Tafseer of the Qur’an (Ep.-3) – Surat an-Naba (Ch.-78), Verses: 1-2
Surat an-Naba (Chapter-78) and whatever comes after it is all known to be part of Juz ‘Amma or Juz an-Naba. The first Surah is Surat an-Naba – the Surah that deals with the ‘great incident’ or the ‘great news’.
But first, what is meant by Juz? The scholars have divided the Qur’an into 30 parts. And the Qur’an is composed of 114 chapters, beginning with Chapter 1 (Surat al-Fatiha) and ending with Chapter 114 (Surat an-Nas). So we have 114 Surahs. And ‘Surahs’ translate as ‘Chapters’. And the Quran itself is divided into 30 Juz or 30 parts that may include one or more Surahs. And some Surahs may include 1 or 2 parts. For example, Surat al-Baqarah (Chapter2): it has more than 1 Juz in it.
Now if you look at this, the last Juz, it is the last part which contains Surahs from Surah 78 to Surah 114. This is known as Juz 30, and it is well known amongst the Muslims as it is the last and the easiest to memorize. So the majority of the Muslims (if not all) memorize it by heart. They call it Juz ‘Amma. And this Surah (Surah 78) is known as Surat an-Naba. It has 40 verses in it. And the Surah is Makki. And what do we mean by Makki? To explain this, we must know that the ‘Sciences of the Qur’an’ is a science that deals with the related events surrounding the Qur’an. So it deals with the abrogated verses of the Qur’an, when particular ayaat were revealed, where they were revealed, what is meant by the general verses and the specific verses, etc. It also deals with the different Qira’aat and the differences between them. So when we look at Surat an-Naba (chapter78) we see that it is Makki. So what is Makki? Scholars divided the chapters of the Qur’an into Makki and Madani. Makki is related to Makkah and Madani is related to Madinah. And we know that the Prophet salla Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam lived most of his life in Makkah. When he was at the age of 40, revelations started. When he was 53 years old, he was ordered to migrate to Madinah where he spent the following 10 years and he died when he was 63 years of age, salla Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam. So the scholars said that whatever was revealed before the migration is called Makki and whatever was revealed after the migration to Madinah is called Madani. And each one has its specific characteristics. And they are different from one another.
Some Scholars said that the Makki ayaat or Surahs are whatever are related to the location, whether it was before or after the migration and the same goes for Madani. But this is not the most authentic opinion of the Scholars. Some say that it depends on to whom it was addressing but then again this is a weak opinion. The most authentic opinion is that what was revealed before the migration is called Makki and what was revealed after the migration is called Madani.
Now, what are the benefits of knowing what is Makki and what is Madani? Well, first of all, it gives you a better understanding of the interpretation and the explanation of the Qur’an. It helps us understand which verses are addressing the disbelievers or the idol worshippers and it would be different if it was in Madinah; then they would be addressing the Muslims in general or specifically, the Jews and the Christians. So it’s different. And among the benefits is that, we know which verse abrogates the other. So if a verse was revealed in Makkah and then a few years later, another verse was revealed in Madinah and we are not able to combine them and join them together, then that we know that the latter abrogated the first one. And this is mentioned in the Qur’an. Abrogation is part of the Qur’an because Allah ‘azza wa jal reveals verses in accordance to the situations of the recipients. For example, we know that the Arabs used to drink; they loved wine. So Allah azza wa jal, with His Kindness and Mercy did not prohibit wine immediately; it was prohibited on 3 different situations. So the last one abrogated the former 2 verses. The first one stated, “The people ask you about gambling, intoxicants; tell them there are benefits in it and a lot of harm and the harms are far greater than the benefits”. So it didn’t tell them don’t do it. But it gave them a hint. Then another verse came where Allah told them not to pray while in the state of intoxication. So now they knew that there are times that they can drink, which is after ‘Isha probably because from ‘Isha prayer until Fajr prayer it’s like 7 or 8 hours, maybe 10 hours, so this would give them enough time to become sober. And then the last stage was revealed, where Allah said that this is the work of Shaitan and we should refrain from intoxicants; it became completely prohibited. Hence, abrogation is there in the Qur’an and one of the advantages of knowing what is Makki and what is Madani is that, if we cannot join two verses in meaning, then we know that whatever was revealed later has abrogated what was revealed before.
