Verses from Surah al-Isra’ (47-58)

[47] We know very well how they listen, when they listen to you (O Muhammad, in secret)81, and when they conspire, when the evil-doers say, ‘Surely, you are only following a man bewitched.’82


81. Ibn Is-haq has the following story as the context of revelation. It is said that one night Abu Sufyan, Abu Jahl, and Akhnas b. Shurayq concealed themselves around the Prophet’s house to listen to his recitation of the Qur’an in his night-prayer. Each of them took up his position unaware of others. By dawn when the Prophet (saws) was finished and they began to disperse, they came across each other on the road. They reproached each other. But by the next night they were all back to their positions. Once again they met on the road to reproach each other. When it was the third time, they promised each other that they would never do it again. Next day Akhnas went to Abu Sufyan and asked him what his opinion was about what Muhammad was reciting. He said, “Frankly, I heard things that I understood and things that I did not.” Akhnas agreed with him. Next he went to Abu Jahal and asked him what he thought of what he had heard from Muhammad. Abu Jahal said, “Look. We and the Banu ‘Abd Munaf competed with each other. They fed the people, we fed. They provided, and we provided. They gave, and we gave. We were neck to neck, like race horses. Now they say, ‘We have a Prophet who receives revelations from the heaven.’ When shall we be able to say this? By God, we shall never believe in him.”

82. Mawdudi comments: “This is an allusion to conversations between the Makkan unbelievers. They were wont, surreptitiously, to listen to the Qur’an… At times, they suspected that some among their ranks were gradually succumbing to the spell of the Qur’an. Whenever they became aware of this they approached the persons concerned and tried to dissuade them from taking the Prophet (peace be on him) seriously, arguing that he was under a magical spell and thus was given to saying crazy things.”

[48] Behold, how they strike examples for you.83 Thus they go astray and can never find the way.84


83. Mawdudi writes again, “It is pointed out here that the Makkan opponents were not of one opinion. From time to time they made statements that were not only different but even mutually contradictory. At times they alleged that the Prophet (peace be on him) was himself a magician. On other occasions, they claimed that he was under the spell of someone else’s magic. They also variously labeled him a poet and a lunatic.”

84. Yusuf Ali points out that the word used is “sabilan” meaning “a way” and not “the way.” That is, “In going astray, they have lost the way; but never can they find any means of getting back to that way..”

[49] And they said, ‘When we shall be bones and crumbled pieces, shall we be raised a new creation?’ [50] Say, ‘Let you be stones or iron.

[51] Or a creation greater in your minds.’85 They will then ask, ‘Who will restore us?’ Say, ‘He who originated you in the first instance.’ They will nod86 their heads at you and say, ‘When will that be?’ Say, ‘Maybe it will be soon.


85. The earliest scholars such as Ibn ‘Abbas, Ibn ‘Umar, Hasan, Sa`id b. Jubayr, Dahhak and many others were of opinion that by the words “or a creation bigger in your minds” the allusion is to death. That is, if the pagans had some other creation, such as death itself in their minds, as what they could become to avoid being resurrected, they would still be resurrected since even death will also be resurrected and meet with its own ultimate death on the Day of Resurrection. On that day, it would be brought forth in the form of a fat ram and slaughtered. Nevertheless, Qatadah and Mujahid were of the opinion that the allusion is to some other creation that cannot be resurrected such as the heavens or the earth (Ibn Jarir, Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir).

86. The textual yunghiduna implies an upward and downward shaking of the head (Ibn Jarir). One must appreciate the accuracy of the Qur’an. In English they’d say in such a situation, “he shook his head.” But that implies a sideward shaking of the head, usually in refusal or denial. Whereas, an upward and downward movement is done to express, as Zamakhshari has said, wonder, disbelief, or mockery, which is the perfect image portrayed here with the help of a simple accurate word (Au.).

[52] The day We will call you and you will answer with praise to Him87 and think that you had not stayed but for a little while.’88


87. Tirmidhi and Tabarani report through Ibn ‘Umar that the Prophet said, “People of the testimony ‘there is no deity except Allah,’ will not feel any desolation: neither in their graves nor in the Field of Resurrection. Indeed, I can as if see the people of the testimony, ‘there is no deity except Allah,’ shaking off dirt from their heads saying, ‘Praise be to the One who removed from us all worry’” (Alusi).

Asad writes: “… the reference to the erstwhile deniers of the possibility of resurrection as ‘answering God’s call by praising Him’ implies that as soon as they are resurrected they will become fully aware of His existence and almightiness.”

88. It is said that there will be an interval of forty years between the two blows of the Trumpet. Those punished in the grave will have the punishment removed from them during this period, and will fall asleep. When the second blow is sounded, they will rise up saying (36: 52), “Who has resurrected us from our places of rest?” It is then that they will think that they tarried (in the grave) but for a few moments” (Qurtubi).

Asad adds: “Man’s life on earth will appear to him ‘but as a little while’ in comparison with the unlimited duration of life in the hereafter (Tabari, Zamakhshari). A further implication is that man’s concept of ‘time’ is earthbound and, hence, has no meaning in the context of the ultimate reality.”

