By Haider Hobbollah
Transcribed and translated by Syed Ali Imran (Canada)
Names of the Surah
- al-Naṣr is the most popular name and this is what you will find in the Qurānic codices today
- al-Fatḥ, in which case it has the same meaning as the other chapter al-Fatḥ which was revealed at the time of the treaty of Hudaybīyyah. However, this name is very rarely mentioned.
- In the traditions it is referred to as Idhā jā’a naṣr Allah wa al-fatḥ
- Sayyid Raḍi (a) has referred to it as the surah in which al-Fatḥ is mentioned or al-Naṣr
- Surah al-Tawdī’ (the farewell), and this meaning is derived from a narration which speaks of the end of the Prophet’s (p) life.
Makkī or Medanī
There is a consensus that this is a Medanī chapter, and according to Imam Riḍā (a) in a tradition this is the last complete chapter that was revealed in the Qurān.
Reasons for Revelation
There is a difference of opinion on when this chapter was revealed exactly and in response to what event.
Some say it was revealed after the treaty of Hudaybiyyah which and before Fatḥ al-Makkah – in other words between 6th and 9th hijrī. Many scholars went with this opinion, including ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī.
Some say it was shortly before or shortly after the people of Yemen began entering Islam. Unlike other tribes that were converting a few people at a time, the people of Yemen converted into the religion of Islam in very large numbers at a time. In addition, there is no reported conflict between the people of Yemen and the Muslims of Medina preceding their conversion unlike the case with many other tribes. In any case, this would date the chapter between 6th and 10th hijrī.
Some say it was shortly before and after the victory in the battle of Khaybar.
Some say it was revealed right after Fatḥ al-Makkah.
Merits of the Chapter
We will mention just a few narrations, although as it is well known, many scholars place a big question mark on traditions that relate to the merits of the Qurānic chapters.
في مجمع البيان في حديث أبى من قرأها فكأنما شهد مع رسول الله صلى الله عليه و آله فتح مكة
A tradition from Ubay who said, “Whoever recites the chapter, then he is like the one who alongside the Prophet (p) witnessed the conquest of Makkah.”
بِهَذَا الْإِسْنَادِ عَنِ الْحَسَنِ عَنْ أَبَانِ بْنِ عَبْدِ الْمَلِكِ بْنِ كَرَّامٍ الْخَثْعَمِيِّ عَنْ أَبِي عَبْدِ اللَّهِ ع قَالَ: مَنْ قَرَأَ إِذا جاءَ نَصْرُ اللَّهِ وَ الْفَتْحُ فِي نَافِلَةٍ أَوْ فَرِيضَةٍ نَصَرَهُ اللَّهُ عَلَى جَمِيعِ أَعْدَائِهِ وَ جَاءَ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ وَ مَعَهُ كِتَابٌ يَنْطِقُ قَدْ أَخْرَجَهُ اللَّهُ مِنْ جَوْفِ قَبْرِهِ فِيهِ أَمَانٌ مِنْ جِسْرِ جَهَنَّمَ وَ مِنَ النَّارِ وَ مِنْ زَفِيرِ جَهَنَّمَ فَلَا يَمُرُّ عَلَى شَيْءٍ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ إِلَّا بَشَّرَهُ وَ أَخْبَرَهُ بِكُلِّ خَيْرٍ حَتَّى يَدْخُلَ الْجَنَّةَ وَ يُفْتَحُ لَهُ فِي الدُّنْيَا مِنْ أَسْبَابِ الْخَيْرِ مَا لَمْ يَتَمَنَّ وَ لَمْ يَخْطُرْ عَلَى قَلْبِهِ.
In a tradition attributed to Imam Ṣādiq (a) he said, “Whoever recites Idhā Jā’a Naṣr Allah wa al-Fatḥ in his supererogatory prayers or the obligatory prayers, Allah (swt) will aid him against all his enemies…”
Message of the Chapter
The chapter is speaking about the etiquettes of victory. Generally speaking, when people are victorious, especially after war, there is a sense of pride and conceit. However, this chapter is saying that when one is victorious do not forget Allah (swt) and remember Him by glorifying Him.
The Conquest of Makkah
Since most exegetes have considered this chapter to be revealed around the time of the conquest of Makkah, we will briefly describe the event. The conquest of Makkah took place in 8th hijrī, after the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. The polytheists had broken the treaty with the Muslims and had betrayed their promises. In response to this, the Prophet (p) gathered a large army against the Makkans in order to fight them; and the event unfolded in the following three phases:
- a) He kept the news of their attack on the Makkans a secret. In this context there is a tradition which says a woman hid a letter in her hair-bun and tried to inform the Quryash in Makkah about the attack, but the Prophet (p) figured out and sent Imam ‘Alī (a) to stop this woman from reaching Makkah. This also shows us that a war is not just mere chanting slogans and protesting, rather it requires planning and foresight.
- b) The Prophet (p) took the army towards Makkah and camped at a location on the outskirts of Makkah called Marr al-Zahrān. Over here the Prophet (p) ordered his men to light up a very large fire so that the Makkans become curious as to the reason for this fire and light from behind the mountains. Perhaps he wanted to instigate fear and intimidation so that the Makkans forfeit and submit without having to resort to actual war.
