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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

  1. Those who say: Our Lord, surely we believe, so forgive our faults and save us from the punishment of the Fire.

The real meaning of forgiveness can be decoded from the Arabic root for forgiveness (istighfār), which is ghafara meaning 'to cover, protect, correct'. Seeking forgiveness means seeking protection from the results of past errors, and safety from continuing to act erroneously and therefore harmfully. We know the meaning of fire as a physical manifestation without which we cannot survive. Even our nervous system is based on electrical impulses which are a subtle form of fire. Without the fire of the sun, the ecological balance of the earth could not survive. Inner fire is tasted by everyone in the form of anger, anguish, mistrust, greed, hate and jealousy. When time stops, as it eventually will, the experience of this Fire, if it has been fuelled or fed continuously in this life, will then be an ongoing experience in the next level of consciousness. In that zone one will not be able to act, only to be acted upon, because the next life is the realm of non-change. Only in this life do we have a measure of freedom to take the initiative.

Freedom is meaningless unless there is constriction. Similarly, a person cannot know the meaning of truth unless he knows what a lie is. While Adam was in the state of the Garden he did not know the duality of truth and falsehood. When the Shaytān made him experience the meaning of a lie, it was through this event that consciousness rose. The fall of Adam was in one sense, therefore, his rise. Had he not fallen, he would have remained in a state of hapless and undiscriminating bliss, similar to that of animals. But once he recognized the trap, he was also shown freedom. As the children of Adam we come into this life in order to gain this recognition experientially. Though we often claim to act for Allah, we know that essentially our obedience to Him is motivated by our own desires: 'if you do good, you do good for your own souls; and if you do evil, it shall be for them' (17:7).

  1. The patient, the truthful, the humbly obedient, those who spend and those who ask forgiveness before dawn.

Patience (sabr) is of two types, negative and positive. Being patient with evil whilst one is able to overcome it is to misuse patience. Only when it is impossible to take any action against evil should one wait until the right time or else remove oneself from the situation.

One should be patient with one's aspirations and expectations. Past habits cannot be changed in a few days just as bad posture which has developed over a lifetime cannot be put right in a week. Everything has its own time for healing and reaching fruition. Allah has indicated this by the analogy that He created the heavens and earth in six days (periods). Everything must follow its course, once it has emerged from the uncreated state.

Once one has begun to tread a positive path, patience is very important, because the lower self regularly returns to trick us. Shaytān is always present and in order to overcome him we must learn his tricks. Sometimes he comes to us through our emotions, sometimes through reason which encourages us to act wrongly. The secret of being patient is to be impatient with the self, impatient with our faults, our lack of awareness, our heedlessness, greed and laziness. Where we must exercise particular patience is with other people's faults, teaching them with compassion and understanding.

'Those who are truthful' (sādiqīn) means those who are awakened to their original, naturally noble disposition. Our origin is truth, which each one of us is programmed to seek. When a person knows himself he is steadfast in moments of weakness as well as in moments of strength. With this in mind, one recognizes that gratefulness is especially necessary in moments when life is difficult, when one is most vulnerable and has no outward security. These are in fact the best times. When those times have passed, one looks back upon them as the foundation of one's inner strength. The truth is that we have come from the unknown and we are returning to that unknown; during this journey it is our duty to come to know. If we always keep this in mind, if we admit to our ignorance and face our weaknesses diligently, positively and joyfully, we will overcome them. If instead we hide them, by blowing up the balloon of the ego, death will eventually explode the myth we have created. But if we are constantly able to deflate the ego-self, then death will pose no fear, because, like the transition from sleep to wakefulness, the transition of death will be apparent. The soul simply leaves the body behind and moves into a domain where neither time nor space exists.

Another derivative from the verbal root of the word meaning 'those who are truthful' is 'giving alms' (sadaqah). It is as though by giving charity one is confirming the truth that one owns nothing. When beggars in the East come to any house demanding, 'Give us from the wealth of Allah!', they may sound rude and presumptuous, but what they ask for is their due. Wealth belongs to Allah. Those who are entrusted with it are given the great responsibility of using it properly to help those to whom it has not been given. The beggar in his demand asks how the householder dares to sleep while excess surrounds him and how, when he dies, he will account for it. Alms means giving in order to reflect the truth of Allah's generosity, which is infinite.

