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Why was Surah al-Qasas significant to the Prophet Muhammad's (saw) dawa in Mecca?
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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:
Surah al-Qasas signifies the proximate migration (hijra) from Mecca to Medina and tamkeen (the establishment) of a polity in accordance with the deen of Islam after a prolonged period of torture and hardship for the prophet and his companions. It follows the Prophet's (saw) dawa having spread through Arabia and the elites' enmity against his call. Quraysh understood the core of the Prophet's (saw) dawa sought to upend their people's way of life, presenting Islam as an alternative that rejected all forms of social arrangement rooted in anything other than revelation.
Background

Surah al-Qasas, unlike many other suras, has been known by one name through the period of revelation (contrary to many other surahs which were given multiple names by Allah and his messenger).

Most classical scholars agree all of its verses were revealed in Mecca, thus it is a Meccan surah. Some cite narrations that verses 52-55 and 85 were revealed en route to Medina or in Medina. (Ibn Ashur, al-Tahreer wa al-Tanweer, Vol. 20, pp. 61-63)

The verses were revealed periodically given the discourse with Quraysh and Abu Talib and the upcoming migration.

Introduction

The surah was revealed to warn Quraysh of what happened to a previous nation, at the peak of power and prosperity engaged in oppression and tyranny, who opposed their messenger who stood up for the poor and weak and what happened as a consequence.

Surah al-Qasas outlines:

  • the problem with Pharaoh's rule, injustice and tyranny;
  • the aim of sending a messenger to upturn that rule to the weak and oppressed would take power to implement God's justice and order;
  • the articulation of how this happened through the story of Musa (as), commencing with how he evaded Pharaoh's policy of killing the firstborns in his childhood, raised in Pharaoh's household, migrating to Madiyan where the Prophet Shu'ayb lived, returning with his brother Harun (as) to give dawa to Pharaoh and his elites;
  • the rejection and enmity against the messenger and his followers who suffered severe torture;
  • finally, the victory of the messenger and his followers over pharaoh, becoming leaders establishing the law of Allah.
The surah contains references, discussed in the next section, referring to the upcoming migration to Medina and establishment of the Islamic state there as well as a victory over Arabia and the enemies of the Prophet's (saw) dawa.

Significance of Prophet Musa's Story

The surah starts with describing the impact of Pharaoh's oppressive rule, discussing the miserable state of his victims, oppressed, killed and tortured.

اِنَّ فِرۡعَوۡنَ عَلَا فِى الۡاَرۡضِ وَجَعَلَ اَهۡلَهَا شِيَـعًا يَّسۡتَضۡعِفُ طَآئِفَةً مِّنۡهُمۡ يُذَبِّحُ اَبۡنَآءَهُمۡ وَيَسۡتَحۡىٖ نِسَآءَهُمۡ​ ؕ اِنَّهٗ كَانَ مِنَ الۡمُفۡسِدِيۡنَ‏

Indeed Pharaoh transgressed dividing its people into sections. One group he humiliated and slew their sons and spared their daughters. Truly he was among the coruupt.(28:4)

It then moves on to provide the solution, Allah promising they would inherit the rule of their torturers and become leaders of the region - classical mufassiroon including ibn Qatadah, Mujahid, Ibn Abu Hatim al-Razi, Baghawi, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi and others argue Allah means he will make them rulers (muluk) of Pharaoh's lands and they would call people to goodness, establishing it over their peoples. This happened historically as the Israelites ruled the region at the time of Moses (as) and over the following centuries. (Ibn Abu Hatim al-Razi, Tafseer al-Qur'an al-Adheem, Vol. 9, p. 2941, Baghawi, Ma'lim al-Tanzeel, Vol. 3, p. 522, Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb, Vol. 24, p. 579.)

وَنُرِيدُ أَنْ نَمُنَّ عَلَى الَّذِينَ اسْتُضْعِفُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَنَجْعَلَهُمْ أَئِمَّةً وَنَجْعَلَهُمُ الْوَارِثِينَ (5) وَنُمَكِّنَ لَهُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ وَنُرِيَ فِرْعَوْنَ وَهَامَانَ وَجُنُودَهُمَا مِنْهُمْ مَا كَانُوا يَحْذَرُونَ
"And We wanted to confer a favour upon those who were oppressed in the land and make them leaders and make them inheritors.
And establish them in the land and show Pharaoh and [his minister] Haman and their soldiers through them that which they had feared." (28:5-6)

The relevance of this opening was not lost on the prophet's (saw) companions, who too were being tested and suffered all kinds of hardships.

