Volume 4: Surah Baqarah, Verses 285-286
 

The Apostle believes in what has been revealed to him from his Lord, and (so do) the believers: they all believe in Allah and His angels and His books and His apostles; We make no difference between any of His apostles. and they say: "We hear and obey; our Lord! Thy forgiveness (do we crave), and to Thee is (our) march" (285). Allah does not impose upon any soul a duty but to the extent of its ability; for it is (the benefit of) what it has earned, and upon it (the evil of) what it has wrought; "Our Lord! do not punish us if we forget or do a mistake; Our Lord! do not lay on us a burden as Thou didst lay on those before us; Our Lord! do not im­pose upon us that which we have not the strength to bear; and pardon us and forgive us and have mercy on us; Thou art our Guardian, so help us against the unbelieving people" (286).

GENERAL COMMENT


These are the last verses of this chapter. They summarize the details given in it, and recapitulate its main objective. As we mentioned at the beginning, the chapter aimed to show that it was an integral part of the worship of Allah to believe in all that He sent to His creatures through His apostles, without making any difference between those apostles. It is this reality which is described in the first of these verses: "The Apostle believes . . between any of His apostles".

The chapter then gives many stories of the Israelites: How Allah bestowed upon them His countless bounties, like the Book, the prophethood, the kingdom, etc., and how they answered it with disobedience, rebellion, breach of covenant and even infidelity. It is these stories that are obliquely hinted at in the remaining part of the first and the whole of the second verse, where the believers are reported as saying "We hear and obey", and then they go on seeking the protection, forgiveness and help of Allah.

Thus, these verses connect the end of the chapter with its beginning. The epilogue is a mirror of the prologue.

Allah opens this chapter by describing the qualities that are essential for a God-fearing people, and without which they cannot discharge their duties towards their Lord. He says that His pious and God-fearing servants believe in the unseen, keep up prayer, spend out of the sustenance given to them by Allah, believe in that which was revealed to the Apostle and to the previous apostles and are sure of the life hereafter (vide verses 2-5 of this chapter). Allah guides them through the Qur'an; and then He shows the contrast between them and the infidels and hypocrites.

Then the talk turns to the affairs of the people of the Book and especially the Jews. It explains how Allah, in His grace, guided them, and exalted them with His bounties and favors. And what was their response to all those favors? They became arrogant, disobeyed the commandments of Allah, and repaid His bounties with ingratitude; they stood against Allah and His apostles, bore malice against His angels, and made differences between one apostle and the other, and one book and the other. As a result, Allah laid on them heavy burdens, like the order to kill their own people; and imposed upon them that which they had no strength to bear, like turning them into apes, and sending lightening and plague from the sky on them.

After going into all these details, Allah recounts in these two verses the good attributes of the Apostle and the believers who have followed him; He shows that their condition is /in clear contrast with that of the people of the Book. They have responded to the divine bounties and guidance with submission and obedience; they believe in Allah, His angels, His books and His apostles, without making any difference between any of the apostles. And they know their own limitations as powerless mortals, and recognize the all-pervasive power of Allah. Although they have unconditionally submitted to the Caller towards the truth, they confess that they cannot do justice to that Call because of their inherent weakness and ignorance. They are afraid that they may transgress the limit by forgetfulness or mistake, or that they may fall short in their duties of divine worship; they are worried lest a sinful act puts them in disgrace, as happened with the people of the Book before them. Therefore, they beseech the All-merciful Lord and pray to Him not to punish them if they forget or make a mistake, not to lay on them a burden and not to impose upon them that which they have not the strength to bear; they entreat Him to pardon them, to forgive their mistakes and to have mercy on them, and to help them against the unbelieving people.

This is the true place of these two verses in the scheme of this chapter; they are a sort of resume of the chapter. This observation should be enough to further repudiate the claims of the commentators

a) that these verses were connected with the preceding one: "and whether you manifest what is in your souls or hide it, Allah will call you to account for it";

b) that this preceding verse imposed a duty upon every soul beyond the limit of its ability;

c) that the first of these verses, "The Apostle believes . . . and to Thee is (our) march", describes how the companions submitted to, and accepted, this imposition of duty beyond the limit of their ability;

d) And that the second of these verses, "Allah does not impose . . . help us against the unbelieving people", abrogated that verse which imposed such duty.

