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Sūrah Mā'ūn
Qur'anic Exegesis
Amin Ahsan Islahi
(Tr. by:Dr. Shehzad Saleem)
Relationship with Preceding and Succeeding Sūrahs

In the previous pair of sūrahs ---Fil and Quraysh---it has been explained that the tribe of Quraysh has been blessed with the favours of peace and sustenance because of Baytullāh (the House of God). These blessing entailed that they should have worshipped the Lord of this Sacred House with all sincerity and should have strived to fulfil the objective for which it was built and given in their custody. Now in the succeeding pair of sūrahs---Mā'ūn and Kausar---the characters of the Quraysh chiefs have been initially depicted who at the time of revelation of these sūrahs were the overseers and custodians of Baytullāh. It is subsequently asserted that they are no longer fit to be the trustees of this exalted House. They have grossly failed to carry out the assignment and deserve to be deposed from this prestigious position, which shall be handed over to those worthy of it.

In this particular sūrah, the petty character of a leader of Quraysh has been portrayed. The portrayel expresses a strong element of amazement, in fact disgust, over his attitude of callously driving away orphans which clearly bears witness to his disbelief in the Day of Judgement. Although the person is not addressed by name, yet it is quite evident that Abu Lahab's character is under discussion. It was he who at the time of revelation of the sūrah had all the financial resources of Baytullāh under his sole control. A depiction of the characters of the people follows who, though, apparently offer their prayers in the Baytullāh, yet their prayers lack spirit and devotion and are in fact a show of pretense on their part. A person who is not sincere in his relationship with his Creator can never be a well-wisher of his fellow beings. He will always be a miser in his dealings and will never have the heart to even lend small items of general use, not to speak of spending in the path of God.

It should be kept in mind that the Baytullāh was built for two reasons. Firstly, to be the centre of worship of the one and only God; secondly, to cater for the needs, physical as well as emotional, of the orphans and the poor. It was the duty of its custodians to carry out these tasks. But since such individuals whose unworthy characters have been depicted cannot be expected to fulfil the duty, the next sūrah decides their fate once and for all.

Meaning of the Sūrah

Seest thou one who belies reward and punishment. He it is who drives away the orphan, and urges not the feeding of the poor.

So perdition be to the worshippers who are indifferent to their prayers; who put on a pretentious display, and do not lend even ordinary items of common use.

Explanation of the Sūrah

Āra'aitallazī ukazzibu biddīn.

(Seest thou one who belies reward and punishment.)  (1)

The word āra'aita is used to direct the attention of a reader by expressing surprise and dislike at the attitude of a person or a group of persons. The word deen here means reward and punishment as in māliki yaumid deen [1:3] (the Master of the Day of Judgement.)

The antecedent of the conjunctive pronoun allazī (he who) has not been stated, but the context readily indicates that Abu Lahab's character is being symbolized. He was an extremely rich yet stingy person who was in charge of the Rifādah or the treasury of Baytullāh at the time of revelation of this sūrah. His mean personality has been considerably delineated in the succeeding sūrah---Lahab. It will become evident from a study of that sūrah that he considered the Rifādah as his  own property and  consumed its funds for personal purposes, and had thereby become the Qārūn of Mecca.

Here, it is actually intended to point out his hard-heartedness that what good can be expected from such a ruthless person who drives away orphans inspite of being assigned towards their welfare, but the style adopted is such that it unfurls his internal nature which is actually the cause of this callousness.

The adjective yukazzibu bid dīn (denier of reward and punishment) explains this. A person who denies the Day of Judgement cannot have any motivation to expend his wealth in the path of God to please Him as well as to secure the welfare and well-being of his fellow brethren. Such a person can only `drain his wealth' for his own self or to put up a false show of concern for the poor. Only a true belief in the Final Day can induce a person to spend on the deprived without having a vested self interest. This fact has also been highlighted in Sūrah Lail:

"As for him who gives and fears [the Lord] and testifies to a good fate, We shall smooth out an easy way for him. But he who is a greedy miser and is heedless [to the Day of Judgement] and testifies to a bad fate. We shall indeed smooth out for him the path of hardships." [92:5-10]

Fa zālik allazī yadu"ul yatīm.

(He it is who drives away the orphan)  (2)

da "un means `to push and shove' as used in Sūrah Tūr:

" On that day they shall be sternly shoved in the fire of Hell." [52:13]

According to the Qur’ān the orphans should be treated with regard and respect. It rebukes those who disregard them:

"Nay, ye honour not the orphans." [89:17]

In an Islamic society, as the Caliph Abu Bakar once said, the weak are the strongest and the most influential unless they are given their rights. Hence, every person of a society is required to deeply respect the people who are yet to receive their rights. Every Muslim who has a sense of honour in him should uphold their cause and strive to obtain their rights for them.

Wa lā yahudhdhu `alā ta'āmil miskīn.

