Tafsir Zone - Surah 4: an-Nisa' (Women )

Tafsir Zone

Surah an-Nisa' 4:1

Overview (Verse 1)

Mankind Begins with a Single Person

Mankind, fear your Lord, who has created you from a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the two of them spread abroad so many men and women. Fear God, in whose name you appeal to one another, and be mindful of your ties of kinship. Indeed, God is ever watching over you. (Verse 1)

This address is made to mankind, in their basic human quality, so that they may all turn to their Lord who has created them “from a single soul”. He further created from this single soul its mate, “and from the two of them spread abroad so many men and women.” (Verse 1)

These simple and basic facts are very profound, having much weight in human considerations. Had people been truly mindful of these facts, it would have brought about great changes in their lives, helping them to move from their state of ignorance to a state of intelligence, whereby they would be able to receive proper guidance and accept the true faith. They would, thus, have been able to build a true civilisation worthy of man, the creature who acknowledges God as his Lord and Creator.

These facts open up a very wide scope for us to reflect upon. Firstly, they remind us of our origins, and of the fact that we belong to our Creator who has established us on this earth. People are often oblivious to this fact, forget everything and, consequently, cannot establish anything in their lives on a sound basis.

Man came into this world after a period of time when the world existed without him. Who, then, brought him into this world? He has not come into it by his own will. Prior to his arrival he had no definite existence, and no will with which to decide whether to enter this world or not. Man’s arrival in this world is, thus, the result of a will other than his own. It is this will which decided to create man, and which chose and defined his way for him. It has given him his existence with all its special characteristics, his talents and potentials. It has given him the ability to deal with the universe into which he has been brought without any prior preparation except that given him by this same will. Needless to say, that will is omnipotent in the sense that it is able to do whatever it may wish and determine. If people would only remember this fact they would be able to recognise the true path from the very outset.

This will, which has brought man into this world, outlined for him his way of life and gave him the ability to deal with the universe. It is the only will which can influence human life in any way it wishes, knows everything about man and can best manage his affairs. It is the only will which has the right to define for man his source of life, promulgate laws and regulations for human life, and lay down values and standards for man to observe. To this will alone people must refer whenever they differ over anything. When they do this, they refer to the one constitution which God wants mankind to implement.

Secondly, these facts suggest that all humanity, which has issued from a single will, share together in a single kinship and have the same origin and lineage: “Mankind, fear your Lord, who has created you from a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the two of them spread abroad so many men and women.” (Verse 1)

Had people been mindful of this fact, they would have paid little or no attention to all the differences that came into their lives at a later time. Differences which led to discrimination between the descendants of a single soul and to the severance of ties of a single universal kinship. All these differences are purely circumstantial and should never have been allowed to take precedence over the tie of kinship and its claim to be fostered, the tie of belonging to one soul which deserves to be maintained, and the tie of belonging to the one Lord who must be feared.

Had this fact been truly appreciated, it would have ensured that no racial discrimination could ever take place in human society. We know how much mankind has suffered from racial discrimination and continues to suffer even today, in a latter day ignorance that seeks to consolidate its own existence through discrimination between people on the basis of their colour or race. It upholds the ties of race and nationality and totally ignores the ties of a single humanity and a single Godhead.

Had this fact been well established, there would have never been the sort of caste system which we find in pagan India, or the sort of class war which leads to much bloodshed  in  Communist  countries.  In  modern  ignorance,  this  class  war  is considered to be a doctrinal basis that legitimises the supremacy of one class and the destruction of all others. It chooses to be totally oblivious to the fact that all human beings have issued from a single soul, and that they all have the same Lord to whom they should all refer.

The third fact stated in this opening verse is that from a single soul God “created its mate”. Had mankind appreciated this fact, they would have spared themselves all those grievous mistakes under which they have long suffered. They would not have coined such absurdities about women, branding them as the source of impurity and the origin of evil. The truth is that in her nature and temperament, the woman is created from the first human soul in order to be its mate and, thereafter, for numerous men and women to issue forth from them both. There is no difference between man and woman, then, in their nature or origin. The only difference is in their abilities and the roles they have to play. Mankind has groped blindly in this maze of absurd beliefs for a very long time. Women were deprived of their human status, all human characteristics together with all the rights to which their humanity entitles them for no other reason than an absurd, groundless belief that temporarily took hold of man’s mind. When mankind recognised its gross mistake and set about correcting it, we find that the other extreme was adopted, one whereby women were left without any check or control. They had forgotten that man and woman are two mutually complementary human beings. They are not identical individuals, but a pair, each part of which complements the other. The Divine constitution brings mankind back to this elementary fact after it has strayed far from it.

