بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
In the Name of Allah, the All-beneficent, the All-merciful
لَمْ يَكُنِ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا مِنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ وَالْمُشْرِكِينَ مُنْفَكِّينَ حَتَّىٰ تَأْتِيَهُمُ الْبَيِّنَةُ
The disbelievers from among the People of the Book and the polytheists were not set apart until the manifest proof had come to them (98:1).
رَسُولٌ مِنَ اللَّهِ يَتْلُو صُحُفًا مُطَهَّرَةً
a Messenger from Allah reciting impeccable scriptures, (98:2).
فِيهَا كُتُبٌ قَيِّمَةٌ
wherein are upright writings. (98:3).
وَمَا تَفَرَّقَ الَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْكِتَابَ إِلَّا مِنْ بَعْدِ مَا جَاءَتْهُمُ الْبَيِّنَةُ
And those who were given the Book did not divide, except after the manifest proof had come to them. (98:4).
وَمَا أُمِرُوا إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُوا اللَّهَ مُخْلِصِينَ لَهُ الدِّينَ حُنَفَاءَ وَيُقِيمُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَيُؤْتُوا الزَّكَاةَ وَذَٰلِكَ دِينُ الْقَيِّمَةِ
Yet they were not commanded except to worship Allah, dedicating their faith to Him as men of pure faith, and to maintain the prayer and pay the zakat. That is the upright religion. (98:5).
The words 'from among' (min) in the verse:
“The disbelievers from among the People of the Book and the polytheists were not set apart until the manifest proof had come to them” (al-Bayyinah, 98:1).
a. Distinction (tabyin), meaning distinguishing the group of the disbelievers; in which case the verse is referring to their condition before the prophetic mission. They were all disbelievers, whether they apparently accepted a divine scripture that had actually been distorted, or they did not accept any scripture, like the idol worshippers.
b. Division (tab’id): In which case the verse is referring to their condition after the prophetic mission had begun, whereby the verse rebukes that group among them that persisted in their unbelief and error.
Those people who have received a divine scripture are referred to in various ways. So, sometimes they are referred to as 'The People of the Book' (ahl al-kitab), and sometimes they are referred to as 'Those who were given the Book.' The difference between these two expressions is:
a. 'The People of the Book' mean the followers of divine religions; hence they are mentioned separately from the polytheists who are idol-worshippers.
b. Whereas 'Those who were given the Book' refers to those to whom the Book had been sent down, meaning that the address is directed to them as in Allah's saying:
“Mankind were a single community; then Allah sent the prophets as bearers of good news and as warners, and He sent down with them the Book with the truth, that it may judge between the people concerning that about which they differed, and none differed in it except those who had been given it, after the manifest proofs had come to them, out of envy among themselves.” (al-Baqarah, 2:213).
The discussion in this verse is actually about everyone to whom messengers were sent.
But regardless of which group they are from, whoever reject divine guidance the outcome is one and the same, that is they differ about guidance. The disagreement may be within a single divine religion, as in Allah's words
“When Jesus brought the manifest proofs, he said, “I have certainly brought you wisdom, and [I have come] to make clear to you some of the things that you differ about. So, be wary of Allah and obey me.” (az-Zukhruf, 43:63).
“Indeed, Allah is my Lord and your Lord; so, worship Him. This is a straight path.” (az-Zukhruf, 43:64).
But the factions differed among themselves. So, woe to the wrongdoers for the punishment of a painful day.” (az-Zukhruf, 43:65).
It may also, not be within a single religion, as in:
“Had Allah wished, those who succeeded them would not have fought each other after the manifest proofs had come to them. But they differed. So, there were among them those who had faith and there were among them those who were disbelievers...” (al-Baqarah, 2:253).
One of the areas in which there is a great deal of disagreement between commentators is the first verse of this surah, to the extent that it is considered one of the hardest verses of the Qur'an in terms of its arrangement and explanation! So, anyone who ponders on the Qur'an must have a certain level of intelligence and discernment to solve its puzzles.
