بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
In the Name of Allah, the All-beneficent, the All-merciful
اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ
Read in the Name of your Lord who created; (96:1).
خَلَقَ الْإِنْسَانَ مِنْ عَلَقٍ
created man from a clinging mass. (96:2).
اقْرَأْ وَرَبُّكَ الْأَكْرَمُ
Read, and your Lord is the most generous, (96:3).
الَّذِي عَلَّمَ بِالْقَلَمِ
who taught by the pen, (96:4).
عَلَّمَ الْإِنْسَانَ مَا لَمْ يَعْلَمْ
taught man what he did not know. (96:5).
There is a difference between ordering someone to read (qira'a) and ordering someone to speak (hadith); the first requires that there be something to read from. In other words, for every reader there is a text. So, from the command 'Read ...' (iqra’) we understand that there is something that the Prophet (S) must read from, and that is the Qur'an, as we see in Allah's words:
“We have sent the Qur'an in parts so, that you may read it to the people .....” (al-Isra', 17:106).
as if his heart stands in the place of the Divine Throne from which the revelation descends, and this alludes to the fact that the Prophet (S) never forgot any part of the Qur'an; what a heart he must have had to receive the entire Divine Scripture in a single burst on a single night!
It is well known that any action not connected to Allah is inconsequential and worthless (abtar)1, which is why we are bid to recite the basmalah before every significant act we undertake. It is even said - based on the fact that any action in which Allah's name has not been invoked is worthless - that the command
“Read in the Name of your Lord ...” (al-‘Alaq, 96:1).
means to begin reading by reciting the basmalah. It is even more necessary to connect matters of preaching to Allah, for He is not satisfied for people to spread His guidance except through people with whom He is pleased and in ways that pleases Him, so, that His religion owes nothing to anyone.
This is why Allah commands His chosen prophet (S) to read in the Name of his Lord, that same Lord whose mention is repeated more than once in these verses. Add to this the fact that Allah instructs His prophet to seek assistance from Him through prostration, and to draw near to Him in confronting those who bar His worship, and it is clear that success in the beginning of the mission and its continuation is predicated on its being connected to the Absolute.
The Qur'an frequently connects creatorship (khaliqiyyah) to lordship (rububiyyah); we see this in the verse here:
“... your Lord who created,” (al-‘Alaq, 96:1).
before it turns specifically to the creation of the human being
“created man from a clinging mass.” (al-‘Alaq, 96:2).
This intimates that Allah's creation of the human species is superior to all other creatures in this vast universe, as He says elsewhere:
“We certainly created man in the best of forms.” (at-Tin, 95:4).
The Qur'an mentions that the creation of the human being began with a clinging mass (‘alaq), which literally means a mass of congealed blood, in order to remind its audience of their lowly origins. In another verse, it refers to this as a base fluid:
“Then He made his progeny from an extract of a base fluid.” (as-Sajda, 32:8).
Allah could have mentioned the intermediate and final stages of the human beings creation as a fetus, but He chose the weakest and lowliest stage, as this clinging mass does not exhibit any features of the body. This highlights Allah's absolute power in the realm of the body, in that He created the human being
“...in the best of forms” (at-Tin, 95:4).
from these lowly beginnings that could not even be described as complete.
But Allah also, exercises this creative power in the realm of the spirit, for He
“taught man what he did not know.” (al-‘Alaq, 96:5).
And the means He uses for this is also, something very simple, namely the pen, which is made of material from the trees that grow from the soil:
“who taught by the pen.” (al-‘Alaq, 96:4).
So, from the base matter of blood and wood come human beings and human knowledge, which in turn are the constituents of all the civilizations ever to have existed on the face of the earth.
Repeating the word 'Lord' (rabb) in this surah, and attaching it to the final prophet (S), is a kind of honouring of the Prophet, as in 'your Lord.' But elsewhere, we also, see the prophet mentioned and attached to his Lord, such as the verse:
“....who carried His servant.....” (al-Isra', 17:1).
It is said that this attachment of the Prophet to Allah is an even greater honour than attaching Allah to His prophet, because when you say: 'you are mine' this is nobler than saying 'I am yours.'
