It is well known that one of the most popular reasons for disbelief in our Messenger ص and the numerous before him was an adherence to ones ancestral legacy. By accepting a messenger’s claim, one would have to acknowledge that the heritage that had been a source of pride and identity is now reduced to a history of misguidance, ignorance and a legacy of false beliefs and practices. It is not an easy thing to accept, much less to declare for anyone. Incidentally, we have it much easier now than the contemporaries of any prophet as they had to take one man’s word over their entire tribe, community, leadership and over and above all, their own family legacy. The Qur’an captures the thought process of those who follow their family’s religious, social & ethical legacy in two very similar ayaat.
A shallow reading of the ayaat yields the conclusion that they are saying pretty much the same thing. When comparing the two ayaat, you will not have any trouble picking out the similarities but you will also notice some subtle differences. These differences carry within them lessons of great significance. So the point of this article is that, even though the two ayaat are saying very similar things, they are not saying the same thing. The oversimplified translation offered throughout this article is my own.
Most words in Arabic have a whole story behind them which may be important to discuss at certain occasions throughout this write but in the end I’ll have to pick a single English word in the interest of conciseness. Let us look at the two ayaat in question:
When it is said to them, “follow what Allah has sent down”, they say “Rather we will follow what we found our forefathers practicing. Wasn’t it the case that their ancestors didn’t understand a thing and were void of guidance
When it is said to them, “come to what Allah has sent down and to the Messenger”, they say “What we found our forefathers committed to is quite enough for us! Wasn’t it the case that their ancestors didn’t know a thing and were void of guidance.
Here is the list of the three comparisons we’re going to observe:
1. Follow what Allah sent down
vs. Come to what Allah sent down and to the Messenger
2. We will follow what we found our forefathers practicing
vs. What we found our forefathers committed to is quite enough for us!
3. Their ancestors didn’t understanding a thing
Vs. Their ancestors didn’t know a thing
A Closer Look at 2:170
a. The word اتَّبَعَ ittaba’a in 2:170
It literally means to walk behind someone precisely. The word projects an image of a follower whose path has been ordained by the one who’s leading the journey. The follower sticks to the tracks and does so because there is complete trust that the leader knows the way.
b. وإذا قيل لهم اتبعوا ما أنزل الله When it is said to them “follow what Allah has sent down”.
The use of the passive opens up the scope of this statement. Allah didn’t mention the one making the statement. Therefore this statement can correctly be applied to the prophet ص , previous prophets in dialogue with their nations and any callers to Islam other than the prophets. The ayah is therefore laying down a universal observation about this particular scenario. The people in question are being told to ‘follow’ in a way that is precise and in which there is no room for veering away. The use of ittiba’ therefore implies that the revelation (that which they are to follow) is a precisely ordained path.
You will notice that in the ayah that we are comparing this to, there is mention of coming to what Allah sent down and to the messenger but this ayah makes no mention of the latter. We will deal with the mention of the messenger in 5:104 a bit later but in 2:170, it is important to note that by using the word ittaba’a, the phrase implies following the messenger anyway. How is the Arab to follow what Allah sent down unless he goes to the one receiving His instructions?
The bottom line is that the ayah is calling for practical change & compliance; a change that demands that the person ‘follow’ a path other than the one they’re on.
c. نَتَّبِعُ ما أَلْفَيْنا عَليْهِ آباآءَنا rather we follow what we found our forefathers practicing.
Let us first explore the verbal idiom ألْفى فُلاناً على شَيْءٍ Alfaa Fulaanan ‘Alaa Shai’in which implies “to find someone practicing something”. L-F-W in its base form means the removal of a veil or cover that was lying in front of something, thereby exposing the thing in question. ألفى literally speaks of something to come forward or manifest itself clearly (shedding its veils). The usage in the ayah also signifies the continuity with which their practices were passed on (without any obstruction or discontinuation from one generation to the next). Incidentally, other words used in the Qur’an for ‘finding’ are based on W-J-D, TH-Q-F, D-R-K.
In 2:170, the call to comply and follow revelation has been made. It has been denied by the people with the response that they will remain committed to their ancestral practices which (a) they saw their own elders practicing and therefore is something they are used to and have been conditioned into and (b) has been a part of their tradition for generations and so leaving those practices is a question of abandoning allegiance and loyalty to their own people.
d. لا يَعْقِلُوْنَ شَيْئاً They (their fathers) didn’t understand a thing
The ayah, near its conclusion makes a criticism not of the people that are rejecting the message, but of their fathers who are being presented as an excuse (like a shield to hide behind). The criticism states that they didn’t understand using the verb عَقَلَ . Before we discuss the word and its connotations, a few interesting observations are warranted. (a) What is it that their fathers didn’t understand? The answer is multifaceted. At the very least they didn’t understand the truth about the purpose of life. Even closer to home, they didn’t understand the rationale behind their own religious beliefs and lifestyles. They had no justification for their practices. This is important because it cuts at the root of the disbeliever’s argument. Instead of telling the disbeliever that following your forefathers isn’t a good enough reason (which could have been subject to debate), the Qur’an uproots their argument by stating that their fathers had no justifiable reasons for doing what they did to begin with, and so how can they!