'The humbly obedient' (al-qānitīn) are those who express their servitude to Allah. The act of lifting the hands in supplication (qunūt) is an outer manifestation of obedience to and humility before Allah. If a person inwardly obeys the natural laws, accepts them and works within them, not against them, his inner attitude will be expressed outwardly in gratitude, submission and contentment.

'Those who spend' their wealth and energy on what matters, give what they cherish, not what they no longer want. For example, a parent may take a dreadful job in order to give his son a good education only to find that after his graduation the boy runs away from home. The son may have done so because the father did not spend of what matters: compassion, understanding, love and attention, rather than money or formal education. We often give what we think is important, not what the situation requires.

'Those who ask forgiveness before dawn.' Ashār is the last part of the night before dawn, when all is quiet and inner focusing is easy. But what is the use of supplicating, praying and meditating at that time if, during the rest of the day, we are in turmoil and confusion? Before dawn all the outer elements are still. The time lends itself to deep and subtle reflection. The Qur`an says, 'Maintain the prayer from the declining of the sun to the darkness of night and the morning recitation; surely the morning recitation is witnessed' (17:78)

  1. Allah bears witness that there is no god but He, as do the angels and those who possess knowledge, maintaining justice. There is no god but He, the Mighty, the Wise.

There is nothing worthy of worship but Him. He is the unique Singular (Ahad). He is not just the One (hid), for one implies a second and is the beginning of enumeration. Singularity precedes this, being that Reality from which all manifestation and action have come. Reality witnesses Itself, being Self-sustaining, Self-supporting, Self-knowing and Self-hearing. Allah is the witness to Himself. If we truly want to witness, then we must stop witnessing anything other than Him, for anything other is only a manifestation of Him. The angels witness that there is no god but He because they have no option. They are the powers or forces that participate in holding together the visible parts of this cosmos. Those who have faith and search within themselves come to know with certainty that the existence of anything other than Allah is unacceptable, for it is untrue.

'The angels and those who possess knowledge' establish justice (qist). Justice within creation is based on a measure (qadr), as the Qur`an states: 'Surely we have created everything according to a measure' (54:49). Justice implies that laws govern both what is visible and what is invisible. Without these laws there would be chaos.

  1. Surely the life-transaction with Allah is Islam. Those to whom the Book had been given differed only after knowledge had come to them, out of envy among themselves. And whoever disbelieves in the revelations of Allah, then surely Allah is quick in reckoning.

The message and the knowledge that was revealed to all the prophets was the same: it was a map of the path of submission and knowledge of Reality.

'Life-transaction' (dīn) is usually translated as 'religion'. The word is related to 'dayn' which means 'debt'. The verb means 'to take a loan, borrow, be obligated or humbled'. Thus the correct 'life-transaction' is to honor the debt owed to the Creator. The life-transaction that existed before the Qur`anic revelation was the same.

The people of the revealed books, the Jews, Christians and others, did not differ except in a cultural or historical way. Later many distorted and transgressed the message given to them in the past. Love and attachment to this world led them to interpret the message according to their own fancies. All people are subject to this corruption by taking from the original teaching what is convenient for them to justify their actions or accuse others of wrongdoing. Whatever man does repeatedly becomes attractive and is justified to himself as he is a creature of habit. This is one of the veils which separates the living from the knowledge of the essence of life.

If we look for faults, we will find faults, and if we look for perfection, we will see perfection. If we use our inner sight we will find perfection in every creation, whereas if we use the outer eye we will find no end to fault in creation. The man of Allah is a man of inner harmony and contentment and of outer struggle and striving at the same time.

No one is independent or separate from this world. The world is what we have made of it, and we cannot escape our responsibility for it. In a nuclear disaster we shall all suffer. Whoever exists as a part of a society which has ruined its environment will suffer that ruin along with everyone else. In the meantime, if one has been diligent and has tried to do one's best, at least one is more prepared for and accepting of what is to come.

The person who can look at his actions and intentions and be willing to account for them is indeed fortunate. The willingness to be exposed to one's inner 'balance sheet' helps to bring about spontaneous self-correction. If we are aware of our actions and know why we do them at the moment of their performance, no account is kept; nothing is hidden from moment to moment.

