The Story of the Town by the Sea: Tafsir al-Sa’di

In surah al-A’araaf, Allah recounts the story of the people of the sea-side village who broke the Sabbath:

وَاسْأَلْهُمْ عَنِ الْقَرْ‌يَةِ الَّتِي كَانَتْ حَاضِرَ‌ةَ الْبَحْرِ‌ إِذْ يَعْدُونَ فِي السَّبْتِ إِذْ تَأْتِيهِمْ حِيتَانُهُمْ يَوْمَ سَبْتِهِمْ شُرَّ‌عًا وَيَوْمَ لَا يَسْبِتُونَ ۙ لَا تَأْتِيهِمْ ۚ كَذَٰلِكَ نَبْلُوهُم بِمَا كَانُوا يَفْسُقُونَ * وَإِذْ قَالَتْ أُمَّةٌ مِّنْهُمْ لِمَ تَعِظُونَ قَوْمًا ۙ اللَّـهُ مُهْلِكُهُمْ أَوْ مُعَذِّبُهُمْ عَذَابًا شَدِيدًا ۖ قَالُوا مَعْذِرَ‌ةً إِلَىٰ رَ‌بِّكُمْ وَلَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَّقُونَ * فَلَمَّا نَسُوا مَا ذُكِّرُ‌وا بِهِ أَنجَيْنَا الَّذِينَ يَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ السُّوءِ وَأَخَذْنَا الَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا بِعَذَابٍ بَئِيسٍ بِمَا كَانُوا يَفْسُقُونَ * فَلَمَّا عَتَوْا عَن مَّا نُهُوا عَنْهُ قُلْنَا لَهُمْ كُونُوا قِرَ‌دَةً خَاسِئِينَ * وَإِذْ تَأَذَّنَ رَ‌بُّكَ لَيَبْعَثَنَّ عَلَيْهِمْ إِلَىٰ يَوْمِ الْقِيَامَةِ مَن يَسُومُهُمْ سُوءَ الْعَذَابِ ۗ إِنَّ رَ‌بَّكَ لَسَرِ‌يعُ الْعِقَابِ ۖ وَإِنَّهُ لَغَفُورٌ‌ رَّ‌حِيمٌ

And ask them about the town that was by the sea – when they transgressed in [the matter of] the sabbath – when their fish came to them openly on their sabbath day, and the day they had no sabbath they did not come to them. Thus did We give them trial because they were defiantly disobedient. And when a community among them said, “Why do you advise [or warn] a people whom Allah is [about] to destroy or to punish with a severe punishment?” they [the advisors] said, “To be absolved before your Lord and perhaps that they may fear Him.” And when they forgot that by which they had been reminded, We saved those who had forbidden evil and seized those who wronged with a wretched punishment, because they were defiantly disobeying. So when they were insolent about that which they had been forbidden, We said to them, “Be apes, despised.” And [mention] when your Lord declared that He would surely [continue to] send upon them until the Day of Resurrection those who would afflict them with the worst torment. Indeed, your Lord is swift in penalty; but indeed, He is Forgiving and Merciful. [al-Qur’an 7:163-167]

Imam al-Sa’di, in his great book of tafsir, wrote the following on these ayaat:

{‏وَاسْأَلْهُمْ‏}‏ أي‏:‏ اسأل بني إسرائيل ‏{‏عَنِ الْقَرْيَةِ الَّتِي كَانَتْ حَاضِرَةَ الْبَحْرِ‏}‏ أي‏:‏ على ساحله في حال تعديهم وعقاب اللّه إياهم‏.‏

And ask them” – meaning, ask the Children of Israa’eel – “about the town that was by the sea” – meaning on its banks, which found itself in the circumstance of harm and the punishment of Allah upon them.

