Dec 262012

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.

Copyright © 2012 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

May 292011
The term “sunna” occurs fourteen times in nine Qur’anic verses. It is used in four verses in the expression “sunnat al-awwalin” or the “sunna of the ancients.” The term “sunna” is usually interpreted as meaning “example” or “fate,” but it is a more general concept that means “way,” “practice,” “course,” “tradition,” “habit,” “state,” or “situation.” So “sunnat al-awwalin” should mean “the way or practice of the ancients.” These are three of those four verses:

Say [O Muhammad!] to the disbelievers that if they desist then they will be forgiven what has past; but if they return, then the way of the ancients (sunnat al-awwalin) has passed away. (8.38)

They (the disbelievers) will not believe in it (the Qur’an), and the way of the ancients (sunnat al-awwalin) has passed away. (15.13)

Nothing prevented people from believing when the guidance came to them and from asking pardon of their Lord other than [arguing for] the way of the ancients (sunnat al-awwalin) to come upon them or for the torment to come upon them before their eyes. (18.55)

The term “sunna” appears eight times in five verses in the expression “sunnat Allah” or the “way of Allah.” One of these verses has both expressions “sunnat al-awwalin” and “sunnat Allah”:

Do they (the disbelievers) wait for other than the way of the ancients (sunnat al-awwalin), but you will not find any alteration in the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) and you will not find any change in the way of Allah (sunnat Allah). (from 35.43)

Some exegetes understand the reference to “sunnat al-awwalin” as referring to God’s punishment of those who rejected the messengers that He sent to them. In this case, this expression could be translated as the “fate of the ancients.”

These are the other four verses in which “sunnat Allah” appears:

There is no fault in the Prophet in seeking what Allah has ordained for him — the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) with those who passed away before. The commandment of Allah is a determinate decree. (33.38)

This is] the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) with those who passed away before, and you will not find any alteration in the way of Allah (sunnat Allah). (33.62)

Their faith did not help them when they faced our might; [this is] the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) which applied in the past to His servants, and there the disbelievers lost. (40.85)

[This is] the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) which applied in the past, and you will not find any alteration in the way of Allah (sunnat Allah). (48.23)

Finally, this verse uses the term “sunna” twice, first in reference to the way of the messengers that God sent before Muhammad and then in the expression “sunnatuna (Our way),” meaning God’s way:

[This is] the way (sunna) of those whom we sent [as messengers] before you, and you will not find any change in Our way (sunnatuna). (17.77)

To recap, in the nine verses in which the term “sunna” appears, it is used nine times to refer to the sunna of Allah, four times for the sunna of the people of old, and once for the sunna of the previous messengers of Allah.

So the Qur’an does not use the term “sunna” in the sense of the way/practice of Prophet Muhammad. The closest that the Qur’an comes to this use is in verse 17.73 which talks about the sunna of the messengers before Muhammad. Naturally, the reference here is to one sunna or way, as the essence of religion never changed, as so it must apply to Prophet Muhammad also. But this reference must refer to the one set of general practices and values that all Messengers followed, as commanded by God, rather than actions that are specific to any one of them. So the distinct meaning of the term “sunna” as the actions and deeds of Prophet Muhammad specifically is not found in the Qur’an. This observation, however, does not change the fact that the Qur’an commands the Muslim to follow and emulate the Prophet:

You have had a good example in the Messenger of Allah for the person who hopes for Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah much. (33.21)

This command, of course, endorses the general behavior of the Prophet, both word and action, which is effectively what his Sunna means.

There are twelve verses that instruct the Muslims to “obey” the Prophet. To stress that obeying the Prophet is essential for obeying God, eleven of the twelve verses order the Muslims to “obey Allah and the Messenger” (3.32, 3.132), “obey Allah and obey the Messenger” (4.59, 4.92, 24.54, 47.33, 64.12), and “obey Allah and His Messenger” (8.1, 8.20, 8.46, 58.13). The twelfth verse tells the Muslim: “Obey the Messenger that you may be shown mercy” (24.56).

There are many more verses that command the Muslims to follow the Prophet. These verses confirm that the Prophet set by his words and deeds the best example for the Muslims, as God instructed him to do. This is why learning and understanding the behaviour of the Prophet is necessary for the Muslim. But we should always be aware of the fact the Sunna of the Prophet has never been as accessible after the Prophet as the Qur’an. Allah promised in the Qur’an that He will protect the Qur’an from being lost or changed, but He did not make such a promise about the Sunna of the Prophet. A number of factors affected what was written about and attributed to the Prophet over the decades and centuries after him. Indeed, various supposed details of the Sunna have been the subject of considerable disagreement among Muslims scholars from the early times after the Prophet. This fact should not stop us from being interested in learning the Sunna of the Prophet, but it should make us aware that this process is difficult and fraught with uncertainty. The suggestion that there is any source other than the Qur’an that we can fully trust about the history of the Prophet is in contradiction with history. To seriously study and examine the available sources of the Sunna of the Messenger of Allah is one way in which the Muslim discharges his/her duty to follow the Prophet.

The Qur’anic Verses that Contain the Term “Sunna”

قُل لِّلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا إِن يَنتَهُوا يُغْفَرْ لَهُم مَّا قَدْ سَلَفَ وَإِن يَعُودُوا فَقَدْ مَضَتْ سُنَّتُ الْأَوَّلِينَ. ﴿8.38﴾

لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ بِهِ وَقَدْ خَلَتْ سُنَّةُ الْأَوَّلِينَ. ﴿15.13﴾

وَمَا مَنَعَ النَّاسَ أَن يُؤْمِنُوا إِذْ جَاءَهُمُ الْهُدَىٰ وَيَسْتَغْفِرُوا رَبَّهُمْ إِلَّا أَن تَأْتِيَهُمْ سُنَّةُ الْأَوَّلِينَ أَوْ يَأْتِيَهُمُ الْعَذَابُ قُبُلًا. ﴿18.55﴾

فَهَلْ يَنظُرُونَ إِلَّا سُنَّتَ الْأَوَّلِينَ فَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّتِ اللَّـهِ تَبْدِيلًا وَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّتِ اللَّـهِ تَحْوِيلًا. ﴿35.43﴾

مَّا كَانَ عَلَى النَّبِيِّ مِنْ حَرَجٍ فِيمَا فَرَضَ اللَّـهُ لَهُ سُنَّةَ اللَّـهِ فِي الَّذِينَ خَلَوْا مِن قَبْلُ وَكَانَ أَمْرُ اللَّـهِ قَدَرًا مَّقْدُورًا. ﴿33.38﴾

سُنَّةَ اللَّـهِ فِي الَّذِينَ خَلَوْا مِن قَبْلُ وَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّةِ اللَّـهِ تَبْدِيلًا. ﴿33.62﴾

فَلَمْ يَكُ يَنفَعُهُمْ إِيمَانُهُمْ لَمَّا رَأَوْا بَأْسَنَا سُنَّتَ اللَّـهِ الَّتِي قَدْ خَلَتْ فِي عِبَادِهِ وَخَسِرَ هُنَالِكَ الْكَافِرُونَ. ﴿40.85﴾

سُنَّةَ اللَّـهِ الَّتِي قَدْ خَلَتْ مِن قَبْلُ وَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّةِ اللَّـهِ تَبْدِيلًا. ﴿48.23﴾

سُنَّةَ مَن قَدْ أَرْسَلْنَا قَبْلَكَ مِن رُّسُلِنَا وَلَا تَجِدُ لِسُنَّتِنَا تَحْوِيلًا. ﴿17.77﴾


Copyright © 2011 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Mar 122011

The term “hadith” is one of the most used Islamic terms by both Muslims and non-Muslims. But despite its importance there is often a good deal of ambiguity about what it exactly means. It is often used inconsistently and inaccurately. This article aims at clarifying the exact meaning of this term.

