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.

AFTER the Prophet's earliest revelation - consisting of the first five verses of surah 96 ("The Germ-Cell") - a period elapsed during which he received no revelation at all. The length of this break in revelation (fatrat al-wahy) cannot be established with certainty; it may have been as little as six months or as much as three years. It was a time of deepest distress for the Prophet: the absence of revelation almost led him to believe that his earlier experience in the cave of Mount Hira (see introductory note to surah 96) was an illusion; and it was only due to the moral support of his wife Khadijah and her undaunted faith in his prophetic mission that he did not entirely lose his courage and hope. At the end of this intermission the Prophet had a vision of the Angel Gabriel, "sitting between heaven and earth". Almost immediately afterwards, the present surah was revealed; and from then on, in Muhammad's own words, "revelation became intense and continuous" (Bukhari, Bad' al-Wahy and Kitab at-Tafsir; also Muslim). Although some verses of this surah may have been revealed at a slightly later time, there is no doubt that all of it belongs to the earliest part of the Mecca period, that is, to the very beginning of Muhammad's mission. But in spite of its early origin and its brevity, the surah outlines almost all the fundamental concepts to which the Qur'an as a whole is devoted: the oneness and uniqueness of God, resurrection and ultimate judgment; life after death and the allegorical nature of all descriptions relating to it; man's weakness and utter dependence on God, his proneness to false pride, greed and selfishness; each human being's responsibility for his own behaviour and doings; "paradise" and "hell" as natural consequences of one's earthly life, and not as arbitrary rewards or punishments; the principle of the historical continuity of all true religious experience; and various other ideas and concepts which were to be more fully developed in later revelations.
1. O THOU [in thy solitude] enfolded! (1)

1 - The expression muddaththir (an abbreviated form of mutadaththir) signifies "one who is covered [with something]" or "enfolded [in something]"; and all philologists point out that the verb dathara, from which the above participial noun is derived, may equally well have a concrete or abstract connotation. Most of the commentators understand the phrase "O thou enfolded one" in its literal, concrete sense, and assume that it refers to the Prophets habit of covering himself with a cloak or blanket when he felt that a revelation was about to begin. Razi, however, notes that this apostrophe may well have been used metaphorically, as an allusion to Muhammad's intense desire for solitude before the beginning of his prophetic mission (cf. introductory note to surah 96): and this, according to Razi, would explain his being thus addressed in connection with the subsequent call, "Arise and warn" - i.e., "Give now up thy solitude, and stand up before all the world as a preacher and warner."

2. Arise and warn!
3. And thy Sustainer's greatness glorify!
4. And thine inner self purify! (2)

2 - Lit., "thy garments (thiyab) purify": but almost all the classical commentators point out that the noun thawb and its plural thiyab is often metonymically applied to that which a garment encloses, i.e., a person's "body" or, in a wider sense, his "self' or his "heart", or even his "spiritual state" or "conduct" (Taj al-Arus). Thus, commenting on the above verse, Zamakhshari draws the reader's attention to the well-known idiomatic phrases tahir ath-thiyab (lit., "one who is clean in his garments") and danis ath-thiyab ("one who is filthy in his garments"), and stresses their tropical significance of "free from faults and vices" and "vicious and perfidious", respectively. Razi states with approval that "according to most of the [earlier] commentators, the meaning [of this verse] is, 'purify thy heart of all that is blameworthy' ".

5. And all defilement shun!
6. And do not through giving seek thyself to gain, (3)

3 - Lit., "and do not bestow favours to obtain increase".

7. but unto thy Sustainer turn in patience.
8. And [warn all men that] when the trumpet-call [of resurrection] is sounded,
9. that very Day shall be a day of anguish,
10. not of ease, for all who [now] deny the truth! (4)

4 - Since this is the earliest Qur'anic occurrence of the expression kafir (the above surah having been preceded only by the first five verses of surah 96), its use here - and, by implication, in the whole of the Qur'an - is obviously determined by the meaning which it had in the speech of the Arabs before the advent of the Prophet Muhammad: in other words, the term kafir cannot be simply equated, as many Muslim theologians of post-classical times and practically all Western translators of the Qur'an have done, with "unbeliever" or "infidel" in the specific, restricted sense of one who rejects the system of doctrine and law promulgated in the Qur'an and amplified by the teachings of the Prophet - but must have a wider, more general meaning. This meaning is easily grasped when we bear in mind that the root verb of the participial noun kafir (and of the infinitive noun kufr) is kafara, "he [or "it"] covered [a thing]": thus, in 57:20 the tiller of the soil is called (without any pejorative implication) kafir, "one who covers", i.e., the sown seed with earth, just as the night is spoken of as having "covered" (kafara) the earth with darkness. In their abstract sense, both the verb and the nouns derived from it have a connotation of "concealing" something that exists or "denying" something that is true. Hence, in the usage of the Qur'an - with the exception of the one instance ((in 57:20) where this participial noun signifies a "tiller of the soil" - a kafir is "one who denies [or "refuses to acknowledge"] the truth" in the widest, spiritual sense of this latter term: that is, irrespective of whether it relates to a cognition of the supreme truth - namely, the existence of God - or to a doctrine or ordinance enunciated in the divine writ, or to a self-evident moral proposition, or to an acknowledgment of, and therefore gratitude for, favours received. (Regarding the expression alladhinakafaru, implying conscious intent, see surah 2, note 6.)

