Lecture by Yasir Qadhi | Transcribed by Sameera[The following is the video playlist and transcript of part 1 of Shaykh Yasir Qadhi's lecture series "The Best of Stories: Pearls from Surah Yusuf." The transcript includes slight modifications for the sake of readability and clarity.]
I welcome you all to the first of a series of halaqat that we will have about the tafsir or the explanation of one of the most interesting, powerful, and moving surahs in the entire Qur'an, which is Surah Yusuf. This surah is a very, very unique surah in the Qur'an, and a one-of-a-type of surah.
Firstly, it is the only place in the Qur'an where the story of the Prophet Yusuf ('alayhi salaam) is mentioned. No other surah mentions the story of the Prophet Yusuf ('alayhi salaam). If you compare this to, let's say, the story of the Prophet Musa ('alayhi salaam), the story of Prophet Musa is mentioned in over 25 different locations. The story of our father Adam ('alayhi salaam) is mentioned in over half a dozen locations. The story of 'Isa ('alayhi salaam) is mentioned almost a dozen times. The story of the Prophet Yusuf ('alayhi salaam) only exists in this surah. In fact, even the name of the Prophet Yusuf occurs only once or twice in passing in Surah Al-An'ām and Surah Ghaafir, but there is no story at all. The stories about what happened with the Yusuf ('alayhi salaam) only occur in this particular surah.
Secondly, it is the only surah in the Qur'an that has a unified story as its theme from the beginning to the end. The whole surah is nothing but a story. There is no other surah of length in the Qur'an – we are not talking about the small surahs at the end of Juz 'Amma, but we are talking about any surah basically more than 10-15 āyahs – there is no surah in the whole Qur'an that is a unified story from the beginning to the end. This is something that we all know. Read Surah Al-Baqarah, Surah Ale-'Imran, and Surah Yunus you will find the stories of lots of people in one paragraph or one page or sometimes even five pages, but there is no place in the whole Qur'an where an entire 15 pages is dedicated to one story. It is a chronological story from the beginning to the end. This is not just very rare but unique. There is no other place like it in the whole Qur'an.
Revelation of Surah Yusuf
We do not know the exact date of when this surah was revealed, but we know roughly that it was revealed around the tenth or eleventh year not of the hijrah but of the years of the daw'ah.
In other words, with the hijrah of course we begin the Madinan phase. Before the hijrah, what do we call it? Some scholars used the term 'BH' (before hijrah) just like the Christians have 'AD' and 'BC', Muslims have 'AH' and 'BH'. So if you look at 'BH', 1 BH means one year before the hijrah and 2 BH means two years before the hijrah. Surah Yusuf is revealed around 2 or 3 BH, in other words right at the end of the Makkan era and the Makkan message.
The timing of revelation is very crucial. Surah Yusuf was revealed after the famous year called the Year of Sorrow / the Year or Regret / the Year of Difficulty ('aam al-huzn). In that year, three things happened one after the other which were the most painful for the Prophet Muḥammad (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam), and there was no time in the sīrah where the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) was more demoralized than this period, which is why the scholars of sīrah call this period 'aam al-huzn, the Year of Grief. The Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) was feeling grief throughout that year.
What happened? What makes it worse is that these three things happened one after the other. The first of these three devastating things was the most personal and intimate, and that was the death of Khadijah (alayhi salaam). Khadijah (alayhi salaam) was his supporter and his moral source of strength. As they say, behind every great man there is a great woman, and this is exactly applying to the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) and Khadijah. She was his source of comfort and support. Whenever anything happened and even when the wahy came down and he was scared, he went running back to Khadijah (alayhi salaam) to be calmed down. “Zambilooni! Zambilooni! (Cover me up! Cover me up!)” Khadijah was his source of comfort and his source of support. When a man has that comfort and love inside the house, he is able to face a lot outside. When that is deprived of him, then the problems outside become more difficult to bear. The death of Khadijah ('alayhi salaam) was something that was very difficult for him.
Within five or six weeks, a second death followed and that was the death of his uncle Abu Talib. Abu Talib was his support in society. Abu Talib sacrificed his own reputation and prestige in order to protect the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam). When the Quraysh came to bribe, threaten, and intimidate the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam), initially Abu Talib was scared and went to him (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) and told him to stop doing this. The Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “If they were to give me control of the sun and the moon, I would not give up what I am doing.” Abu Talib said, “Oh son of my brother, oh my nephew, do as you please, I am never going to come to you again to tell you not to do this.” He was a man of his word for ten years, and not once did he approach the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) after that. He never came and said 'why did you do this?' / 'look what I have to face now.' Not once. He was a man of his word.
Abu Talib did everything he could, so much so that when the Quraysh boycotted the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) and told him he must leave Mecca, Abu Talib went with the Muslims to live in the valleys outside of Mecca. Abu Talib was not a subject of that boycott because he was a pagan and a Qurayshi and a mushrik, but because he was a part of his nephew and loved him so much, he voluntarily went to live with the Muslims at the time of the boycott.
He was the only non-Muslim to live with the Muslims at the time of boycott. He voluntarily gave up his privileges and his house in Mecca and gave up everything and suffered along with the Muslims because he felt that this was injustice and that he had to do this as the uncle and protector of the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam). He did everything he could. As long as Abu Talib was alive, they could not do anything else to harm the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam). With his death, the persecution reached its max, which is why eventually the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) had to leave for Madīnah because he could not live in Mecca anymore.