It is worth pondering on the fact that 'Lord' mentioned in the first instance of 'your Lord' -which is unqualified by any attributes - follows the mention of Allah's creation, which is His creative manifestation (tajalli takwini) 'who created' but the 'Lord' mentioned in the second instance - qualified by the quality of being most-generous –
“ .... your Lord is the most generous” (al-‘Alaq, 96:3).
follows the mention of Allah's teaching, which is His moral manifestation (tajalli tashri'i), for He is the One
“who taught by the pen.” (al-‘Alaq, 96:4).
When the discussion revolves around creation, Allah describes Himself as generous. He says:
“O man! What has deceived you about your generous Lord,” (al-Infitar, 82:6).
“who created you and proportioned you, and gave you an upright nature .....” (al-Infitar, 82:7).
but when the discussion turns to knowledge and teaching, He describes Himself as most-generous, saying:
“Recite and your Lord is most generous” (al-‘Alaq, 96:3).
as if creation in its entirety is in one hand, while teaching the human being what he did not know is in the other above it. This should not be seen as unusual, because it is this knowledge that opens the way to know the creation that rests in the first hand, and, in fact, to know its Creator as well.
It should be clear that using the attribute of generosity out of all the Divine Attributes in these two places alludes to the fact that the divine effusion in both of them is pure kindness, offered without expecting anything in return, so, this does not fall into the category of rewards but into the realm of grace and benevolence.
Some biased parties accuse Islam of being a religion of the sword, when it is actually the religion of the pen, as we understand from these earliest verses of the Qur'an revealed, which was sent to open people's hearts with the slogan
“There is no compulsion in religion .....” (al-Baqarah, 2:256).
This is the real reason why Islam has spread to the furthest reaches of the world.
And the level of reverence that the Qur’an displays towards knowledge is so, high that it even invokes oaths upon the implements of writing - the pen - and that which is written on - the book. Both of these appear at the beginning Surah alQalam:
“By the Pen and what they write.” (al-Qalam, 68:1).
Notice that it does not mention any specific type of knowledge being written, out of respect for any kind of knowledge that flows from a person's pen, even if this is only for worldly benefit.
Allah frequently attaches the act of teaching to Himself. He says that He:
“taught man what he did not know.” (al-‘Alaq, 96:5).
“...has taught the Qur'an.” (ar-Rahman, 55:2).
“He created man,” (ar-Rahman, 55:3).
“taught him articulate speech.” (ar-Rahman, 55:4).
“And He taught Adam the Names, all of them ...” (al-Baqarah, 2:31).
“...and when I taught you the Book and wisdom, the Torah and the Injeel …” (al-Ma'idah, 5:110).
“Indeed, he had the knowledge of what We had taught him ...” (Yusuf, 12:68).
“..it is just a revelation that is revealed, (an-Najm, 53:4).
“taught him by One of great powers...” (an-Najm, 53:5).
This means that anyone who chooses the path of teaching people knowledge that is useful to them, he is not just following in the footsteps of the great prophets; he is actually following in the footsteps of Allah and adopting His manners, so, it is a must that Allah should furnish him with the same kind of assistance that He bestowed upon all His prophets (‘a)! And this also, reveals the clear distinction between the actions of scholars who have adopted this divine attribute, and those who perform acts of worship only for their own salvation.
In this surah, teaching is sometimes mentioned without being qualified, as in
“taught man what be did not know” (al-‘Alaq, 96:5).
and sometimes it is qualified by the pen;
“who taught by the pen.” (al-‘Alaq, 96:4).
Perhaps this alludes to the two different kinds of knowledge; one being acquired knowledge ('ilm iktisabi) which is received from the physical sources of reading, writing and the minds of men; and inspired knowledge ('ilm ilhami) which is something bestowed only upon the elect of Allah's servants, as was the case with Khidr (‘a), as Allah's says He
“.... taught him a knowledge from Our own.” (al-Kahf, 18:65).
And about Luqman, Allah says:
“Certainly We gave Luqman wisdom ...” (Luqman, 31:12).
The problem of the polytheists was not in acknowledging Allah as the creator of the universe;
“If you ask them, 'Who created the heavens and the earth, and disposed the sun and the moon?' They will surely say, 'Allah." (al-'Ankabut, 29:61).
Their problem was that they refused to submit to Allah's lordship, and that's because they submitted to other man-made deities and idols.
