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In a Nutshell:
A Meccan sura revealed between the sixth and tenth year of revelation to help the prophet (saw) to destroy Meccan public opinion in favor of the current way of life and to reorient it to support his new deen.
As such it contains one of the most devastating critiques of collective Meccan intellectual and sentimental values, unrelentingly condemning and criticising them regardless of their personal, religious, cultural,social or political role. In its place it provides an outline of the divine alternative, emphasising the equivalent of the Judaic 10 commandments and an alternative way of life.
Thus the chapter is critical in understanding the significance of public opinion in the power structure of elites and rulers - a necessary component for socio-political change.
Key Facts

Surah al-An'am is the 6th sura of Qur'an comprising 165 verses, revealed in Mecca, and was known by this name throughout the lifetime of the Prophet (saw). (Ibn Ashur, al-Tahreer wa al-Tanweer, Vol. 7, p. 121)

The date of revelation is differed upon, but there is agreement it was around year 5 and year 10 of revelation. It seems likely most of it was revealed around year 5 with some ayaat revealed later around year 10 given the critique of Meccan collective opinion which seems in keeping with the prophetic reorientation seeking to challenge it in year 5.

Themes

The key theme to emerge from the chapter is that of the falsity of Meccan ideas and sentiments in contrast with the truthfulness of the Messenger and what he brought (spelled out in the opening summary). Subsidiary themes explore the nature of both sets of ideas, the resulting formation of a nations character and the consequences in this life and the next.

Symbols and Motifs

A number of symbols and motifs appear in the chapter:

  • all hearing and knowing (samee'un wa aleem), all wise and acquainted (hakeem wa khabeer), subtle (lateef), free of need (al-gha'ni), merciful (alrahma)
  • "secret and public", "concealing and revealing", "belief and disbelief", "guided and ignorant" (huda/jahileen), "deaf and dumb" (summun/bukmun), "blind equal to the seeing" (yastawi al-ama wa al-baseer), way of the criminals (sabeel al-mujrimeen), "amusement and diversion" (la'ib wa lahw), "protector and intercessor" (wali wa sha'fi)
  • "dispute" (yakhtalifoon), "turn away" (mu'ridoon), "lie" (yakziboon), "ridicule" (yastazi'oon), "mock" (sakhiroo), "conceal" (ukhfoona), "reject" (yajhadoon), "evasion" (i'raaduhum), "invent" (yaftaroon), "conspire" (liyamkuru), hardened (qasat), "worthless" (lahabit), "fabricated" (kharaqu), "misguided" (daaleen), "following desires" (ahwaa'akum), "criminals" (mujrimeen), liars, disbelievers, "defilement" (rijs), "fire" (naar)
  • "reason" (ta'qiloon), "know" (ya'lamoon), "consider" (ara'aytakum), reflect (tatafakaroon), "clear evidence" (bayyina), "hearing" (yasma'oona), "respond" (yastajeebu), humble (darra'u), thankful (shakireen), repentful (taaba), "enlightenment" (basaa'ir), "truth" (haqq), believers (yu'minoon), "understand" (yafqahoon), "certain" (muqinoon), "guided" (hada), "righteous" (muslihoon), "submit" (linuslim), straight path (sirat mustaqeem), "land of peace" (dar al-salam)
  • "nations" (qawm), "peoples" (umam)

Analysis

Date of Revelation:

The surah was revealed after the Quraysh elites mocked the Messenger (saw) and he was ordered to turn away from them and focus on their supporters and followers (see verse 15:94
). 

When the Meccan leaders tried to negotiate with the Messenger (saw), they asked Umar (ra) to convince him to accept their offer:

فَاسْتَعَانُوا بِعُمَر - رَضِيَ اللهُ عَنْه - فَأَخْبَرَ عُمَرٌ بِذَلِكَ رَسُولَ اللهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيهِ وَسَلَّمَ بِأَنْ يَفْعَلَ ذَلِكَ "They sought the help of Umar (ra). Umar (ra) told the Prophet (saw) their offer and (advised him) to do so." (Haythami, al-Majmaa, Vol. 7, p. 21, Ibn Kathir, Tafseer al-Qur'an al-Adheem, Vol. 3, pp. 259-260, Wahaidi, al-Waseet, Vol. 2, pp. 274-275, Baghawi, Vol. 2, p. 126)

Some verses however also mention some events happening in the tenth year of ba'thah such as the negotiations with Abu Talib before his death (deduced from the cause of revelation of verse 108) which would suggest they were revealed later.

