It is an indisputable fact that the Qur’ān uses ‘foreign vocabulary’, that is to say, vocabulary that was adopted into the Arabic language of the Qur’ān as loanwords derived from Aramaic, Syriac, Ethiopian, Hebrew, Greek, and other languages, but already understood in the Meccan and Medinan environment of Muhammad’s time. Many of these loanwords are taken from their liturgical usage in the Jewish-Christian tradition. It is equally indisputable that the Qur’ān includes many passages that have their parallels in biblical or extra-biblical narratives. How do you critically assess these phenomena of the Qur’ān in view of the claim that the Qur’ān is divine revelation, word for word?
Due to the multi-layered question, this response will be divided into three parts.1
1. The Issue of Foreign Words
The controversy regarding the presence of foreign words in the Qur’ān is an ancient one, and although modern scholarship can claim that this fact is indisputable, it was certainly not so in the eyes of some early Muslims.
The famous Andalusian exegete, Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Qurtubī (d. 671/1272), summarized the controversy in the introduction to his Tafsīr. He stated that the scholars of Islam have unanimously agreed that there are no non-Arabic sentences or phrases in the Qur’ān, and they have also agreed that there are non-Arabic proper names such as ‘Jesus’ (‘Īsā), Gabriel (Jibrīl) and ‘Noah’ (Nūh). However, they differed into two groups regarding the presence of solitary foreign words in the Qur’ān.2
The controversy, of course, pre-dates al-Qurtubī by a few centuries. On the one hand were those who claimed that there were no foreign words in the Qur’ān, the most prominent amongst them being the jurist al-Shāfi’ī (d. 204/819), and also the exegete al-Tabarī (d. 310/922). They claimed that any word found in another language did not necessitate its origination in that language, for it could be the case that the other language took it from Arabic, or that both languages used those words simultaneously.3 The former, in his famous al-Risālah, has some harsh words for the followers of this opinion, and considered those who claimed that the Qur’ān has foreign words in it as being ignorant, bereft of wisdom and knowledge.4 Their concern, as they quite clearly delineate, was that the Qur’ān describes itself, in almost a dozen verses (e.g. Q. 16:103, 12:2, and 42:7) as being in pure Arabic, hence how could it be claimed that it contained foreign words? They also felt that, in accordance with the Qur’ānic principle that all prophets are sent speaking their native tongues, an Arab prophet would have to speak in Arabic to them. A third reason why such great consternation was felt, as the grammarian Ibn Fāris (d. 395/1004) stated, was due to the fact that if there were non-Arabic words in it, it would be unfair to challenge the Arabs to produce a work similar to it, as the Qur’ān does.5
It is poignant to note that there does not seem to be any indication in the writings of these early and even medieval scholars that admitting the existence of foreign vocabulary in the Qur’ān might somehow challenge its claim of Divine origin or expose it to allegations of ‘foreign’ influence. Rather, for them, it was a matter of reconciling specific verses that they presumed contradicted the assertion that foreign words existed in it.
On the other hand, quite a few early authorities seemed to have no problem acknowledging the foreign vocabulary of the Qur’ān. In particular the Companion Ibn ‘Abbās has much narrated from him in this regard (whether it can be deemed authentic or not is another question). The prolific al-Suyūtī (d. 911/1505) wrote the largest work of its kind in Arabic, entitled al-Muhadhab fī ma waqa’a fī al-Qur’ān min al-mu’arrab, in which he compiled around five dozen such examples. For al-Suyūtī, the few examples of non–Arabic words found in the Qur’ān did not negate its overall Arabic nature, hence there was no conflict with this and the verses describing it as being an Arabic revelation.
A third group of scholars tried to reconcile the two positions by claiming that there was an element of truth in both of them. The early linguist Abū ‘Ubayd al-Qāsim b. Sallām (d. 224/838) is the first that I know of who claimed that both of these groups were correct; he stated that the origin of some Qur’ānic words is indeed foreign, but they were introduced into Arabic, as is the case with any language, and were Arabicised by replacing their letters with Arabic letters, and eventually were incorporated into Arabic poetry and culture, such that for all practical purposes they could be considered Arabic.6 Al-Zarkashī (d. 794/1391), whose work al-Burhān fī ‘Ulūm al-Qur’ān is almost universally acknowledged as the greatest mediaeval work on the sciences of the Qur’ān, also leaned towards this position, as did al-Suyūtī in his other work, al-Itqān fī ‘Ulūm al-Qur’ān. Some proponents of this camp quoted the ‘father’ of Arabic grammar, Sībawayh (d. 180/796) himself, who wrote in his al-Kitāb that non-Arabic words could become Arabic if one substituted Arabic letters for the foreign ones, and then appended it to a known morphological form (wazn).7 The exegete Ibn ‘Atiyyah (d. 541/1147), in his al-Muharrar summarized his position regarding this issue when he stated that there is no doubt that Arabs interacted with other civilizations, through trade and other journeys, and in the process they took some of their words and introduced them into the common vernacular of the Arabs, such that they began to be used in their lectures and poetry, and this was the state of affairs when the Qur’ān was revealed with these words. It is this third opinion which is now almost universally acknowledge as valid by Muslim specialists in the field, and all the modern works that are written in the field of ‘ulūm al-Qur’ān’ reflect this.
As a final point, the fact that words of non-Arab origin are undeniably found in pre-Islamic poetry (in particular, the ‘Seven Hanging Odes’) clearly shows that Arabs, like all cultures, took specific phrases from other languages and incorporated them into their own.
