A Commentary on Surah Al-Nas

Sūrah al-Nās is the last chapter of the Qurān and there have been five names mentioned for it:

  1. Al-Nās – this is what is written in the codices and is famous. It is taken from the repetition of the word al-Nās in the verses.
  2. Al-Sūrah Alladhī Dhukira Fīhā al-Nās – the common method employed by Sayyid Raḍī.
  3. Al-Mu’awwiḍhatān – we spoke about this name in our lessons on Sūrah al-Falaq.
  4. Sūrah Qul ‘Aūdhū bi Rab al-Nās.
  5. Orientalists have referred to it by its number (114).

As for its merits, then we have spoken about it at length during our lessons on Sūrah al-Falaq. The narrations that speak about its revelation are the same that speak about the al-Mu’awwidhatayn and we have spoken about them in our lessons on Sūrah al-Falaq.

Makkī or Medanī

We also spoke about this in our lessons on Sūrah al-Falaq. Most narrations say it is a Medanī chapter, but if we were to just look at the verses of the chapter alone it would be hard to ascertain that, and we may lean towards it being Makkī due to its short length.

As for whether it is even a chapter from the Qurān or not, we discussed this in our discussion on Sūrah al-Falaq and concluded that this view is only popularly attributed to ‘Abdullah b. Mas’ūd, although we cast some doubt on the veracity of this attribution.

Verse 1-3: Qul A’udhu Bi Rabbi Al-Nas, Malik Al-Nas, Ilah Al-Nas

[114:1-3] Say, ‘I seek the protection of the Lord of humans, Sovereign of humans, God of humans

We spoke about Qul and the 6 views regarding it when used in the Qurān during our lessons on Sūrah al-Kāfirūn. We spoke about A’ūdhū in our lessons on Sūrah al-Falaq.

This surah mentions three qualities of Allah, but these qualities are annexed to the word al-nās (people, mankind, or humans) as follows:

  1. Lord of the People
  2. Sovereign of People
  3. God of people

The refuge (isti’ādha) being sought in this verse is connected to the Lordship of Allah and to the recognition that He is the Lord of people. This is because refuge is only taken with one who has lordship (rubūbīyyah), one who can manage your affairs and take care of you. A child takes refuge in his or her mother because she takes care of the baby’s affairs. Likewise, we take refuge in the Lord of people, because He is the one who manages our affairs. This is irrespective of whether we are depressed, sad, scared, vulnerable, weak, or ignorant – we take refuge in someone who can save us and take us out from our troubled conditions.

Likewise, sovereignty (mulk) is a reference to authority and power. You take refuge with someone who has power and ownership of everything; everything is in their hands. You take refuge in someone who is stronger than you, who can do something for you. You do not take refuge in someone weaker than yourself because they cannot help you or do anything for you.

Finally, you take refuge in God, someone who you can submit to, someone who you will listen to when they ask you to do something. You trust them, worship them and have faith in them hence you take refuge in them.

There are some questions that could be put forth over here – some are linguistic, others are analytical:

1) Why are the concepts of rubūbīyyah, mālikīyyah, and ulūhīyyah attributed to people (al-nās)?

The answer is clear – the verse is saying: ‘O people, take refuge from Satan in God,’ because humans are in need of taking refuge, and when they take refuge they should be taking refuge in someone who manages their affairs, and can help them during their refuge.

2) Why is al-nās mentioned 3 times?

Repetition with an apparent noun has a greater impact and influence on the listener than repetition with a pronoun.

3) What does al-nās really mean?

The response to this is not very obvious, because it could have three possible meanings:

1. All of humanity: this is the opinion of the majority of scholars

2. It is general and inclusive of both humans and jinns: proponents say this is because in the last two verses God makes this distinction himself.

3. A specific group of humans who are not complete in their faith and piety – this was the view of Shahīd Muḥammad Ṣādiq al-Ṣadr (d. 1999). He arrived at this conclusion after inductively looking at the verses of the Qurān. He argues, after looking at how the word al-nās is used in the Qurān, we see that in the majority of the cases it is used in reference to humans who are not believers, those who are not pious, or those whose level of faith is not very high.

