by Mateen A. Khan
Islam and Muslims have a long history in America and are very much a part of the legacy of the United States. Muslims and non-Muslims have worked together, lived together, and played together. We have constructed institutions of peace and have even fought wars together. And so, we increasingly find ourselves having to form political and communal alliances. Often, this involves collaborating with groups whose values and teachings may be in direct opposition to Islamic morality. This article attempts to guide Muslim American leaders at all levels and the general Muslim public at-large in a direction which benefits the national interest and protects normative Islam.
Assessing the Situation Through Jurisprudence
Muslims, in general, and their leaders, in particular, need to be thinkers by assessing and re-assessing individual situations. We cannot be swept up in the euphoria of nationalism or anti-establishment rhetoric by simply following the masses or the words of a dynamic speaker. After the Prophet’s ﷺ migration, jurisprudence and state legislation were unified under his guidance and the guidance of several khulafā’ afterward. However, since this time, the two have been separated, and Islamic scholarship has been engaged in a process of risk management and defense of normative Islam. Our main priority as Muslims is to be able to believe, worship, and live our lives in a way that is pleasing to Allah. The Qur’an states rather clearly, “I only created humans and jinn so that they worship Me.”The Qur’anic exegetes have explained ‘worship’ as obedience to the Divine. Every Muslim by necessity believes the All-Wise has guided us solely for our benefit. The role of Islamic scholarship and leadership has been and continues to be charting a course that defends normative Islam through a constant harm-benefit analysis.
Whenever collaboration with another group is suggested, potential harm (mafsadah) and benefit (maṣlaḥah) is assessed through principles found in the Qur’an, Sunnah, and scholarly opinions. For this, we turn to the legal maxim of ‘the prevention of harms precedes the attainment of benefits’ (درء المفاسد اولى من جلب المصالح). This particular maxim is extrapolated among other things from the prophetic ḥadith, “If I forbid you to do something, then keep away from it. And if I order you to do something, then do as much as you can of it.” It is based on this maxim, for example, that Muslims are not permitted to make beneficial changes to their property that might cause harm to their neighbor.
We may find mafsadah in the form of oppression through institutional biases. Ẓulm, one of the classical Arabic terms for oppression, is defined as “to place a thing where it doesn’t belong.” It will be to give one something that isn’t his or her right or to withhold the legitimate right of another. Allah says, “Indeed, shirk is a great ẓulm.” In other words, giving another what is the Right of Allah (i.e. obedience and worship) when He alone has given you life, nourishment, etc. is a very great ẓulm. Oppression is not only forbidden in our relationship with Allah, but also with one another. In a ḥadīth qudsī, the Prophet ﷺ quoted Allah saying, “My servants, I have made oppression unlawful for Me and unlawful for you, so do not commit oppression against one another.” Repeatedly, the Qur’an associates oppression as a character trait of disbelief and not of Believers. If a harm is identified – for example, governmental discriminatory practices – then Muslims may rally against it using permissible means. We are not permitted to assist in it nor should we sit idle when we are capable of removing it.
In collaborating, we may find benefits in the form of increased security, peace, well-being, or most of all, freedom to practice our religion. Maṣlaḥah, in the Islamic terminology, refers to what provides benefit and is consistent with the objectives (maqāsid) of the Sharī`ah. These objectives are extracted from the totality of the Qur’an and Sunnah and refer to – in order of importance – protection of one’s Islam, life, intellect, progeny, and property. It is worth noting that these objectives and benefits are secondary to what is explicitly stated in the Qur’an and Sunnah, since they are extractions of divine text rather than explicit commands. For wisdoms and benefits that oppose the primary texts of the Shari‘ah are what the Noble Qur’an refers to as “desires” (al-ahwā’). Hence, maṣlaḥah is not determined by unlearned individuals or the masses, because “if the truth had followed their inclinations, the heavens and the earth and whoever is in them would have been ruined.” All this is to say that when the sharī`ah declares something as good, we take the necessary and legal steps to encourage it. When something is not mentioned in the primary texts (nuṣūṣ), – for example, securing voting rights for minorities – learned people may endorse it as a maṣlaḥah so the rest may fall behind it.
