Verses from Surah Al-Nahl1 (Makkan)2

Introduction

Sayyid Qutb’s passionate words might be difficult to translate, but, in keeping with the Arabic proverb, ‘What cannot be had in sum and substance, may not be missed in its whole’, here we go:

“Like most other Makkan chapters, this one also deals with important articles of faith: Divinity, revelation and resurrection. It also touches on related topics e.g., concept of Divine Oneness – which is the main link that connects the religion of Ibrahim with that of Muhammad (peace on them both)… It also touches on Allah’s will, and men’s attitudes concerning belief, unbelief, guidance, misguidance… as it also deals with the mission of the Prophets and Allah’s ways with the rejecters… It further deals with the question of the lawful and the unlawful and the pagan misconceptions regarding these issues… It deals with Hijrah in Allah’s path, Muslims’ tribulations in this path, renunciation of faith after its acceptance, and Allah’s retribution for these acts. Thereafter, it turns to issues pertaining to human actions and interactions: justice, being good, expending in the way of Allah, being true to the word of promise – and other related topics. Thus, the chapter is loaded with a variety of subjects.

“As for the framework and background in which it deals with these issues, and the wide scope in which it operates… it is that of the heavens and the earth, waters pouring down, trees growing, the night and the day, the sun, the moon and the stars, seas and mountains, waymarks, paths and rivers – it is the world, whole of it, with its events and movements which forms the background, and yet, there is another: that of values and perceptions, that of the Unknown with all that goes with it, and its reach into the depth of souls and space.

“It is in this background that the contents of the chapter are embedded: one massive strike to turn men’s direction, to impress on the soul, to awaken the mind and conscience… an unobtrusive but sustained attack. Yet, it plays on various chords, and despite its mildness, strikes at every impulse, provokes every mind, as it also touches upon instincts. It coaxes the eye that it may see, the ear that it may hear, the senses that they may become conscious, and the intellect that it may consider. To achieve this end, the Surah mobilizes the whole of the world: its heavens and its earth, its sun and moon, its day and night, its mountains, seas, narrow gorges, rivers, shadows, retreats, plants and fruits, animals and birds, as it also draws upon the present world and the next, its known and the unknown. With all these instruments it strikes at the chords of the heart and mind, in varied strikes: that no soul can refuse to be affected by, unless it is a closed mind, a lifeless heart and a muddled perception.”

Commentary

1. The chapter is also known by the name “Al-Ni`am” (“Favors”), from the number of blessings mentioned therein (Zamakhshari, Razi, Qurtubi, Shawkani).

2. Except for a couple of verses, it is said to have been revealed on the way to Madinah, the rest of the Surah is Makkan by common consensus.

[1] Commeth Allah’s command,3 so seek not to hasten it.4 Glorified is He above that which they associate (with Him).5

Commentary

3. Jalaluddin Suyuti has said: Consider how the previous chapter is connected with this one. The previous chapter ended with the words, “And worship your Lord until death comes to you,” while this one starts with, “Commeth Allah’s commandment” (Alusi).

As regards immediate context, this verse addressed the Makkans who often demanded to know when the Hour would strike. Nadr b. al-Harith in fact said (8: 32), “O Allah. If this be true from You, then rain down stones upon us” (Au.).

In Yusuf Ali’s tender words: “This is an answer to the taunts of the Pagans, who said, ‘If there is a god, the One true God, as you say, with unified control, why does He not punish the wrong-doers at once?’ The answer is: ‘The decree of Allah will inevitably come to pass; it will come soon enough; when it comes, you will wish it were delayed; how foolish of you to wish even to cut off your last hope of forgiveness?’”

4. According to some of the Salaf, the “amr” of the text alludes to “the Hour” and, the two events being so close, also to the raising of the Final Messenger. Ibn ‘Abbas said that when Jibril was sent with the first message to the Prophet, he remarked, “Allah is Great! The Hour has arrived” (Qurtubi).