Put this statement in perspective. First the call is made to follow what Allah has sent down. Then they respond by saying that they will follow what they found their forefathers practicing. Then Allah responds to their response saying that their forefathers didn’t understand a thing. The central theme is following. The follower places his trust in the leader. With this criticism Allah has exposed the leader’s lack of qualifications for leadership.
There is a direct connection drawn in 2:170 between following (اتباع) & understanding (عقل). Simply put, you have to understand why you follow a person or an idea.
Finally for this ayah, let us look at the word عَقَلَ which comes from the Arabic word عِقال . The عِقال was used by ancient Arabs to tie their camels. It is the rope they used to wrap around their heads, then take it off and confine their camels to posts. The expression in Arabic, عَقَلَتِ المرئَةُ شعرَها ‘the woman tied her hair’ makes the connotation very clear. The word is used for understanding to illustrate that understanding only takes place after restraint. One has to restrain their emotions and biases before understanding something. Understanding or clear thinking can therefore be unattainable if one is too emotional (too sad, too angry, too happy, too scared etc.). We can all testify to this as we can’t think straight, so to speak, when we are emotionally fired up, regardless of the nature of the emotion. The ability to reason, think and understand are all functions that demand emotional restraint. Because of the unwavering nature of clear reason, another word for sound intellect used by the Arabs is حِجْر which is literally a rock.
By saying لا يعقلونَ , Allah clearly exposes the motives behind the practices of their forefathers. They were not based on reason, rather on whim, desire and emotion. By contrast, what is implied is that what Allah has sent down should be followed because it is not based in empty whims or emotions. Hence وَما يَنْطِقُ عَنِ الْهَوى “And he doesn’t speak based on vain desire at all!” (53:3)
A Look at 5:104 By Comparison
a. Some things about the word تَعالَوْا “come on!”
علو ‘Ain-L-W means elevation or height. The command tense used isn’t typically conjugated in Arabic idiom in the past or regular present tense. It is used to call someone to a higher purpose or task. It denotes that the person is being called to something that is higher in its moral value and importance than whatever he is up to when called. The word used in ancient Arabic to simply call someone over is هَلُمَّ which doesn’t have such implications of priority or ‘rising to the occasion’. Hence it is used by the hypocrites when calling their cowardly associates back towards themselves in surah Al -Ahzab. (33:18). It is used in a condescending tone to call out those who have the audacity to declare what Allah has forbidden in contradiction to the revelation (6:150).
تعالَوْا has been used to call people to revelation, truth, the messenger and a variety of noble tasks in ayaat 3:61, 3:64, 3:167, 4:61, 5:104, 6:151, 5:63. The case in 6:151 is particularly interesting as it contrasts هلم in 6:150 mentioned above.
In the ayah under discussion, 5:104, the imperative occurs with the addition of the preposition إلى which creates an idiomatic connotation in addition to the literal. They are being told to ‘come to what Allah has sent and to the messenger’ giving the meanings of (a) come to them in submission and more so (b) come to them i.e. consider them: Consider what Allah has sent down and consider the messenger. This connotation is very important to understand as we will see.
When considering a claim, you have to take into account the claim and the claimant. If someone is making you a great sales pitch but their character appears ‘shady’ to you, the pitch alone won’t cut it. When you have a reliable person asking you to consider something but that which they are asking you to consider is questionable, you’ll be reluctant to accept and understandably so. The people are being asked to consider the claims in what Allah has sent down and then take into consideration the one presenting these claims on behalf of Allah, i.e., the messenger ص. Now, perhaps, we can better appreciate why the messenger was mentioned here explicitly and was referred to in 2:170 implicitly.
Also, the people are being asked to consider the revelation and the messenger by use of the word تعالوا which paints a beautiful image for us. The people are being asked to come out of their lowly ways to the higher, superior and nobler way of life; the way of the revelation and the messenger ص !
b. حَسْبُنا ما وَجَدْنا عَلَيْهِ آبآءَنا What we found our forefathers committed to is enough for us!