  1. So if they dispute with you, say: I submit myself entirely to Allah and so do those who follow me. And say to those who have been given the Book and the unlearned people: Do you submit? Then if they submit, they indeed follow the right way, and if they turn away, then your obligation is only to deliver the message. And Allah sees all mankind.

If on some pretext or another a person is faced with an argument or dispute, he could reply by saying that he has submitted to Allah and follows His way. Either one accepts and understands or one does not. Discussing Islam with an egotistic, ignorant person is like discussing different colors with a blind man.

'The unlearned people' refers to the people of Mecca. They had no book or messenger who had risen from among them. On the other hand the majority of the people of Medina were people of the book, the Jews and Christians of that time. The Prophet encouraged people to read and write. 'Ali was the first to record what the Prophet said, and the Companions wrote down and recorded the revelations of the Qur`an.

Allah tells us in this verse that if people embrace Islam they will realize that it is the way to guidance; if they do not, then it is only incumbent upon us to give them the news, to inform in a manner best understood by the listener. It is the Muslim's duty to share the good news; it may be rejected, but that is something over which he has no control. The word used in this verse for 'delivery of the message' (balāgh) implies deep, profound wisdom. Inherent eloquence (balāghah) comes from the same root.

  1. Those who disbelieve in the revelations of Allah and slay the prophets unjustly, and slay those among mankind who enjoin justice, announce to them a painful chastisement.

A prophet's task is to bring the news. He himself has received the revelation and is immersed in a state of knowledge of unity (tawhīd). Those who deny the news because it is incongruous to them either wish to kill the envoy to destroy what he represents or seek to destroy his words. If a man has based his entire security on material wealth and is then informed that he has lost it, he would be inclined to disbelieve the news.

There is always a polarization among people around men of knowledge. No prophet ever lived who had the support of the majority of his community early in his lifetime, nor has any master of the path to Allah had an easy time of it. A common saying among people of unity is that no spiritual guide is fully established in his station unless hundreds of good men renounce him. What this means is that there are many degrees of faith and understanding and degrees of truth and submission. The real believer (mu`min) trusts that whatever situation he is confronted with has been sent by Allah for him to learn from. With this trust he is able to move on positively without wasting time criticizing and complaining, because he sees nothing other than Allah in all things. If he finds fault with anything, it is with himself: with his wrong judgment, his lack of wisdom, awareness and diligence, and his heedlessness. He blames all of these faults upon himself in order to improve himself.

  1. They are among those whose actions are futile in this world and the Hereafter. They shall have no helpers.

The news reaches them from the outside that they are going to have trouble. Their work and their actions are futile (habata) and will thus be nullified. If a person does not follow the direction of nature, his or her actions will have no beneficially lasting result. Actions that are not undertaken with the intention of leading one to submission and to the knowledge that arises from that submission are worthless. If we envisage one day as a complete cycle of life, at the end of the day we should be content to die, all of our accounts being clear. Such is the state of an awakened being, not of one whose actions are futile.

Once a Bedouin came to 'Alī ibn 'Abī Tālib and said, 'I accept everything that you teach, and I accept your logic, but what if there is no Hereafter? 'Alī said: 'If there is no Hereafter, then at least I will have had the best life in the world, for I could not have acted better in this life.' The Bedouin responded, 'That is good enough', and embraced Islam.

  1. Have you not seen those who are given a portion of the Book? They are invited to the Book of Allah that it might decide between them. Then a group of them turn away and they withdraw.

'A portion of the Book' refers to incomplete messages. Before the advent of the Qur`an, man had not reached the stage where he could be given all the divine laws. The Qur`an itself was revealed in stages, and its revelation was not completed until just a few months before the death of the Prophet. When we apply the complete message we must use reasoning, trust and submission, otherwise our inappropriate approach might distort the meaning.

People who have received part of a book or message, or have had some openings of knowledge, are asked to read the whole book to come to the full truth. The reason they do not is because the self finds logical excuses not to. Some believe that their transgressions and wrong-doings will always be forgiven, as happened to the people of Moses. Though they were chastised for a prolonged period of time for their transgressions they still returned to waywardness.