Mention must be made here of the seminal work on this field in Western scholarship, and that is Arthur Jeffery’s The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’ān (Brill, 2007). There is no doubt that this masterpiece of scholarship outshines anything else written on the subject, however, at the same time, it cannot be taken as the final authority on each and every word that it lists. Rather, it serves as an indispensable index to see which words might possibly qualify as being non-Arabic in origin. What sets Jefferey’s work head and shoulders above all other works is that he specifically links each alleged foreign word back to its original language, be it Aramaic, Syriac, Hebrew, Greek, or other.8
2. The Issue of Judaeo-Christian Influence on the Qur’ān
It is a given fundamental amongst non-Muslims, be they Christian, Jew, or secular, that Muhammad composed the Qur’ān from whatever sources were available to him, in particular Judaeo-Christian sources. And it is just as much a fundamental amongst Muslims (by definition!) that the Qur’ān was a revelation from God.
The earliest modern researcher who sought to methodologically prove this claim was Abraham Geiger, who published his Was had Mohammed aus dem Judenthem aufgenommen in 1833 (translated as Judaism and Islam). This was followed by a flood of writings on the topic, such as those of Wilhelm Rudolph, Tor Andrae, Richard Bell, and C. C. Torrey. In particular, the Scottish Orientalist William Muir (d. 1905) did much to lay the foundations of this viewpoint.
Muir maintained that the Prophet had obtained his knowledge of Judaism and Christianity via the followers of those religions who lived in the Hijaz, and who visited the ‘Ukādh fairs, as well as having learnt about them via his own journeys to Syria. Claims Muir, “We may be certain that Mahomet lost no opportunity of enquiring into the practices and tenets of the Syrian Christians or of conversing with the monks and clergy who fell in his way.” Muir laments that the Prophet was exposed to a distorted and faulty view of Christianity, for had he been given the correct understanding of the religion instead of ‘…the misnamed catholicism of the Empire,’ he would have instead converted to it rather than misleading others through a new faith.9
W. Montgomery Watt, taking the ideas of Muir a step further, claimed that one of the theses of his book Muhammad at Mecca is that the greatness of Islam is largely due to a fusion of some Arab elements with certain Judaeo-Christian conceptions. He also posits (p. 27), based upon Q. 16:103, that there was a ‘monotheist informant’ of the Prophet. For Watt, the Prophet intentionally launched a new monotheistic religion in order to avoid the political implications of adopting Judaism or Christianity (p. 38).
H. A. R. Gibb, in his Muhammadanism: A Historical Survey, puts forward another possibility concerning the sources of the Qur’ān. In view of the close commercial relation between Mecca and Yemen, he states, it would be natural to assume that some religious ideas were carried to Mecca with the caravans of spices and woven stuffs, and there are details of vocabulary in the Qur’ān which give color to this assumption.10 The Lebanese Philip K. Hitti wrote that the sources of the Qur’ān are unmistakably Christian, Jewish and Arab heathen, and that what Muhammad did was to Islamise, Arabicise and nationalize the material.11 Richard Bell, in his The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment, opines that much of the Qur’ān is directly dependent on the Bible (p. 42), yet also admitted that there was no evidence of any seats of Christianity in the Hijāz, and especially in Mecca and Medina (p. 100). The more modern Kenneth Cragg, while conceding the Christian influence on the Qur’ān, opines: “The Biblical narratives reproduced in the Qur’ān differ considerably and suggest oral, not direct acquaintance. There is almost complete absence of what could be claimed as direct quotation from the Bible.”12
And the quotes go on and on. The New Catholic Encyclopedia states quite correctly, regarding the divine origins of the Qur’ān:13
Non-Moslem scholarship has taken a different view of the matter. It has nearly always held that the major influences on Mohammed must have been principally, but not exclusively, Jewish and Christian, and that those influences were colored by Mohammed’s own character and made over to conform to aspects and need of the pre-Islamic Arabian mind.
It later goes on to claim that it was highly likely that the Prophet had access to the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity.
The connection between the foreign vocabulary of the Qur’ān and its alleged foreign sources is obvious, as the quotation from Gibb above hints at. Arthur Jefferey’s work, mentioned above as well, is a perfect illustration of this frame of mind. He states factually that “…it is plain that Muhammad drew his inspiration…from the great monotheistic religions which were pressing down into Arabia of his day.“14 Based on this premise, he then asserts that researching the foreign vocabulary of the Qur’ān will allow us to understand the influences and sources that Muhammad used to come up with his religion.15 Jefferey then proceeds to lay out how Muhammad might have had possible access to Ethiopic, Persian, Greek, Syrian, Hebrew, Nabataean and Indian sources, how he had ‘…close contact with the Syrian Church,’ how he attempted to purchase information from the Jews, was possibly taught Coptic legends from his slave-girl, and was inspired by the success and might of the Byzantine and Persian Empires to lead the Arabs to higher levels of civilization.16
3. The View From Within: Muslim Responses
For Muslims, such a view as expressed by Jefferey and others is inherently biased. Many of the earlier generation of Orientalists were quite staunch Christians who made no qualms about their religious views on Islam. For later scholars, who worked in a time when, even if such a bias existed, its admittance would be looked upon disapprovingly, the general paradigm from which academic research was (and is) undertaken is that of a secular one, where there is no God who communicates with man and who sends different prophets with the same message to different peoples. Of course, this paradigm is applied to the same standards by most modern researchers to all faiths, and not just Islam. To do otherwise would automatically constitute an unacceptable bias that modern academia would not allow. Thus, the ‘The Great Flood’ that is mentioned in the Bible (and the Qur’ān) is viewed as a universal myth that has its origins in a plethora of sources, such as the Hindu Puranas, Greek mythology, and even the Epic of Gilgamesh. The mythology of Christianity is seen as having been derived from previous parallels, some of which are indeed quite striking, such as the stories of the Egyptian Sun god Horus and the Hellenistic cult of Mithra.
