(ENGLISH) COMMENTARY BY MUHAMMED ESED
( BY MUHAMMED ESED )
68 - AL-QALAM
In the name of god, the most gracious, The dispenser of grace: (1)

1 - According to most of the authorities, this invocation (which occurs at the beginning of every surah with the exception of surah 9) constitutes an integral part of "The Opening" and is, therefore, numbered as verse I. In all other instances, the invocation "in the name of God" precedes the surah as such, and is not counted among its verses. - Both the divine epithets rahman and rahrm are derived from the noun rahmah, which signifies "mercy", "compassion", "loving tenderness" and, more comprehensively, "grace". From the very earliest times, Islamic scholars have endeavoured to define the exact shades of meaning which differentiate the two terms. The best and simplest of these explanations is undoubtedly the one advanced by Ibn al-Qayyim (as quoted in Mandr I, 48): the term rahman circumscribes the quality of abounding grace inherent in, and inseparable from, the concept of God's Being, whereas rahrm expresses the manifestation of that grace in, and its effect upon, His creation-in other words, an aspect of His activity.

        
IN THE chronological order of revelation, this surah most probably occupies the third place. Some authorities - among them Suyuti - incline to the view that it was revealed immediately after the first five verses of surah 96 ("The Germ-Cell"); this, however, is contradicted by some of the best-authenticated Traditions, according to which most of surah 74 came second in the order of revelation (see introductory note to that surah). In any case, "The Pen" is undoubtedly one of the oldest parts of the Qur'an.
1. Nun. (1) CONSIDER the pen, and all that they write [therewith]! (2)

1 - Chronologically, this is the first appearance of any of the "disjointed" [i.e., single] letters (al-muqattaat) which precede a number of the surahs of the Qur'an: for the various theories relating to these letters, see Appendix II. The supposition of some of the early commentators (extensively quoted by Tabari) that the letter n, pronounced nun, represents here an abbreviation of the identically-pronounced noun which signifies both "great fish" and "inkwell" has been convincingly rejected by some of the most outstanding authorities (e.g., Zamakhshari and Razi) on grammatical grounds.

2 - For the meaning of the adjurative particle wa at the beginning of this sentence, see first half of note 23 on 74:32. The mention of "the pen" is meant to recall the earliest Qur'anic revelation, namely, the first five verses of surah 96 ("The Germ-Cell"), and thus to stress the fact of Muhammad's prophethood. As regards the symbolic significance of the concept of "the pen", see 96:3-5 and the corresponding note 3.

2. Thou art not, by thy Sustainer's grace, a madman! (3)

3 - This is an allusion to the taunt with which most of Muhammad's contemporaries greeted the beginning of his preaching, and with which they continued to deride him for many years. In its wider sense, the above passage relates - as is so often the case in the Qur'an - not merely to the Prophet but also to alll who followed or will follow him: in this particular instance, to all who base their moral valuations on their belief in God and in life after death.

3. And, verily, thine shall be a reward neverending
4. for, behold, thou keepest indeed to a sublime way of life; (4)

4 - The term khuluq, rendered by me as "way of life", describes a person's "character", "innate disposition" or "nature" in the widest sense of these concepts, as well as "habitual behaviour" which becomes, as it were, one's "second nature" (Taj al-Arus). My identification of khuluq with "way of life" is based on the explanation of the above verse by Abd Allah ibn Abbas (as quoted by Tabari), stating that this term is here synonymous with din: and we must remember that one of the primary significances of the latter term is "a way [or "manner"] of behaviour" or "of acting" (Qamus). More over, we have several well-authenticated Traditions according to which Muhammad's widow A'ishah, speaking of the Prophet many years after his death, repeatedly stressed that "his way of life (khuluq) was the Qur'an." (Muslim, Tabari and Hakim, on the authority of Said ibn Hisham; Ibn Hanbal, Abu Da'ud and Nasa"i, on the authority of Al-Hasan al-Basri; Tabari, on the authority of Qatadah and Jubayr ibn Nufayl; and several other compilations).

5. and [one day] thou shalt see, and they [who now deride thee] shall see,
6. which of you was bereft of reason.
7. Verily, thy Sustainer alone is fully aware as to who has strayed from His path, Just as He alone is fully aware of those who have found the right way.
8. Hence, defer not to [the likes and dislikes of] those who give the lie to the truth:
9. they would like thee to be soft [with them], so that they might be soft [with thee]. (5)

5 - I.e., "they would like thee to be conciliatory in the matter of ethical principles and moral valuations, whereupon they would reciprocate and desist from actively opposing thee"

10. Furthermore, (6) defer not to the contemptible swearer of oaths,

6 - Lit., "And". The subsequently enumerated types of moral deficiency are, of course, mentioned only as examples of the type of man to whose likes or dislikes no consideration whatever should be shown.

