Tafsir Zone - Surah 4: an-Nisa' (Women )

Tafsir Zone

Surah an-Nisa' 4:59

Overview (Verse 59)

An Accurate Standard for the Human Mind
It is imperative that a proper standard should be available for all these minds to refer to in order to establish right and wrong in their evaluation and judgement of different issues. The human mind is the one tool available to man in order to determine the accuracy and fairness of his judgements, for this standard does not bend in order to please or appease anyone. The standards people produce for themselves cannot be placed on the same level, because these may be faulty or defective, leading to an imbalance that affects all values. The only way to avoid such imbalance is to refer to the ever-accurate standard God has established for human life in order to maintain honesty and justice, and to establish all proper values and rulings in all spheres of human activity: “Believers, obey God and obey the Messenger and those from among you who have been entrusted with authority. If you are in dispute over anything, refer it to God and the Messenger, if you truly believe in God and the Last Day. This is the best [for you], and most suitable for final determination.” (Verse 59)
In this short statement, God explains the conditions for being a believer and the boundaries of Islam. At the same time, He outlines the underlying rule of the constitution of the Muslim community, the basis of all judgement and the source of all authority. All these begin and end with receiving guidance from God alone, and, where there is no clear statement, to refer to Him in any detail that may arise in human life over which people may differ.
Sovereignty belongs to God alone in all human life and all its affairs, large and small. God has enacted a constitution and a law which He has embodied in His revealed Book, the Qur’ān, and sent His Messenger to explain it to people. God’s Messenger “does not speak out of his own desire: that [which he conveys to you] is but a [Divine] inspiration which he receives.” (53: 3-4) Hence, the Prophet’s sunnah is part of God’s law.
To obey God is obligatory. One of the essential elements of Godhead is that God enacts the law; implementation of this is, thus, obligatory. Believers are required to obey God, to start with, and to obey His Messenger, since it is God that has sent him with His message. Thus, obedience to the Prophet is part of obeying God Himself. Moreover, the Prophet’s sunnah and his judgement are part of the Divine law that must be implemented. Whether a person is a believer or not is conditional on such obedience and implementation. As the Qur’ān specifies: “If you are in dispute over anything, refer it to God and the Messenger, if you truly believe in God and the Last Day.” (Verse 59)
The verse that gives the order to obey God and His Messenger also orders that those “entrusted with authority” must also be obeyed. However, these are clearly defined as the ones “from among you,” i.e. from among the believers who meet the condition of faith and keep within the boundaries of Islam. This requires them to obey God and His Messenger, accept sovereignty as belonging to God alone and implement only His guidance. The text, as it is phrased, makes obedience to both God and the Messenger a basic, unquestionable duty. Obedience to people entrusted with authority comes as a corollary of such obedience to God and His Messenger. Obeying them applies to that which is known of God’s law, that which is not covered by a statement of prohibition and that which is not subject to prohibition when referred to God’s law. The sunnah makes the extent of such obedience to those people who are “entrusted with authority” very clear: The Prophet says: “Obedience applies in what is reasonably equitable.” (Related by al-Bukhārī and Muslim.) Both al- Bukhārī and Muslim also relate: “A Muslim is required to listen and obey, when he likes or dislikes, unless he is ordered to commit what is forbidden. Should he be so ordered, then he must neither listen nor obey.” (Related by al-Bukhārī and Muslim.) In an authentic ĥadīth related by Muslim, the Prophet is quoted as saying: “When you are ruled by a slave who implements God’s Book, listen to him and obey.”
Thus Islam makes every individual in a position of trust with regard to God’s law and the Prophet’s sunnah. That trust covers his own faith, body, soul and destiny in this life and in the life to come. No individual, man or woman, is a sheep in the flock, one in the crowd, obeying orders from here or there. The law and constitution are abundantly clear, and the limits of obedience are also clear. The law and the sunnah to be obeyed are the same, thus giving rise to neither division nor confusion.
- Such obedience to people entrusted with authority applies when we have definitive statements in the Qur’ān or the ĥadīth. Where no such definitive statement exists, and when we have something new arising as a result of new circumstances, and over which people may have differences of understanding and viewpoints — such matters have not been left hanging in the air, without the possibility of deducing rulings and judgements. In a short statement, the whole basis and operation of arriving at such rulings through scholarly discretion is laid down: “If you are in dispute over anything, refer it-to God and the Messenger.” (Verse 59)
What this means is that in such matters where a ruling is needed, these should be referred to whatever implicitly applies to them of Qur’ānic and ĥadīth statements. If no such text is applicable, then they should be referred to the general principles of God’s law and constitution. These are by no means fluid, confusing or ambiguous, as some people may suggest. Indeed, this religion of ours lays down clear, basic principles covering all aspects of human life, together providing a clear boundary which cannot be breached without any living Islamic conscience recognising the breach.
If you truly believe in God and the Last Day.” (Verse 59) Thus, obeying God and His Messenger, as well as those believers entrusted with authority and trying hard to ensure the implementation of God’s law, and referring what is in dispute to God and the Messenger, are all a condition and result of believing in God and the Day of Judgement. Faith does not come into existence unless this condition is fulfilled and its result comes into effect.
Following the previous admonition to fulfil trust and maintain justice, the verse, having explained the issue in such a conditional way, now reiterates it in the form of an admonition that makes it genuinely desired: “This is the best [for you], and most suitable for final determination.” (Verse 59) It is, indeed, best for you in this life and in the life to come, and it works to your own good in the final resolve in both lives. Great as it is that following this method ensures God’s pleasure and earns His reward in the life to come, it is not the only result. Additionally, it ensures the best results for both the individual and the community in this present life.
By following this constitution man reaps the whole benefit of a code of living devised by the Almighty, the Wise whose knowledge is perfect and absolute; a code free of human ignorance, desire and weakness. It is a code of living that favours no individual, class, nation, race or generation over another, because God is the Lord of all mankind who does not entertain any prejudice or favouritism for anyone.
This code of living has numerous advantages, among which is the fact that its author is the Maker of man who knows his nature and its real needs, his inner feelings and preferences, and how he responds and reforms. God does not need to go through trials and errors in order to learn what suits mankind. Far be it from Him to have any such need. When we follow this code of living, we spare ourselves the heavy price of following alternative methods that are bound to be defective, invented as they are by people who lack solid evidence. It is sufficient for human beings to exert their inventive talents in the material world, for this offers them very wide scope. On the other hand, human intellect will have much to do in trying to implement God’s constitution, recognising the areas that allow for analogy and discretion.
Another advantage is that its author is the Creator of the universe in which man lives. Thus, He produces for man a system that remains in perfect harmony with the laws that operate in the universe. This gives man an awareness that he is not in conflict with these laws. He only needs to understand and benefit by them. The Divine constitution will guide his footsteps and provide him with protection as he does so.
A further advantage is that this Divine constitution treats man with respect and honour, allowing him scope for discretion on the basis of scholarship that understands the texts and refers what is new to such texts and the principles they lay down. Hence, following Divine guidance will always be “the best [for you], and most suitable for final determination.” (Verse 59)