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Why did Allah order the Prophet (saw) to turn away from the polytheists (mushrikeen) in year 5 of revelation?

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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in the English language. I also studied at Temple University in the US.
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In a Nutshell:
The Prophet (saw) focused his call on the elites of Quraysh, as they had the ability to reorganise society. However, they collectively rejected, mocked and tortured him. In year three Allah asked his Prophet (saw) to turn away and care not about this group of people and focus on winning over the body politic, who if they accepted his message, could force their leaders to change direction.


Background

The Prophet (saw) used to invite the leaders of Quraysh as he would focus his efforts on the tribal leaders and influentials, as society trusted them and would readily accept their consensus to adopt a new way of life.

The Message of Islam opposed the leaders' worldview and social organisation, built on their personal status, interests, desires and ancestralism, so the dawa of the Prophet (saw) was faced with repeated rejection. Therefore, they used to mock, abuse, torture and defame him.

After three years of this stubbornness, Allah ordered him:

فاصْدَعْ بِمَا تُؤْمَرُ وَأَعْرِضْ عَنِ الْمُشْرِكِينَ، إِنَّا كَفَيْنَاكَ الْمُسْتَهْزِئِينَ
"So declare what you are commanded and turn away from the polytheists. Indeed, we are sufficient for you against the mockers." (Qur'an 15:94-95)

The historian Ibn Ishaq stated:

فَلَمَّا تَمَادَوْا فِي الشَّرِّ وَأَكْثَرُوا ِبرََسُولِ اَّللهِ - صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ - الإِسْتِهْزََاءَ ، أَنْزَلَ اللُه تَعَالَى : ( فَاصْدَعْ بِمَا تُؤْمَرْ وَأَعْرِضْ عَنِ الْمُشْرِكِينَ ِإنَّا كَفَيْنَاكَ الْمُسْتَهْزِئِينَ )
"When they persisted doing evil and they increased their mockery against the Messenger of Allah (saw), Allah revealed: 'So declare what you are commanded and turn away from the polytheists. Indeed, We are sufficient for you against the mockers.'" (Ibn Kathir, Tafseer al-Qur'an al-'Adheem, Vol. 4, p. 552)


The Meaning of "Turn Away from Polytheists"

Classical commentators in dealing with this verse suggest two meanings:

  • Most of the mufasireen argue "turn away from the polytheists" means don't fight them and keep preaching your religion, but this verse was abrogated (mansukh) later by the verse allowing fighting (Tabari, Vol. 17, p. 153);
  • Other groups of mufasireen argue "turn away from the polytheists" means don't care about them anymore and don't give them any further weight.

The eight-century Iranian mufasir Abu Jafar al-Khazin narrates this position:

أَكْثَر المُفَسِرِينَ عَلَى أَنّ هَذَا الإِعْرَاضْ مَنْسُوخٌ بِآَيَةَ القِتَالِ. وقَالَ بَعْضُهُمْ: مَا لَلنَسْخِ وَجْهٌ لأنّ مَعْنَى الإِعْرَاضِ تَرْكِ المُبَالَاةِ بِهِمْ، والاِلتِفَاتِ إليْهِم، فَلَا يَكُونُ مَنْسُوخًا
"Most of the commentators argue the state of 'turning away' was abrogated with the verse (allowing) fighting.
Others argue the abrogation (here) is unjustified because the meaning of 'turning away is' to stop caring about or looking for them, so it is not Mansukh." (al-Khazin, Lubab at-Ta'weel fi Ma'ani at-Tanzeel, Vol. 3, p. 64)

The same two meanings are repeated by most of the commentators, see Marudi, anNukat wa al-'Uyun, Vol. 3, p. 174, 175.

The second meaning was supported by Qurtubi who said:

وَأَعْرِضْ عَنْ المُشْرِكِينَ، لَا تُبَالِ بِهِم
"Turn away from the polytheists (means) don't care about them." (Qurtubi, al-Jami' Li-Ahkam al-Qur'an, Vol. 10, p. 57)

The same view was adhered by the fifth-century mufasir al-Wahidi (at-Tafseer al-Waseet Vol. 3, p. 53)

The first meaning was also considered da'eef (weak) by Imam Razi who argued:

قَالَ بَعْضُهُمْ: هَذَا مَنْسُوخٌ بِآيَةِ الْقِتَالِ وَهُوَ ضَعِيفٌ، لِأَنَّ مَعْنَى هَذَا الْإِعْرَاضِ تَرْكُ الْمُبَالَاةِ بِهِمْ فَلَا يَكُونُ مَنْسُوخًا
"Some of them said: This (verse) is abrogated with the (verse) of fighting, but it is weak because the meaning of this turning away is to stop caring about them, so it is not abrogated." (Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb, Vol. 19, p. 165)

In addition, the verse also orders the Prophet (saw) with two things: declaration of Islam to non-Muslims around him who are polytheists and turning away from the polytheists. So there must be two groups: The first one, whom the Prophet (saw) has to declare Islam to; the second he (saw) has to turn away from. So, the verse does not mean stop calling the polytheists because it contains an order of calling. It means don't care about a certain group who were named as the mockers in the next verse and Allah would protect him against them. (Ibn 'Ashur, at-Tahrir wa at-Tanwir, Vol. 14, p. 88) Thus the Prophet (saw) used to call certain people and now he should focus his dawa on others.

Given the verse's context, Allah promised the Prophet (saw) He would be "sufficient for you against the mockers." So, these mockers must be the people whom the Prophet (saw) used to call for the past three years. The commentators disagree on the precise number and names of the mockers and opponents of the Prophet (saw), but they do agree they were the leaders and elites of Quraysh.

