Volume 2: Surah Baqarah, Verses 100-101

What! Whenever they make a covenant, a party of them cast it aside? Nay, most of them do not believe (100) And when there came to them an Apostle from Allah verifying that which they have, a party of those who were given the Book threw the Book of Allah behind their backs as if they knew nothing (101).

********

*COMMENTARY * Qur’an: cast it aside: “an-Nabdh” (= to throw away, to renounce).

Qur’an: And when there came to them an Apostle from Allah…”: The word, “an Apostle, definitely means the Apostle of Allah, Muhammad (s.a.w.a.); it does not refer to any other apostle who might have come “verifying that which they have”, because “when there came” does not mean “whenever there came”; in other words, it does not signify a recurring incidence, but an event that happened once only.

The verse points to the Jews’ adverse attitude towards the truth: they were so steeped in falsehood that they concealed the foretelling of the Torah about the Prophet of Islam, and refused to believe in the Qur’an which verified that which they had in their hands.

********

Volume 2: Surah Baqarah, Verses 102-103

And they followed what the satans chanted (of sorcery) against the kingdom of Sulayman; and Sulayman was not an unbeliever, but, the satans disbelieved; they taught men sorcery and what was sent down to the two angels at Babylon, Harut and Marut Yet these two taught no one until they. had said: "Surely we are only a trial, therefore do not be a disbeliever. " Even then men learned from these two that by which they might cause a separation between a man and his wife; and they cannot hurt with it any one except with Allah's permission; and they learned what harmed them and did not profit them; and certainly they knew that he who bought it should have no share (of good) in the hereafter, and vile was the price for which they sold their souls; had they but known (this) ( 102). And if they had believed and guarded themselves (against evil), reward from Allah would certainly have been better; had they but known (this) ( 103).

********

*COMMENTARY * QUR'AN: And they followed what the satans chanted.

The exegetes have disputed among themselves about each and every aspect of this verse; so much so that the resulting picture of the differences is almost unparalleled in the whole Qur'an. A list of the differences is given below:

"they followed": Does the pronoun, "they", refer to the Jews of the Sulayman's time, or to those at the time of the Prophet, or to all?

"chanted": The Arabic word is "tatlu" which may be translated as "chanted", "recited", "told a lie about",

"faked" or "followed and acted according to". In which sense the word is used here? Every meaning has some supporters.

"satans": Does it refer to the satans of jinn? Or to those among the human beings? Or to both?

"about": The Arabic participle is 'ala (=against, on, about, upon). Does the phrase mean, about the kingdom of Sulayman? Or, during the reign of Sulayman? Or, against his kingdom? Or, on his reign?

"the satans disbelieved": Some say, they disbelieved because they published the sorcery among the people. Others say, they disbelieved because they ascribed the sorcery to Sulayman. Still others say, the disbelief, as mentioned here, actually means sorcery.

"they taught men sorcery": It means they instructed them as a teacher instructs his students. No! it means that they buried the chants under Sulayman's chair, and then directed the men to it who brought it out and learnt it.

"and what was sent down": The word translated here as "what" is "ma" which is a relative pronoun ("what") also, it is a particle of negation ("not"). "And" is mostly used as a conjunctive; but not infrequently, it is also used to begin a new sentence. A group says that "ma" means "what", and the conjunctive joins it to "what the satans chanted" (the Jews followed what was sent down). Another party is of the opinion that the conjunctive joins it to "sorcery" (the satans taught them sorcery and that which was sent down). A third group thinks that "ma" means "not", and the word "and" begins a new sentence (And sorcery was not sent down to the two angels, contrary to what the Jews claimed).

"sent down": Was it sent down from the heavens? Or from the highlands?

"the two angels": They were the angels from the heaven. No! They were two good men, or men who feigned to be good. No! It is not "al-malakayn (=two angels); it is "al-malikayn" (=to kings)

"Babylon": It is the famous ancient city of Iraq. No! It is a city in Damawand (Iran); Wrong! It is the land between Nasibayn (Turkey) and Ra'su'l-'Ayn.

"these two taught no one": Teaching is used in its common meaning of instruction. No! It means, these two apprised no one.

"do not be a disbeliever": By learning sorcery? Or, by practicing it? Or, by both?

"the men learned from these two": The "two" refers to the two angels. No! It means, they learned from the two subjects, sorcery and disbelief. Wrong! They learned the practice of sorcery, in place of the advice given by the angels.

"that by which they might cause a separation between a man and his wife": Some exegetes say that they caused love or hate between the couple with the help of their sorcery. Others think that they misled one of the spouses to disbelief and polytheism, and the apostasy caused the separation mentioned here. A third group say that they created hatred and enmity between the couple with their calumny and slander.

This, in short, gives a glimpse of the differences of opinions concerning the explanations of the words and clauses of the verse. There are still more differences about the event referred to whether it narrates an actual happening or is just a parable; and so on and so forth. Compute the differences mentioned above and you will get nearly one million and two hundred sixty thousand possible explanations!!