Hence, some of the problems that religiously devout Muslim academics will have when dealing with such research into the origins of the Qur’ān are very similar to the problems that members of other faiths will have when dealing with their respective traditions.
But this is not the only line of defense that Muslim academics draw. They point out the social and intellectual milieu that the Prophet found himself in and ask whether the portrayal of him tallies with historical facts and realities. One cannot be blamed for getting the distinct impression that some Western authors attribute to Muhammad a type of encyclopedic knowledge that no one else of his time or era reputedly had, or could even come close to. The impression is given that either he knew or had access to a library that included Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and ancient Arab beliefs, and was cognizant of many different languages and dialects, before ‘writing’ the Qur’ān. Yet, modern research has failed to show any significant center of Jewish or Christian learning in Arabia, or translation of the Holy Scriptures into Arabic. In fact, some specialists have shown that the first known translation of the Gospels into Arabic occurred in the third century after the hijra.17
Again, for Muslims, such claims seem to ignore simple historical realities of the time, some of which even the Qur’ān alludes to. Of them is that Muhammad was an illiterate man raised in an uneducated Bedouin society. Both Q. 10:16 and 29:48-9 remind listeners that the Prophet had spent an entire lifetime (i.e., forty years) in their midst, during which he showed absolutely no inclination for any sort of literary activity or flair for writing skills – had he done so, the Qur’ān explicitly states, there would indeed be a legitimate reason to be skeptical.
Another issue that must be kept in mind is that any ‘parallels’ found between Qur’ānic and Biblical stories or materials are seen as proving, rather than disproving, the Qur’ān’s claim that it, along with the previous revelations, are Divinely revealed. A number of verses (e.g., 12:3, 12:102 and 28:44-6) plainly link the mentioning of such stories as proof that these revelations are not from mortal sources, but from God, “…for neither you, nor your people, knew of them before this” (Q 11: 49). Believing Muslims point out that even at the revelation of this Meccan verse, there are no recorded instances of anyone challenging the veracity of this claim, and state, “Actually, I was aware of these particular stories before the revelation.” Hence, far from looking at such stories and any similarities between them and other literature as proof against his prophethood, believers take them to be proofs for his claims!18
The same applies for any theological or moral similarity between Islam and Judaism or Christianity, or even ancient Arab customs, for they are taken to be of the common rubric given to Moses, Jesus and Abraham respectively. Hence this type of ‘back-projecting’ of ideas is not as much of a problem for Muslims as it is, say, for Christians when confronted with clear parallels between Christian theology and pagan beliefs (since, for them, there should be no Divine connection between the pagan cult of Mithra and the image of Jesus Christ, for example). For Muslims, the continuity of theology between prophets is a clear Qur’ānic principle and a proof for prophethood (as in Q. 46:9). In fact, in more than one verse the Qur’ān quite explicitly and unabashedly states that God has given the same message to the previous prophets in their respective Scriptures. In Q. 21:105, the Qur’ān states that God had already written, in the Psalms, that the righteous shall inherit the Earth (‘anna al-arda yarithuhā ‘ibadiy al-sālihūn’). This is almost an exact parallel of Psalm 37:29 “The righteous shall inherit the land and dwell therein for ever.”19 Other verses also give quotations from Biblical Scripture (see, for example, Q. 49:29).
It is also interesting to note that while the classical works related to the sciences of the Qur’ān discussed a multitude of issues, and strove to ‘defend’ the purity of the Revelation by tackling, head on, the claims of those who opposed it, it is rare to find in their works, or even in the treatises that responded to Christian polemics against Islam, a detailed defense of the accusation that the Qur’ān is taken from Judaeo-Christian sources because of parallels between them. Again, this returns to the psychological frame of mind that Muslims have, in which they see such parallels as being an indication of the continuity of the same chain of prophets and the same message, revealed from the same God. In other words, such parallels are simply not as ‘troubling’ to them as they are to a secular, Christian or Jewish observer, since each of these three groups will explain such parallels from within his or her own paradigm.20
In conclusion, and on a personal note, I accept as a given that, as a believer in a particular faith, there are certain areas where academic scholarship and religious belief will simply have to agree to disagree. I find claims of neutrality and objectivity to be purely relative; secular researchers into any field of religion will have their biases (although they would probably not label them as being ‘biases’), believing adherents to one tradition will have other biases when they examine other faiths, and they will have yet another set of biases when they examine their own faith.
That does not mean that research in any religious field is doomed to be bound by one’s own religious views. Rather, it is precisely because of such alternate viewpoints that academics and researchers will continue to enrich and engage with one another and provide fertile ground for ideas to be tossed around and explored; eventually, some will germinate and be nurtured, while others will fail to take root. And even of those that are nurtured, the fruits produced by such ideas will always be sweet to some, and bitter to others.
- I must point out that it is not even remotely possible to do justice to this question in the space allotted; however the goal is to show as wide a grasp of the sources and issues as possible, and that is what I intend to accomplish.
- Al-Qurtubī, al-Jāmīʾ li Ahkām al-Qurʾān, v. 1, p. 104.
- Al-Tabari, Tafsīr, v. 1, p. 8.
- Al-Shafiʿī, al-Risālah, p. 41
- Ibn Fāris, al Sāhibī, p. 28.
- Ibn Fāris, al Sāhibī, p. 29.
- Sībawayh, al-Kitāb, v. 4, p. 304.