[53] Say to My servants that they should say that which is best.89 Verily Satan provokes discord between them. And Satan is ever to man a manifest enemy.90


89. Mawdudi expounds: “In their discussions with the unbelievers and polytheists, in fact with all opponents of their faith, Muslims should restrain from losing their temper. Additionally, they should not resort to exaggerated and extremist statements. Even in the face of provocation from their opponents, Muslims should not utter even a word that is contrary to the truth; nor should they lose their temper at the vulgarities which are flung at them by their opponents, nor should they be provoked to the point of paying back their opponents in the latter’s own coins. Instead, they should keep their composure and say only that which is balanced and true, and is in keeping with the grace and dignity of the faith which they seek to uphold.”

90. That is, do not be harsh while arguing with the unbelievers. That will have the opposite effect of raising tempers and creating hatred for the good word, killing the cause viz., the deliverance of the message (based on Alusi).

Tha`labi, Mawardi, Ibn ‘Atiyyah and Wahidi have reported as context of revelation that one of the pagans insulted ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (of course at Makkah) and he intended to kill him. But that would have led to turbulence, so Allah (swt) revealed this verse (Qurtubi).

Yusuf Ali sums up: “The command refers to two situations. (1) Even to your enemies and the enemies of Allah you should speak fair: who are you to judge others? Judgment belongs to Allah alone, for He knows you (i.e., all mankind) best, and your personal knowledge is at best imperfect. And Satan is always trying to divide mankind. (2) Amongst yourselves, also you should not entertain suspicions, but speak politely according to the best standards of human speech. A false or unkind word may destroy all your efforts at building up unity, because the forces of disruption are more numerous than the forces of unity.”

[54] Your Lord knows you very well. If He will, He will show you mercy, or if He will, He will chastise you.91 We have sent you not (O Muhammad) a custodian over them.92


91. That is, Allah (swt) knows the condition of your hearts. If He wished He would show you Light, or, leave you on your own and punish you for your disbelief. As regards the Prophet, he cannot do any more than deliver the message. He is not a guardian over you to force you to believe (based on Ibn Jurayj’s understanding as in Ibn Jarir). That is, the verse addresses the unbelievers. Zamakhshari also connects this verse with the previous one and understands that this is Allah’s admonition to the unbelievers. The believers should tell them that which is good. They may also tell the antagonists, “Your Lord knows you very well. If He will, He will show you mercy, or if He will, He will chastise you.”

An outside chance exists that it is the believers who are addressed by the words: “If He will…” In that case Mawdudi’s explanation comes in handy. He writes, “The believers should never go about bragging that they are going to enter Paradise, or cockily name other persons or groups as the ones destined to enter Hell. For it is God alone who has the authority to decide on such matters.”

Other commentators have pointed out that an unbeliever cannot be categorically judged as of the Fire until it is ascertained that he died on unbelief (Au.).

92.Wakil” of the original has various connotations ranging from someone relied upon, trusted, a guide, a support, to someone to whom affairs are entrusted.

[55] Your Lord knows very well all those who are in the heavens and in the earth. And We preferred some Prophets over others. We gave Da’ud Zabur.93


93. That is, explains Alusi, some of the Messengers were preferred over others in spiritual matters and not in material things (while the unbelievers think that material favor is all that matters: Au.).

Ibrahim (asws) was made a Khalil, Musa (asws) was directly spoken to, Da’ud (asws) was given a revelation that did not have any commandments, Sulayman (asws) was given a (kind of) kingdom that no one else was ever given, ‘Isa (asws) was created out of the word kun, and our Prophet’s earlier and later sins were forgiven. Further, he was sent to all the peoples of the world. Thus, every Prophet was singled out for a favor, and in that respect preferred over others (Qatada and Ibn Jurayj: Ibn Jarir).

[56] Say, ‘Call those besides Him whom you fancy.94 They have neither the power to remove afflictions from you, nor to turn (them) away.


94. Referring to the textual word “za`ama”, often translated as “to fancy, allege, maintain, claim” etc., Alusi demonstrates, with the help of several examples, some of which from the hadith, that “za`ama” need not necessarily be in the sense of “fancy, allege” etc. Quite often, especially in history works, it is commonly used in the sense of “belief, assertion or free of doubt.” Thus Alusi precedes in answering the allegations of the Orientalists that since Ibn Is-haq often uses the term “za`ama” while narrating traditions concerning life of the Prophet, the reports have a question mark before them. For example, Alfred Guillaume writes in his foreword to the “Sirah:” “A word that very frequently precedes a statement is za`ama or za`amu, ‘he (they) alleged’. It carries with it more than a hint that the statement may not be true..” (Life of Muhammad). This is how the Orientalists managed to plant doubts in the hearts of the Western educated Muslims. This also tells us that even translations of Islamic text by non-Muslims, especially Western scholars, may not be accorded acceptance without a proper review (Au.).

