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Tafsir at-Tabari
  Tafsir of Surah Baqarah (2) Verse 213
Author: Ibn Jarir at-Tabari
Source: Tafsir at-Tabari
Article ID : TFS030001  


The people were a single community, then Allaah sent forth the prophets as messengers of good tidings and as warners. And He sent down with them the Book with the truth, that He might decide between the people concerning their differences. But those to whom it had been given disagreed concerning it, after clear signs had come to them, being insolent one to another. Then, by His leave, Allaah guided those who believed to the truth concerning the matters about which the people disagreed; and Allaah guides whomever He wills to a straight path. (Quran 2:213)

The people were a single community (umma wahida) ... : The commentators (ahl at-ta'wil) disagree regarding the meaning of (the word) umma in this passage and regarding the people whom Allaah characterizes as a single umma. Some (commentators) maintain that the people referred to are the ten generations between Adam and Noah, all of whom followed a law of truth (sharia min al-haqq), after which the people came to disagree. To be cited (as authorities) for this view are (the following):

Muhammad ibn Bashshar has related to us the following statement of Ibn 'Abbas on the basis of (a chain of authorities including) Abu Dawud (at-Tayalisi), Hammam ibn Munabbih, and 'Ikrima:

Between Noah and Adam lay ten generations which followed a law of truth. The people later came to disagree and Allaah sent the prophets forth as messengers of good tidings and as warners. Ibn Abbas says that 'Abd Allah (ibn Mas'ud) is reported to have read (the present verse): 'The people were a single umma, but later came to disagree;then Allaah sent.. .’

Al-Hasan ibn Yahya has related to us ... the following statement of Qatada concerning the words of Allaah 'the people were a single umma': They all found themselves on the path of right guidance, but then came to disagree. Then Allaah caused the prophets to appear as messengers of good tidings and as warners. The first prophet to appear was Noah.

Thus, the interpretation (ta'wil) of (the word) umma, according to the report (qaul) of Ibn 'Abbas which is related above, is 'religion' (dih), as (the poet) an-Nabigha adh-Dhubyani says:

I swear it, and leave behind no suspicion in your soul.
Can a man with umma then go astray?

What is meant is a man with religion. According to the meaning contained in the statements of these authorities, the (present) verse is to be interpreted as follows: The people were one umma which was unified by a single creed (milla) and a single religion (din), but then came to disagree. Then Allaah caused the prophets to appear as messengers of good tidings and as warners.

The original meaning of umma was a 'community' (/ama'a) which was unified by a single religion. One then spoke of 'the umma' instead of 'the religion' because the latter indicated the former. In this sense Allaah says: 'If Allaah had willed, He would have made you one umma' (Sura 5:48/53; 16:93/95), that is, adherents of a single religion and a single creed. Thus, in his interpretation of Allaah's words 'the people were a single umma', Ibn 'Abbas followed the view that they were adherents of a single religion, but then came to disagree.

Other (exegetes) maintain (however) that the interpretation is (as follows): Adam was in reality a model (imam) for his children; then Allaah caused the prophets to appear among his descendants. These commentators interpret (the word) umma in such a way that obedience to Allaah as well as the demand to acknowledge his unity and to follow his command (therefore, a manner of action as was characteristic of Adam) are also contained in the meaning of this term. To support this view they refer to the words of Allaah: 'Surely, Abraham was an umma obedient to (the one) Allaah, a man of pure faith (hanf)~ and no idolater' (Su~ra 16: l20/l21~), since here with the word umma Allaah means a model (imam) by which one is led to virtue and which one follows. To be cited (as authorities) for this view are (the following):

Muhammad ibn 'Amr has related to us ... the following statement of Mujahid: By Allaah's words 'the people were a single umma', Adam is meant. ...

AI-Qasim has related to us ... the following statement of Mujahid: By Allaah's words 'the people were a single umma', Adam is meant. Between Adam and Noah there were ten prophets; then Allaah sent forth the (other) prophets as messengers of good tidings and as warners. Adam was a single umma.

Those who advocate this view thus consider it permissible to refer to an individual with the designation for a community (jama'a) because the various virtues found dispersed among members of the community come together in that individual whom Allaah designates as umma. Thus one says: 'So and so constitutes an umma', when he assumes the position of such a person.

It is (also) possible that Allaah so designated Adam because the latter brought together various people in the virtues to which he called them. Since Adam now constituted the occasion for the coming together of his descendants, who were grouped together until they (later) came to disagree, Allaah designated him as an umma.

