. They were not only disobeying him but were in fact worshipping falsehood.     At the end of the Surah, instructions are given to the Prophet and his followers to show patience and exercise restraint in answer to the provocations of their opponents. Since the believers were under pressure and stress, they are advised to be very careful and not to take any step that might harm their cause.  

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    this surah begins with an overview of two main issues: one relates to the Qur’an itself, and the other to those who deny or reject divine revelation as a whole. About the first issue, we read God’s words saying:

    This is a Book that has been revealed to you [Muhammad]—let there be no distress in your heart because of it—so that you may warn thereby, and as an admonition to the believers. Observe what has been revealed to you from your Lord and do not take other deities besides Him. (2–3)

    The “distress” in the Prophet’s heart would be a result of the nega- tive reception with which the unbelievers would greet God’s revelation and His Messenger, while the “warning” is in fact an integral aspect of the proclamation of the message. The people Muhammad was addressing were being called upon to obey the teachings of the Qur’an and abandon all other pagan religious prac- tices and traditions, regardless of their origins. These “other deities” and traditions would bring them no good whatsoever. The surah refers to the “Book” on several occasions such as:

    We have given them a Book which We have imbued with know- ledge, a guidance and a blessing to those who believe. Are they [the unbelievers] waiting but for its fulfillment? (52–53)

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    Once the Book’s prophecies and warnings are fulfilled, the believers would be successful but the unbelievers would be frustrated and chastised. We also read: “My guardian is God who has revealed the Book, and He takes good care of the righteous” (196). These words were said on behalf of the Prophet asserting that God would support him and protect him until he had delivered God’s message in full and conveyed His guidance to humankind. On the need to study God’s Book and comprehend its teachings and wisdom, we are instructed thus: “When the Qur’an is recited, listen to it and observe silence so that you may be blessed” (204).

    The second issue with which the surah opens, those who deny God’s revelation, is also addressed in several verses right from the beginning of the surah when it says: “We have destroyed many a city, striking it at night or by day. Their only cry, when our punishment befell them, was to say, ‘We have indeed transgressed’” (4–5). The rise and fall of states, nations, and civilizations have been a prominent feature of human history all through the ages. The surah speaks at length of specific ancient Arabian tribes such as ¢®d, Tham‰d, and Madyan, to whom prophets and messengers were sent, as well as the people of Noah and Lot. We gather from these accounts that God’s revelations and messengers had in the first instance been directed towards communities in southern and northern Arabia. However, when those communities reneged and opposed the messengers, God punished them severely, destroying them and their cities and towns.

    This is then followed by an extensive account of the mission of Moses, who emerged with divine revelation aimed first at the Pharaohs and later on at the Hebrew Israelites of Egypt. When these also deviated, neglected God’s guidance, and refused to submit to His will, they too were punished and their power was destroyed. Subsequently, God’s revelation was again addressed to the inhabi- tants of central Arabia, where Prophet Muhammad was able to lead the Arabs in setting up a righteous and enlightened society that was

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    to become a model for humanity and the world for many centuries to come. Through this process, the Arabs inherited the responsibili- ty for divine revelation, and the Book they received, the Qur’an, has endured intact. It stands today as, and will continue to be, a beacon of virtue for all humanity and a guidance for all aspects of human life. The Arab nation has to realize and appreciate the importance of the task it has undertaken, and understand well that it will be

    accountable to God for the way it handles it. The surah emphasizes:

    We shall question those to whom the messengers were sent, and We shall question the messengers themselves. With full knowledge, We shall recount for them all they have done, for We have never been absent. (6–7)

    God affirms right at the beginning of the surah that accountability and judgment will be comprehensive and fair:

    On that Day, truth shall be the criterion. Those whose good deeds tip the scales shall be successful, but those whose deeds are of little weight shall lose their souls, because they denied our revelations. (8–9)

    This is followed by a detailed account of the history of other groups and nations that dissented and quarrelled over God’s revela- tion and an assessment of the outcome of their experiences. Even- tually we are given a glimpse of a dialog that takes place in the here- after between the believers, the unbelievers, and a third group of people who occupy a place on an elevated wall (Arabic: al-A¢r¥f, the heights, or raised decks) separating the other two groups. Those who enter Paradise are portrayed as enjoying a life of boundless love, magnanimity, and peace. Their sole preoccupation is to glorify and venerate God, thanking Him for His generosity and grace, saying: “Praise be to God who has guided us to this. Were it not for Him

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    we should have never been rightly guided” (43). They are greatly humbled by God’s overwhelming grace, which they consider is more than they have earned or actually deserve. However, God reassures them: “‘This is a Paradise you have earned with your labors’” (43). Once they have settled down, they become curious about what has become of their former antagonists and oppressors.

