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

Tafsir Zone

Surah Al-Isra 17:44

Overview (Verses 44 - 48)

Deaf Ears, Sealed Hearts
It is a powerful and majestic scene in which we see every stone, large and small, every seed and leaf, every flower and fruit, every little shoot and every tree, every insect and reptile, every animal and human being, every creature that walks the earth, swims in the water or floats in the air, in short, all creatures in the whole universe glorifying God and turning to Him in submission. We are filled with awe as we sense that everything that comes within our vision or stays beyond it comes alive. ‘Whenever we stretch our hands out to touch something, and whenever we put our feet to step over something, we feel that it is alive, glorifying God.
“Indeed every single thing extols His glory and praise,” in its own way and language. “But you [human beings] cannot understand their praises.” (Verse 44) Human beings are limited by their own constitution which has a clay origin. This debars them from understanding the praises of other creatures. Had they listened with their hearts, directing them to appreciate the subtle laws that operate in the universe and make everything, large or small, turn to the Creator of all, they would have appreciated something of that praise. When human souls are purified and when they hearken to every animate and inanimate object as it addresses its glorification to God alone, they are better prepared to be in contact with the Supreme Society. They are better able to understand the secrets of the universe than those who limit themselves to the material world.
“He is indeed Forbearing, Much Forgiving.” (Verse 44) These attributes of God are mentioned here because of what seems clear of people’s failing in their duties towards Him. Compared with this great show of submission to God in the whole universe, human beings seem to be in a singular position. Some associate partners with God, while others allege that He has daughters, and still others remain oblivious of their duty to praise and glorify Him. In fact human beings should have been the first among all creatures to acknowledge God, declare their submission to Him and extol His praises. Had it not been for God’s forbearance and forgiveness, He would have hastened their punishment. But He allows them time, reminds and admonishes them because ‘He is indeed Forbearing, Much Forgiving.’
The leaders of the Quraysh, the Prophet’s own tribesmen who rejected his call, tried hard to prevent their hearts and souls from responding positively to the truth of the Qur’ān. As a result, God raised an invisible curtain between them and the Prophet, and placed coverings on their hearts preventing them from understanding it. Their ears were in a state similar to deafness, which meant that they could not understand its message.
When you read the Qur’ān, We place an invisible barrier between you and those who do not believe in the life to come. We cast a veil over their hearts which makes them unable to grasp its meaning, and their ears We make deaf. And so, when you mention your Lord in the Qur’ān as the One and only God, they turn their backs in aversion. We are fully aware of what they are listening for when they listen to you, and what they say when they speak to each other in private. The wrongdoers say: ‘The man you follow is certainly bewitched.’ See to what they liken you. They have certainly gone astray and are unable to find a way back [to the truth]. (Verses 45-48)

One report states that the elders of the Quraysh issued a general order telling everyone not to listen to the Qur’ān when they heard it being recited by Muslims. But the Qur’ān had its attraction even to the most outspoken enemies of Islam. Protected by the cover of darkness, three of those elders, Abū Jahl, Abū Sufyān and al-Akhnas ibn Sharīq sat just outside the Prophet’s house, listening to the Qur’ān being recited from inside. Every one of them was on his own, thinking that no one would know about his action. As the day began to break, each took his way home, so that no one would find out. Soon, the three of them met. There was only one reason for their presence there at that particular time. Therefore they counselled each other against such action: “Should some of your followers see you,” one of them said, “you would stir doubts in their minds.”

The following night they did the same, and once again they met at the break of day. Again they counselled each other against their ‘irresponsible’ action. Nevertheless, the third night each of them went to sit outside the Prophet’s home and listen to the Qur’ān. When they met in the morning, they were ashamed of themselves. One suggested that they should each give their word of honour not to return. This they did before going home.
Later that morning al-Akhnas ibn Sharīq went to see Abū Sufyān at his home. He asked him what he thought about what he had heard Muĥammad reciting. Abū Sufyān said: “I heard things which I know and recognize to be true, but I also heard things whose nature I cannot understand.” Al-Akhnas said that he felt the same. He then left and went to Abū Jahl’s home to put the same question to him. Abū Jahl’s answer was totally different. For once, he was candid and honest with himself and his interlocutor: “I will tell you about what I heard! We have competed with the clan of `Abd Manāf for honours: they fed the poor, and we did the same; they provided generous support to those who needed it and we did the same. When we were together on the same level, like two racehorses running neck and neck, they said that one of their number was a Prophet receiving revelations from on high! When can we attain such an honour? By God, we shall never believe in him.”
It is abundantly clear then that these three elders were touched by the Qur’ān, their souls attracted to its message, but they deliberately sealed their hearts to it. As a result, God placed between them and His Messenger a secret seal that could not be seen with the human eye, yet it is felt by the heart. Its effect was to ensure that they would not benefit by the presence of God’s Messenger among them and would not be guided by the Qur’ān he recited. Thus, they would speak to each other about the beauty and the truth of the Qur’ān but would pledge not to listen to it again. They might feel its power again and go out to listen to it anew, but they would remain determined to oppose it, and pledge a word of honour to stop listening to the Qur’ān and its message that addresses both mind and heart. They felt that the message of God’s oneness, which is the central message of the Qur’ān, threatened their interests, privileges and pride: “And so, when you mention your Lord in the Qur’ān as the One and only God, they turn their backs in aversion.” (Verse 46)
They were averse to the very principle of God’s oneness because they felt that it threatened their social position based on the myths that prevailed in those dark ages. In fact, the elders of the Quraysh were too intelligent not to realize the hollow nature of their beliefs as compared with the profound faith of Islam. They could easily appreciate the superb nature of the Qur’ān. Indeed their very nature motivated them to listen to it, but their pride caused them to take a hostile attitude to it. Thus they even fabricated allegations against the Prophet to justify their opposition: “The wrongdoers say: ‘The man you follow is certainly bewitched.” (Verse 47)
Their very words carried an implicit recognition of the nature of the Qur’ān. They realized deep inside that the Qur’ān was far too superior to be the word of a human being. They felt that its superiority transcended the realm of human beings. They also felt that it penetrated their own feelings. Hence, they alleged that it was the word of a sorcerer. Thus they claimed that Muĥammad was not speaking for himself, but by the power of magic. Had they been fair to him and to themselves, they would have acknowledged its divine nature. Indeed no human being and no other creature could have produced anything like the Qur’ān.
“See to what they liken you. They have certainly gone astray and are unable to find a way back [to the truth].” (Verse 48) They likened the Prophet to those who are bewitched when he was nothing like them. He was simply a Messenger chosen by God. As they made this analogy, they went astray. They could find no way ahead. They could not even justify their suspicions.