[57] Those whom they call upon, (they themselves) seek means of access to their Lord as to which of them shall be nearest (to Him).95 They hope for His mercy and fear His chastisement.’96 Verily, the chastisement of Your Lord is worth taking heed of.


95. ‘Abdullah ibn Mas`ud is widely reported to have said, as also Qatadah, that the allusion is to some of the Jinns that the pagan Arabs worshipped. Those Jinns became Muslims, and began to seek Allah’s nearness, while their foolish followers remained worshiping them. This, says Ibn Jarir, is the correct opinion. Qurtubi points out that Ibn Mas`ud’s statement is in Muslim. In fact, adds Ibn Kathir, differently worded, it is in Bukhari also.

96. Commenting on the words, “They hope for His mercy and fear His chastisement,” Alusi points out that a believer’s faith should be well-balanced between the two: hope and fear, throughout his life. However, with the approach of death, hope should be predominant. Alusi brings out another brilliant point here. He writes that it is reported of some of the devoted the words, “I do not worship Allah in the hope of Paradise or in fear of Hell-fire.” People have divided themselves over the statement into critics and eulogists. The explanation is as follows. If someone said these words expressing his freedom from the need of Allah’s bounty, then, he is in error and an unbeliever. But if he said it in belief that Allah deserves to be worshipped, for His own sake, even if there was no Paradise and no Hell-fire, then, such a person is a scholar par excellence: an ‘arif.

[58] And there is not a town but We shall annihilate it before the Day of Judgment, or shall chastise it with a terrible chastisement.97 This is written in the Book.98


97. Some commentators believe that the allusion is to the towns of the unbelievers alone. But others have believed that both believing and non-believing towns are alluded to. That is, if the town is of the believers, it will be destroyed because of the natural death of its inhabitants, but if it is inhabited by the unbelievers, then, through chastisement.

Shabbir explains that one need not be disturbed by the use of the word “halaka” in reference to the believers. For, the word has been used in the sense of natural death in the Qur’an itself. Allah (swt) said (40: 34):

“Until, when he was dead you said, ‘Allah will never send a Messenger after him.’”

And, in a hadith the Prophet (saws) said, “Whenever a Prophet died, another came.”

Alusi writes: Muqatil has reported that he saw in a book of Dahhak b. Muzahim the following entry as explanation of this verse: Makkah will be destroyed by the Abyssinians, Madinah through starvation, Busra through flood, Kufa by the Turks, mountains through earthquakes and Khurasan through tremors. He also mentioned several other cities.

Wahab b. Munabbih on the other hand said that Mesopotamia will be in peace from destruction until Armenia is destroyed, and Armenia until Egypt, Egypt until Kufa. And the Great War (Armageddon) will not come by until Kufa is destroyed. After the Armageddon, Constantinople will be (re-)conquered by a man of the Banu Hashim. (He also said that) Spain will be destroyed by the white race, Africa by Spain, Egypt because of being cut off from river Nile and due to differences among its armies, Iraq out of hunger, Ayla (Palestine) from the siege laid around the land and the sea, Rayy by the Daylam, Khurasan at the hands of the Nabatians, Nabatians at the hands of China, India and Yemen because of locusts and (poor) rulers, Makkah at the hands of Abyssinians, and Madinah from starvation.

To be sure, Alusi adds, Abu Hurayrah has reported through trustworthy sources the Prophet’s words that “Madinah will be the last of the Muslim cities to be destroyed.” The above has been recorded by Abu Sa`ud. However, with reference to the above a few points may be noted. Firstly, it is not a hadith; secondly, and as Alusi himself has noted, Wahab’s reports are not always reliable (Au.). Further, Alusi adds, it is not confirmed that Madinah will be destroyed because of starvation. A trustworthy report says wild beasts and vultures will destroy it. (One of the explanations of that hadith is that the town will be abandoned to wild beasts: Au.). However, the report that Makkah will be destroyed by the Abyssinian could be trusted since a report in the Sahihayn says that an Abyssinian will pull down the Ka`bah, stone after stone. According to yet another report (Alusi doesn’t give the source) he and his companions will then transport the stones hand by hand and throw them into the sea. It will never be circumambulated thereafter as no one would be left believing in Allah. With reference to Wahab’s report, Alusi also writes that the implication of saying that Egypt will only be destroyed after Kufa, is that Kufa will be re-established, since in his time (Alusi’s) Kufa was in ruined condition. Buni and others have predicted, relying on Sheikh al-Akbar’s statements, that Kufa will be rehabilitated by the end of the 13th Islamic century. Finally, Alusi continues, it might also be remembered that reliable reports say that after ‘Isa’s death, the earth will be visited by a cold blast of wind coming from the Syrian side, that will kill everyone with an atom of faith in him. Thereafter, only evil people will inhabit the globe over whom the Day of Judgment will be called.

The above said, Asad expresses the opinion that the allusion by the textual “qaryah” (lit. village) could be to communities (which would then mean swathes of population and not every town and village: Au.).

98. The allusion by “the Book” is to the Lawh al-Mahfuz (Ibn Jarir).

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