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Mar. 23rd, 2013

13 Worse Than Murder


They ask you what they should spend [in charity]. Say, ‘Anything good you spend of your wealth should go to parents and the near of kin, to orphans and the needy, and to travellers in need. God is well aware of whatever good you do.’ (215)

Fighting is ordained for you, even though it is hateful to you. But it may well be that you hate a thing while it is good for you, and it may well be that you love a thing while it is bad for you. God knows, whereas you do not know. (216)

They ask you about fighting in the sacred month. Say, ‘Fighting in it is a grave offence, but to turn people away from God’s path, to disbelieve in Him and in the Sacred Mosque, and to expel its people from it — [all this] is far more grave in God’s sight.’ Religious persecution is worse than killing. They shall not cease to fight you until they force you to renounce your faith, if they can. But whoever of you renounces his faith and dies an unbeliever, his works shall come to nothing in this world and in the world to come. Such people are destined for hell, wherein they shall abide. (217)

Those who have believed and those who have forsaken their homeland and striven hard for God’s cause are indeed the ones who may look forward to God’s mercy. God is much-Forgiving, Merciful. (218)

They ask you about intoxicants and games of chance. Say, ‘In both there is great evil although they have some benefits for people, but their evil is far greater than their benefit.’ They ask you what they should spend in charity; say, ‘Whatever you can spare.’ Thus God makes plain His revelations so that you may reflect (219)

upon this life and the life to come. They ask you about orphans; say, ‘To improve their conditions is best. If you mix their affairs with yours, remember that they are your brothers. God knows him who spoils things and him who improves. Had God so willed, He would indeed have overburdened you. God is indeed Almighty, Wise.’ (220)
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Overview

The most notable feature of the next passage is that it deals with specific religious rulings. These come in the form of answers to questions, reflecting a degree of alertness in the Muslim community, and an eagerness to know and understand the requirements and obligations of their new faith. It shows a desire on their part to live up to the demands of Islam in every aspect of everyday life. This is indeed the mark of a true Muslim: to learn Islamic rulings with respect to every detail, no matter how trivial. No action is taken before establishing the position of Islam on it: if sanctioned and approved, it becomes part of a Muslim’s way of life; otherwise, it is shunned and avoided. This sensitivity is second nature to every true Muslim.

Questions were raised as a result of hostile propaganda spread by some Arabian Jews, hypocrites, and unbelievers among the Arabs. Muslims would then put those questions to the Prophet Muĥammad, either to seek clarification or to dispel doubts stirred by that poisonous propaganda. Revelation would often be received by the Prophet giving comprehensive and final answers. This process informs and educates the Muslims about their religion and pre-empts any hostile schemes or designs being contemplated against them.

This illustrates the dynamics of the battles the Qur’ān was fighting to enlighten individual Muslims and to reinforce the Muslim community in combating outside threats.

This passage covers questions relating to charity: what and how much should be given and to whom. There are questions on fighting during the sacred months, drinking and gambling, and the treatment of orphans. We will discuss the reasons that gave rise to these questions as we discuss the relevant verses.

Balancing Kindness and Personal Preferences

They ask you what they should spend [in charity]. Say, Anything good you spend of your wealth should go to parents and the near of kin, to orphans and the needy, and to travellers in need. God is well aware of whatever good you do. (Verse 215)

The subject of charity had already been dealt with in several Qur’ānic passages that preceded the revelation of the present verse. The circumstances that witnessed the birth of Islam made voluntary financial contributions by Muslims absolutely essential in order for the community to emerge and consolidate its position, considering the great difficulties and threat of war it was facing. It was also essential as an expression of solidarity and cohesion within the community, and to eliminate inequality and reinforce loyalty and self-sufficiency. All these are indispensable qualities for building up a true and practical sense of community among the Muslims.

At this point we are told that some Muslims asked “what they should spend [in charily].” (Verse 215) The question is about the type of money Muslims may give in charity. The reply speaks of the nature of charitable spending and defines the most important beneficiaries. The phraseology of the answer, “Say, ‘Anything good you spend of your wealth,’“ indicates, first of all, that whatever is given in charity is good for the donor, the recipient and the community as a whole. It is good in itself and it is done for good reasons. It also implies that people should give from the best of what they have and share it with others. As well as benefitting the needy, this would purify the donor’s heart and soul and give charity and altruism real meaning.

However, giving from the best of what one has is not a condition of generosity, as the Qur’ān urges elsewhere that people should give from neither the best nor the worst, but from the average, of what they have. In its inimitable style, the Qur’ān in the present passage is aiming to persuade people to rise to a higher level of excellence and generosity by giving what is closer and dearer to their hearts.

As to whom charity should be directed, the verse explains: “to parents and the near of kin, to orphans and the needy, and to travellers in need” The verse gives a list of categories of people brought together through ties of family, kinship, compassion, and an integral strong framework of human social welfare, nurtured and promoted by religious faith.

This relationship was further defined by the Prophet who was reported to have said: “Start by being charitable to yourself. If you have something left, then to your immediate family. When you have something left after having looked after your family, then give to your relatives. If you have more, then to all others.” [Related by Muslim]

This example reveals the Islamic highly effective and common sense approach in guiding human individuals. It begins from man’s natural aptitudes and inclinations and takes him gradually and gently upwards to where it wants him to be. As he progresses and improves his human condition, he would not find himself overstrained or being forcibly dragged to fulfill his duties, or find that his natural needs and talents are being suppressed or thwarted. While his eyes and aspirations are cast as high as possible, and his heart and soul reach out towards God Almighty, man’s feet would be set firmly on the ground.

God knows that human beings tend to be selfish, and so He directs them to see to their own needs before those of others. God allows man to enjoy the good things of life, in moderation, and only when man has looked properly after himself does God direct him to be charitable towards others. The Prophet Muĥammad is quoted as saying: “The most noble charity is that made once one’s own needs are fulfilled; the upper (giving) hand is better than the lower (receiving) hand. Start with your dependants.” [Related by Muslim] Jābir ibn `Abdullāh, a Companion of the Prophet, reports: “A man once offered a lump of gold, the size of an egg, to the Prophet saying that he is giving it for charity and that it was all he had, but the Prophet turned away from him. The man came to the Prophet again from the right, then from the left, then from the back, saying the same thing. Every time the Prophet turned away from him. At last the Prophet took the lump of gold and threw it at him. Had it hit him, he would have been hurt. The Prophet then said, ‘A person would come with all he possesses and say he wants to give it away to charity. He then goes to beg from others. The best charity is that made when one’s own needs have been fulfilled.” [Related by Abū Dāwūd]

God also knows that human beings favour their immediate family and relatives, their parents and children, and so He urges them to give willingly to these relatives, thereby satisfying a natural human tendency, which is both legitimate and sensible, while benefitting a section of the community. For, unless these relatives are helped they would continue to be a burden on the rest of society, and it is far more dignified for them to be cared for by members of their own family. This is bound to bring people closer together and spread love and harmony within immediate and extended families, the vital nucleus of the larger human society.

Beyond that, man is required to show generosity towards a whole range of other human groups such as young orphans and those members of society who are helpless but are too sensitive to ask for help. Another group are those stranded travellers or immigrants, some of whom may be well-off but for reasons beyond their control are unable to have access to their money. The first Muslim community in Madinah had a sizeable section of such people, most of whom were migrants from Makkah who had left all their belongings behind.

All these are members of the Muslim community and Islam urges the well-off to act charitably towards them. It encourages people’s natural kindness and good-will to purify the hearts and souls of the donors, who give generously and willingly, and to ensure the welfare of those in need, thereby achieving greater cohesion and solidarity among the community in a smooth, fair and equitable manner.

The verse goes on to link such commendable charity with God Almighty, saying: “God is well aware of whatever good you do.” (Verse 215) God is aware of the deed as well as of the intention behind it. Thus, it will not go to waste. He has taken note of it and, being just, He will give a suitable reward for it.

This educational approach directs man’s heart and soul towards God Almighty with ease and deliberation. It picks man up from wherever he is and takes him to far wider horizons of civility and humanity which he would never reach without God’s guidance and grace.

What Things We May Love

The next verse deals with the duty of taking up arms for a legitimate cause: “Fighting is ordained for you, even though it is hateful to you. But it may well be that you hate a thing while it is good for you, and it may well be that you love a thing while it is bad for you. God knows, whereas you do not know.” (Verse 216)

To take up arms in support of a cause blessed by God is a demanding duty, but is nevertheless necessary because it serves the good of Muslim individuals and communities as well as that of mankind as a whole. It also underpins what is good and right.

As with all the obligations it prescribes, Islam takes into account the limits of human nature. In the case of war, it does not only acknowledge the efforts and the sacrifices it demands, but also man’s instinctive reluctance to prosecute it. Islam does not deny, contradict or suppress human nature, but always seeks an appropriate approach to deal with the issues it proposes. It clearly allows for the fact that certain obligations in this life are demanding, unappealing or even detestable, but at the same time it indicates that there is a greater cause to be served by fulfilling them, which might not be readily obvious to the human mind, finite as it is. It opens up new avenues of hope and achievement. For, no one can tell for certain whether there is not some unforeseen good beyond an impending evil. Only God, the omniscient, knows the future outcome of present actions, and man cannot even pretend to have that privilege.

This comforting thought revives man’s hopes and optimism, drawing him closer to God with more self-confidence and reassurance.

By this effective educational approach, Islam nurtures in man a deeper sense of loyalty and readiness to sacrifice and to scale greater heights of excellence and achievement. It allows him to face his responsibilities with courage and enthusiasm, safe in the knowledge that God’s blessings and support are not far behind. This motivates him to persevere in the face of adversity, because a pleasant and favourable outcome might be waiting for him. It also restrains man’s cravings so that he is not carried away by his pleasures and desires, which could end in pain and sorrow.

It is a remarkably simple, but profound, approach that is in harmony with human nature and honest in addressing it. It is undeniable that man, weak and short-sighted as he is, would reject something which is in fact good for him, or covet something which is in fact evil and harmful. The fact is that God alone has knowledge of everything; people are often ignorant or hampered by prejudice and their own shortcomings.

This opens up a whole new world, hitherto unknown, and brings to light new factors of cause and effect, into which man’s fears, hopes and behaviour blend smoothly, under God’s benevolent and omniscient presence. By accepting the fact that whatever God ordains is always for the best, man enters a world of total serenity, security and faith. It is the world of peace which God has recommended to the believers even as He calls upon them to take up arms and fight, because real peace is that of the soul and the conscience that on experiences in the heat of battle.

The implications of this Qur’ānic principle are not limited to fighting, which is only one example of a necessary evil that may ultimately result in something good, but extend to all aspects of a believer’s life. The Muslims who left Madinah, on the eve of the Battle of Badr in 624 CE, to intercept the Quraysh trade caravan traveling from Syria to Makkah, were hoping that they would take it over without having to fight. However, God willed it that the caravan would escape and the Muslims find themselves facing the Quraysh army which was intent on subduing them. The outcome was a resounding victory for Islam and the Muslims which was infinitely better than the trade caravan and its valuable commodities. What the Muslims aimed for was much inferior to what God had in store for them. God knows and people do not.

In an episode involving the Prophet Moses, the Qur’ān tells us how, as he embarked on a journey accompanied by his boy servant, the boy unwittingly left heir provisions of fish behind and it found its way back into the sea. The narrative goes on, saying: “And after they had marched on for some distance, Moses said to his servant: ‘Bring us our mid-day meal; we are indeed worn out by this our journey’ Said [the servant]: Do you recall when we betook ourselves to that rock for rest. There I forgot the fish — and none but Satan made me thus forget to mention it! — and it took its way into the sea. How strange! [Moses] said: “That is [the place] we are seeking!’ So they turned back, retracing their footsteps, and found one of Our servants, on whom We had bestowed Our mercy and whom We had endowed with knowledge of Our own.” (18: 62-65) What seemed an oversight by the servant turned out to be a fortunate turn of events that brought Moses into contact with the learned man, which was the very purpose of the journey.

We could all recall instances, from personal experience, in which we dreaded certain situations that had turned out to be of great benefit, as well as others which looked appealing and lucrative but ended in disaster. Often, people bitterly regret missing out on certain things, but as time goes by they realize that God had spared them certain adverse consequences; while others undergo intense suffering that could drive them to the edge of despair, but would eventually bring opportunities of incredible happiness and prosperity.

Man simply cannot pretend to know where his good lies, but God knows for certain, a fact that man must accept and act upon by submitting himself to God alone. This is what the Qur’ān teaches, and this is the approach it adopts to convince people to submit to the will and judgement of God Almighty.

Fighting in the Sacred Months

They ask you about fighting in the sacred month. Say, ‘Fighting in it is a grave offence, but to turn people away from God’s path, to disbelieve in Him and in the Sacred Mosque, and to expel its people from it — [all this] is far more grave in God’s sight.’ Religious persecution is worse than killing. They shall not cease to fight you until they force you to renounce your faith, if they can. But whoever of you renounces his faith and dies an unbeliever, his works shall come to nothing in this world and in the world to come. Such people are destined for hell, wherein they shall abide. (Verse 217)

Several reports indicate that these verses were revealed in connection with an expedition of eight Muslims from the Muhājirūn [i.e. those who migrated with the Prophet to Madinah], led by `Abdullāh ibn Jaĥsh, dispatched by the Prophet Muĥammad prior to the great Battle of Badr, with sealed instructions and ordered not to open them before the company had travelled for two nights. When opened, the instructions read as follows: “When you have read this letter of mine proceed until you reach the Nakhlah valley, between Makkah and Ţā’if. Once there, monitor the movements of the Quraysh and gather news of their activities. Do not force any of your men to go with you.”

On reading those instructions, `Abdullāh ibn Jaĥsh, the group commander, said, “To hear is to obey.” He informed his Companions, giving them the choice to join him or return to Madinah. They all agreed to go ahead. They took a route through the Ĥijāz, but on the way the camel mounted by Sa`d ibn Abī Waqqāş and `Utbah ibn Ghazwān went missing and they stayed behind to look for it. The other six went on and, as they reached the valley, a small trade caravan belonging to the Quraysh, passed by. Four people, including `Amr ibn al-Ĥadramī, were travelling with it. The task force attacked it, killing `Amr ibn al-Ĥadramī and apprehending two of the other three men, while the fourth escaped. They did this thinking it was the last day of Jumādā II, whereas in fact it was the first day of Rajab, one of the months recognized as sacred by the Arabs, when no fighting may take place, and whose sanctity was endorsed by Islam.

When the expedition returned to Madinah, the Prophet said to them, “I never ordered you to fight during the sacred month,” and refused to accept the caravan or the two prisoners. Members of the expedition were reproached by their fellow Muslims and they were in despair, while the Quraysh accused the Prophet and his followers of violating a sacred month by killing one man, abducting two others, and seizing the caravan. Some Jews in Madinah saw the incident as an omen of impending war between the Muslims and the Quraysh.

The atmosphere became charged with intrigue and propaganda. The Muslims were depicted as self-serving renegades who would not hesitate to violate age-old sanctities. It was at that point that the revelations were received confirming the sanctity of the sacred months and condemning all acts of killing during them, but putting the whole episode involving the expedition in the right perspective.

It was the unbelievers who had declared war against the Muslims, rather than the other way round. They obstructed the spread of Islam, and spared no effort in turning people away from it, resorting to oppression and persecution. They refused to believe in God or respect the Sacred Mosque. Over a period of thirteen long years, they repeatedly violated the sanctity of Makkah by their relentless and violent opposition to Islam and by persecuting Muslim converts whom they had eventually driven out of their homes and families.

These vile and shameless acts the pagan Arabs had perpetrated against Islam and the Muslims were far more grievous violations of the sanctity of the Sacred Mosque and the sacred months. They persecuted people in order to force them to renounce their faith. That is a much more grievous crime. The smoke screen had fallen down, and the pagan Arabs could no longer hide behind a wall of false piety, putting the Muslims on the defensive and accusing them of the very aggressions they themselves had committed.

Islam is a practical and realistic way of life which is not based on rigid idealistic dogma. It takes life as it is and deals with the realities of problems and situations as and when they arise, and provides practical, effective and realistic solutions.

In this instance, the idolater Arabs were the aggressors, who were seen to treat sanctities of religion and tradition with utter contempt.

They stood in active opposition to Islam, using all forms of intimidation and enticement to disconcert the Muslims, break up their ranks, drive them out of their homes and bar them from their land. At the same time, they falsely claimed the higher moral ground, protesting in the name of religion and accusing Muĥammad and his followers of breaching the sanctity of the sacred months.

How should Islam deal with such people? Should it recommend a utopian approach? It could not possibly advise its followers to stand idle while their opponents were using every available means to stifle them. Islam aims to stamp out oppression and evil, and curtail the powers of aggression and injustice, to allow the good and righteous to prevail and prevent religious sanctities being used as a shield for the perpetration of tyranny and corruption.

Islam assiduously respects those who honour religious sanctities, but it would not allow such sanctities to be used as a pretext for the persecution or suppression of the believers, or to deprive them of their legitimate rights. It further affirms that such acts should not go unpunished.

By the same token, Islam forbids backbiting, slander and injustice, for instance, but makes it clear that this does not apply in cases of people who are known for their corruption or bad reputation, or who commit an injustice. To protect such behaviour is liable to be misconstrued as weakness, and could only encourage further corruption and injustice.

Nevertheless, Islam maintains its own high moral principles and does not recommend resort to the same obscene methods used by its detractors. It simply directs the Muslims to stand up to those who offend against them, and reserves for them the right to appropriately and publicly punish them. It is only when justice is established and wrongdoing is contained that sanctities can be protected and preserved.

Islam is utterly unequivocal on this point. It makes no excuses, nor allows anyone to take advantage of its lenient and tolerant attitude. The Qur’ān, in this instance, provides the Muslim community with the solid ground on which to stand in its fight against evil and corruption. It gives Muslims clear and definite principles to allow them to forge ahead with their mission with certainty, self-assurance and total peace of conscience.

The Ultimate Aim of Islam’s Enemies

The verse then goes on to state, in no uncertain terms, how determined the unbelievers are in pursuing their goal of destroying the Muslims’ faith, saying: “They shall not cease to fight you until they force you to renounce your faith, if they can.” (Verse 217)

This objective is common to all enemies of Islam everywhere, to whom its very existence and success seem to be a source of deep resentment and consternation. They are profoundly alarmed by Islam’s inherent strength and resilience. The clarity of its ideas and the rigour of its principles seem to evoke their displeasure and hostility because Islam represents a bedrock of resistance against falsehood, tyranny and corruption. This morbid attitude towards Islam lies behind most of the hostile and bigoted policies and designs directed against Muslim groups and communities in many parts of the world.

The methods and means of achieving this unholy goal may vary from one case to another, but the aim remains constant: to force Muslims to abandon their faith. This campaign never abates or relaxes. Fresh impetus is added at every stage, and greater resources are deployed whenever deemed necessary.

Hence, the Qur’ān urges caution and persistence, warning of dire consequences if Muslims give in to pressure or relinquish their position. It says: “But whoever of you renounces his faith and dies an unbeliever, his works shall come to nothing in this world and in the world to come. Such people are destined for hell, wherein they shall abide.” (Verse 217)

The Arabic term, ĥabiţat, used to describe the futility of the works of those who renounce their faith, conjures up an image very familiar to the Arabs. It is what happens to a camel that grazes in polluted pastures and ends up with an inflated belly, and dies. The impact of this metaphor could not have been lost on them.

It is almost inconceivable for someone who has truly experienced the faith of Islam to renounce it completely, unless that person has been irredeemably corrupted. Renouncing the faith of Islam, no matter how severe a pressure one is subjected to, can only result in total loss, both in this world as well as in the world to come. This is not to say that it is not justifiable under extreme duress, when one could feign desertion of one’s faith to save oneself from danger or death, while one continues to believe in one’s heart and conscience. Deliberate and conscious apostasy, on the other hand, is a gross and loathsome offence.

The warning given in this verse remains true for the rest of time. Muslims are exhorted never to desert their faith, no matter what difficulties they have to put up with. When they are in difficulty, they should persevere, endure and look to God for help and salvation. No matter what hardships they undergo, Muslims are guaranteed one of two ends: victory or martyrdom.

Above all, there is God’s grace and mercy, reserved for those who struggle for His cause. No one with true faith can ever despair of God’s mercy: “Those who have believed and those who have forsaken their homeland and striven hard for God’s cause are indeed the ones who may look forward to God’s mercy. God is much-Forgiving, Merciful.” (Verse 218)

As long as a believer continues to trust in God’s grace, he shall never be disappointed. Those early Muslims from Makkah, who had given up everything for their faith, lived up to their belief, strove hard, and received the appropriate rewards. They deservedly won God’s forgiveness and mercy, pointing the way to those who would come after them.

The Qur’ānic Method of Education

The sūrah goes on to give the Islamic rulings on drinking and gambling, two of the most popular indulgences among the Arabs at the time, who had little else of importance to occupy their minds or their time:

They ask you about intoxicants and games of chance. Say, ‘In both there is great evil although they have some benefits for people, but their evil is far greater than their benefit. (Verse 219)

Prior to the revelation of this verse, drinking and gambling were tolerated but never condoned. We do not have a single statement in the Qur’ān which may be construed as making them permissible. God, however, carefully charted the way He wanted the newly born Muslim community to take, marking it step by step, so that it would he able to fulfil the role He has assigned to it. The time had to come when such wasteful pastimes would be condemned and rooted out of the Muslim community whose role in the life and history of mankind demanded the dedication and full conscious participation of everyone in that community. Unlike godless societies, past, present and future, a Muslim community has no room for escapism or excessive diversions. The Qur’ānic approach in banning these practices was measured and deliberate.

This statement was’ the first step towards a universal ban on drinking and gambling in Muslim society. While good and evil could often intermingle and be confused with one another, making it impossible in the human world for things to be purely good or purely evil, the main criteria for whether something could be permissible or prohibited is the preponderance of good or evil associated with it. This statement is a good example of the judicious Qur’ānic approach discernible in many Islamic legal and practical rulings and teachings.

We often find that in matters of faith or abstract belief, Islam gives specific and definite pronouncements, but when it comes to matters of tradition or complex social practices, it takes a more pragmatic and measured approach, preparing the ground for smoother adoption and implementation.

On the question of God’s oneness, for example, Islam gave its final ruling right at the outset, without any hesitation or room for compromise. That is an essential question of faith. Unless the concept of God’s oneness is firmly established in a community, it cannot be truly Islamic.

Drinking and gambling are well-entrenched social habits that require careful treatment. The first step was to raise in people’s minds an inner consciousness of their harmful effects, advising that they would be better avoided. The second step came later on, which directed Muslims: “Believers, do not attempt to pray when you are drunk, [but wait] until you know what you are saying.” (4: 43)

There are five prayers to be performed at set times every day. The time interval between one prayer and the next is not long enough for a drinking person to regain sobriety. This restricts the opportunity to drink and helps habitual drinkers to give it up altogether.

The third and final step in banning drinking came in the verse which says: “Believers, intoxicants, games of chance, idolatrous practices and divining arrows are abominations devised by Satan. Therefore, turn away from them, so that you may be successful.” (5: 90)

Dealing with Slavery

At the advent of Islam, slavery was an established social and economic practice known all over the world. Any movement towards the abolition of slavery would require radical social change and far- reaching economic reforms and adjustments, as well as international treaties and conventions to govern the treatment of war prisoners. Islam never condoned slavery. There is not a single statement in the Qur’ān that recommends or approves of slavery or the enslavement of war prisoners. Slavery was a widespread practice with considerable bearing on the world economy. Moreover, it was an international tradition that prisoners of war were made slaves. Hence, there was no alternative but to phase it out gradually and progressively.

Apart from war captives and slave children, Islam opted for eliminating the root causes and drying up the sources of slavery, with an overriding objective to avoid social upheaval, and it strove to provide the basic guarantees of a decent living and dignity for freed slaves.

As for war captives, Islam could not unilaterally forgo imposing slavery on war prisoners since non-Muslim states continued to do so with Muslim prisoners in times of war. Were it to do so, it would have immediately put the Muslims at a disadvantage vis-a-vis their enemies. If any Muslim soldiers were taken prisoners, they would be certain to be made slaves, while prisoners taken by Muslims would remain free. On the other hand, were Islam to require that children born in slavery be immediately freed before creating the right social and economic environment that would absorb them as free citizens, they would have been left stranded, thrown into society with no means of living or welfare. They would have had no families to protect them against descending into poverty or moral delinquency.

For these, and other, reasons it would have been premature for Islam to immediately and unilaterally abolish slavery. However, taking the well-entrenched social conditions into account and while not banning the enslavement of war captives, the Qur’ān did not specifically order that they should be held in bondage. Instead, the Qur’ān advises the Muslims: “when you meet the unbelievers [in war] smite their necks until you overcome them fully, then bind [the captives] firmly. Thereafter, [set them free,] either by an act of grace or against ransom, so that war lays down its burdens.” (47: 4) This gave the Muslim authorities the choice to deal with war captives according to the prevailing circumstances and the nature of the conflict and the enemy they were facing. War captives could be released, exchanged or, if necessary, held in bondage.

Other ways of enslavement, and they were many, were totally banned. That was sure to minimize the number of slaves in society. Islam began by integrating those slaves as soon as they joined the Muslim community. It gave them the full right to buy their freedom through an agreement a slave would make with his master, who may not refuse him such a deal. Once an agreement of this sort is made, a slave has the right to work, own property, earn an independent income, and seek employment with other employers, in order to be able to raise the money to secure his freedom. That made it possible for slaves to gradually acquire an independent status in society and enjoy all the basic citizenship rights of the community, and they would become eligible for state welfare aid, which consists mainly of zakāt revenue. Furthermore, Islam urged its followers to help slaves financially to secure their freedom and incorporated the freeing of slaves into the legal code as a form of atonement for certain offences including manslaughter, reneging on an oath, and the ancient Arabian practice of a husband banishing his wife and saying that he considers her, for marital purposes, like his mother. With time, slavery was bound to be phased out, whereas a drastic or draconian approach to abolish it would have resulted in unnecessary social turmoil and disintegration.

The subsequent proliferation of slavery in Muslim societies had come about as a result of a gradual decline of the authority of Islam. This is a historical fact for which Islam may not be blamed. Islam cannot be held responsible for its incorrect implementation in certain periods or societies. Islam was, and remains, unchanged, but what had changed was people’s understanding of it an the way they translated its principles into social reality, which was often an aberration and a travesty of Islam for which it cannot be held accountable.

Any revival of Islamic life should, therefore, start from the authentic and established sources and principles of Islam and not be a continuation of a certain distorted historical legacy. This is an essential truth, both in abstract as well as practical terms, that cannot be overemphasized. Grossly mistaken conclusions are made regarding the Islamic view of history and on understanding the historic reality of Islam and how it operates in society. The leading culprits in this field are the socalled Orientalists, or Western scholars of Islam, and their students, including some sincere but very naïve Muslim scholars who were misled by them.

More Questions by Believers

The sūrah continues, answering other questions and laying down more fundamental Islamic principles. “They ask you what they should spend in charity; say, ‘Whatever you can spare.’ Thus God makes plain His revelations so that you may reflect upon this life and the life to come.” (Verses 219-220)

The answer given to this question the first time round, in verse 215, identified what could be given in charity and to whom, and here it identifies quantities. Anything above one’s basic reasonable personal needs should be considered available for donation to others, starting with those eligible among one’s nearest of kin, as already pointed out.

The present statement implies that the obligatory zakāt is not by itself sufficient as a means of wealth distribution, and this ruling, in my view, has not been overruled by the imposition of zakāt. Payment of zakāt by those liable to it does not exempt them from making additional donations and contributions to good causes. Zakāt is a duty levied by the ruling Muslim authority for allocation to the various causes specified in the Qur’ān (9: 60), beyond which Muslims continue to have an obligation towards God and fellow-Muslims in society. It may not exhaust one’s ability to give, or one’s desire to gain further blessings and pleasure from God Almighty. The Prophet Muĥammad is quoted in al-Jaşşāş’s Aĥkām al-Qur’ān as having said: “There is a duty on wealth other than zakāt.” If this duty is not discharged voluntarily, which is obviously more gracious and laudable, Muslim authorities have the power to collect funds over and above the obligatory zakāt, for spending in the public interest, in order to curb wastage or hoarding of wealth.

Muslims are then reminded that: “God makes plain His revelations so that you may reflect upon this life and the life to come.” (Verses 219-220) It would not suffice to consider only the realities of this life, which represents the more immediate and shorter part of the whole picture of human existence and all the responsibilities and relationships associated with it. That would only give a distorted understanding of the values and the criteria upon which life is built which would bring about the wrong kind of human behaviour.

The distribution and allocation of wealth, in particular, calls for total awareness of accountability in this life and in the life to come. One is always substantially rewarded, spiritually and morally, for what one gives in charity. Further reward comes in the contribution one makes to the welfare and well-being of society. These rewards may not, however, be readily apparent to everyone, which makes the rewards of the hereafter even more of an incentive to give generously and willingly and away from ostentation and pomposity.

Dec. 26th, 2012

12 The Nature of Islamic Society


There is a kind of man who pleases you greatly in the present life by what he says, and he cites God as witness to what is in his heart, whereas he is the most hostile of adversaries. (204)

Yet, no sooner does he turn his back than he strives to spread corruption in the world, destroying crops and progeny. God does not love corruption. (205)

When it is said to him, ‘Have fear of God’, his false pride drives him into sin. Therefore, hell will be his allotted portion, and how vile a resting place. (206)

But there is also a kind of man who would willingly sell himself, seeking God’s pleasure. God is most Compassionate to His servants. (207)

Believers, submit all of you to God and do not follow Satan’s footsteps. He is indeed your open foe. (208)

If you should stumble after all evidence of the truth has come to you, then know that God is Almighty, Wise. (209)

Are they waiting for God to reveal Himself to them in the shadows of clouds, together with the angels? The case will have been settled then. To God shall all things return. (210)

Ask the Children of Israel how many a veritable sign We have given them. He who alters the grace of God after it has been bestowed on him [should know that] God is severe in retribution. (211)

The life of this world has been made alluring to the unbelievers; hence, they scoff at those who believe; but those that fear God shall be above them in rank on the Day of Resurrection. God grants sustenance to whom He wills beyond all reckoning. (212)

All mankind were once one single community. Then God sent forth Prophets to give them good tidings and to warn them, and with them He sent down the Book, setting forth the truth, to judge between people over all on which they differed. Yet none other than those who had been given the Book started, out of injustice to one another, to dispute it after clear evidence of the truth had come to them. God, by His will, guided the believers to the truth concerning which they had differed. God guides whom He will to the straight path. (213)

Do you reckon that you will enter paradise while you have not suffered like those [believers] who passed away before you? Affliction and adversity befell them, and so terribly shaken were they that the Messenger and the believers with him would exclaim, ‘When will God’s help come?’ Surely, God’s help is close at hand. (214)
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Overview

Within the body of Qur’ānic directives and legislative statements, which cumulatively constitute the all-embracing divine code of living, one often comes across elements of a complete theory of personal and social education and enlightenment, based on a full and deep understanding of human nature in its totality. This theory introduces us to different types of human beings with such lucidity and in such detail that almost bring them to life before our eyes. It would be natural to point to real individuals we know from personal experience and say, “These are the very people the Qur’ān talks about!”

In this passage the Qur’ān presents us with two distinct types of human personalities. One is the ostentatious and smooth-talking but malevolent person, outwardly charming but self-centred and usually concealing evil intentions. If called on to fear God and heed His message such a person will not respond, but will arrogantly persist in his misdeeds and wanton intrigues, mischief-making and oppression.

The other type is the sincere and genuine believer whose life is totally devoted to seeking the pleasure of God Almighty. This type of person is sanguine, benevolent and entirely selfless.

The passage then continues with an earnest call to the believers to submit themselves completely to God, unconditionally and without any doubt or hesitation. Muslims are urged to submit themselves to God, emphasizing the vast reality of the essence of faith in God and the divine code of living based on it. There are further reproofs of the Israelites for their betrayal of God’s cause. The passage also highlights the fundamental flaws in the unbelievers’ outlook on life and their derision of those who believe in God, stressing that “those that fear God shall be above them in rank on the Day of Resurrection”.

This is followed by a brief reference to the differences that have beset mankind, and the criteria human beings ought to use in judging or settling those differences. The role of the Qur’ān, as the ultimate word of God’s universal truth, in that regard is then explained. The passage goes on to elaborate the demands of upholding that truth, and the difficulty in delivering the message that God has entrusted to believers. This serves as a warning and an incentive for the Muslims to live up to the demands and standards of their new global mission, fully confident in God’s unfailing support.

Thus, even as the Qur’ān deals with religious and legislative aspects of Islamic life, it provides an overall view of the Divine method in guiding, educating and preparing Muslims for the role of custodians of God’s universal message.

Two Different Types of People

There is a kind of man who pleases you greatly in the present life by what he says, and he cites God as witness to what is in his heart, whereas he is the most hostile of adversaries. Yet, no sooner does he turn his back than he strives to spread corruption in the world, destroying crops and progeny. God does not love corruption. When it is said to him, Have fear of God, his false pride drives him into sin. Therefore, hell will be his allotted portion, and how vile a resting place. But there is also a kind of man who would willingly sell himself seeking God’s pleasure. God is most Compassionate to His servants. (Verses 204-207)

This fascinating insight into human nature is in itself sufficient proof that the inimitable style in which it is presented cannot be human. The precision, clarity and depth we find here cannot be matched by any human expression.

The words are like the strokes of a master painter’s brush, delivered with outstanding vigour and confidence. No sooner are the strokes laid down than the true personality emerges, distinctive and lifelike. We can easily recognize the type that we may exclaim, “Yes, we know the very person the Qur’ān is talking about!” It is a process no less creative than the physical creation of man.

The passage introduces a person who portrays himself as the epitome of goodness, sincerity, dedication, love, innocence, and undoubted willingness to spread goodness, compassion, happiness, and purity of heart all around him. “There is a kind of man who pleases you greatly in the present life by what he says.” (Verse 204) Such people enchant you with their turn of phrase; their tone of sincerity and claims of integrity and righteousness can easily mislead; and, for good measure, they would cite God as witness to what is in their hearts.

In reality, however, such people are “the most hostile of adversaries”. Their hearts are filled with malice and hatred, with no room for love, compassion or tolerance. Such two-faced people are capable of the most vicious lies; they are treacherous and totally dishonest. When put to the test, their true personality is revealed: evil, spiteful, and malevolent.

“Yet, no sooner does he turn his back than he strives to spread corruption in the world, destroying crops and progeny. God does not love corruption.” (Verse 205) As they go about their daily work, these people do nothing but spread evil and plunder the material and human resources of society. Their actions are a true and accurate reflection of the grudges they harbour and the evil contained inside them. But God is fully aware of the corruption these hypocrites spread in society and throughout the world, and utterly condemns them.

As we read on, more features of this type of people are revealed: “When it is said to him, ‘Have fear of God,’ his false pride drives him into sin. Therefore, hell will be his allotted portion, and how vile a resting place.” (Verse 206) Intent on pursuing their vile deeds, these people become resistant to advice and reform; if anything, they grow more obstinate and arrogant. They begin to take pride in spreading evil and corruption, with no remorse, sense of guilt or fear of God. The portrait is thus complete. The example is clear, true to life, and instantly recognizable, at any time and in every society.

This snobbery, contention and lack of shame are met with a most swift and appropriate punishment: “Hell will be his allotted portion, and how vile a resting place.” (Verse 206) That would be more than sufficient retribution. For hell is the most terrible of all punishments: it is a fire fuelled by men and stones; it consumes everything thrown into it. With unmistakable irony, the verse describes hell as their “resting place”:

By way of contrast, the sūrah presents the other type of human being: “But there is also a kind of man who would willingly sell himself, seeking God’s pleasure. God is most Compassionate to His servants.” (Verse 207) These people are willing to dedicate their souls and bodies to God Almighty, for nothing in return other than His pleasure. It is a deal they conclude without a moment’s hesitation, desiring nothing else but divine blessing and approval.

The Arabic expression used here may be interpreted differently to give the same message. The Arabic term denoting ‘sell’ is also used to mean ‘buy’. Thus such people buy themselves by giving up all the pleasures of this world, dedicating themselves purely to God. They are ready and willing to sacrifice all worldly success and pleasure so that they may be accepted by God and admitted into the divine fold.

In his commentary on the Qur’ān, Ibn Kathīr cites several reports suggesting that this verse was revealed with reference to one of the Prophet’s Companions, Şuhayb ibn Sinān, who was of Byzantine origin. He had accepted Islam when the Prophet was still in Makkah, but when the migration to Madinah took place and he wanted to join the Muslims, the Arab unbelievers prevented him from taking his belongings and his money with him. He decided to give it all up in return for the right to leave Makkah.

He was met at the outskirts of Madinah by a group of Muslims, including `Umar ibn al-Khaţţāb, who greeted him with the words: “Well done! You have struck a profitable bargain!”

He returned the compliment, saying, “And may God make your trade always profitable. What might be the cause of your felicitations?”

They gave him the good news that a verse of the Qur’ān, a great honour, was revealed in tribute to his deal with the Arabs of Makkah.

It is also reported that the Prophet Muĥammad had commented, “Şuhayb has struck a profitable deal.”

Whether the verse was revealed with reference to this particular incident, or it was simply applicable to it, it certainly covers a range far beyond a single person or event. It portrays a type of person to be found again and again in human societies.

We have two contrasting portraits. One is that of the hypocrite, silver-tongued who is essentially brutal, ill-mannered, contentious, and corrupt. The other is that of the true believer whose whole life is dedicated to the service of God, and who has conquered the temptations of life.

These two living portraits, which reveal some extraordinary aspects of the Qur’ānic style, are for us to study and marvel at. We cannot but stand in awe of God’s inimitable power of creation, as we learn how not to be taken in by soft-spoken words or false pretences. We are directed to look deeper into the essence of things, rather than be deceived by outward appearances. The verses also draw our attention to the values and criteria, based on faith in God, which should be used to judge people.

The True Meaning of Islam

Against this background, the sūrah addresses the Muslim community, the believers, with a very special and unique instruction:

Believers, submit all of you to God and do not follow Satan’s footsteps. He is indeed your open foe. If you should stumble after all evidence of the truth has come to you, then know that God is Almighty, Wise. (Verses 208-209)

The call is addressed to the true adherents of Islam, whose faith sets them apart and links them directly to God. The invitation entails, first of all, total submission to God Almighty in all matters, simple or grave. Believers must surrender to God their intentions, actions, desires, and their whole destiny, and accept His judgement without hesitation, and with total trust and self-assurance. They will submit in full certainty and confidence that God will lead them to happiness and self-fulfilment, in both this life and the life to come.

