Tafseer Surah Al Alaq
Towards the end of the previous surah there was a strong rhetorical question – what kind of person would lie against the prophet (saw) after all the evidence has been presented to them? Half of this surah is dedicated to such a wretched person and this person is unanimously understood to be Abu Jahl. Allah (swt) asks in the previous surah, ‘Is Allah not the Greatest Ruler of all the rulers?’ The word hakim is rooted in two things. The first is to do with wisdom and the second has to be with being a judge and having the power to pass judgement on someone. Both become relevant in this surah. A judge will prescribe a punishment to the one guilty of committing a crime and in this surah as a judge Allah (swt) orders a punishment. The other meaning was wisdom and as the Owner of all wisdom it is only becoming that Allah (swt) reveals some of that wisdom in the Quran, which the messenger of Allah is instructed to read at the beginning of this surah.
In the previous surah we saw a natural sequence between imaan (belief) and good deeds. When you have imaan you do good deeds and when you do good deeds your imaan increases, which leads to more good deeds. This is a cycle and the first part of this cycle was mentioned in verse six of the previous surah, ‘Except for those who believe and do righteous deeds, for they will have a reward never ending’. In this surah Allah (swt) says prostrate which is a good deed that causes one to increase in imaan and become closer to Allah (swt). However, coming closer to Allah (swt) is not a deed, rather it is a state of imaan. So really the state of imaan is mentioned second and the action first which is converse to the previous surah. The previous surah spoke in a more general way whereas this surah deals in specifics. For example, the previous surah alluded to the messenger (saw) but in this surah he is specifically spoken about. Similarly, the previous surah explains that man was created in the best form and in this surah we learn what specifically made him the best of creations. We also learnt in the previous surah that man was created the lowest of the low and in this surah we learn what specifically led him to being the lowest of the low. It was a disbeliever in generality in the previous surah that denied the message and in this surah we are given a specific example in Abu Jahl.
Allah’s final Messenger came after a long dark age. The last messenger before Muhammad (saw) was Esa (as) and the gap between them was approximately six hundred years. This period in which humanity was in complete darkness was lifted with the arrival of the ultimate revelation. Most mufassiroon say that the first five verses of the surah are the first to have ever been revealed. In a long narration, narrated by Aisha (ra), in Sahih al Bukhari and Muslim the beginning of the revelation is described. Aisha (ra) said that it began by the prophet (saw) seeing dreams that would come true and manifest exactly as he saw it in his dreams. This is almost as if he was being prepared for the message. Solitude then became beloved to him and he would spend many nights alone in the cave of Hira’ away from people almost as if he wanted to wash off the evil influences of Makkan society. A lot of people wonder what he (saw) thought about. One line of reasoning is that he was thinking about meaning of life.
In our times we have numerous charitable organisations and all of them at the end of the year issue a progress report. We often learn from these that despite the best efforts of these charitable organisations the problem they are tackling, such as hunger, just seems to get bigger and bigger. These people can sometimes feel depressed because no matter what they do the problem does not appear to have an end in sight. No sooner have they helped people in one conflict area, another conflict starts. This humanitarian can feel despondent and think that the human race is beyond all hope. In the period before revelation came the messenger (saw) would help slaves and those oppressed. In fact he (saw) could even be considered a humanitarian and human rights activist judging by the words of his wife Khadijah (rh) who consoled the prophet (saw) when he rushed to her terrified after encountering Jibreel (as). She consoled him by questioning how he could possibly be in any trouble due to all the good he had done for society, for orphans and for the oppressed. Yet, despite the best efforts of the prophet (saw) in this period before revelation descended, slavery only ever increased as did those who were oppressed and in need. A person of high intellect like the prophet (saw) was desperately trying to identify how to rid the world of hunger and not just feed the hungry, how to rid the world of all oppression and not just help the oppressed. The answer to the question of how to help humanity is something that thinkers have been grappling with their whole life. To this day despite all the advancements mankind has made, humans only seem to be becoming less human. Allah (swt) provided the answers to both problems the messenger (saw) had by giving the Quran, a solution for humanity which provides perfect guidance on how to be connected to your master.
There is a saying in Arabic that a true compliment is one that comes from the enemy. For example, if a Muslim says something good about the messenger (saw) then that is to be expected but when non-Muslims speak highly of him then that it is a huge compliment. The prophet (saw) was ranked top in a list of the most influential persons in history because he was the only human figure to be supremely successful in both spiritual and secular fields such as the realm of governance, social justice and social order. The difference between a philosopher or intellectual and a messenger is that philosophers or intellectuals are people who claim to have solutions for humanity such as democracy or capitalism. The messengers also bring solutions. However, the difference between philosophers and messengers is that philosophers come up with these ideas themselves and can be arrogant and interested in promoting themselves and their ideas. Messengers in contrast bring solutions not from themselves but from a higher source and never take credit for it. They are the greatest examples of humility and humble themselves before Allah (swt), which we will learn in this surah.
1) Read! In the name of your Lord who created
This is one of the few surahs which begins with a command. The prophet (saw) is in the cave of Hira’ where he sees the angel Gabriel who instructs him to read. The first word chosen by Allah (swt) to be communicated to humanity was ‘Read’. Reading has always been a part of every intellectual society. Yet, this command was not given to a society full of libraries and universities or a society with a history of books. The prophet (saw) was unlettered as were the vast majority of people in this society. Poetry was a feature of their society but even then it was seldom in a written form, rather, it was memorised. To this society Allah (swt) gave the commandment of reading and amazingly in response to this command the Muslims became one of the most educated civilisations in history. The way maths education spread in the Muslim ummah is unlike any other. The PhD system in the western world comes from the ijazah system in the Muslim world and so higher academics and research is something rooted in Islamic civilisation. This book that Allah (swt) gave in the form of oral transmission became the mother of books more than any other in history. It gave birth to entire libraries across continents. Through the generations every book of fiqh, aqeedah, tafseer and Islamic history all lead back to the source book of the Quran.
