Verses from Surah Maryam (1-11)

[1] Kaf. Ha. Ya. `Ayn. Sad.

[2] (This is) an account of your Lord’s mercy on His slave Zakariyyah.2


2. Zakariyyah (asws): An Israeli Prophet about whom Bukhari’s report tells us that he was a carpenter by profession (Ibn Kathir); but not much is known of him through trustworthy sources. Mawdudi uses Israeli sources to write the following about his office: “Zechariah… was from the family of Aaron… After their occupation in Palestine, the Israelites entrusted the government of the land to the twelve tribes, all descended from the Prophet Jacob (peace be on him) by dividing the functions of the government between them; whereas, the religious duties were assigned to the thirteenth tribe, the Levites. Even among the Levites though, the house that was set apart to ‘sanctify the most holy things…’ and to ‘burn incense before the Lord’, was the house of Aaron. Other Levites were permitted to enter the Temple, but their duties were ‘to assist the sons of Aaron for the service of the house of the Lord, having the care of the courts and the chambers, the cleansing of all that is holy, and any work for the service of the house of God…’ (I Chronicle 23: 28). The were also required to ‘…stand every morning, thanking and praising the Lord, and likewise at evening, and whenever burnt offerings are offered to the Lord on Sabbath, new moons, and feast days…’ (I Chronicle 23: 30-1).

“The descendents of Aaron comprised 24 houses, and these performed their duties in turn. One of these was the house of Abijah whose chief was Zechariah. Whenever it was his house’s turn to serve the Temple, it was Zechariah’s duty to go there and burn the incense.”

(The above is, for what it is, a Biblical account. We have only quoted for interest. Otherwise, it should go without saying that any conclusions based on the above would have a question mark before it: Au.).

 [3] When He called upon his Lord – a secret call.3


3. There could be several reasons why he supplicated secretly, e.g., because he was supplicating in the depth of night and did not wish to disturb others, or because keeping the voice low in supplication is a sign of sincerity. Another is, maybe he feared that the people around him might taunt him for seeking a child in such an advanced age (Razi, Qurtubi).

In any case, adds the Sufi commentator Thanwi, the verse demonstrates that “Dhikr al-Khafiyy” (sub-vocal Dhikr) is the preferred way of remembrance (as against the Jahri – vocal – of the Sufis: Au.). This can be supported by another Qur’anic statement (7: 55),

ادْعُوا رَبَّكُمْ تَضَرُّعًا وَخُفْيَةً [الأعراف : 55]

Call upon your Lord in humility and in secret.”

[4] He said, ‘My Lord! Verily, the bones within me have become fragile, the head glistens gray with old age;4 yet, never have I been in my supplication to You, My Lord, unblessed.5


4. It is said that Zakariyyah was then seventy years old (Ibn Jarir).

5. That is, I have been granted whenever I supplicated (Ibn Jarir, Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir).

The manner of prayer suggests that it is desirable to first mention one’s own weakness during supplication and acknowledge Allah’s various blessings before stating one’s own needs (Qurtubi, Shafi` and others).

[5] And I am apprehensive of my kinsfolk after me;6 and my wife is barren; so grant me from Yourself a kinsman.7


6. That is, he was very unsure of his kinsmen carrying out the religious duties after him, and be mindful of what the House of Ya`qub stood for (Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir). In Yusuf Ali’s words, “This preface shows the fervent faith of Zakariya. Zakariya was a prophet of the Most High Allah. His office was in the Temple, and his relatives were his colleagues. But he found in them no true spirit of the service to Allah and man. He was filled with anxiety as to who would uphold the godly ideas he had in mind, which were strange to his worldly colleagues.”

7. The textual word “waliyy” is used in several senses. One of them is “cousins” or those related through the father, such as paternal uncle. However, here it must be interpreted as “a heir” or “a progeny” in view of another of Zakariyyah’s supplication noted in the Qur’an which said (3: 38),

رَبِّ هَبْ لِي مِنْ لَدُنْكَ ذُرِّيَّةً طَيِّبَةً [آل عمران : 38]

My Lord! Grant me by Your grace a progeny pure” (Alusi).