This is what literally happened. Abū Sufyān came with a group of other men and when they saw it was large Muslim army camping on the outskirts of Makkah, they forfeit.
- c) The Muslims entered Makkah without having to spill the blood of anyone. Only around 6 people were executed.
Verse 1 – Idhā Jā’ Naṣr Allah wa al-Fatḥ
The coming of naṣr (victory) means the attainment of victory. The combination of idhā jā’ (when it comes) can mean two things:
- a) It is speaking about the future: when the victory of Allah comes in the future, then glorify Allah (swt). This would also mean that victory and conquest would not have yet been attained at the time the chapter was revealed.
Some exegetes – perhaps due to the influence of a report – say that the response to the phrase “when victory comes” is not “then glorify Allah (swt)”, rather the response is omitted and that is, “then the time of your death will come.” This is a very far-fetched interpretation and nothing like it can be derived from the text of the chapter. I believe it is simply trying to read those traditions that speak about this chapter being revealed near the end of the Prophet’s (p) life into the text, but those traditions are very weak to begin with.
In any case, the scholars have said this is one of the miracles of the Qurān since it is giving us a report about what will occur in the future. However, this is not completely accurate as the verse does not say victory will indeed come – it is not an informative statement – rather it is a conditional statement and can also be read as “when the victory of Allah happens to come, then glorify Allah.” Although, despite this, we say it is still possible to feel a sense of foreshadowing and a promise of victory for the Prophet (p), especially when it is combined a few other alibis such as Allah (swt) telling the Prophet (p) in [48:3] that He (swt) will aid the Prophet (p) in a great victory.
- b) Some exegetes have said idhā jā’a is referring to the past, meaning, “given victory has come to you, so then glorify Allah”. Although we say this is against the apparent meaning and we do not have a strong textual reason to prefer this meaning over the first meaning.
Naṣr and Fatḥ
In present-day Arabic we understand naṣr to mean victory in opposite of a loss. However, this is not what naṣr actually means in classical Arabic. Naṣr means to aid, assist, to provide a benefit to someone. For example, if someone was fighting and you assist them in this fight, this is an instance of naṣr, even if the person you were helping eventually loses. Thus in the Qurān it says:
[59:12] And [even] if they should aid them, they will surely turn their backs; then [thereafter] they will not be aided.
This verse says that despite the naṣr being provided to them, they will still run away. This means not every naṣr is necessary a fatḥ, and when Allah (swt) says He provides naṣr to the believers, it means He aids them.
This is why the first verse of this chapter says, when naṣr comes to you and fatḥ, implying that the fatḥ is a result of the naṣr, but also that fatḥ is different than naṣr. Naṣr is a preliminary and fatḥ is a result and consequence of that naṣr, although the two are not always necessarily together.
The Qurānic verses emphasize that true naṣr is only from Allah (swt) and that this is the epitome of Tawḥīd.
The next question is, what does the alif-lām on the word fatḥ indicate? Elsewhere in the Qurān, Allah (swt) says: [48:1] Indeed, We have given you, [O Muhammad], a clear conquest (fatḥān mubīnan).
Almost all exegetes have said the conquest in [48:1] is referring to the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. However, what conquest is intended in the chapter which we are discussing? There are two trends amongst exegetes:
- a) There is no specific conquest, and it is futile to even try to find an instance for it. This is speaking of the general idea of conquest and victory. The verse is simply giving a principle that when the aid of Allah (swt) and victory comes to you – regardless of what it is – then glorify Allah (swt). It is like the sentence which says, when the sun passes the zenith, then pray Ẓuhr; is this sentence referring to a specific day the sun passes the zenith or is it just a general rule? It is a general rule.
In this manner, we are able to preserve the universality of the Qurānic message as well, in response to someone who may say this was revealed for the conquest of Makkah and since the conquest has been attained there is no further reason to obey what this chapter is saying.
This explanation may sound very reasonable, but this is opinion is actually rare and only held by a handful of exegetes.
- b) A second trend says that the word fatḥ is speaking of a specific conquest, however this does not mean that the general point of glorifying Allah (swt) when one is victorious cannot still be derived and understood from this chapter. Many Qurānic verses speak about specific events and incidents at the time of the Prophet’s (p) life, but that does not prevent us from understanding the spirit of the verses and follow them.
This group of exegetes themselves disputed what specific conquest this verse is referring to.
1) The famous opinion is that it is referring to the conquest of Makah in 8th hijrī. They say we have many reasons to believe this is the case:
– There was no victory in the Prophet’s (p) life as great as the conquest of Makkah.
– The use of the word fatḥ is appropriate for the conquest of Makkah, particularly because Makkah as a city had doors and the word fatḥ also signifies the meaning of an “opening” of the doors. The fatḥ of Makkah means the opening of its doors, and entering into it as victorious.
– The second verse which speaks about people entering into the religion of Islam in large groups. We do not find this occurring in the history of Islam except after the conquest of Makkah.