Very soon after the corruption of the Christian tradition one of the ways society was kept in check was through average people not being allowed to read the bible (the protestant movement was a result of this policy). So, Catholics were not able to read and interpret the bible for themselves and as a result did not have anything resembling bible studies. So at the time of the revelation of the Quran, the idea that an average person would be able to directly read and have access to religious texts was unheard of. People were disconnected from religious texts, which were essentially made classified documents, resulting in no one being able to question the religious authorities in their control of the masses, as they had no access to this knowledge. In modern times people say that religion is a means to oppress people in the name of religion. This happened because there was always this idea of a clergy in every major religion. So essentially, there is god, the people and then the official authority between the two leading to a means of controlling people. Islam came and told us that the only people between Allah (swt) and us are the humble messengers that asked us to read for ourselves which changed the entire structure and model of corrupt religion.
The ‘bismi Rabbika’ has been interpreted in a number of ways. One interpretation is that it is an instruction to read the name of your Master, which is probably the weakest opinion. Another interpretation is that it is to read what has been revealed to you from your Master. From the moment this command was given until the passing of the prophet (saw) twenty-three years later, he was continuously answering that one command by reading and reciting the Quran. The word bi adds the meaning of reading with the help and support of your Lord. The ayah is also interpreted to mean an instruction to read in the name of your Lord and Master meaning that when you recite you let the people know whom it is from, which is why we say the basmalah before reciting the Quran. Every time the prophet (saw) would recite the Quran, he (saw) would let people know that this was not his word and that he was reading in the name of the One who gave it to him. This was also a way of making it clear to people that rejecting the Quran was not a rejection of the prophet (saw); rather, it was a rejection of the verses of Allah (swt), your Lord and Master. Ibn Taymiyyah said that every time you say the basmalah when reciting the Quran it is to highlight that what you are saying is not from you or on behalf of Jibreel (as) who gave it to you to read. It is from Allah (swt) himself and both Jibreel (as) and Muhammad (saw) are vehicles through which the words of Allah (swt) are delivered.
Allah (swt) revealed to us the Quran but the Quran had a three-stage journey. The first stage of the Quran is in the form of a written book recorded in the Lawh al Mahfoodh. The second stage came in the form of speech recited by Jibreel (as) to the messenger (saw) who recited it to others. The third stage was its compilation into a book once more. The fact that Allah (swt) chose to reveal the Quran in speech form is important because there are fundamental differences between speech and written documents. The way one speaks is not the same as the way one writes. In speech one may make numerous grammatical mistakes whereas in a written document one would check and double check the document to make sure there were no mistakes or repetitions. A published book will often have multiple editions due to revisions that have had to be made. Also, even in single edition books there will often be an acknowledgements section where the author thanks those who helped edit the book. In speech, however, there is no editorial process. This means that speech is far more prone to mistakes because in speech you only have one chance. Once something has been said it is out and cannot be taken back. The messenger (saw) is given the Quran in the form of speech but Allah (swt) let him know from the very beginning that this is not actually speech. Rather, it is a book because the first word is a command to read and you don’t read speech you read a book. In fact, when this revelation was given the prophet (saw) said that he felt as though it was written on his heart. This is something that baffled the Arabs. They could not believe how perfectly the messenger (saw) spoke, with no mistakes, as if what he is saying was coming from a book. Those who disbelieved came up with theories to explain this and one was that someone was writing it down for the prophet (saw). Yet, how could the prophet (saw) have access to a book when he was unlettered? Allah (swt) explains in the Quran, ‘And you did not recite before it any scripture, nor did you inscribe one with your right hand. Otherwise the falsifiers would have had (cause for) doubt’ (Ankaboot 29:48). Allah (swt) says that Muhammad (saw) was just as unlettered as the day he was born and that he was sent as a messenger from amongst an unlettered people to almost prove that there was no way he could have possibly brought the Quran from himself. This is highlighted by the fact that the disbelievers struggled to explain the speech of the Quran.
Allah (swt) does not just say read in the name of your lord, He (swt) says something in addition – the One who created. A relationship is being established between the Master and creation. Allah (swt) attributed His mastery with His act of creating because of all His acts this is the one that establishes his lordship more than anything. This is because when you make something, you establish your ownership and rights over it. The fact that Allah (swt) says created means he has full rights over all and so the idea of Allah (swt) being the master and the creator is combined in this ayah. There is another benefit in Allah (swt) instructing the messenger (saw) to speak in His name. The messenger (saw) has no political power at all and it is only when one has power and authority that they can take the podium and speak. When the messenger delivers the message people call him insane and the bullies think he has no power and authority. In this situation Allah (swt) gave him this powerful word and told him that when he speaks to people, he should speak in Allah’s name and not his own. The power in your word will not come from your mouth but from Allah’s. When you clash against the ideas of the people know that Allah (swt) is the One who created those very people. What did he create? There is no mention meaning there is no limit to it.
