Verses 78-82 of Surah Al-Tawbah

[78] Did they (the hypocrites) not know that Allah knows their secret (thoughts) and what they whisper (to each other),167 and that Allah is the Knower of the Unseen?


167. Both the words “sirr” and “najwa” of the text have the connotation of secrecy but the former is applied to thoughts and ideas that one conceals in his heart while the latter to that which is secretly shared with others (Razi).

[79] Those who find fault with such of the believers who give freely in charity, as well as with those who do not find but their paltry saving(s).168 They ridicule them.169 Allah ridicules them; and for them is a painful chastisement.170


168. The word “juhd” refers to a trifle amount, being the utmost that one can manage to offer (Rashid Rida).

169. Ibn ‘Abbas, Mujahid, Qatadah, Ibn Is‑haq and others have said that once ‘Abdul Rahman b. ‘Awf brought in 40 Awqiyah of gold as charity while another person brought in a small measure (of grain). The hypocrites remarked, “By God. ‘Abdul Rahman didn’t intend anything but to make a show of charity. As for the other man, surely, Allah and His Messenger do not stand in need of his meager contribution.” Allah (swt) revealed this verse (Ibn Jarir, Ibn Kathir). Bukhari has a similar report without naming the persons and without stating their charitable amounts (Au.). Another report says that once when the Prophet appealed for charity, a punitive black man, very ugly of appearance, came up riding a beautiful camel to offer his charity. One of the hypocrites remarked in a low voice: “His camel is better than he.” The Prophet (saws) heard him and said angrily, “Rather, he is better than the camel and better than you,” and this verse came down (Ibn Kathir and others).

Imam Razi points out that what the hypocrites failed to realize was that the worth of charity is not in the amount of it. The rewards depend on sincerity and the situation of the person concerned. He might himself have been in great need of the little that he spent, but he spent it seeking Allah’s good pleasure. Or, the little that one donated, might be all that he possessed. Should it earn the same reward as that charity which was large but only one‑half of what one possessed? The former demonstrates the donor’s total self‑control, and complete trust in Allah Most High. 

170. Asad has a point: “The above verse, however, does not allude merely to these historical incidents but serves to illustrate the mentality of the hypocrite whose own sincerity colors his view of all other people.”

[80] Whether you seek forgiveness for them (O Prophet) or do not seek forgiveness for them (it is all the same); (even) if you sought forgiveness for them seventy times, never will Allah forgive them.171 That because they disbelieved in Allah and His Messenger, and (because) Allah does not guide an ungodly people.


171. It is said that ‘Abdullah ibn Ubayy used to say to his friends, “If you stopped spending on Muhammad and the men around him, they’d abandon him and disperse.” When he died his son came up requesting the Prophet to attend his burial. He also asked him for his shirt. The Prophet (saws) gave him his shirt and attended his funeral service, Praying over him ‑ despite ‘Umar’s protest (as in Bukhari, Tirmidhi and others: Shawkani), and then stood near his grave for a while. In fact, according to some reports (in Muslim: Rashid Rida) the man was buried before the Prophet could arrive. So he got his body out, applied his saliva to him and then let him be buried. (This part is in Bukhari and Muslim, with some modifications: Hussain). So Allah revealed, “Whether you seek forgiveness for them (O Prophet) or did not seek forgiveness (it is all the same) – (even) if you seek forgiveness for them seventy times, never will Allah forgive them.” The Prophet remarked, “In that case I shall seek forgiveness for them more than seventy times.” So Allah (swt) added (63: 6), “It is the same for them whether you sought forgiveness for them or did not seek forgiveness for them. Allah will never forgive them.” Some other reports add that Ibn ‘Ubayy himself had sent for the Prophet from his death‑bed. When the Prophet (saws) entered on him he said, “Love of the Jews destroyed you.” Ibn ‘Ubayy replied, “Prophet of Allah, I haven’t called you in to reproach me. I wish you could seek forgiveness for me.” Yet other reports say that after his burial the Prophet (saws) said, “Neither my shirt nor my Prayers will do him any good with Allah. I did all that hoping to win over a thousand of his tribesmen.” And, in fact, moved by this gesture, a thousand of his tribesmen were reported to have embraced Islam (Ibn Jarir and others).