Therefore, a Muslim who professes to accept Allah's Lordship while obeying another - at the level of action - is tainted by an attribute of this group, even if he is not really like them. This is why our Master bids us in Surah al-Fatihah to praise Him by His lordship first, before acknowledging that our obedience and worship belong to Him second. This surah also, mentions lordship first - 'your Lord' - and creation - 'who created' - as a description of Him second.
كَلَّا إِنَّ الْإِنْسَانَ لَيَطْغَىٰ
No indeed! Surely man becomes rebellious (96:6).
أَنْ رَآهُ اسْتَغْنَىٰ
when he considers himself without need. (96:7).
إِنَّ إِلَىٰ رَبِّكَ الرُّجْعَىٰ
Indeed, to your Lord is the return. (96:8).
After talking about knowledge and the pen, this surah turns to rebuke the person who sees himself without need because of his wealth. Allah says:
“No indeed! Surely man becomes rebellious” (al-‘Alaq, 96:6).
It is as though it is drawing a contrast between wealth and knowledge, or between this world and the Hereafter in general, for as the narration says, they are opposites; if someone absorbed by his love of this world occupies himself with things that distract him from Allah, he cannot enjoy the blessings of knowledge which would avail him, just as the warnings of the prophets will not avail him;
“You can only warn someone who follows the Reminder and fears the All-beneficent, unseen .....” (Ya Sin, 36:11).
and the Qur'an has mentioned clear examples of those who become rebellious because they feel they are without need, and the prime example of these people is Pharaoh, about whom Allah says:
“Let the two of you go to Pharaoh. Indeed, he has rebelled.” (Ta Ha, 20:43).
so, that his destruction will be a lesson to anyone else who becomes rebellious because he sees himself without need!
The basis of all rebellion is that the human being sees himself as being without need - even if this is illusory - and so, cuts his ties to the real and absolute source of all forms of wealth. Otherwise, wealth - as an external state - is actually a form of divine grace and assistance, insofar as this world is the farm in which we grow our Hereafter. However, external wealth could encourage someone to become rebellious inwardly if he fails to vigilantly monitor himself. And this is why the subject of this verse is the human being in general - not specifically believers - and therefore it is proper for a person to satisfy himself with the amount of sustenance that suffices him, lest he be driven to self-destructive rebellion.
The Qur'an frequently mentions those groups of people who confronted the message of the prophets (‘a) to humiliate them and warn others like them, for example:
“Indeed, when kings enter a town, they devastate it, and reduce the mightiest of its people to the most abased. That is how they act.” (an-Naml, 27:34).
“And when We desire to destroy a town We command its affluent ones [to obey Allah]. But they commit transgression in it, and so, the word becomes due against it, and We destroy it utterly.” (al-Isra', 17:16).
“Thus have We installed in every town its major criminals that they may plot therein.” (al-An'am, 6:123).
“The elite of his people who were arrogant said, 'O Shu'ayb, we will surely expel you ...” (al-A'raf, 7:88).
This surah, which was one of the first to be sent down, also, contains a warning at the very beginning of this mission to the wealthy and rebellious, who are those that have invested their wealth in opposing the prophets (‘a), such as Korah of ancient times, and the arrogant leaders of the Quraysh at the advent of Islam.
Wealth, when combined with knowledge, becomes a means for human society to grow and develop, and this is what happened in the case of Joseph (‘a):
“My Lord! You have granted me a share in the kingdom, and taught me the interpretation of events .....” (Yusuf, 12:101).
So, his reign - which was a form of wealth - and his knowledge became two means by which on one aspect the people were saved from worshipping false gods, and on another aspect freed from the hardships of famine.
And when these two elements are combined in any ruler and at any time, the result is always the same; and this is the justice and ease of living that the human race will witness in the time when our Imam, the Mahdi (‘a) returns.
The word 'without need' (istaghna), insofar as its verbal form signifies seeking the meaning of the root letters (gh-n-y, or 'wealth'), suggests that those whom wealth has made them rebellious, see that the wealth they possess - if it is, in fact, real wealth - is the sole result of their own efforts and labours in this world. They are unaware of the fact that whatever wealth anyone has - even the rebellious - is only by Allah's facilitation, because the world and everything in it ultimately returns to Him. It is He that says:
‘Do you not see that Allah has disposed for you whatever there is in the heavens and whatever there is in the earth ...?” (Luqman, 31:20).