2) He created man from a clinging substance
By not mentioning what Allah (swt) created in the previous ayah the implication is that He (swt) created everything and in this ayah He (swt) specifically created the human being. From the general Allah (swt) goes to the specific. In this surah there is also a transition from the first person (used in the previous surah i.e. We created) to the third person (He created). The difference from a rhetorical point of view is that the first person is close but the third person is far and so this is Allah (swt) distancing himself from this human being. In addition the tone of this surah, except for the beginning, is very negative and takes a sterner third person position. The word ‘alaq comes from ‘aliqa which means to cling and to hang off something. The word is also used in the context of marriage where one is married to their wife but not taking care of her so she is left hanging, almost like she is clinging to her husband but not really associated to him. The word mu’allaqaat also stems from this word and was the title for famous poems that were written, and hung off (mu’allaq) the Ka’ba by the pre-Islamic Arabs. In this ayah some have interpreted ‘alaq to mean a clot of blood. However, it perhaps more accurately describes the way sperm hangs off the egg early in the human fertilisation process. This is something discussed in modern embryology and could not have been known in such detail at the time of the prophet (saw). There are other places in the Quran that talk about embryology but this particular word is of key interest because it alludes to Allah’s profound knowledge in the most secret of things. We don’t know what is inside of us the way that Allah (swt) does, ‘We will show them Our signs in the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth. Is it not enough that your Lord witnesses everything?’ (Fussilat 41:53).
Whenever Allah (swt) mentions the creation of the human being the purpose is to highlight certain things. There are at least three intended lessons behind it. The first lesson is to establish the resurrection and the knowledge that the One who created you from a drop of fluid also has the power to recreate you from the ground. Secondly this fluid, which appears insignificant and purposeless, gradually evolves into something of intricate design and purpose with the potential established in the previous surah of being the best of the best. When something has an advanced function the idea is that it should do higher tasks and when something has limited capability it can only do lesser tasks. So, Allah (swt) has created man with amazing intricacies making it possible for him do higher things and fulfil his higher purpose. Thirdly, it is a means by which Allah (swt) humbles the human being when he becomes arrogant by reminding him of his humble origins and how he was created from a fluid that one considers filthy. In the previous surah Allah (swt) honoured and aggrandised the human being and highlighted his higher purpose and said that man was created from the best of the best whereas in this surah it is from a clot which in Arabic literally means a wet, sticky fluid which hangs off or sticks onto something. Thus, Allah (swt) distances Himself from mans humble beginnings but when you live up to the expectations He has of you, He brings Himself closer.
Karam in Arabic is something that should be respected intrinsically. This is a quality that humans do not have. We do not have any intrinsic nobility. It is Allah (swt) who honours us. After reminding us of our humble origins from a clot, Allah (swt) mentions His nobility and how He is the most noble of all. This is in contrast to the previous surah where He (swt) lauded the nobility of the greatest prophets. Allah (swt) says iqra’ a second time with the purpose of encouraging the prophet (saw) to read – almost like a pat on the back. This is like the teacher who encourages the nervous pupil. Allah (swt) is the most generous and noble and does not want to place hardship on the prophet (saw). Making the prophet (saw) read is a gift, an act of nobility from Allah (swt), which ennobles the prophet (saw). Later on in the surah we find that Abu Jahl humiliates the prophet (saw) and at that time it becomes important for the prophet (saw) to remember why he was reciting this. It was because his noble Lord gave him nobility by choosing him, above all else, to be the one to recite these words, words that gave him strength in his times of difficulty.
4) Who taught by the pen
This has been interpreted in a number of ways. The first interpretation is derived from the hadith where the prophet (saw) said, ‘The first thing Allah created was the pen, and He told it to write’. The understanding from this is that everything that has been created is a manifestation of Allah’s written word. Others say that it has a more worldly meaning in the sense that all knowledge we have in the world today is due to someone writing knowledge down and then passing that knowledge onto later generations. Allah (swt) has thus far said iqra’ (read) twice and ‘alam-ma (learn) twice. Thus, we can see in the beginning of this surah that there is a strong emphasis on learning and teaching. Reading and writing are two activities in education which cover both aspects of learning. Reading enables one to benefit oneself with knowledge directly and writing enables one to benefit oneself and others. Allah (swt) honours the pen and made it a means by which knowledge is preserved and delivered. It is so powerful that Allah (swt) even swore by it in surah Al Qalam, ‘Nun, By the pen and what they write’ (68:1). Allah (swt) used the pen to preserve His revelation and also makes His angels preserve records of our actions through the use of the Pen. This idea of the pen being powerful as a means of preserving and delivering knowledge is therefore something meaningful in both the dunya and in the unseen.
In another hadith the prophet (saw) said, ‘Whoever takes up a path in which he is trying to acquire knowledge, Allah will facilitate for him a road to jannah’. The prophet (saw) also said that, ‘The best of you are the ones who learn the Quran and teach it’. Learning the Quran is a Sunnah of the prophet (saw). He was the first one to learn it and so when we learn it we are doing what he did. Furthermore, teaching the Quran is not only a Sunnah of the prophet (saw) but also a Sunnah of Allah (swt) Himself. Allah (swt) taught the Quran and so imagine the honour in mimicking both the messenger (saw) and Allah (swt) by both learning and teaching the Quran. Some have deduced the use of the word qalam in this ayah to mean that Allah (swt) will pen and document the Quran and not leave it solely to be committed to speech.