Khadijah was his internal support in the house. Abu Talib was his external support in society. The both of them died one after the other, and it was a very difficult time for the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam). To make matters worse, he suffered the single most depressing or difficult day of his whole life after the deaths of Khadijah and Abu Talib. As if there could be no low, there was one low after that, which was the incident of Ta'if.
Aisha (radhi Allahu 'anha) said, “Oh Messenger of Allāh, was there any day that was more difficult for you to bear than the Day of Uhud?” He (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “Yes.” Aisha was too young to know anything about Mecca and did not remember Mecca. She knows Badr, Uhud, and Tabuk and the problems of Madīnah and that the worst problem of Madīnah was Uhud, so she asked, “Was there any day more difficult for you than Uhud?” Immediately without thinking, the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “The most difficult day for me was the day when I was rejected by the chieftains of Ta'if.” You all know the story, and we will talk about it in a lot of detail inshā'Allāh in the lectures we will start on the sīrah. The Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) was humiliated and publicly scorned and the children of Ta'if stoned him. This day was the most difficult for him.
These three incidents occurred within six weeks of one other – within two months, as if things could not get any worse. At this point in time, Allāh (subhanahu wata'ala) revealed Surah Yusuf. When we understand this frame of revelation, all of a sudden the significance of Surah Yusuf increases many times. Why? Surah Yusuf is meant to uplift his spirits (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) and console him and strengthen him at a time of such trials and tribulations. Surah Yusuf is the light that will lead him out of this depressing time and time of pain and anguish. This is hope for us when we are feeling down and suffering from problems of society. This is the surah that we can turn to for an uplifting moment and to find some solace and comfort, which is why Allāh revealed it to our Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam).
Scholars also mention a number of incidents that also led to the revelation of this surah. Of these incidents is: as the persecution of the Muslims increased and the sahabah in Mecca were feeling more and more overwhelmed by all of the pressures, they came to the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) and said, “Oh Messenger of Allāh, why don't you tell us the stories of those before who also suffered?” When they wanted these stories, Allāh (subhanahu wata'ala) revealed this surah. It was perfect timing – when the persecution reaches its maximum, and that is why the hijrah occurs two years after this surah because they could not live in Mecca anymore. An assassination squad was sent for the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) the night before the hijrah and surrounded his house. Allāh miraculously saved him (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam). One of the direct causes of the revelation was that the sahabah wanted something to uplift their spirits as well.
Another direct cause of revelation: it is said that the Quraysh wanted to try to outwit the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) and show that he was not truly a prophet. They sent a delegation to the Yahud of Yathrib (the name of Madīnah before it was Madīnah), and they asked the Yahud, “Tell us a question that only a prophet would be able to answer. Give us a trick question that we can show once and for all that this man is not a prophet. Tell us a question that you know the answer to but nobody else knows.” Even though the Yahud were a different religion than the Quraysh, the Quraysh felt that the Yahud were superior because of their Book. The Quraysh did not have a holy book or scripture or revelation. The Yahud had a revelation, and the Quraysh felt a sense of inferiority that the Yahud were the people of the book and had knowledge that they did not and believed in prophets while they did not know any prophets from amongst them.
The Yahud said, “Ask him about the story of Yusuf and his brothers. Nobody knows this.” This is an interesting point that we will come to again. In Mecca, there were no Christians and Jews. In Mecca, there were only idol worshippers and pagans. There were no centers of Christianity and Judaism. There were one or two private / secret converts to Christianity like Waraqah ibn Nawfal and others, but they were not inviting others to it and not preaching Christianity. There were no libraries of Christian or Jewish theology. Nobody in Mecca knew these stories. The people in Mecca had not heard of Yusuf because he was not their ancestor. They were descendants from Isma'il and not of Ishaaq, and the tribes of Isra'il had nothing to do with the Makkans and people of Quraysh. They don't know these stories. The Yahud knew this and said, “Ask him if he truly is a prophet to tell you what happened with Yusuf and his brothers because nobody knows this of your people. This is something we know.” The Yahud lived far away in Yathrib, so how would anybody in Mecca know this?
The Quraysh went to the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) and asked him, “Tell us the story of Yusuf and his brothers if you are truly a prophet.” Allāh (subhanahu wata'ala) answered that question and revealed Surah Yusuf. In one of the last verses of the surah, Allāh (subhanahu wata'ala) says, “This is of the 'ilm al-ghayb that We sent down to you.” In Surah Yusuf, Allāh (subhanahu wata'ala) is telling the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) that He is giving them 'ilm al-ghayb and that he (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) and his people did not know the story until this surah came down to him.
Huroof Al-Muqatta'at (Broken Letters)
This surah begins with the letters alif-laam-ra. We all know that there are a number of surahs in the Qur'an that begin with letters. Alif-laam-meem, ha-meem, 'ayn-seen-qaaf, noon, qaaf, kaf-ha-ya-'ayn-saad, ta-ha, ya-seen. These letters are called huroof al-muqatta'at (broken letters) by the scholars of tafsir. They are called the broken letters because they do not form words. Ha-meem is not a word. Alif-laam-meem is not a word. Scholars of tafsir call them huroof al-muqatta'at – broken letters put together.