The fact that the call was made at that particular stage of the development of the Muslim community suggests that there were Muslims who fell short of the required degree of obedience and submission to God, in their public as well as their private life. This in itself is not unusual, and could explain the need for such a call to be made from time to time, in order to create the required discipline in the community and enable it to function as a coherent, self-assured, and forward-looking body.

Heeding this call takes the Muslim into a realm of peace and security. The world of Islamic faith radiates tranquillity, harmony, reassurance and clarity of vision. A believing Muslim lives in total peace with himself, with his conscience and his mind, with other people and with his whole environment. He lives in peace with all the world and everything in it. He enjoys peace on earth and peace in heaven.

This peace emanates, first and foremost, from a clear, simple and compelling understanding of the essence and nature of the Divine Being. There is but one God, to whom every Muslim believer turns for guidance. Freed from paganism and idolatry, a Muslim believer happily and honestly devotes his loyalty and energy to God alone, to whom there is but one straight path.

He is mighty, omnipotent, supreme. Turning to Him for help and guidance is turning to the ultimate power that controls all existence.

Having thus sought His succour, the believer is totally secure and confident, having no cause or reason to fear anyone or anything else. Submission to the all-powerful and supreme God is a sufficient guarantee of perpetual sustenance, which spares the believer the need to seek livelihood and support anywhere else.

God is also just and wise, unlike pagan and man-made deities. His might and omnipotence are a safeguard against injustice, inequity and bias. To seek His protection is to seek dependable justice, care and security.

He is also merciful and compassionate, generous and benevolent, forgiving and responsive to those who repent and seek His protection. Under God’s protection a believer feels total peace, security, understanding and sympathy.

Islam reveals to Muslims that every attribute of God Almighty inspires an overwhelming feeling of added intimacy and renewed tranquillity, bringing about an unshakeable sense of protection, compassion, self-esteem, stability and peace.

A believer’s heart is filled with peace as a result of the clear and robust understanding of the nature of the relationship between God and man, between Creator and creation and between man and the world around him. God has created the world and everything in it according to a sound scheme and for a definite purpose. The creation of man is a deliberate and carefully considered act, and he does not stand alone; all the natural prerequisites for his existence and well-being are present in nature and the world around him, and available for his benefit. As God’s servant on earth, man is given honour by God and enjoys a privileged position in the divine order of things. In discharging his mission, he receives God’s unstinted support and the support of the world around, with which, through submitting to the will of God Almighty, he shares a harmony of bonding. Man is invited to partake in a cosmic festival of divine creation, to reflect on its marvels, to interact and become intimate with everything and every being in this vast, rich and dynamic universe.

The faith that teaches its followers to reflect on the tiniest plants, and promises to reward them for watering them and looking after them and helping them grow and flourish, is a beautiful and noble one. It fills man’s heart with peace and releases him to embrace the whole cosmos and everything in it, promoting peace, mercy, love, compassion, and security all around him.

Belief in the hereafter plays a fundamental role in radiating peace throughout a believer’s surroundings, and prevents anxiety, resentment and despair. It makes it clear that the final reckoning and the real and just reward are reserved for another time, when full justice shall be guaranteed. One need not regret the good deeds and the sacrifices and the struggles that may go unrewarded in this life, nor should one lose hope that justice will be done when in this brief journey of life one encounters hatred, wrongdoing or oppression. God harbours no grudges against anyone, and His justice shall be done.

Belief in the hereafter saves believers from following the frenetic rat-race of mankind, in which values and sanctity are brazenly trampled upon and violated. This belief gives real promise of abundance, magnanimity and recompense for all victims, and can turn that contentious and selfish race into a peaceful and fair contest, assuaging the frenzied feeling that this transient life is man’s only chance to have, hold and enjoy.

The conviction that the ultimate purpose of human existence is to worship and serve God can elevate man’s conscience and consciousness, his activity and performance, to wider and more glorious horizons. It purifies and develops his methods and techniques; all his pursuits and activities and his whole vocation as God’s worshipper on earth become means of worship of, and devotion to, God and the establishment of His order. Man will thus shun treachery, deceit, law breaking, arrogance, oppression, and all such foul and vile behaviour. He will avoid haste and recklessness, shortcuts and aimless wandering; the sincerity of his intentions and his diligence are the best guarantee of success. Man will be free of fear and anxiety throughout his life, because he is aware that at every step he is asserting his own role and serving God Almighty. Every action he takes will bring him closer to God.

A believer’s feeling that he is moving according to God’s order, in obedience to, and in fulfilment of, His will, and the security, peace and tranquillity such a feeling generates, fill his heart and soul with inner peace. Even during armed combat against his and God’s enemies, he continues to feel and enjoy such peace because he is conscious that he is fighting in the cause of God and to establish His order, not for worldly or personal gain, privilege or ambition.

The believer’s feeling that he is living in harmony with God’s order and the laws of nature, and acting in unison with all other creatures and forces around him, brings a state of peace and tranquillity. His existence is reinforced by the world around him, and together they move in harmony and union, without conflict or contradiction, guided by God’s light and devoted to Him.

The obligations prescribed by Islam are in full harmony with human nature and aim to keep that nature on the right path. They are well within man’s capabilities and take full account of his aptitudes and disposition. They leave no human talent or ability untapped, enhancing and promoting them, and fulfilling man’s physical and spiritual needs. In discharging these obligations, man faces no hardship or distress, but seeks God’s pleasure with confidence and peace of mind.

The society which Islam creates existed once in its purest and best form. Islam then continued to give different examples of it in varying degrees of purity, in various parts of the world. It is a society established on the principles of love, compassion, unity, solidarity and care. Whatever its degree of purity, it remains the best and most shining social experiment the world has known.

It is a society brought together by the single bond of religious faith, which is greater than any bond of race, origin, colour or language. Muslims are described in the Qur’ān as the community of ‘brothers,’ (49: 10) and by the Prophet Muĥammad as ‘one body; if any part suffers any pain all other parts share in its complaint, feeling sleepless and feverish.’ [Related by Aĥmad and Muslim]

It is a society with a strong code of social morality based on Qur’ānic teachings and exhortations, some of which are outlined in the statements:

When a greeting is offered you, answer it with an even better greeting, or [at least] with its like. (4:86)

Never turn your face away in disdain to others, and do not walk haughtily on the ground, for God does not like the arrogant and vain glorious. (31:18)

Repel [evil] with something that is better. Thus, a person with whom you had enmity may become as though he has always been close to you and a true friend. (41:34)

Believers! No men shall deride other men: it may well be that those [whom they deride] are better than themselves. And no women [shall deride other] women: it may well be that those [whom they deride] are better than themselves. And neither shall you defame yourselves, nor insult one another by [opprobrious] epithets. Ill- seeming is a name connoting wickedness [to be used of one] after he has believed. Those who do not repent are indeed wrongdoers... Do not spy on one another, nor backbite one another. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Surely you would loathe it. And remain God-fearing. God is certainly the One who accepts repentance, and He is Merciful. (49:11-12)

It is a society protected by solid guarantees enshrined in the Qur’ān: “Believers! If any evildoer comes to you with a piece of news, make sure of it first, lest you should wrong others unwittingly and then regret your action.” (49: 6) “Believers! Avoid suspicion as much as possible, for, some such suspicion is a sin. And do not spy on one another.” (49: 12) ‘Believers, shun most suspicions, for in some cases suspicion is injustice, and do not spy on one another” (49: 12) “Believers, do not enter houses other than your own unless you have obtained their residents’ permission and greeted them.” (24: 27) The Prophet Muĥammad clearly states: “All that belongs to a Muslim is inviolable and forbidden to any other Muslim: his blood, personal honour and property.” [Related by Mālik, al-Bukhārī and Muslim]

It is a clean and virtuous society, where promiscuity and loose sexual conduct are stringently outlawed, and where lewd and indecent behaviour is given no room to thrive. It is well protected against all forms of over-indulgence, and against unrestricted exploitation and manipulation of people’s sensual and sexual desires common in many non-Muslim societies, past and present. The principles of this social morality are derived from a host of Qur’ānic directives, a few of which may be cited below.

Those who delight in spreading immoral slander against the believers shall face grievous punishment in this life and in the life to come. God knows, whereas you do not know. (24: 19)

As for the adulteress and the adulterer: flog each of them with a hundred lashes, and let no compassion for them hold you from [carrying out] this law of God, if you truly believe in God and the Last Day; and let their punishment be witnessed by a group of believers. (24: 2)

As for those who accuse chaste women (of adultery] and are unable to produce four witnesses: flog them with eighty lashes. Do not accept their testimony ever after, for they are transgressors. (24: 4)

Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity: this will be most conducive to their purity. God is aware of all they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity and not to display their charms in public beyond what may decently be apparent thereof Hence, let them draw their head-covering over their bosoms. And let them not display their charms except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husbands’ fathers, or their sons, or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their womenfolk, or those whom they rightfully possess, or such male attendants as are beyond all sexual desire, or children who are yet unaware of women’s nakedness. And let them not walk in such a way as to draw attention to their hidden charms. Believers, turn all of you to God in repentance, so that you may be successful. (24: 30-31)

The Qur’ān addresses the Prophet’s wives, the purest women ever to grace this earth, living in the purest house at the purest place in the purest time, saying: “Wives of the Prophet, you are not like any other women, provided you maintain your fear of God. Do not be over- soft in your speech, lest any whose heart is diseased should be moved to desire [you], and always speak in a kindly way. Abide quietly in your homes, and do not flaunt your charms as women used to flaunt them in the old days of pagan ignorance. Attend regularly to your prayers, pay zakāt [the purifying alms], and obey God and His Messenger. Women of the Prophet’s household, God wishes only to remove from you all that might be loathsome, and to totally purify you.” (33: 32-33)

A Caring and Peaceful Society

In such a society husbands and wives grow to trust each other, and people feel that their families and their honour are safe and respected. All society is free from stress and anxiety. There are no salacious or lurid temptations that might lead people to violate the moral codes and norms of society. It is a tranquil and peaceful society.

A Muslim society gives every able-bodied member the opportunity to work and earn a decent living. The infirm and invalid are cared for and helped to lead a dignified life. It provides for those who seek to marry and start a family. It is a society where the residents of a locality are collectively responsible for the death of any one of them through hunger. Some Muslim jurists would charge them with negligence and require them to pay indemnity for manslaughter to his family.

Under the laws of Islam, all basic rights and freedoms are protected and guaranteed; no one may be condemned on suspicion alone. According to Islamic law, illegal entry into homes or private property, invasion of privacy, homicide, theft, or robbery of any kind are strictly forbidden and are punishable crimes.

A Muslim society is built on mutual consultation and cooperation among its members, on equality and rigorous justice, where everyone feels that their rights are subject only to God’s law and not to the fancy or prejudice or interests of any individual or group.

It is, further, the only human society in which people are not subjected to the rule of other people. The whole society, the rulers as well as the ruled, are subordinate to God and His laws, and comply willingly and confidently with His will and order. All stand equal before God, the just Lord of all creation.

These are some aspects of the peace the sūrah invites the believers to enter into in submitting themselves completely to God. The significance of such peace can only be appreciated when one considers the extent of confusion and mental stress plaguing non- Muslim societies as well as societies that have cast Islam and its teachings aside. Despite all the material comfort and progress these societies may achieve, their life remains aimless, confused and miserable.

In a highly developed country like Sweden, for example, people enjoy a high per capita income, free health care and sickness benefit, free education and an array of state grants and easy loans for students. Newly married couples receive financial assistance to help them set up homes. Indeed, in Sweden there are numerous other manifestations of true material affluence. But where is it all leading to in a country where the majority have abandoned their faith in God? It is a society with incurable ills, living under the threat of a rapidly declining birth rate, rampant promiscuity, a high divorce rate (one in six marriages ends in divorce!),1 alcohol and drug addiction, widespread psychological and mental disease and disturbed behaviour, and a rising rate of suicide. The same can be said about the United States or Russia.

Such wretchedness can only be the result of lack of belief in God, without which souls are deprived of happiness, security and peace of mind.

As God calls upon the believers to submit themselves to Him alone, He warns them against following “Satan’s footsteps; he is indeed your open foe.” (Verse 208) There is no third way; it is either God’s Guidance or Satan’s confusion; either the way of Islam or the way of ignorance and foolishness. A Muslim has to be very clear on this point and permit no doubt or hesitation.
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1 The author wrote this in the early 1960s, when such divorce rate was considered very high. Now it is much higher throughout Europe. Other social ills are also at higher peaks. — Editor’s note.
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In life there can be no compromises or half measures; the choice is between right and wrong, guidance and confusion, order and chaos, Islam and unbelief, the way of God and the way of Satan. God invites believers to peace and obedience and warns them against following Satan, in an effort to arouse their emotions and inspire their conscience and to make them conscious of Satan’s avowed enmity to believers. It is a hostility of which the believing heart is ever aware.

The sūrah goes on to point to the consequences of taking that warning lightly, saying: “If you should stumble after all evidence of the truth has come to you, then know that God is Almighty, Wise.” (Verse 209)

The reminder carries awesome power. Those who disregard God’s advice, challenge His power and question the wisdom of His guidance, expose themselves to condemnation and destruction.

At this point the sūrah adopts a different approach to emphasize its previous warnings and speaks in the third person, saying: “Are they waiting for God to reveal Himself to them in the shadows of clouds, together with the angels? The case will have been settled then. To God shall all things return.” (Verse 210)

It condemns those who waver and are reluctant to submit and come into the fold of God’s peace. It questions their motives and the reasons that hold them back, and asks whether they will remain fixed in their obstinacy until such time as God, flanked by angels, should appear to them in person. In other words, are they waiting for the fearful Day of Judgement to arrive? That day will indeed come, and the sūrah moves at once to that momentous day to tell us that everything has been settled. Time has come to a stop. The opportunity to believe and repent has gone for ever. No one could be saved now, as all stand facing their Lord to whom “shall all things return”.

This is an illustration of the unique and effective style of the Qur’ān, which brings to life the scenes it describes, and makes the reader or listener feel, see and hear what is going on as if it were happening now.

How much longer will they dither when the chance to come into the fold of God’s peace is calling, and the final judgement is so close? God’s invitation is a promise of peace and happiness both in this life and the life to come.

A Question Put to the Israelites

The sūrah then addresses the Prophet Muĥammad, ordering him to inquire of the Israelites, described earlier in the sūrah as dithering and hesitant in their response to God’s call: how many signs they chose to disregard and how they abused the privileges God had bestowed upon them and how much they distorted His Message: “Ask the Children of Israel how many a veritable sign We have given them. He who alters the grace of God after it has been bestowed on him [should know that] God is severe in retribution.” (Verse 211)

Referring back to the experience of the Israelites at this juncture is a timely warning to Muslims not to follow their example. Muslims are urged not to hesitate in responding to God’s call, or show any reluctance or stubbornness, or insist on miracles as proof of its authenticity. By avoiding these pitfalls, Muslims will be sure to avoid the Israelites’ fate. The instruction to “ask the Children of Israel” is not meant literally, of course, but purely to introduce the next point: the profusion of evidence presented to them, either at their request or directly given by God, and their persistent refusal to accept and believe in God, or submit themselves to Him.

Having drawn attention to the Israelites’ example, the sūrah makes a general reference to the ‘grace’ of faith and peace, and warns: “He who alters the grace of God after it has been bestowed on him [should know that] God is severe in retribution.” (Verse 211)

Whenever a society turns away from God’s grace and denies His favour, it is beset by tension and strife, as manifested all over the world today in the inordinate spread of stress and depression, social and military conflict, alcohol and drug abuse, and the emergence of extreme and bizarre alternatives to religious faith.

The strange trends in fashion, the arts, entertainment and general social behaviour, which appear almost every day in modern society, as well as the changing social norms relating to marriage and the family, to sexual relations and attitudes, are all indications of social alienation, insecurity, discontent and a lack of direction in life. Modern life seems almost like a demented attempt to escape, where individuals and groups tend to break away from the norm and reject everything, but have no idea what they are looking for. That is the outcome of renouncing God’s teachings, and ignoring His call to enter the fold of faith.

The sūrah then contrasts believers and unbelievers, and the difference in their outlook: “The life of this world has been made alluring to the unbelievers; hence, they scoff at those who believe; but those that fear God shall be above them in rank on the Day of Resurrection. God grants sustenance to whom He wills beyond all reckoning.” (Verse 212)

This life, with its transient concerns and ephemeral interests and enjoyments, is all that the unbelievers know and aspire to. They are unable to see beyond the here-and-now; they know of no greater values or aspirations other than those of life on this earth. Consequently, their scope is limited, their vision is blurred, and they are deprived of the higher understanding and greater reward experienced by believers.

A believer in God may look with disdain at material and worldly things, but that is not due to a negative or pessimistic view of life. It is because a believer seeks more from life than mere material or sensual enjoyment. A believer aims to establish God’s order in society and lead his community towards a better and more fulfilled way of life.

Believers are altruistic in their approach to life; they have high hopes for humanity, and they care for the progress and well-being of others. They look beyond their selfish egotistic needs and desires and make tremendous personal sacrifices for the sake of their beliefs and ideals. From the point of view of a person who only thinks of this life’s concerns and worldly affairs, that might seem strange or even ludicrous. Hence it may evoke scorn and derision from unbelievers.

But what justification could there be for such a reaction? The unbelievers’ opinion is erroneous and utterly false. It is the view of unbelief and ignorance. The true measure is that of God who confirms that “those that fear God shall be above them in rank on the Day of Resurrection”. (Verse 212) Believers should uphold their faith and disregard the mockery and scorn of the unbelievers. They have God’s word that they shall occupy a higher position than those unbelievers on the Day of Resurrection, and that shall be the real test and the final judgement.

What God has in store for believers is far better and far more favourable. They shall be rewarded in abundance, according to God’s wish and wisdom, either here in this life or in the life to come, for “God grants sustenance to whom He wills beyond all reckoning.”

God is the gracious giver who gives directly, generously and with no restriction. In His infinite wisdom, He may give to those who do not believe much of the comforts and allurements of this world. What He grants them is not based on any merit they may have. He also gives to the believers whatever He chooses to grant them both in this life and in the life to come. He is the sole benefactor and His choice is right, wise and most durable.

The two types of human being — believers who take their guidance and advice from God, and others for whom this life is the be-all and end-all, can be found in every age and every generation. The former rise above the trivialities of life to fulfil their humanity and become masters of their world and their destiny, while the latter shall ever be attached to, and enslaved by, the prurient and lewd aspects of life.

Believers will always look from their elevated position on unbelievers, no matter how affluent or influential these may be. Unbelievers, who think they are more fortunate and privileged, may well be contemptuous of the faithful, but it is they who deserve pity and commiseration.

A Single Community and Divergent Views

The sūrah continues to elaborate on the differences among human beings in their beliefs, outlook, values and standards, concluding with a statement identifying the ultimate judgement and criteria to pronounce on those differences.

All mankind were once one single community. Then God sent forth Prophets to give them good tidings and to warn them, and with them He sent down the Book, setting forth the truth, to judge between people over all on which they differed. Yet none other than those who had been given the Book started, out of injustice to one another, to dispute it after clear evidence of the truth had come to them. God, by His will, guided the believers to the truth concerning which they had differed. God guides whom He will to the straight path. (Verse 213)

That is it in a nutshell! Humanity emerged as a single community, living according to the same code and upholding similar beliefs. This may be taken as reference to the very first nucleus of human beings to live on earth, consisting of Adam, Eve and their offspring, before they multiplied and adopted various beliefs and ways of life. What the Qur’ān asserts here, however, is that mankind shares the same origin and that we are members of the same human family. Such was the will of God, to instil the family principle in human life and establish it as the cornerstone of the human community. Time was when that early group remained close-knit and uniform in its outlook and understanding, but it was later to grow, multiply and scatter in various directions; their way of life evolved in different ways, and so did their mental and cultural abilities and norms. New trends, fresh ideas and advanced social and cultural forms emerged which, as God knew, would be useful and advantageous to human society.

With progress and diversity came differences, disagreements and divisions. New beliefs, traditions and ideologies appeared and were accepted in various degrees by various communities. It was then that God, in His infinite wisdom, decided to send forth Prophets to convey the promise of success and to warn against deviation. With the Prophets, God “sent down the Book, setting forth the truth, to judge between people over all on which they differed.” (Verse 213)

Here is a profound truth: it is in the nature of human beings to differ and disagree. Such a propensity is fundamental to the human disposition, and essential for the fulfilment of man’s role as God’s servant on earth. This task calls for a divergence of functions, aptitudes and talents that are compatible and complementary to one another and come together in harmony, according to God’s universal scheme and wisdom. Different needs require different abilities.

Differences of ability and function lead to differences in perception, outlook, interests, approach and method. These differences and variations, however, are harmonized and regulated within the wide, all-embracing framework of the divine order of faith where abilities, faculties and resources are given the best chance to grow and develop for the good of the individual and the community, as well as for the benefit of humanity at large.

However, it is essential that there should be a proper and valid by which differences and divisions may be judged and evaluated. Such a point of reference is alluded to in the sūrah when it says that God: “sent down the Book, setting forth the truth, to judge between people over all on which they differed”. (Verse 213)

It is worth pausing here to consider the statement that the Book is “setting forth the truth”. This is an affirmation that the Book, the revelation from God to mankind, has come with the definitive and absolute truth. It is the ultimate, pre-eminent and sole arbiter and judge of all human thought and behaviour. Without this authority society would be at a loss, life would descend into chaos, confusion and strife, and mankind would know no peace or happiness.

This is vital in determining the source of human values, thought and understanding, and for defining the laws that govern human relations. The source is God, and God alone, who has sent down revelations, the Book, to establish the truth and maintain harmony, justice and peace in the world.

The Book is, in essence, one and the same, whose message all Messengers had delivered. Its teachings convey a faith based on belief in one God and the same set of laws and values for all mankind. As time goes on, changes occur according to peoples’ needs from generation to generation, and from one stage of development to another, culminating in the ultimate version of God’s message represented by the Islamic faith. Under the caring eye of God Almighty and the vibrant and dynamic laws and teachings of divine revelation, Islam took the scope of human experience to new horizons, enabling man to reach new heights of progress and achievement within the all-embracing framework of values provided by the faith.

What the Qur’ān states here is the definitive Islamic view of the origin and development of religion and religious ideology in the world. Briefly stated, this says that every Prophet came with teachings based on the fundamental principle of God’s absolute oneness. Inevitably, after some time, deviations and myths crept in, causing people to depart from the original authentic traditions and teachings, thereby precipitating the need for a new Prophet and a new set of teachings to revive and restore the preceding one, taking into account the mental, cultural and material developments and changes society had undergone and the new conditions prevailing. This is a far more estimable theory of the history of religion than others advanced by secular thinkers, and unwittingly adopted by some Muslim students of religion.

The united kinship of religious faith is congruous with the role and function of the Book God has revealed to mankind at every phase through all the Prophets and messengers, throughout human history.

The fact is that it was necessary for a definite and firm standard to exist as a reference point for all mankind. It was likewise necessary that this standard should come from a source above the human mind and independent from it. It had to come from an impartial source, not encumbered or swayed by human prejudices or shortcomings.

Such a responsibility requires an infinite and comprehensive knowledge of past, present and future events, not restricted by the limitations of time and space. It also requires perfection, total self- sufficiency, and freedom from all the needs, instincts, ambitions, desires and fears that constrain and control human beings. It can then be given only by God who is influenced neither by personal purpose, prejudice or desire, nor by weakness or shortcoming.

Man’s role is one of facing change and coping with new circumstances and needs that arise as a result of it and of adapting to them within the prevailing conditions. The divine criteria act as a reference point and a guide, directing mankind to what is best and most advantageous. Thus life proceeds along proper lines and people are confident that their fate and destiny are in the hands of an impartial, fair and caring God.

The Book was not revealed in order to eliminate or restrict the differences and variety in human talent, ability or inclination, but it is there as an arbiter and a reference point whenever disputes and controversies arise.

This argument gives rise to another fundamental aspect of the Islamic view of human history. Islam considers the Book revealed by God as a criterion and an arbiter for mankind, a foundation for human life on which it can rise or fall. Society will progress and improve as long as it adheres to the teachings of God’s Book, and it will falter and deviate when it neglects them, even if this was the choice of the majority in society. Right and wrong are not to be decided by human individuals or through a ballot box. The Islamic view is that the norms, traditions, systems, and laws people may adopt and accept as a way of life for human society at any particular time in history have no merit or consistency if they are at variance or in contradiction with God’s Book. The whole philosophy on which such a way of life is based would be discredited, no matter how durable it might prove in practice.

This argument is important in protecting the foundations of religious thought against human interference. In Muslim society, for example, serious deviations have occurred at certain stages of its history, and such deviation continued to move further away. But it would be a travesty of the truth to argue that these darker chapters are in any way representative of the true image or spirit of Muslim life. Islam, as a religion and a way of life, will remain unsullied by that inauspicious history, which must be discredited and renounced. For genuine Islamic life to be resumed and a distinctive Muslim society to be rebuilt, deviant practices that might have occurred at certain periods of Muslim history have to be cast aside. Reference should be made again directly to the Book that God has revealed, containing the whole truth as arbiter and guide for all mankind.

The sūrah goes on to explain why people allowed their whims and prejudices to cause them to neglect God’s Book and turn away from the truth and the guidance it had brought them: “Yet none other than those who had been given the Book started, out of injustice to one another, to dispute it after clear evidence of the truth had come to them.” (Verse 213) Jealousy, greed, caprice and self-aggrandizement were some of the motives behind the divisions, disagreements and conflict that have beset mankind throughout history.

No two people could disagree over the veracity and authenticity of God’s revelations unless one or both of them are adversely motivated. True believers are in full agreement: “God, by His will, guided the believers to the truth concerning which they had differed. God guides whom He will to the straight path.” (Verse 213)

God guides believers to the true and straight path outlined by His revelations, for their sincerity and devotion and for their genuine desire to seek the truth and live by the truth. God, in His infinite wisdom, bestows such grace and privilege on those who earn it with their passion and enthusiasm for the truth. Those are they who shall be liberated to enjoy peace and happiness and the favour of God Almighty. They are the ones who submit themselves totally to God, and they are the ones who are granted the highest position by God. This is true even though people who are ignorant of God’s standards may think them to lead a deprived sort of life in this world. It is true even though they may be derided or scoffed at by foolish unbelievers.

When Will God’s Help Arrive?

As it comes to a close, this highly instructive passage addresses the fearful adversity the believers encountered as a result of their disagreement and confrontation with the Arab unbelievers on the one hand, and with the followers of earlier religions, such as the Jews, on the other. The sūrah reassures the believers that what they faced was part of the experience and education they needed to qualify for God’s reward in paradise. Believers must defend their faith and, in doing so, have to face up to numerous challenges and much hardship. They will experience triumphs as well as setbacks. If they persevere and stand firm and hold on to their beliefs and convictions, they will earn God’s succour and trust. They will deserve to be the custodians of God’s message in this world. Their reward will be in paradise in the life to come. It is a fitting reward for their courage in defeating their own selfishness and greed, resisting all manner of temptation, and refusing to surrender their life and destiny to any other power or authority except that of God Almighty.

Do you reckon that you will enter paradise while you have not suffered like those [believers] who passed away before you? Affliction and adversity befell them, and so terribly shaken were they that the messenger and the believers with him would exclaim, ‘When will God’s help come?’ Surely, God’s help is close at hand. (Verse 214)

With these poignant and profound words, and in this direct manner, God addresses the founding community of Islam, drawing their attention to the experiences of their fellow believers before them who were entrusted with the same task of establishing the divine code of living on earth. Nevertheless, the message in these words is timeless. It is directed to all human groups to whom God assigns that honourable task.

It is an awesome experience that drives God’s own Messenger and those who have accepted the faith close to despair and makes there cry out with frustration: “ ‘When will God’s help come?’ “ It is a picture of great trepidation and unimaginable apprehension that cause a believer’s faith to be tested so severely and shaken in such a profound manner. However, with determination and steadfastness, God’s help is sure to arrive, for “Surely, God’s help is close at hand.”

God’s support that ensures victory is reserved for those who earn it: those who persevere and stand firm to the end in the face of all adversity and misfortune, never wavering but always certain that God’s help is on its way. No matter how severe the ordeal may become, true believers will always look to God, and to God alone, for salvation and support. By displaying such faith and trust in God, believers are deservedly rewarded by being admitted into paradise.

The dynamic of social and religious struggle reinforces the human spirit and encourages man to rise above his own ego and so emerge purer and stronger, ready to uphold the faith with greater energy and vigour. Thus, believers become a shining role model even for their most ardent adversaries, some of whom are liable to be impressed and join ranks with the believers, as witnessed throughout human history. But even if this were not the case, something else much greater and much more admirable happens: advocates of God’s order are liberated from subordination to any worldly power or temptation. Life and its comforts become of no real consequence, and man assumes control of his world, which can only mean a triumph for humanity and the human spirit as a whole.

The ingredients of success are faith, hard work, sacrifice, and perseverance. With those, victory is guaranteed and the road to greater, everlasting rewards, to eternal bliss, is direct and clear.

Nov. 17th, 2012

SŪRAH 2 Al-Baqarah (The (Female) Cow)

11 The Sacred Months, Fighting and Pilgrimage

When We assigned to Abraham the site of the [Sacred] House, [We said], Do not associate anything as partner with Me. Purify My House for those who will walk around it, and those who will stand before it, and those who will bow down and prostrate themselves in prayer. Proclaim to all people the duty of pilgrimage. They will come to you on foot and on every kind of fast mount. They will come from every faraway quarter, so that they might experience much that shall be of benefit to them, and that they might extol the name of God on the days appointed [for sacrifice], over whatever heads of cattle He may have provided for them. Eat, then, of such [sacrificed cattle] and feed the unfortunate poor. Thereafter let them complete the rites prescribed for them, fulfil their vows, and again walk around the Ancient House...Anyone who honours the symbols set up by God [shows evidence of] God-consciousness in people’s hearts. You have benefit in them for a term appointed; and in the end their place of sacrifice is near the Ancient House...The sacrifice of camels We have ordained for you as one of the symbols set up by God, in which there is much good for you. Hence, extol the name of God over them when they are lined up [for sacrifice]; and after they have fallen lifeless to the ground, eat of their meat, and feed the poor who is contented with his lot, as well as the one who is forced to beg. It is to this end that We have made them subservient to your needs, so that you might have cause to be grateful. Never does their meat or their blood reach God; it is your piety that reaches Him. It is to this end that He has made them subservient to your needs, so that you might glorify God for all the guidance with which He has graced you. Give good news to those who do good.

These verses make specific reference to offering animals for sacrifice, walking around the Ka`bah (ţawāf), the rites of iĥrām1 (consecration), and the invocation of God’s name, all of which constitute the basic rites of the pilgrimage. The Muslims were addressed with these words as the heirs of Abraham, indicating that the pilgrimage had been instituted at an early stage as part of the legacy of Abraham. The fact that Muslims, for various practical reasons, had not been able to perform the pilgrimage is beside the point. However, as mentioned earlier in this volume, individual Muslims had been able to perform the pilgrimage since the Ka`bah was re-instituted as the qiblah in the second year of the Islamic calendar.

Let us now take a closer look at the verses on pilgrimage in this sūrah and the instructive message they convey.

Perform to their completion both the pilgrimage and the `Umrah purely for God’s sake. If you are prevented from doing so, then make whatever offering you can easily afford. Do not shave your heads until the offerings have reached their appointed destination. If any of you is ill or suffers from an ailment of the head, he shall redeem himself by fasting, or alms, or sacrifice. When you are in safety, then he who takes advantage of performing the `Umrah before the pilgrimage shall make whatever offering he can easily afford; but he who lacks the means shall fast three days during the pilgrimage and seven more days on returning home; that is, ten days in all. All this applies to those whose families are not resident in the vicinity of the Sacred Mosque. Fear God, and know well that God is severe in retribution. (Verse 196)
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1 Iĥrām, or consecration, involves that men discard their normal clothes and wear simple unsewn garments, refraining from shaving or cutting one’s hair, covering the head, clipping one’s nails, hunting, and sexual contact with one’s spouse. This state is assumed at specified locations outside Makkah, each known as mīqāt, and for the main part of the pilgrimage and the whole of the `Umrah. Women observe the same restrictions but wear their normal clothes.
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The first thing to notice about this verse is the precision with which it treats the subject. It is divided into a number of short, well-defined instructions. Any exceptions or provisions relating to each ruling are made immediately before moving on to the next. The passage is rounded off with a strong emphasis on God-fearing.

The first article stresses the fact that once one has decided to perform the pilgrimage or the `Umrah, one must do so in full and dedicate one’s actions to God: “Perform to their completion both the pilgrimage and the `Umrah purely for God’s sake.” Some scholars have taken this statement as instituting the pilgrimage as a religious duty, while others have understood it to be a mere instruction that once one begins performing the pilgrimage, one should go on to complete its rites. The latter interpretation seems more accurate, since the `Umrah is not universally considered by scholars an obligatory duty. Nevertheless, the order to complete the rites, once begun, applies equally to the pilgrimage and the `Umrah. The latter involves the same rites with the exception of attending at `Arafāt, but differs in that it can be performed any time throughout the year.

Exemption from completing the pilgrimage or the `Umrah is granted when one is prevented from doing so either by an enemy or, by illness or other exceptional circumstances. This is universally accepted by all schools of thought. The same applies to the case of being prevented from completing the rites. “If you are prevented from doing so, then make whatever offering you can easily afford.” (Verse 196) If prevented by force, a pilgrim offers a sacrifice within the means at his disposal. He would then be able to terminate his state of consecration, or iĥrām, at the point he reached, even though he might not have performed any of the rituals other than going into the state of consecration.

Such a situation arose in the sixth year of the Islamic calendar when the pagan Arabs prevented the Prophet and his Companions from entering Makkah and visiting the Sacred Mosque. The Muslims had camped at al-Ĥudaybiyah, about 25 kilometres west of Makkah, where eventually the famous truce agreement was signed between the Quraysh and the Muslims. It stipulated that the Prophet and his followers would be free to return for `Umrah the following year. Some reports indicate that this verse was revealed at that time, and, accordingly, the Prophet ordered his Companions to make their sacrifices at al-Ĥudaybiyah and terminate their state of consecration, or iĥrām. Some of them showed reluctance, finding it difficult to release themselves from iĥrām before making the offerings at the appropriate place. But once the Prophet took the initiative and offered his sacrifice there, the rest followed suit.

The verse refers to “whatever offering you can easily afford” This includes animals such as camels, cows, sheep, or goats. A pilgrim should sacrifice whatever he can easily afford, and several people may share in a single camel or cow. In the `Umrah of al-Ĥudaybiyah, as many as seven people shared in the sacrifice of one camel. On the other hand, one person may choose to offer a sheep or a goat, which would suffice. The exemption serves to mitigate hardship such as that encountered at al-Ĥudaybiyah, or which might arise as a result of illness.

The essential aim of such a religious practice is to revive one’s awareness of God and draw closer to Him. If this is disrupted by threats from a hostile quarter, a disabling illness or the like, pilgrims are not deprived of the rewards they would have received had they completed the pilgrimage or the `Umrah. They are, therefore, instructed to proceed with making the offerings as if they had completed the intended rituals. This compassionate attitude is well in line with the spirit of Islam and its view of the purpose of worship.

Then follows another rule relating to the performance of pilgrimage and `Umrah: “Do not shave your heads until the offerings have reached their appointed destination.” (Verse 196)

This, of course, applies under normal peaceful conditions. A pilgrim is not to shave his head, which precedes the termination of the state of consecration, or iĥrām, until he has made his offerings at the designated place and time. This is done at Mind on the tenth day of Dhu’l-Ĥijjah, after attendance the previous day at the plain of `Arafāt. Once the offerings are made, a pilgrim may release himself from consecration.

Here we have another exemption: “If any of you is ill or suffers from an ailment of the head, he shall redeem himself by fasting, or alms, or sacrifice.” (Verse 196) Islam is a practical and humane religion, and if there are grounds of health that would require shaving one’s head, one would be permitted to do so while in the state of iĥrām, even before the destination for offering the sacrifice is reached or the appropriate rituals are completed. The concession, however, is balanced with a compensation which has been set as a three-day fast from dawn to dusk, the feeding of six needy people, or slaughtering a sheep and giving its meat to the poor.

This is supported by what the Prophet Muĥammad said to Ka`b ibn `Ajrah when the latter was brought to him during the pilgrimage, having suffered a severe infection so that lice were crawling all over his face. The Prophet said: “I would not have thought you could have reached such a dire state. Can you afford a sheep?” Ka`b said he could not. The Prophet said to him: “Fast for three days, or feed six needy people, giving each half a şā` of food, and shave your head.” (One şā` is an Arabian measure equivalent to four times the fill of a man’s hands cupped together.)

The sūrah gives another ruling relating to the pilgrimage and the `Umrah: “When you are in safety, then he who takes advantage of performing the `Umrah before the pilgrimage shall make whatever offering he can easily afford.” (Verse 196) The sacrifice is required of those who are able to complete the rituals of both duties. Let us look at the matter in more detail.

One form of tamattu`, which is referred to in this verse as ‘taking advantage of performing both duties of pilgrimage and `Umrah, involves the performance of the `Umrah separately, prior to performing the pilgrimage. To do this, one sets off for `Umrah, goes into iĥrām at the appointed location, performs the rites of `Umrah, which include ţawāf around the Ka`bah and sa`ī between Şafā and Marwah, and shaving one’s head or trimming one’s hair to release oneself from consecration. One then waits for the time of the pilgrimage to re-enter into iĥrām, or consecration, for the pilgrimage. This is valid only if the `Umrah is offered within the appointed months of pilgrimage: Shawwāl, Dhu’l-Qa’dah and the first ten days of Dhu’l-Ĥijjah.

Another form of tamattu` is when one goes into iĥrām, at the appointed location, with the intention of combining both `Umrah and pilgrimage. On arrival in Makkah, the `Umrah is performed, after which the pilgrim maintains his iĥrām until he has performed the rest of the rites of the pilgrimage at the proper time.

In both cases, pilgrims are required to make such offerings as they can afford and are available. Animals such as camels, cows, sheep and goats can be offered for this purpose.

Those who lack the means need to fulfil an alternative requirement. “He who lacks the means shall fast three days during the pilgrimage and seven more days on returning home; that is, ten days in all.” (Verse 196) It is recommended that fasting should be undertaken over the three days before attendance at `Arafāt on the ninth day of Dhu’l-Ĥijjah. The other seven days of fasting are undertaken following one’s arrival back home, a total of ten days in all, as the Qur’ān clearly points out.