5) Who taught man what he did not know
One of the things that makes the human so honourable is the intellect that Allah (swt) has gifted. This intellect is highlighted in this surah where man is taught with the pen what he did not know. In the previous surah we learnt that man was created in the best possible fashion and in this surah we learn that one of the things what makes man the best is his intellect and ability to learn. The intellect of the human being is divided into three parts. The first part of the intellect is information attained via the five senses, i.e. fire is hot, the carpet is soft etc. Next is inferred knowledge. So, if one observes smoke in the distance then they don’t actually need to see the fire to know that there is a fire i.e. there is no smoke without fire. The third kind is the knowledge of the heart meaning Allah (swt) gave us knowledge before we even developed our senses and when we were in our mother’s wombs. That higher knowledge is in the soul and the resting place of the soul according to most scholars is in the heart. In different societies they don’t exactly use the terms we use but they use interesting alternatives such as intuition, sixth sense etc. It is this higher sense of morality and awareness that Allah (swt) put in the human. The knowledge of the heart is of two types. The first is the type you get from istikhara, true dreams. The second is revelation, which came upon heart of the messenger (saw). When Allah (swt) spoke about the revelation He (swt) said that it was sent upon the heart so that you may be from those who have imaan and so the Quran is a higher brand of knowledge. This knowledge is knowledge of the unseen world that we could not have attained ourselves. This knowledge of the angels and of the Day of Judgement could only have become known from revelation. We are all students of revelation but the first student of this revelation was the prophet (saw). First he is Allah’s student and then our teacher.
Words like knowledge, learning and the pen are the last things you would associate with someone who cannot read or write. Yet, this is part of the miracle of how Allah (swt) enlightened the ummah. When Europe lost its intellectual civilisation and went into the dark ages they had to travel to the Muslim world for knowledge where European texts had been translated into Arabic. From a background of illiteracy our ummah became the people of the pen and the intellectual capital of the world. Sadly though, today all the universities in the Muslim world combined number less than the number of universities in the state of California or in France. Furthermore, the universities we do have come nowhere close in terms of quality and infrastructure. It is easy to praise our history and be proud of it but we cannot ignore our present situation. Muslims must do something positive about it before our legacy is totally forgotten. The societies we live in teach us to think only of ourselves. Our financial plans, our plans for the next five years, our career goals etc. People spend their whole life in debt and excess paying back only the minimal amount due, because when they die, their debt will be someone else’s problem. Instead of leaving the future generation something better, people are leaving them with their problems. However, Muslims are not meant to think like this. We are supposed to think and plan generations in advance and work to benefit our future generations and humanity as a whole. The Muslim plants a seed even though he will never see the tree but because maybe someday someone will benefit from it. Allah (swt) showed us the way forward and how to prepare our future generations, the way forward is education. These first five verses are considered to be the first given to the prophet (saw). Others considered the first revelations to be the first few verses of surah Al Muddathir and others considered it to be surah Al Fatiha. However, this can be reconciled by understanding that Al Muddathir was the first revelation after the gap in revelation that came after Al ‘Alaq and secondly that surah Al Fatiha was the first surah to be revealed in its entirety whereas the other two only had the first few verses revealed.
In the previous surah Allah (swt) honoured and aggrandised the human being and highlighted his higher purpose but in this surah Allah (swt) does the opposite. This surah talks about how man rebels and how he thinks he is free of need. This surah has three passages and now we are moving to the second which is tied to the previous surah where Allah (swt) said that the human being is the lowest of the low. This happens when people become morally bankrupt with no goodness on the inside enabling them to perpetrate the crimes they do. Now we see an observation by Allah (swt) on the practical side of how man rebels and thinks he is free of need. Kalla is used for emphasis and to proclaim something for certain. Another usage is to emphasise to someone that they need to take heed. It is also a means of yelling at someone because they were ungrateful for the favour of Allah (swt), which in the previous ayah was revelation. Tughyaan does not just mean to rebel. It means to know what ones limits are but to make it a point to cross them anyway. It is also used to describe a flood when water exceeds its limits. So, this is strong language used for excessive rebellion and Allah (swt) uses this word to describe the human. On the one hand Allah (swt) the most gracious taught man what he could not know with the pen and created him in the best possible fashion and on the other the reality of the human, despite all these honours, is that he rebels and recognises no authority over him. This ayah provides a good insight on why some people don’t accept Islam. On the surface they will express intellectual doubts over the authenticity of the Quran or ahadith (something Muslims also do). The reality though is that they love to rebel and live free of any restrictions or controls upon them. The ultimate result of ignorance is rebellion and the previous verses were all about fighting ignorance through reading. Muslims do this when they show no interest in studying their religion, when they don’t care and just don’t want to know in order to avoid having to change their ways.
7) When he thinks he is self-sufficient
Allah (swt) now tells us what makes such a human rebel. The raw meaning of this is ayah is that this is a person who assumes he is free from the need of anyone. Allah (swt) inspired man to know what is good and what is bad without needing to be told. When someone does something wrong deep down they already know it is bad. So, why do people do bad things? People stop at red lights and pay their taxes because they are afraid of the consequences. This is because people actually do understand that they are not completely independent and free of need. If you were totally independent you would not care about anyone but yourself and would not follow any rules. There would be complete chaos if people thought they were free to do as they pleased with no one to control them. If a person had limited finances he or she would be very unlikely to be a spendthrift or spend money or useless things. If one had an endless supply of money though they would become carefree in their spending habits. Thus, Allah (swt) is saying that the root cause of rebellion is when someone thinks they are free of need.
It is commented that there are two types of law in this world – physical and moral. Physical laws include things such as gravity, which pulls you down, and fire, which will burn. One cannot rebel against physical laws, as they are always operational. Moral laws, however, are inside your heart and when you rebel against them your punishment does not come straight away. For example, if you lie, lightning does not strike your tongue. Or, if you steal something, your hand does not drop off. Therefore, people tend to respect physical laws whereas they take advantage of moral laws. When people break such moral laws and see no consequence it makes them think that they are free to do as they please. However, the One who created the physical laws also created the moral laws and the One who punishes you for breaking the physical laws with immediacy is also the One who can delay giving you the punishment for breaking the moral laws. All restrictions on man whether they are physical or moral come from Allah (swt). Allah (swt) says in the Quran, ‘Verily, those who unjustly eat up the property of orphans, they eat up only a fire into their bellies, and they will be burnt in the blazing Fire!’ (an-Nisa’ 4:10). Eating an orphan’s wealth will not fill your stomach with fire now but it will later and it is this delayed punishment that makes someone think that everything is fine and that they are free to do as they please. The next ayah explains how people can be prevented from becoming excessively shameless, lewd and vulgar.
