Verses from Surah Yunus1 (1-4)

Makkan2

Commentary

1. Asad has a short summary of the surah: “The central theme of chapter Yunus is revelation   in particular, the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad, and the impossibility of its having been “composed” by the latter and fraudulently attributed by him to God, as the deniers of the truth assert (verses 15 17, 37 38 and 94). Woven around this theme are references to earlier prophets   all of whom were given the lie by the majority of their people – as well as a many sided exposition of the fundamental tenets of Islam: the oneness, uniqueness and omnipotence of God, the continuity of His revelation to man, the certainty of resurrection and of God’s final judgement – culminating in the reminder (in verse 108) that “whoever chooses to follow the right path, follows it but for his own good; and whoever chooses to go astray, goes astray but to his own hurt”.

Sayyid Qutb has a long prologue. Here, in brief, a few points:

“The principal theme of this chapter – indeed of the whole Qur’an, especially of the Makkan revelations – is that the Lordship – the whole of it, undivided – is for Allah alone, and hence all devotion    – physical and spiritual – should be reserved for Him alone. This is followed by an explanation of what it means when applied to life and its demands.

A sound and healthy human civilization on this earth cannot be established without the realization and acceptance of the above cardinal principle.

Interacting with the elements of this world  – things living and non living –  man cannot lead a successful life if he is devoted to these very elements – living or non living – worse, treating them as deities and gods. Can the people (ever be happy), while they belittle themselves in front of the (powerless) deities in such a ridiculous manner as they do? They offer them – and have done so in every age and in every place – the best of their earnings, following the directives of their priestly classes, or the superstitions of their masses .. They offer them blessings that are, in fact, endowed by their Lord. Indeed, some of them offer their very souls, while these deities – living and non living – have no power to harm or benefit them. They swing between pain and pleasures, between peace and anxiety, between devotion and intimation, all in devotion of those that are no more than creations like them!

This is the price in terms of wealth and progeny that the people have to pay for slavery to other than Allah! It has always happened that when people refused to accept a religion that is built on devotion to One God, they allowed some of their own kind to assume authority over them, ultimately ending up as slaves to them. In consequence, slavery eats away their human-ness, their honor, and not merely their freedom, notwithstanding what system  – capitalistic, communistic, or any other – they fall prey to.

The West in its effort to escape from the clutches of the corrupt and tyrannous Christianity, turned to democracy, parliamentarianism, freedom of speech, guarantees of an equitable socio political life and so on and so forth. But to what end? Another set of people abandoned the capitalists and embraced the paupers. To what end? Every time they adopted a system designed by men, for men of their own sort, they had to pay to their lords, false gods, material and spiritual prices as penalty.

The surah under consideration is not discussing the devotion to idols and deities, pure and simple, of the past forgotten times. It discusses man’s situation, in every age, in every place, and addresses every pagandom – of the pre historical times, of the historical times and of the modern times – every pagandom that is structured on the principle of man’s devotion to man .. and demonstrates the error in such devotion, pointing out that the Lordship   the whole of it, undivided, is for Allah alone, and hence all devotion – physical or spiritual – should be reserved for Him alone. In this is man’s salvation and in nothing else. Hence the concluding passage of this surah: “Say, ‘O people. If you are in any doubt regarding my religion (then, know that) I do not worship what you worship besides Allah. Rather, I worship the God who deals you death. I have been ordered to be of the believers.’  And (I have been commanded), ‘Set your face to the religion, of pure faith, and be not of the idolaters. Do not call on gods besides Allah: those that cannot harm or benefit you. If you did that, then, in that event you will surely be of the transgressors. And, if Allah were to give you the taste of an affliction, there is none to remove it but He. And, if He wished a good thing, none can turn His blessing away. He causes it to visit whom He will of His slaves. He is the Most forgiving, the Most Merciful.’ Say, ‘People. The truth has come to you from your Lord. So, whoever received guidance, received it for his own benefit. And, whosoever chose to go astray, then his straying away is to his own loss. I am not a guardian over you.’ (As for you, O Muhammad), follow that which is revealed unto you. And observe patience until Allah sends down His judgment. Surely, He is the best of judges.’”

2. The opinion of Ibn `Abbas is that this surah is Makkan but for three verses 94 – 96. Muqatil however said that only two verses, 94 and 95, are Madinan. There are other opinions too (Qurtubi, Shawkani).

