Verses from Surah al-Nahl (90-95)

[90] Verily, Allah enjoins justice, good-doing,136 and giving to the kin. And He forbids the indecent, evil137 and rebellion.138 He admonishes you that, perhaps, you will be mindful.139


136. For someone wishing to know the mind, spirit, approach and priorities of the ancients, in contrast to that of their followers, then, perhaps the commentary on this verse is one of the best to compare. The gradual slide from “the other-worldliness” to “this worldliness”, as the centuries pass by, can be easily noticed (Au.).

`Adl and Ihsan

Ibn ‘Abbas has interpreted the textual word “‘adl” as the testimony (that there is no God, save Allah), and “ihsan” as “the Islamic commandments” (Ibn Jarir). Sufyan b. ‘Uyaynah said that “‘adl” of the original refers to lack of contradiction between one’s public and private behaviors and “ihsan” to the condition that one’s secret (acts) be better than his public (behavior). In contrast, “fahsha’” and “munkar” mean that one’s avoidance (of evil) in private should be more intensive than his avoidance of them in public (Ibn Jarir, Ibn Kathir). Literally, adds Shawkani, “‘adl” is the middle path, i.e., a path in Islam that avoids the two extremes, while “ihsan” is to do better than simply following a rule. In a well-known hadith, the Prophet (saws) said that “ihsan” is “to worship Allah, as if you see Him, for, if you do not see Him, He sees you.” Zamakhshari adds: Since it is impossible that a man maintain perfect “‘adl” in all his affairs, he should seek to achieve “ihsan” in a few other things in order to balance off as a whole.

Imam Razi has a long comment, with many examples, to demonstrate that “‘adl”, the middle or the mean path, is a hallmark of Islam. He writes that it is applicable both to matters of belief as well as practice. For example, to deny God, or to suggest associates are two extremes: to believe in one God is “‘adl.” Hence Ibn ‘Abbas’ explanation that “‘adl” is the testimony “there is no deity save Allah.” Again, between two extreme views: that He does not exist, and, on the other hand, that he has a body, parts or limbs, and is confined in a place, lies “‘adl”: to believe that He exists without a body, parts and is not confined to a place. Or, to believe that God exists without Attributes, or, that He acquires traits and undergoes changes are two extremes between which the “‘adl” is to believe that He exists with Eternal Attributes that do not undergo changes. Similarly, to believe that one is free to do what he wants, or, alternatively, is completely bound, are two extreme beliefs. Between the two is the “‘adl” which is to believe that a man is free to do what he does but is dependent on the desire created in him by Allah. In the like manner, what applies to beliefs, also applies to acts and deeds, where the mean path is the best path. In fact, the physical world too seems to be following the path of “‘adl”. E.g., the earth is situated at a certain distance from the sun. If this distance were to be increased by a margin, the earth would get too cold, and if decreased, too hot for life. Similarly, Razi continues, the various members of the solar family seem to be at a precisely determined distances from each other, and revolving at specific speeds. If any of the figures were altered, the system would collapse.

Once again, one wonders at Imam Razi’s sources that enabled him to make the above statement in the 11th century. The discovery of the gravitational force, and the laws of motion which keep the planets together revolving endlessly around the sun, came to be discovered only in the 16th century. Also, that changing the distance of the earth from the sun, even marginally, would mean destruction of all life on it, is a recent discovery.

Qurtubi expands on the meaning of “‘adl” as “justice.” He quotes Abu Bakr Ibn al-‘Arabi: “Justice between a man and his Lord consists in that he should give his Lord preference over his own self, and prefer His approval over that of his base self. Allah (swt) said (79: 40), ‘And restrained his self from base desires.’ It also means giving preference to the acts of obedience over fulfillment of the inner cravings and to never give up being contented. On the other hand, justice between one’s self and other creations of Allah consists in being sincere towards them, not being dishonest to any degree, and to give them back everything due to them, not allowing oneself the liberty to do them evil to the slightest degree, neither in open nor in secret, and to bear with patience their ill-will, the humblest order of which consists in being just, and denying oneself any right to do injury to them or others.”

Ihsan” on the other hand, continues Qurtubi, carries two connotations. One, to do everything that one does well; and two, to be good to others. Both are meant in this verse. The famous hadith of Jibril (viz., “worship Him as if you see Him, for, if you do not see Him, then, He sees you”) is in the first sense and not the second. Again, “giving the kin” should be in material terms, especially if they are poor. Finally, here is an incident that will tell us how kings and the ruling classes of the past understood the Islamic concepts that the educated class of modern times does not. It is said that a group of citizens went up to Abu Ja`far al-Mansur, the Abbasid caliph (second Islamic century) complaining against one of his governors. But they could not proffer sufficient proof, so the governor was able to defeat them in their arguments and refute their charges. At that a young man stood up and said, “Leader of the faithful! Allah commands “‘adl’ and ‘ihsan.’ The Governor might have done ‘justice’ but he did not achieve ihsan.’” A surprised Mansur accepted the argument and removed the governor from his post.

