This opening passage of the sūrah outlines the essential features of the religious groups the Muslim community faced in Madinah, with the exception of the Jews, to whom only a brief, but adequate, reference is made. They are described as the ‘satans’ or ‘evil companions’ of the hypocrites; a description that says a great deal about their qualities and the nature of their role. They are dealt with in more detail later on in the sūrah.
In delineating the features of these groups, the special characteristics of the Qur’ānic style are clearly displayed. Words are used as an artist uses lines and colours, and through them images slowly begin to take on shape and life.
At the outset, in a few words and sentences, profiles of three types of people merge, each a true representation of a group of human beings such as recurs in every day and age. Indeed, all mankind in all ages and places can be classified into these types. This is a fine example of the eloquence and power of the Qur’ānic style.
In these brief and highly informative sentences and verses, pictures are brought to life with a power and focus that no lengthy or elaborate rendition could ever provide. A few rapid touches combine with the beauties of style and rhythm to supreme effect.
Following this concise and powerful introduction, the sūrah addresses all people in the world, calling on them to belong to the first category of mankind. It urges man to believe in the One God, the Creator, Sustainer and Provider, who has no equals or partners. It challenges those sceptics who doubt the truth of the Prophet Muĥammad’s message, and of the revelations he received, to come up with a single sūrah to compare with the Qur’ān. It complements the challenge with a severe warning of horrible punishment for those who reject God’s message, and a promise of everlasting bliss and happiness for those who trust and believe in God and His revelations.
The passage then responds to certain Jews and hypocrites who had questioned the use of parables in the Qur’ān, which they used as an excuse to doubt the truth and validity of Divine revelations altogether. It gives them a stern warning that they are departing from God’s path, in contrast to the believers, who are drawn closer to God and strengthened in faith. It denounces their denial of God who gives life and takes it away, the Creator who controls all and whose knowledge of things and events in this vast universe is all-embracing and comprehensive. It is God who has bestowed His grace on mankind by making the earth and all that it contains, to be under their control and for their benefit.
These are the main themes of this opening passage of the sūrah, and we shall now go on to look into them in more detail.
The Qualities of True Believers
The sūrah opens with three Arabic letters: “Alif, lām, mīm.” (Verse 1) This is immediately followed by the statement: “This is the Book, there is no doubt about it, a guidance for the God-fearing.’’ (Verse 2)
Several sūrahs in the Qur’ān begin with a combination of Arabic letters in this way, and interpretations of these abstract openings vary quite widely. The one we tend to favour is that these are meant to emphasize the fact that the Qur’ān is a book composed of the letters of the Arabic language, in the same way as they are used by the Arabs who were the first people addressed by this divine revelation. Nevertheless, it is such an unparalleled and transcendent work that no Arab writer, using the same letters and the same language, could ever match its majesty and power. Rivals are repeatedly challenged to compose a book similar to it, or only ten sūrahs, or even a single sūrah, of matching quality. No one has ever been able to take up the challenge.
This is true for all God’s creation. Soil, for example, is made up of elements of known properties. The best man has been able to make out of soil is bricks, tiles, vessels and structures of various types and uses, which are in some cases very sophisticated. But using these same elements, God has created life, the one outstanding secret that remains far beyond man’s intellectual and creative abilities.
Similarly, the same letters and words that ordinary people, speaking the language of the Qur’ān, use to articulate expressions and convey meanings and concepts, are used by God to produce the Qur’ān as a definitive book stating the final and absolute distinction between truth and falsehood. A comparison between man’s work and the work of God is simply not possible; it is a comparison between the image and the reality, between the dead body and the living soul.
“This is the Book; there is no doubt about it.” (Verse 2) How can there be any doubt about it when the evidence for its truth and veracity is given in these very letters with which the sūrah opens? Evidence is implicit in the total inability of the Arabs to produce anything matching the Qur’ān, despite their proficiency and excellence in the use of their own language which is comprised of the same letters and words.
“This is the Book; there is no doubt about it a guidance for the God- fearing.” (Verse 2) The key word in this statement is ‘guidance’. It expresses the essence and the nature of the Qur’ān. But guidance for whom? Who are the people who will find that this Book provides them with light, direction and true counsel? They are the God-fearing.
Once a man’s heart is filled with the fear of God, he will benefit by the Qur’ān. Fear and consciousness of God is the quality that opens one’s mind to the true guidance contained in the Qur’ān and allows it to have its proper effect on one’s life. It is the factor that causes one’s heart and mind to become sensitive and receptive to God’s guidance and enables one to respond to His call and His instruction.
Anyone seeking the benefit and Godly wisdom of the Qur’ān must approach it with an open mind and a pure heart. One must also approach it with perception and sensitivity, and with a determination not to fall by the wayside or be tempted away from God. Then, and only then, will the marvels and treasures of the Qur’ān be opened and revealed, and their light and wisdom will pour into this apprehensive, alert and welcoming heart.
It is reported that `Umar ibn al-Khaţţāb, a close companion of the Prophet and his second successor, asked the learned Companion, Ubayy ibn Ka`b, about the true meaning of ‘fear of God’.
Ubayy asked `Umar, “Have you ever walked along a thorny road?” “Yes, certainly,” `Umar replied.
Ubayy asked again, “How did you manage to get through it?” `Umar replied, “I gathered up my clothes and tried my best to avoid the thorns.”
“That is precisely what God-fearing is like,” said Ubayy.
Fear of God, then, is to have a sensitive conscience, clear feelings, a continuous concern, vigilance and alacrity, and a yearning for the correct path in life. It is a feeling that is ever alive, a feeling of being aware of life’s temptations and pitfalls; and the ambitions and hopes, and the worries and fears that come with it. It is a feeling of being able to discern false hopes and unwarranted fears that one associates with individuals or powers that could neither bring benefit nor cause harm. Above all, the journey of life is full of many other kinds of thorns and nettles one must be aware of and strive to avoid.
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