This chapter is a Makkan revelation according to the majority of Qur’anic scholars. According to some authorities this is a Makkan-Madinan revelation (The first three verses are said to have been revealed in Makkah and the rest in Madinah). Yet this chapter in its theme and structure is one interwoven entity, aiming at the establishment of one of the most fundamental aspects of faith. It must be added here that the strongest evidence favors the view that the whole chapter was revealed early in the Makkan period.
The chapter deals with two basic principles of Islam whose neglect constitutes denial of religion itself and could be construed as disregard for the consequences of accountability on the Day of Judgment. These principles are: worship of God and service to humanity. The title of this chapter is taken from the word “al-ma’un” with which the chapter ends.
“Have you observed the person who belies the Faith and denies the Judgment.” 107:1
This chapter starts with a perplexing question addressed to all those who can use the faculty of thought and perception, generating suspense and holding their attention in order to make them reflect and realize the aim, the subject and the moral of this chapter. Have you observed, or reflected on the person who falsifies, misrepresents the Deen of Islam, or who undermines the final authority and comprehensiveness of the Final Judgment? It must be noted here that the word al-Deen is the infinitive noun from Arabic which means “he obeyed / earned.” The word “Deen,” by implication, could be construed to mean: requital, recompense, judgment or reckoning, predominance or ascendancy, mastery or rule, religious organization, righteousness, state or condition, Divine decree, habit, custom; or religion in general. In view of the different meanings of Deen, this first verse may signify reference to the person who has no faith in Divine reckoning; or one who disobeys and defies propriety to the community or society or ideological grouping to which he belongs; or one who does not believe that religion is the ultimate source of morals; or one with whom the doing of good does not become a habit; or one who does not conform his conduct to Divine Decree and thus does not develop in himself divine attributes; or one who does not worship God with true and sincere devotion. We can thus deduce that the word “Deen” includes in its signification all those things which are moral, beneficial and done with commitment, consciousness and sincerity.
“That is the person who repulses the orphan without care or consideration and does not concern himself nor encourages others to feed the poor and help the needy” 107:2-3
The word yadu’ue, though implying harsh or rough action, could include misappropriation, usurpation, repulsing, insulting, disgracing and denigrating any orphan. The Holy Qur’an has not only urged us to give the orphans their rights but also reprimands those who do not give them respect. (Chapter 89, Verse 17). In the preceding verse we were told that denial of religion or of the Final Reckoning opens the way to heedlessness and a sense of non-accountability. These verses speak of perhaps the two most deadly ills of society, which if not scrupulous guarded against, could bring about the decline and disintegration of a community;
- The failure to take proper care of the orphans (this kills the spirit of sacrifice, of sharing and caring in people).
- Neglect of the poor and needy (which deprives a useful section of the society the initiative and the will to improve their condition.)
These verses represent one of the two basic principles of Islam, huquq al ‘ibad (service to humanity). The Holy Prophet in numerous ahadith made reference to this spirit of service and goodwill to humanity as “shafaqatu’ala khalqillah”. The verbs used in both these ayats yadu’ue and yahuddu are used in the future tense and thus the case indicate the continuity of such actions in regard to orphans and the poor. It must be noted that to feed the needy is in itself a virtuous deed, irrespective of whether the needy person be a Muslim or a non-Muslim; and to be harsh to an orphan is a sinful act in all conditions whatever religion, ideology or community the orphan may belong to.
We also realize from these verses that if we cannot feed the hungry by ourselves then we must encourage others who are able to, to do so. What is most significant to not is that at the time when this chapter was revealed the number of Muslims in Makkah was very small and the Muslim community was still in its infancy, yet the command to feed the poor and help the needy at the inception of Islamic society is proof that Islam wants to create in its followers that feeling of human sympathy, whose sphere of influence is vast enough to cover the entire humanity and on the basis of which every deserving person should be helped.
As regards the response to the question about the one who denies the Judgment or the Deen of Islam, these two verses give a direct response. It is the one who harshly repels the orphan and does not care nor urges others to feed the poor. This definition of disbelief or false claimant to belief may surprise some when compared with the traditional understanding and definition of faith, but this is the root of the whole issue. Indeed the one who misrepresents the faith is the person who is wicked, harsh, humiliating, careless and selfish. If the truth of Islam had in any way affected his heart, such a person would never treat the most needy members of society (and creation of God) with such harshness and would neither manifest a non-chalant attitude of this nature. True belief then, is not mere utterance of the mouth, but an overall change of the individual’s heart and attitude, motivating him to benevolence and goodwill for all human beings, especially those that are in need of his care, attention or assistance.
“Shame unto those worshippers who are unmindful (concerning the dimensions of) their prayer” 107:4
The unconscious worshippers have been singled out here as unmindful of the nature and the true purpose of prayer since their prayer fails to bring about in them a moral change which prayers are intended to create and the social consciousness that the jama’ah ought to develop in the worshipping person. Prayer represents the duties and obligations we owe to God and they are called huquq- God (obligations due to God- the first basic principle of Islam).
These verses also purport that the prayers of those hypocritical persons who do not discharge the obligations they owe to God’s creations (huquq al-‘ibad, obligations due to humanity at large) are like a body without a soul, a shell without substance. Their actions tend to be superficial and hypocritical, which instead of doing them good adds to their hypocrisy. They are those who put on a show of piety, who execute the mechanical aspects and pronounce the verbal formulae of prayer, but their hearts are not receptive to them, neither are they enriched by praying, nor is their social consciousness awakened.
