Shall we believe in you while you are followed by the lowest of people?
The followers of Muhammad (pbuh), mostly the poor and slaves, were a subject of ridicule and laughter for the strong, wealthy chiefs of Quraish. They arrogantly said, “Had it been good that to which Muhammad is calling us, such people as Bilal, Suhaib, and ‘Ammar would not have preceded us to it.”1 The Qur’an quotes them as saying:
Those who disbelieve say of those who believe, “Had it been good, they would not have preceded us thereto.” And when they are not guided by it (this Qur’an), they will say, “This is an ancient lie
(Al-Ahqaf 46: 11)
Derisive glances were exchanged whenever they passed by the Companions of Muhammad (pbuh) like ‘Ammar, Khabab, Suhaib, and Bilal.2 The Noble Qur’an depicts their mocking attitude towards the poor and oppressed believers, saying:
Verily, those who committed crimes used to laugh at those who believed. Whenever they passed by them, used to wink one to another (in mockery). When they returned to their own people, they would return jesting. And when they saw them, they said, “Verily, these have indeed gone astray
(Al-Mutaffifin 83: 29-32)
Their plan was mainly to polarize and divide, as a defensive stance against the equality and unity that Islam enjoins. While the Prophet (pbuh) was sitting surrounded by slaves and weak Muslims, the chiefs passed by and said, “O Muhammad! Are you pleased with these (slaves) from among your people? Has Allah bestowed His Grace on these from among us? Should we be followers of these? Drive them away from you! Perhaps if you drive them away, we will follow you.”
As a consequence, the following Ayat were revealed:5
Do not drive away those who call upon their Lord morning and afternoon seeking His Face (Allah’s Good Pleasure). Nothing of their account falls upon you, and nothing of your account falls upon them, that you should drive them away and thus be of the unjust. Thus We have tried some of them with others, that they might say, “Are these the ones whom Allah has favored from among us?” Does Allah not know best those who are grateful
(Al-An‘am 6: 52-53)
Allah further revealed about those slaves whom the Prophet (pbuh) was commanded not to drive away:
When those who believe in our Ayat come to you, say, “Peace be on you. Your Lord has decreed upon Himself mercy
(Al-An‘am 6: 54)
Afterwards, whenever the Prophet (pbuh) saw them, he was the first to greet them. He (pbuh) said, “All praises and thanks to Allah Who made in my Ummah4 those whom He ordered me to greet first.”5
Khabab t said, “We sat so close to him (pbuh) until we placed our knees over his knees.”
Khabab went on narrating, “The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) used to sit with us. When he (pbuh) wanted to leave, he would rise and leave us. Then, Allah Almighty revealed:
Keep yourself (O Muhammad) patiently with those who call on their Lord morning and afternoon, seeking His Face, and let not your eyes turn away from them, desiring the adornment of the worldly life. And obey not him whose heart We have made heedless of Our Remembrance; one who follows his own lust and whose affair (deeds) has been lost
(Al-Kahf 18: 28)
Khabab said, “So we used to sit with the Prophet (pbuh); and when we reached the time in which he used to get up, we stood up and left him so that he could leave (after we had gone).”6
These were the people whom Messenger Muhammad (pbuh) sat patiently with, by command of his Lord Almighty, to eradicate all discriminatory barriers. Among them was the poor blind man, Ibn Umm Maktum t, for whose sake Allah revealed a Surah (Qur’anic chapter) – ‘Abasa (literally, he frowned).
This poor blind man, Ibn Umm Maktum, came to the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) at a time when he (pbuh) was busy calling to Islam a group of the most powerful and influential chiefs of Quraish, hoping that their embracing of Islam would help out Islam, which was struggling through hard circumstances and obstacles in Makkah. These chiefs had been using the power of their wealth, rank, and authority to impede the way to Islam, putting all their effort in plotting against it to paralyze and freeze its progress in Makkah.
Tribes outside Makkah were well aware that against Muhammad (pbuh), the Prophet of Islam, stood his own kindred, who should have been his most ardent supporters. This made them disinclined to take any interest in a call opposed by its own people, especially as their tribal communities gave high consideration to tribal position.
Acceptance of Islam by these influential and powerful men meant to the Messenger (pbuh) the removal of sharp thorns from the path of Islam in Makkah. It would also ensure for Islam the freedom to expand outside Makkah.
This crucial meeting was in progress when the poor, blind man came to the Messenger (pbuh). He interrupted him, saying, “O Messenger of Allah, recite to me. Teach me from what Allah has taught you.” He repeated his request several times despite being aware that the Messenger (pbuh) was busy. The Messenger (pbuh) disliked the man interrupting his meeting, and annoyance appeared on his face – which obviously the blind man could not see.
He frowned and turned away
(‘Abasa 80: 1)
from the blind man, who had interrupted this crucial meeting of which he (pbuh) had great hopes for his Message.
Here, heaven intervened to say the final word and decide the balance of values regardless of all circumstances and considerations, including the consideration of what might serve the interests of Islam, as seen by men, and even by the greatest man, Muhammad (pbuh).
Divine instructions were revealed, following the Qur’anic method of making use of isolated incidents to lay down fundamental and permanent principles. The principles established here – and their consequent effects – are indeed Islam itself.