Also, we come to know the history of the revelation and how it was gradual and how the Shar’iah law was given to us in this form of segmentation or parts. It also tells us that there are different ways of giving Da’wah. So giving Da’wah to idol worshippers is not like giving Da’wah and calling those who are Muslims. There are different means, methodologies and subjects to focus on. I cannot go to a university and talk to the students there without evidences that appeal to their logic. Whereas, if I go to my congregation, all I have to say is, “This is what Allah says” and they would take it for granted and accept it. Hence, you have to be selective. And this shows us that addressing the people of Makkah was different from addressing the people of Madinah. And it also gives us a glimpse of the biography of Prophet salla Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam; how he lived in Makkah and how he lived in Madinah. It also sheds light on how the Qur’an was preserved and how the Scholars managed to document each and every stage of the revelation of the Qur’an. And by this, they know what was revealed in winter and what was revealed in summer; what was revealed in Makkah and what was revealed in Madinah; and what was revealed during the expeditions of the Prophet salla Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, etc.
Now there are specific characteristics of Makki Surahs and Surat an-Naba is a Makki Surah. What are the characteristics of Makki Surahs? How can we differentiate between Makkis and Madanis if we do not know directly when they were revealed? Scholars gathered some points that fit the Makki Surahs in general, but not necessarily 100%. So they say that:
1) Every Surah that has an oath, where Allah ‘azza wa jal swears with something is a Makki Surah, as Allah says, “Wash shamsi wa duhaha” (By the sun and the day light); Allah is swearing. So, all Surahs that have an oath are Makki.
2) Every Surah that has ‘kalla’, meaning ‘nay’, is a Makki Surah.
3) Surahs that begins with disjointed letters (“Alif-laam-meem-ra”, “Ha-meem”, etc.) are Makki.
4) Surahs that have a verse of prostration (meaning, some verses that have a sign saying that it is Sunnah to prostrate for recitation when you recite them) are also Makki.
5) Surahs that contain stories of the Prophets (except Chapter 2, al-Baqarah; it has story of a Prophet but it is a Madani Surah) are all of the Makkan period.
6) Surahs beginning with “Ya ayyuhan nas” (“O you people!”); this is a sign that this is a Makki surah.
7) All Surahs that begin with “Al-Hamdu” are Makki, as Scholars say. So we have Surat al-Fatiha, Surat al-Kahf, Surat al-Fatir, Surat al-An’aam, etc. All of these begin with “Al-Hamdu” and hence are Makki Surahs, as Scholars say.
Now does this Surah, Surat an-Naba, have any abrogated verses of the Qur’an? The answer is no. It is a Surah that has no abrogation in it whatsoever. So what is the general theme of this Surah? The Surah speaks about this ‘great news’ that Allah ‘azza wa jal has sent; so it is speaking about ‘the great news’ or ‘an-Naba.’ And what is this ‘great news’ that they are asking one another about and that they are arguing about? But first, let us look at the general theme of the Surah. In the beginning, it speaks about the disbelievers and how they are enquiring and asking about the great news. Then it talks about Allah’s great favors and blessings upon His servants. Then it talks about The Day of Judgment or The Day of Separation, the result of disbelieving, the abode of the disbelievers and what they will suffer of torment. At the same time, it concludes by mentioning what the Believers would be rewarded with on The Day of Judgement and how the disbeliever would wish on that day that he was nothing, that he was not created.
So, let us begin with the first verse. Allah the Almighty says, “’Amma yatasaa-aloon”. And this translates to the meaning of: “What are they asking one another about?” Now, when we have such a question, is Allah asking us because He doesn’t know? Definitely not, because Allah ‘azza wa jal knows everything. In Arabic, there are different types of questions. Some of them are rhetorical, some of them are to draw your attention and some of them are to give information through asking a question. So, it’s like saying to someone who does something wrong and inappropriate, “Are you crazy?” I am not expecting the answer to be ‘yes’ or ‘no’, I am actually telling him, “You are crazy!” So, in this sense, when Allah says, “What are they asking one another about?”, it is a question that captures the peoples’ attention. So, when I hear this question, I think to myself, “This is an interesting question. So what is the answer?” The answer is “Aninna ba-il ‘Azeem” [“(They are asking one another) about the great news”]. And what is meant by ‘the great news’? Now, one of the beautiful attributes of the Qur’an is that it is in Arabic and, hence, there can be more than one meaning for the same thing. But bear in mind that the general theme of the Qur’an is that the majority of the verses of the Qur’an have one meaning and everyone understands these meanings. However, there is a portion of the Qur’an that has more than one meaning, but these meanings are an evidence of the diversity of the Qur’an; there is not any contradiction or conflict. In Arabic, it is the same thing, because one thing could mean two, three, or four things but they do not contradict or conflict each other; rather they go in the same line. For example, in Surat al-Fatiha, we say, “Guide us to the straight path.” And what is ‘the straight path’? Some say that it is the Qur’an and some say that it is Islam. If you look into these two different meanings (Qur’an is different from Islam), they both go through the same stream; so if you follow Islam, you are following the Qur’an and if you follow the Qur’an, then you are following Islam. So it’s the same message.
