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Holy Quran Section > English Translation and Commentary of the Holy Quran by Maulana Muhammad Ali (Table of Contents) > Chapter 2 (Al-Baqarah - The Cow) > Section 35 (Verses 258 to 260)


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Section/Ruku 35 [Verses 258 to 260]: How dead nations are raised to life:
Chapter 2: (Al-Baqarah - The Cow)
(Revealed at Madinah: 40 sections; 286 verses)

1. Translation:

258 Hast thou not thought of him who disputed with Abraham about his Lord, because Allah had given him kingdom?
a When Abraham said, My Lord is He Who gives life and causes to die, he said: I give life and cause death.b Abraham said: Surely Allah causes the sun to rise from the East, so do thou make it rise from the West.c Thus he who disbelieved was confounded. And Allah guides not the unjust people.

259 Or like him who passed by a town, and it had fallen in upon its roofs. He said: When will Allah give it life after its death? So Allah caused him to die for a hundred years, then raised him. He said: How long hast thou tarried? He said: I have tarried a day, or part of a day. He said: Nay, thou hast tarried a hundred years; but look at thy food and drink — years have not passed over it! And look at thy ass! And that We may make thee a sign to men. And look at the bones, how We set them together then clothe them with flesh. So when it became clear to him, he said: I know that Allah is Possessor of power over all things.a

260 And when Abraham said, My Lord, show me how Thou givest life to the dead, He said: Dost thou not believe? He said: Yes, but that my heart may be at ease. He said: Then take four birds, then tame them to incline to thee, then place on every mountain a part of them, then call them, they will come to thee flying; and know that Allah is Mighty, Wise.a

 2. Commentary:

258a. The words “because Allah had given him kingdom” are taken by the majority of commentators to refer to Abraham’s opponent whose name is given as Nimrod (Gen. 10:8, 9), but the view of the minority that the personal pronoun him in the above quotation refers to Abraham is preferable. It is corroborated by 4:54: “We have given to Abraham’s children the Book and the Wisdom and We have given them a grand kingdom”. Even in Genesis the promised land is spoken of as being given to Abraham: “I am the Lord that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it” (Gen. 15:7). The words ata-hu-llahu would in this case mean Allah had promised to give him.

The Muslims are here told that just as a promise is given to them that they will be raised to great eminence from the state of insignificance in which they were, which is equivalent to raising the dead to life, a similar promise was given to Abraham, that promise being in fact the basis of the present promise to the Prophet: see 124a. [Back to verse 258]

258b. It is not stated what it was to which the giving of life or bringing of death relates, but as the discussion arose out of the promise given to Abraham that his descendants would be made a great nation, it is clear that the reference here is to the life and death of nations. It should be noted that the words hayat and maut, literally life and death, are as well applicable to nations and places as to men, animals and vegetation. Thus matati-l-ardu signifies the land became destitute of vegetation and inhabitants (LL). What is stated here is further illustrated in the verse that follows by the Divine promise as to the rebuilding of Jerusalem, where the desolation of the sacred city is spoken of as its death and its rebuilding is called its life. [Back to verse 258]

258c. The disputant belonged to a race of sun-worshippers, and therefore when he claimed that he could give life and cause death, Abraham advanced an argument which quite confounded his adversary. If he could give life and cause death he could control even his deity, the sun, for to give life and cause death were the work of the deity and not of the devotee, and hence he could make it rise from the opposite direction. The adversary was confounded, because he saw that he had made an assertion which was opposed to his own avowed belief. [Back to verse 258]

259a. An illustration is afforded here from later Israelite history, as to how dead nations are raised to life. By “the town which had fallen in upon its roofs” is meant Jerusalem (Rz, AH), as it was left after its desolation by Nebuchadnezzar in 599 B.C.

The words “look at the bones, how We set them together, then clothe them with flesh”, undoubtedly refer to Ezekiel’s vision as related in Ezekiel, ch. 37. The first part of ch. 37 relates how Ezekiel was taken (in a vision) “in the midst of the valley which was full of bones,” and asked, “Son of man, can these bones live?” After a Divine assurance, Ezekiel is made to witness the scene which is narrated here in the words — Look at the bones, how We set them together: “The bones came together, bone to his bone,” and “the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them above,” and then “the breath came into them, and they lived” (Ezek. 37:1–10). That what is narrated in Ezekiel, ch. 37, is a vision is clear from the introductory words of that chapter: “The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord”. What follows the incident makes it still more clear, for verse 11 (Ezekiel, ch. 37) goes on to say: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: Behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost”; while verse 12 gives them the Divine promise, “Behold, O My people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel”. This shows conclusively that the bones were only a symbol of the fallen condition of the whole house of Israel. I lay stress upon the word whole in Ezekiel 37:11, because the actual bones were only of the very few among them who were put to the sword, by far the greater number being in captivity or held in a slavish condition in subjugation to the Babylonians.