And the implication of the words, “the bones within me are fragile, the head glistens gray with old age..” and “my wife is barren ..” is that there is no limit to what one can ask of Allah (Thanwi).

[6] Who shall inherit me and inherit from the House of Ya`qub;8 and make him, My Lord, well-pleasing.’9


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8. That is, Mujahid, Hasan, Abu Saleh and others explain, he may inherit Messengership from me and knowledge (of the past revelations) from the House of Ya`qub. Our Prophet (saws) said while passing over this verse, “May Allah show mercy to Zakariyyah, he possessed no wealth for anyone to inherit” (Ibn Jarir). Ibn Kathir adds: Although the above is a truncated report (mursal), it does not contradict any trustworthy tradition in meaning.

Qurtubi and Ibn Kathir also wrote: It could not have been wealth which Zakariyyah wanted his progeny to inherit because, firstly he was a mere carpenter, secondly, Prophets are other-worldly, and thirdly, our own Prophet has said,

إِنَّا مَعْشَرَ الْأَنْبِيَاءِ لَا نُورَثُ

“We the brotherhood of Prophets are not inherited.” Fourthly, Thanwi and Shafi` add, the House of Ya`qub did not leave, and could not have left, any wealth for Yahya (asws) to inherit several generations down the line. In fact, Thanwi argues, Zakariyyah did not need a son to inherit his wealth, if there was any. The whole extended family was already there to inherit it.

On the subject of inheritance, Alusi deals with the important question over which the Shi`ah split from the Sunnis. He writes: This hadith quoted above is also found in the most important of Shi`ah works, “Al-Kafiyy” of Kilayni. Their scholars accept it as trustworthy, and, therefore, they have no basis for their claim that the first caliph denied Fatimah her share in the Prophet’s inheritance. Kilayni has another report which says, “Sulayman inherited Da’ud and our Prophet inherited Sulayman,” which makes it obvious that the allusion is not to wealth (Alusi). But perhaps their scholars do not mention the hadith before their laity in Muharram when they shed lakes of tears over this and other such fabricated political issues (Au.).

Zamakhshari wrote: Allah (swt) said, “Inherit me, and inherit from the House of Ya`qub”, that is, He added “from the House ..” That is because, not everyone in the House of Ya`qub was a Prophet from whom (knowledge) could be inherited.

Alusi also adds: Some reports say that Zakariyyah (asws) died before Yahya (asws) grew up. That does not in any way affect Yahya inheriting the knowledge, or good qualities of his father. Further (although the Qur’an did not state specifically whether Zakariyyah belonged to the House of Ya`qub by blood: Au.), there are differences in opinion over his exact lineage. Some say he was a son of Maathaan, and `Imran – Maryam’s father – was his brother.

9. That is someone pleasant and acceptable to all: his Lord, as well His creations (Ibn Jarir).

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[7] (He was answered), ‘O Zakariyyah. We give you the glad tiding of a boy. His name is Yahya; a name We did not assign to anyone earlier.’10


10. The apparent meaning expressed in the translation is supported by Mujahid and Qatadah, (meaning, Allah did not name anyone as Yahya [John of the Bible: Au.] before him, even if humans did it: Au.). However, Ibn `Abbas thought the meaning is: no barren woman of the sort his mother was ever gave birth to a son like him. A third possible meaning expressed by Mujahid is that the textual term “samiyya” is for “shabiha” meaning, “similar” or “equal” (Ibn Jarir). He derived this meaning from another verse of this chapter itself which said (no. 65)

رَبُّ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَمَا بَيْنَهُمَا فَاعْبُدْهُ وَاصْطَبِرْ لِعِبَادَتِهِ هَلْ تَعْلَمُ لَهُ سَمِيًّا [مريم : 65]

(He is) the Lord of the heavens and earth. Therefore, worship Him, and persevere in devotion to Him. Do you know anyone of a (similar) name as He?” (Zamakhshari, Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir).