Alusi tries another angle of distinction between “‘adl” and “ihsan”: “‘Adl” is to do justice to others and seek justice from them, while “ihsan” is to do justice to others but not seek justice from them.

Mawdudi is more down to earth in his expansion on the concepts of “‘adl” and “ihsan.” Although long, it is worth reproducing. He writes:

“The directive which has been so succinctly expressed enjoins on people three principles which provide the basis for the sound ordering of human society. The first and foremost principle is ‘justice’ which comprises two independent truths. One, that there be balance and right proportion among human beings in respect of their rights. Two, that every person be granted his rights without distinction.”

Further on, “What justice really demands is balance and right proportion rather than absolute equality. True, in certain respects, equality among members of society, such as in respect of the rights of citizenship, is a requirement of justice. However, equality in certain other matters is diametrically opposed to the requirements of justice. For instance, it would be sheer injustice if we were to grant children equal rights with parents, or to equally compensate those who work hard and well and those who do not. Hence, what God has commanded is not equality in rights. He

has rather commanded balance and right proportion. This requires that the moral, social, economic, legal, political and cultural rights to which a person is entitled should be granted to him with sincerity.”

“The second principle is benevolence (to be literal, ‘doing good’) which broadly embraces all such good acts as politeness, generosity, sympathy, tolerance, courtesy, forbearance, mutual accommodation, mutual consideration, giving to others what is more than what is their due, and being content for oneself with a little less than what one is entitled to. This principle goes a step further than justice, and is hence, in some respects, even more for man’s social life than justice. If justice is the foundation on which the structure of a society should rest, then benevolence represents the beauty and perfection of that structure. Justice wards off the bitterness of discord and disharmony from human life. Benevolence adds to it the elements of pleasure and sweetness. No society can be sustained merely on the principle that every member of it should be jealously watchful of, and insistent upon, receiving every bit of his right and be willing to grant others exactly what is their due, but absolutely no more. Perhaps, such a cold and stark society might – thanks to the application of justice as above – be able to avoid internal conflicts. However, such a society will be utterly devoid of such life-giving and life-sustaining values as love and compassion, gratitude and magnanimity, and sacrifice and goodwill for others.”

“The third principle enunciated in the verse is liberality to kith and kin. This is a corollary of the former principle – ‘benevolence’ – when it is applied to one’s relatives. This consists not only of sharing one’s joys and sorrows with one’s kin, and in helping and supporting the fulfillment of their legitimate desires within permissible limits, but also that one should recognize that one’s wealth ought not to be spent exclusively on oneself and one’s immediate family. Other members of the family also have a share in it.”

137. While “fahsha’” is everything that Islam frowns upon, “munkar” is a stronger term implying those acts that Islam disapproves. Zamakhshari defined it as something that “a man’s intellect rejects or disowns” (ma tunkiruhu al-‘uqul); by which, of course, Zamakhshari meant the “‘uqul” of the believers. In Asad’s words, “all that runs counter to reason and good sense.”

Qurtubi writes that every evil is “fahsha’” while “munkar” is anything that the Shari`ah frowned upon.

138. According to Ibn ‘Abbas, by “baghyu” the allusion is to rebellion against Allah which manifests in disobedience (Ibn Jarir). But others have said that the allusion is to the oppression of the people. A hadith (of Ibn Majah: H. Ibrahim) says, “There is no sin better deserving of Allah’s retribution hastened in this world, in addition to it being punished for in the Hereafter, than oppression and severing off relations with the kin” (Ibn Jarir, Ibn Kathir). Shawkani adds that “fahsha’” is any unsavory addition to ones words or deeds, “munkar” anything that Allah (swt) and His Messenger have prohibited and “baghyu” is to commit excesses (which ultimately gives rise to pride, oppression, envy, etc.).