In response to Shahīd Ṣādiq al-Ṣadr there are two points that need to be made:

1) Those who do thematic exegesis (tafsīr mawḍū’ī) often make this mistake, if they presume that just because a word appears in the Qurān many times, that it has been used in the same meaning constantly. So, when a new instance of the word is seen in a verse, the same meaning should be presumed. This is not a very good approach, because there are many cases where the same word has been used in many places of the Qurān but the meanings are not the same.

As an example, the word kitāb has been used in different places of the Qurān. Sometimes it is used and the Injīl and Tawrāt are implied, sometimes the Qurān, and sometimes all three books, or all revealed books are intended. In fact, sometimes it is a reference to the Guarded Tablet (al-Lawḥ al-Maḥfūẓ) and sometimes for a contract.

2) Al-Ṣadr is essentially saying that given 90% of the times I am seeing the word al-nās being used in a specific meaning, then in those few other places where I am unsure of its meaning, I will go with what I had determined in the other instances. Over here, we can conceive of two approaches:

a) One approach is that you take the complete book into consideration and say that the author of this book has used this word 90% of the times, and then when you come across the word in the remaining sections of the book, you argue, that since it is the same author, they are using the word in the same meaning. This is not a wrong approach, rather it is a reasonable approach to take when we read literary works, poems, or even philosophical works.

b) Another approach is by taking the temporal chronological context (siyāq al-zamān) into consideration. In this approach, one sees that when the first verse was revealed using the word al-nās it meant whatever it means literally and whatever meaning the word was originally coined for – nothing more and nothing less. However, when you begin to put the rest of the verses in their chronological order and context – say the first few usages of the word were in verses revealed in Makkah – there one argues that the meaning was restricted to its literal meaning initially, but over time a distinct meaning was given to the word al-nās in the Divine speech of Allah (swt). Subsequently, the word began to attain a different meaning in later verses – say for example, when it was being used in Medina. Though it takes time for a word to acquire this meaning, but one can argue that this is exactly what the Qurān was trying to do over time. A clear example of this is the word Ṣalāt. This phenomenon is discussed in legal theory under the discussion of what constitutes a legal veritative (al-ḥaqīqah al-shar’īyyah).

If we take the first approach, then al-Ṣadr’s view is correct. However, we cannot take that approach with the Qurān. One has to try and see under what temporal context the word was being used in, so that we can determine the correct meaning. Perhaps it is one of those words that was initially being used in its literal meaning, but over time the Qurān began using it in a different meaning. As we know, there are many words that have lost their original meanings, in fact in the case of some of them do we not even know their precise original meanings anymore; for example, taqwa, ṣalat, ḥajj, ṣawm, īmān, Islām, Qurān. These words had meanings in the Arabic language even before the Prophet (p), he did not invent these words, but today all of them have specific meanings in our minds.

If, however, we take the second approach, then only after establishing that the chapter was revealed some time near the end of the Prophet’s (p) life in Medina and that in the verses revealed chronologically earlier the word was being used in another meaning, then perhaps only then one can argue that it means something limited. Nevertheless, it is very difficult to arrive at this conclusion.

In this chapter, we seek refuge three times, as opposed to Sūrah al-Falaq, perhaps to indicate that one is in more need to seek refuge in Allah (swt) from the evil of Satan than the evil of other ceatures. The repetition and the emphasis on seeking refuge signify this meaning.

Verse 4: Min Sharr Al-Waswas Al-Khannas

[114:4] From the evil of the retreating whisperer

What is Waswās?

Waswās is the sound jewelry and ornaments makes, like the bangles or anklets of a woman. When her feet move while she is wearing an anklet, it makes a noise. Eventually, this noise became associated with a noise that is not very long, since this type of jewelry generally makes a very slight and short noise. Eventually, every slight noise came to be described as waswās to the point that it is also used for someone talking to themselves – especially when they are not talking loudly to themselves.

