Tafsir: Surat Al-Bayyinah (v. 1-5)
The Islamic scholars generally accept that surah Al-Bayyinah was revealed in Medina after the Prophet Muhammad [saw] had founded the Islamic State, although some scholars had suggested that this surah was revealed in Makkah. While the former view appears to be stronger, the time and place of its revelation is inconclusive. One thing, though, is very clear from the context of this surah; namely, that the world at that time was in desperate need for divine revelation and guidance. As one scholar stated, “The sixth century of the Christian era, it is generally agreed, represented the darkest phase in the history of our race.”
Sixth century world, not just Arabia, was mired and drowned in disbelief, injustice, oppression and corruption. In fact, mankind had reached such low in terms of character and conduct that only a divine revelation could have elevated man from the depth of ignorance (jahiliyya). Those who followed any semblance of divine guidance, who worshipped one God (known as the hunafa), were too few and far between. They were secluded in their monasteries, minding their own affairs, and were too insignificant to impact upon society.
In the years and decades preceding the arrival of Prophet Muhammad [saw] as a Messenger of Allah, not a single nation was following the true message of Allah. People of all religions, whether pagans, Jews or Christians, were so engrossed in disbelief that only a Messenger from Allah [swt] could remedy the depth of ignorance (jahiliyya). It was at that critical juncture that Allah [swt] sent His Messenger Muhammad [saw] with the divine message, the Qur’an. The above therefore sets out the background to this surah.
[98:1] Those who disbelieve from among the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) and among Al-Mushrikun, were not going to leave (their disbelief) until there came to them clear evidence.
In this ayah, Allah [swt] is referring to the Jews, the Christians and the pagans (who worship worldly objects such as idols, fire, the sun and/or the moon), whether Arabs or non-Arabs. It is a decisive statement from Allah [swt] where He [swt] is describing the condition in which the disbelievers would have abandoned disbelief. So the disbelievers’ acceptance of divine guidance was conditional upon Allah’s revelation. It is similar to saying, for example, that a person’s recovery from illness was contingent upon his medical treatment, without which he would not survive.
Maulana Sayyid Abul ‘Ala Mawdudi said, “the word kufr (unbelief) has been used in its widest sense, which includes different forms of the unbelieving attitude… In short, there were different kinds of kufr in which the people were involved.” Thus, the term kufr, which is very relevant today, includes atheism, agnosticism, polytheism. Kufr encompasses the Jews and the Christians, who were originally the people of Tawhid, as they believed in the Oneness of Allah [swt].
The word min (from) has been used to differentiate the two types of disbelievers amongst mankind: (1) the People of the Books and (wal) (2) the pagans. Nevertheless, Allah [swt] makes a distinction between the polytheists (mushrikeen) and the People of the Books (ahl-al kitab). Allah did not call the People of the Books “mushrikeen” even though He [swt] declared that the Christians and the Jews committed shirk by declaring Isa (Jesus) [as] and ‘Uzair (Ezra) [as] respectively as Allah’s sons. Allah [swt] says,
The Jews say, “Ezra is the son of Allah”; and the Christians say, “The Messiah is the son of Allah.” That is their statement from their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved [before them]. May Allah destroy them; how are they deluded? [TMQ 9:30]
In the first ayah, Allah [swt] says that kufr (disbelief) was not going to be eradicated until there came to them the Bayyinah. But, what is the Bayyinah? Allah [swt] clarified this term in the next ayah.
[98:2] A Messenger (Muhammad) from Allah, reciting purified pages (the Qur’an).
The Bayyinah, which means the ‘clear evidence’, is the arrival of Prophet Muhammad [saw] as the Messenger of God with the pure and unmodified divine book, the Qur’an; a book that is unrivalled in its integrity and authenticity. The term suhuf linguistically means “written pages”; however, in the Qur’an suhuf has been used to mean divine books revealed by Allah to His prophets which were free from error.
The Qur’an is pure because it was revealed through the heavenly Messenger, Jibreel [as] upon Prophet Muhammad [saw], the earthly Messenger, both of whom have been proven to be beyond error in preserving the Qur’an. Furthermore, the Prophet Muhammad [saw] was himself the clear evidence because of the miraculous nature of the revelation of the Qur’an upon him, i.e. an illiterate man upon whom Allah [swt] revealed His final divine message.