- There is one minor reservation that I have about the work, and I say this fully recognizing and appreciating the level of scholarship it displays (apart from the fact that it includes proper nouns such as Ilyās, Sabiʾūn, and Majūs – this is a matter that even the likes of al-Shafiʿī would not have had an issue with!) Jeffery shows that many common nouns and verbs (such as khubz, p. 121, kataba, p. 248 and sajada, p. 162) have ‘originated’ from a foreign language; this might very well be the case, but their use and understanding amongst the Arabs, perhaps for centuries before the coming of the Prophet, had made them as ‘Arabic’ as could possibly be. My point here is that the case cannot be made with such common nouns and verbs that the Prophet himself had anything to do with them or that he somehow introduced them into the language of the Arabs (whereas the case may indeed be made with other words). Hence their inclusion on a list of ‘foreign’ vocabulary of the Qurʾān (as opposed to a list of foreign vocabulary of the Arabic language), seems, to me at least, foreign.
- Muir, The Life of Mahomet, (Edinburgh, 1923) v. 2, p. 20-21.
- Mohammadanism: A Historical Survey (London, 1961) p. 37.
- Hitti, Islam and the West: A Historical Cultural Survey (New York, 1979), p. 15.
- The Call Of The Minaret, p. 66
- New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967), Vol. VII, p.677.
- Jeffery, Foreign Vocabulary, p. 1.
- Jeffery, Foreign Vocabulary, p. 2.
- Ibid., p. 22, 28-9, 38.
- Sidney H Griffith, “The Gospel In Arabic: An Enquiry Into Its Appearance In The First Abbasid Century” Oriens Christianus, Volume 69, p. 131-132.
- For the above paragraphs, see, inter alia: Mohammad Khalifa, The sublime Qur’ān and Orientalism (London; Longman, 1983), Hamza Njozi, The Sources of the Qurʾān: A Critical Review of Authorship Theories, (WAMY Press, 1995); Mohar Ali, Sirat al-Nabi and the Orientalists (Madina, 1997); my own comments in Qadhi, An Introduction, p. 274-6. Also see Watt’s comments on this verse in Mohammed at Mecca, p. 45.
- Although I am not knowledgeable of Hebrew, I am told that the parallel in the original is even more profound.
- I am not implying that such defense does not exist in the classical sources, for it does; what I am saying is that when one compares the quantity of material on this specific issue, versus other issues (for example, proving the iʿjāz of the Qurʾān), it is quite clear that this issue was not of as great a concern to them as other issues.
Lessons From Surah Maryam: 1
Alhamdulillah, it’s a great blessing of Allah that He has given us both the opportunity and ability to come here tonight to study and explore the meanings of His words in Surah Maryam. I’m truly grateful for this opportunity. May Allah accept this effort from all of us and place it on our scale of good deeds.
Alhamdulillah, in our last series we were able to complete the tafsir of Surah Al-Kahf. InshAllah, in this next series, we’ll be exploring the meanings, lessons, and reminders of Surah Maryam. Tafsīr is an extremely noble and virtuous discipline. The reason why it’s so noble and virtuous is that it’s the study of the divine speech of Allah . As mentioned in a hadith the superiority of the speech of Allah over all other speech is like the superiority of Allah over all of His creation. There’s nothing more beneficial and virtuous than studying the Quran. And by doing so we’ll be counted amongst the best of people. As the Prophet said, “the best amongst you are those who learn the Quran and teach it.”
All of us need to build a stronger relationship with the Quran. The Quran is full of wisdom and guidance in every single verse and word. It’s our responsibility to seek that guidance, understand it, contextualize it and more importantly act upon it. Tafsīr is such a unique science that it brings together all of the other Islamic sciences. While exploring a Surah a person comes across discussions regarding Arabic grammar and morphology, rhetoric, Ahādīth, fiqh, sīrah and all those studies that are known as the Islamic Sciences. One scholar described the Quran as an ocean that has no shore, بحر لا ساحل له. The more we study the Qur’ān the stronger our relationship with it will become. We’ll become more and more attached to it and will be drawn into its beauty and wonder. The deeper a person gets into tafsir and studying the more engaged and interested they become. They also recognize how little they truly know. It develops humility. That’s the nature of true knowledge. The more we learn the more we recognize we don’t know. May Allah ﷻ allow us all to be sincere and committed students of the Qur’ān.
Surah Maryam is the 19th surah in the Quran. It is a relatively long Makki surah made up of 98 verses. Some commentators mention that it’s the 44th Surah to be revealed, after Surah Al-Fatir and before Surah Taha. It has been given the name Maryam because Allah mentions the story of Maryam (as) and her family and how she gave birth to Isa miraculously at the beginning of the Surah. Just like other Makkan surahs, it deals with the most fundamental aspects of our faith. It talks about the existence and oneness of Allah , prophethood, and resurrection and recompense.
The Surah is made up of a series of unique stories filled with guidance and lessons that are meant as reminders. One of the main themes of this Surah is mercy… It has been mentioned over 16 times in this Surah. We’ll find the words of grace, compassion and their synonyms frequently mentioned throughout the sūrah, together with Allah’s attributes of beneficence and mercy. We can say that one of the objectives of the Surah is to establish and affirm the attribute of mercy for Allah . That’s why all of the stories mentioned also have to do with Allah’s mercy.
Another objective of the Surah is to remind us of our relationship with Allah ﷻ; the concept of Al-‘Ubūdiyyah. These are the two major themes or ideas of this Surah; the concept of Rahmah and the concept of ‘Ubūdiyyah (Mercy and Servitude).
The Surah can be divided into 8 sections:
1) Verses 1-15: The surah starts with the story of Zakariyya (as) and how he was given the gift of a child at a very old age, which was something strange and out of the ordinary.
2) Verses 16-40: mention the story of Maryam and the miraculous birth of Isa without a father and how her community responded to her.
3) Verses 41-50: The surah then briefly mentions one part of the story of Ibrahim , specifically the conversation he had with his father regarding the worship of idols. The surah then briefly mentions a series of other Prophets.