Of course, there are questions that someone could ask here. Why did people start entering Islam in such large numbers specifically after Makkah was conquered? Historians have tried to offer some reasons, though this is not our topic, but I can mention as an example that some historians say the Makkans had an idea in their mind which was that only someone who is on the truth could ever gain control over Makkah. This is similar to what happened with the Asḥāb al-Fīl who were defeated and Allah (swt) did not allow them to take control over Makkah and destroy the Ka’ba. So when they saw the Prophet’s (p) victory and control over Makkah, they recognized the truth of the matter.
Some others have said that the Makkans and other people in the region did want to enter the folds of Islam, but the presence, dominance and strength of the Quraysh intimidated and scared them. When the control of the Quraysh was defeated, this allowed people to enter Islam in large numbers without any fear.
Some historians – usually the orientalists – have also said that people entered Islam because of the fear of the sword. Meaning, they had no choice but to come into Islam, or else their lives were in danger.
– In [48:3] Allah (swt) says He (swt) will aid the Prophet (p) and that it will be a type of assistance that will be least expected and mighty. We do not know of any such mighty assistance after the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah except the Conquest of Makkah.
2) Some have said it could be any of the specific victories the Prophet (p) enjoyed during his life, such as the Hijrah itself, or the battle of Badr or any other battle. We do not know which one specifically. Although if we say it is referring to the Hijrah then that would mean this chapter is Makkī and not Medanī.
3) Some say it is referring to the people of Yemen entering the folds of Islam in large numbers around 6th hijrī.
4) Some have said it is referring to the conquest of Khaybar.
5) Some have said it is referring to the Farewell Pilgrimage.
6) In a tradition attributed to Ibn ‘Abbās, it is referring to the conquest of Madā’in, which means it is referring to an event after the demise of the Prophet (p). This is of course really far-fetched since the context of the chapter seems to be speaking about an event that will occur during the life of the Prophet (p).
7) Some have said that this is referring to when Imam Mahdī (a) comes since al-nās (people) in this chapter is referring to all of humanity, and all of humanity will not enter Islam until the Imam (a) comes. This is also far-fetched since al-nās could most likely mean a large number of people, not all of humanity. The word al-nās is used in the former meaning, without intending all of humanity, in the Qurān multiple times.
Verse 2 – Wa Ra’ayta al-Nās Yadkhulūna Fī Dīn Allah Afwājā – وَرَأَيْتَ النَّاسَ يَدْخُلُونَ فِي دِينِ اللَّهِ أَفْوَاجًا
The meaning of seeing in this verse is certainty, just as we say, “I saw with my own eyes”. We have spoken about this in detail when we spoke about the first verse of Sūrah al-Fīl, so we will not repeat those discussions again.
Since this verse alludes that the people the Prophet (p) will see during his own lifetime will be entering the Dīn of Allah (swt), then if Dīn here means the religion of Islam specifically, that means everyone truly entered it. Some Ahl al-Sunnah scholars have used this to prove that there were no hypocrites up until the demise of the Prophet (p), or else Allah (swt) will not say you will see people enter the Dīn of Allah – meaning Islam. This meaning signifies that the Arabs truly believed and accepted Islam.
However, if Dīn means obedience and submission, then that does not mean there were no hypocrites rather it means people had given up on their previous endeavors and were humbled in front of the authority of the Prophet (p) which is ultimately rooted in Allah’s (swt) authority.
Afwāj (plural for Fawj) means a group and a congregation. In this verse it means that group of people will be entering the Dīn of Allah (swt) one group after another in quick successions. This is what happened after the Conquest of Makkah and in fact the last year of the Prophet (p) was called the Year of the Delegations when tribes were coming to announce their conversions to Islam.
Verse 3 – Fa-Sabbiḥ Bi-Ḥamd Rabbika Wa Astaghfir Innahu Kāna Tawwāba – فَسَبِّحْ بِحَمْدِ رَبِّكَ وَاسْتَغْفِرْهُ ۚ إِنَّهُ كَانَ تَوَّابًا
We will address four questions in relation to this verse:
1) What do tasbīḥ, ḥamd, istighfār and tawbah mean, linguistically and in the Qurān, not in jurisprudence where it has its own specific meaning.
2) What is the relationship between tasbīḥ and ḥamd?
3) What does it mean for Allah (swt) to command the Prophet (p) to do istighfār in light of the concept of infallibility?
4) What is the relationship between the first two verses and this last verse?
Tasbīḥ, Ḥamd, Istighfār and Tawbah
Tasbīḥ linguistically means tanzīh: transcendence and incomparability. Tanzīh also means to deem something far and distant (tab’īd). The Arabs would say, Subḥāna Min Kadhā meaning how far-fetched something is.
Tasbīḥ of Allah means to remember Him while recognizing that nothing resembles Him nor is similar to Him, to deem anything that does not befit Him to be far and distant. If we say, Allah is not an oppressor, or Allah is not weak, then that is an instance of doing tasbīḥ of Allah (swt).