Moreover, our explanation is in perfect harmony with the reported "reason of revelation" of this chapter, that it was the first chapter revealed at Medina. The Prophet emigrated to Medina, and settled therein; the Medinite believers, that is, the Helpers (ansar), eagerly accepted the divine religion, and stood up to help the Apostle of Allah with their properties and lives; the Emigrant believers (muhajirun) abandoned their properties and homes, and left their families and children in the cause of Islam, and came to Medina to remain with the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.a.). That was indeed the time when Allah should have praised them for their answering the Call of His Prophet with acceptance and obedience, and thanked them for their submission.

The last sentence "Thou art our Guardian, so help us against the unbelieving people" also indicates that this prayer was at a time when Islam had begun its march forward, and when there was danger of attack from the unbelievers.

This verse contains wonders of elocution; there is generality followed by specification, and brevity by amplification; it shows the servants of Allah the perfect way of submission and servitude; and, in short, contains all the basic elements of perfection and felicity.

COMMENTARY

QUR'AN: The Apostle believes in what has been revealed to him from his Lord, and (so do) the believers:

This makes known the belief of the Apostle and the believers. The Apostle has been mentioned separately as the one who believes in what has been revealed to him from his Lord; then the believers have been joined to him in this virtue; it has been done to maintain the dignity of the Apostle. It is the usual style of the Qur’an: On such occasions, it first mentions the name of the Apostle separately, and there­after the believers are joined to him. Look, for example, at following verses: . . . then Allah sent down His tranquility on His Apostle and on the believers (48:26) ; . . . on the day on which Allah will not abase the Prophet and those who believe with him . . . (66:8).

QUR’AN: they all believe in Allah and His angels and His books and His apostles:

This specifies the generality of the preceding sentence: “What has been revealed” to the Messenger of Allah demands belief in Allah and acceptance of the truth of the books and apostles and angels who are Allah’s honored servants. Whoever believes in what has been revealed to the Messenger of Allah must believe in all those things, in a suitable manner.

QUR’AN: We make no difference between any of His apostles:

It is the quotation of the believers’ saying, without using the introductory verb, “They said”. We have explained in the commentary of verse 2:127 (And when Ibrahim and Isma’il were raising the foundations of the House; “Our Lord! accept from us; surely Thou art the Hearing, the Knowing”) the general reason for this type of quotation, and how it is one of the most elegant styles of the Qur’an. Apart from that basic reason of portraying the speakers before the eyes and ears of the imagination there was in this case one particular reason for omission of the words ‘They said’: this speech depicts the believers’ state of mind; it does not describe their verbal declaration. Even if we suppose that they actually uttered these words, each of them must have done so individually and in his heart; they never said it jointly and together by their tongues. It was only their shared faith that announced this belief, not in words but in their state of minds, which spoke louder than the words.

This verse quotes two sayings of the believers, one after another, but with different styles: “We make no difference. . .” is without the words ‘They said’; then the sentence is followed immediately by, “and they say: ‘We hear and obey . . .’ “ which, as we see, is introduced with, “they say “. Yet both are the believers’ sayings when they answered the Call of the Prophet.

The reason for this difference is that the first sentence describes the state of their minds, while the second was actually uttered by them in words.

The verse begins by describing the belief of all the believers, “everyone of them” taken separately. Then it turns to plural verbs and pronouns (We make no difference . . . ), and it continues up to the end. What was done in this respect by the people of the Book was done by their whole of their nations. The Jews made a difference between Musa on the one hand, and ‘Isa and Muhammad on the other; the Christians made a difference between Musa and ‘Isa on one hand, and Muhammad on the other. Thus they became divided into many groups and sects, although Allah had created them one people. Also, they were chastised and heavy burdens were imposed on the whole of their groups jointly, not separately. And the prayer at the end of the verse ‘to be helped against the unbelieving people’ was, likewise, a collective affair. Therefore, all these things demanded plural words. In contrast to this, “belief “ is a personal and individual matter, and it was appropriate to describe it in an individualistic style and a singular number.

QUR’AN: And they say: “We hear and obey; Our Lord! Thy forgiveness (do we crave), and to Thee is (our) march":

“We hear and obey” is not information; it is the declaration of their submission to the divine command. To hear allegorically means to accept and believe in; to obey is used for complying with order. Together these two words point to the acceptance of the call through believing with the heart and doing one’s duty with the body. Thus hearing and obeying refer to perfect belief.

Their declaration to hear and obey is, thus, fulfillment of the rights Allah has on His servants; it is the sum total of the duties that Allah has imposed upon them: to hear and to obey. It is the “worship” mentioned in the following verses: And I did not create the jinn and the human beings except that they should worship Me. I do not desire from them any sustenance and I do not desire that they should feed Me (51:56-57) ; Did I not enjoin you, 0 children of Adam! that you should not worship the Satan? Surely, he is you open enemy, and that you should worship Me; this is the right way (36:60-61).

