Hardships and Ease
وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا فِي قَرْيَةٍ مِّن نَّبِيٍّ إِلَّا أَخَذْنَا أَهْلَهَا بِالْبَأْسَاءِ وَالضَّرَّاءِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَضَّرَّعُونَ. ثُمَّ بَدَّلْنَا مَكَانَ السَّيِّئَةِ الْحَسَنَةَ حَتَّىٰ عَفَوا وَّقَالُوا قَدْ مَسَّ آبَاءَنَا الضَّرَّاءُ وَالسَّرَّاءُ فَأَخَذْنَاهُم بَغْتَةً وَهُمْ لَا يَشْعُرُونَ
We did not send any prophet to a town, but We seized its people with hardship and suffering, so that they might humble themselves; then We transformed the affliction into ease of life, so that they thrived and said (to themselves), “Misfortune and hardship befell our forefathers as well”—whereupon We took them to task, all of a sudden, without their being aware (of what was coming). (Al-Aʿrāf, 7:94-95)
This sūrah narrated stories of many Messengers whose nations refused to listen to them and were ultimately destroyed. Here is then a general statement about their behavior. The hardships and ease of life were created by Allāh as a way of shaking them out of their complacency with their ignorant ways. They are not accidents that just happen randomly, nor are they ultimately the result of just the local and apparent causes. There is a Divine plan behind everything that is happening in the world. People of wisdom can see the Hand of Allāh in their afflictions as well as their prosperity and use both to come closer to Him and to submit to Him. Others fail—even refuse—to see it that way and are destroyed. This is a very important reminder for developing the right outlook about the news of the day.
وَجَاوَزْنَا بِبَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ الْبَحْرَ فَأَتَوْا عَلَىٰ قَوْمٍ يَعْكُفُونَ عَلَىٰ أَصْنَامٍ لَّهُمْ ۚ قَالُوا يَا مُوسَى اجْعَل لَّنَا إِلَٰهًا كَمَا لَهُمْ آلِهَةٌ ۚ قَالَ إِنَّكُمْ قَوْمٌ تَجْهَلُونَ. إِنَّ هَٰؤُلَاءِ مُتَبَّرٌ مَّا هُمْ فِيهِ وَبَاطِلٌ مَّا كَانُوا يَعْمَلُونَ
We made the children of Isrā’īl cross the sea, then they came across a people sitting in devotion before their idols. They (the Israelites) said, “O Mūsā, make a god for us like they have gods.” He said, “You are really an ignorant people. What these people are engaged in is sure to be destroyed; and false is what they are doing.” (Al-Aʿrāf, 7:138-139)
This is after the Israelites had been rescued from the Pharaoh’s oppression. Long years of slavery had taken their toll on their ways of thinking and this can be seen in the slavish mentality showcased here. Blind imitation of the other (as can be seen in the vast areas of the Muslim world today regarding the West) is a serious disease. We want the same objects of devotion, days of celebration, and pursuits and patterns of life as those who we think to be successful.
Ibn ʿAṭiyyah says, the children of Israel perhaps were not proposing idol worship per se; they might have been rationalizing that the statue would help them visualize and thereby do their worship of God with more concentration. If true, it only shows that such rationalizations camouflaging a slavish mentality—so common today as a result of colonial experience—have a long history. Let us not forget that the children of Israel did end up doing calf worship after all.
In any case the reply of Prophet Mūsā is so fitting and it can help rid us of this debilitating sickness.
The Prophet and His True Followers
الَّذِينَ يَتَّبِعُونَ الرَّسُولَ النَّبِيَّ الْأُمِّيَّ الَّذِي يَجِدُونَهُ مَكْتُوبًا عِندَهُمْ فِي التَّوْرَاةِ وَالْإِنجِيلِ يَأْمُرُهُم بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَاهُمْ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَيُحِلُّ لَهُمُ الطَّيِّبَاتِ وَيُحَرِّمُ عَلَيْهِمُ الْخَبَائِثَ وَيَضَعُ عَنْهُمْ إِصْرَهُمْ وَالْأَغْلَالَ الَّتِي كَانَتْ عَلَيْهِمْ ۚ فَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا بِهِ وَعَزَّرُوهُ وَنَصَرُوهُ وَاتَّبَعُوا النُّورَ الَّذِي أُنزِلَ مَعَهُ ۙ أُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ
Those who follow the Messenger, the Ummī (unlettered) prophet whom they find mentioned in their own (scriptures), in the Torah (law) and the Injīl (Gospel), and who bids them what is fair and forbids what is unfair, and makes lawful for them good things, and makes unlawful for them impure things, and relieves them of their burden, and of the shackles that were upon them. So, those who believe in him and support him, and help him and follow the light sent down with him, those are the ones who are successful. (Al- Aʿrāf, 7:157)
This is a concise introduction to Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ and his message. He commands what is fair, just, and good. He forbids what is unfair, unjust, and evil. He declares permissible what is clean and pure. He declares impermissible what is unclean and unhealthy. He liberates humanity from the shackles that it had put upon itself—those of customs, traditions, superstitions and man-made laws. His is the most empowering and liberating message that leads to eternal success. This success is only for those who reject all the competing heroes and exemplars for the light of guidance brought by him.
