|Volume 4: Surah Baqarah, Verses 258-260|
Did you not see him who disputed with Ibrahim about his Lord, because Allah had given him the kingdom? When Ibrahim said: "My Lord is He Who gives life and cause to die", he said: "I give life and cause death." Ibrahim said: "So surely Allah brings the sun from the east, then bring it (you) from the west." Thus he who disbelieved was confounded; and Allah does not guide aright the unjust people (258). Or like him who passed by a town, and it had fallen down upon its roofs; he said: "How will Allah give it life after its death?" So Allah caused him to die for a hundred years, then raised him to life. He said: "How long have you tarried?" He said: "I have tarried a day, or a part of a day. " Said He: "Nay! You have tarried a hundred years; then look at your food and drink - years have not passed over it; and look at your donkey; and that We may make you a sign to men; and look at the bones, how We assemble them together, then clothe them with flesh." So when it became clear to him, he said: "I know that Allah has power over all things" (259). And (remember) when Ibrahim said: "My Lord! Show me how Thou givest life to the dead. "He said: "What! and do you not believe?" He said: "Certainly, but that my heart may be at ease. "He said: "Then take four of the birds, then cut them (into pieces), then place on every mountain a part of them, then call them, they will come to you flying; and know that Allah is Mighty, Wise" (260).
The three verses describe the Oneness of the Creator and His Omnipotence. They have, therefore, some connection with the preceding verses; and possibly these were revealed together with them.
QUR’AN: Did you not see him who disputed with Ibrahim about his Lord:
“al-Muhajjah” is to bring a proof against the opposite party’s, to prove one’s own claim or to refute the other party's argument. The basic meaning of al-hujjah is intention; now it is generally used for "proof" by which one intends to prove one's claim. The phrase "about his Lord" is connected with the verb "disputed". The pronoun in "His Lord" refers to Ibrahim, as may be inferred from the next sentence, "Ibrahim said: `My Lord is He Who gives life and causes to die.' " The man who disputed with Ibrahim was the king of his time; and according to history and traditions, he was the Babylonian king, Namrud (Nimrod).
We may understand the nature of this argument and the subject of the dispute, if we look at the context of the verse and reflect upon the behavior of mankind in the past as well as in the present.
Man, by his nature, has always remained submissive to the powers about him which effect, in one way or the other, his life. No student of anthropology, who has studied the behavior of the ancients, or has looked at the present generations of various nations, can have any doubt about it. We have described it in preceding discourses; and also it has been pointed out that man, by his nature, accepts that there is a Creator for the universe, Who has brought it into existence, and Who manages it. Every man, by the dictate of nature, believes this - be he a monotheist (a follower of the prophets), a polytheist (like an idol-worshipper) or an atheist (like a materialist). Nature's demand cannot be negated so long as man is man (although the effect of it may at times become weaker or dormant).
Primitive man, in his simplicity, thought of every thing in the light of his own experience. He saw that he performs different acts by means of his different organs and limbs; and likewise, in society's structure, various people discharge various duties and functions. And the natural phenomena in the world happen because of their respective natural causes which are closely related to them. Yet, his nature led him to believe in a Creator who had all the affairs of the universe in His hand. Not surprisingly, he thought that every phenomenon of the world had a special deity of its own - and all those deities were under the authority of a Supreme God. Sometimes he named them deities for various things; for example, the deity of the earth, the deity of the rivers, the deity of fire, the deity of wind, etc. At other times, he attributed these functions to the stars, and especially to the planets, the sun and the moon, ascribing to each various faculties believing that each of them affected this world of ours in its own way. This belief was held by the Sabaeans. The next stage was to make images and statues for those lesser deities. Then he started to worship those idols so that the particular image might intercede on behalf of the worshipper with its particular deity, which in its turn was expected to intercede with the Supreme God - thus ensuring bliss and success for the worshipper in this life and after death.
That also explains why the idols were made in different shapes in different tribes. Views and opinions as regards the attributes of various species and the conceptions of their related deities could not be the same in two nations; and even in one nation they changed with the times. Sometimes other considerations and inclinations crept into the system. Gradually, the idols usurped the place of the said deities, and even the Supreme God was relegated to obscurity. Worshippers intended to give their devotion more and more to what was near them, which they could see and touch, and thus they tended to forget what was beyond their five senses. In this way, idols took the place of the Creator. All this happened because initially they thought that those lesser deities had some influence and control over the affairs of their lives - that the will of those deities dominated their own will and that those deities' management prevailed over their own plans and management.
When some powerful personality appeared on the scene and took the reins of the kingdom in his hands, he often exploited this trend of thought; he had their affairs and their lives in his hands, and it was easy for him to claim for himself the status of divinity, declaring himself to be a god. This is what was done by Pharaoh, Namrud and many others. It is interesting to note that such people included themselves in the list of deities, while, like their subjects, they continued to worship the idols of their nations. But invariably they always ended up by usurping the dominant position for themselves. In this design of theirs the same process of thought helped them which had raised the idols' status in their people's eyes: the king's influence, authority and hold over his people were more manifest than those of the other deities. Pharaoh declared before his people: "I am your most high Lord" (79:24). And he made this claim of supremacy while continuing to worship the other deities. Read for proof the words of Allah giving the import of the talk of the courtiers of Pharaoh with him showing the danger from Musa (a.s.) : ". . . and to forsake you and your gods?" (7:127). The same was the claim of Namrud as may be inferred from his assertion: "I give life and cause death."
The above discourse may easily explain this dispute between Ibrahim (a.s.) and Namrud. Namrud believed that there was a Supreme God. Otherwise, he would not have been confounded by the argument of Ibrahim (a.s.), "So surely Allah brings the sun from the east, then bring it (you) from the west." If he had not believed in a Supreme God, he could have said that it was he (i.e., Namrud) or some other deity, who brought the sun from the east, and not Ibrahim's Allah. Apart from the Supreme God, he and his people believed in some other deities too. The life story of Ibrahim provides ample proof that they worshipped the sun, the moon and the stars, as well as idols. Also read the talk of Ibrahim with his uncle on the subject of idols, and see how he shattered their idols (except the big one). All of it shows that Namrud believed in the divinity of Allah, as well as in other deities, but at the same time claimed to be a god - indeed the highest god - himself. That was why he tried to prove his own divinity in this dispute with Ibrahim, and did not even mention the other, lesser, deities.
Now we should look at the dispute. It was Ibrahim's claim that his Lord is Allah, and no one else. Namrud said: "No! I am your Lord and the Lord of everyone else." Ibrahim argued: "My Lord is He Who gives life and causes to die." Namrud said: "I give life and cause death." He wanted to show that he held the power which Ibrahim attributed to his Lord; therefore, Ibrahim should submit to him, and worship him, neither Allah nor other lesser deities deserved to be worshipped. Note that he did not add "and" in his reply; he did not say, "and I give life. . ." Why? Because the conjunctive "and" would have meant that he shared this power with Allah; and he did not want to admit any such "partnership" he wanted to be worshipped as the most supreme Lord of the universe. And it was for this very reason that he did not say either, "and the gods give life . . ."
He could not honestly refute the argument of Ibrahim; so he resorted to sophism, fallacy and deception. When Ibrahim mentioned life and death, he meant life and death as we find them in living things. His argument was that these living things could only be created by One who was the source of life. Lifeless nature cannot bestow life on others when it has no life itself. Nor can other living things give life to others, because their life is their existence and their death their extinction - and a thing cannot create or destroy its own self.
If Namrud had interpreted Ibrahim's argument honestly, he could not have refuted it at all. But he resorted to deception, interpreting life and death with an allegorical meaning. "To give life" really means, for example, to create a living fetus; but it may be used equally correctly (but in metaphorical way) if you rescue someone from an extremely dangerous situation. Likewise, "to cause to die" really means the act of God by which a soul departs from a body; but metaphorically it may be used for murder, etc. Taking advantage of this metaphorical usage, Namrud ordered two prisoners to be brought before him; one he ordered to be killed and the other was set free. It was at this stage that he uttered the words, "I give life and cause death". The courtiers were taken in by this ruse and accepted the "truth" of the argument. Ibrahim was not in a position to unmask the fallacy of this reply; he saw how Namrud has duped the audience with his deception and how blindly they agreed to his sophism. Nobody would have agreed with Ibrahim even if he had tried to expose that fallacy. Therefore, he switched to another clearer argument which his obstinate opponent could not twist in any way, and said: "So surely Allah brings the sun from the east; then bring it (you) from the west."
Those people (or some of them) believed the sun to be a deity. (Look at the story of Ibrahim, concerning the stars, the moon and the sun in the Qur’an 6:77-78) But they also believed that these sources of light and their various phases, rising, setting, etc., were ultimately in the hands of Allah, who, according to them, was Lord of Lords, God of gods. When a doer does an act by his own free will, he may just as easily reverse that action if he so changes his intention; the direction of his action follows his will. Therefore, when Ibrahim put this argument before Namrud, he was confounded. He could not say: “The rising of the sun from the east has been, since the very beginning, a matter of chance; it needs no cause”, because commonsense demands a cause for an effect. Nor could he say: “This system is not caused or controlled by Allah”, because he himself professed to believe in the Lord of Lords who controlled the sun, etc. And he could not say: “It is I who bring it from the east”; because Ibrahim had already closed this line of argument by saying, “then bring it (you) from the west”. He was thus ignominiously humiliated and disgraced. “And Allah does not guide aright the unjust people.”