[8] He said, ‘My Lord! How shall I have a boy seeing my woman has been barren and I have attained to extreme old age?’11


11. Ibn Jarir explains that when Zakariyyah asked, “How will I have a son?” he did not mean to express his doubt, but rather to ask for details concerning the process; e.g., would he have to take another wife, or the present one would conceive, and, whether regenerative power would be restored, or, the conception would be entirely miraculous?

 [9] Said He, ‘Even so,’12  your Lord has said, ‘Easy it is unto Me. Indeed, I created you earlier while you were nothing.’


12. The meaning is, “Presently, this might be the situation: your wife is barren and you are an old worn out man (but things will happen despite all this)” – Ibn Jarir. Ibn Kathir adds: There was an element of surprise hidden in the manner the news was received. In contrast, Ibrahim was less surprised since, after all, he had a son earlier, also granted in old age.

[10] He said, ‘My Lord, appoint to me a sign.’13 Said He, ‘Your sign is that you shall not speak to the people for three nights, (although) sound and healthy.’14


13. That is, a sign of pregnancy (Thanwi).

14. Ibn `Abbas, `Ikrimah, Mujahid and others said that he felt tongue-tied but without becoming dumb. Ibn Zayd said that he was able to do his adhkar, but unable to speak out aloud. (Ibn Abi Hatim and Ibn al-Mundhir have this report: Shawkani). Another interpretation however, of the word “sawiyya” as offered by Ibn `Abbas is: continually. That is, for three continuous days he would not be able to speak (Ibn Jarir, Ibn Kathir).

(The present day New Testament supports the Qur’anic statement): “And when he came out, he could not speak unto them.. He beckoned unto them and remained speechless.” (Lk. 1: 20) – Majid.

[11] So he went out to his people from the Prayer-niche15 and signaled to them16 that (they should), ‘Sing glory morning and evening.’17


15. The textual word “mihrab” has its origin in “harb” (to fight) and refers to that corner of a house which is reserved for devotional acts – a place where one fights Shaytan (Alusi).

16. The translation reflects the understanding of the majority. Mujahid and Suddi have said however that by the word “awha” the allusion is to writing. That is, he wrote to them (Ibn Jarir, Ibn Kathir).

17. Such is the level of keenness of Prophets to bring people closer to their Creator. When Zakariyyah could not speak, he used signals to convey to the people that in the final analysis what mattered most was, how close they were to their Lord (Au.).

Yusuf Ali makes a short study in contrast to teach us how far we need to go to understand the Qur’an, and in this case, variations in Qur’anic statements. He compares the verses as here with those of Surah Al-`Imran, number 41. Here it said: “Your sign is that you shall not speak to the people for three nights, (although) sound and healthy.’ So he went out to his people from the Prayer-niche and signaled to them, ‘Sing glory unto Him morning and evening.’” Verse 41 of Al-`Imran said, “He prayed, ‘My Lord! Appoint to me a sign. He said, ‘Your sign is that you shall not speak to the people for three days, save by signs. Therefore, remember your Lord much in the evening and in the morning.’” Yusuf Ali then writes, “Compare this verse with verse 3: 41. The variations are interesting. Here it is ‘for three nights’; there it is ‘for three days.’ The meaning is the same, for a day is a period of 24 hours. But the point of view is different in each case. There it was from the point of view of the Ummat or Congregation, among whom he worked by day; here the point of view is that of his individual soul, which spent the night in prayers and praise. Notice again that at the end of the next verse, we have here, ‘In the morning and in the evening’, and at the end of 3: 41, “In the evening and in the morning’ – showing again that the point of view is reversed.”

(To be continued)

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