11. LEAVE Me alone [to deal] with him whom I have created alone, (5)

5 - Or: "whom I alone have created". The above sentence can be understood in either of these two senses, depending on whether one relates the expression "alone" (wahid) to God - thus stressing His uniqueness as Creator - or to this particular object of His creation, man, who begins and ends his life in a state of utter loneliness (cf. 6:94 and 19:80 and 95). In either case, our attention is drawn to the fact of man's inescapable dependence on God. Beyond that, the phrase in question carries a further meaning, namely, "Leave it to Me alone to decide what to do with him who forgets that I am his Creator and Sustainer" - thus forbidding any human punishment of "those who deny the truth".

12. and to whom I have granted resources vast,
13. and children as [love's] witnesses,
14. and to whose life I gave so wide a scope: (6)

6 - Lit., "for whom I have spread [all] out in a [wide] spread" - i.e., "whom I have endowed with potentialities far beyond those open to other living beings".

15. and yet, he greedily desires that I give yet more!
16. Nay, verily, it is against Our messages that he knowingly, stubbornly sets himself (7)

7 - Lit., "he is wont (kana) to set himself". The noun anid, derived from the verb anada, denotes "one who opposes or rejects something that is true, knowing it to be true" (Lisan al-Arab). The element of human contrariness and stubbornness is implied in the use of the auxiliary verb kana, which indicates here a permanently recurring phenomenon despite its past-tense formulation. I am, therefore of the opinion that verses 18-25, although ostensibly formulated in the past tense, must also be rendered in the present tense.

17. [and so] I shall constrain him to endure a painful uphill climb! (8)

8 - In combination with the verb urhiquhu ("I shall constrain him to endure"') the term saud (lit., "ascent" or "climb"') has the tropical connotation of something extremely difficult, painful or distressing. In the above context, it is an allusion to the loss of all instinctive innocence - and, hence, to the individual and social suffering - which unavoidably follows upon man's wilful neglect of moral and spiritual truths ("God's messages") in this world, and bars his spiritual development in the life to come.

18. Behold, [when Our messages are conveyed to one who is bent on denying the truth,] he reflects and meditates [as to how to disprove them]
19. and thus he destroys himself, (9) the way he meditates:

9 - The expression qutila reads, literally, "he has been killed" or, as an imprecation, "may he be killed". Since a literal rendering of this expression - whether conceived as a statement of fact or an imprecation - would be meaningless here, many commentators (Tabari among them) understand it as signifying "he is rejected from God's grace" (luina), i.e., "killed" spiritually by his own action or attitude; hence my rendering, "he destroys himself".

20. yea, he destroys himself, the way he meditates!
21. and then he looks [around for new arguments],
22. and then he frowns and glares, (10)

10 - I.e., he becomes emotionally involved because he suspects in his heart that his arguments are weak (Razi).

23. and in the end he turns his back [on Our message], and glories in his arrogance, (11)

11 - See 96:6-7.

24. and says, "All this is mere spellbinding eloquence handed down [from olden times]! (12)

12 - The term sihr, which usually denotes "sorcery" or "magic", primarily signifies "the turning of something from its proper [or "natural"] state of being into another state"; hence, it is often applied to the fascination or enchantment caused by exceptional, "spellbinding" eloquence (Taj al-Arus). In its pejorative sense - as used by deniers of the truth to describe a divine message - it has also the connotation of wilful deception" or "delusion".

25. This is nothing but the word of mortal man!"
26. [Hence,] I shall cause him to endure hell-fire [in the life to come]! (13)

13 - This is unquestionably the earliest instance of the term saqar ("hell-fire"'), one of the seven metaphorical names given in the Qur'an to the concept of the suffering in the hereafter which man brings upon himself by sinning and deliberately remaining blind and deaf, in this world, to spiritual truths (cf. surah 15, note 33). The allegorical character of this and all other Qur'anic descriptions of man's condition and destiny in the hereafter is clearly alluded to in the subsequent verse as well as in verses 28 ff.

