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Commentary on Surat 'Abasa

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Chapter 80: Surat 'Abasa
He Frowned

By: Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri

In the name of Allah,
the Beneficent, the Merciful

Each chapter (sūrah) was revealed on a specific occasion and has direct relevance both to that instance and to posterity as well, because words of divine wisdom are timeless. The occasion for this chapter arose whilst the Prophet was sitting one day with some important Quraysh leaders who were against Islam, against being in positive submission, when he was interrupted by a blind man. This blind man, 'Abd Allah ibn Umm Maktūm, was of excellent character. Whenever he came upon the Prophet, he would ask him, 'Give me from what God has given to you.' The Prophet would then try to illumine his heart and give him the good news. On this occasion, however, the Prophet frowned at the interruption, since he was in all likelihood about to achieve a breakthrough with these leaders of the Quraysh, an event which would have strengthened the position of Islam among them and increased the number of Muslims. This chapter came down to him as he returned to his chamber after the interruption.

  1. He frowned and turned away,

  2. Because a blind man came to him.

  3. And what do you know that he may purify himself?

The third verse is a reference both to leaders of the Quraysh and to the blind man. Yazzakkā is from the verb 'to purify oneself'; purification must take place in order to make salāt (prayer), which is one of the pillars of Islam. Salāt not only means prayer, but also recharging and connecting; and this is done five times a day until one is permanently connected. Related to yazzakkā is tazkīyah which means purification, and that implies increasing or enhancing the quality of something. For example, the quality of water is enhanced by purifying it; one purifies oneself by paying the alms tax (zakāt).

The whole subject of life is purification, for if there is purity there is peace. Man always seeks to purify his mind and actions in the best way he can. The purification of some people's actions may come about through taking an action to its extreme, whereupon a balance will be recognized and the lesson will be learned. Some scholars say that this verse refers to the Quraysh while others say that it refers to the blind man since it is not about quantity but about purification.

  1. Or become reminded so that the reminder should profit him?

All the practices of the men of Allah are attempts to be in a state of remembrance and awareness. We may ask remembrance of what? Remembrance of what causes fulfillment and of what causes lack of fulfillment. We all suffer from a lack of fulfillment that we ourselves bring about. Each person, as an individual, prescribes that fulfillment will occur only if certain events happen. If they do not happen, then he is miserable. He is therefore the author of his own fulfillment, and nobody else can help him from the womb to the tomb. So dhikr, from the verb dhakara, which means 'to remember', is the beginning of reflection; it is not even meditation. Remembrance is difficult in the modern world because we are always in such a hurry that we do not even take time to look at our reflections in a mirror.

This fourth verse refers to positive remembrance. If remembrance is only a romantic notion, then what use is it? That is why we say we must neither dwell on yesterday nor concern ourselves with what comes tomorrow, but only do our best today. Today, the moment, is all we have. If our energies are preserved, then each day will be the best possible one, because we will always be alert and available. Unfortunately, most of us are not able to do this.

  1. As for him who considers himself free from need,

Istaghnā is derived from ghaniya, which means 'to be rich, to be free from want'. There is no independence, but only the Independent. Total separation in reality does not exist: everybody affects everybody else. One fly affects the whole cosmos, even though its effects are minute. Some of us, however, think we have recently discovered ecology. Only after having caused the extinction of dozens of species do we discover an imbalance in the ecology of nature. There is no freedom from want or need. We neither own nor possess anything, for all power and life emanates from Allah.

  1. So you address yourself to him.

Though it is translated here as 'address', tasaddā is from the verb 'to occupy oneself with someone, to turn to someone, oppose, resist'. As for those who appear to be self-sufficient, they will have obstacles thrown in their way. They will be intercepted.

  1. And it is not upon you for him to be purified.

The job of a true messenger is to deliver the message to others. He can only try to share his state. It is an essential element of the human condition to want to share those aspects which we ourselves like. Yet the messenger cannot purify another and the burden of rejection does not fall on him. He can only provide the means and the example.

