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Faith

A Brief Commentary on Surah Al-Takathur

Here is a breakdown of the verses within this surah, in the hopes that we can better understand our beloved Quran.

Sūrah al-Takāthur is the 102nd chapter of the Qurān and it has been referred to by five different names:

  1. Al-Takāthur
  2. Sūrah allatī dhukira fīhā al-takāthur – this is how Sharīf al-Raḍī has referred to it
  3. Sūrah Alhākum as mentioned in Bukhārī, or Alhākumu al-Takāthur as mentioned in some traditions
  4. Orientalists use its number (102) to refer to it
  5. Ālūsi reports from Ibn Abī Hātim that the companions of the Prophet (p) would call it al-Maqbarah (or al-Muqbirah)

A number of traditions also speak about the merits of this chapter.

Shu’aib al-‘Aqrqūfī narrates from Imam al-Ṣādiq (a) who said: “Whoever reads Alhākum al-Takāthur in the obligatory prayers, then the reward of one-hundred martyrs is written for him. One who reads it in a supererogatory prayer, then the reward of fifty martyrs is written for him. Forty rows of angels pray along with him in his obligatory prayer.”2

It is definitely very difficult to comprehend these types of traditions – how could one receive such a great reward by merely reciting it in prayers? Perhaps this is why Shaykh Makārim Shīrāzī in his Tafsīr Nemūneh says that this reward is only given when one also acts on it. Though the tradition itself does not say anything about acting on it and simply says this reward is given to anyone who reads it in the obligatory or supererogatory prayers.

In another tradition, Durust narrates from Imam al-Ṣādiq (a) who cites the Prophet (p) saying: Whoever reads Alhākum al-Takāthur before sleeping, they will be protected from the punishment from the grave.3

Reasons for Revelation

We do not have any early reliable records of when and why this chapter was revealed. In the second century hijrī we have some reports that suggest this chapter was revealed in the context of a conflict taking place between two tribes from the Anṣar, namely Banū Haritha and Banū Ḥarith. This conflict was such that it led each tribe to show off in front of one another, claiming and demonstrating which of them was better than the other.

In another report, it says it was revealed for two clans of the Quraysh – Banū ‘Abd Munāf and Banū Sahm b. ‘Amr, who were arguing over petty issues. Other than these two reports, we do not have anything else reliable to which we can resort to in order to give this chapter further historical context.

Makkī or Medanī

There are two views – and it is difficult to justify one or the other.

One view says it was revealed in Makkah. Their argument is based off the historical report which says it was revealed due to the clans of Quraysh arguing with one another, which implies it was revealed in Makkah. Some also argue by resorting to its length and say since shorter chapters were revealed in Makkah, this is a Makkī chapter. Yet others argue that the subject matter of the chapter is in line with what would typically be revealed in Makkah.

While each of these factors is not strong enough for us to claim anything with certainty, nevertheless, this is the famous opinion.

A second view says it was revealed in Medina. They also cite the historical report which says it was revealed in the context of a conflict that took place between two tribes of believers from the Anṣār, in which case it would be a Medanī chapter. Others say it was revealed for the Jews who would behave this way. However, it is not really known whether the Jews would really behave this way with one another.

Verse 1: Alhakumu Al-Takathur

[102:1] Rivalry [and vainglory] distracted you

The verb Alhā comes from the word lahw (a vain act, also often used to mean entertainment and amusement). A vain act can be understood in two ways:

1) Absolutely Vain: An act is absolutely vain when it has no benefit whatsoever. This act is done, not because a person’s reason tells them to do it, nor because there is any benefit or preference to it. Perhaps, one can argue certain sports or games are absolutely vain, especially when they have no health benefit, no money as a reward, no competition, no strategy, no religious benefit – absolutely nothing. Such a game would be an instance of lahw and would be done purely out of one’s base carnal desires.

