by Zafar Bangash
The Qur’anic message can only be understood properly if the reader is cognizant of the context in which the revelations occurred. This surah was revealed between the third and fifth year after the Hijrah, when the Messenger of Allah (SAW) was forced to migrate from Makkah to Madinah. Thus the social and political environment of Madinah must be borne in mind when considering the contents of this surah. While a sufficiently large number of people from the two dominant Arabian power factions of Madinah — Aws and Khazraj — had accepted Islam in these initial years, the vast majority were still driven by partisan tribal associations and the customs that had accumulated to bolster this posture. The Messenger of Allah (SAW) and the early Muslims did not face as much trouble from any of the indigenous Arabian tribes in and around Madinah as they did from the three Jewish tribes residing there. Though their numbers were relatively small, the Jewish power bloc wielded considerable influence through its financial and business clout in the small oasis town. This part of the surah deals with social relations on a general level, but more particularly, it lays out the peculiar yahudi character and attitude toward the divine message, its bearer in the Messenger of Allah (SAW), and by extension the community of committed Muslims. The education provided by these ayat is important because the “chosen” or the “elect” attitude that is responsible for a public policy of segregation (apartheid), a social attitude of exclusivism (racism), an economic doggedness toward wealth polarization (capitalism), and a foreign conduct of occupation (imperialism) is still with us, and will not go away until the Muslims assume their public responsibility with this Qur’an as their reference point.
soon after creation, when Allah (SWT) ordered Adam and his wife Hawwa’ (AS) to leave paradise and descend to earth, He promised to send them guidance so they could most judiciously manage their affair on earth (2:38). As part of that promise, divine revelation continued to guide the extended progeny of Adam (AS) — the human family— through the agency of Allah’s prophets (AS). With the advent of Muhammad (SAW), the final Messenger of Allah, who was sent to all humanity, Allah (SWT) in His infinite wisdom determined that human beings had now collectively, socially, and morally progressed to a stage where they were ready to receive the completed message and live by it. The noble Messenger (SAW) received this final revelation from on high over a period of 23 years. As the ayat were revealed, initially in small clusters and later in larger segments, they were communicated to the people, leading to the emergence of a core group around the Messenger of Allah (SAW). Allah (SWT) conferred on this group the designation of al-ladhina amanu — the covenant-bearing Muslims — to reflect His approval of and express His loving care and compassion for them. By the end of the Muhammadi prophetic mission, this committed generation of covenant-bearing Muslims, who lived in accordance with divine commands, had evolved into the finest, most principled advocates for social justice on earth. Hence, they together are considered to be the most outstanding generation that humanity has ever produced. Qur’anic revelations often occurred during charged moments in Islamic history to provide guidance to pressing problems facing the Muslims. There are those Islamic scholars and thinkers who make a legitimate case for the Qur’an existing long before its revelation in the time of the prophet (SAW) in the Arabian peninsula. Thus the order and the fact of the events and circumstances that occurred within a certain ambiance, spurring the revelation of a certain piece of the Qur’an, were all managed by the Creator Himself in order to bind each ayah and each surah to a specific or a general context. At times, there were challenging circumstances for which Muslims needed answers in order to remain in conformity with Allah’s (SWT) commands. The surahs revealed in Madinah generally dealt with such issues.
Surah al-Nisa’, the fourth surah of the Qur’an, deals with family, community, and social life. The early part of the surah addresses issues related to husband-wife relations and their joint responsibilities toward one other; what the meaning of a strong and productive family unit is; how to extend the emotional and financial support of a family to the less privileged members of society, such as widows and orphans; and how to justly bring future generations into the emotional and psychological security of a family circle through the rules of inheritance. The surah then moves on to deal with the broader aspects of community life and how to develop a social persona. since the Muslims were part of an ummah that still largely retained jahili customs based on tribal or clan affiliations, Islamic teachings often came into conflict with the old ways. The Qur’anic discourse guided the Muslims on how to deal with such delicate situations, particularly those affecting members of the family, or neighbors who adhered to a different value system. Two power constituencies in particular harbored grudges and ill will against the early Muslims and their impeccable leader when this surah was revealed in Madinah. The first of these, the yahud, who were (and are) the generational, compulsive, and incurable problem to revelation’s adherents, provided the necessary rationalizations and public support for the second, the munafiqs — a circumstantial problem coming from a group of psychological schizophrenics who come out of the woodwork whenever the Muslims begin to dominantly exercise power in society.