Scholars have wondered about the meaning of the huroof al-muqatta'at since the very beginning of time. Since the time of the tabi'un and taba tabi'un, they began wondering what these letters mean. There are over fifteen opinions about what these letters represent. Some of these opinions include that these letters represent the Names of Allāh (subhanahu wata'ala), so alif is for Allāh, laam is for Al-Lateef, meem is for Al-Muhaymin. They have different opinions, but this does not seem to have a strong basis.
One opinion is that we will never know what these huroof al-muqatta'at mean. This is a valid opinion in so far as that we will never know for sure and only Allāh knows for sure, but we can try to think and come forth with some type of opinion because why did Allāh reveal these letters? There must be a wisdom. We can try to think of wisdoms of why Allāh (subhanahu wata'ala) revealed these letters at the beginning of these surahs.
One thing that we notice which is very interesting is that almost all the time in the Qur'an when Allāh begins a surah with these letters, the very next phrase has something to do with the Qur'an. Think about all of the surahs you know. Ya-sin. Wa'l-Qur'an al-hakeem. Kaf-ha-ya-'ayn-saad. Dhikru rahmati rabbika… “This is what I am telling you in the Book.” Alif-laam-meem. Dhaalika kitabu la rayba feehi… Alif-laam-ra. Tilka aayaatu'l-kitabi'l-mubeen. Ha-meem. Wa'l-kitabil-mubeen.
There are some exceptions where it is not the second verse but it is the third or fourth verse. Every single time Allāh mentions huroof al-muqatta'at within the first few verses, something to do with the Qur'an is mentioned. Therefore, it would make sense that these huroof al-muqatta'at have something to do with this magnificent Qur'an. Every time, the Qur'an is praised after the huroof al-muqatta'at. It is logical to make some connection.
What is this connection? Scholars have tried to think about this and have compiled all of these huroof al-muqatta'at. The huroof al-muqatta'at number exactly 14 letters. How many letters are in the Arabic alphabet? 28. There are 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet, and 14 is exactly half of 28, so some scholars have read in some type of symbolic meaning that Allāh (subhanahu wata'ala) is showing us that the Qur'an is composed of our letters and the language that we speak, and yet, mankind cannot produce something similar to it. It is as if Allāh is taunting the rejecters of the Qur'an by showing them that these are their words and letters, so produce a surah / ten surahs / a Qur'an similar to it if they are able to it.
There are five verses of challenge (ayaat at-tahaddi) in the Qur'an. In one of these verses, Allāh says, “…bring the whole Qur'an.” In another verse, Allāh says, “…bring ten surahs.” In another verse, Allāh says, “…bring something.” In two verses, Allāh says, “…bring one surah if you can.” In these verses of challenge, it is as if there is a linkage with the huroof al-muqatta'at and these verses of challenge. It is as if Allāh is saying 'here is half of the alphabet, bring the other half and bring something similar to the Qur'an.'
One of the wisdoms that scholars have tried to derive from the huroof al-muqatta'at is to show the miraculous nature of the Qur'an. The Qur'an is composed of words that we speak, language that we know, and letters that we write, yet mankind is not able to produce something similar to this. Allāh knows best. We will never know for sure the meaning of the huroof al-muqatta'at, but it does appear that there is some relationship with the beauty and the majesty and the miraculous nature of the Qur'an.
“…these are the verses of the clear / lucid Book.”
Tilka is an Arabic word which means 'this/these.' There is a difference between tilka and haadhihi, which both mean 'this/these.' Haadhihi is used for something close. Tilka is used for something far away.
Allāh (subhanahu wata'ala) is talking about the Qur'an with the far away word. He (subhanahu wata'ala) does this not only here but also in Surah Al-Baqarah: “Alif-laam-meem. Dhaalika kitab la rayba feeh.” Kitab is masculine, so the word dhaalik is used. Aayaat is feminine, so the word tilka is used. Feminine and masculine aside, there is a difference between haadha / haadhihi versus tilka / dhaalika. We would say “haadha kitab” for a book here, but to point to something far away, you say tilka (over there, far away).
Allāh 'azza wa jall talks about the Qur'an in the pronoun that refers to something far away. Why does Allāh mention the far away pronoun when the Qur'an is in our hands? To show the status of the Qur'an is exalted and to show that the Qur'an is worthy of being something majestic. Even if you have it, we should thank Allāh that we have it, but its status is a high and noble status. Allāh says, “Tilka aayaatu'l-kitabi'l-mubeen.”
An āyah is a verse. This shows us that Allāh has Himself divided the Qur'an into ayat. Where does this division come from? From Allāh (subhanahu wata'ala). What about into surahs? Allāh (subhanahu wata'ala says, “…when a surah comes down…” Allāh mentions the word surah and the word āyah. Many other scriptures including the New Testament have man-made divisions. For us, the Qur'an is from Allāh, and even the divisions within the Qur'an (meaning surah and āyah) are from Allāh. An āyah also means a sign / indication / miracle. A verse is a sign, and a verse is a miracle. Allāh uses the term that is loaded with meaning. What does āyah mean? Allāh calls the miracles of creation āyah. Allāh says that in your creation there is an āyah, and in the sun and the moon there is an āyah. Allāh calls the verses of the Qur'an an āyah. It is not a coincidence, and Allāh knows what He is saying, and no one is more eloquent than Allāh. The meaning here is that every verse of the Qur'an has a message for you and an indication and a miracle.
