In the 14th volume of the tafsir, The Ascendant Qur’an: Realigning Man to the Divine Power Culture, the mufassir, Imam Muhammad H. al-‘Asi provides commentary on the second half of Surah al-A‘raf (ayat 94–206). As has been explained in previous volumes, the message of the Qur’an is narrated not merely as stories from the past but as a lifelong struggle of committed Muslims against injustice. Its message has to be related to the present. That is what the mufassir does in this tafsir.
In the first half of this surah, the encounters of earlier Prophets (AS) with their peoples are narrated. By rejecting the divine message, the errant were punished and their towns and dwellings destroyed. This was meant to warn the arrogant mushriks of Makkah that they too would face a similar fate should they persist in rejecting the message the noble Messenger was delivering to them. Unfortunately, most people in Makkah did not take heed, not unlike most people in positions of power and authority who do not easily yield to the truth because it would undermine their privileged positions.
And likewise, it is true today. People with power and authority become so engrossed in the pursuit of dominance in the dunya that they begin to assume they are invincible and there is no accountability for their misdeeds. In their misappraisal of things, nothing lies beyond this life and resurrection is a “fairytale,” not to mention the inevitable and pending accounting to Allah (SWT). This applied as much to the rich and powerful at the time of Muhammad (SAW) and even to the power-wielders at the time of earlier prophets as to their counterparts today.
In the second part of this surah, the following broad themes are discussed:
In the ayat of Surah al-A‘raf covered in this volume, it must be borne in mind that Musa (AS) was saved through divine intervention despite the Pharaoh’s order to kill all the newborn male children of Banu Isra’il in Egypt. Allah (SWT) manufactured the temporal circumstances in such a way that Musa’s mother was inspired to place her infant in a hamper, letting it float on the Nile River so as to escape Pharaoh’s murder of all newborns, while Pharaoh’s wife was similarly roused to retrieve the hamper and the baby, ironically setting up Pharaoh to become the benefactor of his ultimate vanquisher (see details in Surahs ˇaha and al-Qasas). Allah further facilitated Musa’s mother to nurse her newborn. Yet, even though he was raised in the luxury and privilege of Pharaoh’s palace, none of those trappings inhibited Musa from publicly challenging Pharaoh when Allah commissioned him as His prophet.
The message Allah (SWT) delivers in this surah — as in many other surahs of this majestic Qur’an — is that civilizations fail because the accumulation of excess wealth and power make their bearers so arrogant and tyrannical that they either become oblivious to or unmindful of the injustice and oppression they themselves had a hand in proliferating all over society. They get to the point of assuming that their “success” in creating class differentiation between themselves and the riffraff results from the “natural order” of things and their own peculiar set of exceptional (usually racial or national) characteristics, made official by a “divine” endorsement. Even though their ancestors may have acceded to it in generations long expired, they summarily reject the presence of a higher authority directing the world or ultimate power controlling what happens therein. Because nothing intoxicates and inebriates like unbridled power, they spurn the constraints of the divine moral and legal code, setting up their societies to be engulfed by social upheaval and “natural” disaster. Feeling they can do as they please because they are temporarily insulated from the repercussions of their wrongdoing and God’s immediate retribution, they proceed to socialize their peoples into subsidizing their self-indulgent liberties and accepting the normalization of their birthright status — the type of conformity that allows them to replace God’s law with their constitutions, God’s overlordship with their governments, and God’s power over life with their genocidal crimes against humanity.
Regrettably this mindset — or a slight variant of it — is prevalent even among some Muslims. They look at the world, see gross injustices — the indiscriminate killing of innocent people in the millions, poor countries hemorrhaging refugees, and mass starvation — and then ask, “When will Allah’s justice catch up with the oppressors and tyrants as He has promised?” What these nominal Muslims fail to realize is that Allah’s corrective agency works through the struggle of His prophets and their heirs, the covenant-bearing Muslims. The committed Muslims are Allah’s instruments of transformative (revolutionary) change. While Allah (SWT) has the capacity to destroy the oppressors with a word — as He did in the past — He wants His faithful subjects to fulfill their obligations. Allah’s time frame is concerned less with the inexorable expansion of injustice at all levels of society than with the maturation of the Islamic vanguard that is tasked with reversing this process. The noble Messenger (SAW) did not sit out the Makkan mushriks and wait for Allah’s punishment to destroy them. He prepared a devoted cadre imbued with the knowledge that Allah’s word is uppermost and that it is their obligation to strive to establish it. They struggled and some even died, but they did not lose hope in Allah’s victory, despite the configuration of worldly odds. Allah allowed them to triumph in the Battles of Badr, al-Ahzab, and Hunayn, among others, leading ultimately to the establishment of Islam in the entire Arabian Peninsula during the lifetime of the noble Messenger.