A very similar meaning to tasbīḥ in Arabic is the word taqdīs, which is to consider something purified and sacred. Subbuḥ and Quddūs thus are very close in meaning, since the former is a distancing, while the latter is distancing specifically from impurities and things which are detested. Tasbīḥ, tanzīh, tab’īd, and taqdīs therefore have very similar meanings.
One of the greatest instances of tasbīḥ is the Ṣalāt, as Allah (swt) says: [30:17] So exalted is Allah when you reach the evening and when you reach the morning. The clearest instance of tasbīḥ in the morning and evening are the prayers, where we announce Allah’s (swt) transcendence and incomparability to anything else.
We also see that tasbīḥ has a very prevalent presence in the du’ā’ literature. This is because when you are supplicating, you are supplicating to Allah (swt) the Almighty. Imagine you are taken in the presence of a king, and the king asks you to speak, before you begin speaking there are some preliminary statements you must make so that the king decides to pay any heed to you and listen to you. This is from the etiquettes of speaking with a ruler. A very similar relationship exists between us and Allah (swt) – of course the scenario of the king was just an example so the mind can better understand this relationship.
Thus, before you begin supplicating and asking from Allah (swt), you must first do tasbīḥ and speak of His (swt) uniqueness and praise Him (swt). You will find this trend in many of our supplications, for example see how Du’ā’ al-Iftitāḥ begins, in fact the first line attests that we are beginning the supplication by praising Him (swt). Once these preliminaries are concluded, only then do we find the lines in which we request and seek our needs from Allah (swt). A good example of this is when we complete our rukū’ and tasbīḥ of Allah, when we get up, we say sami’ Allah li-man ḥamida, which means: Allah (swt) answers and responds to those who do ḥamd of Him (swt).
However, if one were to just enter into the presence of Allah (swt) without acknowledging His (swt) status and begin making demands and requests as if they have the right to do so, that is not in accordance with the rightful conduct that is expected from a supplicant. This is why Allah (swt) says regarding Prophet Yunus (a): [37:143-144] And had he not been of those who exalt Allah (musabbiḥīn), He would have remained inside its belly until the Day they are resurrected.
He (swt) does not say: and had Yunus not been of those who supplicate to Allah (swt), rather the first step is to from those who exalt and glorify Allah (swt). Even in the Ṣalāt, we are asked to recite the four tasbīḥ which are Subḥanallah, al-Ḥamd lillah, Lā Ilāha Illallah, Allah Akbar; each of these is a proclamation of His (swt) greatness and that there is nothing like Him (swt).
As for taḥmīd, it means to do ḥamd over and over again, so we need to know what ḥamd means. Ḥamd is to praise someone or something with their beautiful attributes and qualities. When we do ḥamd of Allah (swt), we could say that he is a mun’im, mufḍil, jawād, karīm, ḥaqq, ‘ādil etc.
Linguists have two opinions on the word ḥamd and related terms:
1) Some say the opposite of ḥamd is dhamm and the opposite of madḥ is ḥijā’. They also say that ḥamd and madḥ are synonymous and so are dhamm and ḥijā’.
2) Some say the opposite of ḥamd is dhamm and the opposite of madḥ is ḥijā’, but ḥamd is inclusive of existents that have life and those that do not have life, but madḥ is exclusive to those existents that have life. In addition, they say that madḥ does not have to be preceded with a blessing or a favour. For example, you can do madḥ of a poet who lived a few centuries ago, even though this poet has not done you any favours. Ḥamd on the other hand is done after one received a favour or blessing.
This is why tasbīḥ has been associated with the negative attributes (al-sifāt al-salbīyyah) of Allah (swt) and taḥmīd has been associated with the positive attributes (al-sifāt al-thubūtiyyah). Although this association is a much later theological and philosophical matter and has nothing to do with the linguistic discussion.
There is a lot of emphasis on ḥamd in Islam, in fact in some situations it is obligatory to do ḥamd and in some situations it is mustaḥabb. For example, in the sermon of the Friday prayers, the ‘Īd prayers, the ḥamd in the third and fourth unit of prayers if you will not be reciting a surah. As for mustaḥabb cases, there are around thirty places where jurists have said ḥamd is to be recited. For example, when beginning any action, when performing istinjā’, after eating, after reciting the Fātiḥa in Ṣalāt, after standing up from rukū’, before beginning the tashahhud, for the congregation who are praying behind an Imam in Ẓuhr and ‘Aṣr, when you see the crescent, in Ṣalāt al-Istisqā’, when one sneezes, for receiving every blessing, and so on.
Istighfār means to seek maghfirah, which is from ghafar. Ghafar means to cover and conceal, therefore one of the head-coverings in Arabic is called a mighfar since it conceals the head. Or it is said, a group of people who were ghafīr came, implying that there were so many people that it was hard to distinguish them by face. Hair on a woman’s leg, and hair that usually grows on the ears is called ghafar as the hair covers the shin and the ears.
Therefore, istighfār means to seek maghfirah which is that you ask Allah (swt) to cover, hide and overlook your sins. Concealment and covering are an indirect expression for Allah (swt) to not have anything to do with our past sins and shortcomings.