Now before we go any further, let us first clarify what we mean by ‘interpreters of the Qur’an’. When we talk about interpreters, we are referring to the ‘School of Al-Ma’thoor’. And what is this? It is a school of ‘thought’. When we come to the Tafseer al-Qur’an, we have two major schools. One is ‘At-Tafseer bil-Athar’; those who only give Tafseer through a Hadith or a narration. And there is another Tafseer which is ‘At-Tafseer bir-ra’ee’, which is by intellect and logic. So, ‘At-Tafseer bil-Athar’ means that I would not interpret a verse of the Qur’an unless the Prophet salla Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam interpreted it or the Companions or the Tabi’een. The Tabi’een are the students of the Companions and these are the best of generations. The Prophet salla Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam said, “The best of generations is my generation and those who follow them and those who follow them.” So, first is the generation of the Prophet salla Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam and the Companions, then the Tabi’een (the followers of the Companions) and then the Tabi’ee at-Tabi’een (the followers of the followers of the Companions). These are the famous, the most trustworthy and the best generation ever to walk the earth, as the Prophet salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam said. This means that, in ‘At-Tafseer bil-Athar’, if we would like to explain or make a ‘tafseer’ of an ‘ayah, we would look at what the Companions said. And who are the best of the Companions to give the Tafseer of Al-Qur’an? Well, we have ‘Abdullah ibn Mas’ood, ‘Ubay ibn K’ab, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas and other great Companions of Prophet Muhammed salla Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam.
The other school is what is known as ‘At-Tafseer bir-ra’ee’. They do not depend on the narrations, but rather depend on other tools such as the Arabic language, poetry (and poetry is the thing that preserves Arabic), etc. So to understand the meaning of the words in Arabic, we have to go to the origin of the Arabs, which is the poetry. So, this is how this school works. And that is why there are levels of explaining and giving Tafseer of the Qur’an. The best is ‘Tafseer al-Qur’an bil-Qur’an’. The best way to understand the Qur’an is to explain it by itself. For example, when Allah ‘azza wa jal says, “Was samaa-i wat-Tariq. Wa maa-adraka mat-Tariq.” (“By the heaven and at-Tariq. And what will make you to know what at-Tariq is?”). So, what is ‘At-Tariq’? Allah explains it in the third verse by saying, “An-najmu-thaqib” [“(It is) the star of piercing brightness”]. So now we know that “An-najmu-thaqib” is the tafseer of ‘At-Tariq’. And we will come to explaining this in sha Allah. However, if we do not have a verse of the Qur’an to give us the explanation, we move on to a Hadith of the Prophet salla Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam. For example, when Allah ‘azza wa jal talks about passing on the ‘Siraat’, which is a bridge over Hell, as in the verse in Surat Mariam, when He says that each and every one will pass over Hellfire. ‘Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her, asked the Prophet salla Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam how that would be and he explained it to her. So now, this is the Prophet salla Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam explaining the Qur’an with the Qur’an, or him explaining the Qur’an with his own sayings, salla Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam. Now, if we do not have a Hadith, then we go to the Companions, and if we don’t find the explanation of the Companions, then we go to the Tabi’een, and if not, then we use the Arabic language with the previous forms of Tafseer so that we would get everything else in line. Therefore, briefly, the different levels of explaining the Qur’an are by:
1) The Qur’an
2) The Ahadeeth (sayings of the Prophet salla Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam)
3) Sayings of the Companions
4) Sayings of the Tabi’een
5) The Arabic Language
So going back to Surat an-Naba, what are they asking one another about? It is ‘the great news’. So, what is ‘the great news’? Some Scholars say that it is the message of the Prophet salla Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam. Others say that it is the Qur’an. Still others say that is The Day of Resurrection. And finally, some say that it is the torment and the horrific events of The Day of Judgement. All interpretations are almost the same. This is because what the Prophet salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam came with, his message, it is based in the Qur’an and the Qur’an is warning the people about The Day of Judgement and what they will face on that day and it is also warning them about the horrific events that will take place that day. So there is no difference or contradiction in all of these four things. This is what the disbelievers are arguing about. And all the Prophets and Messengers of Allah came with this message: to establish worshipping Allah ‘azza wa jal, submission of each and every soul to the commands of Allah ‘azza wa jal, to know that there would be a ‘Day of Reckoning’ and to tell the people that there would be Heaven and that there would be Hell.
The quotations from the Qur’an and Hadiths in this article are a rough translation of the meanings of the original text!