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Surah al-A'la (No. 87, the Most High)

Verses 1-5

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ

In the Name of Allah, the All-beneficent, the All-merciful.

سَبِّحِ اسْمَ رَبِّكَ الْأَعْلَى

Celebrate the Name of your Lord, the Most High, (87:1).

الَّذِي خَلَقَ فَسَوَّىٰ

who created and proportioned, (87:2).

وَالَّذِي قَدَّرَ فَهَدَىٰ

who determined and guided, (87:3).

وَالَّذِي أَخْرَجَ الْمَرْعَىٰ

who brought forth the pasture, (87:4).

فَجَعَلَهُ غُثَاءً أَحْوَىٰ

then turned it into a black scum. (87:5).

1. Allah’s Sanctity

Just as the Qur’an commands us to venerate Allah Himself:

“Whatever there is in the heavens and the earth celebrates Allah,” (al-Hadid, 51:1).

it also, commands us to venerate His Name:

“celebrate the Name of your Lord .....” (al-A’la 87:1).

In the same vein, it sometimes assigns blessings to the Divine Essence, as in

'Blessed is Allah” (al-A'raf, 7:54).

and sometimes assigns them to His Name:

“Blessed is the Name of your Lord.” (ar-Rahman (55:78).

Together, these show that those words that refer to Allah are endowed with a special status, and therefore we must venerate them as well as venerating His Essence.

The practical lesson from this is that anything attributed to Him outside of His Essence is also, imbued with sanctity, as His sanctity overflows from Him to everything else so, long as it is ready to receive this sacred effusion.

2. Glorifying Allah’s Name

Commentators differ about what it means to glorify Allah's name in the verse 'celebrate the Name of your Lord' as the first thing that comes to mind is to celebrate the Divine Essence. So, some say1 that there is no problem in celebrating His names in the following sense:

a. Not mentioning his name alongside those entities that people associate with Him, such as Lat and Uzza.

b. Not disrespecting the gods of the disbelievers in such a way as to draw the ire of their worshippers, who will respond by disrespecting Allah in turn:

“Do not abuse those whom they invoke besides Allah, lest they should abuse Allah out of hostility, without any knowledge.” (al-An'am, 6:108).

c. Not taking Allah's name in vain, as when people utter His name heedlessly.

The practical lesson - according to the final meaning - is that the servant must be mindful of his duty to revere both the Name and the One it names. This is why there are special rules concerning the appearance of the name, such as not touching it without ritual purity and not uttering it except with an attentive heart.

3. Celebrating His Name

Some say2 that the meaning of celebrating His name is celebrating the One whom it names in His essence, attributes, acts, names and rules. As for revering (tanzih) Him, then this applies:

a. To His essence by believing that it is neither a substance (jawhar) nor an accident ('arad).3

b. To His Attributes, by believing that they are neither originated (muhdath), limited or deficient.

c. To His Acts, by believing that He is the absolute sovereign, so, no one can object to anything He does.

d. To His Names, by believing He should only be mentioned using the names He has given Himself.

e. To His Laws, by knowing that whatever He has imposed upon us returns to Him.

The practical lesson behind all of this is that however much the scope of Divine Sanctity extends for a servant, he should exalt it for the sake of his Lord, and strive to revere His Essence, Acts and Attributes too by divesting them of any association with others, whether explicit or subtly.

4. “The Most High”

The expression 'the Most High' is similar to the meaning of magnification (takbir), which means elevating Allah above all descriptions. The meaning of “the Most High” is to elevate Him above that being encompassed by human intuition or imagination, for no matter how lofty anything else may be, it is possible for the human mind to encompass it. So, this verse is a partner to another verse:

“and magnify Him with all magnificence.” (al-lsra', 17:111).

It is narrated from Imam al-Baqir (‘a): 'When you recite: 'Celebrate the Name of your Lord the Most High' then say: 'Glory to my Lord the Most High!' (Subhana Rabbi al-A'la!), even if you only say it in your heart.' 4 And it is interesting that this tradition mentions saying it in your heart, so, it is not appropriate to restrict Allah's remembrance (dhikr) only to what we say aloud. And this is supported by Allah's words:

“And remember your Lord within your heart beseechingly and reverentially, without being loud, morning and evening.” (al-A’raf , 7:205).

