Muhammad the Prophet was sent to mankind, but since he was a Qurasyhi, it was the Qurasyh whom he first confronted.
The Quraysh are the Ishmaelite Arabs, having descended from Ishmael, the son of Abraham. Although Ishmael is considered as the Father of Arabs, he himself was not an Arab. He was half Hebrew half Egyptian, for his father Abraham was a Hebrew, and his mother Hagar was an Egyptian.
Ishmael was nevertheless considered as the Father of Arabs because he married a Jurhum woman, a pure Arab from the Qahtan stock, and adopted the Arabic tongue. Qahtan was the ancestor of the pure Arabs. He was related to Eber, the ancestor of Hebrew. Both Qahtan and Eber were descended from Sam, the son of Noah, which is why both the Arabs and the Jews are considered as Semitic people.
As the son of Abraham, Ishmael and his descendants were the believers in the One God. This One God they called Allah. Their way is called the Hanafiya Way. Over time, however, his descendants introduced other gods along with Allah. This we have touched briefly in The Story of Four Hunafa, Part 1.
By the time Muhammad the Prophet was born, the Way of Hanafiya, as we have related in the The Story of Four Hunafa, was lost. Allah was still being worshipped, but along with Him, the Arabs, including the Quraysh, worshipped also other deities. Inside the Kaabah and its vicinity, there were 360 idols being worshipped, with Hubal as their leading deity. Kaabah itself, to the Quraysh and the other Arab tribes, remained as Baitillah, the House of Allah.
So entrenched was the belief in associating other gods with Allah among the Arabs that, when Muhammad the Prophet came to purity the belief in Allah, the Qurasyh rejected him. As other gods tended to be associated with some kind of angels, the saints, etc., these deities therefore had their origin, or their ancestry.
Having lost the notion of the True God, the Quraysh demanded the Prophet to tell them the ancestry of Allah. They came to him and asked: “O Muhammad, tell us the ancestry of your Lord.”
It was probably to this request that the Surah al Ikhlas was first revealed, as we have noted in Part 1. Later on, the Bedouin who lived in the desert also asked similar question, and the Prophet responded by reciting this Surah.
In both situations, as we have seen in Part 1, the question was: Tell us the ancestry of your Lord. But the response given was not just about the ancestry, or the lack of it. It was to present the nature of Allah in its purest form, in the most precise way, but yet most comprehensive as well.
No wonder, therefore, that this Surah is called al Ikhlas, the Purity, taken from its theme, as opposed to other surahs, which are mostly derived from particular words in those surahs. There is not even the word ikhlas in this Surah, as there is the word kafirun in the Surah al Kafirun.
The first verse read: “Say, He is Allah, Ahad (the One and Only).” The key word here, as many Quranic commentators have observed, is that Allah, the name of Muhammad’s Lord, is Ahad, One and Only, Unique and Absolute.
Ahad literally means one, but it is not so much about number, for in Arabic, to express one, the word Wahid is usually used. In many other verses, the word Wahid is used instead of Ahad, when the purpose is to stress that God is only one, not two, three, or many.
Ahad means One and Only, in the sense that it stands by itself, independence of all others, and is not to be compared with anything or anyone, for no comparison can ever be made. For that reason, it is sometimes translated as Unique instead of One, because unique means there is nothing like it. But even the word Unique cannot capture the essence of Ahad.
In any case, the Arabs during the Prophet’s time understood it, and understood it well. To them, if Allah is Wahid instead of Ahad, then there is still the possibility of mixing or associating other gods with Allah. Since He is Ahad instead of Wahid, they knew that there is no more possibility of having other deities along with Allah.
It is for this reason that they vehemently opposed the Prophet. If the Lord of Muhammad is merely Wahid, they would not have much problem with it, for they too believe in Allah. In fact, the Quraysh and the Arabs regarded Allah as the supreme God, pretty much like the Hindus who regard Brahman as their supreme God, along with other deities. This is the crux of polytheism.
Polytheism in the case of the Arabs was not the rejection of Allah, but of associating other deities to Allah, making them Allah’s partners. This is the corrupt belief that the Prophet came to purify, and it is through this Surah that the true nature of Absolute Monotheism of Allah is being presented in a simple and pure form.
The case of the torture underwent by Bilal ibn Rabah, one of the leading companions, illustrates this point clearly. Throughout the episode, the only word Bilal uttered was “Ahad, Ahad.” His master who carried out the torture, Umayyah bin Khalaf, understood its meaning very well, which made him angrier. He understood that Bilal refused to recognize any other gods alongside Allah. As for Umayyah, he too recognized Allah as the supreme God, but he believed other deities have some share in the Godhood.
Umayyah did not ask Bilal to renounce Allah. All he wanted was for his slave to recognize also other deities being worshipped by his people. But Bilal was adamant. Whatever Umayyah and his henchmen did to him—and the only thing they did not do to him was to kill him outright—Bilal only uttered the word that made his torturers growing more exasperated.
Since the word is so precise, yet so comprehensive in its meaning, one may be excused into thinking that this word alone would be sufficient to answer the question regarding Allah’s ancestry. Since Allah is Ahad, one and only, unique, absolutely alone without any partner whatsoever, the question about His ancestry, therefore, does not arise.
But Allah does not want to leave any room for doubt, thus the second verse follows: “He is the Samad.”
While the word Ahad is noted for its precision, the word Samad is noted for its encompassing broadness in meaning. The basic idea, however, conveys absolute self sufficiency, one who has absolutely everything, is in need of absolutely nothing, but everything is absolutely in need of him.
This is the idea that Allah describes Himself, when question about Him was asked. That He creates everything, owns everything, in need of nothing, a focal point for everything. This is the only place in the Quran, according to Muhammad Assad, where the word Samad is used.
Looking through its meanings that run close to a hundred or so, as the contemporary and classical scholars describe it, I am inclined to think that, almost, if not all, of Allah’s other attributes such as Almighty, Omniscience, All Hearing, All Powerful, etc., are encompassed in this one word. It is the summary of what He is all about.
The Arabs during the Prophet’s time understood it. This God, the One and Only God, the Lord of Muhammad and his followers, requires nothing and no help whatsoever, and that He alone is the source for everything. He does not need to be dusted, repaired, painted, carved, or remade, as the idols of the Quraysh and the Arabs do.
And because He is absolutely One, in need of nothing, not even the notion of “need” itself, the next verse in Surah al Ikhlas simply says: “He does not beget, neither is He begotten.” Differently put, there is no such thing as ancestry when comes to Allah.
The word used in the Quran to negate either giving birth or born, is lam, instead of la. In Arabic, the former connotes strongest negation, meaning “never,” while the latter simply denotes “no.” This word lam instead of la is to further strengthen the assertion that it is not merely the case whereby He does not give birth to anyone or anyone giving birth to Him, but to stress that such is NEVER the case.
This third verse further underscores the fact that He is Ahad and that He is Samad, and therefore the notion that He needs someone else to be His parent, or another to be His child, would be contradicting His real nature.
And the Surah ends with the verse: “Nor is there to Him any equivalent.” Nothing resembles Him, none is equal to Him. Even our imagination cannot fathom His likeness, for everything that we imagine is simply not Him. This verse concludes His nature of being One and Only, of Him being the Samad, of the need, or the lack thereof, for Him to be born, or giving birth.
These four short verses, therefore, provided a concise but comprehensive response to the questions put by the polytheist Quraysh and their Arab neighbours, including the Bedouin. Allah Himself has chosen the answer by revealing this Surah, and instructed the Prophet to merely recite it to the questioners.
One would also note that this Surah opens with the word Qul, meaning “say,” or “proclaim.” Very few indeed Quranic verses or surahs begin with Qul. When it does, it suggests that the message about to be delivered is of paramount importance, as many commentators put it.
To conclude this part, the Quraysh or other polytheist Arabs had gotten more than what they asked for, irrespective whether their question on the ancestry of the Lord of Muhammad was for genuine reason, or merely for mockery. This Surah, which purifies the Godhood of Allah, whom they also worshipped, delivers unequivocal statement to the utter falsehood of their way.
It is the perfect answer to the polytheists in Makkah, as it is also a perfect answer to the Jews in Madinah, as well as the Christians who came to Madinah, enquiring about the Lord of Muhammad.
We shall talk about that in our concluding instalment, insyaAllah.
End of Part 2.