‏{‏إِذْ يَعْدُونَ فِي السَّبْتِ‏}‏ وكان اللّه تعالى قد أمرهم أن يعظموه ويحترموه ولا يصيدوا فيه صيدا، فابتلاهم اللّه وامتحنهم، فكانت الحيتان تأتيهم ‏{‏يَوْمَ سَبْتِهِمْ شُرَّعًا‏}‏ أي‏:‏ كثيرة طافية على وجه البحر‏.‏

When they transgressed in [the matter of] the sabbath” and it used to be that Allah the Exalted has commanded them to magnify it (i.e. the day of the Sabbath) and to treat it as sacred, and not hunt any prey therein. Then Allah tried them and tested them, so the fish came to them “openly on their sabbath day” – meaning, an abundance of them floating on the surface of the water.

‏{‏وَيَوْمَ لا يَسْبِتُونَ‏}‏ أي‏:‏ إذا ذهب يوم السبت ‏{‏لا تَأْتِيهِمْ‏}‏ أي‏:‏ تذهب في البحر فلا يرون منها شيئًا ‏{‏كَذَلِكَ نَبْلُوهُمْ بِمَا كَانُوا يَفْسُقُونَ‏}‏ ففسقهم هو الذي أوجب أن يبتليهم اللّه، وأن تكون لهم هذه المحنة، وإلا فلو لم يفسقوا، لعافاهم اللّه، ولما عرضهم للبلاء والشر، فتحيلوا على الصيد، فكانوا يحفرون لها حفرا، وينصبون لها الشباك، فإذا جاء يوم السبت ووقعت في تلك الحفر والشباك، لم يأخذوها في ذلك اليوم، فإذا جاء يوم الأحد أخذوها، وكثر فيهم ذلك، وانقسموا ثلاث فرق‏:‏

And the day they had no sabbath” – meaning, when the day of Sabbath was finished – “they did not come to them” – meaning, they went into the sea and they were not seen at all. “Thus did We give them trial because they were defiantly disobedient” so it was their defiant disobedience which necessitated that they be tested by Allah and that there would be this trial for them – and if they had not been defiantly disobedient, then Allah would have pardoned them. So trial and harm befell them. Then they became crafty in the the way they fished, so they would dig out trenches [from the sea into the land] and cast their nets therein. So when the Sabbath day would come, and they would do what they did with the trenches and nets, they would not take in it, but when Sunday came they would take in their catch, and many of them were like that. And they were divided into three groups:

معظمهم اعتدوا وتجرؤوا، وأعلنوا بذلك‏.‏

Most of them transgressed and crossed the limits, and did so openly.

وفرقة أعلنت بنهيهم والإنكار عليهم‏.‏

But a group publicly and openly proclaimed their forbidding and disapproval of them.

وفرقة اكتفت بإنكار أولئك عليهم، ونهيهم لهم، وقالوا لهم‏:‏ ‏{‏لِمَ تَعِظُونَ قَوْمًا اللَّهُ مُهْلِكُهُمْ أَوْ مُعَذِّبُهُمْ عَذَابًا شَدِيدًا‏}‏ كأنهم يقولون‏:‏ لا فائدة في وعظ من اقتحم محارم اللّه، ولم يصغ للنصيح، بل استمر على اعتدائه وطغيانه، فإنه لا بد أن يعاقبهم اللّه، إما بهلاك أو عذاب شديد‏.‏

And (another) group confined itself to mere disapproval (i.e. without forbidding others from the transgression) of what they were doing, and they censured the admonishers, and they said to them, “Why do you advise [or warn] a people whom Allah is [about] to destroy or to punish with a severe punishment?” It is as if they said: There is no benefit in admonishing those who blatantly transgress the things which Allah has sanctified, and who do not listen to sincere advise, but instead persist in their transgression and oppression. For verily they should be punished by Allah, whether by complete destruction (in this life) or a severe punishment (in the hereafter).

فقال الواعظون‏:‏ نعظهم وننهاهم ‏{‏مَعْذِرَةً إِلَى رَبِّكُمْ‏}‏ أي‏:‏ لنعذر فيهم‏.‏

The admonishers said: We admonish and forbid them “To be absolved before your Lord” – meaning to be absolved of any guilt concerning them.

