Tafsir Zone - Surah 17: Al-Isra (The Night Journey )

Tafsir Zone

Surah Al-Isra 17:22
 

Overview (Verse 22 - 25)
 
In the preceding passage, which comprises the first 21 verses of the sūrah, the rules of action and reward, guidance and error, earnings and reckoning are linked to the great universal law that governs the succession of night and day. In the current passage, the rules for behaviour, manners, individual and social duties are linked to belief in God’s oneness. Indeed this belief provides the essential tie to which all other ties are linked, within the family, community and humanity as a whole.
 
In the previous passage we learnt that the Qur’ān “shows the way to that which is most upright.” We have also been told that God has most clearly ‘spelled out everything.’ In this new passage, the sūrah gives us an outline of the commandments and prohibitions which demarcate the way to the most upright standards. They spell out in detail some rules of behaviour, telling us of permissible or prohibited practices.
 
This new passage begins with a commandment that prohibits the association of partners with God. It declares God’s clear order that worship must be addressed to Him alone. This is followed by an outline of duties and obligations, such as maintaining kindness to one’s parents, being generous without extravagance to relatives, the needy and travellers in need. It also prohibits killing one’s offspring, adultery and murder under any circumstances. Further commandments make it clear that believers must take good care of orphans, ensuring that whatever property they have is well looked after, and that they must fulfil their pledges and promises. They should also conduct their transactions in fairness, giving due weight and measure, and they must endeavour to establish and maintain the truth. They are commanded not to behave arrogantly in any situation. The passage concludes with a warning against associating partners with God. Thus all the commandments and prohibitions are given between the opening and ending of the passage, clearly attached to the basic belief in God’s oneness which provides the firm foundation of human life as indeed all life.
 
Kindness to Parents
 
“Do not set up any deity side by side with God, lest you find yourself disgraced, forsaken.” (Verse 22) This is a commandment forbidding the association of partners with God and a warning against the results it brings about. Although it is a general order, it is nonetheless addressed to each individual so that everyone feels it is personally issued to them. Believing is a personal matter for which every individual is responsible for themselves. The outcome that awaits anyone who deviates from the path of believing in God’s oneness is such that they find themselves ‘disgraced’ by the foul deed, ‘forsaken’, without support. Whoever is deprived of God’s support is forsaken, no matter how numerous his supporters are. The Arabic description, fataq`uda madhmūman makhdhūlā, is especially graphic: in place of lest you find yourself, read, ‘lest you sit’. This aptly describes the person who finds such disgrace too shameful that it weighs heavily on him and he sits down forsaken, weak, unable to stand and powerless. The description also suggests that this state is permanent because ‘sitting down in disgrace’ suggests there is no action to change the situation.
 
“Your Lord has ordained that you shall worship none but Him.” (Verse 23) This order to offer all worship to God alone follows the one prohibiting the association of partners with God. It takes the form of a decisive ruling to be implemented without fail, by all mankind. The term, qadā, used in the Arabic text and translated as ‘ordained’, signifies a final verdict imparting additional emphasis to an already emphatic order that also uses the construction of a negation and exception: “You shall worship none but Him.” The mode is one of total emphasis and stress. When this basic ruling is well established, individual and community duties are outlined. These rely on a firm belief in the One God. Hence, motives and goals behind actions and practices work towards the same end.
 
The most important bond next to that of faith is the family. Hence the sūrah links kindness to parents with the worship of God, in order to emphasize its importance in God’s sight:
 
And that you must be kind to your parents. Should one of them, or both, attain to old age in your care, never say ‘Ugh’ to them or chide them, but always speak gently and kindly to them, and spread over them humbly the wings of your tenderness, and say, My Lord, bestow on them Your grace, even as they reared and nurtured me when I was a child.’ (Verses 23-24)
 

With inspirational expression that is full of tenderness the Qur’ān enhances our feelings of compassion towards our parents. As life goes on, its momentum carries the living and focuses our attention on what lies ahead, on our own children, the new generation. Rarely are we motivated to look back and attend to the former generation of parents, who represent a life that is already on the decline. Hence, as sons and daughters we need a strong charge of conscience so that we will look hack and take care of our mothers and fathers.
 