5. Creatorship And Lordship

The Qur'an regularly connects creatorship (khaliqiyyah) to lordship (rububiyyah) so, that we move from the first to the second, as the station of lordship is an abstract concept, which a person's mind must be prepared to grasp while the station of creatorship has a connection with sensible realities near at hand and the creation as a whole.

This is why we see that the call of the Prophets focused on the principle of creatorship, whose effects can be seen throughout the universe with the slightest thought, and which then takes someone to the idea of lordship. So, Allah's prophet, Abraham (‘a), mentions the station of creatorship, saying:

“who created me, it is He who guides me” (ash-Shu'ara', 26:78).

And Moses (‘a) says:

“Our Lord is He who gave everything its creation and then guided it.” (Ta Ha, 20:50).

And in the case of Muhammad (S), the first revelation he received was Allah's words:

“Read in the Name of your Lord who created, created man from a clinging mass.” (al-‘Alaq, 96:1-2).

Of course, even only paying attention to the magnificence of creatorship should inspire the depths of humility in worship, and an abundance of thanksgiving for the many blessings which this universe holds.

6. Creation

After introducing the principle of creation, the Qur'an mentions some of its instantiations; this is a form of firmly establishing a principle by mentioning its subsidiaries, to acquaint the servants with looking at the heavens and their own selves. So, it mentions:

a. A spiritual affair as represented by His saying:

“who determined and guided” (al-A’la, 87:3).

as determination (taqdir) takes place in the Unseen Realm and is something hidden, while guidance - like determination - is a subtle process that takes place in the creation.

b. A material affair represented by His saying:

“who brought forth the pasture” (al-A’la, 87:4).

so, the feed of livestock and the dung it ultimately becomes - 'a black scum' - is something plainly visible to human eyes.

7. Pondering

When one looks at the created world, it is important to be aware of the wise power that lies behind it. Otherwise, what value is there in discovering the great unknowns of the universe if we do not connect them to their source in a way that inspires us with faith and reverence? This is why the verse:

“who created and proportioned,” (al-A’la, 87:2).

highlights the fact that the creation is proportioned after discussing the principle of creation itself. And the verse:

“who determined and guided” (al-A’la, 87:3).

follows determination with guidance. And this too is something, which people with intelligence need to ponder on!

In contrast to this, the disbeliever ascribes the fact that every being is guided to the goal for which it was created to blind natural processes, while in fact Allah ascribes both forms of guidance to himself together. With regards to physical guidance:

“Our Lord is He who gave everything its creation and then guided it.” (Ta Ha, 20:50).

And as for moral guidance:

“and shown him the two paths [of good and evil.]” (al-Balad, 90:10).

8. Provisions Of This Worldly Life

In multiple verses, the Qur'an warns people against being beguiled by the thriving vegetation that sprouts from the earth. We find one such verse in this surah when Allah says:

“then turned it into a black scum.” (al-A’la, 87:5).

And this is reinforced by other verses with a similar meaning, such as His saying:

“then with it He brings forth crops of diverse hues. Then they wither and you see them turn yellow. Then He turns them into chaff.” (az-Zumar, 39:21).

And the verse:

“like the rain whose vegetation impresses the farmer; then it withers and you see it turn yellow, then it becomes chaff.” (al-Hadid, 57:20).

In all these there is a lesson not to allow ourselves to become conceited because of the provisions of this worldly life, for it does not take long to see that even the lushest vegetation is fleeting; it is enough for a single spring to pass... and we should draw an analogy between that and everything decorous on this earth.

Verses 6-13

سَنُقْرِئُكَ فَلَا تَنْسَىٰ

We shall make you recite, then you will not forget hidden. (87:6).

إِلَّا مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ إِنَّهُ يَعْلَمُ الْجَهْرَ وَمَا يَخْفَىٰ

except what Allah may wish. Indeed, He knows the overt and what is (87:7).

وَنُيَسِّرُكَ لِلْيُسْرَىٰ

We shall smooth your way to the easiest. (87:8).

فَذَكِّرْ إِنْ نَفَعَتِ الذِّكْرَىٰ

So, admonish, if admonition is Indeed, beneficial· (87:9).

سَيَذَّكَّرُ مَنْ يَخْشَىٰ

he who fears will take admonition, (87:10).

وَيَتَجَنَّبُهَا الْأَشْقَى

and the most wretched will shun it (87:11).

الَّذِي يَصْلَى النَّارَ الْكُبْرَىٰ

he who will enter the Great Fire, (87:12).