In this ayah, Allah [swt] is saying that it would not have been possible for them to turn away from kufr until the Bayyinah came to them. This does not mean that after the Bayyinah came, there would be no more kufr; rather, it means that without the Bayyinah being sent, there was no prospect for the disbelievers to forsake kufr. Furthermore, after the advent of the Bayyinah, if the disbelievers did not accept Islam as the true path, then they could not blame Allah [swt] for their disbelief and the subsequent accountability on the Day of Reckoning. Allah [swt] is fair and just and anybody who rejects the Qur’an will face the wrath of Allah [swt] on the Day of Judgment because the clear evidence has been shown to mankind. In reality, most of mankind did not accept the word of Allah [swt].
[98:3] Containing correct and straight laws from Allah.
In the previous ayah, Allah [swt] stated that the Qur’an contained purified pages (suhuf) whereas in this ayah He [swt] said it contained kutubun qayyimah. Imam Ibn Jarir said about this ayah that the Qur’an from Allah [swt] is “upright, just and straight” (qayyimah). This is a book without any mistakes because it originated from the Creator. This statement of Ibn Jarir is similar to the second ayah in surah Baqarah where Allah [swt] declared the flawlessness of His Qur’an. Allah [swt] said,
This is the Book (the Qur’an), whereof there is no doubt, a guidance to those who are Al-Muttaqun (the pious and righteous persons). [TMQ 2:2]
The laws from the Qur’an are “correct and straight” because they agree with our human organic needs and instincts and enable us to organise life in a harmonious and tranquil manner. Society becomes harmonious and stable where the laws of Allah [swt] prevail.
[98:4] And the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) differed not until after there came to them clear evidence (i.e. Prophet Muhammad and whatever was revealed to him).
The theme changes slightly in ayat 4,5. In this ayah Allah [swt] is referring to the disunity and division, which occurred amongst the Jews and the Christians even though the clear evidence was shown to them. Their division, enmity, conflict and disunity did not occur due to confusion, ignorance or lack of divine guidance. Rather, the earlier nations became divided in spite of receiving divine revelation.
Imam Syed Qutb states, “All these disputes among the people of earlier revelations took place after ‘clear evidence of the truth had been given to them’. They were not lacking in knowledge and proof, but they were blindly driven by their desires into deviation.”
The Jews initially divided into five main sects, namely, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Asians, the Extremists and the Samaritans, even though Musa [as] was their prophet and the Torah was their book. When Isa [as] was sent to the Jews to reaffirm what was revealed in the Torah, the Jews reacted violently towards the followers of Isa [as].
In fact, there are countless examples of conflicts between the Jews and the Christians which lasted into the 20th century. The British and the French have fought for centuries over religious differences between the Catholics and the Protestants. Furthermore, the historic bloodshed amongst the Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians in Europe is an example of division. We have witnessed two world wars which had some religious links. It is possible that the seeds of anti-Semitism in Christian Europe had its origins in the historic conflicts between these two religious groups.
Furthermore, Imam Suyuti looked at this ayah from another angle. He said in his tafsir regarding this ayah,
“And those who were given the Scripture did not become divided, regarding belief in him [the Prophet] (saw), except after the clear proof had come to them, namely, the Prophet (saw) — or the Qur’an which he brought as his miracle. Before his (saw) arrival they had all agreed to believe in him when he would come; then those who disbelieved in him from among them became envious of him.”
Imam Suyuti is suggesting that this ayah refers to the Jews in Medina who differed amongst themselves regarding Prophet Muhammad [saw]. If we examine the reaction of the Jews in Medina, even though the Jews knew that Prophet Muhammad [saw] was indeed the Messenger of Allah, they refused to follow him because he [saw] was an Arab and not from amongst the Jews. They intentionally refused to recognise his Prophethood, although some individual Jews did accept Islam.