In the present surah, He follows with the words:
“Indeed, to your Lord is the return.” (al-‘Alaq, 96:8).
It is as if to show that remembering the Resurrection and Judgment before Allah is one of the ways in which this feeling of needlessness can be broken in those people who still have hearts!
At the root of every spiritual excellence is being attentive to two facts:
a. Believing that the return is to Allah:
“Indeed, to your Lord is the return.” (al-‘Alaq, 96:8).
b. A person seeing himself standing before Allah:
“does he not know that Allah sees?” (al-‘Alaq, 96:14).
For this will endow him with humility in his physical existence, and his spiritual submission. Together these engender muhasibah (self-examination or self-contemplation) because he will remember his accounting in the Hereafter, and also, muraqabah (self-observation) because he will remember that Allah is watching him in this world. Without this, no one will ever attain excellence! It has been narrated in a tradition: 'Worship Allah as though you see Him, for if you do not see Him, He surely sees you.'2
It is interesting to note that this source of self-development in the spiritual realm has been mentioned in the Qur'an at the very beginning of the prophetic mission before Gabriel had brought down any particulars of the Shari'ah. So, we should not accept the claim of some people that there is nothing beyond the exterior of the Shari'ah, namely performing obligations and avoiding forbidden things.
أَرَأَيْتَ الَّذِي يَنْهَىٰ
Tell me, he who forbids (96:9).
عَبْدًا إِذَا صَلَّىٰ
a servant when he prays, (96:10).
أَرَأَيْتَ إِنْ كَانَ عَلَى الْهُدَىٰ
tell me, should he be on guidance, (96:11).
أَوْ أَمَرَ بِالتَّقْوَىٰ
or bid to Godwariness, (96:12).
أَرَأَيْتَ إِنْ كَذَّبَ وَتَوَلَّىٰ
tell me, should he call him a liar and turn away (96:13).
أَلَمْ يَعْلَمْ بِأَنَّ اللَّهَ يَرَىٰ
- does be not know that Allah sees? (96:14).
كَلَّا لَئِنْ لَمْ يَنْتَهِ لَنَسْفَعًا بِالنَّاصِيَةِ
No indeed! If be does not stop, We shall seize him by the forelock, (96:15).
نَاصِيَةٍ كَاذِبَةٍ خَاطِئَةٍ
a lying, sinful forelock! (96:16).
Then let him call his henchmen! (96:17).
We (too) shall call the keepers of hell. (96:18).
كَلَّا لَا تُطِعْهُ وَاسْجُدْ وَاقْتَرِبْ ۩
No indeed! Do not obey him, but prostrate and draw near! (96:19).
The three verses beginning with the words 'Tell me...' (a-ra-ay-ta, lit. 'Have you seen...') display astonishment at the actions of one who forbids a person from praying, who is upon guidance and bids others to beware of Allah; and this is to say that this action is so, evil, even the Exalted Lord is shocked, and to show the horrible punishment that awaits as a result!
Note that Allah mentions a principle to deter others from being like them, namely the fact that all of this is witnessed by Allah in this world; so, the apparent meaning of the words is directed to the polytheists who do not deny the existence of their Creator, so, this verse wants to produce the consequence of this belief, namely the fear that He could be watching them. As such, there is no need to threaten them with Hellfire on the Day of Recompense, and therefore the warning that He is watching extends even to those, just as the invitation to refine oneself was directed to the Pharaoh when Allah said:
'...maybe he will take admonition or fear” (Ta Ha, 20:44).
It is the habit of the Qur'an to allude to the fact that the doors of repentance are still open, even for the worst cases of disobedience, in order to give hope to the hearts of those consumed by sins and who are immoderate with themselves. One example of this can be found in Surah al-Buruj, where Allah says:
“Indeed, those who persecute the faithful men and women, and then do not repent, for them there is the punishment of hell, and for them there is the punishment of burning.” (al-Buruj, 85:10).
In this verse, as we have already discussed, He predicates the execution of the punishment on the absence of repentance, even in the case of this horrible crime.
