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

Oct 282012
This article is from the book The Prophet Joseph In The Qur’an, The Bible, And History

وَمَآ أَرْسَلْنَا مِن قَبْلِكَ إِلَّا رِجَالًا نُوحِى إِلَيْهِم مِّنْ أَهْلِ الْقُرَى أَﻓَﻠَﻤْ يَسِيرُواْ فِى الْأَرْضِ فَيَنْظُرُواْ كَيْفَ كَانَ عَـٰقِبَةُ الَّذِينَ مِن ﻗَﺒْﻠِﻬِﻤْ وَلَدَارُ الْأَخِرَةِ خَيْرُ لِّلَّذِينَ اتَّقَوْاْ أَﻓَﻼَ تَعْقِلُونَ ﴿109﴾

And We have not sent [messengers] before you [O Muhammad!] but men to whom We gave revelations, [who were] from the people of the towns. Have they (the disbelievers) not then traveled in the land and seen what was the end of those before them? And surely the abode of the hereafter is better for those who act dutifully; do you [O people!] not understand? (109)

Allah says that all the messengers that He sent before Prophet Muhammad, such as prophet Joseph, were men from various towns, to whom He revealed the Message. In describing the “men to whom We gave revelations” as being “from the people of the towns,” Allah emphasizes that those messengers were human beings who were known to their people. They were not “jinn” men, who are also mentioned in the Qur’an:

وَأَنَّهُ كَانَ رِجَالُ مِّنَ الإِنسِ يَعُوذُونَ بِرِجَالٍ مِّنَ الْجِنِّ فَزَادُوهُمْ رَهَقًا ﴿6﴾. (سورة الجِـنّ).

And that human men used to seek refuge with jinn men, so they increased them in tiredness. (72.6)

The statement “We have not sent [messengers] before you [O Muhammad!] but men to whom We gave revelations, [who were] from the people of the towns” stresses that sending Muhammad, who was a man from the people of the town of Mecca, as a Messenger was not an innovation that had no precedent:

قُلْ مَا كُنْتُ بِدْعًا مِّنَ الرُّسُلِ وَمَآ أَدْرِى مَا يُفْعَلُ بِى وَلَا بِكُمْ إِنْ أَتَّبِعُ إِلَّا مَا يُوحَىٰ إِلَىَّ وَمَآ أَنَاْ إِلَّا نَذِيرُ مُّبِينُ ﴿9﴾. (سورة الأحقاف).

Say [O Muhammad!]: “I am no new thing among the messengers [of Allah], and I do not know what will be done to me or to you. I do not follow anything but that which is revealed to me, and I am but a manifest warner.” (46.9)

These are some of the verses that stress the human nature of all the messengers that Allah sent to people, and that they were men from the people of the towns:

وَمَآ أَرْسَلْنَا قَبْلَكَ إِلَّا رِجَالًا نُّوحِىٓ إِلَيْهِمْ فَسْـٔلُوٓاْ أَهْلَ الذِّكْرِ إِن كُنتُمْ  لَا تَعْلَمُونَ ﴿7﴾ وَمَا جَعَلْنَـٰهُمْ جَسَدًا لَّا يَأْكُلُونَ الطَّعَامَ وَمَا كَانُواْ خَـٰلِدينَ ﴿8﴾. (سورة الأَنبيَـاءِ).

And We did not send before you [O Muhammad!] but men to whom We gave revelations, so ask [O people!] the people of the revelations [those who know about the messengers of Allah] if you do not know. (21.7) And We did not give them bodies that would not eat food, and they were not immortal. (21.8)

وَمَآ أَرْسَلْنَا قَبْلَكَ مِنَ الْـمُرْسَلِينَ إِلَّآ إِﻧَّﻬُﻢْ لَيَأْكُلُونَ الطَّعَامَ وَيَمْشُونَ فِى الْأَسْوَاقِ وَجَعَلْنَا بَعْضَكُمْ لِبَعْضٍ فِتْـنَةً أَتَصْبِرُونَ وَكَانَ رَبُّكَ بَصِيرًا ﴿20﴾. (سورة الفُرقَـانِ).

And We have not sent before you [O Muhammad!] any messengers but they surely ate food and went about in the markets. And We made some of you a test for others whether you will have patience. And your Lord is ever Seeing. (25.20)

وَمَا قَدَرُواْ اﻟﻠَّﻪَ حَقَّ قَدْرِهِ إِذْ قَالُوا مَآ أَنزَلَ اﻟﻠَّﻪُ عَلَىٰ بَشَرٍ مِّنْ شَىْءٍ قُلْ مَنْ أَنزَلَ الْكِتَـٰبَ الَّذِى جَآءَ بِهِ مُوسَىٰ نُورًا وَهُدًى لِّلنَّاسِ تَجْعَلُونَهُ قَرَاطِيسَ تُبْدُونَهَا وَﺗُﺨْﻔُﻮنَ كَثِيرًا وَعُلِّمْتُم مَّا ﻟَﻤْ تَعْلَمُوٓاْ أَنتُمْ وَلَآ ءبَآؤُكُمْ قُلِ اﻟﻠَّﻪُ ثُمَّ ذَرْهُمْ فِى خَوْضِهِمْ يَلْعَبُونَ ﴿91﴾. (سورة الأَنْعَام).

And they do not appreciate the real status of Allah when they say: “Allah has not sent down anything to a human being.” Say [O Muhammad!]: “Who sent down the Book which Moses brought as a light and a guidance to people, which you have made into parchments some of which you show and much of which you conceal? And you were taught that which you and your fathers did not know.” Say: “Allah,” then leave them sporting in their vain discourses. (6.91)

The following verses respond to the disbelievers’ misguided belief that Allah did not send human messengers:

وَمَا مَنَعَ النَّاسَ أَن يُؤْمِـنُوٓاْ إِذْ جَآءَهُمُ الْـهُدَى إِلَّآ أَن قَالُوٓاْ أَبَعَثَ اﻟﻠَّﻪُ بَشَرًا رَّسُولًا ﴿94﴾. (سورة الٕاسرَاءِ).