As we have seen in verse three, the verb for 'to be purified' has two main meanings: one is 'to grow', and the other is 'to purify'. Zakāt (the alms tax), which is derived from the same root as yazzakkā is therefore the name given to the 2.5 % tax on certain kinds of wealth that is distributed to the needy. Outwardly, zakāt involves giving. Inwardly, it is to abandon and purify oneself, because it indicates the recognition that whatever a man possesses is going to tie him down. Since he is already tied down by his body and out of necessity has possessions, he must give zakāt. Zakāt is obligatory from a Shari'ah (divinely revealed law) point of view. It is equally obligatory from an inner standpoint, for if the outer practice does not move towards the inner meaning, it is of no use.

  1. And as for him who comes to you striving hard,

This verse refers to this blind man who came to the Prophet seeking knowledge, Sa'ī (running seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah, as a rite of the Islamic Pilgrimage) is derived from the same verbal root as yas'ā and means 'to move quickly, to strive for'. Sa'ī is what we perform on Hajj (Pilgrimage), and is symbolic of what we, as intelligent human beings, do every day of our lives. In all our attempts we are struggling.

  1. And he fears,

Whoever has come to him with a firm resolve to find knowledge like that blind man is fearful of anything that is not conducive to his fulfillment. He does not come out of fear alone, but out of a cautious fearfulness of whatever hinders his progress or his enrichment.

  1. And you are distracted from him.

The verbal root form of talahhā is lahā, which here means 'to be heedless, distracted, or oblivious'. Other meanings include: 'to amuse oneself, fritter away, pass time, savor, enjoy, try to forget'. Nowadays, a malhā has come to be known as a nightclub. Originally, however, it meant anything that distracts. Anything that distracts one from pursuing a goal is lahw (amusement, diversion), except inner abandonment, and outer abandonment is only useful if it is inner-directed.

  1. No! Surely it is an admonishment.

When kallā (certainly not, no) appears in the Qur`an, it is used in order to reinforce the point. A reminder such as this one extends beyond time. Looking back over the past year, can we remember an occasion when we had clear intentions and were moving towards fulfillment? If we cannot, then can we claim that we were even alive? Those years should be counted against us, because they were only years in passed time, not years in actual experience. This verse is a reminder for us to become sensitive, alert and active.

Any action without clear intention requires correct action. This reprimand reminds us of all the normal tendencies we share in giving preference to certain actions rather than keeping in focus the service of Allah as our primary goal. The tendency to follow certain assumptions or patterns of preferential behavior is a natural preserve of the lower self. This exists in all created beings. In the perfect Prophetic being this tendency does not manifest itself outwardly, for divine guidance is in absolute control. The voice is not directed against the Prophet's actual action, for the Prophet was infallible. Therefore, although the verse sounds like a reprimand, it merely echoes a warning of this tendency within all servants of Allah. It is as though Allah is saying, 'If you were left without guidance, you would have given preference to the Qurayshite, i.e., My enemies.'

  1. So let whoever wishes heed it.

The choice is in our hands. Reality has manifested itself in just this way and in no other. There is nothing other than mercy in this system, and it is so vast and enveloping that it is possible for even our own wrong actions to look good to us. The verse says whoever wishes to remember will do so. The choice is up to each individual, because each of us, as a human being, is the highest creature in creation. We are that pinnacle in the creational reality which has been given the opportunity of trying to live in defiance of Allah's laws even though we are not, in reality, separate from our Creator. There is no separation, no two. The Qur`an states: 'The way has been shown to him whether he is in gratitude or in denial' (76:3). Thus, he is either in a state of gratitude, fulfillment, and inward drunkenness, or one in which he covers up, makes excuses, and becomes fossilized. Man must choose! As soon as he comes into being, he is faced with duality, with alternatives. If we are aware, our own direct experiences will make us remember to avoid whatever is not conducive to our happiness. We shall become fearful of causing harm to ourselves by simply remembering what already exists within us.

  1. In honored pages,

Suhuf is the plural of sahīfah, which means 'a page of a book'. A sahīfah in current Arabic parlance means 'newspaper'. The function of a newspaper is to spread news, to show the situation. Suhuf mukarramah means 'honored scriptures', which have the stamp of the creational reality. This refers to the honored writing which is inscribed in our genes from the beginning of creational time, not to something written by a wise man called Abraham (Ibrahim).