8) Indeed, to your Lord is the return
Until you believe in and are convinced that there is an akhirah and that you will pay for everything you did, including the things you think you got away with, you will not change morally. There are two types of people. The majority who need laws to follow and then those who are at a higher level of morality who do not do good because they want to go to Jannah or because they are afraid of punishment. They do it because they have a higher goal of wanting to please Allah (swt). Most people are not at this level and need to reflect upon the consequences of their actions until such point that they achieve maturity in their good deeds. If you were to do something terrible that your mother, or your parents, or your husband or brother found out about you would be embarrassed to the point that you would stop doing whatever you were doing no matter how strong the desire. This is because it was humiliating that a loved one saw you. When someone develops a love for Allah (swt) they develop a sense of shame and could not possibly entertain the idea of doing something wrong when Allah (swt) is watching. You would develop a consciousness of Allah (swt) but before this level is attained one needs to attain a consciousness of the hereafter. To your master is the return implies both punishment and reward.
Every time the third person is used in this surah it is addressing other than the messenger (saw) and when the second person is used it is mostly addressing the messenger (saw). In this ayah there is a transition from the third to the second person. This is a feature of the Quran whereby Allah (swt) creates impact and shocks the audience by switching persons. For example, imagine a teacher that walks into an exam hall aware that a pupil is cheating. He declares to the pupils that he is aware that there is someone in the room cheating. The pupil feels somewhat safe in the knowledge that he specifically has not been identified. Until suddenly the teacher calls him by his name specifically and beckons him to come up to him. This is a tactic that shocks this person, as he was not expecting this. Another example is when someone says ‘the glass dropped’. The person responsible has not been identified here and his identity protected. He would have felt a lot worse had the person said ‘Ahmed dropped the glass’. Talking in the third person creates a disassociation of responsibility. After saying that man rebels Allah (swt) says that the return will be to your Lord. The audience previously would be thinking that man in general is being spoken of until this ayah where in a very powerful way the audience suddenly realises that it is them that is being referred to.
9) Have you seen the man who forbids
10) Our servant when he prays?
Now we come to the ayaat relating to Abu Jahl. There are three celebrity enemies of the prophet (saw) highlighted in the Quran. These three are Abu Lahab, Waleed ibn al Mugheera and Abu Jahl and they are highlighted over the other disbelievers from the seerah of the prophet (saw). There are a number of differences between them. Abu Jahl, even though he was a wicked enemy of Islam, was considered to be the most noble of these three according to polytheist Arab standards at the time. Abu Lahab was known to be a coward and at the battle of Badr he did not even participate electing to hire a couple of soldiers to fight on his behalf instead. This is in contrast to Abu Jahl who actually did participate and was subsequently killed. In death his arrogance and pride came to the fore when he requested that his neck was cut in such a way that he would be recognised as a tribal leader. He was chivalrous and generous compared to Abu Lahab who was cheap. Waleed ibn al Mugheera falls in between Abu Jahl and Abu Lahab. He was a strategist who preferred reconciliation and compromise with the prophet (saw) as he recognised that the Quran was something quite impressive. Waleed’s story is discussed in surah Al Qalam and Al Muddathir and Abu Lahab’s in Surah Al Masad.
The prophet (saw) made a famous dua where he asked that Allah (swt) strengthen Islam with whichever of ‘Umar ibn al Khattab or ‘Amr bin Hisham (Abu Jahl) was dearer to Him. This means that the prophet (saw) saw in Abu Jahl something that was worth saving and that he knew that if he had accepted Islam he would have been an amazing asset for the deen. In fact, the wording of the hadith is such that if had accepted Islam he could have been another Umar – he had that kind of potential. In the previous surah there were two ayaat which spoke of man being created in the best possible fashion before being reduced to the lowest of the low. Abu Jahl was one such example of a person created with so much potential that the prophet (saw) even made dua that he might become Muslim. However, he did not live up to this potential and thereby reduced himself to the lowest of the low. ‘Umar ibn al Khattab (ra) accepted Islam and Abu Jahl did not. Thus, in surah at-Teen the general concept was given and now in this surah the practical example is given.
Abu Jahl actually greatly like the Quran and was addicted to it as the following narration shows: Ibn Ishaq narrates that Az-Zuhri said that Abu Jahl, Abu Sufyan Sakhr bin Harb (before he became Muslim) and Al-Akhnas bin Shurayq once came to listen to the Prophet reciting the Qur’an at night, but these three men were not aware of the presence of each other. So they listened to the Prophet’s recitation until the morning, and then left. They met each other on their way back and each one of them asked the others, “What brought you?” So they mentioned to each other the reason why they came. They vowed not to repeat this incident so that the young men of Quraysh would not hear of what they did and imitate them. On the second night, each one of the three came back thinking that the other two would not come because of the vows they made to each other. In the morning, they again met each other on their way back and criticised each other, vowing not to repeat what they did. On the third night, they again went to listen to the Prophet and in the morning they again vowed not to repeat this incident. During that day, Al-Akhnas bin Shurayq took his staff and went to Abu Sufyan bin Harb in his house saying, “O Abu Hanzalah! What is your opinion concerning what you heard from Muhammad?” Abu Sufyan said, “O Abu Tha`labah! By Allah, I have heard some things that I recognize and know their implications. I also heard some things whose meaning and implications were unknown to me.” Al-Akhnas said, “And I the same, by He Whom you swore by!” Al-Akhnas left Abu Sufyan and went to Abu Jahl and asked him, “O Abu Al-Hakam! What is your opinion about what you heard from Muhammad?” Abu Jahl said, “We competed with Bani `Abd Manaf (the Prophet’s subtribe) and so we fed as they fed and gave away as they gave away. So, when we were neck and neck with them, just as two horses in a race, they said, `There is a Prophet from among us, to whom revelation from the heaven comes.’ So how can we ever beat them at that? By Allah we will never believe in him or accept what he says.’ This is when Al-Akhnas left Abu Jahl and went away.”