ثُمَّ لَا يَمُوتُ فِيهَا وَلَا يَحْيَىٰ

then neither lives in it, nor die. (87:13).

9. Recite And Never Forget

There is an obvious connection between the command to celebrate Allah and the promise to make one recite and never forget:

“We shall make you recite, then you will never forget.” (al-A’la, 87:5).

These two things, which caused the Qur'an to become deeply rooted in the heart of the Final Prophet (S) show us that being aware of the Master and celebrating Him as described in the verse:

“Celebrate the name of your Lord the Most High” (al-A’la, 87:1).

is a prelude to a singular form of divine assistance, to continuously remember.

Moreover, undertaking the mission to preach is also, a cause for going aright. This divine grace is connected to the fact that Allah knows everything that happens in the Prophet's (S) heart, such as his ardent desire to convey the Qur'an just as it was revealed to him, as in the following verse:

“…... Indeed, He knows the overt and what is hidden” (al-A’la, 87:7).

And this is alluded to in the verse:

“Do not move your tongue with it to hasten it.” (al-Qiyamah, 75:16).

10. Divine Grace

However great this divine grace may be for a servant, there must first be a means for safeguarding it and secondly this means must be continuous, or else it is pointless to make someone recite if the one who receives it cannot be protected from forgetting. And it is pointless to protect someone from forgetting if this is only temporary?

Allah, in spite of His promise to His chosen Messenger (S), still makes this promise contingent upon the Divine Will (masha'a). This produces a state of fear and hope even for the Final Prophet (S)! And this is something explicitly stated in another verse:

If We wish, We would take away what We have revealed to you.” (al-Isra', 17:86).

This principle applies even to those whom Allah has blessed with eternal life in Paradise; Allah says:

“They shall remain in it for as long as the heavens and the earth endure - except what your Lord may wish.” (Hud , 11:107)

So, what we notice in both verses is an affirmation of Allah's absolute authority over the entirety of existence and in all situations; all the threads of bounties are in His hands and there is nothing that can compel Him, not even in the bounties He has promised.

11. The Evident

Part of 'the overt' mentioned in this surah are those things that are obvious in the realm of the tangibles; things that can be seen and heard. This is in contrast with 'what is hidden' in that realm as well, such as sights and sounds, which cannot be apprehended without using special equipment. Our Master's greatness is manifested by the fact that He apprehends them without needing anything to do so. And this can even apply to those things that cannot be apprehended at all by human beings because they lack the faculties necessary to uncover those hidden realities in their realm of existence, such as Allah's Greatest Name. So, again Allah's greatness is made manifest by the fact that there are some realities known only to Him, which He has chosen not to share with anyone else.

12. Everything Hidden

If a person believes that his Master watches over everything that is hidden, over the person himself, or even over unconscious thoughts that come to his mind from time to time without his being aware, not to mention over those hidden things he is conscious of:

“He knows the treachery of the eyes, and what the breasts hide.” (Al-Ghafir, 40:19).

Then he will vigilantly observe his thoughts, not to mention his limbs! And this means that he will not even think of anything that would displease his Master, because - even if that will not cause him to suffer punishment - it will invite his Master's rebuke, which is something that any servant who loves his Lord would be embarrassed of! This shows us the greatness of the Infallible (ma'sum) who even directs his imagination in accordance with the pleasure of his Lord in all circumstances.

13. Divine Success (Tawfiq)

“We shall smooth your way to the easiest.” (al-A’la, 87:8).

This verse holds a subtle allusion to:

a. Allah's program to save His friends (awliya’), for He does not only smooth their way, He also, prepares their persons for the way according to the implication of the address, which is directed to the person. So, the assistance Allah gives to His friends is really for their sake and not for the sake of their actions; this is exactly like Allah's words:

“and paradise will be brought near for the Godwary.” (ash-Shu'ara', 26:90).

So, just as Paradise is brought near to them, Allah causes ease to be close at hand for them in the same fashion.

b. The source of this ease is the person himself; it is because of the habits (malakat) he possesses that he has become attached to this divine assistance. When a person becomes ready to receive this assistance, the path is made smooth for him! So, divine success (tawfiq) does not come from any source save the person himself!

