Tafsir Zone - Surah 8: al-Anfal (The Spoils Of War )

Tafsir Zone

Surah al-Anfal 8:20

Overview (Verses 20 - 24)

Response to a Call to Life
Earlier, the sūrah mentioned the believers making it clear that God is on their side. Now they are addressed repeatedly to encourage them to obey God and His Messenger and to warn them against turning away from Him. Should they do so they will be in the same position as those who hear God’s revelations being recited and who pay no heed to them. They are deaf and dumb although they may have ears to hear with and tongues to speak with. These are the vilest of all creatures on earth because they are not guided by what they hear.
Believers, obey God and His Messenger, and do not turn away from him now that you have heard [his message]. Do not be like those who say: ‘We have heard,’ while they do not listen. Indeed, the worst of all creatures, in God’s sight, are the deaf and dumb who are devoid of reason. If God had known of any good in them, He would certainly have made them hear. But even if He were to make them hear, they would have turned away and refused to listen. (Verses 20-23)

The believers are asked to obey God and His Messenger and not to turn away when they listen to His revelations. This address follows a number of inspiring introductions and an account of the events of the battle in which God’s hand was clearly seen at work as He determined the course of events and provided help and support. All this reassured the believers that God was with them and He was certain to foil the schemes of the unbelievers. Thereafter the only proper course of action was for them to listen and obey. To turn away from God’s Messenger and pay no heed to his orders after all that had happened would clearly be seen as totally unbecoming of anyone who has a mind to think and reflect.
The mention of animals occurs at its appropriate place. The Arabic term used here to refer to animals includes human beings because this is derived from the act of walking. Human beings also walk on earth. However, the term used here is most commonly used for quadruped animals. Hence, its usage gives clear connotations so as to make those who are `deaf, dumb and devoid of reason’ appear like animals. Indeed, they are the worst type of animals. Animals do have ears, but they only hear unintelligible words, and they have tongues but they can only make unintelligible noises. Yet by their nature, animals are guided to what is needed for their lives. Those humans, on the other hand, do not make use of their faculty of understanding. As such, they are fittingly described in the Qur’ānic verse: “The worst of all creatures, in God’s sight, are the deaf and dumb who are devoid of reason.” (Verse 22)