Parents are naturally motivated to look after their children, sacrificing everything in the process, even when the sacrifice includes them personally. An early green shoot absorbs every particle of nutrition in its seed to leave it as dust, and a chic eats up everything in the egg, leaving only the shell. Similarly, children take up all their parents’ vigour, health, effort and attention, leaving them in the weakness of old age, yet happy to have given their children everything they could give. But children soon forget all this and move ahead, caring more for their spouses and own offspring. This is the natural course of life.
 
Thus parents do not need any encouragement to be kind to their children. It is the children who need to be reminded of their duty towards the generation that has become dry, in need of tender care, after having spent most of its vitality in bringing up their young. Hence, the divine command to take good care of parents comes in the form of a ruling from God, following immediately after the command to worship God alone.
 
The sūrah then imparts an air of tenderness to the whole atmosphere. It engenders memories of childhood, of compassion, love and tender care: “Should one of them, or both, attain to old age in your care...,” (Verse 23) Old age commands veneration, and the weakness of the elderly imparts certain feelings. Use of the phrase, ‘in your care’, describes an elderly person weakened by advancing years needing shelter and care. Hence, sons and daughters are told: “Never say ‘Ugh’ to them or chide them.” (Verse 23) This is the first step in taking care of one’s parents and being kindly to them. Sons and daughters must never use words which suggest their being vexed or bothered by their parents, or say anything that betrays disrespect. On the contrary, they must “always speak gently and kindly to them.” (Verse 23) This is a higher and more positive step. What sons and daughters say to their parents must always be coupled with genuine respect.
 
“And spread over them humbly the wings of your tenderness.” (Verse 24) At this point the Qur’ān uses very tender words to touch our hearts and consciences. Mercy and compassion are so heightened that they border on humility, making the son and daughter too respectful to look their parents straight in the face, but willing to obey them. It is as if such tenderness spreads wings over one’s parents. This is followed by a prayer: “My Lord, bestow on them Your grace, even as they reared and nurtured me when I was a child.” (Verse 24)
 

The prayer recalls the care and love, exercised by parents for vulnerable children. Yet now it is the parents themselves who are similarly weak and in need of tender, loving care. Hence, the address to God to bestow His grace on them. Indeed His grace is far greater, and His care is much more wide-ranging. He is better able to reward them for their kindness, while their children can never repay them for it. A ĥadīth mentions that “a man was carrying his mother while he was doing the ţawāf [i.e. the obligatory walk around the Ka`bah] during pilgrimage. He asked the Prophet whether he had discharged his duty towards her. The Prophet said, ‘No, not even for a single deep sigh.’”
 
This ĥadīth speaks of a mother so weakened she was no longer able to walk in order to fulfil her religious duty of ţawāf. Her son carried her so that she could fulfil that duty, just like a mother carries her child when it is very young. However, that is far from fulfilling a mother’s claim against her children, which is constituted by the constant care she took of them, with every breath of her life.
 
Since all feelings, actions and reactions are related to faith in the context of the sūrah, it adds a final comment, referring all matters to God who knows people’s intentions and what lies behind words and actions: “Your Lord knows best what is in your hearts. If you are righteous, He is certainly Most Forgiving to those who turn repeatedly to Him [seeking His mercy].” (Verse 25)
 
Coming as it does immediately before a range of orders, duties and standards, this verse serves as a guideline for everything we say or do. It also leaves the door open for anyone who makes a mistake or falls short of expectations to declare his repentance and seek forgiveness. When a person’s heart is set on the right track, the door to forgiveness remains open. The verse mentions in particular those who turn back to God every time they slip or make a mistake.