Mubeen is a description of the book. Allāh calls the Qur'an many different names, but there are two names that are the most common: kitab and Qur'an. Kitab and Qur'an both occur around 75 times to describe our Book. Kitab and Qur'an are complementary to each other and put together tell us what this book is. Kitab means something that is written down, and Qur'an means something that is recited. The Qur'an is something that is written down and recited simultaneously. No other book from Allāh has been preserved to this level. The Qur'an has been written down by the commandment of Allāh, and it has also been recited by Allāh, Jibreel, and the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) and is recited to this day, which is of the miracles of the Qur'an that no other book has. All of the other books were written down by men and scribes and people after the times of the prophets. As for us, the Kitab and the Qur'an are complementary.
Al-mubeen can have two meanings. The first meaning is the Book itself is a clear Book. Allāh says in the beginning of Surah Al-Baqarah: “dhaalika kitab la rayba feeh.” There is no doubt / no ambiguity in it. The Book is clear. What does it mean that the Book is clear? It means that anybody who approaches the Qur'an will be able to get some message from it and find some level of benefit from it. What this means is that the Qur'an is a Book that is meant to be contemplated by every single Muslim. It is not something that only the elite have access to and is not something that only the scholars should read. Even the basic, average Muslim can benefit from the Qur'an. There is no doubt that the average Muslim can only benefit a certain level, and the more they grow in knowledge, the more they can benefit. This is a common misconception that alḥamdulillāh is getting more and more minimal these days, but once upon a time, it was very common to hear: “Oh, anybody can interpret the Qur'an. I can open up the Qur'an and interpret it.” No – interpretation requires knowledge, but simple hidayah can be obtained immediately and even from a translation. Anyone can read the Qur'an for personal benefit and personal guidance. There are levels of meaning. Qul huwAllahu ahad. Alhamdulillahi rabb'l-'alameen. You understand these, but if you want to go deep and dissect why Allāh said hamd and not shukr, then you need 'ilm. The average Muslim can benefit from the Qur'an, so the Qur'an is mubeen.
Another meaning of Allāh calling the kitab mubeen is that this Book is a clear message from Allāh, and you do not have any doubt where it is from. Mubeen doesn't refer to the language but to the origin and the source of the Book. The Book has a clear-cut source, and everybody knows where this Book is from. There is no ambiguity in this Book. This may surprise you, but to this day, nobody knows who wrote the New Testament, and no one knows the biographies of these people. They were not the actual disciples of Christ but were anonymous people living in the second or third generation after Jesus Christ. To this day, nobody knows who wrote the Old Testament; it is completely shrouded in mystery. The Orthodox Jews believe that Musa wrote it, but no other group believes this because the Old Testament mentions the death of Musa and who buried Musa. People don't know who wrote it.
Allāh is saying that this is a mubeen Book – you know the origin, you know the source, and everything is clear about it. There is no question mark. I cannot stress for you – O Muslims – that we take this for granted as if it is something that is no big deal. There is no other religious scripture on the face of this earth that is as unambiguous and as clear and demarcated from Al-Fatihah to Al-Nas in the origin of language as the Qur'an.
There is such a massive confusion about the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and Jewish scriptures. In many religions, you do not even know what the scripture is. In almost all religions, the language is not the language spoken by the prophets. The original New Testament was written in Greek, and 'Isa (alayhi salaam) spoke Aramaic and not Greek. I am trying to stress to you that we take these things for granted. Our Qur'an has no versions. To this day, the Orthodox Christians, Protestants, and Catholics have different Bibles. They are completely different books and different additions and subtractions and different versions. You can belong to any sect of Islam and differ in theology, but the Qur'an is exactly the same from Al-Fatihah to An-Nas, word for word, letter for letter, harakah for harakah – you can purchase a Qur'an in India, here, or Timbuktu or the hand-written manuscripts. alḥamdulillāh this is such a blessing from Allāh that we take for granted that our holy Book is clear. All of this proves that as Allāh says in a previous surah in the Qur'an: “We have revealed this scripture and will protect it.”
Another way to understand this is that Allāh is saying this surah in particular is something that is clear. You need nothing else besides this surah. This indicates the importance of this surah. To emphasize this point, Allāh says in the second verse:
“We have sent this Qur'an down as an Arabic Qur'an so that you may understand.”
A question that many Muslims ask is: 'why does Allāh refer to Himself in the plural?' In fact, many non-Muslims ask this question. There are two primary interpretations of this. The first of them is that the 'We' is a royal plural, the plural of majesty, and the plural of 'izzah. It is allowed in the Arabic language that a singular person (one man) will say 'we' when he is worthy of it, meaning king or royalty. Even in the English language, the Queen of England always says 'we' and never says 'I', which is the 'we' of royalty. When she says 'we', she doesn't mean her and her family, but she means 'I'. She says 'we' to indicate that majesty. In Arabic, this is called the royal plural. It is a permissible interpretation.