2) Relatively Vain: Most of the time when one uses the word lahw, they deem an act vain relative to another act. In other words, one could be confronted by two acts, yet they choose to do that which has less importance and relevance. That would be considered doing a vain act. For example, you may be reading a book, but you have an exam the next morning. Instead of studying for your exam and reading for it, you decide to read a fiction book. In this case, one would say “anta ta-talahha” – you are amusing yourself with a vain act. Reading a fiction book may have some benefit, but in relation to reading for your exam, it is a vain act and you have essentially distracted yourself with something less important.

The first verse of this chapter does not mention what their lahw had distracted them from, however given the Qurān generally gives importance to religious affairs, remembrance of Allah (swt) and the Hereafter etc. it seems probable that it is those things these group of people had distracted themselves from.

Takāthur is also condemned because it is competing over who has more wealth, more children etc. However, because of this phenomenon of takāthur we today have a study called Fiqh al-Awlawīyyāt – the jurisprudence of prioritization.4 Meaning, one may realize that there are various things that are important and necessary, however at times they may distract you from things that are even more important.

Muslims are occupied in so many things of this nature, things which would be considered relatively lahw, and important and necessary only in a limited context, but they push one away from things which are of greater importance. From a bird’s eye view, they are essentially a waste of time.

 Lahw in the Qurān

The word lahw has been used many times in the Qurān. The Qurān emphasizes that humans should have discipline, a schedule, and a program for their lives. This schedule pushes them to continuously act in the best of manners because Allah (swt) did not create us in vain and neither does He (swt) expect vain acts from us. One of the reasons why religion and a belief system has so much value is because it gives this life meaning and it gives you a sense of direction and purpose.

This is what really differentiates a believer from a non-believer. A believer looks at their life and sees that there is a purpose behind creation, including their own creation. As for a non-believer, they see the world as a series of events, without any purpose behind them. They see physical and material entities just moving around – there is no wisdom behind any of these physical entities for them.

Which one of these worldviews is better for man’s spiritual and psychological states? As a simple example, consider someone who has fallen ill – in such a scenario a believer will say that this sickness is a trial for them, and an opportunity to pass it. Allah (swt) says in the Qurān that He (swt) seizes people with ba’sā and ḍarrā’5 – poverty and ailments, so that they may humble themselves, wake up from their slumber and negligent states. These are opportunities that Allah (swt) puts in front of us and we need to seize them. Of course, a firm believer behaves this way, not one whose belief is simply on their tongue.

On the other hand, if a non-believer were to become sick or are near death, there is nothing you can say to them to comfort them.

Takāthur

This first verse could be read as a rhetorical question or a declaratory statement. Takāthur is the effort one puts in to show off their wealth, children, and any other worldly possession in order to compete with others.

One of the things the Qurān was doing when being revealed was attacking and essentially destroying certain notions and cultures of the Arab society as a whole, not just dealing with issues that concerned individuals. The Qurān says that the identity of your community should not be based on Takāthur, rather it should be based on Īmān – faith and belief. In other words, we should not alter the perceptions of our community in such a way that we begin to give importance to ideas and concepts that are not worth much.

The life of the Prophet (p) is filled with examples that illustrate how he (p) practiced the teachings of the Qurān, to change this prevalent culture. We see how he (p) treated Bilal like any other companion, even though initially the Quraysh would mock the Prophet (p) for doing so. In another instance we see the Prophet (p) making ‘Usāmah b. Zayd as a commander of the army, even though he was very young and the companions also complained about him being young, but age was not relevant for the Prophet (p) in this case.

This is what this verse is also referring to. Our identities are not and should not be tied to petty things, like wealth, children, positions, and so on. Rather our identities should be tied to our faith.

Verse 2: Hatta Zurtum Al-Maqabir

[102:2] until you visited [even] the graves

There are two understandings of this verse. One of the understandings is that the verse is saying: you persisted in your takāthur to such an extent that you ended up visiting the graveyards to count the graves so that it could be determined who had more people in their clan. We have some historical reports that show that the Arabs would do this, and therefore it is a reasonable interpretation.