This opening verse also suggests that the family is the cornerstone of human life. God’s will has determined that this new creation on earth begins with one family. He created first a single soul, before creating from it its mate. Together, they formed a family and a married couple. “And from the two of them He spread abroad so many men and women.” Had He so wished, God could from the very outset have created many men and women, and paired them in couples to form different families. This could have been accomplished without any relationship between them except that they all derive their existence from the will of God, the single deity in the universe. He — limitless is He in His glory — has willed, for a definite purpose of His own, to complement man’s tie with his Lord, which is the one from which all ties and relationships are derived, with the tie of kinship. He, therefore, formed the first family from a male and female who came from one soul and shared a single nature. From this first family He spread a multitude of men and women who all share in their tie with their Lord and in their family tie upon which human life is built. It is for this reason that the Islamic system takes so much care of the family and tries to strengthen its ties. It protects the family structure against all influences that may weaken it. Most prominent of these is deviation from human nature which leads to neglecting the abilities and potentials of both man and woman and the essential harmony that makes of these abilities and potentials a complete and coherent whole.

Emphasis is laid in this and other sūrahs on the numerous aspects of the care the Islamic system takes of the family. Indeed, the family cannot establish its solid foundation when women are treated with the cruelty and degradation they receive in every ignorant society. For this reason, Islam tries hard to remove that cruelty and elevate women to a position of dignity.

Finally, we are called upon to look at that great variety in people’s characteristics and abilities, after they have all spread out of a single soul and a single family. No two individuals are exactly the same although as many generations as we can imagine have come and gone and despite the creation of a great many individuals in every generation. There is a great variety in shapes and features; in habits, temperaments, manners and feelings; as well as in abilities, concerns and functions. A glance at this great variety exhibited by mankind demonstrates God’s creative ability which is without parallel and which designs its creation on the basis of its knowledge and wisdom. It is enough to cast our minds and eyes around that remarkable living parade of humanity, looking at that ever-renewing multitude of forms which could not have been made except by God. Indeed, no one has dared to attribute his or her creation to anyone other than God. It is only an absolute, limitless will that can achieve such an endless variety from a single source and origin.

To reflect on the creation of people in this way is enough to give a pleasant feeling to our hearts. It strengthens our faith and enhances our sense of fearing God. This is no trifling gain.

At the end of this opening verse, which stimulates all these thoughts, man is given a reminder to fear God in whose name people appeal to one another, and to be mindful of their ties of kinship which makes of them all a single entity: “Fear God, in whose name you appeal to one another, and be mindful of your ties of kinship.” (Verse 1) It is in the name of God that you make pledges and covenants with one another, and in His name you ask one another to fulfil your duties and obligations, and with His name you swear to one another in order to confirm what you are saying. Hence, you must fear Him in your approach to whatever exists between you of relationships, contacts and transactions.

When we speak of fearing God and of being mindful of our duties towards Him, we speak of something we know well because it is frequently mentioned in the Qur’ān. This verse uses the same verb in reference to ties of kinship, as if it says that we must “fear” our ties of kinship. This is a remarkable expression which imparts certain connotations that one can hardly find words to explain. “Fear” your ties of kinship. Enhance your feelings so that you may appreciate the relationships they create and the obligations they constitute. You can then take care never to do any injustice to your kinsfolk and never to treat them badly. Be mindful lest you cause harm to your kinsfolk or offend them. Value your ties of kinship as you value your treasures.

The verse concludes with the statement: “Indeed God is ever watching over you.” (Verse 1) That is enough to give us a feeling of awe when we remember that God, the Creator who knows those whom He has created and who allows no action or feeling to escape His knowledge is the One who is ever watching over us.