Other (exegetes) say that the meaning may be as follows: In those days the people were a single umma with a single religion (din) when Allaah caused the children of Adam to come forth from the loin of the latter and presented them to him. To be cited (as authorities) for this view are (the following):

'Ammar has related to us ... the following statement of Ubayy ibn Ka'b concerning the words of Allaah 'the people were a single umma': When the people were presented to Adam, they were a single umma. At that time Allaah created them so that they found themselves in the state of submission to Allaah (islam). They devoted humble adoration to him and were a single umma and were altogether people submitted to Allaah (mushmun). Then after (the death of) Adam they came to disagree. Ubayy read (the text of the Qur'an as follows): 'The people were a single umma, but later came to disagree; then Allaah sent the prophets as messengers of good tidings and as warners.' (According to Ubayy) Allaah first sent forth the messengers and sent down the books on account of the disunity of the people. ...

Interpreting the verse according to this view is in accordance with the interpretation (ta'wi7) of those who maintained with Ibn 'Abba~s that between Adam and Noah the people followed a single religion - this view is explained above. However, the time during which the people constituted a single umma according to this view is not the same as that suggested by Ibn Abbas.

In opposition to these views, other (exegetes) say that Allaah's words 'the people were a single umma' mean nothing more than that they followed a single religion and that Allaah then sent the prophets (without signifying anything further). To be cited (as authorities) for this view are (the following):

Muhammad ibn Sa'd has related to us ... from Ibn 'Abbas (the following interpretation of) the words of Allaah 'the people were a single umma': They constituted a single religion and then Allaah sent the prophets as messengers of good tidings and as warners.

(At-Tabari concludes that) among the interpretations of this verse one comes closest to what is correct if one says that Allaah proclaims the following to his servants: The people were a single umma (in the sense of a community) with a single religion (din) and a single creed (milla). ... The religion which they followed was the religion of truth. ... Later they became at variance in their religion; then, on account of the disunity in their religion, Allaah sent the prophets as messengers of good tidings and as warners, and he sent down with them on each occasion the Book in order to decide between the people concerning their disagreement. Allaah did this out of mercy towards his creatures and in order to be just with them (when he later calls them to account).

It is possible that the period during which the people were a single umma lasted from the time of Adam to the time of Noah, as 'Ikrima relates from Ibn 'Abbas and as Qata~da maintains. It is (however also) possible that this was the case (only) at that time when Allaah presented his creatures to Adam. (Finally) it is (also) possible that this was at another time. There exists no hint in the Book of Allaah and no report through which a trustworthy argument might be produced to show that this period was that of the Fall. On the contrary, it is impossible to say regarding it other than what Allaah has said: that the people were a single umma and that after they came to disagree he sent among them the prophets and messengers. In this matter, ignorance of the time in question produces just as little harm to us as knowledge of it produces benefit for us, since it does not represent an act of obedience to Allaah.

This may therefore remain undecided, but it should be noted that in every case the Qur'an clearly shows that those whom Allaah proclaims to have been a single umma were so designated on the basis of their belief and their religion of truth and that there was with them no unbelief and no idolatry. Allaah has said in the sura in which Jonah is mentioned: 'The people were (originally) only one umma; then they fell into disagreement. Had it not been for a word from thy Lord that preceded, a decision would already have been given between them concerning their differences' (Sura 10:19/20). Thus, Allaah has pronounced a threat against disunity and not against harmony and the existence of a single umma. If the people were in agreement in unbelief before disunity entered and if they became at variance later, then such disunity would have originated only under the assumption that some of these people turned (from unbelief) to belief. In this case, however, it would have been more appropriate to divine wisdom for a promise to be pronounced rather than a threat, since it then would have been the case that some of these people would have turned to obedience to Allaah. It is unthinkable that Allaah would pronounce a threat if such a condition for repentance and conversion existed, or that he would neglect to do so if all (people) were in agreement in unbelief and idolatry.

Indeed (at -Tabari concludes), Allaah's words then Allaah sent forth the prophets as messengers of good tidings and as warners mean that he sent messengers to those who obeyed him, bringing good tidings concerning abundant reward and precious return (to Allaah). With the expression as warners Allaah means that the prophets should warn the disobedient and the unbelievers about severe punishment, harmful revenge, and their eternal stay in the hell-fire.

And He sent down with them the Book with the truth, that He might decide between the people concerning their differences: by which Allaah means that the Book (al-kitab), that is, the Torah (at-taurat), should decide between the people concerning that about which they disagreed. Allaah has assigned the decision to the Book and has established it and not the prophets and messengers as that which decides between the people, since whenever one of the prophets or messengers had to bring down a decision, he did this on the basis of the indications which are given in the Book which is sent down by Allaah. Thus the Book was the deciding factor between the people on the basis of its indications of that which (at that time)had qualified as an indication of the right decision, since the verdict between the people was also set down from the other side (that is, from the prophets).