Islam came to guide humanity through its wayward journey in this world. It, therefore, deals with real-life issues and provides guidance on how to address them. Thus, when the Muslims suffered a serious reversal in the Battle of Uhud, resulting in the martyrdom of nearly 70 companions of the prophet (SAW), this left a large number of widows, orphans, and injured soldiers in a Muslim community that was still a minority in Madinah, numbering perhaps no more than a thousand out of a total city population ranging between 5,000 and 10,000. The shahadah of 70 companions left no family in the fledgling Muslim community unaffected by the scars of battle.
Before the advent of Islam, widows were mistreated and relatives or even powerful strangers in society usurped the orphans’ wealth and property. Islam brought an end to such injustices. Allah (SWT) instructed the Muslims in how to care for widows, orphans, and the perpetually underprivileged. Their social, biological, and other needs were addressed in a manner that protected their dignity and honor, all within a nurturing and loving family environment. The long-established practice of the rich and powerful suppressing and exploiting the poor was replaced by humane Islamic principles of caring and sharing based on compassion. regrettably, even though Islam has laid down specific rules on how to end such practices, the exploitation of the weak underclasses continues to this day, largely because today’s Muslims have ceded the public space to the predatory regime of capitalism buttressed by the agnostic “deliberative” mechanism of democracy. That some Muslims also indulge in such destructive social behavior does not excuse them; they will be held accountable on the Day of reckoning even if they escape punishment in this world.
Surah al-Nisa’ provides guidance on how to overcome weaknesses in human character, particularly in the removal of any traces of jahiliyah. This was done in early Islamic history by systematically and incrementally excising such practices from the body politic of the nascent Muslim community through the socialization of a public moral posture that became the basis of a legal system. A cohesive community anchored in divine guidance was forged to confront the many challenges that accrue from the mismanagement and the narcissism of the 1%.1 Those formative years are a model for Muslims today and will continue to guide future generations of Muslims until the end of time.
After addressing family issues at the beginning of this surah, Allah (SWT) continues with divine instructions to insan — the generic man inclusive of both genders, designated by Allah (SWT) as His khalifah (trustee) on earth — about broader human relations in society. The issue of putting individuals, members of a family, neighbors, communities, and societies back together again is addressed in detail. All this, however, can only be fulfilled within the framework of iman, a rational commitment to Allah (SWT) — His presence, His instructions, His commands, and His counsel — that begins in the mind and settles in the heart as a conviction, leading thereby to transformational behavioral changes. Insan’s personal moral commitment to his Creator and sustainer can never be complete unless he takes it into the contentious social domain and engages in a lifelong struggle to convince others to adapt to Allah (SWT) and finally be free of any subservience to the self-possessed human rivals to His power presence.
As the divine Book of guidance, the Qur’an also addresses in this surah and others (Surah al-Isra’, Surah Luqman, and others) the obligations of children toward parents. How many sleepless nights have parents spent to ensure their children are comfortable and their needs looked after? In infancy, children need help; parents provide it unreservedly, sacrificing their own comfort. When parents grow old, children are expected to reciprocate the kindness by providing material and moral support. such help should not be offered grudgingly because in old age, parents become infirm and may need physical, emotional, as well as financial assistance. Islam makes it incumbent on children to look after their parents, not abandon them in old people’s homes as is done in Western materialistic societies, where a person who can no longer produce has altogether lost his human value, and thus must be caged in some disconnected institution away from the rest of society. When children are socialized to be kind and considerate to their parents as an emotional compensation for the care they received in their helpless years of infancy, they learn valuable lessons about extending a hand of comfort and solicitude to those in society who need help (because those people may have contributed to the security of the child’s family in a way that is unknown or unfathomable to the child, but is only possible in a cohesive society), and they learn how Allah (SWT) has integrated His care for humanity in a sunan that integrates all members of society, regardless of wherewithal, into the emotional security of the extended human family. The surah makes this point very clear. It is even more powerfully captured in Surah al-Isra’ where Allah (SWT) says,
For your Sustainer has ordained that you shall conform to none but Him [Allah]. And serve [your] parents superlatively. Should one of them, or both, attain to old age in your care, never express annoyance to them or scold them, but [always] speak to them with reverent speech, and spread over them humbly the wings of your tenderness, and say, “o my Sustainer! Bestow Your grace upon them, even as they sustained me when I was young” (17:23–24).