For example, Qadi Abd al-Jabar noted:

ُوكانت قُرَيْشَ والعَربَ قَدْ تَفَرَغُوا لِمَكَارِهِهِ وتَرَكُوا كُلّ شُغْلٍ ... فَكَانَتْ خَمْسَةٌ مِنْ مَشْيّخَةِ قريشٍ قد تَفَرَغُوا للاسْتِهْزَاءِ والمَنْعِ في المَوَاسِمِ والمَحَافِلِ من أن يُسْتَمَعَ مِنْه
"Quraysh and the Arabs dedicated themselves only to abuse him and left all the other works. Five Quraysh leaders encouraged mockery and preventing the rituals (of hajj) and conference (of trade) to listen to him." (Qadi Abd al-Jabar, Tathbeet Dala'il an-Nubuwah, Vol. 2, p. 344)

For their names ibn Abbas argued they were five:

  • Al-Waleed ibn al-Mughirah;
  • Al-Ass ibn Wa'il;
  • Addi ibn Qays;
  • Al-Aswad ibn al-Muttalib;
  • Al-Aswad ibn Abd Yaghuth. (Wahidi, al-Wajeez, p. 598)

Other scholars and historians added:

  • Al-Harith ibn Tulatilah;
  • Al-Harith ibn Ghayttalah;
  • Al-Aswad ibn Abd al-Uzza;
  • Abu Lahab;
  • Abu Jahl (Amr ibn Hisham);
  • Utbah ibn ar-Rabi'ah;
  • Shaybah ibn ar-Rabi'ah;
  • Al-Waleed ibn Utbah;
  • Uqbah ibn Abi Ma'itt;
  • Ammar ibn al-Walled.

See: (Sama'ani, Tafseer al-Qur'an, Vol. 3, p. 154, Ibn Atiyah, al-Muharar al-Wajeez, Vol. 3, p. 375, Ibn Muqatil, Tafseer ibn Muqatil, Vol. 2, p. 438-439, Tabari, Jami' al-Bayan, Vol. 17, pp. 155-156; Ibn Kathir, al-Qur'an al-Adheem, Vol. 4, p. 552-555)

All of these people were leaders and all of them died as unbelievers whether immediately after the verse was revealed or later in the battle against Muslims.

Imam Razi argued all of them were the people of shawkah (power) and authority. He stated:

وَاعْلَمْ أَنَّ الْمُفَسِّرِينَ قَدِ اخْتَلَفُوا فِي عَدَدِ هَؤُلَاءِ الْمُسْتَهْزِئِينَ وَفِي أَسْمَائِهِمْ وَفِي كَيْفِيَّةِ طَرِيقِ اسْتِهْزَائِهِمْ، وَلَا حَاجَةَ إِلَى شَيْءٍ مِنْهَا، وَالْقَدْرُ الْمَعْلُومُ أَنَّهُمْ طَبَقَةٌ لَهُمْ قُوَّةُ وَشَوْكَةٌ وَرِئَاسَةٌ.
"Know that mufasireen disagree on the number and names of these mockers and how they used to mock the Prophet, there is no need for any of these details. The known part is they were a class possessing the shawkah (power) and authority." (Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb, Vol. 19, p. 165)

The same notion of the leadership of these mockers was argued by Ibn Kathir who said:

كَانُوا ذَوِي أَسْنَانٍ وَشَرَفٍ فِي قَوْمِهِم
"They were people of power and majesty among their people." (Ibn Kathir, Tafseer al-Qur'an al-Adheem, Vol. 4, p. 552)

It was also expressed implicitly by Tabari who said:

َوكَانَ رُؤَسَاءِ المُسْتَهْزِئِينَ قَومًا مِنْ قُرَيْشٍ مَعْرُوفِين
"The main mockers are a group of known people in Quraysh." (Tabari, Jami' al-Bayan, Vol. 17, p. 153)

In addition, given the historical context and the Prophet's focus on calling the leaders and people of power (shawkah) and protection (man'ah), this verse was revealed to initiate a new stage of dawa; i.e. declaring the Massage to their followers and separating the followers from the elites to gain the body politic and their public opinion (the actual body or substance of the political community) in the case if they collectively agree with what he brings.

At this point, the leaders would have no power as their power rests in their followers and so leaders would be forced to accept the new trajectory.

Conclusion

The Prophet (saw) used to focus on leaders and elites of Quraysh who could easily reorient their followers and reorganise society according to an Islamic trajectory.

However, they rejected, mocked and tortured him. Allah revealed to his Prophet (saw) to turn away and care not about this group of people, and focus on their followers, i.e., their body politic who in turn could change their leaders if persuaded.

References

Ibn Kathir, Tafseer al-Qur'an al-'Adheem;
Tabari, Jami' al-Bayan fi Ta'weel al-Qur'an;
Marudi, anNukat wa al-'Uyun;
al-Khazin, Lubab at-Ta'weel fi Ma'ani at-Tanzeel;
Qurttubi, al-Jami' Li-Ahkam al-Qur'an;
Al-Wahidi, at-Tafseer al-Waseet;
Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb;
Ibn 'Ashur, at-Tahrir wa at-Tanwir;
Sama'ani, Tafseer al-Qur'an;
Ibn Atiyah, al-Muharar al-Wajeez;
Ibn Muqatil, Tafseer ibn Muqatil;
Qadi Abd al-Jabar, Tathbeet Dala'il an-Nubuwah;


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