Translation & Commentary of Verses from Surah al-`Ankabut (The Spider) [48 – 55]


[48] And you were not reciting any book before this,61 nor did you inscribe one with your right hand:62 for then the followers of falsehood63 would have doubted.64


61. Ayah 46 suggested that we are not to argue with the People of the Book save with that which is better: as arguments and as evidences. This ayah helps us with an evidence: how could someone who never wrote down anything in life, was able to dictate an everlasting masterpiece in one attempt, without ever editing and improving it? (Au.)

62. The addition of the words “with your right hand” is to draw an image for greater emphasis (Alusi), and leave a stronger impression on the mind. (Au.)

Qurtubi comments on this verse in the following manner:

Except for an outside opinion, that of AbulWalid al-Baji, who said that our Prophet wrote (a few words) at the time the peace-treaty was being drawn at Hudaybiyyah, which opinion has been rejected by the rest of the Ummah, the consensus has ever been that to the end of his life, the Prophet remained unlettered. One or two stray reports to the effect that he had learnt how to read and write before his death are not authentic. It is said, for instance, that in one of his trustworthy hadith, he stated that Dajjal will have Kafir written on his forehead. He emphasized by pronouncing the letters: kaf, alif, faa, raa, which means he knew the Arabic letters. But, Qurtubi answers, we might not forget that he also said, “Everyone, whether lettered or not lettered, will be able to read these letters on Dajjal’s forehead.” (Being able to know the alphabets does not make one literate: Au.).

As regards the Hudaybiyyah incident, when the Prophet dictated the text of the treaty to `Ali which said, “In the name of Allah, the Kind, the Compassionate: This is what Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, agreed to…” The Quraysh objected, saying, “If we had known that you are a Messenger of Allah, we would have followed you. So, you better write, ‘Muhammad, son of Abdullah.’” The Prophet ordered `Ali to erase the words, “Messenger of Allah.” But `Ali refused, saying “By Allah, I will not erase.” So the Prophet asked to be shown the words “Messenger of Allah” and erased them and wrote in their place, “son of `Abdullah.”

According to another version in Bukhari, “(He wrote down) but did not do it legibly.” This incident, continues Qurtubi, has led one or two stray scholars to believe that toward the end of his life the Prophet had learnt how to read and write. But, the great majority has not considered this evidence enough to conclude that he had become literate, and that he might have asked another person to write those words. The latter day scholars have thought that it was a miracle that he wrote those words. Allah (swt) moved his hands that drew lines that somehow read like “son of `Abdullah.”

Qurtubi’s comments end here.

Majid quotes the consensus of Western scholars: “His youth had never been instructed in the arts of reading and writing.’ (GRE.V. p. 376). ‘As to acquired learning, it is confessed he had none at all.’ (SPD. p. 73). ‘It is probable that he could neither read nor write.’ (Palmer, The Qur’an, Intro. p. XLVII). ‘There is no evidence that he was able to read.’ (EBr. XIII, p. 483). ‘It is certain that he had neither read the Bible nor any other books.’ (HHW, VIII, p. 11)”

63. Asad has a note on the contextual “mubtiloon”: “The participial noun mubtil is derived from the verb abtala, ‘he made a false [or ‘vain’] claim,’ or ‘tried to disprove the truth [or something],’ or ‘to reduce [something] to nothing,’ or ‘to prove [it] to be of no account,’ or ‘null and void,’ or ‘unfounded,’ ‘false,’ ‘spurious,’ etc., irrespective of whether the object is true or false, authentic or spurious, valid or unfounded. (Lisan al-`Arab and Taj al-`Arus)”

64. They would have doubted both ways. If the Prophet knew how to read and write, they would have said he was not a Prophet since their Scriptures said that he will be unlettered. They would have also said that since he knew how to read and write, what he produced was no more than some clever plagiary (based on Zamakhshari).

[49] But it is clear verses 65 within the breasts of those who have been given knowledge.66 And none gainsay Our verses but the wrongdoers.67

[50] And they said, ‘Why signs have not been sent down upon him from his Lord?’ Say, ‘Indeed, signs are with Allah alone, while I am only a plain warner.’


65. Asad comments, “Lit., ‘self-evident (bayyinah) in the breasts of those who have been given knowledge’ – the term `ilm having here the connotation of intuitive, spiritual perception.”

66. There are two opinions. One, the allusion is to the predictions about our own Prophet found in the older Scriptures, such as that the final Prophet will be unlettered, which, along with others, are signs in the hearts of those of the People of the Book who have knowledge. This is attributed to Ibn `Abbas and Ibn Jurayj. (The Prophet carried in his person not one, but several signs: Qurtubi). The second opinion is expressed by Hasan who thought that by the signs, the allusion is to Qur’anic revelations. Ibn Jarir prefers the former.

Ibn Kathir follows the latter opinion and reminds us of the hadith of Bukhari which says, “There has not been a Prophet but who was given something because of which people believed in him (i.e., miracles). I have been given the Revelation that Allah (swt) revealed to me (as the miracle). And I expect that I will be the most-followed-one on the Day of Judgment.”