The idea here apparently is to keep the pilgrims’ hearts and minds attached to God during the interval between the `Umrah and the pilgrimage. The requirement of sacrifice or fasting perhaps aims to maintain the feeling of being closer to God in the period between the `Umrah and pilgrimage. Thus, lifting the restrictions of consecration, or iĥrām, after performing the `Umrah would not lead people away from the highly spiritual atmosphere that the pilgrimage generates.

Since those who live close to the Sacred Mosque are required to perform the pilgrimage only, and not the `Umrah, they cannot have the option of tamattu`. They have no sacrifice to offer and, consequently, the ruling of fasting ten days instead does not apply to them, either: “This applies to those whose families are not resident in the vicinity of the Sacred Mosque.” (Verse 196)

At this juncture the sūrah draws attention to a vital and fundamental aspect of man’s relationship with God. It exhorts: “Fear God, and know well that He is severe in retribution.” (Verse 196) The requirement for proper observance of these rulings would be an ever-present sense of God-fearing, and an appreciation of the awesome power of His retribution. By its very nature, iĥrām invokes a high sense of awareness” of God and an eagerness not to incur His displeasure, which must be maintained, with equal vigour and sincerity, during the interval when the pilgrims are relieved from the restrictions of iĥrām. Pilgrims are expected to remain vigilant and self-controlled throughout the whole period.

The sūrah proceeds to give further details of the pilgrimage rituals. It defines the time of the year in which it is valid and explains further the values to be observed in its performance. Like the preceding passage, it closes with an exhortation to fear God at all times.

“The pilgrimage takes place in the months appointed for it. Whoever undertakes the pilgrimage in those months shall, while on pilgrimage, abstain from lewdness, all wicked conduct and wrangling. Whatever good you do God is well aware of it. Provide well for yourselves: the best provision of all is to be God-fearing. Fear Me, then, you who are endowed with insight.” (Verse 197)

The text is clear that pilgrimage may be undertaken only within a specified period of the year, which extends over the months of Shawwāl, Dhu’l-Qa’dah and the first ten days of Dhu’l-Ĥijjah, the last three months in the Islamic lunar year. Accordingly — and this is the view held by the Shāfi`ī school of thought and attributed to the reputable scholars Ibn `Abbās, Jābir, `Aţā’, Ţāwūs and Mujāhid— iĥrām for the purpose of pilgrimage is valid only when undertaken during this specified period, known as the “pilgrimage months”. However, Mālik, Abū Ĥanīfah and Aĥmad ibn Ĥanbal, as well as Ibrāhīm al-Nakha`ī, al-Thawrī and al-Layth ibn Sa`d, hold that iĥrām for pilgrimage is valid all the year round. Nevertheless, they restrict the actual performance of the pilgrimage rituals to the period of the year specified in the sūrah. The former view appears to reflect more closely the meaning of the Qur’ānic text.

Once a commitment is made to perform the pilgrimage, by entering into the state of iĥrām during the pilgrimage months, the would-be pilgrim “must abstain from lewdness, all wicked conduct and wrangling.” This is a call for total abstinence from all interests, preoccupations and behaviour that are in conflict with, or distract from, the spirit of total devotion and obedience to God which should prevail during pilgrimage. It entails rising above worldly pursuits, total devotion to God alone, and seeking to acquire the necessary humility when conducting oneself at His Sacred Mosque. Donning the unsewn garments of iĥrām is the signal that the pilgrim has discarded all that relates to worldly position or possession, including ordinary clothes.

Having pointed out what should be avoided, the sūrah conveys the reassurance that “Whatever good you do, God is well aware of it.” (Verse 197) This would be the greatest incentive for the believer to perform more good deeds, and to have God witness more of his devotion, which is in itself a source of contentment and recompense.

God then calls on the pilgrims to provide for themselves, physically and spiritually, in preparation for the challenging and demanding experience of pilgrimage.

It has been reported that a group of Yemeni pilgrims set off for pilgrimage without carrying any provisions for the journey, claiming that, since they were intending to visit God’s Sacred House, He would surely provide for them. This conflicts directly with Islamic teaching that while one should rely on God and put one’s trust in Him, one should also seek the necessary practical means and take all measures to look after oneself. Furthermore, such an attitude smacks of impertinence towards God; the implication that God is obliged to provide is one of condescending arrogance.

Hence the emphatic exhortation: “Provide well for yourselves: the best provision of all is to be God-fearing. Fear Me, then, you who are endowed with insight.” (Verse 197) The fear of God is a real source of both material and spiritual sustenance. It provides the human mind and body with strength, refinement and physical and moral support. Those with insight and understanding would be the first to appreciate this directive and benefit from divine provision.

The sūrah outlines more pilgrimage rules. It explains that it is permitted for pilgrims to engage in trade or employment during the pilgrimage period. It also adds further elaboration of rituals.

“It is no sin for you to seek the bounty of your Lord. When you surge downward from `Arafāt, remember God at al-Mash`ar al-Ĥarām [the sacred landmark of Muzdalifah]. Remember Him who has given you guidance. Before this, you were certainly in error. Surge onwards from the place where all other pilgrims surge and pray God to forgive you. God is much-Forgiving, ever-Merciful” (Verses 198-199)

Al-Bukhārī reports that Ibn Abbās said that this verse was revealed because people used to feel uneasy about conducting trade during the pilgrimage as they did in pre-Islamic days in such markets as `Ukāż, Mijannah and Dhu’l-Majāz. Abū Dāwūd also quotes Ibn Abbās as saying that the verse was revealed because people used to avoid trading during the pilgrimage season, as they considered it a time for worship and devotion.

Abū Umāmah al-Taymī asked Abdullāh ibn `Umar: “While on pilgrimage we offer transport services for hire. Is our pilgrimage valid?” Ibn `Umar said, “Do you not make ţawāf around the Ka`bah, do good deeds, throw the stones, and shave your heads?” When Abū Umāmah replied that they did all those things, Ibn `Umar said, “When the Prophet was asked the same question, he gave no answer until the angel Gabriel conveyed to him the verse which states: “It is no sin for you to seek the bounty of your Lord.”

Abū Şāliĥ, an attendant of `Umar, the second Caliph, is reported to have asked him whether people used to conduct trade during the pilgrimage season. `Umar replied, “Indeed! People had no other way of earning a living!”

This reluctance to conduct trade and business during the pilgrimage season is but one aspect of the new sensitivity and awareness that Islam had brought to people’s minds, giving them a new attitude towards their pre-Islamic way of life. Muslims would seek to know the view of Islam, or await instructions, before performing certain actions or adopting certain modes of behaviour, as explained earlier with reference to the ritual of sa`ī between the two hills of Şafā and Marwah.

Thus, trading and commercial activity, including letting and leasing, are permitted during pilgrimage. In fact, the Qur’ān describes such activities as a means of seeking “the bounty of your Lord”. Thus, anyone who seeks to earn some income through trade and business in pilgrimage should feel that he only seeks God’s bounty and that whatever he receives is given to him by God. It is not his own efforts that give him his earnings. It is God, the generous giver who gives us all we have. Once this is appreciated by the pilgrim, he will realize that even as he is trading, he is in a state of devotion to God which in no way violates or defiles his observance of the pilgrimage duties. Once this principle is established in believers’ hearts and minds, Islam allows them total freedom to pursue their interests, every one of which would in itself be considered a valid act of worship.

It is not by chance, therefore, that a verse dealing with the rituals of pilgrimage should also include instructions on earning through trade and commercial activities.

“When you surge downward from `Arafāt, remember God at al-Mash`ar al-Ĥarām. Remember Him who has given you guidance. Before this you were certainly in error.” (Verse 198) Attendance at `Arafāt is the central duty of the pilgrimage. It is authentically reported on the authority of `Abd al-Raĥmān al-Daylamī that the Prophet Muĥammad said: “The pilgrimage is attendance at `Arafāt. [He repeated this three times.] He who arrives at `Arafāt before the break of dawn [on the tenth day of Dhu’l-Ĥijjah] will have fulfilled this duty. The days of Minā are three; those who depart after only two days incur no sin, nor do those who stay longer.”

The scheduled time for attendance at `Arafāt begins at noon on the Day of `Arafāt, the ninth day of the Muslim lunar month of Dhu’l-Ĥijjah, and ends at the break of dawn the following morning, the Day of Sacrifice. Aĥmad ibn Ĥanbal, however, is of the opinion that the time begins at the break of day, rather than at noon, on the Day of `Arafāt. This is based on the report by `Urwah al-Ţā’ī that he had gone up to the Prophet, as he was going to prayer at Muzdalifah, and explained to him that having come from a long way away both he and his camel were on the point of exhaustion, and that he had done his best to stand at every hill he had passed, and wanted to know whether his pilgrimage would still be valid. The Prophet replied: “Anyone who has joined us in the prayer today and stands with us until we move on, having already been present in `Arafāt at any time, night or day, has completed the pilgrimage and fulfilled his obligations.”

Perfect Devotion at Every Move

The Prophet laid down this rule and extended the time to the break of dawn on the Day of Sacrifice, the tenth of Dhu’l-Ĥijjah, in order to distinguish Islamic practice from that of the pagan Arabs.

Al-Musawwar ibn Makhramah, a Companion of the Prophet reports that, in his address at `Arafāt, the Prophet began with praising and glorifying God before saying: “This is the grand day of pilgrimage. The polytheists and the idolaters used to leave `Arafāt before the sun had set, when it was still visible over mountain tops looking like men’s turbans. But we depart before the sun rises, our practice being distinctly different to theirs.”

The established tradition adopted by the Prophet was to depart from `Arafāt after sunset. In an authentic ĥadīth related by Muslim, Jābir ibn `Abdullāh reports that “the Prophet remained at `Arafāt until the sun began to set, the sky reddened and the sun’s disc completely disappeared. With Usāmah behind him on the same camel, he was pulling hard on the reins of his she-camel until her head would hit the saddle. He motioned with his right hand, saying, ‘Stay calm! Stay calm!’ He relaxed his grip on the reins at every hill so that the camel could climb with ease. On arrival at Muzdalifah, he prayed maghrib and `ishā’ with a single adhān and two separate iqāmahs. He did not separate the two obligatory prayers with any glorification of God. After that he lay down to rest until dawn, when he got up and offered the fajr prayer when the light of day began to appear. The prayer was preceded by adhān and iqāmah. The Prophet then mounted his camel and headed towards al-Mash`ar alĤarām. There he faced the qiblah and embarked on a lengthy devotional prayers and praise of God until the light of day was bright. He then set off before the sun had risen.” This is the practice outlined in the sūrah as it says:

“When you surge downward from `Arafāt, remember God at al-Mash`ar al-Ĥarām. Remember Him who has given you guidance. Before this you were certainly in error.” (Verse 198)

The Qur’ān exhorts Muslims to invoke God’s name following their departure from `Arafāt. It reminds them that this is part of the guidance God favoured them with, and that their actions are an expression of gratitude for that favour. They are also reminded of the gloom and despair that had marked their way of life prior to Islam: “Remember Him who has given you guidance. Before this you were certainly in error.”

Those early Muslims were fully aware of this profound truth. They were only a few years away from the pagan Arab way of life, with its lamentable religious ignorance and its worship of idols, jinn and angels, who were also conceived to be daughters of God, while the jinn were thought to be His in-laws. Such foolish superstitions had in turn led to confusion in religious practices. These included the unjustified and unexplained prohibition of the meat of certain animals, or the meat from their backs, and the sacrifice of children to idols, gods or jinn.

Pre-Islamic Arab life was plagued with a host of socially unjust and morally corrupt practices. The sūrah points specifically to one of them here, class distinction, by commanding: “Surge onwards from the place where all other pilgrims surge.”

The Arabs’ decadence was also shown in the senseless and bloody tribal conflicts which at the time had totally undermined their position in the world. It was further reflected in the near-total confusion of their sexual mores, marriage customs, and family relationships in general. It was apparent in the injustice inflicted upon the weak by the strong, in the total absence of ethical or legal guarantees to restore the balance. Above all, it was manifested in the Arabs’ marginal existence and insignificance on the world stage, which had only begun to be redressed with the advent of Islam.

The Qur’ānic words, “Remember Him who has given you guidance. Before this you were certainly in error,” brought all that dark history back to the Muslims’ minds, and led them to consider their new life under Islam, to reflect on God’s grace in guiding them, and to appreciate its value and role in shaping their existence. This remains true for Muslims of all nations and generations. Without Islam they would fall into utter insignificance.

Islam has been the main force that has transformed Muslims’ lives and lifted them from tiny, subservient and confused communities to a great pioneering nation. Muslims appreciate this transformation only when they sincerely and diligently adopt Islam and build their whole way of life on its principles. In fact, all mankind needs Islam’s guidance and blessings. This is confirmed, and highly appreciated, by those who come into the fold of Islam after having lived a different life. They find the contrast immeasurable.

As a believer in Islam reflects on the social philosophies and ideologies developed and adopted by various societies throughout human history, he is usually astonished by their triviality, misery, pettiness and confusion when compared with Islam. In some societies man, to his great disadvantage, seems to have chosen the reckless course of denying his instinctive need for God and His care and guidance. That is precisely what is being emphasized in this sūrah when God says: “Remember that He has given you guidance. Before this you were certainly in error.” (Verse 198)

Returning to the main theme of this passage, one can also describe the pilgrimage as the greatest gathering of Muslims from all over the globe. They are brought together under the single banner of Islam, abandoning all their former racial, cultural and national ties. The unsewn iĥrām garments they don when they are in the state of consecration are symbolic in more senses than one. All pilgrims wearing these garments stand on the same level, with no distinctions of tribal or ethnic kinship. Islam is the only unifying factor:

In pre-Islamic days, the Quraysh used to give themselves certain privileges to distinguish them from the rest of the Arabs during the pilgrimage. They arrogantly referred to themselves as al-hums, or the pure. One such privilege the Quraysh had granted themselves was that they did not attend at `Arafāt, and so approached Muzdalifah from a different direction to that of other pilgrims. These Qur’ānic instructions eliminated this anomaly and bound the Quraysh to observe the same pilgrimage rituals as the rest of the Muslims, removing all false distinction: “Surge onwards from the place where all other pilgrims surge and pray God to forgive you. God is much-Forgiving, ever-Merciful.’’

Al-Bukhārī relates a report by `Ā’ishah, the Prophet’s wife, in which she said, “The Quraysh and those who followed its lead used to attend at Muzdalifah, and they were known as al-hums, while the rest of the Arabs attended at `Arafāt. But God’s Messenger was instructed to go to `Arafāt, spend the day there, and then leave it for Muzdalifah, and this is what the verse refers to.”

Islam transcends kinship and class distinction, and treats all human beings as belonging to one nation; the sole distinction being their fear of, and obedience to, God Almighty. The pilgrimage ritual of iĥrām requires all pilgrims to abandon their usual clothing in order to appear equal, and it would be inconsistent to allow them to boast of their lineage or ancestry.

All prejudices and manifestations of pride and vanity must be discarded during the pilgrimage. Pilgrims are instructed to direct their devotion, praise and pleas to God, to pray for forgiveness for their errors and excesses, large and small. They ought to keep their minds, hearts and souls pure of all thoughts of lewdness, transgression, wicked conduct and wrangling of any kind. Through the pilgrimage, Muslims are educated in the wide fundamental principles of Islam: the equality of man and the rejection of discrimination on the basis of caste, race, language, or any other differences. Should they deviate or become negligent, they are urged to seek God’s guidance and forgiveness.

The Journey Approaches Its End

When you have fulfilled your sacred duties, remember God as you remember your fathers — nay with a yet keener remembrance. Some people say, ‘Our Lord, give us abundance in this world.’ They shall have no share in the rewards of the life to come. There are others who say, ‘Our Lord, grant us what is good in this world and what is good in the life to come and protect us from the torment of the fire.’ These shall have their portion in return for what they have earned; for God is swift in reckoning. (Verses 200-202)

Prior to Islam, the Arabs had no mission or message to take them outside the confines of the Arabian Peninsula. They would throng to the famous market places of `Ukāż, Mijannah, and Dhu’l-Majāz, not only to trade and exchange material goods, but also to display their tribal pride, eulogize their ancestors and celebrate their past glories. These were occasions for showing off their poetic and literary prowess. They had no other culturally or nationally significant pursuits to attract their interest or encourage them to mix with or explore other cultures and societies.

With the advent of Islam, however, they acquired a fresh outlook on life, a great responsibility, and a definite purpose. The Qur’ān prompted them in their new direction: “When you have fulfilled your sacred duties, remember God as you remember your fathers — nay with a yet keener remembrance.” (Verse 200)

The irony of this statement would not have escaped them. It ridicules their infatuation with their forefathers and instructs them to correct their behaviour by devoting their attention completely to God, and with far greater diligence. Just as they are required to abandon their normal dress for the untailored, plain garments of iĥrām, they are directed to break free from their racial and ethnic prejudices. It is made clear to them that devotion to God alone, and not to their ancestral glory, will take them to higher attainments in this world.

Man’s destiny is determined, and his credentials evaluated, according to how close his way of life is to God. “Some people say, ‘Our Lord, give us abundance in this world.’ They shall have no share in the rewards of the life to come. There are others who say, ‘Our Lord, grant us what is good in this world and what is good in the life to come and protect us from the torment of the fire. ‘These shall have their portion in return for what they have earned; for God is swift in reckoning.” (Verses 200-202)

There are two types of people: those who care only for the here and now and devote their energies to nothing else, and those with a wider vision and more far reaching concerns, who are conscious of God and who seek happiness in this life without forfeiting their share of life to come.

Ibn `Abbās reported that this verse was revealed with reference to those Arabs who, on pilgrimage day, would pray for rain, or a good harvest, or a successful breeding season, but ask nothing of the rewards of the hereafter. Of course, its message is timeless and applies much more generally. Such people, who remain preoccupied with this worldly life even as they pray to God, are to be found in all human societies and generations. God, in His infinite wisdom, may well grant them some or all of what they wish for, but their share in the life to come will amount to nothing.

But those who say, “Our Lord, grant us what is good in this world and in the life to come and protect us from the torment of the fire,” are assured their full share of happiness and reward. They are polite enough not to specify the type of reward they seek, but will be content with whatever God grants them. His generosity is neither withheld nor delayed. The temperate and reasonable tone of their prayer assures them success and a generous response from God Almighty.

These divine statements clearly point to the direction man ought to take in seeking help and success. By wholeheartedly submitting oneself to God and accepting His judgement without doubt or hesitation, one’s good fortune is guaranteed both in this life and in the life to come. Only those who devote all their love and energy to life in this world will forfeit their reward in the Hereafter.

Islam does not require believers to abandon worldly pursuits altogether. Man has a vital role to play on this Earth. But in taking charge of the world’s affairs, man must be guided by God in order to see life in its wider dimension. Islam aims to free man from the shackles of material living, and help him rise above its limits and restrictions. Man is encouraged to apply his energies and abilities as the master of the world rather than its slave, and to transcend its trivial ephemera.

The passage on pilgrimage rituals closes with more exhortations to praise God and be conscious of His power: “Give glory to God during certain appointed days. Those who hasten their departure after two days incur no sin, and those who stay longer incur no sin, provided that they are truly God-fearing. Have fear of God and know well that you shall all be gathered before Him.” (Verse 203)

These special days are widely believed to be the day of `Arafāt (the ninth day of Dhu’l-Ĥijjah), the day of sacrifice (the tenth day), and the following three days. Ibn `Abbās suggests that the ‘appointed days’ are the eleventh to the thirteenth. `Ikrimah, however, interprets the verse as referring to the glorification of God following the regular daily prayers on the three days following the tenth of Dhu’l-Ĥijjah.

In the ĥadīth quoted earlier, `Abd al-Raĥmān ibn Mu`ammar al-Daylamī quotes the Prophet as saying: “The days of Mina are three; those who depart after only two days incur no sin, nor do those who stay longer.” Indeed, the days from the ninth to the thirteenth of Dhul-Ĥijjah are all equally suitable for devotional prayers and glorification of God, regardless of whether one includes the first or the last two days. The common prerequisite is that one should “truly fear God”.

The passage ends on a significant note, reminding the believers of the Day of Judgement, to which reference is made in some of the verses on pilgrimage, thus arousing in their hearts a healthy fear of God. “Have fear of God and know well that you shall all be gathered before Him.” (Verse 203)

The preceding verses demonstrate clearly how Islam transformed the pagan Arab customs of the pilgrimage into a rich and meaningful Islamic ritual, ridding it of all idolatrous, sectarian and exclusive practices. It turned it from a narrow Arab tradition into a truly universal one: a typical Islamic form of worship dedicated to the praise and service of God Almighty. This is yet another example of how Islam can overcome and transcend all differences and distinctions that divide mankind.

Nov. 15th, 2012

SŪRAH 2 Al-Baqarah (The (Female) Cow)

11 The Sacred Months, Fighting and Pilgrimage

They ask you about the new moons. Say, ‘They are signs for people to mark fixed periods of time, and for the pilgrimage.’ Righteousness does not mean that you enter houses from the rear, but truly righteous is he who fears God. Enter houses by their doors and fear God, so that you may be successful. (189)

Fight for the cause of God those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression. Indeed, God does not love aggressors. (190)

Slay them wherever you may come upon them, and drive them away from wherever they drove you away; for oppression is even worse than killing. Do not fight them near the Sacred Mosque unless they fight you there first. Should they fight you, then kill them. Such is the reward of the unbelievers. (191)

But if they desist, know that God is much-Forgiving, Merciful. (192)

Fight them until there is no more oppression, and submission is made to God alone. If they desist, let there be no hostility except against the wrongdoers. (193)

A sacred month for a sacred month: for just retribution also applies to the violation of sanctity. If anyone commits aggression against you, attack him just as he has attacked you. Have fear of God, and be sure that God is with those who are Godfearing. (194)

Give generously for the cause of God and do not with your own hands throw yourselves to ruin. Persevere in doing good, for God loves those who do good. (195)

Perform to their completion both the pilgrimage and the `Umrah purely for God’s sake. If you are prevented from doing so, then make whatever offering you can easily afford. Do not shave your heads until the offerings have reached their appointed destination. If any of you is ill or suffers from an ailment of the head, he shall redeem himself by fasting, or alms, or sacrifice. When you are in safety, then he who takes advantage of performing the `Umrah before the pilgrimage shall make whatever offering he can easily afford; but he who lacks the means shall fast three days during the pilgrimage and seven more days on returning home; that is, ten days in all. All this applies to those whose families are not resident in the vicinity of the Sacred Mosque. Fear God, and know well that He is severe in retribution. (196)

The pilgrimage takes place in the months appointed for it. Whoever undertakes the pilgrimage in those months shall, while on pilgrimage, abstain from lewdness, all wicked conduct and wrangling. Whatever good you do God is well aware of it. Provide well for yourselves: the best provision of all is to be God- fearing. Fear Me, then, you who are endowed with insight. (197)

It is no sin for you to seek the bounty of your Lord. When you surge downward from `Arafāt, remember God at al-Mash`ar al-Ĥarām. Remember Him who has given you guidance. Before this you were certainly in error. (198)

Surge onward from the place where all other pilgrims surge and pray God to forgive you. He is much-Forgiving, ever Merciful. (199)

When you have fulfilled your sacred duties, remember God as you remember your fathers — nay with a yet keener remembrance. Some people say, ‘Our Lord, give us abundance in this world.’ They shall have no share in the rewards of the life to come. (200)

There are others who say, ‘Our Lord, grant us what is good in this world and what is good in the life to come and protect us from the torment of the fire.’ (201)

These shall have their portion in return for what they have earned; for God is swift in reckoning. (202)

Give glory to God during certain appointed days. Those who hasten their departure after two days incur no sin, and those who stay longer incur no sin, provided that they are truly God- fearing. Have fear of God and know well that you shall all be gathered before Him. (203)
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Overview

This new passage resumes the elaboration of religious obligations and practical rules governing behaviour within the Muslim community and its relations with the outside world.

It explains the religious and practical significance of the phases of the moon. It dismisses the pre-Islamic Arab superstitious practice of entering houses through the back door on certain occasions. It outlines the rules governing war and fighting generally, as well as the prohibition of fighting in the four lunar months: Rajab (the seventh), Dhu’l-Qa’dah (the eleventh), Dhu’l-Ĥijjah (the twelfth) and Muharram (the first) and particularly in the vicinity of the Sacred Mosque in Makkah. It ends with a comprehensive description of the rituals of the pilgrimage and the `Umrah (which may be described as a mini-pilgrimage) as prescribed by Islam, revising, modifying and replacing all the pagan and idolatrous concepts and practices of former times.

In one concise passage, and in a succinctly clear style, the Qur’ān lays down rules and principles relating to faith and belief, the regulation of religious rituals and practices, as well as war and fighting. These are all linked and interlaced with powerful admonitions and comments evocative of God and His power.
On correcting the Arab practice of entering houses through the back door, the sūrah points out that form, in itself, is not what really matters but it is one’s consciousness and fear of God. It says: “Righteousness does not mean that you enter houses from the rear; but truly righteous is he who fears God. Enter houses by their doors and fear God, so that you may be successful.” (Verse 189)

In dealing with war, the sūrah directs Muslims never to initiate aggression, affirming that “God does not love aggressors.’’ (Verse 190) Commenting on fighting during a sacred month, the sūrah urges:

“Fear God and be sure that God is with those who are God-fearing.” (Verse 194)

The sūrah calls on Muslims to spend of their wealth for the cause of God, exhorting them to “Persevere in doing good, for God loves those who do good.” (Verse 195)

The sūrah again emphasizes consciousness and fear of God when dealing with the pilgrimage rituals. “Fear God, and know well that He is severe in retribution.” (Verse 196) “Provide well for yourselves: the best provision of all is to be God-fearing. Fear Me, then, you who are endowed with insight.” (Verse 197) “Have fear of God, and know well that you shall all be gathered before Him.“ (Verse 203)

It is quite clear that there is a common thread firmly binding these instructions and rulings together. Matters of faith, ritual and law, the spiritual and the mundane, the religious and the secular, the personal, national and international, are all intertwined and spun together in one comprehensive, universal religious and social system based on rules and laws laid down directly by God.

The Islamic Transformation

Beginning with this passage, we note a salient feature recurring in the rest of the sūrah. We find the Muslims addressing the Prophet Muĥammad with specific enquiries relating to a wide range of everyday issues and situations they were encountering in their new way of life. They reveal a genuine desire on the part of the new Muslims to find out what their new religion has to say about these matters. The believers wanted to learn more about how Islam viewed and interpreted the social and physical phenomena they were experiencing in the world around them.

They ask about the moon and the various phases it goes through. Why does it start as a fine crescent which becomes bigger until it develops into a full sphere, and then reverses the cycle until it disappears altogether before it is reborn in the shape of a thin crescent again?

They enquired about what part and how much of their wealth they should give away as charity. They enquired about war, and whether it would be allowed during the sacred months and in the vicinity of the Sacred Mosque in Makkah. They asked for Islamic rulings on alcoholic drinks and gambling, which were social habits in pre-Islamic Arabian life.

They enquired regarding menstruation, and whether sexual contact between spouses was allowed during such periods. They enquired about even more intimate and personal issues concerning matrimonial relations. These questions were sometimes raised by women.

Questions relating to other issues are to be found in several other sūrahs in the Qur’ān. The fact that they were raised is in itself significant in more ways than one.

To begin with, it indicates a high degree of enlightenment and dynamism in the Muslim society, which was already developing a distinct character. A sense of community was rapidly growing. The Muslims were no longer a set of isolated individuals, nor were they any longer separate tribes scattered all over Arabia. They had become a nation with its own identity, systems and relationships, in which every person was keen to assume his or her role and position. This new social, intellectual and emotional awareness was brought about by Islam, and was moulded by the Islamic outlook on life, its system and its pioneering views and concepts.

Second, this inquisitiveness also indicates a keen sense of religious consciousness emerging in the new society. It reflects the depth and strength of the hold the new faith had taken on the hearts and minds of its followers. Having discarded their old assumptions and attitudes, and wrenched themselves away from pre-Islamic customs and traditions, they lost confidence in the old order and began looking to their new religion for education and guidance in all aspects of life.

This state of emotional and intellectual awareness is generated by true faith. The believer is freed from all former beliefs and traditions. He begins to view with scepticism all previously held ideas, and to subject all his actions to fresh scrutiny. The believer becomes readily receptive to the directives of the new faith, and keen to reform his or her life accordingly. Even those former concepts and practices which are approved or adopted by the new order will assume a new context as they are integrated into the new faith.

The new order need not necessarily replace the old one in every detail, but it is important that those details adopted by the new faith should be assimilated and incorporated into it in substance as well as in spirit. This is very well illustrated by the pre-Islamic pilgrimage rituals which Islam transforms into a new set of rules, hardly bearing any resemblance to those formerly practised by the Arabs.

Third, some of the questions the Muslims were raising relate directly to the historical context of that period. The Jews in Madinah and the idolatrous Arabs in Makkah would often voice doubts as to the merits of Islamic teachings and principles. They would seize every opportunity to disparage Islam, exploiting certain occasions or events to wage a campaign of hostility and disinformation. One such occasion involved unwarranted criticism to the effect that a Muslim expedition, led by `Abdullāh ibn Jaĥsh, had violated the prohibition of fighting during the sacred months by attacking a Quraysh caravan.

The Muslims found it necessary to solicit answers and explanations to reassure themselves and to enable them to face the propaganda launched against them by their enemies.

This illustrates that the Qur’ān was keeping abreast of the confrontation between the Muslims and the non-Muslims, and providing the Muslims with guidance and leadership. This was happening in areas of faith and belief as well as in the real world, where the enemies of Islam were incessantly scheming and plotting against its followers.

The situation today is not very different: the same battles continue to rage on. Human nature has not changed, and the enemies of Islam can be found everywhere. But the Qur’ān is also there. Neither man nor the Muslim world community will be safe until the Qur’ān assumes conduct of the battle as it did for the first generation of Muslims. Unless Muslims realize this fact they cannot hope to succeed or prosper.

The least that results from such a realization is that Muslims would approach the Qur’ān with the same understanding and attitude. The Qur’ān would be seen as a dynamic, active force, formulating new concepts, facing up to anti-Islamic ideas, insulating Muslims against ignorance and deviation and helping them avoid the pitfalls. This would be far removed from the present approach many have adopted towards the Qur’ān, viewing it merely as a fine work of literature and going no farther than reciting it rhythmically or chanting its words like a melody on certain occasions.

The Qur’ān was revealed for a totally different purpose. God meant it as a blueprint for a complete way of life, a stimulus, a driving force guiding the Muslim community, charting its course through thick and thin, and helping it overcome and avoid all the difficulties and obstacles it is bound to encounter in this world.

The New Moon and its Significance

They ask you about the new moons. Say, ‘They are signs for people to mark fixed periods of time, and for the pilgrimage.’ Righteousness does not mean that you enter houses from the rear, but truly righteous is he who fears God. Enter houses by their doors and fear God, so that you may be successful. (Verse 189)

Some reports suggest that the Prophet Muĥammad was asked why the moon goes through its various phases. Others say that he was asked why have the crescent moons been created, which seems to be more consistent with the answer given in the sūrah: “They are signs for people to mark fixed periods of time, and for the pilgrimage.”

They serve as a means by which people fix and measure the time of important religious events and activities such as travel, pilgrimage, fasting, marriage and divorce, as well as trade transactions and loan periods.

Whatever the original enquiry, the answer had gone beyond mere abstraction and given practical, rather than ‘scientific’, information relating to the phases of the moon. The Qur’ān, without going into a detailed astronomical discussion, speaks of the function of the moon and its role in people’s daily life. The Qur’ān did not embark on an explanation of the moon’s position within the solar system or the relative movement of stars, planets and galaxies, although this is implied in the question.

What significance, then, does the answer given in the Qur’ān imply? The principal objective of the Qur’ān was the creation and promotion of a new conception of life in a new social, political and economic order. Indeed, it was working towards the creation of a new human community, with a special role of leadership in the world. It was developing a new model of human society, the like of which had not been known before, to uphold a new way of life that would firmly establish essential universal features and principles which the rest of mankind would look up to and emulate.

A scientific answer would undoubtedly have provided the Prophet’s followers with theoretical knowledge about the universe, to add to their meagre understanding of it. Indeed, it is doubtful that the Arabs knew enough about astronomy at that time to be able to make use of further theoretical information, which would have required an understanding of basic principles and phenomena that were beyond all scientific progress achieved in the world up to that time.

The Qur’ān avoided a scientific answer because people were not ready for it, and it would have been of little use for the universal mission the Qur’ān was revealed to fulfil. Its role was far greater than the mere dissemination of detailed knowledge. The Qur’ān was never intended to be a book on astronomy, chemistry or medicine, as some of its admirers and detractors try, each for their own different purposes, to demonstrate.

These attempts betray a lack of understanding of the nature of the Qur’ān, its function and scope. It is mainly concerned with the human soul and the state and direction of the human condition. Its purpose is to establish a broad view of the world in which we exist and its relationship with the Creator, and a general outline of man’s position in this world and his relationship with the Creator. On the basis of these broad concepts, the Qur’ān goes on to establish a way of life which enables man to apply all his skills and abilities, not least his intellectual faculties. Once these are properly and correctly developed, they are given full freedom, through observation, experiment and scientific research, to probe the mysteries of life and the universe and make the appropriate conclusions — which could never, in any case, be said to be final or absolute.

The basic raw material with which the Qur’ān is concerned is man himself: the way he views things around him, his beliefs, emotions and ideas, his behaviour and activity, and the ties and relationships that govern his life. The conduct and development of material science and innovation are left to man’s mental and intellectual capabilities and his diligent endeavour to know and understand. It is this knowledge and understanding that are the essential prerequisites for man to fulfil his divinely ordained mission in the world, for which he is naturally fitted and qualified.

The Qur’ān nurtures man’s basic nature and protects it against deviation and corruption. It provides man with the moral, social, political and economic foundations and mechanisms that enable him to put his talents and skills to full and proper use. It furnishes him with a broad and comprehensive view of the nature, the inherent harmony, and the delicate balance of the physical world, of which man himself is an important and integral part, and its relationship with the Creator.

The Qur’ān does not cover such topics in great detail, because that is man’s task. He is expected to take the initiative to search, discover and use his environment in order to further and fulfil his supreme position in the world.

The attempt to make the Qur’ān what it was never meant to be often seems naïve and counter- productive. The fact that the Qur’ān is not a reference book for medicine or chemistry or astronomy takes nothing away from its power and glory.

The Qur’ān and Scientific Truth

The Qur’ān deals with something much wider and more comprehensive than all those sciences. It is concerned with man himself, the key to uncovering the facts and mysteries of the world around. The human mind is fully equipped to scrutinize and probe into man’s surroundings, and to experiment with and apply the theories he formulates and the tools he invents. The Qur’ān concentrates on nurturing man’s character, conscience and mind, and laying the sound foundations of the human environment which allows him to make full use of his own hidden potential and that of the world around. Having laid down the groundwork and given man the necessary mental tools and criteria, the Qur’ān leaves man free to seek and search, experiment, achieve and make mistakes, in all areas of life.

There is also a great risk in attempting to seek verification of facts of a scientific nature given occasionally in the Qur’ān through suppositions, theories or so-called ‘scientific facts’ arrived at through human empirical efforts.

The facts that the Qur’ān mentions are absolute and final truths, while those arrived at through human research are not, no matter how advanced or sophisticated the means or the approach used to arrive at them. The latter are constrained by the conditions of man’s own environment, and they are limited by the nature and scope of the tools used. The absolute and final truths of the Qur’ān cannot, therefore, be qualified or authenticated by the inconclusive ones discovered by man.

In addition to ‘scientific fact’, this applies in the case of ‘scientific theory’. This includes theories on the origin of the universe, the creation and evolution of man, and psychological and sociological theories. Even within the realm of human thought, these are not considered to express scientific facts. Indeed, they are no more than suppositions or speculative ideas which, at best, help explain a vast array of physical, biological, psychological or sociological phenomena. As more accurate instruments and more discoveries are made, these theories are constantly amended and developed, or superseded by others that give wider or more accurate explanations or interpretations.

The attempt to verify Qur’ānic facts by the changing findings of human science is fundamentally flawed. It reflects three negative aspects that should not be associated with the Qur’ān.

First, is an inner defeatism that science is somehow superior to the Qur’ān. This leads to an attempt to find scientific evidence to verify and corroborate what the Qur’ān says. But in fact, Qur’ānic statements are definitive, complete and conclusive, while human science remains in a constant state of flux and development. This is due to the constraints of the environment in which human research and experiment are conducted, and the inadequacy of the tools and methods used in those processes.

Second, is a misunderstanding of the true nature and function of the Qur’ān as the absolute definitive truth addressing man in his totality according to his basic nature and within the constraints of the physical world and its laws. Ideally, it aims to achieve perfect harmony between man and the physical world, avoiding a clash between man and nature. Such harmony enables man to unravel, through enquiry, observation, experiment and application, as many of the world’s mysteries as he can and use its potential energies and resources to enhance his position and fulfil his role as God’s servants on earth.

Third, is the continuous interpretation and re-interpretation, with frequent resort to far-fetched and arbitrary methods, of Qur’ānic statements in a vain attempt to make them agree or coincide with speculative suppositions and tentative theories.

However, this should not prevent us from making full use of what human sciences uncover about man, life and the world, for a better understanding of the Qur’ān. God says: “We shall show them Our signs across all horizons and within themselves, until they clearly see that this [revelation] is the truth.” (41: 53) This is a clear call to study closely and absorb what science discovers of God’s signs and to use them to expand the meaning and application of the Qur’ānic injunctions, without undermining or demeaning the immutability and integrity of the Qur’ān.

This may be illustrated further by the following examples:

The Qur’ān says: “And He created all things and ordained them in due proportion.” (25:2) Scientific observation also has led to the conclusion that there are inherent harmony, very intricate interactions and consonances within the structure of the universe. The earth’s shape and distance from both the sun and the moon, its size relative to theirs, its speed and axis of rotation, and countless other factors combine to make life on earth possible and sustainable. None of this may be attributed to chance or coincidence, or can be said to be without purpose.

These observations no doubt are useful in gaining a better understanding of the Qur’ānic statement. This is quite legitimate and should be encouraged. But here are other examples that are neither legitimate nor scientifically correct.

The Qur’ān says: “We created man from an extraction of clay.” (23: 12) Centuries later, scientists such as Charles Darwin, proposed a theory of evolution which purports that life began in water as a single cell, and that human beings are the result of millions of years of evolution. Now, it would be pointless, indeed wrong, to attempt to show that this is precisely what the Qur’ān says.