And nothing prevented people from believing when guidance came to them except that they said: “What! Has Allah sent a human as a messenger?” (17.94)

قَالَتْ رُسُلُهُمْ أَفِى اﻟﻠَّﻪِ شَكُّ فَاطِرِ السَّمَـٰوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ يَدْعُوكُمْ لِيَغْفِرَ لَكُم مِّنْ ذُنُوبِكُمْ وَيُؤَخِّرَكُمْ إِلَى أَجَـلٍ مُسَمًّى قَالُوٓاْ إِنْ أَنتُمْ إِلَّا بَشَرُ مِّثْلُنَا تُرِيدُونَ أَن تَصُدُّونَا عَمَّـا كَانَ يَعْبُدُ ءَابَـآؤُنَا فَأْتُونَـا بِسُلْطَـٰنٍ مُّبِينٍ ﴿10﴾ قَالَتْ لَهُمْ رُسُلُهُمْ إِن نَّحْنُ إِلَّا بَشَرُ مِّثْلُكُمْ وَلَـٰكِنَّ اﻟﻠَّﻪَ يَمُنُّ عَلَىٰ مَن يَشَآءُ مِنْ عِبَادِهِ وَمَا كَانَ لَنَآ أَن نَّأْﺗِﻴَﻜُﻤ بِسُلْطَـٰنٍ إِلَّا بِإِذْنِ اﻟﻠَّﻪِ وَعَلَى اﻟﻠَّﻪِ فَلْيَتَوَكَّلِ الْـمُؤْمِنُونَ ﴿11﴾. (سورة إبرَاﻫِـﻴﻤ).

Their messengers said: “Can there be doubt about Allah, the Originator of the heavens and the earth? He invites you to forgive you your sins, and He reprieves you till an appointed term.” They said: “You are nothing but humans like us seeking to turn us away from what our fathers used to worship. Bring us therefore some clear authority.” (14.10) Their messengers said to them: “We are not but humans like yourselves, but Allah bestows favors on whom He pleases of His servants. And it is not for us to bring to you an authority except by Allah’s permission; and on Allah let the believers rely.” (14.11)

وَقَالُواْ لَوْلَآ أُنزِلَ عَلَيْهِ مَلَكُ وَلَوْ أَنزَلْنَا مَلَكًا لَّقُضضِيَ الْأَمْرُ ﺛُﻤَّ لَا يُنظَرُونَ ﴿8﴾. (سورة الأنعَامِ).

And they [the disbelievers] say: “Only if an angel has been sent down to him [Prophet Muhammad]!” And had We sent down an angel, the matter would have certainly been settled, and then they would not have been given a respite. (7.8)

It is important to realize that these verses talk specifically about Allah’s Messenger to all people for the purpose of bringing the good news and warning about the Day of Resurrection. Allah also has non‑human messengers, such as the angels, whom He sends to particular individuals on special assignments:

الْحَمْدُ ﻟِﻠَّﻪِ فَاطِرِ السَّمَـٰوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ جَاعِلِ ُ اﻟملائكةَ رُﺳُﻼً أُوْلِىٓ أَجْنِحَةٍ مَّثْنَىٰ وَثُلـٰثَ وَرُبَـٰعَ يَزِيدُ فِى الْخَلْقِ مَا يَشَآءُ إِنَّ اﻟﻠَّﻪَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَىْءٍ قَدِيرُ ﴿1﴾. (سورة فاطر).

Praise be to Allah, the Originator of the heavens and the earth, the Maker of the angels as messengers who have two, three, and four routes; He increases the creation as He pleases; surely Allah has power over all things. (35.1)

One task that Allah assigned to angels is conveying His messages to righteous people, such as informing those who surrender to Allah and follow the straight path that they will go to paradise:

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ قَالُواْ رَبُّنَا اﻟﻠَّﻪُ ﺛُﻤَّ اسْتَقَـٰمُواْ تَتَنَزَّلُ عَلَيْهِمُ اﻟملائكةَ أَلَّا ﺗَﺨَﺎﻓُﻮاْ وَلَا ﺗَﺤْﺰَﻧُﻮاْ وَأَبْشِرُواْ ﺑِالْجَنَّةِ الَّتِى ﻛُﻨﺘُﻤْ  تُوعَدُونَ ﴿30﴾ نَحْنُ أَوْلِيَآؤُكُمْ فِى الْحَيَـٰوةِ الدُّنْيَـا وَفِى الْأَخِرَةِ وَلَكُمْ فِيهَا مَا تَشْتَهِىٓ أَنفُسُكُمْ وَلَكُمْ فِيهَا مَا تَدَّعُونَ ﴿31﴾. (سورة فُصِّلت).

As for those who say: “Our Lord is Allah,” and follow the right way, angels descend upon them, saying: “Fear not, nor be grieved, and here is the good news about paradise which you were promised (41.30). We are your guardians in this life and in the hereafter, and you shall have therein that which your souls desire, and you shall have therein what you ask for.” (41.31)

Another example is informing prophet Zachariah that he was going to have prophet John as a son:

هُنَالِكَ دَعَا زَكَرِيَّا رَبَّهُ قَالَ رَبِّ هَبْ لِى مِن لَّدُنكَ ذُرِّيَّـةً طَيِّـبَةً إِنَّكَ سَمِيعُ الدُّعَآءِ ﴿38﴾ فَنَادَتْهُ اﻟملائكةَ وَهُوَ قَآﺋِﻤُ ُ يُصَلِّى فِى الْمِحْرَابِ أَنَّ اﻟﻠَّﻪَ يُبَشِّرُكَ بِيَحْيَىٰ مُصَدِّقَا بِكَلِمَةٍ مِّنَ اﻟﻠَّﻪِ وَسَيِّدًا وَحَصُورًا وَنَبِيًّا مِّنَ الصَّـٰلِحِينَ ﴿39﴾. (سورة آلَ عِمْرَان).