Qurtubi also maintains that primarily “baghyu” (rebellion) is to cross the bounds, or, to do injustice to others. Reportedly, one of the previous revelations said that “if a mountain oppressed another, Allah would reduce the oppressor of the two to dust.” It is also used in the sense of causing agitation, or stirring trouble. Imam Bukhari has, while explaining this verse, recorded the hadith which speaks of magical spell cast on the Prophet (saws). When he was cured, ‘A’isha suggested that he should punish Labid b. A`sam, the sorcerer. But the Prophet only said, “Well, Allah has cured me. Personally, I do not like to stir evil in the people.” In other words, “baghyu” would include any evil brought to a people.

139. The verse is so rich of meaning that according to commentators, had Allah revealed only this one, in place of the whole Qur’an, it would have been sufficient for the mindful. Perhaps Yusuf Ali has the most comprehensive explanation, short but accurate. He writes:

“Justice is a comprehensive term, and may include all the virtues of cold philosophy. But religion asks for something warmer and much more human, the doing of good deeds even where, perhaps, they are not strictly demanded by justice, such as returning good for ill, or obliging those who in worldly language ‘have no claim’ on you; and, of course, a fortiori, the fulfilling of the claims of those whose claims are recognized in social life. Similarly, the opposites are to be avoided; everything that is recognized as shameful, and everything that is really unjust, and any inward rebellion against Allah’s Law or our own conscience in its most sensitive form.”

According to a report in Musnad Ahmed, trustworthy, (although narrated by Shahr b. Hawshab), the Prophet (saws) once moved his eyes up and down (as if following someone descending and ascending) and said, “Jibril came to me just now and told me to place this verse, in this Surah, at this point” (Ibn Kathir).

Ibn Mas`ud is reported of the opinion that this is the most comprehensive verse of the Qur’an (Ibn Jarir, Ibn Kathir).

‘Ali, in fact, was of the opinion that the famous “muru’ah” of the Arabs (a package of good qualities), has now been superseded by this all-comprehensive verse (Alusi and others). And, hence, when ‘Umar b. ‘Abdul ‘Aziz ordered the removal of the pronouncement of curse on ‘Ali that the Banu Umayyah had introduced in Friday sermons, he instructed that this verse be recited in place (Alusi). Qurtubi adds that it was this verse that the Prophet (saws) had recited before Walid b. al-Mughirah and which had provoked him to say those famous words:

“Surely, it (i.e., the Qur’an) is steeped in sweetness and carries grace. Surely, its root has the branching ability, while its upper portion is fruit-bearing. Surely, it is no man’s words.”

But, according to some other reports it was ‘Uthman b. Maz`un who had recited the verse to Walid. And Hafiz Abu Ya`la has a report which says that when Ukthum b. Sayfi received the news of the Prophet’s advent, he decided to go and see him. But his people told him not to humble himself, rather, send someone else. So two men were dispatched. They met the Prophet, told him that they were messengers of Ukthum b. Sayfi, and asked him who he was and what he was. He said, “As for who I am, well, I’m Muhammad, the son of ‘Abdullah. As for what I am, well, I’m a Messenger of Allah.” Then he recited this verse, “Verily, Allah enjoins justice, good-doing, and giving to kin. And He forbids the indecent, evil and rebellion. He admonishes you that perhaps you will remember.” He made the two men commit it to memory. (Since the verse says, “perhaps you will remember”: Au.). When they went back to Ukthum and reported, “Well, he wasn’t very particular about saying who he was, but he did say what he had brought.” Then they recited this verse. Ukthum remarked, “He commands you the best of moral principles, so be the heads and not the tail-enders in accepting it” (Ibn Kathir)

[91] And fulfill Allah’s covenant when you have entered into it, and break not the oaths after their confirmation,140 when you have declared Allah your surety.141 Surely, Allah knows what you do.


140. The addition of the words, “after their confirmation” is to exclude commonly blurted words of oath such as, “by Allah,” “I swear”, etc. These are not oaths (Au.).

141. There is no contradiction between this verse and the report in Muslim which says, “There is no oath in Islam, and there is no oath of the pre-Islamic times but Islam reinforces it.” What is meant is that there is no need for the people to enter into oaths (and promise that they will remain good), as they did in pre-Islamic times. Now, with the declaration of faith in Islam, (one is in any case required to lead a virtuous life). The meaning of the second part of the hadith is that Islam reinforces everything that was good in pre-Islamic times. Ahmed reports that when the people began to abandon Yezid b. Mu`awiyyah, Ibn ‘Umar gathered his family members in his house and told them, “We have entered into allegiance with this man in the name of Allah and His Messenger. And I have heard the Prophet (saws) say that whoever betrays his allegiances and oaths will have a flag hoisted next to him and said, ‘This is the betrayal of so and so.’ And the worst of betrayal of oaths would be – after association with Allah – that one should back off after having taken oath on Allah and His Messenger. Therefore, let none of you do it now, or let him have nothing to do with me.” (Ibn Kathir)

[92] And be not like the woman who untwists her strands after it was strong, into shreds,142 taking your oaths as a means of mutual deceit, that a community should be more numerous than another community.143 Allah only tries you thereby.144 And, He will certainly make it clear to you on the Day of Judgment that wherein you were differing.