QUR’AN: Because Allah had given him the kingdom?
The import of this sentence is like one’s saying: “He mistreated me because I did good to him.” The speaker wants to say: I did good to him; it was to be expected that he also would do good to me; instead, he misbehaved towards me. An Arabic proverb points to this very trait of human nature: “Be on guard against the evil of him to whom you did good.” A poet says: His sons rewarded Abu ‘l-Ghaylan, for his old age and good deeds, as was rewarded Sinimmar.1
In this sentence L (= because) is deleted but understood. It puts a reason in place of its opposite. This style puts the accusation in a sharper perspective. The rebellion and transgression of Namrud would have been understandable if there had been any non-generosity shown towards him by Allah. But Allah did nothing to him except good and He gave him the kingdom too. Therefore, this generosity was mentioned as the cause of his rebellion, to emphasize his ingratitude. In a way, it is like the verse: And Pharaoh's family took him (Musa) up, so that he might be an enemy and a grief for them (28:8).
This is one reason why his getting the kingdom has been mentioned here. There is another reason too: to show that his claim was absurd ab initio. He claimed to be god because of the kingdom which was given to him by Allah; he did not own it himself. He had become Namrud, the king, the mighty and powerful, because, Allah had made him so. Strip him of this bounty of Allah and what was left of him? Just a common man with no special quality or attribute. That is the reason why Allah did not mention him by name; he was described just as the one who disputed with Ibrahim about his Lord. This was done to show his insignificance and lowliness.
Why did Allah say that it was He who gave Namrud the kingdom'? In previous discourses it has been shown that this cannot be objected to. The kingdom, like all other powers and authorities, is a bounty and grace of Allah; He gives it to whom He pleases and man has been give the knowledge of God in his nature, and because of that natural instinct he inclines towards Him. Now, if he made good use of that kingdom putting every thing in its place, it would be a bliss and blessing for him, as Allah says: And seek by means of what Allah has given you the future abode . . . (28:77). And if he transgressed the limits and deviated from the right path, it would become a curse and perdition for him, as Allah says: Did you not see those who changed Allah's favor for ungratefulness and made their people to alight into the abode of perdition? (14:28). It has already been explained that every thing is attributed to Allah, but in a way that is befitting to His majesty, glory and sanctity - from the view of the good points of that thing, and not from that of its bad points.
One commentator has erroneously thought that the pronoun, "him ", in the phrase, "because Allah had given him the kingdom” refers to Ibrahim. According to him, it means that Namrud disputed with Ibrahim because Allah had given Ibrahim the kingdom; that it refers to the kingdom of Ibrahim mentioned in the Qur’an: Or do they envy the people for what Allah has given them of His grace? So indeed we have given to Ibrahim’s children the Book and the wisdom, and We have given them a great kingdom (4:54). According to that commentator, the kingdom in the verse under discussion cannot refer to that of Namrud, because it was a kingdom of oppression and sin; it cannot be said that such a kingdom was given by Allah.
But this assumption is wrong because:
First: The Qur’an attributes such a kingdom and many similar things to Allah. For example, it quotes the believer from the family of Pharaoh as saying: 0 my people! Yours is the kingdom this day, being masters in the land. . . (40:29) ; and the words of Pharaoh himself are quoted (without any adverse comment) : 0 my people! Is not the kingdom of Egypt mine? (43:51). And at the same time it declares:. . . to Him (i.e. Allah) belongs the kingdom . . . (64:1). This verse confines the kingdom to Allah; there is no kingdom but of Him and from Him. The Qur’an quotes Musa (a.s.) as saying: Our Lord! Surely Thou hast given to Pharaoh and his chiefs finery and riches in this world’s life . . . (10: 88); and Allah says about Qarun:. . . and We had given him of the treasures, so much so that its keys would certainly weigh down a company of men possessed of strength. . . (28:76); and He says addressing his Prophet: Leave Me and him whom I created alone, and I gave him vast riches . . . (74:11-12) ; there are many similar references.
Second: Such an interpretation does not fit the obvious meaning of the verse. The verse shows that Namrud was disputing with Ibrahim about the latter’s belief and monotheism, not that he had any argument with him about his kingdom. The kingdom was already in Namrud ‘s hands and Ibrahim had no worldly kingdom for which Namrud could have disputed with him.
Third: Everything is attributed to Allah, as explained earlier, and kingdom is no exception. There is no snag in attributing it to Allah.
QUR'AN: When Ibrahim said: "My Lord is He Who gives life and causes to die":
Life and death are found even in vegetation; but Ibrahim (a.s.), in this argument, meant the life and death found in animals and human beings, or he kept in view their general meaning which included human life and death. The evidence for this meaning may be seen in the reply of Namrud: "I give life and cause death". Obviously Namrud, by this claim, did not mean the giving of life to vegetables (through tilling and farming), or animals (by breeding them and bringing the male and female together). This type of life giving was not special to him; any human being could do it. The traditions also support our interpretation: he had two prisoners brought before him, he freed one and killed the other, and then he said: "I give life and cause death".
Ibrahim (a.s.) selected for his proof the authority of giving life and causing death, because nature, having no life or sense itself, cannot give life to any thing; and more evidently, it cannot be supposed to give life to animals and humans as it is accompanied by sense and perception. And the same is the case with death. Such a clear and indisputable proof failed to convince the people of Namrud. Their intellectual degradation and mental confusion had sunken far lower than the level which Ibrahim (a.s.) had credited them with. They thought that the life and death referred to included the metaphorical meaning of freeing from prison and killing. Thus, Namrud claimed, and they vouched that he gave life and caused death.
This talk shows how low the level of intellectual development was in that time, as far as abstract and non-material ideas were concerned. Do not be misled by their advanced civilization, signs of which are found in the archaeological remains of the Babylonia of the Chaldeans and the Egypt of the Pharaohs. Material advancement is one thing, and progress in abstract and nonmaterial ideas is something else. We see the same phenomenon in this world of ours which has made a fantastic advancement in the material field, and has sunk so terribly low in morality, ethics and spiritual knowledge.
Ibrahim (a.s.) did not put before them the argument that the whole universe needed an Omnipotent, Omniscient Originator of the heavens and the earth. He had used this method in his early days; and Allah quotes him as finally saying: “Surely I have turned my face, being upright, wholly to Him Who originated the heavens and the earth, and 1 am not of the polytheists (6:79). No doubt, those people, forced by natural instinct, believed vaguely in a Supreme Creator. But their intellectual capacity was too limited to let them clearly and truly understand about that Creator. Had Ibrahim (a.s.) put this argument before them, they could not have appreciated it at all. Look, at what they understood from his argument: “My Lord is He Who gives life and causes to die! “
QUR’AN: he said: “I give life and cause death “:
Therefore, I am that Lord of yours who, you say, gives life and causes death.
QUR’AN: Ibrahim said: “So surely Allah brings the sun from the east, then bring it (you) from the west”:
Thus he who disbelieved was confounded: When Ibrahim (a.s.) saw that his argument based on giving life and death had been twisted by his opponent, and that the public had been mislead by that deception, he thought it would be useless to clarify what he meant by giving life and causing death. Instead, he switched to another argument. Even then, he based this second argument on his opponent’s claim in the first argument. That is why he began the second argument with “So”; it shows a connection with the preceding sentence, and its import is as follows: If what you say is correct, and you are my Lord, and the Lord, as we both accept, manages and looks after this universe, then Allah manages the sun by bringing it from the east; so show your authority by bringing from the west. It will clearly prove that you are the Lord, as Allah is the Lord of everything, or that you are Lord of Lords. Thus, the disbeliever was confounded.
Ibrahim (a.s.) offered his second argument as an offshoot of Namrud ‘s claim, to remove the chance of someone thinking that Namrud’s argument was complete, perfect and irrefutable. And he changed the word “my Lord” (used in the first argument) to “Allah” (in this argument) because the opponent had misused that adjective and claimed that it referred to him. To remove the chance of that, type of sophistry, Ibrahim (a.s.) used the proper name, "Allah".
It has been described earlier that it was not possible for Namrud to reply to this argument in any way, and, as a result, he was confounded and remained silent.
QUR'AN: And Allah does not guide aright the unjust people:
Apparently it gives the reason for Namrud's being confounded, not for his disbelief. Allah did not guide him, and, therefore, he was humiliated; had Allah guided him aright, he would have been able to reply to Ibrahim. It does not say that Allah did not guide him and therefore he became an unbeliever. Obviously, the talk centers around his dispute and argument, and is not about his belief.
The word "unjust people" hints at the cause of not being guided. Allah does not guide them because they are unjust. The same point has been kept in view wherever such sentences have been revealed. Allah says: And who is more unjust than he who forges a lie against Allah while he is invited to Islam? And Allah does not guide the unjust people (61:7); The similitude of those who were placed under the Torah, then they did not hold it, is as the similitude of the donkey bearing books; evil is the similitude of the people who belie the signs of Allah; and Allah does not guide the unjust people (62:5). "Transgression" is likewise the cause of not being guided, as Allah says: but when they turned aside; Allah made their hearts turn aside; and Allah does not guide the transgressing people (61:5).