There did Zachariah pray to his Lord; he said: “My Lord! Grant me from You good offspring; surely You are the Hearer of prayers.” (3.38) Then the angels called him as he stood praying in the pulpit: “Allah gives you the good news of [the birth of] John, who will confirm with a Word from Allah [the previous messengers], be honorable, chaste, and a prophet from among the righteous.” (3.39)

One special assignment that Allah gives to angels is the infliction of revenge on wrongdoing people, as in the angels’ destruction of the people of prophet Lot:

فَلَمَّـا جَآءَ ءَالَ لُوطٍ الْـمُرْسَلُونَ ﴿61﴾ قَالَ إِنَّكُمْ قَوْﻣُ ُ مُّنكَرُونَ ﴿62﴾ قَالُواْ بَلْ جِئْنَـٰكَ بِمَا كَانُواْ فِيهِ يَمْتَرُونَ ﴿63﴾ وَأَتَيْنَـٰكَ ﺑِالْحَقِّ وَإِنَّا لَصَـٰدِقُونَ ﴿64﴾ فَأَسْرِ بِأَهْلِكَ بِقِطْعٍ مِّنَ الَّيْلِ وَاتَّبِعْ أَدْبَـٰرَهُمْ وَلَاَ يَلْتَفِتْ مِنْكُمْ أَحَدُُ وَامْضُواْ حَيْثُ تُؤْمَرُونَ ﴿65﴾ وَقَضَيْنَآ إِلَيْهِ ذَٰلِكَ الْأَمْـرَ أَنَّ دَابِرَ هَـؤُلَآءِ مَقْطُوعُ مُّصْبِحِينَ ﴿66﴾ وَجَآءَ أَهْلُ الْمَدِينَةِ يَسْتَبْشِرُونَ ﴿67﴾ قَالَ إِنَّ هَـؤُلَآءِ ضَيْفِى ﻓَﻼَ تَفْضَحُونِ ﴿68﴾ وَاتَّقُواْ اﻟﻠَّﻪَ وَلَا ﺗُﺨْﺰُﻭﻥِ ﴿69﴾ قَالُوٓاْ أَوَلَمْ نَنْهَكَ عَنِ الْعَـٰلَمِينَ ﴿70﴾ قَالَ هَـؤُلَآءِ بَنَاتِىٓ إِن ﻛُﻨﺘُﻢْ  فَـٰعِلِينَ ﴿71﴾ لَعَمْرُكَ إِنَّهُمْ لَفِى سَكْرَتِهِمْ يَعْمَهُونَ ﴿72﴾ فَأَخَذَتْهُمُ الصَّيْحَةُ مُشْرِقِينَ ﴿73﴾ فَجَعَلْنَا عَـٰلِيَهَا سَافِلَهَا وَأَمْطَرْنَا ﻋَﻠَﻴْﻫِﻢْ حِجَارَةً مِّن سِجِّيلٍ ﴿74﴾. (سورة الحِجْر).

So when the messengers came to Lot’s family. (15.61) He said: “Surely you are an unknown people.” (15.62) They said: “We have rather come to you with that which they have rejected. (15.63) And we have come to you with the truth; and we are surely truthful. (15.64) Therefore, go forth with your household in a part of the night, and follow their rear, and let not any one of you turn round, and go to where you are commanded.” (15.65) And We revealed to him this decree: the roots of these [his people] shall be cut off in the morning. (15.66) And the people of the town came [to him] with joyful expectations. (15.67) He said: “These are my guests, so do not disgrace me. (15.68) And act dutifully toward Allah, and do not put me to shame.” (15.69) They said: “Have we not forbidden you from [talking to] people?” (15.70) He said: “These are my daughters [to marry], if you must do so” (15.71). Verily! They are blindly wandering on in their intoxication. (15.72) So the blast overtook them at sunrise. (15.73) Thus, We turned it upside down, and rained down upon them stones of Sijjīl. (15.74)

There are non‑human messengers who are sent on other special missions, such as Gabriel who delivered the Message of Allah to Prophet Muhammad to guide the human beings and jinn:

قُلْ مَن كَانَ عَدُوًّا لِّجـِبْرِيلَ فَإِنَّهُ نَزَّلَهُ عَلَىٰ قَلْبِكَ بِإِذْنِ اﻟﻠَّﻪِ مُصَدِّقًا لِّـمَـا بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ وَهُدًى وَبُشْرَىٰ لِلْمُؤْمِنِينَ ﴿97﴾. (سورة البقرة).

Say [O Muhammad!]: ‘Who is an enemy of Gabriel?’ For he brought it down to your heart by Allah’s command, confirming that [the Book] which was before it, and as guidance and good news for the believers. (2.97)

Allah also aided prophet Jesus with Gabriel (Rūḥ al‑Qudus):

وَلَقَدْ ءَاتَيْنَا مُوسَى الْكِتَـٰبَ وَقَفَّيْنَا مِن بَعْدِهِ ﺑِالرُّسُلِ وَءَاتَيْنَا عِيسَى ابْنَ ﻣَﺮْيَمَ الْبَيِّنَـٰتِ وَأَيَّدْنَـٰهُ بِرُوحِ الْقُدُسِ ﴿87﴾. (سورة البقرة).

And certainly We gave Moses the Book and sent messengers after him one after another; and We gave Jesus, the son of Mary, clear proofs and strengthened him with the Rú< al‑Qudus. (from 2.87)

Allah, therefore, has non‑human messengers whom He sends to elite individuals, not common people, in order to deliver a particular message, or whom He sends to execute a particular task. The messengers that Allah sent to common people to deliver the good news and warning about the Day of Resurrection, such as the messengers that are referred to in verse 12.109, however, were all human beings.

Let us get back to the verse under discussion and turn our attention to the words “have they not then traveled in the land and seen what was the end of those before them?” This is also an indirect criticism of the polytheists and disbelievers. It is a denouncement of their adherence to polytheism and disbelief despite the fact that they have seen the relics and heard the stories of Allah’s punishment of past polytheistic and disbelieving nations.

Allah’s words “surely the abode of the hereafter is better for those who act dutifully” stress, implicitly, that the dutiful servants will have good in this world and, explicitly, that their reward in the hereafter will be even greater. They encourage people to seek the path of dutifulness.