142. It is said that there was a foolish woman in Makkah who used to spin yarn (during the day), and then, when it thickened (expressed in the term “quwwah” of the text), undo it to shreds (by the evening) – Ibn Jarir.

Majid adds: “In Greek mythology there is a lady known as Penelope who is credited with a similar feat.”

Ibn Jarir further writes: This is the example of someone who entered into a covenant with Allah, and then broke it.

143. Of the several interpretations, one is that the verse is warning the early Muslims not to break their allegiance given to the Prophet because they find the Quraysh a party larger, stronger, and a more likely winner in the struggle against the Prophet (Zamakhshari, Shawkani).

144. This verse acquires special significance if we consider the fact that the Madinan Muslims were about to enter into a compact with the Prophet (saws) at ‘Aqabah, promising to protect him as they would their women and children, and the Prophet himself soon to migrate to Madinah and enter into several pacts with the adjoining tribes (Au.)

[93] Had Allah willed, He could have made you all one community. But, He leads astray whom He will145 and guides whom He will.146 And, you will certainly be questioned for what you were doing.


145. Explaining the words, “Allah leads astray whom He will,” Alusi writes: by creating in him misguidance (dilal), following the man’s own choices, itself being influenced by his innate potentials.

146. Explaining the words, “He guides whom He will,” Alusi writes: by creating guidance (hidayah) in him, following the person’s own choices, which themselves are influenced by his innate potentials that, in turn, he trains on the right course of action.

He also writes: The Mu`tazila deny that error, or misguidance is by Allah’s will. They maintain that Allah (swt) wished that everyone should enter into faith, but what resulted (from the choice given to the people) is that they chose something that Allah did not wish. Accordingly, Zamakhshari wrote, had Allah willed to force people become one nation, then, surely, He had the power to do it. But, His wisdom demanded that He guide to error (or, in simpler words, lead them to error) those He knew would choose to remain in error and insist on it, and guide to righteousness those He knew would choose to be guided to it. In short, the issue has choice at the principal deciding factor, and the outcome depends on who deserves what. Allah (swt) has told us nothing about forcing a man do what he – the man – does not deserve. If men had no choice in the affair, forced either to error or to guidance, Allah would not say as He did in the words that follow, “And you shall certainly be questioned for what you were doing.” ‘Askari has a similar thing to say. However, Alusi continues, the truth is, as written by one of the late scholars Kawrani (who wrote several treatise on this topic) that a man has effective, influencing power by the leave of Allah and not what is imagined, viz., he has no power at all to choose as the Jabariyyah say, nor a power to compare, but, for all practical purposes, ineffective, as the Ash`ariyyah have maintained, nor that he has effective and influencing power, above that of Allah’s will, as the Mu`tazilah say. Rather, he has the power (to choose and act) that itself he earns, following the demands of his potentials and inclinations that are in Allah’s knowledge. In other words, a man is both free as well as bound and is questionable for his choices in areas he was free to choose and act.

[94] And, do not take your oaths a means of mutual deceit lest a foot should slip after its firmness,147 and you taste the evil148 because you prevented from the path of Allah,149 and (consequently) you have a mighty chastisement.


147. Zamakhshari raises the question, why did Allah say “foot” in singular, and then answers that it is to emphasize that not a single foot should slip in error.

148. Asad has a useful comment on the words “taste the evil”: “… the breaking of pledges unavoidably leads to a gradual disappearance of all mutual trust and, thus, to the decomposition of the social fabric.”

It is this “evil” that men immediately taste, here, in consequence of their dishonoring the trusts, before the other, final evil, that they will face in the Hereafter (Au.).

149. What’s the connection between breaking oaths and preventing people from the path of Allah? Alusi explains that when someone breaks oaths made in the name of Allah (swt), then he sets a bad example to others of not heeding to Allah’s commands. That example spreads and people get used to ignoring the truth, justice and what is right. Thus the first man becomes the cause of preventing the people from the path of Allah.

[95] Nor barter away Allah’s covenant for a paltry price.150 Surely, what is with Allah – that is better for you, if you only knew.


150. That was what the Quraysh offered – a paltry price – to those who would abandon the Prophet (Zamakhshari).

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