[1] Alif. Lam. Ra.3 These are verses of a Wise Book.4

Commentary

3. As explained earlier (in surah al Baqarah), the meaning of these letters, known as huruf al muqatta‘at, is not definitely known. At this point, several guesses have been made. Ibn `Abbas and Dahhak have said that they are: Alif for “Ana”, Lam for “Allah” and Ra for “Ara”, meaning, together, ‘I am the Lord who sees.’  Another opinion of Ibn `Abbas says that the letters are part of the word “Al Rahman” of which the first three letters “Alif, Lam and Ra” appear here, “Ha Mim” appear (in surah al Ghafir), and “Nun” (in al Qalam) to make up together “al Rahman” (the Most Merciful). (Tabari).

Qurtubi writes that the opinion of Ibn `Abbas to the effect that “Alif, Lam, Ra,” are short form of “I am Allah who sees,” is seconded by Abu Is-haq, as reported by Nuhhas. Sibawayh (the linguist) in fact cited an example from Arab poetry:

“Good to the do gooders, for, if good, good, but if evil, then evil. I do not wish evil unless you wish it.”

In the above couplet “Sharran fa” stands for “Sharran fa Sharran” and “Ta” stands for “Tasha”’.

It might also be noted, writes Razi, (seconded by Shawkani) that the letters here at the head of this surah do not constitute a verse by themselves, in contrast to, e.g., “Ta Ha” which is a verse by itself.

4. Or, in simpler words, though linguistically not very accurate, “a Book full of wisdom” in the words of Yusuf Ali, “Each verse is a nugget of wisdom” (Au.).

[2] Is it strange for the people that We have revealed unto a man from among them that,5 ‘Warn the people and give glad tidings to the believers that they have a sure footing6 with their Lord?’ (But) the unbelievers said, ‘This (person) is surely a obvious magician.’7

Commentary

5. It was not merely strange to them that Allah should reveal to a man, and reveal what He revealed, condemning their age-old religion, but also that He should choose Muhammad as the instrument. They asked, “Could He not find anyone better than an orphan from the house of Abu Talib?” (Zamakhshari, Shawkani).

Majid probes into the mind of the rejectionists, “The pagans of Arabia, like the pagans elsewhere, had no conception of Prophethood and Revelation at all. They would understand incarnation – God becoming man – or else explain the fact of Messengership by attributing it to magic and sorcery. In idolatrous communities it is the sorcerers or magicians who are credited with supernatural powers the principal of which is the power of foretelling the future.”

Sayyid Qutb considers the antagonists’ psyche from a different angle. He writes:

“Every messenger sent by Allah (swt) had to face this question: Has a man been made a Messenger?! At the root of the question lies a poor rating of the humankind. They cannot believe that this insignificant being can come into contact with God (if they would grant Him existence); that he can be given revelations for the guidance of humankind. If they would allow for guidance to come down, they’d suggest that the one chosen be an angel, or some other creation. But man? No.

“They keep asking: How can a human being, after all a material entity, (composed of chemical elements) achieve contact with the incorporeal or the supra-physical Being?

“This kind of question can only be answered by someone who has understood the two beings: God and man, in the fullest sense: someone who knows all about the hidden potentials of man, including those that can ever be brought out to the light of the day.

“They forget that man possesses powers and potentials that none but God has the full knowledge of. In fact, some people possess powers and abilities that not even they themselves are aware of. Only Allah (swt) knows who these individuals are, what their possibilities, limits and extent are, and chooses of them for His Messengership whom He will. Isn’t He the One who created every cell, every sinew and every bone in man and so knows who can bear the burden of Messengership?

“Some of the contemporary Qur’anic commentators seem also to have not paid enough attention to this aspect. They try to accord a new meaning to Revelation. But, knowledge of the material world is one thing, and that of the spiritual another. Each of it has its domain in which it should remain. As regards what is presented as “spiritual knowledge,” most of it is plagued by confusion and doubts both in its intent as well as purposes. Except for what the Qur’an and Sunnah have informed us about the topic, there is no other approach to this knowledge and to unravel the secret.

“As for the need to send guidance through revelation, it is quite apparent. By nature man has the potential both for good as well as evil. Reason is the faculty which judges between the two. But, (even after it is convinced) the intellect remains in need of a firm anchor to hold fast against doubts, vagaries, whims and fancies. This is where the need for revelation arises.”