Another example can be found in this surah, in that Allah also, hints at repentance here, despite the fact that this is in the context of a threat to the one who has a lying sinful forelock, and who persists in forbidding others from prayer, as indicated by the use of the present tense in the verse
“Tell me, he who forbids ” (al-‘Alaq, 96:9).
Nevertheless, Allah says:
“No indeed! If he does not stop...” (al-‘Alaq, 96:15).
and this leaves him the option of desisting; what clemency this is from the Most Generous of the generous! He even leaves the opportunity to repent and be pardoned (even) in His threats!
The rebuke and threat carried by this surah, even if they are specifically directed to someone who forbade the Prophet (S) from praying, as indicated by the injunction to him (S) at the end of the surah not to heed his enemy but to prostrate and draw near to his Lord, they still imply - fundamentally - that displaying enmity towards a believer because of his faith - and especially because he performs his prayers - arouses Allah's wrath. This is because such behaviour constitutes a challenge to the most noble of His creatures while he is engaged with His most noble act of obedience, and this challenge ultimately returns to Allah, who is the most severe in punishing His servants and making examples of their persecutors!
Assuming that this surah in its entirety was the first revelation received by the Prophet (S), it serves to show the greatness of the Prophet (S) before his mission even began. This is because it describes him as being upon guidance and bidding others to piety, and that he would pray even if he had not yet been instructed in the particular rulings of prayer, or else why bother issuing rebukes and threats in these verses, if what is being discussed has not yet come to pass?
It is obvious here that people's obstinacy towards the Prophet (S) and his persecution by them, before and after his mission began, was not directed to him personally but to what he represented. This is why the verse describes him as
“a servant when he prays” (al-‘Alaq, 96:10).
rather than mentioning him by name. And this is another mark of distinction bestowed by Allah upon His beloved Prophet (S), for He describes him as 'a servant' - in the indefinite - to show the gravity of this situation!
Allah connects the fact that the Prophet (S) bade others to piety to his being upon guidance in the verse
“Tell me, should he be upon guidance,” (al-‘Alaq, 96:11).
“or bid to godwariness,” (al-‘Alaq, 96:12).
And it is clear that only those who adopt piety themselves are fit to bid others to it, for how can one person who is naked clothe another?
Here, we should pay attention to the fact that the verse makes the object of the Prophet's bidding something that is the outcome of worshipping, namely godwariness (taqwa), not worship itself. So, for example, the desired outcome of fasting is not the act of avoiding food and drinks itself, but the state of piety and being wary of Allah that results from that. This is why Allah says the goal of fasting is:
“so, that you may be Godwary.” (al-Baqarah, 2:183).
And this should also, be the goal of those people who call others towards Allah; to bring about the result, not to simply mention the preliminaries to that result by themselves.
Allah intends to humiliate the rebellious ones on the Day of Resurrection, so, they will be brought back on the Day of Resurrection like dust, trampled underfoot until Allah has finished accounting for the rest of creation. And this surah provides us with another form of humiliation for them, namely to be grabbed by their forelocks, which is the hair at the front of the head, and pulled forcefully;
“ …... We shall seize him by the forelock.” (al-‘Alaq, 96:15).
So, the wicked person will be put in the charge of the one who drives him forward in a state of utter abasement; and this will cause his head to be pulled low, while raising it would usually be a sign of pride and haughtiness. And note that these forelocks are described as 'lying' and 'sinful', which means that this verse specifically mentions lying before other sins, and that is because lying is the source of many evil things and it is one of the worst sins!
Therefore, when the believer who is dispossessed looks at this world and sees the rebellious ones holding their heads high in this abode - which is filled with spurious ranks - he should remember what will soon become of them, and this in turn should lend him a sense of dignity inside and help him exercise a good degree of patience.
Divine warnings and threats of punishment are essential for the success of the prophetic mission, as are glad tidings and promises of reward. Several styles of threat appear in this surah that are directed at the affluent rebels. For example, these verses:
“Tell me ....” (al-‘Alaq, 96:9).
“.... We shall seize him by the forelock,” (al-‘Alaq, 96:15).
“We shall call the keepers of Hell.” (al-‘Alaq, 96:18).