Check the Collaboration
Whether removing a harm or obtaining a benefit, our primary intent as Muslims is Allah’s Pleasure. Today in America, we live with non-Muslims while fulfilling all the rights due to them as neighbors. We work and engage in business with them while refraining from impermissible jobs and transactions as dictated by our religion. We share infrastructure, drinking water, and permissible foods. Islam allows all of this. While reminiscing one day, the Prophet ﷺ spoke of the Pact of the Virtuous (Hilf al-Fuḍūl). He praised the Pact and announced that had the same situation – an agreement enjoining a common maṣlaḥah shared with non-Muslims – come up today, he would join it readily. Not only is there no issue with Muslims joining non-Muslims for shared causes such as eradicating poverty or safe havens for abused women, but it may also be recommended or a communal obligation based on the situation.
The contention lies when due to our small numbers, weaknesses, and other deficiencies, Muslim Americans often find themselves in need of collaborating with other groups who may hold ideas antithetical to Islamic morality. Groups may exist primarily to further another belief or lifestyle considered sinful by Islamic standards. Can we collaborate with them? If so, what are the conditions? Before we get into this discussion further, it behooves us to first review the Islamic injunction against helping another in sin.
Near the end of the second ayah of Surah al-Mā’idah, Allah states, “Rather, help one another to virtuousness, and to the fear of Allah. And do not help one another to sin and to aggression.” From the first part of the quoted line, we may work with people to assist in virtuousness, but the latter part strongly warns against assisting in sin. Muslims not only refrain themselves from sin, but also cannot assist another in it. As the Prophet ﷺ mentioned in an authentic hadith, “The one who directs towards sin is as the one who commits it.” Conversely, this statement supports a weaker narration, “The one who directs towards evil is as the one who commits it.” Even stronger words have been attributed to the Prophet ﷺ that on the day of Judgment, a caller will declare, “Where are the sinners, those who followed them, and those who assisted them?” Such that even those who assisted by bringing them pens and ink will be gathered with them in an iron box and thrown into Hell.
With this in mind, we can now turn towards prophetic history, in which we find many analogous examples of Muslims collaborating with non-Muslims. I would like to highlight four of them:
- In the Makkan period of the Prophet’s ﷺ life, he and the early Muslims underwent extraordinary hardships including torture at the hands of Makkan polytheists. For a time, a unilateral trade embargo was instituted against the Muslims. The Muslims, when able, continued to trade with the same non-Muslims that oppressed them and made trips together to other areas to trade with other non-Muslim tribes.
- Upon migrating to Madinah, the Prophet ﷺ formed a constitution with the Madinan Jews. The charter outlined how they were to live in one community as neighbors. They traded with one another, fulfilled each other’s rights, and shared a common infrastructure.
- With the treaty of Ḥudaybiyyah, the Prophet ﷺ made an agreement with the non-Muslim Makkans including issues about trade, extradition, and visitation.
We see in these instances that the Prophet ﷺ made agreements with the Makkan polytheists and Madinan Jews despite each group adopting elements of disbelief and un-Islamic morality. Through these joint activities, they warded off a greater harm that would have occurred by total segregation and isolation.
- Another example occurred during the Battle of Uhud. The Muslims set out from Madinah with one thousand men. Among them were the Hypocrites who would flee later under the leadership of `Abdullah ibn `Ubayy. The Prophet ﷺ, when setting out from Madinah, knew that among his soldiers were Hypocrites. Yet, he allowed them to accompany the Believers to remove a greater harm – the attack from the Makkan polytheists.
In these situations, the Muslims and non-Muslims agreed to fulfill shared goals, and in doing so, the two groups worked more in parallel than together. The Muslims did not intend to assist them in those things that were antithetical to Muslim beliefs although that may have happened as an unintended consequence. When sufficient need arises, Muslim American scholars in conjunction with other experts may recommend collaborating with non-Muslim groups – even those advocating un-Islamic beliefs and morality – with an important condition: the safeguarding of people’s Islam.