It seems an astounding quality of the Qur'an that a verse that is subjected to so many divergent interpretations, still maintains its highest standard of eloquence; that in spite of all these vagaries of the exegetes, its meaning is not disjointed, nor its beauty marred.

A similar treatment has been meted out to the verse: Is he then who has with him clear proof from his Lord, and a witness from him recites it and before it (is) the Book of Musa, a guide and a mercy (11:17).

However, it appears from the context that this verse deals with a hitherto unmentioned affair of the Jews, that is, their wide-spread use of sorcery. They based this practice on one or two stories, which were very popular among them.

The Jews were addicted to making alterations and interpolations in, and omissions from, their Divine books, let alone the historical narrations. They used to change their books and records fitting them to the prevalent moods of their times. A story narrated by them was not to be relied upon. But this Qur'anic admonition is based on their own belief, because it was they who used to narrate these stories.

The verse proves that the practice of sorcery was prevalent among the Jews, and that they ascribed it to Sulayman (a.s.) They presumed that Sulayman (a.s.) got the kingdom and subjugated the jinn, the human beings, the animals and the birds all with the help of sorcery; and all the supernatural miraculous events related to him depended on witchcraft. And they claimed that some of the enchantments in their hands had come down to them from him. The remaining portion was attributed to the two angels at Babylon, named Harut and Marut.

The Qur'an refutes the stories, saying that the prophet Sulayman (a.s.) never indulged in witchcraft and sorcery. How could he, when sorcery was nothing but disbelief in Allah? Sulayman (a.s.) could not be an unbeliever as he was a sinless, innocent prophet. All this is clearly seen from the words of Allah: "and Sulayman was not an unbeliever, but the satans disbelieved, they taught men sorcery"; "and certainly they knew that he who bought it should have no share (of good) in the hereafter". Sulayman's position was too distinguished, his rank too high, and his name too sacred to be associated with disbelief and sorcery. He was the prophet whose outstanding position has been eulogized in several places in the chapters of Meccan period, long before this Chapter of the Cow was revealed. See, for example, the chapters of the Cattle (6th), the Prophets (21st), the Ant (27th) and Sad (38th). You shall find therein that Sulayman (a.s.) was an excellent servant of Allah, a prophet and an apostle; Allah gave him the knowledge and the wisdom; and granted him a kingdom which was not fit for any one after him. Obviously, Sulayman could not indulge in sorcery; it was just a mythical story invented by the satans, which they dictated to their human friends; and it was the satans who disbelieved because they misguided the men by teaching them sorcery.

As for the story of the two angels at Babylon, the Qur'anic stand is as follows:

The two angels, Harut and Marut were certainly given some sorcery as a means of test and trial for the human beings - and no objection could be raised against that; after all, Allah has taught the human nature the ways of evil too in order that He may test them with it. Likewise, sorcery was sent down to the two angels; but they did not teach it to anyone until they had said to him: Surely we are only a trial, therefore do not become a disbeliever by using it for wrongful purposes; you must use it only to nullify the effect of witchcraft, to expose the viles of the sorcerers and things like that. But the men learned from them that by which they might destroy the domestic peace and turn the love between husband and wife - the best of the things ingrained in human nature into hatred, causing a separation between them. Also they learned what harmed them and did not benefit them.

The verse therefore may be explained as follows:

And they (i.e., the Jews coming after the reign of Sulayman - every generation passing on the legacy to the later one) followed what the satans from among the jinn faked and lied about the kingdom of Sulayman. “Tatlu” (translated here as recited or chanted) actually has the connotation of "lied about " or "faked about", because it is followed by the preposition “ala" - ( = on) which has changed its semantic value. Why do we say that the satans were from the jinn? The following two verses read together provide the answer to this question:

And of the satans there were those who dived for him and did other work beside that, and We kept guard over them (21:82); and when he fell down, the jinn came to know plainly that if they had known the unseen, they would not have tarried in abasing torment (34:14). The first verse shows that the satans were reduced to subjection by Sulayman. (a.s.) who kept them away from mischief by assigning to them very heavy task; and the second verse refers to the same slavish group as the jinn

QUR'AN: and Sulayman. was not an unbeliever: "and" is used here in the meaning of "while". Sulayman. did not indulge in sorcery; therefore, it was not he who disbelieved; rather it was the satans who disbelieved, because they misled the people by teaching them sorcery.

QUR'AN: and what was sent down: The Jews followed that which was sent down - through inspiration - to the two angels at Babylon, Harut and Marut Yet these two did not teach any one any thing of the sorcery, without warning him not to practice it. They admonished every one who wanted to learn sorcery: Surely we are only a trial for you. What we teach you is but a means of test for you. Beware! Don't become an unbeliever by practicing sorcery.

QUR'AN: Even then men learned from these two.- that is, from the two angels, Harut and Marut "that by which they might cause a separation", that is, the sorcery which caused separation "between a man and his wife".

