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Why was Surah al-A'raaf 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:
This Meccan surah states Allah is the sole Creator of everything and the only worthy Legislator (for our social, political, economic and personal matters). He sent Messengers to govern and lead people through His law by imposing His divine trajectory on societies. This trajectory is most simply achieved through dawa to society's leaders and elites who have the power to dramatically reorganise their society with their followers most readily accepting any changes as in their best interests.
Introduction

Surah al-A'raaf, the third longest surah, unlike many other surahs, has been known by only one name throughout the period of revelation (many other surahs were given multiple names). (Ibn Ashur, al-Tahreer wa al-Tanweer, Vol. 8, pp. 5-7)

The classical scholars unanimously agreed this is a Meccan surah as narrated by ibn Abbas (saw), but it may contain some Medinan verses (such as verses 163-172) as Muqatil reported. It was considered as the 39th surah to be revealed chronologically as narrated by ibn Abbas (ra). (Ibid, Ibn Atiyah, al-Muharar al-Wajeez, Vol. 2, p. 372) 

Assumptions

In terms of dawa, one could argue the surah relies on some premises and assumptions to get the Meccans to understand:

  • There is a message from Allah that must reach people regardless of their whims or desires and the best way to establish it through the rulers and elites;
  • This message argues, giving your belief in the existence of a creator of everything around, it necessitates you believe in Him is the All-Wise, All-Knowing and the best and most worthy Legislator to our social, governmental and personal life;
  • The role of Messengers and Prophets is to call society collectively to Islam
    (as God's envoy) and when they accept, to govern them in entirety by revelation - its laws, principles and morality;
  • Prohibition of deviating from tawheed, making it the basis of society, not varying from that by taking any partner or associate in this matter (whether imaginary gods, legislators, or sovereigns);
  • What happened to previous nations with rebellious responses similar to that of the Quraysh elites, warning the latter with a similar fate.


Aims of the Surah

The surah summarises the aims from the outset in a very concise manner:

كِتَابٌ أُنْزِلَ إِلَيْكَ فَلَا يَكُنْ فِي صَدْرِكَ حَرَجٌ مِنْهُ لِتُنْذِرَ بِهِ وَذِكْرَى لِلْمُؤْمِنِينَ (2) اتَّبِعُوا مَا أُنْزِلَ إِلَيْكُمْ مِنْ رَبِّكُمْ وَلَا تَتَّبِعُوا مِنْ دُونِهِ أَوْلِيَاءَ قَلِيلًا مَا تَذَكَّرُونَ
"(This is) a Book revealed to you, (O Muhammad) - so let there not be in your breast distress - that you may warn thereby and be a reminder to the believers.
Follow, (O mankind), what has been revealed to you from your Lord and do not follow other than Him any allies. Little do you remember." (V. 2-4)
These verses order the Prophet (saw), and his successors after him, to convey the message. He ordered mankind to accept it as a way of life and to reject all others and not to be like previous nations who rejected the message. Imam Qurtubi commented on these verses:

وَالظَّاهِرُ أَنَّهُ أَمْرٌ لِجَمِيعِ النَّاسِ دُونَهُ. أَيِ اتَّبِعُوا مِلَّةَ الْإِسْلَامِ وَالْقُرْآنَ، وَأَحِلُّوا حَلَالَهُ وَحَرِّمُوا حَرَامَهُ، وَامْتَثِلُوا أَمْرَهُ، وَاجْتَنِبُوا نَهْيَهُ
"It is clear it is a command to all people other than him, i.e. to follow Islam and the Qur'an (by) making its halal as halal, its haram as haram, obey its commands and avoid its proscriptions." (Qurtubi, Vol. 7, p. 161)
This means to take revelation as the drivers of society's trajectory, as argued by Imams Tabari, ibn Atiyah and others. (Tabari, Vol. 12, p. 298, Ibn Atiyah, Vol. 2, p. 373)

Allah is the only Creator, Sovereign and Legislator

Allah (swt) stated that Quraysh's elites believed Allah was the Creator of the Universe, creating it for us, He was the only one deserving to be the Legislator as the only All-Knowing being who understood his creatures and what was best for them. (Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb, Vol. 14, p. 278, Qurtubi, al-Jami li Ahkam al-Qur'an, Vol. 7, p. 222)

إِنَّ رَبَّكُمُ اللَّهُ الَّذِي خَلَقَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ فِي سِتَّةِ أَيَّامٍ ثُمَّ اسْتَوَى عَلَى الْعَرْشِ يُغْشِي اللَّيْلَ النَّهَارَ يَطْلُبُهُ حَثِيثًا وَالشَّمْسَ وَالْقَمَرَ وَالنُّجُومَ مُسَخَّرَاتٍ بِأَمْرِهِ أَلَا لَهُ الْخَلْقُ وَالْأَمْرُ تَبَارَكَ اللَّهُ رَبُّ الْعَالَمِينَ
"Indeed, your Lord is Allah, who created the heavens and earth in six days and then established Himself above the Throne.
He covers the night with the day, (another night) chasing it rapidly; and (He created) the sun, the moon, and the stars, subjected by His command.
Unquestionably, His is the creation and the command (al-Amr); blessed is Allah, Lord of the worlds." (V. 54)
The verse begins with the fact that Allah created the heavens, the earth and beyond and therefore He alone is entitled to legislate and command.