When people pursue their self interest or factional interest, then disunity is natural. Prophet Muhammad [saw] warned the Muslims of the dangers of disunity. In a famous hadith, it is narrated that he [saw] said, “Verily the Jews differed until they were seventy-one sects. And verily the Christians differed until they were seventy-two sects. And this ummah will divide into seventy-three sects, and all of them will be in the fire except one.” The companions of Prophet Muhammad [saw] asked, “Who are they, O Messenger of Allah?”. Prophet Muhammad [saw] responded, “(Those who are upon) what I and my companions are upon”. The Muslims must not fall into the same trap of disunity, which must be avoided. Allah [swt] has ordered the ummah to remain united at all times. Allah [swt] says,
And hold fast, all of you together, to the Rope of Allah (i.e. this Qur’an), and be not divided among yourselves. [TMQ 3:103]
[98:5] And they were commanded not, but that they should worship Allah, and worship none but Him Alone, and perform As-Salat and give Zakat: and that is the right religion.
Ever since the creation of Adam [as], Allah [swt] has ordered mankind to worship Him alone and not to ascribe any partners or affiliates with Him. The word “hunafa” means worshiping Allah alone and avoiding shirk and being committed to Tawhid. Hunafa is connected with the word hanifan, which means worshipping the Creator who created everything and who controls and sustains the created things. Allah [swt] says in another ayah,
Verily, I have turned my face towards Him Who has created the heavens and the earth Hanifa (i.e. worshipping none but Allah Alone) and I am not of Al-Mushrikun. [TMQ 6:79]
Imam Suyuti says in his tafsir of the fifth ayah (referring to the Jews and the Christians), “And they were only commanded, in their Scripture, the Torah and the Gospel, to worship God, devoting religion purely to Him”.
In this ayah, Allah [swt] says, “and perform As-Salat and give Zakat: and that is the right religion”. He [swt] orders us to perform salah and give zakah. Imam Ibn Kathir states that salah is the “best form of physical worship”. Therefore, the importance of salah should never be taken lightly.
Similarly, Allah [swt] orders the believers in surah Ibrahim,
Say (O Muhammad) to ‘Ibadi (My slaves) who have believed, that they should perform As-Salat (Iqamat-as-Salat), and spend in charity out of the sustenance We have given them, secretly and openly, before the coming of a Day on which there will be neither mutual bargaining nor befriending. [TMQ 14:31]
Allah [swt] then ends this fifth ayah by the words, “that is the right religion”. This means that Islam is “an upright and just religion” free from doubt, contradiction and anomaly.
When mankind follow the rules of Islam, the human disposition feels at ease and tranquillity is attained. The shahadah is firmly established in the heart and its physical manifestation occurs through salah and giving of regular charity such as zakah. He who follows these injunctions has performed his basic requirements of the deen.
Lessons for the ummah
Although the above ayat refer to the Jews and the Christians, the lessons are actually for the Muslims. Allah [swt] is warning the Muslims not to fall into the same traps of disunity, denial of the truth and rejection. In the first ayah, Allah [swt] said that without the Bayyinah there was no prospect for the people of the books and the pagans from being guided. The same situation would apply today as well. The ummah and mankind at large cannot be guided without the same Book of Allah [swt]. The ummah must adopt the Qur’an if we are to be guided again.
Furthermore, the socio-politico-economic conditions of the sixth century world, and certainly of the pre-Islamic Arabs, is analogous to the reality of the 21st century in many respects. We are witnessing unprecedented enmity and aggression towards Islam, the only remaining divine religion, from those who wish to perpetuate kufr and keep Allah’s religion at bay.
Moreover, the world has witnessed the great recession of the 21st century, which highlights the depth of corruption and injustice in the world. This recession was caused by the greed and corruption of Western bankers. Capitalism has caused catastrophic economic turmoil around the globe and the entire world will pay for the greed of a few capitalists.
In terms of oppression and injustice, it is evident that the Western colonial powers continue to oppress weaker nations and usurp their natural resources, such as in the Muslim world, by installing puppet rulers and through military force. The present human conditions around the globe only serve to remind us that only Islam can remedy the present ills of the human race and restore the equilibrium in what is otherwise a grossly imbalanced world. We thank Allah [swt] for guiding us to His deen.
Finally, the obvious lesson from the fourth ayah is that the ummah must not be disunited; rather, we must follow the same Lord and the same kitab and unite upon the Book of Allah. The issue of unity is not just an optional extra. It is an obligation from the Creator. We must not be stubborn and find excuses for not following the Qur’an just as the People of the Books had done. We must follow the haq.
By Wakil Abu Mujahid