The word 'set apart' (munfakkin) is the source of this ambiguity. This is firstly because the verse does not mention what they were set apart from; if we say from unbelief (kufr) - which is the apparent meaning - then the verse means that they will be set apart from their unbelief after clear proofs come to them, but the fact is that they remained in disbelief even after this. In fact, they increased in obstinacy and opposition to the prophetic mission, as Allah says in the following verse:
“And those who were given the Book did not split, except after the proof had come to them!” (al-Bayyinah, 98:4).
So, two other answers are offered:
a. First, what it means is that they were not set apart from the general principle that applies to all nations, as expounded in Allah's words:
“Allah does not lead any people astray after He has guided them until He has made clear to them what they should beware of.” (at-Tawbah, 9:115).
“We do not punish until We have sent a Messenger.” (al-Isra', 17:15).
In this context, the clear proof in this verse is the sending of a messenger, which is mentioned in the subsequent one. So, by sending a 'clear proof’, they have been left without any excuse. But even after this they continued to differ, with some accepting it and some rejecting it:
“And when there came to them a Book from Allah, confirming that which is with them - and earlier they would pray for victory over the pagans - so, when there came to them what they recognized, they defied it. So, may the curse of Allah be on the disbelievers!” (al-Baqarah, 2:89).
b. Second, they claimed that they would not turn aside from what they were following without a clear proof coming to them, which would set them onto a new path. But after this clear proof came to them, they did not believe as promised. In other words, after 'the manifest proof had come to them' and after they had made their belief conditional upon it coming 'until the manifest proof had come to them' they did not keep their promise to follow this manifest proof, rather they fled from it.
When the subject of discussion turns to the Prophet (S), it is a discussion about someone who bears two traits:
a. First, he is the bearer of the clear and 'manifest proof’, which is necessary, such that they are left without excuse. So, all of his words and deeds occurred in this context.
b. Second, he recited 'impeccable scriptures’ which no falsehood - whether in the form of distortions by men or the corruption by the devils - could reach, and which contained teachings prescribed for Allah's servants, such as mentioned in these verses:
“O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, even as it was prescribed for those before you, that ye may ward off (evil)” (al-Baqarah, 2:183).
“Fighting is enjoined on you, and it is an object of dislike to you; and it may be that you dislike a thing while it is good for you, and it may be that you love a thing while it is evil for you, and Allah knows, while you do not know.” (al-Baqarah, 2:216).
“It is prescribed, when death approaches any of you, if he leave any goods that he make a bequest to parents and next of kin, according to reasonable usage; this is due from the Allah-fearing.” (al-Baqarah, 2:180).
“O ye who believe! Retaliation is prescribed for you in the matter of the murdered; the freeman for the freeman, and the slave for the slave, and the female for the female. And for him who is forgiven somewhat by his (injured) brother, prosecution according to usage and payment unto him in kindness. This is an alleviation and a mercy from your Lord. He who transgresseth after this will have a painful doom.” (al-Baqarah, 2:178).
He looks after their wellbeing in the best and most holistic manner possible - as we understand from the use of the ta' of hyperbole in 'upright writings' (kutubun qayyima-t-un ) - just as a guardian looks after the affairs of an orphan.
The verse avoids mentioning the People of the Book as Jews and Christians. Instead it refers to them with the description of having been given the book, to increase their culpability, so, that they would have no excuse after Allah's proof was completed through their uncorrupted divine scriptures, all of which promise a prophet of the end times:
“...and to give the good news of a Messenger who will come after me, whose name is Ahmad.” (as-Saff, 61:6).
Here, we cannot help but notice the greatness of the Prophet (S) revealed to us in these verses, as they show that whoever does not believe in him (‘a) is counted amongst those who do not believe in Allah at all, or who associate partners with Him; their destination altogether shall be Hellfire:
“Indeed, the disbelievers from among the People of the Book and the polytheists will be in the fire of hell...”(al-Bayyinah, 98:6).
