*1 For comparison please see the story of Zachariah as given in vv. 3457 of Al-i-`Imran (III) and the E.N.'s there of.
In order to understand the position held by Hadrat Zachariah, a descendant ' of Prophet Aaron, one should be acquainted with the system of priesthood among the children of Israel.
After the conquest of Palestine, the whole land was divided among the 12 tribes of the descendants of Prophet Jacob as inheritance, and the 13th tribe (the Levites) were entrusted with religious services and duties. Even among the Levites, the house that was separated "to sanctify the most holy things .... to burn incense before the Lord, to minister unto him, and to bless in his name for ever" was the house of Prophet Aaron. The other Levites were not allowed to enter the Temple? "Because their office was to wait on the sons of Aaron for the service of the house of the Lord, in the courts, and in the chambers, and in the purifying of all holy things, and the work of the service of the house of the God .... And to offer all burnt sacrifices unto the Lord in the Sabbaths, in the new moon, and on the set festivals." The descendants of Aaron were divided into 24 families, who came to serve the house of the Lord by turns. One of these families was of Abiah whose chief was Zachariah. Thus it was Zachariah's duty to go into the house on his family's turn and burn incense before the Lord. (For details, see I Chronicles, chapters 23, 24).
*3 That is, "I see none among my kinsmen, the family of Abiah, who is religiously and morally sound and capable of carrying on the work of the mission that has been entrusted to me."(19:6) one that might be my heir and the heir of the house of Jacob;4 and make him, Lord, one that will be pleasing to You.
*4 That is, "I do not pray for a successor to inherit me alone, but a successor who may inherit the good ways of the house of Jacob."(19:7) (He was told): "Zechariah, We bring you the good news of the birth of a son whose name shall be Yahya (John), one whose namesake We never created before."5
*5 In Luke the words are: "There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name." (I: 61)(19:8) He said: "My Lord! How can I have a boy when my wife is barren and I have reached an extremely old age?"
*6 This dialogue is meant to impress that Allah is able to do whatever He wills and can make an impotent man and a barren woman give birth to a child, and likewise a virgin can be made to conceive a child.(19:10) Zechariah said: "Lord, grant me a Sign." Said He: "Your Sign is that you shall not be able to speak to people for three nights, though you will be otherwise sound."
*7 For the explanation of mihrab (sanctuary), see E.N. 36 of Al-i-`Imran
Below we reproduce the details of this event as given in Luke's Gospel so that the. reader may study and compare the Quranic with the Christian version. The references and additions within the brackets are ours:
"There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, (see Bani Isra'il (XVII): E.N. 9) a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abiah: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name wag Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years. And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course, according to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; (there is no mention of Zacharias' prayer anywhere in the Bible) and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John (that is, Yahya). And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord (Sayyidan: a great Leader according to the Qur'an, III: 39), and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink (the Quranic version: Taqiyynr. pious and pure); and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb (the Qur'an says: `We blessed him with "judgment" while he was yet a child'). And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit of the power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
"And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season. (This is different from the Qur'an, which gives it as a Sign, whereas according to Luke, it was a punishment. Moreover, the Qur'an mentions it as the silence for `three consecutive days', but Luke says that Zacharias remained dumb till the birth of John). And the people .waited for Zacharias, and marvelled that he tarried so long in the temple. And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless." (Luke, I: 5-22).
*9 The details regarding the birth of Prophet John, according to the Divine will, and his coming of age, have been left out. Here, in one sentence, the Mission of Prophethood entrusted to him on attaining maturity has been stated, which was "to observe and follow the Torah in letter and spirit, and to exhort the Israelites as well to do the same."(19:13) and We also endowed him with tenderness11 and purity, and he was exceedingly pious
*10 The Arabic word hukm implies ability (1) to make decisions, (2) to form right opinions, (3) to interpret the Divine Law, (4) to solve problems, and (5) it also means `authority from Allah to decide affairs'.
*11 The Arabic word hanan is almost synonymous with `mother love'. In other words, Prophet John bore in his heart the same kind of intense love for Allah's servants as a mother has for her child.(19:14) and cherishing to his parents. Never was he insolent or rebellious.
In order to have a fuller understanding of the Mission and the pure character of Prophet John, about which brief references have been made in this Surah and Surah Al-i-`Imran, it will be useful to study this story as given in different Books of the New Testament in the following order:
According to Luke, Prophet John was older than Prophet Jesus by six months and their mothers were cousins. He was appointed a Prophet at the age of 30 years, and according to the Gospel of John, he started his mission of inviting the people toward God in Jordan. He would say: "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Make straight the way of the Lord." (John, I: 23)
According to Mark, "John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptizm of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins." (Mark, I: 45). He thus came to be known as John the Baptist, and the Israelites held him as a prophet. (Mat. 21: 26). Prophet Jesus said about John: "Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a man greater than John the Baptist." (Mat. 11 : 11)
"John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leather girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey." (Mat. 3: 4). He would say: "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Mat. 3: 2). By this he meant that very soon Prophet Jesus was going to start his Mission of Prophethood. The same thing has been said about him in the Qur'an: ". . . he (John) will come to confirm a Command from Allah." (III: 39). For the same reason he has been called `a sign of or pointer to' Prophet Jesus.
He urged the people to observe the Fast and Prayers. (Mat. 9: 14, Luke, 5: 33, I1: 1). He would also tell them, ". . . He that hath two coats, let him -impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise." (Luke 3: 11). When the tax-collectors asked, "Master, what shall we do?" He said unto them, "Exact no more than that what is appointed you." (12-13), and when the soldiers sought his guidance, he said: "Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages." (Luke, 3: 14)'
When the corrupt scholars, Pharisees and Sadducees of the Israelites, came to be baptized by him, he rebuked them, saying: "O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?..think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father... now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire." (Mat-3 :7-10)
The Jewish ruler of his time, Herod Antipas, in whose tetrarchy he was performing his Mission of inviting the people to the Truth, had been so deeply influenced by the Roman civilization that he was causing sin and evil to spread freely in the land. He had kept Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, unlawfully in his house; when Prophet John reproved him for this and raised his voice against other evils being committed by him, Herod got him arrested and sent to jail. However, he held him in high esteem for his piety and righteousness and even feared him on account of the great respect he enjoyed among the people. On the contrary, Herodias thought that the moral consciousness that Prophet John was producing among the people was directly aimed at women like herself and pulling them down in the public eye. Thus she nursed a grudge against him and would have him killed but could not. Soon an opportunity came her way. On the birthday banquet of Herod, her daughter danced and so delighted Herod and others that the king said to her, 'Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee.' The girl asked her mother what she should ask for. The mother said, `Ask for the head of John the Baptist.' The girl went back to the king and requested to have there and then the head of John the Baptist on a dish. Herod felt sorry to hear this, but could not reject the demand of the daughter of his beloved. He at once got Prophet John killed in the prison and presented his head on a dish to the dancing girl. (Mat. 14: 3-12, Mark, 6 :17-29, Luke, 3 :19-20).