56. 'Israel' means the slave of God. This was the title conferred on Jacob
(Ya'qub) by God Himself. He was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham.
His progeny are styled the 'Children of Israel'.
Turning to the Qur'anic text itself, it is noteworthy that the foregoing verses have been in the nature of introductory remarks addressed to all mankind. From the present section up to and including the fourteenth (verses 40 discourse, the reader should be particularly aware of the following purposes:
The first purpose of this discourse is to invite those followers of the earlier Prophets who still had some element of righteousness and goodness to believe in the Truth preached by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) and to join hands in promoting the mission he championed. In these sections they are told that the Qur'an and the Prophet are bearers of the same message and mission preached by the earlier Prophets and Scriptures.
The earlier communities were entrusted with the Truth in order that, as well as following it themselves, they might call others towards it and try to persuade them to follow it. But instead of directing the world in the light of this truth, they themselves failed to follow the Divine Guidance and sank into degeneracy. Their history and their contemporary religious and moral condition bore out this degeneration.
They are also told that God has once again entrusted the same Truth to one of His servants and has appointed him to carry out the same mission as that of the earlier Prophets and their followers. What the Prophet has brought is, therefore, neither new nor foreign; it is their very own and they are asked to accept it as such. A fresh group of people has now arisen with the same mission they had, but which they failed to carry out. It is clearly their duty to support these people.
The second purpose of this discourse is to leave no reasonable justification for the negative Jewish attitude towards Islam, and to expose fully the true state of the religious and moral life of the Jews. This discourse makes it clear that the religion preached by the Prophet was the same as that preached by the Prophets of Israel. So far as the fundamentals are concerned, nothing in the Qur'an differs from the teachings of the Torah. It is also established that the Jews failed glaringly to follow the guidance entrusted to them, even as they had failed to live up to the position of leadership in which they had been placed. This point is established by reference to events of irrefutable authenticity.
Moreover, the way in which the Jews resorted to conspiracies and underhand machinations designed to create doubts and misgivings, the mischievous manner in which they engaged in discussions, the acts of trickery in which they indulged in wilful opposition to the Truth, and the vile tactics which they employed in order to frustrate the mission of the Prophet, were all brought into sharp relief so as to establish that their formal, legalistic piety was a sham. What lay behind it was bigotry, chauvinism and self-aggrandizement rather than an honest search for and commitment to the Truth. The plain fact was that they did not want goodness to flourish.
This candid criticism of the Jews had several salutary effects. On the one hand, it made the situation clear to the good elements among the Jews. On the other, it destroyed the religious and moral standing of the Jews among the people of Madina, and among the pagans of Arabia as a whole. Moreover, it undermined the morale of the Jews to such an extent that from then on they could not oppose Islam with a firmness born of strong inner conviction.
Third, the message addressed in the earlier sections to mankind as a whole is here elucidated with reference to a particular people. The example of the Jews is cited to show the tragic end that overtakes a people when it spurns Divine Guidance. The reason for choosing the Children of Israel as an example is that they alone, out of all the nations, constituted for four thousand years the continual embodiment of a tragedy from which many lessons could be learnt. The vicissitudes of fortune which visit a people, depending on whether they follow or refrain from following Divine Guidance, were all conspicuous in the history of this nation.
Fourth, this discourse is designed to warn the followers of Muhammad (peace be on him) to avoid the same pitfalls as the followers of the earlier Prophets. While explaining the requirements of the true faith, it clearly specifies the moral weaknesses, the false concepts of religion, and the numerous errors in religious belief and practice which had made inroads among the Jews. The purpose is to enable Muslims to see their true path clearly and to avoid false ones. While studying the Qur'anic criticism of the Jews and Christians, Muslims should remember the Tradition from the Prophet in which he warned them that they would so closely follow the ways of the earlier religious communities that if the latter had entered a lizard's burrow, so would the Muslims. The Prophet was asked: 'Do you mean the Christians and Jews, O Messenger of God?' The Prophet replied: 'Who else?' (See Bukhari, 'Itisam', 14; Muslim, "Ilm', 6 - Ed.) This was not merely an expression of reproof. Thanks to the peculiar discernment and insight with which the Prophet was endowed, he knew the ways in which corruption encroaches upon the lives of the followers of the Prophets, and the different forms it assumes.