Ibn Taymiyyah has another interpretation and says that every time there is a plural in the Qur'an, it is a reference to Allāh (subhanahu wata'ala) along with the command of the angels. Allāh tells the angels to do something. That is why – and this is interesting – Ibn Taymiyyah says that never in the Qur'an does Allāh say 'worship us,' but He always says 'worship Me.' Allāh says, “We revealed the Book” because the Book comes down via Jibreel. Allāh says, “We send the rain” because every single drop of rain has an angel taking it right to where Allāh said it is going to go. Allāh says, “We are the ones who blow the winds” because the angels are the ones who take the winds. Allāh said, “We are the ones who take the souls” because the angel of death comes and takes the souls. This is an interesting interpretation, which also seems to make sense. When Allāh says “We”, He means, “I am doing this and I am telling the angels to execute this command.” The Qur'an comes down at the Command of Allāh by the hands of Jibreel. Jibreel is the one who brings it down. This is one interpretation as well, and it has a good basis to it.
Anzalah means 'to descend.' Nazalah means to go down / to descend. This shows that the Qur'an physically came down. We know that the Qur'an did not come down onto a mountain and the book was there. What does it mean? There are a number of meanings here. Firstly, that Jibreel came down with the recitation of the Qur'an. Literally, the Qur'an is coming down with Jibreel in his memory, and Jibreel is reciting it to the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam). Secondly, we learn from a hadeeth in the Mustadrak of Al-Hakim that on laylat al-qadr Allāh 'azza wa jall physically sent down a divine copy of the Qur'an (a book), a part of Al-Lawh al-Mahfud. There is a copy of the Qur'an in Al-Lawh Al-Mahfud. According to one hadeeth, which is authentic, on laylat al-qadr, Allāh says “inna anzalnahu fi laylat al-qadr,” and in one interpretation, this Al-Lawh al-Mahfud portion of the Qur'an was literally sent down to the lowest heavens on laylat al-qadr before the wahy began upon the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam). Jibreel (alayhi salaam) would take from there as well. There is a physical descent of a divine copy of the Qur'an, and so Allāh says anzalah. There is also a metaphysical descent, meaning within Jibreel that he brings it down. This is also one of the many evidences that Allāh is above us, which is why the Qur'an is coming down. If the Allāh was not above us, then the Qur'an would not need to come down and nor would the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) have to go up in isra' wa'l-miraj to speak to Him. The Qur'an is coming down. “We have sent down this Qur'an.”
Sometimes Allāh says, “We have anzalah” and sometimes He says, “We have nazzalah”. What is the difference between these? There is a minor difference, but it is also very profound and deep. Anzalah means to send down at once. Nazzalah means to send down bit by bit. The Qur'an is referenced with anzalah and with nazzalah because both occurred. The Qur'an is sometimes anzal and sometimes nazzal – how is this? Because both occurred. The Qur'an came down in its entirety on laylat al-qadr, which is anzalah. For the next 23 years, Jibreel brought it bit by bit, which is nazzalah. Allāh speaks the exact truth, and both of these things are valid.
“inna anzalnahu Qur'anan arabiyyan…”
“We have revealed this as an Arabic Qur'an.” This is a very, very interesting verse. There are exactly 11 verses in the Qur'an that characterize the Qur'an as being Arabic. Allāh says in 11 verses “We have revealed an Arabic Qur'an.” From this, there is unanimous consensus amongst all of the scholars of Islam that the Qur'an can only be in Arabic. Allāh describes the Qur'an as being an Arabic Qur'an. This means that when we read a translation, we are not reading the Qur'an. We all know this, and this is an evidence of this. What this means is that when we stand up in ṣalāh, we cannot say “All praise be to Allāh, Lord of the worlds.” If we do so, our ṣalāh is null and void. We have to say, “Alhamdulillahi rabb'l-'alameen.” If we were to recite it in a non-Arabic language, it is not Qur'an but is a translation.
This shows us as well that the Qur'an has been revealed in the language that Allāh 'azza wa jall spoke. This is a deep theological point, and I don't want to go to deep. Ahl al-sunnah wal-jama'ah believe that the Qur'an is the kalamullah. Other groups deny this and said it is not kalamullah. What does it mean that it is kalamullah? It means that literally Allāh 'azza wa jall spoke and recited the Qur'an, and Jibreel heard this recitation and brought this recitation down to the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam), and the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) recited it after he heard it from Jibreel. From Jibreel to the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) and from the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) to the sahabah up until this day we have a continuous chain, non-stop, and it is from Allāh 'azza wa jall the recitation begins. This means that when Allāh says, “We have revealed an Arabic Qur'an,” then that recitation was done in Arabic as well. When we recite the Qur'an, what we feel is something that is divine even if you are not Arab. When you recite the Qur'an, you feel that it is an amazing speech and a divine speech. When you understand Sunni theology, you understand where this came from. We believe that this recitation was recited by Allāh 'azza wa jall; therefore, when we recite it, there is something divine about the Qur'an. The Qur'an must be respected – you cannot put it on the floor and show disrespect to it – and it is sunnah to respect the Qur'an. You should put it in a high place in the room, and you should have wuḍūʼ' when you touch it. There are so many aspects of respect because the Qur'an is not just any book but is kalamullah and has a certain status that no other book has.
