Verses from Surah Al-Anbiya’ (63 – 70)

[63] He replied, ‘Rather, it is this – the chief one – who did it.77 Ask them if they can speak.’ 

Commentary

77. Yusuf Ali writes: “(This was happening in) a place – known as Ur of the Chaldees – on the lower reaches of the Euphrates, not a hundred miles from the Persian Gulf. This was the cradle, or one of the cradles of human civilization. Astronomy was studied here in very ancient times, and (along with idol-worship: Au.) the worship of the sun, moon and stars was the prevailing form of religion .. Nimrod’s capital was in Assyria, near Nineveh (near modern Mosul), we may suppose that either the king’s rule extended over the whole of Mesopotamia, or that Abraham wandered north through Babylonia to Assyria.”

Ibn Jarir reports Ibn Is-haq’s explanation, “They presented Ibrahim to Nimrod the king of the land. The king sought confirmation that it was he who broke them. Ibrahim said that it was the biggest of them who did it. He (the chief idol) was angry that although it was the biggest, the little ones were still being worshipped. So he broke them (Ibn Jarir).

In Yusuf Ali’s words, “They asked him the formal question. There was no mystery about it. He had already openly threatened to do something to the idols, and people who had heard his threats were there. He now continues his ironic taunt to the idol-worshippers. ‘You ask me! Why don’t you ask the idols? Doesn’t it look as if this big fellow has smashed the smaller ones in quarrel?’ If they do not ask the idols, they confess that the idols have no intelligence enough to answer! This argument is developed in verse 64-67. Note that while the false worshippers laughed at his earnestness, he pays them out by a grim joke, which at the same time advances the cause of Truth.”

The above stated, Ibn Jarir protests that those who do not like to accept the reports that have come down from the elders, hold that what Ibrahim meant is that if the idols were capable of speech, then the big one broke them. In other words, since the idols are not capable of speech, the big one did not break them. This they say because they think Ibrahim could not have spoken a lie. But the rationalists forget that this is in the same vein as the words of Yusuf’s caller who accused the caravan by saying, “O caravan! Indeed you are thieves” – although they were not. They also forget the hadith which says that Ibrahim did not lie but on three occasions, and all of them were for the sake of Allah. First, when he said, “Nay, it is this – the chief one – who did it,” second, when he said (37: 89), “Indeed I am unwell,” and third, about his wife to the ruler of a land that she was his sister.

The hadith of above reference, reported by Abu Hurayrah, is in the Sahihayn as well as Tirmidhi (Qurtubi).

But the Sahihayn version is slightly differently worded (Au.). The Prophet (saws) said, “Ibrahim did not lie but thrice. Twice of them about Allah, the Mighty, the Honorable. (First), when he said, ‘Indeed, I am unwell;’ (second), when he said, ‘Nay, it is this – the chief one – who did it.’ (Third), one day he and Sarah passed by a tyrant – one of a dynasty of tyrants. A man told him (the tyrant), ‘A man (has broken his journey in your land who) has an extremely beautiful woman in his company.’ So he sent to him (Ibrahim) and asked him about her as to who she is?’ He said, ‘My sister.’ He went to Sarah and told her, ‘O Sarah. There is no believer on the face of the earth except me and you. This man (the tyrant) asked me about you and I said that you are my sister. Therefore, do not lay the lie on me.

“He (the tyrant) sent for her. When she entered upon him, he desired after her and tried to take hold of her. But he was seized, strongly. He said, ‘Pray to Allah for me and I shall do you no harm.’ She prayed for him. He was released but again desired her and again tried to take hold of her. But he was again seized, strongly, or even more. He pleaded, ‘Pray to Allah and I will do you no harm.’ She prayed and he was released. He called in his attendant and told him, ‘You haven’t brought me a human. It’s a devil. Send her away. He gave her Hajar (as a gift).’

She came back to him (Ibrahim). He was in Prayers. He signaled with his hand – ‘what happened?’ She said, ‘Allah proved sufficient against the mischief of the unbelieving tyrant, and he gave me Hajar for services.’”

