AL-ALAQ (THE GERM-CELL)
THE NINETY-SIXTH SURAH
Total Verses: 19
THERE IS no doubt
that the first five verses of this surah represent the very beginning of
the revelation of the Qur'an. Although the exact date
cannot be established with certainty, all authorities agree in that these five
verses were revealed in the last third of the month of Ramadan, thirteen years
before the hijrah (corresponding to
July or August, 610, of the Christian era). Muhammad was then forty years old.
At that period of his life "solitude became dear unto him, and he used to
withdraw into seclusion in a cave of
IN THE NAME OF GOD, THE MOST GRACIOUS, THE DISPENSER OF GRACE:
1) READ 1 in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created –
(2) created man out of a germ-cell! 2
(3) Read - for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One
(4) who has taught [man] the use of the pen –
(5) taught man what he did not know! 3
(6) Nay, verily, man becomes grossly overweening
(7) whenever he believes himself to be self-sufficient:
(8) for, behold, unto thy Sustainer all must return. 4
(9) HAST THOU ever considered him who tries to prevent
(10) a servant [of God] from praying? 5
(11) Hast thou considered whether he is on the right way,
(12) or is concerned with God-consciousness? 6
(13) Hast thou considered whether he may [not] be giving the lie to the truth and turning his back [upon it]? 7
(14) Does he, then, not know that God sees [all]?
(15) Nay, if he desist not, We shall most surely drag him down upon his forehead 8 –
(16) the lying, rebellious forehead! –
(17) and then let him summon [to his aid] the counsels of his own [spurious] wisdom, 9
(18) [the while] We shall summon the forces of heavenly chastisement!
(19) Nay, pay thou no heed to him, but prostrate thyself [before God] and draw close [unto Him]!
1 Sc., "this divine writ". The imperative iqra' may be rendered as "read" or "recite". The former rendering is, to my mind, by far the preferable in this context inasmuch as the concept of "reciting" implies no more than the oral delivery - with or without understanding - of something already laid down in writing or committed to memory, whereas "reading" primarily signifies a conscious taking-in, with or without an audible utterance but with a view to understanding them, of words and ideas received from an outside source: in this case, the message of the Qur'an.
2 The past tense in which the verb khalaqa appears in these two verses is meant to indicate that the act of divine creation (khalq) has been and is being continuously repeated. It is also noteworthy that this very first Qur'anic revelation alludes to man's embryonic evolution out of a "germ-cell.' - i.e., out of a fertilized female ovum - thus contrasting the primitiveness and simplicity of his biological origins with his intellectual and spiritual potential: a contrast which clearly points to the existence of a conscious design and a purpose underlying the creation of life.
3 "The pen" is used here as a symbol for the art of writing or, more specifically, for all knowledge recorded by means of writing: and this explains the symbolic summons "Read!" at the beginning of verses 1 and 3. Man's unique ability to transmit, by means of written records, his thoughts, experiences and insights from individual to individual, from generation to generation, and from one cultural environment to another endows all human knowledge with a cumulative character; and since, thanks to this God-given ability, every human being partakes, in one way or another, in mankind's continuous accumulation of knowledge, man is spoken of as being "taught by God" things which the single individual does not - and, indeed, cannot - know by himself. (This double stress on man's utter dependence on God, who creates him as a biological entity and implants in him the will and the ability to acquire knowledge, receives its final accent, as it were, in the next three verses.) Furthermore, God's "teaching" man signifies also the act of His revealing, through the prophets, spiritual truths and moral standards which cannot be unequivocally established through human experience and reasoning alone: and, thus, it circumscribes the phenomenon of divine revelation as such.
4 Lit., "is the return (ar-ruj‘a)". This noun has here a twofold implication: "everyone will inescapably be brought before God for judgment", as well as "everything that exists goes back to God as its source". In ultimate analysis, the statement expressed in verses 6-8 rejects as absurd the arrogant idea that man could ever be self-sufficient and, hence, "master of his own fate"; furthermore, it implies that all moral concepts - that is, all discrimination between good and evil, or right and wrong - are indissolubly linked with the concept of man's responsibility to a Supreme Power: in other words, without such a feeling of responsibility - whether conscious or subconscious - the concept of "morality" as such loses all its meaning.
5 Lit., "who forbids a servant [of God] when he prays", implying an attempt at preventing. Since this seems to refer to praying in public, most of the classical commentators see in this passage (which was revealed at least a year later than the first five verses) an allusion to Abu Jahl, the Prophet's bitterest opponent in Mecca, who persistently tried to prevent Muhammad and his followers from praying before the Kabah. However, there is no doubt that the purport of the above passage goes far beyond any historical incident or situation inasmuch as it applies to all attempts, at all times, to deny to religion (symbolized in the term "praying") its legitimate function in the shaping of social life - attempts made either in the conviction that religion is every individual's "private affair" and, therefore, must not be allowed to "intrude" into the realm of social considerations, or, alternatively, in the pursuit of the illusion that man is above any need of metaphysical guidance.
6 Lit., "or enjoins God-consciousness (taqwa)" - i.e., whether his aim is to deepen his fellow-men's God-consciousness by insisting that religion is a purely personal matter: the obvious implication being that this is not his aim, and that he is not on the right way in thinking and acting as he does. - Throughout this work, the term taqwa - of which the present is the earliest instance in the chronology of Qur'anic revelation - has been rendered as "God-consciousness", with the same meaning attaching to the verbal forms from which this noun is derived. (See also surah 2, note 2.)
7 Sc., "because in his arrogance he cannot face it".
8 Or: "by his forelock" - an ancient Arabian expression denoting aa person's utter subjection and humiliation (see and the corresponding note 80). However, as Razi points out, the term "forelock" (nasiyah) is here used metonymically for the place on which the forelock grows, i.e., the forehead (cf. also Taj al-Arus).
9 Lit., "'his council". According to the commentators who tend to interpret verses such as this in purely historical terms, this may be a reference to the traditional council of elders (dar an- nadwah) in pagan Mecca; but more probably, I think, it is an allusion to the arrogance which so often deludes man into regarding himself as "self-sufficient" (verses 6-7 above).