    Then those in Paradise called out to those in the hellfire, saying, “We have found what our Lord promised us to be true. Have you, too, found what your Lord promised to be true?” They said, “Yes.” A voice will then declare to them both, saying, “God’s curse be upon the transgressors.” (44)

    The transgressors will be those who deny life in the hereafter and their accountability to God for their actions here in this life. Among them will be tyrants, persecutors, and despots as well as people who distort divine truth and lead others away from God’s straight path. The surah refers to, “those sitting on the raised decks” (Arabic: a|^¥b al-a¢r¥f), who are generally identified by Qur’anic scholars as people whose good and bad deeds have balanced each other, and who are awaiting God’s word that will decide their fate. In my opinion, however, these comprise pious people and martyrs who, all through the ages, have complemented the good work of God’s prophets and messengers and carried forward His messages, leading others and humanity as a whole to God’s straight path and to the righteous life the prophets have advocated. Their position indicates an elevated and lofty status, looking with grace and amity towards those in Paradise, and with scorn at those in the hellfire. This is also borne out by the tone and nuance of the Qur’anic expressions. They are described as self-confident individuals who are strongly critical of God’s detractors and berate the position in which they have ended. This could not be a description of people whose good deeds have simply balanced their bad ones or who are not sure of their destiny.

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    It is also unlikely that they will be unaware of God’s decision on their fate.

    A final cry is heard from those in the hellfire, calling for help: “Those in the hellfire cry out to those in Paradise, saying, ‘Give us some water, or some of that which God has bestowed upon you’” (50), but to no avail! How can they be saved now, since, when they were given the chance, they refused to believe in God and denied they would ever be accountable to Him? The Day of Judgment was never on their minds, nor had they prepared themselves.

    It is important to point out here that the Qur’anic style makes use of the interchange and blending of ideas, metaphors, and images within the same coherent context, to drive home the mea- nings and reach the heart and the mind at the same time. It is not made up of clearly defined or conventionally structured sentences and passages as those with which we are familiar in ordinary prose or composition. The Qur’anic style and approach reflect the diver- sified, complex, and intricate though essentially unified nature of the world around us. It is a world that is made up of millions of elements encompassing an unlimited number of manifestations, themes, and images.

    There is also an intriguing interchange of reference in the surah to Adam, the father of the human race, and to humankind as a whole. Towards the beginning the surah says: “We have created and shaped you [humankind] and then said to the angels, ‘Prostrate before Adam’” (11), whereas towards the end it says: “He created you of a single being and from that being He created a mate to seek comfort and peace with her” (189), until it says:

    Yet, when He granted them a goodly child, they set upon taking other gods besides Him. Exalted be God above their gods. Will they worship those that can create nothing, but are themselves created? (190–91)

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    The reference here is of course to the offspring of Adam and Eve, especially those human groups and generations that had gone astray and deviated from the messages God revealed to the human race from time to time. People in this world are vulnerable to Satan’s insinuations and temptation. Satan, as we learn from the Qur’an, has the means and the ability to influence people’s behavior and choices in this life. Yet he is able to succeed only with those who are receptive to his suggestions and are willing to go along with him. For, no matter how effective or advanced the means of persuasion used, no one can really force another person to accept a particular idea or belief.

    People seem to forget what happened between Adam and Satan, leading to Adam’s expulsion from Paradise, nor do they seem to have learned the lessons of that encounter. Furthermore, Satan has taken it upon himself to humiliate and denigrate the human race, which he sees as a rival and a foe. The surah says:

    He [Satan] replied, “Reprieve me till the Day of Resurrection.” God said, “You are reprieved.” He [Satan] declared, “Because You have confounded me, I will lay in ambush for them [humankind] all along Your straight path. I will spring upon them from the front and from the rear, from their right and from their left, and You [God] will find the majority of them ungrateful.” (14–17)

    Should people not have taken note and prepared themselves well for the battle with Satan? Even more surprising, Satan’s ruse which suc- ceeded in deceiving Adam was so blatant and should have been easily discovered. He told Adam that he had been forbidden the fruit of the tree only to prevent him from becoming an angel or enjoying immortality. Was Adam not able to resist that temptation and blunt Satan’s efforts to mislead him? After all, what does immortality really mean? Or, for that matter, what does death mean but a short transitional phase leading to a life of eternity? Satan, however, is a

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    deceitful, unscrupulous creature, capable of employing all devious means of deception to achieve his ends. Nevertheless, he can hardly be held responsible; those who listen to him or fall for his stratagems will have only themselves to blame.