Abu Hurayrah said, ‘That was your mother O men of the heavenly waters’” (Ibn Kathir).

(Note: As pointed out by some scholars, the rule that the tyrants followed was that when one of them desired after a woman, and she was married, he killed her husband before seizing her: Au.).

Qadi Abu Bakr b. al-`Arabiyy has a point worthy of note. The Prophet said that Ibrahim did not lie but thrice and twice it was in Allah’s path. He did not count his statement about Sarah as a lie in Allah’s path, for, after all, it was for her and his own sake. A deed is truly in Allah’s path when it is not affected by any worldly consideration whatsoever. If it was we who had been involved, it could be referred to as being in the way of Allah. But, considering Ibrahim’s high position, for him, no (Qurtubi).

Among the commentators of old, Imam Razi does not accept the above report – even though in Bukhari and Muslim – as trustworthy since it attributes lies to a Prophet. He thinks it is easier to attribute a lie to the narrators rather than to a Prophet. One or two Qur’anic commentators of our times have followed suit. But others have pointed out that firstly, rejection of the hadith that speaks of Ibrahim’s lies, leads up to another dilemma. There is another report, which confirms its trustworthiness. It is found in all major works and is none other than the famous Hadith al-Shafa`ah which speaks of mankind going from one Prophet to another on the Day of Judgment seeking their intercession with Allah to start off the Reckoning. They will all refuse referring to one of their errors of the past life. Ibrahim will cite his lies as the reason why he would not be able to help. And this one is a mutawatir report. (Mutawatir is a report, which is narrated by so many that their consensus to lie could not have been achieved: Au.).

Incidentally, it is overlooked that rejecting the hadith is tantamount to rejecting the above Qur’anic verse, which states first of the three lies (Au.).

Secondly, the scholars say that the hadith concerning Ibrahim’s lies has not been understood properly. For although the hadith uses the word “lie” it does not state anything that we can ordinarily consider as lies. Can any of the three lies be treated as lies? Aren’t they of the allegorical nature? When Ibrahim said that the chief idol broke the rest, did he think they would buy that from him? Was he doing anymore than demonstrating the powerlessness of their hand-carved deities? When he said he was unwell, was he perfectly hale and hearty? Is not the word “saqeem” used for feelings of depression, distress, anxiety, and sadness as well? Or, when he said Sarah was his sister, was he absolutely wrong? Isn’t it reported that she was his cousin? Even today, don’t the people refer to an uncle’s daughter as “my sister,” adding up “a cousin” only when asked if she is a real sister?

What then is the meaning of the term “lies” as used in the hadith? Well, we must once again recall that great men enjoy high status with Allah. And high status demands moral rectitude of an extremely high order. A minor error coming from such men is major in the sight of Allah. Hasn’t Allah reproached our own Prophet in very strong terms for his minor errors? (This writer felt amused when – in a different context – a Hindu began to actually defend our Prophet over his attitude with Ibn Umm Maktum. That is, he thought the error was too minor for rebuke). [Hasn’t Adam’s minor error been referred to as “`Asa” and “Ghawa” in the Qur’an: Shafi`]? In short, although the three statements of Prophet Ibrahim were no lies at all, the term was used because of the status he held following the rule:  “Good deeds of the pious are evil deeds of those brought nigh (Au.).

Finally, warns Shafi’, it is worthwhile reminding that although Allah or his Messenger used strong terms against Prophets, such as, in this instance, “kadhib” (lies), Muslims are not allowed to use similar terms when referring to the Prophets of Allah. They might directly quote a Qur’anic verse or hadith but never attribute any such thing to them himself.

