Allah Presents a Parable of a City: Tafsir al-Tabari

Allah struck the following parable in surah al-Nahl:

وَضَرَبَ اللَّهُ مَثَلًا قَرْيَةً كَانَتْ آمِنَةً مُّطْمَئِنَّةً يَأْتِيهَا رِزْقُهَا رَغَدًا مِّن كُلِّ مَكَانٍ فَكَفَرَتْ بِأَنْعُمِ اللَّهِ فَأَذَاقَهَا اللَّهُ لِبَاسَ الْجُوعِ وَالْخَوْفِ بِمَا كَانُوا يَصْنَعُونَ

And Allah presents a parable: a city which was safe and secure, its provision coming to it in abundance from every location, but it denied the favors of Allah. So Allah made it taste the envelopment of hunger and fear for what they had been doing. [16:112]

In his explanation of this ayah, Imam Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari wrote:

يقول الله تعالى ذكره : ومثل الله مثلا لمكة التي سكنها أهل الشرك بالله هي القرية التي كانت آمنة مطمئنة ، وكان أمنها أن العرب كانت تتعادى ، ويقتل بعضها بعضا ، ويسبي بعضها بعضا ، وأهل مكة لا يغار عليهم ، ولا يحاربون في بلدهم ، فذلك كان أمنها . وقوله ( مطمئنة ) يعني قارة بأهلها ، لا يحتاج أهلها إلى النجع ، كما كان سكان البوادي يحتاجون إليها ( يأتيها رزقها رغدا ) يقول : يأتي أهلها معايشهم واسعة كثيرة . وقوله ( من كل مكان ) يعني : من كل فج من فجاج هذه القرية ، ومن كل ناحية فيها . ـ

Allah is saying: Allah has presented a parable of Mecca where the people who associate partners with Allah lived. Mecca was a city that was safe and secure. Its safety lay in the fact that the Arabs used to antagonize, fight, and insult one another, but they did not attack the people of Mecca or fight them in their homeland. As a result, the people of Mecca were safe. And the meaning of “secure” here is that its people were stable and not in search of a homeland, unlike the bedouins who were in need of a place to call home.

يَأْتِيهَا رِزْقُهَا رَغَدًا

… its provision coming in abundance …

Allah is saying: its people had plentiful and ample provisions coming to them

مِّن كُلِّ مَكَانٍ

… from every location …

i.e. from every road that led to the city and from every direction.

وقوله : ( فكفرت بأنعم الله ) يقول : فكفر أهل هذه القرية بأنعم الله التي أنعم عليها . ـ

فَكَفَرَتْ بِأَنْعُمِ اللَّهِ

 … but it denied the favors of Allah.

Allah is saying: The people of this city denied the favors that Allah had blessed them with

وقوله ( فأذاقها الله لباس الجوع والخوف ) يقول تعالى ذكره : فأذاق الله أهل هذه القرية لباس الجوع ، وذلك جوع خالط أذاه أجسامهم ، فجعل الله تعالى ذكره ذلك لمخالطته بأجسامهم بمنزلة اللباس لها . وذلك أنهم سلط عليهم الجوع سنين متوالية بدعاء رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم ، حتى أكلوا العلهز والجيف . قال أبو جعفر : والعلهز : الوبر يعجن بالدم والقراد يأكلونه ; وأما الخوف فإن ذلك كان خوفهم من سرايا رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم التي كانت تطيف بهم . ـ

فَأَذَاقَهَا اللَّهُ لِبَاسَ الْجُوعِ وَالْخَوْفِ

So Allah made it taste the envelopment of hunger and fear …

Allah is saying: So Allah made the people of this city taste a covering of hunger, which is hunger combined with bodily pain. Allah made this hunger mixed into their bodies such that it was like a garment that they were wearing. That is because hunger reigned over them for several successive years as a result of the Prophet’s supplication. It continued like that until it reached the point that they were eating bludgeoned rabbits – blood and ticks still present – and rotten food-stuffs.

As for the fear mentioned here, they were afraid of Prophet’s military expeditions which were taking place around them.

وقوله ( بما كانوا يصنعون ) يقول : بما كانوا يصنعون من الكفر بأنعم الله ، ويجحدون آياته ، ويكذبون رسوله  ـ

بِمَا كَانُوا يَصْنَعُونَ

… for what they had been doing.

Here Allah is saying: for the ingratitude for Allah’s blessings, rejection of His signs, and disbelief of His Messenger which they had been doing.

[Tafsir al-Tabari 17/310-311 with some abridgement]

Sheikh Muhammad al-Ameen al-Shinqitee included a long discussion of this ayah in his tafsir, including an investigation into which city is being referenced in the ayah. He concluded this investigation by writing:

وقال بعض العلماء : هي قرية غير معينة ، ضربها الله مثلا للتخويف من مقابلة نعمة الأمن والاطمئنان والرزق ، بالكفر والطغيان . وقال من قال بهذا القول : إنه يدل عليه تنكير القرية في الآية الكريمة في قوله : وضرب الله مثلا قرية الآية [ 16 \ 112 ] .ـ

Some scholars have said: this is not any specific city. Allah struck this parable to strike fear into those who would respond to the blessings of safety, security, and provisions with ingratitude and transgression.

Those who hold this position say: This is supported by the fact that the city in this ayah is referred to in a nondescript way.

قال مقيده – عفا الله عنه – : وعلى كل حال ، فيجب على كل عاقل أن يعتبر بهذا المثل ، وألا يقابل نعم الله بالكفر والطغيان ; لئلا يحل به ما حل بهذه القرية المذكورة . ولكن الأمثال لا يعقلها عن الله إلا من أعطاه الله علما ; لقوله : وتلك الأمثال نضربها للناس وما يعقلها إلا العالمون [ 29 \ 43 ] . ـ

I say: Whatever the case may be, every thinking person should take a lesson from this parable and not respond to Allah’s blessings with ingratitude and transgression lest he be subjected to the same punishment that this city was subjected to. But parables are only understood by those to whom Allah has granted knowledge, just as He said:

وَتِلْكَ الْأَمْثَالُ نَضْرِبُهَا لِلنَّاسِ ۖ وَمَا يَعْقِلُهَا إِلَّا الْعَالِمُونَ

And We present these parables to the people, but none will understand them except those of knowledge. [29:43]

[Adhwaa’ al-Bayan 2/458]

For more parables, see our Parables of the Qur’an Article Index

See also: “Are They Equal?”: Tafsir al-Sa’di

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