The identical incident related in v. 259 is also a vision. The Qur’an usually dispenses with words showing an incident to be a vision when either the context or the nature of the incident or a reference to earlier history makes it clear that it is a vision. Compare the words in which Joseph narrated his vision to his father in 12:4: “O my father, I saw eleven stars and the sun and the moon — I saw them making obeisance to me,” not making any mention at all that he had seen this in a vision. In the verse under discussion, however, it is not only its identity with Ezekiel 37:1–10 that shows the incident to be a vision, but the insertion of a kaf, signifying likeness, before the whole is a further indication of the same. If the incident had been a real one, as in the previous verse, the verse should have commenced with the words or him instead of or like him, the insertion of the kaf giving the incident the colour of a parable or a vision.

The causing the prophet to die for a hundred years is also an incident of the vision which, though not narrated in the Bible, is corroborated by facts, standing symbolically for the death of the Jewish nation, a death of disgrace and sorrow, or the desolation of Jerusalem, which covered a period of almost a hundred years. Jerusalem was taken by Nebuchadnezzar in 599 B.C. (2 Kings 24:10); Cyrus gave permission to rebuild the temple in 537 B.C. (Ezra 1:2), the house being eventually finished in 515 B.C. (Ezra 6:15). The Bible does not give us the history of the period from 515 B.C., and even if we are not allowed to conjecture that another fifteen years may have been taken by the Israelites to settle back in Jerusalem and to rebuild the city itself for their own habitation, the period from 599 to 515 B.C. covers almost fully the whole of the sixth century B.C., and hence the hundred years of the prophet’s death in this vision represent the hundred years of the death of the Israelite nation.

The reference to the food and drink of the prophet, which did not show any influence of years, and to his ass, which was still standing by, only proves that the hundred years’ death which the prophet underwent was only a vision. The mention of the bones has been taken by some commentators to refer to the ass, but this is an obvious error, for the two statements are separated by a sentence: “And that We may make thee a sign to men”; and there is also a pause after the word ass, separating what follows from that which has preceded.

How was Ezekiel a sign to the people? Because the vision made him a symbol of the whole Jewish nation, and his symbolic death for a hundred years represented the sorrows and afflictions of Israel for a similar period, after which they were once more to be restored to life.

The word yatasannah (sanah, a year) means the thing underwent the lapse of years. The word applied to food and drink carries a similar significance, meaning it became altered (for the worse) by the lapse of years (LA, LL). Rz explains the lapse of years to be the real meaning of the word, for his explanation is the years did not pass over it. This shows that actually there was no lapse of years, and it is simply a vision. [Back to verse 259]

260a. This verse is a natural sequel to v. 258, which speaks of the manifestation of Allah’s power in the life and death of nations. Verse 259, as already noted, has been interposed to afford a proof of the assertion made in v. 258. In Gen. 15:8 Abraham is made to say, after receiving a promise of the land of Canaan: “Lord God, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?” The Quranic parallel to this is: “My Lord, show me how Thou givest life to the dead.” He believed in the Divine promise, and was so sure of it that he had even contended with and overcome an adversary on this point. But was it not strange that out of his seed should arise a nation that should supplant the powerful nations that ruled the land? The sign given to Abraham according to Gen. 15:9–11 is quite meaningless, not making it clear how Abraham’s seed was to inherit the land. He is told to take “a heifer of three years old, and a she-goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon”; he “divided them in the midst.” “And when the fowls came down upon the carcases, Abraham drove them away.” How this was a sign of Abraham inheriting the land of Canaan is a mystery. It only shows that the text here has been tampered with.

The answer to Abraham’s how as given in the Qur’an is a perfectly intelligible parable. If he should take four birds and tame them, they would obey his call and fly to him even from the distant mountains. If the birds, then, obey his call, he being neither their master nor the author of their existence, would not nations submit to the call of their Divine Master and the Author of their existence? Or if the birds, being only tamed for a short time by a man who had otherwise no control over them, become so obedient to their tamer, has not Allah the power to control all those causes which govern the life and death of nations? Whenever He wishes to destroy a people He brings about the causes of their decline and evil fortune overtakes them; and when He wishes to make a people prosperous He brings about causes which result in their rise and progress. That the word ta’ir (plural air is used here) which signifies a bird, also signifies the cause of good and evil, or misery or happiness (T, LL), in which sense the word is used in 7:131 and elsewhere in the Holy Qur’an, is a further indication of the significance of the parable of the birds, through which Abraham is made to realize how the Almighty controls the fortunes of nations. It is an error to suppose that Abraham actually took four birds and tamed them. The Qur’an does not say so. It only makes Abraham realize the wonderful manifestation of Divine power by a parable.

The lexicologists are all agreed that the word sur, used here, is the imperative form of sara, which means he made it to incline (LL), and sur-hunna ilaika means amil-hunna, or make them incline, wa ajmi‘-hunna, and gather them to thee (LA). It is only in this sense that the word is followed by ila as here. Cutting into pieces is not the significance of these words. Further, the words place a part (juz‘) of them can only mean one each of the four birds. The commentators who introduce the story of cutting the birds into pieces, not traceable to any reliable authority, assert that the words thumma qatti‘-hunna (then cut them into pieces) are omitted here after sur hunna or tame them which is absurd on the face of it. [Back to verse 260]

 

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Holy Quran Section > English Translation and Commentary of the Holy Quran by Maulana Muhammad Ali (Table of Contents) > Chapter 2 (Al-Baqarah - The Cow) > Section 35 (Verses 258 to 260)


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