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Message of the Quran 003 Ali-Imran (the House of Imran)

Message of the Quran 003 Ali-Imran (the House of Imran)

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Message of the Quran, translated and explained by Muhammad Asad.
Message of the Quran, translated and explained by Muhammad Asad.

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Message of the Qur'an - Muhammad Asad
The Third Surah (003)
Al-`Imran (The House of `Imran)
200 AyatMedina Period
THIS SURAH is the second or (according to some authorities) the third to have beenrevealed at Medina, apparently in the year 3H; some of its verses, however, belong to a muchlater period, namely, to the year preceding the Prophet's death (10H.). The title "The House of`Imran" has been derived from references, in verses 33 and 35, to this common origin of a longline of prophets.Like the preceding
surah
, this one begins with the mention of divine revelation and men'sreactions to it. In
 Al-Baqarah
the main stress is laid on the contrasting attitudes of those whoaccept the truth revealed by God and those who reject it; the opening verses of
 Al `Imran
, on theother hand, refer to the inclination of many misguided believers to interpret the allegoricalpassages of the Qur'an - and, by implication, of the earlier revealed scriptures as well - in anarbitrary manner, and thus to arrive at esoteric propositions which conflict with the true natureand purpose of the divine message. Since the deification of Jesus by his later followers is one ofthe most outstanding instances of such an arbitrary interpretation of a prophet's originalmessage, the
surah
relates the story of Mary and Jesus, as well as of Zachariah, the father of Johnthe Baptist, all of whom belonged to the House of `Imran. Here the Qur'an takes issue with theChristian doctrine of the divinity of Jesus: he himself is quoted as calling upon his followers toworship God alone; his purely human nature and mortality are stressed again and again; and itis described as "inconceivable that a human being unto whom God had granted revelation, andsound judgment, and prophethood, should thereafter have said unto people, 'Worship
me
besideGod"' (verse 79).The principle of God's oneness and uniqueness and of man's utter dependence on Him isillumined from many angles, and leads logically to the problem of man's faith and to thetemptations, arising out of human frailty, to which that faith is continually exposed: and thisbrings the discourse to the subject of the battle of Uhud - that near-disaster which befell thesmall Muslim community in the year 3H., and provided a wholesome, if bitter, lesson for all itsfuture development. More than one-third of
 Al `Imran
deals with this experience and the many-sided moral to be derived from it.
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In the name of God, the most gracious, the dispenser of grace:
1
 
Message of the Qur'an - Muhammad Asad
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3:2GOD
- there is no deity save Him, the Ever-Living, the Self-Subsistent Fount of All Being!
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3:3 
Step by step has He bestowed upon thee from onhigh this divine writ,
2
setting forth the truth whichconfirms whatever there still remains [of earlierrevelations]:
3
for it is He who has bestowed from onhigh the Torah and the Gospel
(3:4)
aforetime, as aguidance unto mankind, and it is He who hasbestowed [upon man] the standard by which todiscern the true from the false.
4
 Behold, as for those who are bent on denyingGod's messages - grievous suffering awaits them: forGod is almighty, an avenger of evil.
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3:5 
Verily, nothing on earth or in the heavens ishidden from God.
(3:6)
He it is who shapes you inthe wombs as He wills. There is no deity save Him,the Almighty, the Truly Wise.
1
See Appendix II.
2
The gradualness of the Qur'anic revelation is stressed here by means of the grammatical form
nazzala
.
3
Most of the commentators are of the opinion that
ma bayna yadayhi
- lit.,"that which is between its hands"- denotes here"the revelations which came before it", i.e., before the Qur'an. This interpretation is not, however, entirely convincing. Although there is not the leastdoubt that in this context the pronominal
ma
 refers to earlier revelations, and particularly theBible (as is evident from the parallel use of the above expression in other Qur'anic passages),the idiomatic phrase
ma bayna yadayhi
 
does not, in itself, mean"that which came beforeit"- i.e., in time - but, rather (as pointed out by me in
surah
2, note 247),"that which lies open  before it". Since, however, the pronoun "it" relates here to the Qur'an, the metaphoricalexpression"between its hands"or"before it"cannot possibly refer to "
knowledge
" (as it doesin 2:255), but must obviously refer to an objective reality with which the Qur'an is"confronted": that is, something that was
coexistent in time
with the revelation of the Qur'an.Now this, taken together (
a
) with the fact - frequently stressed in the Qur'an and sinceestablished by objective scholarship - that in the course of the millenniathe Bible has beensubjected to considerable and often arbitrary alteration, and (
 b
) with the fact that many of thelaws enunciated in the Qur'an differ from the laws of the Bible, brings us forcibly to theconclusion that the "confirmation" of the latter by the Qur'an can referonly to the
 basic
truthsstill discernible in the Bible, and not to its time-bound legislation or to its present text - inother words, a confirmation of 
whatever was extant 
of its basic teachings at the time of therevelation of the Qur'an: and it is this that the phrase
ma bayna yadayhi
expresses in thiscontext as well as in
5:46
and 48 or in
61:6
(where it refers to
 Jesus' 
confirming the truth of "whatever there still remained [i.e., in his lifetime] of theTorah").
4
It is to be borne in mind that theGospelfrequently mentioned in the Qur'anis not identical  with what is known today as the Four Gospels, but refers to an original, since lost, revelation  bestowed upon Jesus and known to his contemporaries under itsGreek name of 
 Evangelion
 