Our Islam is our most important possession. It is the cause of revelation and the source of our connection with Allah. Its protection is the highest objective. So much so that when the Prophet ﷺ and his Companions were unable to safeguard their deen, Allah commanded them, “O My servants who have believed, indeed My earth is spacious, so worship only Me.” They were given the order to leave their beloved hometown of Makkah. We find in each instance of Muslim collaboration with non-Muslims, Allah and His Messenger ﷺ made clear the distinction between a path of guidance and one that displeases Allah. For example, after the Treaty of Ḥudaybiyyah, Allah reaffirmed Islam as the truth, “It is He who sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth to manifest it over all religion.” Similarly, after the Battle of Uhud, He said, “And what struck you on the day the two armies met was by permission of Allah that He might make evident the Believers. And that He might make evident those who are Hypocrites.” The purpose of the distinction is to safeguard our religion by pointing out our differences. Collaboration at the expense of one’s religion will be impermissible without taking steps to safeguard it. If there is a risk of altering or losing Islamic beliefs, then clarification must be made. Interestingly (and perhaps a subject of another article) this is not only true when collaborating with groups whose primary agenda is antithetical to Islamic beliefs, but also during mundane life-activities when Muslims are the dominated minority.
How do we safeguard our Islam?
- Gain Knowledge. One must learn the basic, necessary knowledge about Islam, its tenets, rulings, wisdoms, and guidance. A relationship with people of knowledge is key to fostering one’s religion and filling in knowledge gaps when coming across new challenges. “Ask the people of knowledge if you don’t know” and, “The cure to ignorance is to ask” are just a hint as to the vast amount of Islamic texts on this subject.
- Keep company with the pious. Just as important as knowledge is companionship with the pious since the hadiths equate our religion with the religion of our companions. The Qur’an states about un-Islamic companionship, “And whoever among you takes them as an intimate friend, he is one of them.” Islam has been passed from Prophet ﷺ to Companions and so on among the pious. Connect yourself to that lineage.
- Love Islam. Stemming from the first two is an apparent Islamic identity through the love of Islam. Muslims need to be comfortable with their identity without feeling as if they must hide. Even more, their love for Islam should surpass anything else. Otherwise, indiscriminating friendship and partnership with non-Muslim organizations can garble one’s beliefs placing their very Islam at risk. Whether individually or communally, identity tells others who you are and your religion, what you stand for or against.
- Know what is Islamic and what isn’t. A very important condition, which applies to Muslim leaders especially when working with groups with beliefs antithetical to Islam, is that those who take on the role of making decisions for and leading the Muslim public also take on the responsibility of warning them of the dangers in that decision by distinguishing what is Islamic and what is not. Foremost in this responsibility, is the danger to each Muslim American’s Islam. For example, if a need arises such that we form a coalition with LGBTQIA groups, it is imperative that everyone be aware the coalition is one of achieving a shared goal and that their morality is antithetical to our divinely-mandated morality. Yes, this might place us in the precarious position of defending their human and civil rights while simultaneously vocalizing their lifestyle as a sin that draws Allah’s displeasure. We have a duty to both. This is an essential safeguard to protect the Islam of the Muslim public and future generations.
Additionally, working with non-Muslim groups in not a permission to work un-Islamically. We may not commit the harām hoping for a benefit. At times, our leadership may leave something preferable (mustaḥabb) or allowable (mubāḥ) as the Prophet ﷺ had expressed near the end of his life. He said to his beloved wife, “O `Ā’ishah! Were your nation not close to the pre-Islamic Period of Ignorance, I would have had the Ka`bah demolished and would have included in it the portion which had been left.” He ﷺ left a preferable action (to include the left-out portion) to avoid a harm (confusion among the Quraysh). That being said, in general, we must still abide by the guidance and necessary dictates of the Sharī`ah. When the direction of the Qiblah was changed, the Prophet ﷺ was concerned about what the Jews would say about it. Allah counseled him saying, “So if you were to follow their desires after what has come to you of knowledge, indeed, you would then be among the wrongdoers.” Avoiding a perceived harm (the statements of the Jews) is not permission to engage in the impermissible (not fulfilling Allah’s command). The Prophet ﷺ is reported to have said, “A death in the obedience of Allah is better than life spent in the disobedience of Allah.”