The rest of the sura then explains how this happened, in a series of events ordained by Allah.

This is consistent with Allah's divine plan (Qur'an 40:51) of giving victory to Messengers over their hostile nations:

سُنَّةَ مَن قَدْ أَرْسَلْنَا قَبْلَكَ مِن رُّسُلِنَا ۖ وَلَا تَجِدُ لِسُنَّتِنَا تَحْوِيلًا
"(That is Our) established way for those We had sent before you of Our messengers; and you will not find in Our way any alteration." (Qur'an 17:77)

At the end of the story Allah tells the Prophet (saw) of his victorious return back to Mecca after his upcoming migration:

إِنَّ الَّذِي فَرَضَ عَلَيْكَ الْقُرْآنَ لَرَادُّكَ إِلَى مَعَادٍ
"Indeed, (O Muhammad), He who imposed upon you the Qur'an will take you back to a place of return (Ma'aad)." (V. 85)

This ma'aad is understood by classical scholars
as either the Day of Judgement (paradise) and/or the return to Mecca. Most companions and later scholars argued it refers to the latter as Arabs use this word to refer to returning home after a long absence. (Wahidi, al-Waseet, Vol. 3, p. 411, Ibn Ashur, Vol. 20, pp. 192-193)

So, given the Prophet (saw) knew of the migration from the outset when Waraqah ibn Nawfal prophesied
 his people would expel him, the Prophet's dream of a land full of trees as his new city as well as his approach to other tribes seeking man'ah and nusrah
 ; we can argue this verse was revealed to reduce the grief of the Prophet (saw) when he was near to leaving Mecca and gave him good news of the soon to be established Islamic state
 .

The above provides us with some insights why Allah revealed this story with these similar details at this specific time, namely the proximate migration and tamkeen (the establishment) of the deen after a prolonged period of torture and hardship.

Several mufassiroon drew similar conclusions, Imam Qurtubi, for instance, argued this story warned Quraysh promising a similar fate if they insisted on their stubbornness and enmity against the Prophet (saw) and his followers (ra). (Qurtubi, al-Jami li Ahkam al-Qur'an, Vol. 13, p. 248)

Relevance to Discussions with Quraysh

A similar approach was followed also in dawa to Mecca that focused on the social, religious and governmental solution which is a comprehensive trajectory (deen) approached to the leaders and elites who can enforce it in the society
. But these leaders also opposed the dawa and tried fiercely to stop it, but finally, the opponents were defeated and the victory was for the true followers of Allah who were persecuted as mentioned at the beginning of the surah.

The Divine Legal Dominance:

Allah informed the Meccans that in order to get rid of that disorder and oppression, the rulings of Allah must be established in Mecca because Allah is the ultimate sovereignty and any notion could marginalise Allah from power and government must be prohibited:

وَرَبُّكَ يَخْلُقُ مَا يَشَاءُ وَيَخْتَارُ مَا كَانَ لَهُمُ الْخِيَرَةُ سُبْحَانَ اللَّهِ وَتَعَالَى عَمَّا يُشْرِكُونَ … وَهُوَ اللَّهُ لَا إِلَهَ إِلَّا هُوَ لَهُ الْحَمْدُ فِي الْأُولَى وَالْآخِرَةِ وَلَهُ الْحُكْمُ وَإِلَيْهِ تُرْجَعُونَ
"And your Lord creates what He wills and chooses; not for them was the choice. Exalted is Allah and high above what they associate with Him. …
And He is Allah; there is no deity except Him. To Him is (due to all) praise in the first (life) and the Hereafter. And His is the (final) decision, and to Him you will be returned." (V. 68-70)

Mufassiroon cite two main causes of revelation. Either because Quraysh, as ibn Abbas (ra) reported, used to manage their money and the rest of their affairs and transactions by their will, or because al-Waleed ibn al-Mughirah (and other Meccan elites) asked the Prophet (saw) to tell his God to send a leader they chose as a prophet instead. (Tabari, Vol. 19, p. 608, Matridi, Ta'weelaat Ahl al-Sunnah, Vol. 8, p. 190, al-Wahidi, Vol. 3, p. 406, al-Wahidi, Asbab al-Nuzul, p. 337)