This is also, the reason why the name of the Prophet (S) is not mentioned explicitly; instead he is described as a messenger - 'an apostle from Allah' - and this also, aggrandizes him, just as describing others as having been given the book increases their culpability.
One could ask why the polytheists are not mentioned alongside 'those who were given the book' in the fourth verse of this surah, while they are mentioned at its beginning? A possible explanation of this is that, in the fourth verse, the discussion is about dividing into different parties and sects, which is only conceivable for a people of learning, religion and literature - even if this is, at its core, false - whereas the polytheists have not reached a level where they can divide into various groups and tendencies, because of the simplicity of their beliefs or, in fact, the silliness thereof; after all, we cannot speak of them being divided on something that has no stability in the first place!
There is a difference between those who worship Allah seeking Paradise or fearing Hell, and between those who worship Allah out of devotion to Him, seeking His pleasure in spite of their knowledge that their reward with their Lord shall be '
“Their reward, near their Lord, is the Gardens of Eden, with streams running in them...”(al-Bayyinah, 98:8).
The similitude of this is someone who washes himself for Allah, even though he is aware that the effect of this is to remove dirt from his body. So, just because someone knows the results of their actions, this does contradict their deeds being solely dedicated to Allah; it is only if they perform these actions seeking such effects that a contradiction arises. But few people attain this level whose occupants Allah describes as 'dedicating' (mukhlisin) in their faith; He refers to them with an adjective rather than a verb (e.g. 'who dedicate...') [to indicate their steadfastness in this level.]
All of the revealed religions share a single spirit, represented - after believing in Allah and the Prophet He has sent in any given age - by worship described with two qualifications:
a. Dedication - 'dedicating their faith to Him' - because whatever is done for anyone besides Allah is not truly worship, even if it is mixed with proper worship in its outward form.
b. Avoidance of the extremes in terms of excess and deficiency (ifrat wa tafrit), and this is the meaning of 'people of pure faith' (hunafa’), or at least one of its implications if we interpret it to mean 'uprightness.' So, Christian monastics have forsaken this balance for the sake of presumptuous worship for their own sake, neglecting their duties towards others, such as confronting the oppressors and serving the needy.
It is fitting to mention here a tradition from the Prophet (S) which forbids this kind of monasticism: 'For every nation there is a monasticism; the monasticism of my nation is in congregational and Friday prayers, and instructing one another in the teachings of the religion.'1
There is no doubt that the particulars of the teaching of one religion differ from those of another, but according to the Qur’an what is shared between them is prayer (salat) and charity (zakat). Allah says:
“...and to maintain the prayer and pay the zakat ...” (al-Bayyinah, 98:5).
“and He has enjoined me to prayer and to zakat as long as I live.” (Maryam, 19:31).
Of course, there are differences between the different religions in the particular elements of these acts of worship.
Perhaps the reason for these shared attributes is that prayer governs the relationship between a servant and his Lord, while charity governs the relationship between him and His creation. Prayer encompasses an inner struggle to turn one's heart towards Allah, while charity contains an outward struggle to remove one's attachments to wealth. Both of them involve relying on Him alone in everything He has commanded, so, that the servant becomes like a level road leading to his Lord, which is easy to travel upon. And the sum of the contents of these religions fall under the rubric of Allah's words: 'the upright religion' whether this means:
a. The religion of upright books; alluding to all the revealed scriptures.
b. Specifically the religion of the Final Prophet (S) because its teachings look after the wellbeing of Allah's servants.
c. A religion of upright values, as it contains lofty teachings.
The spirit of the verses that appear in this surah testifies to the universality of the Islamic mission, and indicates that even if earlier religions were valid for their people before the advent of Islam, now that the Final Prophet (S) has been sent with Allah's Final Message, there is no need for any other religion except Islam.
Hence we should not flaunt any religious or humanitarian project that falls outside the framework of the pure religion of Islam. Allah says:
“Indeed, with Allah religion is Islam” (Ale 'Imran, 3:19).
and the acceptance of good deeds depends on a person's piety (taqwa); there is no meaning to piety if the activities in question are not done in accordance with Allah's desire, even if the act in of itself is a virtuous one.