Tawbah for many of us today means to have regret and the decision to not go back to a mistake again. However, this is a meaning given to this word later on by jurists and ethicists – though it is not invalid as we will show shortly, but linguistically it simply means to return. There is nothing about regret and deciding not to make the same error again in the word tawbah.
The mere abandonment of something is an instance of tawbah, for example, we may say someone has done tawbah from a sin which means they were carrying out a sin and then decided to abandon it and return back to the state before they engaged in that sin. This is what tawbah from a sin means, but what does it mean for Allah (swt) to do tawbah as we have verses in the Qurān that speak of that? This third verse itself says innahu kāna tawwāba (He is a tawwāb – someone who does a lot of tawbah).
When we commit a sin and then do tawbah, it means we have returned back and abandoned that sinful act. We return back to Allah (swt). In response to that, Allah (swt) also does tawbah, which means accepts our return, returns back to us pays heed to us. This is based on the notions of gaining closeness and getting distant from Allah (swt). When we commit sins, we become distant from Allah (swt), and when we perform acts of servitude, we become closer to Allah (swt), which is why we must have the intention of gaining proximity to Allah (swt) in our acts of worship for the worship to be valid and accepted.
Therefore, there is no issue in Allah (swt) describing Himself and even some of His (swt) servants as tawwāb, because tawbah has nothing to do with regret, it simply means to return. This relationship is depicted in numerous traditions as well which say that if an individual abandons sins and gets closer to Allah (swt), Allah (swt) will also get closer to him and pay heed to him.
This is why in the rules of apostasy, an apostate is requested to return (istitāb), this return does not have anything to do with feeling regret. So how did the meaning of tawbah take on the meaning of regret? For an individual to return and abandon a sinful act, one of the first steps is usually regret and in fact many have pointed out that the first step towards tawbah is regret, not that tawbah means regret. The jurists later came and said it is sufficient for one to feel regret and decide not to commit the act again for it to be considered an instance of tawbah, but this is not the linguistic meaning of it. Of course, I am not saying that the meaning given by jurists is incorrect, that has its own detailed discussions, rather I am simply pointing out the linguistic meaning of the words and how it has generally been used in the Qurān much before any of those jurisprudential discussions arose.
Relationship Between Tasbīḥ and Ḥamd
There are a number of places in the Qurān where the two are mentioned together, for example:
- وَنَحْنُ نُسَبِّحُ بِحَمْدِكَ وَنُقَدِّسُ لَكَ – (2:30)
- فَسَبِّحْ بِحَمْدِ رَبِّكَ وَكُن مِّنَ السَّاجِدِينَ – )15:98(
- وَسَبِّحْ بِحَمْدِ رَبِّكَ قَبْلَ طُلُوعِ الشَّمْسِ وَقَبْلَ غُرُوبِهَا – )20:130(
- سَبِّحْ بِحَمْدِ رَبِّكَ بِالْعَشِيِّ وَالْإِبْكَارِ – )40:55(
- وَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى الْحَيِّ الَّذِي لَا يَمُوتُ وَسَبِّحْ بِحَمْدِهِ – )25:58(
Another example is the tasbīḥ we do in our rukū’ and sujūd, when we say subḥān rabbī al-‘aẓīm wa bi-ḥamdih – what does the last phrase bi-ḥamdih mean? Some scholars have written short treatises on just this tasbīḥ and have attempted to explain the meaning of the phrase bi-ḥamdih since it is a little ambiguous and has led to differences in opinion.
The most pertinent aspect in this discussion is to understand the meaning of the preposition bā’. What does the letter bā’ connected to the word ḥamd mean? Linguists and as well as exegetes have differed on its meaning, I will mention only a few opinions just to shed light on the extent of the discussion:
1) Bā’ simply means “and” (wa). Sabbiḥ bi al-ḥamd means sabbiḥ wa-ḥmid. This is possible, but it does not explain the linguistic reason for why the preposition bā’ was used to convey this meaning.
2) Bā’ is either for ḥāl or muṣāḥabah. Meaning, do tasbīḥ while you are in the state of doing ḥamd of your Lord, or do tasbīḥ alongside doing ḥamd of your Lord. This actually results in the same meaning as the first explanation given above, but through another linguistic justification. This is also a possible meaning, but as we will see, there is a much better meaning that is closer to what the Arabs of that time would have understood, especially when we take the linguistic meaning of these two words into consideration.
3) Al-Ḥamd means command, rendering the meaning of the sentence as: Do tasbīḥ of Allah (swt) with the command of Allah (swt). I do not know if ḥamd has been used in the meaning of command in the Arabic language, and even if it did you will need to bring an alibi to prove this since it is against the apparent meaning of the word.
4) Bā’ is for muqābalah – this is the strangest explanation in my opinion. This interpretation means to say, do tasbīḥ of Allah (swt) in the place of doing ḥamd of Allah (swt). This makes it sound like there is a problem with doing ḥamd, that one should not do ḥamd and instead do tasbīḥ.