QUR'AN: and they cannot hurt with it any one except with Allah's permission: It is a parenthetic sentence, to remove a possible misunderstanding: One could assume, on hearing that the sorcerers caused separation between a husband and his wife, that the sorcerers were powerful enough to disturb the divinely ordained arrangement of the world; that they could undo the Divine Decree and change the system created by Allah. This sentence clears the air and emphasizes the fact that sorcery draws its strength from the Divine Decree; it cannot affect any thing but with the permission of Allah. Therefore, the sorcerers act within the framework of the system designed by Allah.

This sentence was placed where it is because only the preceding sentence (that by which they might cause a separation…) mentions the effect of sorcery. Therefore, it was explained that whatever effect it had was based on the permission of Allah The following clause (and they learned what harmed them and did not profit them) is not concerned with this aspect of sorcery, and the above -mentioned clarifying parenthetic sentence, if placed after it, would have looked out of place.

QUR'AN: and certainly they knew that he who bought it should have no share (of good) in the hereafter: They knew it because their reason and intellect told them that the sorcery was the wicked source of disorder in the society. Also, they were made aware of it by Musa (a.s.) when he had said: and the magician shall not be successful wheresoever he may come from (20:69).

QUR'AN: and vile was the price for which they sold their souls; had they but known (this): They knew that sorcery was bad for them and ruinous for their future abode; yet it was as though they did not know it -because they did not act according to their knowledge. If a knowledge fails to lead the knower to the straight path, then it is not knowledge; it is ignorance. Allah says: Have you then seen him who takes his low desire for his god, and Allah has made him err in spite of (his) knowledge . . . (45:23). Therefore, it was completely in order to wish for them knowledge and guidance, even if they had had the knowledge before.

QURAN: And if they had believed and guarded themselves . . .

If they had followed the dictates of belief and piety, instead of following the satans' yams and practicing sorcery which is nothing short of disbelief, they would have got its reward from Allah. This verse indicates that the disbelief emanating from sorcery is disbelief within the sphere of action, like that which results from withholding zakat it is not disbelief within the sphere of faith. Had the sorcery been a disbelief within the sphere of faith, Allah would have only said, "And if they believed", without adding "and guarded themselves (against evil)". The Jews had believed, no doubt; but they did not guard themselves against evil and did not desist from the things forbidden by Allah there fore, AIM did not attach any importance, any value, to their belief, and they were called the disbelievers.

QUR'AN: reward from Allah would certainly have been better; had they but known (this): that is, better than the rewards and profits they seek through sorcery and amass through disbelief.

TRADITIONS

al-Baqir (a.s.) said, inter alia, explaining the words of Allah And they followed what the satans chanted (of sorcery) against the kingdom of Sulayman . . . : "When Sulayman died, Iblis invented sorcery and wrote it in a book; then folding it, wrote on its. back: 'This is the valuable treasure of knowledge which Asif ibn Barkhiya produced for the king Sulayman ibn Dawud Whoever wanted such and such thing, should do so and so.' Then he buried it under his throne. Thereafter, he unearthed it for the Jews and recited it (before them). The disbelievers said: 'Sulayman had not gained supremacy over us but because of this.' And the believers said: 'Nay! He was a servant of Allah and His prophet.' Thus Allah, Great is His remembrance! said: And they followed what the satans chanted (of sorcery) against the kingdom of 'Sulayman " (at-Tafsir, al-'Ayyashi, al-Qummi)

The author says: This tradition says that it was the Satan, that is, Iblis, who invented sorcery and wrote and recited it. There is no discrepancy between this statement and the verse under discussion which ascribes these things to the satans from among the jinn Even their deeds are ultimately attributed to the Iblis, because he is the source of all evil; it is he who instigates his friends to wickedness and evil. Such usage is common in the traditions.

It appears from this tradition that the verb, "tatlu " in this verse is derived from "at - tilawah (= to recite, to chant). It is not in conflict with the interpretation given by us in the commentary that it gives the meaning of "lied about" or "faked about"; because, as we said there, this connotation emerges from the preposition, “'ala” - which has changed its semantic value. The sentence, therefore, may be interpreted as follows: The satans chanted the sorcery, reciting it, and faking it, lying about the kingdom of Sulayman.

Etymologically, tala, yatlu, tilawatan returns to waliya, yali, wilayatan which has the semantic value of being near to, governing and following; one owns a thing gradually, one part following the other - reciting is called at-tilawah simply because in recitation one word follows the other.

A fuller discourse of this subject will be given under the verse: Verily, your guardian is only Allah and His Apostle and those who believe, those who establish prayer and pay zakat while they bow down (5:58).

ar-Rida (a.s.) said, inter alia, in his discussion with al-Ma - "And as for Harut and Marut they were two angels; they taught sorcery to the people in order that they could protect themselves from the enchantments of the sorcerers, and could nullify their devices. And they did not teach any one any (enchantment) until they had said to him: 'Surely we are only a trial, therefore do not be a disbeliever.' But a group became disbelievers by practicing what they were warned against; and they caused a separation between a man and his wife with their practice (of sorcery). Allah has said: and they cannot hurt with it any one except with Allah's permission. " ('Uyunu 'l-akhbar)