Tafsir Zone - Surah 19: Maryam (Mary)

Tafsir Zone

Surah Maryam 19:0

Overview (Verses 1 - 6)

“Kāf. Hā. Yā. `Ayn. Şād.” (Verse 1) These are separate letters of the Arabic alphabet. A number of sūrahs begin with such separate letters which we explain as being some of the letters used in the composition of the Qur’ān. Yet the Qur’ān has its unique, inimitable style, the like of which human beings can never produce, despite the fact that the same letters and words are available to them. They simply cannot devise any construction that even remotely approaches the style employed by the divine power that produced this Qur’ān.
Having mentioned these letters, the sūrah immediately begins the first story of Zachariah and John, in which compassion provides both the central idea and the overall atmosphere. Hence grace is mentioned at the outset: “This is an account of the grace which your Lord bestowed on His servant Zachariah.” (Verse 2) The story begins with a scene of earnest supplication by Zachariah in total secrecy:
When he called out to his Lord in the secrecy of his heart, he prayed: My Lord! Feeble have become my bones, and my head glistens with grey hair. But never, my Lord, has my prayer to You remained unanswered. Now, I fear [what] my kinsmen [will do] after I am gone, for my wife is barren. Bestow, then, upon me, out of Your, a grace, a successor who will be my heir as well as an heir of the House of Jacob; and make him, my Lord, one with whom You are pleased.’ (Verses 3-6)
He is alone, addressing his appeal to God, away from watching eyes and listening ears. He wants to lay his troubled heart open before his Lord, recounting his worries. He addresses Him as if he were speaking to someone who is very close, without even using the Arabic address article, Yd. Needless to say, his Lord hears and sees, without the need to be addressed or called upon. But a person troubled by worries finds comfort in vocalizing his concern. Most Gracious as He is, God knows this to be part of human nature. Hence, He likes that His servants pray to Him, making a clean breast of all that worries them: “Your Lord says: Pray to Me and I will answer you.” (40: 60) When they do, they find relief from their heavy burden. They are reassured because they have assigned such burdens to the One who is more able and powerful. They feel that they are in contact with the Most Merciful who will not disappoint anyone who appeals to Him and relies on Him.
Zachariah complains to his Lord that his bones have become feeble, and when bones are feeble, the whole body is weak. After all, the bones are the stiffest part of the body. They form the skeleton which the muscles flesh up. He also complains that his head glistens with grey hair. The Qur’ānic expression here, ishta`ala al-ra’su shaybā, shows the greyness of hair like a fire being ignited, and the man’s head covered with this fire, so as to leave no black hair. Both feeble bones and grey hair signify old age and the weakness associated with it. It is this weakness that is the subject matter of Zachariah’s complaint as he presents his case, and his hopes, to his Lord.
He then makes a clear acknowledgement: “Never, my Lord, has my prayer to You remained unanswered.” (Verse 4) He is used to having his prayers answered. He was not disappointed when he prayed to Him in his time of strength and vigour. Now in his old age and weakness, the need for his prayers to be answered is even more pressing.
Having presented his case, expressed his fears and hopes, he makes his request. The point is that he fears that those who will succeed him might not be up to looking after his heritage properly. Being one of the major prophets of the Children of Israel, Zachariah’s heritage involved serving God’s cause as well as looking after the people of his household. One of those was Mary whose upbringing was entrusted to him. She served in the sanctuary which he managed. Again his property, which he managed properly and spent on only good purposes, was among his concerns. His worry was that those who succeeded him might not follow the course he had charted, perhaps because he knew them not to be up to that task. “Now, I fear [what] my kinsmen [will do] after I am gone.” (Verse 5)
What added to his worries was the fact that he was childless: “For my wife is barren.” (Verse 5) She had given him no child to bring up and prepare as a successor. This was his concern. As for his hope, he requested that God grant him a successor who would properly manage and look after the heritage of Jacob’s household, i.e. his ancestors: “Bestow, then, upon me, out of Your grace, a successor who will be my heir as well as an heir of the House of Jacob.” (Verses 5-6) Zachariah, a God-fearing prophet, does not forget to specify what he hopes this successor would be like: “And make him, my Lord, one with whom You are pleased.” (Verse 6) He should not be arrogant, tyrannical, or greedy. He should be one who is content with what God gives him. Such contentedness should furthermore spread a sense of ease and happiness all round.