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Commentary on Surat Al-'Imran

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COMMENTARY ON THE QUR`AN
Chapter 3: Surat Al-'Imrān
The Family of 'Imrān
(Selected Verses)


By: Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri

In the name of Allah,
the Beneficent, the Merciful
 

  1. Alīf Lām Mīm

Just as creation appears to have a physical structure, so does the Qur`an. From non-existence the letters come into being by a stroke of the pen. The letters are the foundation of the words which make up its sentences and thus impart meaning, just as the variegated forms of creation are contained within various systems that also provide meaning. From the One comes an infinite number of creational possibilities which indicate their truly infinite and unfathomable Source.

  1. Allah, [there is] no god but He, the Living, the Self-Subsisting by Whom all things subsist.

The chapter begins by affirming what is most important in creation, namely (tawhīd), that is, unity, the Oneness of Allah. The Qur`an asserts that there is only one Creator from whom creation emerges. The most exalted definition and highest description of this Creator is that He has no other partner. There is no deity but Allah, the Absolute Creator.

Another description of Allah is that He is forever sentient or living. How can we experience life and death unless there is an immutable foundation, forever holding both in Its grasp. How is it that we are alive? We must be deriving life as well as all our other attributes (singular sifah) from a Reality which contains all these attributes. The reason that man seeks to prolong his life unnaturally is, in fact, because he is worshipping – albeit misguidedly – the Everlasting Who is within un. All attributes are from Allah, through whose grace everyone is constantly given the opportunity of knowledge and awakening. The Qur`an says, 'All that is in the heavens and the earth glorify Allah, the Sovereign King, the Sacred, the Mighty, the Wise' (62:1).

Every created entity in this existence is glorifying, worshipping and adoring the Attributes of Allah, the Controller of all. Everyone wants to possess these Attributes, because man desires Allah; yet we already have Allah, we are already in the embrace of Allah. There is no escape from that One Reality; there is no escape from the laws of Allah which are the manifestation in creation of His Attributes.

It is up to us to experience His laws, not in a dualistic or fragmentary fashion, but as a totality, until we see nothing but Allah manifesting Himself through His difference Attributes. If a particular event seems to be incongruous, we need only reflect upon its cause to understand it. If the event conforms to its context, then it has followed His laws. If we were to think, hear and see correctly and naturally, then everything around us would be coherent. Whatever appeared incomprehensible, once examined, would reveal its inner meaning.

Every cause has an effect, and every effect stems from a cause, except for the One-and-Only Source, Allah. Allah is Self-Subsisting, beyond cause and effect. Everything except Allah falls within laws that can be understood. All of creation emanates from a root, from a cause that encompasses and controls it all without being tarnished, touched or affected by it. This is the puzzle into which we are born, and we are given our entire lifetime to solve it. Its solution is its dissolution.

By submitting and dissolving the self into the truth that lies within, we unify our actions and intentions fully. Then we will find that every experience is covered by the mercy of Allah, thereby deepening our faith along the path. By this faith our certainty will be increased, and we will be led to the realization that this life is an emanation indicating its source and its natural return to it. Life then becomes an experience to be valued and respected, because one respects the Giver of the experience. Life is not acceptable unless it is put experientially into the right perspective. Life is only a training-ground where man may come to know the meaning of the words, 'Allah, there is no god but Him, the Living, the Self-Subsisting, by Whom all things subsist.'

  1. He has truthfully revealed the Book to you, verifying that which came before; and He revealed the Torah and the Gospel.

In this verse the Prophet Muhammad and all who truly follow him are addressed by Allah. The Qur`an as revealed to Muhammad confirms the truth of the earlier books of the Torah and the Gospels. The message of these divinely inspired Books is from the same One Source, but revealed at different times, for different civilizations or cultures. The books of Moses and Jesus were adequate for their time, and the teachings of Jesus superseded what remained of the oral Talmudic tradition.

The Qur`an of Muhammad supersedes all previous revealed teachings. It is the final message, as it encompasses the collective prophetic consciousness. The Arabic language of the Qur`an and the continuous chain of transmission of its teachings ensures its authenticity and safeguards it. Attempts to interpret the Qur`an and the Prophetic path in order to justify a personal prejudice, or wrongly reinforce unjust actions, continue. Despite this, Islam remains preserved as it was originally and the behavior of Muslims can always be judged against it by whoever has been given its light.

  1. Aforetime, a guidance for mankind, and He revealed the Discrimination. Surely, those who disbelieve in the revelations of Allah shall suffer a severe punishment. And Allah is Mighty, the Lord of Retribution.

The Qur`an has several names, two of which are 'The Book' (al-Kitāb) and 'The Discrimination' (al-Furqān). The Book of Knowledge and understanding is based on discrimination, the differentiation between what is right and what is wrong. By reading this Book, we learn to differentiate between truth and falsehood, transience and permanence.