Thus, Abu Jahl, for all his good qualities, was destroyed by his arrogance and pride. Umar before Islam was proud of his tribe just like Abu Jahl was. However, the difference was that Abu Jahl had a huge ego in addition. Islam can remove concepts such as nationalism and tribalism but an ego can only be removed by the individual. This desire for greatness was an obstacle that Abu Jahl was not able to succumb causing him to become a great enemy of Islam whereas ‘Umar (ra) humbled himself and submitted to Islam and became a giant.
Verses nine and ten were revealed with regards to the below incidents which show how Abu Jahl tried to stop Allah’s slave, the prophet (saw), from praying (‘abd has been used in the Quran for occasions where the messenger (saw) has been honoured). It is narrated by ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud in Sahih Al Bukhari, Once the Prophet was offering prayers at the Ka’ba. Abu Jahl was sitting with some of his companions. One of them said to the others, “Who amongst you will bring the abdominal contents (intestines, etc.) of a camel of Bani so and so and put it on the back of Muhammad, when he prostrates?” The most unfortunate of them got up and brought it. He waited till the Prophet prostrated and then placed it on his back between his shoulders. I was watching but could not do any thing. I wish I had some people with me to hold out against them. They started laughing and falling on one another. Allah’s Apostle was in prostration and he did not lift his head up till Fatima (Prophet’s daughter – who was only a young girl at that time) came and threw that (camel’s abdominal contents) away from his back. He raised his head and said thrice, “Allahumma alayka bi Quraysh. (Oh Allah, it is upon you [to deal] with the Quraysh).” So it was hard for Abu Jahl and his companions when the Prophet invoked Allah against them as they had a conviction that the prayers and invocations were accepted in this city (Mecca). The Prophet said, “O Allah! Punish Abu Jahl, ‘Utba bin Rabi’a, Shaiba bin Rabi’a, Al-Walid bin ‘Utba, Umaiya bin Khalaf, and ‘Uqba bin Al Mu’it (and he mentioned the seventh whose name I cannot recall). By Allah in Whose Hands my life is, I saw the dead bodies of those persons who were counted by Allah’s Apostle in the Qalib (one of the wells) of Badr.
In a second incident Abu Jahl saw Allah’s Messenger (saw) standing in prayer. Abu Jahl told ‘Uqbah ibn Abi Mu’it to get a shawl and put it around the Messenger of Allah’s and choke him. ‘Uqbah came up behind him and put a piece of cloth around his neck and began choking him. Abu Bakr heard the commotion and rushed forward to defend the prophet (saw) and shoved ‘Uqbah away saying, ‘Do you kill a man just for saying my Lord is Allah?’
It is narrated in Al-Bukhari that Ibn `Abbas said, “Abu Jahl said, `If I see Muhammad praying at the Ka`bah, I will stomp on his neck.’ So this reached the Prophet, who said, ‘If he does, he will be seized by the angels.’ This hadith was also recorded by At-Tirmidhi and An-Nasa’i in their Books of Tafsir. Likewise, it has been recorded by Ibn Jarir. Ahmad, At-Tirmidhi, An-Nasa’i and Ibn Jarir, all recorded it from Ibn `Abbas with the following wording: ‘The Messenger of Allah was praying at the Maqam (prayer station of Ibrahim) when Abu Jahl bin Hisham passed by him and said, `O Muhammad! Haven’t I prevented you from this’ He threatened the Prophet and thus, the Messenger of Allah became angry with him and reprimanded him. Then he said, `O Muhammad! What can you threaten me with By Allah, I have the most kinsmen of this valley with me in the large.’ Then Allah revealed, ‘Then let him call upon his council. We will call out the guards of Hell!’ Ibn `Abbas then said, “If he had called his people, the angels of torment would have seized him at that very instant.” At-Tirmidhi said, “Hasan Sahih.” Ibn Jarir recorded from Abu Hurayrah that Abu Jahl said, “Does Muhammad cover his face with dust (i.e., from prostration) while he is among you all” They (the people) replied, “Yes.” Then he said, “By Al-Lat and Al-`Uzza, if I see him praying like this, I will stomp on his neck, and I will certainly put his face in the dust.” So the Messenger of Allah came and he began praying, which made it possible for Abu Jahl to stomp on his neck. Then the people became surprised at him (Abu Jahl) because he began retreating on his heels and covering himself with his hands. Then it was said to him, “What’s the matter with you” He replied, “Verily, between me and him is a ditch of fire, monsters and wings.” Then the Messenger of Allah said, ‘If he had come near me, the angels would have snatched him limb by limb.’
11) Have you seen whether he is rightly guided
12) Or encourages true piety?
The word ra’aa means to see not just physically but also with insight. For example, when you understand a complex issue you would say ‘I see’. This does not mean literally, rather, it means you understand the issue. Allah (swt) asks did you realise his potential and that if he had been committed to guidance what an amazing person he would have been. When Umar (ra) committed himself to guidance it also led to him commanding others to taqwa too. So, he did not just take the guidance on for himself but he became a means by which he delivered guidance and taqwa to others too. This is an elaboration of the prophet’s own supplication in regards to Abu Jahl and the amazing potential he had.
