In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
The order in which the Quran was revealed shows us that true understanding is obtained by setting down roots and then following up with branches. In other words, this chronology demonstrates how Allah first introduces basic principles in earlier chapters and expands their details, or implications, in later chapters, with an aim to establishing life on earth (‘imarat al-ard) in service of the Creator.
The first chapters, Surat al-‘Alaq, laid the foundation of the message. In the three following chapters, the revelation told us how faith is the driving force that turns knowledge into positive action (al-Qalam), prepares us for the responsibility of carrying the message (al-Muzammil), and finally take the message publicly to the world (al-Mudathir). Each stage built upon the previous stage until the Messenger of Allah (ṣ) was equipped to preach Islam openly.
Similarly, these principles are expanded upon when Surat Qaf reveals how knowledge is acquired through careful observation. The three chapters that follow address the illnesses of the heart, which are deficiencies in faith. Surat Sad, for instance, distinguishes between a defect of the heart and our natural bias. After that, Allah revealed Surat al-A’raf, a theme of which is overcoming one’s fear in order to carry the message forward.
Faith, as we know, increases and decreases in strength at various points in our lives. It must reach a level of critical mass to inspire a believer to successfully declare it and call others to it. The main obstacle to this self-preparedness are the illnesses of the heart and natural biases, which had been introduced in previous chapters.
In this regard, Surat al-A’raf begins with the combination of disjointed letters: alif-lam-meem-sad. The letter sad, as we have previously noted, implies what is related to the heart and is concealed. The other three letters intersect with this meaning. The letter alif is actually regarded by linguists as a hamzah, which is pronounced with an abrupt starting and stopping, implying a sudden beginning or ending (as in an order or command). The letter lam, on the other hand, relates to ownership. It is pronounced by the tongue by collecting the air into a pocket that settles at the top front of the teeth; the air here is comfortably filled without the need for immediate release, implying ownership. The letter meem is pronounced by closing the lips tightly together, which signifies the ending or goal.
The appearance of these letters at the beginning of chapters is meaningful, especially when understood through the proper rules of Arabic pronunciation. Scholars have noted that chapters beginning with the combination alif-lam-meem deal with the sudden beginning of creation (alif), our place in this world (lam), and the reality of the Hereafter (meem). In Surat al-A’raf, the letter sad is added to the end of this arrangement as the fourth letter, indicating the role of the heart in determining the outcome of the sequence of events.
Allah begins this chapter by linking the responsibility of delivering the message to having a purified heart (sadr), as exemplified by Prophet Muhammad (ṣ):
المص كِتَابٌ أُنزِلَ إِلَيْكَ فَلَا يَكُن فِي صَدْرِكَ حَرَجٌ مِّنْهُ لِتُنذِرَ بِهِ وَذِكْرَىٰ لِلْمُؤْمِنِينَ
Alif-lam-meem-sad. It is a Book that We have revealed to you, so let not your heart be distressed by it, to warn by it and as remembrance for the believers.
Surat al-A’raf 7:1-2
The titles of the chapter itself, Al-A’raf (the heights), alludes to this meaning as well. The titles of Quranic chapters are meaningful summaries of that chapter’s theme or major contribution. In this case, the heights are places where people had faith, but their faith was not strong enough to embrace and defend the message in public. They ended up neither belonging fully to the camp of believers or unbelievers:
وَنَادَىٰ أَصْحَابُ الْجَنَّةِ أَصْحَابَ النَّارِ أَن قَدْ وَجَدْنَا مَا وَعَدَنَا رَبُّنَا حَقًّا فَهَلْ وَجَدتُّم مَّا وَعَدَ رَبُّكُمْ حَقًّا ۖ قَالُوا نَعَمْ ۚ فَأَذَّنَ مُؤَذِّنٌ بَيْنَهُمْ أَن لَّعْنَةُ اللَّهِ عَلَى الظَّالِمِينَ الَّذِينَ يَصُدُّونَ عَن سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ وَيَبْغُونَهَا عِوَجًا وَهُم بِالْآخِرَةِ كَافِرُونَ وَبَيْنَهُمَا حِجَابٌ ۚ وَعَلَى الْأَعْرَافِ رِجَالٌ يَعْرِفُونَ كُلًّا بِسِيمَاهُمْ ۚ وَنَادَوْا أَصْحَابَ الْجَنَّةِ أَن سَلَامٌ عَلَيْكُمْ ۚ لَمْ يَدْخُلُوهَا وَهُمْ يَطْمَعُونَ
It will be announced to the people of Paradise and the people of Hellfire: we have found the promise of our Lord to be true, have you found the promise of your Lord to be true? They will say yes. A caller will announce among them: the curse of Allah is upon the wrongdoers, those who obstruct from the path of Allah and seek to make it appear crooked, who are judged in the Hereafter as unbelievers. Between them will be a barrier. Upon the heights are men who recognize all by their marks. They announce to the people of Paradise: Peace be upon you! Though they have not yet entered it and they long for it.
Surat al-A’raf 7:44-46
Some traditional approaches to Quranic interpretation (tafsir) neglected a connection between successive verses, instead interpreting verses or passage in isolation, apart from its greater place in the chapter or in the chronology of revelation. In contrast, many scholars have recognized that verses are related, directly or indirectly, to sub-themes that are themselves connected.
When it comes to Surat al-A’raf, it is a longer chapter that addresses several themes connected by the order in which they are mentioned. Touching upon the relationship between purified hearts and delivering the message of Islam to the world, Allah reveals the stories of Prophets as an encounter with the power-brokers of their time (al-mala’):
قَالَ الْمَلَأُ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا مِن قَوْمِهِ إِنَّا لَنَرَاكَ فِي سَفَاهَةٍ وَإِنَّا لَنَظُنُّكَ مِنَ الْكَاذِبِينَ
The elite among his people, who disbelieved, said: We see you as mere foolishness and we think you are a liar.
Surat al-A’raf 7:66
Here, we understand that delivering the message of Islam to the world is not simply a matter of conveying information, but also about confronting obstacles to the truth, people who have vested worldly interests that motivate them to persecute the believers. Their physical obstruction is caused by and replicates the spiritual death of the heart, a state of being in which knowledge, insight, and faith are not accepted:
وَلَقَدْ ذَرَأْنَا لِجَهَنَّمَ كَثِيرًا مِّنَ الْجِنِّ وَالْإِنسِ ۖ لَهُمْ قُلُوبٌ لَّا يَفْقَهُونَ بِهَا وَلَهُمْ أَعْيُنٌ لَّا يُبْصِرُونَ بِهَا وَلَهُمْ آذَانٌ لَّا يَسْمَعُونَ بِهَا ۚ أُولَٰئِكَ كَالْأَنْعَامِ بَلْ هُمْ أَضَلُّ ۚ أُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْغَافِلُونَ
We have created many among humans and jinn for Hell. They have hearts that do not understand, eyes that do not see, and ears that do not hear. They are like cattle, even more astray. They are unmindful.
Surat al-A’raf 7:179
Again, the importance of purification of the heart is stressed. One cannot understand faith and begin the journey of spiritual development without taking at least some care to guard the heart from evil, and one certainly cannot publicly represent or share faith until a high level of purity in the heart is achieved, like that of the Prophets and their closest followers.
The story of the Prophet Lot (ṣ) stands out as not mentioning the powerful, elite classes of unbelievers. Instead, it was his people who collectively rejected the truth. Whereas the elite oppose the truth because it threatens their selfish worldly interests, the masses might oppose the truth when their hearts are fixated on ‘obscenities’ (fahishah). Satan knows that the masses will cling to their ‘traditions’ if they are rooted in animalistic lusts and base pleasures:
إِنَّا جَعَلْنَا الشَّيَاطِينَ أَوْلِيَاءَ لِلَّذِينَ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ وَإِذَا فَعَلُوا فَاحِشَةً قَالُوا وَجَدْنَا عَلَيْهَا آبَاءَنَا وَاللَّهُ أَمَرَنَا بِهَا ۗ قُلْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يَأْمُرُ بِالْفَحْشَاءِ ۖ أَتَقُولُونَ عَلَى اللَّهِ مَا لَا تَعْلَمُونَ
Verily, We have made the devils as allies for those who do not have faith. When they commit obscenity, they say: We found our forefathers doing it and Allah commanded us with it. Say: Allah surely does not command obscenity! Do you say about Allah that which you do not know?
Surat al-A’raf 7:27
It was not powerful rulers vying for wealth, fame, and status that led the people of Lot astray, but rather the simple lusts of the masses in the collective form of tradition. In either case, the hearts of the unbelievers were misled by their myopic desires, whether it was the power of the elite or the appetites of the common people. The theme of conflict between faith and obscenity would be expanded upon by the revelation of Surat al-Nur, which deals with themes of chastity, infidelity, and so on.
The overall lesson in Surat al-A’raf, then, is that the quality of the hearts is the metric for success in calling people to Islam (da’wah). The chapter ends with orders to be followed as a means of strengthening the heart in service of the Truth. These are the three principles previously mentioned in Surat Qaf: righteous deeds, mindfully studying the Quran, and private worship.
First, righteous deeds are the context in which public da’wah should take place. This includes balancing the values of justice, such as courageously standing up to the elite, and mercy, which is to have patience and compassion for common people:
خُذِ الْعَفْوَ وَأْمُرْ بِالْعُرْفِ وَأَعْرِضْ عَنِ الْجَاهِلِينَ
Show forgiveness, enjoin what is good, and turn away from the ignorant.
Surat al-A’raf 7:199
Mercy is value that overtakes the human ego’s animalistic desire to lash out against enemies. On the road of public service to Islam, one will always encounter people who behave foolishly in one capacity or another, so they should be forgiven and not punished. A true caller to Islam must be able to bear the brunt of insults, mockery, and even slander from the masses; indeed, it is an enormous burden that only the pure of heart can take up.
Second, the miraculous healing power of the Quran is our primary tool for purifying our hearts. This is not simply the outward recitation, but must include reflection upon the meanings, overt and subtle, contained in its declarations, lessons, parables, and stories:
وَإِذَا قُرِئَ الْقُرْآنُ فَاسْتَمِعُوا لَهُ وَأَنصِتُوا لَعَلَّكُمْ تُرْحَمُونَ
When the Quran is recited, then lesson and pay attention that you may receive mercy.
Surat al-A’raf 7:204
Finally, a public campaign to share Islam must be complemented with a routine of private worship as a means of purifying the heart:
وَاذْكُر رَّبَّكَ فِي نَفْسِكَ تَضَرُّعًا وَخِيفَةً وَدُونَ الْجَهْرِ مِنَ الْقَوْلِ بِالْغُدُوِّ وَالْآصَالِ وَلَا تَكُن مِّنَ الْغَافِلِينَ
Remember your Lord within yourself in humility and fear, without expressing it publicly, in morning and evening, and do not be among those who are unmindful.
Surat al-A’raf 7:205
Spending all the time in the spotlight is harmful to the heart of a public Muslim for many reasons, since too much exposure can facilitate spiritual defects such as the lowly desires to be famous, to impress others, or to show off one’s knowledge. Hence, every believer should have some time dedicated to worshiping Allah alone in seclusion, to foster humility and to renew one’s intention to spread the message of Islam, without compromising it to the demands of the worldly elite and their masses.
To recap, the theme of Surat al-A’raf is the need for purity of heart, not just for an individual’s faith, but perhaps more importantly for the broader mission of those tasked with carrying the message of Islam in the world. We see this theme played out in the stories of Prophets confronting the elite, whose hearts have been corrupted by power, or confronting the masses, whose hearts have been corrupted by pleasure. In either case, the human heart is centered as the locus of the spiritual battle against evil. As such, believers are counselled to guard their hearts from evil desires, to perform righteous deeds, to reflect upon the Quran, and to regularly worship their Lord in humble privacy.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.