A second understanding is that we take this verse as a metonymy (kināyah). Meaning: you persisted in doing takāthur until you yourself left this world. The verb zurtum (you visited) over here can be understood as a metaphor for death, although in the Arabic language the word ziyārah (visitation) has not really been used as a metaphor to mean death, particularly not when it is used in its past-tense verbal form.

Verse 3 & 4: Kalla Sawfa Ta’Lamun, Thumma Kalla Sawfa Ta’Lamun

[102:3-4] No indeed! Soon you will know! Again, no indeed! Soon you will know!

Kalla – usually translated as no – implies all that you have been concerned yourself with was a waste of time, so do not engage in it. The act of takāthur has been distracting you from matters that have greater priority. As a matter of fact, in the future, you will truly learn that you were wrong in what you were doing because the reality of your acts will become apparent for you.

The point of contention here, however, is regarding the repetition that exists in both these verses. There are four major opinions on why verse 4 is essentially a repetition of verse 3:

1) The first view is based on a very common understanding of repetition and that is emphasis. Repetition signifies emphasis and the word thumma used in verse 4 is to signify even further emphasis – as Zamakhsarī points out in his commentary. In English, it would be tantamount to saying something along the lines of, “I am telling you not do to sleep, I repeat, do not sleep.”

2) The famous Mu’tazalī scholar Qāḍī ‘Abdul Jabbār in his work Tanzīh al-Qurān ‘an al-Maṭā’in says that the first verse is speaking about the knowledge of the affairs of this world, while the second verse refers to what humans will come to learn of in the Hereafter. He uses the word thumma to argue his point, which indicates sequence. A similar view has also been mentioned by Ṭabrisī in Majma’ al-Bayān, but it says that the first verse refers to knowledge one will gain in the grave, and the second is a reference to the Hereafter.

This opinion would be valid if the second verse simply said “thumma ta’lamūn”. However, the verse repeats the whole statement, including the word kalla. The sequence and subsequence implied through thumma is connected to the whole statement, not just to the notion of learning something.

3) A third opinion says that the first verse is applicable to when one will see the homes of the transgressors, and the second verse is applicable to when one will see the homes of the righteous ones.

The proponent of this interpretation has made a very vague remark and in fact, the interpretation is almost nonsensical.

4) A fourth opinion says that the third verse is addressing the believers, while the fourth verse is addressing the disbelievers. While this interpretation is within the realm of possibility, the proponent has not demonstrated how they arrived at this conclusion.

Verse 5 &6: Kalla Law Ta’Lamun ‘Ilm Al-Yaqin, La-Tara-Wunna Al-Jahim

[102:5-6] No indeed! Were you to know with certain knowledge, you would surely see hell.

Verse 5 also begins with Kallā and it is used for the third time consecutively in this chapter. This shows the stress put on the idea that one should stay away from the distractions and vain acts of this world.

Relationship Between Verse 5 & 6

The sentence structure of verse 5, Law Ta’lamūn ‘Ilm al-Yaqīn, is very interesting and has opened up a discussion amongst the exegetes on its relationship with verse 6. Is there a relationship between this sentence and la-tara-wunna al-jaḥīm or not? There are three popular opinions on this:

1) The first opinion is the popular opinion which says that law is a hypothetical counter-factual particle (al-ḥarf al-imtinā’) and it is being used in this meaning as well. The response that should follow a statement beginning with law is omitted and taken into consideration by the reader. The response to the statement “if you had the knowledge of certainty” is essentially: “you would have stayed away from those things which are vain.”

La-tara-wunna al-jaḥīm, therefore, is the beginning of a new sentence and is not connected to verse 5. It instead is a response to an oath that has been omitted, in which case the verse should be understood as, “I swear” innakum la-tara-wunna al-jaḥīm.

