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

Tafsir Zone

Surah an-Nisa' 4:97

Overview (Verses 97 - 99)

Misguided or Oppressed?
The sūrah then examines the case of those who remain passive, staying in the land of unfaith instead of migrating to the land of Islam. Their motives for so staying behind are to look after their property and interests, or an inherent weakness which makes them unwilling to undertake the arduous task of migration. Had they been willing to sacrifice, they would have been able to migrate, but they stay put until the angels are instructed to gather them in death. They are portrayed here in a derogatory way, which should have been enough to motivate any one of them to flee from the land of evil to join the ranks of the believers.
To those whom the angels gather in death while they are still wronging themselves, the angels will say: “What were you doing?” They will answer: “We were oppressed on earth.” (The angels) will say: “Was not God’s earth so spacious that you might have migrated to settle elsewhere?” Such will have their abode in Hell, a certainly evil end. Excepted are the men, women, and children who, being truly helpless, can devise nothing and can find no way. These God may well pardon, then, for God is indeed most Lenient, Much-Forgiving. (Verses 97-99)
These verses are speaking of a real situation that existed in Makkah and elsewhere in the Arabian peninsula after the Prophet’s migration and the establishment of the Islamic state. There were still some Muslims who stayed behind, unwilling to sacrifice their property and interests because the unbelievers did not allow those who migrated to take any possessions with them. Some of them might have feared the consequences of migration, because the unbelievers were ever watchful, trying to turn hack any Muslim who sought to leave for Madinah. Some, however, were too weak to migrate. Among them were the elderly, women, and children who could not find a way of escape.
Unable to seize the Prophet and his Companions when they migrated to Madinah and unable to prevent the establishment of the Muslim state, the unbelievers turned the screw on those Muslims who stayed behind, especially when the new Muslim state began to intercept the Quraysh’s trade caravans. When the Muslims were able to score their resounding victory at Badr, the unbelievers in Makkah escalated their torture of those Muslims who were left behind, trying to force them to return to idol worship. Some of them succumbed to the pressure, feeling compelled to at least pretend that they were no longer Muslims and taking part with the unbelievers in their idolatrous practices. This facade of having rejected Islam was permitted them when they had no state to which they could migrate. However, after the establishment of that state, such pretence was no longer acceptable and especially when the means to migrate were available. Migration enabled them to declare that they were Muslims and to live according to the principles of faith.
These verses were revealed to address that particular case. They describe the people unwilling to migrate for one of the above reasons as “wronging themselves”. They have indeed done themselves a great wrong by depriving themselves of the opportunity to live in the land of Islam where they could enjoy a clean, healthy, blessed life, free from all pressures. Instead, they chose to live in weakness and to suffer persecution. Moreover, these verses warn them that their abode will be Hell, and describe it as “a certainly evil end”. This suggests that this particular statement refers to those who actually turned back from Islam in Makkah.

The Qur’ān is dealing here with human beings in whom it attempts to arouse the elements of goodness, courage, and dignity, and to eradicate the elements of weakness, miserliness and humility. It, therefore, gives us this portrait delineating a true situation. It makes use, however, of that true situation to treat human weaknesses. The scene of approaching death is one that sends a shiver into a man’s heart. Portraying the angels in the way in which the Qur’ān does makes it more vivid, and heightens our fear. Those people have wronged themselves, and the angels have arrived to gather them in that condition. This, again, makes one’s heart shudder. It is sufficient for anyone to imagine himself with the angels terminating his life while he is wronging himself. He has no other chance to redeem himself.
The angels, however, do not keep quiet as they cause these people to die. They review their past history and find a great deal wanting therein. Therefore, they ask them what they were preoccupied with during their days and nights. Their preoccupation has, after all, meant their utter loss. At the moment of death, they provide a humiliating reply, thinking this sufficient justification for their cowardice: “We were oppressed on earth.” We were humiliated by the people in power and we were unable to do anything about our situation.
Despite all the self-degradation inherent in this reply, which leads us to despise the person who takes such an attitude at the point of death, after having refused to migrate throughout his lifetime, the angels confront these people with the reality of their situation. They reproach them for not having tried when the chance was there: “Was not God’s earth so spacious that you might have migrated to settle elsewhere?” It was not helplessness that forced them to accept humility and oppression in preference to migrating to the land of Islam. There was something else, namely, their unwillingness to sacrifice their property and possessions and interests in the land of evil. Holding on to these, they remain in their homes when God’s earth is so spacious as to make migration possible if only they are willing to make the necessary sacrifice. This highly effective scene concludes with a fearful end: “Such will have their abode in Hell, a certainly evil end.” (Verse 97)
An exception is then made for those who did not have any real chance of leaving the land of evil where they were persecuted and deprived of the easy and happy life in the land of Islam. These include the elderly, women, and children who are truly helpless. To these, the prospect of God’s forgiveness and mercy is raised because their reasons are valid: “Excepted are the men, women, and children who, being truly helpless, can devise nothing and can find no way. These God may well pardon, then, for God is indeed most Lenient, Much-Forgiving.” (Verses 98-99)
This ruling remains valid until the end of time. It transcends the case of those Muslims who are subjected to pressure and persecution aimed at turning them away from their faith, and yet who stay where they are in order to look after their possessions and interests or to be with their relatives and friends or because of their unwillingness to undertake the hardships of migration. Once there is a place on earth, any place, where Islam rules and where one can feel secure declaring one’s faith and fulfilling one’s religious duties, then one must migrate in order to live under the banner of Islam and enjoy the sublime standard of life Islam affords.