‏{‏وَلَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَّقُونَ‏}‏ أي‏:‏ يتركون ما هم فيه من المعصية، فلا نيأس من هدايتهم، فربما نجع فيهم الوعظ، وأثر فيهم اللوم‏.‏

And perhaps that they may have taqwa” – meaning, that they would abandon what they are doing of disobedience. So we do not despair of (any hope of) their guidance, for perhaps the admonition may have a beneficial effect on them, and to produce in them some guilt.

وهذا المقصود الأعظم من إنكار المنكر ليكون معذرة، وإقامة حجة على المأمور المنهي، ولعل اللّه أن يهديه، فيعمل بمقتضى ذلك الأمر، والنهي‏.‏

And this is the greatest objective of disapproving the munkar, so that one may be absolved from it, and to establish a hujjah against those who received the rejoinder to good and forbidding of evil, and that Allah might guide them so that they would act in accordance with that command or prohibition.

‏{‏فَلَمَّا نَسُوا مَا ذُكِّرُوا بِهِ‏}‏ أي‏:‏ تركوا ما ذكروا به، واستمروا على غيهم واعتدائهم‏.‏

And when they forgot that by which they had been reminded” – meaning, they abandoned what they had been reminded of, and they persisted upon their transgression and wrongdoing.

‏{‏أَنْجَيْنَا‏}‏ من العذاب ‏{‏الَّذِينَ يَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ السُّوءِ‏}‏ وهكذا سنة اللّه في عباده، أن العقوبة إذا نـزلت نجا منها الآمرون بالمعروف والناهون عن المنكر‏.‏

We saved” from the punishment “those who had forbidden evil” and that is the sunnah (established and consistent way) of Allah with His slaves, that when the punishment is sent, He saves those among the people who were enjoiners of good and forbidders of evil.

ـ {‏وَأَخَذْنَا الَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا‏}‏ وهم الذين اعتدوا في السبت ‏{‏بِعَذَابٍ بَئِيسٍ‏}‏ أي‏:‏ شديد ‏{‏بِمَا كَانُوا يَفْسُقُونَ‏}‏

And seized those who wronged” and they were those who transgressed concerning the Sabbath “with a wretched punishment” – i.e. severe – “because they were defiantly disobeying“.

وأما الفرقة الأخرى التي قالت للناهين‏:‏ ‏{‏لِمَ تَعِظُونَ قَوْمًا اللَّهُ مُهْلِكُهُمْ‏}‏ فاختلف المفسرون في نجاتهم وهلاكهم، والظاهر أنهم كانوا من الناجين، لأن اللّه خص الهلاك بالظالمين، وهو لم يذكر أنهم ظالمون‏.‏

And as for the other group which said to those forbidding the evil, “Why do you advise [or warn] a people whom Allah is [about] to destroy“, then the mufassiroon have differed about whether they were saved or destroyed. And what is apparent is that they were among those who were saved, because Allah singled out the destruction for the wrong-doers, and He did not mention that this other group were wrong-doers.

فدل على أن العقوبة خاصة بالمعتدين في السبت، ولأن الأمر بالمعروف والنهي عن المنكر فرض كفاية، إذا قام به البعض سقط عن الآخرين، فاكتفوا بإنكار أولئك، ولأنهم أنكروا عليهم بقولهم‏:‏ ‏{‏لِمَ تَعِظُونَ قَوْمًا اللَّهُ مُهْلِكُهُمْ أَوْ مُعَذِّبُهُمْ عَذَابًا شَدِيدًا‏}‏ فأبدوا من غضبهم عليهم، ما يقتضي أنهم كارهون أشد الكراهة لفعلهم، وأن اللّه سيعاقبهم أشد العقوبة‏.‏

So supporting this is the fact the the punishment is specific to the transgressors of the Sabbath, and because enjoining the good and forbidding the evil is a fardh kifaayah (communal obligation); when some of the people establish it, the rest are freed from it. So they contented themselves with this forbidding, because they showed disapproval (at those who transgressed the Sabbath) by saying, “Why do you advise [or warn] a people whom Allah is [about] to destroy or to punish with a severe punishment?” So they expressed their anger at them (i.e. at the Sabbath breakers), from which it follows that they were were severely displeased with their actions, and that Allah was going to punish them with the severest punishment.