And Allah has decreed on His Own Self a right for His servants, in consideration of the above-mentioned duty imposed on them, that is, forgiveness. It is a thing which nobody can do without - right from the apostles and the prophets to an ordinary believers. Allah promised them that He would forgive them if they obeyed and worshipped Him. This promise was the first thing ordained when the shari ‘ah was given to Adam: We said: Get down you there from all together; and when there comes to you a guidance from Me, then whoever follows My guidance, no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve (2:38). And it is what forgiveness means.

The believers said “We hear and obey”; their declaration of faith and obedience was unconditional, they did what was expected of them about the rights of their Lord. Then they asked the Lord to bestow upon them His promised grace, that is, forgiveness. They said: “Thy forgiveness (do we crave), and to Thee is (our) march.” “al-Maghfirah”, and al-ghufran, both of which are translated as “forgiveness”, literally mean “to cover”. When Allah forgives the sin of a servant, the due punishment is averted from him; in other words, Allah covers and hides his shortcomings. This grace will be bestowed upon the servant when he reaches His Lord. That is why they said, soon after praying for forgiveness, “and to Thee is (our) march.”

QUR’AN: Allah does not impose upon any soul a duty but to the extent of its ability; for it is (the benefit of) what it has earned, and upon it (the evil of) what it has wrought:

“al-Wus‘” is ability and power. Originally, the word was used for dimension, to show the area or capacity of a place or receptacle; then the power of man was thought of as a receptacle from which his actions come forth. A man has the ability to do a certain task; it is as though the said task is accommodated in his ability. On the other hand, a task which he cannot do is too great for his power and ability. In this way, the word ‘dimension’ came to mean power and ability.

As mentioned above, it is the sum total of the rights of Allah on man that he should hear and obey. Obviously, man can say “I hear” only about that which he can understand; how can he answer by hearing and accepting what he cannot understand? Also, he can say “I obey” only about that which can be performed by his faculties and organs directly or through some tools. Obedience means that man follows the given order, and his faculties and organs are actuated to perform accordingly. The question of obedience does not arise about things that cannot be done; for example, if one is told to hear by his eyes, or to sit in two rooms at the same time, or that one should be born from his parents a second time. No such order can be given by any sane person. When the believers answer the Call of religion with hearing and obedience, it means that the Call is about such things that are within their power and ability; and it is these things which man obeys or disobeys, earning for himself what will benefit him or harm him. The “earning”, mentioned in this verse, is the best proof to show that what man earns, he earns through his ability and power.

The words of Allah “Allah does not impose upon any soul . . .” describe the divinely established system that Allah does not impose upon His servants what is beyond their power; for example, He does not tell them to believe in that which is beyond their understanding; nor does He ordain for them a duty which they cannot do. This is, also, the custom of all sane persons. It is a sentence that is neither more nor less than the believers’ declaration “We hear and obey”; it agrees with it perfectly.

This sentence, that is, “Allah does not impose upon any soul. . .”, is in perfect harmony with the preceding and the following sentences. It is related to the preceding one, as it shows that Allah does not impose any duty except that which the servants can hear and obey, that is, which is within their ability and power.

And it is related to the following sentences, as it shows that what the Apostle and the believers prayed for - that Allah should not punish them if they forget or do a mistake, and should not lay on them burden as He laid on past nations, and should not impose upon them anything which they do not have strength to bear - was not an imposition beyond the extent of their ability, although such things, if imposed, could cause hardship. When Allah imposes upon a group that which they have not the strength to bear, it is not the imposition of a duty; it is the imposition of a punishment for their transgression and rebellion.

Forgetfulness and committing mistakes, per se, are beyond man’s power; but, more often than not, it is man himself who paves the way for them. It is possible to prevent these two (forgetfulness and erring) by desisting from those things which cause them. It is especially true in cases where one forgets or commits a mistake because of his wrong choice.

The same may be said about laying on one a burden like that which was laid upon previous people. It refers to the cases in which Allah imposed hard rules in place of easy ones, when those people went against those easy rules. It was not the unwarrantable imposition of duty beyond one’s ability; it was brought upon them by those people themselves because of their wrong choice. And such punishing rules are not bad in law.