The noun “hadith” occurs in the Qur’an twenty three times (4.42, 4.78, 4.87, 4.140, 6.68, 7.185, 12.111, 18.6, 20.9, 31.6, 33.53, 39.23, 45.6, 51.24, 52.34, 53.59, 56.81, 66.3, 68.44, 77.50, 79.15, 85.17, 88.1). Its plural form “ahadith” is found five times (12.6, 12.21, 12.101, 23.44, 34.19). In these twenty eight verses, the term broadly means “narrative,” “story,” “speech,” or “news,” which may or may not be religious. For instance, God describes the Qur’an as “the best of hadith” (39.23), refers to the story of Moses as the “hadith of Moses” (20.9), and says about nations that He destroyed for rejecting the messengers He sent to them “We have made them ahadith” (23.44). Other variations of this term occur in another eight Qur’anic verses (2.76, 18.70, 20.113, 21.2, 26.5, 65.1, 93.11, 99.4).

Of the thirty six occurrences of the term “hadith” only one is linked to something specific to Prophet Muhammad. This is verse 93.11 where the Prophet is commanded by God to speak about His favor to him, i.e. making him a Prophet: “As for the favor of your Lord, haddith (speak about).” But even in this solitary instance, the verb “haddith” is used in its generic meaning. Indeed, the verb is used in another verse to refer to the speech of disbelievers (2.76).

But the term “hadith” has acquired in Islamic literature the very specific meaning of reports about what the Prophet said, did, approved, and disapproved of, explicitly or implicitly. Indeed, hadith is considered as the main source of the “Sunna” or “customary behavior” of the Prophet. The other source is the “sira” or “biography” of the Prophet. It is this technical meaning of the term “hadith” that the rest of this article focuses on.

Any hadith consists of two parts, the first is known as “isnad” or “sanad,” and the second is known as “matn.” The generic meaning of “isnad,” whose plural is “asanid,” is “support” or “foundation.” But in the terminology of hadith it refers to the chain of transmitters of the hadith. These narrators are called “isnad” because they provide the “support” for the historicity of the hadith.

Lexically, “matn” denotes the visible part of something. In the technical language of Islamic literature, “matn” denotes the saying, behavior, or incident that is being reported by the chain of transmitters. To illustrate these concepts, this is a hadith about using the visibility of the new moon to determine the beginning and the end of the fasting month of Ramadan:

Yahya bin Bukair told us on that al-Laith said, that ‘Uqail said, that ibn Shihab said, that Salim said, that ibn ‘Umar said that he heard the Messenger of Allah say: “When you see it start your fast and when you see it break your fast. If it was cloudy, make an estimate [for the start of end of the fasting month].” (Bukhari, 1900)

The chain of transmission, or isnad, is marked in red whereas what is being reported, or matn, is in green.

Hadith narratives at times quote the Prophet directly:

Sa‘id bin Yahya bin Sa‘id al-Qurashi told us that his father said, that Abu Burda bin Abdullah bin Abi Burda said, that Abi Burda said, that Abi Musa said that people asked: “O Messenger of Allah! Whose practice of Islam is the best?” He said: “The one who does not cause harm to Muslims by his tongue or hand.” (Bukhari, 11)

A hadith may not quote the Prophet directly but report what he was heard saying or seen doing:

‘Abda bin ‘Abdullah told us that ‘Abdul Samad said, that ‘Abdullah bin al-Muthanna said, that Thumama bin ‘Abdullah said, that Anas said about the Prophet that when he said something he repeated it three times until it was fully understood and that when he encountered people he greeted them three times. (Bukhari, 95)

A hadith may show the Prophet’s tacit approval of something, as in this example in which the Messenger does not stop Muslims from keeping his cut hair:

Muhammad bin Abdul Rahim told us that Sa‘id bin Sulaiman said, that ‘Abbad said, that ibn ‘Awn said, that ibn Sirin said, that Anas said that when the Messenger of Allah had his hair cut Abu Talha was the first to take his hair. (Bukhari, 171)

But even in Islamic literature the term “hadith” has been used in a broader sense. Some of the reports found in the collections of hadith detail things that “Sahaba (Companions)” of the Prophet said or did, rather than the Messenger himself. At times, this may be a statement reflecting the view of a Companion:

‘Ali said: “Speak to people about what they know. Do you want them to accuse Allah and His Messenger of lying?” It was ‘Ubaidullah bin Musa on the authority of Ma‘ruf bin Kharrabudh, on the authority of Abil Tufail, on the authority of ‘Ali [who reported this] (Bukhari, 127)

The implication of such hadiths is that the teaching conveyed by the Companion reflects what he learned from the Prophet.

It should be noted, however, that the term “Companion” is used rather loosely by scholars. While some individuals, such as ‘Ali bin Abi Talib who transmitted the hadith above, spent many years in the company of the Prophet, others are called Companions for only seeing the Prophet! For instance, in his book al-Isaba fi Ma‘rifat al-Sahaba (Identifying the Companions Correctly), ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani (d. 852/1448) calls “Companion” any “Muslim who met the Prophet, believed in him, and died while still a believer.”

Another interesting feature of hadith 127 is that its isnad follows the matn, which is the opposite of the normal situation.

The following hadith reports a statement by a Companion rather than something the Prophet said, but because it is about a pledge given by that Companion to the Prophet, the implication is that the Companion’s words and actions were approved by the Prophet:

Musaddad told us that Yahya said, that Ismail said, that Qais bin Abi Hazim said, that Jarir bin ‘Abdullah said: “I pledged to the Messenger of Allah that I will perform the prayer, pay the obligatory alms, and give good advice to every Muslim.” (Bukhari, 57)

In the text of hadiths, variations of “hadith” are also used in the generic sense of this term, i.e. not referring specifically to sayings of the Prophet. For instance, the term “haddathana (told us)” is frequently used with individuals who are quoted as the source of hadith. In fact, all of the hadiths quoted above use the term “haddathana (told us)” in reference to at least one of the narrators.

Another feature of the hadith literature worth noting is that a hadith may exist in a number of different wordings and different chains of transmission. For example, this hadith is clearly a different version of the hadith above:

Ya‘qub bin Ibrahim told us that Hushaim said, that Sayyar said, that al-Sha‘bi said, that Jarir bin ‘Abdullah said: “I pledged to the Prophet listening and obeying, so he taught me to add ‘as much as I can, and to give good advice to every Muslim’” (Bukhari, 7402)

Significatly, the last part of the statement that hadith 57 attributes to Jarir appears in hadith 7402 as something the Prophet said.

Unlike the Qur’an whose authenticity is accepted by all Muslims, a hadith may or may not be authentic. Muslim denominations differ on which hadiths are authentic and which are not. Sunni Muslims have particularly high regard for the two hadith collections of Bukhari (194-256/810-870) and his student Muslim (206-261/821-875). They call them “sahih (correct)” to reflect their almost complete confidence that they contain authentic hadiths only. Other highly regarded hadith collections are those of Abu Dawud (202-275/817-888), ibn Maja (209-273/824-887), al-Tirmidhi (209-279/824-892), and al-Nasai (215-303 / 830-915). All six were compiled as late as about two and a half centuries after the Prophet, although they relied on earlier sources.