He is also recorded in Muslim as having said, “Allah (swt) said, ‘I shall try you, and through you try others. And I am going to send down a Book upon you that water cannot wash away; which you will recite in wakefulness and when asleep.’” That is, a Revelation which will be in the memory of the people and so cannot be washed away with water. (Ibn Kathir)

67. One might note that here, at this verse, Allah (swt) designated them as “zalimoon” while at verse 47, He called them “Kafiroon.” This is because at verse 47 they were simple “kafiroon” since the evidence had not yet been presented. By this verse, an evidence has been presented, viz., the Prophet was unlettered. If the unbelievers still refuse, then they become “Zalimoon” – a rank above the ordinary unbeliever in perversion. (Razi)

[51] Is it not sufficient for them that We have sent down the Book upon you (which is) recited to them?68 Assuredly, in that is a mercy and a reminder for a people who believe.

[52] Say, ‘Sufficient is Allah as a Witness between me and you. He knows whatsoever is in the heavens and earth.’ Those who have believed in falsehood and disbelieved in Allah, it is they indeed who are the losers.


68. That is, writes Zamakhshari, is not a single sign – the Qur’an – enough for them? As against several signs of the past – such as the rod or the camel – this is a sign which is permanent, which does not wither with time, and remains a sign in every place, until the end of time? And which, Razi adds, cannot be rejected on grounds that it is sorcery (as, for example, the signs of Jesus could be rejected on grounds of sorcery: Au.).

Apart from above, Imam Razi also points out that, (as against the Prophethood of other Prophets) since our Prophet’s Prophethood was meant for all mankind, and not for a specific people, he was given a few miracles that were for all mankind, e.g., the splitting of the moon, two halves of which went down towards two opposite parts of the earth; or the seas that witnessed storm (in some parts of the globe), or Kisra’s pillars crashing down, while church portals came down in yet another part of the earth, all indicating that the Prophet’s Prophethood would not be for a specific people, but for the entire globe.

It is also reported (by Yahya b. Ja`dah: Ibn Jarir, Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir) that some Companions of the Prophet made notes of what the People of the Book were saying and brought them to the Prophet. He waved them aside and Allah (swt) revealed this verse: “Is it not sufficient for them that We have sent down the Book upon you, (which is) recited to them?”

Accordingly, the Prophet has said, Qurtubi adds, “He is not of us, who is not satisfied with the Qur’an (to give up the rest).” It could also be rendered as: “He is not of us who does not sing out the Qur’an.” The present translation is based on the understanding of Imam Shafe`i. (Au.)

[53] And they urge you to hasten on the punishment. If it was not for an appointed term, the punishment would have certainly come to them.69 Indeed, it will come upon them of a sudden while they perceive not.


69. For the Quraysh that appointed term was the Day of Badr (Qurtubi), while for every nation there is an appointed term; and the final appointment for everyone is the Day of Judgment. (Au.)

[54] They urge you to hasten on the punishment,70 but surely Jahannum will encompass the unbelievers.71



70. The reference is to the Quraysh (particularly Nadr b. al-Harth) who said (8: 32), “When they said, ‘O Allah, if this is truly from You, then rain down upon us stones from the sky.’” (Ibn Jarir, Zamakhshari, Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir)

71. That is because, man is drowned in sins and the consequences – Jahannum – must overwhelm him (Zamakhshari, reworded). Actually, writes Imam Razi, the words express amazement that although the Fire has already surrounded the unbelievers, they still seek it to be hastened on.

Mujahid said that the allusion is to the oceans (Ibn Jarir). That is, oceans will be turned into Jahannum. The Prophet is reported in Ahmad, “The oceans are Jahannum.”

The report is also in Hakim with Dhahabi remarking that it is trustworthy.

That is, the oceans will be turned into Jahannum. Ibn `Abbas said that the stars, sun and moon will be dipped into the oceans, then it will be set on fire, and that will be Jahannum (Ibn Kathir). Haythamiyy said that the hadith of Ahmad about the oceans is trustworthy. (Au.)

However, there is no consensus over where Jahannum is or will be. Trustworthy ahadith say that it will be dragged and brought to the Field of Resurrection on the Day of Reckoning. We also know that the heavens and the earth will be destroyed and created anew, that this earth will be expanded and that Jahannum will have various levels. In the light of these and several other details, it is better to leave the question where it is, without a final opinion. (Au.)

[55] The day the punishment will overwhelm them from above them and from under their feet,72 and He will say, ‘Taste now what you were doing.’73


72. Since common understanding leads to the opinion that the unbelievers will be surrounded by Fire from all sides, which leaves the sides above and below free of it, it was specifically said that, “The day the Punishment will overwhelm them from above them and from under their feet.” That is, as against all expectations of Fire rising up, it will descend on them from above, while the area immediately under their feet, will be shooting out flames of Fire, despite being quenched by the feet. (Imam Razi, reworded)

73. While the Fire will be torturing their physical bodies, these words will be said in taunt for adding spiritual torture. (Razi)

(To be continued)

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