Unfortunately, the majority of the world’s Muslims are waiting for some kind of a miracle through the agency of their own version of the messiah, the Mahdi. That is, they want change without struggle, a reshuffling of the world order without sacrifice. What Allah (SWT) wants of them is to leverage the miracle in their possession — His guidance, His counsel — in the way their Prophet (SAW) demonstrated all those centuries ago. This requires clarity of thought: that all power, authority, and decision-making belong to Allah. Human beings are His representatives on earth (2:30) and must carry out His commands. They cannot be lawgivers; only Allah is. Yet, most so-called Muslims in positions of power are guilty of usurping Allah’s authority by indulging in practices that directly override His commands.
The heedlessness of the world’s ruling class to a final accounting in front of the Most High suggests that the committed Muslims are not up to speed in projecting a viable Islamic model to alleviate global insecurity and avert the specter of perpetual war, which in and of itself points to a deeper problem: their defective or parochial appraisal of tawhid (the Oneness of Allah), a theme that runs through all the surahs of the Qur’an. The central feature of this tawhid is Allah’s authority. Most people in the world including many non-Muslims hold the view that God will be merciful and forgiving in a future domain that has very little to do with the everyday goings-on of the temporal world. Almost all Muslims have also come to accept this narrow understanding, definitely in behavior if not in spirit. However, the applicability of Allah’s social law (sunnah) in the material realm of man has always been incontrovertible — past and present. Allah’s authority in the akhirah and the dunya is inevitable and it manifests in the unfolding of His sunan (social laws), even though the dominant power culture has invested billions in money and other resources to efface this information from the public mind.
Secular man has tried to usurp the divine attributes of lawgiving and authority, resulting in unabating suffering and environmental catastrophe. Human beings have a tendency to become unusually manic with material and military power. Scientific progress and the “control” of nature has exacerbated this hubris. Such power is not particularly disposed to an ambiance that expands the dissemination of social and economic justice. This is where Allah’s guidance becomes crucial but those who fail to take heed expose themselves to His corrective justice. This has happened with many societies and civilizations in the past and will happen again. Nature’s warning signs in the proliferation of ever more destructive hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes are signaling the Euro-Zionist-American power maniacs to return to the responsibilities that accrue to Allah’s social convention,
Corruption has become manifest on land and in the sea as an outcome of what the hands of men have earned: and so He will let them taste [the evil of] some of their doings, so that they might return [to the right path]. Say, “Go all over the earth, and behold what happened in the end to those [transgressors] who lived before [you]: most of them were wont to ascribe authority and dominion to beings other than Allah.” Set, then, your face steadfastly toward the one ever-true din, before there comes from Allah a Day [of reckoning] that cannot be averted (30:41–43).
Evidence of the destruction of “great civilizations” in history is clearly visible. And should they continue in this direction, today’s arrogant powers are destined for a similar fate.
In the story of Musa’s encounter with Pharaoh, a delicate point was being conveyed to the Makkan mushriks. Just as Musa was brought up in the house of Pharaoh, so Muhammad (SAW) grew up in full view of the power wielders of Makkah. They recognized his impeccable character. Pharaoh had accused Musa of trying to dislodge him from power. The Makkan mushriks also leveled this allegation against the noble Messenger. What they failed to understand is that the Prophet was not seeking power so that he could replace a tribal dictatorship with an “Islamic” one; rather his mission was to reconfigure society according to Allah’s laws and the divine reference point. But this could only be achieved through the principled exercise of legitimate power. The Makkan mushriks were a major impediment in the realization of this goal since they operated according to their own whims to serve their narrow special interests.
Just as Pharaoh had branded Banu Isra’il as the slave underclass of society, so the Makkan chiefs similarly disparaged the followers of Muhammad (SAW) as lowly creatures unworthy of attention, respect, or dignity. Consequently, they were oppressed and humiliated. Despite wielding enormous power including a huge army that he could mobilize, Pharaoh was unable to thwart the public challenge posed by Musa (AS). True, there were a number of divine warnings in the form of natural calamities but Pharaoh and his followers, barring a few exceptions, remained unmoved. Ultimately Pharaoh’s army drowned in the sea while Musa and his followers were saved. Pharaoh also drowned but his body was preserved for all eternity as a warning to future generations. It remains encased in a glass case in the Cairo museum to this day! Likewise, the Qurayshi ruling class of Makkah also sought to impose a “final solution” on Muhammad and the intrepid Muslims who were intent on making the truth the basis for human coexistence and advancement. But, as with Pharaoh, tyranny melted away when the truth gained its power base in Madinah, and the Makkan overlords were not able to drive their genocidal program to completion.