Allāh says, “inna anzalnahu Qur'anan arabiyyan…” (“We have revealed it in an Arabic Qur'an.”) Another question arises: does this mean that all of the words in the Qur'an are Arabic? There are clearly words in the Qur'an that come from Persian, Greek, and even Roman. There are clearly words in the Qur'an that are not Arabic such as istabrak and abaareeq. There are Roman, Persian and sometimes even Sanskrit words. There are even words from Latin. These Latin words have also worked their way into English, which is an interesting point. We are native speakers of English, and English is based on Latin, and Latin is a very ancient language. Some words from Latin made their way to the Arabs as well. What is a word that is Qur'anic and English at the same time? Story – al-saateer (this is not a pure Arabic word but is a Latin word). The English word 'story' is from the Latin that also made its way to the Arabs and we find in the Qur'an. There are other words as well. The word 'justice' in Arabic is qistaas. It is from the same root as the Latin root. This is just a side point and something for your benefit.
Allāh says that this is an Arabic Qur'an. The sahabah and tabi'oon and taba tabi'oon read the Qur'an and said that not every single word is Arabic, so what do they do? imām Shafi'i, said, “Anybody who says there is a single word of non-Arabic in the Qur'an is a jahill and does not know what he is talking about. How can there be a non-Arabic word in the Qur'an when Allāh says 'inna anzalnahu Qur'anan arabiyyan'?” His love for the Qur'an was so much that he did not listen to any argument and said that every single word had to be Arabic. What do we do with these words from other languages? He said that they took the words from the Arabs. With all respect, it doesn't work that way. Later scholars said that there are lots of non-Arabic words in the Qur'an and it is not a problem. imām Al-Suyuti wrote a book, and over 250 words in this book are claimed to be non-Arabic. He said sundus is a Farsi word. There are words from Aramaic and the Ethiopian language such as istabrak.
How do we reconcile this? A great scholar Abu Ubayd Al Qasim ibn As-Salam (d. ~230 AH) said, “Both groups are right. Every language interacts with other languages, and it incorporates words from the other language into its own and substitutes the letters of those languages with the letters of its own and changes the word to suit its own grammar. The word becomes a fluent Arabic word so much so that when an Arab uses the word, no one thinks of its Greek or Latin or Aramaic origin. It is an Arabic word even if it came centuries ago from another language.” For example: Story becomes as-saateer and justice becomes qistaas. This is the way languages work; you bring in words from other cultures and then they become part of your language. They are Arabic words even if they were taken from non-Arabic languages. Allāh has spoken the truth when He said 'inna anzalnahu Qur'anan arabiyyan.' imām Al-Shafi'i has said the truth when he said that every single word was Arabic even though his interpretation was a little incorrect.
“…la'alakum ta'qiloon.” (“So that you may understand…”)
So that you may understand what? The sentence is not complete. Why? When you leave the sentence blank, then you encompass all meanings. If you finish the sentence, you limit it. When you leave it blank, it means “so that you may understand [everything]“, and it doesn't need to be limited. This also shows us that there is a reason why Allāh chose the language of the Arabs, which is because His Prophet is an Arab prophet and his immediate people are an Arab people. This tells us very frankly that the Arabic language is the most eloquent language. The opinion of imām Al-Shafi'i and Ibn Taymiyyah and many scholars, including non-Arabs, is that the Arabic language is the best language. Even as non-Arabs we must acknowledge this. The Arabic of today is not that language, and this is referring to fuhsa (Qur'anic Arabic). Modern Arabic is a different language altogether and is not the language of that era. We are talking about that language, and that language was the most eloquent language, and we must believe this as a part of aqeedah. imām Al-Shafi'i said, “This is our aqeedah.” Some of the scholars were very strict. In those days, the only other language that the Muslims spoke was Farsi. If anyone spoke Farsi in front of imām Maalik, he would have him kicked out of the Prophet's masjid (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) and say, “This is a place where we speak Arabic.”
Those were different times, and there is nothing wrong with speaking another language. They wanted to preserve the language of the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam). I say this as a non-Arab: we should learn Arabic. It is not wajib to learn Arabic, but subḥānAllāh, this is our religion. The Qur'an and Sunnah are our religion, and learning Arabic is a big part of our religion. You cannot become a true student of the Qur'an until you learn Arabic. This is a simple fact. Reading a translation is meaningless. You have not read the verse yet, much less the tafsir, if you have to read the translation to understand it. Allāh says, “I have revealed this kitab al-mubeen in an Arabic language so that you can understand it.”
If somebody were to say, 'It is not fair that the non-Arabs do not understand the Qur'an. What do we do as a non-Arab and what are non-Arabs supposed to do with the guidance in the Arabic language?', the response to this is:
- One language had to be chosen, logically. Even if Allāh chose another language, then people of other languages would have said the same thing. This is not a solid response to criticize the revelation in Arabic.