("Good Tiding"), on which the Arabicized form
 Injil 
 
is based. It was probably the source from which the Synoptic Gospels derived much of their material and some of the teachingsattributed to Jesus. The fact of its having been lost and forgotten is alluded to in the Qur'an in
5:14
. - Regarding my rendering of 
al-furqan
as"the standard by which to discern the truefrom the false", see also note 38 on the identical phrase occurring in
2:53
.
2
 
Message of the Qur'an - Muhammad Asad
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3: 7
He it is who has bestowed upon thee from onhigh this divine writ, containing messages that areclear in and by themselves - and these are theessence of the divine writ - as well as others that areallegorical.
5
Now those whose hearts are given toswerving from the truth go after that part of thedivine writ
6
which has been expressed in allegory,seeking out [what is bound to create] confusion,
7
andseeking [to arrive at] its final meaning [in anarbitrary manner]; but none save God knows its finalmeaning.
8
Hence, those who are deeply rooted inknowledge say:"We believe in it; the whole [of the divine writ]is from our Sustainer - albeit none takes this to heartsave those who are endowed with insight.
5
The above passage may be regarded as a key to the understanding of the Qur'an. Tabariidentifies the
ayat muhkamat 
("messages that are clear in and by themselves") with whatthe philologists and jurists describe as
nass
- namely, ordinances or statements which areself-evident (
 zahir 
) by virtue of their wording (cf.
 Lisan at-'Arab
, art.
nass
). Consequently,Tabari regards as
ayat muhkamat 
only those statements or ordinances of the Qur'an which donot admit of more than one interpretation (which does not, of course, preclude differences of opinion regarding the
implications
of a particular
ayah muhkamah
). In my opinion, however,it would be too dogmatic to regard any passage of the Qur'an which does not conform to theabove definition as
mutashabih
 ("allegorical"): for there are many statements in the Qur'an which are liable to more than one interpretation but are, nevertheless, not allegorical - just asthere are many expressions and passages which, despite their allegorical formulation, reveal tothe searching intellect only one possible meaning. For this reason, the
ayat mutashabihat  
may  be defined as those passages of the Qur'an which are expressed in a figurative manner, with ameaning that is metaphorically implied but not directly, in so many words, stated. The
ayat muhkamat 
 are described as the "essence of the divine writ" (
umm al-kitab
) because they comprise the fundamental principles underlying its message and, in particular, its ethical andsocial teachings: and it is only on the basis of these clearly enunciated principles that theallegorical passages can be correctly interpreted. (For a more detailed discussion of symbolismand allegory in the Qur'an. see Appendix 1.)
6
Lit., "that of it".
7
The "confusion" referred to here is a consequence of interpreting allegorical passages in an"arbitrary manner" (Zamakhshari).
8
According to most of the early commentators, this refers to the interpretation of allegoricalpassages which deal withmetaphysical subjects- for instance,
God's attribute
s, the ultimatemeaning of time and eternity, the resurrection of the dead, the Day of Judgment, paradise andhell, the nature of the beings or forces described as angels, and so forth - all of which fall within the category of 
al-ghayb
,i.e., that sector of reality which is beyond the reach of human perception and imagination and cannot, therefore, be conveyed to man in other thanallegorical terms. This view of the classical commentators, however, does not seem to take intoaccount the many Qur'anic passages which do
not 
deal with metaphysical subjects and yet are,undoubtedly, allegorical in intent and expression. To my mind, one cannot arrive at a correctunderstanding of the above passage without paying due attention to the nature and function of allegory as such. A true allegory - in contrast with a mere pictorial paraphrase of somethingthat could equally well be stated in direct terms - is always meant to express in a figurativemanner something which, because of its complexity,
cannot 
be adequately expressed in directterms or propositions and, because of this very complexity, can be grasped only intuitively, asa general mental image, and not as a series of detailed "statements": and this seems to be themeaning of the phrase,"none save God knows its final meaning".
3

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