The fuller version in Bukhari is as follows. When Ibn ‘Ubay was dead, his son came to the Prophet (saws) requesting his shirt to wrap him up with. The Prophet gave it to him. Then he asked that he Pray over him. However, when the Prophet (saws) prepared himself for it, ‘Umar caught him by his shirt‑tail and said, “Messenger of Allah. Will you Pray over Allah’s enemy who said such and such things?” – reminding him of what he had said on various occasions. The Prophet replied, “Leave me alone ‘Umar. Allah has given me the choice (by saying, ‘Whether you seek forgiveness for them or do not seek forgiveness for them. Even if you sought forgiveness for them seventy times …’).’ If I knew that he would be forgiven if I supplicated for him more than seventy times, I would do it.” So he prayed over him and Allah (swt) revealed these two verses, ‘And do not Pray over any of them that dies…’ (Shawkani).

Commentary works offer detailed discussions over the issue: how come the Prophet (saws) prayed over the man although everyone knew he was a hypocrite (Au.)? Imam Razi points out that the Prophet (saws) gave his shirt when the man was still alive. There was every possibility that putting on the shirt, he would feel the remorse and embrace Islam in sincerity. Further, the Prophet (saws) was asked the shirt, and so had to give it because Allah (swt) had instructed him (93: 10), “As for the one who asks, do not repulse him.” Finally, the person who had gone to him with the request was a proven true Muslim (although the son of a hypocrite). The Prophet (saws) had to oblige him. Zamakhshari points out (and Ibn Kathir seconds him) that the Prophet (saws) gave Ibn Ubayy his shirt in return of the shirt he had given to ‘Abbas. When the latter was captured and brought to Madinah, no shirt would fit him because of his size but that of Ibn ‘Ubayy.

It is also reported that once when ‘Umar intended to attend a funeral Prayer, during his tenor, Hudhayfah b. al‑Yaman signaled him to stay away. The standing itself, by the grave, is proven of the Prophet (saws). Abu Da’ud has reported: “When someone died, the Prophet (saws) Prayed over him and stood by the side of the grave for a while. He would say, `Seek forgiveness for your brother and pray for his steadfastness. He is being questioned’” (Ibn Kathir).

Zamakhshari raises a question and then answers it. Herewith a slightly modified translation: It is commonly known that the Arabs use the number seventy only to express the largeness of a number, and not in the literal sense. Was this unknown to the Prophet (saws) who was one of the most eloquent speaker of the language? The answer is, the Prophet (saws) knew very well the exact implication of the word yet said what he said and did what he did in demonstration of his kindness toward the people. Hadn’t Ibrahim (asws) said (14: 36): “As for him who disobeyed me, well, You (O Allah) are the Forgiving, the Merciful”?

In simpler words, the Prophet (saws) said he would supplicate more than seventy times and actually offered the Prayer over a hypocrite because he didn’t wish to give up so long as he saw a streak of light at the end of the tunnel. Ibn Hajr has dealt with the verse in great detail but which still leaves some issues unclear. Ibn ‘Abbas seems to have preceded in summing up the issue by saying, as in Zamakhshari, “I don’t know what kind of Prayer it was that the Prophet offered over Ibn Ubayy except that I know that a Prophet does not act dishonestly” (Au.).

[81] Rejoiced those who remained behind172 at their sitting back behind the Messenger of Allah (during the Tabuk expedition) and disliked that they should struggle with their possessions and their selves in Allah’s cause. They said, ‘Do not venture out in the heat.’173 Say, ‘The Fire of Hell is hotter,’174 if they would but understand.


172. Hereonward, the Tabuk expedition will be often referred to. It will be in order therefore, to present the background story here: The Tabuk Expedition. It was the 9th year after Hijrah. Makkah had fallen. The Prophet (saws) was in Madinah when he received the news that the Romans were raising a huge army at Tabuk to launch an attack on Madinah. The Prophet (saws) decided to take the initiative and ordered preparations for an immediate march to Tabuk. It was not the right time though. The crops in Madinah were near‑ready for harvest; the Muslims were feeling both the economic as well as the physical strains of previous excursions; and this year’s summer was exceptionally hot. But no excuses were acceptable. Every able person was to go. And, as against the normal practice of concealing the intent of an expedition, this time the Prophet (saws) publicly announced that he was making for the Romans in Tabuk. The journey was long – some 600 km – the weather dry, provisions low, and the enemy in great strength.