Waswās then means any quiet noise or conversation. In Fiqh al-Lugha – and an expert will have to research this – some have claimed that the combination of this word itself indicates something quiet (‘was-was’), it does not have any strong letters like qāf, or ‘ayn.

What is the difference between waswās and wiswās?

Waswās is either a hyperbolic noun (al-ism al-mubālagha) for the active participle (al-ism al-fā’ilmuwaswis (one who whispers), or there is something omitted and has to be taken into consideration by the reader before the word waswās, such as, min sharri dhī al-waswās and al-khannās goes back to dhī.

As for wiswās, then it has the same meaning as the noun waswasah (whispering or tempting) and it does not need to be related with anything or anyone.

The addition of the word evil (sharr) to waswās opens up two possible interpretations:

1) If by “evil of the waswās” we mean evil of the muwaswis (evil of one who whispers), then we are seeking refuge from the whispering of Satan and that is it.

2) If by “evil of the waswās” we mean evil of Satan – by suggesting waswās as a description is being used as a noun for Satan – then this does not mean we are seeking refuge from Satan’s whispers only, because that is not the only evil Satan does. His evil can be his whispering, but also anything else by which he deceives humans.

The second interpretation results in a much more expansive understanding because we are saying the verse means we wish to seek refuge from the evil of Satan, irrespective of this evil being the waswasah (whisper) itself, or something else.

Nevertheless, the second interpretation is difficult to prefer as per the prima-facie of the verse, due to the principle that when a description or quality (waṣf) is mentioned for something, it alludes to that quality having some causal relation. Meaning, the evil that is coming from the whispering is the whisper itself. So the interpretation that the evil can be anything and not just the waswasah is difficult to justify.

What is Khannas?

Khannās originates from the noun khunūs and is also a hyperbolic noun (al-ism al-mubālagha). Khunūs is someone or something that secretly comes out and when they get what they want, they go back into hiding. Khannās is someone who does this repeatedly. Satan is being described as a khannās because he comes out secretly to do what he wants to do and as soon as he sees that you have done what he wanted you to do, he runs away into hiding. You, on the other hand, end up wondering how you fell into Satan’s deception.

Satan sees an opportunity, he comes out and does his whispering, but runs away the moment there is an obstacle or barrier for him – like the remembrance of Allah. As such, Satan is not always present neither is he always in hiding – khannās is a very precise description of him.

What is the Waswasah of Satan

Until today, we do not have a definite understanding of how Satan does waswās. What is the ontological, metaphysical or physical process Satan goes through to do his whispers – we do not know this with any precise clarity. This is because we are not very well informed about the nature of Satan himself – even whether he is a material or immaterial creature, given we have traditions that imply he is a material creature since he moves in our veins like blood.

As a matter of fact, we have slightly more clarity at our disposal regarding how Jinns carry out their activities, but since there is debate on whether Satan was a Jinn or an angel – even amongst our own scholars – we cannot apply what we know about Jinns on Satan unless we can determine exactly what Satan is.

Another point we should clarify is that Satan does not have any authority (sulṭanah) over us. He cannot force us to make a decision, he cannot impose his decisions upon us. However, the Qurān itself points out how and what Satan does to deceive and fool us into making the decisions he wants us to make:

1) Beautification (tazyīn): [27:24] …Satan has made their deeds pleasing to them and averted them from [His] way…

He beautifies things for us, like a painter. These are those moments when one is idle and not busy with anything, but in a spark of a moment the thought of a certain act comes to the mind and we think that it is a beautiful act (even if it is a sin). Satan throws this thought into your mind – we do not know precisely how – but you have not consciously decided to think about it, rather it was whispered into your mind.  After these thoughts creep in, you decide whether you want to act on it or abandon it. This depends on how attracted you are, how much control you have over yourself, how strong your faith and belief are.

2) He encourages and entices you towards immoralities: [2:268] …and orders you to immorality.

Satan entices and creates a desire in us towards immoral and detestable things.

3) Inciting fear (takhwīf): [2:268] Satan frightens you of poverty and prompts you to [commit] indecent acts.

He instills the feeling of fear and poverty, neediness, the idea that you will be left with nothing if you give something from your possessions and wealth. He whispers thoughts such as not to give charity, not to give anything to the homeless – or else what will remain for yourself? It is better to put it in your bank account and save it. Abort and kill your children if you cannot afford to take care of them, or send them away, or else you will not have enough money to take care of them.

4) Feeling of immunity and promises: [4:120] Satan promises them and arouses desire in them. But Satan does not promise them except delusion.

This is how he deceived Adam and Eve, and how he deceives us. He tells us that if we do a certain act, we will be able to reach higher positions and loftier statuses. While in reality, those promises are false.

So even though Satan does not have any authority over us, he does have the power to do throw us off through his whispers. After constantly throwing us off, it is us humans who put him in a position of authority over us, as the Quran says [58:19] Satan has overcome them and made them forget the remembrance of Allah.

As we act on Satan’s whispers, we keep drowning to the point he overpowers us – it is very difficult to take one’s self out of that then as Satan now becomes their companion. [43:36] And whoever is blinded from remembrance of the Most Merciful – We appoint for him a devil, and he is to him a companion.

In conclusion, we can say there are two types of whispers Satan does:

1) Entices us towards an immoral act: We know that murder and theft is a sin and immoral, but we end up committing it anyways, because of the way Satan beautifies these sins for us.

2) Encourages us towards an immoral act, but through a moral act: This is what most religious people may be afflicted with, since they commit immoral acts and justify them through some other moral act. In the words of the mystics, these are instances of veils of light (al-ḥujub al-nūrānīyyah).

Is Waswasah Only Done by Satan or Others Too

One may wonder at times, is Satan the only creature able to waswasah or are others also capable of doing so? According to the Qurān, this act is generally ascribed to Satan, but there are two verses which imply some other entities can also do waswasah:

1) [50:16] And We have already created man and know what his soul whispers (tuwaswis) to him, and We are closer to him than [his] jugular vein

According to this verse, the soul whispers to its self. This waswasah has nothing to do with the waswasah being discussed in Surah al-Nās – which has a negative connotation. This verse is referring to the idea of “speaking to one’s self” and has no positive or negative connotation attached to it.

2) [12:53] Indeed, the soul is a persistent enjoiner of evil.

The soul commands one to do evil, which implies both Satan and the self (nafs) can command one to do evil. If it is the case that the self can also do waswasah and push one to commit evil, then is there a criterion to differentiate between the waswasah of Satan and the self? Is there a relationship between these two or not? There are three understandings amongst the scholars:

1) The inciting or commanding self (al-nafs al-ammārah) is Satan himself. There is no duality – horizontally or vertically – rather the existence of Satan is a type of strength and power which enters the person and it is then called al-nafs al-ammārah. In other words, al-nafs al-ammārah is the very existence of Satan within you. According to this understanding, there is no difference between Satan and the inciting self, but the reason why we refer to it as the self is because he hides himself within us.

2) There is a vertical relationship between the two. Meaning Satan, for example, beautifies a certain act for us and tries to encourage the self to commit that act. The self gets motivated and ends up commanding the person to act on that which was beautified by Satan, while it was immoral and sinful. In reality, there is only one whisper – not two – and that is the whisper of Satan.

3) There is a horizontal relationship and there are two entities that whisper. The scholars of ethics usually put forth this understanding, and they rely on the Prophetic sermon on the last Friday of Sha’bān where he (p) says that Satan is imprisoned in the month of Ramaḍān. If Satan is imprisoned, and humans still commit sins and immoral acts, this indicates that the whispering is happening from the nafs itself.

There are also a group of scholars who say there is no way to precisely know, and all of the above explanations are speculations – while speculation does not tell us anything about reality. Some scholars of ethics have tried to explain how one can differentiate between these two types of whispers. Some of these explanations are as follows:

a) The whispers of Satan do not push one towards only one sin. If you yourself repeating the same sin repeatedly, then this is not due to the whisper of Satan, rather it is the commanding self (hence why it is described as “commanding” as it commands a lot). On the contrary, if you see that you engage in different sins and there is no persistence on just committing one sin, then this is a result of the whispers of Satan.

b) If you do an act and you experienced a feeling of pleasure, then this was a result of the whisper of the self. However, if you commit an act and you experienced the feeling of guilt and dislike, then this was a result of the whisper of Satan.

c) If the act you are being enticed towards is an abnormal act and you have to perform it with difficulty, then this is due to the whisper of Satan, or else if it does not require a lot of difficulty to perform, then it is the whisper of the self.

d) Some explain the criterion by suggesting that the whisper of the self is a conversation one has with themselves. However, if you did not converse with yourself and suddenly see yourself engaged in sin, then that was due to the whispers of Satan.

All of these explanations are possible and reasonable, although there is no demonstrative evidence to prefer one over the other.

Verse 5: Allazi Yuwaswisu Fi Sudur Al-Nas

[114:5 ] who puts temptations into the breasts of humans

Where Does Satan Whisper

In Sūrah al-Inshirāḥ we discussed the meaning of chests (ṣudūr). If ṣudūr means the heart, then Satan’s whispers occur in the heart, the place of human emotions, desires, and what inclines them towards love, hate, anger, stress, anxiety and so on.

The question however remains, can Satan interfere with our thought process, by interfering with our intellect? The philosophers have tried to address this, especially when addressing whether the intellect in and of itself make mistakes or not. Some have said it does, like any other tool and instrument – this is a predominant view in Western philosophy since the last two-three centuries.

Others have said that the intellect cannot make any mistakes in and of itself. The mistake occurs when one is not using their intellect properly, or part of it is abandoned, or if some other faculties interfere with the process of intellectualization (such as the faculty of imagination, estimation, or even mere emotions). This opinion is held by many philosophers, including most Muslim philosophers, not the least of whom is ‘Allāmah Ṭabaṭabā’ī.

As per the second view, one needs to strengthen their intellectual abilities, one can make their intellect stronger, and ensure that a certain part of it is not abandoned or over-powered and interfered with by any of the other faculties. We have also already spoken about this in our discussion on the ethics of gaining knowledge (akhlāq al-ma’rifah).

As such, the whisper of Satan is essentially through him interfering with this aspect of ours – the faculties and emotions – and not the intellect’s ability to rationalize and intellectualize itself.

Verse 6: Min Al-Jinnah Wa Al-Nas

[114:6] from among the jinn and humans.’

What does it mean to be “from” the Jinn and humans (al-nās)? Is this verse referring back to the al-nās reiterated in verse 5, or to al-khannās in verse 4? There are a few possibilities:

1) The word “from” (min) is going back to al-waswās al-khannās and the preposition min can then either be taken as al-min al-bayānīyyah, or ḥāl for the verb yuwaswis – in both cases the meaning is similar, the former being: “from the evil of the retreating whispers of those from amongst the Jinn and mankind,’ and the latter being, ‘who whisper into the chests of mankind, while they (who whisper) are from amongst the Jinn and mankind.’

Taking the verse as a ḥāl is a better option, and the Qurān also implies in multiple places that Satan’s work can be carried out by both humans and Jinns. For example:

[6:112] And thus We have made for every prophet an enemy – devils from mankind and jinn, inspiring to one another decorative speech in delusion

Verses such as [25:27-28], [33:67], [34:31-33] depict dialogues between senior and influential individuals in a community with those who are weak and vulnerable. As per these verses, it seems that the weak and vulnerable are not excused just because they were being controlled and manipulated by others. In fact, the seniors and those with power also have binding arguments (ḥujjah) against the weak, when they say, ‘we never asked you to stop thinking and abandon your intellect.’ Satan will say the same thing, ‘I had nothing to do with these humans, I had no control over their intellects.’

2) Others have said that the last verse cannot go back to al-waswās al-khannās, because we said al-khannās is someone who becomes apparent and then retreats or hides. We can describe the Jinn with this quality, but not humans since they are always apparent and visible. In other words, the description of al-khannās is a contextual indicator that tells us the last verse cannot be related to the 4th verse.

This explanation is not valid because the appearing and hiding being referred to is not necessarily a physical visibility and invisibility. It is referring to what you sense and feel the presence of. For example, whispers towards deception and fraud are things that occur for humans and are apparent, but one does not always detect them, nor sense or feel them.

Or else, we can argue that even the Jinn do not become apparent and then hide, rather they are always hidden.

3) The al-nās in verse 5 (fī ṣudūr al-nās) is general and inclusive of both Jinn and humans, and that is what is expounded on in verse 6. In other words, the meaning of al-nās in verse 5 actually means both Jinn and humans.

This is a very strange interpretation, because when have we ever seen the word al-nāṣ being used to include Jinn as well? We have not come across such use in the Arabic language.

Some may respond to the above by saying, al-nās means congregation (jamā’ah) and so in this verse it is figuratively being used to include both Jinn and humans. To this, we would still respond by saying al-nās being used to mean congregation is also uncommon. In fact, even in the cases where al-nās is used to mean congregation, it is a reference to human congregation, and as such one would need to bring a contextual indicator to prove it is being used as figuratively in this verse to include Jinns as well.

4) The word is not al-nās (in fī ṣudūr al-nās) rather it is fī ṣudūr al-nāsī – someone who forgets, and, those forgetful individuals are from the Jinn and humans.

The question we would have to ask is why has the proponent of this view chosen to read al-nās as al-nāsī in this verse, but in the rest of the verses they chose to read it as al-nās? Secondly, al-nāsī is a singular, whereas ṣudūr (chests) is plural – in other words, the correct rendering of the sentence should be fī ṣadr al-nāsī or fī ṣudūr al-nāsin.

An important point to remember is that sometimes we find it difficult to explain a religious text. In order to explain and justify it, we start inventing possibilities which are far-fetched and abnormal, just to find a solution to a text that is difficult to interpret. What often happens with these possibilities is that a half a dozen other issues are given birth, and we then attempt to explain those issues as well – at the end we create a culture of beliefs based on “perhaps”, “possible”, and “maybe”. At times, a far-fetched interpretation may resolve an issue, but there is no demonstrative argument to prove or justify it, yet despite that, we judge and condemn others who disagree with us, and issue verdicts against them.

5) The last verse (min al-jinnah wa al-nās) is related to the word sharr (evil) in verse 4. Meaning, ‘I seek refuge from the evil of the retreating whisper and also from the evil of the humans and Jinns’.

This is a reasonable explanation, but because there is no “and” (wa) at the beginning of verse 6, it is not possible to prefer this opinion.

I want to end by mentioning an opinion by Dr. Ali Mansour Kayali on this verse. He is a Syrian whose primary expertise is in Mathematics and architecture, not Islamic sciences. However, he is one of those intellectuals who holds opinions about the Qurān and other religious topics – there are many like him today. He appears on a show on one of the Arabic channels where he has been doing a Qurānic series, and he interprets the Qurān in light of the natural sciences. Some say he is Mu’tazalī, while some Salafīs say he is a Shī’a – because he is always recording to allegorical interpretations (ta’wīl) of the verses to reconcile them with the physical sciences.

This is something known amongst the Mu’tazalīs and neo-Mu’tazalīs. For example, some Mu’tazalīs in the past would say Prophet Sulaymān (a) would not converse with ants, rather when the Qurān says ‘valley of the ants’ (wādi al-naml) in [27:18], it is referring to the name of a place where he arrived and was only speaking to humans. Namlah is most likely the name of a person.

In any case, Dr. Kayali says that this last verse goes back to al-nās in the previous verse, but the al-nās used in verse five is not referring to a general meaning inclusive of both Jinns and humans. Instead, it means humans, and the last verse is speaking about Jinns and humans from the human species. He argues that some humans in their behaviour are like the Jinn – they are hidden, do not make their whispers apparent, are sly and hard to detect, while others act like humans and are apparent in their activities.

This article was originally published on Iqra Online, which can be found here


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