What is emphasized in this verse is that the knowledge of Allah is the highest priority.  Whoever denies the signs of Allah, whoever denies the proof of the existence of the Creator, whoever denies the interconnectedness of everything in this creation, whoever denies the one power from which stem different manifestations and apparently opposing values or attributes, is in a state of affliction and pain, that is, 'severe punishment' ('adhāb shadīd). Ignorance underlies all pain. Once the reason behind the outcome of a given situation is known, immediate relief and comfort are found, though the difficulty of the situation may not yet be resolved. Through thorough knowledge of any situation, acceptance becomes possible, and with this acceptance positive, successful action can be undertaken.

Understanding and acceptance are aspects of discrimination, of recognizing what is what. If one fails to see the one thread behind the many woven patterns, the result is continual suffering, difficulty and affliction.

  1. Surely nothing in the earth or in the heavens is hidden from Allah.

The Living, Self-Subsistent Reality (al-Hayy al-Qayyūm) is also the All-Hearing, All-Seeing and All-Knowing Reality. Nothing is hidden from Allah. Where can one turn that Allah and His manifestations do not exist? Where can one hide from that which gives one life? Wherever one goes, one's life-support system is already there. How can one say that one has no knowledge of Allah – for where is it that Allah is not? The answer is truly that such a place does not exist. Anyone who recognizes this fact knows that wherever one turns there is the face of Allah. If man is at all times aware that Allah sees what is in his heart, he will naturally labor to purify his heart. He will seek to reveal what is in it so that it might thereby be rendered wholesome and pleasing to Allah, for there is nothing more purifying than revealing one's heart to someone who is willing to listen.

The hypocrisy (nifāq) of one who knows that nothing is hidden from Allah will evaporate by continual exposure to air and light. The Arabic verbal root from which the word for hypocrite springs means 'to tunnel'. Like a mole in a tunnel the hypocrite cannot be easily caught, because the tunnel has more than one exit hole. It is a secret underground tunnel which one may enter by one hole and come out through another. One is always justifying one's prejudices and veils – never catching the self out. By recognizing that Allah knows everything, the labyrinth is unearthed. A technique for reducing hypocrisy is to think of one's heart, one's inner thoughts and motivations as exposed. In truth, every cell within a man reflects his true intentions. Nothing in the heavens or on the earth is hidden from the Reality which encompasses them both, and yet is beyond them.

  1. He shapes you in the womb as He pleases; there is no god but He, the Mighty, the Wise.

Man himself is a form, a picture (sūrah), a representative of Reality. He is an example of Reality, because he encompasses within himself the meaning of everything that he experiences; he is a microcosm of creation. If man did not contain within himself the potential to understand everything outside himself, how then could he understand the external world? There is within us a micro-world which enables us to reflect the macro-world outside. This is how He has 'shaped you in the womb'. The Arabic verbal root for 'wombs' (arhām) means 'to be merciful or compassionate' (rahima). The womb with its function of propagation is a great manifestation and direct proof of Allah's ongoing mercy. The word for 'womb' also means 'relationship, kinship'. It is important for everyone to extend mercy and generosity to their family. The person who has embraced Islam, but whose family has not, should try to share his faith with his family, not by forcing it upon them, but by gentle words and guidance whenever possible. The enemy is not the family itself but the ignorance based on culture and habit that has been allowed to take hold over the family. It is actions that are evil, not people.

There are seven factors which affect the make-up of the individual. The first is to do with the character of one's parents: there is no doubt that one inherits physical and other characteristics from one's predecessors. Another factor is the act of conception itself; this relates to the love between the parents and the depth of their relationship. The third factor is the mother's diet and overall physical, mental, emotional and spiritual state while the child is developing in the womb. The fourth factor concerns the conditions at the moment of birth; the way in which this transition occurs is critical. To be born under the glaring lights of a hospital operating theatre, surrounded by unknown people who are preoccupied with their own problems, is not the best way to enter life. Traditionally, in the past, children were born at home, where the mother was at ease in her own environment, with her own people who treated her lovingly. The fifth factor is the child's treatment during the first two years, including the diet, love, attention and warmth that the mother gives it, the love that exists between both the parents and the baby. The sixth element is the child's upbringing, grooming and social environment. A child who is brought up in a criminal environment is more likely to take to crime, while one brought up in an environment of love, honesty and harmony is more likely to repeat aspects of the same pattern.

The seventh factor is the most important one: a person's power of will and clarity of objective in life. One may have inherited genetically certain weaknesses or physical handicaps or been born into a deprived or criminal environment. One may be aware of all this and yet have the strength and determination to go through life, overcoming the past and rising above those limitations.

Man is like a holographic image: he is potentially a reflection of Reality, if he chooses to be. A holograph is an image produced on a photosensitive plate through the use of a laser beam; a holographic image not only reflects the object from which it is made, but it also behaves as if it were the object itself. The degree to which man can reflect the highest Reality is as accurate as the degree of his willingness to submit, surrender and be committed to Allah.

  1. He it is Who has revealed the Book to you in which are decisively clear verses, the basis of the Book; others are allegorical. Those whose hearts are distorted follow the part which is allegorical, seeking dissention, and seeking to give it [their own] interpretation; but none knows its interpretation except Allah. And those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: We believe in it, it is all from our Lord. None remind except those who have innermost understanding.

If the Qur`an is regarded as a whole, there is no obscurity in its allegories or doctrine. The Qur`an is a clear book in which there is no doubt; doubt exists only in the minds of men because of their veils of ignorance.

The word 'basis' (umm) also means 'mother', implying that these verses are the source or foundation of the Book. Mecca was called 'the mother of villages' (umma al-qurā), because it was a trading center. A closely related word in the Qur`an means 'unlettered' (plural ummīyīn), meaning those who have not had a book, in particular the people of Mecca before Islam. It also refers to the inability of most of the Arabs of that time to read and write. Unlettered also means not formally taught, for the Prophet, according to tradition, had not been taught to read or write at the time the revelations of the Qur`an began. It is known that the Prophet spoke numerous dialects and understood foreign languages, and encouraged the teaching of reading and writing. Many prisoners captured by the Muslims in battle were offered the opportunity of gaining their freedom by teaching the Muslims to read and write. It is said that in each of the nine mosques of Medina there was at all times someone available to teach people to read and write.

'Those whose hearts are distorted' deviate by turning away from Reality. Through knowledge one sees that there is no turning away from the path of Allah, for there is no other way. Man has come from Allah, he is sustained by the grace of Allah, and he is returning to that everlasting Source. If the heart is not completely at one with Reality, it will remain confused. If the heart is not fused to that awareness then it becomes confused.

People who study the Qur`an without the correct courtesy of humility and openness of heart will not derive benefit. They see only what is doubtful, which increases their own confusion. They are seeking 'dissension', because they are subject to temptations which cause distraction. If man recognizes what has confused him, he is able to avoid it the next time he is confronted by a similar situation.

There is no dispute or doubt about the real way once one is fully on that path. The Prophetic life-transaction (dīn) is not open to discussion. Those who are true to Islam, who have surrendered to Reality, cannot be in discord. Dispute arises because of lack of accord, hence discord. A man who has submitted to Allah is in the hand of Allah, the hand of absolute justice. If someone has entered into an argument, it is because he did not possess full discernment or discrimination (furqān) in the situation. Islam is truly the house of peace based on love and justice. It is at peace with its inhabitants and at war with those in ignorance and those who deny Allah.

Those whose hearts are wandering will cause distraction, confusion and dissension 'by seeking to give it their own interpretation (ta`wil)'. They talk according to their own whims, 'but none knows its interpretation except Allah'. No one knows the roots of a thing except He who puts forth the roots and 'those who are firmly rooted in knowledge'. The ones who are firmly rooted in their trust in Allah will come to know more and more about the meanings of the manifestations of Reality. All power, actions and attributes come from the Lord and Sustainer. His mercy pervades all creation.

Knowledge and wisdom are but the beautiful and subtle veils of a higher reality. They produce a greater state of awareness and deeper understanding. The Prophet has said, 'The leaders of guidance are among my progeny (Ahl al-Bayt) and some of my Companions (Sahābah)'. He whose right actions are clear, whose tongue always speaks the truth, whose heart is straight, and who guards his stomach and his sexual urge is one who is firmly established in knowledge. These people were not confused or in doubt. Confusion is a result of one's ignorance of cause and effect and the inconsistent relationship between intention and action. The confused person can only blame himself, seek knowledge and then take refuge in patience.

When Umm Salamah heard the Prophet repeat the supplication, 'O Lord Who turns the heart, establish my heart in Your way (dīn)', she asked, 'O Messenger of Allah, will the hearts turn again?' 'Yes,' he said, 'Allah has not created man from the children of Adam but that his heart is between His two fingers. If He wills He makes it straight and if He wills He makes it deviate.' Man cannot be arrogant about his faith (īmān). One can never claim that one knows (for higher knowledge is limitless), or that one's knowledge is complete. Allah says, 'But none feels secure from Allah's plot [i.e. subtle ways], except those who are at a loss' (7:99). Man must be constantly vigilant and diligent. The worst situation is to gain a little knowledge and then to feel arrogantly secure.

All that we experience comes from 'our Lord' (Rabbanā). The Lord is that entity which brings us up to our full potential. A related word from the same root word as Lord means 'upbringing, education, edification' (tarbīyah), but there is no equivalent word for 'lord' in the English language that can adequately convey the idea of nurturing, and the process of gaining wisdom and fulfillment through being fostered and guided by Allah's Attribute of Lordship.

'None remind except those who have innermost understanding.' The word for 'innermost understanding' (lubb) also means 'essence, core', or 'reasoning mind'. Sometimes it connotes an understanding connected to the heart, but in the case of this verse it has the further connotation of achievement. The ability to remind depends on the ability to remember, to recall the original sub-genetic information that man is dependent upon Allah, Who has created out of love. If man is continually concerned about external manifestations in the realm of duality, he cannot reflect upon the One Source. The inner meaning of all our activities is life relates to discovering this truth, through surrender and understanding.

In the Qur`an some verses are absolutely clear and some are allegorical, appearing to be obscure. Qur`anic commentators often conjecture as to whether certain verses are allegorical or not. When the Qur`an is examined as a whole there is no obscurity; there is metaphor and symbolism, but there is no obscurity: 'These are the verses of the Qur`an, the verses of a clear Book' (27:1). The leaders of the Prophetic House related that 'the understanding of the Qur`an is by the Qur`an, because parts of the Qur`an explain other parts'. The Qur`an is complete unto itself and contains the entirety of meaning within itself.

Allah tells us that the clear verses are the basis of the book. What is allegorical or obscure may be understood in the light of what is clarified elsewhere. As we stated earlier, the word for 'basis' also means 'mother' as well as 'source, origin, foundation, essence, matrix'. A closely related word means 'one who remains in the natural condition of his surroundings'. This word came to refer to the Arabs in particular, and because they did not read or write, it came by extension to mean 'unlettered'. When this word was used in the Qur`an (7:157) to describe the Prophet Muhammad, the ordinary meaning was that he was not taught in any formal sense, but that he had a natural connection to life and its source, and had therefore a primal, natural ability to 'read'. The Qur`anic description of 'unlettered' also emphasizes that the Prophet was not formally educated, but that his authority was based upon revealed knowledge.

One of the meanings of the Arabic word translated in this verse as 'interpretation' (ta`wīl) is 'opinion.' If, for example, on a cloudy day someone comments that it is a good day, he probably means that in his opinion the day will be full of benefit. The listener, on the other hand, may interpret what he said as sarcastic, because the sky is obviously overcast. The first person might then say to the listener he has misinterpreted the speaker's words, (awwalta kalāmī), implying that the listener has read into them what he wanted to hear. Personal opinions regarding the meanings of the Qur`an must be guarded against. Some of the verses do not allow for interpretation while others lend themselves to a great number of meanings, both broad as well as deep. There are many pitfalls in interpreting according to one's own opinion.

An explicit example of a clear verse is, 'O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, so that perhaps you may guard yourselves with fearful awareness' (2:186). There is no doubt about the interpretation of this verse, nor room for different opinions about its meaning. An example of an allegorical verse is, 'Looking toward their Lord' (75:143). One may ask how this is possible, for Allah cannot be seen, as He established with Moses: 'You will never see Me' (7:143). The intellect allows one to understand that 'seeing Allah' refers to knowledge of Allah. The latter verse forces one to look deeply into the meaning of 'looking towards' in the former verse thereby finding that it also means 'directing one's attention towards'. Prophetic traditions may also be used to reinforce the understanding of the Qur`an. In this case a famous sacred tradition relates, 'The eyes cannot see Me, but the heart of the believing slave sees Me.'

Many verses that use worldly or linguistic terms are inadvertently given a physical interpretation. For example, the word for 'throne' ('arsh) in the verse, 'Then He [Allah] established himself on the throne' (Thumma istawā 'alā al-'arsh, 10:3). The mind conjures up a giant-like being acting as puppeteer for the whole world, seated on an enormous throne. If we delve into the meaning of the Arabic word for 'throne' we will find that it means 'that upon which everything rests', indicating a foundation. Another example, mentioned many times in the Qur`an, is that Allah possesses all riches. Because man treasures his own insignificant trinkets, he may imagine an enormous treasure box, full of Allah's glittering treasures. In reality, however, Allah's treasures comprise the entire creation, comprising that which man comprehends as well as what he cannot comprehend.

There is a story related about an inquirer who asked Imam Ja'far al-diq to explain a certain verse on three different occasions. Each time he received a different answer. Finally he queried the Imam about the differing interpretations and the Imam answered him thus: 'O Jābir, the Qur`an has an inner lining, and for that inner lining there is another inner lining, and for that inner there is another inner and yet another. O Jābir, there is nothing further from the intellect of man than the interpretation of the Qur`an.' Ja'far al-diq's explanation illustrates that many verses can be interpreted from different angles and in subtle ways. While all of the interpretations are correct, at the same time care must be exercised so that one's opinion does not conceal a true reflection of the universality of the verse.

The entire Qur`an is a continuous exposition of the different facets of Reality. In a sense it is like man's life, the beginning, the middle and end of which may be very different, yet interconnected. Likewise, the lives of individuals may appear to be radically different, but if we look at this multiplicity as a manifestation of a reality that has unchanging boundaries, we find written therein decrees which cannot be changed, decrees such as birth and death. There is a limit to the freedom we can exercise because of the natural boundaries that have been determined.

How can man comprehend his cause except by allegory (mithal) and deep reflection which results in the remembrance of his origin? The Qur`an is not meant to confuse us, but a person whose heart is not clear reflects the confusion contained therein. A man or woman of Allah does not see anything other than clarity in the Qur`an. If there are areas within it which are not understood, it could be that either the verse has been abrogated or that it contains an unfamiliar aspect of divine law. It could also be unclear because it requires more reflection before the various meanings interconnect.

Clear understanding of certain parts is the foundation for wider understanding: it is by means of light that we can distinguish shades of light. The way to approach the Qur`an is to take from it what is understandable and put it to use; if this is not done, one will not progress. If one fails to transfer the teachings into physical action, then our approach to the Book is faulty and we will be further deprived of knowledge.

  1. Our Lord, do not allow our hearts to deviate after You have guided us, and grant us mercy from your Presence. Surely, You are the Generous Bestower.

People who have tasted the sweetness of faith pray to their Lord and Sustainer for their hearts to be guided. Having tasted this sweetness and having seen the light of guidance (hudā), they guard themselves. Their prayers are a reflection of their intention to protect themselves and keep their hearts safe. They beseech their Lord not to let them be misguided after they have seen the mercy (rahmah) of guidance, for they recognize this guidance as a gift from Allah, which, if lost, can never be replaced.

  1. Our Lord, surely You are the Gatherer of mankind on a day about which there is no doubt. Most certainly Allah will not fail to keep [His] promise of the appointed time.

The people of faith have no doubt about the signs of Allah, nor do they give in to their whims. By remembering the Day of Reckoning, they remain aware at all times of the transient nature of this life. Remembrance of death is a means to freedom from the veils of the self and from constant justification of one's habitual actions. It is quite natural for us to continue our past habits and find good reasons and explanations for us to do so. The self has the knack of justifying what it wants. Without going back to the source as a reference point, one will find a justification for any action. That reference point can only be activated if we are in submission to Allah and in a state of spontaneous awareness. If, while experiencing anger, suspicion, greed or confusion, one is able to shut everything out and go into total inner silence and submission, one would be able to improve one's actions. Neutralization from within will bring about a positive result in one's direction.

This verse relates to us that those who have faith (īmān) and are established in knowledge (rāsikhūn fī al-'ilm) constantly remember that they will be gathered up on the Day of Reckoning. A person who lives with such remembrance will live in a manner which is detached but still present, exposed to his Creator and open to judgment at all times. He will not be enslaved by the world, and its attachments or its attractions. He lives as a free man because he is a slave only to Allah.

  1. The wealth and children of those who disbelieve will not avail them against Allah. They are fuel for the Fire.

In direct opposition to the way of life led by those who believe is the way of life of those who deny Allah. They fail to recognize the profundity of death, and have little or no belief in the reckoning after death. Whoever denies that this creation has come from, is sustained by, and is accountable to one Creator, has no refuge in his wealth or in his offspring – he is 'fuel for the Fire' (waqūd al-Nār). Man's entire experience in the outer world is subject to unstoppable change. Because of this, some seek security in material accumulation. Certainly, such accumulation may bring about a certain element of comfort or pleasure, but once a person succeeds in gathering material wealth, insecurity and problems from other quarters will creep in.

Our understanding, knowledge and behavior is very much subject to the condition of our hearts. The more hardened the heart, the more mechanistic and uninspired our lives become.

  1. Like the people of Pharaoh and those before them. They rejected Our signs, so Allah destroyed them because of their wrong actions. And Allah is severe in requiting wrong action.

The people of Pharaoh and those who came before them denied the supreme sovereignty of Allah. Every effect has its cause, and this effect in turn becomes the cause of another effect. Life's experiences are all interrelated in a network. The transgression and disbelief of these people and their abuse of physical power and wealth resulted in a natural punishment. Their diligence was directed only towards their materialistic pursuits, and though the level of their outer technology was very high, it nevertheless did not save them: their inner technology – spiritual enlightenment – was missing.

  1. Say to those who disbelieve: You shall be overcome and driven to Hell. What a miserable place of rest!

Tell the people who deny that Allah pervades, prevails over and controls all, that if they do not pursue a life that leads to the acknowledgement of this truth, they will experience the torment and agitation of the Fire. There is no resting place within fire, which is the description of Hell. Those who have not awakened in this life will be very rudely awakened on the Day of Reckoning.

If one is not aware of one's own basic motives and actions, it is unlikely that one would be aware of Allah's justice in all situations. The term 'luck' really implies our lack of knowledge of all the parameters that determine a desirable outcome. When a person describes an occurrence as luck, it means that his or her individual path crossed favorably with an overall environmental direction, and this conjunction was conducive to bringing about the end which he or she desired. Bad luck is the reverse of this process. A person has a certain objective, but does not know all the factors at play in the situation; at a certain point there is a clash with powerful, unknown factors which are in opposition to the achievement of the desire. These factors prevail, the objective fails – and we call this bad luck! The more one is aware and has knowledge, the less one sees 'good luck' or 'bad luck'. Rather, one sees efficiency or inefficiency.

The ignorant seeks to protect his ego, and is both unwilling and unable to see the situation as it is. The person who does not know and knows that he does not know is far better off than the person who thinks he knows, because he is more open to knowledge.

A prophetic saying states, 'People are the enemy of what they do not know'. Man by nature loves knowledge ('ilm). The search for knowledge is a great motivating factor in life. Indeed, man loves the Attributes of Allah, and one of His main Attributes is the All-Knowing (al-'Alīm). The egotistic and selfish person will gloss over his areas of ignorance rather than admit he does not possess knowledge. If one does not start with knowledge of one's own self and inner state then one has not yet begun the process of spiritual growth.

  1. Indeed there was a sign for you in the two armies [which] encountered each other. One party was fighting in the way of Allah and the other was an unbelieving force who saw the former as twice as many as themselves. And Allah strengthens those whom He pleases with His aid. Surely, there is a lesson in this for those who have insight.

The Qur`an moves back and forth in time, while its central message is timeless. It does not allow one to fall into the trap of historical perspective, for its truth is for all time.

The chapter of The Family of 'Imrān was revealed soon after the Battle of Uhud, which occurred in the third year after the Migration (Hijrah) from Mecca to Medina. The Battle of Badr was still fresh in the minds of the people. Historical references estimate that the Prophet had 313 men with him at Badr and that they had eight swords, six shields and two horses. On the other hand, the enemy was estimated to number about a thousand, all on horseback. The Muslims were ill-equipped outwardly but well-equipped inwardly, trusting that this life was only one fleeting moment in the manifestation of eternity. Without being suicidal, they were not afraid of death: they were men of Allah and therefore unafraid of Allah's creation.

Of the two groups fighting, one was fighting for Allah's sake. The other group was made up of clans who imagined the Muslims were greater in number than they actually were. The courage and fearlessness of the Muslims caused them to appear far more numerous. The light of Allah will prevail with the people who serve the cause of Allah and who always strive to move towards higher values. This is 'a lesson for those who have insight'.

Anything that is done outside the laws of nature and of what is permissible is transgression. Shaytān (Satan) means one who is 'cast out,' or has 'exceeded the bounds' of Allah. In the garden, where there was no duality, Adam did not know what a lie was. When the Shaytān arose to entice him, Adam assumed that his voice was true Reality and therefore believed him. He did not believe the Shaytān to be an enemy, because the realm of opposites, of duality, had not yet arisen.

  1. The love of desires, of women and sons, hoarded treasures of gold and silver, well-bred horses, livestock and tilth, is made fair-seeming to mankind. This is provision for the life of the world, while with Allah is the more excellent abode.

This verse is a compelling statement about the nature of man. Worldly desires seem attractive in his eyes. Man naturally loves gold and silver because they are signs of wealth. 'Well-bred horses and tilth' were also signs of wealth in the Prophet's time. Nowadays, however, man's wealth is measured by pieces of paper or electronic numbers. The strongest desire in a normal man is for intimacy with a woman, because in that state he becomes almost mindless, or to put it another way, with her he can experience a selfless bliss. A similar state is attained by emptying the mind in meditation. It is understandable that when one's mind is disturbed one seeks a physical form of relief. Disturbed men often have a stronger sexual drive than those who are in inner peace, but eventually that disturbance may take them to a point where they become sexually impaired.

Recreation and play are necessary in life. The fact that we have been created in order to know the Creator and then die can be searing if contemplated unceasingly. Play should, however, be contained, otherwise man will only bring harm to himself and others. The boundary in the case of relationships between man and woman is a contract within which each party fulfils their part. She accords him authority in exchange for protection and support. A man's responsibilities are different from a woman's. If they were the same, then role confusion would ultimately dismantle the normal, primal family structure. Much of what we are experiencing with the troubled youth in the West today is a result of role confusion and the dilution or loss of traditional family values. The glamorous image of the working woman in the factory or office has been created to make available a cheap work-force and to increase material productivity. Family culture, meanwhile, has broken down. Today children come home from school to an empty house and a microwave oven, instead of to a mother and companionship. Is it any wonder that drugs, alcohol and sexual promiscuity are ravaging the youth of today? When the biological process of birth takes over within the woman, the man, if he is of noble disposition, understands, protects and loves her so that the child who comes into the world will be someone who will live a life worthy of Allah's highest creation.

The Prophet said, 'O people, you are in a house of truce.' In this short life war is being waged between right and wrong, between this life and the next. The intentions and resultant actions of each individual will decide the outcome. Therefore we live in a state of truce. When asked, the Prophet explained that in the house of truce people are informed about the news of the purpose of creation, and they are encouraged to cut themselves off from this world by weaning themselves away from their love of it.

Excessive love and attachment to worldly desires are the cause of enslavement. The cure is moderation and taking the middle road until the desires are fulfilled or have fallen away from one's heart. For example, man is not necessarily disrespectful of Allah because he loves gold, for it is a material which exists naturally in His creation and inherently possesses noble qualities. What is wrong with possessing gold is the danger of arrogance, power and deprivation of others that its hoarding and accumulation bring. 'Alī ibn Abī Tālib said, 'The one who is abstemious (zāhid) is not one who owns nothing; rather, he is the one who is not owned by anything.' There is no merit in possessing nothing, but there is great merit in not being owned by anything.

Desire and attraction are natural phenomena which cannot be resisted. Every person wants to increase his or her wealth. If we are willing to reflect honestly upon our motives, then, through experience, we will recognize the affliction that results if our motives are not pure. If we use the provisions (matā) of this world as useful tools for this short journey, then we are likely to be spared the agony of separation from them. What matters is our intention rather than the action itself. Those who forget that there is an end to this world, and a life to come after it, are described elsewhere as follows: 'And the Shaytān has made their deeds fair-seeming to them and thus turned them from the way' (27:24). Allah also says, 'The evil of their actions is made fair-seeming to them; and Allah does not guide the unbelieving people' (9:37). Actions have a way of justifying themselves; a person's ugly deeds may be small at first, but if unchecked, they will increase with each day.

Thus spiritual seekers often go to the desert, where life can be lived more frugally. When the need for clothing and food is less, one can turn one's attention away from the world more easily. In a cold climate, however, one is totally enslaved to the elements, and because outer protection and order must be established first, the outer prevails over the inner. Purification starts from the outer layer and works its way inwardly to the subtle core, until one finds that the outer and the inner are totally connected. One who has attained inner peace will naturally avoid situations which are not conducive to one's spiritual growth.

'With Allah is the more excellent abode.' Allah has given us a long rope which we may use either to return to Him or to strangle ourselves. The man of insight (basīrah) does not see grey areas; he sees people either covering up reality (which is the meaning of kufr) or being intoxicated by the experience of unity (tawhīd). Distinction between these two states becomes clearer as one's insight or inner vision sharpens.

We return to the place where we began: the excellent abode. Through a highly intricate and natural electro-chemical process, we originated from earthly elements. Our bodies were sustained by food from the earth, and to that earth they will return. The other part of our being, our spirit, is meant to be purified, to become aware of duality – of good and bad, health and sickness, poverty and wealth – and to recognize that there is one force from which all creation emanates.

  1. Say: Shall I inform you of what is better than all that? For those who guard fearfully are gardens with their Lord beneath which rivers flow – they abide in them forever – and pure mates, and Allah's pleasure. Allah perceives mankind.

This verse relates to the previous verse. The love of possessions, the desire to increase one's wealth and the number of one's offspring, all the things that are part of this worldly existence, have been made attractive to man. But the worthiest abode is where there is no change, where there are none of the transient afflictions of this world. Possessions are like treasures put into a boat. The more weight in the hull, the greater the risk of sinking in a stormy sea. A strong and efficient mast and sail – analogous to spiritual strength – are needed to carry it to the destined shore. Possessions are neutralized by spiritual strength.

On the other hand, if the boat has a strong mast but carries little in its hold, it can travel swiftly across the sea, but it will arrive empty. The Muhammadan path is the middle road: 'And thus We have made you a middle nation' (2:143). It is not a path of outer asceticism or renunciation. The world is to be interacted with; its positive aspects are to be made use of directly, while its negative aspects are out of bounds and to be avoided. The Prophet is the teacher from whom we learn where the boundaries lie, as well as how to avoid transgressing them.

Better than the love of worldly things are the gardens in the presence of the Lord 'For those who guard fearfully'. The word taqwā means 'to guard oneself with fear and caution so as to avoid being led astray'. Caution implies prior exposure to a similar situation, thus those who guard fearfully have already been afflicted in the world: they have tried to find solace and comfort in the stuff of this world and have been disappointed. They are cautious about every situation in order to prevent an undesirable outcome, and, because of their sincerity, they are forgiven if they inadvertently participate in an unfortunate situation. Those who continue to take refuge in some aspect of the world – its wealth, its people, its political power – are continually plagued by the nagging fear that one day the security to which they are holding on will no longer be there. Their plastic cards will be redundant because of a massive and universal power shutdown!

'The gardens beneath which rivers flow' are gardens of meaning, condition or state. In this life the experience of physical gardens can give us a taste of a paradisical inner state, a sense of being in a marvelous and fulfilling ambience. The experience however, does not endure, and people in the midst of the most wonderful and fabulous experiences can be miserable and sad. Something within tells them that the moment of pleasure is not going to last, that they will have to leave. The pleasure is recognized as transient, and thus they cannot totally abandon themselves to it. The heavenly, which is to say permanent, garden is forever fed by subtle and hidden underground rivers. Those invisible waters are preserved forever in the Garden of the next world.

'Pure mates' (azwāj mutahhara) implies no duality in the Garden; the opposites (zawj, means a pair) are joined. In this world man seeks woman, the poor seeks wealth and the ill seeks health. In the next life all seeking is finished. The opposites are continued in pairs; there is no longer any conflict of the two. If a man of faith (īmān) harbored any unfulfilled desires, those desires would be neutralized to bring about an ultimate equilibrium.

The state of the Garden is described as being like receiving gifts one had not imagined possible. Reality knows the condition of everything, where it is deficient and why. Deficiencies of this world exist in order that we will strive for efficiency, which arises from wisdom and is achieved through the use of the intellect ('aql). One learns how to safeguard one's being and how to be successful. Efficiency clearly indicates the boundaries of action: one is free to act, but only within the limits of general laws which prescribe the paths of action in this world. If one transgresses these bounds, one's freedom is curtailed. If one abuses nature beyond a certain point, the ecology will collapse. The destruction may be so great as to annihilate us in order to effect a return to normal. Allah's will is that we discover that this creation is Allah's, and that we are nothing other than His beloved slaves.

Love of this world can only end in disaster. If the disaster does not occur as several minor or major setbacks or disasters in this life, it will occur as one final calamity at the moment of one's death, because whoever loves this world will not want to leave it. Disappointments in this life caution us against investing in what is transient. The things of this world are a provision, not to be renounced, but to be used and consumed along the journey. For this reason the people of self-knowledge ('irfān) constantly avoid forming habits. A seeker on the path of self-knowledge may even change the place where he lays his head at night every few days in order not to become complacent in his behavior. A state of continual change prevents him from becoming too familiar with his surroundings, and so he constantly remembers that his life is transient, that at any given moment he may die. The point of this remembrance is not to produce anxiety or discomfort, but to be grounded in a deeper state of inner peace and tranquility, irrespective of one's outer struggle or circumstance.

A verse of the Qur`an says, 'O you who believe! Answer Allah and the Messenger when you are called to that which gives you life. Know that Allah intervenes between man and his heart, and that to Him you shall be gathered' (8:24). Allah is talking to the people of this world, implying that this physical existence is only an example of the real life which is eternal. Each one of us wants to live forever, a desire whose source is divine, but the One who lives forever is the one-and-only Ever-Living (al-Hayy al-Qayyūm). As created beings we are perishing, but the source of the Ever-living is within us. Once we discover the truth of this, we understand that what we are really adoring and worshipping is the Ever-Living, though this worship of the Eternal is sometimes transformed into actions which are limited to self-preservation. Naturally, it is incumbent upon everyone to preserve their physical well-being as much as possible, for whoever loves the Creator will love what He has given into one's care, yet with the light of intellect one must realize that the body is born to perish. We must therefore strive to live a balanced life, taking care of both our existential and spiritual needs, of both body and soul.

Those who fearfully guard themselves (muttaqīn) say that they trust in Allah through reason and natural instinct (fitrah). They understand that there can be no major conflicts in nature that will not be resolved by one force dominating another. For example, we all recognize that we are dying even though we do not want to die. This is a conflict which will not be resolved until we become disillusioned with the nature of our ego-self (nafs). When the lower self is surpassed by the higher self through self-knowledge and enlightenment, the conflict is resolved.

The greatest crime one can commit against oneself is to become forgetful of Allah and the truth of His Book. Forgetting Allah comes from forgetting death. When a person says that he has discovered the truth, he is really admitting that the truth was there all the time, but the path he was previously following did not lead to it. He has also discovered that he can never find total fulfillment with any human being. Speaking of humankind, the Qur`an says, 'One of you is an enemy to the other' (2:36). Within us are the forces of both evil and good. If one does not act to purify the self, the forces within will produce a Jekyll and Hyde syndrome – with Hyde eventually taking over.

As man grows in faith, his worldly wisdom and sense of discrimination also grow. He becomes more diligent with his use of time and the tools he has been given to work with. His increased sensitivity produces greater effectiveness.

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-'Ankabϋt ] The Heart of the Qur`an - A Commentary on Chapter 36: Surat Ya Sin ] The Beneficent - A Commentary on Chapter 55: Surat Al-Rahmβn ] The Event - A Commentary on Chapter 56: Surat Al-Wβqi'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 ]