The discussion of the interpretation (ta'wil) of Allaah's words But those to whom it had been given disagreed concerning it, after clear signs had come to them, being insolent one to another. His words disagreed concerning it mean that they disagreed concerning the Book which Allaah had sent down, that is, the Torah. (His words) those to whom it had been given mean the Jews of the Children of lsrael.~ They are the ones who had been given the Torah and its knowledge. ... (His words) after clear signs had come to them mean: after they had received the arguments and the proofs (adilla) of Allaah indicating that the Book, concerning which they disagreed in their decisions, had come from Allaah and that it constituted the truth, concerning which they were not to disagree and which must not be disobeyed. Thus, Allaah proclaims that the Jews of the Children of Israel disobeyed the Book, the Torah, and disagreed concerning it in spite of the knowledge that it contains. Thereby they deliberately disobeyed Allaah since they violated his command and the decision of his Book.

Thus Allaah proclaims that this (disunity) occurred through mutual rebellion among themselves, when they sinned intentionally and committed disobedience by disobeying Allaah's command. ...

Allaah's words But those to whom it had been given disagreed concerning it, after clear signs had come to them, being insolent one to another mean: Those who disagreed among the Jews of the Children of Israel disagreed concerning my Book, which I sent down to them by my prophets, not because they had not known it; on the contrary, they came to disagree regarding it only after knowing it, for they disobeyed the decision of the Book, when its arguments had already been presented thoroughly. (This disunity originated) out of rebellion among themselves because some of them desired mastery over the others and regarded them with scorn. ...

The discussion of the interpretation (ta'wil) of Allaah's words Then, by His leave, Allaah guided those who believed to the truth concerning the matters about which the people disagreed; and Allaah guides whomever He wills to a straight path. Allaah's words Then ... Allaah guided those who believed to the truth mean that Allaah has granted success to those who are believing, that is, those who support belief in (the one) Allaah and his Messenger, Muhammad, and who  put their trust in the latter and are convinced that his message, concerning which those to whom the Book had been given previously disagreed, comes from Allaah. The disunity in which Allaah left these people alone, while rightly guiding and helping to the truth those who believe in Muhammad, concerns (Friday as) the 'day of gathering' (for worship). Although this day had been enjoined upon them as a duty just as it has been upon us, they deviated from it and changed (their day of worship) to the Sabbath. The Prophet has said: Although we are the last, we surpass (the others in following Allaah's commands), even though the Book was given to them before it was given to us and we thus possessed it after they did. Allaah has rightly guided us to this day, concerning which they have disagreed. The Jews have taken the following day and the Christians have taken the day after that (as the day of worship). ...

Concerning the matters about which the people disagreed, Ibn Zaid is reported to have said, according to Yunus ibn 'Abd al-A'la, that Allaah's words 'then Allaah guided those who believed to the truth' mean (that he led the believers) to Islam. The people disagreed concerning prayer. Some prayed facing towards the East while others faced towards Jerusalem (bait al-muqaddas). Then Allaah led us to the (right) direction of prayer (qibla) towards Mecca.(Also) the people disagreed concerning fasting. Some fasted at certain times of the day while others fasted at certain times of the night. Then Allaah led us to the (right) times of fasting. (Also) the people disagreed concerning the 'day of gathering' (for worship). While the Jews chose the Sabbath, the Christians took Sunday; then Allaah led us to the (right) 'day of gathering' (on Friday). (Also) the people disagreed concerning Abraham. The Jews considered him to be a Jew and the Christians considered him to be a Christian. Then Allaah freed him from such a suspicion and showed him to be a hanif was surrendered to Allaah (hanifan musliman), who also was not to be classed among the heathen as some maintained, who claimed that he had been one of the unbelievers. (Finally) the people (also) disagreed concerning Jesus. The Jews considered him to be the victim of a falsehood while the Christians considered him to be a Allaah (rabb). Thereupon Allaah led us to the truth concerning him. Allaah says all of this (with his words):

Then . .. Allaah guided those who believed to the truth concerning the matters about which the people disagreed.

(At-Tabari concludes that) when Allaah by his goodness leads to the truth those who believe in Muhammad and his message, concerning which these groups of the Children of Israel who had possessed the Book previously disagreed, then this guidance lies in his assisting them to (return to) the truth, according to which the people lived before the disunity that Allaah depicts in this verse existed. For those people were a single umma, namely the religion (din) of Abraham, the hanif who was surrendered to Allaah and the friend of the compassionate. Those who believe have been made an umma standing in the middle' so that they may be 'witnesses among the nations' - so your Lord describes them (in Sura 2 :143/l37).


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