Verses from Surah Al-A’raf (163 – 170)

In the Name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful

[163] Ask them concerning the township which overlooked the sea whose (inhabitants) were transgressing the Sabbath248 ‑ when their fish came to them on the day of their Sabbath swarming on the surface, while on the day they did not observe Sabbath, they didn’t come (in such numbers).249 That is how We tested them because of their corruptions.250 


248. The allusion by “the transgression” is to the habitual violation of Sabbath taboos. The words, “on the day they did not observe Sabbath,” further substantiate this (Zamakhshari).

249. Husayn b. al‑Fadl was asked: “Do you find anywhere in Allah’s Book that the lawful comes to you in quantities just enough, whereas the unlawful comes in great abundance?” He answered, “Yes. It is Allah’s words: ‘When their fish would come to them on the day of their Sabbath swarming on the surface, while on the day they did not observe Sabbath, they wouldn’t’.” (Qurtubi).

Sayyid Qutb comments on the nature of the phenomenon enunciated in this passage. He writes, in effect: As to how did such a strange thing occur, so that the fishes danced before their eyes to provoke them? The answer is, it is a miracle that comes into force by the command of Allah and by His will. Those who lack knowledge believe that things have to follow the ‘laws of nature’ and have to happen in a preset pattern. But Islamic concepts, the true concepts, suggest to us different notions. They tell us that it is Allah (swt) who created this universe and set it to run following ‑ in the normal run of the course ‑ a set of physical laws. But these physical laws are not free to act ‑ independently. They are bound to the will of Allah. They do not bind the will of Allah. His will imposes itself upon every other will. Whenever He wishes to move things on another pattern, He abrogates the rule of the ‘physical laws’ to impose what His will decrees. In other words, nothing happens mechanically, automatically, on a rigid pattern, rather, is completely dependent on the Will of Allah, in its details, and in its aggregate, following either the physical laws laid down, or another, abrogating set of laws. In the final analysis, it is Allah’s Active Will that prevails.

250. (The Israelites failed the test and tried to play with the rules. They would build a barge on Saturday to trap the fish and collect them on Sunday.  Or they’d lay traps and baits on Saturday pulling out the fish only on Sunday: Au.). Or they, “cut canals from the sea for the fish to enter, with sluices, which they shut on the day of Sabbath, to prevent their return to the sea” (Majid). The Prophet (saws) has warned his nation of trickery against Allah’s commandments. He said in a hadith graded Sahih by Tirmidhi: “Don’t attempt to do what the Jews did: making the unlawful, lawful by playing with the rules.” (Ibn Kathir)

Thanwi clarifies an issue: As for the hilah (roughly, the stratagem) that the jurists have allowed, they cannot be equated with what is described as the “playing with the rules” in the above hadith since, it is not the going round a commandment, or nullification of an objective that is intended or achieved by hilah.

We shall have more to say on this subject later in this work (Au.).

[164] When a party of them said, ‘Why do you admonish a people whom Allah is wont to destroy (in this world), or will chastise them with a terrible chastisement (in the Hereafter)?’ They replied, ‘As an excuse to your Lord. And (who knows?) they might fear (and change their ways).’

[165] So, when they forgot all about what they were reminded, We rescued those who forbid them the evil251 and seized those who transgressed with a severe chastisement ‑ because of what corruptions they indulged in.252 


251. Although conflicting opinions have come down from the earliest commentators in Tabari and others, it seems they were inclined to believe that the third group, which neither violated the Sabbath nor forbid the transgressors, were among those who were rescued. Further, as Zamakhshari has hinted, the group that prevented others from admonishing them could only be those who had already tried on their own and failed to convince the Sabbath‑violators of the consequences of their crime. Hence, they could be counted as those who forbade. The point that ‘Ikrimah brought out for a worried Ibn ‘Abbas ‑ who said that “we too on many occasions do not forbid the wrong that we seecommitted before us” ‑ was that the Qur’an itself confirms that the group which did not forbid, disapproved of the Sabbath‑violators and were opposed to them, hence could not be punished along with the violators. In the end Ibn ‘Abbas felt convinced and gifted ‘Ikrimah a pair of clothes for relieving him (Au). That is also the opinion of Hasan (Zamakhshari).

252. Imam Razi and Shabbir have stated that this verse implies that the transgressors were first punished with a lower order punishment before the final, transformation into apes.

[166] When they treated with disdain that which they were forbidden, We ordered, ‘Be apes, disgraced.’253 


253. Ibn ‘Abbas has said that some people have conjectured that the young were transformed into apes while the old ones into swine (Ibn Jarir).

For details of this episode see surah al‑Baqarah of this work, note no. 159.

