48. Here a general reference is made to the directives embodied in this surah, as well as those revealed earlier in Surah al-Baqarah and which deal with social and collective matters. It is stressed that these directives reveal those lasting principles observed by the Prophets and their followers from the earliest times. It is merely out of His grace and benevolence that God liberated them from their state of Ignorance (Jahiliyah) and opened to them the way of life of the righteous.
49. This refers to the hypocrites, the ultra-conservatives and the Jews who
lived on the outskirts of Madina. Both the hypocrites and the conservatives
were incensed at the reforms introduced by Islam, as these were diametrically
opposed to the age-old customs and traditions of their society and culture.
The reforms were numerous: a share of the inheritance was assigned to daughters;
widows were liberated from bondage to the will of their husbands' families and
were granted the freedom to marry whomever they wished after the expiry of the
waiting-period ('iddah); marriage with one's step-mother and with two sisters
together was prohibited; adopted sons were disinherited; and a foster-father's
marriage with either the divorced or widowed wife of his adopted son was declared
lawful. These and other such reforms were so totally opposed to the customary
laws of the Arabs that it was impossible for the elders and the blind devotees
of the ways of their forefathers not to protest against them vehemently. They
long continued to grumble against these injunctions. Mischievous people pointed
to these innovations and exploited them by provoking people against the Prophet's
movement of reform. For instance, they would meet those born as a result of
the marriage which had been prohibited by Islam and try to infuriate them by
saying that according to the new-fangled teachings of Muhammad (peace be on
him) the relationship between their parents was unlawful.
The Jews, on the other hand, had woven a complex network of laws and regulations for themselves. The result was that they had forbidden a great number of things which were, in fact, lawful. Additionally, they had introduced a number of superstitions into God's Law. It was argued that the simple and straightforward law of the Qur'an was out of tune with the tastes and temperaments of both the religious leaders and the ordinary people. The Qur'anic injunctions simply infuriated them and as soon as they came to know of any Qur'anic law, they vehemently denounced it. They expected the Qur'an to endorse and validate all the legal deductions and all the superstitions and myths of their forefathers, and to treat them as an integral part of the law of God. If the Qur'an would not do so then they would refrain from recognizing it as the Book of God.
Let us take the following as an example. According to Jewish usage, a woman was considered completely unclean during her menstrual period. Hence, they neither ate the food she cooked, drank from the cup of water she offered nor even sat with her. It was even considered unwholesome to be touched by her. Thus for a few days every month a woman virtually became an untouchable in her own house. Owing to the influence of the Jews the same custom had found its way into the Arab families of Madina. When the Prophet (peace be on him) arrived in Madina, he was asked about this matter. In response to this query (verse 222 of Surah al-Baqarah) was revealed. In the light of the principle embodied in the verse the Prophet (peace be on him) made it clear that it was unlawful to have sexual intercourse with a woman during her menstrual period; but it was only that relationship, and no other, that was unlawful. (See Bukhari, 'Hayd', 2, 3; Nasa'i, 'Hayd', 9, 13, 16, 19, and 'Ahkam', 13 - Ed.) This caused uproar among the Jews. They claimed that Muhammad (peace be on him) was bent upon reversing all their legal injunctions to the extent that he wanted to legalize whatever they held as prohibited and prohibit whatever they held as lawful.
50. The expression 'wrongfully' embraces all transactions which are opposed to righteousness and which are either legally or morally reprehensible. By contrast, 'trade' signifies the mutual transfer of benefits between the parties concerned, such as that underlying those transactions in which one person provides whatever satisfies the needs of another person and is paid in return. 'Mutual consent' means that the exchange should be free of undue pressure, fraud and deception. Although bribery and interest apparently represent transactions based on mutual consent, closer examination reveals that such consent takes place by constraint and under pressure. In games of chance, too, the participants seem to consent freely to the outcome. This kind of consent, however, is due to the expectation entertained by the participants that they will win. No one takes part anticipating loss. Fraudulent transactions also seem to be based on the mutual consent of the parties concerned. That kind of consent, however, is based on the false assumption that no fraud is involved in the transaction. Nobody who knew that he would be subjected to fraud would consent to be a party to that transaction.
51. This can be considered either as complementary to the preceding sentence or as an independent statement. If it is complementary, it means that to consume the property of others by wrongful means is tantamount to courting one's own destruction; for such practices corrupt society on such a scale that even the most cunning are not spared their destructive consequences. This is in addition to the severe punishment that is bound to be meted out to such people in the Next Life. Taken as an independent statement, it can mean either that one should not kill others or that one should not kill oneself. Both the words used and the sequence in which they have been placed by God in this verse make each of these three meanings feasible.
52. God wishes His creatures well; their well-being and salvation please Him, and it is out of benevolence that He has forbidden things harmful to human beings.