To begin with, the theory is not conclusive and, within a century, it underwent several amendments and changes that have made it almost unrecognizable. There were flaws in the original theory, which was conceived at a time when nothing was known of the genes which carry hereditary properties and distinguish one species from another. Several aspects of Darwin’s theory have since been disproved, and many others are still a matter of debate.

The Qur’ānic statement is conclusive as it establishes the origin of man without giving any details of the process involved. It does not aim at more than that and carries no other connotations or meaning.

The Qur’ān tells us: “And the sun runs towards its resting place.” (36: 38) This is a statement of fact concerning the movement of the sun. Science has shown that the sun is indeed moving relative to other stars nearby and is part of a galaxy which itself is moving. Furthermore the speeds at which the sun and the galaxies move are measured. Such observations, relative and inconclusive as they are, do not affect the truth of the Qur’ānic statement, which is final.

The Qur’ān says: “Are the unbelievers unaware that the heaven and the earth were once one single entity, which We then parted asunder?” (21: 30) Some have tried to reconcile this statement with the theory that suggests that the earth was part of the sun and then they were separated. It is futile to try and limit Qur’ānic statements with human scientific theory. This particular theory is not the only one in its field and it is contested by many scientists, while the Qur’ānic statement is complete and conclusive. It merely states a fact without telling us what is meant by ‘heavens’ or how the fragmentation occurred. No scientific proposition should be used to corroborate Qur’ānic statements, no matter how apparently close or similar the conclusions may be.

Having established these principles, we may now return to the Qur’ānic text: “Righteousness does not mean that you enter houses from the rear, but truly righteous is he who fears God. Enter houses by their doors and fear God, so that you may be successful.” (Verse 189)

This part of the verse and the preceding one relating to phases of the moon seem to be connected by the theme of pilgrimage: the new moon as an astronomical time marker for pilgrimage and other events, and the pre-Islamic Arab pilgrimage custom of entering houses from the rear.

Al-Bukhārī and Muslim relate a report by al-Barā’, in which he said: “It was the custom of the Anşār [i.e. Muslims from Madinah] that on returning from pilgrimage they would approach their houses from the rear. When one of them broke this tradition and entered by the front door, he was severely criticised. It was at this point that the verse was revealed.” A similar report is related by Abū Dāwūd.
Whether this custom related to the pilgrimage only, which seems more probable, or to travelling in general, the Arabs had maintained the belief that it was a sign of piety and righteousness to uphold it. However, the Qur’ān refutes that as an empty gesture that could serve no religious purpose. It goes on to establish the proper religious concept of righteousness as consciousness of God and His presence at all times and in all situations, rather than as a routine gesture that had no meaning whatsoever. Therefore it gives the instruction that houses must be approached from the front, and re-emphasizes the importance of God-fearing as the road to success in this life.

The verse, then, focuses our minds and hearts on taqwā, God- fearing, as a basic fact of faith, and links it with the attainment of absolute success, both in this life and in the life to come. It repeals a useless, ignorant tradition and directs the believers to appreciate God’s grace in providing them with the new moon at the beginning of every month to enable them to determine the time for pilgrimage and other human activities.

The First Order to Fight

This is followed with a statement on fighting in general, and on fighting around the Sacred Mosque in Makkah and during the sacred months in particular. Then follows an urgent call to spend of one’s personal wealth for the promotion of God’s cause, an activity which is closely related to the fundamental Islamic duty of jihād, or struggle for God’s cause:

Fight for the cause of God those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression. Indeed, God does not love aggressors. Slay them wherever you may come upon them, and drive them away from wherever they drove you away; for oppression is even worse than killing. Do not fight them near the Sacred Mosque unless they fight you there first. Should they fight you, then kill them. Such is the reward of the unbelievers. But if they desist, know that God is much-Forgiving, Merciful. Fight them until there is no more oppression, and submission is made to God alone. If they desist, let there be no hostility except against the wrongdoers. A sacred month for a sacred month: for just retribution also applies to the violation of sanctity. If anyone commits aggression against you, attack him just as he has attacked you. Have fear of God, and be sure that God is with those who are God-fearing. Give generously for the cause of God and do not with your own hands throw yourselves to ruin. Persevere in doing good, for God loves those who do good. (Verses 190-195)

Some reports indicate that these were the first verses on the subject of fighting to be revealed. They were preceded only by verses 39-41 of Sūrah 22: “Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged. Most certainly, God has the power to grant them victory. These are the ones who have been driven from their homelands against all right for no other reason than their saying, ‘Our Lord is God.’ Were it not that God repels some people by means of others, monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques — in all of which God’s name is abundantly extolled — would surely have been destroyed. God will most certainly succour him who succours God’s cause. God is certainly most Powerful, Almighty. They are those who, if We firmly establish them on earth, attend regularly to their prayers, give in charity, enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong. With God rests the final outcome of all events.”

These verses had given the Muslims permission to fight those unbelievers who had oppressed them, and they understood them to be a prelude to the institution of jihād, or striving for God’s cause, as a religious duty. Further, they realized that because they had been oppressed, they were given permission to fight back and restore justice, after they had been restrained from doing so all the time they were in Makkah. Their instructions then were to “hold back your hands [from fighting], and attend regularly to prayer, and pay your zakāt.” (4: 77) This restraint had been imposed by God for a purpose He had determined. We may try to discern some of the reasons behind this order.
The first of these reasons is a disciplinary one, aimed at taming the insubordinate and rebellious nature of the early Arab Muslims. They had to learn to be patient and await instructions, rather than act impulsively and recklessly, as they used to do in pre-Islamic days. For the new Muslim community to fulfil its great universal role, the desire for revenge and heedless reaction had to be brought under control, and left to the discretion of a trusted leadership which gave its decisions careful consideration and was duly obeyed — even though to do so would test the Arabs’ impatient and impetuous nature.

Such discipline enabled people such as `Umar ibn al-Khaţţāb and Ĥamzah ibn Abd al-Muţţalib, and other independent and strong personalities among the early Muslims, to show a great deal of patience in the face of the persecution and oppression being inflicted upon their fellow Muslims. They would await Prophet Muĥammad’s instructions and the commands of the Supreme Authority which had ordered them to “hold back your hands [from fighting’, and attend regularly to prayer, and pay your zakāt.” (4:77) Thus a balance was struck in the consciousness of that pioneering community, between rashness and restraint, impulse and deliberation, passionate reaction and rational compliance.

Another reason for restraining the Muslims from fighting in Makkah was that in Arabian society, rushing to help an oppressed person was highly commendable. Despite their ability to hit back hard, the Muslims showed a large degree of restraint. This was demonstrated during the boycott imposed by the rest of the Quraysh against the Prophet’s Hāshimite clan in order to force them to withdraw their support and protection of the Prophet and his followers. When this persecution, which lasted for three years, became unbearable, their re-awakened sense of justice caused some non- Muslim Arabs to break ranks and end the boycott. It seems from a study of the Prophet’s history at this time that, in adopting this policy of passive resistance, the Muslim leadership in Makkah was aware of the crucial role played by social and tribal factors.

This is strongly borne out by the fact that the Muslim leadership had no wish to unleash internecine feuds within the Makkan clans. Muslim converts fell victim to moral and physical torture and abuse to force them to renounce their new faith, even at the hands of members of their own families. These were self-appointed tormentors, with no central authority directing their battles against the Muslims. Had the Muslims been allowed to hit back, fighting would have broken out in every Makkan household, and blood would have been shed in every family. That would have made Islam, in the eyes of Arabian society, seem a divisive religion, advocating strife and destruction within Arab clans.

After the Hijrah, or emigration to Madinah, however, the Muslims emerged as an independent community, prepared to face up to the Makkan leadership which was actively recruiting fighters and organizing military expeditions against it. The situation had changed; instead of individual persecutors targetting individual victims, a collective and deliberate campaign was being organized.

To these reasons one may add the fact that the Muslims in Makkah were a dangerously exposed minority. Had they engaged the unbelievers in armed conflict as an organized group, they would have faced total annihilation. God’s will was that they should first gather in a safe place before He granted them permission to go into battle.

However, the rules governing fighting were issued gradually, as and when the need arose, and as dictated by the needs of the development of Islam, first within Arabia and later outside it as well.

The present verses contain some of those rules which were relevant to that stage of development of the community, when hostility was just beginning to set in between the Muslim and non-Muslim camps. These rules also represent part of the permanent code that has come to govern war in Islam generally. They have undergone slight modifications, given at a later stage in Sūrah 9.

It might well be useful at this point to give a general synopsis of the concept of jihād in Islam, which can form the basis for the interpretation and understanding of Qur’ānic statements on fighting and war.

Islam represents the final and complete version of faith, revealed as the basis of a universal and comprehensive human order on earth. The Muslim community was raised to assume the leadership of humanity in accordance with this order, which derives in its entirety from the comprehensive Islamic concept of the purpose of existence as a whole and of human existence in particular. The Muslim community would lead humanity to ultimate success and to all that is good and noble (khayr), which no man-made order can provide. It would raise mankind to unprecedented moral and material standards. Conversely, no greater harm could be inflicted upon humanity than to deprive it of seeking to attain those levels of nobility, purity, happiness and perfection God wants it to achieve.

It is, therefore, a basic human right to be addressed with the message of Islam. No authority should deny mankind that right and under no circumstances should any obstacles be allowed to prevent that divine message from being delivered.

Having received the message, people have the right to freely accept the religion of Islam, and be under no pressure from any quarter to dissuade or prevent them from taking it up. Those who choose not to accept Islam are expected not to impede its progress. Indeed, they are required to guarantee Islam’s freedom of action and to leave the Muslim community a clear road to fulfil its task, free from any threat of aggression.

Those who adopt the religion of Islam also have the right not to be intimidated or subjected to oppression, in any way whatsoever, so that they abandon their faith. No impediments may be placed to turn people away from Islam. The Muslim community, if subjected to any such aggressive designs, has the right to defend itself by force, in order to protect the community’s freedom and security. This would further the establishment of God’s order on earth and guarantee humanity the opportunity and the right to receive God’s message.

It also results in another obligation that the Muslim community must undertake: to oppose any power that would stand in its way and prevent it from conveying the message freely to the public, or would threaten its followers. The Muslim community must pursue this course of jihād, or struggle for God’s cause, until all threat of oppression is eliminated and people are free to believe in Islam and practise it. This does not imply any sense of compulsion, but it does mean allowing Islam to prevail in society to the extent that everyone is free to accept it and tell others about it without any fear of persecution or intimidation.

These are the parameters within which the principles of jihād have been laid down. These are the real objectives for which it has been instituted. It has no other purpose and serves no other end.

Jihād in Islam is pursued to protect the faith against outside attacks as well as internal strife. Its aim is the preservation of the Islamic way of life, establishing it as a force to be respected and reckoned with in the world. Anyone who willingly wishes to enter the fold of Islam should have no fear of being prevented from doing so and should not have to suffer for making that choice.

This is the true jihād, as recognized and endorsed by Islam. Those who take part in it are richly rewarded and rank among the noblest of believers, and those who give their lives in doing so are the true martyrs.

Jihād: When and Against Whom?

The present passage addresses the situation of the Muslim community in Madinah as it was in confrontation with the pagan Arabs of the Quraysh. Those unbelievers had persecuted the Muslims for their religious beliefs, drove them out of their homes and were trying hard to turn them away from their faith. It also lays down the fundamental rules of jihād in Islam.

It begins with the precise instruction that Muslims should fight those who had been fighting them and to meet with force any attacks against them by anyone, without committing aggression. “Fight for the cause of God those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression. Indeed, God does not love aggressors.” (Verse 190)

The aims of war in Islam are clearly defined right at the outset: “Fight for the cause of God those who wage war against you...” Fighting should, therefore, be undertaken for the sake of God, and for no other purpose that may be defined by human desires or motivations. War should not be pursued for glory or dominance, nor for material aggrandisement, nor to gain new markets or control raw materials. It should not be pursued to give one class, race or nation of people dominance over another. Fighting in Islam must be undertaken only to promote the aims defined by Islam: to make God’s word supreme in the world, to establish His order, and to protect the believers against persecution, coercion, corruption, and all efforts to force them to betray their faith or abandon it. According to Islam, all other types of war are unjust, and those who take part in them should expect no rewards or blessings from God.

Having defined the objective, the verses also define the limits of war: “... but do not commit aggression. Indeed, God does not love aggressors.” (Verse 190) ‘Aggression’ implies attacks on non-combatants and peaceful, unarmed civilians who pose no threat to Muslims or to their community as a whole. This includes women, children, the elderly, and those devoted to religious activity, such as priests and monks, of all religious and ideological persuasions. Aggression also entails exceeding the moral and ethical limits set by Islam for fighting a just war. These limits outlaw the atrocities perpetrated in wars outside Islam, past and present. Such atrocities are totally repugnant to Muslims and can never be sanctioned or committed by people who honour and fear God.

The Ethics of War

Here is a selection of these principles and conventions, as laid down by the Prophet Muĥammad and outlined in the instructions of some of his Companions. They clearly reveal the nature of the Islamic approach to a just war, hitherto unknown to human society.

`Abdullāh ibn `Umar reports that when, in one of the battles, the Prophet was told that a woman was found among those killed, he immediately ordered that women and children should not be killed during combat. [Related by Mālik, al-Bukhārī, Muslim, Abū Dāwūd and al-Tirmidhī]

Abū Hurayrah quotes the Prophet as saying: “When you fight, avoid striking your opponent in the face.” [Related by al-Bukhārī and Muslim]

Abū Hurayrah reports that the Prophet sent him with an expedition instructing them to burn two men from the Quraysh he had named, but as they were about to depart the Prophet said: “I have ordered you to burn these two people, but only God may punish with fire. If you capture them, just kill them.” [Related by al-Bukhārī, Abū Dāwūd and al-Tirmidhī]

`Abdullāh ibn Mas`ūd quotes the Prophet as saying: “True believers are those who strictly observe their moral code when they kill.” [Related by Abū Dāwūd]

`Abdullāh ibn Yazīd al-Anşarī reports that the Prophet has strictly forbidden looting and the mutilation of dead bodies. [Related by al- Bukhārī]

Ibn Ya`lā reports that on one expedition, the leader, `Abd al-Raĥmān ibn Khālid ibn al-Walīd, was brought four enemy fighters. He ordered that they be tied and put to death slowly. When Abū Ayyūb al-Anşārī, a close Companion of the Prophet, heard of this, he said: “I heard the Prophet forbid slow killing. I swear by God that I would not inflict slow death even on a chicken.” When `Abd al-Raĥmān heard this he immediately sought to free four slaves in compensation. [Related by Abū Dāwūd] We may add here that freeing a slave is part of the prescribed compensation for accidental killing.

Al-Ĥārith ibn Muslim ibn al-Ĥārith quotes his father as saying that the Prophet sent him with others on an expedition. As they approached their target he hurried his horse and reached the village ahead of the rest of the expedition. He said that the inhabitants gave him a noisy reception and that he told them that if they were to declare their acceptance of Islam they would be spared and their safety would be assured. They followed his advice declaring their acceptance of Islam. Some of his Companions reproached him for what he did, saying that he had deprived them of the spoils of war. But when they returned and the Prophet learnt of what had happened, he commended him for his action and said: “God Almighty has given you such and such reward for every one of them.” [Related by Abū Dāwūd]

Buraydah reports: “Whenever God’s Messenger appointed a commander to lead an expedition or an army, he would urge him to fear God and to show kindness towards his fellow Muslims. He would then instruct him as follows: “Proceed to fight in God’s name and for His cause. Fight those who deny God. Take the initiative but do not commit any acts of treachery, do not mutilate your victims, and do not kill any children.” [Related by Muslim, Abū Dāwūd and al- Tirmidhī]

Mālik quotes Abū Bakr as saying in his farewell address to one of his armies: “You will come across people who claim to have devoted themselves to the service of God, so leave them to their claim. Do not kill any women, children or elderly people.”

Such is the code that governs war in Islam, and such are its objectives, which derive directly from the Qur’ānic statement: “Fight for the cause of God those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression. Indeed, God does not love aggressors.” (Verse 190)

The Muslims were well aware that they would not prevail as a result of their numerical strength or superior armament; they were hopelessly deficient on both counts. The main secret of their victory lay in their faith in, and obedience to, God, and the support they received from Him. To ignore God’s commands and the Prophet’s instructions would have deprived them of the only force that could ensure their victory. These principles had to be strictly observed, even with those enemies who had persecuted them and inflicted unspeakable atrocities on them. Even though at one point the Prophet, overcome by rage, had ordered that two Qurayshī men be a, put to death by burning, he immediately retracted that order, because only God punishes with fire.

The sūrah goes on to reaffirm the rightness of war against those who had subjected the Muslims to campaigns of terror and persecution, and driven them out of their homeland. The Muslims were urged to confront their enemies and kill them wherever they happen to be, except within the vicinity of the Sacred Mosque in Makkah unless their enemies were to attack them there first. Those orders would stand unless the unbelievers accepted Islam, in which case it was forbidden to fight them, regardless of any killings or atrocities they might have perpetrated against Muslims earlier.

“Slay them wherever you may come upon them, and drive them away from wherever they drove you away; for oppression is even worse than killing. Do not fight them near the Sacred Mosque unless they fight you there first. Should they fight you, then kill them. Such is the reward of the unbelievers. But if they desist, know that God is much-Forgiving, Merciful.” (Verses 191-192)

Forced religious conversion is the worst violation of a most inviolable human right. It is, therefore, a much more heinous offence than murder, regardless of the form that coercion takes or how it is exerted.

Suppression of religious freedom can be imposed by threats and the direct use of force. But it can also be practised through the imposition of corrupt or totalitarian regimes and oppressive social systems that deprave the masses, drive them away from God’s path, and encourage and force them to reject the divine faith and break away from it. The best example to illustrate this is Communism, which banned religious instruction, openly advocated atheism, legislated for prostitution and drinking, promoted vice and discouraged virtue almost to the point of direct compulsion.

The Islamic view of freedom of belief assigns it a great status as a social and human value, and stems from the Islamic view of the ultimate purpose of life and of the whole of human existence: the worship of God in its widest sense which encompasses all constructive human activity. Freedom of belief is man’s most precious right in this world, and ought to be cherished and protected. Any infringement of this right, direct or indirect, must be fought even if one has to kill for it. This is borne out by the significant term used in the Qur’ān, which is “slay them [rather than ‘fight them’] wherever you may find them”. This signifies that, if you have to, you may resort to any means to slay those who infringe upon your right of freedom of belief, while heeding those other Islamic principles mentioned earlier.

Violation of Sanctities

The other restriction is that no fighting was allowed within the vicinity of the Sacred Mosque in Makkah, which God, in response to the Prophet Abraham’s prayers, had declared a safe haven and an inviolable house of peace. However, those who desecrate the sanctity of the Sacred Mosque and commit aggression against Muslims there must be fought and should not be spared. Their vile actions and their persecution of Muslims, committed as they are within the vicinity of the Sacred Mosque, can only be rewarded with severe punishment.

“But if they desist, know that God is much-Forgiving, Merciful.” (Verse 192) To earn God’s forgiveness and mercy, they should not simply desist from waging war against the Muslims and trying to force them to abandon their faith. They would be required to renounce their denial of God and their rejection of His Message. The most they can expect in return for refraining from attacking the Muslims and persecuting them would be a truce, but that would not be sufficient to merit God’s forgiveness and mercy. The unbelievers are, therefore, invited and encouraged to believe so that they may enjoy God’s mercy and forgiveness.

What a commendable gesture! Islam spares its staunchest enemies punishment and retribution, and instead offers them forgiveness and mercy in return for the simple act of joining the ranks of the believers. That would absolve them of all their previous misdemeanours, and cancel out the damage and the atrocities they had wrought against the Muslims.

The aim of war in Islam is to let people be free to uphold Islam and practise it, and never find themselves, by virtue of either direct force or the type of social, political or economic system they live under, compelled to renounce it. The growth and spread of Islam must not be hampered or restricted, and the Muslim community must be allowed the means to defend itself and deter its enemies from taking advantage of it. No one who wishes to adopt Islam should feel threatened. If such threats are made, the Muslim community is collectively obliged to do all it can to eliminate that threat and secure the success of Islam.

“Fight them until there is no more oppression, and submission is made to God alone. If they desist, let there be no hostility except against the wrongdoers.” (Verse 193) These statements were revealed to deal with a specific situation in Arabia, when the pagan Arabs were persecuting an incipient Muslim community and stifling the spread of Islam. Nevertheless, they remain valid, and jihad is incumbent on Muslims until the end of time. Whenever a tyrant or an oppressive power emerges and prevents people from upholding Islam or seeks to prevent them from knowing about it, the Muslim community must rise against it and secure for all the right of freedom to know the truth, listen to it, and have the choice to accept it freely.

It is clear how severely these verses condemn oppression. It is considered a more repugnant evil than murder. This emphasis makes it clear that Islam views this matter most gravely. It establishes another crucial universal principle, heralding a rebirth of mankind, according to which man’s value is determined by his faith. Man’s life is always outweighed by his religious beliefs.

This principle also identifies the true enemies of humanity in this world. They are those who persecute believers and inflict suffering on a Muslim for no reason other than his being a Muslim. They are those who stand between mankind and God’s truth and guidance. It is these that Muslims are obliged to fight and destroy “until there is no more oppression, and submission is made to God alone.” (Verse 193)

This fundamental Islamic principle remains as valid today as it was when these verses were revealed. Islam remains a target for attack and vilification from various quarters. Muslims everywhere continue to be victims of aggression, oppression and religious intolerance as individuals and groups and, in some cases, as whole communities. All victims of oppression and aggression have the right and duty to defend themselves and seek to destroy their enemies, in fulfilment of this great Islamic principle which marked a rebirth of humanity.

It is only when the aggression or the persecution ceases or is eliminated that fighting must come to an end. “If they desist, let there be no hostility except against the wrongdoers.”1 (Verse 193)

Having ruled on fighting during the sacred months, the sūrah now gives the ruling on fighting in the vicinity of the Sacred Mosque in Makkah. “A sacred month for a sacred month: for just retribution also applies to the violation of sanctity. If anyone commits aggression against you, attack him just as he has attacked you. Have fear of God, and be sure that God is with those who are God-fearing.” (Verse 194)
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1 This ruling was later amended by verses in the first passage of Sūrah 9, which instructed the Muslims to liberate the whole of the Arabian Peninsula from idolatry and paganism. This was a necessary measure to give Islam a solid and secure base in Arabia. Muslims would thus he safe from any rearguard attack as they moved to face the hostile powers of the Byzantines to the north and the Persians to the east.
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Those who violate the sacred months cannot expect guarantees of peace and immunity from attack during it. God had declared the Sacred Mosque a safe haven and a place of peace, and designated the sacred months a time of truce and security. During these months no blood shall be shed, all sacred places and property shall be immune, and the safety of every living thing is guaranteed. Those who are bent on infringing this peace must not escape unpunished. The Muslims are instructed to retaliate in a measured way and within the limits dictated by the type and extent of the initial aggression. “If anyone commits aggression against you, attack him just as he has attacked you.’’ (Verse 194)

There should be no excessive retribution. Muslims are here left to their own conscience and their consciousness of God. They realize that their own victory depends on God’s help and support, and are therefore reminded that God is on the side of those who fear Him — a supremely effective safeguard.

Jihād requires money as much as it requires men. In those early days of Islam, fighters would provide their own fighting equipment, their own transport and their own food. They received no remuneration for their work, and freely offered their own possessions as well as their lives. This can only happen when the political, social and economic system in society is based on faith. The community would not need to appropriate funds to defend itself against internal or external enemies. Leaders and soldiers volunteer their efforts and their possessions to defend the faith and the community.

However, some of the less well-to-do Muslims who were keen to join the fighting but could not provide their own means of transport would go to the Prophet pleading to be taken to the battlefront. The Qur’ān tells us that when the Prophet did not have the necessary transportation or equipment to give them: “They turned away with tears in their eyes, sad that they did not have the means to contribute.” (9: 92)

For this reason, we find numerous exhortations in the Qur’ān and the sunnah urging financial contribution, whenever necessary, to the war effort. The call to jihād is almost always accompanied by a call to contribute materially and financially.

The passage goes as far as describing the reluctance to contribute financially as folly leading to self-destruction. It says: “Give generously for the cause of God and do not with your own hands throw yourselves to ruin. Persevere in doing good, for God loves those who do good.” (Verse 195) Miserliness and greed are indeed a form of self- destruction for the individual as well as for society as a whole. They result in deprivation and weakness of the whole community, especially one whose affairs are dependant on voluntary, self- motivated contributions.

The Qur’ān goes on to recommend even a higher state of excellence: “Persevere in doing good, for God loves those who do good” (Verse 195) The Arabic term used here is iĥsān, whose Islamic connotations are difficult to convey in translation. It is the highest level of altruism and self-denial. The Prophet Muĥammad defines it as: “worshipping God as if you see Him with your own eyes; for, though you cannot see Him, He certainly sees you”. [Related by al-Bukhārī and Muslim] Once this stage of piety is reached, one will become a consummate devotee, utterly obedient to God in everything; and all one’s resources, energies and life will be entirely dedicated to God Almighty.

This closing comment is a befitting end for a passage dealing with fighting and giving for God’s cause. It urges believers to aspire to the level of iĥsān, the highest grade of religious excellence.

A Symbol of Islamic Unity

The sūrah then gives an outline of the rituals of the pilgrimage and the `Umrah (lesser pilgrimage). This follows quite naturally from the earlier account dealing with lunar changes and phases, and the admissibility of fighting during the sacred months of the year and in the vicinity of the Sacred Mosque in Makkah.

Perform to their completion both the pilgrimage and the `Umrah purely for God’s sake. If you are prevented from doing so, then make whatever offering you can easily afford. Do not shave your heads until the offerings have reached their appointed destination. If any of you is ill or suffers from an ailment of the head, he shall redeem himself by fasting, or alms, or sacrifice. When you are in safety, then he who takes advantage of performing the `Umrah before the pilgrimage shall make whatever offering he can easily afford; but he who lacks the means shall fast three days during the pilgrimage and seven more days on returning home; that is, ten days in all. All this applies to those whose families are not resident in the vicinity of the Sacred Mosque. Fear God, and know well that He is severe in retribution. The pilgrimage takes place in the months appointed for it. Whoever undertakes the pilgrimage in those months shall, while on pilgrimage, abstain from lewdness, all wicked conduct and wrangling. Whatever good you do God is well aware of it. Provide well for yourselves: the best provision of all is to be God-fearing. Fear Me, then, you who are endowed with insight. It is no sin for you to seek the bounty of your Lord. When you surge downward from `Arafāt, remember God at al-Mash`ar al-Ĥarām. Remember Him who has given you guidance. Before this you were certainly in error. Surge onward from the place where all other pilgrims surge and pray God to forgive you. He is much forgiving, ever merciful. When you have fulfilled your sacred duties, remember God as you remember your fathers — nay with a yet keener remembrance. Some people say, Our Lord, give us abundance in this world.’ They shall have no share in the rewards of the life to come. There are others who say, ‘Our Lord, grant us what is good in this world and what is good in the lift to come and protect us from the torment of the fire.’ These shall have their portion in return for what they have earned; for God is swift in reckoning. Give glory to God during certain appointed days. Those who hasten their departure after two days incur no sin, and those who stay longer incur no sin, provided that they are truly God-fearing. Have fear of God and know well that you shall all be gathered before Him. (Verses 196-203)

The exact date of the revelation of these verses is not known, except for one report indicating that verse 196 was revealed at al-Ĥudaybīyah during the sixth year after Hijrah, 628 CE. Nor can we be precise as to when the pilgrimage was made obligatory in Islam, whether we take that to have been established by verse 196 of this sūrah or verse 97 of Sūrah 3 which says: “Pilgrimage to this House is a duty owed to God by all people who are able to undertake it.”

In his book Zād al-Ma`ād, Imām Ibn al-Qayyim says that the pilgrimage was instituted during the ninth or tenth year of the Prophet’s migration to Madinah. This is based on the fact that the Prophet himself performed the pilgrimage in 10 AH. This, however, is not sufficient evidence to support that view. There could have been other reasons that made the Prophet delay going on pilgrimage until the tenth year, especially when we know that he delegated Abū Bakr to head the pilgrimage during the ninth year.

It is also well established that on his return from the campaign of Tabūk, the Prophet intended to go for pilgrimage. However, he later decided not to do so, because non-Muslim Arabs were still doing the pilgrimage to Makkah and he did not wish to join them, not least because some of them would be going round the Ka`bah naked, as was their custom. At that point Sūrah 9, which brought the truce with the polytheist Arabs to an end, was revealed and the Prophet dispatched `Alī ibn Abī Ţālib to Makkah to proclaim its provisions to the pilgrims. He charged him with the task of announcing at Mina, when all the pilgrims were gathered, that: “No unbeliever shall enter paradise; no idolater may henceforth perform the pilgrimage; no one may go round the Ka`bah naked. All treaties signed with God’s Messenger shall run their course.” Accordingly, the Prophet did not go to Makkah for pilgrimage until the Ka`bah was cleared of all symbols and manifestations of idolatry.

One could point out certain texts as evidence indicating that the pilgrimage was instituted in principle much earlier. Indeed some reports suggest that this took place when the Prophet was still in Makkah, before the migration to Madinah. But this would not hold water. Nevertheless, verses 26-37 of Sūrah 22 list most of the pilgrimage rituals as they were communicated to the Prophet Abraham. These include:

Oct. 26th, 2012

Eid al-Mubarrak

Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar! Laa ilaaha illa Allah wa Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar wa Lillah Al-Hamd!

Oct. 7th, 2012

SŪRAH 2 Al-Baqarah (The (Female) Cow)

10 Social Justice and Fasting

Believers, just retribution is prescribed for you in cases of killing: a free man for a free man, a slave for a slave, and a female for a female. If something [of his guilt] is remitted to a person by his brother, this shall be pursued with fairness, and restitution to his fellow-man shall be made in a goodly manner. This is an alleviation from your Lord, and an act of His grace. He who transgresses thereafter shall face grievous suffering. (178)

There is life for you, men of understanding, in this law of just retribution, so that you may remain God-fearing. (179)

It is prescribed for you, when death approaches any of you and he is leaving behind some property, to make bequests in favour of his parents and other near of kin in fairness. This is a duty incumbent on the God- fearing. (180)

If anyone alters a will after having come to know it, the sin of acting thus shall fall only on those who have altered it. God hears all and knows all. (181)

If, however, one fears that the testator has committed a mistake or a wrong, and brings about a settlement between the parties concerned, he will incur no sin thereby. God is indeed much- Forgiving, Merciful. (182)

Believers, fasting is decreed for you as it was decreed for those before you, so that you may be God-fearing. (183)

[Fast] on a certain number of days. But whoever of you is ill, or on a journey, shall fast instead the same number of days later on. Those who find fasting a strain too hard to bear may compensate for it by feeding a needy person. He who does good of his own account does himself good thereby. For to fast is to do good to yourselves, if you only knew it. (184)

It was in the month of Ramadan that the Qur’ān was revealed: a guidance for mankind and a self- evident proof of that guidance and a standard to distinguish right from wrong. Therefore, whoever of you is present in that month shall fast throughout the month; but he who is ill or on a journey shall fast instead the same number of days later on. God desires that you have ease. He does not desire that you be afflicted with hardship. You are, however, required to complete the necessary number of days and to extol and glorify God for having guided you aright and to tender your thanks. (185)

If My servants ask you about Me, well, I am near; I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he calls to Me. Let them then respond to Me, and believe in Me, so that they may follow the right way. (186)

It is lawful for you to be intimate with your wives during the night preceding the fast. They are as a garment for you, as you are for them. God is aware that you have been deceiving yourselves in this respect, and He has turned to you in His mercy and pardoned you. So, you may now lie with them and seek what God has ordained for you. Eat and drink until you can see the white streak of dawn against the blackness of the night. Then resume the fast till nightfall. Do not lie with your wives when you are in retreat in the mosques. These are the bounds set by God, so do not come near them. Thus God makes clear His revelations to people, that they may remain God-fearing. (187)

Do not devour one another’s property wrongfully, nor bribe with it the judges in order that you may sinfully, and knowingly, deprive others of any part of what is rightfully theirs. (188)
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Overview

This passage covers a series of instructions relating to the social organization of the Muslim community during its formative period in Madinah. It also introduces certain aspects of Muslim religious worship. The two parts go hand in hand, and are linked with the notion of maintaining a sense of God-fearing, or taqwā, which is emphasized towards the end of each part. It is worth recalling that the same feature of taqwā was highlighted at the end of the previous verse (177), which outlined the fundamental elements of righteousness, incorporating aspects of faith and practical behaviour.

The passage discusses the legal aspects of just retribution (qişāş) in cases of killing. It outlines rulings on will and inheritance, and outlines provisions relating to fasting, prayer, retirement to a mosque for a certain period of time (i`tikāf), and rules governing financial claims.

The outline of each of these and other subjects in the passage is concluded with a direct or an indirect reference to taqwā.

This consistent and deliberate approach highlights the essential nature of the religion of Islam. It is an integral system, an indivisible whole. Its social systems, legislative codes, and religious rituals emanate from faith and the comprehensive world order it generates. These are all held together by a common goal of submission to, and veneration of God, the Creator and the Provider, who has instituted man as His slaves and sevants in this world. This trusteeship is conditional on man’s worship of God alone and on receiving all his concepts, systems and laws from Him only.

The Law of Just Retribution

Believers, just retribution is prescribed for you in cases of killing: a free man for a free man, a slave for a slave, and a female for a female. If something [of his guilt] is remitted to a person by his brother, this shall be pursued with fairness, and restitution to his fellow-man shall be made in a goodly manner. This is an alleviation from your Lord, and an act of His grace. He who transgresses thereafter shall face grievous suffering. There is life for you, men of understanding, in this law of just retribution, so that you may remain God-fearing. (Verses 178-179)

The passage begins with an address to the believers, highlighting their main quality of having accepted the faith, which means that they receive their laws from God. They are hereby informed that retribution in cases of killing is permitted to them, in accordance with the provisions laid down in these two verses. They are also called upon to reflect on the purpose and wisdom of this legislation, outlined in the second verse. They are reminded of the need to enhance their sense of God-fearing, which acts as a safety valve against any excess or injustice in punishing those accused of killing.

The statement clearly indicates how retribution ought to be exacted: a free man for a free man, a slave for a slave, a woman for a woman. But “If something [of his guilt] is remitted to a person by his brother, this shall be pursued with fairness, and restitution to his fellow-man shall be made in a goodly manner.” (Verse 178) This situation would arise when the victim’s relatives decide to accept financial compensation instead of insisting on the execution of the killer in retaliation. Once this is agreed, the victim’s relatives are also under an obligation to seek a fair and amicable settlement, while the killer’s guardian or representative must, on his part, settle readily and honourably. This serves to clear the air and to remove any ill-feelings or grudges that would have inevitably arisen between the two parties. It would also be conducive to a more friendly and pleasant relationship between the living members of both parties.

This provision has been laid down out of God’s grace, as a special favour and an act of mercy towards believers: “This is an alleviation from your Lord, and an act of His grace.” (Verse 178) The concession permitting the settlement of cases of killing by financial compensation paid to the victim’s family was not given to the Jews in the Torah. For Islam, it has been set up as an alternative aiming to spare lives when agreement and amicable settlement can be reached.

“He who transgresses thereafter shall face grievous suffering.” (Verse 178) It is not merely the punishment in the hereafter that is certain to come; such aggression means that capital punishment becomes due and financial compensation no longer accepted. Reneging on the agreement constitutes a violation of the agreed settlement and could only fuel hatred, animosity and a desire for vengeance from both sides. Therefore, when the victim’s closest relatives have accepted blood money, they can no longer seek retaliation by killing the killer.

We can appreciate the profound wisdom of the Islamic approach and its respect for, and understanding of, human nature and motivation. Islam recognizes anger as a very basic human reaction when one’s relative is killed, and Islam satisfies this desire by legislating for just retribution in this way. Rigorous justice cools tempers and helps to remove grudges and deter the killer from offending again.

At the same time, however, Islam holds out the prospect of pardon and opens the way for mutual agreement, defining precisely the principles and rules which govern it. Islam advocates that the alternative of pardon should, therefore, come as a voluntary option accepted by both sides out of a genuine desire for reconciliation, rather than having it forced upon them.

Some commentators consider that this ruling was cancelled and superseded by that given in Verse 45 of Sūrah 5, which provides for retribution on the basis of “a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and a similar retribution for wounds.” In his commentary on the Qur’ān, Ibn Kathīr quotes Sa`īd ibn Jubayr, an early scholar, explaining that the present verse was revealed with reference to fighting that broke out between two Arab clans, shortly before the advent of Islam, leading to widespread bloodshed on both sides. Among those killed were several slaves and women, but the dispute was not settled until much later, after both clans had embraced Islam. Excessive claims were made by both clans, demanding that a free man be killed for a slave and a man for a woman. They could not reach a settlement until this verse was revealed. But this verse has, in turn, been superseded by Verse 45 of Sūrah 5 revealed at a later date. The same version is supported in a report by Abū Mālik.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the two verses are dealing with different aspects of the same issue, retribution for killing. Verse 5: 45, stating equal retribution is applicable in cases of premeditated murder of one specific person, or group of persons, by another, in which case conviction entails capital punishment. The verse we are discussing here, however, covers situations of assault by a group such as when a family, clan or community attacks another, as happened between those two Arab clans. As and when such conflicts come to be settled, just retribution would require that a free man be set against a free man, a slave against a slave, and a woman against a woman. How else in such cases, one may ask, can justice be seen to be done?

If this view is correct, then there is no conflict between the two verses, and the rulings of each remain valid without one superseding or replacing the other.

Revealing the profound wisdom underlying this ruling, and its objectives, the verse ends with the words: “There is life for you, men of understanding, in this law of just retribution, so that you may remain God fearing.” (Verse 179)

Vengeance, or the satisfaction of grudges, is not the prime goal of this legislation. Its objective is to promote and preserve human life. Furthermore, there is an invitation to reflect on the wisdom of this code and an endeavour to raise believers’ consciousness and fear of God.

Life Preservation through Retribution

This is achieved by providing strong deterrence, preventing further crimes from being committed. When a person knows for certain that the price he will pay for committing murder is his own life, he is more likely to stop and think before deciding to go ahead. Life is also preserved by giving satisfaction to the victim’s relatives in exacting justice on the offender, with the effect that they will neither seek, nor have the right to seek, further revenge on the offender’s family. In pre-Islamic Arabia the desire for vengeance knew no limits, leading to protracted wars and conflicts that continued for years on end — the notorious al-Basūs1 wars lasted, on and off, for forty years. There were other family, tribal and clan feuds in which vendettas and bloodshed continued for generations.
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1 Al-Basūs is the name given to a series of tribal conflicts which took place in pre-Islamic Arabia, and continued sporadically over a period of some forty years.
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The law of just retribution promotes life in a wider and more comprehensive sense. Murder is an aggression on life and a criminal act against humanity as a whole. In preventing a single murder from being committed, the law upholds the inviolability of life as an absolute value. This is a far higher goal than saving the life of an individual or a group of people. It is a goal that enshrines life.

