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

Tafsir Zone

Surah Al-Isra 17:36

Overview (Verses 36 - 39)

Accountability for All Actions

A basic characteristic of the Islamic faith is that it is straightforward, clear and transparent. Nothing is permitted on the basis of suspicion, myth or unsubstantiated impression:
Do not pursue that of which you have no knowledge. Man’s ears, eyes and heart shall all be called to account. (Verse 36)
These few words establish a complete method for the human mind and heart, incorporating the scientific approach that humanity has begun to apply only recently. It adds, however, honesty and fear of God. This is an advantage Islam adds over cold rational approaches that are devoid of spirituality.
Making certain of every report, action or situation before passing a judgement concerning it is the essence of the Qur’ānic approach. When hearts and minds faithfully follow this approach, there remains no room for superstition in matters of faith, or for suspicion in legal affairs. What is more is that there is no room for theoretical assumptions or superficial conclusions in science and research.
Scientific integrity which, in modern times, people unreservedly praise is no more than the conscientious integrity which the Qur’ān establishes as a requirement to be accounted for. The Qur’ān makes everyone responsible and accountable for their hearing, seeing and feelings in front of God who has given them their ears, eyes and hearts. This is the integrity and honesty of senses, heart and mind. Man is accountable for all these and the organs themselves will be questioned about their actions on the Day of Judgement. When we consider the magnitude of this responsibility, we are overwhelmed because it applies to every word we say and every judgement we make.
“Do not pursue that of which you have no knowledge.” (Verse 36) Certain knowledge must be the only basis for judgement or conviction. Whatever is not certain must never constitute such a basis. In an authentic ĥadīth, the Prophet is quoted as saying: “Refrain from assumption, for assumption is the basis of the worst lies.” Another ĥadīth related by Abū Dāwūd quotes the Prophet as saying: “It is indeed a bad practice for a man to always begin his statements with, ‘it is claimed.” In another ĥadīth the Prophet said: “The worst falsehood is that a man makes his eyes see what they have not seen.”
Thus we see how Qur’ānic verses and aĥādīth combine to establish such a complete and integrated system which requires the mind to make certain of its grounds for any judgement it makes. But Islam does not stop at this. It also requires the heart to make sure of its basis for whatever thoughts or feelings it entertains. Thus people must ascertain every detail, circumstance and factor before making any judgement or arriving at any conclusion. This is a practical fulfilment of the Qur’ānic statement made earlier in this sūrah: “Surely this Qur’ān shows the way to that which is most upright.” (Verse 9)
These orders and instructions that are closely linked to the faith based on God’s oneness are concluded with an order prohibiting conceit and arrogance: “Do not walk on earth with an air of self-conceit; for you cannot rend the earth asunder, nor can you rival the mountains in height.” (Verse 37) When man is devoid of belief in God, the Creator who has power over all creation, he may feel himself too powerful or admirable on account of his wealth, power or beauty. If only he remembers that whatever blessing he enjoys is granted to him by God and that he is powerless in front of God, he will see how misplaced his conceit is and so refrain from such arrogance.
The Qur’ān puts the conceited and arrogant face to face with their humbleness and powerlessness: “You cannot rend the earth asunder, nor can you rival the mountains in height.” (Verse 37) Physically man is small and insignificant, particularly when compared to giant creation. But he is strong when he relies on God’s power, honourable with His honour, and noble with His spirit which God has breathed into him. God has given man all this so that he always remembers and remains conscious of Him.
Such humility which the Qur’ān calls upon people to adopt, decrying at the same time all types of conceit, is a mark of maintaining proper relations with God and one’s fellow human beings, and a proper personal and social attitude. No one abandons such good manners except the petty and the conceited. Such people are disliked by God because they overlook His favours which they enjoy, and are hated by human beings for their arrogance. The Prophet is reported to have said: “Whoever maintains humility for God’s sake, God will elevate him. Thus he looks humbly at himself but people look at him with respect. By contrast, God humiliates an arrogant person so as he rates himself highly while people look down upon him. Indeed he may be more disliked by people than a dog or a pig.”
As we have seen, these instructions are mainly concerned with prohibiting evil action and improper behaviour. Their outline concludes with declaring God’s disapproval of them: “All this is evil; odious in your Lord’s sight.” (Verse 38) This serves as a summary and reminder that commandments are issued by God alone. The reason for prohibition is God’s dislike of such evil. No mention is made here of good matters which Islam orders to be practised or maintained. It is the prohibitions that are outlined in this code of conduct which the sūrah gives in detail.
This outline of the Islamic code of conduct is brought to an end by showing its details again linked to faith in God’s oneness, which was also stated at the outset of this passage. This is coupled with a warning against associating partners with God. Furthermore, we are told that this code is only a part of the wisdom to which the Qur’ān guides people: “These [injunctions] are but a part of the wisdom with which your Lord has inspired you. Do not set up any deity alongside God, lest you should be cast into hell, blamed and rejected.” (Verse 39)

Thus the ending is akin to the opening, with both emphasizing the basis on which Islam builds its structure for human life, namely, the concept of God’s oneness. For it is to God that all worship should be addressed.