Shia scholars do not have as much confidence in those sources, in particular as they contain many narratives attributed to Companions of the Prophet that the Shais do not trust because they think they showed animosity toward ‘Ali bin Abi Talib — the Prophet’s close Companion and cousin, fourth caliph, and the first Shia imam. The Shias rely on other compilations of hadith and the accounts related through their imams. One of the most respected hadith books by the Shias is al-Kafi by Muhammad al-Kulaini (250-329/864-940).

While there are clear differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims in their assessment of the authenticity of hadith collections, differences about hadith are not confined to the Sunni/Shia divide. Scholars within any denomination have also differed on whether certain hadiths are genuine or not. Yet because of the importance of hadith as the main source of the Sunna, which is considered the second source of legislation in Islam, Muslim scholars have developed a complex system for critiquing hadiths. This system classifies hadiths into a number of different categories of historical reliability. The classification system aims to describe the likelihood of each hadith being authentic, i.e. how likely that the hadith accurately describes a historical event. There are many categories that range from the “sahih (correct/authentic)” and “hasan (agreeable)” to the “dha‘if (weak)” and “maudu‘ (forged).”

The hadith classification system focuses almost exclusively on the reliability of the chain of transmission. For instance, if one of the narrators in the isnad lacked credibility or is known to have lied then that would discredit the hadith. Similarly, if the hadith was originally reported on the authority of someone who did not meet the Prophet then that would put the hadith in a lower category, and so on.

This near complete concentration of hadith criticism on the chain of transmission reflects the scholars’ view that they could not tell whether a reported event or saying by the Prophet is likely to have happened on the basis of its details, i.e. matn. They could not claim to have the ability to judge, for instance, whether the Prophet could have given a particular instruction or not, because that might implicitly be the equivalent of claiming a level of knowledge that is comparable to that of the Prophet. There are some hadiths that were challenged on the basis of their matns despite the reliability of their chains of transmission — for instance, if they were found to be in conflict with other accepted hadiths — but these are relatively small in number. Significantly, in these cases, scholars are being “forced” to consider the matn, which is a completely different approach from giving matn at least as important a position as isnad in hadith criticism.

In my view, relying almost completely on the credibility of the chain or transmitters and not examining the substance of the hadith to take a view on its credibility is an extreme position that is highly insufficient and likely to mislead:

  • First, examining the chain of transmission can at times allow the scholar to form a firm view on its reliability, but this is not always the case. It is often an extremely difficult task that is fraught with difficulties some of which are insurmountable. Let’s take a hadith whose narrators are considered to be reliable and who are known to have met each other, so they could have heard the matn of the hadith from each other. It is still perfectly possible that the matn of this hadith might be unhistorical. This could be the result of an innocent mistake by one of the narrators or outright forgery. The older any such mistake or forgery the more difficult it is to spot it by later scholars.
  • Second, the Qur’an has a wealth of information and principles that can be used to assess the credibility of the matn of any hadith, so one is not relying completely on their own judgment. The Qur’an, after all, is the word of God which can be used to examine the reliability and accuracy of any other statement, including what people have attributed to the Prophet.
  • Third, one can reject the historicity of any hadith whose matn looks illogical, unreasonable or absurd. The status of Muhammad as the Messenger of God would rule out the possibility of him behaving in the way some hadiths claim or making the kind of statements that are found in some hadith reports.

The science of hadith criticism that Muslim scholars have meticulously developed over the centuries has provided scrutiny of the numerous hadiths. But inevitable limitations in this human system mean complete submission to it was always going to be the wrong approach. The Qur’an is indispensable when assessing the reliability of the matn of the hadith. Similarly, any hadith that attributes an unreasonable or absurd statement or behavior to the Prophet should be rejected regardless of the chain of transmission attached to it. Hadith criticism over-relies on the chain of transmission to the point of making the matn almost irrelevant. This, in my view, has been a serious flaw in hadith criticism which has resulted in the acceptance of a large number of inauthentic hadiths.

Copyright © 2011 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Aug 312010
Many Qur’anic verses make it absolutely clear that faith is one of the foundations of the belief system of the Muslim. One Qur’anic term that particularly captures this fact is “ghayb.” This term, which occurs 49 times in 48 verses, shares the same root with “ghaba,” which means “disappeared” or “was absent,” and gha’ib, which means “absent.” However, it is used in the Qur’an in this specific sense only twice. The first time is when the repentant wife of al-‘Aziz denied that she would tell lies about Prophet Joseph in his absence:

That [I said] so that he (Joseph) knows that I have not betrayed him in his absence, and because Allah does not guide the scheming of the betrayers. (12.52)

The second instance is when God says that the good wives “hafidhatin lil-ghayb,” which means “they honor their husbands during their absence.”

In the remaining 47 occurrences, “ghayb” means “the unseen,” “the invisible,” or “the unknown.” In ten of these, the term “ghayb” is contrasted with “shahada,” which is derived from the verb “shahad” and refers to things that can be “witnessed” or “seen.” In these verses God describes Himself as “alim al-ghayb wa al-shahada” or “the One who knows the unseen/unknown and the visible/knowable.” This is one of those verses (also 6.73, 9.94, 9.105, 13.9, 23.92, 32.6, 59.22, 62.8, 64.18):

Say: “O Allah, the One who knows the unseen and the visible (’alim al-ghayb wa al-shahada)! You will judge between Your servants about what they dispute about.” (39.46)

The Qur’an describes “ghayb” as something that is known to God only:

With Him are the keys of the unseen (ghayb). No one knows them other than Him. He knows what is in land and sea. No leaf falls but He knows it; nor there is a grain in the darkness of the earth or a green or dry thing but in a manifest Book. (6.59)

In one verse, God derides the disbelievers for behaving as if they know the future in their denial of the verity of the message of the Prophet:

Has he knowledge of the unseen (ghayb) so he can see [the future]? (53.35)

Even Prophet Muhammad is instructed to tell people that he has no knowledge of the unseen:

Say [O Muhammad!]: “I do not say to you that I have the treasures of Allah nor that I know the unseen (ghayb). And I do not say to you that I am an angel. I only follow what is revealed to me.” Say [O Muhammad!]: “Are the blind and the seeing equal? Do you not think?” (6.50)

Say [O Muhammad!]: “I cannot control any benefit or harm for myself save what Allah wills. Had I known the unseen (ghayb), I would have revelled in good and no harm would have touched me. I am only a warner and announcer of good news for people who believe.” (7.188)

Even though the Prophet was confident of God’s forthcoming support when challenged by the disbelievers, he could not tell when it would arrive:

They (the disbelievers) say: “Why would a sign not be sent down to him from his Lord?” Say [O Muhammad!]: “The unseen (ghayb) is only Allah’s. So wait and I will be waiting with you.” (10.20)

But God reveals certain things from the unseen to His messengers:

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 knows 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)

Allah was not going to leave the believers in the state you are in until He distinguishes the vile from the good. Allah would not let you know the unseen (ghayb), but He chooses whom He wills of His messengers. So believe in Allah and His messengers. If you believe and be pious then you will have a great reward. (3.179)

For instance, God revealed to Prophet Muhammad knowledge of past events which he could not have known about, so it is “ghayb.” After recounting in the Qur’an that He gave Prophet Zechariah custody of the little Mary and other events, God goes on to tell Prophet Muhammad:

These are tidings of the unknown (ghayb) which We reveal to you. You were not present with them when they cast lots with their sticks [to decide] who of them should become the guardian of Mary, nor were you present with them when they quarrelled [thereupon]. (3.44)

Having revealed to the Prophet the story of Prophet Noah, God reminds Muhammad that this is knowledge that neither he nor his people knew:

These are tidings of the unknown (ghayb) which We reveal to you. You did not know them nor did your people before this [the Qur’an]. So be patient; the [prosperous] end is for the pious. (11.49)

This is how God addresses the Prophet after revealing to him the story of Prophet Joseph and his brothers:

These are tidings of the unknown (ghayb) which We reveal to you. You were not with them [Joseph’s brother] when they agreed on their course of action, when they were scheming. (12.102)

Similarly, all future events belong to the unseen and unknown. No one could have known about the Day of Judgment because it is an unpredictable future event, but God revealed this knowledge to His messengers to warn people and get them to be prepared for it:

Those who disbelieve say: “The Hour will not come to us.” Say [O Muhammad!]: “Yes, by my Lord, it shall come to you. He is the One who knows the unseen (ghayb). Not the weight of an atom in the heavens or in the earth shall escape from him, nor smaller or bigger than that but is in a manifest book.” (34.3)

In the following verse, God’s promise to the believers that they will enter paradise on the Day of Judgment is described as a promise about the unseen, because it is about knowledge of the future. Here “ghayb” appears in the form of “bil-ghayb.” The latter translates literally but incorrectly as “by the unseen,” but its accurate translation is “as a matter of faith”:

The gardens of Eden which ar-Rahman (Allah) promised His servants as a matter of faith (bil-ghayb). His promise shall surely come to pass. (19.61)

So the belief in God includes having faith in things that the person cannot know or verify. This is further seen in eight verses in which the term “bil-ghayb” is used to describe how the believers fear God (3.94, 21.49, 35.18, 36.11, 50.33, 67.12), believe in Him (2.3), or support Him and His messenger (57.25):

[The pious] are those who believe as a matter of faith (bil-ghayb), perform prayer, and spend of what We have provided them. (2.3) And who believe in what is revealed to you and what was revealed before you, and who are certain about the hereafter. (2.4)

Those who fear their Lord as a matter of faith (bil-ghayb) shall have forgiveness and a great reward. (67.12)

These verses remind us that belief in Allah is partly based on having faith in things we cannot see or verify. So “ghayb” stands for things that the person cannot know or, even when they are brought to their knowledge, they cannot be totally certain of, because they cannot check and verify them directly. So accepting such non-provable things as facts becomes a matter of faith.

Finally, I should note that while the term “ghayb” is usually translated correctly as “unseen,” “invisible,” “secrets,” or “hidden things,” the slightly different term “bil-ghayb” is mostly translated incorrectly. The latter is often wrongly translated as “in secret,” which has a completely different meaning from the intended meaning of “as a matter of faith.” This wrong translation is used by many including Shakir, Pickthall, Sher Ali, Palmer, Rodwell, and Sale. Arberry uses “in the unseen,” which is also incorrect. Yusuf Ali and Hilali-Khan, however, use translations such as “fear Him unseen,” which convey the meaning accurately.

Copyright © 2010 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Mar 112008

This glossary is from Purification of the Mind (Jila’ Al-Khatir)

This is a list of Arabic words and our chosen translations.






the Throne






spiritual substitutes


refined behavior


the True One

al-aqsām al‑maqsūma

allotted worldly shares

al-ḥukm (Sharī‘a)

the Law




spiritual substitution




false innovation




this world




obligatory duty

ḥāl (ḥālāt)

spiritual state(s)






greedy keenness




association of someone with Allah  or attribution of partners to Allah


certainty [of belief]


public life


limbs and senses


strife or striving




private life or solitude




subtle kindness






spiritual station


Heavenly Ascension






private conversation


would-be ascetic


pious to Allah


lower self




divine decree


spiritual pivot


truthful person




lustful desires


innermost being


natural inclination






belief in the oneness of God




pious restraint










obligatory alms




Copyright © 2008 Shetha Al-Dargazelli & Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Nov 062007
This article is from the second edition of Jihad in the Qur’an: The Truth from the Source. The book is now in its third edition.

As we have already seen, jihad is a lot more than fighting in the way of Allah. The latter is referred to in the Qur’an with the Arabic term “qital,” which literally means “fighting.” Confusing the terms “jihad” and “qital” has been influential in the prevalent misreading of all occurrences of jihad in the Madinite verses as references to armed jihad. “Jihad” and “qital” have significantly different meanings and uses in the Qur’an.

As explained in §3.2, qital is only one, though the most prominent, aspect of armed jihad. The latter is a wider concept that includes every effort involved in both the preparation and execution of war, such as funding it. Armed jihad, in turn, is one form of the broader concept of jihad which involves peaceful jihad also. While it is always true to describe “fighting in the way of Allah” as “jihad,” the opposite is not necessarily true as jihad can also refer to other aspects of armed jihad or to peaceful jihad. This is why the references to “jihad” in the Qur’an cannot be equated with “qital.”

Particularly helpful in dispelling the widespread confusion of jihad and fighting are the following verses: 

Fighting has been ordained for you [O you who believe!], and it is an object of dislike to you; and it may be that you dislike a thing while it is good for you, and it may be that you like a thing while it is evil for you; and Allah knows whereas you do not know (2.216).

Have you not seen [O Muhammad!] those to whom it was said: “Withhold your hands [from fighting], keep up prayer, and pay the obligatory alms,” when fighting was ordained for them, a party of them feared people as they ought to fear Allah, or [even] with a greater fear, and said: “Our Lord! Why have You ordained fighting for us? If You have only granted us a delay to a near date?” Say [O Muhammad!]: “The provision of this world is short, and the hereafter is better for he who acts dutifully toward Allah; and you shall not be wronged in the very least” (4.77).

These verses make it absolutely clear that fighting in the way of Allah is started only when it is “kutiba (ordained)”. In other words, fighting in the way of Allah is not a practice that comes by default with religion. This description equally applies to fighting in the way of Allah that previous Prophets and their followers were involved in, as shown in the following verse: 

Have you not considered [O Muhammad!] how the chiefs of the Children of Israel who came after Moses said to a Prophet of theirs: “Set up for us a king and we will fight in the way of Allah”? He said: “May it be that you would not fight if fighting was ordained for you?” They said: “And why would we not fight in the way of Allah having been driven out of our homes, and for the sake of our children?” But when fighting was ordained for them, they turned away except a few of them, and Allah knows the wrongdoers (2.246).

The word “jihad” is never used in a similar way in the Qur’an. There is no verse indicating that jihad is “ordained” at some point before which there would have been no jihad. This confirms my observation that it is qital, not jihad, which refers to fighting in the way of Allah and which was ordained as a duty on the Muslims only in the second year of the immigration to al-Madina.

Note that verse 9.86 which was cited earlier in the chapter is not an exception to the above conclusion: 

And when a chapter is revealed, stating: “Believe in Allah and jahidu (do jihad) with His Messenger,” the wealthy ones among them (the Muslims) ask permission of you [O Muhammad!] and say: “Let us be with those who stay home” (9.86).

Obviously, this verse does not mean that “belief in Allah” and “jihad” would have been first imposed as a duty in the particular chapter that the verse mentions. In fact, the verse does not refer to one particular chapter, but to every chapter that urges the Muslims to do jihad with the Prophet. The aim of this verse is to contrast this repeated emphasis with the failing of some Muslims to obey the given command.
If “qital,” not “jihad,” is the term that specifically refers to fighting in the way of Allah, and “jihad” in fact refers to something more general, then one would expect “qital” to be mentioned more than “jihad” in Madinite chapters. This is indeed the case, with “qital” occurring manyfold more than “jihad” in those chapters.



