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Surat Al-'Imrān - Intoduction

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Surat Al-'Imrān
(Selected Verses)

By: Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri


The Qur`an was revealed in an instant, issuing forth from a realm beyond time. Its unfolding within the domain of time, however, occurred over a span of twenty-three years, for it was necessary for the message to be fully absorbed, integrated and applied existentially. The message was, and continues to be, that Allah is the Reality behind all that one witnesses. He is beyond description and beyond perception by the senses. He has Attributes, but nothing can be associated with Him. He can only be alluded to. We are therefore taught to talk about Allah only in terms of His Attributes, not of His Essence.

The Qur`an came as a complete revelation, as one unit in space, as one instant in time, like a bolt of lightning that hits the sleeper and stuns him into wakefulness. It descended as a stream of truth upon the heart of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, his family and his righteous Companions;** for the Muhammadan application of the truth of the Qur`an is the vital complement. To try to understand the Qur`an without the Prophet would have been comparable to an attempt to use a medical manual with no previous medical experience: the manual is of little use to one who has no training. To know the meaning of reality one must follow a particular path of application. Thus, Islam is based on both the Qur`an and the Prophetic way (Sūnnah).

All the basic principles of knowledge are contained in this book. It is an existential guide for perpetual life. The message of the Qur`an is based on balance, on living a life which inevitably leads to a better future, materially and morally, both on an individual and a social level.

The purpose of the Qur`an is for its message to be absorbed by the hearts of men. If there is no impact, then the remedy is only palliative. Superficial use of the Qur`an may be likened to a person who, hearing that vitamins are useful for the body's health, takes some indiscriminately. The vitamins are likely to be of some benefit, but they would have been far more useful had he known his specific condition and the properties of the vitamins, how they interact and enhance each other as well as how they might occasionally counteract one another. With this knowledge he would have been able to benefit maximally by taking the correct type and dosage. We hope to approach and use the Qur`an in this way.

The ability to derive meaning and knowledge from the Qur`an depends upon having the correct approach, and a humble, pure intention to attain knowledge. The assumption that one already knows something can be a hindrance. Therefore, one must be bereft, recognizing one's poverty, ignorance, weakness and need for knowledge and transformation. To approach the Qur`an, the seeker must possess the right courtesy (adab) which will serve as a key to awaken the knowledge of the Qur`an already contained within the heart.

Drawing from the Qur`an, penetrating into it, integrating it into one's life and thus learning from it, require both outer and inner courtesy (adab). If we approach the Qur`an with courtesy and love, it will unfold to us its values.

To gain the blessings and mercy of Reality through this ultimate, complete and balanced book of wisdom, one must appreciate its historical context and the overall environmental and ecological situation at the time of its descent. This includes understanding the civilization and culture of the time and place of its revelation, and more specifically, the nature of the people and their nomadic values. The Arab nomads of the Prophet's time, like nomads in general, were highly sensitized to their environment, for they had little protection from it. Because of the extreme harshness of their environment, the Bedouin Arabs lived continually on the verge of moral danger; they had therefore developed extremely alert, agile and intuitive minds which were highly attuned to everything around them. Furthermore, the nomadic system of the Bedouin people was in constant conflict with the civic system of the city dwellers. Whenever the nomadic and sedentary cultures met, conflict as well as renewal occurred.

The qualities most highly valued in nomadic cultures were nobility, courage and generosity. The people of the desert were self-reliant and fiercely independent. They would not bow to another human being. The leader emerged naturally, and was recognized because of his qualities and character. In this system it was likely that the next leader would come from the present leader's clan or be related to him. In nomadic culture, the home, or tent, of the tribal chief was always open, and yet it was customary for people not to go begging, so as not to demean themselves. Thus, generosity was naturally balanced with integrity, self-esteem and patience.

The Qur`an arose amidst the Arab culture and a simpler way of life than ours, but its universal message enlivened the hearts of diverse people, even during the Prophet's lifetime. It is helpful if we are aware of the environment in Mecca and Medina at the time of the Qur`anic revelation in order then to apply it to the social and cultural situation of our time, for the Qur`an is a guide book in an actual prescriptive sense.

The Muhammadan path, as it evolved over the course of time, is inextricably linked, step by step, to the revelation of the Qur`an. It began with the acknowledgement of the Oneness of God and it ended with the establishment of a very strong community in which individuals, having completely recognized the laws governing human relationships, interacted in a manner that allowed each one to develop spiritually to his or her full capacity. The righteous Companions followed their Prophet Muhammad and thereby became established in their knowledge of God.

