This volume of tafsir al-Mizan, offers elaboration on and explanation of three mid-length sūrahs of the Holy Qur’an: Sūrah al-Qaṣaṣ (Sūrah 28, The Story), Sūrah al-ʿAnkabūt (Sūrah 29, The Spider), and Sūrah al-Rūm (Sūrah 30, The Romans—or, one might say, The Byzantines). Some readers may be particularly familiar with the last two sūrahs due to their yearly recitation on the Night of Destiny in the month of Ramadan.
Revealed in Mecca, these sūrahs share the common theme of finding hope during times of persecution, particularly persecution for one’s faith; this theme, as well as the broader philosophical advice offered in these sūrahs, is as relevant today as it was then—perhaps even more so. As do other sūrahs of the Holy Qur’an, these sūrahs tell of the stories of the ancients and draw parallels between the hardships they faced and the challenges faced by the early followers of the Prophet Muḥammad.
Sūrah al-Qaṣaṣ focuses heavily on the story of Prophet Moses—one of the most oft-mentioned stories in the Qur’an—and emphasizes the themes of divine assistance, miracles, and the divine plan. While, at the height of Pharaoh’s rule, tyranny may have appeared to have had the upper hand, but it was only transient, as only truth and righteousness can ultimately persist. When Moses was born, and even his mother feared for his life, none of his people could have predicted that not only would he be cared for by their worst enemy, but he would flee his homeland only to return and face down the tyrant, then lead his people to safety. Hope in times of tyranny is also reiterated in later narrations from the Imams after the Prophet; and, perhaps needless to say, many prominent Shia scholars and reformers of ʿAllāmah’s generation understood the reference to Pharaoh to be archetypal rather than specific, and equally applicable to tyrants of their era.
Additionally, the ʿAllāmah responds to the twentieth century’s increasing interest in interfaith studies by comparing the understanding of Moses and Aaron in the Qur’an and the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament in a special section entitled “The Story of Moses and Aaron in the Current Text of the Torah.” A shared heritage does not always mean a shared understanding, and discussions like this help Muslims and members of other faiths to appreciate both the similarities and differences in their traditions. Furthermore, as is customary in his work, the ʿAllāmah includes numerous narrations offering details of the story of Moses to further explicate the Islamic view as well as the teachings of the Shia Imams.
The next two sūrahs, Sūrah al-ʿAnkabut and Sūrah al-Rūm, continue the theme of finding hope in times of trial. While they do reference the past, they encourage taking a broader, more philosophical view of human existence. One particular point of emphasis is history. These sūrahs encourage looking at the ruins of the ancients—either physically, in terms of seeing them and taking lessons from them; or at least mentally, in terms of considering them—to recognize that might does not equate permanence. While some ancient peoples (perhaps, many ancient peoples) had a more glorious civilization than the one that surrounded the Prophet, it is the spirituality and righteousness of a civilization that determine its fate, not its technology, nor its splendor. Thus, many peoples passed on. Indeed, the name “The Romans” carries similar connotations today; and this theme is just as relevant today given the concerns over the direction of humanity.
Another important theme here is that the earth is, first and foremost, the property of God. If people cannot thrive in one land, they not only have the right to migrate, they have the obligation to; nor should they fear poverty, for God is the real sustainer. Just as God cared for them in one land, He will care for them in another. And, if their faith suffers due to staying in one region, they will be held accountable for this in the next life, unless they were truly unable to leave. These are particularly relevant sentiments given the tension in many countries today over immigration and the accommodation of refugees.
Sūrah al-Rūm also introduces the concept of the fiṭrah, or the human being’s innate disposition towards God and universal ethical virtues. This topic, like the above, is also particularly relevant today, given the trend towards a materialistic and relativistic understanding of the human being. The ʿAllāmah also provides the topic of the fiṭrah its own special discussion section.
Another discussion integrated throughout Sūrah al-ʿAnkabut is how indeed prayer prevents indecencies and wrongs (29:45); this discussion should be of particular interest to anyone who approaches prayers regularly, of whatever faith. Beyond that, as in the rest of the Qur’an, we are reminded that our time on earth is fleeting, and our permanent existence is in the afterlife; and that we should view our own existence in that context.
It goes without saying that the translation (as always in this series) is exquisite and sensitive to detail and nuance, and is a pleasure to read. Both translators have paid enormous attention to detail and have approached the text with a thoughtfulness that contributes to a quality volume all around. As with many craftsmen, the best translator is invisible, and the quality of their artisanship is shown by the fact that it reads fluidly in and of itself without feeling like a translation, and provides clarity to a text that can be challenging to read, even in the original.
Their efforts will be a success if the readers find this volume a source of erudition and enlightenment!
Foreword by: Dr. Amina Inloes (Editor)
Translators: Afzal Sumar and Alexander Khalili