 Copyright © 2004 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Feb 272005
This article is from the second edition of Jihad in the Qur’an: The Truth from the Source. The book is now in its third edition.

A common misconception about “Islam” is that it is the religion that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad only. Islam, the Qur’an tells us, is rather the name of the one religion that Allah, the One and only God, revealed to every Prophet that He sent to people since the time of the first man and Prophet, Adam. For instance, all the following Prophets were Muslims who taught Islam to people: Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, Zachariah, John, and Jesus. The following verse describes Israelite Prophets as “Muslims”:

Surely We revealed the Torah in which there was guidance and light; with it, the Prophets who aslamu [became Muslims] guided the Jews (from 5.44).

The name “Muslim” was in fact coined by Allah who used it long before the time of Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an, as revealed in the following verse:

And jahidu (do jihad) [O you who believe!] in the way of Allah jihadihi (the kind of jihad that is due to Him). He has chosen you and has not laid upon you a hardship in religion; it is the faith of your father Abraham. He [Allah] has named you al-Muslimin (the Muslims) earlier and in this [the Qur’an], so that the Messenger be a witness over you, and you be witnesses over the people. Therefore keep up prayer, pay the obligatory alms, and hold fast to Allah; He is your Master; so how excellent a Master and how excellent a Supporter! (22.78).

The verse clearly states that Allah has named the followers of His religion “Muslims” not only in the Qur’an but also in Books that He had revealed to previous Prophets, such as the Torah of Moses and the Injil of Jesus. Note also the following verse which states that Prophet Noah, who lived long before Prophet Abraham, told his people that Allah ordered him to be “one of the Muslims”:

But if you [O people!] turn away [from my call], I have not asked you for any reward; my reward is only with Allah, and I have been commanded to be one of al-Muslimin (the Muslims) (10.72).

In other words, previous divine Books and Prophets would have used terms equivalent to “Islam” and “Muslim” in their respective languages. The Arabic verb “yuslim” means “surrenders” or “submits.” It is used in a special way in the Qur’an as in “surrenders one’s self to Allah,” “surrenders to Allah,” or such variations. The derived Qur’anic noun “Islam,” therefore, means “submission to Allah.” To be a Muslim is to believe in Allah as the One Lord, submit to His will, and carry out His commandments. So, Islam is in fact a universal term that describes the one religion that Allah instructed, through His various Messengers, all people to embrace. Let’s read some of the relevant Qur’anic verses, starting with these about Prophets Abraham and his sons and grandsons:

And who has a better religion than he who aslama [has become a Muslim] (has surrendered himself) to Allah, is a doer of good, and has followed the faith of Abraham, worshipping one God. And Allah took Abraham as a close friend (4.125).

 And who turns away from the religion of Abraham but he who makes himself a fool; and surely We chose him [Abraham] in this world, and in the hereafter he is surely among the righteous (2.130). When his Lord said to him; “Aslim (Be a Muslim; submit),” he said: “Aslamtu (I have become a Muslim; I have submitted) to the Lord of the people” (2.131). And Abraham enjoined the same on his sons, and so did Jacob [Abraham’s grandson]: “O my sons! Surely Allah has chosen for you the [true] religion, therefore die not except as Muslimun (Muslims)” (2.132). Or were you [O People of the Book!] witnesses when death visited Jacob, when he said to his sons: “What will you worship after me?” They said: “We shall worship your God and the God of your fathers, Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac, one God, and to Him we are Muslimun (Muslims)” (2.133).

The following verses which refer to the Jews and Christians, or the “People of the Book,” emphasize and instruct the Prophet to stress that “Islam” or “submission to Allah” is the true religion of the Lord:

And they [the Jews and Christians] say: “None shall enter paradise except he who is a Jew or a Christian.” These are [nothing more than] their desires. Say [O Muhammad!]: “Bring your proof if you are truthful” (2.111). Verily, whoever aslama (becomes a Muslim; surrenders himself) to Allah and is a doer of good, his reward is with his Lord, and there is no fear for them nor shall they grieve (2.112).

 Surely the [true] religion in the sight of Allah is al-Islam (Islam), and those to whom the Book had been given differed only after knowledge had come to them, out of transgression among themselves. And whoever denies the verses of Allah, then surely Allah is quick in reckoning (3.19). But if they argue with you [O Muhammad!], say: “Aslamtu (I have become a Muslim; I have surrendered myself) to Allah and so everyone who follows me.” And say to those who have been given the Book and to the unlearned people: “A’aslamtum (Would you become Muslims; would you submit)?” So if Aslamu (they become Muslims; they submit) then they have found the right way, but if they turn away, then your responsibility is only the deliverance of the Message; and Allah sees the servants (3.20).

 This verse is about Prophet Solomon and the Queen of Sheba who came to visit him in his palace:

It was said to her [Queen of Sheba]: “Enter the hall.” But when she saw it she deemed it to be a lake of water and bared her legs. He [Solomon] said: “It is a hall made smooth with glass.” She said [praying to Allah]: “My Lord! Surely I have wronged myself, and aslamtu (I have become a Muslim; I submit) with Solomon to Allah, the Lord of the people” (27.44).

Prophet Muhammad is the last Prophet of Islam, and the Qur’an is the last Book from Allah:

[O people!] Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but he is the Messenger of Allah and the last of the Prophets; and Allah is aware of everything (33.40).

The Qur’an stresses that, contrary to the claims of the disbelieving Arabs, making a human being a Messenger, as happened to Prophet Muhammad, was not an unprecedented event. In fact, this is exactly how Allah communicated with people: through Messengers that carried His Message to people:

Say [O Muhammad!]: “I am not the first of the Messengers, and I do not know what will be done with me or with you. I only follow that which is revealed to me, and I am but a manifest warner” (46.9).

In addition to the belief in the oneness of Allah, the hereafter, and the angels, the Qur’an requires the Muslim to believe in all previous Messengers and the Books and Messages that Allah revealed to them. This is consistent with the Qur’an’s affirmation that all Messengers delivered the same religion and were sent by the same God. The Muslim is commanded to hold all Prophets in equally high esteem and reverence. The failure to believe in any Prophet is a failure to believe in all Prophets, and a failure to be a Muslim:

Say [O you who believe!]: “We believe in Allah, in that which has been revealed to us; in that which was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Descendents (Jacob’s sons); in that which was given to Moses and Jesus; and in that which was given to the Prophets from their Lord; we do not make any distinction between any of them, and to Him we are Muslimun (Muslims)” (2.136).

 The Messenger [Muhammad] believes in that which has been revealed to him from his Lord, and so do the believers; they all believe in Allah, His angels, His Books, and His Messengers; [they say] we make no distinction between any of His Messengers; and they say: “We hear and obey [Allah’s commandments]; grant us Your forgiveness, our Lord. And to You is the eventual course” (2.285).

Copyright © 2004 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Apr 012004

First published in Arabic in Al-Manhal Magazine, 1999, vol. 61, no. 560, pp 26-29.

The combined facts that the Qur’an was revealed by Allah and that it is the last divine Book mean that it must be a unique Book. The divine origin of this Book has differentiated it from any other book, and made it a Book that no one can emulate: 

Or do they [the disbelievers] say: “He [Muhammad] has forged it?”. Say [O Muhammad!]: “Then bring a sura (chapter) like this and invite whom you can besides Allah, if you are truthful [in your claim] (10.38).

The Qur’an cannot be emulated by any human being or jinn. In fact, even if all humans and jinn got together to create a qur’an, they would fail: 

Say [O Muhammad!]: “If the human beings and the jinn get together to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not bring the like of it, even if they backed up each other with help and support” (17.88).