In either way, we could understand the following:

  • People should not decide after the decision of Allah;
  • the divine rule (hukm) or sovereignty must be established.
Leaders' reaction to this Governmental Domination:

Allah (swt) documented the respond of some of Quraysh's communities and elites to the dawa of the Prophet (saw):

وَقَالُوا إِنْ نَتَّبِعِ الْهُدَى مَعَكَ نُتَخَطَّفْ مِنْ أَرْضِنَا
"And they say, If we were to follow the guidance with you, we would be swept from our land." (V. 57)

Mufassiroon cite the cause of revelation of this verse; the people of Mecca understood the main purpose of the Prophet's (saw) dawa i.e. the political domination that will establish the divine laws in societies and reject any other law or entity. It was Islam as a deen
, as opposed to the modern notion of personal faith
, a collective social mode of living, an embodied tradition. It requires power and institutions so society is organised and structured by it, living by it as a way of life - courts, masjids, treasury (bayt al-mal), governors, administration etc. One can live by aspects of Islam by oneself - a community or polity lives by it in its entirety.

These Quraysh groups, only al-Harith ibn Nawfal who embraced Islam in the fifth year of Hijrah was named, responded to the dawa of the Prophet (saw) arguing:

"We know that what you say is true, but what prevents us from following you is that Arabs would sweep us from our land as they all will collectively oppose us and we can't bear fighting back against them. " (Al-Wahidi, Asbab al-Nuzul, p. 337, Zamakhshari, al-Kashaf, Vol. 3, p. 422, Tabari, Vol. 7, p. 601)

Qatada added, they were afraid of leaving their home, probably because of migration or defeat. (Ibn Abu Hatim al-Razi, Vol. 9, p. 2995)

They feared of the Arabian enmity if they embraced the deen of Islam, but giving the principle of Religious pluralism Quraysh
and the Arabian tribes practiced (who oppose not others who sought to practice their religion as long as it pertained to the personal realm even if they are members of the tribe such as Waraqah ibn Nawfal in Mecca), why should they fear the Arabs if it was personal faith?

They understood the Prophet's (saw) dawa that seeks to upend their way of life, presenting Islam as a complete way of life that rejected all forms of social arrangement rooted in anything other than revelation. This was a profound reason for Arabs to oppose the dawa and Quraysh to fear such an opponent.

A similar notion was also narrated in the banquet, where the Prophet's clan understood the implications of such dawa. They objected to what the Prophet (saw) was calling for as impractical - all the Arabs and non-Arabs would oppose them and become enemies and they could not fight them all.

Ali's (ra) narration report the response of Abu Lahab:

"O Banu Abd al-Muttalib, by Allah, this is a dangerous matter. So prevent him before others will, and at that time you, in humility, will give him away to them (for murder) and if you protected him you would be killed... 
What if all the clans of Quraysh along with the Arabs opposed, how can you struggle with them? By Allah, we according to them are nothing but a meal." (Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil fi at-Tarikh, Vol. 2, p. 40)


This highlights the importance of dawa to elites and leaders as well as the nature of this dawa as it must be established in the society, not only a personal faith that reforming the spiritual life of the individuals.

Therefore, the Meccan elites opposed the dawa firmly, although they allowed based on their principle of religious pluralism the individuals' personal faith. Some verses could illustrate some of their means to hinder the spread of this dawa that limits and condemns their influence and activities in the society.

External scientific help :

The Meccan leaders went to the Jewish and Christian settlement outside Mecca asking them of some rhetorical questions that could embarrass the Prophet (saw) and pause his increasing influence in the hearts of people in Arabia.

Allah (swt) says:

فَلَمَّا جَاءَهُمُ الْحَقُّ مِنْ عِنْدِنَا قَالُوا لَوْلَا أُوتِيَ مِثْلَ مَا أُوتِيَ مُوسَى أَوَلَمْ يَكْفُرُوا بِمَا أُوتِيَ مُوسَى مِنْ قَبْلُ قَالُوا سِحْرَانِ تَظَاهَرَا وَقَالُوا إِنَّا بِكُلٍّ كَافِرُونَ
"But when the truth came to them from Us, they said, "Why was he not given like that which was given to Moses?" Did they not disbelieve in that which was given to Moses before? They said: (They are but) two works of magic supporting each other, and indeed we are, in both, disbelievers." (V. 48)

The mufassiroon, such as Ibn Abbas, Mujahid, Jurayj, Tabari, Razi and others, reported Quraysh went to the Jews asking them about difficult questions and arguments to defeat the Prophet (saw). The Jews initially told Quraysh to ask him why he did not bring identical miracles to Musa (as). (Tabari, Jami al-Bayaan, Vol. 19, pp. 588-590, Razi, Vol. 24, pp. 606-607)

This illustrates the fact the Prophet's (saw) dawa spread through Arabia with many individuals accepting Islam in Mecca forced the elites to find arguments to publicly defeat the Prophet (saw).

Oppose any international delegation:

Allah (saw) said regarding a group of people who accepted Islam:

وَإِذَا يُتْلَى عَلَيْهِمْ قَالُوا آمَنَّا بِهِ إِنَّهُ الْحَقُّ مِنْ رَبِّنَا إِنَّا كُنَّا مِنْ قَبْلِهِ مُسْلِمِينَ 
"And when it is recited to them, they say: We have believed in it; indeed, it is the truth from our Lord. Indeed, we were, (even) before it, Muslims (submitting to Allah)." (V. 53)

The tafaseer books cite two main causes of revelation for this verse. Mujahid reported it was revealed when a group of polytheists, probably outside Mecca, accepted Islam and their people tortured them to abandon Islam, but they repeated the above verse. (Tabari, Vol. 19, p. 596) But this is unlikely, as the verse concluded they were Muslims (following an uncorrupted faith of previous prophets), not polytheists.

Others report it was revealed in Medina regarding Abdullah ibn Salam, Amir, Idrees and other ex-Judeo-Christian Muslims, (Qurtubi, Vol. 13, pp. 296-297) but this is also improbable as it was revealed in Mecca and these people accepted Islam after migration to Medina. (Ibn Ashur, Vol. 20, p. 143)

The other cause of revelation said they were a monotheistic Christian group from Abyssinia sent by Najashi to the Prophet (saw), accepting and believing in him. (Abu Hatim al-Razi, Tafseer, Vol. 9, p. 2992, Samarqandi, Vol. 2, pp. 612-613) When they wanted to leave Mecca, Abu Jahl and other elites followed them accusing the delegation of foolishness and ignorance. The delegation responded with wording similar in meaning to the above verse and then it was revealed. (Ibn Ashur, Vol. 20, p. 143, Qurtubi, Vol. 13, pp. 296-297, Ibn Kathir, Tafseer al-Qur'an al-Adheem, Vol. 6, p. 220)

This context illustrates how the call was spreading outside of Mecca and the Quraysh's anger and inability to address it.

They later even tried to oppose the dawa military by killing the Prophet (saw), but they could not because he already migrated and established the Islamic state with his tortured follower who later defeated Quraysh and returned to Mecca after the first expel.

Conclusion

Surah al-Qasas illustrates:

  • when oppression appears, Allah sends messengers to oppose it and bring society back to justice
  • the fact the Prophet's (saw) dawa spread through Arabia and the elites enmity against Prophet's (saw) dawa was no new thing, a recurring pattern with previous messengers;
  • the victory of Islam with the upcoming migration and establishment (tamkeen) of the deen of Islam after a prolonged period of torture and hardship;
  • the importance of the dawa to elites and leaders of the society and 
  • the divine rule of Allah must be established in society to ensure harmony and balance.

References

Ibn Ashur, al-Tahreer wa al-Tanweer
Ibn Abu Hatim al-Razi, Tafseer al-Qur'an al-Adheem
Baghawi, Ma'lim al-Tanzeel
Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb
Wahidi, al-Waseet
Samarqandi, Bahr al-Ulum
Makki Ibn Abi Talib, al-Hidayah
Qurtubi, al-Jami li Ahkam al-Qur'an
Abu Zahrah, Zahrat al-Tafaseer
Tabari, Jami al-Bayaan
Ibn Kathir, Tafseer al-Qur'an al-Adheem
Al-Wahidi, Asbab al-Nuzul
Zamakhshari, al-Kashaf
Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil fi at-Tarikh
Matridi, Ta'weelaat Ahl al-Sunnah

 



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