Verses from Surah al-Isra’ (2-8)

[2] And We gave Musa the Book and made it a source of guidance for the children of Israel (stating) that: ‘take not unto yourselves a trustee besides Me.’10


10. Asad writes: “The term ‘wakil’ denotes ‘one who is entrusted with the management of [another person’s] affairs’, or ‘is responsible for [another person’s] conduct.’ When applied to God, it is sometimes used in the sense of ‘guardian’ (e.g., in 3: 173), or ‘defender’ (e.g., in 4: 109), or – in combination with the phrase `ala kulli shay’in (as, e.g., in 6: 102 or 11: 12) – in the sense of ‘the one who has everything in His care.”

[3] O11 descendants of those We bore with Nuh. Surely, He was a thankful servant.12


11. The addition of “O” follows the understanding of many of the Salaf such as Mujahid (Qurtubi and others).

12. That is, ‘O the descendants of those whom We saved and carried in the ship with Nuh, follow the footsteps of your forefather and be thankful of Allah for the blessing as Nuh had thanked.’ Indeed, a hadith of the Prophet in Muslim says, “Allah is pleased with a servant who, when he eats or drinks, thanks Allah for it.” (Ibn Kathir)

[4] And We decreed for the Children of Israel in the Book13 that twice you will do mischief in the land,14 and you will rise exceedingly high (in arrogance).


13. That is, it was revealed and written in the Scriptures given to the Israelites that twice they will spread great corruption in the land (Ibn Kathir), “…probably applying to predictions contained in the Torah (Leviticus xxvi, 14- 39 and Deuteronomy xxviii, 15-68) as well as prophesies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, John and Jesus” (Asad).

14. Since we know from the Qur’an itself that the Israelites had rebelled not twice but many times, the allusion here, therefore, can only be to major rebellious acts, or, alternatively, as Asad put it, “to two distinct, extended periods of their history.”

[5] So, when the promise of the first of the two came to pass,15 We sent upon you Our slaves16 – those of great military might – and they entered the  inmost parts of the homes.17 That was a promise that came to pass.


15. The earlier and the later scholars could not come to any agreement over the identification of the first or second group which prevailed over the Israelites (Ibn Kathir). Ibn ‘Abbas, (in one of his two opinions), as well as Sa`id b. Jubayr, Hasan and Qatadah have identified Nebuchadnezzar as the one who led the first destructive assault. He destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple, burned down every copy of the Torah, leaving not one word in script, killed seventy thousand Israelites, and led away as prisoner-slaves a hundred thousand of them including such prominent figures as Daniyal, Ezra, and others (Ibn Jarir).

The Israelites remained in slavery in Babylon for a hundred years. It was a Persian attack on Babylon that freed them. They returned to Jerusalem. And, apart from the general corruption among the Israelites, the divine anger was provoked by the following incident. The Israeli ruler wished (Herodotus: Ibn Jarir’s history), to marry his niece which Yahya, the son of Zakariyyah, declared unlawful. Enraged, the niece got her paramour drunk and demanded that he order Yahya’s head brought on a tray. He complied, which signaled the beginning of the assault (Ibn Jarir, Ibn Kathir).

Yusuf Ali writes: “…it may be that the two occasions refer to (1) the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C., when the Jews were carried off into captivity, and (2) the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in A.D. 70, after which the Temple was never rebuilt.”

16. Majid writes: “In the Bible also the epithet ‘my servant’ is applied to Nebuchadnezzar (Je 25: 9).” It is also possible, writes Thanwi, that since Allah’s punishment was delivered at their hands, for a good purpose – removal of the corrupt from the lands – the attackers and destroyers were referred to as “Our slaves” (Shafi`).

Yusuf Ali also clarifies the surprise usage of the honorable term `ibad on the same line: “They were servants of Allah in the sense that they were instruments through which the wrath of Allah was poured out on the Jews…”

Nevertheless, note that as against ‘abdihi (His slave), Allah (swt) did not say ‘ibadina, rather, ‘ibadan-lana which takes away the special generic sense that goes with the other term (Shafi`).

17.Jasu” affords several connotations. To go in and out of houses with the intention of destruction; to search; to go about looking whether someone is left alive, etc., are the possible meanings, and, as Wahidi has said, the word could have been brought here to carry all these connotations (Razi).

[6] Then We gave back to you the turn to prevail over them,18 and extended you with wealth and progeny and made you more numerous in manpower (than before).19


18. Asad comments, “…apparently a reference to the return of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity in the last quarter of the sixth century B.C., the partial reestablishment of their state, and the building of a new temple in place of the one that had been destroyed.”

19. These words draw special significance when we keep the fact before us that a large number of Israelites were killed during the first major assault on them, greatly reducing their population (Au.).