11. [or to] the slanderer that goes about with defaming tales,
12. [or] the withholder of good, [or] the sinful aggressor,
13. [or] one who is cruel, by greed possessed, (7) and, in addition to all this, utterly useless [to his fellow-men]. (8)

7 - The term utul - derived from the verb atala, "he dragged [someone or something] in a rough and cruel manner" - is used to describe a person combining within himself the attributes of cruelty and greed; hence the composite rendering adopted by me.

8 - The commentators give the most divergent interpretations to the term zanim, which is evidently derived from the noun zanamah, denoting either of the two wattles, or fleshy skin protuberances, hanging below the ears of a goat. Since these wattles do not seem to have any physiological function, the term zanim has come to signify "someone [or "something"] not needed" (Taj al-Arus): in other words, redundant or useless. It is, therefore, logical to assume that in the above context this term describes a person who is entirely useless in the social sense.

14. Is it because he is possessed of worldly goods and children
15. that, whenever Our messages are conveyed to him, such a one says, "Fables of ancient times"? (9)

9 - The term banun (lit., "children" or "sons") is often used in the Qur'an metonymically, denoting "popular support" or "many adherents"; in conjunction with the term mal ("worldly goods") it is meant to illustrate a certain mentality which attributes a pseudo-religious significance to wealth and influence, and regards these visible signs of worldly success as a post-factum evidence of the "righteousness" of the person concerned and, hence, of his not being in need of further guidance.

16. [For this] We shall brand him with indelible disgrace! (10)

10 - Lit., "We shall brand him on the snout" (khurtum). All commentators point out that this, idiomatic phrase has a strictly metaphorical meaning, namely, "We shall stigmatize him with indelible disgrace" (cf. Lane II, 724, quoting both Raghib and Taj al-Arus).

17. [As for such sinners,] behold, We [but] try them (11)as We tried the owners of a certain garden who vowed that they would surely harvest its fruit on the morrow,

11 - I.e., by bestowing on them affluence out of all proportion to their moral deserts.

18. and made no allowance [for the will of God]: (12)

12 - I.e., they resolved upon their objective without the reservation, "if God so wills"; which points to the first lesson to be derived from this parable, as well as to its connection with the rhetorical question in verses 14-15 above.

19. whereupon a visitation for thy Sustainer came upon that [garden] while they were asleep,
20. so that by the morrow it became barren and bleak.
21. Now when they rose at early morn, they called unto one another,
22. "Go early to your tilth if you want to harvest the fruit!"
23. Thus they launched forth, whispering unto one another,
24. "Indeed, no needy person shall enter it today [and come] upon you [unawares]," (13)

13 - Ever since Biblical times it has been understood that the poor have a right to a share in the harvest of the fields and gardens owned by their more fortunate fellow-men (cf. 6:141 - "give [unto the poor] their due on harvest-day"). The determination of the "owners of the garden" to deprive the poor of this right is the second type of sin to which the above parable points: and inasmuch as it is a social sin, it connects with verses 10-13.

25. and early they went, strongly bent upon their purpose.
26. But as soon as they beheld [the garden and could not recognize] it, they exclaimed, "Surely we have lost our way!"
27. - [and then,] "Nay, but we have been rendered destitute!"
28. Said the most right-minded among them: "Did I not tell you, 'Will you not extol God's limitless glory?" (14)

14 - This is obviously a reference to their failure to realize that nothing can come about unless the Almighty so wills (verse 18).

29. They answered: "Limitless in His glory is our Sustainer! Verily, we were doing wrong!"
30. - and then they turned upon one another with mutual reproaches.
31. [In the end] they said: "Oh, woe unto us! Verily, we did behave outrageously!
32. [But] it may be that our Sustainer will grant us something better instead: (15)for, verily, unto our Sustainer do we turn with hope!"

15 - Namely, His forgiveness.

33. SUCH is the suffering [with which We try some people in this world]; (16) but greater by far will be the suffering [which sinners shall have to bear] in the life to come - if they but knew it!

16 - This connects with the first clause of verse 17 above, which, in its turn, contains an allusion to the mentality spoken of in verses 14-15.

34. For, behold, it is the God-conscious [alone] whom gardens of bliss await with their Sustainer:
35. or should We, perchance, treat those who surrender themselves unto Us (17) as [We would treat] those who remain lost in sin?

17 - This is the earliest occurrence of the term muslimun (sing. muslim) in the history of Qur'anic revelation. Throughout this work, I have translated the terms muslim and islam in accordance with their original connotations, namely, "one who surrenders [or "has surrendered"] himself to God", and "man's self-surrender to God"; the same holds good of all forms of the verb aslama occurring in the 'Qur'an. It should be borne in mind that the "institutionalized" use of these terms - that is, their exclusive application to the followers of the Prophet Muhammad - represents a definitely post-Qur'anic development and, hence, must be avoided in a translation of the Qur'an.

36. What is amiss with you? (18) On what do you base your judgment [of right and wrong]?

18 - Sc., "O you sinners".

