CHAPTER XI / The Introduction: (Verses 1-20)

The Introduction: (Verses 1-20)

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1. The surah begins with three separate letters, alif, lām, mīm (corresponding to ‘A, L, M’).

The Arabs at the time never placed such letters at the beginning of their poetry or prose.

They are normally used by teachers beginning their instruction of young children by teaching them the alphabet.

Whatever the purpose these letters are intended to serve, stating them at the outset is bound to attract attention and alert listeners to this unfamiliar style.

2. Three phrases then follow, the first of which announces to the listener that what is going to be recited now is the best book ever produced.

Indeed, nothing in the whole universe may be described as a book, when compared to this one: “This is the Book.”

The other two phrases support this verdict with solid evidence. Indeed, the value of any book is in the truth it contains, and in portraying such truth in a bright light so that no doubt or confusion is raised about it.

The perfection of such value, then, lies in the great need people have to understand that truth in order to see their way clearly.

It should provide them with indisputable proof of its guidance should they find themselves at a loss, unable to determine which way to follow.

This being so, the Qur’an combines all these three values:

it is the pure truth that admits no trace of falsehood, providing clear guidance that takes mankind out of darkness into light:

“This is the Book, no doubt: a guidance.”

(2: 2.)

These are the three phrases that follow the three initial letters with which the surah starts. They alert us to the subject matter and then begin to highlight its virtues.

It is the method followed by a good educator: he begins by drawing the attentions of his listeners, then employs the tools that make them eager to know more.

3. The first thing we want to know after this telling description of the Qur’an and the guidance it provides is to know what effect it will have on people as also their response to its call.

This clearly means that, with respect to their attitude towards this book, people will always fall into one of three groups:

those that believe in it, those that reject it, and those who remain unsure, hesitant, joining neither of the other two.

Now how does the surah turn its attention from talking about the book so as to speak about people?

Does it make a new beginning, or treat it as an appendix to what has been said?

It does neither, but mixes the two purposes in a most subtle way that may escape the attention of even the most alert of readers.

At first, it does not mention the last two groups, as though the Qur’an is not addressed to them at all.

It only speaks of the first group, making its reference to it as part of its description of the Qur’an as providing guidance.

It says of the Qur’an: “A guidance for the God-fearing who believe…”.

(2: 2-3.)

This means that the preposition, ‘for’, serves as a secret passage directing the discourse so as to attend fully to the believers whose qualities are now outlined.

4. Limiting the benefit of Qur’anic guidance to this group only, after having described the Qur’an as the clear truth which is subject to no doubt whatsoever, sounds amazing to the listener.

How is it possible that the Qur’anic truth should be so clear, but cannot find its way into the heart of every listener?

On the other hand, the Prophet Muhammad, compassionate as he was, was keen that his community should follow the guidance of the Qur’an and believe in God.

He might have thought that his hopes would be fulfilled once he had taken the right steps towards it, and that his people would surely become Muslims once they listened to the Qur’an.

Yet the Qur’an almost defines its own task, stating that only the God-fearing will benefit by its guidance.

Perhaps the Prophet might have appealed to his Lord, saying: All glory is Yours! But why does its guidance not benefit all mankind?

It is necessary, then, to state the facts very clearly so as to put an end to any unrealistic hopes, so that one does not try to pursue what is impossible.

The reasons that prevent the Qur’anic guidance from benefiting all people must be stated clearly in a way that shows that the fault does not lie with the Qur’an but rather with its recipients.

It is no reflection on the ability of a doctor that his patient dies as a result of failing to take the medicine he has prescribed.

Nor does it detract from the value of the sun that those who are blind cannot see its light.

“As for the unbelievers, it is alike whether you forewarn them or not, they will not accept the faith.”

(2: 6.)

Thus, the surah proceeds to speak about the unbelievers who deserve God’s punishment after it has completed its outline of the characteristics of the believers who merit God’s reward.

Discussion of the two groups is not shown to be intended initially: this would have meant that a conjunction should be used.

But progress of the discussion from one group to the other appears to come so naturally in order to answer the unspoken question and to remove the listener’s amazement.

5. The discussion of the unbelievers runs to its fullness, with the third group joining the second, as they both reject the Qur’anic guidance.

At heart, they are the same, although they may speak differently: “There are some who say: ‘We believe in God and the Last Day,’ yet they are not true believers.”

(2: 8.)

6. If we now look at the way the surah treats each of the three groups we find that their positions are clearly contrasted. In speaking about each group,

the surah discusses three points in the following order: outlining the real situation of each group, pointing out the reasons which determine it and informing us about the expected destiny of each group.

The truth about the first group is that it consists of people who have attained the quality of being God-fearing, in its theoretical and practical senses.

They adhere to God’s guidance and their Lord supports them. Hence, this group will achieve the success to which they aspire.

The truth of the second group is that they are devoid of fearing God, that is, they are devoid of faith.

Not only this, but they are so hardened in their attitude that no warning is of any use to them. The reason being that they do not make use of the faculties of understanding and knowledge God has given them.

They have minds but they do not understand; they have eyes but they do not see; and they have ears but they do not hear.

Hence, they deserve their inevitable destiny of suffering grievous punishment.

The truth of the third group is a composite of good appearance and an evil reality. They profess to be believers, but they are totally devoid of faith.

Each aspect of their condition has a reason and an outcome. Their claim to believe results from their deliberate intention to deceive.

The outcome of such deception is that they are the ones who are deceived.

That they harbour disbelief is due to the fact that they are sick at heart. The result is that their sickness of heart is aggravated and that they will be made to suffer painful punishment.

Just like the surah has shown that the second group has reached a level of obstinacy and stupidity that renders any warning useless..

the third group is shown to have reached a level of ignorance and arrogance which makes any advice given to them futile.

They claim to be rational and to do nothing but good, when really they are but fools, spreading corruption.

How is it possible to cure a diseased person when he believes himself to be in good health?

Then just as the surah records that the first group follows right guidance and will surely prosper, it records that the other two groups are in error and that they will be the losers.

7. This truthful description of the two groups [i.e. the second and the third] does not quench our amazement at their positions.

It is normally the case that people differ on ambiguous and confusing matters, not on the clear truth.

That these people take a wrong position towards the Qur’an when it sets out the truth that bears no doubt is strikingly odd.

Hence, it needs a practical example that brings it closer to our minds, so that we are certain that it happens in reality. The surah gives an example of each of these two groups.

Page II

Perfect Unity of Whole and Part

Those who are hardened in their disbelief and whose hearts are sealed are likened to a group of people travelling by night in total darkness.