In short, injustice is to turn aside from the path of justice, and to leave aside what should be done, and to do what should not be done. It diverts man from his intended goal, and leads him to disappointment and failure in the life hereafter. This fact is made abundantly clear in many verses of the Qur'an, which puts much emphasis on it.
Good and Evil Deeds vis-à-vis Guidance and Misguidance
QUR’AN: Or like him who passed by a town, and it had fallen down upon its roofs:
"al-Khawiyah” means empty. The Arabs say khawati ‘d-dar to indicate that “the house became empty”. “al-‘Urush” is the plural of al-'arsh (trellis); it is a roof-like structure standing on poles or pillars used as support for climbing plants, like vines. Allah says: garden trellised and untrellised (6:141). This word is also used for as-saqf (roof). But there is a difference. as-saqf is only a roof or house-top which is laid on the walls: al-‘arsh is the top together with its poles or pillars. Because of this difference, it is idiomatic to say for a ruined village that, “hiya khawiyatan ‘ala ‘urushiha” which literally means, “it is empty in its trellis”: but it would he wrong to say. “empty on its roof”.
Many explanations have been given by the commentators for the conjunctive “Or” in “Or like him who. . .” It is said that:
1) It is in conjunction with “him (he) who disputed with ibrahim’”, in the previous verse; and “K” (= like) is in place of mithl (=like). The meaning accordingly is, “Or have you seen like him who passed..." This commentator thinks that the word “like” in this context indicates that it is a separate proof.
2) The word “like” is extra. The meaning, accordingly will be “Did you not see him who disputed with Ibrahim...or him who passed..."
3) The conjunction is of meaning, and not of words. The meaning is, “Have you seen like him who disputed...or like him who passed..."
4) It is the continuation of the argument of Ibrahim in reply to his opponent’s claim. According to this interpretation. Ibrahim told Namrud that if he claimed to give life then he should give life like him who passed by a town...
But you will notice that none of the above explanations is satisfactory.
The author believes that the conjunction is of meaning, as claimed in the third explanation, but not in the way described there. Allah had earlier said: “Allah is the Guardian of those who believe: He brings them out of darkness into the light: and (as to) those who disbelieve, their guardians are rebels: they take them out of the light into the darkness”. It had shown that Allah guides the believers to the truth, and that He does not guide the disbelievers; instead they are misled by the guardians whom they have taken for themselves. Now Allah gives three examples showing three consecutive methods of His guidance. Guidance is of three types, or, let us say, three stages:-
First: Guidance through reasoning and argument, as is seen in the story of Namrud who disputed with Ibrahim about his Lord. Allah guided Ibrahim to the truth, and his opponent was misguided by his disbelief. In this story the guidance of Ibrahim is not mentioned clearly; rather more attention is given to his opponent’s affairs, and it has thrown light on a new fact: “Allah does not guide aright the unjust people”.
Second: Guidance through demonstration, as is seen in the story of him who passed by a town which had fallen down upon its roofs. In it, what had seemed difficult to him (i.e. “how Allah would make a thing alive after its death?”) was shown to him actually happening. He was given death and then made alive. In this way he was guided to the truth through demonstration.
Third: Guidance by demonstrating the fact and simultaneously unveiling its cause. It is the most effective method and the highest stage of guidance. This method was used in the third story, in which Ibrahim, by the permission of Allah, made the four birds alive.
Let us suppose that a man has not seen cheese and has some doubt about it. His Doubts may be removed if someone who has seen and tasted it testifies before him about it. The second and more effective method is to show him a piece of cheese and make him taste it. The third and the most effective way of removing the doubt would be to put a pot of milk before him and make cheese from it before his eyes and then let him taste it.
The three verses describe these three consecutive stages. Each one begins in a different style. “Did you not see him who...”, “Or like him who passed by a town...", "And (remember) when Ibrahim said..." Each of these styles could have been used to describe the three events. It could have been said: Allah guides the believers to the truth; have you not looked at the story of lbrahim and Namrud, or at the story of him who passed by a town, or at the story of Ibrahim and the birds. Alternatively, it could have been said: Allah guides the believers to the truth; either as He guided Ibrahim in his dispute with Namrud (and it was one way of guidance), or as He guided him who passed by a town (and it was another way of guidance), or as He did in the event of Ibrahim and the birds (and it was the third way of guidance).
Thirdly it could have been said : Allah guides the believers to the truth; remember the episodes which prove it - remember the story of the dispute, and remember him who passed by a town, and remember when Ibrahim said: “My Lord! show me how Thou givest life to the dead."
But Allah used a different style for each verse, as it is more refreshing for the mind, and excites a new interest in each episode.
Now we may revert to the original topic, how this verse is in conjunction with the preceding one. The conjunctive “or” in “or like him” joins this sentence with a deleted but understood word in the preceding verse. The reconstructed sentences would be like this: Either like him who disputed with Ibrahim...or like him who passed by a town. Likewise, the conjunctive “and" in the next verse joins it with deleted but understood words in the preceding two verses. The sentences then would be like this: Remember the story of dispute . . . and remember him who passed by a town. . . and remember when Ibrahim said . . .
Allah has not disclosed the identity of him who passed by. Nor has the name of the town or the people who used to live in it been mentioned. Nor have those been identified for whom the said passerby was made a sign. It would appear that their identities should have been disclosed as it would have removed many doubts. But a far more important consideration made it necessary to keep all these details vague.
The sign shown, that is, giving life to the dead, was a very compelling and overwhelming one, as was the guidance resulting from it; also, the passerby had used words which reflected his thought that it was not an easy task. Therefore, the norms of eloquence demanded that it be described as a very insignificant affair, so that the said passerby as well as the audience of the Qur’an would not be over-awed by it; and so that they could appreciate that it was not a big task as far as the power of Allah was concerned. Have you not seen that great people talk about great affairs and about their great officers and nobles in a very ordinary manner; they want to emphasize that such affairs or such people have no greatness for the speakers. The same principle has been applied here: bare facts have been mentioned, but all details as to who, where and when have been omitted; it is to show that this affair was not an important one in the eyes of Allah. It was for the same reason that the name of the opponent of Ibrahim (in the first story) was omitted, and the names of the birds and the hills, and the number of pieces the birds were cut into, and so on, in the third story.
Only the name of Ibrahim (a.s.) has been mentioned in the two stories. The Qur’an accords him a special honor and distinction. For example: And this was Our argument which We gave to Ibrahim against his people; We exalt in dignity whom We please . . . (6:83); And thus did We show Ibrahim the kingdom of the heavens and the earth, and that he might be of those who are sure (6:75). The same special consideration prompted mentioning his name in the two stories.
The point mentioned above also explains why Allah mentions the matters of giving life and causing death, in most places, as a very unimportant and insignificant thing; as He says: And He it is Who originates the creation, then returns it, and it is most easy to Him; and His are the most exalted attributes in the heavens and in the earth, and He is the Mighty, the Wise (30:27); He said: “0 my Lord! how shall I have a son, and my wife is barren, and I myself have reached indeed the extreme degree of old age?” He said: “So shall it be; your Lord says: It is easy to Me, and indeed 1 created you before, when you were nothing” (19:8-9).
QUR’AN: he said: ‘How will Allah give it life after its death?”
“It” refers to the “town”; but it metaphorically means “people of the town”. It is like the words of the Qur’an: And ask the town in which we were . . . (12:82); that is, “the people of the town".
He uttered these words because he felt that it was a very great thing and that it manifested the power of Allah as few other things did; not that he thought life-after-death improbable. That is why he said at the end of the episode, “I know that Allah has power over all things”. He did not say, ‘Now I know’, as the wife of the chief of Egypt had said: Now has the truth become established. . . (12:51) . Further details will be given later.
Furthermore, the passer-by was a prophet to whom Allah had spoken, and was a sign sent to the people; and the prophets are sinless. They can never entertain any doubt or suspicion about Resurrection, which is one of the pillars of the religion.
QUR’AN: So Allah caused him to die for a hundred years, then raised him to life:
The clear meaning is that he was given death by the taking out of his soul, remained dead for a hundred years, then was made alive by the returning of his soul to him.
One commentator has given a strange explanation of this verse. He says: The “death” mentioned in this verse means a coma, that is, a prolonged loss of consciousness in which the subject remains barely alive but has no sense or feeling. It may continue for days, months and even years, as is evident from the story of the Fellows of the Cave and their sleep in the cave which lasted for three hundred and nine years: then they were awakened. Allah has used that sleep and re-awakening as a proof of Resurrection. Therefore. this story too is like that one.
The said commentator goes on to say: The known duration of coma does not exceed a few years. A coma lasting for a hundred years is an unusual occurrence, but He who puts a man in a coma for a few years also has the power to keep him in that condition for a hundred years; and when it comes to accept what is clearly mentioned in the Qur’an, we believe that we should only see whether it is possible or impossible: and if it is possible we must accept it. Allah has offered this episode of keeping him in a coma for a hundred years and then returning his senses and feelings to him after such a long period as a proof that life car be returned to the dead after a gap of thousands of years.