More importantly, the verse urges believers to reflect deeply on this matter and discover the wisdom behind the code, in order “that you may remain God-fearing”.

This is the real deterrent that can prevent murder being committed in the first instance, and stop vendettas being pursued endlessly. Without this measure of deterrence, no law can be successfully upheld and crime can never he effectively rooted out. Laws and regulations that lack such sensitivity, or do not evoke in people the fear and respect of an authority higher and more powerful than the human one, are inadequate and ineffective.

This explains the remarkably small number of cases in which capital punishment was carried out during the Prophet Muĥammad’s era and that of his early successors. In most of those cases, conviction was based on confessions voluntarily made by the offenders themselves. Fear and consciousness of God, taqwā, were evident in the public conscience which, together with enlightened and wise legislation, served as a most effective deterrent. Legal codes and regulations were supplemented by religious discipline, education and exhortation to produce a balanced and virtuous society, with clear concepts of responsibility and justice.

The renowned contemporary scholar, Abū al-Ĥasan `Alī Nadwī puts it thus:

If anyone ever succumbed to beastly urges and fell into error, even though unobserved, he would make a confession there of straightaway before the Prophet and undergo the severest punishment willingly to save himself from Divine Displeasure.1
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1 Abū al-Ĥasan `Alī Nadwī, Islam and the World. Academy of Islamic Research and Publications, Lucknow, 1980, p.56
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The next piece of legislation introduced in the sūrah relates to personal wills: “It is prescribed for you, when death approaches any of you and he is leaving behind some property, to make bequests in favour of his parents and other near of kin in fairness. This is a duty incumbent on the God-fearing. If anyone alters a will after having come to know it, the sin of acting thus shall fall only on those who have altered it. God hears all and knows all. If however, one fears that the testator has committed a mistake or a wrong, and brings about a settlement between the parties concerned, he will incur no sin thereby. God is indeed much forgiving, merciful.” (Verses 180-182)

Before the revelation of the verses in Sūrah 5 specifying the exact share of inheritance due to each heir, it was an incumbent duty on Muslims to make a will in favour of parents and other near of kin. The Arabic term khayr, translated here as “property”, also means “good” and “goodness”, and some commentators interpret it to denote wealth generally.

Scholars differ, however, as to the minimum amount of wealth for which drawing up a will becomes obligatory. The majority view is that this is decided by convention. Assets ranging in value between sixty and a thousand dīnārs have been mentioned, but surely this must differ from one generation to another and from one society to another.

The Qur’ānic verses, 4: 11, 12 and 176, specifying shares for the distribution of inheritance were revealed at a later date than those under discussion here. Those verses make parents legally entitled to specific shares of their departed children’s wealth. Hence, no bequest by will may be made to them. The Prophet established the rule that no will may be made in favour of an heir. As for other relatives the present rule holds in general terms, except for relatives who are named as heirs in the relevant verses on inheritance in Sūrah 4. All other non-inheriting relatives may be included in a will. This is the view of a number of the Prophet’s Companions and their successors, to which we subscribe.

The provision of including non-inheriting relatives in one’s will is extremely perceptive because it benefits, in particular, those relatives who are not assigned a share or entitled to any inheritance. Providing for them through a will strengthens family ties and promotes the welfare of the family.

In this way equitable distribution of wealth is guaranteed: heirs are not wronged, and other relatives are not ignored. A will should be made combining moderation, kindness and benevolence. As an additional measure, the Prophet specified that a maximum of one-third, and preferably a quarter, of the inheritance may be bequeathed by will. This ensures that the rights of natural heirs are not unfavourably affected by the will. These legal measures are reinforced, as is the case with all social legislation in Islam, by a positive fear and consciousness of God Almighty.

Anyone having knowledge of the contents of a will who, after the death of the testator, gives himself the right to alter any of its details will be guilty of grave misconduct. The deceased would bear no blame for such unauthorized alteration. “If anyone alters a will after having come to know it, the sin of acting thus shall fall only on those who have altered it. God hears all and knows all.” (Verse 181) God will be the witness to the deceased’s innocence as well as to the guilt of those who tamper with the will, and He will deal with each of them accordingly.

There is, however, one exceptional situation in which an executor may amend the contents of a will. This arises when the executor realizes that the will favours some beneficiaries at the expense of others or that it prejudices one or more of the heirs. “If, however, one fears that the testator has committed a mistake or a wrong, and brings about a settlement between the parties concerned, he will incur no sin thereby. God is indeed much-Forgiving, Merciful.” (Verse 182) Here again, the action is closely linked to how conscientious and God-fearing the people involved are. This quality, as we saw earlier in our discussion of just retribution, is the basis of the Islamic concepts of justice and honesty, and of public responsibility in an Islamic society.

Fasting: Its Nature and Purpose

For the Muslim community, or ummah, duty-bound to undertake a campaign of struggle, i.e. jihad, as a means of establishing God’s universal order, to assume the leadership of mankind, and to stand witness against the rest of mankind, it is only natural that fasting should he made obligatory. Fasting is a means of testing man’s determination and will-power, and an important aspect of man’s relationship with God. It is a discipline that teaches man how to rise above his physical needs and overcome the pressure of temptation in order to earn God’s blessings and reward.

These are essential ingredients for the discipline and training of the believers so that they may carry God’s message forward despite the temptations, the obstacles and hardships they are bound to encounter.

Although I am not in favour of justifying religious obligations and practices, especially in matters of worship, on the grounds of their immediate material benefits, which become apparent with experience or through scientific discovery, I would not deny that fasting has several obvious health benefits. But in my view, the whole purpose underlying religious obligations is far greater and more comprehensive than any physical advantages gained from them. The overall aim is to adequately equip man for the fulfilment of his role in this world and for the perfection he is intended to achieve in the life to come.

It is obvious that all religious practices and obligations are ordained by God with full consideration of man’s physical needs and capabilities, but we should not justify them solely on the basis of what our knowledge, limited as it is, may discover. The scope of human knowledge remains limited and incapable of comprehending the divine wisdom behind the order and the system God has chosen for the discipline of man and the administration of the universe as a whole.

Believers, fasting is decreed for you as it was decreed for those before you, so that you may be God-fearing. [Fast] on a certain number of days. But whoever of you is ill, or on a journey, shall fast instead the same number of days later on. Those who find fasting a strain too hard to bear may compensate for it by feeding a needy person. He who does good of his own account does himself good thereby. For to fast is to do good to yourselves, if you only knew it. It was in the month of Ramađān that the Qur’ān was revealed: a guidance for mankind and a self-evident proof of that guidance and a standard to distinguish right from wrong. Therefore, whoever of you is present in that month shall fast throughout the month; but he who is ill or on a journey shall fast instead the same number of days later on. God desires that you have ease. He does not desire that you be afflicted with hardship. You are, however, required to complete the necessary number of days and to extol and glorify God for having guided you aright and to tender your thanks. (Verses 183-185)

This important announcement begins by addressing believers directly to remind them of who they are and of their status with God. God is aware that for believers to fulfill any religious obligation, regardless of its immediate benefits, they need encouragement and motivation. Hence they are addressed by their essential quality of having faith.

The verse establishes that fasting had been made obligatory for earlier believers, and that the aim behind it is to open their hearts to God and make them more conscious of Him. This, then, is the principal objective of fasting: to be God-fearing, or taqwā. Fasting, when observed in obedience to God and in pursuit of His pleasure, instils and revives this quality in the human heart and acts as a safeguard against evil and wrongdoing. True believers know and appreciate the value of being God-fearing in God’s sight. Hence, they constantly seek to enhance their sense of it. Fasting is a means to achieve just that.

Fasting is prescribed for a specific number of days. It is not required the whole year round. Nevertheless, those who are ill or travelling are exempt from fasting until they recover or return home.

On the face of it, the type and extent of the illness and the travel to which the exemption applies are left unqualified. Therefore, any kind of illness or travel would exempt one from fasting, provided one makes up for it at some other time, after one has recovered or returned home. This would seem to be the most appropriate interpretation of the Qur’ānic statement, truly reflecting the overriding Islamic objective of mitigating hardship and relieving discomfort. The concession is not conditional on either the severity of the illness or on how arduous the journey is, because in all cases people should not have to undergo any undue strain as a result of fasting.

There could be other considerations, known only to God, for leaving the conditions so general. Fasting during illness or in the course of a journey could result in hardship or adverse effects that human beings cannot foresee or predict. We take the ruling as it is stated, in the certain belief that there are valid reasons behind it.

Some people may fear that such a view may encourage a more lax attitude that could lead to abuse of such concessions, rendering them an easy excuse for neglecting religious observances and practices. This concern is said to account for the strict terms set by Muslim scholars on the use of these concessions, but it should not, in my view, justify the need to restrict an unqualified Qur’ānic ruling such as the one under discussion.

Islam does not lead people to obedience by force. It guides them through their consciousness of God, which is the ultimate objective in this particular case. Those who use concessions to evade religious obligation merely bring their own faith under suspicion, because their attitude negates the very purpose of the obligation.

Above all, it is important to keep in mind that Islam is a religion laid down by God not by man, and He is best aware of how much tightening or relaxation is prudent in fulfilling its obligations. It must be the case, then, that a concession can under certain circumstances serve a particular purpose far more effectively than would strict adherence to the rule. From this we find that the Prophet Muĥammad instructed Muslims to avail themselves of the concessions and exemptions God has allowed them.

If it so happens that in certain generations people’s behaviour tends to become corrupt, reform will not be achieved through a stricter application of religious rules. A better chance of reform would come through enlightenment, education and motivation in order to instil the quality of fearing God in people’s hearts.

At times of social decline, a stricter application of religious rules would, indeed, be desirable as a deterrent in matters relating to public or collective behaviour. But the fulfilment of personal religious obligations is largely a matter between God and each individual, with little or no direct influence on the public interest. In public duties — unlike personal religious duties which are based on faith — appearance and form have considerable significance. Once taqwā, or the fear of God, takes its roots, one would not resort to concessions except when absolutely necessary, and with a clear conscience. A concession is thus exercised only when one is fully satisfied that it is conducive to achieving a higher degree of obedience to God.

Strictness in the application of the rules relating to acts of worship generally, and the tendency to restrict unqualified exemptions, can be counter-productive. Besides causing hardship and discomfort, they have little effect in dissuading those who want to evade the rules. It is far more appropriate to approach Islam and understand it within the terms and the framework in which it is presented by God, who is wiser and more aware of all the advantages to be gained from fulfilling its obligations.

Exemption from Fasting when Travelling

A number of reported incidents illustrate the Prophet’s attitude towards the exemption from fasting in Ramadan while travelling. These give us a glimpse of how the early Muslims received and implemented such rules, long before scholars introduced legal technicalities. These reports reflect a realistic and dynamic approach to Islam which gives it, and life under it, a vigorous and agreeable meaning.

1. Jābir reports that it was in the month of Ramadan that the Prophet left Madinah for Makkah, the year it fell to Islam. He observed the fast until he reached Kurā` al-Ghamīm, and so did those who marched with him. Then he called for a glass of water, raised it for everyone to see, and drank from it. Later he was told that some people continued to fast. He said, “They are disobedient! They are disobedient!” [Related by Muslim and al-Tirmidhī]

2. Anas reports: “A group of us were once travelling with the Prophet in Ramadan. Some of us were fasting and some were not. On a hot day, we stopped to rest, with little or no shade available. The one who had maximum shade was a person who had a shirt to cover himself. Some used their hands as a cover from the sun. Those who were fasting collapsed of exhaustion while those who were not pitched the tents and gave water to the animals. Commenting, the Prophet said: “Those who are not fasting have run away with the whole reward today.” [Related by al-Bukhārī, Muslim and al-Nasā’ī]

3. Jābir reports: “Once on a journey, the Prophet saw a group of people gathered to shade a fellow traveller. When he enquired what was wrong with him, he was told that the man was fasting. The Prophet said, “It is not righteous to fast while on a journey.” [Related by Mālik, al-Bukhārī, Muslim, Abū Dāwūd and al-Nasā’ī]

4. `Amr ibn Umayyah al-Đamarī reports: “On arriving from a journey, I reported to the Prophet who invited me to stay for lunch. I apologised because I was fasting. The Prophet said, ‘Then let me tell you about the traveller: God has exempted him from fasting and half his prayers.’“ [Related by al-Nasā’ī]

5. A man from the clan of `Abdullāh ibn Ka`b ibn Mālik, called Anas ibn Mālik, quotes the Prophet as saying, “God has reduced the prayer for the traveller by half and exempted him from fasting. He has also exempted from fasting the nursing mother and the pregnant woman if they fear for their babies” [Related by Abū Dāwūd, al- Tirmidhī, al-Nasā’ī and Ibn Mājah]

6. `Ā’ishah reports that Ĥamzah ibn `Amr al-Aslamī, who was frequently fasting, once asked the Prophet about fasting while travelling, to which the Prophet replied: “You may fast if you wish, or you may not.” [Related by Mālik, al-Bukhārī, Muslim, Abū Dāwūd, al-Tirmidhī and al-Nasā’ī] Another version of this ĥadīth describes the man as ‘one who had no difficulty with fasting’.

7. Anas reports: “A group of us were travelling with the Prophet: some were fasting and others were not. No fasting person criticized anyone for not fasting, nor did any criticize others for fasting.” [Related by Mālik, al-Bukhārī, Muslim and Abū Dāwūd]

8. Abū al-Dardā’ reports: “We travelled with the Prophet one very hot day in Ramadan. We would even cover our heads with our hands because of the intense heat. None of us was fasting except the Prophet and Ibn Rawāĥah.” [Related by al-Bukhārī, Muslim and Abū Dāwūd]

9. Muĥammad ibn Ka`b reports: “I went in Ramadan to see Anas ibn Mālik as he was about to leave on a journey. When Anas was dressed and had his horse saddled and ready, he requested some food and ate. I asked whether this was the practice of the Prophet. Anas said, ‘Yes.’“ [Related by al-Tirmidhī]

10. ‘Ubayd ibn Jubayr reports: “I was travelling from Fusţāţ by boat during Ramađān with Abū Başrah al-Ghifārī, a Companion of the Prophet (peace be upon him). As he set off on his journey, Abū Başrah asked for lunch to be brought to him. He said to me, ‘Come and join me.’ I said, ‘We can still see the buildings on the shore,’ (meaning they had not gone past the city, the Nile). Abū Başrah said, ‘Are you unwilling to follow the Prophet’s example, or Sunnah.’ He then started eating and I joined him.” [Related by Abū Dāwūd]

11. Manşūr al-Kalbī reports that Diĥyah ibn Khalīfah, a Companion of the Prophet, was travelling a distance of about five kilometres from a suburb of Damascus during Ramađān. Neither did he fast, nor did many of the people with him. Some, however, were reluctant to break the fast. When he returned to his home village, Diĥyah said, “By God, I have today seen something I thought I would never see: people unwilling to follow the example of God’s Messenger and his Companions. My Lord, gather me to You!” [Related by Abū Dāwūd]

Taken together, these reports support the view that the option of not fasting while on a journey ought to be taken unconditionally to alleviate hardship. This is particularly clear in the last two reports. The incident reported by Abū al-Dardā’, which relates that the Prophet and only one of his Companions continued to fast despite the severe heat, should be taken as an exceptional case. In certain religious matters, the Prophet was known to commit himself to a much more rigorous discipline than he would recommend to his Companions. He, for example, ordered that no one should fast two days running without the normal night break. Yet, he did so on some occasions. When he was asked about that, he said: “I am not like you; my Lord feeds me and gives me to drink.” [Related by al-Bukhārī and Muslim] The first report cited above clearly shows that the Prophet broke his fast and described those who continued to fast as ‘disobedient’. The incident happened around the time of the conquest of Makkah, which occurred towards the end of the Prophet’s life. Hence, this ĥadīth is a better pointer to the option preferred by the Prophet.

The common thread in all these incidents is that in issuing any directive, mitigating circumstances are always taken into account. This is so whenever several aĥadīth referring to the same subject seem to point in different directions. The Prophet Muĥammad was a leader and a teacher dealing with real situations and giving practical rulings and solutions in each case.

As far as fasting while travelling is concerned, one gets the distinct impression that the ruling is strongly in favour of exemption from fasting without restricting the exemption to cases of hardship. As for the licence to break the fast during illness, apart from the different opinions of scholars, it also seems to be granted unconditionally and without qualification. Implicit in this ruling is the requirement that the missing days must be compensated for at a later date, with no requirement to make the compensatory fasting days consecutive.

The purpose of this detailed discussion and quotations is not to get involved in any legal discussion, but to highlight two important aspects in understanding rulings relevant to matters of personal worship. A paramount objective is to create a healthy attitude, in order to cultivate the worshipper’s conscience, improve his performance, and raise the standards of his behaviour in life generally. Another consideration is that Islam must be adopted in its totality and as God has intended. All its instructions, the hard as well as the lenient, must be accepted in equal measure. They should be taken in total confidence in God’s mercy and wisdom, always aiming to enhance our God-fearing sense.

Obligatory Fasting

Fasting was made obligatory for Muslims in the second year after the Hijrah, i.e. the Prophet’s migration from Makkah to Madinah (which was to become the start of the Islamic lunar calendar). Thus, the obligation of fasting was decreed shortly before the ordinance of jihād, or striving for God’s cause. As a new duty, fasting was at first hard for the Muslims to observe. Those who found it too strenuous were, therefore, given a concession, requiring them instead to feed one needy person for every day of fasting they miss. A general recommendation to feed the needy is then made, either as a voluntary act in itself or by feeding more than the minimum number of needy people in lieu of fasting. “He who does good of his own account does himself good thereby.” (Verse 184) This is followed by the recommendation that, apart from cases of illness or travel, fasting would be more beneficial and preferable despite the hardship or discomfort it might cause: “For to fast is to do good to yourselves, if you only knew it.” (Verse 184) There is here an obvious element of education and training of will-power to enable Muslims to make the effort to fast. This also highlights the health benefits of fasting, in spite of the strain, all of which are important factors in the Islamic self education process.

These recommendations were a step towards the withdrawal of the exemption for non-travelling healthy people and making fasting in the month of Ramadan obligatory, as given in verse 185. The concession remained valid for elderly people who find fasting in Ramadan too strenuous and are not expected to be able to fast at a later date.

Imām Mālik reports that Anas ibn Mālik, a Companion of the Prophet Muĥammad, lived to a very advanced age and was not able to keep the fast. He used to compensate by feeding poor people instead. `Abdullāh ibn `Abbās, a cousin and learned Companion of the Prophet, was of the opinion that the exemption has not been completely abrogated by the ruling of verse 185; it remains applicable to the elderly who are not able to keep the fast.

Ibn Abī Laylā, a prominent scholar, says that he visited `Aţā’ one day in Ramadan and found him eating.” (`Aţā’ told me that, according to Ibn `Abbās, the ruling of verse 185 superseded that of the one before it with respect to healthy non-travelling people, but the elderly were free not to fast if they fed instead one needy person for every day.”

Fasting was made more appealing due to the fact that it is observed in Ramadan, the month in which the Qur’ān was revealed. This could be a reference to the fact that it was first revealed during Ramadan, or that most of it was revealed in it. It is a significant distinction since the Qur’ān is the definitive and timeless Book of the Muslim community, its guiding light, the source of its strength and security, from which it has drawn all the enduring qualities and elements that have made it great. Without the gifts that the Qur’ān has given the Muslim community, it would have become forgotten history long ago. As a token of gratitude to God Almighty, Muslims observe the fast in the month of Ramadan during which the Qur’ān was revealed.

It was in the month of Ramadan that the Qur’ān was revealed: a guidance for mankind and a self-evident proof of that guidance and a standard to distinguish right from wrong. Therefore, whoever of you is present in that month shall fast throughout the month; but he who is ill or on a journey shall fast instead the same number of days later on. (Verse 185)

This verse establishes fasting in Ramadan as obligatory for all healthy non-travelling Muslims, with no concessions except for the elderly, as pointed out above: “Whoever of you is present in that month shall fast throughout the month.” It has thus become binding on all Muslims who either see the new moon of the lunar month of Ramadan themselves or learn of it by any other reliable means, to observe the fast in Ramadan. But as this is a general order applicable to all, a reiteration of the concession given in special cases immediately follows: “But he who is ill or on a journey shall fast instead the same number of days later on.”

The sūrah gives the Muslims yet another incentive to keep the fast: “God desires that you have ease. He does not desire that you be afflicted with hardship.” (Verse 185) This statement encapsulates the fundamental principle on which all Islamic religious duties are founded. They are intended to be easy, not arduous. This indicates a generous and realistic outlook on life as a whole. It instils in the Muslim heart a tolerant, easy and agreeable attitude. Religious and social activities and responsibilities are discharged with ease, confidence and assurance, in the happy knowledge that God’s purpose is to enable man to go through life with the minimum of hardship or discomfort.

To complete a whole month, sick people or those who travel in Ramadan and avail themselves of the special concession are required to make up for days missed by fasting an equal number of days at a later date in the year: “You are, however, required to complete the necessary number of days.” (Verse 185)

Fasting is an occasion to celebrate God’s guidance, glory and grace. Hence the requirement “to extol and glorify God for having guided you aright and to tender your thanks.” (Verse 185) It is a time during which believers can feel and appreciate God’s favours and reciprocate with thanks, submission and gratitude. In so doing, Muslims cultivate the precious and vital quality of taqwā, or God-fearing; a main objective of fasting.

Thus we can see how evident God’s grace is in the imposition of the duty of fasting which, on the face of it, seems hard and demanding. We can clearly see its educational and disciplinary benefits for a nation being prepared for the leadership of mankind, guided by a genuine fear of God, a keen sense of accountability, and a vigorous conscience.

A Close Relationship with God

Interposed among the verses dealing with fasting comes a verse reflecting a profound insight into human nature. It reaches to the deepest recesses of the human psyche, offering solace and ample rewards for keeping the fast in response to God’s commands: “If My servants ask you about Me, well, I am near; I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he calls to Me. Let them then respond to Me, and believe in Me, so that they may follow the right way.” (Verse 186)

How kind and compassionate God truly is! Any hardship encountered in keeping the fast fades in comparison with this friendly and gentle reassurance. The choice of words creates an atmosphere of intimacy and accessibility, with God Himself stating a direct contact between Him and His servants. He does not give instructions to His Messenger, the Prophet Muĥammad on how to answer believers’ questions about Him. He gives the answer Himself: “I am near.” His closeness is not only to listen but also for immediate response: “I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he calls to Me.” (Verse 186)

This verse fills a believer’s heart with love, confidence and utter reassurance. In this atmosphere of friendliness and compassion, God, who has no need for anyone, directs believers to respond to Him and believe in Him, in the hope that this will guide them to wisdom and righteousness. “Let them then respond to Me, and believe in Me, so that they may follow the right way.” (Verse 186) By earning God’s generosity and guidance, believers end up winners on all counts.

Belief in God and response to His commands lead to true guidance. The way of life God has ordained for man is the only one truly worthy of adoption and adherence; all other ideologies lead only to ruin and frustration. When one responds to God’s call, one must be confident that God will answer one’s prayers (du`ā’). However, one should not hasten God’s response, for He alone decides the most appropriate time to respond.

Salmān, the Persian, a Companion of the Prophet, quotes the Prophet as saying: “God would not like to see His servant holding out his arms pleading for help and turn him away empty handed.” [Related by Abū Dāwūd, al-Tirmidhī and Ibn Mājah]

`Ubādah ibn al-Şāmit quotes the Prophet as saying: “God shall answer the prayer (du`ā’) of any Muslim anywhere on earth, or He will protect him against contrasting harm, as long as he does not ask for something evil or for the break-up of kinship relations.” [Related by al-Tirmidhī on ibn Thawbān’s authority and by `Abdullāh ibn Imām Aĥmad]

The Prophet is also reported to have said: “Your prayers shall be answered as long as you remain patient. Do not say, ‘I have prayed but my prayer has never been answered!’“ [Related by al-Bukhārī and Muslim]

He is also reported as saying: “Prayers [du`ā’] shall be answered unless one asks for something evil or the break-up of kinship relations, and as long as one does not become impatient.” When the Prophet was asked to explain how one becomes impatient, he said: “One says, ‘I have prayed many times but I have had no response,’ then gives up hope and abandons praying [du`ā’] altogether.” [Related by Muslim]

A fasting person has the best chance of his prayers being answered. Abū Dāwūd al-Ţayālisī relates on the authority of `Abdullāh ibn `Umar that the Prophet said: “The prayer a fasting person says at the time when he is about to finish his fast shall be answered.” Accordingly, `Abdullāh ibn `Umar, a learned Companion of the Prophet, used to gather his family together when breaking the fast and pray.

Ibn Mājah also relates a ĥadīth in which `Abdullāh ibn `Umar quoted the Prophet as saying: “On breaking the fast, the prayer of a fasting person is never turned down.” This is supported by a ĥadīth in which Abū Hurayrah quotes the Prophet as saying: “Prayers by three people shall never be turned down: a just ruler, a fasting person until he breaks the fast, and the oppressed for whose prayer [du`ā’] the gates of heaven shall be opened wide and God shall say to him, ‘By My power, I shall support you, even though it may be in due course.’“ [Related by Imām Aĥmad, al-Tirmidhī, al-Nasā’ī and Ibn Mājah]

From these reports one can clearly see the close relationship between prayer and fasting.

Further Rules on Fasting

The sūrah then resumes its elaboration on the rules of fasting. It points out that, in addition to food and drink, married Muslims are permitted sexual intimacy with their spouses between sunset and dawn. It gives the exact time for the fasting which extends from dawn till sunset. It points out that during any period when people retire to a mosque for worship in Ramadan, i.e. i`tikāf, sexual intimacy is not permitted for married people.

It is lawful for you to be intimate with your wives during the night preceding the fast. They are as a garment for you, as you are for them. God is aware that you have been deceiving yourselves in this respect, and He has turned to you in His mercy and pardoned you. So, you may now lie with them and seek what God has ordained for you. Eat and drink until you can see the white streak of dawn against the blackness of the night. Then resume the fast till nightfall. Do not lie with your wives when you are in retreat in the mosques. These are the bounds set by God, so do not come near them. Thus God makes clear His revelations to people, that they may remain God- fearing. (Verse 187)

When fasting was first instituted, once one got to sleep at night, one would not eat, drink or have sexual intercourse with his wife, even if one woke up before dawn. It so happened that some Muslims did not have anything to eat at the time of the evening meal. One person was overtaken by sleep before he could eat anything and had to fast the following day as well, which made the fast arduous. Likewise, some were inclined to have sexual intercourse and did so. The Prophet became acutely aware of the hardship the Muslims were experiencing. Soon afterwards, God eased the situation by revealing this verse as a token of His mercy and benevolence.

“It is lawful for you to be intimate with your wives during the night preceding the fast.” (Verse 187) The Arabic expression translated here as ‘to be intimate with one’s wife’ denotes the preliminaries of sex, or denotes sexual intercourse. In fact, both are intended here and made lawful. However, in setting out this rule, God does not overlook to describe the marital relationship in transparent and compassionate terms: “They are as a garment for you, as you are for them.” The word used to describe the marital relationship in the Arabic original is libās, literally meaning garment. Marriage does indeed cover and protect both spouses. Islam fully takes into account man’s natural drives, instincts and desires. It elevates man, treating him as one integral entity. Accordingly, Islam responds to the needs of the flesh, incorporating them into a decent and virtuous context.

The verse reveals the fact that some Muslims were finding it difficult to suppress their natural sexual desires, and some were even breaking the rules: “God is aware that you have been deceiving yourselves in this respect, and He has turned to you in His mercy and pardoned you.” (Verse 187) The self deception mentioned here refers to suppressed desires, or to the breach of the rules, as happened in some cases. Whichever was the case, the Qur’ān affirms that God understood their weaknesses and forgave them. New rules are laid down: “You may now lie with them and seek what God has ordained for you.” (Verse 187) It tells the Muslims that they are allowed to enjoy the intimacy of their spouses to satisfy their craving and to seek offspring, both of which are legitimate aspects of the relationship.

Thus, marriage is given a much wider dimension and higher objectives, over and above the mere satisfaction of the carnal sexual desire. It assumes an honourable status that must be cherished, treasured and protected.

These hints that the Qur’ān gives from time to time indicate the credit that should be given to the effort Islam dedicates to raising man’s moral and ethical standards within the parameters of his human nature and disposition. This is what makes Islam such a unique, practical and effective way for education and development. It is, after all, God’s way.

The verse goes on to define the parts of the day and night allocated for fasting and eating, respectively, which, when taken with reports from the Prophet’s own practice, indicate that fasting begins not long before sunrise. However, it seems to me that we, in Egypt, start fasting sometime before it is due, perhaps as a precautionary measure.

Ibn Jarīr relates on the authority of Samurah ibn Jundub who quotes the Prophet as saying: “Do not take much heed of Bilāl’s call for dawn Prayer or this whiteness; do not start the fast until dawn breaks fully.” Another version quotes the Prophet as saying: “Do not abstain from eating if you hear Bilāl calling for the dawn Prayer, or when you see the elongated dawn light. But begin the fast when the dawn spreads over the horizon.” This means the light spreading in the eastern sky a short while before sunrise. It is also important to recall here that Bilāl used to raise the call to prayer early to wake people up, while Ibn Umm Maktūm used to make a second call at a later time to indicate the beginning of the fast. Hence, the Prophet clarifies the point of starting the fast.

The sūrah then instructs the Muslims not to lie with their wives when they decide to retreat in the mosques. This is a reference to a special practice known in Arabic as i`tikāf. It is an act of devotion involving a stay in the mosque for several days during the last ten days of the month of Ramadan, for prolonged Prayer, recitation of the Qur’ān, reflection and spiritual rejuvenation. Once one decides to observe i`tikāf one will only go home when it is necessary. The Prophet was known to observe this practice during the last ten days of the month. To enhance their sense of devotion and enable them to concentrate their hearts and minds on the worship of God during such retreat, or i`tikāf Muslims are barred from sexual intercourse with their wives during such period.

The sūrah then links these rules and instructions directly with God, emphasizing that: “These are the bounds set by God, so do not come near them.” (Verse 187) Although the Qur’ān uses the words ‘come near’, the warning is against the violation of these bounds. But a margin of safety has to be maintained, because man cannot always rely on his moral strength and self-control. It is far better to keep away from evil rather than walk into it, over-confident of resisting, and then failing to do so. Prudence is liable to develop and cultivate that very precious quality of God-fearing, one of the most fundamental goals the Qur’ān is coaching man to attain in his life: “Thus God makes clear His revelations to people, that they may remain God fearing.” (Verse 187)

Honesty at All Times

Within this context of fasting and abstention from food and drink, the sūrah sounds another warning, this time against usurping other people’s possessions. The verse refers specifically to presenting false and fraudulent evidence before a judge or an arbiter in order to obtain a favourable judgement giving one the right to appropriate someone else’s property. To reinforce the sense of deterrence, the warning follows immediately after reference to the bounds set by God and the call for more consciousness and fear of Him.

Do not devour one another’s property wrongfully, nor bribe with it the judges in order that you may sinfully, and knowingly, deprive others of any part of what is rightfully theirs. (Verse 188)

Commenting on this verse, Ibn Kathīr cites a report by `Alī ibn Abī Ţalĥah who quotes Ibn `Abbās, a cousin and Companion of the Prophet, as saying that the verse refers to someone owing money to another. Knowing that the creditor has no document to prove the debt, the debtor denies liability altogether. He would then put the matter before a judge, knowing very well that he is in the wrong, taking what is unlawful to him, and has no case whatsoever. He adds that Mujāhid, Sa`īd ibn Jubayr, `Ikrimah, al-Ĥasan, Qatādah, al-Suddī, Muqātil ibn Ĥayyān, and `Abd al-Raĥmān ibn Zayd ibn Aslam have all warned against contesting a dispute when one knows oneself to be in the wrong. Ibn Kathīr also refers to accounts in al-Bukhārī and Muslim in which Umm Salamah quotes the Prophet as saying: “I am only human. When you come to me for judgement, some of you may have a clearer piece of evidence, and I might be inclined to rule in their favour. If I give someone anything which is not rightly his, it would be as if I have given him a brand of fire; it is up to him to take it or leave it.”

Judges decide on prima facie evidence, and the onus of honesty is on the litigants. They are left to their own conscience.

Thus we can see how this matter is also closely linked to taqwā, or the sense of God-fearing, as was just retribution and fasting before it. These rulings represent parts of a harmonious and divinely-ordained way of life, firmly bound together in a common framework of maintaining the fear of God, or taqwā. This makes Islam a potent and well integrated system which cannot be fragmented or disconnected, taking some parts of it and discarding others. That would be a gross transgression and a most vile offence against God Almighty.

Sep. 4th, 2012

SŪRAH 2 Al-Baqarah (The (Female) Cow)

SŪRAH 2 Al-Baqarah (The (Female) Cow)

9 Setting the Record Straight


Şafā and Marwah are among the symbols set up by God. Whoever visits the Sacred House for Pilgrimage or `Umrah, would do no wrong to walk to and fro between them. He who does good of his own accord shall find that God is most thankful, All-Knowing. (158)

Those who conceal the clear proofs and guidance We bestowed from on high, after We have expounded it clearly for mankind in the Book, shall be cursed by God and by others who curse. (159)

Excepted, however, shall be those who repent, mend their ways and make known the Truth: from these I shall accept their repentance; for I alone accept repentance and I am the Merciful. (160)

Those who reject the faith and die unbelievers shall incur the curse of God, the angels and all mankind. (161)

They shall remain under that curse for ever, their torment shall not be alleviated, nor shall they have a respite. (162)

Your God is the One God: there is no deity but He, the Compassionate, the Merciful. (163)

In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of night and day; in the vessels that sail through the sea with what is useful for mankind; in the water God sends down from the sky giving life to the earth after it had been lifeless, causing all manner of living creatures to multiply on it; in the movement of the winds, and the clouds that run their courses between sky and earth: in all this there are signs for people who use their reason. (164)

Yet there are people who worship beings other than God, giving them a status equal to Him, loving them as God alone should be loved; whereas the believers love God more than all else. If the unbelievers could but see, as see they will when they are made to suffer, that all might belongs to God alone, and that He is stern in retribution. (165)

[On that day] those who were followed will disown their followers and they all shall see their punishment, while all their ties are severed. (166)

The followers will say, ‘Would that we had another chance so that we can disown them as they have disowned us!’ Thus will God show them their works [in a way which causes them] bitter regrets. They shall never come out of the fire. (167)

Mankind, eat of what is lawful and wholesome on earth and do not follow Satan’s footsteps: he is indeed an open enemy for you. (168)

He enjoins you only to commit evil and indecency and to attribute to God something of which you have no knowledge. (169)

When it is said to them, ‘Follow what God has revealed’, they say, ‘No; but we will follow only what we found our forefathers believing in.’ Why, even if their forefathers did not use reason at all, and followed no guidance. (170)

The unbelievers are like the one who shouts to that which hears nothing but a call and a cry. Deaf, dumb and blind, they understand nothing. (171)

Believers, eat of the wholesome things We have provided for you, and give thanks to God, if it is truly Him that you worship. (172)

He has only forbidden you carrion, blood, the flesh of swine, and that on which a name other than God’s has been invoked. But he who is driven by necessity, not intending to transgress nor exceeding his need, incurs no sin. God is much- Forgiving, Merciful. (173)

Those who suppress any part of the Scriptures God has revealed, and barter it away for a paltry price, eat nothing but fire in their bellies. God will not speak to them on the Day of Resurrection, nor will He purify them. A grievous suffering awaits them. (174)

It is they who barter guidance for error and forgiveness for suffering. How great is their endurance of the Fire! (175)

That is because God has revealed the Book with the truth. Those who are at variance with the Book are most deeply in the wrong. (176)

Righteousness is not that you turn your faces towards the east or the west, but truly righteous is he who believes in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the Prophets; and gives his money, much as he may cherish it, to his kinsfolk, orphans, the needy, a stranded wayfarer, beggars, and for the freeing of slaves; who attends to his prayers and pays zakāt; and [truly pious are] they who keep their promises once made, and are patient in misfortune and adversity and in time of peril. Such are those who have proved themselves true, and such are the God-fearing. (177)
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Overview

This new passage aims at correcting certain principles and clarifying some misconceptions concerning the true faith. It also continues the confrontation with the Jews of Madinah, to which we were introduced earlier. They did not cease to try to present falsehood in the guise of truth, and to cause confusion among the Muslims. However, the tone this time is rather general, presenting principles that apply to the Jews of Madinah as well as other opponents of the new faith. It also identifies a number of pitfalls that the Muslims would do well to avoid.

To begin with, we have a reference to the pilgrimage ritual of walking between the two hills of Şafā and Marwah, near the Ka`bah, clarifying the confusion surrounding them as a result of pre-Islamic pagan traditions. To some extent, this is related to the institution of the Ka`bah as the universal direction of prayer for Muslims as well as to pilgrimage rituals.

This is followed by a fierce condemnation of Jews and Christians who conceal parts of their Scriptures, while making it clear that repentance and forgiveness remain open to those of them who wish to refrain from such practices. Those who persist will meet with harsh punishment.

Then comes a reaffirmation of the concept of God’s oneness, and a reference to the marvels of the natural world that attest to it. Those who reject God’s oneness are roundly condemned, while a scene from the Day of Judgment depicts how futile it will be for unbelievers to realize their wrongdoing when it is too late.

Referring to the Jewish arguments about what is lawful and unlawful of food and drink, the passage makes a general call to mankind to enjoy the wholesome and lawful things in life which God has provided for them. An account of things that are forbidden to eat and drink is also given in this section.

The passage resumes the attack on those who suppress or tamper with God’s revelations, threatening them with God’s wrath and their own humiliation, and a most severe punishment in the life to come.

As the passage is rounded off, we have a statement of the essential principles of faith and good works, highlighting the direct link between faith and action, and reiterating the fact that it stems from one’s heart and emotions. It is no empty gesture or hollow ritual, but a deliberate and constant state of consciousness of God’s existence and power.

The passage continues to educate and inform, and to raise the Muslims’ understanding of the principles of their religion as well as their awareness of the hostile schemes and campaigns of their enemies to undermine their faith and sow chaos and confusion in their community.