There is a traditional story about two men who entered a mosque. One of them was a scholar, while the other was a known sinner. When they came out of the mosque the sinner was on his way to the Garden but the scholar was on his way to Hell. The reason for this was that the scholar came before Allah arrogantly, with the assumption that he was complete in his piety and knowledge, while the sinner came in shame and humility to pray for redemption, which was granted. The formal worship of the scholar did nothing for him, because it was like any other routine act during the day. The moral is that we cannot always judge a book by its cover; we do not always know what the hidden truth is, what is in the heart. Allah may well be forgiving, but we have no guarantee how, when and to whom forgiveness may be given. Many people commonly ask others to pray for them, but do they pray for themselves? Have they first taken responsibility for their own actions?

  1. This is because they say: The Fire shall not touch us but for a certain number of days; and what they have fabricated deceives them in their life-transaction.

Destruction does not come out of the blue. What happens when we forget the natural and correct way is that we fall into deception (ghurūr) and false relationships. Shaytān is always there, ready to fill the gap of ignorance and forgetfulness. Laxity, like a vacuum, tends to attract what will fill it, even though the result may be undesirable. It is for this reason a seeker is to avoid idleness at all costs: whatever one does, be it resting, reading, eating, reciting, praying or sleeping, one must do it with conscious awareness. Allah says elsewhere in the Qur`an, 'And when We wish to destroy a town, We send Our commandment to the people who lead luxurious [and frivolous] lives, and transgress therein; thus the word proves true against it; so We destroy it with utter destruction' (17:16).

  1. Then how will it be when We shall gather them together on a day about which there is no doubt, and every soul shall be fully repaid for what it has earned. They shall not be dealt with unjustly.

At the end of time each action will be justly requited the truth will be exposed. The Qur`an says, 'You shall not be rewarded except for what you did' (36:54). There is no separation; we are our actions personified. For example, our physical health is the result of our healthy or unhealthy attitudes and actions. We prescribe our future life through our intentions and actions in this life and the final result will be tasted in the Hereafter.

'They shall not be dealt with unjustly': there is injustice in this world, but it is the injustice of man, not Allah's injustice. Allah has created the world in perfect balance and with set boundaries. By keeping to those boundaries we find justice. If we do not keep to them, however, others will appear who will uphold them and will therefore supersede us. In this way cultures and civilizations rise and fall; and people will be shown their hypocrisy when others come who are better than they.

  1. Say: O Allah, Sovereign Master of the Kingdom! You grant the kingdom to whom You please and take the kingdom away from whom you please; You exalt whom You please and abase whom You please; in Your hand is the good. Surely, You have power over all things.

Allah is the Sovereign Master of all the created kingdoms (Mālik al-mulk). Appropriate to this verse is the speech given by Zaynab, the sister of Imam Husayn, at the court of Yazīd in Damascus after the martyrdom of her family. The women who survived the massacre were driven through the desert to his court. There she addressed him: 'Do you imagine, O Yazīd, that because you have taken this vast kingdom and have driven us like slaves, as prisoners of war, that Allah desires evil for us and honor for you? As a result of your victory your arrogance has increased. You have become pleased with yourself and your affairs appear to be smooth. You think now that you have usurped what is our due, and that you are safe. But I am patient. Do you forget what Allah says? "And do not think that to those who are in disbelief we give goodness, we only give them this goodness so that they increase in their criminality, and for them is great pain."'

Imam Husayn's martyrdom in Karbala was a great act of sacrifice, and of defiance of a usurper of 'spiritual leadership' who within his three-year reign had ransacked and destroyed Medina and Mecca.

All goodness and blessing (khayr) come from Allah, and Allah's mercy encompasses everyone. Thus, we must expect the best at all times, as our inherent nature (fitrah) expects the best for everybody else. After putting ourselves in other people's shoes, we then become responsible for everything as everything interconnects and relates. The Prophet Moses could not escape all the afflictions which descended upon his people. He was one of them and he shared their suffering.

  1. You cause the night to pass into the day and the day to pass into the night; You bring forth the living from the dead and You bring forth the dead from the living; and You give sustenance to whom You please without measure.

The night penetrates into the day and the day penetrates into the night; goodness penetrates into evil and evil into good. The secret and root of everything lies in its opposite. If we want to appreciate good health, we should both remember and avoid illness. If we want to appreciate the wisdom of tranquility we should catch ourselves at the moment of anger.

The living are brought forth from the dead, and the dead form the living. There is in reality only one source from which everything emanates, but creation appears in pairs and opposites. Man has but one conscience, but two options: right and wrong.