According to this opinion, there is no relationship between verses 5 and 6 as far as the grammatical structure of the sentences is concerned. Proponents also bring a contextual indicator for their claim and say that the letter lām used in la-tarawunna is the lām used to indicate the contents of an oath, and the letter nūn with a tashdīd used at the end of the verb is another indicator to show that this is an oath.

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2) Nimatullah Nakhjavānī has an esoteric exegesis called al-Fawatiḥ al-Ilāhīyyah wa Mafātiḥ al-Ghaybīyyah. In it, he says that Kallā is related to the previous two verses, and the continuation of the next two verses should be understood as: if you had the knowledge of certainty that you will see al-jaḥīm in the future, you would have stayed away from vain acts.

This interpretation is very beautiful and reasonable, and the only critique one can really do on it is if they say that the prima-facie of these two verses simply does not signify this. In other words, it will become a discussion of what the prima-facie indicates.

3) Some scholars have said that law is not indicating a hypothetical situation, rather it is being used to denote a conditional statement, like the preposition idhā. Meaning: if you attained the knowledge of certainty, then you will see al-jaḥīm.

However, there are a number of critical observations and questions that can be asked about this opinion:

A) Your opinion would be correct if the response of the condition (‘you will see’) was also in the past tense, whereas over here it is in the present tense – which according to the rules of Arabic grammar is incorrect. In other words, it should read: if you attained the knowledge of certainty, then you would have seen al-jaḥīm.

However, proponents respond by saying, though it is true that in most cases grammatically the response of a similar conditional statement should also be in the past tense, but it is not something against the rules of grammar. They cite a few examples from the Arabic language to back their claim up. In other words, they say that while it is not a popular way of uttering a conditional statement, it is not grammatically incorrect.

B) How do the proponents of the third view explain the letter lām and nūn with a tashdīd, which are clear signs that the statement is a content of an oath?

They say that since you initially interpreted this verse as a new sentence, you were forced to understand these two letters as indicators of an oath. Whereas, we say there is no problem in the response of a conditional law being accompanied with the letter lām and nūn with tashdīd, which indicates emphasis – there is nothing grammatically absurd about that.

C) How does the knowledge of certainty permit one to see al-jaḥīm? What does the verse really end up meaning?

They respond by saying, if you read the verse in context with the previous verses it makes sense. The verses are saying: No! Stay away from vain acts, and you will learn about the reality of these acts in the near future, and if you continue doing these acts, then once you learn about their reality – meaning after you die – you will see hellfire in front of you.

In our conclusion, we would say that all three opinions are worth considering and contemplating over.

The Relationship Between Knowledge (‘Ilm) and Certainty (Yaqīn)

The term “knowledge of certainty” (‘ilm al-yaqīn) is a very confusing combination of terms – usually we mean the same thing by knowledge and certainty in our conversations. With regards to this combination in this verse, four different analysis exist in the words of scholars:

1) The combination is nothing complicated, it is an elucidative annexation (al-iḍafah al-bayānīyyah) which is very common in the Arabic language. ‘Ilm and Yaqīn mean the same thing and they are combined together here to further emphasize their concept for emphasis.

2) This opinion further digs into the semantics of ‘ilm and yaqīn. Proponents say that yaqīn is not the same as ‘ilm linguistically. Yaqīn is a psychological state, a state of contentment; whereas ‘ilm is cognition. In other words, ‘ilm al-yaqīn is a causal annexation (al-iḍafah al-manshaīyyah), where cognition of something which results or causes contentment.

3) The third opinion is very commonly mentioned today by scholars. This view says that there are three ways humans gain knowledge and we need to identify and differentiate between these three modes. In technical terms these three modes are called ‘ilm al-yaqīn‘ayn al-yaqīn and ḥaqq al-yaqīn. Once we understand these terms, we can understand what the combination of these words mean as well.

In order to understand the jargon, we can give an example of a person who sees smoke from a distance. After seeing this smoke, they rationally deduce that there has to be fire because that is what causes smoke. One’s knowledge of fire would be an instance of ‘ilm al-yaqīn, as it is knowledge gained from a great distance, through various mediums and relied on a rational deduction.