    Adam was deprived of the life of bliss, comfort, and peace he had enjoyed in Paradise. He and his wife Eve were sent down to make their living on earth by the sweat of their brows. Despite that, the episode with Satan in Paradise keeps recurring with their offspring all the time. God said to Adam and Eve, and to Satan: “‘Go down [to earth], enemies one to the other. On earth you will have a brief sojourn and enjoyment’” (24), after which they will all return to God Almighty to account for their actions and behavior in this life. Thus, all human life shall be played out in full on this earth: “He [God] said, ‘On it [the earth] you shall live and on it you shall die, and out of it you shall be raised to life again’” (25).

    This narrative is rounded off with proclamations addressed to humankind as a whole on certain important issues relating to human behavior. They are all aimed at steering people’s lives towards right- eousness and common sense; and it is indeed quite appropriate for us to look closely at these exhortations, because today’s life has become so materialistic, immoral, and permissive, dragging human societies to moral degradation and a miserable living.

    The surah also dealt with the issue of dress. Humans are unique among all creatures in that they wear clothes to cover their bodies and enhance their appearance. Clothes have become cultural symbols of class and status, as well as an expression of inner desires and feelings. The type of clothes people wear make powerful statements about them. Some clothes are worn to reflect worth and wealth, while some are worn for aesthetic reasons, to attract and seduce; and they are worn tight or thin to show body form. In the end, though, one’s worth or status cannot be decided by what one wears. The surah refers to what might be called, “the garb of piety,” that internal and intan- gible personal quality, which reflects one’s true value and character:

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    Children of Adam! We have sent down to you garments to cover your nakedness, and garments for adornment, but the garb of piety is best. These are some of God’s signs, so that they [the unbelievers] may remember. (26)

    We can see that this is linked to what we find at the beginning of the surah when it says: “Follow what has been sent down to you from your Lord and do not follow others besides Him. But you seldom bear this in mind” (3). It is linked to what we read later on when the surah says:

    He [God] sends forth the winds as a harbinger to precede His mercy, and when they have gathered up heavy clouds, We then drive them to a barren land and let water fall upon it, bringing forth all manner of fruit. Thus We shall raise the dead to life, so that you may bear all this in mind” (57).

    Although there are indeed numerous reasons to make people keep these matters in mind, people are forgetful, and their memories are short.

    Another topic explored in this passage is the need for Adam’s off- spring to avoid the mistake he had made in succumbing to Satan’s suggestions: “Children of Adam! Let Satan not deceive you, as he deceived your parents, causing them to be driven out of Paradise” (27). Having succeeded in this objective, Satan’s attention was then turned to whether he could prevent their offspring from returning to Paradise. As the human race’s staunchest enemy he would seek to achieve his goal by exposing and exploiting people’s weaknesses as he had done with their forebears. He has the advantage of being able to see people without being seen himself. Nevertheless, Satan can- not delude or deceive a true believer because belief in God is itself a shield that protects against Satan’s intrigues. There can be no excuse for falling into the traps laid by Satan. It is a feeble argument that

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    some people put forward when they say that they are following in the footsteps of their forefathers, and have to honor their old tradi- tions or practices. On the other hand, we find that many people confuse their religious beliefs with superstitions and nonsensical practices and rituals, claiming that these are part of divine religious teachings. God could never condone or endorse vile practices or any behavior that is in contradiction to people’s basic nature and com- mon sense. God says:

    When they commit an indecent act, they say, “This is what our fathers used to do, and God has commanded us to do it.” Say, “God never enjoins what is indecent. Would you ascribe to God things of which you are ignorant?” Say, “My Lord has enjoined justice.” (28–29)

    Justice and fairness are the best guarantee for peace and harmony among all members of the human race, and no one could have any reason to disregard or belittle the merits of these qualities. For suc- cess and salvation everyone should turn to God and obey Him.