The Prophet (saws) urged his Companions to help out those who intended to go but couldn’t because they lacked means. ‘Uthman and ‘Abdul Rahman b. ‘Awf donated huge sums in response. Others too brought in what they could.

Hypocrites began to stream in presenting false excuses and requesting permission to be left behind. The Prophet (saws) allowed them to stay back. He learnt that the hypocrites were assembling in the house of Suwaylim the Jew urging men not to join him in the expedition. He sent Talha b. ‘Ubaydullah with a few others with orders to burn down the house on them. When his orders were executed, Dahhak b. Khalifa jumped down from the top of the house and broke his leg. His companions rushed out and escaped.

After a hectic preparation lasting a week or so, the Prophet set off with some 30,000 men. A few of the true believers were slow to make up their minds. Ka‘b b. Malik, Murara b. Rabi‘ and Hilal b. Umayyah were among them. Their Islam was above suspicion, but by the time they could make up their minds, the Prophet and his Companions were far afield.

Having set out, the Prophet (saws) pitched his first camp by Thaniyat al‑Wada‘. ‘Abdullah ibn Ubayy pitched his camp separately below him at a distance. At Madinah, the Prophet had ordered ‘Ali to remain behind. The hypocrites spoke ill of him saying that he was a burden on the Prophet and that he wanted to get rid of him. So ‘Ali seized his weapons and hastened to catch up with the Prophet (saws). He told him what the hypocrites were saying about him. The Prophet told him, “Are you not satisfied that you stand to me as Harun stood to Musa except that there will be no Prophet after me?” So ‘Ali returned and the Prophet (saws) continued with his march. Abu Khaythumah was also one of those who had delayed his decision. But, when he went to his orchard, after the Prophet (saws) had left, he told himself, “Here I am in the cool of the orchard, while the Prophet is out in the sun.” Ashamed, he didn’t even enter the farm‑house, rather, went straight to the camel, saddled it, picked up his things and hastened at full speed to join up with the Prophet. ‘Umayr b. Wahb was another late starter. Abu Khaythumah caught up with him on the way, yet the two were able to catch up with the Prophet (saws) only at Tabuk. When they got close, Abu Khaythumah told ‘Umayr to tarry behind a while until he had gone and seen the Prophet. As he approached, the Companions called attention to a man on the road. The Prophet involuntarily said, “Be it Abu Khaythuma.” And so it was.

When they passed by al‑Hijr the Prophet covered his face with his cloak, urged his camel on and said, “Do not go among the dwellings of those who sinned (and were destroyed) unless you are riding fast, weeping, for fear that you meet with the same end.” Some people collected water from its wells. But the Prophet (saws) ordered them to empty their pitchers saying, “Do not drink or make ablution with it. If you have made dough with it, feed it to the camels.”  The men did as they were told. He allowed them water from the well from which Saleh’s camel used to drink. He also disallowed that any man venture out alone except with a companion. Two men however disobeyed him and went afield alone. One was choked (although he recovered) and another blown away by the winds that dropped him in the mountains of Tayy. Next day when the Companions complained of water, the Prophet (saws) prayed for water and the rains came in a heavy downpour. When one of the hypocrites was asked if he still harbored doubts about the Messengership of the Prophet, he replied, “It was a passing cloud.”

The hypocrites that had accompanied created several problems on the way. One of them remarked, “Do you think fighting the Romans is like fighting the Arabs. By God, I can see ourselves bundled up in ropes tomorrow.” When at one point the Prophet’s camel strayed away, one of them remarked, “Look at this man. He claims to be a Prophet giving you news of the heavens but doesn’t even know where his camel is.” When informed the Prophet (saws) said, “By Allah I know only what Allah tells me. And He has (just now) told me that it is in such and such a glen of such and such a valley.” They went after it and brought it back.