5) The object of the command tense sabbīḥ has not been mentioned in these verses so why are we presuming this is a tasbīḥ of Allah (swt)? In fact, the object for the tasbīḥ – which means tanzīh – is your heart, and so the statement is saying: purify and cleanse your heart with the ḥamd of Allah (swt). This is a very unique explanation, and while it is possible, we do not have a strong indicator to prefer it.
6) Bā’ is extraneous, in which case the statement is saying fa-sabbiḥ ḥamda rabbik – do tasbīḥ of the ḥamd of your Lord. The object of the tasbīḥ is not Allah (swt), but ḥamd. This means to make your praise for Allah (swt) the greatest and purest of praises.
7) Many scholars have said why are we over-complicating this matter? The statement simply means to do tasbīḥ with the ḥamd of Allah (swt). Tasbīḥ as we have already mentioned linguistically means tanzīh, and so this statement is commanding us to do tanzīḥ with the praise of Allah (swt). This is very much in line with the linguistic meaning and does not require any mental gymnastics. A simple example of such tasbīḥ would be to say Allah Akbar, as it is a praise and also elevates Him (swt) above any other thing, making Him (swt) incomparable to any other entity.
With this seventh interpretation, the meaning of subḥān rabbī al-‘aẓīm wa bi-ḥamdih would be: I do tasbīḥ of my Lord the Magnificent and I also do tasbīḥ of Him by doing ḥamd of him. In essence you are doing two tasbīḥ in one statement.
Istighfār of the Prophet
There are numerous placed where Allah (swt) commands the Prophet (p) to do istighfār:
[4:106] And seek forgiveness of Allah. Indeed, Allah is ever Forgiving and Merciful.
[40:55] And ask forgiveness for your sin and exalt [Allah] with praise of your Lord in the evening and the morning.
[47:19] So know, [O Muhammad], that there is no deity except Allah and ask forgiveness for your sin and for the believing men and believing women. And Allah knows of your movement and your resting place.
[110:3] Then exalt [Him] with praise of your Lord and ask forgiveness of Him.
The dilemma here is that if someone believes the Prophet (p) was infallible and that he committed no sins, then what is the purpose of Allah (swt) commanding him to seek maghfirah? We will not be discussing the topic of infallibility here of course, but rather we will look at how different schools of thought have explained these verses in light of their own theological presumptions.
There are two general trends amongst the Muslims: those that believe in a very limited extent of infallibility, and those who believe in a very wide extent of infallibility. Those in the first trend – usually non-Imāmī Muslim scholars – themselves have different opinions:
- Some say that the Prophet (p) was protected in conveying his message only.
- Those that say he was only protected from committing major sins, not minor sins.
- Those that say he was infallible only after the declaration of Prophethood, not before that.
For scholars in any of the above three camps, the verses are very easily interpreted. For example, they will say the Prophet (p) is being asked to seek forgiveness for his sins, or his minor sins, or his sins before he was officially made a Prophet. In fact, [47:19] is very explicit that the Prophet (p) had his own sins which were different than the sins of the believing men and women. They go further and say that many other Prophets (p) had committed errors and there are a number of examples in the Qurān where they seek forgiveness from Allah (swt), while at the same time we find that there is no mention of angels ever doing istighfār for themselves. The angels only do istighfār for others, which is consistent with the idea that angels do not make any mistakes nor commit sins.
As for the second trend, then they have a greater task at hand to explain these verses. This is because this group of scholars believe that the Prophet (p) did not commit any sins, major or minor, nor in secret nor in public, not before his Prophethood nor after. What does the command to do istighfār mean in the case where one has no sins? The whole purpose of istighfār is to request Allah (swt) to cover and overlook one’s sins, but if there are no sins to begin with, istighfār has no meaning. It should also be pointed out that this second trend does not include only Shī’ī Imāmī scholars, that is not an accurate claim to make. In fact, you can find numerous Ahl al-Sunnah scholars who also fall into this second trend, and a number of justifications we will mention shortly have actually been mentioned by them.[note]For anyone who is interested, they can refer to the very popular treatise on the infallibility of Prophets titled ‘Ismah al-Anbiyā’ written by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606/1210).[/note]
There are a number of responses given to this question. Some of these responses are general and include all verses where such a command is given, while a few of them are only restricted to this verse:
1) The first justification is what the Mu’tazalīs formulated and used extensively, which is the notion of īyyāk a’nī wa-sma’ī yā jāra (I meant you, but O neighbour you should listen). This means that the Qurān was addressing the Prophet (p), but in actuality it was addressing the people around him.
For example, [17:23-24] And your Lord has decreed that you not worship except Him, and to parents, good treatment. Whether one or both of them reach old age [while] with you, say not to them [so much as], “uff,” and do not repel them but speak to them a noble word. And lower to them the wing of humility out of mercy and say, “My Lord, have mercy upon them as they brought me up [when I was] small.”
This command is apparently addressing the Prophet (p), but in reality, it is for the people around him, since the Prophet (p) never had any parents at the time of his Prophethood.
As per this interpretation, the command of seeking forgiveness is not truly addressing the Prophet (p) to begin with. All of them are addressing the Muslims.