    Say, “My Lord has enjoined justice, and ordered you to turn your faces to Him wherever you prostrate in prayer and to call on Him with true devotion. As He created you before, you shall return to Him; some [of you] He has guided and some go astray.” (29–30)

    False religious orders and teachings often advocate austerity, asceticism, obscurantism, and harsh disciplines in order to gain con- trol over their followers and instill kindness and the love of God in their hearts. They encourage the tattered appearance and stern boorish ways of living. However, the teachings of Islam are a clear departure from this because they aim, first and foremost, at a per- son’s heart and soul. They purify people’s inner being, suppress their greed and selfishness and instill in them humility and kindness

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    through pure unadulterated belief in and total submission to the one God. It is far more respectable that one should dress decently and appropriately for prayer, for example, than appear in tattered clothes. The surah endorses that, saying: “Children of Adam, dress well when you attend your places of worship. Eat and drink without excess, for God does not love the extravagant” (31). The Prophet is reported to have advised: “Eat what you wish to eat, and wear what you wish to wear, but avoid excess and ostentation.”15

    Excessive consumption and extravagant living and appearance lead to vice and encourage overindulgence. Religion ought not to become a game of sport or a means for showing off one’s wealth or possessions. In seeking success in the life hereafter, one would be much better off not to allow oneself to be so strongly attracted or attached to worldly enjoyment and aggrandizement. On the other hand, austerity and the wearing of rags for their own sake will not bring one any closer to God either. God questions the wisdom and use of these misplaced austere tendencies, saying: “Say, ‘Who has forbidden wearing the decent clothes or eating the good things which God has provided for His servants?’” (32). God, in other words, has provided these good things and it pleases Him that peo- ple should enjoy them and use them for their happiness and pleasure. This is further emphasized by:

    Say, “These are for the enjoyment of the believers [and others] in this life, but shall be theirs alone on the Day of Resurrection.” Thus We make our revelations plain to people who understand. Say, “My Lord has forbidden all indecent acts, overt and covert, sins and wrongful transgression.” (32–33)

    So there we have it. God has allowed humans the use and enjoyment of all He has created in this world, but has forbidden

    1. Narrated by al-Bukh¥rÏ, Ibn M¥jah and Imam A^mad.

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    excessiveness and acts that are harmful to people personally and collectively, or to the environment around them. We have seen people wearing certain types of clothes to show piety and religious rectitude but who are very haughty and arrogant, even rude, in their behavior and attitudes. The Prophet has pointed out that God dislikes a person who displays arrogance and conceit. The empha- sis, in Islam, is on purity of heart and sincerity of motives that drive us to selfless action. These, to millions of people, can come only as a result of unwavering belief in the one God and total devotion and submission to Him alone. Left to their own religious instincts and common sense, people would not seek to worship several gods. Polytheism is the by-product of ignorance and lack of reli- gious maturity and enlightenment. Thus, we read that the things God has forbidden include taking, “as gods besides Him others that have no legitimacy or authority, and to say about God that of which you are ignorant” (33).

    The surah makes it clear that people’s instinctive religious ten- dencies have been instilled in them ever since they were created.

    Your Lord brought forth descendants from the loins of Adam’s chil- dren, and made them their own witnesses, asking them, “Am I not your Lord?” They replied, “Yes, to that we bear witness.” This He did lest on the Day of Resurrection you should say, “We had no knowledge of this,” or say, “Our forefathers were idolaters, and we followed in their footsteps. Would You, then, destroy us because of what they, the wrong-doers, had done?” (172–73)

    This indicates quite clearly that one cannot blame one’s society or environment, no matter how overpowering they might be. When it comes to belief and faith, one must listen to one’s own inner feelings and instincts which will lead one to believe in the one God and reject all other false creeds and ideologies. Rational thinking and common sense reject the idea that something can exist or come

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    about without an instigator or initiator behind it. A “zero option” of creation, that the world is created out of nothing, simply does not add up or make sense. People have always felt a need to know where they have come from and how, and to identify the origins of life and the world around them. Their feelings and their minds have always led them to long for the “Supreme Power” which commands and controls all. But who or what is this “Supreme Being?”