27. And what could make thee conceive what hell-fire is?
28. It does not allow to live, and neither leaves [to die],
29. making [all truth] visible to mortal man. (14)

14 - Most of the commentators interpret the above elliptic phrase in the sense of "changing the appearance of man" or "scorching the skin of man". The rendering adopted by me, on the other hand, is based on the primary significance of the verb laaa - "it appeared", "it shone forth" or "it became visible". Hence, the primary meaning of the intensive participial noun lawwah is "that which makes [something] visible". In the above context, it relates to the sinner's belated cognition of the truth, as well as to his distressing insight into his own nature, his past failings and deliberate wrongdoings, and the realization of his own responsibility for the suffering that is now in store for him: a state neither of life nor of death (cf. 87:12-13).

30. Over it are nineteen [powers]. (15)

15 - Whereas most of the classical commentators are of the opinion that the "nineteen"' are the angels that act as keepers or guardians of hell, Razi advances the view that we may have here a reference to the physical, intellectual and emotional powers within man himself: powers which raise man potentially far above any other creature, but which, if used wrongly, bring about a deterioration of his whole personality and, hence, intense suffering in the life to come. According to Razi, the philosophers (arbab al-hikmah) identify these powers or faculties with, firstly, the seven organic functions of the animal - and therefore also human - body (gravitation, cohesion, repulsion of noxious foreign matter, absorption of beneficent external matter, assimilation of nutrients, growth, and reproduction); secondly, the five "external" or physical senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste); thirdly, the five "internal" or intellectual senses., defined by Ibn Sina - on whom Razi apparently relies - as (1) perception of isolated sense-images, (2) conscious apperception of ideas, (3) memory of sense-images, (4) memory of conscious apperceptions, and (5) the ability to correlate sense-images and higher apperceptions; and, lastly, the emotions of desire or aversion (resp. fear or anger), which have their roots in both the "external" and "internal" sense-categories - thus bringing the total of the powers and faculties which preside over man's spiritual fate to nineteen. In their aggregate, it is these powers that confer upon man the ability to think conceptually, and place him, in this respect, even above the angels (cf. 2:30 ff. and the corresponding notes; see also the following note).

31. For We have caused none but angelic powers to lord over the fire [of hell]; (16) and We have not caused their number to be aught but a trial for those who are bent on denying the truth (17)- to the end that they who have been granted revelation aforetime might be convinced [of the truth of this divine writ]; (18)and that they who have attained to faith [in it] might grow yet more firm in their faith; and that [both] they who have been granted the earlier revelation and they who believe [in this one] might be freed of all doubt; and that they in whose hearts is disease (19) and the who deny the truth outright might ask, "What does [your] God mean by this parable?" (20) In this way God lets go astray him that wills [to go astray], and guides aright him that wills [to be guided]. (21) And none can comprehend thy Sustainers forces save Him alone: and all this (22)is but a reminder to mortal man.

16 - Since it is by virtue of his powers of conscious perception and conceptual thinking that man can arrive at a discriminating cognition of good and evil and, thus, rise to great spiritual heights, these powers are described here as "angelic" (lit., "angels" - this being the earliest occurrence of the term malak in the history of Qur'anic revelation). On the other hand, since a neglect or a deliberately wrong use of these angelic powers is at the root of all sinning on the part of man and, therefore, of his suffering in the hereafter, they are spoken of as "the lords (ashab) of the fire [of hell]", which complements the expression "over it"' in the preceding verse.

17 - This is apparently an allusion to the allegorical character of this passage, which "those who are bent on denying the truth" are unwilling to recognize as such and, hence, fail to grasp its real purport. By speculating on the reasons which allegedly induced Muhammad - whom they regard as the "author" of the Qur'an - to lay ~tress on one particular number, they tend to take the allegory in a literal sense, thus missing its point entirely.

18 - Namely, by being enabled, through an understanding of the above allegory, to appreciate the rational approach of the Qur'an to all questions of faith. The reference to "those who have been granted revelation aforetime is the earliest statement outlining the principle of continuity in mankinds religious experience.

19 - I.e., in this instance, the half-hearted ones who, despite their ability to discern between right and wrong, incline towards unbelief.

20 - Cf. the identical phrase in 2: 26, together with the corresponding note 18. My interpolation, in both these passages, of the word "your" between brackets is necessitated by the fact that it is the unbelievers who ask this question.