6. “Qadama sidqin” is an interesting combination rich of meaning. The reader will have to integrate several connotations to appreciate its full significance. One possible rendering, on the authority of Ibn `Abbas and Dahhak, is that it means, “true rewards.” Mujahid says that the allusion is to “good deeds.” That is, their good deeds are reserved (for rewards) with their Lord. There are other opinions. Ibn Jarir is inclined towards the latter of the two above. Another connotation is, “precedence of truth,” i.e., “they remained true (to their faith) all along (in the past).” Yet another possible rendering is, “their good fortune has precedence in the previous Scripture,” i.e., finds mention therein also (Qurtubi). Another is, “They shall have precedence over others in entry into Paradise” (Alusi). The word qadama could also be referring “to the fact that the acts of a person precede him to his Lord (and) the word sidq qualifies these acts with sincerity and genuineness” (Yusuf Ali). There are a few other connotations that are difficult to give a meaningful rendering in English.

7. At this point Rashid Rida has commentary running into 147 pages in connection with design, purpose and objectives of the Qur’anic revelation to counter in detail the arguments of those who reject the Message and the Messenger, especially the Orientalists.

[3] Verily it is your Lord Allah who created the heavens and the earth in six aeons,8 then assumed istawa’ on the ‘Arsh.9 He disposes the affair.10 There is no intercessor save after His leave.11 That is Allah, your Lord. Serve Him then. Will you not receive admonition? 

Commentary

8. The original text uses the word “yawm” day in Arabic. What days are these? Are they the 24-hour cycle as mentioned in the Bible? No. Ibn `Abbas said that these were six days of the previous world when a day was a thousand years, for, before the creation there was neither day nor night of the kind we are familiar with now (Razi, Alusi).

9. We have avoided all polemics and possibilities of error by translating the phrase as, “then He assumed istawa’ on the `Arsh,” following the well known stand of the Ahl al Sunnah, viz., “We know what `Arsh is. We also know what ‘istawa’ is. But we do not know its ‘how.’ Therefore, any question regarding its ‘how’ is an innovation in religion.” Imam Razi therefore, endeavors to remove a misunderstanding viz., is it in the sense of, “He rested on the `Arsh?” He replies with a no. (It cannot in any sense of the word be described as His ‘Dwelling place,’”: Majid). Razi explains that such a sense would imply that if not for the `Arsh, Allah would fall off, which is an absurdity. It would also imply that there was a time when He was without this support, kind of in an unstable situation, which is another absurdity. The apparent meaning, therefore, is categorically ruled out.

He raises another question. We know what an `Arsh is. (Lit. a throne). But the question is, is it the `Arsh of our understanding which is mentioned here? Abu Muslim Asfahani was of the opinion that it is not. For, in Arabic, everything that is above another is its `Arsh. Allah (swt) said (16: 68):

“And your Lord inspired  the bee, ‘Take for yourself among the mountains, hives,  and among the trees, and in that which they construct.’”

In the above example the word `Arsh has been used in the sense of construction. Allah (swt) said in another place (2: 259):

“Or, like him who passed by a town which was fallen on its roofs.”

Here, Allah used the word `Arsh in the sense of a roof. Therefore, the meaning of the verse in question is, after Allah had created the heavens and the earth He turned His attention to the construction of a roof over them, or some sort of a structure to cover them. Allah said in another place (79: 28):

Or, are you a more difficult creation or the heaven which He built, raised its height and proportioned it?

The allusion then, according to Abu Muslim Asfahani, is to this raising of the height and proportioning it.

Imam Razi also expresses the possibility that it is the dominion or the assumption of control that is meant by the words, “He assumed istawa’ on the `Arsh.” Alusi writes that this is how most scholars have accepted it at this point just as one would say, “The Sultan sat on the throne (on such and such a day) while the Sultan might never have climbed it once. What is meant is, he assumed authority.

Imam Razi also reports that great many commentators believed that by the word `Arsh, the allusion is to the great structure above the heavens with which Qur’an and Sunnah have made us familiar. He also reminds us that trustworthy traditions say that in the beginning there was nothing except for the ‘Arsh which was on water. Obviously, the meaning of He resting on it in any sense is ruled out, since here it says, “‘then’ He assumed istawa’ on the ‘Arsh.” That is, if He did not need to rest on the ‘Arsh earlier to its creation, He couldn’t have been in its need later.

We might therefore, take the safe line and conclude with the Qur’anic statement which says (3: 7):

“And no one knows its true meaning save Allah. As for those who are well grounded in knowledge, they say, ‘We have believed in it’” (Au.).

10. That is, “He is not only the Creator but also the constant Ruler and continuous Disposer of the affairs” (Majid).

11. That is, there was no intercessor in the sense of advisor to tell Allah (swt) how things ought to be designed, constructed and placed. He made all the decisions by Himself. Majid points out errors of previous religions:

“This (the idea of intercession) refuses not only the doctrine of the pagans who imagined that their gods were intercessors with the Great God for them but also the Christian dogma of Mediation. The Christian position briefly is this, ‘God and man have been estranged. The relation which normally subsists between them has been destroyed and the work of the mediation is to restore it. There is one mediator between God and man, Himself man, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself a ransom for all’ (Ebr. VIII, p. 856).”