They constitute the truth that Islam and all earlier Divine Messages seek to inculcate in human life. They are not merely outlines of how an individual or a class of people should be treated. The core of the matter is something far more important. It is how should people evaluate things in their lives? From where should they derive their criteria and standards for such an evaluation?
People live on earth and establish a multitude of ties, each having its own significance and value. They deal with and assess others according to their level of power, wealth, and prestige, which determine the position of every person or class of people in relation to others and divide them into higher and lower strata, according to earthly scales. Islam replaces all these seemingly weighty criteria with the one outweighing in the Balance of Allah Almighty:
The noblest of you in the Sight of Allah is the one who fears Him most
(Al-Hujurat 49: 13)
Consequently, a reprimand, severe in tone, descended from Allah, the Most High; and for the first time in the entire Qur’an, the beloved Messenger (pbuh) was told, “No.” The principle involved here is the great foundation upon which this religion rests.
The reprimand is addressed at first in the third person:
He (the Prophet(pbuh)) frowned and turned away, because there came to him the blind man
(Abasa 80: 1-2)
to suggest that the subject matter was hateful to Allah t for confronting His beloved Messenger(pbuh), out of compassion and mercy towards him (pbuh).
The reprimand – after this subtle allusion to the action that necessitated it – takes the form of direct address, starting somewhat mildly:
But how could you tell? Perhaps he might be purified (from sins). Or receive admonition and the admonition might benefit him
(‘Abasa 80: 3-4)
Meaning, how could you know? Great goodness might happen. This poor blind man, who came willingly, might be purified through what he would hear from you or his heart awakened through admonition and filled with light, becoming ready to receive and give, as happens every time faith genuinely enters a soul. It is, indeed, what carries real weight in the Scales of Allah.
The reprimand then takes a severer tone. It wonders at the action, saying:
As for him who thinks himself self-sufficient, to him you give attention. Though not upon you (is any blame) if he remains unpurified (from disbelief). But as for him who came to you running, and is afraid (of Allah and His Punishment), from him you are distracted
(‘Abasa 80: 5-10)
You give your attention to and strive to guide aright those who show no need or interest in you, or your religion, guidance, goodness, light, and purity. You turn to them while they are turning away from you. (Though not upon you if he remains unpurified.) You are not to be blamed if they choose to remain in filth. You will not be accountable for their guilt, and they will be no support for you. (But as for him who came to you running) willing, groping his way with outstretched hands, (from him you are distracted) – inattentive and neglectful, giving a strong description of the act of not paying due attention to the man who came seeking the right guidance.
The tone gets even stronger and the reproof becomes outright prohibition: (No) – this should never be. You should equally warn the strong and the weak, the poor and the rich, the master and the slave, the men and the women, the young and the old. Then Allah Almighty will guide whomever He chooses to the straight path. His is the profound wisdom and the decisive proof.
This Call, the honorable religion of Islam, has no need for anybody’s support. It cares only for those who want it purely for its worth and seek to be purified by it, whatever be their position in human society.
(Indeed, it is an admonition. So whoever wills, let him pay attention to it. In Records held in honor, exalted, purified. In the hands of scribes (angels). Honorable and obedient
(‘Abasa 80: 11-16)
That is the balance, the Balance of Allah; and that is the word, the Word of Allah, against which no other authority can prevail.
This incident occurred at a time when Islam was ferociously resisted, having only a small number of followers in support of its cause.
The attempt to convert the dignitaries was not promoted by any personal interest, nor was the inattention to the blind man out of personal feeling. They were only for the sake of the Message. But that is the ethics of the Islamic Call, first and last, and the balance it has come to establish in the life of humanity, free from all pressures of worldly considerations, unconfined by the narrow limits of circumstances.
The Prophet (pbuh), deeply and powerfully touched by these divine instructions and by the reprimand, worked tirelessly throughout his life for the establishment of this great principle in the Islamic society. He (pbuh) used to say to Ibn Umm Maktum, whenever he met him after that incident, “Welcome to the man for whose sake my Lord reproved me.”7
- Circumstances of revelation on the authority of Qatadah: Al-Qurtubi, Al-Jami‘ li-Ahkam Al-Qur’an, interpretation of Surat Al-Ahqaf [46: 11].
- Narrated by Ibn ‘Abbas: Al-Qurtubi, Al-Jami‘ li-Ahkam Al-Qur’an, interpretation of Surat Al-Mutaffifin [83: 29-32].
- Narrated by ‘Abdullah bin Mas‘ud: Jalal Ad-Din As-Suyuti, Ad-Durr Al-Manthur; Tafsir At-Tabari, Jami‘ Al-Bayan, interpretation of Al-An‘am [6: 52-53].
- People of one faith from every race.
- Al-Qurtubi, Al-Jami‘ li-Ahkam Al-Qur’an, interpretation of Al-An‘am [6: 54].
- Sunnan Ibn Majah, Book of Az-Zuhd (Renunciation), Hadith no. 4117; Al-Qurtubi, Al-Jami‘ li-Ahkam Al-Qur’an, interpretation of Surat Al-An‘am [6: 52].
- Adapted from Sayyid Qutb, In the Shade of the Qur’an, interpretation of Surat ‘Abasa [80: 1-16], thirty-sixth edition, Dar Al-Shorouk.