    In the Qur’an, God strongly reprehends those who seek to iden- tify God through pure speculation and conjecture: “Who is more wicked than those who invent lies about God or deny His revela- tions? They shall receive their destined share” (37) of boon and attainment in this life,

    until the moment Our angels come to take away their lives and ask them, “Where are those gods whom you invoked besides God?” They will answer, “They have forsaken us,” and they will admit they were unbelievers. (37)

    Habit and social or cultural conditioning can be responsible for one’s confusion and perplexity over the recognition and apprecia- tion of God. A well-fed person living in luxury can forget the pain of hunger and starvation just as easily as a healthy person forgets the suffering of illness or disease. Both fail to appreciate the harsh reali- ties of life and become self-satisfied and complacent. Modern-day strident existentialist-positivist-empiricist civilization, which is the legacy of past God-denying cultures, has led people to ignore past human experience and pretend that existence is a self-generating phenomenon in which there is no place for a Creator or a supreme Omnipotent God.

    Hence the need for divine revelation. Its role has been to remind people of God and steer their thinking and their lives back on the tracks of His path. God says:

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    Your Lord is God, who created the heavens and the earth in six days and then ascended His throne. He throws the veil of night over the day, swiftly following it. The sun, the moon, and the stars are all subservient to His will. He has full authority and command over all creation. Glorified be God, Lord of all creation. (54)

    As people go through life, they will experience happiness and grief, success and failure. They will ever be in need of God’s help and sus- tenance and support. The surah calls to humankind thus:

    Pray to your Lord with humility and in private. He does not love the transgressors. Do not corrupt the earth after it has been set right, and call on Him, with fear and hope. God’s mercy is close at hand for the righteous. (55–56)

    Promise and threat, fear and hope are some of the most powerful forces in human behavior. How often do we experience that certain feeling within our hearts that only God can give us what we aspire to achieve and only He will relieve our burden and alleviate our mis- ery. To underline this, the surah says:

    He [God] sends forth the winds as a harbinger to precede His mercy, and when they have gathered up heavy clouds, We then drive them to a barren land and let water fall upon it, bringing forth all manner of fruit. Thus We shall raise the dead to life, so that you may bear all this in mind. (57)

    Thus we have seen how certain themes and ideas are given first in headline form and then as we proceed with the surah, details of each theme begin to emerge. They are not separate from or independent of one another, but are brought together and interwoven in a harmo- nious mosaic of concepts, exhortations, and imperatives to inspire, teach, and show the way to God. The vital element in this process is,

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    of course, people’s receptive ability. Torrential rain falling on rocks would yield no growth and no crop: “Good soil yields its fruit by God’s will, but defiled soil will give only poor and scant fruit. Thus do We make plain our signs to those who are thankful” (58).

    The surah has given much coverage to the history and experiences of earlier nations and human groups that rejected God’s revelation and bore dire consequences for their conduct. Most of these groups appeared in or around the Arabian peninsula. Noah’s people lived in Iraq, ¢®d in the Yemen, Tham‰d in northern Arabia, Madyan bet- ween Sinai and the river Jordan, and Lot’s people in eastern Palestine. All these nations resisted God’s messengers and rejected their teach- ings. The accounts of these peoples’ experiences were preceded with the story of Adam and his encounter with Satan, which highlights an aspect of particular significance to us here. Satan did not stop at deceiving Adam and having him expelled from Paradise, but con- tinued to pursue his offspring, generation after generation. The Qur’an relates to us in detail the experiences of earlier human so- cieties with God and with Satan.

    We may ask ourselves: How many years does this history span in the annals of time? My study of the subject leads me to estimate that Noah’s Flood occurred about eight thousand years ago. The interval between Adam’s arrival on earth and Noah’s Flood would not be much longer than that. The Qur’an does not say anything about the human generations that lived before Noah. This leads me to suspect the accuracy of archaeological and geological findings of a human skull tens of millions of years old. Having studied the Qur’an very carefully, I find that the history of earlier generations did not simply go through such mechanical phases of receiving God’s warnings, ignoring them, and then being punished. The reality would have extended into succeeding generations which inherited these phases, one after another. This is clear in these verses:

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    Whenever We sent a prophet to a city We afflicted its people with calamities and misfortunes so that they might submit to Us. Then We replaced adversity with good fortune, until they multiplied and became prosperous and said, “Our fathers, too, were afflicted with adversity and good fortune.” Thus We smote them suddenly with- out them realizing it. (94-95)