Once the individual gets close, they now not only see the smoke, but they actually see the fire with their own eyes. This would be an instance of ‘ayn al-yaqīn – where ‘ayn literally means eye in Arabic.

The third mode would be if the individual were for whatever reason jump into the fire. Their whole existence would be feeling and sensing the reality of fire. This would be an instance of ḥaqq al-yaqīn. It is claimed that all instances of knowledge by presence are ḥaqq al-yaqīn since there is no medium between the knower and the known object.

This three-part division can be seen in the works of Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsi and was later popularized by Ṣadrian philosophers. Amongst Muslims, this is a very common understanding of the different modes through which we gain knowledge. There is nothing wrong with this division, however we need to determine whether the phrase ‘ilm al-yaqīn in this verse means what the philosophers and theologians meant when they coined their jargon.

The term ‘ilm al-yaqīn has only been used once in the Qurān once and that is in this verse. If we were to consider ‘ilm al-yaqīn with the aforementioned definition then there would be no choice but to take the law to mean impossibility, and not as a preposition indicating a condition. If you take it as a condition, then the subsequent verse speaking about “seeing” al-jaḥīm would not have a reasonable meaning since that is an instance of ‘ayn al-yaqīn – it would mean, ‘if you gain ‘ilm al-yaqīn, then you will see al-jaḥim – an instance of ‘ayn al-yaqīn’.

The term ‘ayn al-yaqīn has also only been used in this verse, whereas ḥaqq al-yaqīn has been used in Surah Wāqi’ah [56:93-95] “Then [for him is] accommodation of scalding water, and burning in Hellfire, Indeed, this is the true certainty (ḥaqq al-yaqīn)”. This verse really reconciles with the definition of ḥaqq al-yaqīn as given above, since it speaks of one’s burning experience.

One could argue however, that the definitions given for the three modes of gaining knowledge are later understandings, and the terms were coined up by philosophers and mystics. So, how can we apply these later technical terms on the Qurānic verses? One could respond to this by saying that the philosophers and mystics have only arrived at these definitions and jargons after contemplating on these very verses of the Qurān.

Although, in such a case, a proponent of this third opinion would still need to explain how the Qurānic verses signify upon these definitions provided above. In the case of ḥaqq al-yaqīn perhaps one can defend the above definition, since there is a connected contextual indicator in the verse of Surah Waqi’ah, but for the other two terms, there is nothing clear for us to demonstrate this is what these two terms mean when used in the Qurān.

On the contrary, one can even argue that a term like ‘ayn al-yaqīn does not mean what was defined earlier because in Arabic ‘ayn is also used to denote something “in it and of itself”, which would make the verse mean something along the lines of: “you will see it with certainty itself” – certainty qua certainty, not certainty mixed with anything else.

4) A fourth opinion says that yaqīn does not mean certainty or knowledge, rather it means death. For example, in the Qurān it says [15:99] And worship your Lord until there comes to you the certainty (death). This is also a causal annexation (al-iḍafah al-manshaīyyah), but the cause of knowledge is death. With this understanding, the verse will mean: ‘if knowledge comes to you after death, you will see al-jahīm’. This will work whether we take law as conditional or impossibility.

The issue that comes with this understanding is how the proponents would explain the terms ‘ayn al-yaqīn or even ḥaqq al-yaqīn? Would they remain consistent and say the term yaqīn in ‘ayn al-yaqīn and ḥaqq al-yaqīn also means death? We know the term yaqīn is not coined for the meaning of death in the Arabic language, and perhaps the reason why it is even ever used to refer to death is either because everyone has certainty with regards to it, or that once one dies they will attain certainty about the reality of affairs.