‏{‏فَلَمَّا عَتَوْا عَمَّا نُهُوا عَنْهُ‏}‏ أي‏:‏ قسوا فلم يلينوا، ولا اتعظوا، ‏{‏قُلْنَا لَهُمْ‏}‏ قولا قدريًا‏:‏ ‏{‏كُونُوا قِرَدَةً خَاسِئِينَ‏}‏ فانقلبوا بإذن اللّه قردة، وأبعدهم اللّه من رحمته، ثم ذكر ضرب الذلة والصغار على من بقي منهم فقال‏:‏

So when they were insolent about that which they had been forbidden” – meaning, they were hardened and not softened nor did they accepted the admonition – “We said to them” a statement of Divine Decree – “‘Be apes, despised'” so they were changed by the permission of Allah into apes, and Allah distanced them from His Rahmah, and then He mentioned the humiliation of subduing of those who remained from among them, by saying:

‏{‏وَإِذْ تَأَذَّنَ رَبُّكَ‏}‏ أي‏:‏ أعلم إعلامًا صريحًا‏:‏ ‏{‏لَيَبْعَثَنَّ عَلَيْهِمْ إِلَى يَوْمِ الْقِيَامَةِ مَنْ يَسُومُهُمْ سُوءَ الْعَذَابِ‏}‏ أي‏:‏ يهينهم، ويذلهم‏.‏

And [mention] when your Lord declared“- meaning He made it clearly and plainly known – “that He would surely [continue to] send upon them until the Day of Resurrection those who would afflict them with the worst torment” – meaning, to humiliate and dishonor them.

‏{‏إِنَّ رَبَّكَ لَسَرِيعُ الْعِقَابِ‏}‏ لمن عصاه، حتى إنه يعجل له العقوبة في الدنيا‏.‏ ‏{‏وَإِنَّهُ لَغَفُورٌ رَحِيمٌ‏}‏ لمن تاب إليه وأناب، يغفر له الذنوب، ويستر عليه العيوب، ويرحمه بأن يتقبل منه الطاعات، ويثيبه عليها بأنواع المثوبات، وقد فعل اللّه بهم ما أوعدهم به، فلا يزالون في ذل وإهانة، تحت حكم غيرهم، لا تقوم لهم راية، ولا ينصر لهم عَلَمٌ‏.‏

Indeed, your Lord is swift in penalty” to those who disobey Him to the extent that He makes a punishment for them in this dunya. “But indeed, He is Forgiving and Merciful” to those who repent and turn back to Him. He forgives them their sins, and conceals their flaws, and bestows His Rahmah on them because He accepts their acts of obedience from them and He rewards them for that with all sorts of rewards. And Allah has done for them what He promised He would do, so they remain in dishonor and humiliation, under the rule of others without their own independence and without any authority to aid them.

[Taysir al-Kareem al-Rahman pg. 347-348]

See also: The Consequences of Not Forbidding Wrongdoing: Tafsir al-Sa’di

See also: The Means and Objectives of Calling to Allah: Imam al-Sa’di

See also: The story of the two sons of Adam: Tafsir al-Sa’di

See also: The Story of Qarun: Tafsir al-Sa’di

See also: The Orator of the Anbiya: Tafsir al-Sa’di

See also: The story of Nuh and his son

See also: The story of Ilyaas: Tafsir al-Sa’di

See also: The Respective Means of Destruction: Tafsir al-Shinqitee

See also: Two disbelieving women and two believing women: Tafsir al-Sa’di

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12 thoughts on “The Story of the Town by the Sea: Tafsir al-Sa’di

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