Lecture 11 in the Ramadaan series:
UNPACKING THE MOST INTRIGUING QUESTIONS IN THE QURAN
Tuesday 5 May 2020 (11 Ramadaan 1441)
Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town
Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider
We continue our series of discussions in the service of the Holy Quran, responding to various questions, enquiries and possible confusions in the Quran. In today’s discussion, we would like to address one of the commonly asked and debated questions relating to Surah Abasa (chapter 80 of the Holy Quran), where Almighty Allah (SWT) speaks about someone who frowned and turned away. The question is, who is this person?
Let me start with the translation of the early verses of Surah Abasa:
1. He frowned and turned away
أَنْ جَاءَهُ الْأَعْمَىٰ
2. Because there came to him the blind man (interrupting).
وَمَا يُدْرِيكَ لَعَلَّهُ يَزَّكَّىٰ
3. And what would make you know that he would purify himself,
أَوْ يَذَّكَّرُ فَتَنْفَعَهُ الذِّكْرَىٰ
4. Or become reminded so that the reminder should benefit him?
أَمَّا مَنِ اسْتَغْنَىٰ
5. As to one who regards Himself as self-sufficient,
فَأَنْتَ لَهُ تَصَدَّىٰ
6. To him do you address yourself.
وَمَا عَلَيْكَ أَلَّا يَزَّكَّىٰ
7. And no blame is on you if he would not purify himself
وَأَمَّا مَنْ جَاءَكَ يَسْعَىٰ
8. And as to him who comes to you rushing,
9. And with fear (in his heart),
فَأَنْتَ عَنْهُ تَلَهَّىٰ
10. From him will you divert yourself (you neglect/ignore him).
كَلَّا إِنَّهَا تَذْكِرَةٌ
11. By no means (should it be so)! For it is indeed a Message of instruction:
فَمَنْ شَاءَ ذَكَرَهُ
12. So let him who wishes remember it.
As you can see, this chapter starts with a reprimand, that why do you turn away from a blind person if he comes to you, and you frown on him? Why do you feel awkward about him when in the company of rich people?
In the Tafsir (commentary) of the Holy Quran, we have a principle called “Shan-e-Nuzool” i.e. the story or reason for revelation. This refers to the background associated with the revelation of particular verses. Now, what was the background of the revelation of this Surah or the earlier verses of this Surah?
SURAH ABASA EXPLAINED BY MAINSTREAM SUNNI COMMENTATORS OF THE QURAN
There are two perspectives given by commentators of the Holy Quran, pertaining to the context of revelation of Surah Abasa. The first perspective, which is given by the majority of Sunni Muslims, explains that there was a time when our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) was engaged in a very serious meeting with the leaders of Quraysh. Amongst them were Abu Jahal, Abu Sufyan according to some reports.
While Rasulullah (SAWA) was talking to these leaders of Quraysh, and inviting them to Islam, and was hopeful that this meeting will be beneficial in that they will hopefully accept Islam or at the very least soften their antagonistic position towards Islam by not troubling those who would like to embrace Islam.
This was the purpose of his high profile meeting with these leaders of Quraysh. While the meeting was in progress, a blind man by the name of Abdullah ibn Umm Maktoom entered. He greeted and started to address Rasulullah (SAWA), requesting to be taught some of the verses of the Holy Quran which Rasulullah (SAWA) has learnt from Almighty Allah (SWT). He repeated his request.
Naturally, since he was blind, he could not see that there was a meeting underway with very important people and as a result he continued his insistence of wanting to learn Quran from Rasulullah (SAWA). He went to the point where Rasulullah (SAWA) could not continue his speech to the leaders of Quraysh. According to this version of the story, Rasulullah (SAWA) became upset and some form of unhappiness or anger was evident on his face.
It is believed that he said to himself that these Arab leaders will think that the followers of Muhammad (SAWA) are either a bunch of slaves or crippled people. Therefore, he turned away from the blind man and continued his dialogue with the leaders of Quraysh. In other words, Rasulullah (SAWA) ignored the blind man and turned away.
They say that it was on this particular juncture that Angel Jibra’eel brought the above verses from Surah Abasa. And it is through these verses that Almighty Allah (SWT) reprimanded Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) for his negligence and frowning upon the poor, blind man who was begging to be taught verses from the Holy Quran, but instead chose to focus his attention on the elite of the society.
This version of commentary also says that Rasulullah (SAWA) was quite upset about how he handled the matter and changed his attitude towards the blind man, to the extent that he would give the blind man extra respect and honour whenever they would see each other.
Rasulullah (SAWA) would say “welcome someone for whom Almighty Allah (SWT) has reprimanded me”. Rasulullah (SAWA) would always offer this blind man help as well, as a form of his sublime kindness and moral character. Furthermore, Rasulullah (SAWA) also appointed this blind man on certain occasions as his interim cover while away from Madina on Prophetic missions.
This is one version of commentary provided by the majority of commentators regarding these verses from Surah Abasa.
SURAH ABASA EXPLAINED BY SHIA COMMENTATORS OF THE QURAN
The second version of commentary is only by Shia commentators of the Holy Quran, and it is based on a Hadith narrated from our 6th Imam of Ahlul Bait (a.s), Imam Jafar Sadiq (a.s), where he says that these verses were revealed about someone from Bani Umayyah, who was also present in the same meeting of the leaders of Quraysh.
This man was also quite a rich person, but did not have good manners. When he saw the blind man interfering and disturbing our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) during the meeting, he frowned and turned away, showing signs of anger. These verses were therefore revealed in reference to this man from Bani Umayyah, and not in reference to Rasulullah (SAWA).
These are the two versions of interpretation recorded in reference to these verses of Surah Abasa. The question is very clear. How is it possible that our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) will frown and turn away and ignore and neglect a poor, blind man begging for guidance and learning the Holy Quran, and instead focus his attention on rich people?
How is this possible, especially since we believe Rasulullah (SAWA) is Ma’soom (infallible) and has the best moral traits?
How is it possible that Almighty Allah (SWT) reprimands Rasulullah (SAWA) with strong words evident from the verses of Surah Abasa?
The majority of commentators of the Holy Quran have recorded the first story, where unfortunately the pronoun “he” in verse 1 of Surah Abasa (“he frowned and turned away”) refers to our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA).
This is undoubtedly a very serious question, especially for us followers of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) who believe that he is completely infallible as the best of creation. We will respond to this question covering various points at different levels.
1. WHO IS “HE” IN THE FIRST VERSE?
This verse is not explicit about “he” referring to Prophet Muhammad (SAWA). The Quranic word is “he”, but it is the interpretation from the majority of commentators of the Holy Quran that this “he” refers to Rasulullah (SAWA).
Perhaps from the third verse onwards, when the address is not to the third person, but rather, the address is to the first person, meaning the pronoun changes. From here we may indirectly understand that Almighty Allah (SWT) is speaking to our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA), because the person being addressed is direct, namely “you”.
Again, this is not concrete or 100%, as there are many instances where the Quran uses the word “you” but is referring to someone else. It is most likely referring to Rasulullah (SAWA), but not necessarily always the case.
So, the first point I want to make is that there is no explicit reference to Rasulullah (SAWA) when the word “he” is used in the first verse of Surah Abasa.
2. SUBLIME MORALITY OF RASULULLAH (SAWA) MAKES IT IMPOSSIBLE FOR HIM TO SHOW CONTEMPT
When we reflect on our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA), there is no doubt that his greatest quality was his akhlaq (noble moral character). His manners and etiquette were truly sublime. Is it possible to even imagine that Rasulullah (SAWA) could frown and turn away from a poor, blind, vulnerable person? It is completely impossible. Common sense does not allow us to accept this type of attitude and behaviour from our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA).
If we reflect on the akhlaq (noble moral character) of our Rasul (SAWA), we note that he was never rude or arrogant to even his enemies. We all know the story of the woman who threw her rubbish at him when he passed by her house every day, and the exemplary manners he displayed towards her, nonetheless.
We all know the story of the Arab Bedouin coming from the village who harshly pulled the cloak of Rasulullah (SAWA), causing his neck to turn red as a result. Despite this, Rasulullah (SAWA) reacted in an extremely polite, humble manner.
He was a Prophet who use to greet children! He was humble before the most humble. So then, how is it possible that he will give preference to the rich over a poor, blind, vulnerable believing person? That is really very difficult for us to understand, if not impossible.
3. HOLY QURAN TESTIFIES TO THE SUBLIME MORALITY OF PROPHET MUHAMMAD (SAWA)
He has the best moral traits, as confirmed by verse 4 of Surah Qalam (chapter 68 of the Holy Quran):
وَإِنَّكَ لَعَلَىٰ خُلُقٍ عَظِيمٍ
“And most surely you conform (yourself) to sublime morality.”
Therefore, him supposedly frowning and turning away would be a direct antithesis to this verse.
4. RASULULLAH (SAWA) WAS THE CHAMPION OF THE POOR
Rasulullah (SAWA) was never enjoying the company of rich people. The elite of society never supported him either. Rasulullah (SAWA) was always supported by the poor and vulnerable. Poor companions like Abu Dharr and Bilal were his closest confidants.
How is it possible then, that he would show contempt to hurt the poor and prefer rich people’s company? This is another point which makes it impossible to accept that the person referred to in verse 1 of Surah Abasa is Rasulullah (SAWA).
Therefore, based upon this very clear understanding, the leading Shia commentators of the Holy Quran say that “he” is not referring to our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA). It is not possible for him to have frowned and turned away. However, this action was so distasteful to the extent where Rasulullah (SAWA) is reminded by Almighty Allah (SWT) through these verses that this action is most unacceptable from someone sitting in his gathering.
This approach in the Holy Quran is not uncommon. In Arabic there is a saying that we speak to the door so that wall can also listen.
Now here, since the issue was so highly important, it came in the form of a reprimand.
Based on these insights, the Hadith from Imam Jafar Sadiq (a.s) noted earlier is more reliable and suitable, where he says that the person who frowned and turned away was someone from Bani Ummayah, who was present in the same gathering.
PROBLEMS WITH THE CONTEXT OF REVELATION PREVENTS HAVING CLARITY ON THE BACKGROUND
In addition to the above points, Ayatollah Taqi Modarresi brings a very interesting angle in his Tafsir (commentary) of the Holy Quran. He says that the whole discussion regarding the background of the revelation of verses of the Holy Quran is very shaky. He says that the information is not based upon concrete historical evidence.
He says that the stories of revelation which are explained, especially by the first generation of Quranic commentators (Mufassireen), are examples of the message or the lessons given in that particular verse of the Quran. In other words, they would explain what the lessons are from the respective verses and what scenarios it applies to.
Therefore, Ayatollah Taqi Modarresi claims that often those first generation commentators brought stories explaining the background to revelation, where those events occurred long before the revelation of that particular verse or sometimes even after revelation of that verse.
An example is where a verse was revealed in Mecca, where the event these commentators narrated occurred in Madina. This is possible because they are not sharing the background to the revelation, but rather, are sharing an example of where this revelation is applicable.
The second and third generation of Quranic commentators took these applicable scenarios mentioned in the commentary of the first generation and took them as the context of the revelation (Shan-e-Nuzool), instead of understanding the distinction between the relevant context of revelation and examples where the revealed verses apply.
Sometimes, there were stories given and the people mentioned in those stories did not even exist during the time of Rasulullah (SAWA). They came afterwards, but somehow are mentioned as being part of the background to the revelation.
Now, let us bring this viewpoint of Ayatollah Taqi Modaressi to understand the verses of Surah Abasa. The story of the blind man being explained as the background to these verses therefore does not prove anything.
As a Shia commentator of the Holy Quran, he refers his opinion to a great Sunni scholar by the name of Shah Waliyullah Dehlvir, who wrote a classical work titled “Al-Fauz al-Kabeer fi Usul al-Tafsir”. This same concern regarding Shan-e-Nuzool which Ayatollah Taqi Modaressi highlighted is also raised in this book.
Now, he says that this incident insinuated by these verses of Surah Abasa is one such example of questionable background context provided for the verse being revealed. The blind man, Abdullah ibn Umm Maktoom, was in Madina, and this meeting with Quraysh took place in Mecca. So then, how is it possible that the blind man was present? It is simply not possible to reconcile.
AYATOLLAH JAWADI AMULI UNDERSTANDS THE QURAN WITH THE HELP OF QURAN
The great scholar and philosopher of our time Ayatollah Jawadi Amuli takes a different angle. He is a student of the grand commentator of the Holy Quran, Allama Tabataba’i, and therefore believes that the best method to understand the Quran is through the Quran itself.
So, according to this approach, whenever you are saddled with confusion, as we are experiencing in this discussion where we have the sublime moral character of Rasulullah (SAWA) on the one hand and on the other hand you have this very strong reprimand with the background recorded by early commentators of the Holy Quran, then we should try to make sense of this through the Quranic principles itself. This is Quran with the help of the Quran.
Ayatollah Jawadi Amuli says that the sublime moral character of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA), referred to in verse 4 of Surah Qalam (chapter 68 of the Holy Quran), is a principle position of the Quran. It is not simply a praise done partially or occasionally for Rasulullah (SAWA).
وَإِنَّكَ لَعَلَىٰ خُلُقٍ عَظِيمٍ
“And most surely you conform (yourself) to sublime morality.”
Through his philosophical and mystical approach, Ayatollah Jawadi Amuli explains that “adheem” is one of the attributes of Almighty Allah. He says that Almighty Allah (SWT) is saying in this verse that our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) is the manifestation of “Khuluqin Adheem”.
Sometimes one has a principle but then also have exceptions where the principle or formula does not apply. Then there are formulas which do not accept any exception. Ayatollah Jawadi Amuli says that the above verse establishing the sublime morality of Rasulullah (SAWA) is one of those formulas because it is attached to the attributes of Almighty Allah (SWT), and therefore no exception is possible in this formula.
Therefore, when we are now confused and doubtful about the person referred to in the pronoun “he” of the first verse of Surah Abasa, we will go to this formula to determine who is “he” in this verse. If we were to say that “he” is Rasulullah (SAWA), then we are saying that there should be an exception to that formula, meaning he had sublime moral character except in this situation! This cannot be, because it goes against the full, conclusive sublime moral character referred to in verse 4 for of Surah Qalam (refer above).
This is now the approach of Ayatollah Jawadi Amuli towards these debated verses of Surah Abasa.
MODERN LIBERAL ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATION OF SURAH ABASA
Let us now analyse the same verse a little differently. Of course, people with more modern, liberal tendencies amongst our religious scholars, reflect on these verses differently. They have given quite a broad exegesis to explain their interpretation of these verses.
They say, let us accept that “he” refers to Rasulullah (SAWA) having frowned and turned away. According to them, it is neither in contradiction with his infallibility, nor is it in conflict with the Prophetic akhlaq. They explain that it is because Rasulullah (SAWA) was in a very serious meeting with the leaders of Quraysh. Islam could have benefitted from this meeting largely, as it was a strategic meeting.
Rasulullah (SAWA) was therefore not impressed by their wealth or elite social status. Instead, his prime focus here was for the influence of Islam and it will have great impact on the movement of Islam if he is able to bring these leaders of Quraysh on board.
We can understand this very clearly today. Example, if you run a small organization, there are times when we need to talk to influential people and give great importance to them. We do this not out of attraction to their wealth or social status, and we do not humble before them.
Our objective is that if we are able to bring such influential people on board with our agenda, then we as an organization will have greater position in society and funds available for social and religious projects. This is normal.
Now, if a very sincere person comes in the middle of such a meeting and does not realize or understand what is taking place, thereby interferes and spoils proceedings, then we will naturally get upset.
So, Rasulullah (SAWA) was not interested in the wealth and position personally. He was genuinely interested in the future of Islam, which prompted this meeting with the leaders of Quraysh.
WHOSE TO SAY THE BLIND MAN WAS NOT BEYOND REPROACH IN THIS INCIDENT?
Abdullah ibn Umm Maktoom was a blind person and therefore could not see what strategic meeting is underway. He is the one who did not care about manners and etiquettes. He was not supposed to insist when he saw that Rasulullah (SAWA) was not responding due to being engrossed in this strategic meeting with the leaders of Quraysh. He was supposed to calm down and wait until Rasulullah (SAWA) completes his meeting and then he will teach him what he is requesting.
It is bizarre to walk into a meeting and expect Rasulullah (SAWA) to simply abort that strategic meeting and focus all his attention on you, while abandoning the others who have a confirmed appointment with him at that time. Hence, the disrespect was from the blind man and not Rasulullah (SAWA).
The blind man could not see if Rasulullah (SAWA) supposedly frowned and turned away and therefore is not an insult directed to him. The liberal approach believes that Rasulullah (SAWA) was between two things; one was important (to listen to the blind man) and the other was more important (continue the meeting with the leaders of Quraysh). The reason why this was more important is because this has impact for the whole Ummah and not just one individual.
Rasulullah (SAWA) accordingly prioritized the Ummah (strategic meeting) over the individual (request from blind man). This is not against the principles of sublime moral character and does not bring his infallibility into question. There was no confrontation. All that there was, was an awkward feeling (and he frowned) due to the momentum of the strategic meeting being disrupted. So, according to these scholars adopting an alternate, liberal, modern interpretation, there is nothing wrong with what he did.
WHY WAS RASULULLAH (SAWA) REPRIMANDED BY ALMIGHTY ALLAH (SWT)?
Now, it therefore begs the question why did Almighty Allah (SWT) reprimand Rasulullah (SAWA) from verse 3 onwards? They explain that it was the assessment of Rasulullah (SAWA) at that moment, that the negotiations with the leaders of Quraysh is more important than attending to the request of the blind man.
However, Almighty Allah (SWT) wanted to establish something greater. The reality on the ground is that this blind man, who is genuinely interested in self-purification and spiritual development is more important than those leaders of Quraysh who are a waste of time, because there is no hope for those people as they are always coming with excuses.
The other principle point that Almighty Allah (SWT) wanted to establish with Rasulullah (SAWA) is that even though the blind man cannot see or feel the fact that Rasulullah (SAWA) frowned and turned away, it is unbecoming of the sublime morality for which Rasulullah (SAWA) is the manifestation of divinely attributes. Meaning, such a reaction is not suitable for Rasulullah (SAWA) and that is why Almighty Allah (SWT) reprimanded.
So, if this was our reaction, then there is nothing wrong. It is not a sin. But such a reaction is not expected if someone is on the level of “khuluqin adheem”. He should not at any time take his attention away from the needs of the poor and disabled.
CULTURE OF ISLAM FAVOURS THE POOR AND OPPOSES THE ARROGANT
The last point I wish to make is beyond all the points discussed tonight. Beyond all these points, who was “he”? According to the preferred opinion of Shia Ulama, it was not Rasulullah (SAWA) who “frowned and turned away”, as it is most unbecoming of someone with the status of “khuluqin adheem”.
Beyond this point, what this verse and Surah shows to the world is that the culture of Islam is support of the poor, vulnerable and weakest of society. They are much more important than anybody else, even if you are sitting with the elite leaders. We should never be fooled by their position, wealth and status. The only acceptable criteria are Imaan and Taqwa, and genuine focus on self-development.
For those people who accuse Rasulullah (SAWA) of fabricating the Holy Quran himself, it does not make sense for Surah Abasa in its strong tone to be included. This makes it so clear for all to see, on where does Islam stand when it comes to the oppressed and oppressor, arrogance and those who suffer in society.
May Almighty Allah (SWT) grant us the Taufeeq to reflect this akhlaaq in our character. Akhlaaq of being humble in front of the poor and vulnerable, and firm against the rich and arrogant.