    People grew complacent and believed that what had befallen them was normal, since it had already happened to their ancestors. What had God to do with the cycle of history? The reply is:

    Had the people of those cities believed and feared God, We would have showered upon them riches and blessings from heaven and out of the earth. But they disbelieved, and We destroyed them as pun- ishment for what they had done. (96)

    Succeeding human generations should therefore learn from preced- ing ones:

    Is it not plain to those who inherit the earth from their predecessors that if We wished We could punish them for their sins and set a seal upon their hearts that they would remain bereft of hearing? (100)

    Thus the earlier inhabitants of Arabia and their contemporaries disappeared into history. God’s revelations were then directed towards another Semitic branch, the Israelites. God says: “After them We sent Moses with our revelations and signs to the Pharaoh and his people, but they too disbelieved them. Look what fate awaited the evil-doers” (103). The Israelites, descendants of Jacob, were originally Hebrew bedouins who inhabited the Syrian desert. They went to settle in Egypt in response to a call by Joseph, a son of Jacob. Their way of life flourished for some time and their numbers multiplied. Refusing to assimilate into Egyptian society, they held

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    their own religious beliefs and observed their own religious prac- tices, which did not endear them much to the Egyptians. They came into bitter conflict with the indigenous population, which led to their being brutally persecuted at the hands of the Pharaoh.

    After a long period of unrelenting suffering and perdition, salva- tion came at the hands of the prophet Moses who promised them: “Your Lord may well destroy your enemies and make you inherit their power, and then see how you will manage” (129). Moses seemed to fear the worst, and his premonitions were accurate. As soon as the Israelites, by the grace of God, were safe from Pharaoh’s abuse and persecution, their first undertaking was to indulge in idol worship.

    We led the Israelites across the [Red] sea, and they came upon a people who were worshiping idols they had. They said, “Moses, make us a god like the gods they have.” He said, “You are indeed an ignorant people. These people are doomed, and their actions are damned.” (138–39)

    Sadly, they were captivated by paganism and idol worship, which seemed to have taken hold of all their senses and consciousness. Hardly had Moses departed from them for prayer when they embarked on making a calf out of their women’s jewellery, as an object of worship instead of God. God says: “Those who worshiped the calf shall incur anger from their Lord and disgrace in this life. Thus We reward the liars” (152).

    A large section of the fugitives held false or confused beliefs, and were more susceptible to following their whims and desires. They would deceive God and try to circumvent the teachings and disci- plines of their religion. When, for example, they were forbidden fishing on the Sabbath (Saturday), they would throw their nets into the sea but not collect the fish until Sunday. Naturally, some of them had the sense to warn others and give advice, but to no avail.

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    Therefore, when they forgot the warnings they were given, We delivered those who had warned against evil and inflicted a stern punishment on the transgressors for their wrongdoing. (165)

    History tells us that the kingdom of the Jews was destroyed and ran- sacked by many enemies over successive generations, and the surah confirms that, saying: “We dispersed them in groups and colonies throughout the earth; some of them were righteous and others were not” (168).

    Prophet Muhammad is reported to have been asked, “Will God destroy us while good people are still living amongst us?” His reply was, “Yes, when most of you are wrong-doers.”16 For such reasons God dispersed the Israelites and subjugated them to the rule of other nations. In this case, however, human transgression and disobedi- ence had not come about as a result of ignorance or lack of prior warning, but had been a calculated and deliberate stance: “Every

    time a messenger came to them with something they did not fancy, they either rejected or killed him” (al-M¥’idah: 70). As cases of over- weening pride and insolence accumulated, there came a time when God’s patience with them would run out, and their state is described by this parable:

    Tell them of the man to whom We vouchsafed Our revelations but he turned away from them, and Satan overtook him and he was led astray. Had We wished, We would through Our revelations have given him a lofty status, but he clung to worldly life and succumbed to his desires. He is like the dog that pants if you chase it and pants if you leave it alone. (175–76)

    This of course is true for individuals as well as nations who receive guidance, underestimate its value, or reject it altogether. Today, the

    • Narrated by al-TirmidhÏ.