That is, one of the measures of a Muslim’s ‘ibadah to Allah (SWT) is his care for his parents. fortunate indeed are those who have the loving hands of parents over their heads.
This surah also warns against getting puffed up if one acquires wealth or high status in a life that is unfortunately, but nonetheless frequently, measured by material grades. oblivious of the reality that whatever material possessions one has acquired are a gift from Allah (SWT), a person may get carried away, thinking his fortune to be the result of his own effort or inherent superiority. This is the Iblisi mindset (Iblis claimed “superiority” because he was created from fire while man was created from dust) that undermines human-to-human relations. race, color, social status, or geographic origin becomes the basis for division and undermines human interaction and peace. Arrogance degrades the human personality and turns it into an exclusivist entity while Allah (SWT) wants His servants to be inclusive social beings so that the bounties He has bestowed upon them can be shared with those who are less fortunate, “And those in whose wealth is a recognized right for such as ask [for help] and such as are deprived [of what is good in life]…” (70:24–25). Thus, the love and care that circulate in a family are extended to total strangers by virtue of their being part of the broader humanity. This is the message that is so eloquently and powerfully conveyed in this surah.
But Allah (SWT) also warns the Muslims against being blind to the machinations of their enemies because these are first and foremost the enemies of Allah (SWT). If they cannot be friends of Allah (SWT), when none else is more worthy of their friendship, how can they be friends of committed Muslims? This is what the noble Messenger of Allah (SAW) and his small group of companions faced in Madinah. True to their vain and egotistical character, the yahudi chiefs ramped up their hostility against the final Messenger of Allah (SAW), as they had done with other prophets sent to them, even though he tried unsuccessfully to cultivate friendly relations with them. He invited them to al-Masjid al-Nabawi and held discussions with them to persuade them to accept the message of Islam, which came from the same divine source as their own books. The prophet’s (SAW) advent was foretold in their books and they knew he would appear in this area, hence their settlement in Madinah and the surrounding areas. Based on their designation as Ahl al-Kitab (people of the Book), he conferred special status on them by inviting them as the only non-Arabian signatories to the Covenant of Madinah, but their narrow-minded elitism fed by their “chosen-people” complex prevented them from appreciating the sincere gestures of friendship extended in their direction. They preferred to align themselves with the Makkan mushriks and the local munafiqs rather than the noble prophet (SAW), the bearer of Allah’s (SWT) last and final message. Their mischievous behavior is exposed in this surah, as indeed in other surahs of this exquisite Book, and Allah (SWT) provides instructions on how to manage this transcendental yahudi problem.
Human beings can only become social beings if their lives a relived in conformity with the commands of Allah (SWT), in total obedience to Him. When Allah (SWT) becomes central to human affairs, then tranquility, peace, and concern for the “other” will become central to human engagement and contact. This cannot be achieved if humans set up rivals with Allah (SWT). By elevating in importance and obedience man-made laws above divine laws, people are guilty of shirk — human competition with Allah (SWT) in the area of dominion (ownership and the rules that apply to distribution and profusion) and governance (translating a moral reference point into a legal system). only He is the lawgiver, no one else. unless human beings internalize this fundamental point and behave accordingly, they will be guilty of creating peer relationships with the Almighty and the All-Knowing, and this is the primary reason for all the suffering, death, and destruction in the world today.
Regrettably, man has set himself up as a contender to Allah’s (SWT) power (nastaghfir-Allah); laws are made based on the likes and interests of man at any given time. In reality, only a tiny elite or oligarchy has usurped all the power and resources, and by virtue of acquiring copious wealth, they manipulate the legal and military levers of power to further enrich themselves while impoverishing the already poor multitude. This would not be possible if divine laws governed society because everyone would be dealt with equally, and the distribution of power and wealth would be the right of those who do not have, while not being a favor done by those who have. Allah (SWT) has no favorites but under man-made laws, the rich can hire the best lawyers to subvert the legal system, purchase the best democracy that money can buy, and subsidize a national military to secure, under force of arms, their ill-gotten gains. rampant and global injustice and oppression come from a human power culture that has institutionalized the corrupt and unjust exercise of power by disseminating a false social narrative about the way things are, only achievable by foreclosing on revelation as a measure of human performance.
When the legitimate needs of the vast majority are not met, some are forced to turn to other (unsavory) means to fulfill them. Instead of recognizing the inherent injustice of the system that leads to impoverishment, the powers that be institute increasingly oppressive laws to further punish an already worn-out people. In the us, for instance, an estimated 2.3 million prisoners fill the socalled correctional facilities. Were it not for the Department of Homeland security, the Department of Corrections would be the fastest growing government agency. This is the highest number of people imprisoned anywhere in the world, surpassing even the number of those incarcerated in China, with its 1.2 billion population. The us is not a poor country; at $15 trillion, its Gross Domestic product (GDP) is the highest in the world. This wealth, however, is concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority — the 1%, or even less — while ordinary people are left to struggle for survival. This is the direct result of man-made laws. Not a dissimilar situation existed at the time of the noble Messenger (SAW) when the rich exploited the poor and the weak, albeit not in as sophisticated a manner as today. Hence it is not surprising that those with vested interests most vehemently opposed the message of Islam delivered by the Messenger of Allah (SAW). The same clique of people, by manipulating the weak-minded to create hate films and derogatory cartoons under the cover of free speech, is trying to denigrate and destroy the character and person of the prophet (SAW) today.2 Despite having control over the wealth, the media, and the militaries of the world, this 1% is so insecure that it feels threatened by the danger of the Muslims converting their religious attachment to Muhammad (SAW) to the more consequential political attachment to Muhammad (SAW). Would that this happened en masse in our lifetimes.
The Qur’anic message, while emphasizing brotherhood and establishing an environment of caring and sharing, also commands Muslims to be ready to defend their rights including taking up arms against the taghut and other oppressors. Muslims are not told to be pacifists; they must not initiate hostilities — no preemptive strikes or wars of convenience are permitted to Muslims — but they are given permission to defend themselves and others who are oppressed, their din, and their honor by taking up arms. Muslims must not show weakness in the face of external or internal threats or aggression. It was this vigilance that enabled the early Muslims to survive against great odds. These lessons in the surah are a comprehensive guide to life. If Muslims internalize them, they would be able to achieve the public respect and reverence that are their due as bearers of Allah’s (SWT) covenant and final message.
As with all previous volumes, this volume also has been edited by Br. Afeef Khan with great diligence and care. He has clarified many concepts and ideas that may otherwise have escaped the attention of some readers of Imam Muhammad al-‘Asi’s tafsir. A good editor is able to foresee how to read the author’s mind and connect the message more fully with readers. Br. Afeef Khan has done this admirably. special thanks is also due to Br. Imran Khan and Sr. Marjan Asi for proofreading this volume.
We hope our readers would find this tafsir as exciting as the effort we dedicated to editing and producing it. We are beginning to pick up the pace and are already on the eighth volume with hopes of bringing out more volumes soon. This is a considerably prolific project, requiring an extensive time commitment, but we are grateful to Allah (SWT) for granting us the opportunity to be involved in such a monumental undertaking. We pray to Him to accept our humble efforts in understanding His divine message, the strength in fulfilling this task, and in conveying it to those in the English-speaking world. Amin.
Director, Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Rajab 24, 1433 AH (6-15-2012 CE)
1. the one percent (1%) – originally this designation was used for a 2006 documentary about the growing wealth gap between America’s wealthy elite and the bulk of the overall citizenry. later the phrase was picked up and used to good effect by the occupy Wall street Movement (2011), which has portrayed the 1% as the ultra-wealthy who have the capacity to use their wealth to accumulate power by paying academic institutions to build rationalizing narratives for the accumulation and concentration of wealth, by subsidizing think tanks that develop policy based on these narratives, by influencing legislation with lobbying activities such that these policies are implemented, and by supporting with large donations political candidates who would vote for such implementation. All of these activities, in addition to a bevy of accountants, lawyers, and “risk” analysts, are only affordable by the 1%, and thus the impact of what they do is far greater than the vote of a single citizen or an organized group of citizens in a voting bloc.
2. Refers to the film, The Innocence of Muslims (2012), made ostensibly by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian with numerous criminal convictions living in the united states. for denigrating the character of Muhammad (SAW), and thereby degrading the din of Islam, the film generated mass protests by Muslims all over the world. A reaction to the film may have been responsible, in part, for the killing of the us ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, along with a staff worker and two security contractors. reference here is also made to the french satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, that published several crude caricatures of the prophet (SAW) after characterizing itself as a defender of free speech and a denouncer of religious backwardness. The french government banned any demonstrations by Muslims who wanted to protest the publishing of the cartoons. France also is one of the 17 countries (Austria, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and Switzerland) that penalize with a prison sentence anyone who questions or denies the official (Jewish) narrative about the Holocaust.