It is interesting to see how close modern developments in Science have come to solving some of the enigmatic statements of the Qur’an. Modern research in the field of molecular biology reveals that the script for the entire human body is written down in a coded form, concealed in every cell of the body. They are in the form of chromosomes composed of nucleic acid arranged in a certain fashion and packed into the nucleus of the cells. The coded messages ‑ involving anything from hundreds to thousands of molecules ‑ are called genes. The alteration of a single molecule  out of the 4 billion base pairs in which the genetic message is concealed (in biological terms a single mutation),  can mean a completely different message being issued to the cell machinery. It can even spell out death for the organism as in the case of sickle cell disease  which is caused by a single mutation. It would have, therefore, taken no more than a few mutations at the genetic level ‑ an operation lasting a couple of minutes ‑ to convert the Israelites from humans into apes or even swine. We do not assert however, that the transformation of the Israelites into apes and swine would have necessarily been brought about through mutations at the cellular level. Allah has power over everything. A command would have been sufficient without any mutation taking place at the genetic level. But this kind of information may offer relief to those who feel uncomfortable at the idea of transmutation (Au.).

[167] And (remember) when your Lord declared that He shall send upon them (the Jews) ‑ until the day of Judgement ‑ those who will afflict them with an evil chastisement.254 Surely, your Lord is swift in retribution although He is very Forgiving, very Kind (unto those who repent).


254. Hence they have always remained subservient to one power or the other (Ibn Kathir).


Majid quotes the Torah: “And I will set my face against you, and ye shall be slain before your enemies; they that hate you shall reign over you; and you shall flee when none pursueth you” (Le. 26: 17). “And thou shalt be only oppressed and crushed away.” (Dt. 28: 33)


Writing about 150 years earlier, Alusi stated: “They shall ever remain ‑ until the Day of Judgement ‑ under the domain of others; the fact being not contradicted by what will happen at the time of `Isa’s second advent, since that will be very close to the end of the world.”


Sayyid Qutb quotes this verse at an earlier point (verse 152) and offers the following comment: “Whenever it happened in a historical phase that they rebelled in the land, imposing their authority over non‑Jews ‑ or, as the Talmud has termed them: the Goyim ‑ they came to possess the power of wealth, means of the media, dictating their oppressive terms and conditions to achieve their objectives, humiliating Allah’s creations, throwing them out of their homes into the deserts, with the backing of the misguided nations of the world, all of which we once again witness in our own times…all of that did not contradict the promise made to them by Allah, nor what is written as their ultimate fate. Today, they are indeed hoarding hatred into the breasts of the people by their acts, and stockpiling frustration and anger against themselves…If they happen to be so overbearing in Palestine today, it is only because their opponents have not prepared themselves religiously…they have not yet returned to Islam; they are a divided lot, a people who get together under the banner of nationalism. They do not assemble under the banner of Islam. Therefore, they fail and Israel eats them up. Nevertheless, this situation will not last. It is a period of stupor and neglect of the great weapon: unity, single strategy, a single banner with the help of which they overcame them for over a thousand years, with which alone they shall overcome them again, and without which they ‑ in turn ‑ shall be overcome.”

[168] And We cut them up into (small) communities in the lands: some of them righteous, while others among them are otherwise. And We tested them with the good things and the evil, that haply they will return (to obedience).

[169] Then came after them evil successors who inherited the Book, accepting chance goods of this lower world saying, ‘We shall be forgiven (since we have formally repented).’255. But, when similar chance commodity came their way, they accepted it.256 Hadn’t the compact of the Book taken from them (to the effect) that they shall utter not about Allah but the truth? And they had studied what was in it.257 (In contrast), the abode of the Hereafter is better for those who are godfearing. Do they not then contemplate?

[170] As for those who hold fast unto the Book, perform the Prayer (regularly and properly) ‑ surely, We do not let go waste the reward of the righteous.


255. Yusuf Ali writes what is applicable to many Muslim nations of today, especially those who talk about Islam the loudest ‑ whose bodies are in the east, but hearts in the West: “Merely inheriting a Book, or doing lip service to it, does not make a nation righteous. If they succumb to the temptations of the world, their hypocrisy becomes all the more glaring.”

256. That is, they would sell their religion (by misinterpreting the Law) for a paltry price. Subsequently, realising that it was not allowed, they would repent, seek forgiveness. But when a similar opportunity showed up, they grabbed it again (Ibn Kathir).

257. This kind of behaviour can be seen as prevalent in this Ummah also. Mu‘adh ibn Jabal had said: “The Qur’an will get worn out in the hearts just as clothes get worn out. They will recite it but will not find any pleasure therein. They will wear sheep’s clothes to cover the hearts of wolves. Their deeds would spring entirely from their avarice, with no fear (of Allah). If they fall short they will say, ‘We shall soon make up.’ If they commit evil, they will say, ‘We shall be forgiven. (After all) We do not associate partners with  Allah’.” (Qurtubi)

It seems that if Yusuf Ali foresaw the rulers, Mu‘adh ibn Jabal foresaw the masses of our times (Au.).

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