Mawdudi has an opinion worth consideration: Since this chapter was revealed during the last days of the Prophet’s stay at Makka, few days before his migration to Madinah, and since the pith of the Makkan argument against him was, ‘Muhammad (peace be on him) claims that we have deviated from the truth. He also claims to be a Prophet designated by God. If both these statements are true, we should by now have been seized by God’s scourge’… in view of above, ‘the judgement’ (command in our rendering: Au.) refers to Prophet’s Muhammad’s migration from Makkah.

Shabbir, however, understands “amr” as command alone, which here alludes to the command by which the Muslims would ultimately gain upper hand, emerge triumphant, and the unbelievers routed. The time is close for it. Moreover, the Hour of Resurrection is not far away, so, what’s the point in seeking to hasten it?

5. Many commentators have pointed out that those who are warned of the Hereafter and the Accounting, usually rely on someone to save them – if the promises really comes through. So Allah (swt) warned them, “Glorified is He above that which they associate (with Him).”

[2] He sends down angles with the Revelation6 by His command upon whom He will of His slaves (saying):7 ‘Warn that there is no God except I. Therefore, fear Me (alone).’

Commentary

6. Ibn ‘Abbas has said that the textual “Al-Ruh” refers to revelation. Qatadah cites both “revelation” as well as “mercy” in explanation of the term (Ibn Jarir).

Revelation has been called “Al-Ruh” (spirit, soul, or life) because life of the hearts depends on it (Zamakhshari, Qurtubi, Shawkani).

Razi cites instances in the Qur’an where the word “ruh” is used in the sense of revelation. Allah (swt) said (42: 52), “That is how We have revealed to you, a ‘ruh’ (revelation) by Our command.” He also said (40: 15), “He casts His ‘ruh’ (revelation) by His command on whomsoever of His slaves He will.”

Mawdudi expands: “The ‘spirit’ (revelation in our rendering: Au.) mentioned here is the spirit of prophecy. The Messenger is infused with it, and it animates all that he says or does. Revelation and the spirit of prophecy have the same significance in man’s moral life as does the ‘soul’ in the physical life. Hence, the Qur’an has used the term ‘spirit’ for it. Since the Christians were unable to grasp this, they were led to believe in the Holy Ghost and to make him one of the three persons constituting a Trinity.”

7. “The unbelievers took strong exception to the choice of Muhammad (peace be on him),… for this divine assignment. How could he be so appointed when there were outstanding scions in the leading families of Makkah and Ta’if who, in their view, were much better suited for such a position” (Mawdudi).

[3] He created the heavens and the earth in truth.8 Exalted is He above that they associate (with Him).

Commentary

8. That is, everything in the universe attests to the great Truth that it has a single Originator and Sustainer and that there is no room for false gods as proposed by the polytheists. Had there been more than one God, an ordered universe could not have come into existence. If it had been an accidental creation, chaotic fragments would have been flying about (Au.).

[4] He created man from a sperm-drop. And lo, (there) he is, an open disputer.9

Commentary

9. Most commentators understand the verse as translated above. Nonetheless, Ibn Jarir understands the textual word “mubin” as meaning someone capable of expressing himself skillfully and rationally. Zamakhshari also sees the possibility. Asad has worded it: “…after having been a [mere] drop of sperm, a particle of matter without consciousness or motion, man becomes highly articulate (mintiq), able to argue on his own [for or against a proposition], courageously facing disputes, and clearly formulating his arguments: [and herein lies] an indication of God’s creative power.”

Another meaning is also obvious: Although man has such a lowly origin, he grows so arrogant with time that he challenges his very Creator. With this meaning in view, Shabbir quotes another verse (36: 77-78): “Has man not considered that We created him from a sperm-drop, and then, lo, he is an open disputer. He strikes examples for Us, forgetting his creation, he says, ‘Who will quicken the bones when they are dust?’”

[5] And the cattle – He created them for you. In them is warmth10 and (various other) uses, and of them you eat.

Commentary

10. The allusion by “dif’un” is to warm clothes made from animal hide, wool, or fur (Ibn Jarir, Zamakhshari). The above point is of course obvious. But could the allusion also be to the common knowledge that animals’ flesh lends warmth to human body? (Au.)