(And urges not the feeding of the poor.)  (3)

This verse restates what has been said above by highlighting another aspect. It says that a person who maltreats orphans is the last one who could urge others to sympathize with them. Psychologically, every miser wishes to hide his miserliness by desiring his fellow-beings to follow his footsteps so that there is no one can call him a miser. Consequently, contrary to his wishes, any person who spends on the poor becomes a target of his jeers and taunts which are meant to discourage him from indulging in this `wasteful activity' in the very beginning, as has been pointed out in Sūrah Humaza.

It should be kept in mind, as indicated before, that the character of the person who controled and directed the poor welfare department of the Baytullāh is being portrayed. In other words, it is being implied that when a thief assumes the seat of a judge, the result is not difficult to predict.

Fa wailulil musallīn. Allazīna hum 'an salātihim sāhūn.

(So perdition be to the worshippers who are indifferent to their prayers.) (4-5)

The verse points out the lack of purity and devotion in the prayers of these religious pundits. Since they have to maintain their religious and social standings as the custodians of the Baitulāh they put up a false show of worship in front of the general masses. Such a show certainly cannot instill in them the real spirit of worship, which becomes nothing but a matter of fooling the public.

It should be borne in mind that the real purpose for which Baytullāh was built was the establishment of prayers. To specially achieve this purpose, the prophet Abraham settled his son Ismael in its vicinity to enable himself and his progeny to establish this institution of worship. In this regard, his humble invocation to the Almighty has been cited in the Qur’ān as follows:

"O our Lord! I have settled some of my offspring in a barren valley near your Sacred House; in order, our hord! that they may establish regular prayers." [14:37]

How Ismael fulfilled this obligation, the Qur’ān itself testifies:

"He used to enjoin prayers and zakat on his people." [19:55]

Even in later times when sorcerers and innovators held sway in the land, the institution of prayers and zakat continued, though they were completely distorted and disfigured. How the directive of zakat had been mutilated has been pointed out above. What fate the prayers reached is mentioned in Sūrah Infa'āl as follows:

"Their prayer at the Baytullāh is nothing but whistling and clapping of hands." [8:35]

Just as the leaders of every period put up a display of religious rituals to feign religious austerity, the leaders of the Quraysh too on special occasions upheld this practice. This verse actually upbraids such unworthy persons who are unaware about the real essence of prayers by sounding a severe warning to them.

Allazīna hum yurā'ūn. Wa yamna'ūnal Mā'ūn.

(Those who put on a pretentious display, and do not even lend ordinary items of common use.)  (6-7)

This verse further delinates their show of false pretense.It in fact asserts two reasons behind the lack of purity and devotion in their prayers: pretentiousness and miserliness.

Purity and sincerity of intentions is the essence of prayers, ie they should be offered just to please the Almighty and to win his favour and affection. If they are offered for any other motive they loose their purpose and in fact become fatal to their very cause. The prayers of the custodians of the Baytullāh had been adulterated not only by their ill-beliefs but also, as indicated before, were a show of false intentions. Quite evidently such  prayers are nothing more than a theatrical enactment. Just as impersonating characters in a drama does not actually make a person one of them, likewise people who feign the articles of prayer do not become true worshippers.

Their miserliness too is an ample proof of the perfunctory nature of their prayers. The real spirit behind prayers is a feeling of gratitude to the Almighty. A person who is grateful to his Creator can never be a miser or a skinflint. Instead he is bound to be large-hearted and magnanimous. He believes in spending on the deprived and needy, not as a favour on them but because they have a rightful claim on his own wealth. In fact, he is so overwhelmed with this sense of gratitude that fulfulling others needs even at his own expense is a source of tremendous satisfaction for him. From the point of view of the philosophy of religion also, prayers and spending in the path of God have a deep relationship; for the prayer is the foremost manifestation of the feeling of gratitude and such a prayer subsequently motivates a person to expend on the needy. It can be safely said that the whole system of the Shariah is based on these two pillars of faith.

Yamna`ūnal Mā'ūn: Mā'ūn means items of common usage. It is perfectly in accordance with the norms of social relationships to borrow such items from a neighbour. Many a time such needs arise and it is but natural to ask for such things in close associations. Borrowing and lending such items is in fact a sign of a healthy social set-up and promotes ties of friendship and fraternity between people. Every decent person should be happy to help out his neighbour if at any time he needs for example a knife, a cooking pot, bedding items or even a matchbox. Only mean people can refuse assistance on such occasions. Also, whenever such niggardly people pray they do so only to impress others because they have no inner motivation for it. Neither does such a prayer influence their hearts. In fact, ostentation in such a sacred affair increases their callousness

Some people, because of the verse Fa wailulil musallīn allazīna hum 'an salātihim sāhūn maintain that the sūrah was revealed in Medina. They contend that such people who used to pretend righteousness could not have existed in Mecca, and must be regarded as a product of the later Medinate period. The reason behind this misconception is that they consider the prayer mentioned here as the one obligated by Islam, whereas it implies, as we have explained above, the prayer whose establishment had been ordained by the Almighty to the prophet Ismael and his progeny along with the directive of building the Baytullāh. This prayer was adopted and offered in later tines though it lost its original form and shape because of innovations which over the years had gained a stronghold in the religious thought of the Arabs.

(Translated from Islahi's "Tadabbur-i-Qur’ān")


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