QUR’AN: Our Lord! do not punish us if we forget or do a mistake:

They first said, “We hear and obey” which showed their unconditional surrender and obedience. Then they looked at themselves and became aware of their intrinsically weak and imperfect being. Also, they remembered what had happened to previous nations. This prompted them to beseech their Lord for mercy, and they prayed to Him not to take them to task as He had done with past people. They sought His protection because Allah had taught them that there was no power or strength except from Allah, and that nothing can save from Allah’s displeasure except His mercy.

Why did the Apostle prayed to Allah in these words when he was sinless and protected from mistake and forgetfulness? He did so because his sinlessness had come from Allah; he was protected from mistake and forgetfulness by Allah’s protection. Therefore, it was quite in order for him to include himself in the group of believers to ask from his Lord what he knew was a grace of the Lord.

QUR’AN: Our Lord! do not lay on us a burden as Thou didst lay on those before us:

“al-Isr” (burden) is also interpreted as detaining a thing by force. This is not very far from the first meaning: If a thing is confined and detained forcefully it puts a heavy burden on it.

“Those before us” refers to the people of the Book and especially the Jews, because this chapter describes many stories about them; and because the seventh chapter, inter alia, refers to the Apostle of Islam in these words: . . . and removes from them (the people of Torah and Injil) their burden and the shackles which were upon them . . . (7:157).

QUR’AN: Our Lord! do not impose upon us that which we have not the strength to bear:

It does not refer to unbearable rules of the shari ‘ah, because reason does not allow such rules, and Allah has Himself said that He does not impose any duty beyond one’s limit of ability; and the words of the believers “We hear and obey” show that Allah’s commandments are within their ability to understand and act.

This sentence in fact refers to severe punishments meted out to previous peoples - the imposition of retaliatory hard rules, sending upon them severe chastisements or transforming them into animals or insects.

QUR’AN: And pardon us and forgive us and have mercy on us:

“al-Afw” (is to erase the signs of a thing); "al-maghfirah" is to cover it ; “ar-rahmah" is mercy. From the linguistic point of view, the three, sentences proceed from branch to root and from particular to general. The believers beseech Allah first to erase and eradicate the sign of their sin (by removing its due punishment from them), then they ask Him to cover and hide the sin (by letting all concerned forget about it completely) ; lastly they crave for His mercy that will cover the sin and make them worthy of of His grace.

The three sentences are in conjunction with the previous ones: “Our Lord! do not punish us if we forget or do a mistake . . . “ The context shows that the pardon, forgiveness and mercy asked for are in connection with such sins which they might commit by forgetfulness or mistake. Therefore, the forgiveness asked for in this verse is in a particular context; it is not like the forgiveness asked for in the previous verse, “Thy forgiveness (do we crave) “, which is an unrestricted and unconditional forgiveness in consideration of the believers’ unrestricted and unconditional acceptance of the Call.

It is clear from the above that there is no repetition of the prayer of forgiveness, because both are in separate contexts.

In these prayers the word “Lord” has been repeated four times. This was done to invoke the divine mercy. The name “Lord” by contrast, hints to the servitude and total dependence of the beseecher.

QUR’AN: Thou art our Guardian, so help us against the unbelieving people:

It is an independent sentence and a separate prayer. “al-Mawla" means ‘helper’ - not any helper, but that one who looks after the affairs of the helped one. The root word is al-wilayah (to govern, to rule, to take charge of). Allah is the Ruler of the believers; therefore, He is their Guardian in all their affairs. Allah says: ...and Allah is the Guardian of the believers (3:68); That is because Allah is the Master of those who believe, and because the unbelievers have no master for them (47:11).

This prayer of theirs shows that their only desire, after hearing and obeying the basic religion, was to spread the true faith and to fight in the way of Allah to establish the word of truth, so that all the nations could unite in that cause. Allah says: Say: “This is my way: I invite you unto Allah; with clear sight (are) I and he who follows me; and glory be to Allah, and I am not of the polytheists” (12:108). To call to the faith of monotheism is the way of true religion. It involves one in fighting, enjoining the good and forbidding the evil, and in all the methods of propagation of religion. This is done to remove the root of discord from the human species. The importance attached to this endeavor may be understood from the verse: He has prescribed for you of the religion what He enjoined upon Nuh and that which We have revealed unto you, and that which We enjoined upon Ibrahim and Musa and Isa, that establish the religion and be not divided therein (42:13).

This prayer of the believers (Thou are our Guardian, so help us...) proves that the first thing that came into their minds after firmly deciding to hear and obey, was the general call to invite the whole of mankind to the religion’ of truth. And Allah knows better.

Wa‘l-hamdu li‘llah (And praise and thank be to Allah).