As a group, we must ask some hard questions as to who represents us. Beyond expertise in their field and enthusiasm for activism, our representatives must have some basic working knowledge of normative Islam. They will be actively forming relationships with fellow Americans and groups with Islamically divergent beliefs and practices. Will they lean towards ideas against well-established Islamic tenets? Will their own beliefs be affected such that they are rendered unfit to guide the Muslim public? For example, if a Muslim is not firm in his or her religion such that s/he can withstand the proselytizing efforts of evangelicals or atheists, it will not be permissible for him or her to work with them. This responsibility is not for everyone. Both Islamic scholars and activists need to be aware of the limits of their knowledge and develop a humility to acquiesce to experts in other areas.
Islam encourages Muslims to live and cooperate with non-Muslims. We are one nation, and we share a land, governance, and a future. We should extend a hand to work together on shared values and goals. In times of need, when differences exist between us and other groups that are antithetical or even directly oppositional to our morality, we may still work alongside one another as long as we safeguard our religious moralities. “Sufficient need” should be assessed jointly between properly trained Islamic scholars and various leaders of the relevant fields involved. Inter-Islamic cooperation is necessary before intra-organizational cooperation can be fruitful. In fulfilling our responsibility to Muslim and non-Muslim Americans, we can never lose sight that our accomplishment lies in obedience to the Creator.
The success of Muslims lies in Allah’s Pleasure even if they be in bondage. If we gain power and act to displease Allah, then what is the difference between our governance and that of Fir`awn’s? Rather, worry about pleasing Him and connecting with Him. Be committed to Islam and its guidance. You’ve tried following those false idols for some time. Now, bow down before Your Lord, ask about your needs, and see what happens! (paraphrased from Shaykh Ashraf `Ali Thanwi)
Dr Mateen A. Khan is a Emergency Medicine Doctor and a graduate of the Aalimiyah program at the illustrious Dar ul Uloom Canada. He has ijazah to teach the Sahih Sittah as well as other subjects.
 Normative Islam refers to the tenets of belief and practice representing the majority of Islamic scholarship since the Prophet ﷺ. Many narrations attributed to the Prophet ﷺ, the salaf al-ṣāliḥīn, and scholarly consensus indicate that the path of divine guidance is the path of the majority.
 Mohammed, A.M. Muslims In Non-Muslim Lands: A Legal Study with Applications, p. 125-128.
 Surah al-Dhāriyāt: 56
 Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: 7288, Ṣaḥīḥ li Muslim: 1337b. Retrieved from Sunnah.com
 Lisān al-`Arab
 Surah Luqmān: 13
 Saḥīḥ al-Muslim: 2577a. Retrieved from Sunnah.com
 `Umdah al-Qārī: 12/290, Dār al-Ihyā’ al-Turāth al-`Arabī
 Al-Muwāfaqāt lī al-Shāṭibī, Kitāb al-Maqāsid
 Usūl al-Iftā wa Ādābuhu lī Muftī Taqī Uthmānī, Chapter on Maqāsid al-Sharī`ah
 Surah al-Mu’minūn: 71
 `Umdah al-Qārī: 12/290, Dār al-Ihyā’ al-Turāth al-`Arabī
 Sunan al-Tirmidhī: 2670. Retrieved from Sunnah.com
 Rūh al-Ma`ānī under Surah al-Qasas: 17
 Surah al-Ankabūt: 56
 Surah al-Fatḥ: 28
 Surah Aal-Imrān: 166-7
 Surah al-Naḥl: 43, Surah al-Anbiyā’: 7
 Sunan Abū Dāwūd: 337. Retrieved from Sunnah.com
 Sunan al-Tirmidhī: 2378. Retrieved from Sunnah.com
 Surah al-Ma’idah: 51
 Rahmānī, K.S. Samāhī Baḥth wa Naẓr. Apr 2012. P. 67-68.
 Shafi, M. Maariful Quran. Surah al-Ma’idah: 51.
 Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 1586. Retrieved from Sunnah.com. When the Ka`bah was last rebuilt by the Quraysh, they left out a portion (ḥaṭīm) from the rest of the building. The Prophet ﷺ indicated here that he thought of rebuilding the Ka`bah and including this portion in the building.
 Sharḥ al-Nawawī `ala al-Sāḥīḥ li Muslim, Book of Hajj, Chapter on Demolishing the Ka`bah and Rebuilding It. Also, Ahsan al-Fatāwa of Mufti Rashīd Ahmad, Vol. 6, Pg. 38-39.
 Surah al-Baqarah: 145
 Majma` al-Zawā’id: 5/241
 Al-Ifādāt al-Yawmiyyah: 5/168-9
The Spirituality Of Gratitude
The Quran tells the reader of the importance of gratitude in two ways. First, worship, which is the essence of the relationship between man and the Creator, is conditional to gratitude “and be grateful to Allah if it is [indeed] Him that you worship” (2:172). The verse suggests that in order for an individual to truly worship Allah then they must express gratitude to Allah and that an ungrateful individual cannot be a worshiper of Allah. The second verse states the following “And be grateful to Me and do not deny Me” (2:152). The Arabic word used, translated here as ‘deny,’ is kufr which linguistically means to cover up. The word was adopted by the Quran to refer to someone who rejects Allah after learning of Him. Both the linguistic and Quranic definitions are possibly meant in this verse and both arrive at the same conclusion. That is, the absence of gratitude is an indicator of one’s rejection of Allah; the question is how and why?
What Does Shukr Mean?
Understanding a Quranic concept begins with understanding the word chosen by the Quran. The word shukr is used throughout the Quran and is commonly translated as gratitude. From a purely linguistic definition, shukr is “the effect food has on the body of an animal” (Ibn Qayyim v. 2 p. 200). What is meant here is that when an animal eats food it becomes heavier which has a clear and visible effect on the animal. Therefore, shukr is the manifestation of a blessing or blessings on the entirety of a person. From here, spiritualists understood the goal of shukr and added an extra element to the definition and that is the acknowledgment that those blessings are from Allah. Thus, the definition of shukr as an Islamic spiritual concept is “the manifestation of Allah’s blessings verbally through praise and acknowledgment; emotionally on the heart through witnessing the blessings and loving Allah; and physically through submission and servitude” (Ibid).
Based on this definition, the goal of shukr can be broken into five categories. First, gratitude that brings about the submission of the individual to his benefactor. In order for an act to be worthy of gratitude, the beneficiary must conclude that the benefactor’s action was done for the sake of the beneficiary – thus making the benefactor benevolent. In other words, the benefactor is not benefiting in the least (Emmons et al 2004 p. 62). When the individual recognizes his benefactor, Allah, as being completely independent of the individual and perfect in of himself, one concludes that the actions of the benefactor are purely in the best interest of the beneficiary resulting in the building of trust in Allah. The Quran utilizes this point multiple times explicitly stating that Allah has nothing to gain from the creations servitude nor does he lose anything from because of their disobedience (Q 2:255, 4:133, 35:15, 47:38). Through shukr, a person’s spirituality increases by recognizing Allah’s perfection and their own imperfection thus building the feeling of need for Allah and trust in him (Emmons et al 2002 p. 463).
Gratitude in Knowing That Allah Loves Us
The second category is love for the benefactor. Similar to the previous category, by identifying the motive of the benefactor one can better appreciate their favors. “Gratitude is fundamentally a moral affect with empathy at its foundation: In order to acknowledge the cost of the gift, the recipient must identity with the psychological state of the one who has provided it” (Emmons 2002 p. 461). That is, by recognizing Allah’s perfection one concludes that his blessings are entirely in the best interest of the beneficiary despite not bringing any return to Him. Thus, the Quran utilizes this concept repeatedly and to list a few, the Quran reminds the human reader that he created the human species directly with his two hands (38:75), he created them in the best physical and mental form (95:4), gave him nobility (17:70), commanded the angels to prostrate to him out of reverence (38:72-3), made him unique by giving him knowledge and language (2:31), exiled Satan who refused to revere him (7:13), allowed him into Paradise (7:19), forgave his mistake (2:37), designated angels to protect each individual (13:11) and supplicate Allah to forgive the believers (40:7-9), created an entire world that caters to his needs (2:29), among plenty of other blessings which express Allah’s love, care, and compassion of the human.
The remaining three categories revolve around the individual acting upon their gratitude by acknowledging them, praising Allah for them and using them in a manner acceptable to Allah. In order for gratitude to play a role in spirituality the blessings one enjoys must be utilized in a manner that connects them with Allah. Initially, one must acknowledge that all blessings are from him thus establishing a connection between the self and Allah. This is then elevated to where the individual views these blessings as more than inanimate objects but entities that serve a purpose. By doing this one begins to see and appreciate the wisdoms behind these created entities enlightening the individual to the Creators abilities and qualities. Finally, after recognizing the general and specific wisdoms behind each creation, one feels a greater sense of purpose, responsibility, and loyalty. That is, engaging the previous five categories establishes love for the benefactor (Ibn Qayyim v. 2 p. 203). Observing the care and compassion of the benefactor for his creation establishes the feeling of loyalty towards the one who has cared for us as well as responsibility since He created everything with purpose.
Blessings Even in Hardship
One may interject by referring to the many individuals and societies that are plagued with hardships and do not have blessings to appreciate. No doubt this is a reality and the Quran address this indirectly. Upon analysis, one finds that the blessings which the Quran references and encourages the reader to appreciate are not wealth or health; rather, it is the sun, the moon, trees, and the natural world in general. Perhaps the reason for this is what shukr seeks to drive us towards. There are two things all these objects have in common (1) they are gifts given by Allah to all humans and all individuals enjoy them and (2) humans are dependent upon them. Everyone has access to the sun, no one can take it away, and we are critically dependent upon it. When the Quran draws our attention to these blessings, the reader should begin to appreciate the natural world at a different level and Surah an Nahl does precisely that. This chapter was likely revealed during the time of hijrah (immigration); a time when the companions lost everything – their homes, wealth, and tribes. The chapter works to counsel them by teaching them that the true blessings a person enjoys is all around them and no matter how much was taken from them, no one can take away the greater blessings of Allah.
In sum, these verses bring light to the crucial role shukr plays in faith. It serves as a means to better know Allah which can be achieved through a series of phases. First, the individual must search for the blessings which then leads to a shift in perspective from focusing on the wants to focusing on what is available. This leads to greater appreciation and recognition of the positives in one’s life allowing the person more optimism. Second, the person must link those blessings to the benefactor – Allah – which reveals many elements of who He is and His concern for His creation. Once this is internalized in the person’s hearts, its benefits begin to manifest itself on the person’s heart, mind, and body; it manifests itself in the form of love for Allah and submission to him. Shukr ultimately reveals the extent of Allah’s love and concern for the individual which therein strengthens the trust and love of the individual for Allah and ultimately their submission to Him.
Allah knows best.
Emmons, Robert A., and Charles M. Shelton. “Gratitude and the science of positive psychology.” Handbook of positive psychology 18 (2002): 459-471.
Emmons, Robert A., and Michael E. McCullough, eds. The psychology of gratitude. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Jawziyyah, Ibn Qayyim. madārij al-sālikīn bayn manāzil iyyāka naʿbud wa iyyāka nastaʿīn مدارج السالكين بين منازل إياك نعبد وإياك نستعين [The Levels of Spirituality between the Dynamics of “It is You Alone we Worship and it is You Alone we Seek Help From]. Cario: Hadith Publications, 2005.
 Islamically speaking, it is not befitting to claim that Allah has a psyche or that he can be analyzed psychologically.
Download a longer version of this article here: The Sprituality of Gratitude
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.