Rashid Rida attempts at removing the misconceptions concerning intercession held by the common Muslims: First of all, no one can intercede without Allah’s leave; as Allah said (in 2: 255), “Who is it that can intercede with Him but by His leave?” The revelation has not named anyone who has the right of intercession with Allah. Far from that, Allah has added the condition that He will not allow anyone to intercede with him without His own approval. He said (20: 109), “The day when intercession will be of no profit save for him whom the Merciful allows, and approves of his word.” On their part the intercessors too will not intercede except for him whom  Allah  (swt) approves.Allah said (21: 28), “They will not intercede but for him with whom Allah is pleased.”  This is following the  general principle laid in the Qur’an that intercession is entirely Allah’s prerogative. He said (39: 44), “Say, ‘All intercessions are for Allah alone.’”

Abu Muslim Asfahani points out another meaning. He sees the word “shafi‘” in the sense of “even” as against “odd” (witr), in which case it would mean that until Allah wills there is no “even” to His “odd”. He is the only “witr” (odd) unless He will allow. For instance, He is “Al-Hayy” (the Living). Now, there was no “hayy” until He created other hayyi (living beings), who come into existence by His leave (Razi).

[4] Unto Him is your returning, all together. Allah’s promise in true. Surely, He begins the creation12 then repeats it;13 so that He might reward those who believed and did good deeds, justly. As for those who rejected, theirs is a drink from boiling fluids14 and a painful chastisement for that they were rejecting.15

Commentary

12. In view of the Revelation which does not allow for acceptance of the view held by science that life arose only once, and that all subsequent life, including that of the human beings is replication of that first life, we might point out that while the scientists claim (although without proof) that the process of creation took place only once, through chance circumstances, they also admit that the process cannot be repeated because the conditions through which the earth was then passing, 4.5 billion years ago, cannot be repeated. And, despite great progress in science, there is also a general agreement among the scientists that creation of life, that is, turning dead matter into a living one, through artificial methods, is just out of the question (Au.).

13. There is room for translation of the verb used here both in the present as well as the future tense. Therefore, some translators have chosen to put it as “He repeats it” while others have preferred, “He will repeat it.”

14. “Hamim” is that liquid which has reached its boiling point and is about to evaporate (Qurtubi).

15. Leaving aside other conclusions that are drawn from this verse, we might lift Ka‘bi’s quote from Razi’s commentary. Ka`bi pointed out the difference between the words that have been chosen here for mentioning rewards unto some, and punishment unto some. It is said about those who will be rewarded, “Surely, He begins the creation then repeats it; so that He might reward those who believed and did good deeds, justly.” Note the words “so that.” Whereas when mentioning the punishment Allah (swt) said, in the same verse, “As for those who rejected, theirs is a drink from boiling fluids and a painful chastisement for that they were rejecting.” This sentence is not preceded by “so that” (the lam al ta‘lil). Allah did not say, “so that He might punish…” What does that lead us to understand? It leads us to understand that in principle human beings have been created (He begins the creation and then repeats it) “so that” Allah might show them mercy and reward them. But He did not create them “so that” He might put them to torture. It is they who earn the punishment. Another point may be noted. While speaking of rewards Allah used the word “justly,” but while speaking of punishment He did not use the same word. Why? It is because while rewarding Allah (swt) will do full justice. In fact, He will reward more than what justice demands. But while punishing, He will not do full justice. He will show mercy and make the punishment less severe, or of shorter duration, although justice might demand otherwise.

Mawdudi demonstrates the logical connection between the fourth and fifth verses and shows the need for resurrection. He writes:

The present verse sets forth the rationale of resurrection. The preceding verses had conclusively established that resurrection is possible, that there is no reasonable ground to dub it as a far-fetched idea. Drawing upon the above, the verse under consideration points out that the requirement of justice and reason can only be fulfilled by resurrection, and that this calls for a repetition of the original act of creation by God.

“The point that is being made here is that those who accept God as their One and the Only Lord and truly live in service and devotion to Him deserve to be fully rewarded for the righteous conduct. Likewise, those who reject the truth and act according to their own whim deserve to be fully punished for their unrighteous conduct. The present life is so constituted that reward and punishment are not being meted out and cannot be meted out in the manner described above. This is a plain fact, and one which is evident to all except those who are obstinate. This being the case, reason and justice demand fresh creation in order that such reward and punishment be meted out.”

(To be continued)