Allah concludes the verse saying “do you [O people!] not understand?” emphasizing that His words and His other signs should convince every person with sound mind. Anyone who does not believe in Allah’s signs is therefore failing to understand properly.


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

Apr 022010
On the 15th of March 2010 I was invited to give a talk at an exhibition of the Qur’an organized at the University of Liverpool, UK. In the evening I had dinner with two of my hosts, both of whom are currently finishing a PhD at the University. Naturally, most of our discussions were focused on the Qur’an and, in particular its interpretation. One of the two gentlemen, who is a qualified medical doctor from Saudi Arabia, then asked me about “the best tafsir (exegetical work) of the Qur’an.” He meant to ask which of the classical works of atTabari (224-310 H / 838-922 CE), Ibn Kathir (700-774 H / 1300-1372 CE)….etc is best.
I have not read in full any of the massive classical exegetical works because this is not how I use those books. I consult a number of them on a certain topic when I am actively researching that subject, often in the course of a book I am writing. For instance, when I was writing my interpretation of the Qur’anic chapter of Joseph, I studied the full interpretation of this chapter in a number of those sources. When it comes to the Qur’an, I am more of a specialist than a generalist, so my reading list is very much populated by my specific interests. Nevertheless, I have read enough of the main classical sources to feel confident enough to form a view on them.
My reply was that, to start with, there is no perfect exegetical work. Any attempt to interpret any one verse may or may not succeed. Any book that tries to interpret the whole of the Qur’an is bound to have many shortcomings. This fact did not stop scholars from producing comprehensive exegetical works, and rightly so. If the possibility of making mistakes were to be allowed to prevent us from trying to interpret the Qur’an then that would have led to neglecting the Book of Allah. Reading and applying the Qur’an involve and require interpreting it. A text and its interpretations are not one and the same; they are two different and separate entities. But the process of using a text involves interpreting it. This is an inevitability, so we might as well understand its implication and learn how to best take into account.
Given that no exegetical work is perfect, is it possible to consider some to be better than others? The answer must be a definite yes. Some of them excel more or, put differently, have less problems than others.
My answer to the question, which is obviously based on the works I am familiar with, came as a surprise to my hosts for a number of reasons. First, it is a work that they had not heard of. Second, it is a modern rather than old exegesis. Third, it is the work of a Shia scholar. The exegesis I am talking about is that of Muhammad atTabatabai (1892-1981 CE).
Like any other exegesis, atTabatabai’s has its own problems. There are two aspects of his work that I consider as its main shortcomings. First, its interpretation of the Qur’an shows a great deal of influence by Shia beliefs. As someone who is not given to any one particular denominational set of dogmas, I disagree with any attempt to approach the interpretation of the Qur’an with preset, extra-Qur’anic concepts. Second, atTabatabai over-relies on old literature the value of which he accepts on the basis of its attribution to certain famous scholars. These are mainly sayings attributed to the Shia Imams.
Now, none of these two problems is specific to atTabatabai’s work. They are driven by Shiaism in his case, but the same problems are found in any of the other classical works where the exegete’s interpretations can be influenced by certain, prior beliefs and the selection of sources that reflect them. In my view, the overreliance on old literature, including alleged Prophetic sayings or reports about how he acted, has been one of the fundamental problems in Muslim scholarship and has given birth to all kinds of unfortunate consequences at both the thought and application levels.
AtTabatabai excels over others, however, in two significant ways. First, he has a much more rational approach to the interpretation of the Qur’an. He is capable of avoiding the kind of absurdness that has blighted many exegetical works. His failures here are often caused by allowing inherited literature to cloud his otherwise fine judgment and analysis.
Second, I also highly respect atTabatabai’s ability to see in the endlessly rich Qur’anic text things that are often missed out by others. This, in my view, is the one skill or talent that distinguishes the great scholar of the Qur’an from the average. I am talking about those textual observations that leave you with a strong appreciation of the depth, beauty, consistency, and interconnectedness of the Qur’anic text. This sense of overwhelming pious warmth is partly caused by the realization of the intellect that its own power is being used to drown it in humbleness.
But even if one has a particular exegesis that he thinks is the best, he should consult as many and different interpretations as necessary when researching any one particular issue or verse. Because there is no one exegetical work that is better than the rest in every respect, it is essential not to rely on any one work. This means that atTabatabai’s interpretation of a particular verse is not necessarily better than someone else’s. Different sources can also offer different benefits. For instance, being the oldest surviving specialist exegetical work of the Qur’an, atTabari’s work is particularly valuable in its compilation of the views of older scholars. Those who rely on one source make the same dogmatic mistake that I mentioned earlier, which even atTabatabai makes. I concluded a previous article on The Evolving Nature of Qur’anic Exegesis as follows: “Muslims need to keep an open-mind and be ready to raise questions rather than accept passively anything and everything they read or hear. Perhaps, scrutinizing the arguments of this article would be a good start.” This is a critical mindset to take when studying the Qur’an in order to avoid leaving the Qur’an behind us, separated from us by centuries of time.
Surprised by my unconventional choice of atTabatabai, my host went on to ask about specific exegetes he was familiar with, naming Ibn Kathir in particular. As the names he had in mind were well-known and highly respected, I thought of a way of showing the difference between studying those scholars among the sources that one may seek and seeing them as containing the final word on the Qur’an, which I know is how some think. So instead of giving a direct answer, I started by asking what looks like an unrelated question: “How old do you think prophet Joseph was when he was abandoned by his brother and was taken to Egypt?” The reply was: “Ten years.” I followed up: “What makes you think he was this young?” The brother replied: “Because he is described in the Qur’an as being ‘ghulam’ (12.19) at the time, and this word means ‘young boy.’” I said that I agreed with him. This is one reference in the Qur’an that Joseph was a young boy at the time. There are other, more subtle references which I discuss in my book The Prophet Joseph in the Qur’an, the Bible, and History: A new detailed commentary on the Qur’anic Chapter of Joseph.
Then I told the brother that many exegetes have suggested that Joseph was seventeen years old when his brothers threw him in the well! This view has been cited by, among others, atTabari, al-Qurtubi (578-668 H / 1178 – 1269 CE), Ibn Kathir, and atTusi (597-672 H / 1200-1273 CE) in their commentary on verse 12.100; al-Jalalayn in their interpretation of verse 12.15; and as-Suyuti (849-911 H / 1445-1505 CE) when commenting on verse 12.42. I then explained why these scholars have cited a view that is clearly in conflict with the Qur’anic account: their influence by the Bible! More specifically, this identification of Joseph’s age comes from the Book of Genesis (37:2). The fundamental point I was trying to make to that intelligent person is that his interpretation, which is based on analyzing a simple Qur’anic text, can be more accurate than an interpretation of an expert whose judgment was clouded by extra-Qur’anic literature some of which even contradicted the Qur’an.
To further explain why the authority of those classical scholars should not be taken for granted and that the modern student of the Qur’an must be open-minded and questioning, I gave an example about the kinds of absurdness that is found in exegetical works. This instance, which I discuss in my book on prophet Joseph (pp. 14-15), is met in commentaries on verse 80 of the chapter of Joseph. Joseph prevented his older ten brothers from taking his younger brother back with them and decided to keep him in Egypt, so the following verse explains what happened afterward:

So, when they (Joseph’s brothers) despaired of [convincing] him (Joseph), they conferred privately. The eldest among them said: “Do you not know that your father has taken from you a covenant in Allah’s name, and how you gave away Joseph before? Therefore I will not depart from this land until my father permits me or Allah judges for me, and He is the best of judges.” (12.80) 

In his commentary on this verse, al Qurtubi attributes the following narrative to the old exegete Ibn ‘Abbas: 

When Judah (one of Joseph’s brothers) would get angry and take the sword, not even a hundred thousand [fighters] would be able to repel him. The hairs of his chest would stand like large needles and penetrate his clothes. It was reported that Judah, who was the most volatile among his brothers, said to them: “Either you sort out the king (meaning Joseph who had detained his brother Benjamin) and I sort out the people of Egypt, or you sort out the people of Egypt and I sort out the king and those who are with him.” His brothers said: “You sort out the king and those who are with him, and we will sort out the people of Egypt.” So, he sent out one of his brothers to count the markets in Egypt, which they found to be nine. Each of them picked a market.

Judah then entered Joseph’s office and said: “O king! If you do not give us back our brother I will make such a cry that would make every pregnant woman in your city suffer a miscarriage.” That was a special attribute in them (Joseph’s brothers) when they got angry. Joseph angered Judah by saying something to him. Judah, therefore, got angry, his anger increased, and his body hair stood. This was the case with everyone of Jacob’s sons. When one of them would get angry, he would get goose bumps, his body would grow, the hairs of his back would protrude through his clothes, and a drop of blood would fall from each hair. If he would hit the ground with his foot, the earth would quake and buildings would collapse. If he would make a cry, every pregnant woman, animal, and bird would give birth, whether what they carried were fully developed or not. His anger would not go unless he shed blood or was touched by the hand of one of the offspring of Jacob.

When Joseph realized that the anger of his brother Judah had reached its climax, he asked in Coptic a young son of his to touch Judah between his shoulders without letting the latter see him. He did that, so Judah’s anger disappeared and he threw away the sword. He turned right and left expecting to see one of his brothers but he could not see any. He went out in a hurry to his brothers and asked them: “Was anyone of you with me [in the presence of Joseph]?” They replied: “No.” He said: “Where has Simeon (one of their brothers) gone?” They answered: “To the mountain.”

Judah left and met his brother who was carrying a massive rock. Judah asked Simeon: “What do you want to do with this?” Simeon replied: “I will go to the market that was assigned to me and smash the head of everyone there with this rock.” Judah said: “Return this rock or throw it in the sea, and do not say anything to anyone. I swear by the One who took [prophet] Abraham as His close friend that a hand of someone from Jacob’s offspring has touched me.”

Then, they entered Joseph’s office. The latter, who was the strongest among them, said: “O you Hebrews! Do you think that there is no one who is stronger than you?” He turned to a massive rock of the rocks of the mill and kicked it with his foot, pushing it through the wall. Then he caught Judah with one hand and wrestled him to the ground! 

This incredible narrative has absolutely nothing to do with the Qur’an. None of its many absurd details comes from the Qur’an, yet it is mentioned in the context of interpreting the Qur’anic chapter of Joseph. But this story is not confined to the exegesis of al Qurtubi. It occurs in different and similar, and longer and shorter, versions in many exegetical books, such as those of atTabari, al-‘Ayyashi (d. 320 H / 932 CE), al-Qummi (d. 329 H / 940 CE), as-Suyuti, and al-Huwayzi (d. 1112 H / 1700 CE). Any genuine attempt to interpret the Qur’an must be respected, but that respect must not prevent us from properly assessing it and taking a view on where it succeeds and where it falls short.

To sum up, I consider the exegesis of atTabatabai superior to other exegetical works, because of its modern tone and the higher depth and quality of its analysis. But atTabatabai’s work has its own problems. There is no perfect interpretation of the Qur’an. This is why it is essential that the student of the Qur’an does not rely on any one source but consults a number of works by scholars from different periods, denominations, and schools of thought.

Copyright © 2010 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Feb 212010

This article is extracted and adapted from chapter “The Qur’an’s Rejection of the ‘Sonship of God’” from the book Jesus The Muslim Prophet: History Speaks of a Human Messiah Not a Divine Christ

Unlike the God of the New Testament, the image of God in Islam is very clear, and it can be described in a number of simple statements:

(1) There is only one god: “There is no god save Allah” (47.19).

(2) He is the “creator of everything” (6.102).

(3) Before starting the creation, God was alone; eternity is strictly God’s: “He is the first and the last” (57.3).

(4) He is the supreme ruler of the universe: “Allah is able to do all things” (5.17); “Allah does what He wishes” (2.253).

(5) God is unique and dissimilar to anything: “There is nothing like Him” (42.11).

(6) He is subtle and out of the reach of anyone’s senses: “Vision cannot grasp Him, but He grasps all vision; and He is the Subtle One, the Aware One” (6.103).