The response of the disbelievers differs here from that of 2:170. They were being asked to follow in 2:170 and they refused, declaring their ancestral practices as worthy of being followed instead. In 5:104 they were asked to consider something. This implies that they haven’t really given it any thought nor do they have any real knowledge of what it is they are being asked to consider. Their response confirms this as they say in full confidence that their ancient ways are enough for them. In other words, they don’t see the problem in their traditional lifestyle passed down for generations so they don’t even need to know about or consider an alternative. I am reminded of a Jahova’s witness who came to offer me a pamphlet and I told him I’d take it if he took something from me. He responded, “what I have is enough for me!”
c. لا يعلمون شيئا they (their forefathers) didn’t know a thing!
Truly incredible! Because the group being spoken to refused to consider new knowledge hiding behind the comfort zone of ancestral tradition, Allah speaks to them in terms of knowledge. You people need knowledge because what you are following, in fact, is based on ignorance from the very start (from the time of your ancestors)! The use ‘they didn’t know a thing’ instead of ‘they didn’t understand a thing’ is incredibly precise as it is most appropriately suited for the preceding speech.
d. Summarizing what we have so far: While 2:170 is telling us that it is the lack of emotional restraint and clear, unbiased thought that keeps people from practically changing their ways and following the truth, 5:104 is teaching us that people may very well refuse to follow the truth because they don’t care to know about it. They don’t care because they have full (be it blind) confidence in their tradition.
A Brief Look at What Preceded 2:170 in Al Baqarah
The central issue in 2:170 is the refusal to follow. The discussion in Al-Baqarah preceding 2:170 and going further illustrates the perfect positioning of the ayah. While you read the summarized accounts I’ve given here, keep the theme of following and forefathers in the back of your mind. 2:123 reminds us that no person will avail another in any capacity on the day of resurrection. 2:124-134 speaks of an ancestral tradition worth following; that of Ibrahimع and Ya’qub ع . It is a sharp contrast from what we studied also because while the concern for disbelievers is the past generations, the concern for believers is the future generations! If you really want to follow your forefathers, consider your father Ibrahim ع (2:135) and Isma’il ع, Is’haq ع , his descendants, consider what was given to Musa ع and Esa ع , not to mention all the prophets (2:136). Incidentally, your father Ibrahim ع did not follow his own father blindly! Believers are also followers of forefathers, but of the rightly guided ones. The people of the book should consider following suit (2:137) because if they don’t, their contention is not with the believers but rather with Allah himself (2:138-140). You can’t hide behind the accomplishments of your previous generations even they were rightly guided. You have your own answering before Allah (2:141). The change of the Qiblah was a test of truly following the messenger ص (2:142-145). The knowledge is there, but the emotional bias against the Arabs keeps them from believing, rather it drives them to deliberately hide what they recognize. (2:146; refer back to the discussion on عقل or understanding for 2:170) . Allah instructing the messenger and secondarily the believing community about the challenges they’ll have to face due to the change of the Qiblah. This, once again, is an issue of changing ones ways and following the path precisely despite the obstacles that may lie along the path (2:147-150). The messenger is to be followed and 2:151 has the complete reasons why. The fact that you get to follow Him in and of itself isn’t a burden but a gift for which you should be grateful (2:152). Allah giving instructions to the believers pertaining to the trials that lie ahead and the right attitude to have in regards to the trials past (2:153-157). Allah teaches us the historical significance of Safa and Marwah (direct reference to the legacy of our father Ibrahim AS) (2:158). The اتباع or following of the message must be unconditional with no attempts to hide or sabotage the message. (2:159, 160). Those who died as disbelievers, regardless of how noble you think they were, died a cursed death (2:161, 162). Honor and dishonor are not tied to familial pasts, but to the commitment to Tauheed. The only way to escape the cursed end of past disbelievers is Tauheed, which will make you worthy of Allah’s mercy (2:163). And why wouldn’t you come to Tauheed with so many clear signs all around you. These signs, of course, can’t benefit someone who doesn’t think or try to understand لِقوم يعقلون (2:164). Those who truly understand, the believers, can’t help but have intense love for Allah while those who don’t are wrongdoers who will come to meet their horrific fate (2:165). When the followers on the day of judgment come to know that their leaders (elders, forefathers and others) have disassociated themselves from them, they realize what a mistake it was to stick to their ways in the first place (2:166, 167 notice the use of the word اتبع for following in the ayah). In what ways do people follow their ancestors? Most commonly in violating the laws of Allah and so people must realize that what they think is following their family legacy is actually following shaitan (2:169). And now 2:170.