The fact that the Qur’an is the last of Allah’s Books has made it a Book whose miracles will continue to unfold until the Day of Resurrection, and has distinguished it even from previous divine Books.

Among the miraculous attributes of this unique Book is that there is a meaning and wisdom behind each sura, verse, and word in it. This is elucidated in this verse: 

Alif; lam; ra’; This is a Book whose verses have been perfected, then made plain, min ladun1 (from the ladun of) One who is Wise, All-aware (11.1).

This description applies also to every letter in the Qur’an, each of which Allah has purposefully chosen. The proof on this comes from the Qur’an itself which contains verses each consisting of letters only. Only Allah knows the full meaning of these letters. For instance, suras 2 and 3 both start with a verse that consists of the letters “alif, lam, mim; sura 7 starts with the verse “alif, lam, mim, sad“; and sura 19 starts with the verse “kaf, ha’, ya’, ‘ayn, sad“.

These facts about the Qur’an teach us that we must treat the Qur’an with reverence, and study it with complete belief that Allah has embedded wisdom in every part of it.

After this short introduction, let’s start our attempt to study the Qur’anic meaning of the word ladun“.

The word “ladun” occurs eighteen times in seventeen different verses. It is always preceded by the preposition “min” (“from”), as in the following verses: 

Our Lord! Make not our hearts to deviate after You have guided us, and grant us mercy min ladunka (from Your ladun); surely You are the Bestower (3.8). Allah does not do injustice even of the weight of an atom, and if there is a good deed He multiplies it and gives min ladunhu (from His ladun) a great reward (4.40).

And say [O Muhammad!]: “My Lord! Let me enter by the gate of truth, and let me exit by the gate of truth, and grant me min ladunka (from Your ladun) a helping authority (17.80).

The Arabic word “‘inda“, which is also used in the Qur’an, is close in meaning to “ladun“. If we look up first “‘inda” in the lexicon, we find that is defined as a “noun donating the time and place of occurrence. It occurs either as an adverb or in the genitive form governed by the preposition ‘min’“. The word “ladun“, on the other hand, is defined as an “adverb denoting place or time in the sense of ‘‘inda‘, but which implies more closeness and intimacy. It can occur in the genitive form governed by the preposition ‘min’“. Clearly, there is a great deal of similarity between the words “ladun” and “‘inda“, but it is also clear that there is a significant, albeit subtle, difference between them.

The use of “ladun” in writing is not as common as that of “‘inda“. However, when used, “ladun” is used in the same way as “‘inda“, and in similar contexts. Writers focus on the great deal of similarity between the meanings of “ladun” and “‘inda“, and ignore the subtle difference between them. These two words appear in writings as two synonymous words, with no distinction between them.

The substantial and clear similarity between “ladun” and “‘inda” and people’s use of them as synonymous must not lead us to the wrong conclusion that they have the same meaning in the Book of Allah. It has already been noted that Allah purposefully and wisely chose each and every word and letter in the Qur’an, so the exegete must take into consideration the use of “ladun” or “‘inda” in a verse when interpreting it. Allah gives a special meaning to “ladun” that is different from the general, broader meaning in which He uses the word “‘inda“, despite the similarity between them. So what is the special sense that distinguishes “ladun” from “inda” in the Qur’an?

Allah has revealed to us the special meaning of “ladun” in the following verses: 

And We did not create the heaven, the earth, and what is between them in play (21.16). Had We wished to take a pastime, We would have made it min ladunna (from Our ladun), if We ever did (21.17).

Allah tells us in the first verse that His creation of “the heaven, the earth, and what is between them” was no playful act, but an act of creation with truth. He created everything with His wisdom, and appointed for the heaven and the earth a purpose to fulfill until the Day of Resurrection:

Do they [people] not reflect within themselves: Allah did not create the heavens, the earth, and what is between them but with truth, and for an appointed term! Many people deny the meeting of their Lord (30.8).

We did not create the heaven, the earth, and what is between them in vain; that is the opinion of those who disbelieve, so woe to those who disbelieve from the Fire (38.27).

We did not create the heavens, the earth, and what is between them save with truth, and for an appointed term; and those who disbelieve turn aside from what they are warned of (46.3).

On the Day of Resurrection, the whole universe will be changed:

On the Day when the earth shall be changed into a different earth, and the heavens also, and they [the people] shall come forth before Allah, the One, the Supreme (14.48).

Clearly, the phrase “the heaven, the earth, and what is between them” in verse 21.16 above refers to the whole of the creation. Then in verse 21.17, Allah tells us that had He wanted to have a pastime, which He would not, He would have chosen that from “His ladun“, not using the creation of “the heaven, the earth, and what is between them“. Now, if the phrase “the heaven, the earth, and what is between them” refers to all of the creation, then the phrase “min ladunna (from Our ladun)” must refer to the divine entity Himself and nothing else. Before “the heaven, the earth, and what is between them” there was nothing other than Allah, the first and ever-existing: 

Say [O Muhammad”]: “He is the First and the Last, the Outward and the Inward” (from 57.3).

Without creating “the heaven, the earth, and what is between them” there would have been nothing other than Allah, the First, the Self-Sustained. Thus, Allah tells us in verses 21.16-17 that the idea that the creation of “the heaven, the earth, and what is between them” was some kind of a pastime is misguided. Had He wanted to have a pastime – which He would never do – He would not have needed to create anything, as He would have had that pastime “min ladunna (from Our ladun)“, i.e. from His divine presence. Obviously the verses do not imply that Allah could have sought a pastime, but stress that the creation of the universe was not a playful act.

It is, thus, clear that Allah differentiates between “ladun” and “inda” in the Qur’an, using the former to things that are very close to Him, while using the latter in a broader sense. When attributed to Allah, the word “ladun” refers to special things that come directly from Him. If the referent was mercy, then it is direct mercy from Allah (from His ladun); if it was knowledge, then it is direct knowledge from Him; and so on. For instance, Allah describes the Qur’an a Book from His ladun:

Alif; Lam; Ra’; This is a Book whose verses have been perfected, then made plain, min ladun (from the ladun of) One who is Wise, All-aware (11.1).

The Qur’an is derived from the knowledge of Allah’s ladun, which no creature can reach without Allah’s help: 

Say [O Muhammad!]: “If the human beings and the jinn get together to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not bring the like of it, even if they backed up each other with help and support” (17.88).

In the eighteen occurrences of the word “ladun” in the Qur’an, we see it attributed to other than Allah only in one verse. Significantly, Allah is not the direct user of the word in this sense, as it occurs in a speech by Prophet Moses in his dialog with the righteous and wise man (who is referred to in hadith and exegesis literature as “Khidhr”): 

He [Moses] said: “If I ask you about anything after this, keep me not in your company; indeed you have received an excuse min ladunni (from my ladun)” (18.76).

As for the word “‘inda” in the phrase “min ‘inda“, its use in the Qur’an is not restricted to referring to what is “min ‘inda (from)” Allah, as we can see in the following two verses which are direct speech by Allah: 

Many of the People of the Book wish that they could turn you [O you who believe!] back into disbelievers after your faith, out of envy min ‘indi (from) themselves, after the truth has become manifest to them; but pardon and forgive, until Allah accomplishes His purpose. Allah is able to do all things (2.109).

What! When a misfortune befell you [O you who believe!], and you had certainly afflicted [the disbelievers] with twice as much, you began to say: “Whence is this?” Say [O Muhammad”]: “It is min ‘indi (from) themselves; Allah is able to do all things” (3.165).