(7) Everything and everyone is in submission to Him, whether by choice or by force: “To Him submits whoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly” (3.83).

Almost all these statements are found in one form or another in the Bible. But the New Testament has other affirmations that blur the meanings of those fundamental statements, or even contradict them. One distinguishing feature of the Qur’an is the absence of such contradictory statements. For instance, while emphasizing that only God is eternal, the Qur’an does not go on elsewhere to qualify this statement by describing someone else as eternal. Similarly, there is a clear-cut ontological separation between God and His creation. No earthly or heavenly being is a god, part of God, or related to God in any form. There is one God, and everyone and everything else is created by Him.

The Qur’an considers any alleged god other than God to be false. It condemns polytheism, i.e. associating gods with Allah, in the strongest terms. It states more than once that assigning partners to God is the gravest sin and the one sin that may not be forgiven (also 4.116): 

Allah does not forgive that anything should be associated with Him, but He forgives anything other than this to whomsoever He pleases; and whoever associates anything with Allah, he devises indeed a great sin. (4.48)

One important difference between the presentations of God in the Qur’an and the New Testament, at least according to the most popular understanding of the latter, is that the God of the Qur’an is one whereas the God of the New Testament is a unity. Allah is not a number of persons in one, one person in multiple manifestations, one being in different aspects, one in more than one mode, or any such designations that Christianity developed. All that can be said about Him is that He is one. His oneness cannot be broken down into any smaller units or different aspects or forms.

In his effort to show that the Qur’an does not contravene Christian theology, the Methodist minister and professor of comparative religion Geoffrey Parrinder (Jesus in the Qur’an, Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 1995, p. 137) claims that the Qur’an affirms the unity of God. This suggestion is completely untrue. Under pressure to reconcile contradictory statements in the New Testament, Christian theologians work hard to stress that the concepts of divine oneness and unity are one and the same. The Qur’an rejects this equation, as logic does. The God of the Qur’an is one, not united.

According to the Qur’an, God’s divinity cannot be shared or divided. Everything and everyone other than God are merely His creation and servants. Spiritual development brings the servant closer to God, but it can never bring him close to divinity. It rather confirms his servanthood. Being nearer to God means getting closer to becoming the perfect Muslim, and the latter is one who has attained complete surrender and submission to God. This is the state in which the individual is no more a servant by compulsion only, but by will also. This means, for instance, that as Jesus was developing spiritually, he was getting closer and closer to attaining the state of perfect servanthood, not divinity.

The Qur’an ascribes to God what it calls al-Asma’ al-Husna (the Beautiful Names) (7.180, 17.110, 59.24): “Allah, there is no god but Him; His are the Beautiful Names” (20.8). These are different attributes that reflect God’s different modes of action, including names such as “The Merciful One,” “The Majestic One,” and “The Creator.” Verses 59.22-24 list about 15 of these divine names, with many more found in other parts of the Qur’an. Many verses, such as verse 6.103 above, end with a pair of Beautiful Names. Most scholars count 99 Beautiful Names. In some polytheistic religions, the different actions associated with these names may be assigned to or shared by different gods.


Copyright © 2010 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Jun 072009

Adapted from the chapter “Al-Masih in the Qur’an” in the book The Mystery of the Messiah: The Messiahship of Jesus in the Qur’an, New Testament, Old Testament, and Other Sources

The Qur’an does not use the title “Christ” to call Jesus’ followers “Christians.” Christians are not named after the title “Messiah” but are called Nasara or “Nazarenes.” This Qur’anic title does not presume that Jesus was a Nazarene. It is derived from a particular historical event in which Jesus called on his companions for “support” or nasr in Arabic (this is discussed in more detail in The Mystery Of The Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources, 2007: 224-229):

But when Jesus perceived disbelief on their part, he said: “Who are my ansar (supporters) in the cause of Allah?” The companions said: “We are Allah’s ansar. We believe in Allah, and do you bear witness that we are Muslims.” (3.52)
O you who believe! Be Allah’s ansar (supporters), as Jesus son of Mary said to the companions: “Who are my ansar (supporters) in the cause of Allah?” The companions said: “We are Allah’s ansar (supporters).” Then a party of the Children of Israel believed and a party disbelieved, therefore we aided those who believed against their enemy, so they became the ones that prevailed (61.14).
Like the Qur’an, and contrary to what many think, the term Christianos or “Christian” is never used in the Gospels. Furthermore, it appears only three times in the New Testament — twice in Acts and once in the First Epistle of Peter. The first mention in Acts is particularly significant: “For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26). This visit of the apostles Paul and Barnabas to Antioch occurred around 45 CE. This suggests that it was well after Jesus had gone that his disciplesor any of his followers started to be known as “Christians.”

The term is then used twice to refer to any follower of the Christ, which is what it ultimately came to mean. In its second occurrence in Acts (26:28), King Agrippa II argues with Paul for trying to convert him to a “Christian.” In the third and last appearance of the term in the New Testament, the follower of the Christ is reminded not to be ashamed of suffering as a “Christian” and to glorify God for bearing such a name (1 Peter 4:16).

It may be suggested that it was Paul and Barnabas who introduced this term in Antioch. One argument against this view is that Paul never uses the term in his letters, preferring to call fellow Christians adelphos (brothers) and adelphen (sisters). This may indicate that the term was introduced by non-Christians, which could explain Acts’ anonymous attribution of the coining of the term. If that is the case, it is doubtful that the term was first applied to Christ’s disciples and then to all his followers, as non-Christians would not have differentiated between the two.