What Are ‘Ilm and Yaqīn Related To

Knowledge (‘ilm) always needs an object (ma’lūm) – that which is known. What is this object of knowledge, that if we were to know it, we would see al-jaḥīm, or stay away from vain acts (depending on what opinion we hold)? There are three possibilities:

1) Hell: if you attain knowledge of certainty with regards to hellfire, you will stay away from vain acts. [I swear], you will see al-jahīm.

2) Allah: some scholars have said the verse means, if you attain knowledge of certainty with regards to Allah (swt), you will stay away from vain acts.

3) Some scholars say the Qurān has left it vague for a reason and that is because it does not intend on pointing towards anything specific. It is simply trying to allude that if you knew the reality of affairs – whatever that may be – you will stay away from vain acts.

Verse 7 &8: Thumma La-Tara-Wunnaha ‘Ayn Al-Yaqin, Thumma La-Tus’alunna Yawmaidhin ‘An Al-Na’im

[102:7-8] Again, you will surely see it with the eye of certainty. Then, that day, you will surely be questioned concerning the blessing.

The last verse would mean that once you will see al-jaḥīm with ‘ayn al-yaqīn, you will then be asked about al-na’īm. This means ‘ayn al-yaqīn will occur before one enters hellfire, because the questioning and reckoning will happen before one is sent to hellfire.

The preposition thumma is also very crucial. Does it indicate a sequence of time or is it simply referring to a mental sequence – meaning it will be one event taking place at the same time, but in our mind we can give it a conventional order? Perhaps when one will see hellfire with the eye of certainty, at the same time they will also be asked, or will be asking about the blessings and pleasures of heaven. Both can be understood, or one can even state that we cannot claim either of the possibilities because we simply do not understand the reality of what will occur in the Hereafter – who said we have to necessarily comprehend it and decide upon what type of sequence this thumma signifies?

The verb tus’alunna has also been recited as tas’alunnah, meaning “you will be asked” and “you will ask”.

What Is Al-Na’īm?

There are four opinions amongst scholars on what al-na’īm in this verse refers to:

1) Some scholars have said al-na’īm refers to the blessings and pleasures of heaven. One will regretfully say on that day, where is heaven and where am I? Perhaps this meaning was understood after reading the Qurānic verses where the word al-na’īm is almost always used to refer to heaven. Another contextual indicator that can be cited here is reciprocity (muqābalah) which is that one will first see hell and then ask about heaven.6

2) Al-Na’īm is a reference to pleasures of both the world and hereafter.

3) In some Shī’ī traditions it says al-na’īm is the wilāyah of Muḥammad (p) and his progeny. ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabāī says – as he normally does – that these traditions are to be understood in light of the principle of continued relevance and application (al-jarī wa al-inṭibāq).

Nevertheless, to argue for this position one would need to look into the traditions, see how reliable they are, and we should also note that the meaning of every tradition cannot be easily understood in light of the principle of continued relevance and application, because the prima-facie meaning of some of them are such that they restrict the meanings of a verse to very specific instances, not allowing for the application of said principle.

4) The definite article of alif-lām is being used to denote a genus of the word al-na’īm. Meaning, any type of blessing, be it shelter, food, health, world, heaven, faith, wilāyah of ‘Alī (a), ease in the Divine law, and so on.

The first opinion is preferred because of the contextual indicator mentioned there, however if for whatever reason that opinion is not to be accepted, the last interpretation is the next best understanding. The last opinion is inclusive of all previous interpretations as well.

This article was originally published on Iqra Online, found here


Footnotes

  1. Source: Lesson 1 | Lesson 2
  2. Majma’ al-Bayān of Ṭabrisī, v. 10, pg. 430.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Translator’s Note (TN): While this study has existed in Sunnī legal theory since some time, it is a relatively new area of extensive study in Shī’ī legal theory and like most discussions in legal theory, is a technical and complicated discussion.
  5. Q: 7:94
  6. TN: Muqābalah is a rhetorical device heavily used in the Qurān. A number of books – in Arabic and Persian – have also been written dedicated to just the use of this device in the Qurān.

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