57. 'Trifling gain' refers to the worldly benefits for the sake of which they were rejecting God's directives. Whatever one may gain in exchange for the Truth, be it all the treasure in the world, is trifling; the Truth is of supreme value.
58. For the proper understanding of this verse we need to recall that in
the time of the Prophet the Jews of Arabia were more learned than the Arabs.
In fact, there were some Jewish scholars of Arabia whose fame had spread even
beyond the confines of that land. For this reason the Arabs tended to be intellectually
overawed by them. In addition, the influence of the Jews had become pervasive
and profound by virtue of the pomp and pageantry of their religious rites, and
the magical crafts and feats of exorcism for which they were famous. The people
of Madina, in particular, were greatly under the spell of the Jews. These Jews
made on them the sort of impression generally created on ignorant neighbours
by a better educated, more refined and more conspicuously religious group.
It was natural in such circumstances that, when the Prophet began to preach his message, the ignorant Arabs should approach the Jews and ask their opinion of the Prophet and his teachings, particularly as the Jews also believed in Prophets and Scriptures. We find that this inquiry was often made by the Makkans, and continued to he addressed to the Jews after the Prophet arrived in Madina.
In reply to this query, however, the Jewish religious scholars never told the candid truth. It was impossible for them to say that the doctrine of monotheism preached by Muhammad was incorrect, that there was any error in his teachings regarding the Prophets, the Divine Scriptures, the angels and the Next Life and that there was any error in the principles of moral conduct which the Prophet propounded. At the same time, however, they were not prepared to make a straightforward affirmation of the truth of his teachings. In short, they neither categorically denied the Truth nor were prepared to accept it with open hearts.
Instead, they tried to plant insidious doubts in the minds of everybody who enquired about the Prophet and his mission. They sought to create one misgiving after another, disseminated new slanders, and tried to engage people's minds in all kinds of hypothetical problems so as to keep them in a state of doubt and uncertainty. They also tried to raise controversial issues which might keep people, including the followers of the Prophet, entangled in sterile debate. It is this attitude of the Jews to which the Qur'an alludes when it asks them not to overlay the truth with falsehood, not to suppress and conceal it by resorting to false propaganda and mischievous campaigns of slander, and not to attempt to deceive the world by mixing truth with falsehood.
59. Prayer and Purifying Alms (Zakah) have always been among the most important pillars of the Islamic faith. Like other Prophets, the Prophets of Israel laid great stress upon them. The Jews had, however, become very negligent about these duties. Congregational Prayer had all but ceased among them; in fact, a great majority of the Jews did not perform Prayers even individually. They had also not only ceased to pay Purifying Alms, but some had even gone so far as to make their living out of interest.
60. That is, if they feel difficulty in keeping to righteousness, the remedy
lies in resorting to Prayer and patience. From these two attributes they will
derive the strength needed to follow their chosen course.
The literal meaning of 'sabr' is to exercise restraint, to keep oneself tied down. It denotes the will-power, the firm resolve and the control over animal desires which enables man to advance along the path of his choice - the path that satisfies his heart and conscience - in utter disregard of the temptations within, and of all obstacles and oposition without. The purpose of this directive is to urge man to develop this quality and to reinforce it from the outside by means of Prayer.
61. This means that Prayer is an insufferable encumbrance and affliction for the man who tends not to want to obey, God and to believe in the After-life. For the man who, of his own violation, has to stand before God after death, it is failure to perform the Prayer, rather than its performance, that becomes intolerable.