2) One of the most famous justifications given by theologians is the idea of tark al-awla (abandoning that which is better and what was more appropriate). This is the idea that the Prophets (p) did not commit sins, but at times they are to do something that can be carried out in two ways, one being better than the other, and they decided to do the act that had a lesser merit.
This theological view has implications even in legal theory when we discuss the actions of an infallible, because if we accept this view then that means their mere behavior does not indicate something is not makrūh, since it could be an instance of them doing something that is less meritorious. Likewise, if they abandon an act, it does not necessarily mean that act is not mustaḥabb, because it could be an instance of them not doing that which is better.
If we say that the Prophet (p) does not even engage in tark al-awla then that means any action he does must necessarily signify it is not makrūh, and if he abandons an act it necessarily signifies it was not mustaḥabb.
3) A number of theologians, the mystics, and ethicists have offered a justification which Ghazāli called dawām al-taraqqi. They say that the Prophets (p) all reach a rank that no one else reaches, but this does not mean there are no further ranks after that. The Prophets (p) are continuously climbing these ranks and as they increase in these ranks they take into consideration their previous ranks in which they see deficiency.
In general, this is a very valid and natural phenomenon as we see this happening even in our day to day lives. For example, if an individual who does not hold a significant rank in society were to raise their voice in public on the streets, no one will say anything. If this same individual happens to be a respected and dignified figure in society and were to do the same thing, people will condemn him as they do not expect such an individual to behave in this manner as it is inappropriate.
This third view can be summed up in the famous maxim often found in the works of mystics: The good qualities of the virtuous are the bad qualities of those brought near to God. Meaning, as one grows in his or her rank, when they look back at their previous condition, they see that their previous good deeds now resemble sins.
4) Some scholars have said the Prophet (p) would often engage in acts that had nothing to do with him, but he engaged in them only to educate and inform the Muslims about it. When the Prophets (p) engage in istighfār they are not truly doing istighfār since such a thing has no meaning for them, rather they are just exhibiting the form of seeking forgiveness so that others can observe them, learn from them and also recognize the importance of the act.
The above four justifications are very popular and have been used to explain away many of the verses and also numerous traditions that speak of the Prophets (p) doing istighfār. The next few justifications are not as popular, and they are not as strong either.
5) The Prophet (p) has indeed been commanded to do istighfār and he truly did istighfār. If you look at the command tense, it simply says seek forgiveness, it does not say seek forgiveness “for yourself”, you are making this presumption. The verse is saying to seek forgiveness for the sins of the Muslims, and this command in reality is showing us the significance of the Prophet’s (p) intercession. As a result, the Prophet’s (p) istighfār is real and so are his tears when seeking istighfār.
This explanation might be possible in the verse we are discussing, but how can it explain [47:19] where the sins of the Prophet (p) are specifically pointed out as different to the sins of the believers.
6) Some scholars have said istighfār is similar to doing tasbīḥ. Just as tasbīḥ in its very essence is a good act, so is the act of istighfār. Putting yourself in the very state and condition of istighfār is good, even if you are not a sinner.
This is also a weak explanation especially after we have explained the difference between tasbīḥ and istighfār. In addition, it once again does not explain [47:19].
7) A few Ahl al-Sunnah scholars, prominently Qāḍī ‘Īyāḍ b. Mūsa al-Yaḥṣubī (d. 544/1149 CE), have mentioned that the Prophet (p) was constantly in the remembrance of Allah (swt). At times, a worldly situation would arise such as war or some other dilemma, which could force the Prophet (p) to attend to it to the extent that it would break his constant remembrance of Allah (swt).
This is merely a claim without any evidence. Some of these interpretations force us to do ta’wīl of the word dhanb in [47:19], but we need a strong justified reason to do this and mere claims are not enough.
8) One of the scholars – with all due respect to them – has offered a very strange explanation of these verses. They have understood these verses as a conditional statement: O Muḥammad, if you are infallible, then do tasbīḥ of Allah (swt), but if you are not infallible, then do istighfār. This explanation makes the verses appear like Allah (swt) did not know if the Prophet (p) was infallible or not.
Relationship of First Two Verses With the Last Verse
The first two verses are a conditional statement, and the last verse is its consequence. If we understand the relationship between the condition and the consequence we will understand the theme of this short chapter. Between every condition and consequence there has to be an appropriate relationship, for example, if I say, “If you see me walking on the street, then clap your hands.” What does observing me walk on the street have to do with publicly clapping? Such a conditional statement would be seen as absurd.
Likewise, if Allah’s (swt) aid is given to the Prophet (p) and people are seen entering the folds of Islam, then what does it mean to do tasbīḥ of Allah (swt) and even more strangely, do istighfār? For example, someone can say it would be more appropriate to say, if Allah’s (swt) aid is given and people are entering Islam, then be happy at this success. Also, instead of saying Allah (swt) is Most Magnificent or Allah (swt) is All Powerful at the end of the last verse, which sounds more appropriate after a victory, it says Allah is tawwāb.