This was his explanation. Let us suppose for the time being that the Fellows of the Cave were kept in a coma - the word used for them in the Qur’an is “asleep”, not comatose. But how could their supposed coma infect this passerby? The Qur’an clearly says: “Allah caused him to die”. Death means loss of life; and not coma. A commentator has no right to invent a meaning for a word. He has used analogy where no one has allowed it, and that is in the matter of finding the meaning of a word. And if Allah could keep that passer-by comatose for a hundred years when it is not an usual occurrence, why could not He keep him dead for a hundred years and then resurrect him? One unusual occurrence is like another, according to the said commentator. So why invent one meaning and reject the other which incidentally is the real meaning? The trouble with him is that, for his own reasons, he thinks that the resurrection of the dead in this world is impossible - without giving any reason to support his belief. That is why he has misinterpreted the next sentences, “and look at the bones, how We assemble them together, then clothe them with flesh “. We shall comment upon it afterwards.
In short, the meaning of the words: “Allah caused him to die . . . then raised him to life”, is quite clear, and no doubt can be entertained about it, especially when we look at the preceding and following sentences “How will Allah give it life after its death?”: “look at your food and drink - years have not passed over it”: “and look at your donkey”: “and look at the bones”.
QUR’AN: He said: “How long have you tarried:? “He said I have tarried a day or a part of a day”. Said He: “Nay! You have tarried a hundred years"
“al-Labth” is to tarry, to stay to abide. The uncertainty in the reply, “a day or a part of a day”, shows that the time of day of his resurrection was different from that of his death - for example, the forenoon and afternoon. He thought that he had slept and was now woken, then he looked at the difference in the time, and was uncertain whether a night has passed while lie was still asleep. Therefore, he said “a day “ (if a night has passed), “or a part of a day (if he had woken up the same day). Allah said: “Nay you have tarried a hundred years.”
QUR’AN: “then look at our food and drink - years have not passed over it;... then clothe them with flesh":
There are many apparently puzzling things in these sentences: The word. “look”, has been repeated three times, when, at a first glance, only one would have been enough; there is mention of food, drink and a donkey, when apparently there was no need for it: and the sentence, “and that We may make you a sign to men”, has been written in between, when seemingly it would have been more appropriate after the next sentence about assembling the bones and clothing them with flesh. Moreover, what he had wondered about, the resurrection of bodies after a long gap, after undergoing all types of deterioration, had been clearly demonstrated by his own resurrection; then what was the need to tell him to look at the bones? But if we ponder deeply on the various implications of this verse, all these doubts will be removed. Let us look at the story, which is as follows:
The verse make it clear that the passer-by was a virtuous servant of Allah, who was well aware of divine power and majesty, and followed His commandments. Not only this, he was a prophet whom Allah had spoken to. The clear implication of his words: “I know that Allah has power over all things”, is that he was fully aware of the power of Allah even before this episode. And the style of the sentences, “then raised him to life. He said: ‘How long have you tarried?’ “ implies that he was well accustomed to being spoken to by Allah, and that it was not the first revelation. Otherwise, the sentence should have been somewhat like this: ‘then when He raised him to life, He said . . .’ See how the first divine talk with Musa has been mentioned: So when he came to it, a voice called. 0 Musa (20:11); And when he came to it a voice called from the right side. . . (28:30).
He had departed from his home for a place which was at some distance from his town. This is inferred from the facts that he rode on his donkey, and took food and drink for his provisions. On the way, he passed by a town which had fallen “on its roofs”. It was not his intended destination; but as he passed by it, he stood there, seeing in it a warning lesson for mankind, a town turned into ruins, whose inhabitants had perished, overtaken by death all together, whose rotten bones were scattered everywhere in full view of the passers-by. He pointed to the dead and said: “How will Allah give it life after its death?” He did not mean “How will this town be populated again?” Otherwise, he would have used the word “yu‘ammir” (will make populated), and not “yuhyi" (will make alive) which he did use.
Moreover, a ruined town may become inhabited again, and there is nothing extraordinary in this development to cause wonder and awe. How do we know that the bodies and bones were in full view of the passers-by? Because if they had been buried and he had stood looking at their graves, Allah would have clearly mentioned the graves, instead of the town.
Anyhow, he stood taking lessons from the scene before his eyes. He was over-awed by it and thought about the length of time involved, and the continuing deterioration of the parts of the body until it turns into dust. At this stage, he said: “How will Allah give it life after its death?” This question was based on two factors: The length of time, (How will Allah give it life after such a long gap since its death?) and the deterioration of the body (How will it be resurrected when all its parts and limbs have been scattered and untold number of changes have come over it?) Therefore, Allah explained both questions together. The first question was answered by giving him death and resurrecting him after a hundred years. The second question was answered by giving life to the bones of his donkey under his own eyes.
Thus, Allah gave him death and then raised him from the dead. The two things happened at different times of the day, as has been explained above. Allah asked him: “How long have you tarried?” He replied: “I have tarried a day or a part of a day”. Obviously, he was given death in the early part of the day, and resurrected in the afternoon. Had it been the other way round, he would have said, “a day” without any hesitation. Allah pointed out to him: “Nay! you have tarried a hundred years.” Thus he realized that he had thought a hundred years like a day or a part of a day. This was the reply to his question about the length of time.
Then Allah gave him the proof of his remaining dead for a hundred years by saying, “then look at your food and drink - years have not passed over it; and look at your donkey”. As he had not realized that he had died and had been brought to life after such a long time, the information that he had tarried a hundred years was liable to be doubted (not necessarily by him), because his body had not changed at all; and if a man dies and a hundred years pass over him, his body usually undergoes innumerable changes until the bones rot and turn into dust. To remove this possible doubt, Allah ordered him to look at his food and drink which had not changed a bit all this time; and to look at his donkey whose bones had rotted. The condition of the donkey would indicate the length of time and the condition of the food and the drink would show him the possibility of remaining in one condition for such a long period without undergoing any change.
It shows that the donkey had also been given death and had become rotten. But the Qur’an, in its unsurpassed good style, did not like to mention the donkey’s death when it had said that the prophet had been caused to die.
In this way Allah made him realize that his amazement, which was based on the length of time, was not appropriate. He himself admitted that a hundred years were to him like a day or a part of a day. It was the same feeling which the resurrected will show on the Day of Resurrection. Thus he became aware that the time passed between death and resurrection, whether short or long, has no effect whatsoever on the power of Allah Who rules over everything. His power is no subservient to time and space. Changes, whether big or small, which occur in a body, make no difference to His power. Giving life to old dead bodes is as easy to Him as resurrecting new ones. Old and new, far and near, are all equal to Him. As He says: Surely they think it to be far off, and We see it nigh (70:6-7) ; . . the matter the Hour is but as the twinkling of an eye or it is still nearer...(16:77) .
“And mat We make you a sign to men”: The conjunction “and “ signifies that there was some other purpose also. It means: We did We did so that We may explain to you certain things and so that We may make you a sign to men. ‘Thus there were two aims. the purpose of showing him how Allah assembled the bones and clothed them with flesh was to show him how He gives life to the dead; and the purpose of causing him to die and to make him alive again was to demonstrate that fact to him and to make him a sign for other men. That is why the sentence, “and that We make you a sign to men”, was written before the mention of the bones and their being clothed by flesh.
The above discourse also shows why the word “look” has been repeated thrice in this verse. Each order has a special purpose which is not shared by the other two.
Allah gave him death and then made him alive. In this way, he himself experienced what most people will feel on the Day or Resurrection; as Allah says: And at the time when the Hour shah come, the guilty shall swear (that) they did not tarry but an hour; thus they used to utter lies. And those who are given knowledge and faith will say: Certainly you tarried according to the decree of Allah till the Day of Resurrection; so this is, the Day of Resurrection, but you did not know (30:55-56).
Then Allah explained to him the second aspect of his question: How will the parts and components of the body return to their original shape, after all those innumerable changes”
So Allah told him to “look at the bones, how We assemble them together, then clothe them with flesh”. Obviously, it refers to the bones of the donkey, and not to those of the dead people of the town. Otherwise, not he alone, but all the resurrected people of the town would have become “signs” of Allah to the mankind.
The commentator whose misinterpretation of “death” and “life” we have commented upon earlier explains away this sentence in a strange way as well. He says that the “bones” refer to the bones in a living body; the fact that they grow and are clothed with flesh is a proof of resurrection. The Creator Who gave it life and growth is surely the Resurrector of the dead; surely He has power over everything. Allah has argued for resurrection in a like manner by referring to the dead earth which is made alive again with vegetation.
Such an interpretation is obviously absurd.
The explanation which we have given above show that the whole story beginning from: “So Allah caused him to die” up to the end of the verse is one single reply to the prophet’s question, “How will Allah give it life after its death?” There is no repetition in it at all.
QUR’AN: So when it became clear to him, he said:
“I know that Allah has power over all things”: He returns, after the demonstration, to the knowledge which he already had before that. It seems that when the question as to how Allah could make it alive came into his mind, he satisfied his curiosity by remembering the all -encompassing power of Allah. Then Allah made the matter clear to him by demonstrating how He gives life to the dead. After this re-assurance, he clearly knew the truth of his previous knowledge, and spoke to Allah in these words, the import of which is as follows: Thou hast always guided me aright; and what I had always known about Thy Omnipotence was not to be doubted; it was the truth which I should always rely upon.