What is written is what is inherent in creation. The Divine Tablet is that which contains the creational direction and destiny. Within it lie all the laws that bring about all experiences and connect the seen with the unseen. We are all conditioned in that we are each given a certain physical disposition as well as an emotional one, and, on a deeper level, a spiritual one. Whatever forms they may take, our overall disposition exists within an even greater disposition with which we are interacting all the time. Allah's decree is such that there are certain destinies that cannot change and others which change with corrective actions or intentions. The overall resulting experiential destiny of a individual is an outcome of his actions, thoughts and intentions interacting with the world at large.

  1. Exalted, purified,

That scripture, reality, or genetic encoding, is high and pure. But what is absolute purity? The degree of purity mentioned here is immeasurable; it cannot be captured or gauged. There is no truth, for example, in describing something as pure electric current, for there is no purity in it. The electricity is actually dissipating itself since it is flowing against resistance. As long as something can be measured it is not pure, and as long as man exists he is not pure. This verse alludes to that abstract encoding which is in the Tablet.

The 'honored books' are exalted and high for all gross things go downward, being subject to the laws of gravity. Anything that is heavy goes down, while anything that is light, moves upward. That is why when we address God we unthinkingly look up and not down.

  1. In the hands of the scribes,

Safarah is the plural of sāfir, meaning 'scribe'. Safar, from the same verbal root, is 'travel, journey', while safīr is 'an ambassador, emissary, or mediator'. Hands are instruments of action. The voice of Reality says that this encoding, which is absolutely abstract and pure, has come about or been created through the medium or hands of emissaries. A true ambassador fully represents his embassy. Divine will is implemented through totally loyal agents and emissaries.

  1. Noble, virtuous.

These words describe the powers of execution which bring about this creational reality. We must bear in mind that the Qur`an joins the echo of eternity with humanity. The Prophet was that vibrating, pulsating entity who said it in words into which we can dive deeply in order to reflect on them. We cannot examine them superficially. Kirām bararah, therefore, does not only mean 'noble and virtuous'. Karam means 'absolute, total generosity'. If a man is totally generous, then he is a conduit through which things pass, whether in the form of wealth, knowledge, or any other manifestation of generosity. If he is karīm (generous), he will only be an instrument, while he himself is absent. This is generosity in its ultimate form.

The root of bararah is barra, which means 'to be pious, just'. Birr, from the same root, is defined in Arabic dictionaries as 'righteousness, reverence, or devoutness', but this is only partially correct. It also means to be loyal, faithful and consistent.

Kirām bararah are those forces which executed the creational reality without interference. Only the human being, as the culmination of creation, is given the choice of being either foolish enough to think that he is something special or wise enough to be desperate for inner abandonment.

  1. Accursed is man! How ungrateful he is!

Qutila is the passive form of the verb 'to kill', and, as such, changes its meaning slightly to being cursed with strong connotations of being doomed.

The Qur`an has just taken us to a very subtle point and then suddenly brings us back to our human grossness. Kufr, the noun from the same verbal root as akfara (to be ungrateful or unfaithful), is covering up the truth in order to justify the antics of our ego. Everything in life is perfection we get what we deserve, not what we desire. Because we have expectations we are usually frustrated. The whole world moves in one direction, but our expectations veer off in another.

Killing implies the end of possibility. The truth is that life emanates from one divine source, and therefore each person's individual existence is founded by the grace of that source, so our true heritage is divine. But is that being acknowledged by us? Most of us live in desperate separation, rather than tasting the unity.

  1. From what thing did He create him?

  2. From a small life-germ, He created him, then He shaped him according to a measure.

From what has man been created? He has been created from a sperm. 'Then He shaped him'. Qaddara, means 'to prepare, devise or determine something according to a measure'. Qadr, which is related to qaddara means 'destiny, divine decree'. A decree is measurable.

This verse indicates that the complete encoding of man is to be found in that sperm. What remains is for man to emerge into gross manifestation, interact with the rest of existence, and find his way back to his source. The Qur`an takes us up into absoluteness and then brings us back to this earthly reality in order to shake us up so that we may then dissolve into reality.

  1. Then the way He has made it easy.

Again, this refers to the positive. Sabīl means 'road or path'. Why do we all seek a path in life? The sabīl is sought in order to avoid the pitfalls of not being on a clearly marked road. This 'road' may be one of a transactional situation, a marriage, a business, a holiday, and so on. We seek a clear path because we have strayed due to the bad choices we have made in our ignorance and obscurity.

