December 29, 2021

Iqra the first commandment

The Prophet ŜA‘WS did not have an opportunity to obtain reading and writing skills. However, he had a very reflective mind, keenly thinking through the matters he encountered. Thus, in addition to being known for his impeccable reputation of trustworthiness and honesty, he was also respected for his insight and wisdom. When he was thirty five years old, the parties involved in the reconstruction of Ka‘bah disputed on the right to install the black stone. The dispute was on the brink of turning into a bloody multi-clan war, when they decided to seek arbitration. It so happened that the Prophet was chosen to be the arbitrator. All parties to the dispute rejoiced and expressed their utmost confidence in him at his serendipitous appointment. They were even happier with the way he settled the dispute to the satisfaction of everyone involved.

His reflections upon what he observed in his society made him concerned about many things that did not make sense or that were evil in nature. He could not stand the gross social injustices, prejudices and racial pride prevalent in society. On his own, he would try to help the weak and the victims of injustices, along with cooperating with others in doing so, but he never thought of heading a movement to change the society. Similarly, he could not understand why people would make idols with their own hands and revere those lifeless, helpless things as gods or partners of God. His reflections on the universe and nature led him to the conclusion that this universe must be the creation of One Creator Who must be Unique and Infinite. He would retreat to the solitude of a cave called Hiraa and worship Him, but once again, he had no inclination towards becoming a preacher for convincing others of worshipping only that One God. However, Allaah had different plans for him which the Prophet had no inkling about. Allaah was preparing him to start a movement under His guidance to address and correct all those issues, but he had not been informed of that plan as yet.

When he was forty-and-a-half years old, Allaah decided to inform him of this plan, told him of the mission he had to undertake and instructed him to start the movement. This happened during one of the Prophet’s stays in the cave of Hiraa. One night a stranger appeared in the cave unexpectedly. The Prophet was naturally startled and scared. It was angel Jibreel (Gabriel) in human form, who brought the following words of Allaah as a command for him to proclaim the Islamic message to people (1):

1 Recite to people in the name of your Lord Who created – 2 created people from clinging clots. 3 Recite to people and your Lord is Most Generous, 4 Who taught by the pen, 5 taught man what he knew not1. (Al-‘Alaq 55:1-5)

1  Some writers of Seerah have expressed an opinion that the first five verses of this Soorah Al-‘Alaq were not revealed at the time of the initial visit by Jibreel. At that time, he was only told about his newly assigned role and left to cope with this reality. The whole Soorah Al-‘Alaq was revealed later on in one complete revelation. Some of them think that Soorah Faatiĥah was then the first soorah to be revealed. Others think that the first revelation consisted of the first seven verses of Soorah Al-Mudaththir. However, the overwhelming majority of scholars agree that the first five verses were revealed at the first visit of Jibreel and the remaining soorah was revealed later on. The majority opinion is supported by the context of Al-‘Alaq itself because immediately after Al-‘Alaq, the next soorah, Al-Qadr, declares that the first revelation of the Qur-aan happened in the night of Al-Qadr, thus indicating the relationship of Al-‘Alaq with the first revelation. There is also a difference of opinion about the number of verses revealed in the first revelation: according to one opinion, only first verse was recited to him; a report claims that the first three verses were revealed at the first instance; and according to multiple other reports, the first five verses were revealed at the first instance; while the remaining verses were revealed afterwards. The interconnection of the wordings of the five verses supports this last report that first revelation consisted of five verses.

When the angel recited Allaah’s words and said, “Recite to people in the name of your Lord”, the Prophet responded with fear and anxiety, “I am not a reciter (or orator)”, implying that he lacked the disposition and experience necessary for the responsibility being given to him. Jibreel hugged him tightly (2), released him from the hug and repeated the revelation. The refusal and hugging happened three times, each time Jibreel’s hug becoming stronger to the point of the Prophet’s exhaustion, indicating that the Prophet had no option but to submit to the directive. After the third hug, the Prophet surrendered to the command and Jibreel completed the revelation. However, as soon as Jibreel disappeared, the Prophet rushed home, where his wife, Khadijah, consoled her terrified and trembling husband.

2  Hugging is a gesture of friendship, consolation and support, while too tight a hug also conveys a message of authority and power.

The Prophet was like Moosa (Moses) ‘AS in many respects. Even the Prophet’s encounter with Jibreel and his reaction to the “Iqra” command was very much like Moosa when he went up the mountain to fetch fire, but had a surprise encounter whereby Allaah commanded him to start the Islamic mission, and he was extremely reluctant to accept it for not being a good orator. Then, after some reluctance, he accepted the responsibility like the Prophet did after the third hug.

In this way, the first revelation was to inform the Prophet and the world that he was thereby commanded to start the Islamic movement proclaiming the message of Allaah to all people in His name. Thus, “Iqra” was the command to recite to people whatever revelations would be brought down and recited to him.

Many people translate this command “Iqra” as “Read!” whereby the implied view is as if someone reads a book for his personal recreation, information or knowledge. This is a serious misinterpretation of the first revelation. Although in general use, this word is used both for simple “reading” as well as “reading aloud or reciting loudly to others”, whenever it has been used in the Qur-aan about the Qur-aan itself, it has always been used for reciting loudly to others, addressing people and proclaiming publicly. The following are all the verses using this word and they all consistently use it for reciting aloud to others:

وَاِذَا قُرِئَ الۡقُرۡاٰنُ فَاسۡتَمِعُوۡا لَهٗ وَاَنۡصِتُوۡا لَعَلَّكُمۡ تُرۡحَمُوۡنَ

So, when the Qur-aan is recited, listen to it attentively, and be silent that you may receive Mercy (7:204).

وَاِذَا قَرَاۡتَ الۡقُرۡاٰنَ جَعَلۡنَا بَيۡنَكَ وَبَيۡنَ الَّذِيۡنَ لَا يُؤۡمِنُوۡنَ بِالۡاٰخِرَةِ حِجَابًا مَّسۡتُوۡرًا

When you (O Muhammad) recite the Qur-aan, We put between you and those who do not believe in the Hereafter, an invisible barrier (so they remain oblivious to it), (17:45).

وَقُرۡاٰنًا فَرَقۡنٰهُ لِتَقۡرَاَهٗ عَلَى النَّاسِ عَلٰى مُكۡثٍ وَّنَزَّلۡنٰهُ تَنۡزِيۡلًا

And it is a Qur-aan that We have divided (into parts), in order that you recite it to people at intervals; and We have revealed it gradually over time (17:106).

وَلَوۡ نَزَّلۡنٰهُ عَلٰى بَعۡضِ الۡاَعۡجَمِيۡنَۙ فَقَرَاَهٗ عَلَيۡهِمۡ مَّا كَانُوۡا بِهٖ مُؤۡمِنِيۡنَؕ

Had We revealed it to any of the non-Arabs, and he had recited it to them, they would not have believed in it (26:198-199).

اِنَّ عَلَيۡنَا جَمۡعَهٗ وَقُرۡاٰنَهٗۚ  ۖ‏فَاِذَا قَرَاۡنٰهُ فَاتَّبِعۡ قُرۡاٰنَهٗ

So when We have recited it to you [O Muhammad], then follow you its recital (75:18).

وَاِذَا قُرِئَ عَلَيۡهِمُ الۡقُرۡاٰنُ لَا يَسۡجُدُوۡنَ

When the Qur-aan is recited to them, they do not prostrate (84:21).

These examples clearly establish the true meaning of Iqra – Recite loudly in public or call others to Islam through the Qur-aan. Despite this evidence from the Qur-aan, some people continue to interpret it as personal reading of a book. They should consider the following questions:

1.   Why would Allaah ask the Prophet ŜA‘WS to read, when there was nothing to read. Historian Ibn Isĥaaq relates an account rejected by the Hadeeth scholars that the Prophet was shown a writing enclosed in a silken casket and asked to read. Even if one assumes this report to be correct, the problem remains that the Prophet could not read, nor did he ever do so. When Allaah SWT knew that the Prophet did not know how to read, why would He ask him to do so? Does Allaah command something that cannot be obeyed because it is beyond the capability of a person? Or was Allaah commanding the Prophet to learn to read; if so, then the Prophet disobeyed Allaah SWT by not learning to read. Is such an impractical command from Allaah or such disobedience from His messenger possible? Hence, those who claim that it was a command to read need to explain which of the following statements is wrong:

  • That the Prophet did not learn to read or write until his death; or
  • That the Prophet practiced everything he was commanded by Allaah.

2.   Was the mission of the Prophet to proclaim the message of Islam to people or was it to read? If it was the former, would Allaah not tell him in the first revelation what he is supposed to do, instead of telling him something that he was not to do all his life?

Ibn Qayyim proposes that it is about reading the signs of Allaah in the physical universe. Although it is true that people are supposed to reflect on the signs of Allaah in their physical environment and that the messengers of Allaah surely draw people’s attention towards them, relating that matter to the first revelation is wrong for many reasons: the first revelation was about the Prophet’s main duty of reciting revelations to people; the Prophet’s invitation to people to reflect on the physical signs was also always through the Qur-aan; and the signs of the physical universe are observed and reflected upon, not read. Besides, we must not speculate after the Qur-aan itself has clearly established that qara’a implies reciting to people.

Therefore, the first command to the Prophet tells him to recite to people or proclaim publicly what is recited (revealed) to him. The intent of this first revelation was simply to let him know that he has been assigned a responsibility to deliver Allaah’s message to the Makkans, without being given the details of that message. The details of the message were to be revealed over the next 23 years, restarting after a few days’ interval in order to give him some time to psychologically cope with the initial surprise and to mentally accept this new and arduous responsibility, during which time Jibreel kept appearing to him and reinforcing “You are the messenger of Allaah and I am Jibreel.” Then, in the second revelation, the first seven verses of Al-Muddaththir, this command was further explained. And from that point onwards, the Prophet obeyed the command in the most excellent manner.

Some people may feel that the mention of “He taught by pen” supports the “Read!” view of the “Iqra” command. This can be cleared up by reflecting on the message of these verses as follows:

1.   The very first verse instructs him that the message will be delivered in the name of Allaah, his Lord. This means presenting the message “In the name of Allaah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.” This instruction indicates that Allaah was known to the Prophet as his Lord, before this revelation. That is why no introduction of the Lord was needed. This instruction was important so that the listeners know that what they are being presented is the Word of their Creator and Lord so they must take it seriously and submissively and should not disregard it as something frivolous or should not disrespect it with jokes or opposition. This is also in accordance with what Allaah SWT told Moosa (Moses) ‘AS in Deuteronomy 18:19 about the Prophet that “If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.”

2.   After mentioning Allaah SWT in the first verse as the Creator of everything, the second verse specifically talks about human creation and the humble beginning of every human being as a zygote that divides and multiplies and that clot of cells, called blastocyst, clings to the uterine wall. When fetuses are developed and delivered through the sophisticated and wonderful system that Allaah has created, and the babies have grown up into adults, the people defy His commands, rebel against Him and associate partners with Him. Thus, they need to be invited to reflect on the role of their Creator, and to be reminded of Him and His message.

3.   The third verse reiterates the command for the Prophet to proclaim Allaah’s message and links it to Allaah’s generosity and favour towards mankind. It is indeed a great mercy and favour of Allaah SWT that He appoints His messengers to guide human beings towards the right path.

4.   Then, the mention of pen as the instrument of spreading knowledge in verses 4-5, suggests two points. Firstly, it points out that the revealed knowledge is in addition to the knowledge that Allaah SWT has so kindly enabled human beings to acquire on their own and pass it along generations through the function of writing. It is also His great favour and mercy that human beings have been taught the art of using the pen and writing to preserve whatever they learn for future reference and teaching. This knowledge accumulated through writing is the main foundation for human progress and advancement. Even the discoveries that add to the previously accumulated knowledge happen because Allaah makes it possible for people to explore and discover those matters. Without openly and explicitly teaching people, He is the One Who bestows knowledge. But He also reveals the guidance that the human beings are unable to acquire on their own. In this way, He has taken care of all of the knowledge and guidance needs of human beings.

5.   Secondly, it is this ability to write with the pen that will document Allaah’s Word recited to people by the Prophet. Allaah’s revealed guidance will be preserved in written form, in addition to other means of its preservation, and it will make the Arabs the bestowers of knowledge to the world (3).

Now that the meaning has been clarified, people may wonder why most of the speakers and scholars continue to misquote or misinterpret this command. The problem is twofold. One is that some celebrated persons take a part of the Qur-aan in isolation, give it a meaning that fits their current thinking, then everyone accepts it at face value and runs with it without doing any due diligence as to the correctness of its meaning. The second is that people, whether it is scholars or the audience, continue to regurgitate whatever becomes famous or tradition, without giving much thought to its veracity.

Posted in Qur'aan on December 29, 2021 by Ayub Hamid

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