Among the verses in which “ladun” occurs, and which expound the special Qur’anic meanings of this word, are those that contain Zacharias’ prayer to Allah to give him offspring. When this noble Prophet realized that the food that Mary was receiving was coming “min ‘inda (from) Allah“, he asked Allah to intervene and miraculously give him offspring as He gave Mary food. He asked for that “min ladun Allah (from Allah’s ladun)“: 

Her Lord accepted her [Mary] with a goodly acceptance, made her to grow a goodly growth, and made Zacharias her guardian. Whenever Zacharias went into the sanctuary where she was, he found that she had sustenance. He said: “O Mary! Whence comes this [sustenance] to you?” She answered: “It is min ‘indi (from) Allah. Allah gives to whom He pleases without measure” (3.37). There did Zacharias pray to his Lord and said: “My Lord! Grant me min ladunka (from Your ladun) goodly offspring. You are the Hearer of prayer” (3.38).

He [Zacharias] said: “My Lord! My bones wax feeble and my head is shining with grey hair, and I have never been evil in my prayer to You, my Lord (19.4). I fear my relatives after me, and my wife is barren, so give me an heir min ladunka (from Your ladun or from You)” (19.5).

Allah answered Zacharias’ prayer with a miracle, giving him a son, Prophet John: 

And the angels called to him [Zacharias] as he stood praying in the sanctuary: “Allah gives you glad tidings of [a son whose name is] John, confirming, with a word from Allah, honorable, chaste, and a Prophet from among the righteous” (3.39).

[It was said to him]: “O Zacharias! We bring you tidings of a son whose name is John; we did not create someone similar to him before” (19.7).

Allah stresses that John was given by a mercy from His ladun as He refers to the compassion that He bestowed on John from His ladun

[It was said to John]: “O John! Take hold of the Book with might”. And We gave him Wisdom while still a child (19.12). And compassion min ladunna (from Our ladun), and purity; and he was dutiful (19.13).

Thus, Zacharias asked for offspring min ladun Allah, and Allah answered his prayer by giving him John “from His ladun“, i.e. with direct, miraculous intervention that caused the old Zacharias and his old and barren wife to have a child.

Among the verses that shed light on the meaning of “ladun” in the Qur’an are those that describe the encounter between Prophet Moses and Khidhr. It is related in hadith literature that one day Moses was asked: “Who is the most knowledgeable person?”. He replied “I am”. Allah was displeased that Moses attributed knowledge to himself rather than to Allah, so He ordered him to go on a journey to make him meet a more knowledgeable man. The latter was described by Allah as follows: 

One from among Our servants whom We had granted mercy min ‘indina (from Us) and whom We had taught knowledge min ladunna (from Our ladun) (18.65).

This knowledge from Allah’s ladun is the kind of knowledge that Allah confers only on the elite of His servants. The Qura’nic story then sheds more light on the nature of this very special knowledge. When Moses met Khidhr he asked him to accompany him saying: 

Shall I follow you that you may teach me right knowledge of what you have been taught? (from 18:66).

But Khidhr knew in advance, by virtue of his knowledge that came min landun (from the ladun of) Allah, that Moses was not going to be able to accompany him, so he replied: 

You shall not be able to bear with me (from 18.67). How shall you be able to bear with that which you have no knowledge of? (18.68).

However, Moses still wanted to accompany Khidhr and promised not to object to him: 

He [Moses] said: “Allah willing, you shall find me that I bear with you and do not disobey any order of yours” (18.69).

During his staying with Khidhr, Moses could not resist, despite his promise, objecting to three actions that Khidhr took. Khidhr damaged, with no apparent reason, a boat whose owners had agreed to take them both on board for free; then he killed a young boy, also with no apparent reason; and finally, he built, with asking for remuneration, a wall that was about to collapse in a village whose people had refused to entertain them. After Moses’ third objection, Khidhr decided that it was time that they parted company, as the purpose of that encounter was fulfilled. He explained to Moses his actions that he could not understand: 

He [Khidhr] said: “This shall be separation between me and you; now I will explain that which you could not bear with (18.78). As for the boat, it belonged to poor people who worked on river. I wanted to render it unserviceable because there was a king behind them who was taking every boat by force (18.79). And as for the boy, his parents were believers and we feared lest he should oppress them by rebellion and disbelief (81.80). And we desired that their Lord might replace him for them with one better in purity and nearer to mercy (18.81). And as for the wall, it belonged to two orphan boys in the city, and there was beneath it a treasure belonging to them. Their father had been righteous, and Your Lord desired that they should come to their full strength and should bring forth their treasure as a mercy from their Lord. I did it not do it upon my own command. This is the interpretation of that which you could not bear with” (18.82).

These verses shed light on the phrase “min ladun“, as we see that the knowledge from His ladun that Allah gave to Khidhr allowed this righteous servant to realize and comprehend matters that remained hidden even to a great Prophet, Moses, whom Allah had also conferred knowledge and wisdom on, and spoken to.

The delicate distinction in the Book of Allah between words that appear to be similar in meaning, such as “ladun” and “‘inda“, is another miraculous aspect of the Qur’an. This is another reminder of the veneration that we must have for this great Book that is full of secrets, and the honor and respect with which we must treat it.


1 Transliterated Arabic words are set in italics, and transliterated Qur’anic Arabic words are set in italics bold green.

Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Feb 062004
This article is from the second edition of Jihad in the Qur’an: The Truth from the Source. The book is now in its third edition.

We will start our study of jihad by investigating the general meaning of this term in the Arabic language and its special meaning in the Qur’an.

“Jihad” in Arabic

The Arabic word “jihad” is a noun. Its singular past tense verb is “jahada” (masculine) or “jahadat” (feminine). The singular active participle of “jihad” is “mujahid” (masculine) or “mujahida“(feminine). The root of the word “jihad” is “juhd” which means “effort.” Another related word is “ijtihad“which means “working hard or diligently.”

Jihad is simply the process of “exerting the best efforts,” involving some form of “struggle” and “resistance,” to achieve a particular goal. In other words, jihad is the struggle against, or resistance to, something for the sake of a goal. The meaning of the word is independent of the nature of the invested efforts or the sought goal.

Contrary to common belief, the word “jihad” does not necessarily imply any violent effort, let alone “war” and such instances of extreme violence. It is a general term that can mean violent as well as peaceful actions, depending on the context in which it is used, as we shall indeed see later. Similarly, “jihad” as a generic word can be used even when the sought goals are not Islamic, i.e. in non-religious contexts.

The Qur’an uses the verb of “jihad” in its generic meaning of “exerting the best efforts against something” in the following two verses: 

And We have enjoined on man goodness to parents, but if they jahadaka (do jihad against you) to make you associate [a god] with Me, of which you have no knowledge [being a god], do not obey them. To Me is your return [O people!], so I shall inform you of your past deeds (29.8).

And We have enjoined on man to be good to his parents; his mother bears him in weakness upon weakness, and his weaning is in two years; and that [you must] be grateful to Me and to both your parents. To Me is the eventual coming (31.14). And if they jahadaka (do jihad against you) to make you associate [a god] with Me, of which you have no knowledge [being a god], do not obey them, but keep company with them in this world kindly; and follow the way of he who turns to Me. Then to Me is your [O people!] return, then I shall inform you of your past deeds (31.15).

Jihad in the verses above refers to actions taken by non-Muslim parents against their Muslim offspring to force them to worship other than Allah. This goal goes against the message of Islam which teaches the oneness of God, Allah; obviously this kind of jihad is not Islamic. The verses above also confirm the already mentioned fact that jihad is not necessarily an act of violence.