[7] If you did well, you did well for your yourselves; and if you did evil, then unto your own souls. Then, when the final promise came to pass .. (We set Our  enemies upon you) to disfigure your faces20 and to enter into the Mosque as they (their forerunners) entered it the first time,21 and to destroy all that they ascended to,??? in utter destruction.22


20. That is because the effects of the pain on the body and mind disfigure the faces (Au.: with a point from Alusi). In Asad’s words, “Inasmuch as the face is the most prominent and expressive part of the human body, it is often used as a metonym for one’s whole being; hence ‘the evil done to one’s face’ is synonymous with ‘utter disgrace.’

21. Thanwi notes from Tafsir Haqqani that history records several major episodes of the Israelites when they rebelled and received divine punishment. The following six are outstanding ones that we reproduce more to demonstrate that our commentators were not unaware of history, rather than because they are accurate descriptions of the past events, if any such accurate description is available:

i) When the Israelite rulers as well as their subjects adopted irreligious attitudes after Sulayman (asws), an Egyptian ruler raided Jerusalem, pillaged the city, carrying away its gold and silver, but did not destroy the Temple or the city.

ii) When, some four hundred years after that, the Jews began to worship idols, once again an Egyptian king descended, and destroyed part of the Temple and raised some buildings to the ground before retreating with the booty.

iii) A few years after that, Nebuchadnezzar attacked the city and partially destroyed it. He installed a new ruler, from among the Israelites before leaving.

iv) He came back when the new ruler rebelled against his authority. He killed a large number of the inhabitants of Jerusalem and took away as prisoner-slaves the rest of them. They remained in Babylonian captivity for 70 years. They were released when the Persians attacked the Assyrians and overcame them. The new rulers allowed the Israelites to return to Palestine and, in fact, returned them much of their looted wealth.

v) This happened when, after a while of righteous living, the Jews once again spread corruption in the land – some 170 years before the appearance of Jesus Christ. The king who had laid the foundations of Antioch, raided Jerusalem, caused wide scale destruction, killed some 40,000 Jews and enslaved as many. The newly built Temple was spared. However, the descendants of that king destroyed the Temple also while they attempted to wipe out the town. Finally, the city fell to the Romans who allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple. Jesus Christ was born eight years after that.

vi) This happened when the Jews rebelled against the Roman authority. Titus destroyed the town completely, and demolished the Temple.

The question remains, adds Shafi`, as to which of the above six major events is the Qur’an referring to as the two very significant ones. It looks like the reference is to the fourth (involving Nebuchadnezzar) and sixth (involving Titus) incidents. The main point however is that the narration warns the Muslims that they would be treated in no better manner if they spread the kind of corruption the Israelites spread, for, Allah’s Sunnah does not change. A good case in point is the loss of Bayt al-Maqdis to an enemy hardly one tenth the Muslims in numbers and equipments. They will never get it back unless they return to Islam whole-heartedly.

Quotation from Shafi` ends here.

Majid quotes: “The raging flames, the infuriated soldiers, the groans of the wounded and the dying, all spoke with another voice. It was the judgment. The words of John the Baptist and of Jesus of Nazareth had come true. Thousands perished in the temple flames… Then the wall fell, their pride turned into helplessness and cowardice, and they sought to hide themselves in the subterranean passage. On the same day the Roman soldiers made their way through the Upper City, burning, plundering, and massacring’ (Ebi. C. 2285). ‘The slaughter within was even more dreadful than the spectacle from without. Men and women, old and young, insurgents and priests, those who fought and those who entreated mercy, were hewn down in indiscriminate carnage. The number of the slain exceeded those of the slayers. The legionaries had to clamber over heaps of dead to carry on the work of extermination.’ (Milman, History of Jews, II. P. 93). ‘Titus crucified so many Jewish captives and fugitives during the siege of Jerusalem, that there was not sufficient room for the crosses nor sufficient crosses for the condemned’ (Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 349).”

22. So, it is obvious that increase in wealth and progeny was neither appreciated and thanked for by the Israelites, nor did these favors serve them in any way when faced with Allah’s wrath (Au.: with a point from Alusi).

[8] It may be that your Lord will yet show you mercy. But if you revert (to rebellion), We shall revert (to punishment).23 And We have made Jahannum a prison-bed24 for  the unbelievers.


23. According to Ibn ‘Abbas and Qatadah the Israelites indeed returned with sins (by rejecting the final Prophet: Alusi), and, in consequence, Allah put them to defeat and banishment at the hands of the Muslims.

24. The translation of the word “hasir” as prison-bed follows the understanding of the Salaf, some of whom said that the word stands for a place where one is confined, while to a few others it means a thing to rest on. Ibn Jarir preferred the second meaning.


(To be continued)

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