And it is necessary to employ these threats to remove obstacles from the path of calling others towards Allah. So, those who lack resolve or decisiveness in calling towards Him are not following the path of the Prophet (S) who based his mission on both the elements of loyalty and disassociation (tawalli wa tabarri), which are understood from:
a. The two-part testimony of faith, which consists of both a negation and an affirmation: 'There is no god / except Allah'
b. The concept of prohibition and command in Allah's words:
“No indeed! Do not obey him, but prostrate and draw near!” (al-‘Alaq, 96:19).
Throughout the ages, the disbelievers have been eager to band together - whether in public or in private - to confront the believers who placed their hopes in Allah, in that they did not wait to form a band of people before confronting the disbelievers as the latter do to confront them. But the Qur’an derides these gatherings, which will be thwarted in the Hereafter, saying:
“Then let him call out his henchmen.” (al-‘Alaq, 96:17).
This derision functions as follows:
a. They will be gathered together again in the fires of Hell, but under the power of an avenging tyrant.
b. Then how will they confront the host of keepers of Hell - those angels who are entrusted to watch over the Hellfire - for then there will be no comparison between the gang of disbelievers and the host of faith.
Therefore, the believer must remember this outcome while he lives in this world, to give himself resolve and steadfastness in facing the ranks of the people of falsehood, who are forever plotting and scheming, as we see even today.
The groups and parties of the disbelievers - as numerous and varied as they have been throughout the ages - are all cut from the same cloth. The gang assembled by Abu Lahab and Abu Jahl as a council for Mecca, at its core, resembled the leaders of unbelief and falsehood in every age. So, the law that applies to those groups - that they will be wiped out and obliterated - will apply to every group like them as well, for Allah is the one who annihilates kings and causes others to succeed them.
The same is true of the verse
“Perish the hands of Abu Lahab, and perish he!” (al-Masad, 111:1).
It shows that the forces of falsehood will fail in every age, whoever their leader is. And Allah uses a similar expression with regards to the Pharaoh's destruction:
“and Pharaoh's stratagems only led him into ruin.” (Al-Ghafir, 40:37).
The words 'perish' (tabbat) and 'ruin' (tabab) both contain a single meaning that applies to two of the foremost disbelievers in history.
It is said that prostration in the verse
“…… but prostrate and draw near!” (al-‘Alaq, 96:19).
refers to prayer (salat) because it stands in contrast to the forbiddance against praying, as an affront to this forbiddance and to show that he should pay no heed to it;
“No indeed! Do not obey him, but prostrate and draw near!” (al-‘Alaq, 96:19).
But prostration here could also, mean prostration (sujud) itself - based on the fact prostration is always a desired action, even outside of prayer - whether as prostration in general, or the prostration upon reciting this surah which contains a verse of obligatory prostration.
Narrations stressing the importance of prostration overflow in abundance; they say that the closest a servant will ever be to his Lord is when he is in prostration, and this verse links drawing near to the Lord '...draw near!' to prostration '...prostrate ...' because it is one of the most important ways in which a person can seek nearness to his Lord.
Taking recourse with Allah is a characteristic of all the Prophets when calling people towards Him, and that is because of the many difficulties they face in this path. This surah also, bids that reading - which is a feature of calling towards Him - be initiated by invoking the name of the Lord, the Creator and the One who taught with the pen.
Therefore, the call to Allah must begin by turning towards Him, but Surah al-Sharh says that the call must end with turning towards Him as well:
“So, when you are done, toil and turn eagerly to your Lord.” (ash-Sharh, 94:7-8).
So, turning eagerly towards Him, and putting oneself to toil in His worship is something necessary before, during and after calling others towards Him. This is the secret behind the success of the Prophet Muhammad's (S) mission, and that of the members of his Household who followed him right down to the present day.
One of the distinguishing features of this surah, which was the first to be sent down to the Prophet (S), is that it affirms:
a. A doctrinal reality, in that it affirms Allah's lordship over the universe after its creation by Him, paying attention to the logical corollaries of this, namely obedience and submission to Him.
b. An educational reality, as embodied in the call for the human being to acquire knowledge and learning, whether through the pen or directly from Allah, such as His exclusive knowledge ('ilm ladini).
c. A moral reality, embodied by sensing Allah's immanent presence throughout existence, namely that He sees everything - good or evil - that comes from a person.
d. A practical reality, embodied by the command to pray, specifically to prostrate, as the most important branch of the religion.