    surah 7 • Al-A¢r¥f

    opponents of Islam are facing “Muslims” who, unfortunately, are far more negligent of God’s revelations and guidance than they are. Sadly, many of today’s “Muslims” are people who have violated God’s laws, cast aside the banner of Prophet Muhammad, and adopted systems that are alien to their religion and their culture. It would come as no surprise, therefore, that they too should be included with Moses’ recalcitrant followers in the general meaning of the verse which says:

    We have allotted to hell many jinn and humans possessing hearts they cannot comprehend with, and eyes they cannot see with, and ears they cannot hear with. They are like animals, or even more heedless. (179)

    Next we come to two very thought-provoking verses. One says: “He whom God guides is rightly guided; but those whom He con- founds are the losers” (178), while the second asserts: “He whom God confounds, none can guide him; and He leaves them blunder- ing about in their wickedness” (186).

    Let me say right at the outset that there is no way that these ver- ses, and others like them in the Qur’an, can be interpreted to indicate predestination. The human quality of free will is beyond question; otherwise responsibility and accountability would be null and void and the whole of existence turn into a meaningless farce. Guidance or lack of it can come about either by personal choice, that is, self-induced, or by the action of an outside agent. God leads astray or confounds only those who have already by their own choice taken that route. God says elsewhere in the Qur’an: “Those who persist in the error of their ways, the Merciful shall leave [them] to their own devices” (Maryam: 75).

    The ending of these two verses confirms our view that a person’s free will is inviolable. The one ends with the phrase: “...those He

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    confounds are the losers,” while the other ends with the words: “…and He leaves them blundering about in their wickedness,” indicating in both cases that the underlying reason for their condem- nation stems from their own choice. Furthermore, the inimitable style of Qur’anic language is an important factor in this regard. We may care to refer back to verse 179, which talks of the “hearts that cannot comprehend,” “the eyes that cannot see,” and “the ears that cannot hear.” The meaning here is that such “hearts,” “eyes,” and “ears” will lead those who possess them to hell, but these people ought to open their hearts and eyes and ears to the truth—some- thing which they are perfectly capable of doing. For the same reasons, we find in the surah expressions such as: “Will they not reflect? Their man [Muhammad] is no madman” (184), and: “Will they not ponder upon the universe of the heavens and the earth, and all that God created?” (185). The point is that those who are not able to study, reflect, or ponder, shall only have themselves to blame.

    To avoid the fate of earlier generations, Muslims are urged to ensure that their relationship with God is always at its best, and that they should shun the idea of resorting to anyone else other than God for help or support: “God has the most excellent names, so call on Him by these names” (180). God alone is the most Perfect, most Glorious, and most Self-Sufficient. When we are lost we call on Him to guide us back to the right path; when we are in the dark we call on Him for light; when we are in need we call on Him for help and support. Under similar circumstances, the unbelievers would resort to other powers, which is an insult to God and a grave offense against His magnificence and glory. The foremost characteristic of the Ummah is its pure monotheism and its total devotion to the one God.

    Among those whom We created there are people who guide others to the truth and act justly by it. As for those that deny Our revela- tions, We will lead them, unawares, to ruin, step by step. (181–82)

    surah 7 • Al-A¢r¥f

    God’s wrath and punishment can sometimes be obscured by short- lived prosperity or illusions of triumphs and success, or petty achievements. This is part of the way in which God normally deals with transgressors. He gives them the freedom and chance and the time to decide and choose, but when He strikes, He strikes hard and suddenly: “I [God] give them a chance, but my retribution is severe” (183). The believers, when they are struck by disasters, defeats, or calamities, are expected to be resilient and persevere, no matter what, until things change for the better and God’s help arrives, which it is sure to do.

    Belief in the hereafter is an essential element of the Islamic faith and complements the belief in God. However, it belongs to the realm of the unknown. No matter how curious and eager we are to know its whys and wherefores, it remains God’s own privilege. God says: “They ask you [Muhammad] about the Last Hour, ‘When will it come?’ Say, ‘It is known only to my Lord; He alone will reveal it at its appointed time’” (187). Knowing this great secret can be relevant only for its contemporaries. As for the rest, their hour ends when they die. It is only then that we realize how short and trivial this whole life has been.

    Another feature of Muslim belief is the assertion that Muhammad was a prophet of God, but totally human. He was no god, nor semi-god, nor partially god. He was a mortal, subservient to God like all other mortals, with no exceptional or extraordinary powers of his own that could be used to benefit or harm anyone. And so are all the angels and the rest of humankind. Any claim to the contrary is false.