It is fitting to say here that Allah can also, ordain potential assistance for His servants, rather than actual assistance, because the person himself has fallen short in preparing for this assistance in practice. It has been narrated from the Prophet (S): 'Strive, for everyone is assisted in obtaining that which has been created for him!’ 5

14. Allah’s Assistance

Allah's most elect graces are accompanied by the majestic plural,6 so, he says:

“Indeed, We sent it down on the Night of Ordainment.” (al-Qadr, 97:1).

“Indeed, We have sent down the Reminder” (al-Hijr, 15:9).

and

“Indeed, We have given you abundance.” (al-Kawthar, 108:1).

The assistance He bestows upon His servants by granting them success in calling others towards Him is no exception; He says:

“We shall smooth your way to the easiest.” (al-A’la, 87:8).

Because this is one of the most magnificent spiritual blessings compared to the material ones.

15. The Qualities Of Those Persons Calling Others Towards Allah

The above verses all outline the qualities that those persons who call others towards Allah must possess, which are:

a. Being prepared by turning towards Allah with praise and celebration.

b. Having your character set right, as represented by being inspired to recite and then protected from forgetting.

c. Having your actions set right and the way smoothed for you, whether through acting upon objects - as was the case with the miracles of the prophets (‘a) - or upon persons, in a way that soften people's hearts.

16. Accepting Guidance

The Prophet (S) was commanded to preach to those who had the potential to accept his message and be guided, or else his efforts would be in vain;

“So, admonish, if admonition is Indeed, beneficial.” (al-A’la, 87:9).

The life and energy of the Prophet (S) were far too important to be squandered on those unworthy of either, but we can say that it is still worthwhile to preach even if there is no hope of it yielding any benefit, because the Prophet (S) adopted Allah's manners in warning everyone, as when He commanded Moses (‘a) to preach to the most disobedient of His creatures, saying:

“Speak to him in a soft manner; maybe he will take admonition or fear.” (Ta Ha, 20:44).

Whether this was to offer Pharaoh Allah's all­ encompassing grace (lutf) or simply to leave him with no excuse for his actions.

This verse could also, be conveying the reason that some people will never take admonition, and that is because they lack the basic capacity in their hearts to accept guidance.

17. Divine Guidance

Before someone can accept divine guidance, they must have traversed a prior stage, represented by the existence of some level of fear towards Allah in the person being admonished;

“he who fears will take admonition.” (al-A’la, 87:10).

So, this fear, whether in the sense of being afraid of Allah's punishment or feeling unworthy of His blessings, motivates a person to search for that which will spare him from punishment or embarrassment. So, someone who is guided should not expect his guide, whoever he is, to bring about some kind of miraculous transformation for him. Rather, he must be himself in the position of a soil that is ready to receive the seed, and then nurture that seed in himself with the receptiveness that Allah has bestowed upon him.

Therefore, those who call others towards Allah must prepare this foundation in the hearts of the people, before burdening them with admonitions!

18. The Wretched

The most wretched (ashqa) here refers to the wretched (shaqi) in general, but it is the custom of the Qur'an to use the superlative for normal traits, as in His words:

“On that day the inhabitants of paradise will be in the best abode and most excellent resting place.” (al-Furqan, 25:24).

On the other hand, we can also, say that there are different levels of wretchedness, and the most wretched is the intractable disbeliever who will be taken to the greatest blaze in the lowest levels of Hell, whether this is in comparison to the flames of this world or the lesser punishments of Hellfire.

However, the wretched (shaqi) is the opposite of the felicitous (sa'id), but he is still in a better position than the most-wretched (ashqa); namely the one who did not seize the opportunity he was given in life and thus spent all of his days in a state of loss, which is sadly the case for the majority of mankind.

19. The Severity Of Punishment

A manifestation of the severity of punishment in the Hereafter - even for those who will not be punished forever - is the fact that the punishment in Hellfire is continuous, without interruption or respite. This will be eternal for the disbelievers and a long (but finite) period of time for sinners. The Qur'an describes this condition thus:

“...he will neither die therein nor live.” (Ta Ha, 20:74).

This means they will neither die nor live a good life therein. At least the tribulations of this world, even in the worst circumstances imaginable, are broken by moments of relief and respite.

Worse still than the punishment of Hellfire is Allah's continuous wrath towards the inmates of Hell:

'As for the disbelievers there is for them the fire of hell: they will neither be done away with so, that they may die, nor shall its punishment be lightened for them. Thus do We requite every ingrate.” (Fatir, 35:36).