One may find examples of such re-assurance everywhere. Many are the times when a man has definite knowledge of a subject, then some thought occurs in his mind which goes against that, not because of any doubt or ignorance, but because of some other factors. Thereupon he satisfies himself about the previous certainty, till the doubt is removed. Then, he returns to his previous knowledge and says: ‘I know that it is so’. In this way his knowledge is confirmed and his perplexity is removed.
In short, the sentence, “I know that Allah has power over all things”, does not mean that before it became clear to him, he was in some doubt about the power of Allah. Such an interpretation would be wrong, because
First: He was a prophet, who was spoken to by Allah. And the prophets cannot be ignorant of Allah’s person and attributes; and especially of His Omnipotence which is an attribute of person.
Second: Had he been ignorant of Allah’s power, he would have said, “Now I know. . .” or “Now I knew.. .” But he said: “I know”, that is, from before.
Third: What he had seen was a proof that Allah had power to give life to the dead. It did not prove that He had power “over all things”. But he said that he knew that Allah had power over all things. It shows that this knowledge was not based on that demonstration.
Of course, it is possible that a man of lesser strength of character would be stunned and bewildered by such a manifestation
of divine power, and would declare, forgetting all other things, that He Who gives life to the dead has power over all things. But it would be just a conjecture, based on fear and awe; it would be wiped out as soon as that fear or awe was removed. Moreover, it would not be acceptable to him who has not experienced that fear or awe. In any case, such an illogical conclusion cannot be relied upon. But we see in this verse that Allah confirms his declaration by putting it under His seal of approval. It naturally, follows that this knowledge had not come to him as a result of that manifestation.
In other words, if he had acquired that knowledge through that manifestation, then all he would have known was that Allah had the power to give life to the dead. He should therefore not have said that Allah had the power over all things. Such talk would be wrong in fact, and would be beneath the dignity of a prophet.
QUR’AN: And (remember) when Ibrahim said: “My Lord! Show me how Thou givest life to the dead”:
It has been explained earlier that the conjunctive “and” is related to a deleted (but understood) word, “remember”; and that that deleted word governs the adverb “when”. Someone has said that the word “when” is governed by “What! and do you not believe?” But this is patently wrong.
The plea of Ibrahim, “My Lord ! show me how Thou givest life to the dead”, proves
First: that he asked for demonstration, not for logical reasoning. The prophets (and especially a prophet like Ibrahim, the friend of Allah) are too great to believe in resurrection on the Day of Judgment without any logical reason. A belief without reason is either blind following, or also is based on defective intellection. And neither of these two can be attributed to Ibrahim (a.s.). Moreover, he used the word “how” which is used to ask about the state and condition of a thing, not about the thing itself. When you say: “Have you seen Zayd?”, the question is about the seeing itself. But if you say: “How did you see Zayd?”, the seeing is already known and accepted; the question is only about the condition of it and its particulars. When Ibrahim (a.s.) asked, “how Thou givest life to the dead”, he already knew by logic and reason that Allah gives life to the dead: now he only wanted to see now it was done.
Second: that the question asked by lbrahim (a.s.) could mean either of the two following things:
1) How could the material parts of a dead man come together after being scattered hither and thither, and how could they accept life and become alive? In other words. how could they be governed by the power of Allah?
2) How does Allah bestow life on the dead. The first question is concerned with the effect arid the result; the second one with the reason and the cause. This second aspect is in a way the kingdom, which Allah mentions in the Qur’an: His command, when He intends anything, is only that He says to it, “Be “, and it is. Therefore, glory be to Him in Whose hand is the kingdom of all things, and to Him you shall be brought back (36:82-83).
Which of the two questions did Ibrahim (a.s.) ask? He asked the second one, and not the first, because:
a) he asked “how Thou givest life”. He wanted to see the action of Allah. The effect of the action on the dead was not his primary concern; otherwise he would have asked “how the dead become alive” ;
b) if he only wanted to see how dead bodies respond to life, Allah could have given life to any dead animal before the eyes of Ibrahim (a.s.), and there would have been no need to make it happen in Ibrahim’s hands;
c) if he wanted to see how a dead body comes to life, then the story should have been ended on something like, “Know that Allah has the power over all things”, and not on the words actually used, “Know that Allah is Mighty, Wise.” The Qur’an always uses the appropriate adjectives at the end of verses. The first meaning of the question concerns the power of Allah and if that was the purpose of Ibrahim (a.s.) in asking, the attribute of power should have been mentioned at the end. But Allah used the attributes of Might and Wisdom which are more appropriate for bestowing of life, rather than for the acceptance of life by matter,
A commentator has interpreted this verse in a strange way, which is given hereunder. (Our comments on this interpretation will be given afterwards.) He says:
When Ibrahim (a.s.) said: “My Lord! Show me. . . “, he only wanted to “know” how the dead were given life; he did not want to “see” how it was done. And the reply does not go beyond that information. The said commentator further says: There is nothing in this verse to show that Allah ordered him to give life to the birds. Nor that Ibrahim (a.s.) did as he was ordered. Not every order is intended to be complied with. Information is often given in the imperative mood. Suppose that someone asks you how ink is made. You tell him: “Take this and that material and then mix it in this way, and your ink shall be ready.” You want to explain to him how ink is made; not that you are ordering him to make ink then and there, even though you use the imperative mood.
He further says: There are many verses in the Qur’an in which information has been given in the form of an order. This particular verse gives just a similitude for the resurrection of the dead. It tells Ibrahim: Take four birds, make them tame and train them so that they obey your call. (The birds are the fittest of all animals for such training.) Then put each bird on a mountain, and then call them. See how swiftly they come to you, their separation and their distance from you shall not prevent them from coming to you, flying. The same is the similitude of the decree of your Lord. When He intends to give life to the dead, He calls them with the word of creation, “Be alive”, and they at once become alive. It is the same as was in the beginning of creation. He said to the heaven and to the earth, “Come both willingly or unwillingly “; they both said, “ We come willingly “.
The said commentator has given two “proofs” for his interpretation:
First: The word of Allah, “fa-surhunna” according to him means “make them inclined”. That is, tame them and make them affable towards yourself. It is because of this meaning that it is followed by the preposition “ila” (to). The verb sara when followed by ila gives the meaning of inclination.
He says that it is wrong to say (as commentators have done) that fa-surhunna means, “then cut them into pieces after killing them.” This interpretation is not in conformity with the preposition mentioned above.
He further says: Some commentators have said that the preposition is related to the word “fa-khudh”(then take). and the verse in effect says, “then take to you four of the birds, then cut them into pieces”. But such an interpretation is against the clear sequence of the words.
Second: Apparently, the pronouns in the words fa surhunna (make them inclined), “minhunna (a part of them). “ud ‘uhunna" (call them) and “ya’tinaka" (they will come to you), all refer to the “birds”. If we accept the interpretation of the commentators that Ibrahim (a.s.) was told to cut the birds into pieces and that after mixing their parts, he was to put portions of them on mountains, and after that he was to call them, then the pronouns would differ in their meanings: the first two would refer to the birds, and the third and fourth to the pieces of the birds. And such a thing is against the apparent meaning of the Qur’an.
The said commentator wrote the above-mentioned two arguments. Another commentator, who agrees with him, has added three more “proofs”, which we append below:
Third: What is the meaning of “showing how a thing is created?” Does it mean demonstrating how the scattered parts and components are joined and assembled and how they change back to their original living shape? If yes, then it could not he shown by cutting the birds into pieces, mixing them together and putting small portions on far away hills. How could Ibrahim (a.s.) see from such a distance what changes and movements were occurring in the smallest atoms of the pieces? Or, does it mean showing him how Allah gives life to the dead? In other words, does it mean comprehending the reality of the creative decree? But the creative decree is the divine will which brings things into being; and the Qur’an openly says, and Muslims agree, that it is impossible for a human being to comprehend the creative decree of Allah; the attributes of Allah cannot be subjected to “how”.
Fourth: The words of the Qur’an “then place on every mountain . . . “ point to some delay, and it is in conformity with the idea of taming and training. The same is the import of the words fa surhunna which should be translated, “then make them inclined”. The idea of killing the birds and cutting them into pieces does not conform with the “delay” implied in “thuma” (= then).
Fifth: If the events occurred as most of the commentators say, then the verse should have ended on the divine name “Powerful” and not on “Mighty, Wise”; because “Mighty” is the one who cannot be comprehended.
The author’s comments: The above was the interpretation of this group. But if you ponder on the explanation given by us earlier, you will realize that none of their arguments are valid. The plea of Ibrahim (a.s.) begins with the word, “show me” then come the words, “how Thou givest life . . .”; and the verse goes on describing how this “giving life” was performed in the hands of Ibrahim (a.s.) himself. Add to it the words, “then place on every mountain a part of them”; clearly “a part” refers to a part of the bird, not a complete and alive bird. All this clearly negates the interpretation offered by these people.
Now let us look at their arguments.
Reply to the first argument: fa surhunn definitely means, “then cut them into pieces”. The preposition ila (to) is used here to imply inclination. This implication of it was described in the commentary of the words “arrafathu ila nisa’ikum (to go into your wives) (in verse 187 of this chapter). Thus, its complete meaning is: cut them into pieces inclining them towards you.