A Very Significant Ritual

Şafā and Marwah are among the symbols set up by God. Whoever visits the Sacred House for pilgrimage or `Umrah, would do no wrong to walk to and fro between them. He who does good of his own accord shall find that God is most thankful, All-Knowing. (Verse 158)

Several reports suggest a specific cause for the revelation of this verse; the most logical account, which is also the closest to the way of thinking Islam had cultivated in the minds of the early Muslims, is the following:

Walking between the two small hills known as Şafā and Marwah had been part of the pilgrimage rituals practiced by the Arabs before Islam. However, two idols, Isāf and Nā’ilah, were erected on top of them, respectively. Hence, some Muslims felt uneasy about this walk because of the two idols that had been there, associating the two hills with polytheism.

Al-Bukhārī relates that, in answer to a question about walking between Şafā and Marwah, Anas, a Companion of the Prophet, said: “We used to consider them part of pre-Islamic ignorant tradition. With the advent of Islam, people stopped walking there as part of religious ritual. God then revealed the verse starting: “Şafā and Marwah are among the symbols set up by God.”

Al-Sha`bī says: “Isāf was placed on Şafā and Nā’ilah on the Marwah, and people used to revere these idols. Hence, after Islam they felt uneasy about walking in between the two hills. Hence this verse was revealed.”

No specific date can be determined for the revelation of this verse, but it seems more probable that it was revealed later than the verses dealing with the change of the direction of prayer. Although Makkah was hostile territory for the Muslims for many years after their migration to Madinah, it was possible for some of them to visit it for pilgrimage or `Umrah. It is most probably such individual Muslim pilgrims who were reluctant to include Şafā and Marwah in their rituals.

Their reluctance was the outcome of the long and rigorous process of education and purification they had undergone under their new faith. They developed a new sense of faith and religious understanding that made them question all the traditions and practices they had inherited from their pre-Islamic life, in case these were not sanctioned by Islam.

Islam shook the hearts of the Arabs who adopted it and penetrated the deepest recesses of their souls. It brought about a complete change in their psyche, perceptions and attitude. They began to view their pre-Islamic past with different eyes, and were inclined to divorce themselves from it completely. They no longer felt any affinity towards it; rather, it became a hateful legacy.

A closer study of that radical change brought about in the life of that generation by Islamic beliefs, principles and arguments would reveal how total and complete was the transformation they had undergone. It was as if the Prophet had shaken those people with an electric shock that reshaped their character and personality in a completely new form

This is, in fact, the true essence of Islam: total departure from one’s previous jāhiliyyah1 convictions and outlook. One develops an acute sensitivity towards all that is un-Islamic, and all one’s inherited habits, customs, practices and traditions. Both heart and soul must be given up to the new religion.

Once that stage was reached in the life of that pioneering Muslim society, Islam began to adopt and reform those traditions and practices it considered acceptable and in line with its own principles, objectives and outlook. The Muslims then readopted those traditions and practices as part of Islam, and not because they had inherited them from their forefathers.

The incorporation of Şafā and Marwah in the pilgrimage rituals is a good example of this process. Clarifying the issue, the Qur’ān begins by stating: “Şafā and Marwah are among the symbols set up by God” (Verse 158) When a person walks now from one to the other in the prescribed manner, he is fulfilling an Islamic ritual, devoted to God alone. It has been purified and cleansed of all its pagan associations and significance. Muslims can perform the ritual with no fear of doing anything wrong or un-Islamic. “Whoever visits the Sacred House for pilgrimage or `Umrah, would do no wrong to walk to and fro between them. “ (Verse 158)

This was the case with most rituals of the pilgrimage practiced by the Arabs in pre-Islamic days. All aspects pertaining to idolatry were abolished. Now all the pilgrimage rituals have become linked to Islamic principles and restored to the original form practiced by Abraham, as will be discussed in detail later in the sūrah. As for the `Umrah, its rituals are the same as the pilgrimage, except for attendance at Arafat and that it may be performed at all times. In both, walking between the two hills is a duty.
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1 This is an Islamic term that refers to the beliefs and concepts that prevailed in pre-Islamic Arabia, but it is often used by Islamic writers to refer to all non-Islamic social practices and traditions. The word is derived from the root ‘Jahl’ which means ignorance. Thus, it has come to mean a stare of mind associated with ignorance.
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The verse ends with a statement praising voluntary acts of worship in general: “He who does good of his own accord shall find that God is most thankful, All-Knowing.” (Verse 158) This statement affirms that God would welcome and appreciate such acts and would reserve generous rewards for their doers. By its very wording, this verse implies that walking between the two hills is a good action which earns reward from God.

The word shākir, which means “thankful”, used in the Arabic original to describe God’s response to voluntary acts, conveys a very friendly impression. It has the added connotation that God Almighty is very pleased with these acts and thanks His servants for doing them. This would surely demand respect and modesty towards God on the part of His human servants. If God describes Himself as thankful to His servant for any good action that servant does, how can we be sufficiently grateful to God in our praise of Him? The connotations of divine compassion and mercy implied here defy description in human language.

Suppressing the Truth

The verses that follow launch a sharp attack on those Jews who, as mentioned earlier, concealed facts that were revealed in their Scriptures, in the wake of the controversy they created over the change of the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to the Ka`bah. This suggests that they continued to exploit the situation, especially after Makkah was also instituted as the place of the pilgrimage for Muslims.

Those who conceal the clear proofs and guidance We bestowed from on high, after We have expounded it clearly for mankind in the Book, shall be cursed by God and by others who curse. Excepted, however, shall be those who repent, mend their ways and make known the Truth: from these I shall accept their repentance; for I alone accept repentance and I am the Merciful. Those who reject the faith and die unbelievers shall incur the curse of God, the angels and all mankind. They shall remain under that curse for ever, their torment shall not be alleviated, nor shall they have a respite. (Verses 159-162)

The Jews and the Christians were already aware, on the basis of their own Scriptures, of the truth of Muĥammad’s mission. They had little doubt of his honesty and integrity. Nevertheless, they spared no effort to conceal and suppress what their Scriptures had to say about him. Manipulation of religious text and tampering with revealed Scriptures have, for a variety of reasons, been encountered on numerous occasions in history. There have always been people with a propensity for evading the truth, or ignoring or suppressing it, or changing it to suit their own aims and ends. Thy knowingly conceal the truth, suppressing all evidence of the veracity of which they are most certain. They even suppress verses in God’s book so that the truth they expound is kept away from people. They do all this in order to achieve some worldly gain. In fact, we often encounter examples of such suppression of the truth. Such people shall be cursed by God and man. They shall become pariahs, denied God’s mercy and rejected by their fellow men.

Exception is, of course, made of those who come to realize their folly, repent and abandon such practices: “Excepted, however, shall be those who repent, mend their ways and make known the Truth: from these I shall accept their repentance; for I alone accept repentance and I am the Merciful.” (Verse 160) The Qur’ān opens the door, as always, for those who repent and make amends, giving them another chance to see the light and make the change within themselves. To prove that the change is genuine, they are required to make up for the past by performing good deeds, being scrupulously honest in their actions, and championing the truth and abiding by it in all they say and do. They must have full confidence in God’s mercy and be certain that He will forgive and reward their repentance.

Those who persist and refuse to repent, however, shall meet their nemesis in the worst possible way, because they rejected God’s hospitality and consciously chose to perpetrate evil and falsehood: “Those who reject the faith and die unbelievers shall incur the curse of God, the angels and all mankind They shall remain under that curse for ever, their torment shall not be alleviated, nor shall they have a respite.” (Verses 161-162)

This general curse is considered a just reward for their abhorrent behavior. They shall live as social outcasts, rejected by everyone and bereft of all dignity and respect. Worst of all, they shall incur the curse of God, which is the most devastating of all humiliations.

Following that, there is a reiteration of the basic aspects of the concept of God’s oneness. To illustrate these, the sūrah cites a number of natural phenomena in the physical world that testify to God’s power and overall sovereignty. It then portrays a scene from the Day of Resurrection, showing the despair and confusion of those who reject God and deny His power and existence.

Your God is the One God: there is no deity but He, the Compassionate, the Merciful. In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of night and day; in the vessels that sail through the sea with what is useful for mankind; in the water God sends down from the sky giving life to the earth after it had been lifeless, causing all manner of living creatures to multiply on it; in the movement of the winds, and the clouds that run their courses between sky and earth: in all this there are signs for people who use their reason. Yet there are people who worship beings other than God, giving them a status equal to His, loving them as God alone should be loved; whereas the believers love God more than all else. If the unbelievers could but see, as see they will when they are made to suffer, that all might belongs to God alone, and that He is stern in retribution. [On that day] those who were followed will disown their followers and they all shall see their punishment, while all their ties are severed. The followers will say, ‘Would that we had another chance so that we can disown them as they have disowned us!” Thus will God show them their works [in a way which causes them] bitter regrets. They shall never come out of the fire. (Verses 163-167)

The oneness of God is the quintessence of faith. On the whole, the debate has never been about God’s existence, however differently his entity, attributes or role in the universe might be viewed or defined by different societies and religions. Man’s nature has always led him to the belief in God. But in recent human history, a new philosophy has emerged, never known in human thinking before, which totally denies the very notion of God. This intellectual monstrosity has very little chance of becoming universal, because it is self- defeating and is invalidated by the very nature and structure of the universe and our own existence in it.

The passage, therefore, affirms the principle of God’s oneness as an essential part of true faith and a solid foundation for man’s moral and social systems. The one God is the only deity to be adored and worshipped, and He is also the sole source of man’s moral codes and norms, and the origin of all the laws and regulations that govern and control man’s social, political and economic life and the life of the whole cosmos: “Your God is the One God: there is no deity but He, the Compassionate, the Merciful.” (Verse 163) We cannot fail to note how the truth of God’s oneness is emphatically stressed here in several ways. Thus, the Lord worshipped and obeyed by all creatures is the only God who legislates for all people making clear for them what moral values to uphold. It is from Him that they receive all their legislation.

This central concept of Islam is re-emphasized time after time in the Qur’ān, particularly in the parts revealed in Makkah. It is brought up here in the context of preparing the Muslim community for its crucial universal leadership role. The Qur’ān hammers home these concepts so as to leave people in no doubt that the principle of God’s oneness permeates all aspects of life and all parts of existence.

God’s sovereignty over this world and His active control of its affairs stem from His grace attributes. He is “the Merciful, the Compassionate.”

Those Using Their Reason

In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of night and day; in the vessels that sail through the sea with what is useful for mankind; in the water God sends down from the sky giving life to the earth after it had been lifeless, causing all manner of living creatures to multiply on it; in the movement of the winds, and the clouds that run their courses between sky and earth: in all this there are signs for people who use their reason. (Verse 164)

This unique Qur’ānic approach in addressing the human mind and heart tends to heighten man’s feelings and emotions and make him behold and contemplate the wonders of the Universe. Familiarity may have blunted man’s appreciation of these marvels, but the verses invite him to reflect on the world around, as if for the first time, with open eyes and eager senses and a conscious heart. The physical world is full of beautiful mysteries and awe-inspiring events that have captivated many an eye and fascinated many a heart.

The world is a boundless festival of mystery, splendour and beauty. The Heavens, the Earth, the planets, the stars, the galaxies, are all floating along their decreed orbits with incredible harmony, in a vast expanse of limitless space of dizzying dimensions. Man has been fascinated by this vast gallery of wonders long before he was able to get a glimpse, through study and science, of how it works and what lies behind it.

The cycle of day and night and the alternation of light and darkness, dawn and dusk, have sent a million shivers through the hearts and souls of men everywhere. For the believing heart, it is a daily marvel to behold, despite its familiarity; a constant reminder of God’s magnificence and glory.

As for “in the vessels that sail through the sea with what is useful for mankind,” I admit that I had not fully appreciated the import of this statement until the day I travelled on board a large ship, which seemed like a dot in the ocean. Waves were hitting us from all sides while we were engulfed in an almost surreal world of endless blue. Those who have experienced sea travel know that in the middle of the ocean one is entirely at God’s mercy and that it is only with God’s will and command that one is brought to the safety of the shore.

The sūrah highlights other natural phenomena: “the water Godsends down from the sky giving life to the earth after it had been lifeless, causing all manner of living creatures to multiply on it; in the movement of the winds, and the clouds that run their courses between sky and earth.” (Verse 164) All these phenomena deserve our attention, reflection and intelligent study. They are all manifestations of God’s awesome power and infinite mercy. Life is the greatest mystery of all. How does it spring out of the earth when water makes it fertile? How does it come about, starting gently at first before manifesting itself with full vigour? By what incredible process is it carried in a seed, an egg or a gene?

It is a question that has to be asked. It is no good brushing it aside or ignoring it, as some agnostics have tried to do. Some have even gone further and claimed that life can be created by man, without the need for God’s intervention! But even in the land where the ruling class prides itself on denying God altogether they have given up and were forced to admit that this is impossible without a Creator to give life. Leading Soviet scientists do now openly admit this as a fact beyond man’s ability.1 In the past Charles Darwin, the first to put forward the theory of evolution, tried hard to evade the question.

As for the wind and the clouds, and all other natural phenomena, it is not sufficient to advance a theory to explain or describe merely how winds blow, or how clouds form, or the process by which they function, or what their effects are. The central question, the real mystery, revolves around the origin of life itself: why has the world been created in the way it has, and by what methods? How did the universe come to exist in its present form which, in order to produce and sustain life, provides the right combination of elements such as wind, cloud, rain and soil, according to thousands upon thousands of perfectly balanced proportions and formulae? If any of these proportions were to change, life would not be possible. The secret lies in the intricate design and clear purpose of existence, and in the unity and compassion of the Creator.

“In all this there are signs for people who use their reason.” (Verse 164) Indeed, all man needs to do is to shake off familiarity and apathy and look afresh at the world around with a discerning eye and an enlightened heart. He should study every movement, scrutinize every phenomenon, and probe all secrets and mysteries, and let his ingenuity and imagination be fired so that he can grasp the splendour of the universe and the brilliance of its Maker.

Such refined awareness, such sensitivity, and such appreciation of the beauty, balance and perfection of the universe are derived from true faith. Faith gives the believer a new insight into the world around him and a new understanding of beauty, and turns life into one continuous celebration of the creation and glory of God.

Nevertheless, there are still those who neither look nor understand. That is the reason they go astray and lose direction in life.

“Yet there are people who worship beings other than God, giving them a status equal to His, loving them as God alone should be loved.” (Verse 165)

In those days these were idols carved out of stone or wood, or they were stars and planets, or angels and devils. In every age these deities take on different forms and sizes. Their common feature is that they are all forms of associating partners with God, whether they are invoked together with God, or treated merely as objects of adoration or on a par with God. In the worst case, they replace God altogether.

But the case is different with true believers: “whereas the believers love God more than all else.” (Verse 165) Their love for God supersedes their love for everything else in the world. The use of the term “love” here is both touching and appropriate, because the relationship between God and true believers is one of love and spiritual affection. It is an intimate and private relationship, continuously renewed with an undying adoration.
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1 This was written in the early 1960s. — Editor’s note.
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Alliances Fall Apart

If the unbelievers could but see, as see they will when they are made to suffer, that all might belongs to God alone, and that He is stern in retribution. [On that day] those who were followed will disown their followers and they all shall see their punishment, while all their ties are severed. The followers will say, ‘Would that we had another chance so that we can disown them as they have disowned us!’ Thus will God show them their works [in a way which causes them] bitter regrets. They shall never come out of the fire. (Verses 165-167)

Were these transgressors to look ahead to the Day of Resurrection, they would realize their folly in worshipping anything or anybody other than God. All power belongs to Him. He has neither equals nor partners. They would also see the hopelessness of their actions and the severity of the punishment awaiting them. The leaders shall disassociate themselves from their followers, and shall be exposed as powerless to help them, or even help themselves. The truth of God’s oneness and His absolute power would be clearly manifest. The followers, on the other hand, would wish for a second chance of life in order to denounce and disown those false gods and leaders. The full extent of the fraud and the delusion under which they had been living would be exposed.

It is an awesome scene in which all the hypocrisy and the insincerity and futility of the relationship between the two groups is brought fully into the open. And then come the pain and the torment: “Thus will God show them their works [in a way which causes them] bitter regrets. They shall never come out of the fire.” (Verse 167)

Which Path to Follow

This is followed by an invitation to all mankind to enjoy the good things in life and avoid the harmful ones. This is coupled with a warning against following the suggestions of Satan, who will only advise people to do evil and harmful things and to arrogate to themselves the right to legislate without reference to God. There is also a warning against following others blindly in matters of religion, and a denunciation of the worship of any deity other than God Almighty, neatly linking this passage with the preceding one.

Mankind, eat of what is lawful and wholesome on earth and do not follow Satan’s footsteps: he is indeed an open enemy for you. He enjoins you only to commit evil and indecency and to attribute to God something of which you have no knowledge. When it is said to them, ‘Follow what God has revealed, they say, ‘No; but we will follow only what we found our forefathers believing in.’ Why, even if their forefathers did not use reason at all, and followed no guidance. The unbelievers are like the one who shouts to that which hears nothing but a call and a cry. Deaf, dumb and blind, they understand nothing. (Verses 168-171)

Having set out the argument for God’s oneness and shown Himself as the Creator of all, and exposed the utter failure of those who worship gods other than Him, God Almighty states in these verses that He is also the provider and sustainer of life. Accordingly, He is the ultimate authority to decide what food is lawful and what is unlawful; an aspect of exercising His authority as the only God. The Creator who makes and provides is also the authority who decides what is lawful and what is not. The law, Sharī`ah, is thus inextricably intertwined with belief.

The verses give the whole of mankind permission to enjoy the food God has provided on earth, with the exception of what He has forbidden — which will be mentioned later in the sūrah. People are also instructed here that they should listen only to God concerning what may or may not be lawful for consumption. They should not listen to Satan’s views in these matters, because, as their sworn enemy, he will not give them good advice. He will only mislead them and encourage them to decide what is and is not lawful of their own accord, with no reference to God’s guidance, as the Jews used to do, and as the Arab idolaters used to claim.

These instructions show plainly how realistic and practical Islam is, and how genuinely aware of man’s nature and needs. The rule is that everything is lawful with the exception of a few things, which are listed in the Qur’ān by name.

God has created the earth and all its products for man’s free use, enjoyment and benefit. The exceptions and restrictions are made only to safeguard man’s interests, and to ensure that he does not over-consume, or abuse the resources God has provided for him. The most important condition, however, is that man should not refer to anybody other than God for the identification of those items that are not permissible, and for the determination of the limits and the conditions under which the permissible ones should be consumed and used. If they do not, then they will be listening to Satan’s promptings, and he is wont to bid people to commit only evil and indecency.

The sūrah derides the argument put forward by the Arab idolaters or the Jews, or both, who insist that they will only follow what their forefathers followed: “Even if their forefathers did not use reason at all, and followed no guidance.” That is exactly what the Qur’ān condemns. When it comes to defining matters relating to faith, the Qur’ān rejects all authority other than God’s, and flatly condemns those who follow blindly inherited traditions and practices.

The next verse gives a humiliating image of those blind followers of earlier generations, depicting them as herds of sheep that can hear the shouting and the sounds made by their shepherds but do not understand what those words actually mean. In fact, as the sūrah goes on we realize that they are worse. For while sheep can, at least, see, hear and bleat, while these are heedless and even worse: “The unbelievers are like the one who shouts to that which hears nothing but a call and a cry. Deaf dumb and blind, they understand nothing.” (Verse 171)

Such people may very well have ears, tongues and eyes of their own, but what good will these do them if not put to proper use? They might as well have none. That is indeed the lowest and the most contemptible state that human beings can reach: when they give up their intelligence and discerning faculties. No one other than God has the authority to ordain or pronounce over matters of religion, law or behaviour.

Things Forbidden to Eat

The sūrah then gives believers specific rules on the various types of animal meat that they may eat, denouncing the Jews, who argue over this matter although it has been adequately discussed in their own Scriptures.

Believers, eat of the wholesome things We have provided for you, and give thanks to God, if it is truly Him that you worship. He has only forbidden you carrion, blood, the flesh of swine, and that on which a name other than God’s has been invoked. But he who is driven by necessity, not intending to transgress nor exceeding his need, incurs no sin. God is much-Forgiving, Merciful. Those who suppress any part of the Scriptures God has revealed, and barter it away for a paltry price, eat nothing but fire in their bellies. God will not speak to them on the Day of Resurrection, nor will He purify them. A grievous suffering awaits them. It is they who barter guidance for error and forgiveness for suffering. How great is their endurance of the Fire! That is because God has revealed the Book with the truth. Those who are at variance with the Book are most deeply in the wrong. (Verses 172-176)

God addresses believers by their most important quality of having accepted the faith, clearly underlining their special relationship with Him and making it clear that they should accept only His instructions and guidelines with respect to what is or is not lawful and permissible. They are reminded that He alone provides for them and shows them what is permissible and what is not. Nothing good or wholesome has been forbidden, only what is harmful and corrupt. The purpose behind these few restrictions is not to deprive people or curb their enjoyment of the good things God has made available, and for which they should show gratitude. God directs them to thank Him if they truly worship Him alone. Thus, they are taught that thanksgiving is an act of worship. “Believers, eat of the wholesome things We have provided for you, and give thanks to God, if it is truly Him that you worship.” (Verse 172)

Then comes a list of what has been forbidden for the Muslims to eat. It starts with an Arabic word which indicates that the restriction is limited to the given items: “He has only forbidden you carrion, blood, the flesh of swine, and that on which a name other than Gods has been invoked.” (Verse 173)

Both carrion — dead putrefying flesh — and blood are unhygienic and offensive to human taste. Centuries after this Qur’ānic statement was revealed, modern medical research has shown that both attract harmful germs and carry deadly substances. There could he many more reasons why they were forbidden by Islam, which modern medical science has yet to discover.

The next item is the flesh of swine, about the banning of which some have recently raised doubts. The pig is an unattractive animal with foul habits, and God has forbidden its flesh a very long time ago. Only recently, human knowledge has shown it to be singularly prone to infection with parasitic worms that are a serious health hazard to humans. Some may yet argue that advances in health care and modern cooking methods have reduced or even eliminated this risk. But this has only come to light several centuries after Islam, and there is no guarantee that pig’s meat does not carry other risks of which we are yet to become aware. Islamic law has been well ahead of human science by many centuries. It deserves our unqualified trust. It must be considered the final arbiter in what is wholesome and what is not. It is the legislation revealed by the One who is wise and who knows all.

The meat of animals slaughtered in dedication to something or someone other than God is forbidden for Muslims to eat for that very reason. There is nothing physically wrong with the meat, but it is spiritually tainted by the fact that it was sacrificed in reverence of a creature of God. This impairs one’s loyalty to, and faith in, God. This makes it akin to material impurity and dirtiness. Of all prohibited things this type is most relevant to faith.

It becomes clear, yet again, how strongly and closely the principle of God’s oneness is linked to the source of religious guidance and lawmaking in Islam, God Almighty.

In establishing the above restrictions, however, Islam takes account of the circumstances under which they would apply. Necessities could arise which would entail a measured lifting or relaxation of those restrictions. These are dictated strictly by the need at the time, and on condition that consumption of forbidden meat is not, in any way, permitted for reasons of self-indulgence or in defiance of God’s instructions.

“But he who is driven by necessity, not intending to transgress nor exceeding his need, incurs no sin. God is much-Forgiving, Merciful.” (Verse 173) This is a general Islamic principle in all matters of this kind, and can be extended to situations of a similar nature. Any life-threatening situation creates a necessity which would allow a person to eat or drink forbidden things if alternatives cannot be found, within the conditions mentioned above.

Scholars differ in their definition of what constitutes necessity. Are the situations in which necessity exists only those specifically cited by God, or could other, similar circumstances be included? Nor is there any consensus of opinion among scholars on what constitutes relieving the necessity: is it confined to the smallest of measures, or is it a full meal or drink? However, we are happy to confine our discussion here to pointing out the general principles that are of relevance in these matters, without discussing these differences in detail.

Suppression of God’s Revelations

The Jews created considerable controversy around the Qur’ānic pronouncements on permissible and forbidden food and drink. Elsewhere, the Qur’ān informs us of other types of meat that had been forbidden to the Jews but which Muslims were allowed to eat: “To those who followed the Jewish faith did We forbid all animals that have claws; and We forbade them the fat of both oxen and sheep, except that which is in their backs and entrails or what is mixed with their bones.” (6: 146) All these are lawful to Muslims.

The Jews might have disputed this relaxation of the earlier prohibition. They even argued about other forbidden things, although these were forbidden them in their own Scriptures. Their aim, of which they never lost sight, was to create doubts about Qur’ānic commandments and undermine the fact that they were revealed by God. This explains the strong denunciation of those who suppress what they know to he God’s revelation. “Those who suppress any part of the Scriptures God has revealed, and barter it away for a paltry price, eat nothing but fire in their bellies. God will not speak to them on the Day of Resurrection, nor will He purify them. A grievous suffering awaits them. It is they who barter guidance for error and forgiveness for suffering. How great is their endurance of the Fire! That is because God has revealed the Book with the truth. Those who are at variance with the Book are most deeply in the wrong.” (Verses 174-176)

The verses may be directed at people of earlier Scriptures, Jews and Christians, but the condemnation applies in the widest possible sense. All those who deliberately and systematically suppress the truth, especially religious truth, or manipulate it for power or worldly gains of any kind, stand condemned by God, and are doomed to incur His wrath and a stern punishment in the hereafter. Even if they were to gain this whole world for such suppression, it remains a paltry price when compared with what they lose of God’s pleasure and His reward in the life to come.

They “eat nothing but fire in their bellies.” (Verse 174) Here we have a description that is in perfect harmony with the scene being portrayed. Their gain for suppressing the truth is nothing but fire in their bellies. Indeed they are portrayed eating fire. Yet the description is factual. When they are in hell, the fire makes their clothes and their food. As an additional disgrace and humiliation, they are totally ignored in the life to come. Their isolation is given a very graphic description in the text: “God will not speak to them on the Day of Resurrection, nor will He purify them. A grievous suffering awaits them.” (Verse 174)

Another expressive description tells us that they have made an utterly foolish choice by exchanging success for failure and making a losing deal. “It is they who barter guidance for error and forgiveness for suffering. How great is their endurance of the Fire!” (Verse 175)

The sarcasm is unmistakable, but it fits the vile actions of concealing the truth that God has revealed for the guidance and benefit of all mankind, and rightly castigates the folly of rejecting guidance and accepting humbug.

The result of deliberately concealing or disputing God’s revealed truth is a life of constant turmoil, confusion and conflict with human nature. It is a life of permanent conflict and discord. “That is because God has revealed the Book with the truth. Those who are at variance with the Book are most deeply in the wrong.” (Verse 176) Such an outcome has been seen time and again in human society, in accordance with God’s true warning; history is evidence of its veracity.

What Constitutes Righteousness

This passage concludes with a verse that outlines the principles of true faith together with the rules of proper Islamic conduct:

Righteousness is not that you turn your faces towards the east or the west, but truly righteous is he who believes in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the Prophets; and gives his money, much as he may cherish it, to his kinsfolk, orphans, the needy, a stranded wayfarer, beggars, and for the freeing of slaves,’ who attends to his prayers and pays zakāt; and [truly pious are] they who keep their promises once made, and are patient in misfortune and adversity and in time of peril. Such are those who have proved themselves true, and such are the God-fearing. (Verse 177)

The subject of this verse is clearly linked to the issue of the direction of prayer and the controversy surrounding it, as discussed earlier. It now establishes a comprehensive principle that covers this issue and all matters that the Jews of Madinah were wont to dispute. These mostly centred on new religious rituals and forms of worship introduced by Islam and which differed from their own.

The purpose behind the change of the place Muslims face in prayers, and indeed all aspects of worship and ritual, has never been the direction people face, or indeed any outward form. These are not what gives worship its value or meaning, nor what makes people good and righteous. Righteousness is the result of a total feeling, an attitude and a mode of behaviour which shape the individual’s conscience and the mind set of the community. It is a discipline whose effects are immediately and constantly apparent in one’s life and the life of society as a whole. Without these aspects, facing east or west, or turning one’s face to the right and to the left at the end of prayer or the performance of the various movements of prayer would have no effect or significance.

“Truly righteous is he who believes in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the Prophets...“ Taken as a whole, the verse spells out the total sum of goodness, or righteousness. What, then, gives these beliefs and actions their value and meaning? What is the value of believing in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the Prophets?

Belief in God marks a definite turning point in one’s life, at which one is freed from servitude and submission to all manner of powers, forces and desires, and submits to God alone. It is a transformation from chaos to order, from aimlessness to purpose, and from fragmentation to unity. It is a focal point around which all mankind stands equal in the eyes of God and which gives the whole of existence direction, balance, and coherence.

Belief in the Last Day is a belief in universal and divine justice. It is a testimony to the fact that human life on earth is not without purpose or value or order, and that good works that seem to go unrewarded shall certainly be rewarded.

Believing in the angels is an essential part of believing in a world that is beyond human perception. It is what distinguishes the way humans perceive the world and understand it from the way animals do. Animals perceive the world through their senses and instincts, while man believes in a world that lies beyond the reach of his perception.1
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1 This is fully discussed in our commentary on the first few verses of this sūrah, pp.28-30
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To believe in the Books and the Prophets means to attest, without reservation, to the truth, honesty, and integrity of all the revealed Books and all the Prophets and messengers God commissioned to deliver them at various times of human history. This leads to a belief in the unity of the human race, serving God alone, abiding by one and the same religion and adhering to one universal divine order. This outlook has a profound effect on the personality of the believer, who is seen as custodian of the heritage of God’s messengers and divine messages.

The next clement of righteousness is to spend money, dear as it may be, on one’s near of kin, orphans, the needy, the stranded traveller, beggars, and for the freeing of slaves. The significance of this commendable act of charity and sacrifice is that it liberates man from stinginess, selfishness, greed and excessive love of wealth, which cripple one’s ability to give and help those who are in need. It is a highly spiritual act of altruism when someone of means has the courage and the generosity to give away his dearest and most precious possessions. It is an act of liberation for the human soul when man rises above worldly desires and materialistic instincts. It is an admirable achievement, which Islam commends and values very highly.

It is characteristic of the Islamic approach that it aims, first and foremost, at liberating man from his own internal prejudices, weaknesses and desires before going on to liberate him from the pressures and influences of the society around him. Unless one overcomes one’s own egotism, one is not likely to stand up to evil and temptation in the world outside.

Charity is also a social value that strengthens the bonds of love and trust within the family unit, the vital nucleus of society, and preserves the dignity of its members. Charity towards orphans in society achieves social justice and helps to save the young and the weak from homelessness, corruption and abuse. For the needy and the destitute, charity provides the care and security by which their dignity is preserved, their standing in society may be enhanced, and their contribution to society assured. It ensures that not a single person in the community is lost, or left uncared for. For travellers who, for one reason or another, find themselves stranded in foreign lands or in societies where they feel alienated, charity can be a lifeline. It is an emergency measure to alleviate an unexpected hardship, and by which they are made to feel that they belong to the global human family

Begging is a practice Islam abhors. It is forbidden to those who can earn a minimum of sustenance or have jobs. Charity by those who have the means aims to stop this evil practice.

Charity has played a vital role in Islam’s fight against slavery. It provided the means to free those unfortunate enough to have been taken prisoner in wars against Islam. This is done by either buying slaves to set them free, or by giving a slave money to buy his own freedom, at a price he agrees with his master. Under Islam, slaves became entitled to their freedom as soon as they demanded it, and they were helped to regain their liberty and dignity by allocating them money from charity and zakāt. Slaves would then become wage earners, entitled to receive zakāt. Every effort would be made to speed up their total freedom.

The verse adds that the regular observance of prayer is another important aspect of righteousness. Prayer is more than a sequence of bodily movements, and there is more to it than facing in a certain direction, east or west. It is more than a simple act of spiritual meditation. Prayer, an act of total submission and dedication to God, epitomizes the entire Islamic outlook on life.

Islam recognizes the human being as a complex entity comprising body, mind and soul, and perceives no contradiction or conflict among their respective roles or needs. It, therefore, sees no need for suppressing the functions or needs of any one of them in order to satisfy any of the others. From this perspective we can clearly see how prayer combines the activity of all three elements in an integrated act of worship dedicated completely to the adoration and glorification of God Almighty. The bodily movements of standing (qiyām), bowing (rukū`) and prostration (sujūd), and the recitation of Qur’ānic verses and other prescribed text and the deliberate reflection required on that, and exclusive devotion to God, coalesce beautifully during prayer in a unique and splendid combination. Maintaining this standard in the performance of prayer is a reminder and a fulfilment of the essence and purpose of Islam as a whole.

Paying the zakāt duty is another aspect of righteousness. This is a social tax instituted by God Almighty, the ultimate provider, as a token of the entitlement of the poor to a share in the wealth of the rich. It is clear from the text that zakāt is separate from, rather than a substitute for, the charitable spending mentioned earlier. While giving to those causes is voluntary, payment of zakāt is a religious duty in its own right, and both are essential factors in attaining righteousness. Unless this was the case, obviously there would be no meaning in giving zakāt a separate mention in the same verse.

Keeping one’s promises is another aspect of righteousness that the Qur’ān frequently highlights as a feature of true faith and humanity. It is a quality that stems from honesty to God and fulfilment of one’s promises to Him. Furthermore, it is an essential requirement for creating an environment of mutual trust and confidence among individuals, societies and nations. History will readily testify to the Muslims’ impeccable record in honouring agreements, promises and treaties with allies and enemies alike. Islam has given an unparalleled example of integrity that can never be surpassed.

Steadfastness and perseverance in times of adversity and hardship, and in the face of danger, are necessary qualities for the education and development of strong individuals with solid characters who will stand firm, come what may. Under such conditions the faithful never lose hope or confidence in God, nor will they seek help from any source other than Him.

For the Muslim community, or ummah, to fulfil its great role of universal leadership of mankind and its task of instituting justice and equality in the world, it is necessary to collectively acquire these qualities. All should have the resilience to withstand poverty, weakness, loss of friends and allies, shortage of manpower and resources, and the rigours and consequences of war and striving to serve God’s cause.

The construction of this part of the verse in the Arabic original indicates that this quality is singled out as especially significant in the context of the verse as a whole. This gives added importance and a higher status in the sight of God to those possessing this quality.1

Thus we see how, in the inimitable style of the Qur’ān, a single short verse combines the essentials of faith and personal and financial Islamic obligations and presents them as a complete code under the all-embracing title of al-birr, which has been variously interpreted as ‘righteousness’, ‘ultimate goodness’ or, indeed, ‘faith’. It is essentially a concise and complete statement of the basic philosophy of Islam and the principles of the Islamic code of living that must be evident in any Muslim society

The verse ends with the words: “Such are those who have proved themselves true, and such are the God fearing.” (Verse 177) They will have been sincere in their faith and their commitment to God, and they will have proved themselves capable of translating that faith into a practical way of life. They are also God-fearing because they are conscious of God and of their bond with His power and grace, and they are conscientious in fulfilling their obligations towards Him.

In reflecting on the contents of this verse, one can clearly visualize the great heights to which God is aiming to raise human beings through Islam, His constitution. But as one looks at those who ignore Islam, or those who resist it and suppress or persecute its followers and supporters, and those who simply turn away from it, one cannot help being filled with sorrow.
Yet we must not despair. Our faith and trust in God fill our hearts with hope and confidence that the day is coming when humanity will come around to seeing the profound value, universal beauty and eternal qualities of Islam.
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1 See the commentary on Verses 128-130 in this volume, pp.160-167
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Sep. 2nd, 2012

SŪRAH 2 Al-Baqarah (The (Female) Cow)

SŪRAH 2 Al-Baqarah (The (Female) Cow)

8 Acquiring Real Strength


Believers, seek strength in patience and prayer. God is with those who are patient. (153)

Do not say of those who are killed in God’s cause, ‘They are dead.’ They are alive, although you do not perceive that. (154)

We shall certainly try you with a certain measure of fear and hunger, and with diminution of wealth, lives and crops. But give glad tidings to those who remain patient in adversity. (155)

Who, when a calamity befalls them, say, ‘To God we belong, and to Him we shall return.’ (156)

On such people, blessings and mercy are bestowed by their Lord; such people will be rightly guided. (157)
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Overview

Having established a permanent and universal qiblah for Islam, and having outlined the general features of the ‘middle’ Muslim community, distinguished by Islam and by its role of guardianship over the rest of mankind, the Qur’ān gives Muslims specific instructions to endure adversity with patience and to observe their prayers. These are the best help they may have in the fulfillment of their great role that requires great sacrifice.

These are the two most essential requisites for the Muslim ummah to be able to withstand the hardships and trials that were to come, and to fulfill its universal and historic role in this world. Lives would have to be sacrificed; poverty, death, famine and insecurity would have to be faced with courage and strength, for the ummah to establish and defend the Divine world order, make it a reality in human society on this earth, and assert God’s unrivaled sovereignty over all its affairs.

In return, the Muslim community shall receive God’s blessings, mercy and guidance, making it a most profitable bargain indeed, if only the Muslims would appreciate it.

The Power of Patience

“Believers, seek strength in patience and prayer. God is with those who are patient.” (Verse 153) Patience is mentioned frequently in the Qur’ān. God is aware that patience is an essential element in maintaining a steady and balanced pace in the face of the inevitable hardships and adversities of life. It is a prime requirement for the Muslim community in its universal responsibility for establishing God’s order on earth.

Patience is required on the personal level for observing one’s religious duties, for resisting temptation, misfortune, poverty, oppression and injustice, and for carrying out one’s responsibilities towards the establishment of the Islamic way of life in society. Patience and perseverance are required to remain always on the alert, ready to give whatever sacrifice may be needed. When those who are hostile to God’s cause seem to wield power, when falsehood seems too strong, when help seems to be endlessly delayed and the destination too far away patience and perseverance are the most important qualities to have. They are also needed to face those who are deviant, erring, harsh and persistent in their opposition to the truth.

When victory seems far away and the going gets really tough, people tend to lose heart and give up. To avoid that state of despair, God links patience with prayer, as an inexhaustible source of strength and energy. The two combine to infuse the heart with boundless confidence and fortitude and to impart to the believer total tranquility, happiness and inner peace.

When man, weak as he is, faces a task that seems beyond his limited resources, when he faces the powers of evil, when he finds temptations and allurements very hard to resist, when tyranny and corruption are too powerful, seeking support from God Almighty is the only way forward. As the goals of one’s endeavour seem to recede and life becomes shorter and shorter, despair starts to creep into one’s heart and mind. As the twilight of one’s life approaches and all achievements seem trivial and meaningless, one realizes the value and significance of prayer. It is a spring that never ceases to flow with spiritual strength and tender compassion.