13) Have you seen whether he denies the truth and turns away from it?
This cursed man had potential like Umar (ra) had he only realised that potential. Instead he turned bad and now Allah (swt) asks can’t you see the harm and destruction that he will bring about as a result? The word ra’aa is used in this ayah to show that the messenger (saw) has amazing foresight and can analyse things in a deep way to see the benefit, harm and long-term consequences of things. We are also being taught to think like this by trying to determine what good in the future can come about as a result of our actions today.
14) Does he not realize that Allah sees all?
Abu Jahl thinks he is only violating the messenger (saw). However, he has gone so far astray that the thought that Allah (swt) is watching him did not occur to him. This is important because, like most mushrikeen, he believed in Allah (swt). This is the attitude of a person who becomes such a deviant criminal that he does not care anymore. A person so evil that even when his victim invokes the name of Allah (swt), he does not stop to think twice about this plea. In the first passage of this surah Allah (swt) said that He (swt) taught the human what he did not know. One thing that man is taught is that here is that Allah (swt) is always watching. A criminal will be dissuaded from carrying out his crime if he thinks he is being watched. Similarly, people stop at red lights due to cameras and are careful when driving past speed cameras. So Allah (swt) taught the human that he is being watched. If man truly appreciated this fact he would not engage in immoral, illegal and indecent behaviour. The one who indulges in sin, even Muslims, should reflect on this fact and internalise it so that they become fully cognisant of Allah (swt) at all times. People rarely misbehave in front of their parents or slack at work in the presence of their manager. If you were to suddenly realise they were watching you, you would quickly check yourself and apologise.
15) No! If he does not stop, We shall drag him by his forehead
The ayaat that talk about Abu Jahl are interestingly placed right after the ayaat that talk about knowledge. The irony is that the Arabs used to call him ‘Abu Hakam’ – the ‘One of Wisdom’. When ‘Abu’ is placed before an adjective it does not necessarily mean ‘Father of’, rather, in English we would say that this is a ‘person of’. For example, if someone is obsessed by cars, we would call him ‘the car guy’. So, Abu Jahl, as one of the leaders of Quraysh and senior statesmen, used to be recognised as the person to turn to for guidance and counsel. However, due to his rejection of the true knowledge of Allah (swt), he was named him Abu Jahl (the One of Ignorance), which is how he has been remembered throughout history. Thus, the ayaat of knowledge are followed by the polar opposite, the verses on the one of ignorance.
What is the relationship between knowledge in the first passage and the arrogant Kaafir in the second passage? The connection is firstly that knowledge is supposed to be a means of humility. Someone who has knowledge is compared to the branches of a tree that lowers when it bears fruit meaning the more knowledge one has, the more humble they should become. The lack of knowledge or rejection of knowledge will lead one to arrogance. Thus, when someone humbles themselves, Allah (swt) elevates them and when someone exhibits arrogance and haughtiness, Allah (swt) brings them down. This is the contrast we are learning in these ayahs. It is apparent that the central theme of the beginning part of this surah is the importance that Allah (swt) gives to seeking knowledge. If this is such treasured knowledge that we could only have known it from Allah (swt) then what kind of person could it be that would have no value for this knowledge. Allah (swt) gives his diagnosis in the second passage. Such an incredible treasure could only be rejected by one that does not heed the demand to submit and sees himself as being free of need for this knowledge. When you declare Allah (swt) as your master then you must submit to Him as a consequence and become His slave, which is why this person rejects this knowledge. After the passages on knowledge and the reasons for the rejection of knowledge we came to the part which discussed the behaviour that occurs when one rejects the knowledge and we described some of these incidents. This is now followed by the ayaat of consequences where Allah (swt) warns of the consequences of rejecting this knowledge.
Allah (swt) responds by talking about Abu Jahl but not to him. As opposed to saying ‘if you don’t stop’, Allah (swt) says ‘if he does not stop’. There are two benefits to this. Firstly, by doing this Allah (swt) distances himself from Abu Jahl. Secondly, the prophet (saw) needs to hear this because he is the one being attacked. Allah (swt) comes to the prophet’s defence with his words by informing him that there will be consequences if Abu Jahl does not stop. If Abu Jahl dares to continue then he will be grabbed and dragged by the forelock (lock of hair on the forehead). The word safa’a means to grab something and to pull it so hard that it comes out of its roots. It is usually an animal that is grabbed from the front when its owner is angry (e.g. horse’s mane). A child can be grabbed from the front too when an adult is being abusive to him. Also, once in a moment of rage Musa (as) grabbed Haroon (as) by the hair. Allah (swt) says in this ayah, ‘We will grab by the forehead’. This is very powerful because Allah (swt) did not say ‘We will grab Him’, as Abu Jahl is not worth mentioning especially when the subject of the verse is Allah (swt). The first part of the ayah is hypothetical (if) but the latter is a matter of certainty. If Abu Jahl dares to continue then there will be consequences as a matter of surety.