As the Prophet marched, the hypocritic men dropped behind. Whenever the apostle was told that so and so had dropped behind, he would remark, “Let him. There was no good in him.” Until, when he was told that Abu Dharr had dropped behind, he said the same thing. Abu Dharr’s camel failed him. So, when he felt that it was no use prodding it up on the road, he dropped the camel behind and began to march on foot. He caught up with the Prophet (saws) as he pitched his camp for a halt. When they spotted someone plodding up the desert track, the Prophet said, “Be it Abu Dharr.” And when told that it was indeed he, he remarked, “May Allah show mercy to him. He walks alone, will die alone and will be raised alone.”

The journey proved to be strenuous and they reached Tabuk in 22 days, hungry and thirsty. Sometimes a dozen men chewed a single date in turns. At Tabuk the Prophet (saws) addressed them on several occasions. Once he leaned against a tree trunk and said: “Should I not tell you about the best of the people and the worst of the people? The best of the people is the one who goes into the way of Allah on the back of his horse, or camel, or on his feet, (and continues) until death overtakes him. And the worst of the people is that audacious man who reads the Qur’an but pays no attention to its demands.”

The Romans, impressed by the Prophet’s courage, seemed to have dispersed and no fighting took place. Some say that although there had been some movements of the troops, the rumors had gone too far. In any case, the Prophet (saws) sent troops to surrounding areas to subdue the tribes. Yuhanna b. Ru‘aba submitted and agreed to pay tribute. Khalid b. Walid was despatched to the governor of Duma, Ukaydar b. ‘Abdul Malik. He was captured and brought to the Prophet, his golden brocaded gown having preceded him. Some say Ukaydar had sent it as a gift. The Muslims were feeling and admiring it. The Prophet said, “Do you admire this? By Allah Sa’d’s (b. Mu‘adh) napkin in Paradise is better than this.” The Prophet (saws) made peace with Ukaydar and released him. He had agreed to pay tribute. A few other tribes also submitted and agreed to pay jizyah.

In another 20 days time the Prophet and his men were back on the same trail, marching home through the same difficult terrain. On the way back they stopped at a place called Mushaqqaq where water was issuing forth from a rock in quantity just enough for two or three riders. The Prophet ordered that none was to draw water from it until he came. But a number of hypocrites got there and drew water. When he arrived he found it dry. He asked who had drawn, and cursed them when told their names. He dismounted from his camel, sprinkled some water on the rock and prayed until water burst forth. He remarked, “If you lived long enough, you will hear that this valley is more fertile than its neighbors.” (A prediction which is reported to have come true: au.). During the journey a Companion died. `Abdullah ibn Mas`ud reports that I woke up in the middle of the night. I saw light near the camp. I went up to it to find that the Messenger, Abu Bakr, `Umar and `Abdullah Dhu‘l Bijaadayn had dug a grave. Abu Bakr and `Umar had lifted the corpse and the Prophet (saws) was inside the grave. He was saying, `Gently. Hand me over your brother.’ As he placed him in the niche he said, `O Allah, I am pleased with him. Be You pleased with him too.’ Ibn Mas`ud used to say, `Would that I had been in that grave.’

Abu Ruhm Kulthum was one of those who had traveled to Tabuk. He reports, “During one of those night journeys, sleep was heavy on me. I only woke up when my mount got too close to the Prophet’s. Once my camel jostled against his. I heard a voice, `Watch out.’ I asked his pardon and moved my mount away. He began to ask me about those who had dropped out from Banu Ghifar. I named them. He asked me about the people with long straggling red beards and I told him that they had dropped out too. Then he asked me about men with short curly hair and I confessed that I didn’t know that they were of us. ‘O yes,’ he exclaimed, ‘they are the ones who own camels in Shabakatu Shadakh.’ Then I remembered that they were of the Banu Ghifar, but I did not remember them until I recalled that they were a clan of Aslam who were our allies. When I told him that, he remarked, ‘What prevented one of these when he fell out from mounting a zealous man in the way of Allah on one of his camels? The most painful thing to me is that any of the Muhajirun, the Ansar or the Banu Ghifar and Aslam should stay back.’” (There was somebody there who was worried about those who had fallen out, in the middle of the night during that arduous journey: au.).