We will offer a few analysis and explanations, then see what is the most plausible explanation, but we are not going to say anything with certainty since these explanations are not mentioned in the verses themselves and we will refrain from attributing anything to Allah (swt).[note]The Shaykh mentions a real story that he heard from a scholar who was transmitting an incident that occurred with the scholar himself. This scholar said, he went to one of the Western countries and was speaking about Sūrah Yāsīn. He said, he mistakenly read the verse as Yāsīn Wa al-Qurān al-Karīm (instead of al-Ḥakīm) and then began to speak at length about why Allah (swt) described the Qurān as karīm, and not ḥakīm, or ‘azīz, or mubīn, or majīd etc. Eventually one of the audience members pointed out that it is al-ḥakīm, and the scholar was left embarrassed. The point of the story being that many a times we engage in all sorts of speculative analysis and explanations that are not mentioned in the verses themselves and attribute these explanations with certainty to what Allah (swt) intended.[/note]
1) The relationship between the condition and consequence is that when people are victorious, they begin to feel a sense of pride and conceit. Usually when people are under stress and hardships, they occasionally remember Allah (swt). If missiles are falling on their heads, they will remember Allah (swt). If their ship gets caught in a storm, they will remember Allah (swt). The moment things become normal again, or if they are victorious and successfully come out of a dilemma, they forget Allah (swt) so quickly as if He (swt) was never there to begin with.
Therefore, when the Prophet (p) is victorious and people begin entering the folds of Islam, Allah (swt) asks him to do tasbīḥ of Allah (swt) and seek forgiveness, reminding him of their conditions before their victory. This means that one should remember Allah (swt) in all situations, be it when they are facing challenges and hardships, or when they are victorious.
This is a decent explanation which a number of scholars have mentioned.
2) Tasbīḥ is an announcement of Allah’s (swt) greatness and uniqueness, and this command is being given after the aid and victory Allah (swt) has granted them. This means that Allah (swt) is to be given credit for this victory and this is to be done by doing tasbīḥ.
This is also probable, although it focuses more on the tasbīḥ aspect rather than the istighfār.
3) Some exegetes have relied on some traditions which speak of this chapter being revealed near the end of the Prophet’s (p) life and have said that this chapter is saying, when the aid and victory of Allah (swt) comes, then your demise is near, so do tasbīḥ and istighfār. This is because as a person gets closer to their time of death, they should engage in the worship of Allah (swt) more and cease every opportunity to exalt Him (swt) since he will be leaving this world soon.
However, as mentioned already, this interpretation is heavily based on the tradition. Otherwise, there is nothing in the chapter that implies this meaning.
4) When people are victorious, they forget Allah (swt) and that is a type of belittlment of Allah (swt). We have real examples in history where we see that when certain individuals are victorious in some sport or in some battle, they begin to think they are the strongest or most skilled individual on this planet. Some will openly come out and make such boastful remarks. This is nothing but a belittling of Allah (swt) since you have forgotten him completely with these feelings. If Allah (swt) was truly akbar (the Greatest) then one would not forget Him (swt) even in that moment and one would be remembering Him (swt).
These verses are therefore condemning the belittlmet of Allah (swt) that often takes place after victories and is condemning any sense of self-worth felt during those moments. Therefore, one must also do istighfār for those lapses.
All in all, this chapter is teaching and educating us about our expected behaviour even at times of victory and success. This is not limited to some specific instances like winning a battle, rather every individual in their own respect can fall into this mistake, such as if someone is a great writer, a great speaker, a great poet, or a great scientist and so on. The message of the chapter is that one must not magnify themselves, rather Allah (swt) is the one who deserves all glorification.
This message is also found in the conduct and practice of the Prophets (p), and we will just mention two examples from the Qurān:
1) In [27:40] when one of Prophet Sulaymān’s (p) companions from the Jinn brings the throne of Sheba in an eye-blink, imagine what one would naturally feel if they were a king. They would boast about their power and strength, something Pharaonic rulers generally do. However, Sulaymān’s (p) response is: “This is by the Grace of my Lord”. He (p) does not attribute anything to himself, rather he says this is the Grace of Allah (swt) and it is, “to test me whether I am grateful or ungrateful”.
2) At the end of the story of Prophet Yūsuf (p) once he has ascended to the throne after going through many hardships and difficulties, he says:
[12:100] And he raised his parents upon the throne, and they bowed to him in prostration. And he said, “O my father, this is the explanation of my vision of before. My Lord has made it reality. And He was certainly good to me when He took me out of prison and brought you [here] from bedouin life after Satan had induced [estrangement] between me and my brothers. Indeed, my Lord is Subtle in what He wills. Indeed, it is He who is the Knowing, the Wise.
[12:101] My Lord, You have given me [something] of sovereignty and taught me of the interpretation of dreams. Creator of the heavens and earth, You are my protector in this world and in the Hereafter. Cause me to die a Muslim and join me with the righteous.”
We see that Yūsuf (p) attributes his success completely to Allah (swt) and does not say anything about himself. This is the very definition of belief in Allah (swt) and the etiquettes of victory Islam teaches us.