Some narrations report some Meccan leaders like Utbah and Shaybah, the sons of Rabi'ah, Mut'im ibn Addi, al-Harith ibn Nawfal and other elites from Nawfal clan, going to Abu Talib, before his death in the tenth-year of ba'thah (revelation). They asked him to try to convince the Messenger (saw) to stop insulting their idols and they would not insult or harm his God. The Messenger (saw) accepted to not insult their idols to avoid them insulting Allah. (Tabari, Vol. 1, pp. 33-35, Ibn Kathir, Vol. 3, p. 261)

So, it the dating of the chapter is likely to be between the sixth and tenth year of ba'thah.

Aims of the Surah:

The surah covers a lot of ground to help the Prophet in his dawa to the wider Meccan society:

  • A clear credal statement opens the chapter and is elaborated in-depth, namely, Allah is the Creator of everything and is to be served alone, by both individuals and polities, following a straight path.
  • This path is articulated with a long list of new legislation covering all areas of social life.
  • If a nation chooses to rebel, they are reminded previous nations did the same and the consequences were dire, in both this and the next life, in turn replaced by those who would serve Allah.
Critical Analysis:

The chapter opens with an elaboration of a the worldview the Messenger (saw) was bringing. Allah categorically declares it is he who made the "heavens and earth", "light and day" and "man from clay", going on to say he sees what they gather ("yaksiboon") and to him they will return to be eternally rewarded or tormented. This is the fundamental truth they needed to acknowledge first and foremost.

Quraysh, like previous nations, fabricated lies against Allah, rejecting it is he who "takes souls by night", "rescues them from the darkness of land and sea", instead "associating" all this with others in his place, jinns as partners and sons and daughters. They even rejected anything beyond their immediate "worldly life" (hayat al-dunya). It was not just some who partook in this, but their nation and peoples ("qawm" and "umam") who collectively believed all this and practiced it whilst openly resisting and rejecting "the truth".

These lies then formed a collective opinion in Mecca, upon which their way of life emerged. To maintain these collective values, various means are employed, contrasted in several verses, "secret and public", "concealing and revealing", "belief and disbelief" and "knowledge and ignorance".

When the messenger informs them of the truth, they "dispute" (yakhtalifoon), "turn away" (mu'ridoon), "lie" (yakziboon), "ridicule" (yastazi'oon), "mock" (sakhiroo), "conceal" (ukhfoona), "reject" (yajhadoon), "evasion" (i'raaduhum), "invent" (yaftaroon), "follow desires" all of which lead to the destruction of previous nations, hit by Allah's azaabs, to be ultimately replaced by others.

The parable of Ibrahim is cited to explain how he as their patriarch questioned the associationalist beliefs of his generation, his father and nation, through reflection understanding the existence of God, and submitting to him, followed by calling his people to do the same.

Allah asks them to "reason" (taqiloon), "know" (yalamoon), "consider" (ara'aytakum), think (tatafakaroon), "hear" (yasma'oona), "understand" (yafqahoon), using the "clear evidence" (bayyina) to the "truth" (haqq) to become "certain" (muqinoon) and "enlightened" (basaa'ir). Following this they were to "respond" (yastajeebu) to the truth by "submitting" (linuslim), following the revealed straight path (sirat mustaqeem) in a humble (darra'u), thankful (shakireen) and repentful (taaba) manner, thereby becoming believers (yu'minoon), "guided" (hada), "righteous" (muslihoon).

Through a re-evaluation of their collective values, beliefs and sentiments, acceptance and submission to the truth, they would receive good tidings in this life and the next, power and authority, "land of peace" (dar al-salam).


The Islamic Trajectory vs Meccan Trajectory:

Allah presented his favours on human by creation, preparing the earth for them, providing them with their rizq and their prosperity, and a number of his bounties and favours people see and experience around them. Allah then said He deserved to be served alone.

ذَٰلِكُمُ اللَّهُ رَبُّكُمْ ۖ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ ۖ خَالِقُ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ فَاعْبُدُوهُ ۚ وَهُوَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ وَكِيلٌ
"That is Allah, your Lord; there is no deity except Him, the Creator of all things, so serve Him. And He is the Disposer of all things." (V. 102)
Allah states he has revealed a detailed book, so why do the masses choose to follow leaders who bring nothing but speculation and doubt and are not worthy to be followed:

أَفَغَيْرَ اللَّهِ أَبْتَغِي حَكَمًا وَهُوَ الَّذِي أَنْزَلَ إِلَيْكُمُ الْكِتَابَ مُفَصَّلًا ... وَإِنْ تُطِعْ أَكْثَرَ مَنْ فِي الْأَرْضِ يُضِلُّوكَ عَنْ سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ إِنْ يَتَّبِعُونَ إِلَّا الظَّنَّ وَإِنْ هُمْ إِلَّا يَخْرُصُونَ ...
أَوَمَن كَانَ مَيْتًا فَأَحْيَيْنَاهُ وَجَعَلْنَا لَهُ نُورًا يَمْشِي بِهِ فِي النَّاسِ كَمَن مَّثَلُهُ فِي الظُّلُمَاتِ لَيْسَ بِخَارِجٍ مِّنْهَا
"(Say): is other than Allah I should seek as a judge while it is He who has revealed to you the Book explained in detail?" …  And if you obey most of those upon the earth, they will mislead you from the way of Allah. They follow not except assumption, and they are not but falsifying. …
And is one who was dead and We gave him life and made for him light by which to walk among the people like one who is in darkness, never to emerge therefrom?" (V. 114-116, 122)
Then examples are given of what they follow or have inherited along with their outcomes are outlined:

  • slaughtering animals to idols (V. 136);
  • killing of their children (V. 137); 
  • specifying certain people can eat certain animals and prohibiting other animals with no further justifications (V. 138-139);
  • prohibiting other things Allah has made lawful (V. 140, 143-144) and others.
Then Allah says:

قُلْ هَلُمَّ شُهَدَاءَكُمُ الَّذِينَ يَشْهَدُونَ أَنَّ اللَّهَ حَرَّمَ هَذَا
"Say, (O Muhammad), bring forward your witnesses who will testify that Allah has prohibited this." (V. 150)
Allah outlines his rulings (V. 106):

  • Eat only the animal that was slaughtered according to the Islamic way by mentioning the name of Allah before slaughtering (V. 118, 121);
  • Eat the kings of animals that Allah has made it (in details) as lawful (V. 119) and avoid anything that was forbidden such as the dead animal or blood spilled out or the flesh of swine as they are impure and were slaughtered in disobedience, dedicated to other than Allah (V. 145);
  • Do not approach immoralities what is apparent of them and what is concealed (V. 120, 151);
  • Don't kill you children fearing of (or out of) poverty (V. 140, 151);
  • Kindness to parents is required (151);
  • Do not kill the soul which Allah has forbidden to be killed except by legal right (V. 151);
  • Do not approach the orphan's property except in a way that is best until he reaches maturity (V. 152);
  • In the transactions, give full measure and weight in justice (V. 152);
  • When you testify in judicial issues, you have to be just even if it concerns a near relative (V. 152).
So, it covers the personal, social and governmental aspects in life that must be governed by Allah's rulings as well as all the means to establish that in the society. As Allah emphasised this:

وَهَذَا صِرَاطُ رَبِّكَ مُسْتَقِيمًا
"And this is the path of your Lord, (leading) straight." (V. 126)
What even supports this understanding one of the names of the surahs: it has two names al-An'am (the cattle) and al-Hujah (unimpeachable argument) against the Meccans collective community:

سُورَةُ الْحُجَّةِ؛ لِأَنَّهَا مَقْصُورَةٌ عَلَى ذِكْرِ حُجَّةِ النُّبُوَّةِ
"(It is also named) surah al-Hujah because it focuses mainly on mentioning the arguments (or authoritative arguments) for prophethood." (Fairuzabadi, Basa'ir Dhawi al-Tamyeez, Vol. 1, p. 187)

Conclusion

The surah focuses on telling the Prophet (saw) how to break the public polity and the collective opinion by openly condemning and critically defame the trajectory of Quraysh legislated by their forefathers that governs their personal, religious, social and governmental life and presents an alternative divine trajectory that governs the above aspects that must be established in the society. In this way, he would gain public opinion and takes power from the oppressive rulers.

References

Baghawi, Ma'alim al-Tanzeel
Fairuzabadi, Basa'ir Dhawi al-Tamyeez
Haythami, al-Majmaa
Ibn Ashur, al-Tahreer wa al-Tanweer
Ibn Abi Hatim al-Razi, Tafseer al-Qur'ana al-Adheem
Ibn Attiyah, al-Muharar al-Wajeez
Ibn Kathir, Tafseer al-Qur'an al-Adheem
Matrudi, Ta'weelaat Ahl al-Sunnah
Makki ibn Abu Talib, al-Hidayah ila Bulugh al-Nihayah
Nasafi, Madarik al-Tanzeel
Qurtubi, al-Jami li Ahkam al-Qur'an
Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb
Samarqandi, Bahr al-Ulum
Tabari, Jami al-Bayaan
Wahidi, Asbab al-Nuzul
Wahidi, al-Tafseer al-Waseet
Zamakshari, al-Kashaf

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