Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) tells us in the Qur’an:
“Or do you think that you will enter Paradise while such [trial] has not yet come to you as came to those who passed on before you? They were touched by poverty and hardship and were shaken until [even their] messenger and those who believed with him said, ‘When is the help of Allah?’ Unquestionably, the help of Allah is near.” (Qur’an 2:214)
Circumstances During Which The Verse Was Revealed
The first approach to be taken in the study of this verse is to investigate if there is an occasion or reason for its revelation (asbab an-nuzul). The occasion or reason for the revelation can provide us with a valuable insight into the meaning of the verse and will guide our understanding. With some light reading we find that scholars of tafsir (exegesis) do say that there is an occasion for this verse. In fact, it is said that there are two occasions. Imam al-Baghawi narrates in Mualim at Tanzil that Qatada and Saddi narrate that this verse was revealed during the battle of Khandaq. He also narrates that Ata narrates that it was revealed during Uhud.
Discussion On Scholarly Principles Related to Understanding the Qur’an
Given that Khandaq and Uhud are two well-documented battles in the seerah (biography of the Prophet Mohammad ﷺ, peace be upon him), to approach a clearer understanding we should have knowledge of these battles which serve as a context for the verse under study. It is important for us to know how the seerah and Sunnah (tradition of the Prophet ﷺ) are interrelated and how they can aid us in understanding the Qur’an and in specific this verse. So let us look briefly into what the Sunnah is and how it is related to the seerah and the Qur’an.
What is Sunnah?
To begin with, we can refer to Imam Shatibi who teaches us that the meaning and intents of the Qur’an are understood and clarified by the Sunnah. Imam Shafi also teaches us that the Sunnah clarifies the Qur’an, but there is a nuanced difference in understanding between Imam Shatibi and Imam Shafi in regards to the Sunnah. Imam Shafi, in his treatise on the Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence (Ar-Risala), focused on establishing the principle that the Sunnah is a source of Islamic Legislation in and of itself. Imam Shatibi, on the other hand, extended that position, while keeping alive the understanding of Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik that the Sunnah aids us in discovering the objectives of the Shar`iah (law) contained in the Qur’an. There is an obvious but subtle difference in focus when we look at the manner in which these sages understood the Sunnah. Imam Shafi tended to look at the Qur’an and Sunnah much more literally than did Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik. In any event, the two approaches are complimentary. Both approaches illustrate that the Sunnah clarifies the Qur’an; additionally, Imam Shatibi holds the Sunnah to function as a source that also uncovers for us the aims and purposes of the Qur’an (maqasid al-Qur’an).
Understanding Sunnah in Usul al-Fiqh
The Sunnah, in the understanding of the scholar of usul al-fiqh (principles of jurisprudence), is defined as that which the Prophet ﷺ did, said, and consented to. The concern of the scholar of usul al-fiqh is to make clear how and why the Sunnah is a source of Islamic legislation. The scholars of hadith (narration) go further than the scholars of usul al-fiqh in defining the Sunnah and add that the description of the Prophet’s physical features as well as his biography (seerah) are part of the Sunnah. It is these later meaningful additions that distinguish the way the scholars of usul al-fiqh define Sunnah from that of the scholars of hadith. We could also add to the definition of the scholars of hadith the sayings and actions of the Companions. In this sense, the term Sunnah is expanded to carry a number of different types of knowledge that transmit the knowledge of the first few generations of Muslims.
In the schools of Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik the term Sunnah is not restricted to hadith, rather it transcends Prophetic hadith to include the sayings and practices of the Companions, and the practice of those who accompanied the Companions. This is most evidenced in their acceptance of a category of narration termed mursal hadith.
The Sunnah and Understanding the Qur’an
For the sake of brevity, we want to understand how the Sunnah aids us in understanding the subtle meaning of the Qur’an as embodied in the verse above. For that, we need to understand how the Sunnah conveys to us the knowledge of the Qur’an as transmitted to us by the early generations. What we learn from the transmissions of Qatada, Saddi, and Ata is that this verse was revealed in a context of battle that took place during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. To unlock the subtle meanings of the verse, it is important to take the lead of the Qatada, Saddai and Ata. Therefore, we must come to understand during which battle was the verse revealed and then conduct a detailed study of the battle.
The Historical Events Surrounding the Verse
We know from Imam Baghawi that Qatada, Saddi, and Ata understood this verse to have been revealed during a battle—this much is clear and agreed upon when we look at their narrations. Then, if we are to follow the lead of Imam al Qurtubi, he adds a significant piece of information by telling us that the majority of the scholars of tafsir are of the position of Qatada and Saddi, which is that the verse was revealed during the battle of Khandaq. Interestingly enough, both Imam Qurtubi and Imam al-Baghawi relate the opinion of Ata in a passive voice, a possible indication that they believe the position is not strong.
Imam Shaukani narrates in his tafsir that Abdur-Razzaq, Ibn Jarir and Ibn Mundhir narrate from Qatada that it was revealed on the day of the confederates (during Khandaq). Imam Shaukani also relates that Ibn Jarir and Abi Hatim narrate from Saddi that this verse was revealed on the day of the confederates. Imam Shaukani does not even mention the position of Ata, indicating to us that he may have considered the narration from Ata to be weak. Imam Tahir Ibn Ashur narrates that the majority of the early scholars of tafsir held the opinion that this verse was revealed during the battle of Khandaq. So, from Imam Tahir Ibn Ashur we learn whom it is that constitutes the majority that Imam Qurtubi referred to: the early scholars of tafsir.
One of the miracles of the Qur’an is that the context of its revelation does not restrict its meaning so that it is has no relevance for other contexts outside of its original point of revelation. So we cannot restrict the meaning and relevance of the Qur’an to one period or people to the exclusion of others. There is a well-known scholarly maxim which is utilized in fiqh (jurisprudence) and tafsir worthy of mention here: al ibra bi ummum al lafdh wa la bi khusus as sabab—a text is not restricted in meaning to a particular occasion but rather the point of meaning and reference is the general linguistic import of the text; and it is the general linguistic indications of the text that establish a normative understanding, not its context. On the other hand, without understanding the contextual occasions during which the Qur’an was revealed, we run the risk of misunderstanding the aims and objectives of the Qur’an.
The seerah is a tool for understanding not only the Qur’an, but also how to implement the Sunnah as a whole, given the life of Prophet Muhammad is a lesson in living the Qur’an.
The Qur’an indicates to us that poverty, adversity, hardship and sickness are states that can radically impact our existence inciting anxiety, disorientation and despair. Shaykh Sha’rawi explains the initial part of this verse by asking a question to clarify the verse. He says: “Were you of the opinion that you would enter paradise without trial? Allah negates this opinion and makes clear that the state of affairs in this world are such that the person who confesses the Oneness of Allah will have to suffer and be tested in this realm of existence if they are aiming at entering paradise. The Arabs understood the way of iman [faith] because they understood the meaning of the shahada (la ilaha illa Allah [there is no deity worthy of worship except God]). It was understood by them that there would be a radical change in their lives if they were to accept Islam and submit to Allah. The verse before this tells of the life and journey of Bani Israel, how they were tested and underwent hardship.” The core import is that the believers should not despair.