A Brief Look at What Preceded 5:104 in Al Maedah
Pay close attention to implied or stated references made to knowledge in various ways. It is the refusal to consider new knowledge (that of revelation) that was the central point of contention in 5:104. What should become clear even from a shallow reading of the preceding ayaat is that the passage is principally concerned with knowledge. Either injunctions are mentioned that man didn’t know, or Allah’s knowledge is referred to or the lack of knowledge is cited. The following, again, is a very shallow summary and misses a lot of key points in the mentioned ayaat:
What is said out of pure ignorance about Allah and the correct teachings in regards to the issue(5:71-77). Those with knowledge who didn’t practice were cursed by their messengers (5:78, 79). These cursed people befriend disbelievers with the intent of opposing the messenger (5:81-82). There are people who recognize the revelation when they hear it out of the people of the book and it leads them to tears and then to the right path (5:83-85). 5:86 on the contrary speaks of those who reject and knowingly lie against the ayaat of Allah. Believers! Don’t forbid what you know to be permissible and don’t transgress the limits, consuming only that which is permissible (5:87, 88). Allah teaches us the expiation for breaking a vow, something we couldn’t have known ourselves. Allah teaches us the harms of intoxicants and games of chance and informs us of Shaitans intent (5:89-91). Obey Allah and the messenger, and know that he is only obligated to communicate the injunctions clearly (5:92). The believers are relieved to learn that their violations of forbidden consumables in the past are forgiven given that they are on a increasingly subservient path to pleasing Allah (5:93). Specific teachings about the lawful versus the prohibited when it comes to foods (5:94-96) . Allah installed the Ka’bah, the forbidden month, sacrificial animals are all signs to let us know that Allah knows what is in the heavens and the earth and that Allah is absolutely knowledgeable in regards to all things. You should know that Allah is severe in retribution. (5:97,98). Allah knows what you expose and what you hide (5:99). The filthy and the good & pure are not the same even if the filthy impresses you. Be cautious of Allah, oh people of pure intellect! (5:100). Don’t ask about things the answers for which, if exposed, you would detest. This is something people did before you and knowing the answer, they resorted to disbelief (5:101,102). Certain kinds of animals were set aside as especially devoted to Allah and therefore not to be sacrificed. This was nothing more than a lie made up and attributed to Allah (a reference to the lack of knowledge) by disbelievers and most of them don’t understand (5:103).
The Last Part of Both Ayaat: وَلا يَهْتَدُوْنَ
The word يُهْدَوْنَ here would have yielded the meaning ‘and they weren’t guided’. The verb يهتدون isn’t passive. It is based on the trilateral هدى (to guide). The افتعل rendition of the verb, اهتدى means to be committed to or to be living by guidance. The ayah that tells us of the lack of their ancestors understanding and the one that tells of their ignorance both end with this phrase. Their forefathers did not live by guidance nor were they interested in its pursuit. One group wasn’t interested because they didn’t understand its importance and the other because they didn’t have the knowledge of it nor were they in pursuit of that knowledge.
Our shared conviction is that the Qur’an is an endless treasure of practical and relevant guidance for humanity. I’d like to take this opportunity to remind myself and other fellow readers of the need to understand these ayaat not only in reference to non-Muslims. In the funny times in which we find ourselves, Muslims hold ancestral traditions far above revelation on many occasions. Weddings, family gatherings, Eid parties (since that’s coming up soon), business practices, inheritance distribution, family feuds and innovative (and sometimes very creative) modes of worship are all instances of such blind following that many of us see in our own families and communities. It’s probably a fair assessment that many of you reading this are ‘stray cats’ in your family that don’t adhere to the family tradition if it conflicts with what you know to be true in Islam. Another interesting place we see ancestral allegiance manifesting itself is in the way the masjid should be constructed and what its functions should be.
The two reasons illustrated in this article for holding on to the legacy of the past are basically an emotional attachment to that legacy AND a lack of knowledge in regards to anything better. I think the mistake most of us make is that we assume that Muslims know and they just don’t care. I am truly convinced that even if ‘cultural’ Muslims know some things about Islam, they don’t really KNOW them. We have to assume innocent ignorance on their part and do our best to communicate the teachings of the Deen to them in a manner that doesn’t reflect our frustration with their practices.
I leave you with a crazy experiment I read about in Social Psychology. A group of fifty accounting students is asked to solve a math problem, 38 times 26 in two minutes. 49 of the 60 students have been told to write the exact same wrong answer: 978 (the real answer being 988). After two minutes the pens are to be put down and only the answer is to be written on the other side of the paper, not the entire solution. The instructor starts asking each of the 49 what they got and they say 978. He gets to the test subject and what does he or she say 97% of the time? 978!
When asked why, there were two kinds of answers noted:
1. I was pretty sure I was right. I just didn’t want everybody looking at me funny.
2. If everyone got 978, I must have made a mistake.
In case 1, emotional bias (in this case fear of consequence) kept the person from acknowledging the truth. We learned about emotional bias in 2:170. In case 2, the person trusted the knowledge of the majority over his own much like what we learned in 5:104!