It was during one of those night‑journeys that twelve of the hypocrites tried to bolt off the Prophet’s camel so that he might fall over a cliff. He also learned through revelation of the construction of a mosque by disaffected ones for the purposes of planning mischief against Islam and Muslims. He got it destroyed after his return. When he entered Madinah, he first went into his mosque, offered two raka‘ah of prayers before going home. The hypocrites began to stream in seeking to be excused for not having participated. He accepted their excuses.

173. Majid quotes: “The summer is the worst and the hardest season in Arabia. Wells, few as they are, are dried up, even the last vestiges of pasture are burnt up, and the intensity of the blazing, scorching sun is ferocious. ‘Painful indeed was the distress of the march; lassitude and thirst were aggravated by the scorching and pestilential winds of the desert’ (GRE. V.p.372).”

No few words will ever faithfully describe the summer heat of the Arabian Peninsula. Birds drop down dead, the sky is silvery, the land pale, and the spirits broken. To venture into the open even for a few minutes is a voyage postponed for cooler weather. Nothing moves. The restless bodies demand nothing but liquids. The inexperienced who stray into the desert are lifted dead by the evening. Carpets left in the sun can be collected as dust at the end of the season. Perhaps the best single sentence describing the heat came from T. E. Lawrence in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. On arrival at Jeddah he described the first shock in words, “The heat left us speechless” (Au.).

It is reported that when the Prophet (saws) urged the Companions to the Tabuk expedition, someone went up and said to him, “Messenger of Allah. It’s extremely hot. We can’t venture out. So, don’t go forth.” In response Allah (swt) revealed, “Say, the Fire of Hell is hotter” – and the Prophet told him to join in (Ibn Jarir). The report is also in Ibn Marduwayh (Shawkani). This of course does not rule out, as pointed out by Rashid Rida, that the hypocrites urged each other to stay back (Au).

174. Ibn ‘Abbas, Qatadah and Muhammad b. Ka‘b al‑Qurazi have said that the reference is to the hypocrites sitting back from the Tabuk expedition which took place in mid‑summer and in conditions of drought (Ibn Jarir). Ibn Kathir notes that the Sahihayn have a hadith according to which the Prophet (saws) said, “The Fire that Adam’s progeny kindle is one seventieth of the Fire of Hell.” According to another sahih report of Tirmidhi and Ahmed he said, “This fire of yours is one‑seventieth part of the Fire of Hell. Moreover, it has been dipped into the sea twice. If not for that, it would have been of no use to any creature.” Another hadith (of Muslim: Hussain) says, “The least punished people of the Hell‑fire will wear shoes of Fire. That will boil his brain.”

[82] Let them, then, laugh a little and weep a lot175 – as recompense for what they were earning (of the evil deeds).176


175. Abu Razeen is widely reported to have said: This life has a short span during which the unbelievers may laugh. But the Hereafter is forever. There they will cry forever (Ibn Jarir). The Prophet (saws) said in a hadith preserved by Ibn Majah, “People! Cry. And if you cannot cry, make crying faces. The companions of the Fire will cry until they will shed tears of blood running like water in the canals. It will damage their eyes. They’ll cry so much that you could sail a boat in their tears” (Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir).

In another report of Tirmidhi the Prophet (saws) said, “By Allah, if you knew what I know, you would laugh less and cry more. You would go into the deserts seeking Allah’s protection and wishing, ‘O that I was a plant that was plucked off the ground.’” Hence a person like Hasan al‑Busri never laughed out of the fear of the Hereafter. However, the Companions laughed. It is only its excess that is undesirable. According to a hadith excessive laughing deadens the heart (Qurtubi).

176. Nonetheless, Sufi Thanwi cautions, the verse does not contain a command to cry as some people have thought. They go to the Shuyukh and complain about themselves “I am not able to cry, try however much I may.” Don’t they notice that the verse adds, “a recompense for what they were earning (of the evil deeds)”? That is, they will cry a lot in the Hereafter as a recompense for what they earned in this life. Yes, it is laudable that one cry over the sins of the past, or for other legitimate reasons, but to cry or not is not in the power of man. And what is not in the power of man is not declared obligatory.

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