وَاسْأَلْهُمْ عَنِ الْقَرْيَةِ الَّتِي كَانَتْ حَاضِرَةَ الْبَحْرِ إِذْ يَعْدُونَ فِي السَّبْتِ إِذْ تَأْتِيهِمْ حِيتَانُهُمْ يَوْمَ سَبْتِهِمْ شُرَّعًا وَيَوْمَ لَا يَسْبِتُونَ ۙ لَا تَأْتِيهِمْ ۚ كَذَٰلِكَ نَبْلُوهُم بِمَا كَانُوا يَفْسُقُونَ
Ask them about the town which stood by the sea, when they used to transgress in the matter of Sabbath, when their fish came to them openly on the Sabbath, and did not come when they did not have Sabbath. In this way, We put them to a test, because they used to act sinfully. (Al-Aʿrāf, 7:163)
Muhammad Asad writes: “The story of the Sabbath-breakers (alluded to in several places in the Qur’ān) is a general illustration of the tendency, so often manifested by the children of Israel, to offend against their religious laws in pursuit of their passions or for the sake of worldly gain.”
Unfortunately the description of the past of the children of Israel fits the present of much of the Muslim world with all sorts of economic justifications being offered for putting Allāh’s commands on the side. Those who put forward or accept such fancy justifications, sometimes in highly academic language, should realize that when economic gains result from breaking Allāh’s commands, then the situation is itself a punishment for our transgressions. And the proper thing to do is to throw away the balance sheets and turn to Allāh in repentance.
Innate Sense of the Creator
وَإِذْ أَخَذَ رَبُّكَ مِن بَنِي آدَمَ مِن ظُهُورِهِمْ ذُرِّيَّتَهُمْ وَأَشْهَدَهُمْ عَلَىٰ أَنفُسِهِمْ أَلَسْتُ بِرَبِّكُمْ ۖ قَالُوا بَلَىٰ ۛ شَهِدْنَا ۛ أَن تَقُولُوا يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ إِنَّا كُنَّا عَنْ هَٰذَا غَافِلِينَ
(Recall) when your Lord brought forth their progeny from the loins of the children of Ādam, and made them testify about themselves (by asking them,) “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Of course, You are. We testify.” (We did so) lest you should say on the Day of Judgment, “ We were unaware of this.” (Al-Aʿrāf, 7:172)
According to the Qur’ān, as explained further by several ahadith, all human beings who will be born until the Last Day had a prior existence when the witnessing referred to above took place. Our innate sense of our Creator and our obligation to worship and obey Him is a result of that event. That is why belief in a deity and acts of worship have been a common phenomenon in all human societies. Another hadith informs us that all human beings are born in the state of fiṭrah, which is in perfect harmony with Islam, and only later parents and environmental influences make them deviate from that path.
The awareness may be obscured from our conscience and buried deeply under false ideas but it comes to the surface at extraordinary times. Thus at times of great calamities people of all persuasions suddenly remember God.
The Prophet and the Knowledge of the Unseen
قُل لَّا أَمْلِكُ لِنَفْسِي نَفْعًا وَلَا ضَرًّا إِلَّا مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ ۚ وَلَوْ كُنتُ أَعْلَمُ الْغَيْبَ لَاسْتَكْثَرْتُ مِنَ الْخَيْرِ وَمَا مَسَّنِيَ السُّوءُ ۚ إِنْ أَنَا إِلَّا نَذِيرٌ وَبَشِيرٌ لِّقَوْمٍ يُؤْمِنُونَ
Say, “I have no power to bring a benefit or a harm to myself, except that which Allāh wills. If I had the knowledge of the Unseen, I would have accumulated a lot of good things, and no evil would have ever touched me. I am but a warner, and a herald of good news for a people who believe.” (Al-Aʿrāf, 7:188)
Prophets receive communications from God and speak to the people for Him, but they are not God. Many people have difficulty in comprehending this distinction. Non-believers, including the mushrikeen of the pre-Islamic Jāhiliyyah said that if the Prophet did not have divine powers then he could not be the Prophet. Ignorant followers later claimed that he indeed had full knowledge of the unseen. This āyah sets the record straight. The Prophet is a human being, but he is appointed by Allāh to speak for Him to humanity. His knowledge of the unseen world exceeds that of other human beings, because it has been given to him by Allāh. But this is not the all encompassing knowledge of the unseen, which is held by no one except Allāh.
Listening to the Qur’ān
وَإِذَا قُرِئَ الْقُرْآنُ فَاسْتَمِعُوا لَهُ وَأَنصِتُوا لَعَلَّكُمْ تُرْحَمُونَ
When the Qur’ān is recited, hearken unto it, and listen in silence, so that you may be blessed. (Al-Aʿrāf 7:204)
This is the proper etiquette regarding Qur’ānic recitation. The Qur’ān should command our attention and devotion unlike any other word, as this is the Word of Allāh. Disrespect here will deprive us of the mercy contained in it. Consequently a person should not recite it audibly at a place where people are busy in other activities and will not be able to listen to it attentively. Unfortunately in the media age this situation has become more common. Electronic devices make recitation easy but many a time the required attention is lacking. We should remember that the Qur’ānic recitation should never form the background sound for our activities. We should either listen to it with full attention or turn it off. For the same reason using it as a ring toner in mobile phones is an act of disrespect.
When the Qur’ān is recited in tarāwīh, the spirit of this āyah requires that we listen to it and not leave in the middle without a good reason. Even worse would be to engage in socializing and ignore the recitation of the Qur’ān. Unfortunately these are becoming a common trend in our communities, and especially amongst the youth in the West.