4) Verses 51-58: Mention Musa and Haroon , Ismail and Idrees to show that the essence of the message of all Prophets was the same
5) Verses 59-65: compare and contrast the previous generations with the current ones in terms of belief and actions.
6) Verses 66-72: Allah addresses the Mushrikoon rejecting their false claims regarding life after death and judgment.
7) Verses 73-87: continue to address the Mushrikoon and warn them regarding their attitude towards belief in Allah and His messengers. They also mention the great difference between the resurrection of the believer and the resurrection of the non-believer.
8) Verses 88-98: contain a severe warning to those who claim that Allah has taken a child. They also express that Allah is pleased with the believers and mentions that one of the objectives of the Quran is to give glad tidings to the believers and to warn the non-believers.
From various narrations, we learn that this surah was revealed near the end of the fourth year of Prophethood. This was an extremely difficult time for Muslims. The Quraysh were frustrated with their inability to stop the message of Islam from spreading so they became ruthless. They resorted to any method of torture that they could think of; beating, starving and harassing. When the persecution became so severe that it was difficult for the Muslims to bear it, the Prophet gave permission to migrate to Abyssinia. “For in it dwells a king in whose presence no one is harmed.” 10 men and 4 women migrated in the 5th year of Prophethood secretly. After a few months, a larger group of 83 men and 18 women migrated as well. This migration added more fuel to the fire. It enraged the people of Quraysh.
Umm Salamah [rahna]narrated, “When we stopped to reside in the land of Abyssinia we lived alongside the best of neighbors An-Najashi. We practiced our religion safely, worshipped Allah without harm and didn’t hear anything we disliked. When news of our situation reached the Quraysh they started to plot against us…” They decided to send two delegates to persuade An-Najashi to send the Companions back by offering him and his ministers’ gifts. The plan was to go to each minister with gifts and turn them against the Muslims. So they went to each minister with gifts and said, “Verily, foolish youth from amongst us have come to the country of your king; they have abandoned the religion of their people and have not embraced your religion. Rather they have come with a new religion that neither of us knows. The noblemen of their people, from their fathers and uncles, have sent us to the king asking that he send them back. So when we speak to the king regarding their situation advise him to surrender them to us and to not speak to them…” The minister agreed.
Then they went to the king, offered him gifts and said the same thing… The ministers tried to convince him as well. An-Najashi became angry with them and said, “No, by Allah, I will not surrender them to these two and I don’t fear the plotting of a people who have become my neighbors, have settled down in my country, and have chosen me (to grant them refuge) over every other person. I will not do so until I summon them and speak to them. If they are as these two say I will give them up, but if they aren’t then I will protect them from these two and continue to be a good neighbor to them as long as they are good neighbors to me.”
al-Najāshī then summoned the Prophet’s ﷺ Companions. When his messenger informed the Prophet’s Companions that they were to appear before the king, they gathered together to discuss what they should do. One of them asked, “What will you say to the name (al-Najāshī) when you go to him?” They all agreed on what they would say to him, “By Allah, we will say what our Prophet ﷺ taught us and commanded us with, regardless of the consequences.” Meanwhile, al-Najāshī called for his priests, who gathered around him with their scrolls spread out before them. When the Muslims arrived al-Najāshī began by asking them, “What is this religion for which you have parted from your people? You have not entered into the fold of my religion, nor the religion of any person from these nations.”
Umm Salamah [rahna] narrated, “The Person among us who would speak to him was Jaʿfar ibn abī Ṭālib [rahnu] who then said, “O king, we were an ignorant people: we worshipped idols, we would eat from the flesh of dead animals, we would perform lewd acts, we would cut off family ties, and we would be bad neighbors; the strong among us would eat from the weak. We remained upon that state until Allah sent us a Messenger, whose lineage, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and chastity we already knew. He invited us to Allah – to believe in His oneness and to worship Him; to abandon all that we and our fathers worshipped besides Allah, in terms of stones and idols. He ﷺ commanded us to speak truthfully, to fulfill the trust, to join ties of family relations, to be good to our neighbors, and to refrain from forbidden deeds and from shedding blood. And he ﷺ forbade us from lewd acts, from uttering falsehood, from wrongfully eating the wealth of an orphan, from falsely accusing chaste women of wrongdoing. And he ﷺ ordered us to worship Allah alone and to not associate any partners with him in worship; and he ﷺ commanded us to pray, to give zakāh, and to fast.” He enumerated for al-Najāshī the teachings of Islam. He said, “And we believe him and have faith in him. We follow him in what he came with. And so we worship Allah alone, without associating any partners with Him in worship. We deem forbidden that which he has made forbidden for us, and we deem lawful that which he made permissible for us. Our people then transgressed against us and tortured us. The tried to force us to abandon our religion and to return from the worship of Allah to the worship of idols; they tried to make us deem lawful those abominable acts that we used to deem lawful. Then, when they subjugated us, wronged us, and treated us in an oppressive manner, standing between us and our religion, we came to your country, and we chose you over all other people. We desired to live alongside you, and we hoped that, with you, we would not be wronged, O king.” al-Najāshī said to Jaʿfar [rahnu], “Do you have any of that which he came with from Allah?” Jaʿfar [rahnu] said, “Yes”. “Then recite to me,” said al-Najāshī. Jaʿfar [rahnu] recited for him the beginning of Surah Maryam. By Allah, al-Najāshī began to cry, until his beard became wet with tears. And when his priests heard what Jaʿfar [rahnu] was reciting to them, they cried until their scrolls became wet. al-Najāshī then said, “By Allah, this and what Mūsa (as) came with come out of the same lantern. Then by Allah, I will never surrender them to you, and henceforward they will not be plotted against and tortured.”