[6] And there is beauty in them for you when you drive them home in the evening and take them to pasture in the morning.11

Commentary

11. Only those can appreciate this verse who have seen in the natural surroundings the beauty of a flock driven back by the evening or being taken out into the fields in the morning. And it is only he who has made a keen observation that will appreciate why the Qur’an spoke first of the cattle being driven back: fed, fat, quiet, slow and playful, the shepherd shooing-shaa-ing from the rear, to control them, while in the morning, lean, heads down, bleating, hurrying to the pasture grounds, in submission, the shepherd simply following them.

And, in the beauty of the scene is the evidence of Allah’s existence. One can somehow explain away the creation, but can he ignore the beauty noticeable in every creation? Who is the creator of this beauty? (Au.)

[7] And they bear your burden unto places you could not have reached but with great difficulty to yourselves. Verily, your Lord is Most Kind, Most Merciful.

[8] And (He created) horses, mules, and donkeys, for you to ride,12 and as an adornment.13 And He creates what you know not.14

Commentary

12. In view of the use stated here, of these three kinds of animals: horses, mules and donkeys, viz., “for ride,” in contrast to the use stated for cattle, viz., “of them you eat,” Ibn ‘Abbas disapproved of their meat. Some went so far as to declare horse’s meat unlawful. However, scholars like Aswad and Ibrahim did not treat horse’s meat as unlawful.

Jabir reported, “We used to eat horse’s meat during the time of the Prophet.” He was asked, “What about mules?” He answered, “Mules? No.” As for donkey’s meat, there is no difference in opinion that the flesh of the domesticated ones is prohibited. There are clear ahadith to this effect (Ibn Jarir). In fact Jabir has reported a hadith, preserved in the Sahihayn which says, “The Prophet prohibited us the flesh of domestic donkeys but allowed horse’s meat.”

Muslim has a report coming from Asma’ bint Abi Bakr which says, “In Madinah we slaughtered a horse during the time of the Prophet, and we all ate thereof.” (A similar report in Tabrani has the additional words, “(we slaughtered the horse) as it was about to die”: Qurtubi). As for riding mules, the Prophet (saws) used them simply because they were available, otherwise he disapproved of crossing donkeys with horses (Ibn Kathir).

Imam Abu Hanifah was with Ibn `Abbas in declaring that horse’s meat is makruh (Qurtubi, Shafi`).

13. Whether it is a horse, a camel, or a car, man has always been proud of them and their beauty (Au.). Thanwi writes that in view of the words, “And there is beauty in them,” and in the words, “(He created) horses, mules, and donkeys … as an adornment,” there is nothing wrong in indulging in the good things of life if the aim is to counter inferiority complex, or simply to please one’s inner self, while one can avoid the pitfall of pride.

14. Shafi`, Asad and others have pointed to the shift in the form of the verb: from “khalaqa” (He created: in the past) to “yakhluqu” (He creates, or will create), to include all future creations of vehicles and means of transport.

In Asad’s words, “The use, in this context, of the aorist yakhluqu implies the future tense (“He will create”) in contrast with the past tense khalaqa employed in the preceding passages. Since this reference to God’s continuing creation comes immediately after a mention of primitive means of transport (i.e., animals domesticated by man to this end), it obviously relates to other – as yet unknown – things of the same category: that is to say, to new means of transport which God unceasingly creates through the instrumentality of the inventiveness with which He has endowed man’s mind. Inasmuch as every successive stage of human development bears witness to new, previously undreamed-of inventions in the realm of transport, the Qur’anic statement that ‘He will yet create things of which [today] you have no knowledge’ is valid for every period – past, present and future – of man’s history.”

[9] And upon Allah is the description of the path15 while some of them swerve away.16 Had He willed, he would have guided you all together.

Commentary

16. That is, not all paths lead to Him. In fact, most of the paths skirt off and lead away from Him (Ibn Jarir). However, if we are to follow Mujahid’s opinion then Ibn Mas`ud’s commentary fits well the context who explained the last part of the verse as, “yet there are some who swerve away from it” (Zamakhshari). In fact, ‘Ali read the original as “minkum ja’ir” that is, some of you swerve away (Shawkani).