- Also, we say that Arabic is the most eloquent of all languages. All of the languages we know of that Allāh revealed Books in are Semitic languages. He (subhanahu wata'ala) revealed books in Hebrew and Aramaic and probably in Syriac (the language of Dawud ('alayhi salam)). Semitic is a family of languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic. There are Indo-Aryan languages, which is Latin and Sanskrit. If you study the differences between those two branches, you will find a world of difference. [Tangent: Nahw and sarf are a blessing because they show the structure and precision of the language. It is not found in English grammar and Latin grammar. Sarf is taking a three letter verb and adding an alif, a wow, or a meem. It is said from one verb you can derive 250 words. Once you learn one word in the Arabic language (one three letter root), you can instantaneously derive at least 250 words if you know sarf properly. This is an amazing language. This does not exist in English or any other language.]
- The third response is even if you do not understand its full beauty in Arabic, a translation will give you a glimpse of it. We give non-Muslims a translation of the Qur'an, and there is no problem with this whatsoever. Some stricter Muslims say that we should not give them a translation of the Qur'an. [Refutation:] The Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) wrote to the Emperor of Rome, and in the letter, he wrote a verse of the Qur'an. When the Emperor received the verse, it was translated in front of him into Latin. This was the first time in history that the Qur'an was translated. This was in the lifetime of the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam). How can anybody say that it is not allowed? It was in the lifetime of the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam), and he knew it was going to be translated. The Emperor of Rome did not speak Arabic, and the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) wrote to him in Arabic. It is our duty to translate the Qur'an into other languages. The Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) had no problem doing it. It is not the Qur'an anymore, but the glimpse of beauty will remain.
Why is Allāh beginning this surah by mentioning that He has revealed the Qur'an to the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam)? One of the reasons Allāh (subhanahu wata'ala) is mentioning this is to remind the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) of the favors that He has given to him. This is a standard motif of the Qur'an. Surah Al-Dhuha: “Your Lord has not left you, nor has He abandoned you…Didn't We find you as an orphan and take care of you?” Allāh is reminding the favors He has done to the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam). It is human nature that when you are spiritually down, you need somebody to cheer you up. Allāh 'azza wa jall is telling the greatest positive thing: He has revealed the Qur'an to him (one person), and this is the greatest blessing.
“We will be narrating to you the best of all stories…”
Nahnu (the plural) occurs because of Allāh and the angels. “We recite to you the stories.” What stories? Ahsana'l-qasas. “The best of all stories.” What is a qisah? The word qisah comes from qasah, which means to follow the footsteps in the sand. When the bedouins found somebody's footsteps, they would follow them in order to catch up to that person. Allāh says about Musa in the Qur'an in Surah Kahf [v. 64]: “…Musa and Yusha followed their own qassasah (footsteps) back.” Why does a story come from following the footsteps? You are walking in their footsteps and following them. When I tell you the qisah, what happens to you? You are living it. Why does everybody love a story? A story is mesmerizing. A person never grows too old to listen to a story. No matter how old you are, you love to listen to a story. What do we do when we put children to sleep? We tell them a story, and this is what children love. All of us are children in this regard, and we love stories. Allāh is saying, “We are going to give you the best of stories.” It is called a qisah because we are walking the walk. When we hear the story it is as if we are following their footsteps. Allāh is saying, “We will give you the best of stories.”
If you read any book of how to speak and how to give an effective talk, there is always a chapter dedicated to the story. In one of the latest books that I read, it says to always begin a lecture with a personal anecdote or personal story. Why? Because it grabs the attention of the audience. It is human nature that stories are attractive. Stories are something that you like to listen to. Also, the lessons in stories are manifested. If I open up Riyadh Al-Saliheen and tell you the benefits of patience, māshā'Allāh it is good, but now I get to the story of the mother of Anas and how she reacted when her son died. Now those ahadith are brought home. It is not the same as saying, “Whoever is patient, māshā'Allāh he has good īmān.” When I show you a story, those stories remain with you, and you are affected by them more, which is human nature. Allāh 'azza wa jall is telling us stories.
Another benefit of a story is that they are 'aqeedah (theology) in action. It is one thing to say that you put your trust in Allāh, but when we hear the story of Ibrahim when he is going to be thrown into the fire and he puts his trust in Allāh, it is theology shown in action. 'Aqeedah is manifested.
Another benefit of the story is that it is the reality of what has happened in the past. It is a real thing and not theory anymore. We know this happened to the previous prophets, and so we sense it more. Another benefit is that stories teach us that Allāh's Sunnah is repetitive and what has happened in the past will happen again. What is the purpose of a fable or story we tell our children? There is always a moral to the story. There is always a lesson to be learned. The lessons of Allāh and these rules of Allāh are permanent. When we hear these stories, the rules are reinforced. One of the fundamental rules of the story of Yusuf is that righteousness will win in the end, and evil can never succeed in the long run. This is one of the main themes of Surah Yusuf. We are going to come to this. When we read the story, we see this manifested and in real life; therefore, this maxim is then implanted in us that righteousness will win out in the end, and that is why Allāh says in the Qur'an: “We will send you down stories to strengthen your resolve.” It is not childish to find motivation in stories, but it is part of our īmān. Reading the stories of the prophets and reading the sīrah of the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) is one of the greatest ways to increase īmān. Reading the stories of the sahabah brings about a sense of taqwa and īmān and courage in us. Stories are a part of the Qur'an and Sunnah and part of human nature. This whole surah is a story.