“If God had known of any good in them, He would certainly have made them hear.” (Verse 23) This means that He would have made their minds receive well what they hear with their ears. But He — limitless is He in His Glory — does not know of any goodness in them or any desire to follow proper guidance. They have perverted their natural receptive faculty. Therefore, God does not open their hearts which they have shut down or repair their nature which they have perverted. Even if God made them understand the truth of what is being presented to them, they would not open their hearts to it and they would not respond to what they understood. “But even if He were to make them hear, they would have turned away and refused to listen.” (Verse 23) A person may understand something with his mind, but he may still keep his heart closed, unresponsive. Even if God were to make these people understand, they would turn away and refuse to respond. A positive response is the outcome of proper listening. Many are those who may understand or choose to keep their hearts closed, unresponsive.
A further address is made to the believers calling on them to respond to God and His Messenger, providing encouragement for a positive response and warning them against turning away. They are reminded of God’s blessings which they have enjoyed when they responded to God and His Messenger. “Believers, respond to the call of God and the Messenger when he calls you to that which will give you life, and know that God comes in between a man and his heart, and that to Him you shall all be gathered. Beware of temptation that does not lure only those among you who are wrongdoers. Know that God is severe in retribution.” (Verses 24-25)
God’s Messenger (peace be upon him) calls on them to follow what would certainly give them life. It is a call to life in its fullness, with all its connotations. He calls on them to believe in a faith that keeps hearts and minds alive, free from the restrictions of jāhiliyyah, ignorance and superstition, the pressures of legends, misconceptions and submission to superficial causes and inevitabilities. It is a faith that frees them from submission to anyone other than God and from being humiliated or subjugated by human beings or desires.
God’s Messenger also calls on them to implement a divine law that proclaims man’s freedom. In itself, this imparts a great honour to man because he will then believe in something that comes from God directly, and before which all human beings are equal. There is no room for the tyranny of a single person over a whole community, or a race or nation over another. All human beings are made free, enjoying equal status before the law that has been formulated and laid down by God, for the benefit of mankind. God’s Messenger also calls on them to adopt a code of living and a set of thoughts and beliefs that set them free from every bondage other than checks of nature established by God. It is He who created man and knows what He has created. These checks are meant to preserve the constructive potential of man and make the best use of it, without wasting any part of it or deviating from its constructive operation.
He also calls on them to have power and to feel exalted through their faith and constitution, having full confidence in their religion and their reward. This will enable them to fulfil their duty, to take appropriate initiative aiming at the liberation of the human race as a whole, breaking the chains of submission to creatures in order to acknowledge submission to God alone. Thus the honoured position of man which tyrants have taken away will be retrieved and re-established.
God’s Messenger further calls on them to strive for God’s cause so that the position of God as the Supreme Lord in this world and in human life will be re- established. All claims to Godhead would thus be refuted. Usurpers of God’s authority, sovereignty and power would be chased away, until they have submitted to God’s sovereignty. When this takes place all submission is acknowledged to God alone. If believers die when they strive in this way, they achieve martyrdom. A new life is thus imparted to them.
This is in a nutshell what God’s Messenger calls on them to do. This is indeed a call to life in the full sense of the word. This religion is a complete way of living, not a mere concept of belief. It is a practical method that allows life to flourish and prosper. Hence, it is a call to life in all its connotations, forms and aspects. The Qur’ān sums up all this in a few inspiring words: “Believers, respond to the call of God and the Messenger when he calls you to that which will give you life.” (Verse 24) Make this response willingly, with obedience. After all, God is able to force you to follow His guidance if He so desires.
“Know that God comes in between a man and his heart.” (Verse 24) This is an awesome picture of God’s power and its subtle operation. He thus forces a split between a human being and his heart and mind, making that heart His property, so that He directs it wherever He wishes. The person himself will be totally unable to influence the heart that beats within him. This is certainly an awe-inspiring image that our hearts can contemplate as we listen to it in the Qur’ān. Human expression, however, cannot describe its effects on our hearts and how we respond to it. But the ultimate message of this statement should always keep us on the alert, so that we watch our feelings and guard against any tendency that may lead us to slip, or any fleeting thought that may push us along the way to disobedience of God. We must always be on guard so that we maintain the path that earns God’s pleasure and not deviate from it during any moment of self-indulgence or negligence.
God’s Messenger (peace be upon him) who was immune to sin often used to say in his supplication: “My Lord. You are the One who changes people’s hearts. Make my heart constant in following Your faith.” Compared to this, what should the attitude of ordinary people be when they are neither given a message, nor granted immunity to sinful temptation?
A believer is bound to feel his heart shiver as he contemplates this image, looking at his own heart placed in God’s own hand, while he himself has no power to influence it in any way, although it remains inside him beating all the time.
This image is presented to the believers as they are called upon to respond to God and His Messenger when He calls on them to accept what will give them life. He is thus telling them that God can make them give the response He wants and force them to follow His guidance. But God honours them by giving them the choice and calling on them to respond willingly, so that they can earn a reward from Him, and exercise their own will which enhances their position and brings them up to the level worthy of God’s trust. This is the trust of following God’s guidance and exercising the role He has assigned to them on earth, as He placed them in charge of it. When people do this, they exercise their freedom of choice on the basis of clear knowledge and well-defined objectives.
“To Him you shall all be gathered.” (Verse 24) You cannot escape Him, either in this world or in the Hereafter, because your hearts are in His hands and to Him you shall all be gathered. Nevertheless, He calls on you to respond to Him by your free choice to earn His reward. A forced response is not worthy of man.