21 - Or: "God lets go astray whomever He wills, and guides aright whomever He wills" (see surah 14, note 4). The stress on the allegorical nature of the above passage, spoken of as a "parable" (mathal), has here the same purpose as in 2:26- namely, to prevent the followers of the Qur'an from attaching a literal meaning to its eschatological descriptions - a purpose that is unmistakably expressed in the concluding sentence of this passage: "All this is but a reminder to mortal man". (See also next note.)

22 - Lit., "it" or "these" - depending on whether the personal pronoun hiya is taken to denote a singular - in which case it would refer to the feminine noun saqar, "hell-fire" (Tabari, Zamakhshari, Baghawi, Ibn Kathir) - or a plural, referring to what Razi pinpoints as "those [Qur'anic] verses dealing with these allegories (hadhihi 'l-mutashabihat)": hence my compromise rendering "all this".

32. NAY, but consider the moon! (23)

23 - This is the earliest Qur'anic instance of the adjurative particle wa used in the sense of a solemn, oathlike assertion - a calling to witness, as it were - meant (as in the expression "by God!") to give weight to a subsequently stated truth or evidence of the truth: hence, I am rendering it here and elsewhere as "consider". In the present case, the truth thus to be stressed is the implied statement that just as the changing phases of the moon and the alternation of night and day are the outcome of God-given, natural laws, so, too, a sinner's suffering in the hereafter is but a natural outcome of his deliberate wrongdoing in this world. (See also note 7 on 2:7.)

33. Consider the night when it departs,
34. and the morn when it dawns!
35. Verily, that [hell-fire) is Indeed one of the great [forewarnings]
36. a warning to mortal man
37. to everyone of you, whether he chooses to come forward or to hang back! (24)

24 - Lit., "any of you who chooses. . .", etc.- i.e., irrespective of whether one has chosen to follow or to disregard the divine call: implying that even true believers may stumble into sinning, and hence need to be warned.

38. [On the Day of Judgment,] every human being will be held in pledge for whatever [evil] he has wrought
39. save those who shall have attained to righteousness: (25)

25 - Lit., "those [or "the people"] on the right hand" (ashab al-yamin), an expression based on the tropical significance of yamin as "righteous" or "righteousness" and consequently, "blessedness". The above is probably the oldest Qur'anic incidence of this expression, which evidently comprises all those whose conduct in life will have earned them Gods forgiveness of whatever sins they may have committed.

40. [dwelling] In gardens [of paradise], they will inquire
41. of those who were lost in sin:
42. "What has brought you into hell-fire?"
43. They will answer: "We were not among those who prayed; (26)

26 - In view of the fact that at the time of the revelation of this very early surah the canonical prayer (salah) had not yet been made obligatory on the followers of the Qur'an, it is reasonable to assume that in the above context this term is used in its widest sense, namely, conscious belief in God.

44. and neither did we feed the needy;
45. and we were wont to indulge in sinning together with all [the others] who indulged in it;
46. and the Day of Judgment we were wont to call a lie
47. until certainty came upon us [in death]."
48. And so, of no benefit to them could be the intercession of any that would intercede for them. (27)

27 - Lit., "the intercession of intercessors" - implying that there would be none to intercede for them with God. As regards the much-misunderstood Islamic concept of "intercession", see 10:3 - "there is none that could intercede with Him unless He grants His leave therefor" - and the corresponding note 7.

49. WHAT, THEN, is amiss with them (28)that they turn away from all admonition
50. as though they were terrified asses

28 - I.e., with so many people who refuse to listen to the truth.

51. fleeing from a lion?
52. Yea, everyone of them claims that he [himself] ought to have been given revelations unfolded! (29)

29 - Lit., "everyone of them wants to be given wide-open scriptures", or "scriptures unfolded" (i.e., open to everyone's understanding): cf. 2:118 - "Why does not God speak unto us, nor is a message conveyed to us?" - i.e., directly, without the intervention of a prophet. The above is the earliest illustration of the "arrogance" or "false pride" to which the Qur'an so often refers.

53. Nay, but they do not [believe in and, hence, do not] fear the life to come.
54. Nay, verily, this is an admonition
55. and whoever wills may take it to heart.
56. But they [who do not believe in the life to come] will not take it to heart unless God so wills: (30) [for] He is the Fount of all God-consciousness, and the Fount of all forgiveness.

30 - Namely, unless He bestows His grace on them by making their minds and hearts receptive to the truth, so that they are compelled - from within themselves, as it were - to make the right choice. (See also note 11 on 81:28-29, as well as note 4 on 14:4.)