In a hadith (considered as weak but supported by other shawahid evidences), the Prophet (saw) commented on this verse noting none can be a believer when he gives the sovereignty to human beings because Allah revealed legislations for that fact that they must be established in the society:

وَمَنْ زَعْمَ أَنَّ اللهَ جَعَلَ لِلْعِبَادِ مِنَ الْأَمْرِ شيئًا فَقَدْ كَفَّرَ بِمَا أَنْزَلَ اللهُ عَلَى أنبيائِهِ

"Whoever claims Allah entitled any of His servants (to) legislate (or command), he would be a disbeliever (kafir) of what Allah has revealed to His Prophets." (Tabari, Jami al-Bayan, Vol. 12, p. 484, Ibn Kathir, Tafseer al-Qur'an al-Adheem, Vol. 3, p. 384, Suyuti, al-Dur al-Manthoor, Vol. 3, p. 475, Ibn al-Athir, Asadu-al-Ghabah, Vol. 5, p. 247)

Allah's Trajectory to be established in Society

The nature of Islam as a deen
, as opposed to personal faith
, is 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.

We could see this in some following verses in this surah where Allah urges, not the individuals to embrace the deen, but the who people of certain cities (أَهْلَ الْقُرَى) to adopt it collectively:

وَلَوْ أَنَّ أَهْلَ الْقُرَى آمَنُوا وَاتَّقَوْا لَفَتَحْنَا عَلَيْهِمْ بَرَكَاتٍ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَلَكِنْ كَذَّبُوا فَأَخَذْنَاهُمْ بِمَا كَانُوا يَكْسِبُونَ (96) أَفَأَمِنَ أَهْلُ الْقُرَى أَنْ يَأْتِيَهُمْ بَأْسُنَا بَيَاتًا وَهُمْ نَائِمُونَ (97) أَوَأَمِنَ أَهْلُ الْقُرَى أَنْ يَأْتِيَهُمْ بَأْسُنَا ضُحًى وَهُمْ يَلْعَبُونَ
"And if only the people of the cities (townships) had believed and feared Allah, We would have opened upon them blessings from the heaven and the earth; but they denied (the messengers), so We seized them for what they were earning.
Then, did the people of the cities feel secure from Our punishment coming to them at night while they were asleep?
 Or did the people of the cities feel secure from Our punishment coming to them in the morning while they were at play?" (V. 96-98)
One may object and say the term used here is qura (villages) not mada'in (cities) that don't usually have any control. But the term qura is used in all the verse of the Qur'an to refer to the mada'in as noted by Wahidi and others:

وَالْقُرَى فِي كِتَابِ اللهِ كُلُّه الْمَدَائِنَ

"the qura in all the Book of Allah (refers to) mada'in." (Wahid, al-Waseet, Vol. 2, p. 398)

Leaders could establish It

Giving the nature of Islam above, we could understand it has to be, primarily, established by the rulers and elites
(but when this failed, there are other plans could be followed). We could see this through the practice of the Prophet (saw)
.

The khitab (dawa discourse) of the previous Prophets is also directed to al-mala'a ملأ (leaders and elites). The primer linguist ibn Mandhur defined this term as:

المَلأُ: الرُّؤَساءُ…  أَشْرافُ القوم ووجُوهُهم ورؤَساؤهم ومُقَدَّمُوهم، الذين يُرْجَع إِلى قولهم
"Al-Mala;a are the chiefs … the elites among the people and their notables, leaders and people with precedence (who are consulted) and the credit must go to their decision." (Ibn Mandhur, Lisan al-Arab, root malaa, Muhammad Zaki, Mu'jam Kalimat al-Qur'an, term al-Mala;a)
This term mala'a is repeated in this surah several times (V. 65-145) with each story of the previous Prophets with their nations in a way that implies the elites and leaders are one of the main targets to establish the divine trajectory.

In addition, there are many other references in the stories, especially in this surah, of the previous Prophets referring to this notion, read a full discussion in this answer.


No Partners with Allah

It is prohibited to take any created partner (whether imaginary gods or human rulers or leaders) with Allah in terms of personal worship or legislating laws against the rulings of Allah.

Allah condemned both attitudes. In regard to the act of worship, Allah says:

أَيُشْرِكُونَ مَا لَا يَخْلُقُ شَيْئًا وَهُمْ يُخْلَقُونَ (191) وَلَا يَسْتَطِيعُونَ لَهُمْ نَصْرًا وَلَا أَنْفُسَهُمْ يَنْصُرُونَ
"Do they associate with Him those who create nothing and they are (themselves) created?
 And the false deities are unable to (give) them help, nor can they help themselves." (V. 191-192)
Allah also condemned taking others as legislators except for the divine Law and gave an example of the non-Meccan people who used to make Tawaf around the Ka'ba naked arguing this is how their forefathers legislated to them by a falsely alleged permission of Allah (V. 28-29). (Tabari, Vol. 12, p. 377, Wahidi, Vol. 2, p. 360, Baghwi, Ma'alim al-
Tanzeel, Vol. 1, pp. 186-187, Razi, Vol. 14, p. 225, Qurtubi, Vol. 7, p. 187, Ibn Kathir, Vol. 3, p. 402, Suyuti, Vol. 3, pp. 437-440)

Then Allah gave them the alternative of this corrupted law which the correct and preserved divine Law:

قُلْ أَمَرَ رَبِّي بِالْقِسْطِ وَأَقِيمُوا وُجُوهَكُمْ عِنْدَ كُلِّ مَسْجِدٍ وَادْعُوهُ مُخْلِصِينَ لَهُ الدِّينَ كَمَا بَدَأَكُمْ تَعُودُونَ ... يَا بَنِي آدَمَ خُذُوا زِينَتَكُمْ عِنْدَ كُلِّ مَسْجِدٍ وَكُلُوا وَاشْرَبُوا وَلَا تُسْرِفُوا إِنَّهُ لَا يُحِبُّ الْمُسْرِفِينَ (31) قُلْ مَنْ حَرَّمَ زِينَةَ اللَّهِ الَّتِي أَخْرَجَ لِعِبَادِهِ وَالطَّيِّبَاتِ مِنَ الرِّزْقِ ... قُلْ إِنَّمَا حَرَّمَ رَبِّيَ الْفَوَاحِشَ مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا وَمَا بَطَنَ وَالْإِثْمَ وَالْبَغْيَ بِغَيْرِ الْحَقِّ وَأَنْ تُشْرِكُوا بِاللَّهِ مَا لَمْ يُنَزِّلْ بِهِ سُلْطَانًا وَأَنْ تَقُولُوا عَلَى اللَّهِ مَا لَا تَعْلَمُونَ
"Say, (O Muhammad), my Lord has ordered justice and that you maintain yourselves (in the worship of Him) at every place (or time) of prostration, and invoke Him, sincere to Him in religion. Just as He originated you, you will return (to life). …
O children of Adam, take your adornment at every masjid, and eat and drink, but be not excessive. Indeed, He likes not those who commit excess.
Say, who has forbidden the adornment of Allah which He has produced for His servants and the good (lawful) things of provision. …
Say, my Lord has only forbidden immoralities – what is apparent of them and what is concealed – and sin, and oppression without right, and that you associate with Allah that for which He has not sent down authority, and what you say about Allah that which you do not know." (V. 29-33)
This is not only exclusive to the issue of tawaf, but it is only one example that legislates a general rule to every related issue the corrupts or legislates the contrary to the divine Law. Ibn Atiyah, along with many other classical scholars, noted:

هَذِهِ الْمُخَاطَبَةُ لِجَمِيعِ الْعَالَمِ وَالْمَقْصُود بِهَا فِي ذَلِك الْوَقْت مَنْ كَانَ يَطُوفُ مِنَ الْعَرَبِ بِالْبَيْتِ عُرَاةً

"This is an order to all the world, (but) referred at that time to those who make Tawaf naked around the Ka'bah." (Ibn Atiyah, Vol. 2, p. 390)
Similarly noted by ibn Ashur in al-Tahreer wa al-Tanweer, Vol. 8, p. 82)

Allah also says, to those who follow their rulers in matters that contradict the Laws of Allah, they will be in a tremendous sorrow in the day of Judgement (V. 37-49)

This partner even can't be the Prophet (saw):

Allah also condemned the Meccan leaders when they asked the Prophet (saw) to disobey Allah by picking up something from his own to satisfy them or to deliver them a revelation whenever they will. (Tabari, Vol. 13, p. 341, Naysaburi, Ghara'ib al-Qur'an, Vol. 3, p. 367, Wahidi, Vol. 2, p. 439, Ibn Kathir, Vol. 3, p. 484)

Allah says:

وَإِذَا لَمْ تَأْتِهِمْ بِآيَةٍ قَالُوا لَوْلَا اجْتَبَيْتَهَا قُلْ إِنَّمَا أَتَّبِعُ مَا يُوحَى إِلَيَّ مِنْ رَبِّي
"And when you, (O Muhammad), do not bring them a verse (or a sign), they say, why have you not contrived it?"
Say, I only follow what is revealed to me from my Lord." (V. 203)
It does not mean that the chosen prophet could be able to do it, but this is to show how it is vigorously condemned to adopt any rule that clearly violates the decisive divine law regardless of the position of the legislator.

The Role of Messengers and Prophets

So, now if we supposed the people of a certain quras believed Allah is the Creator and the Legislator, the job of the Messenger is to establish the divine trajectory in the society. There is a verse in the surah refers to some of these jobs, including enjoying the good and forbidding the evil; legislating the good to be halal and the filth to be haram. This Messenger must be protected, supported, followed and given victory over his enemies.

الَّذِينَ يَتَّبِعُونَ الرَّسُولَ النَّبِيَّ الْأُمِّيَّ ... يَأْمُرُهُمْ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَاهُمْ عَنِ الْمُنْكَرِ وَيُحِلُّ لَهُمُ الطَّيِّبَاتِ وَيُحَرِّمُ عَلَيْهِمُ الْخَبَائِثَ وَيَضَعُ عَنْهُمْ إِصْرَهُمْ وَالْأَغْلَالَ الَّتِي كَانَتْ عَلَيْهِمْ فَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا بِهِ وَعَزَّرُوهُ وَنَصَرُوهُ وَاتَّبَعُوا النُّورَ الَّذِي أُنْزِلَ مَعَهُ أُولَئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ
"Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered prophet … who enjoins upon them what is right and forbids them what is wrong and makes lawful for them the good things and prohibits for them the evil and relieves them of their burden and the shackles which were upon them.
So they who have believed in him honoured him, supported him and followed the light which was sent down with him - it is those who will be successful." (V. 157)
Thus, the role of the Prophet and the Messenger in society is to govern it (and all of its aspects) by the Law of Allah and divine principles and be victorious over his enemies.

For example, when the Pharaoh and the mala'a in Egypt, they rejected the Message of Musa (as) and tortured the followers severely and killed their children. Musa's followers were given victory over them (V. 127-137). Then Musa (as) was entitled to rule the people by the full law of Allah:

وَكَتَبْنَا لَهُ فِي الْأَلْوَاحِ مِنْ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ مَوْعِظَةً وَتَفْصِيلًا لِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ فَخُذْهَا بِقُوَّةٍ وَأْمُرْ قَوْمَكَ يَأْخُذُوا بِأَحْسَنِهَا
"And We wrote for him on the tablets (something) of all things - instruction and explanation for all things, (saying), "Take them with determination and order your people to take the best of it." (V. 145)
Thus, is the time for the detailed rule for everything to be established in society. So, only what Allah has described it to be haram, halal or whatever have to be established. (Baghawi, Vol. 2, p. 233, Matrudi, Ta'weelat Ahl al-Sunnah, Vol. 5, p. 37, Tabari, Vol. 13, pp. 109-110 and others) For a more detailed discussion over Musa's (as) dawa, read this answer
.When we say Prophet Muhammad (saw) and the previous Messengers and Prophets (as) sought power and dominance, it does not mean they were greedy for power and controlling, instead seeking to establish security, justice and prosperity in stark contrast to those stubbornly opposing their dawa.

Conclusion

The surah states Allah is the only Creator and for that reason the only one worthy as Legislator - he sent the Messenger (saw) to rule people through His Law by imposing His trajectory on societies. This trajectory is most easily established through dawa to leaders and elites who have the ability to dramatically reorganise their society.

References

Baghwi, Ma'alim al-Tanzeel
Ibn al-Athir, Asadu-al-Ghabah
Ibn Atiyah, al-Muharar al-Wajeez
Ibn Ashur, al-Tahreer wa al-Tanweer
Ibn Kathir, Tafseer al-Qur'an al-Adheem
Ibn Mandhur, Lisan al-Arab
Muhammad Zaki, Mu'jam Kalimat al-Qur'an
Matrudi, Ta'weelat Ahl al-Sunnah
Naysaburi, Ghara'ib al-Qur'an
Qurtubi, al-Jami li Ahkam al-Qur'an
Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb
Suyuti, al-Dur al-Manthoor
Tabari, Jami al-Bayan
Wahid, al-Tafseer al-Waseet

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