I have received a question by email about the following verses:
He is the One who knows the unseen (ghayb), and He reveals His unseen (ghayb) to no one (72.26), except to the messenger He is pleased with, so He sends guards before of him and behind him (72.27) so that He may know that they (the messengers) have delivered the messages of their Lord. He encompasses what they have and He has reckoned everything in number. (72.28)
The question in the word of the enquirer is this: “Verse 26 says that Allah (swt) knows all ghaib and does not disclose this knowledge to anyone (including the angels). So verse 26 seems to imply that Allah (swt) would have already known if the message was delivered by the messenger to the people…so why does verse 28 says “so that He may know“”?
This is a very clever observation, and the answer requires a discussion of a number of verses and concepts.
I should first note that the Qur’an stresses in various places that Allah is omniscient and that He knows the “ghayb (unseen). The latter is one term that the Qur’an uses in a number of verses to refer to God’s knowledge of everything in the past, present, and future. I have written an article about The Concept of “Ghayb” (Unseen) in the Qur’an. But there are many other verses that emphasize God’s absolute knowledge of everything that do not use this term. For instance, there are 16 verses that describe Allah as being “bikulli shay’in ‘alīm” which translates as “He is knowledgeable of everything,” “He is aware of everything,” or, less literally, “He knows everything.” These verses are 2.29, 2.231, 2.282, 4.176, 5.97, 6.101, 8.75, 9.115, 24.35, 24.64, 29.62, 42.12, 49.16, 57.3, 58.7, and 64.11. There are many other verses that convey the same meaning using different wordings.
Similarly, verse 72.28 is not the only one that uses the term “liya‘lam” with reference to God. There also the following verses:
If a wound touches you (O you who believe!), a similar wound already has touched the other people. These are days which we make to alternate amongst people so that Allah may know who are the believers and that He may take witnesses from among you. Allah does not love the evildoers. (3.140)
What befell you the day when the two armies met was by Allah’s permission, so that He may know the believers (3.166) and He may know those who act hypocritically, having been said to them: “Come to fight in Allah’s way,” or “repel [the enemy],” they said: “If we knew how to fight we would surely follow you.” They were that day nearer to disbelief than they were to faith. They say with their mouths what is not in their hearts, but Allah knows best what they hide. (3.167)
O you who believe! Allah will try you with something of the game that your hands and your lances take, so that Allah may know who fears Him on faith. Whoever transgresses after that, there awaits him a painful chastisement. (5.94)
We sent Our Messengers with clear signs, and We sent down with them the Book and the Balance so that people might uphold justice. We sent down iron, in which is both great might and many uses for people. So that Allah might know who helps Him and His Messengers on faith. Allah is mighty, impregnable. (57.25)
There are another two verses that use the similar term “laya‘lam.” This term, however, has a slightly different meaning from “liya‘lam.” The letter “l” in “laya‘lam” is used for making an oath. These are the two verses:
We tried those that were before them. Allah will surely know the truthful and He will surely know the liars. (29.3)
Allah will surely know those who believe and He will surely know the hypocrites. (29.11)
Interestingly, exegetes of the Qur’an have felt the need to comment on the use of the expression “so that He may know” in 72.28 but not in the other verses! Many have suggested that “He” here does not stand for God but “Prophet Muhammad” or “Satan.” Other views have suggested that the referent is “the messengers” or “the disbelievers,” even though the pronoun in question is singular. Obviously, scholars give different interpretations to the verse when using different meanings for the pronoun.
There are verses that use other variations of the Arabic verb “ya‘lam (know)” in a similar meaning, like this:
We will try you until na‘lam (We know) those among you who fight strenuously and the patient. (47.31)
None of the verses above suggest that Allah will know only when the events described in those verses take place. This is one verse that stresses God’s foreknowledge of all people:
We know those who have gone before and those who will come later. (15.24)
The wordings in those verses refer to the realization of God’s foreknowledge. God talks in those verses about the realization of knowledge from the unseen, that only He has access to, into knowledge in the visible world that many can acquire. The classical exegete al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1273) puts it very succinctly when he says in his commentary on verse 72.28: “so that He knows that by witnessing as He knew it from the unseen.” Put differently, the Qur’an distinguishes between the world of the unseen (ghayb), and the world that is accessible to our senses, which scholars have called the world of “shahāda” – a term derived from the verb “shahada (to witness)”. Verses that talk about God coming to know something are referring to the realization of His knowledge from the unseen into knowledge in the visible world.
I would like to comment a little more specifically about 72.26-28. The “raṣada (guards)” in 72.27 refers to angels whom Allah sends to protect the integrity of the revelation so that the prophet, that is any prophet, does not get confused by Satan as the latter tries to communicate to him suggestions that could get mixed with the divine revelation. This is the same protection that is referred to in this verse:
We have not sent any messenger or prophet before you [O Muhammad!] but that when he wished, Satan cast into his wish. But Allah yansakhu (annuls) what Satan casts, then Allah confirms His verses. Verily, Allah is all-knowing, all-wise. (22.52)
This is one of the main verses that is said to confirm the veracity of the doctrine of “naskh (abrogation). In my book Abrogation in the Qur’an and Islamic Law: A Critical Study of the Concept of “Naskh” and its Impact, I discuss this verse in detail and show that this is not its meaning, as I have pointed out above.
To sum up the thesis of this article: history is the realization of God’s foreknowledge.