“We will be narrating to you the best of all stories.” This has two meanings to it. First, every single Qur'anic story is the best of its kind. This is for many reasons:
- They are all true and not legends or fables. A true story is always better than an imaginary story.
- They have the best morals. No other story will give you those types of morals.
- The eloquent manners of presenting these stories. There is no story that can be more eloquent than the Qur'anic one.
- Every story that a man writes will have details and information that is not needed, and it distracts from the story and the moral. Allāh 'azza wa jall will tell you exactly what you need to know and not more or less. This is one of the biggest differences between the story of Yusuf in the Qur'an and the story of Yusuf in the Old Testament. The Old Testament gives so many details that you get lost. The story of Yusuf [in the Qur'an] even a ten year old can read cover to cover and will understand everything. The details are not there that will cause you to become lost.
Every story in the Qur'an is the best. A second meaning that has been derived is the fact that Allāh has mentioned this verse in Surah Yusuf is an indication that Surah Yusuf is the best of all stories. There are two meanings that we derive: 1) Qur'anic stories are better than all other non-Qur'anic stories, and the Qur'an re-emphasizes this; it is pretty obvious. 2) The story of Yusuf is the best of all of these stories. This is why Allāh begins the surah with “nahnu naqussu 'alayka ahsana'l-qasas.” “We are the Ones who will tell you the best of all qasas…”
“…bimaa awhaynaa ilayka…”
Bimaa means 'because / through this revelation We have given you the Qur'an.' In other words, 'because We are revealing the Qur'an to you, it is Our duty to tell you the best of all stories even though before the Qur'an came down you were from the ghaafileen.' Ghaafil means you did not have knowledge. Ghaflah means to not have knowledge, and sometimes that ghaflah is intentional, and sometimes it is unintentional. In this case, it is unintentional. The Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) did not have access to knowledge. Allāh calls the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) ghaafil because he didn't have the knowledge, not because he did not study but because he could not have studied. Allāh is saying, “Because We have revealed this Qur'an to you, it is Our duty to give you the best of stories.”
Notice: Allāh calls the Book Qur'an, and in the previous verse, He called it kitab. Kitab and Qur'an are complementary. The kitab is written, and Qur'an is recited, and the two put together form the reality of our Book. Allāh mentions both in the beginning of this surah.
“We have revealed to you the best of all stories because of Our relation to the Qur'an even though before the Qur'an came down you were from the ghaafileen.” This shows us a number of points, and with this inshā'Allāh we will conclude:
- The Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) despite being the greatest human being before the wahy came down did not know these details. What does that show? This is a very profound point for modern philosophers and scientists. The Qur'an is the ultimate source for all of our guidance. We will never know ultimate truth from falsehood and good from evil without the Qur'an. The modern philosophy is that if you sit in a cave and meditate – I'm being a bit sarcastic here – and if you use your intellect, you will be able to derive all of the wisdoms you need to know. You will be able to figure out what is right and wrong and what is the best way to govern and what is the best way to judge and what the best ruling is. The Qur'an tells us that even before the Qur'an came down, the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) despite being the best of human beings was ghaafil. If our Rasool (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) could not have known all of these truths before the Qur'an came down, do you think that me or you or someone else would ever know the realities? Allāh says in the Qur'an: “You didn't choose to know what was īmān, what was the Book.” Allāh says in the Qur'an, “Wa wa jadaka daalan fahada (You were not on the path.)” [Surah Dhuha: 7] The meaning of daal here is not misguided; the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) was never misguided. Daal means, “you weren't on the path.” You can be misguided or just not have a path, and in the case of the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam), he did not have a path yet. This was the state of the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) before the wahy (revelation) came down, so what then is the state of other than the Rasool without wahy? There is no guidance without the Qur'an, and this is a fundamental belief of all Muslims. This is why the Qur'an is a hidayah and siraat al-mustaqeem and kitab al-mubeen and kitab al-hakeem. You will never be able to achieve ultimate truth without the Qur'an. Allāh says, “Even though before the coming of the revelation, you were from the ghafileen.”
- Allāh is saying, “You didn't know these surahs before I revealed them to you, and you were ghaafil about them, so how did you know about them?” We mentioned this before. How did he living in Mecca without access to any library and without any Old or New Testament and without access to Jews and Christians know about the story of Yusuf? There is only one source and that is Allāh (subhanahu wata'ala). This is of the greatest miracles that we as Muslims many times neglect and do not appreciate. Our Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) was living in an environment of complete illiteracy and complete ignorance. There were no libraries, and there were no universities and there were no scholars. The people in Mecca were bedouins. Imagine: in our times with the internet and cell phones, it is difficult to imagine. For those of you older than fifteen or twenty remember the time before cell phones – imagine in that era coming across a tribe in Brazil or in the jungles of Africa, which are completely cut off from civilization, and they have amongst them a man who is talking about the histories of Rome and Persia and the stories of the Old and New Testament, and he is in the complete middle of the jungle, and the people can't even read and write. They are literally backward tribesmen, let's say, but they have a man amongst them who knows all of these things. Isn't this something we can't imagine? It is a miracle of miracles. This was the case of our Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) in Mecca. He came forth with stories, issues, and statements that people had no access to. The only access could have been from Allāh, and this is one of the clear signs that the Qur'an is indeed from Allāh.