The forelock or forehead in Arab tradition was the place of one’s pride and dignity and even in our times today we can appreciate this, which is why people wear hats and turbans as a mark of honour and respect. It is a place where the mind and knowledge rests and it is of course the knowledge presented in this surah that Abu Jahl rejects and so it is fitting that he is dragged by the forehead. Two things led him to disbelief, his ignorance and his arrogance. His ignorance to the message and his arrogance which led to his rejection of it. Furthermore, this surah ends with an ayah of prostration and when you do this you place your forehead on the ground. Thus, in the end the messenger (saw) is being told put his head down in prostration for closeness to Allah (swt) and even if Abu Jahl does not put his head down in this life, ultimately, he will be dragged down into the hellfire in humility by his head in the next life. The word for forelock has also been used elsewhere in the Quran, ‘The Mujrimun (polytheists, criminals, sinners, etc.) will be known by their marks (black faces) and they will be seized by their forelocks and their feet’ (ar-Rahman 55:41). In other places Allah (swt) talks about the one whose face is on the ground, ‘Is he who walks cast down, fallen, on his face more rightly guided, or he who walks upright on a straight path?’ (Mulk 67:22). Some mufassiroon understood this to describe the scene on the day of judgement when some people will be dragged by their forehead and others who lived righteous lives will walk upright. We ask Allah to make us of the upright ones, ameen. Also, consider the occasion when Abu Jahl approached the prophet (saw) to stomp on his neck whilst he was praying. Abu Jahl quickly retreated upon seeing a creature that scared him. An angel had already come to grab him by the forehead. The prophet (saw) was thus strengthened by these ayaat that Allah (swt) sent down to reassure him.
16) His lying, sinful forehead
Allah (swt) uses two adjectives to describe Abu Jahl’s forehead. Allah (swt) firstly calls it a lying forehead. This is an insult and a humiliation for one of the leaders of the Quraysh and it is important to appreciate the political ramifications of this. There is an imbalance of power in that the messenger (saw) is already the subject of ridicule and physical persecution and now he is given words that are not at all apologetic or submissive but rather they are calling out Abu Jahl as a liar to his face. For he heard the Quran and knew it was true but still rejected it for untrue reasons. Therefore, Allah (swt) exposed Abu Jahl as having already accepted that this was the truth internally and that he refused to humble himself. The word khaati’ah means to make a mistake whose consequences one does not know. Abu Jahl rejected and attacked the messenger (saw) without being able to appreciate the consequences or significance of this. The consequence is an extremely painful punishment awaiting him.
17) Let him summon his comrades
Allah (swt) now comes back to this life and issues Abu Jahl a challenge. First, He (swt) said that if he does not stop he would get grabbed. Now Allah (swt) goes further and basically calls him out and tells him to summon his gang. In Arabic a nadi is a public place where there are many listeners. Abu Jahl used to sit in such a public place with his entourage. The word nad’u means to call upon for help and so Allah (swt) is telling the messenger (saw) to tell Abu Jahl to call the people he calls upon. It is important to appreciate that although Allah (swt) is speaking here, the Kaafir only hears and sees the messenger (saw). Furthermore, when he (saw) speaks, because they are disbelievers, they do not think this is Allah’s word. Rather, they think it is the messenger words. Thus, essentially from their perspective it looks like the messenger (saw) has come up to them, a bunch of tough and hardened men, stood in front of them and said bring it on.
18) We shall summon the guards of Hell
Zabaaniyyah is the plural of zibniya which means a security guard and the word zabana means to protect and guard something with force such that if someone tries to break out they will be attacked. Allah (swt) says you call your gang and I’ll call my guards. Thus, on one hand there are gangsters and thugs and on the other is Allah’s security force. There is no contest. Furthermore, we know this happened in the incident where Abu Jahl ran back from his attempt to stomp on the prophet’s neck after Allah (swt) released his army.
19) No! Do not obey him. Prostrate (in worship) and draw near (to Allah)
This is the last passage of the surah. The first was on knowledge, then the person who rejects it, then the behaviour of the one who rejects it which was followed by the consequences of rejecting this knowledge. The prophet (saw) was engaged in the work of giving dawah despite being up against constant animosity towards his noble efforts. It is demoralising being physically and verbally abused like this. Thus, at the end of this surah Allah (swt) disregards Abu Jahl and turns to talk to his messenger (saw). The word kallaa is a means by which something is completely disregarded. Almost like Allah (swt) is saying don’t worry about him, this guy is not a big deal, don’t stress. The word itta’a has a number of meanings. It can mean to follow or to pay attention to or to succumb to something. Allah (swt) tells the prophet (swt) to not pay any attention to Abu Jahl. Rather, he should prostrate and come close to Allah (swt). Allah (swt) says prostrate but does not say prostrate to Him or to Allah. This is because it is obvious it is about Him (swt). Allah (swt) began the surah by telling us that He (swt) taught man what he could not know. Man is taught another thing now which he could never have known.
There are people who believe in god and want to please and worship him but they don’t know what to do or what makes him happy or how to serve Him. This can lead to people developing their own philosophies and practices. Some people practice shirk in the assumption that god will be happy with this. In fact some pre-Islamic Arabs would even take off their clothes and dance naked around the Ka’ba because they thought this would please Allah (swt) and that this was how He was meant to be worshipped. The human who wants to worship Allah (swt) and come close to Him is shown how to through Allah’s guidance. Allah (swt) teaches us to come close to Him by making sajda to Him.
This surah began with a command to read and it ends with another command. The two ends of the surah also deal with salah. Muslims recite the Quran in salah and also prostrate in salah. Furthermore, the Quran is recited in salah when one is standing at full height just like it was instructed it at the top of this surah and when one is at his lowest and prostrates, the slave of Allah (swt) is at his closest to Allah (swt). Thus, the beginning of the surah is worship and so is the end. It is also interesting to note that the first commandment of the surah was to read and to seek knowledge but the ending is a commandment of worship. This sequence shows that there is a relationship between knowledge and practice and that one should worship Allah (swt) based on knowledge. How comprehensive the arguments of this surah are presented. And all praise is for Allah (swt).