Describing what happened after the aforementioned discussion between al-Najāshī and Jaʿfar [rahnu], Umm Salamah said, “When both ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ and ʿAbdullah ibn abī Rabīʿah left the presence of al-Najāshī, ʿAmr [rahnu] said, “By Allah tomorrow I will present to him information about them with which I will pull up by the roots their very lives.” Abdullah ibn Rabīʿah who was more sympathetic of the two towards us said, “Don’t do so, for they have certain rights of family relations, even if they have opposed us.” ʿAmr said, “By Allah, I will inform him that they claim that ʿĪsā ibn Maryam is a slave.”
He went to the king on the following day and said, “O king, verily, they have strong words to say about ʿĪsa (as). Call them here and ask them what they say about him.” al-Najāshī sent for them in order to ask them about ʿĪsa. Nothing similar to this befell us before. The group of Muslims gathered together and said to one another, “What will you say about ʿĪsa when he asks you about him?” They said, “By Allah, we will say about him that which Allah says and that which our Prophet ﷺ came with, regardless of the outcome.” When they entered into his presence, he said to them, “What do you say about ʿĪsa ibn Maryam?” Jaʿfar said, “We say about him that which our Prophet ﷺ came with – that he is the slave of Allah, His messenger, a spirit created by Him, and His word, which he bestowed on Maryam, the virgin, the baṭūl.”
al-Najāshī struck his hand on the ground and took from it a stick. He then said, “ʿĪsa ibn Maryam did not go beyond what you said even the distance of the stick.” When he said this, his ministers spoke out in anger, to which he responded, “What I said is true even if you speak out in anger, by Allah. (Turning to the Muslims, he said) Go, for you are safe in my land. Whoever curses you will be held responsible. And I would not love to have a reward of gold in return for me hurting a single man among you. (Speaking to his ministers he said) Return to these two (men) their gifts, since we have no need for them. For by Allah, Allah did not take from me bribe money when He returned to me my kingdom, so why should I take bribe money. The two left, defeated and humiliated; and returned to them were the things they came with. We then resided alongside al-Najāshī in a very good abode, with a very good neighbor.”
The response was simply amazing in its eloquence. A believer puts the needs of his soul before the needs of his body. Allah starts the Surah by saying,
Verse 1: Kaf, Ha, Ya, ‘Ayn, Sad.
Allah starts Surah Maryam with a series of five letters. There are many different saying or explanations regarding these five letters. The most correct opinion is that these are from the broken letters. There are 29 different Surahs in the Quran that start with the broken letters. Only Allah alone knows the meanings of these letters. They are a secret from amongst the secrets of Allah , meaning that no one knows what they truly mean. Only Allah knows their meanings so they are from amongst the Mutashaabihat, those verses whose meanings are hidden.
However, we do find that some great Companions, as well as their students, sometimes gave meanings to these words. For example, it’s said that it is in acronym and each letter represents one of the names of Allah . Kaf is for Al-Kafi or Al-Kareem, “haa” is for Al-Hadi, “yaa” is from Hakeem or Raheem, “’ayn” is from Al-‘Aleem or Al-‘Adheem, and “saad” is from Al-Saadiq. Others said that it is one of the names of Allah and it’s actually Al-Ism Al-‘Atham or that it’s a name of the Quran. However, these narrations can’t be used as proof or to assign definitive meanings. They offer possibilities, but no one truly knows what they mean.
Now the question should come to our mind that why would Allah start of a Surah with words that no one understands?
1) To grab the attention of the listeners.
2) To remind us that no matter how much we know there’s always something that we don’t know.
3) These letters are the letters of the Arabic language and the Quran was revealed at a time that was the peak of eloquence of the language and it was their identity. The Quran was revealed challenging them spiritually and intellectually. The Arabs never heard these letters being used in such a majestic way.
4) To prove the inimitable nature of the Quran.
Allah then starts the story of Zakariyya . Zakariyya was one of the Prophets sent to Bani Israel. He was the husband of Maryam’s paternal aunt. He was also one of the caretakers or custodians of Baitul Maqdis.
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Lesson 13 From Surah Al -Kahf
Last verses of Surah Kahf
Alhamdulillah last session we were able to cover the meanings of verses 83-98. InshAllah tonight we’ll explore the meanings of verses 99-110, which will bring us to the end of this noble and beautiful Surah. Just as a quick reminder, the last set of verses related the story of Dhul Qarnain, who was an upright and God-conscious ruler who ruled over the entire known world of his time. He was a righteous servant of Allah to whom Allah granted might, power and sovereignty over the world along with knowledge and wisdom. He was a special servant of God. We’re told about his journeys to the east, west, and north as well as his building of a huge wall to prevent Ya’jūj and Ma’jūj from escaping. This story highlighted the fitna and trial of might, power, leadership, and authority and showed us that the way to deal with it is through faith and sincerity. Dhul Qarnain was tested with a lot of wealth and power but it was unable to corrupt him because of his faith and sincerity. The Surah follows the story of Dhul Qarnain with a scene from the Day of Judgment.
Verse 99: And We shall leave them, on that day, to surge over one another like waves. And the trumpet shall be blown, and We shall gather them together.
The first part of this verse is referring to Ya’jūj and Ma’jūj and the second part refers to resurrection, when the Angel Isrāfīl will blow into the horn bringing all creation back to life. On that day, is referring to the day near the end of times when Ya’jūj and Ma’jūj will break through the barrier and surge down the mountains like waves upon humanity destroying everything in their way. As Allah ﷻ tells us in Surah Al-Anbiya, “Until when [the dam of] Gog and Magog has been opened and they, from every elevation, descend…” They will wreak havoc for a period of time known to Allah until they will be destroyed.
As we’ve covered before there will be two instances when the trumpet will be sounded. Allah has appointed the Angel Isrāfīl to blow into the trumpet. This will happen twice. The first time every single thing will be destroyed. The second time every single thing will be brought back to life. This is how the day of Resurrection will start. The sūr, which is a trumpet or a horn, will be blown and all of mankind will rise from their graves and come towards the plain of judgment. That’s what Allah ﷻ is mentioning here in this verse, “And the trumpet shall be blown, and We shall gather them together.”
The Surah then describes a scene from the day of Judgment that’s specific to the non-believers. Those who received the message and consciously chose to reject it and rebel against God and His messengers.
Verse 100-101: And We shall present Hell, on that Day, as an array before the non-believers, those whose eyes were veiled from the remembrance of Me, and could not hear.
Meaning on the Day of Judgment Allah ﷻ will show the non-believers Hell Fire, exposing it to them so that they can see it with their own eyes. They will see it with their own eyes and hear its raging and frightening sounds even before entering it. Allah then describes the non-believers with 3 characteristics, which are essentially three reasons why they will be punished in the hereafter:
1) “Those whose eyes were veiled from the remembrance of Me, and could not hear.” They weren’t able to understand the truth when it was presented to them because they were spiritually blind and deaf. They were blind to the signs of Allah’s existence and power all around them spread throughout the universe, so they never thought or reflected over them. On top of that, they weren’t able to understand what was being recited to them. Meaning, they consciously chose to ignore the message and turn away from it. Here Allah is contrasting their condition in the hereafter to their condition in the life of this world. In this world, they chose to turn away from belief in the fire and in the hereafter, they won’t have the option to turn away. The veil over their eyes will be removed and they will see the consequences of their choice.
2) The second is that they worshipped others besides Allah.
Verse 102: Do those who disbelieve reckon that they may take My servants as protectors apart from Me? Truly We have prepared Hell as a welcome for the disbelievers!
Allah is scolding them and showing them their mistake. Did they really think or believe that they could take created beings or inanimate objects as protectors apart from Me? Did they really believe that worshipping idols, angels or people would benefit them or help them in any way? There’s no help or protection except with Allah, who deserves to be worshipped alone without any partners. As Allah ﷻ says in Surah Maryam, “No! Those “gods” will deny their worship of them and will be against them opponents [on the Day of Judgment].” Allah then tells us that their punishment is Jahannam, which has been prepared as a resting place for them. “Truly We have prepared Hell as a welcome for the disbelievers!”
3) The third quality that the non-believers are described with is that they are fools for thinking that their actions in this world will be of any benefit to them in the Hereafter.
Verse 103-104: Say, “Shall We inform you who are the greatest losers in respect to their deeds? Those whose efforts go astray in the life of this world, while they think that they are virtuous in their works.
In this verse, Allah ﷻ is addressing the Prophet ﷺ directly and he’s telling him to pose this question to the non-believers. “Shall We inform you who are the greatest losers in respect to their deeds?” Do you want to know who the greatest and biggest losers are with respect to their deeds? They are the ones who did good deeds and put in effort, but all of it went to waste. Those individuals who were misguided in the life of this world so their actions were guided by their wants, desires, and pleasures. Their actions were misplaced and not guided by faith in Allah. The reason why all of their efforts will go to waste is their disbelief or absence of faith. As Allah says,
Verse 105-106: They are those who disbelieve in the signs of their Lord, and in the meeting with Him. So their deeds have gone to waste, and on the Day of Resurrection, We shall assign them no weight. That is their recompense, the Jahannam, for having disbelieved and for having taken My signs and My messengers in mockery.
The greatest losers with respect to their deeds are those who reject the signs of Allah in this world. Those who refuse to accept the oneness, might, power and magnificence of Allah, those who refuse to believe in life after death and accountability. Their deeds will go to waste and on the Day of Judgment, they won’t have any weight. We know from multiple verses and narrations that our deeds are going to be weighed on the Day of Judgment. And on the Day of Judgment, it’s not about the number of deeds but the quality. That’s why on the Day of Judgment our deeds won’t be counted but they will be weighed. It could be that the weight of one action or deed is more than a thousand other deeds.
Those actions that are devoid of faith and sincerity will have no weight whatsoever. As Allah ﷻ says in Surah Al-Furqān, “And We will regard what they have done of deeds and make them as dust dispersed.” Their recompense is the fire of Jahannam, and that is the ultimate justice and fairness. They get punishment as recompense because of their rejection and disbelief and mockery of Allah’s signs and His messengers. Allah ﷻ then contrasts the punishment of the non-believers with the reward of the believers in Paradise.
Verse 107-108: Those who believe and perform righteous deeds, theirs shall be the Gardens of Paradise as a welcome. Abiding therein forever, they don’t seek any change from it.
Just as Hell is a “welcome” for the non-believers, Paradise is a true “welcome” for the believers. Meaning, those who believe in the existence and oneness of Allah, believe in the Prophet ﷺ and life after death and that faith expresses itself through their actions, their reward will be Gardens of Paradise. Again we see this formula being mentioned, faith + righteous deeds. This is the simple formula to achieve success in this world and the next. Our faith has to be real and practical; it has to translate into action. If we do so then our reward will be Jannah al-Firdaws, which is the highest and most virtuous level of Paradise. The Prophet ﷺ said, “When you ask Allah for Paradise ask Him for Al-Firdaws. It is the highest level of Paradise, the middle of Paradise and the rivers of Paradise flow from it.”
- إذا سألتم الله الجنة، فاسألوه الفردوس، فإنه أعلى الجنة، و أوسط الجنة، و منها تفجر أنهار الدنة.
In another narration, the Prophet ﷺ said, “In Paradise, there are a hundred levels, what is between every two levels is like what is between the heavens and the earth. Al-Firdaws is its highest level, and from it the four rivers of Paradise are made to flow forth. So when you ask Allah, ask Him for Al-Firdaws.”
- “ فِي الْجَنَّةِ مِائَةُ دَرَجَةٍ مَا بَيْنَ كُلِّ دَرَجَتَيْنِ كَمَا بَيْنَ السَّمَاءِ وَالأَرْضِ وَالْفِرْدَوْسُ أَعْلاَهَا دَرَجَةً وَمِنْهَا تُفَجَّرُ أَنْهَارُ الْجَنَّةِ الأَرْبَعَةُ وَمِنْ فَوْقِهَا يَكُونُ الْعَرْشُ فَإِذَا سَأَلْتُمُ اللَّهَ فَسَلُوهُ الْفِرْدَوْسَ ” .
They will be in Paradise for all of eternity, enjoying all of its pleasures and not wanting or desiring anything other than it. Allah (swt) then tells us about the extent and vastness of His knowledge. That his knowledge is infinite. This is also a description of the greatness and status of the Qur’ān.
Verse 109: Say, “If the ocean were ink for the words of my Lord, the ocean would be exhausted before the words of my Lord were exhausted, even if We brought the like thereof to replenish it.”
“The words of my Lord” may be a reference to Allah’s infinite knowledge or wisdom or the meanings of the Qur’ān. Meaning that if the oceans were turned into ink and the words of Allah were to be written with this ink, then the ink would run out and the words of Allah (swt) would still be left, even if more ink were to be brought. This is an example to make us understand the vastness of Allah’s knowledge, wisdom, and secrets. This example is being given to make us as human beings recognize the infinite nature of Allah’s knowledge as compared to or finite and limited knowledge.
The ocean is the largest and richest creation known to us as human beings. It takes up more than 70% of the surface of the Earth. And we use ink to document and record our knowledge, which we think is vast and amazing. So Allah gives this example of the ocean as ink being used to write and record His words. The entire ocean is used up and then it’s replenished but the words of Allah are still being written. This example is trying to help us comprehend the difference between the infinite and the finite. “And if all the trees on earth were pens, and if the sea and seven more added to it were ink, the words of Allah would not be exhausted. Truly Allah is Mighty, Wise.” This example should allow us to recognize the greatness and magnificence of Allah ﷻ as well as humble us as human beings as well.
We as human beings should never be deceived or fooled by our own intellect and abilities. No matter how much we learn and how advanced we become scientifically and technologically, it’s nothing compared to the infinite knowledge and wisdom of Allah ﷻ. Our knowledge compared to the knowledge of Allah is like a drop of water compared to all the oceans. Allah ﷻ then ends the noble Surah by reminding the Prophet (saw) about humility and us about the path of true salvation.
Verse 110: Say, “I am only a human being like you. It has been revealed to me that your God is one God. So whosoever hopes for the meeting with his Lord, let him perform righteous deeds and make no one a partner with his Lord in worship.
Allah ﷻ is speaking directly to the Prophet ﷺ. He’s telling him to tell his nation, his community, that he is a human being just like them. He’s not an Angel nor is he divine in any way. He eats, drinks, walks, talks and sleeps just like them. The only difference is that he ﷺ receives revelation from above from the Most High. It has been revealed to him that there is only one God, alone without any partners. So whoever believes in the meeting with their Lord, meaning they believe in the last day, resurrection, accountability and judgment. They know that the life of this world is temporary and finite and that the life of the hereafter is eternal and infinite, should “perform righteous deeds and make no one a partner with his Lord in worship.”
Righteous deeds include fulfilling all of our obligations, obeying the commands of Allah and staying away from His prohibitions. It includes all voluntary acts of worship such as praying, fasting, reading Quran, making dua, dhikr and charity. It includes being kind to our parents, spouses, children, relatives, neighbors, and co-workers. It even includes smiling at someone. There are multiple paths of righteousness in Islam.
We’re then reminded to not associate partners with Allah in our worship; to not commit shirk. There are two types of shirk: al-shirk al-akbar and al-shirk al-asghar. Al-Shirk Al-Akbar is associating partners with Allah; it’s an act of disbelief. Al-Shirk Al-Asghar refers to ostentation and showing off or not having sincerity in acts of worship. The Prophet ﷺ referred to ostentation as “the lesser idolatry.” The Prophet ﷺ said, “I do not fear that you will worship the sun, the stars and the moon, but I fear your worshipping other than Allah through ostentation.” The Prophet ﷺ said, “What I fear most for my community is doing things for other than the sake of Allah.” Ibn al-‘Arabi quotes his shaykh, “Let not the hours of your dear life pass away confronting contemporaries and socializing with friends. Watch out! Allah concluded His statement on the following verse…”
Alhamdulillah that brings us to then end of this noble and beautiful Surah. A Surah that has a special and unique status because the Prophet ﷺ encouraged us to recite it specifically on Fridays. Through four stories the Surah focuses on four different types of trials we’re going to face in this world and how to respond to them.
1) The story of the people of the cave represents the trial of faith. And we’re taught that one of the best ways to deal with it is through good company; surrounding ourselves with people of faith and righteousness.
2) The story of the owner of the two gardens is representative of the trial of wealth. And we’re taught the most powerful way to deal with it is by recognizing the reality of the life of this world.
3) The story of Musa (as) with Khidr is representative of the trial of knowledge and the way to deal with it is through seeking knowledge and humility.
4) The last story, the story of Dhul Qarnain is representative of the trial of power. The solution is sincerity and righte
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