Reply to the second argument: All the four pronouns refer to the birds. Now comes the question: how could the pronouns in “call them” and “they will come to you” refer to the birds, when there was no bird at all, when only the pieces of those birds had remained? This question arises because the said commentator does not know the difference between mere verbal speech and creative speech. See, for example, the verse: Then He directed Himself to the heaven and it was a vapor, so He said to it and to the earth: “Come both, willingly or unwillingly” . They both said: “We come willingly” (41:11). Here Allah addressed the heaven, while it was non-existent; only its matter was present at that time. Likewise, Ibrahim (a.s.) was told to call the birds, while they did not exist ; only their pieces existed at that time. Then there is the verse: His command, when He intends anything, is only that He says to it, ‘Be’, and it is (36:82). Here a nonexistent thing is addressed by the creative speech “Be”.
The fact is that verbal speech requires an addressee to exist before the speech. But the opposite is true in the case of creative speech. There, the existence of the addressee follows that speech. In this case, the talk, address or speech means “creation”; and existence is caused by creation. In the above-mentioned verse 36:82 “and it is” (i.e., existence) depends on the creative word “Be” (i.e., creation).
Reply to the third argument: We believe that the second alternative is correct: that Ibrahim (a.s.) wanted to see how Allah gives life to the dead; he did not want to see how a dead body accepts life.
The said commentator has argued against this alternative. He says that it implies comprehension of the will of Allah, which, being an attribute of Allah, is impossible to comprehend.
But the fact is that the will of Allah is an attribute of action, and is inferred from divine actions like creating, giving life, and so forth. What is impossible to comprehend is the Person of Allah, as He says: . . . they do not comprehend Him in knowledge (20:110).
Will is deduced from action. It is creation accompanied by the existence of the created thing. It is the word “Be” mentioned in verse 36:82: “. . . that He says to it ‘Be’ and it is”. This word, “Be”, is the kingdom of everything that is mentioned in the next verse: Therefore glory be to Him in Whose hand is the kingdom of everything . . . (36:83). And Allah has said that He had shown Ibrahim (a.s.) the great kingdom of His creation: And thus did We show Ibrahim the kingdom of the heavens and the earth, and that he might be of those who are sure (6:75).
Obviously, among the great kingdom shown to Ibrahim (a.s.) was this giving life to the birds, mentioned in this verse.
Why are these people so confused? It is because they do not understand the force behind such miraculous happenings. They think that when Ibrahim (a.s.) called the birds and they became alive, or when ‘Isa (a.s.) said to a dead body, “Rise up by permission of Allah” and it rose up, or when Sulayman (a.s.) ordered the wind to blow and it did so, it was because of some effective cause which was hidden in those words by Allah; or because of the thinking process of these prophets which showed itself in these words (made of letters), as our words lead one to their meanings. These people do not realize that all this was based upon these prophets’ spiritual connection with the divine power which can never be overpowered; and with Allah’s Omnipotence which knows no bounds and which is the real power that brings everything into being.
Reply to the fourth argument: The delay inferred from the word thumb (then) is found in cutting the birds into pieces as well, dividing and mixing the parts and putting them on various mountains. This matter needs no elaboration.
Reply to the fifth argument: This argument, in fact, goes against the objector. What he wants to prove is that Allah only explained to Ibrahim (a.s.), in an academic and theoretical manner, how the things were made alive; He did not show it to him by demonstration. If that was the case, then the verse should have been ended on the adjective “Powerful”, instead of “Mighty, Wise”. We have explained earlier that the adjectives “Mighty” and “Wise “ are more appropriate for our explanation of the verse.
Another commentator has interpreted this verse in another wrong way. He thinks that what Ibrahim (a.s.) wanted to see was how a dead body accepts life and becomes alive; that his question was concerned with the effect and the result, not with its reason and cause. His argument is as follows:
Ibrahim (a.s.) did not ask about any religiously essential matter. He only wanted to know how the dead become alive, so that he might have knowledge of it. It is not necessary for true belief to know “how” the dead are resurrected. Thus Ibrahim (a.s.) wanted to acquire some knowledge which was not necessary for true belief. This view is supported by the mode of the question: “how?” This particle is used to ask about a state or condition. If you say “How does Zayd judge between people?”, the fact that he does judge between people, is already known to you. What you want to know is only the condition under which, and the manner in which, he does this work. On the other hand, if you want to enquire about the fact of his judging, you would say “Does Zayd judge between people?” It proves that Ibrahim (a.s.) already knew and believed that Allah gives life to the dead: he only wanted to know how it was done. Then why did Allah tell him: “What! and do you not believe?” This question was asked to remove any possible misunderstanding about Ibrahim’s faith. The mode of questioning, used by Ibrahim, is mainly to ask about the state and condition. But it is also used, at times, to show the disability of the person so addressed. Someone claims that lie can lift an extremely heavy weight, and you tell him “Well, show me how you lift it”. This question shows your conviction that he is unable to do so. As Allah knew that Ibrahim (a.s.) had not meant any such thing in his question. He put this counter-question to him, so that he might clarify this point in unambiguous words, and might thus remove any misunderstanding that the wording of the first question could have caused. In this way, his pristine faith was clearly confirmed and no hearer could entertain any doubt about it. The words "but that my heart may be at ease" mean that Ibrahim (a.s.) wanted his heart not to wonder hither and thither thinking about various ways in which a dead body might become alive again. He wanted it to be at ease by seeing it with his own eyes. That his heart was not at ease before had no adverse effect on his faith in the power of Allah to give life to the dead. And when he was shown how the dead were made alive, nothing was added to his already perfect faith. He just acquired some knowledge which was not very necessary for the faith.
Then, after a long discussion, he says: This verse shows the excellence of Ibrahim (a.s.). He was at once shown what he had asked for, was shown what he wanted to.and that, also, in the easiest way; while ‘Uzayr’ know after undergoing death for a hundred years.
The author’s comments: Our previous explanation is enough to show that Ibrahim (a.s.) wanted to know how Allah gives life to the dead and not as to how the dead accept life. He wanted to see the cause, not the effect. That is why he said, “how Thou givest life to the dead” (active voice) ; and did not say, “how the dead are made alive” (passive voice). Then there is the fact that the whole episode was made to happen through the activities of Ibrahim (a.s.) himself. If he had wanted to see only the effect (and not the cause), it would have been enough to show him any dead body coming alive, as was shown to the one who passed by a town when it had fallen upon its roofs; Allah told him to “look at the bones, how We assemble them together, then clothe them with flesh”. There would have been no need to make everything happen through the agency of Ibrahim (a.s.) himself. The trouble is that these people measure the spiritual condition of the prophets with the measure of their own common spirits, and in this way fail to understand how the prophets receive divine knowledge and how they perform miracles. They do not appreciate the difference between showing a prophet how the dead became alive and making him the active agent to give life to the dead: for them, both have the same significance! They have lost touch with divine realities, and fallen into this error. And the more they search for the truth, the farther they go from it. See how he interprets the “ease of heart”. He says that Ibrahim (a.s.) wanted his heart not to wonder hither and thither thinking about the various ways in which a thing might be made alive. This alleged wondering hither and thither is a nonsense that is utterly impossible for a prophet like Ibrahim (a.s.).
Moreover, if Ibrahim (a.s.) had wanted to see how dead bodies come alive, the reply was not an answer to his query at all. He said, "how Thou givest life to the dead ". The word used in the question is "al-mawta " (the dead ones); it is plural and general. He might have meant the dead men, or the dead ones in general, including dead human beings and all types of animals. But Allah showed him only the resurrection of four birds.
Then the said commentator has shown, according to his thinking, the superiority of Ibrahim (a.s.) over `Uzayr (whom he identifies as the passer-by, mentioned in the preceding verse). He thinks that the two stories have the same significance; both men wanted to see how the dead were made alive and both were shown. But, as we have mentioned earlier, neither story is concerned in any way with that question. And he has been unable to see the brilliant exposition and deep realities which the two verses contain.
Lastly, if the verse intended just to explain how the dead come alive, it would have been appropriate to end it on the adjective "Omnipotent", or "Powerful", and not on "Mighty, Wise". See, for instance, the following verses:
And among His signs is this, that you see the earth still, but when We send down on it the water, it stirs and swells: most surely He Who gives it life is the Giver of life to the dead; surely He has power over all things (41:39). As you see, the verse explains "how" the dead are given life, and it ends on the attribute of Omnipotence.
Have they not seen that Allah, Who created the heavens and the earth and was not tired by their creation, is able to give life to the dead? Aye! He has surely power over all things (46:33). Here again the "how" is explained through a simile, and the verse ends on the attribute of power.
QUR'AN: He said: "What! and do you not believe? " He said: "Certainly, but that my heart may be at ease ":
`Bala (certainly) is used to negate a negative question; and thus the negative of the question becomes positive. For example, Allah asked the souls: "Am I not your Lord? " They said: "Certainly " (7:172). Had they replied, na 'am yes), it would have become infidelity. at-Tamaninah and al-itminan is the quiet of the heart after its being troubled and agitated. It is derived from the words, itma’annati ‘l-ard (the earth was depressed) and ardun mutma’innah (low land) which are used when the earth becomes low, so that if the water comes in, it stays therein and if a stone falls in, it remains motionless.