Thus the essence and purpose of prayer and its components are not present in their psyche. They offer prayer merely as exercise or a habit; perhaps to impress or deceive others, but not out of true devotion to God and His commands regarding himself and the rest of creation. Muslims, it must be remembered, are obliged to offer their prayer regularly, bearing mind that these prayers are a manifestation of their servitude to God in all aspects of life and indicates commitment to the comprehensive commands of the Creator. The term sahun is derived from sahu which implies a mistake done unintentionally or a wrong done neglectfully. In the first case one could be excused, but in the second case one is not. Here, sahun purports negligence with guilt. So being unmindful of prayer could be construed as meaning not paying heed to the spirit of prayer, and prayer in jama’ah specifically should motivate members of the jama’ah to care for the jama’ah as they care for themselves.
“Those who perform ostentatious prayer (prayer for show) yet refuse and refrain from helping others” 107:5-7
Prayer for show is bereft of sincerity and is merely a prayer of soulless display and hypocrisy which is done in order that people may think of the worshipper as being pious and religious. Such display their pray-fullness and their would-be piety to the public. Once again, we find the Holy Qur’an presents the fundamental nature and spirit of prayer. Any semblance of servitude which is intended for show and not devoted to God; that kind prayer that has not affected their hearts, their behavior and thus not motivated them to selfless service for the benefit of those they are able to assist; to such hypocrites God says; “fa waylul lilmusallin” (woe to such worshippers).
In connection with such hypocrisy there are statements of Prophet ‘Isa (Jesus, Peace be Upon Him) which are quoted in the Book of Matthew verse 6, where he is reported to have said, “Beware of practicing your piety before people in order to be seen by them. When you give alms sound no trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the places of worship and in the streets, so that they may be praised by the people. Truly I say to you they have already received their awards (the accolades of the people for whom they are showing off). But when you give charity, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing; and when you pray you must not be like hypocrites for they love to stand and pray in places of worship and in public so that people may see them.” Further on in Matthew, Nabi ‘Isa (Peace be Upon Him) said: “Shame on you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Who devour widows’ houses and for pretense you make long prayers wherefore you will receive great condemnation. Shame on you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup but inside you are full of filth. Shame on you scribe and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like a white- washed tomb, which outwardly appears beautiful, but within they are full of dead man’s bones and all un-cleanliness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to people but inside you are full of hypocrisy and injustice.” (Matthew, verse 23)
It would be appropriate here to reflect upon the famous hadith of the holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) “Actions will be judged and evaluated according to the intention that motivates the action. And each person will be rewarded according to his or her intention.” The chapter concludes with the word al-ma’un which is also the title of the chapter. Al-ma’un refers to the necessities of life, articles of common use; can refer to zakah, acts of kindness, good deeds or helping others in general. In its wider sense it denotes aid and assistance in any difficulty. Al-ma’un is explained by Imam Bukhair (R.A) as meaning al-ma’ruf kulluhu (that is every good, or kind of charitable deed). And Ikrama (according to Bukhari), considers the highest form of ma’un to be zakah and the lowest form to be assisting others with basic useful things; thus, according to Bukhari, al-ma’un includes all acts of kindness or assistance offered to all human beings. In the last two verses of this chapter, two major issues are brought to our attention:
- One is hypocrisy, where prayer is done for show and not performed sincerely;
- Secondly, refusal to supply basic assistance to the needy.
This indicates that whatever is for God the insincere ones do and perform to show people, and whatever is for the benefit of people they refuse to fulfill. Here we call to mind the words of our master Muhammad (pbuh) who is reported to have said: “God is at the assistance of a person as long as that person is of assistance to his fellow human beings.” Serve the Creator and Creation this chapter gives expression to the prominence, which Islam gives to helping the needy and uplifting the poor. Anyone who pays no attention to this is spoken of as one who has belied the Religion and undermined the Judgment.
Prayer to God and help to the poor are repeatedly spoken of in the Holy Qur’an as foundations of Islam. But we are told, in this chapter, that even prayer is mere show and hollow if it does not generate feelings of love, sympathy and fellow- feeling. Islam is not a way of life built on ostentation and superficiality. Different aspects of Islamic acts of worship are meaningless if they are purely mechanical, unless motivated by sincerity, commitment and devotion. Sincere worship produces effects within the individual’s heart, which should cause him to act righteously, fairly, justly and in a balanced way. This will be reflected in his social behavior.
The essence of Faith, if firmly rooted in the hearts and minds of people, must immediately operate behaviorally through the person and manifest itself in the person’s attitude, expression and actions. The chapter stresses that if that is not the case, then where is the faith, truly speaking. The qualities of despising orphans, refusing to feed the hungry or assist the needy, being heedless of the prescribed prayer, showing off, hypocrisy and not being co-operative with the people; illustrates miserliness, conceit and such persons have neither connection with the people nor true association with the Creator.
The holy Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said: “Surely the selfish person is far from God, far from people, far from the paradise, close to the Fire; but the charitable, helpful person is close to God, loved by people, close to the paradise and far form the Fire.” From this thought-provoking chapter, we gather the intent behind what God demands of us when He instructs us to believe in and worship Him. God is free of all wants and thus seeks no benefit for Himself, but He cares for the welfare and prosperity, the purification and happiness of His creation. The Creator wishes human life to be elevated, happy, based on pure motives and characterized by mutual compassion, brotherhood, purity of heart, clean conscience, unwavering commitment and beneficial behavior.
Sadullah Khan is the Director of Impower Development International. He is a consultant in human empowerment and serves as a motivational speaker; addressing issues of personal empowerment, youth development, leadership training, art of communication, and the fostering of inter-faith/intra-faith understanding and co-operation. Previously he has served as a lecturer for the Academy of Judaic, Christian and Islamic Studies at UCLA. He has also presented lectures Islamic Civilization at California State University at Dominguez Hills.