We must adopt Allah's manners mentioned in this surah, namely that He does not chastise anyone without good reason; so, first of all, we should not chastise someone who is ignorant, unless of course he is willfully ignorant, in which case we are relieving him of his ignorance.
We learnt his from the fact that Allah does not punish His servants except after providing them with clear and irrefutable proof from impeccable scriptures sent down with valuable teachings, whether this means teachings that look after the wellbeing of Allah's servants, or teachings which are upright and without crookedness, unlike manmade laws and ways of living, many of which are contrary to healthy human nature (fitrah) and also, neglect essential human needs!
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا مِنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ وَالْمُشْرِكِينَ فِي نَارِ جَهَنَّمَ خَالِدِينَ فِيهَا أُولَٰئِكَ هُمْ شَرُّ الْبَرِيَّةِ
Indeed, the disbelievers from among the People of the Book and the polytheists will be in the fire of hell, to remain in it (forever). It is they who are the worst of creatures. (98:6).
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ أُولَٰئِكَ هُمْ خَيْرُ الْبَرِيَّةِ
Indeed, those who have faith and do righteous deeds - it is they who are the best of creatures. (98:7).
جَزَاؤُهُمْ عِنْدَ رَبِّهِمْ جَنَّاتُ عَدْنٍ تَجْرِي مِنْ تَحْتِهَا الْأَنْهَارُ خَالِدِينَ فِيهَا أَبَدًا رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُمْ وَرَضُوا عَنْهُ ذَٰلِكَ لِمَنْ خَشِيَ رَبَّهُ
Their reward, near their Lord, is the Gardens of Eden, with streams running in them, to remain in them forever. Allah is pleased with them, and they are pleased with Him. That is for those who fear their Lord. (98:8).
In this surah, Allah places the threat of punishment (wa'id) before His promise of reward (wa'd), mentioning the recompense of 'the worst of creatures' then following them with the recompense of 'the best of creatures.' Perhaps the reason for this is that the flow of the first verses of the surah concerned the false beliefs of the People of the Book and the polytheists, meaning that when it came to the matter of recompense it was more appropriate to begin with that connected to the beginning of the surah. There is also, the fact that the relation of the threat of punishment to the promise of reward is like that of medicine to food; one must dissuade a person from harmful things before directing them to that which benefits them.
A person who combines - through the school of the Prophets (S) - faith with righteous deeds becomes someone about whom it can be truly said: They are amongst the best creations Allah has placed on the face of His earth, based on the fact that the term 'creatures' (bariyyah) includes every creation, even the angels, because they too have been created by Allah. And from the scriptures we understand that some creatures are better than the angels, as Allah has revealed by commanding them to prostrate before Adam, who had not yet been sent with any message, and that was because of the capacity he had to move towards perfection and ascend to a level above even that of the angels!
We can also, treat the verse referring to the best and worst of creatures an allusion to the two arcs of ascent and descent in creation, which we have already seen in Surah at-Tin:
“We certainly created man in the best of forms.” (at-Tin, 95:4).
“Then We relegated him to the lowest of the low.” (at-Tin, 95:5).
It should be clear that the word 'near' ('ind) in the phrase 'near their Lord' suggests kindness (lutf) because 'the best of creatures' are those who placed their desires solely in He who possesses anything like this kind of recompense, and they did not care about the fleeting rewards of others! We can also, understand this to mean that their recompense is like a deposit with someone trustworthy, a deposit which will be returned to them at a time when its owner will need it most!
This sense of the 'nearness' of the reward with Allah should place the believer's mind at ease, and not make him hasty to see the fruits of his labour in this world - even in the form of some kind of spiritual attainment - because his knowledge that their fruits are stowed for him with His Lord should avail him of any need for any immediate advantage.