    The surah rounds off with reference to Adam in the context of talking about his offspring. Here the tone is one of reproach and anger. God has blessed Adam’s children, the human race, with plenty of favors and goodness, but instead of being thankful, some take other gods besides, or instead of Him. To this God says: “Will they take other gods that can create nothing but are themselves

    A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an

    created; gods that can give them no help, nor can they even help themselves?” (191–92).

    The speech is then directed to the Prophet and his followers, condemning the pagan polytheists and their failure to avail them- selves of God’s guidance that was being revealed to them. It says: “If you call them to the right path they will not follow you. It is the same whether you call them or remain silent” (193). It was indeed a strange reaction on the part of those unbelievers, but the Prophet had to stand firm and hold fast to the revelation he was receiving and assert: “‘My guardian is God, who has revealed the Book, and He is the guardian of the righteous’” (196). This “Book” was more sound and effective than the “miracles” they were demanding. “Say, ‘I fol- low only what is revealed to me by my Lord. This [Book] is veritable proof from your Lord, a guide and a blessing to those who believe’” (203). However, the Prophet was told to be patient and tolerant, no matter how stubborn and arrogant his detractors were: “Be lenient, show magnanimity, and shun the ignorant” (199).

    At the beginning, the surah relates how Satan succeeds in having Adam thrown out of Paradise and indicates that Satan’s efforts to mislead and confound Adam’s children, humankind, will never cease. However, Satan can only suggest and insinuate. Those who hold the right belief will be able to resist and overcome those efforts: “When those who fear God are tempted by Satan, they remember [God] and they are immediately fully alert” (201). Those bereft of this faculty will be taken in by Satan’s deception and lose out. Remembering God and invoking His name, especially by the reci- tation and study of the Qur’an can be an effective protective shield against Satan’s attempts. Therefore the believers are told: “When the Qur’an is recited, listen to it in silence so that you may be shown mercy” (204). However, remembering God is not merely a me- chanical activity but a function of the heart and the mind, requiring full attentiveness and concentration. It should be done regularly, in public and in private, and should inspire one and spur him or her

    surah 7 • Al-A¢r¥f

    onto higher things and more fruitful and constructive pursuits. “Remember your Lord within your self in humility and reverence and in a moderate voice, in the morning and in the evening and do not be negligent” (205). Remembering God thus brings human beings into harmony with the physical world around them in a rhapsody of praise for God, Lord of all creation.

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    المص

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    كِتَابٌ أُنزِلَ إِلَيْكَ فَلَا يَكُن فِي صَدْرِكَ حَرَجٌ مِّنْهُ لِتُنذِرَ بِهِ وَذِكْرَىٰ لِلْمُؤْمِنِينَ

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    اتَّبِعُوا مَا أُنزِلَ إِلَيْكُم مِّن رَّبِّكُمْ وَلَا تَتَّبِعُوا مِن دُونِهِ أَوْلِيَاءَ ۗ قَلِيلًا مَّا تَذَكَّرُونَ

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    وَكَم مِّن قَرْيَةٍ أَهْلَكْنَاهَا فَجَاءَهَا بَأْسُنَا بَيَاتًا أَوْ هُمْ قَائِلُونَ

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    فَمَا كَانَ دَعْوَاهُمْ إِذْ جَاءَهُم بَأْسُنَا إِلَّا أَن قَالُوا إِنَّا كُنَّا ظَالِمِينَ

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    فَلَنَسْأَلَنَّ الَّذِينَ أُرْسِلَ إِلَيْهِمْ وَلَنَسْأَلَنَّ الْمُرْسَلِينَ

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    فَلَنَقُصَّنَّ عَلَيْهِم بِعِلْمٍ ۖ وَمَا كُنَّا غَائِبِينَ

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    وَالْوَزْنُ يَوْمَئِذٍ الْحَقُّ ۚ فَمَن ثَقُلَتْ مَوَازِينُهُ فَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ

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    وَمَنْ خَفَّتْ مَوَازِينُهُ فَأُولَٰئِكَ الَّذِينَ خَسِرُوا أَنفُسَهُم بِمَا كَانُوا بِآيَاتِنَا يَظْلِمُونَ

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