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

Tafsir Zone

Surah Al-Isra 17:5

Overview (Verses 5 - 8)

Same Action, Same Penalty

In the book He gave to Moses, the Torah, God warned the Children of Israel that they would spread corruption on earth twice and that they would gain power and be the masters in the Holy Land. Every time they held power and used it corruptly or spread corruption, God sent some of His servants against them who overpowered and destroyed them, abusing their rights: “When the prediction of the first of these came true, We sent against you some of Our servants of great might who wrought havoc throughout the land. Thus [Our] warning came to be fulfilled.” (Verse 5)

This was the first time: they gained power in the Holy Land and they established their strong state. But then they resorted to tyranny and corruption. As a result, God brought them face to face with some of His servants who combined great might with strong determination. They overran those who had erred and spread corruption, completely subjugating them. Thus the warning came to pass, as is always the case with God’s promises.
After the Children of Israel were vanquished and suffered humiliation, they turned back to their Lord, mended their ways and applied the lessons they had learnt. In the meantime, their conquerors were blinded by victory and travelled along the same road of tyranny and corruption. As a result, the tables were turned. The vanquished were victorious again: “Then We let you prevail against them once more, and We gave you wealth and offspring, and made you more numerous than ever.” (Verse 6) History thus repeated itself.
Before the sūrah continues its account of the true prophesy and warning, it states a basic rule of action and reward: “If you do good, you will be but doing good to yourselves; and if you do evil, it will be also against yourselves.” (Verse 7) This is a never changing rule with effects that transcend this life into the next. It makes everything a human being does, with all its results and consequences, totally his own. Thus, reward is the natural fruit of action. Hence it is determined by the nature of the action done. This is to say that a human being is responsible for himself. It is he who chooses to do good or evil, and he alone who will receive the reward or bear the consequences of what he does. He has only himself to blame when the result of his action leads him to suffer punishment.
Having established the rule, the sūrah goes on to complete the telling of true prophesy: “When the second prediction came true, [We allowed your enemies] to disgrace you utterly, and to enter the Mosque just like [their predecessors] had entered it the first time, and to visit with destruction all that fell into their power.” (Verse 7)
The sūrah does not include in its text any account of how the Israelites spread corruption again after they regained power. Its mention of the first occasion is sufficient: “Twice will you spread corruption on earth.” (Verse 4) But it tells us of what God inflicted on them the second time: “When the second prediction came true, [We allowed your enemies] to disgrace you utterly.” (Verse 7) This is a vivid description of the widespread destruction that causes acute humiliation, visible even on their faces. Or the disgrace was physically painted on their faces, coupled with what they felt when they saw their sanctities desecrated. And they “enter[ed] the Mosque just like [their predecessors] had entered it the first time.” (Verse 7) They wrought total destruction, leaving nothing in place.
The warning was fulfilled. God sent enemies against the Jews who overpowered them, destroyed their kingdom and left them in their great diaspora. The Qur’ān does not specify the nationality of those God sent against the Jews, because such information adds nothing to the lesson to be drawn, or to the effect of the law God has made applicable to all communities.
The sūrah comments on this true warning and prophesy by saying that this destruction may be a way leading to God’s mercy if the right lesson is drawn and acted upon: “It may be that your Lord will have mercy on you.” (Verse 8) But if the Jews revert to spreading corruption on earth, then the law will inevitably operate and the punishment will again be inflicted: “But if you revert [to your old ways], We shall revert [to punishing you].” (Verse 8) They certainly did revert to their corrupt ways and God sent the Muslims against them who drove them out of Arabia. They did this again with the same results, until He caused them to be humiliated during the twentieth century. We see now how they have again reverted to tyranny and corruption in the state of Israel which uses very cruel tactics against the Arabs, the owners of the land. God is certain to send His servants against them who will make them suffer much for their corruption in fulfilment of His firm warning and in accordance with His law which never fails. We need only wait and see this take place.
The sūrah concludes this episode by defining the destiny the unbelievers will suffer in the hereafter. It is the same destiny as will be suffered by those who spread corruption: “Indeed We have made hell a place of confinement for the unbelievers.” (Verse 8) They will be surrounded, unable to escape. Furthermore, it is large enough to contain them all.