37. Or have you, perchance, a [special] divine writ which you study,
38. and in which you find all that you may wish to find? (19)

19 - Lit., "so that in it you [may] have all that you choose [to have]" - i.e., a moral justification of the claim that whatever is considered "expedient" is eo ipso right.

39. Or have you received a solemn promise, binding on Us till Resurrection Day, that yours will assuredly be whatever you judge [to be your rightful due]?
40. Ask them which of them is able to vouch for this!
41. Or have they, perchance, anys ages to support their views? (20) Well, then, if they are sincere in this their claim, let them produce those supporters of theirs

20 - Lit., "Or have they any associates?" - i.e., wise people (uqala) who would share their views and their way of life (Zamakhshari and Razi). Accordingly, the expression shuraka'uhum in the next sentence has been rendered as "those supporters of theirs".

42. on the Day when man's very being shall be bared to the bone, (21) and when they [who now deny the truth] shall be called upon to prostrate themselves [before God], (22) and shall be unable to do so:

21 - Lit., "when the shin[-bone] shall be bared": i.e., when man's innermost thoughts, feelings and motivations will be laid bare. The implication is that their erstwhile claim that whatever is "expedient" is morally justifiable (see note 19 above), shall be revealed in all its nakedness - namely, as something indefensible and spiritually destructive.

22 - I.e., willingly, gladly humbling themselves before Him.

43. downcast will be their eyes, with ignominy overwhelming them - seeing that they had been called upon [in vain] to prostrate themselves [before Him] while they were yet sound [and alive].
44. Hence, leave Me alone with such as give the lie to this tiding. (23) We shall bring them low, step by step, without their perceiving how it has come about: (24)

23 - I.e., to divine revelation in general, and to the tiding of resurrection and judgment, in particular - the implication being that God alone has the right to decide whether or how to chastise them.

24 - Lit., "without their knowing whence [it comes]". The above sentence, as well as the next, (verse 45), are found in exactly the same formulation in 7:182-183

45. for, behold, though I may give them rein for a while, My subtle scheme is exceedingly firm! (25)

25 - The term "subtle scheme" (kayd) evidently circumscribes here God's unfathomable plan of creation of which man can glimpse only isolated fragments and never the totality: a plan in which every thing and happening has a definite function, and nothing is accidental. (See in this connection note 11 on 10:5 - "None of this has God created without [an inner] truth".) Indirectly, the above passage alludes to the question as to the reason why God allows so many evil persons to enjoy their lives to the full, while so many of the righteous are allowed to suffer: the answer being that during his life in this world man cannot really understand where apparent happiness and unhappiness ultimately lead to, and what role they play in God's "subtle scheme" of creation.

46. Or is it that [they fear lest] thou ask them for a reward, [O Prophet,] so that they would be burdened with debt [if they listened to thee]?
47. Or [do they think] that the hidden reality [of all that exists] is within their grasp, so that [in time] they can write it down? (26)

26 - Sc., "and that, therefore, they need not listen to divine revelation." For the real significance of the term al-ghayb - of which the above is undoubtedly the earliest instance in the chronology of Qur'anic revelation - see surah 2, note 3. Its use in the above context is meant to elucidate and further develop the idea already touched upon in 96:6 - "man becomes grossly overweening whenever he believes himself to be self-sufficient". More particularly, the present passage points to the fallacy of the arrogant belief that the solution of all the mysteries of the universe is "just around the corner" and that man-centred science - epitomized in the reference to its being "written down" - can and will teach its adepts how to "conquer nature" and to attain to what they regard as the good life.

48. BEAR THEN with patience thy Sustainer's will and be not like him of the great fish, who cried out [in distress] after having given in to anger. (27)

27 - This is a reference to the Prophet Jonah - see 21:87 and the corresponding notes 82 and 83. As mentioned in 37:140, "he fled like a runaway slave" from the task with which he had been entrusted by God, because his people did not all at once accept his preaching as valid: and so Muhammad is exhorted not to give in to despair or anger at the opposition shown to him by most of his contemporaries in Mecca, but to persevere in his prophetic mission.

49. [And remember:] had not grace from his Sustainer reached him, (28) he would indeed have been cast forth upon that barren shore in a state of disgrace: (29)

28 - Cf. 37:143 - "had he not been of those who [even in the deep darkness of their distress are able to] extol Gods limitless glory": i.e., who always remember God and pray for His forgiveness.

29 - Lit., "while he was still blameworthy", i.e., burdened with sin and unredeemed by repentance: implying that but for God's grace he would have died as a sinner.

50. but [as it was,] his Sustainer had elected him and placed him among the righteous.
51. Hence, [be patient,] even though they who are bent on denying the truth would all but kill thee with their eyes whenever they hear this reminder, and [though] they say, "[As for Mubammad,] behold, most surely he is a madman!"
52. [Be patient:] for this is nought else but a reminder [from God] to all mankind.