96 - AL-ALAQ
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.

THERE IS no doubt that the first five verses of this surah represent the very beginning of the revelation of the Qur'an. Although the exact date cannot be established with certainty, all authorities agree in that these five verses were revealed in the last third of the month of Ramadan, thirteen years before the hijrah (corresponding to July or August, 610, of the Christian era). Muhammad was then forty years old. At that period of his life "solitude became dear unto him, and he used to withdraw into seclusion in a cave of Mount Hira [near Mecca] and there apply himself to ardent devotions" consisting of long vigils and prayers (Bukhari). One night, the Angel of Revelation suddenly appeared to him and said, "Read!" Muhammad at first thought that he was expected to read actual script, which, being unlettered, he was unable to do; and so he answered, "I cannot read" - whereupon, in his own words, the angel "seized me and pressed me to himself until all strength went out of me; then he released me and said, 'Read!' I answered, 'I cannot read. . . . ' Then he seized me again and pressed me to himself until all strength went out of me; then he released me and said, 'Read!' - to which I [again] answered, 'I cannot read. . . .' Then he seized me and pressed me to himself a third time; then he released me and said, 'Read in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created - created man out of a germ-cell! Read - for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One': and so Muhammad understood, in sudden illumination, that he was called upon to "read", that is, to receive and understand, God's message to man. The above excerpts are quoted from the third Tradition of the section Bad' al- Wahy, which forms the introductory chapter of Bukhari's Sahih; almost identical versions of this Tradition are found in two other places in Bukhari as well as in Muslim, Nasa'i and Tirmidhi. Verses 6-19 of this surah are of somewhat later date.
1. READ (1) in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created

1 - Sc., "this divine writ". The imperative iqra' may be rendered as "read" or "recite". The former rendering is, to my mind, by far the preferable in this context inasmuch as the concept of "reciting" implies no more than the oral delivery - with or without understanding - of something already laid down in writing or committed to memory, whereas "reading" primarily signifies a conscious taking-in, with or without an audible utterance but with a view to understanding them, of words and ideas received from an outside source: in this case, the message of the Qur'an.

2. created man out of a germ-cell! (2)

2 - The past tense in which the verb khalaqa appears in these two verses is meant to indicate that the act of divine creation (khalq) has been and is being continuously repeated. It is also noteworthy that this very first Qur'anic revelation alludes to man's embryonic evolution out of a "germ-cell.' - i.e., out of a fertilized female ovum - thus contrasting the primitiveness and simplicity of his biological origins with his intellectual and spiritual potential: a contrast which clearly points to the existence of a conscious design and a purpose underlying the creation of life.

3. Read - for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One
4. who has taught [man] the use of the pen
5. taught man what he did not know! (3)

3 - "The pen" is used here as a symbol for the art of writing or, more specifically, for all knowledge recorded by means of writing: and this explains the symbolic summons "Read!" at the beginning of verses 1 and 3. Man's unique ability to transmit, by means of written records, his thoughts, experiences and insights from individual to individual, from generation to generation, and from one cultural environment to another endows all human knowledge with a cumulative character; and since, thanks to this God-given ability, every human being partakes, in one way or another, in mankind's continuous accumulation of knowledge, man is spoken of as being "taught by God" things which the single individual does not - and, indeed, cannot - know by himself. (This double stress on man's utter dependence on God, who creates him as a biological entity and implants in him the will and the ability to acquire knowledge, receives its final accent, as it were, in the next three verses.) Furthermore, God's "teaching" man signifies also the act of His revealing, through the prophets, spiritual truths and moral standards which cannot be unequivocally established through human experience and reasoning alone: and, thus, it circumscribes the phenomenon of divine revelation as such.

6. Nay, verily, man becomes grossly overweening
7. whenever he believes himself to be self-sufficient:
8. for, behold, unto thy Sustainer all must return. (4)

4 - Lit., "is the return (ar-ruja)". This noun has here a twofold implication: "everyone will inescapably be brought before God for judgment", as well as "everything that exists goes back to God as its source". In ultimate analysis, the statement expressed in verses 6-8 rejects as absurd the arrogant idea that man could ever be self-sufficient and, hence, "master of his own fate"; furthermore, it implies that all moral concepts - that is, all discrimination between good and evil, or right and wrong - are indissolubly linked with the concept of man's responsibility to a Supreme Power: in other words, without such a feeling of responsibility - whether conscious or subconscious - the concept of "morality" as such loses all its meaning.

9. HAST THOU ever considered him who tries to prevent
10. a servant [of God] from praying? (5)

5 - Lit., "who forbids a servant [of God] when he prays", implying an attempt at preventing. Since this seems to refer to praying in public, most of the classical commentators see in this passage (which was revealed at least a year later than the first five verses) an allusion to Abu Jahl, the Prophet's bitterest opponent in Mecca, who persistently tried to prevent Muhammad and his followers from praying before the Kabah. However, there is no doubt that the purport of the above passage goes far beyond any historical incident or situation inasmuch as it applies to all attempts, at all times, to deny to religion (symbolized in the term "praying") its legitimate function in the shaping of social life - attempts made either in the conviction that religion is every individual's "private affair" and, therefore, must not be allowed to "intrude" into the realm of social considerations, or, alternatively, in the pursuit of the illusion that man is above any need of metaphysical guidance.

11. Hast thou considered whether he is on the right way,
12. or is concerned with God-consciousness? (6)

6 - Lit., "or enjoins God-consciousness (taqwa)" - i.e., whether his aim is to deepen his fellow-men's God-consciousness by insisting that religion is a purely personal matter: the obvious implication being that this is not his aim, and that he is not on the right way in thinking and acting as he does. - Throughout this work, the term taqwa - of which the present is the earliest instance in the chronology of Qur'anic revelation - has been rendered as "God-consciousness", with the same meaning attaching to the verbal forms from which this noun is derived. (See also surah 2, note 2.)

13. Hast thou considered whether he may [not] be giving the lie to the truth and turning his back [upon it]? (7)

7 Sc., "because in his arrogance he cannot face it".

14. Does he, then, not know that God sees [all]?
15. Nay, if he desist not, We shall most surely drag him down upon his forehead (8)

8 - Or: "by his forelock" - an ancient Arabian expression denoting aa person's utter subjection and humiliation (see 11:56 and the corresponding note 80). However, as Razi points out, the term "forelock" (nasiyah) is here used metonymically for the place on which the forelock grows, i.e., the forehead (cf. also Taj al-Arus).

16. the lying, rebellious forehead!
17. and then let him summon [to his aid] the counsels of his own [spurious] wisdom, (9)

9 - Lit., "'his council". According to the commentators who tend to interpret verses such as this in purely historical terms, this may be a reference to the traditional council of elders (dar an- nadwah) in pagan Mecca; but more probably, I think, it is an allusion to the arrogance which so often deludes man into regarding himself as "self-sufficient" (verses 6-7 above).

18. [the while] We shall summon the forces of heavenly chastisement!
19. Nay, pay thou no heed to him, but prostrate thyself [before God] and draw close [unto Him]!