Allah said: “and do you not believe?” Had He said, ‘do you not believe?’, it would have shown that the original question ( “Show me how Thou givest life to the dead”) was asked because of disbelief; and it would have become an admonition and reproach. By adding “and", Allah showed that Ibrahim’s question was quite in order, but it should not be associated with disbelief in resurrection. “wa” (= and) is a conjunctive and it joins two words, phrases or sentences. When Allah added it in His question, it changed the import of the sentence. Now it means: Your question is in order, but it is associated with disbelief in resurrection? Without this conjunctive, it would have meant: Do you ask it because you do not believe? It would have turned it into a censure and reprimand.
“Belief” mentioned in the divine question is general, it is not used with any condition or restriction. It signifies that one cannot believe in Allah if one is doubtful about the resurrection of the dead. No doubt the question “and do you not believe?” was asked in the context of giving life to the dead. But the context does not restrict the general meaning of the word. “Belief”, therefore, retains its unconditional meaning, and shows that nobody could be a believer unless he believed in resurrection.
Likewise, the words of Ibrahim (a.s.) quoted by Allah “that my heart may be at ease” are unconditional. It means that he wanted to acquire total tranquility and to cut at the roots of all types of fancies and imaginations. Human imagination is bound to the senses; all its activities are confined within the circle of the things perceived by these senses. It shrinks from those things which are known through reason only, even when a man believes them to be true, like those principles of metaphysics which are beyond the sphere of matter and which cannot be known through any of the five senses. The mind resists those realities even when their premises are sound and certain. There always remain some vague doubt about the authenticity of those conclusions. Such doubts and conflicting ideas become strengthened by inclinations and desires, although the spirit firmly accepts the truth of those principles and believes in them unconditionally. Thus, belief and faith should remain firm and intact: the imagination should only harm it by a slight distress, which we may call pricks. A man sleeps in a dark room in which is placed a dead body. He knows that the dead person is just a lump of matter without any sense or will; it cannot harm anybody in any way. But the imagination refuses to accept this truth, it goes on thinking fantastic things concerning that dead body; and it frightens the man to such an extent that it may happen that he loses the balance of his mind, or even dies because of terror.
This example shows that the existence of some thoughts or fantasies conflicting with the sure truths, is not always contrary to faith and belief. But surely it annoys the spirit and robs it of its tranquility and ease. Such an imaginary distress cannot be removed except by demonstration or sensual perception. That is what is meant by the saying: Seeing has an effect which knowledge does not have. For instance, Allah informed Musa (a.s.), when he was at his appointed place, that his people had gone astray and were worshipping a calf. Hearing it, he believed it. Yet, his distress and anger showed itself only when he returned to them and saw them with his own eyes, in their idolatry. Then his violent grief reached its highest point; he threw down the tablets and seized his brother by the head dragging him towards himself.
From this and the previous explanations it is clear that Ibrahim (a.s.) had not asked to see a phenomenon which could be perceived through the senses; that is, he did not want to see how the parts and pieces of a dead body accept life after death. He wanted to see the action of Allah in giving life to the dead. But this action could not be seen, although it was not unrelated to a perceived phenomenon, that is, the acceptance of life by the pieces of the dead bodies. Thus Ibrahim (a.s.) had in fact asked for an evident truth and certainty.
QUR’AN: He said: “Then take four of the birds, then cut them (into pieces), then place on every, mountain a part of them, they will come to you”:
The word “surhunna” (cut them into pieces) is derived from sara; yasuru (he cut/he inclined; he is cutting/he is inclining). Another recitation is sirhunna, derived from sara; yasiru with the same meanings. The context shows that it means “cut them”. The preposition, “ila" (= to) gives a hint of inclination, as was explained earlier. The meaning, then, will be: cut them (into pieces), inclining them towards you; or, incline them towards you cutting them into pieces.
Anyhow, the above sentences are the answer to the prayer of Ibrahim (a.s.) when he said: “My Lord! show me how Thou givest life to the dead.” Obviously, the answer should fit the question. The norms of eloquence and the wisdom of the speaker leave no room for verbosity; a wise and eloquent speaker does not allow his speech to be encumbered by unnecessary words which have no bearing on the intended meaning. This is especially so with the Qur’an, the best speech, revealed by the best of speakers to the best of hearers. The story is not as simple as it appears at first glance. Had it been so, the answer would have been completed by the giving of life to any dead body in any manner, and the extra details would have been deemed unnecessary. But the facts tell us otherwise: Allah included in it many extra particulars and details. It was decided that the dead to be given life should be from among the birds; they should be alive, should be four in number, they should be killed and their parts and pieces be mixed together, then the mixed matter should be divided into many portions; then every portion should be placed in places distant from each other like the peak of this mountain and summit of that hill; then they should be given life through lbrahim (a.s.), that is, the very man who had asked for it; and thus they should all gather around him alive and none the worse for their experience.
All these details and peculiarities must have had some connection with the aim of the story. The commentators have written many reasons for these points, which only add to the readers’ confusion (as may be seen in the more extensive books of exegesis of the Qur’an).
However, these particulars must have been related to the question. We find that there are two aspects in the question of Ibrahim (a.s.) which require special attention:
First: His use of the active voice, “how Thou givest life”. He wanted to see the giving of life, in-as-much as it is an attribute of Allah. He did not want to see it from the other side, that is, how the various parts of a dead body accept life after death.
Second: His use of the plural, “dead ones”, which is an added particular.
Keeping these two matters in view, we find that the answer fits the question perfectly, there is nothing unnecessary or extraneous in it.
The first aspect was fully answered by making it happen through Ibrahim (a.s.) himself. The words “then take”, “then cut them” and “then place”, were all essential for this purpose. Finally Allah said, “then call them, they will come to you flying”. Their coming to Ibrahim flying, that is, their life, was caused by Ibrahim’s call. Allah made his call the cause of the giving of life to the dead birds - and there is no bestowing of life except by the decree of Allah. The call of Ibrahim, by order of Allah, had a sort of connection with the decree of Allah which gives life to all. In this way, Ibrahim saw this bestowing with his own eyes, and saw how the divine decree creates life. Had the call of Ibrahim (a.s.) not been connected with the decree of Allah (Who, when He intends a thing, say to it ‘Be’, and it is), and had it been connected, like our own talk, with the images in his mind only, it could not create anything, could not give life to any dead thing.
The second aspect, the use of the plural, “dead ones”, shows that the multiplicity of the dead had some bearing on the question. The bodies, after they had died, their components disintegrated, their shapes altered and their conditions totally changed, could not be recognized, nor could there remain any connection or attachment between their former parts; they became lost in the darkness of nothingness, like forgotten myths that exist neither in reality nor in the imagination. Ibrahim (a.s.) wanted to see how the life-giving power of Allah would encompass them when there was nothing to be encompassed.
This same question was asked arrogantly by Pharaoh, and Musa (a.s.) replied to him by knowledge. Allah says quoting this talk: (Pharaoh) said: “Then what is the state of the former generation?” He (Musa) said: “The knowledge thereof is with my Lord in a book; errs not my Lord, nor does He forget” (20:51-52).
Anyhow, this aspect of the question was answered by Allah when He ordered Ibrahim (a.s.) to take four of the birds (perhaps, the birds were chosen for this demonstration because it could be carried out on them easily and without delay) so that he might observe their ways, see their distinguishing features and particular shapes, and thus might know them perfectly. He was then ordered to kill them, chop and mince them, mixing their small particles completely together. Then he was required to divide that mixture into portions and put each portion on a separate mountain, so that there should not remain any chance of recognition. Then he was to call them, and they would come to him flying. By this demonstration, he would see that the re-establishing of separate identities and the bestowal of life follows the call; and that the call was addressed to their souls. The body follows the soul, it is not the other way round. The body is a dependant of the soul, and not vice versa. The body has the same relation to the soul that a shadow has to the body. The shadow appears when the body exists; it inclines according to the inclination of the body; and when the body ceases to exist, the shadow becomes extinct. Likewise, when Allah creates a living thing, or gives life to a dead animal or man, the creative decree affects, originally, the spirit, and the material parts follow the spirit and come into being, because of the special bond created by Allah between the spirit and its body - the bond which is preserved by Allah and which we cannot comprehend. In this way, the identity of the body follows the identity of the spirit, without any gap and without any hindrance. Allah refers to it in His words, “they will come to you flying”, that is, without any delay whatsoever.
The same principle has been enunciated in verse 32:10-11, And they say: “What! when we have become lost in the earth, shall we then indeed be in a new creation?” Nay! they are disbelievers in the meeting of their Lord. Say: “The angel of death who is given charge of you causes you to die, then to your Lord you are brought back. “ We have explained to some extent this verse while discussing the non-materiality of the soul; further details will be given in a proper place, God willing.
“Then take four of the birds”: He was given this order so that he might identify them perfectly. Thus there would be no room for doubt when they had been made whole and alive again. Also he would observe their particulars and peculiarities, and then would see how all distinctions had been lost after death.
“Then cut them (into pieces), then place on every mountain a part of them”: Kill them, cut them into pieces, mix those pieces all together and divide the portions on the mountains found in your locality. In this way, the parts of each bird would be scattered here and there, and they would not be recognizable.
This order indicate that this event occurred after Ibrahim (a.s.) had migrated from Babylonia to Syria; because there are no mountains in Babylonia.