It is worth noting that the verses above command the Muslims to remain kind and caring toward their parents, but to resist any attempt by the latter to force them to give up the Islamic tenet of monotheism in favor of some polytheistic belief.

“Jihad” in the Qur’an

Aside from its use of the term “jihad” in its generic meaning in the two verses above, the Qur’an uses “jihad” in another twenty eight verses in a specific meaning. In this case, the phrase “fi sabili Allah“, which means “in the way of Allah” or “for the sake of Allah“, either follows “jihad,” or one of its derivatives, explicitly, or is implied by the context. For reference, Appendix A lists all thirty verses that mention the term “jihad” or any of its variations.

Contrary to the common belief that is embodied in the misinterpretation of “jihad” as “holy war,” Islamic jihad does not refer solely to fighting in the way of Allah. This, in fact, is a special case of jihad. The Qur’anic concept of jihad refers to exerting efforts, in the form of struggle against or resistance to something, for the sake of Allah. This effort can be fighting back armed aggression, but can also be resisting evil drives and desires in one’s self. Even donating money to the needy is a form of jihad, as it involves struggling against one’s selfishness and inner desire to keep one’s money for one’s own pleasures. Jihad can, therefore, be subdivided into armed jihad and peaceful jihad. Armed jihad, which is the subject of Chapter 4, is only temporary and is a response to armed aggression. Once the aggression has ceased, armed jihad comes to an end. Armed jihad, thus, can take place only when there is an aggressive, external enemy.

Causes of peaceful jihad, on the other hand, are always existent, which is why this form of jihad is permanent. One major form of peaceful jihad is the war of the Muslim against his “nafs,” an Arabic term that may be translated as the “lower self,” and which refers to the individual’s inferior drives and evil motives. This most dangerous enemy never disappears, hence this war knows no end.

The other form of peaceful jihad involves every act of peaceful struggle undertaken by the Muslim against external sources of evil. Preaching the message of Islam in a hostile environment, opposing an evil act, and all such peaceful good actions are instances of jihad because they involve some form of resistance and struggle to achieve a good goal. For instance, the Prophet’s patience at the accusations and abuse that the disbelievers directed at him for preaching the Qur’an was peaceful jihad: 

Therefore [O Muhammad!] be patient with what they say, and glorify your Lord by praising Him before the rising of the sun and before its setting, and during hours of the night do also glorify [Him], and during parts of the day, that you may be well satisfied (20.130).

It is interesting to note how the terms “jihad” and “Islam” relate to each other in Arabic and in the Qur’anic sense. Linguistically, the general term “jihad,” which refers to “struggle” and “resistance,” has almost exactly the opposite meaning of the general term “Islam,” which means “surrender” or “submission.” The Qur’anic “jihad,” however, which is about resisting the lower self and other sources and forms of evil, is the route that the individual must take to attain the state of Qur’anic “Islam” or “submission to Allah.”

Although Islamic jihad is a Qur’anic concept, the Qur’an, in reality, is rarely consulted for understanding this concept. The widespread misunderstanding of jihad can only be attributed to an endemic neglect of the Qur’an, not only by non-Muslims, but by Muslims as well. The Qur’an has charged Muslims with the responsibility of educating others about its message and disseminating its teachings. Unfortunately, Muslims have had a big share in propagating the common misunderstanding that jihad is all about violence. Many Muslims think that “jihad” means “holy war.” It is a sad but undeniable fact that many Muslims learn about Islamic practices and concepts, such as jihad, from secondary, often unreliable, sources. It is not uncommon even for cultural beliefs and narratives to be among those sources.

Those who misunderstand the Qur’anic term jihad as armed jihad only have totally failed to notice, among other things, this particularly important fact: in the majority of verses in which the Qur’an talks about fighting the enemy, it uses variations of the word “qital,” which means “fighting.” Here are some examples, and we will encounter more later on: 

And qatilu (fight) [O you who believe!] in the way of Allah, and know that Allah is Hearing, Knowing (2.244).

Falyuqatil (then let) those who sell this world’s life for the hereafter (fight) in the way of Allah. And whoever yuqatil (fights) in the way of Allah so he gets killed or turns victorious, We shall grant him a great reward (4.74).

Faqatil (then fight) [O Muhammad!] in the way of Allah; you are not held responsible but for yourself; and urge the believers [to fight]. May be Allah will restrain the might of the disbelievers; and Allah is greatest in might and greatest in punishment (4.84).

The term jihad actually refers to the more general concept of exerting efforts in the way of Allah, of which fighting the enemy, or armed jihad, is only one aspect. In Qur’anic terminology, it is wrong to equate the words “jihad” and “qital,” as this reduces a broad concept to a more specific one.

Let’s look at an example. The Qur’an refers in several verses to doing jihad with “one’s properties and self,” i.e. sacrificing one’s properties and self in the cause of Islam, as in the following verse: 

The believers are those who believe in Allah and His Messenger, then do not doubt [the verity of Islam], and jahadu (do jihad) with their properties and selves in the way of Allah; those are the truthful (49.15).

It is simply wrong to suggest that the verb jahadu (do jihad) in this verse is equivalent to the verb qatalu (fight). Doing jihad with one’s properties and self in the way of Allah covers every effort that the person exerts to please Allah. Even when such efforts are in connection with a war, they would include more than the act of fighting. In other words, jihad is more than armed jihad, which itself is more than just fighting. Going to war means coping with the fear of getting killed or seriously injured, overcoming concerns over the family and properties that the person left behind, losing earnings for being out of work during that time, and all such testing sacrifices. Braving the heat of the desert sun when traveling to and from the battle field is one aspect of armed jihad that is different from fighting itself: 

Those who were left behind were glad to stay home and not join the Messenger of Allah. They were averse to yujahidu (do jihad) with their properties and selves, and said [to other Muslims]: “Do not go forth in the heat.” Say [O Muhammad!]: “The fire of hell is far hotter,” if they understand (9.81).

The following verses make the point absolutely clear. They detail a number of different forms of hardship involved in armed jihad; the act of fighting itself is only one of those hardships: 

It would not be fitting for the people of al-Madina and the Bedouin Arabs of the neighborhood to stay home and not join the Messenger of Allah, nor should they hold themselves back from doing what he wants them to do. That is because no thirst, fatigue, or hunger in the way of Allah afflicts them; no path they tread which angers the disbelievers; and no success they achieve against an enemy but a righteous deed is written down for them on account of it. Surely, Allah does not waste the reward of the doers of good (9.120). And they do not spend anything, small or great, or cut across a valley but it is written down for them [as a credit], that Allah may reward them according to the best of their past deeds (9.121).

Qital in the way of Allah is, thus, only one aspect of armed jihad. It is, however, the most prominent aspect and the climax of that form of jihad, which is why it is usually possible to use “qital in the way of Allah” and “armed jihad” interchangeably. Armed jihad in turn is one of two forms of jihad; the second is peaceful jihad.

So, one major aspect of the widespread misunderstanding of “jihad” is reducing it to “fighting in the way of Allah.” What has made this confusion of “jihad” with “fighting” particularly disastrous is another serious misunderstanding, which is that of the characteristics of Islamic fighting, i.e. “fighting in the way of Allah.” The erroneous view of the Qur’anic concept of fighting in the way of Allah has been extended to the Qur’anic concept of jihad. Thus, the true Qur’anic meanings of “jihad” and “fighting in the way of Allah” have both been distorted.

In the next chapter, we will study armed jihad. The other, more permanent form of jihad, peaceful jihad, is examined in Chapter 5.


Copyright © 2004 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved