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The Issue of the Quran’s Teaching on Islamic Monotheism

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sam Shamoun

Surah 112 is one of the most important and crucial Islamic texts when it comes to understanding what Muslims believe about Allah. This particular chapter is called Surat Al-Ikhlas, as well as Sura At-Tauhid, and supposedly encapsulates and encompasses the very heart and essence of Islamic monotheism. It only consists of four verses:

Say: 'He is God, One, God, the Everlasting Refuge, who has not begotten, and has not been begotten, and equal to Him is not any one.'

Muhammad reportedly said that this particular Sura is equal to a third of the Quran:

Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri:

A man heard another man reciting (Surat-Al-Ikhlas) ‘Say He is Allah, (the) One’ (112. 1) repeatedly. The next morning he came to Allah's Apostle and informed him about it as if he thought that it was not enough to recite. On that Allah's Apostle said, "By Him in Whose Hand my life is, this Surah is equal to one-third of the Qur'an!"

Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri: My brother, Qatada bin An-Nau’man said, "A man performed the night prayer late at night in the lifetime of the Prophet and he read: ‘Say: He is Allah, (the) One,’ (112.1) and read nothing besides that. The next morning a man went to the Prophet, and told him about that." (The Prophet replied the same as (in Hadith 532) above.) (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 61, Number 533)

Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri:

The Prophet said to his companions, "Is it difficult for any of you to recite one third of the Qur'an in one night?" This suggestion was difficult for them so they said, "Who among us has the power to do so, O Allah’s Apostle?" Allah’s Apostle replied: "‘Allah (the) One, the Self-Sufficient Master Whom all creatures need.’ (Surat Al-Ikhlas 112.1--to the End) is equal to one third of the Qur'an." (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 61, Number 534)

Various Muslim narrations state that this Sura was recited against or was a response to the theological conceptions or questions of the Christians, Jews and pagans:

Period of Revelation

Whether it is a Makki or a Madani Surah is disputed, and the difference of opinion has been caused by the traditions which have been related concerning the occasion of its revelation. We give them below ad seriatim:

  1. Hadrat Abdullah bin Masud has reported that the Quraish said to the Holy Prophet (upon whom be peace): "Tell us of the ancestry of your Lord." Thereupon this Surah was sent down. (Tabarani).
  2. Abul Aliyah has related on the authority of Hadrat Ubayy bin Kab that the polytheists said to the Holy Prophet (upon whom be peace): "Tell us of your Lord's ancestry." Thereupon Allah sent down this Surah. (Musnad Ahmad, Ibn Abi Harim, Ibn Jarir, Tirmidhi, Bukhari in At-Tarikh, Ibn al-Mundhir, Hakim, Baihaqi). Tirmidhi has related a tradition on the same theme from Abul Aliyah, which does not contain any reference to Hadrat Ubayy bin Kab, and has declared it to be more authentic.
  3. Hadrat Jabir bin Abdullah has stated that a bedouin (according to other traditions, some people) said to the Holy Prophet (upon whom be peace): "Tell us of your Lord's ancestry." Thereupon Allah sent down this Surah. (Abu Yala, Ibn Jarir, Ibn al-Mundhir, Tabarani in Al-Ausat, Baihaqi, Abu Nuaim in Al-Hilyah).
  4. Ikrimah has related a tradition form Ibn Abbas, saying that a group of the Jews, including Kab bin Ashraf, Huyayy bin Akhtab and other, came before the Holy Prophet (upon whom be peace) and said: "O Muhammad (upon whom be Allah's peace and blessings), tell us of the attributes of your Lord, Who has sent you as a Prophet." Thereupon Allah sent down this Surah. (Ibn Abi Hatim, Ibn Adi, Baihaqi in Al-Asma was-Sifat).

    In addition to these, some other traditions also have been cited by Ibn Taimiyyali in his commentary of Surah Al-Ikhlas, which are as follows;

  5. Hadrat Anas has stated that some Jews of Khaiber came before the Holy Prophet (upon whom be peace) and they said: "O Abul Qasim, Allah created the angels from light, Adam from rotten clay, Iblis from the flame of fire, the sky from smoke, and the earth from the foam of water. Now tell us about your Lord (of what He is made)." The Holy Prophet (upon whom be peace) did not give any reply to this question. Then Gabriel came and he said: "O Muhammad, say to them: Huwa Allahu ahad."
  6. Amir bin at-Tufail said to the Holy Prophet: "O Muhammad, what do you call us to?" The Holy Prophet replied: "To Allah." Amir said: "Then, tell us of what He is made, whether of gold, silver, or iron?" Thereupon this surah was sent down.
  7. Dahhak, Qatadah and Muqatil have stated that some Jewish rabbis came before the Holy Prophet, and they said: "O Muhammad, tell us what is your Lord like, so that we may believe in you. Allah in the Torah has sent down His description. Kindly tell us of what He is made, what is His sex, whether He is made of gold, copper, brass, iron, or silver, and whether He eats and drinks. Also tell us from whom He, has inherited the world, and who will inherit it after Him." Thereupon Allah sent down this Surah.
  8. Ibn Abbas has reported that a deputation of the Christians of Najran along with seven priests visited the Holy Prophet upon whom be peace), and they said: "O Muhammad, tell us what is your Lord like and of what substance He is made." The Holy Prophet replied: "My Lord is not made from any substance: He is unique and exalted above everything." Thereupon Allah sent down this Surah. (Abu-Ala’ Maududi’s Chapter Introduction to Sura 112; Source)

It may surprise the readers to know that much of this Sura is unclear, unintelligible, and even contains a wrong grammatical construction. We have discussed the grammatical issue here: Ahad: Monotheism vs. Eloquence of the Quran

Our focus in this article will be on one specific word which is found in the second verse of the Sura, particularly the word translated by Arberry as "the Everlasting Refuge," as-Samad. Here is an Arabic transliteration of Sura 112:2:

Allahu alssamadu


Allah as-Samad.

Muslims have been perplexed regarding what this specific word means exactly. In fact, this confusion regarding the precise meaning and translation of the word alssamadu or as-Samad can be seen from the different ways various English versions have rendered the text in question.

God, the Eternal, Absolute; Yusuf Ali

Allah, the eternally Besought of all! Pickthall

Allah-us-Samad (The Self-Sufficient Master, Whom all creatures need, He neither eats nor drinks). Hilali-Khan

Allah, the Independent. Daryabadi

God the eternal. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem

God the Eternal, the Uncaused Cause of All Being. Muhammad Asad

Allah is He on Whom all depend. Shakir

ALLAH the Independent and Besought of all. Sher Ali

God is Absolute. Muhammad Sarwar

Allah is the Self-Sufficient (independent of all, while all are dependent on Him); F. Malik

God is the Source [for everything]; T.B. Irving

The Absolute GOD. Khalifa

the Eternal God. N.J. Dawood

God the eternal! Rodwell

‘Allah is that Supreme Being Who is the Independent and Besought of all and Unique in all His attributes. Ahmatul Rahman ‘Omar & ‘Abdul Mannan ‘Omar

The commentators don’t really help the situation, but provide more confusion. The late Abdullah Yusuf Ali stated:

Samad is difficult to translate by one word. I have used two, "Eternal" and "Absolute". The latter implies: (1) that absolute existence can only be predicated of Him; all other existence is temporal or conditional; (2) that He is dependent on no person or things, but all persons or things are dependent on Him, thus negativing the idea of gods and goddesses who ate and drank, wrangled and plotted, depended on the gifts of worshippers, etc. (Y. Ali, The Quran: Text, Translation and Commentary, fn. 6298, p. 1806)

Another late Muslim scholar writes:

1 This rendering gives no more than an approximate meaning of the term as-samad, which occurs in the Qur'an only once, and is applied to God alone. It comprises the concepts of Primary Cause and eternal, independent Being, combined with the idea that everything existing or conceivable goes back to Him as its source and is therefore, dependent on Him for its beginning as well as for its continued existence. (Muhammad Asad, source)

Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi says:

(of everyone and everything, and yet besought by all) i.e. lacking in nothing, and wanting none to complement Him; Absolute; the Eternal… as epithets applied to God, signify ‘A lord; because one repairs, betakes himself, or has recourse to him, in exigencies, or, when applied to God, because affairs are stayed, or rested, upon Him and none but He accomplishes them; …or the Being that continues, or continues for ever or is everlasting; or the Creator of everything, of whom nothing is independent, and whose unity everything indicates.’ (LL). The verse strikes at the root of the pagan and Christian conception of incomplete God. (Daryabadi, [Darul Ishaat, Karachi-1 Pakistan, 1991 first edition], p. 540)

A Muslim professor notes:

a Samad: other commonly held interpretations include ‘self-sufficient’ and ‘sought by all’ (Razi). (M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, The Qur’an [Oxford University Press, 2005], p. 444)

Here is what a commentary attributed to Ibn Abbas claims:

(Allah, the eternally Besought of all!) the Master whose glory is at its peak and for Whom all created beings are in need; it is also said that (al-Samad) means: He Who does not eat or drink; it is also said that this means: He Who does not have an interior; it is also said that this means: the Everlasting; and it is also said this means: the Sufficient; and it is also said this means: He who does not have an entrance or exit. (Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn 'Abbâs; source)

Renowned Sunni exegete Ibn Kathir commented:

`Ikrimah reported that Ibn `Abbas said, "This means the One Who all of the creation depends upon for their needs and their requests." `Ali bin Abi Talhah reported from Ibn `Abbas, "He is the Master Who is perfect in His sovereignty, the Most Noble Who is perfect in His nobility, the Most Magnificent Who is perfect in His magnificence, the Most Forbearing Who is perfect in His forbearance, the All-Knowing Who is perfect in His knowledge, and the Most Wise Who is perfect in His wisdom. He is the One Who is perfect in all aspects of nobility and authority. He is Allah, glory be unto Him. These attributes are not befitting anyone other than Him. He has no coequal and nothing is like Him. Glory be to Allah, the One, the Irresistible." Al-A`mash reported from Shaqiq, who said that Abu Wa'il said, …

is the Master Whose control is complete." (Source)

Finally, here is Al-Tabari’s lengthy discussion of this word taken from his commentary on Sura 112:2{1}:

And His word: Allahu s-samad expresses (the idea): The One who is worshiped, He the samad, nobody except Him can be properly worshiped. The Qur’an commentators disagree as to the meaning of as-samad.

(I) Some of them say: He is the one who is not hollow, who does not eat and drink. This opinion is held by the following personalities:

(1) ‘Abd-ar-Rahman b. al-Aswad As-samad is he (that) who (which) is not hollow.

(2) Ibn Bassar <‘Abd-ar-Rahman musmat) who has no hollowness.

(3) Abu Kurayb

(4) Al-Harit

(5) Ibn Bassar <‘Abd-ar-Rahman and Waki‘

(6) Abu Kurayb

(7) Ibn Bassar <‘Abd-ar-Rahman As-samad is the one who has no hollowness. He said: Ar-Rabi‘ b. a Muslim told us on the authority of Ibrahim b. Maysarah who said Mujahid sent me to Sa‘id b. Jubayr to ask him about as-samad. He said: He who has no hollowness.

(8) Ibn Bassar As-samad is the one who does not taste food.

(9) Ya‘qub As-samad is the one who does not eat food and does not drink.

(10) Abu Kurayb and Ibn Bassar As-samad is the one who has no hollowness.

(11) Abu Kurayb As-samad is the one who does not eat food.

(12) Ibn Bassar and Zayd b. Ahzam As-samad is the one who has no stuffing (intestines).

(13) I was told on the authority of al-Husayn who said: I heard Abu Mu‘ad say: ‘Ubayd told me: I heard ad-Dahhak say concerning His expression as-samad: He who has no hollowness.

(14) Al-‘Abbas b. Abi Talib <‘Umar b. Rumi As-samad is the one who has no hollowness.

(15) Ibn ‘Abd-al-‘Ala

(16) Ibn Abd-al-A‘la

(II) Others say that he is the one from whom nothing comes out. This opinion is held by the following personalities:

(1) Ya‘qub as-samad: He from whom nothing comes out and who did not beget and was not begotten.

(2) Ibn Bassar leg. Sayf): As-samad is the one from whom nothing comes out.

(III) Others say: He is the one who did not beget and was not begotten. This opinion is held by the following personalities:

(1) Ibn Humayd As-samad is the one who did not beget and was not begotten. For nothing begets which is not going to leave an heir. And nothing is begotten which is not going to die. Thus, He informed them that He would not leave an heir and would not die.

(2) Ahmad b. Mani‘ and Mahmud b. Hidas Surah 112…. For nothing is begotten which is not going to die, and nothing dies which is not going to leave an heir. God does not die and leaves no heir. "And He has no equal." And He has nobody who is like Him or equal to Him, and nothing is comparable to Him.

(3) Abu Kurayb As-samad is the one who did not beget and was not begotten and did not have an equal.

(IV) Others say: He is the lord (sayyid) whose lordship has reached its peak. This opinion is held by the following personalities:

(1) Abu s-Sa’ib As-samad means the lord whose lordship has reached its peak.

(2) Abu Kurayb, Ibn Bassar, Ibn ‘Abd-al-A‘la

(3) Ibn Humayd

(4) ‘Ali as-samad: It means the lord whose lordship is perfect; the noble one whose nobility is perfect; the great one whose greatness is perfect; the kind one whose kindness is perfect; the rich one whose richness is perfect; the mighty one whose might is perfect; the knowing one whose knowledge is perfect; the wise one whose wisdom is perfect. He is the one who is perfect in every aspect of nobility and lordship. He is God, Praised be He. This is His attribute, applicable only to Him.

(V) Others say: In reality, as-samad is the enduring one who does not disappear. This opinion is held by the following personalities:

(1) Bisr Surah 112: Al-Hasan and Qatadah used to say: He who endures after His creation. He said: This is a pure (halisah) surah. Nothing is mentioned in it about matters of this world and the other world.

(2) Ibn ‘Abd-al-A‘la As-samad is the lasting one.

(VI) Says Abu Ja‘far (at-Tabari): With the Arabs (Bedouins), as-samad means the lord to whom recourse is had and above whom there is nobody. It is used with reference to their noble men. Thus, the poet says:

There came in the morning a herald of the
death of the two best ones of the Banu Asad,
Of ‘Amr b. Mas‘ud and the samad lord.

And as-Zibriqan says:

There is no guarantee but (better than) a samad lord.

(Conclusion) If this is so, the meaning (of as-samad) which is known from the speech of those in whose language the Qur‘an was revealed is to be preferred for the interpretation of the word.

If the tradition of Ibn Buraydah on the authority of his father (above I, 14) were sound, it would be the statement most likely to be sound since the messenger of God was best informed about what God meant and what was revealed to him. (bold and underline emphasis ours)

The foregoing should make it obvious to the readers that what is believed to be equivalent to a third of the Quran is far from being a clear text. Sura 112, intended to delineate the heart of Islamic monotheism, has been a major source of mass confusion and embarrassment for Muslims. After all, if Allah is so concerned with wanting people to have an accurate and precise understanding of his nature then why didn’t he make this Sura clear? If the Quran is supposed to be clear Arabic, the standard of Arabic eloquence, then why does this particular Sura use words which left even Muslim scholars perplexed to the extent that they couldn’t even decipher the exact meaning in order to insure that their theology was sound?

In other words, even Muhammad’s companions and also the early commentators simply did not know what "Samad" means. That is the reason why Tabari lists so many and widely differing speculations about its meaning. It has no meaning in Arabic, but being the sacred revelation of Islam, it needs to have a meaning, even if the Arabic language does not yield one. Thus, various people GAVE it a meaning, when they had to, but all of them are speculative opinions without any solid linguistic foundation.

Moreover, the confusion surrounding the precise contextual meaning of as-Samad has led many an Islamicist to look outside of the Quran for the answers, such as Franz Rosenthal. Rosenthal writes:

… There is enough room for suspicion to permit us having a look at some outside evidence.

There, we encounter a noteworthy phenomenon: the not infrequent religious connotation of the root smd.

In Ugaritic, smd appears as a stick or club that is wielded by Ba'l. In the Kilammu inscription, line 15, we find b'l smd, apparently, b'l as the owner of his divine club. In the Bible, the adherence of the Israelites to Baal of Peor is expressed by the nip'al of the root smd. The verb is translated by the Septuagint heteleuse (Numeri 25:3, 5; Ps. 106:28). The use of the verb doubtlessly reflects North Canaanite religious terminology.

From Arabic sources, we learn that an idol of 'Ad was allegedly called samud, which brings us rather close to the environment of Muhammad...

In view of this material, the suggestion may be made that as-samad in the Qur'an is a survival of an ancient Northwest Semitic religious term, which may no longer have been understood by Muhammad himself, nor by the old poets (if the sawahid should be genuine). This suggestion would well account for the presence of the article with the word in the Qur'an, and it would especially well account for the hesitation of the commentators vis-a-vis so prominent a passage. Such hesitation is what we would expect if we are dealing with a pagan survival from the early period of the revelation. (What the Koran Really Says: Language, Text, & Commentary, "Some Minor Problems in the Qur'an", edited with translation by Ibn Warraq [Prometheus Books, October, 2002, Hardcover; ISBN: 157392945X], part 5.2, pp. 336-337; underline emphasis ours)

If Rosenthal is correct, then this is one more example that the Quran retained concepts of the pagan culture from which it originated. Other examples of such pagan influences can be seen in the Muslim rites of pilgrimage, fasting, prayers etc., cf. Muhammad and Idolatry.

Even the Islamic expression Allahu Akbar ("Allah is greater"), which Muslims take to mean that Allah is greater than everything (Allahu Akbar min kullishay) or anything imaginable, smacks of pagan influence. In its historical setting, Allahu Akbar to a Meccan pagan meant that Allah is greater than the rest of the gods worshiped by the idolatrous Arabs. The pagans viewed Allah as the chief god amongst a pantheon of other deities who were subservient to him.

Whatever the explanation or origin one may give for as-Samad, this fact is clear: The unintelligibility and confusion which Muslims experienced because of Sura 112:2 is even more proof that the Quran is far from being the linguistic miracle and masterpiece that it claims to be, cf. the section on the Miracle of the Quran.

For more on the connection between Allah and Baal we recommend the article, Did the Meccans Worship Yahweh God?