53. God is not overly exacting and severe in His judgements. He is not on
the look out for trivial omissions and lapses on the part of His creatures in
order to punish them. God is prepared to condone minor omissions, and may even
spare a man from being presented with a charge-sheet provided his record is
free of major sins. But if a man's record is full of major transgressions, he
will be required to explain all the sins he has committed - both major and minor.
We need at this stage to grasp the essential differences between major and minor sins. After reflecting on this question, in the light of the Qur'an and Sunnah, it seems to me - and God alone knows what is absolutely correct - that three elements turn an act into a major sin:
(1) Violation of rights - be it either the rights of God, of parents, of other human beings or even of one's own self. The greater a person's rights, the greater is the sin in violating them. Hence sin is characterized in the Qur'an as wrong-doing (zulm). It is for the same reason that associating others with God in His divinity is called the 'great wrong' in the Qur'an. See, for example, (Surah Luqman 31: 13 - Ed.)
(2) Insufficient fear of God, and arrogance and indifference towards Him, as a result of which man does not heed God's commandments, even wilfully violates them, and deliberately desists from carrying them out. The greater the brazenness, temerity and fearlessness with which one disobeys God, the more heinous is the sin in His eyes. It is for this reason that sin is also termed ma'siyah (disobedience) and fisq. See, for instance, (Surah al-Baqarah 2: 26, 61); (Surah al-Hujurat 49: 11); (Surah al-Munafiqun 63: 6); (Surah Hud 11: 59); (Surah AI 'Imran 3: 112); (Surah al-Nisa' 4: 42); (Surah al-Ma'idah 5: 78); and passim for verbal forms derived from the word ma'siyah and fisq - Ed.)
(3) Sin is aggravated by breaking those bonds and relationships on which the peace and tranquillity of social order rest. These bonds include the relationship between a man and his Lord, as well as that between a man and his fellow-beings. The more important a bond is, the greater is the harm done to the peace of human society when that bond is broken. Likewise, the stronger the expectation that the sanctity of a certain bond will be honoured, the greater is the sin incurred through its desecration. Let us take the case of unlawful sexual intercourse in its various degrees. This act is inimical to the existence of a sound social order and is therefore a major sin. But in certain cases the sin becomes even graver. For instance, it is more serious if committed by a married person than by one who is unmarried. Similarly, unlawful sexual intercourse with a married woman is graver than with an unmarried woman. Again, to commit this act with one's neighbours is more heinous than with others, and to commit this act with women within the prohibited degrees, such as one's sister, daughter or mother, is far more abominable than with others. Further still, it is a much graver sin to commit such an act in places of worship than elsewhere. The difference in the degree of such sinfulness is based on the considerations we have mentioned above. Wherever the sanctity "of a relationship is normally respected, wherever there is a bond which deserves to be held sacred, and wherever the disruption of a particular relationship is likely to result in greater harm and corruption, the gravity of the sin increases. This is why in certain places the Qur'an uses the term fujur to denote sin. See, for instance, (Surah al-Qiyamah 75: 5); (Surah al-Infitar 82: 14); (Surah al-Shams 9l: 8 - Ed.)
54. This verse embodies a very important directive. By heeding it, man would
be able to achieve a great measure of peace and tranquillity. God has not created
all men alike. Some are handsome while others are ugly. The voices of some are
sweet and those of others repulsive. Some are physically strong others are weak.
Some have sound limbs others have inherent deformities. Some possess outstanding
physical and mental abilities while others lack them. Some are born in favourable
circumstances and others not. Some have been endowed with more resources than
others. It is this diversity which gives variety to human civilization, and
hence serves a useful purpose. Whenever man superimposes distinctions of his
own over and above this natural inequality he disrupts the natural order of
things, and paves the way for corruption. Likewise, when anyone attempts to
obliterate all differences between human beings he in fact engages in a war
against nature and inflicts wrongs of another kind. Man is naturally inclined
to feel uneasy whenever he sees someone else ahead of him. This is the root
of jealousy and envy, of cut-throat competition and animosity, of mutual strife
and conflict. These feelings often obsess a person to such a degree that whenever
fair means do not prove effective, he resorts to unfair means to achieve his
ambitions. In the present verse, God directs us not to allow this kind of mentality
to take hold of us. The import of the directive is that one should not yearn
for the good that God has bestowed on others. One should rather pray to God
to bestow upon one the good which is in one's best interests according to God's
wisdom and knowledge.
The statement that 'men shall have a share according to what they have earned and women shall have a share according to what they have earned' seems to mean, to the best of my understanding, that men and women shall have their shares of good and evil, depending on the good and evil they have earned in using the resources bestowed upon them by God.
55. According to Arab customary law, those who concluded compacts of alliance and friendship also became mutual heirs. Likewise, an adopted son inherited from his foster-father. While abrogating this customary law, this verse reveals that inheritance goes to one's kin according to the rules for the distribution of inheritance laid down by God Himself. However, if a man has made commitments to people, he has the right to give away to them whatever he wishes during his lifetime.