[64] So they turned to themselves and said (to each other), ‘Surely, you are the ones who are in the wrong.’78

Commentary

78. Yusuf Ali comments: “Abraham’s biting irony cut them to the quick. What could they say? They turned to each other. Some among them thought he had the best of the argument. They were not keen on idolatry, and they told their fellows that it was useless arguing with Abraham. They all hung their heads in shame. But presently they thought they would face out Abraham, and take his words literally. They said, ‘You know quite well that idols do not speak!’ This was precisely what Abraham wanted them to say, and he delivered his first blow!”

[65] Then they were thrown into confusion.79 (They said), ‘You know very well that these do not speak?!’ 

Commentary

79. The translation of “nukisu `ala ru’usihim” expresses the understanding of the Salaf. Nakasa implies ‘to turn around,’ ‘turn upside down,’ etc. Of course, it was not they who had turned upside down, but instead, it was their argument that was turned upside down by Ibrahim, to which in truth is the allusion here. In Yusuf Ali’s words, it denotes their “mental somersault.”

Another possible meaning is, “Then they reverted to their folly and belligerent ways of old” (Qurtubi).

[66] He said, ‘Do you then worship other than Allah that which is neither of any profit to you nor of any harm?

[67] Fie upon you and upon what you worship other than Allah. Will you not use reason?’

[68] They said, ‘Burn him and protect your gods, if you are to act.’

[69] We said, ‘O fire! Be cool and safe for Ibrahim.’80

Commentary

80. The story goes that they dug a huge pit and filled it with fire. The fire was so intense that a bird flying over would fall dead. It is said that it was lit for several weeks. Of the animals it was only chameleon that was blowing at the fire to intensify it. Hence the Prophet has asked us to kill it. (The report about the chameleon is in Ahmad, Ibn Hibban and Ibn Majah, declared Sahih by Albani: S. Ibrahim). Then Ibrahim was hoisted on a tall structure. (The Qur’an said, “They said, ‘Build for him a building and then throw him into the blazing fire’”: Alusi). Thereafter he was hurled in with the help of a catapult.

Ibrahim’s last words before he was hurled into the Fire were, “Enough for me Allah, an excellent Trustee”. When he was hurled in, it was said, “O fire. Be cool and safe for Ibrahim.” If the words, “safe for Ibrahim” were not added, the fire would have frozen him. He came out unhurt. He was then sixteen. (Al-Mawardi has said that he was twenty-six: Qurtubi).

It is reported that he stayed in the fire for several days or weeks. When they found that Ibrahim was safe in the pit, one of the men claimed that it was he who had overpowered the fire with his magic. So they threw him in to test his claim. He was reduced to ashes (Ibn Jarir, Kashshaf, Alusi).

The report about Ibrahim saying ‘My Trustee is Allah, and excellent Trustee He is,’ is in Bukhari (Ibn Kathir).

As to the doubt concerning how Ibrahim could escape unhurt, Zamakhshari answers that one probability is that his skin was turned fireproof, like the skins of the Keepers of Hellfire.

Alusi adds that except for what is reported in the hadith, most other parts of the story as mentioned above come through the Salaf.  Only that can be fully trusted which happens to be in the Qur’an or hadith. He also deals with the juggling of the con-sufis. He writes, As regards the feats performed by the followers of Sheikh Rifa`i, it must be noted that they are not preformed by the true followers of the Sheikh – such of them as who adhere to the Qur’an and the Sunnah. But rather, by those who are closer to kufr than Islam because of their corrupt lives. “I have seen,” writes Alusi, “one of them enter into fire, sit there coolly sipping wine, and emerge unscratched.”

Apparently, these are magical feats or what is known as Istidraj. Sheikh Rifa`i himself, or his true followers never entered into fires, nor played with snakes, nor rode upon ferocious beasts.

[70] And they intended a (secret) plan against him. But We made them the greater losers.81

Commentary

81. Probably Ibrahim did not leave the town immediately and so some other methods of getting rid of him were devised but which failed. In Yusuf ‘Ali’s words, “As they could not get rid of him by open punishment, they tried secret plans, but were foiled throughout. It was not he that lost, but they. On the contrary he left them and prospered and became the progenitor of great peoples.”