 Copyright © 2009 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

May 072009
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 relevant and important issue to finally examine is the Qur’an’s concept of “khyara umma (best nation)”. The Qur’an doesn’t discriminate between people on the basis of their ethnicity, color, social status, or wealth. No such insignificant and worthless criteria are used in the Qur’an to prefer some people to others or identify chosen individuals or groups. The Qur’an does state that people can be better or worse than others, but only on the basis of their behavior: 

O you people! Surely, We have created you of a male and a female, and made you peoples and tribes that you may know each other. Certainly, the most honorable of you in the sight of Allah is the most pious of you. Surely, Allah is Knowing, Aware. (49.13)

 After stating that we have all come from the same parents, Adam and Eve, Allah goes on to tell us that piety is the only criterion that discriminates between us in His sight, i.e. in terms of the ultimate reward in the hereafter. This is expanded on in the following set of verses:

You have been the best nation that has been raised up for mankind. You enjoin what is right, forbid what is wrong, and believe in Allah. If the People of the Book believe [in Islam], it would be better for them; there are believers among them, but most of them are backsliders. (3.110) They will not harm you but a slight hurt. If they fight you, they shall turn their backs to you [to flee], and they shall not be helped. (3.111) Abasement has been imposed on them wherever they are found, except under a covenant with Allah and a covenant with men, and they have become deserving of wrath from Allah, and humiliation is made to cleave to them. This is because they disbelieved in the verses of Allah and slew the prophets unjustly. This is because they disobeyed and exceeded the limits. (3.112) They are not all alike; among the People of the Book there is an upright party; they recite Allah’s verses in the nighttime, falling prostrate. (3.113) They believe in Allah and the Last Day, they enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong, and they hasten to good works. Those are among the righteous. (3.114) Whatever good they do, they shall not be denied it. Allah knows the pious. (3.115)

 Note the magnificent definition of the “best nation.” It is not a nation of blood relatives or people of a particular ethnicity. It, rather, consists of those individuals who enjoin what is right, forbid what is wrong, and believe in Allah. These are the qualities that make anyone who acquires them a member of the “best nation.” This best nation doesn’t include only people of the Qur’an, but also included followers of Books that Allah had revealed to previous Prophets, such as the Torah and the Injil. This is why the word “umma (nation)” is used again in verse 3.113 which talks about the “People of the Book.”

Additionally, the Qur’an does not use the concept of “best nation” to discriminate between people in this world, for example, giving the best nation more rights than others. It only promises them rewards on the Day of Resurrection. It does not give them any special privileges in this world.

The verses above make it absolutely clear that in order to belong to Allah’s best nation, the person has to exert strenuous efforts in spreading the good message of Allah, teaching what is good, and forbidding what is evil. In today’s world there are numerous channels of communication that the Muslim can use to convey the message of Islam to people everywhere. However, the incredible growth and diversification of the means of disseminating information have not been met by adequate efforts from Muslims to teach the message of Islam. In fact, the sparse presence of Muslims in the world media has meant that these potential channels to educate people about Islam have become major sources of misinformation on a religion that was wronged and misunderstood in the West since its early days. It is true that the media in the West are free from the control of the state, but that doesn’t mean that they are not controlled and manipulated by particular interests. Unfortunately, there are many groups who have interests in discrediting Islam.



  Copyright © 2009 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Jan 192008
This article is from The Prophet Joseph In The Qur’an, The Bible, And History

وَشَرَوْهُ بِثَمَنٍ بَخْسٍ دَرَاهِمَ مَعْدُودَةٍ وَكَانُوا فِيهِ مِنَ الزَّاهِدِينَ (20)

And they sold him for a low price, a few silver coins, and they were disinterested in keeping him (20).
Note that the words شَرَوْهُthey sold him,” كَانُواthey were,” and الزَّاهِدِينَ “disinterested in keeping” refer to the same plural pronoun implied in the verbs أَرْسَلُوا [they] sent,” أَسَرُّوهُ “they concealed him,” and يَعْمَلُونَthey were doing” in the previous verse. Since the selling of Joseph occurred in Egypt, as we will see when we study the next verse, it is obvious that the sellers must have been the travelers not Joseph’s brothers. This confirms my comments on the previous verse that it was caravanners not Joseph’s brothers who concealed Joseph with their goods.
There are three opinions about the meaning of the adjective بَخْسٍbakhsin,” which I have translated as “low.” The first two indicate that “ bakhsin” means “unjust” and “forbidden,” respectively. The third and most common view suggests that this word means “undervalued.” In the latter case, describing the price as “undervalued” may indicate that it was below the average price of a slave at the time. It is more likely, however, that the meaning is that any fee that the travelers would receive for Joseph would be “low,” because anyone who would sell Joseph would inevitably be a loser, for giving away this noble servant of Allah for money. Support for this interpretation of the meaning of “ bakhsin” could be seen in the phrase “a few silver coins,” which emphasizes the cheapness of the price for which Joseph was sold, and the clause “and they were disinterested in keeping him,” which stresses the sellers’ ignorance of Joseph’s status.
Allah then states that this low price was “a few silver coins.” The term دَرَاهِمَcoins” refers to whatever currency was in use at the time. Some exegetes have pointed out that the adjective مَعْدُودَةٍ ma‘dúdatin,” which means literally “countable,” means “few.” They suggest that coins were weighed when they were many but counted when there was only a few of them as they would be easy to count. It seems that the caravanners sold Joseph for a few coins because he had not cost them any money. They had not bought him as a slave, so any money they would take would have been a net profit.
Allah ends this verse by emphasizing that the caravanners’ treatment of Joseph, selling him for money, reflects their disinterest in him: “and they were disinterested in keeping him.” This underlines their ignorance of Joseph’s real status and their failure to treat him as he deserves. This emphasis on the caravanners’ ignorance of Joseph’s status is an indirect reference to Joseph’s great status in the sight of Allah.
There is a great lesson in Allah’s test of Joseph, who is noble in His sight, with that temporary state of humiliation in this transient world.


 Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

Feb 252007
This article is from The Prophet Joseph In The Qur’an, The Bible, And History 

  وَجَاءَتْ سَيَّارَةٌ فَأَرْسَلُوا وَارِدَهُمْ فَأَدْلَى دَلْوَهُ قَالَ يَا بُشْرَى هَذَا غُلاَمٌ وَأَسَرُّوهُ بِضَاعَةً وَاللَّهُ عَلِيمٌ بِمَا يَعْمَلُونَ (19)

And there came a caravan.1 They [the caravanners] sent someone to draw some water, and he let down his bucket; he said: “O good news! Here is a young boy”; and they concealed him as an article of merchandise, and Allah was aware of what they were doing (19).
In the verse above, the Qur’an takes us back to the place where Jacob’s sons left their brother hoping that some travelers would help him out of the well and take him to a far land: “One of them said: ‘Do not kill Joseph, but cast him down into the bottom of the well where some caravanners will pick him up, if you would do something [to him]’” (12.10). Verse 12.19 tells us that this was exactly what happened. A caravan of travelers arrived to the area and sent someone to get them water from the well in which Joseph was thrown. When that traveler sent the bucket down the well, he was surprised to see Joseph, something that he considered to be “good news.” His words “here is a young boy” show that Joseph was a little child then, as we have seen implied by the Qur’an earlier on.
While it is unclear how long Joseph stayed in the well, he was probably found shortly after he was cast there. As I explained in my interpretation of verse 12.10, Joseph’s brothers would have chosen a well that is on a travel route to ensure that their brother gets rescued and does not die at the bottom of the well.
The verb أسرّasarra” means “to make something a secret” or “to treat it as a secret,” hence I have translated the clause وَأَسَرُّوهُ بِضَاعَةً as “and they concealed him as an article of merchandise,” i.e. the travelers hid Joseph with their goods. Exegetes have disagreed about the identity of the plural pronoun implied in the verb وَأَسَرُّوهُand they concealed him.” Some agree with the old exegete Mujahid that it refers to the caravanners. The others accept Ibn ‘Abbas’ view that it refers to Joseph’s brothers.
The latter group of exegetes, who represent the majority, think that Joseph’s brothers threatened to kill him if he revealed the truth, and forced him to pretend that he was their slave in order to sell him to the caravan. The Qur’anic verse, however, contains absolutely nothing to support this view. In fact, this interpretation reflects the exegetes’ influence by the Biblical narrative which claims that Joseph’s brothers sold him to caravanners.
I think that this interpretation is completely wrong. I am inclined toward the apparent meaning of the verse that the implied plural pronoun in وَأَسَرُّوهُand they concealed him” refers to travelers in the caravan. It is clear that the conjunction وَand” links this verb to the plural verb أَرْسَلُواْ[they] sent” which precedes it in the same verse and which definitely refers to the caravanners, not to Joseph’s brothers. Additionally, the clause “and they concealed him as an article of merchandise” makes it clear that the reference is to the travelers not to Joseph’s brothers.2
Allah’s words “and Allah was aware of what they were doing” are a reminder that He was present and watching when the travelers took Joseph away from his father’s land, that He was aware of everything they were doing, and that they were not able to do anything that He would not allow to happen. This reminder brings to mind what Allah said in a previous verse when Joseph’s brothers put him in the well: “and We revealed to him: ‘You will certainly inform them of this affair of theirs while they are unaware’.” In verse 12.19 Allah gives a reminder that He was present, witnessing everything that was taking place, and that none of those events would have taken place had He not wanted them to happen for subtle goals that subsequent events would unveil.



1 The word سَيَّارَةٌsayyara” is derived from سَيْرsayr” which means “movement,” “travel” …etc. Some exegetes have suggested that the word “sayyara” means pedestrian travelers. This opinion could be supported by the fact that the Qur’an uses the word عِيرُir” for traveling caravans of camels in three verses of the sura of Joseph (70, 82, and 94).

The word “sayyara” occurs in the sura of Joseph in verse 12.10 as a masculine noun and in verse 12.19 as both masculine and feminine. The reason for this is that this word has two slightly different meanings: the masculine “caravanners” and the feminine “caravan.” In verse 12.10, where “sayyara” is treated as masculine, it is translated as “caravanners.” In verse 12.19, in the sentence وَجَاءَتْ سَيَّارَةٌ فَأَرْسَلُوا وَارِدَهُمْand there came a caravan. They sent someone to draw some water,” the same word is used as feminine and masculine, hence it is translated as “caravan” and “caravanners.” The latter is referred to with the pronoun “they.”
The Qur’an’s use of “sayyara” in two meanings is identical to its use of the word عِيرُir,” which is very close in meaning to “sayyara,” as pointed out above. In the following two verses, the word “ir” has the feminine meaning of “caravan” of camels:

وَاسْأَلْ الْقَرْيَةَ الَّتِي كُنَّا فِيهَا وَالْعِيرَ الَّتِي أَقْبَلْنَا فِيهَا (يوسف: 82)

And ask in the town in which we were and the caravan with which we came (from 12.84).

وَلَمَّا فَصَلَتْ الْعِيرُ (يوسف: 94)

And when the caravan had departed (from 12.94).

Then there is the verse أَيَّتُهَا الْعِيرُ إِنَّكُمْ لَسَارِقُونَO caravanners! You are certainly thieves” (from 12.70). The word عِيرُir” is first used as meaning the feminine “caravan,” as obvious from the attached, feminine pronoun in أَيَّتُهَاO you!“. It is then used to mean “caravanners” in إِنَّكُمْ لَسَارِقُونَyou are certainly thieves.”

Thus, the two sentences وَجَاءَتْ سَيَّارَةٌ فَأَرْسَلُوا وَارِدَهُمْand there came a caravan and they sent their water drawer” and أَيَّتُهَا الْعِيرُ إِنَّكُمْ لَسَارِقُونَO caravanners! You are certainly thieves” have exactly the same structure as far as the use of the two words سَيَّارَةٌsayyara” and عِيرُir” is concerned.

2 It is possible that this verse refers to one particular group of the caravanners, not all of them, who sent one of them to get water for them. In other words, the caravan consisted of more than one group of travelers. It was common for different groups of travelers with the same route to travel as one caravan for a number of reasons, such as safety. Perhaps, those travelers hid Joseph with their goods so that no other travelers would claim to have a share in him. It is also possible that the group who found Joseph would have to pay extra fees for any additional traveler; this explains why they hid him as “an article of merchandise.” Another possible reason for the travelers hiding Joseph is so that his family would not find him, if they were looking for him, so they can sell him later on as an article of merchandise. The reason could also be none of these, as it is not possible to verify any of these hypotheses.


 Copyright © 2007 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved