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The Message of the Quran

Muhammad Asad

 

AL-ALA (THE ALL-HIGHEST)

THE EIGHTY-SEVENTH SURAH
Total Verses: 19
MECCA PERIOD

 

Introduction

 

THIS IS most probably the eighth surah in the chronology of revelation. The key-word by which it has always been known appears in the first verse.

 

IN THE NAME OF GOD, THE MOST GRACIOUS, THE DISPENSER OF GRACE:

 

(1) EXTOL the limitless glory of thy Sustainer's name:[the glory of] the Al-Highest,

 

(2) who creates [every thing], and thereupon forms it in accordance with with what it is meant to be,*

 

* I.e., He endows it with inner coherence and with qualities consistent with the functions which it is meant to perform, and thus adapts it a priori to the exigencies of its existence.

 

(3) and who determines the nature [of all that exists],* and thereupon guides it [towards its fulfilment],

 

* Cf. the last sentence of 25:2 and the corresponding note 3; also 20:50 and note 31.

 

(4) and who brings forth herbage,

 

(5) and thereupon causes it to decay into rust-brown stubble!*

 

* I.e., metonymically, "who brings forth life and deals death"

 

(6) WE SHALL teach thee, and thou wilt not forget [aught of what thou art taught],

 

(7) save what God may will [thee to forget]* - for, verily, He [alone] knows all that is open to [man's] perception as well as all that is hidden [from it]** -:

 

* The classical commentators assume that the above words are addressed specifically to the Prophet, and that, therefore, they relate to his being taught the Qur' an and being promised that he would not forget anything thereof, "save what God may will [thee to forget]". This last clause has ever since given much trouble to the commentators, inasmuch as it is not very plausible that He who has revealed the Qur'an to the Prophet should cause him to forget anything of it. Hence, many unconvincing explanations have been advanced from very early times down to our own days, the least convincing being that last refuge of every perplexed Qur'an-commentator, the "doctrine of abrogation" (refuted in my note 87 on 2:106). However, the supposed difficulty of interpretation disappears as soon as we allow ourselves to realize that the above passage, though ostensibly addressed to the Prophet, is directed at man in general, and that it is closely related to an earlier Qur'anic revelation - namely, the first five verses of surah 96 ("The Germ-Cell") and, in particular, verses 3-5, which speak of God's having "taught man what he did not know". In note 3 on those verses I have expressed the opinion that they allude to mankind's cumulative acquisition of empirical and rational knowledge, handed down from generation to generation and from one civilization to another: and it is to this very phenomenon that the present passage, too, refers. We are told here that God, who has formed man in accordance with what he is meant to be and has promised to guide him, will enable him to acquire (and thus, as it were, "impart" to him) elements of knowledge which mankind will accumulate, record and collectively "remember" - except what God may cause man to "forget" (in another word, to abandon) as having become redundant by virtue of his new experiences and his acquisition of wider, more differentiated elements of knowledge, empirical as well as deductive or speculative, including more advanced, empirically acquired skills. However, the very next sentence makes it clear that all knowledge arrived at through our observation of the external world and through speculation, though necessary and most valuable, is definitely limited in scope and does not, therefore, in itself suffice to give us an insight into ultimate truths.

 

** I.e., all that is intrinsically beyond the reach of human perception (al-ghayb): the implication being that, since human knowledge must forever remain imperfect, man cannot really find his way through life without the aid of divine revelation.

 

(8) and [thus] shall We make easy for thee the path towards [ultimate] ease.*

 

* I.e., towards an ease of the mind and peace of the spirit.

 

(9) REMIND, THEN, [others of the truth, regardless of] whether this reminding [would seem to] be of use [or not]:*

 

* Thus Baghawi, as well as Razi in one of his alternative interpretations of this phrase.

 

(10) in mind will keep it he who stands in awe [of God],

 

(11) but aloof from it will remain that most hapless wretch

 

(12) he who [in the life to come] shall have to endure the great fire

 

(13) wherein he will neither die nor remain alive.*

 

* I.e., in consequence of having remained aloof from the divine reminder. (Cf. 74:28-29.)

 

(14) To happiness [in the life to come] will indeed attain he who attains to purity [in this world],

 

(15) and remembers his Sustainer's name, and prays [unto Him].

 

(16) But nay, [O men,] you prefer the life of this world,

 

(17) although the life to come is better and more enduring.

 

(18) Verily, [all] this has indeed been [said] in the earlier revelations

 

(19) the revelations of Abraham and Moses.*

 

* These two names are given here only as examples of earlier prophetic revelations, thus stressing, once again, the twofold fact of continuity in mankind's religious experiences and of the identity of the basic truths preached by all the prophets. (cf. also 53:36 ff.) The noun suhuf (sing. sahifah), which literally denotes "leaves [of a book]" or "scrolls", is synonymous with kitab in all the senses of this term (Jawhari): hence, in the above context, "revelations".

 

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