Some of the most important constituents of Paradise are its attributes, embodied in ‘Eden’, which signifies permanence and constancy, 'remaining in them forever’, which signifies everlasting life therein. And there are other verses which confirm this fact, including this verse
“nor will they be expelled from it” (al-Hijr, 15:48).
and this verse:
“.... from where they will not seek to shift.” (al-Kahf. 18:108).
In fact, it has even been said that eternal life is better still than Paradise. The Prophet (S) has been narrated to say: 'Verily eternal life (khulud) in Paradise is even better than Paradise... and Allah's pleasure is even better than Paradise!'2 And that is because were it not for this eternal life, people could not fully enjoy Paradise, as this enjoyment would be tainted by the pain of knowing this would one day come to an end and there is nothing that can possibly replace its magnificent pleasure!
Just as a person is created from both a body and soul, and each of these have a share in this world, each of these also, have a share in the Hereafter; the body's share of the Hereafter is the Paradise described in this surah and others as containing various types of sensory bliss; maidens and palaces. As for the share of soul, it is Allah's pleasure:
“....Allah is pleased with them and they are pleased with Him...”(al-Bayyinah, 98:5).
and this is embodied in the Paradise in the form of nearness to the Divine.
It is interesting that Allah does not mention the attribute of lordship when He mentions His pleasure with them being 'the best of creatures' but rather mentions the majestic name ("Allah") which is considered to be the greatest of all the Divine Names in signification of awe and majesty, for it is the Name that signifies the Divine Essence and the Divine Attributes in their entirety, namely the Attributes of both Majesty and Generosity.
The utmost perfection is represented by attaining the level at which the servant becomes pleased with his Lord, and the servant also, becomes pleasing to his Lord. This is the level of the Contented Soul (al-nafs al-mutma'innah), which Allah refers to in His words:
“O soul at peace!” (al-Fajr, 89:27).
“Return to your Lord, pleased, pleasing!” (al-Fajr, 89:28).
“Then enter among My servants!” (al-Fajr, 89:29).
“And enter My paradise!” (al-Fajr, 89:30).
And this verse also, mentions
“ ....that is for those who fear their Lord” (al-Bayyinah, 98:8).
which shows that the way to attaining Allah's pleasure is reciprocated between the servant and his Lord, namely the servant fears his Lord with a fear joined to magnification, as Allah says of the angels:
“...and they are apprehensive for the fear of Him.” (al-Anbiya’, 21:28).
An identical expression appears for the faithful servants elsewhere:
“Indeed, those who are apprehensive for the fear of their Lord ..” (al-Mu’mioon, 23:57).
and this fear springs from their knowledge, as Allah says:
“ …...Only those of Allah's servants having knowledge fear Him....” (Fatir, 35:28).
For it is the sense of Allah's magnificence and the fact He is watching everything that dissuades people from misdeeds and serves to motivate them to every good act.
And it should be known that this state of Divine Pleasure is the greatest bliss in Paradise; it is, in fact, its nectar, and it is a separate recompense in its own right compared to the gardens of Paradise, and we know this because it is mentioned separately from them in the verse:
“....with streams running in them, to remain in them forever. Allah is pleased with them, and they are pleased with Him...” (al-Bayyinah, 98:8).
Obviously, anyone who possesses these traits in this world is already blessed in this world with the most precious treasures of Paradise, even if it takes on a lower form here.
When the Qur’an attributes fear to those with knowledge (al'ulama) in the verse
“Only those of Allah's servants having knowledge fear Him” (Fatir, 35:28).
it uses the majestic name - "Allah" - which signifies the level of the Divine Essence in all of its perfection and beauty. This is appropriate for the rank of that knowledge with which one grasps the features and levels of Lordship. But when the Qur'an attributes fear to the faithful in general –
“those who have faith and do righteous deeds....” (al-Bayyinah, 98:7).
as in this surah, it refers to Him as their Lord;
“...That is for those who fear their Lord.” (al-Bayyinah, 98:8).
This is because it is His Lordship, unmatched and sovereign, that has a role in conveying them to 'the Gardens of Eden, with streams running in them' and hence their fear of Allah is connected to the level of His lordship.