Otherwise, Allah's mercy would sometimes interrupt their punishment, the upshot of which would be - as is the case for sinners in this world - it would become bearable for them, and a person would be able to plead for salvation in those times that Allah turned towards him with His mercy.

Verses 14-19

قَدْ أَفْلَحَ مَنْ تَزَكَّىٰ

Felicitous is he who refines himself, (87:14).

وَذَكَرَ اسْمَ رَبِّهِ فَصَلَّىٰ

remembers the Name of his Lord, and prays. (87:15).

بَلْ تُؤْثِرُونَ الْحَيَاةَ الدُّنْيَا

Rather you prefer the life of this world, (87:16).

وَالْآخِرَةُ خَيْرٌ وَأَبْقَىٰ

while the Hereafter is better and more lasting. (87:17).

إِنَّ هَٰذَا لَفِي الصُّحُفِ الْأُولَىٰ

This is Indeed, in the former scriptures, (87:18).

صُحُفِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَمُوسَىٰ

the scriptures of Abraham and Moses. (87:19).

20. Self-Refinement

“Felicitous is he who refines himself” (al-A’la, 87:14).

“…remembers the Name of his Lord, and prays.” (al-A’la 87:15).

The categorical use of 'self-refinement' (tazakka) in the above verse entails an act of purification that encompasses all aspects of a person's being, beginning with emptying his heart from everything that occupies him besides Allah, and ending with his limbs by using them for everything that pleases his Master. And this is a preliminary to remembrance -'remembers' - which is again used categorically to mean living as if in the presence of Allah at every moment, and also, a preliminary to the outward humility embodied by prayer, as the most important connection between a servant and his Lord (‘and prays’).

To sum up, these verses look to emptying the heart of impurities - 'refines' - and adorning it with remembrance - 'remembers the name of his Lord' - and garbing it thereafter in actual obedience - 'And prays.' Altogether, this will bring a person to the level of perfection, which he was created to attain.

21. Enjoyments Of This World

It is a type of stupidity to assign more importance to this world than the Hereafter, because:

a. The enjoyments of this world are connected to the physical realm and the pleasures of the body, while the bliss of the Hereafter is connected to the pleasures of the spirit and body together, whether gazing upon His noble countenance, or living with the maidens of paradise.

b. The enjoyments of this world, even the sensory ones, are interrupted by pains and difficulties, as is plain for all to see. And they are transient, which should also, be obvious. On the other hand, the Hereafter contains enjoyments unsullied by difficulty:

“ ... In it we are untouched by toil, and untouched therein by fatigue.” (Fatir, 35:35).

Nor are the enjoyments contaminated by transience:

“There will be an everlasting reward for them.” (at-Tin, 95:6).

The verses here allude to two qualities of these enjoyments, namely being superior to those in this world and also, everlasting, with the words:

“…... better and more lasting.” (al-A’la 87:17).

But obviously, to grasp these meanings requires a special level of spiritual maturity, or else everyone m this world would become people living for the Hereafter!

22. Various Divine Scriptures

The various divine scriptures, despite their different levels and the different levels of those prophets to whom they were revealed, are unanimous in their agreement upon the principles of moral refinement that the verses in this surah discuss:

“This is Indeed, in the former scriptures.” (al-A’la 87:18).

So, there is no nation exempt from the rules of wayfaring towards Allah and worshipping Him; so, if the nations of Abraham and Moses (a2) were enjoined to follow the teachings of this surah on the basis of their own scriptures:

“the scriptures of Abraham and Moses” (al-A’la 87:19).

then the nation which bears witness, namely the nation of the Final Prophet (S) is enjoined to excel further in everything mentioned here, because Allah's authority over them is more complete, their scripture is more comprehensive, and their Prophet (S) is at the greatest level of all the prophets!

  • 1. Tafsir al-Mizan 20/ 264.
  • 2. Mafatih al-Ghayb, 31/125.
  • 3. These are two terms taken from Islamic philosophy, negating them from the Divine Essence means that it is not a something in which other things inhere (i.e. a substance), nor does it exist within anything else (i.e. as an accident). [Translator]
  • 4. Majma al-Bayan 10/719.
  • 5. Saduq, Tawhld, 356.
  • 6. This is when an individual holding a high office refers to himself in the first­person plural (i.e. "we") to denote his excellence, power and dignity [Translator].