The Prophet saw in everyone the highest possible potential to be awakened to the higher inner knowledges. He recognized in all situations, even those which appeared to other men as afflictive, nothing other than Allah's mercy and compassion. He had the ability to see the ignorance that veils the hearts of men and causes them to act incorrectly, and he acted with understanding towards them. He worked to purify men's hearts, to help them evolve towards awakening to the inner life.

The few Muslims who were with the Prophet in the beginning were constantly subjected to oppression and opposition. The Prophet, wanting to save his small group of original followers, recommended that many travel to a place of safety, since living in Mecca had become impossible; for as their numbers grew so did opposition to them. The atmosphere had become increasingly polarized and hostile. The Muhammadan light, translated into a code of conduct, had become a major threat to the tribal habits of a people who took fierce pride in their ancestral ways. Their factional loyalties often led them to resort to brute force, with total disregard for logic, reason and human values. This polarization in Mecca would lead inevitably to violence.

In contrast to the clans in Mecca, some of the people of Medina saw light and usefulness in the message of Islam. Whereas the people of Mecca regarded the Prophet as no more than the son of one of their own kind, and could not accept his prophethood, the people of Medina, an agrarian people who were settled and more receptive, welcomed the Prophet and his followers, who upon arrival immediately began to build a mosque and homes: they embarked upon creating a community. But with a community also came problems: 'Surely We have created man in affliction' (90:4).

The Family of 'Imrān (Surat al 'Imrān) was revealed mostly around the second or third year after the migration to Medina, although certain passages came somewhat later. Its dating has been deduced from the references to events which occurred at that time, namely the Battle of Uhud. A major part of the chapter deals with the topic of hypocrisy. If one looks into one's own heart, one will occasionally witness how deep and subtle hypocrisy can be. An important lesson in The Family of 'Imrān is how to break free from the evil of hypocrisy.

The Battle of Uhud, the second major battle between the young Muslim community and the Quraysh of Mecca, revealed a wide range of human weaknesses amongst the followers of the Messenger Muhammad. Curiously, the word Uhud is linguistically connected to Ahad, which is a Divine Attribute meaning 'the One'. Uhud thus could imply a comprehensive exposition of divine unity which takes place on the battlefield. In truth every moment is Uhud, but we generally escape to relative short-term safety, unaware that eventually we must face the enemy. 'With your Lord alone on that day shall be the place of rest' (75:12). There is no escape. 'Whither to fly?' (75:10); and, 'O man, surely you must strive hard toward your Lord until you meet Him' (84:6). By what power and grace can one possibly escape?

It is up to us to perceive the plot of the One (Ahad) which was exemplified during the era of the Prophet at the Battle of Uhud. We need to delve into its meaning and grasp its truth, for much of what appears to be real is nothing but illusion, and the more we pursue illusions the more we are confused. The truth is that everything emanates from one source and returns to it. Life in this world pushes, pulls, encourages and entices us towards that source. This is the meaning of Allah's mercy and the perfection of His natural laws. Multiple manifestations all emanate from One Essence.

To behave with propriety towards the Creator, we must behave with propriety towards ourselves. But in order to check and balance oneself until that fine point of deep propriety is reached, we need to attain a state of spontaneous awareness. For this it is necessary to follow the example of others who have reached the goal, like tuning a musical instrument to the correct pitch using a tuning fork.

To discover subtle hypocrisy one need only look into one's own heart. There, within the self, one will find all the contradictions of conflict and duality. Yet out of this torment one can reach enlightenment: a person who has not experienced internal conflict is unlikely to be awakened to the knowledge of, and adherence to, the source of harmony within.

The commentary on The Family of 'Imrān contained within this volume differs from the traditional approach of Qur`anic commentators, for we intend to share its eternal values and its constant applicability within the deep realm of truth. Towards this end, much of the historical background which is widely available has not been included. However, where historical information is necessary to help illuminate the verse, it has been referred to.

We will examine the linguistic roots of numerous key terms so as to highlight their different facets as well as their specific meanings in the context in which they are used. We will allow ourselves to roam through the incredibly rich, delightful garden of communication and transformation, it is to be hoped within properly observed boundaries.

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** It is customary, whenever the name of the Prophet Muhammad is mentioned, to invoke the peace and blessings of Allah upon him, his family and his righteous Companions.

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 ]