With the mission of Muhammad (SAW), the constantly unfolding miracle going forward would be the liberation of the human heart and mind from any limitations imposed on them by tyranny, enslavement, despotism, and cruelty. The mind is Allah’s creation, and the Qur’an is Allah’s dispensation: henceforward, the two would work synergistically to overcome the age-old social forces of racism, nationalism, authoritarianism, and secularism that have driven man into the cage of human servitude to material power. The miracle of Muhammad — making the transformative potential of the Qur’an accessible to all humanity — was not bound to time and place, as with previous prophets. It transcended both, and hence, any human being anywhere can experience this miracle. Therefore, it only makes sense that in this surah, Allah (SWT) declares Muhammad as the messenger to all humanity (7:158) — the expected Messiah, the deliverer, the one who would give humanity the confidence, the fortitude, and the sense of purpose to know that Allah’s final revelation will suffice, regardless of what comes their way. All earlier prophets were sent to particular communities in specific localities. Muhammad was not sent as a prophet only to the Arabs; his message and mission were and are universal. He is the last and final Messenger of Allah (SAW) to all humanity (33:40).
But the expectation of Allah’s patronage, the reliance on His forgiveness through inevitable error and recovery, and the conscientizing of His dhikr through struggle would all be moot were the beckoning of His divinity/authority not a yearning of human nature. To this end, the son of Adam (AS) acceded to the eternal covenant with Allah (SWT) when he was still in the realm of potentiality. This is powerfully expressed in the ayat,
And bear in mind your Sustainer who brings forth from the children of Adam — from their loins — their descendants and [who caused] them to testify to themselves [upon hearing His question], “Am I not your Sustainer? Said [they], “[Positively] yes, we testify. [Of this, We remind you] lest you say on the Day of Resurrection, “But we were oblivious to this fact [Allah’s Creator/Sustainer relationship to man].” Or [lest you] say, “But our ancestors were mushriks in times past, and we were their descendants; do You then destroy us for what [preceding] violators had done [many generations ago]?” In such a manner do We go into detail about Our power presence trusting they will return [to Us] (7:172–174).
Following this covenant pledge, Allah (SWT) draws our attention to how it can be peremptorily violated in a world where corrupt power demands the kind of cheap legitimacy that can be bought with the promise of favor and fame. He gives the example of a person who was given knowledge and presented with evidence of the truth. Instead of adhering to Allah’s commands as a result of this knowledge, such a person pursued the pleasures of the world by becoming a slave of his desires or a willing tool of those whose desires cannot be satiated; in short, a minion of Satan. Allah compares such a pathetic creature to a panting dog, “…if you approach him menacingly, he will drool with his tongue; and if you leave him alone, he will drool with his tongue” (7:176).
Alas, we Muslims have too many people that fit this description. They have knowledge but do not appreciate the responsibility that goes with it. Instead of using divine knowledge to guide people to the right path, they abandon it in pursuit of worldly pleasures or personal material gain. Even worse, they misguide others based on their claim to having knowledge. That Muslims have fallen into despair while secularism holds sway over much of the world is the direct result of Muslims abandoning scripture and eliminating the Prophet (SAW) from scriptural history.
Throughout the noble Qur’an and especially in this surah, we learn about the struggles of Allah’s Prophets (AS). They faced trials and tribulations, even exile and death, but they nonetheless upheld the principle of maintaining justice in society. It was through such sacrifices that Allah’s laws were ultimately implemented. Today injustices have been institutionalized at every level in society. The rich and powerful exploit the weak and poor. The wealth gap between the two has now reached an all-time extreme — yet no one in the public airwaves characterizes this as “extremism.”1 Far from recognizing that this is the direct result of man-made policies, the oppressors and tyrants blame the victims for their misfortune.
If people were to affirm tawhid (Allah’s combined authority and divinity), the injustices gripping the world would disappear. This was demonstrated during the time of the noble Messenger (SAW) and will be demonstrated again when people return to their fundamental responsibility of adhering to Allah’s commands — for, Allah (SWT) alone is man’s source of values, laws, and vital information that sets a straight course for a prosperous life.
As with previous volumes, Afeef Khan has edited this volume to make the text flow smoothly. Imran Khan and Hassam Munir have helped with proofreading. We are indebted to them all as well as to those who have helped in numerous other ways, some wishing to remain anonymous.
Getting this far with the tafsir project has not come without attendant obstacles. Islamic work has never been easy, nor is it a walk in the park in a world where Muslims are routinely assailed as fundamentalists, terrorists, Islamofascists, anti-Semites, security threats, and the like. Stereotyping Muslims with these labels, entrapping the naive among them to justify the labels, and collectively punishing them in the “war of terror” has driven the type of fear into Islamic scholarship that is searching for the favor of presidents and princes.
However, for those who have made a commitment to read this tafsir, rest assured that this work has been subject to neither fear, nor favor. We plow on because we believe this work to be essential. Even if the timidity of the present generation has paralyzed it to some extent, we remain optimistic that future generations would find it useful. Returning to divine guidance as contained in the noble Qur’an and as exemplified by the Sunnah and Sirah of Muhammad (SAW) are the essential building blocks for the re-emergence of the Islamic civilization in the not too distant future.
Director, Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Jumada al-Ala 3, 1440AH (1-9-2019CE)