“Then call them”: Call the birds ‘O peacock!, O this!, O that!’ The pronoun “them” refers to the “four birds”. If Allah had wished Ibrahim to call the pieces of the birds, He would have said “nadihinna” (cry out to them), because the pieces were on far away mountains, and not ud’uhunna (call them) which is used for calling someone nearby. The order to “call them” indicates that he was to call the birds (i.e., their spirits) themselves. “They will come to you flying”. That is, they will get their own bodies and shapes, and will acquire all their faculties and powers including flying.
QUR’AN: And know that Allah is Mighty, Wise:
He is Mighty; if a thing ceases to exist, it is not lost to Him. He is Wise; He does not do a thing but by its proper method. He creates bodies by creating souls, and not the other way round.
About the words of Allah: Did You not see him who disputed with Ibrahim about his Lord: at -Tayalisi and Ibn Abi Hatim have narrated from ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib that he said: “He who disputed with Ibrahim about his Lord was Namrud (Nimrod), son of Kan‘an.” (ad-Durru ‘l-manthur)
Abu Ali at-Tabrisi has said: “There is a difference of opinion as to the time when this dispute occurred. It is said that it was when he shattered the idols, before he was thrown into fire. (It is reported from Muqatil.) Also it is said that it was after lie was thrown into fire, and it had became cool and safe for him. (It is reported from as-Sadiq - a.s.)” (Tafsiru ‘l-burhan)
The author says: The verse does not say when the dispute had taken place. But it may fairly be inferred that it was after Ibrahim had been thrown into fire. The stories written in the Qur’an about the early period of lbrahim (a.s.) - when he argued with his uncle and other people and then shattered the idols, give us to understand that he first met Namrud when he was taken to his court accused of breaking their idols: and Namrud ordered him to be burnt alive. At that time Namrud was too busy in sentencing him to have any dialogue with him about his Lord: whether it was Allah or Namrud. Also, if this event had occurred at that time, Namrud would have disputed with him on behalf of the idols, and not for establishing his own divinity.
There are many traditions, narrated by the Sunni and the Shi ‘ite narrators that the one “who passed by a town and it had fallen down upon its roofs” was the prophet, Armiah. Other traditions say that he was ‘Uzayr. But both types of traditions are “solitary”, (i.e., not mutawatir) and one is not bound to accept any of them. Moreover, the chains of some are weak. The Qur’an too is silent about the passer-by’s identity, and the Bible does not mention this story.
The story given in those traditions is long, and there are some differences among them. In any case, those traditions are beyond the scope of our book. Those wishing to read them should look for them into other books.
as-Sadiq (a.s.) told in a tradition about the words of Allah: And (remember) when Ibrahim said: “My Lord! Show me how Thou givest life to the dead. .. “: “And this verse is allegorical; it means that he (lbrahim - a.s.) asked about ‘how’?, and ‘how’ is an action of Allah, Mighty and Great is He; (it is a thing that) if a knowledgeable person did not know it he cannot be faulted for it nor can any defect be attributed to his belief in monotheism . . .” (Ma ‘ani ‘l-akhbar)
The author says: The meaning of this tradition may be understood from our earlier explanations.
‘Ali ibn Asbat says that Abu ‘l-Hasan ar-Rida (a.s.) was asked about the words of Allah: He (Ibrahim) said: “Certainly! but that my heart may be at ease. “ “Was there any doubt in his heart?” The Imam said : “No! but he wanted an increase (in it) from Allah . . .” (at-Tafsir, al-‘Ayyashi)
The author says: This matter has been narrated in al-Kafi from as-Sadiq (a.s.) and al-‘Abdu ‘s-Salih (a.s.). Its meaning has been explained earlier.
al-Qummi narrated from his father from Ibn Abi ‘Umayr from Abu Ayyub from Abu Basir from as-Sadiq (a.s.) saying “Verily Ibrahim saw a dead body on a river-bank; aquatic carnivores were eating it, then they attacked each other and some of them ate the others. Ibrahim was astonished (to see it) and said: ‘My Lord! show me how Thou givest life to the dead.’ Allah said: ‘What! and do you not believe?’ He said: ‘Certainly, but that my heart may be at ease.’ Allah said: ‘Then take four of the birds, then cut them into pieces, then place on every mountain a part of them, then call them, they will come to you flying; and know that Allah is Mighty, Wise.’ Thereupon, Ibrahim took a peacock, a rooster, a pigeon and a crow. Then Allah said: ‘Cut them into pieces and mix their flesh together and place them separately on ten mountains.’ Thereafter he (Ibrahim - a.s.) called them and said: ‘Be alive by the permission of Allah.’ The birds began assembling, the flesh and bones of each joining together with its head; and they flew towards Ibrahim. (Seeing it) Ibrahim said: ‘Verily, Allah is Mighty, Wise.’ “ (at-Tafsir)
The author says: al. ‘Ayyashi has narrated it in his at-Tafsir from Abu Basir from as-Sadiq (a.s.); and it has been narrated through Sunni chains from Ibn ‘Abbas.
The words of the Imam: “Verily, Ibrahim saw a dead body . . . My Lord! Show me how Thou givest life to the dead”’, describe the reason why Ibrahim asked this question: he had just seen the pieces of the body being disjoined and scattered, and their condition changed. He observed their dispersal in all directions and the deterioration in their condition which was to such an extent that nothing of the original body remained there.
Question: The tradition apparently says that the doubt was that which is known as the doubt of the eater and the eaten; because it mentions that the carnivores attacked each other and some of them ate the others, and that the wonder and question of Ibrahim (a.s.) was based on this phenomenon.
Comment: There are two doubts: 1) the scattering and dispersal of the parts of the bodies, the change in their properties and shapes, in short, their complete extinction so that apparently nothing remained to accept the life; 2) the parts of one animal become the parts of another animal; how could the two animals be resurrected whole? The part of one is also the part of another; whichever is resurrected whole, the other one will be incomplete. This is called the doubt of the eater and the eaten.
The answer given by Allah - that the body follows the soul - is sufficient to remove both doubts. But what Ibrahim (a.s.) was ordered to do was not related to the doubt of the eater and the eaten; it was directly concerned with the first doubt dispersal of the parts and total extinction, even though the basic answer removes both doubts.
What the tradition mentions some of the carnivores eating the others is not intended to be a part of the explanation of the verse.
The Imam (as-Sadiq - a.s.) has said : “Thereupon, Ibrahim took a peacock, a rooster, a pigeon and a crow.” Some other traditions say that the birds were a vulture, a duck, a peacock and a rooster. It has been narrated by as-Saduq in ‘Uyunu ‘lakhbar from ar-Rida (a.s.). It has also been reported from Mujahid, Ibn Jarih, ‘Ata’ and Ibn Zayd. Still others say that it was a hoopoe, a sparrow-hawk, a peacock and a crow. It has been narrated by al-‘Ayyashi, through Ma‘ruf ibn Kharabbudh, from al-Baqir (a.s.) : and is reported from Ibn ‘Abbas too. Another Sunni tradition quotes Ibn ‘Abbas as saying that the birds were a crested crane, a peacock, a rooster and a pigeon. There is only one name which appears in every report: peacock.
The Imam said : “place them separately on ten mountains.” That the mountain were ten is unanimously mentioned in the traditions of the Imams of Ahlu ‘l-bayt. Someone has put their number as four; another as seven.
‘Ali ibn Muhammad ibn al-Jahm said : “I was present in the court of al-Ma’mun and with him was ar-Rida (‘All ibn Musa). al-Ma’mun said to him: ‘0 Son of the Messenger of Allah! Is it not your belief that the prophets were sinless?’ He said: ‘Certainly.’ Then he (al-Ma’mun) asked him (ar-Rida - a.s.) about some verses of the Qur’an, and said to him, among others: ‘Now tell me about the words of Allah: “My Lord! show me how Thou givest life to the dead. “He said: “What! and do you not believe? “He said: “Certainly, but that my heart may be at ease.” ar-Rida said: ‘Verily Allah, Blessed and High is He!, had revealed to Ibrahim: “I am going to take from my servants a friend; if he asks me to give life to the dead, I will grant his prayer.” It came into the heart of Ibrahim that he was that friend. Therefore, he said; “My Lord! Show me how Thou givest life to the dead. “Allah said:. “What! and do you not believe?” Ibrahim said: “Certainly, but that my heart may be at ease about Thy friendship...”” (‘Uyun ‘l-akhbar)
The author says: We have expressed our views (while discussing about the Garden of Adam) about ‘Ali ibn Muhammad ibn al-Jahm and about this tradition which he has narrated from ar-Rida (a.s.).
However, this tradition throws some light on the fact that the status of the friendship of Allah brings with it the granting of prayers. The language supports this too. al-Khallah means ‘need’. The friend is called al-khalil because when friendship is perfect, one friend describes his needs to the other friend - and why should one describe his need if his friend cannot fulfill it?
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1. Sinimmar, an architect of repute, built the palace, al-Khawarnaq, for King Nu‘man. When it was completed, he was thrown down from the roof and thus died. The King gave this order so that he could not build such a palace for anyone else.
2. ‘Uzayr = Ezra or Ezrah of the Apocrypha. He is known as Esdras in the Roman Catholic Bible.