'You have given sustenance to whom You please without measure.' In its general sense, this means sustenance (rizq) from the gross, outer world. But as soon as one has enough food, shelter and clothing, one wants more. The highest sustenance, however, is the knowledge of Allah, and the greatest deprivation is denial, disbelief (kufr) and associating anything with Allah (shirk). A true seeker has no objective but to be in the pleasure of Allah. The more a man feeds his desires, the greater they grow. He may imagine that satisfaction will come to him through a given event or possession, but he will inevitably find that this assumption is false. Occasionally, if he finds it impossible to control himself, he should give in to the desire. When he has had enough, he must take himself firmly in hand again. Through this experience he will learn his own specific habits, and with that knowledge become better equipped to keep himself in check.

The phrase 'You give sustenance to whom You please without measure' refers to outer and inner gifts, the highest of all being the knowledge of Allah Himself. Those who do not deserve it are those who do not have complete trust. They trust themselves rather than their Creator. This knowledge is a great secret, an open one, which takes great courage to obtain. Allah cannot be touched, smelled, tasted, seen or heard in a physical sense. He will be known in every way once our attention is directed only towards Him. If a man asks how he can be sure of His existence, he is obviously not ready for it. That certainly is the ultimate gift, which requires the ultimate degree of surrender and submission. When man moves one step towards Allah, Allah moves ten steps towards him.

  1. Let not the believers take the non-believers for friends rather than believers; whoever does this shall have nothing from Allah. But you should guard yourselves against them carefully. Allah cautions you about Himself; and to Allah is the final destination.

Believers (mu`minūn) are different from those without faith, for they have attached themselves to the ever-connecting factor in both this existence and the next. The believer has no will of his own: whatever he does is an aspect of submission and transition into the highest realm of consciousness and inner state. The believer regards this life as a prelude and preparation for the next. He delegates all his needs and fears to his Creator, realizing that any strength he has is derived from his Creator he is the true slave.

The non-believer (kāfir) denies all this; he is dependent upon himself, and disconnected from Allah's unifying forces. He does not see the one hand of unity behind what appears to be duality and thus suffers from the discordant conflict of opposites. It is impossible for the believer and the non-believer, with such different outlooks and inner states, to be connected in a deeply friendly manner. If they are, then either the believer is not in a state of true faith, or the unbeliever is not really in a state of denial.

'But you should guard yourselves against them.' Allah tells us to have caution by examining and concerning ourselves with the overall circumstances. We have been given an arena in which to act, but we are warned that if we detach ourselves from those who believe, problems will arise. Allah warns us thus: 'Man is a witness upon himself though he may give excuses' (75:14-15) while Allah is the Witnesser of all that we do. If we find ourselves in a compromising situation, we must extricate ourselves from it urgently. This is particularly true of those who are not strong in spirit. In situations where the only course of action is to dissimulate one's faith, one must know one's strength, for after a short time the weak person will take on the color of the people with whom he associates.

'And to Allah is the final destination.' Every being returns to Allah together with their intentions and their actions. We must therefore question ourselves at every step, because Allah is questioning us. Each one of us is fully responsible for the extent of our truthfulness or our appeasement with the non-believers. If we spend time with people other than the believers, we should recognize that in some way we have compromised ourselves, and so must ask ourselves how long we are going to continue doing so.

No truly Islamic life can be established unless there is a community, and no community can be established unless the people who constitute it have achieved a certain level of commitment and knowledge. This knowledge cannot come about unless people rally around the best and most knowledgeable among them. Their loyalty can only be as good as the strength of their faith (īmān), which in turn is dependent upon the state of their hearts. There is no escape from these conditions. If the believers are people who live this life fearlessly and joyfully while preparing for the next, then their actions have direction under the protective umbrella of Islam.

Thus the quality of any community is shaped according to their knowledge and leadership. Every community can potentially be as good as the early community of the Prophet.

It must be remembered that all life is a journey back to the Reality from which we have come. Successful arrival leaves no leeway for straying from the path. This verse is also about subtle hypocrisy (nifāq): we must always ask ourselves why we do the things we do. We are not obliged to judge other people's actions, but we are responsible for our own. Hypocrisy is a very subtle and corrupt vice which needs to be eschewed at all costs. Constant awareness of our inner state is a permanent priority, for death may occur at any time and what we carry with us into the next life is our present inner state.

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 ]