The value and role of prayer lie in its being the direct link between God and man. It is the means by which man, an insignificant mortal, draws strength, reassurance and help from God’s infinite power and everlasting mercy. It is the source from which man, a frail creature, replenishes his energy and renews his power and strength to face and resist his own inner temptations and prejudices, as well as the temptations and pressures of the world around him. It is the key to the treasures of God’s grace, and the fountain of light which illuminates man’s heart with inner peace and tranquility and leads him through the darkness of doubt and confusion to the certainty of faith and trust in God Almighty. It is an occasion for rest, serenity and peace of mind. It is no wonder, therefore, that the Prophet Muĥammad (peace be upon him) used to resort to prayer whenever things became difficult to cope with. He used to ask Bilāl, his Companion, to make the call to prayer, saying: “Bring us its comfort.”

Worship is the essence of the Islamic way of life, which revolves around its mysteries and hidden qualities. It is a source of sustenance in the long journey of life; it purifies the heart and gives the human spirit its inner powers. It goes hand in hand with responsibility and obligation, because it is the key to our appreciation of our responsibilities and obligations in life and to the satisfaction and benefits we draw from fulfilling them.

When God Almighty commissioned Muĥammad for his great and historic task, He said to him: “Stand up in prayer at night, all except for a small portion of it; or half the night or a little less, or a little more, and recite the Qur’ān in a calm and distinct manner. We are about to address you with words of surpassing gravity” (73: 2-5)

Prayer during the night and recitation of the Qur’ān were the essential means of preparing Muĥammad for the stupendous task of conveying God’s message to mankind. Prayer opens the human heart to hope and enlightenment, reinvigorates one’s relationship with God, mitigates the struggle for life, and provides one with inspiration and confidence.

For the believers in that small fledgling Muslim community, poised to embark on their momentous task, the sūrah reinforces that reassurance by saying: “God is with those who are patient.” God is always there to provide the believers with help and comfort, to lend them His support and replenish their sapping morale and fading enthusiasm. It is noteworthy that the verse starts by making its address exclusively to the believers, and concludes by reassuring them that patience ensures God’s help.

Numerous reports have been handed down that tell us how highly the Prophet himself viewed the qualities of patience and perseverance, and how deeply he had thought about them. Some of them are quite relevant to our discussion.

The Prophet’s Companion, Khabbāb ibn al-Aratt, said: “A group of us once appealed to God’s Messenger while he was resting in the shade of the Ka`bah. We said, ‘Would you please appeal to God to help us? Would you kindly pray for us?’ He replied, ‘In days gone by, believers like yourselves used to be put in ditches and have their heads sawed in halves, and have their flesh scraped off the bone with iron combs. They withstood all that torture, held on to their faith, and never wavered. I swear that God Almighty will establish this religion so that a man can travel from San ‘ā’ [in western Yemen] to Ĥadramawt [in eastern Yemen] fearing none but God, and the wolf for his sheep. But you are impatient!” [Related by al-Bukhārī, Abū Dāwūd and al-Nasā’ī]

Another Companion of the Prophet, `Abdullāh ibn Mas`ūd says: “I can almost see God’s Messenger in the same position as an earlier prophet who was beaten by his people until he bled. But even while he was wiping the blood off his face he said: ‘Lord, forgive my people, for they do not know the truth.’” [Related by al-Bukhārī and Muslim]

The Prophet is also quoted as saying: “A Muslim who mixes with people and puts up with their maltreatment is better than one who neither mixes with people nor suffers their abuse.” [Related by al- Tirmidhī]

Sacrificing One’s Life

The Qur’ān continues with its spiritual mobilization of the pioneering Muslim community of Madinah, as the latter braces itself for the crucial and momentous task of leading mankind back to God. It outlines the major demands and consequences of its hard and long struggle, or jihād, with its attendant sacrifices. It identifies the proper and correct criteria for the evaluation and appraisal of its outcome: “Do not say of those who are killed in God’s cause ‘They are dead.’ They are alive, although you do not perceive that.” (Verse 154)

The sūrah tells the Muslims that, in the fight to uphold God’s universal truth, lives will have to be sacrificed. Those who risk their lives and go out to fight, and who are prepared to lay down their lives for the cause of God are honorable people, pure of heart and blessed of soul. But the great surprise is that those among them who are killed in the struggle must not be considered or described as dead. They continue to live, as God Himself clearly states.

To all intents and purposes, those people may very well appear lifeless, but life and death are not judged by superficial physical means alone. Life is chiefly characterized by activity, growth, and persistence, while death is a state of total loss of function, of complete inertia and lifelessness. But the death of those who are killed for the cause of God gives more impetus to the cause, which continues to thrive on their blood. Their influence on those they leave behind also grows and spreads. Thus, after their death they remain an active force in shaping the life of their community and giving it direction. It is in this sense that such people, having sacrificed their lives for the sake of God, retain their active existence in everyday life. They might, on the other hand, be alive in another level or mode of existence which we here cannot see or conceive of.

According to Islamic tradition, people who are killed “for the cause of God” are not washed or prepared for burial in the conventional way, but buried in the clothes they happen to be wearing, because they are considered clean and pure, and because in reality they are not dead.

Because they are alive, those who die for the cause of God should not be missed or grieved over by their relatives, friends and loved ones. There is no real sense of loss in their death, since they continue to live, enjoying the hospitality of their Lord, relishing His company and boundless rewards.

There are copious reports in the ĥadīth literature extolling the spirit of sacrifice and the status of martyrs. Muslim records a ĥadīth which says: “The souls of martyrs are carried in the bellies of green birds which fly at leisure in Paradise. They roost on lamps, placed near God’s Throne. God casts a glance at them and says, ‘What is your wish?’ They would reply, ‘Lord, what more can we wish for, when You have given us what You have not given any of Your creation.’ God would ask them again and again until they realize they have to make a request, and they would say, ‘We wish to be returned to live on earth so that we fight for Your cause and be killed a second time.’ They say this since they have seen how great God’s rewards are to those who attain martyrdom for God’s cause. But God says, ‘I have already decreed that people would not return to worldly life.”

The Prophet’s Companion, Anas ibn Mālik, reports that the Prophet said: “No one enters Paradise and wishes to return to worldly life, even if he was given everything on earth, except a martyr. He wishes to return to life and be killed in the cause of God ten times over, for the honor and privilege he receives.” [Related by Mālik, al-Bukhārī and Muslim]

But who are the living martyrs? They are those killed in God’s cause, and in God’s cause alone. It is they who lay down their lives in defense of God’s universal truth, rather than in the name of a king, nation or military honor. The sole objective of their struggle and sacrifice is to uphold God’s world order and establish it as a social reality. The Qur’ān and the ĥadīth lay strong emphasis on this point, so as to leave no doubt about its meaning.

The Prophet’s Companion, Abū Mūsā, reports that the Prophet was asked whether fighting out of bravery, or to support one’s own ethnic group, or in pursuit of fame and glory, might be considered as fighting “for the cause of God.” He replied: “Only the one who fights to keep God’s word supreme fights for God’s cause!” [Related by Mālik, al-Bukhārī and Muslim]

Another Companion of the Prophet, Abū Hurayrah, reported that a man asked God’s Messenger three times about the fate of someone who fights ‘in the cause of God,’ but is also seeking worldly gain. Every time the Messenger replied: “He would receive no reward!” [Related by Abū Dāwūd]

Abū Hurayrah reports that God’s Messenger said that God gives a guarantee to anyone who goes to battle for God’s cause: “If he has set out for no purpose other than to fight for My cause, totally motivated by faith in Me and to confirm the veracity of My messengers, then I guarantee that he will either enter Paradise or return safely home, enjoying whatever reward or booty he might have gained.” The Prophet continues this ĥadīth, saying: “By Him who holds Muĥammad’s soul in His hand, any wound he may have sustained in battle will look on the Day of Resurrection in the same way as on the day it happened, with the color of blood, but with the smell of pure musk. By Him who holds Muĥammad’s soul in His hand, were it not for fear of making things too hard for Muslims I would have joined every single expedition going out in God’s cause. However, I do not have the means to give them transport, nor do they have such means to follow me. In addition, it is trying for them to stay behind. By Him who holds Muĥammad’s soul in His hand, I would love to have fought and been killed for God’s cause again and again.” [Related by Mālik, al-Bukhārī and Muslim]

Martyrs, then, are those who set out to fight solely and purely for God’s cause, out of faith in Him and an unshakable belief in His messengers.

The Prophet Muĥammad expressed disapproval when he heard a Persian youth extolling his ancestry in the battlefield. `Abd al-Raĥmān ibn Abī `Uqbah reported that his father, a Persian ‘ally’ of the Anşār, relates that he took part with the Prophet in the Battle of Uĥud. “As I struck an unbeliever, I shouted, ‘Take it from me; I, a Persian youth!’ The Prophet turned to me and said, ‘Would it not have been better for you to say, I, the Anşārī youth. The nephew and the ally of any group of people belong to them.’“ [Related by Abū Dāwūd]

The Prophet disliked the fact that the young man had chosen to express pride in anything other than being a supporter of God’s Messenger and to fight under any banner other than that of the religion of Islam. That is the true meaning of jihād, for which men can give up their lives, earn martyrdom and ensure permanent life.

The sūrah continues to mobilize the believers for the hard, long struggle ahead and increase their understanding of things to come:

We shall certainly try you with a certain measure of fear and hunger, and with diminution of wealth, lives and crops. But give glad tidings to those who remain patient in adversity. Who, when a calamity befalls them, say, ‘To God we belong, and to Him we shall return.’ (Verses 155-156)

Trials are part of the process of education. The believers’ resolve to fight for the truth, and to bear in the process whatever they may have to face of fear, hardship, poverty, famine, and loss of life, must be rigorously tested. There is a price that believers have to pay in order to uphold their faith, and that price is their own lives. Unless one’s faith becomes dearer to one than one’s own life, that faith has no chance of survival at the very first serious test. This love and dedication to one’s faith must be apparent to others on every occasion for them to appreciate its place and value in the believer’s heart. Such sacrifice and perseverance demonstrate the believer’s love for his faith, and inspire others to respect it, examine its merits and develop an interest in it. That can open the hearts and minds of many people to Islam.

Tests and trials bring out the best in people, renew their energies, reinforce their resolve, and unleash within them latent powers that they themselves knew nothing of. Moreover, such experiences refine one’s perception and sharpen one’s mental and emotional vision and judgment.

Underlying all this is the fact that, when subjected to pressure and the severe demands of the struggle, a believer will turn to no one else but God for help and solace, and will seek the support of no other power than God’s. This will be done in full acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty and total control over everything in this world.

“Give glad tidings to those who remain patient in adversity’. Who, when a calamity befalls them, say, ‘To God we belong, and to Him we shall return.’” (Verses 155-156) God is the ultimate sovereign and final arbiter. To Him we turn for guidance on every matter. This is the essence of true submission, which comes from full recognition of His control of our destiny and our fate.

Such are the true believers who show patience and endure with fortitude. God’s Messenger gives them the happy news of having earned their reward from God, the most bounteous. The blessings they receive are guaranteed by God. Himself: “On such people, blessings and mercy are bestowed by their Lord; such people will be rightly guided.” (Verse 157) It is indeed a noble and honorable reward that they will receive. Indeed, they share in the same type of reward the Prophet himself receives. What is more is that they have a testimony by God making it clear that they are rightly guided. This, again, is an honorable status.

In the process of mobilizing the Muslims for their great struggle, or jihād, God Almighty makes it clear that the believers’ only reward for making the sort of sacrifice involved in struggle in God’s cause, which includes loss of life, property, hunger, worry, as well as depletion of numbers and resources, will be God’s mercy and blessings.

No material victory, power or wealth whatsoever is promised here — only God’s mercy and blessings. There is no promise of victory or having power in their own community. That pioneering Muslim community was being prepared for a role that is more valuable than the very life of its members. Members of that community had to be free of all personal ambitions and selfish desires, and the community’s aims and objectives had to be free of all worldly considerations, including victory for Islam through its own efforts.
The Qur’ān teaches the Muslims to seek nothing in return for their obedience, struggle and hard work but God’s pleasure, blessings and guidance. That is to be the ultimate goal of their endeavor, and these will be the sweet fruits of their labor. As and when the victory comes, it will not be a victory for them but for the religion and the way of life they represent and are striving to establish in society.

God’s mercy and blessings are ample reward for the believers’ perseverance and for the sacrifices they make. In fact, they are a better reward than any material or worldly gain they aspire to achieve.

The foregoing passage has given us a glimpse of God’s amazing but effective approach in educating the Muslim community and preparing its ranks for upholding His order and carrying it on to the rest of mankind.

Aug. 30th, 2012

SŪRAH 2 Al-Baqarah (The (Female) Cow)

SŪRAH 2 Al-Baqarah (The (Female) Cow)

7 Change of Direction


The weak-minded among people will say, ‘What has turned them away from the direction of prayer which they have so far observed?’ Say, ‘To God belong the east and the west. He guides whomever He wills to a straight path.’ (142)

Thus We have made you the community [ummah] of the middle way, so that you may stand witness against the rest of mankind, and the Messenger shall be a witness against you. We appointed the direction of prayer which you formerly followed in order that We might distinguish those who follow the Messenger from those who turn on their heels. It was indeed a hard test except for those whom God has guided. God would never have let your faith be in vain. God is Compassionate and Merciful to mankind. (143)

We have seen you often turn your face towards heaven. We shall, therefore, make you turn in prayer towards a direction you will be happy with. Turn your face, then, towards the Sacred Mosque; and wherever you all may be, turn your faces [in prayer] towards it. Those who have been granted revelations in the past know well that it is the truth from their Lord. God is not unaware of what they do. (144)

Were you to bring every possible sign before those who had been granted revelations, they would not follow your direction of prayer. And neither may you follow their direction of prayer, nor would they even follow one another’s direction. If you were to follow their whims and desires after all the knowledge that has been given to you, you would certainly be among the wrongdoers. (145)

Those to whom We granted revelation know it as well as they know their own children, but some of them knowingly conceal the truth. (146)

This is the truth from your Lord; never, then, be among the doubters. (147)

Each one has a goal towards which he turns; so vie with one another in good works. Wherever you may be, God will bring you all together. God has power over all things. (148)

From wherever you may come forth, turn your face [in prayer] towards the Sacred Mosque. It is indeed the truth from your Lord. God is not unaware of what you do. (149)

From wherever you may come forth, turn your face [in prayer] towards the Sacred Mosque; and wherever you all may be, ‘turn your faces towards it, so that people may have no argument against you, except those who are bent on wrongdoing. Have no fear of them, but fear Me, so that I may perfect My grace on you, and that you may be rightly guided. (150)

Thus We have sent forth to you a Messenger from among yourselves to recite to you Our revelations, purify you, and instruct you in the Book and in wisdom and teach you what you did not know. (151)

Remember Me, then, and I will remember you; give thanks to Me and never deny Me. (152)
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Overview

This passage is almost entirely devoted to a discussion of the change of the qiblah, or direction faced in prayer, which occurred sixteen or seventeen months after the Prophet’s arrival in Madinah in 622 CE, and the controversy that attended it. The Jews of Madinah tried to exploit the qiblah issue to create division and confusion among the Muslims. The Qur’ān denounces their allegations, and warns of the damage they might cause to the more vulnerable members of the Muslim community. No reference can be found in the Qur’ān to the exact date of the change of the qiblah.

The main facts of the situation make it clear that prayer was made a daily religious duty for Muslims while they were still in Makkah. They faced the Ka`bah when they prayed. No specific order is given in the Qur’ān on this point. When the Muslims emigrated from Makkah to Madinah, the instruction was given to the Prophet that instead of the Ka`bah in Makkah, Muslims should face Jerusalem. The fact that in both cases the instruction had come from the Prophet rather than in Qur’ānic statements in no way diminishes its validity or authority.

This continued to be the practice until the revelation of the instructions in the present section, which superseded the previous ones. The Prophet, and the Muslims with him, were told to “Turn your face, then, towards the Sacred Mosque, and wherever you all may be, turn your faces [in prayer] towards it.” (Verse 144)

Jerusalem happened to be the qiblah for the Jews and the Christians also, and the fact that the Muslims too had been instructed to use it as theirs gave the Jews of Madinah a ready excuse for refusing to recognize or accept Islam. They saw the fact that the Prophet and his companions faced Jerusalem when they prayed as proof that theirs was the true religion and their qiblah was the original and legitimate one. Muĥammad and his followers, they argued, should follow their religion and refrain from trying to convert them to Islam.

This was not easy for the Arab Muslims to accept, since they had always revered the Ka`bah and considered it their most sacred religious symbol. The Jewish arguments made the situation even harder for the Muslims.

The Prophet Muĥammad entertained a wish to turn towards the Ka`bah, and could be seen looking up to heaven anxiously, without uttering a word, trusting to God and His wisdom.

Not long afterwards instructions were revealed that the Muslims should turn towards the Ka`bah. Some Muslims were reportedly in the middle of performing their prayer when they heard the news, and immediately turned to face the Ka`bah.

The Jews resented that decision which deprived them of their argument. They began to question the wisdom of the Muslim leadership and to raise doubts about the validity of the religious basis of Islam. Did the change of qiblah from Jerusalem to the Ka`bah mean that the Muslims had been praying towards the wrong qiblah all that time? And, if Jerusalem was the right qiblah, and it was correct to pray towards it, then it must have been wrong to change to another one. Praying towards the new qiblah, the Ka`bah, would, in this case, not be valid. They further argued that such abrogation of earlier orders could not be done by God. Hence, the decision must have been made by Muĥammad himself, proving that he was not receiving any divine revelations.

The gravity of the controversy surrounding this event is clear from the considerable attention given in the Qur’ān to its ramifications and the effect it had on some rank-and-file Muslims. It is also clear in the way the sūrah deals with the concept of abrogation. This is discussed in full in Chapters 5 and 6, beginning with Verse 106. More on this later.

The change of the qiblah was a central event in the history of Islam with far reaching long-term consequences. It gave Islam a new focus and identified the Muslim community as an independent nation with a qiblah of its own.

The earlier decision to declare Jerusalem rather than the Ka`bah as the qiblah was for specific educational reasons, as explained in Verse 143: “We appointed the direction of prayer [i.e. the qiblah] which you formerly followed in order that We might distinguish those who follow the Messenger from those who turn on their heels.”

Before Islam, the Arabs revered the Ka`bah and considered it a symbol of their religious and cultural heritage and glory. But in order to test their sincerity in accepting Islam, and ensure that their hearts were totally free of narrow racial or tribal loyalties, God initially instructed the Prophet to command his followers to adopt Jerusalem as the direction they faced in prayer. It was a difficult instruction to carry out, but it was a crucial test of how much they really understood the nature and the spirit of their new religion. It was necessary in order to establish how far some of those early Muslims were still influenced by pre-Islamic racial and tribal traditions.

When the Muslims adopted their new direction, and the Jews had begun to exploit that situation, fresh divine instructions were received to revert to the Ka`bah as the direction to face in prayer. The basis for the new decision was, however, made clear. It stemmed from the fact that the Sacred Mosque at Makkah had, in the first instance, been established by Abraham and Ishmael as a monument to pure unadulterated monotheism. It was part of the heritage of Islam which had come about, as seen earlier in verses 124-141, in answer to Abraham’s prayer that a Messenger should be sent to his descendants, the inhabitants of Makkah, with the pure faith based on complete submission to God.

That part of the sūrah, giving the background and the circumstances surrounding the construction of the Ka`bah, provided a fitting introduction to the issue of the qiblah. Changing the qiblah back to the Ka`bah seems the only logical conclusion from that discussion of the dispute between the Muslims on the one hand, and the Jews, Christians and polytheist Arabs on the other, concerning Abraham’s covenant with God and the right to his heritage. That covenant bound Abraham and his descendants, from one generation to another, to total submission to God.

The construction of the Sacred Mosque at the Ka`bah was carried out by Abraham and his son Ishmael at God’s specific instruction. It is, therefore, part of the heritage passed on to their offspring. Muĥammad, a direct descendant of Abraham and a beneficiary of his covenant with God, and his followers, are rightful and natural heirs to that heritage, of which the Ka`bah is an important part. The decision to declare it a permanent qiblah for Islam and the Muslims is the natural one that brings reality, history and feeling together in unison.

The decision could not have come sooner. Jewish hostility towards Islam and Muĥammad, despite the temporary declaration of Jerusalem as a qiblah, did not diminish. They could see that their right to Abraham’s religious legacy was being forfeited as the days passed, and the time had come when the Muslims could emerge as independent and rightful claimants to that heritage, and move on to declare its universal and eternal message to the rest of the world.

It had become imperative for the Muslims to forge ahead in that way and to establish their distinct identity as a religious force for advocating the central principle of God’s oneness, or tawĥīd. The symbolism of the Ka`bah as the exclusive and permanent direction in prayer for the Muslim community was most important.

Symbolism, ritual and form in religious practice can be easily misunderstood, if taken in isolation from the ideals and principles of the religious faith itself. Physical expression of feelings and emotions is a natural human tendency, because man has a material as well as a spiritual aspect to his nature. Emotions and feelings are only fulfilled when expressed in a physical or tangible form, through which they are released to one’s happiness and satisfaction. This action brings about balance and harmony between the outer and inner aspects of the human soul, and provides a means of fulfilling man’s desire to know what lies behind the apparent symbol and the outward physical form.

All Islamic religious rituals are based on this basic natural philosophy. Mere intention expressed privately, or abstract spiritual meditation, is not enough to satisfy the requirements of religious worship. These involve the participation of the senses, coordinated movement of the body, and position, direction, dress, and recitation of set text, as well as abstention at specified times from food and drink. In this way, every movement and bodily action will have a religious significance attached to it, while religious ritual assumes meaning and dignity, thus bringing soul and body into full harmony.

In those religious communities where this innate human craving for symbolism and physical expression and representation of religious devotion is misunderstood or abused, people have gone astray. Idolatry and the worship of inanimate objects such as stones, trees, planets and stars, as well as animals and birds, can be traced to such abuse and misunderstanding. Islam presents a unique, straightforward concept of the nature of God Almighty, who is not anthropomorphic and whose attributes cannot be defined or represented in physical form. Nevertheless, physical means, or symbols, such as the qiblah, that point man’s senses, heart, soul and body towards God are important. God cannot be restricted by the confines of space, but man needs the dimension of space to direct and concentrate his devotion and feelings towards God. That is how the important need for the qiblah arises.

Once that principle was understood, it was necessary for the new direction in prayer, qiblah, to be unique and exclusive to Islam, in order to underline Islam’s distinction and eminence.

A corollary of this principle says that Muslims are specifically forbidden to emulate or adopt other, non-Muslim, religious and cultural customs. However, it would be wrong to put this down to bigotry or prejudice on the part of Islam, since outward religious and social behavior is a reflection of the inner beliefs and ideals that motivate and determine behavior and outlook. These beliefs and ideals are the main factors that distinguish between different nations, outlooks, ethical systems, moral values and ways of life.

Abū Hurayrah quotes the Prophet as saying, “The Jews and the Christians do not dye their hair. So, adopt a different line.” [Related by Mālik, al-Bukhārī, Muslim and Abū Dāwūd] He was also reported to have told a group of his Companions who stood up to greet him, “Do not be like other communities who stand up in reverence to one another.” [Related by Abū Dāwūd and Ibn Mājah] He also said, “Do not revere me in the same way the Christians revered Jesus, son of Mary. I am a mere servant of God. So refer to me as God’s servant and messenger.” [Related by al-Bukhārī]

The Prophet Muĥammad strongly advised against imitating non-Muslims in appearance, dress, manners, etiquette and behavior. Behind all these outward aspects lie the emotions and convictions that shape man’s outlook, character and way of life.

More importantly, the Prophet strongly rules out the adoption of ideas and concepts not emanating from, or reconcilable with, the world order God has commissioned the Muslim community to promote and establish. He warns against defeatism and feelings of inferiority among the Muslims who, being selected to lead mankind, should derive their values and traditions, and the basis of their faith, from the original source of their religion: God Almighty.

The Qur’ān describes the Muslim community variously as the leading community, a consummately upright nation and a paradigm of moderation. This special acclaim is only conferred upon them by virtue of the fact that they draw their philosophy, outlook, traditions and way of life from God’s revelations.

It is not out of religious bigotry and intolerance that Islam presents itself to the world as a universal and most complete way of life. Islam sees itself as a unifying force in the world, because it advocates the unity of all mankind under one God given social, political and economic way of life. It offers equality to all in the eyes of God, and does not recognize or advance the interests of one group at the expense of others.

Today, Muslims are called on once again to understand the significance of having their own exclusive qiblah. It is not merely a direction to which they turn in their Prayers, nor is it an empty symbol. It is a feature that distinguishes Islam’s whole outlook on life, its concerns and aims, and its identity.

Muslims today, more than at any other time in their history, need to assert their identity. They need to set themselves apart in the world, which is suffering under the tyranny of false religions, oppressive and arrogant ideologies, flawed political and economic systems and heedless leadership. They have to offer new and effective remedies to save mankind and fulfill God’s will, so that the world will acknowledge their community as the central and righteous nation commissioned by God to carry His message to all mankind.

Islam is a complete way of life. Through Islam, Muslims become fit to inherit God’s trust and the leadership of mankind, and to stand witness before God for all humanity. But it is only when they adhere faithfully to Islam that they take on their distinctive and unique features and qualities. Without it they lose their way; and their influence and status in the world diminish and evaporate.

We will now look at the passage in more detail.

A Middle Community and a Pure Faith

The weak-minded among people will say, ‘What has turned them away from the direction of prayer which they have so far observed?’ Say, ‘To God belong the east and the west. He guides whomever He wills to a straight path.’ Thus We have made you the community [ummah] of the middle way, so that you may stand witness against the rest of mankind, and the Messenger shall be a witness against you. We appointed the direction of prayer which you formerly followed in order that We might distinguish those who follow the Messenger from those who turn on their heels. It was indeed a hard test except for those whom God has guided. God would never have let your faith be in vain. God is Compassionate and Merciful to mankind. (Verses 142-143)

It is clear from the course of the discussion that ‘the weak-minded’ is a reference to the Jews of Madinah. They were the ones who stirred up the controversy about the change of qiblah from Jerusalem to Makkah, and questioned its validity and the wisdom behind it.

Al-Barā’ ibn `Āzib reported: “When the Prophet first arrived in Madinah, he stayed at his grandparents [or maybe he said at his maternal uncles] of the Anşār.1 The Prophet used to pray facing Jerusalem for the first sixteen or seventeen months, though he would have preferred to face the Ka`bah. The first prayer he offered [facing the Ka`bah] was `Aşr, when he was joined by a group of people. One of them later passed by another group praying in a mosque and said to them, ‘I bear witness before God that I have just prayed with the Prophet facing the Ka`bah.’ They all turned towards it without interrupting their prayer. The Jews were happy while the Prophet faced Jerusalem in prayer, but when he now turned towards the Ka`bah they were dismayed. It was then that this verse was revealed describing the Jews as weak minded.” [Related by Mālik, al-Bukhārī, Muslim and al-Tirmidhī]

The way the Qur’ān deals with this issue clearly indicates the enormity of the effect that the Jewish campaign was then having on some ordinary Muslims. From the first few words one is made aware that a change of the direction to be faced in prayer is going to be announced. The tone is clearly meant to forestall the doubts and questions that were inevitably going to be raised by troublemakers. But the Qur’ān was ready with the appropriate reply to the argument they would put forward.

The Qur’ān goes on to direct the Prophet to the proper course of action in dealing with the questions that would arise and how to put the whole issue in its proper perspective.

“Say: ‘To God belong the east and the west. He guides whomever He wills to a straight path.’“ (Verse 142) Places and directions carry no intrinsic merit in themselves, except inasmuch as God assigns them such merit, and to whatever direction one turns, God will be there. It is God’s prerogative to guide whomever He wishes to the right path.

What He designates as the direction to be faced in prayer is the right and proper choice, and His designation of it is for the good of the community.

On such criteria Islam defines the relative merits of places and directions, and specifies the source of those criteria: God Almighty to whom all should turn and submit.

The sūrah goes on to outline the central position the Muslim community, or ummah, occupies in the world, and the great role it is destined to play in the history and development of mankind. A prerequisite of that status and role is that the Muslim ummah should have its own exclusive qiblah and distinct identity. It must, first and foremost, owe allegiance to none other than God Almighty, who has commissioned it for that great task.

“We have made you the community of the middle way, so that you may stand witness against the rest of mankind, and the Messenger shall be a witness against you.” (Verse 143)

The Arabic term wasaţ, used in this verse to describe the global Muslim community, is a vivid epithet which evokes a much wider range of meaning than is given by its literal equivalent of ‘middle’. The term is used here in a very broad sense. Thus, the Muslim community, or ummah, to use the Qur’ānic term, is a middle of -the- road community which stands witness against other nations and communities in the sense that it upholds and defends justice and equality for all people. It weighs up their values, standards, traditions, concepts and objectives, judging them as either true or false. It occupies the dual position of being a witness against mankind and an umpire administering justice among them. God’s Messenger, Muĥammad, is in turn a witness against the Muslim community in the sense that, as its leader and guardian, he defines its aims, activities and obligations, and charts the direction it should take. His teachings, example and leadership stimulate the community to appreciate its role and position in the world, and live up to their requirements.

The Muslim community occupies the middle ground in its beliefs and outlook on life. It maintains a healthy and equitable balance between the two extremes of spiritual asceticism and materialism. It treats man as a balanced combination of body and soul, and allows him the opportunity and means to satisfy them both in such a way as to uplift the spirit and enhance the quality of human life. Within this framework of balance and moderation, every constructive talent, ability, aptitude, and activity is nourished and encouraged to grow and play its part in society.

The Muslim community is balanced in the sense that it is not rigid or dogmatic. It holds fast to its ideals and traditions, and to the sources of its religion and way of life, while fostering change and progress in all fields. It is an open society that welcomes new ideas and learns from the work and experience of other societies, cultures and civilizations. Its main objective is to seek the truth, wherever that may come from, and to adopt it with courage and confidence.

Balance and moderation are clear in the way Muslim society is run and organized. It is neither a permissive, undisciplined community nor a regimented one run by brute force or rigid rules. It is a society raised on learning, education and rich cultural and social traditions.

Within the Muslim ‘middle’ community, equitable and fair relationships are cultivated and regulated among all individuals and social groups in the community. Individual rights and liberties are guaranteed and protected in order to encourage innovation, production and growth, in a manner that will serve the common good without infringing upon the rights of the individual, or endangering society as a whole. Individual as well as collective rights and obligations are clearly defined to enable people to serve a society that will care for them and protect their rights and interests.

The Muslim community is also the middle nation geographically, because the part of the world where Islam first emerged, and which continues to represent the heart of the Muslim world, occupies a central position in the world as a whole. It has been a crucible of cultures and civilizations and a busy crossroads for trade from all corners of the earth. It has been, throughout history, a rich source of vital natural resources and raw materials of many kinds for nations and civilizations all over the world. This position has given the Islamic community a strategic and influential role to play on the world stage.

Islam emerged at a time that can be said to mark the beginning of maturity in human thinking. It brought a religious and social order that appealed to the human mind and rescued man from religions and philosophies founded on mythology, superstition, paganism or nihilistic thinking. It ushered in a new era of enlightenment that brought together genuine divine revelations, authentic philosophical thought and sound practical human experience to chart the proper course for man’s progress, happiness and prosperity.

What stops Muslims today from assuming the position and role in the world that God has assigned to them is the fact that they have abandoned the religion God has chosen for them, and adopted social and political philosophies and systems that are inconsistent with it.

World leadership imposes its own demands and responsibilities. For the Muslim community to legitimately earn that position again, it must undergo severe trials and make great sacrifices, prove its loyalty and dedication to God and show total allegiance to its wise leadership.

Having announced that the Ka`bah was to be the permanent, universal direction of prayer for Muslims, the sūrah now reveals the purpose behind the previous choice of Jerusalem as a temporary qiblah.

“We appointed the direction of prayer which you formerly followed in order that We might distinguish those who follow the Messenger from those who turn on their heels.” (Verse 143) From these few words one can immediately identify the divine approach in educating the Muslims and preparing them, from that early stage of their development, for the role of custodian of God’s message and the leadership of mankind. As part of that transformation, it was essential for that nascent community to be freed of all traces of paganism and ethnocentricity, and to become totally obedient and dedicated to the new religion of Islam. The early Muslims had to realize that their values and standards in life must, from then on, be derived from the divine revelations being regularly communicated to the Prophet Muĥammad.

In pre-Islamic days, certain elements of polytheism and racism had crept into the Arabs’ understanding of the faith of Abraham and the status of the Sacred House in Makkah. The Ka`bah had come to be venerated as an exclusively Arab shrine. This was contrary to its intended purpose, since it had been established by Abraham and his son Ishmael as a symbol of purely monotheistic faith and for the reverence and worship of God alone.

To correct the situation and to test their faith and loyalty to the Prophet Muĥammad, God commanded the Muslims to adopt Jerusalem as the direction they face in prayer. Although it was not clear to the Muslims at the time, the measure was meant to be a temporary one, specifically intended to decide where their allegiance would really lie.

It was a delicate decision, but Islam is a complete and self-sufficient religion. It does not need to be supplemented or augmented by other religious beliefs. It does not accept any lingering traces of un-Islamic ways, serious or trivial. This is indeed the point implied in the Qur’ānic statement: “We appointed the direction of prayer which you formerly followed in order that We might distinguish those who follow the Messenger from those who turn on their heels.” (Verse 143) God certainly knows everything before it happens. However, He wishes that what is kept deep in people’s hearts should first appear in action before He holds them accountable for it. His grace means that He does not hold man answerable for his thoughts and feelings; He only holds man accountable for what he does.

It was also a critical decision because God was aware that it was going to be a hard test for some Muslims, still fresh from idolatry. But He was also there to provide help and support for the sincere ones: “It was indeed a hard test except for those whom God has guided.” (Verse 143) With God’s guidance every difficulty becomes easy.

For yet further reassurance, God affirms that the prayers the Muslims had performed facing Jerusalem were valid and the reward for them guaranteed. “God would never have let your faith be in vain. God is Compassionate and Merciful to mankind.” (Verse 143) God would have never burdened the Muslims with more than He knew they would be able to bear. As long as their intentions were genuine and their determination sincere, God was sure to come to their assistance and lighten the tasks expected of them. If a certain hardship or test is meant to reflect God’s wisdom and purpose, passing such a test is indicative of His mercy and compassion.

Thus the Muslims could feel content, confident and free of worry about the past and the future.

Clarification of Issues

Next comes the indication that Muĥammad’s unease with respect to the direction of prayer was soon to be over, as God decreed a permanent one which would satisfy his wishes. However, the announcement comes with a stern warning that the Jews would oppose it and try to exploit it to sow division and confusion among the Muslims.

We have seen you often turn your face towards heaven. We shall, therefore, make you turn in prayer towards a direction you will be happy with. Turn your face, then, towards the Sacred Mosque; and wherever you all may be, turn your faces [in prayer] towards it. Those who have been granted revelations in the past know well that it is the truth from their Lord. God is not unaware of what they do. Were you to bring every possible sign before those who had been granted revelations, they would not follow your direction of prayer. And neither may you follow their direction of prayer, nor would they even follow one another’s direction. If you were to follow their whims and desires after all the knowledge that has been given to you, you would certainly be among the wrongdoers. Those to whom We granted revelation know it as well as they know their own children, but some of them knowingly conceal the truth. This is the truth from your Lord; never, then, be among the doubters. Each one has a goal towards which he turns; so vie with one another in good works. Wherever you may be, God will bring you all together. God has power over all things. From wherever you may come forth, turn your face [in prayer] towards the Sacred Mosque. It is indeed the truth from your Lord. God is not unaware of what you do. From wherever you may come forth, turn your face [in prayer] towards the Sacred Mosque; and wherever you all may be, turn your faces towards it, so that people may have no argument against you, except those who are bent on wrongdoing. Have no fear of them, but fear Me, so that I may perfect My grace on you, and that you may be rightly guided.” (Verses 144-150)

We have a graphic description of the Prophet’s strong desire that God might direct him to a qiblah other than that which the Muslims had hitherto followed, i.e. Jerusalem. The Jews attempted to mislead the Muslims and exploit that situation to their advantage. We can almost feel the restrained desire of the Prophet and his reluctance even to say a prayer that reflected his desire. This is a question on which no one could have a say. It is entirely up to God.

The divine decree, expressed here with compassion and love, comes in line with the Prophet’s wish. The new direction of prayer is exactly the one he has been silently hoping for all those months: “We shall, therefore, make you turn in prayer towards a direction you will be happy with. Turn your face, then, towards the Sacred Mosque.” (Verse 144) What is more, is that it is a permanent and universal one: “Wherever you all may be, turn your faces [in prayer] towards it.” (Verse 144)

Thus the Ka`bah was reinstated as the original focus and symbol of religious unity for the whole world community of Islam. Muslims all over the world, with all their differences of race and language, would from then on perform their prayers facing the same spot on the globe. In doing so, Muslims would assert, and be reminded of, their human and religious unity, and of their membership of a single world community with a common way of life, a common religious legacy, and a common role and aim in the world.

The Muslim world community transcends race and language. The principle of God’s oneness, the bedrock of Islam, is thus manifested in total subservience to God alone; allegiance to the same leadership, that of Muĥammad; adherence to the same religion, Islam; and adoption of the same direction of prayer. Despite all the superficial differences that may exist between people, they are one and equal in their faith. There is no other means by which a truly universal and equitable human society can be brought forth and successfully organized.

Turning to the people of earlier revelations, the sūrah confirms their certain knowledge of the history and religious status of the Sacred Mosque at the Ka`bah. They were well aware that it had been established by Abraham, the founding father of the community that had inherited the creed of God’s oneness, and that its designation as the universal and permanent direction of Islamic prayer would be totally in line with the divine universal order.

Nevertheless, the sūrah points out, they would raise doubts and endlessly quibble over it. The Muslims should not be unduly concerned at that; God will take care of it, as He is fully aware of what they do.

There would be no point in reasoning with the Jews over the issue of the qiblah. Their problem was not lack of evidence or persuasion, but lack of faith and unwillingness to accept the truth. “Were you to bring every possible sign before those who had been granted revelations, they would not follow your direction of prayer.” (Verse 145)

It was not ignorance or lack of understanding that was responsible for that stubborn attitude, but caprice and vested interests. This would also be the source of subsequent Jewish and Christian animosity towards Islam, which was to emerge in various forms in later centuries.

In response to that bigoted stance, the proper and natural attitude of the Prophet is stated: “And neither may you follow their direction of prayer” (Verse 145) This Qur’ānic statement implies, particularly in its Arabic phraseology, a strong sense of finality and permanence. It also conveys to the Muslims a clear instruction never to adopt any direction of prayer, distinctive symbol or a way of life other than what gives it its clear Islamic identity.