Let us look at the Arabic word for obscurity or darkness, zulam or zulumāt. Darkness is described in the Qur`an as a shield which should be removed because the essence of everything is light. Light is knowledge; thus we have the description: 'Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth' (24:35). Zulam, in covering that light, can occasionally become a blessing. Everything is a blessing, but we do not always perceive it as such. If, for example, a person knew that ill-health would befall him in the near future, he would be sick with anxiety from now until then. The darkness that covers his knowledge of what is to come is, therefore, a blessing.

Yassara means 'to smooth, level, pave, make easy'. Yusr from the same root, means 'easy, prosperity, abundance', Yasār means 'ease, luxury', as well as 'left hand'. In all cultures, during periods of great spirituality, the right hand symbolized positive action and the left hand negation. Man takes, gives and eats with the right hand. He discards and does away with superfluity with the left. He knows what is positive by negating the negative.

At first, however, he does not know what is positive. He may not know, for example, that it is a positive action to avoid an electric socket: he simply negates the negative. Wisdom is already there; all that must happen is for it to unfold. Unfolding is uncovering. That is why Muslims fold themselves up in salat (ritual prayer), in order to disappear, to fold up the so-called 'I'. While they prostrate they maintain the lowest profile. Whoever fails to understand any of these meanings is not truly fulfilling the outer practices. Every action is as good as its intention. Therefore, if a person carries out these practices in good faith, even though in ignorance, some benefit will be derived from them.

The path has been made quite easy. Allah says in the Qur`an that the path towards realization, towards inner knowledge, is easy. Why is it easy? The implication is that we must simply avoid what we have already experienced as being  not conducive to our well-being. The Prophet said, 'The mu`min (the man who has faith, who trusts that he will reach his reality in its totality) will not fall into the same hole twice'.

  1. Then He causes him to die, then buries him.

The whole biography of man is encapsulated in these three verses, one after the other. From a sperm we have been created, measured; the way has been made easy for us, if only we would desire to be awake and in constant remembrance; then we die and are buried! If we think of this whole process when we are angry, how hilarious our anger will appear, how ridiculous the whole scene will become. 'By remembrance your heart is made tranquil', says the Qur`an, because man does not accept that this life is the whole story. The only thing which every one of us, at any time, in any situation, can claim is that we are dying. At the moment of birth, if a baby could speak, it would say, 'Each moment I am closer to the grave.' This is the only rational statement anybody can make, regardless of whether he himself is rational.

The second true statement which only rational people can make is: 'I don't want to die.' When we are exasperated with the whole world some of us may wish that we would die, but that flippant desire is not made from a point of balance. The second statement, therefore, can only be made when in a rational state of mind.

Here then we have a conflict. Yet how can there be a conflict? Allah is Merciful, and there is no mercy in conflict. The only possible implication is that this entity sees life and death only as aberrations, echoes of something which is permanent, and is therefore seeking permanence. Each one of us seeks permanency in all aspects of our lives, in wealth, relationships, or in the objects we desire. We worship life; therefore we worship the Creator of life. Each one of us is a worshipper, and all that is necessary for true worship to occur is to extricate ourselves from that perversion of worship which looks to what is transient, and instead to subsist in the absolute permanency of the Creator.

Back Up Next

The Opening - A Commentary on Chapter 1: Surat Al-Fatiha ] The Cow - A Commentary on Chapter 2: Surat Al-Baqarah ] The Family of 'Imrān - A Commentary on Chapter 3: Surat Al-'Imrān ] The Spider - A Commentary on Chapter 29: Surat Al-'Ankabt ] The Heart of the Qur`an - A Commentary on Chapter 36: Surat Ya Sin ] The Beneficent - A Commentary on Chapter 55: Surat Al-Rahmn ] The Event - A Commentary on Chapter 56: Surat Al-Wqi'ah ] The Kingdom - A Commentary on Chapter 67: Surat Al-Mulk ] The Jinn - A Commentary on Chapter 72: Surat Al-Jinn ] The Unwrapped - A Commentary on Chapter 73: Surat Al-Muzzammil ] A Commentary on the Last Section of the Qur`an ]