The sūrah further reveals that neither the bitterly divided Jewish and Christian sects, nor even the majority of the Jews and the Christians, could ever agree on the adoption of one direction of prayer: “nor would they even follow one another’s direction.” (Verse 145)

As the Prophet is made fully aware of the truth in this matter of worship, he is warned against falling in with those people and their desires: “If you were to follow their whims and desires after all the knowledge that has been given to you, you would certainly be among the wrongdoers.” (Verse 145)

Having been addressed by his Lord with warmth and compassion, the Prophet is here given a strong warning. A grave matter of principle is involved here. There should be no hesitation in carrying out God’s instructions; personal preferences or considerations must not be allowed to influence the Prophet’s or the Muslims’ response to God’s will and command. A Muslim may not abandon the certain knowledge that is given by God to pick up what suits personal whims and desires.

This strong admonition also suggests that there could have been specific cases in which a certain degree of weakness had crept into Muslim minds, in the face of the vicious and insistent propaganda campaign launched by the Jews of Madinah.

The sūrah then asserts that the Jews and Christians were absolutely certain that what the Qur’ān has stated with respect to the qiblah issue, and other issues for that matter, and what the Prophet has ordered is the truth. However, they suppress the truth they know for their own self-interest: “Those to whom We granted revelation know it as well as they know their own children, but some of them knowingly conceal the truth.” (Verse 146)

It is a very powerful simile, used among the Arabs to denote absolute certainty. The point here is that the Jews, despite their denials, were as certain of the truth of the revelations that Muĥammad was receiving, including the announcement of the new direction of prayer. Therefore, the Muslims should pay them no attention nor be influenced by their allegations and misleading interpretations.

The Final Say on the Direction of Prayer

Then the sūrah addresses the Prophet directly, saying: “This is the truth from your Lord; never, then, be among the doubters.” (Verse 147) The Prophet never entertained any doubt about the veracity of his message. Elsewhere in the Qur’ān, the Prophet is told, “If you are in any doubt regarding what has been revealed to you, then consult those who have read the Scriptures before your time.” (10:94) On hearing this verse, the Prophet said: “I entertain no doubts, and. I ask no one.” But the fact that he is here addressed directly is a clear signal to those around him, and others who would come later, who might be influenced by those who may try to undermine Islam.

It is appropriate for Muslims today to reflect on this statement. Some Muslims display remarkable naivety in relying on the authority of Jewish, Christian and Marxist Orientalists, for the interpretation and understanding of Islamic principles and texts of the Qur’ān and ĥadīth, or for the study and analysis of Islamic faith, literature, and history. It is a great pity that Muslim students have to be sent from Muslim countries to be educated in various Islamic disciplines in European and American universities, where some of them acquire a distorted and confused understanding of Islam and Islamic teachings and principles. We must never forget that the Qur’ān is the eternal book God revealed to the Muslim community, outlining what it should do and what it must refrain from. Unbelievers of any creed are not the ones to teach us our faith.

The sūrah gives us clear instructions not to rely on Jewish and Christian advice regarding Islamic principles and practices. It urges Muslims not to deviate from the path charted for them by Islam, and to compete among themselves in their pursuit of constructive and beneficial goals. They will, eventually, return to God, to whom all ‘mankind will be gathered: “Each one has a goal towards which he turns; so vie with one another in good works. Wherever you may be, God will bring you all together. God has power over all things.” (Verse 148) Thus God turns the minds of the Muslims away from the falsehood spread by the followers of other religions. They should disregard any schemes or ploys to thwart or undermine their status and role in the world. They should, instead, compete in doing what is good and beneficial.

The instruction to face the Sacred Mosque in Makkah is reiterated in the following verse: “From wherever you may come forth, turn your face [in prayer] towards the Sacred Mosque. It is indeed the truth from your Lord. God is not unaware of what you do.” (Verse 149) The point here has nothing to do with the people of earlier revelations. It is an order to the Prophet to turn towards the Sacred Mosque wherever he offers his prayers, emphasizing that what God reveals to him is the truth. But the verse also implies a warning in the words “God is not unaware of what you do”, indicating yet again that there had been some weakness among some Muslims, which called for attention and remedy.

Then comes a third reiteration of the institution of the new direction of prayer, but this new statement has a different purpose, namely to refute the argument made by the Jews and other people that taking Jerusalem as the direction of prayer was a vindication of their claim that their religion was superior to that of Muĥammad. It was also meant to counter the argument of the polytheist Arabs who had exploited the situation to turn their fellow Arabs, who venerated the Ka`bah, away from Islam. “From wherever you may come forth, turn your face [in prayer] towards the Sacred Mosque; and wherever you all may be, turn your faces towards it, so that people may have no argument against you, except those who are bent on wrongdoing. Have no fear of them, but fear Me, so that I may perfect My grace on you, and that you may be rightly guided.” (Verse 150)

This is a general order to the Prophet and the Muslims to turn in prayer towards the Ka`bah, wherever they happen to be. Thus, no one would have any argument against them. Any criticism of this decision is of no consequence, and its detractors,Jewish and Arab alike, are motivated only by stubborn hatred of Islam. But they need not be feared, because they can no longer pose any threat to Islam or Muslims. The Muslims in Madinah were reminded that God was on their side and would look after them until they were fully developed and transformed into the leading community they were destined to become.

The Muslims of that small community knew very well what God Almighty meant by the reminder: “so that I may perfect My grace on you, and that you may be rightly guided.” (Verse 150) Only a few years earlier they had been wallowing in tribal ignorance, dogged by futile internecine conflicts, and preoccupied with worldly pursuits. The Arabs before Islam were a heathen, aimless society, plagued by corruption and absurd religious beliefs and practices. They had little or no influence outside their immediate traditional territory, and no ambitions or ideals to strive for.

But Islam changed all that and transformed those erratic and wayward people into an enlightened, mature, outward-looking and powerful community, charged with the momentous and historic role of custodians of God’s message to the world, and poised to assume the leadership of mankind.

The Prophet’s generation of Muslims could see tangible proof, in their personal as well as communal life, of God’s infinite grace and favor. The reminder would raise their morale and boost their confidence and determination to move ahead.

That the instruction to adopt the new direction of prayer is mentioned three times stresses a different purpose each time. It was, first, to grant the Prophet Muĥammad his unspoken wish on this question; second, to assert that it was also the truth declared by God coinciding with the Prophet’s wish; and third, to put an end to self serving criticism and hostility from other groups.

Apart from those reasons, we can detect that there was real cause for concern about weakness and doubt among some Muslims, which called for the instruction to be stressed and reiterated. This suggests that the campaign of false allegations was quite vicious and had gone some way towards creating disruption and confusion within the Muslim community.

Although these statements deal with the immediate issue at the time, the principles and the basic advice that they impart remain relevant and applicable in other similar situations that might arise in the perennial confrontation between the Muslims and their enemies.

Abraham’s Prayers Are Answered

The sūrah goes on to remind the Muslims of more divine favors reserved for them. By one such special favor God has sent them a Messenger, Muĥammad, in fulfillment of the prayer made by Abraham, the first custodian of the Sacred Mosque in Makkah, the permanent and universal qiblah of all Muslims.

Thus We have sent forth to you a Messenger from among yourselves to recite to you Our revelations, purify you, and instruct you in the Book and in wisdom and teach you what you did not know. Remember Me, then, and I will remember you; give thanks to Me and never deny Me. (Verses 151-152)

The same words of Abraham’s prayer (Verse 129) are used here, thus establishing a direct and significant link between the two Prophets and their religion. Islam was not, then, invented or born out of expediency, but had its origins firmly rooted in history. The direction of prayer that was being instituted had not been chosen haphazardly or without purpose. It was the answer to Abraham’s passionate and sincere prayers.

As a result of this boundless divine grace, the Muslims were sent a messenger, one of their own number, who was to be the last human Messenger from God to mankind, and had their own exclusive direction of prayer designated for them by God, thereby giving them a distinctive character and a privileged status in the world.

Another aspect of God’s favor is that, through Muĥammad, He was addressing the Muslims, a humble and insignificant band of believers, with His own words. Who were those people? What did they represent, for God and for mankind? What did they do or have to deserve God’s attention and special favor?

“Thus We have sent forth to you a Messenger from among yourselves to recite to you Our revelations, purify you...” The fact that Muĥammad had come from that society, and was chosen to receive God’s revelations, the Qur’ān, represented God’s limitless favor. God’s Messenger, Muĥammad (peace be upon him) was also sent to cleanse the Arabs of the sad misconceptions, corruption and ignorance that went with their idolatrous beliefs and lax way of life. Those whose souls are not purged by submission to God, at whatever time or place they may live, sink into a stinking depth of worldly desires that are unbecoming of man. In such a condition, man sinks lower than animals, controlled as animals are by their desires. The Prophet also purges their society of usury, cheating, looting and illegal earnings; all of which are impurities that contaminate souls, feelings, society and human life altogether. He further purges their lives of injustice, putting in place a superior standard of justice to which their community aspires.

“... And instructs you in the Book and in wisdom...“ This incorporates what has been mentioned earlier about reciting God’s revelations included in His book, and emphasizes its essential subject matter, i.e. wisdom. Wisdom is acquired as the fruit of instruction in this book, i.e. the Qur’ān. It is a quality which ensures that anyone who has it views matters in their proper perspective and evaluates them correctly.

He has the necessary understanding to appreciate the aims behind God’s commandments and teachings.

Before Islam, the Arabs were a heedless and xenophobic people, living in total darkness and moral corruption, given to inhuman practices such as usury, infanticide, slavery, piracy and other forms of crime. Islam had come to purge that vile and destructive way of life and transform the Arabs into a pioneering society that would uphold justice and strive to promote and preserve the humanity of man.

Muĥammad had also been sent to “instruct you in the Book and in wisdom and teach you what you did not know”. One of Muĥammad’s duties was to teach his followers how to understand and interpret the Qur’ān, and translate it into a practical code for daily life. Through the Qur’ān they acquired the wisdom and the ability to appreciate and understand God’s commands, evaluate ideas and concepts, and judge values and objectives.

It was through that slow and painstaking process of education and development that the first group of Muslims was raised out of an almost uncultured tribal desert people. Out of that community, within a phenomenally short time, came a nation with a rich ideology and a dynamic spirit, fit to assume a leading role in the world.

That pioneering generation was raised on the ideas and teachings of the Qur’ān and under the instruction of the Prophet Muĥammad, which was inspired by and derived from the Qur’ān. The Prophet’s mosque in Madinah was the focal point of Muslim life and its center of learning, which produced a unique civilization and a community that has been unrivaled throughout history.

That divine legacy and those teachings, which were responsible for raising the first generation of Islam, remain intact and accessible today. It is vital for Muslims to return to their original source of knowledge and greatness, and to look at the Qur’ān as a guide and an instrument for change, rather than as lyrics to be melodiously chanted for idle pleasure.

When God Remembers His Servants

This passage is concluded with yet another reminder of God’s favors to the Muslim community. God calls on Muslims to remember and praise Him, and in return He will remember them: “Remember Me, then, and I will remember you; give thanks to Me and never deny Me.’’ (Verse 152)

What honor, what benevolence and compassion! God Almighty, in all His greatness and glory, exchanges these sentiments on an equal level with His humble servants. What grace and generosity!

“Remember Me, then, and I will remember you” — it is the greatest privilege any human being can receive from God, whose generosity is limitless and whose benevolence knows no bounds. The Prophet Muĥammad is reported to have quoted God as saying: “Whoever remembers Me privately to himself I will remember him to Myself; and whoever remembers Me in the company of people I will remember him in a better company.”

The Prophet also quotes God as saying: “Son of Adam! When you remember Me to yourself, I will remember you to Myself. When you remember Me in the company of others I will remember you in a company of angels. When you draw closer to Me by a hand span, I will draw closer to you by an arm’s length; and when you draw closer to Me by an arm’s length, I will draw closer to you by a longer distance; and when you walk towards Me, I will run towards you.”

No words could possibly describe the effects and scope of this divine grace. Man can only reciprocate such feelings through prayer, meditation and total submission to God Almighty. This will eventually lead him to see and recognize no other power in this world but that of God.

The recognition of God’s power and the expression of one’s gratitude to Him come in several stages. The least of them is to acknowledge God’s grace and blessings and refrain from disobeying Him. The highest stage is that of total dedication of one’s thoughts, talents, energies and actions to the service of God.

The words “give thanks to Me and never deny Me” also carry a warning that negligence of, ingratitude to, and rebellion against God would lead to denying Him altogether, which is a most hopeless and dismal end.

All the instructions and warnings conveyed in the above passage are extremely pertinent to the issue of the direction of prayer, the focus of Muslims and the distinctive symbol of acknowledging God’s oneness. They are also pertinent to the confrontation with the Jews of Madinah, whose ultimate objective was to mislead the Muslims in the hope that they might revert to unbelief. Thus, they would deprive them of God’s favors and blessings, the greatest and foremost of which is that of faith.

The Jews were aware that the Arabs without Islam would go back to their aimless tribal existence, with no influence on the rest of the world or role in history. A people without sound principles or creed, or a philosophy of life, would have no reason to assume a position of leadership in the world.

To be remembered by God, Muslims have to remember that Islam is more than a religion concerned only with the spiritual or personal aspects of life. It is a complete way of life with teachings, laws and practices for the organization and development of all human affairs. History tells us that whenever Muslims showed awareness of God and dedication to His cause, they progressed and achieved prominence, and their standing in the world rose high above all others; but when they neglected Islam and forgot God, they declined and were crushed and left behind.

Yet, the door will always remain open. In His blessed book, the Qur’ān, God calls on Muslims: “Remember Me, then, and I will remember you; give thanks to Me and never deny Me.” (Verse 152)
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1 It is well known that the Prophet stayed at the home of Khālid ibn Zayd, better known as Abū Ayyūb al-Anşārī, who belonged to al-Najjār clan, to whom belonged the Prophet’s maternal grandmother. According to the Arabian usage, all men of this clan are considered maternal uncles of the Prophet by virtue of his grandfather’s marriage to one of its women — Editor’s notes.

Aug. 29th, 2012

SŪRAH 2 Al-Baqarah (The (Female) Cow)

SŪRAH 2 Al-Baqarah (The (Female) Cow)

6 Universal Faith


When his Lord tested Abraham with certain commandments and he fulfilled them, He said, ‘I have appointed you a leader of mankind.’ Abraham asked, And what of my descendants?’ God said, ‘My covenant does not apply to the wrongdoers.’ (124)

We made the House [i.e. the Ka`bah] a resort for mankind and a sanctuary: “Make the place where Abraham stood as a place of prayer.’ We assigned to Abraham and Ishmael the task of purifying My House for those who walk around it, those who sojourn there for meditation and those who bow down and prostrate themselves in prayer. (125)

Abraham said, ‘Lord, make this a land of security and make provisions of fruits for those of its people who believe in God and the Last Day.’ God said, And as for he who disbelieves, I shall let him enjoy life for a while and then I shall drive him to suffering through the fire; and what a terrible end!’ (126)

As Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the House, [they prayed]: “Our Lord, accept this from us; You are the One that hears all and knows all. (127)

Our Lord, make us surrender ourselves to You, and make out of our offspring a community that will surrender itself to You. Show us our ways of worship and accept our repentance; You are the One who accepts repentance, the Merciful. (128)

Our Lord, send them a Messenger from among themselves who shall declare to them Your revelations, and instruct them in the Book and in wisdom, and purify them. You are Mighty and Wise.’ (129)

Who but a foolish person would turn away from the faith of Abraham? We raised him high in this life, and in the life to come he shall be among the righteous. (130)

When his Lord said to him, ‘Submit yourself’, he said, ‘I have submitted myself to the Lord of all the worlds.’ (131)

Abraham enjoined the same on his children, and so did Jacob, saying, ‘My children, God has given you the purest faith. Do not let death overtake you before you have submitted yourselves to God.’ (132)

Were you present when death approached Jacob? He asked his children, ‘Whom will you worship when I am gone?’ They replied, ‘We will worship your God, the God of your forefathers Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, the One God. To Him we submit ourselves.’ (133)

That community has passed away. Theirs is what they had earned and yours is what you have earned. You shall not be questioned about what they did. (134)

They say, ‘Follow the Jewish faith — or, follow the Christian faith — and you shall be rightly guided.’ Say, ‘No. We follow the faith of Abraham, who was truly devoted to God, and was not of those who associated partners with God.’ (135)

Say [all of you], ‘We believe in God and in what has been revealed to us, and in what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and their descendants, and in what was given to Moses and 'Eesaa, and in what all prophets have been given by their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and to God we have surrendered ourselves.’ (136)

If they come to believe in the way you believe, they will be rightly guided; but if they turn away, they will be in schism, but God will protect you from them; He hears all and knows all. (137)

[This message takes its] hue from God; who can give a better hue than God? Him alone do we worship. (138)

Say, ‘Would you dispute with us about God? He is our Lord and your Lord. To us our deeds shall be credited and to you, your deeds. To Him alone we are devoted.’ (139)

Do you claim that Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes were Jews or Christians? Say, ‘Do you know better than God?’ Who is more wicked than one who suppresses a testimony he has received from God? God is not unmindful of what you do. (140)

That community has passed away. Theirs is what they earned and yours is what you have earned You shall not be questioned about what they did. (141)
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Overview

So far in the sūrah, the debate with the people of earlier revelations, i.e. the Jews and the Christians, has mainly focused on the historical record of the Israelites and their response to the Prophets who came to lead them, the teachings that these Prophets preached, and the covenants and pledges to which the Israelites committed themselves. This covered a historical span from the era of Moses to the time of Muĥammad (peace be upon them both). The argument so far was in the most part with the Jews, shorter ones with the Christians, with a few references to the idolaters, particularly when they shared certain features with the other two groups.

In this section we are taken farther back in history, to the era of Abraham. The events and amount of detail presented here fall neatly into context with the subject matter of the sūrah as a whole. They are also immediately relevant to the long and hard debate that was taking place between the Muslims and the Jews in Madinah when these verses were revealed.

The people of earlier revelations trace their origins back to Abraham by way of his son Isaac (peace be upon them). Understandably, they have always been proud of this relationship, just as they have cherished the promises God made to Abraham to bless him and his seed, and the covenant God made with them. This has led them to make exclusive claims to righteousness and custodianship of God’s message to mankind. It has also misled them into believing that heaven is exclusively theirs, whatever they do.

The Quraysh Arab tribe living in Makkah were also Abraham’s descendants through his other son, Ishmael. They were also just as proud of their ancestry as the Jews were of theirs. It gave them the privilege of being the custodians of the sacred shrine of the Ka`bah in Makkah, which had, in turn, given them the religious authority, honour, power and position they enjoyed over the rest of the Arabs.

Towards the end of the last passage we saw how the Qur’ān refuted Jewish and Christian claims to exclusive righteousness and salvation: “They declare: ‘None shall enter Paradise unless he is a Jew or a Christian.’“ (Verse 111) Hard did they try to convert Muslims to Judaism or Christianity: “They say: ‘Follow the Jewish faith’ — or, ‘Follow the Christian faith’ — and you shall be rightly guided.’” (Verse 135) It also condemned those who prevent people from worshipping in God’s places of worship — which, as we said, was probably linked to the issue of changing the direction Muslims face in prayer from Jerusalem to the Ka'bah in Makkah — and efforts to exploit that issue to create division and confusion within Muslim ranks.

In this section, and still within the same context of Jewish, Christian and pagan claims, the sūrah recounts parts of the history of Abraham and his sons Ishmael and Isaac, and gives a final ruling on the qiblah issue. The occasion is also used to establish the truth regarding the religion of Abraham, which was based purely on the belief in God’s absolute oneness. Thus it remains at complete variance with the distorted beliefs adopted by those three groups, while its affinity to the message of the Prophet Muĥammad was total. It denounces the monopoly of religious righteousness by any nation or racial group, stressing that religion resides in the believer’s heart; it is not inherited through blood or ancestral lineage. Religion belongs to God Almighty, who is not related through blood or ancestry to any human individual or group. Those who believe in His religion and practice it properly shall be its rightful custodians and trustees, at all times, regardless of their race or ethnic origin.

The Qur’ān presents these facts, which form some of the most basic tenets of Islamic belief, in a fine, clear and elegant style. It takes the reader step by step through the long span of history starting at the time God entrusted Abraham with the religious leadership of mankind, upon successfully completing the test to which God put him. It goes up to the early formation of the Muslim community which believes in the message of Muĥammad. Its rise is seen as fulfillment of Abraham’s and Ishmael’s prayers while they were laying the foundations of the Ka`bah. Thus, it is the Muslim community that is the legitimate heir to God’s religion, solely by virtue of their faith in God and by their true and sincere following of Abraham’s teachings. Those who depart from it, choosing to turn away from Abraham’s faith in God’s absolute oneness, renege on their commitments to God and, as such, cannot be the heirs to the divine faith.

The Qur’ān further establishes that Islam, in the sense of submission to God alone, was the first and the last divine message to mankind. It was the religion of Abraham and of Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Hebrew tribes who came after him, and was handed down to Moses and Jesus until it was eventually inherited by the Muslims. All true and faithful followers of those and other prophets and messengers belong to the same nation and share in all the merits and rewards of following the religion of Islam in its wider, universal version. All those who reject the religion of Abraham or renege on any of their covenants with God forfeit their claim to those privileges and rewards.

Thus we can see how Jewish and Christian claims to an exclusive possession of God’s true religion, by virtue of lineage to Abraham, are totally groundless. They lost that right the moment they deviated from the true faith based on total submission to God alone. For the same reason, the idolater Arabs of the Quraysh forfeited their claim to the exclusive custodianship of the Ka`bah. Likewise, the Jewish argument for opposing the designation of the Ka`bah as the qiblah for the Muslims falls apart, because the Ka`bah was the original qiblah of their forefather Abraham, and therefore it was theirs also.

Following this brief introduction, let us now take a closer look at the account of Abraham, his covenant with God, and its significance in the history of the religion of Islam.

Abraham’s Covenant

When his Lord tested Abraham with certain commandments and he fulfilled them, He said, I have appointed you a leader of mankind.’ Abraham asked, And what of my descendants?’ God said, ‘My covenant does not apply to the wrongdoers.’ (Verse 124)

The Prophet is here reminded of how God had imparted certain commandments and obligations to Abraham in order to test his faith, loyalty and resolve. Elsewhere in the Qur’ān, he is described as “Abraham, who was faithful to his trust.” (53: 37) This is a recognition by God of Abraham’s faithful and complete fulfilment of those obligations, according him a very high rank in God’s estimation. Hence, God’s promise: “I have appointed you a leader of mankind” Thus, Abraham becomes the leader to be followed, the one who shows people the way to all goodness.

Being human, Abraham is immediately prompted to wish for that blessing and privilege to be extended to his offspring. What Abraham expressed was a natural instinctive human reaction, because man is always eager to multiply and perpetuate his achievements and attainments. By the passing of knowledge and experience from one generation to the next, the human lot is improved and life is preserved. This natural and necessary human process has been a target for criticism and attack, while Islam recognizes its importance, and promotes it through its law of inheritance, so that it serves human society to the full.

The misguided efforts made in some societies to undermine this natural progression in fact try to suppress human nature altogether. Such efforts betray short-sightedness, inhumanity and arbitrary methods in tackling social and moral ills. Unless remedied, these will lead to the fragmentation and destruction of society. However, solutions that run contrary to human nature will inevitably end in failure. What is needed is a solution that rectifies deviation and social ills without contradicting human nature. Such methods can only be adopted and made to work within a framework of divine guidance and faith. They require a profound and enlightened understanding of human nature and the human mind, and an unbiased outlook, free of all grudges and destructive tendencies.

The answer to Abraham’s question, “And what of my descendants?” reiterates an already stated major principle: that religious leadership and authority are granted purely on merit, in reward for sincere faith and diligent work. They are not inherited through ancestral lineage. God said: “My covenant does not apply to the wrongdoers.”

“Wrongdoing” takes various forms: it might be directed at oneself, by associating partners with God, or it might be oppression directed at fellow human beings. The leadership denied to wrongdoers includes all the meanings covered by the Arabic term imām, which include prophethood, political authority, and the leading of congregational prayers. Equity and justice make up the foremost qualification for this lofty vocation, and no one who deviates from these qualities deserves any form of leadership, in its widest sense.

This is the clear essence of the covenant made with Abraham. According to it, the Jews, as a result of their repeated wrongdoing, self-indulgence and waywardness, could never have an exclusive monopoly of the leadership of mankind. Similarly, and for the same reasons, some so-called Muslims today would also be barred from that covenant.

Islam gives no credence to ties or relationships not based on faith and sincere action. It places a sharp distinction between one generation and another when the later one deviates from the faith, despite their common ancestry. Indeed, according to Islam, faith can separate father and son, and man and wife. Thus the Arabs who adopted Islam are distinguished from those who did not, just as Jews and Christians who believed in the religion of Abraham, Moses and 'Eesaa are distinguished from those who deviated from them. Ancestors and offspring only become one family or nation when they are all believers united by the same faith, regardless of color and geographic or ethnic origins.

Building the Ka`bah

We made the House [i.e. the Ka`bah] a resort for mankind and a sanctuary: Make the place where Abraham stood as a place of prayer.’ We assigned to Abraham and Ishmael the task of purifying My House for those who walk around it, those who sojourn there for meditation and those who bow down and prostrate themselves in prayer. (Verse 125)

The Sacred House, the Ka`bah, was defiled by the Arabs of the Quraysh who were supposed to be its trusted caretakers and custodians. They harassed and persecuted the believers and drove them out of Makkah. Yet God wanted this House to be a sanctuary to which people of all races resort. In there people should find peace and security for all.

The Arabs had been directed to establish “the place where Abraham stood”, which is a reference to the whole area surrounding the Ka`bah, as a place for prayer, which makes its subsequent designation as a qiblah, a spot towards which Muslims turn in Prayer, a very natural progression raising no objections from anyone. After all, it had been the very first place to which Muslims, the legitimate heirs of Abraham’s monotheistic religion, had turned in their prayer, because it had been dedicated to God and to no one else. Abraham and Ishmael, two pious and sincere servants of God, had been charged with cleansing it and preparing it for pilgrims who would come to it for worship and meditation. They would make no claim to its ownership, nor did they have it in their power to pass such ownership to anyone else. They were mere servants of God Almighty and keepers of His sacred and revered House.

Abraham said, ‘Lord, make this a land of security and make provisions of fruits for those of its people who believe in God and the Last Day.’ God said, ‘And as for he who disbelieves, I shall let him enjoy life for a while and then I shall drive him to suffering through the fire; and what a terrible end!’ (Verse 126)

While still pleading for the House to be made a universal place of peace and security for posterity, Abraham has clearly heeded God’s earlier admonition, as we now find him making the exception that only the believers should receive God’s favor.

The sūrah then goes on to paint a lively picture of Abraham and Ishmael embarking on the job of constructing the House of God and preparing it for worshippers: “As Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the House, [they prayed]: ‘Our Lord, accept this from us; You are the One that hears all and knows all. Our Lord, make us surrender ourselves to You, and make out of our offspring a community that will surrender itself to You. Show us our ways of worship and accept our repentance; You are the One who accepts repentance, the Merciful. Our Lord, send them a Messenger from among themselves who shall declare to them Your revelations, and instruct them in the Book and in wisdom, and purify them. You are Mighty and Wise.’“ (Verses 127-129)

Not only does this vivid account take the reader right into the scene of the action, but it also surrounds him with the mood and feeling of the occasion. It was a labor of love and devotion that those two pious people undertook, dedicated to God Almighty and carried out in expectation and hope that He would accept it and be pleased with it.

We almost hear the tone and music of their prayer, and we feel the atmosphere of heart-felt appeal to God. This is a special characteristic of the Qur’ānic style which brings a scene of an event long gone as though it is taking place here and now, right in front of us. In their prayer we cannot fail to note the sort of humility, devotion and profound faith that are worthy of prophets who understand the importance of true faith in this world. Such characteristics the Qur’ān tries to teach the advocates of faith and instil it in their hearts.

“’Our Lord, accept this from us; You are the One that hears all and knows all.’” (Verse 127) Their first aim is that their labor, which is dedicated purely to God, should be accepted by Him. Hence, they offer it with humility, hoping to earn God’s pleasure through it, pinning their hopes on the fact that God listens to their prayers and knows their feelings and intentions.

“Our Lord, make us surrender ourselves to You, and make out of our offspring a community that will surrender itself to You. Show us our ways of worship and accept our repentance; You are the One who accepts repentance, the Merciful.” (Verse 128) They turn to God seeking His guidance, fully aware that, without His help and support, they are powerless. Their prayer also shows the intrinsic solidarity of the community of believers over successive generations. “Make of our offspring a community that will surrender itself to You.” This shows not only the fact that faith is the most important aspect in a believer’s life, and appreciation of its great blessings, but also the instinctive natural feeling of wishing the best for one’s children and descendants. Their main concern was that their offspring should be God-fearing, righteous and obedient to God. So they add a specific request: “’Our Lord, send them a Messenger from among themselves who shall declare to them Your revelations, and instruct them in the Book and in wisdom, and purify them. You are Mighty and Wise.’“ (Verse 129)

That particular prayer was answered when the Prophet Muĥammad, a direct descendant of Abraham and Ishmael, was given his message several centuries later. We note that some time may elapse before God answers a particular prayer. As human beings, we tend to be impatient and want our prayers answered immediately, forgetting that it is for God Almighty to choose how and when they should be answered and fulfilled.

This prayer by Abraham and Ishmael carries particular significance for the debate that was going on between the Muslims and the Jews in Madinah at the time. The two Prophets expressly request God to make out of their offspring a nation that would serve God, as the word ‘Muslim’, (meaning one who submits himself) implies. The prayer makes clear that the Muslim nation, followers of Muĥammad, are the recognized heirs to the legacy of Abraham; that is, the leadership of mankind and the custody of the House of God in Makkah. This, in turn, is an affirmation of the Muslims’ right, over the idolater Arabs, to the Ka`bah, as well as of the latter’s precedence over Jerusalem as the qiblah faced by Muslims in Prayer throughout the world.

Jews and Christians who claim a religious bond with Abraham, and the Quraysh Arabs who claim an ancestral relationship to Ishmael, are informed in clear, simple language that Abraham excluded the wrongdoers among his offspring from his covenant with God, and prayed for guidance and salvation only for the believers among them. Furthermore, when Abraham and Ishmael embarked on building a place dedicated to the worship of God on earth, they asked Him to make a nation from their offspring, the Muslim nation that would submit to God; and to send them a messenger of their own, Muĥammad, to instruct them in the true religion of God. These are the real and legitimate heirs of the legacy of Abraham and Ishmael.

Then comes a brief interjection condemning those who dispute Muĥammad’s role as a prophet and messenger and argue about the essence of divine faith: “Who but a foolish person would turn away from the faith of Abraham? We raised him high in this life, and in the life to come he shall be among the righteous. When his Lord said to him, ‘Submit yourself’, he said, ‘I have submitted myself to the Lord of all the worlds.’ Abraham enjoined the same on his children, and so did Jacob, saying, My children, God has given you the purest faith. Do not let death overtake you before you have submitted yourselves to God.’“ (Verses 130-132)

The essence of the religion of Abraham is pure submission to God, or Islam, which only a foolish or obstinate person would abandon or reject. Abraham and Jacob, or Israel as he is otherwise called, were determined to hand it down to their offspring, in perpetuity. This religion had been chosen for them by God Himself, as an act of grace and a boon to them; it was not of their making, and a better choice they would not have. With the coming of Muĥammad and the message of Islam, a fresh opportunity opened up for the Arabs and the Jews of Arabia to fulfill the wishes of their forefathers from whom they were proud to claim descent.

A Faith to Pass to Your Children

At this point we come to witness another awesome scene: Jacob on his deathbed, giving his last words of wisdom and advice to his children, gathered around him: “Were you present when death approached Jacob? He asked his children, ‘Whom will you worship when I am gone?’ They replied, ‘We will worship your God, the God of your forefathers Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, the One God. To Him we submit ourselves.’“ (Verse 133)

It is indeed a tremendous and solemn occasion. The most important and only issue that concerned Jacob as he drew his last breath was the religion his children were to follow after his death. He was worried about the fate of his legacy and the future of the religion placed in his trust. His children’s reply must have been most reassuring and gratifying for him. The chain would not be broken, and the legacy of Abraham was sure to live on for many generations to come.

Jacob asks his children: “Whom will you worship when I am gone?” (Verse 133) He thus tells them why he gathered them, and the issue he wanted to be sure of before his death. It is the trust and the heritage of that blessed house. His children reassure Jacob that they would be true to their trust. Thus, the same heritage of Abraham was safe with Jacob’s children, who clearly state that they have submitted themselves to God.

The verse opens with a rhetorical question addressed to the Jews: “Were you present when death approached Jacob?” (Verse 133) It tells them what went on as witnessed by God Himself. They could not question the truth of what had happened or distort it after God has stated what went on.

In the light of these assertions, a clear distinction is established between that bygone generation and the one that was facing Islam in Madinah: “That community has passed away. Theirs is what they had earned and yours is what you have earned. You shall not be questioned about what they did.” (Verse 134)

Every generation has its concerns and characteristics, and the record for which it shall be accountable. A corrupt and heedless generation shall bear no relation to a righteous one. The only durable link between generations of nations is that of faith and belief. From the Islamic point of view, a nation’s characteristics are preserved and perpetuated through faith rather than race or blood, and generations are viewed as either believers or unbelievers, with every one seen in the light of their actions and record.

According to Islam, a nation is defined by its faith and beliefs, regardless of its constituent ethnic and racial groups, or how widely spread in the world they are. Having a common race or territory does not make a nation. This approach stems from Islam’s universal view of mankind as a single race deriving its unique human qualities from the spirit God had breathed into man at the moment of creation, rather than from some acquired physical qualities that are of little concern.

The Argument Is Finally Settled

Against this historical background of God’s covenant with Abraham, the building of the Ka`bah and the entitlement to the religious heritage of Abraham, the sūrah takes a closer look at some Jewish and Christian arguments and claims. It exposes the weakness in those arguments and the insidious ulterior motives behind them. The passage is rounded off by presenting Islam as man’s comprehensive and universal religion, opposed and rejected only by those who are stubborn and ungrateful:

They say, ‘Follow the Jewish faith — or, follow the Christian faith — and you shall be rightly guided.’ Say, ‘No. We follow the faith of Abraham, who was truly devoted to God, and was not of those who associated partners with God.’ Say [all of you], ‘We believe in God and in what has been revealed to us, and in what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and their descendants, and in what was given to Moses and Jesus, and in what all prophets have been given by their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and to God we have surrendered ourselves. ‘ If they come to believe in the way you believe, they will be rightly guided; but if they turn away, they will be in schism, but God will protect you from them; He hears all and knows all.’ (Verses 135-137)

The Prophet is instructed here to confront the Jews and the Christians together with the same challenge, and call upon them equally to revert, together with the Muslims, to the original religion of Abraham, the founding father of the faith of Islam on earth. He was the one to make a covenant with God and he was true to his covenant.

Then the Muslims are called upon to acknowledge and declare an overall unity of faith, from that of Abraham right up to that of ‘Eesaa and Muĥammad.

The principle of the unity and universality of faith, and the unity of all prophets and messengers all through the ages, is the cornerstone of Islamic faith. It lends legitimacy to the Muslim community’s claim to the legacy of Abraham and to the right of trusteeship for God’s religion in this world. It is this principle as a fundamental backbone of Islam that gives it its universal characteristic, which brings people together under the same banner, free of all prejudice or discrimination. It makes the Muslim community open to all people in a spirit of genuine love and peace.

This leads to the conclusion that Islam, in its broad, universal sense, is the true guidance. Its followers shall succeed and prosper while its opponents will never find a firm basis to stand upon. On the contrary, they will live in constant turmoil and confusion.

This testimony from none other than God Almighty will give Muslims reassurance and make them proud of their faith and confident that they will overcome setbacks and tribulations and prevail over their enemies. God is on their side and “will protect you from them; He hears all and knows all.” (Verse 137)

The duty of believers is to uphold the faith and take pride in it and wear the distinctive mark of the true servants of God which makes them stand out and surpass all others in the world: “[This message takes its] hue from God; who can give a better hue than God? Him alone do we worship.” (Verse 138) He has given a very distinctive color to the message He has chosen to be the last to mankind. It serves as a basis on which to establish an all-embracing human unity, free of all prejudices and fanaticism, giving no special status to any race or color.

We need to reflect a little here about a unique and highly significant aspect of the Qur’ānic mode of expression. The beginning of this verse is a statement made by God: “This message takes its hue from God; who can give a better hue than God?” (Verse 138) The rest of the verse is a statement by the believers. The Qur’ān joins both statements without anything to separate or distinguish one from the other. This is a great honor to the believers when their statement is joined to that of God, indicating their very close link with their Lord. Examples of such highly significant type of expression are numerous in the Qur’ān.

The argument is then brought to its climax by posing the ultimate question: “Say, ‘Would you dispute with us about God? He is our Lord and your Lord. To us our deeds shall be credited and to you, your deeds. To Him alone we are devoted.’“ (Verse 139)

There can be no room for doubt about God’s oneness and sovereignty over all creation. He is the Lord of all of us, and He shall judge everyone by their own deeds. As Muslims, we devote our life and existence totally to God alone. We seek no other beings with or beside Him; and to us, these are incontrovertible and indisputable facts on which the faith of Islam rests.

In terse and forceful language, the sūrah poses other rhetorical questions regarding the faith of earlier prophets, well known to the Jews and the Christians: “Do you claim that Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes were Jews or Christians?” (Verse 140) These lived long before Moses, and their faith preceded both Christianity and Judaism. God states the truth about their faith: “Say: ‘Do you know better than God?’“ (Verse 140) No answer could be offered to such a rhetorical question. Besides, both Jews and Christians knew very well that these Prophets lived long before their faiths. They further have, in their own Scriptures, clear statements speaking of the Prophet who would be sent with a message of the pure monotheistic faith of Abraham, but they suppressed that. Hence, the warning that God is fully aware of what they suppress: “Who is more wicked than one who suppresses a testimony he has received from God? God is not unmindful of what you do.” (Verse 140)

As the sūrah makes its final, irrefutable argument, showing the great gulf separating Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and his sons from the Jews who were the Prophet’s contemporaries, it repeats the verse with which it concluded its discourse about Abraham and his descendants who submitted themselves to God: “That community has passed away. Theirs is what they earned and yours is what you have earned. You shall not be questioned about what they did.” (Verse 141) With this powerful statement, all arguments are brought to their decisive conclusion.

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