As I write this post, we are in session 3 of the Tafsir of Surah Al-Rahmān with Shaykh Amin at Darul Qasim College. During the first session – that was two Sundays ago – we came upon verse 13, the first instance of the oft-repeated ayah that is a hallmark of this surah:
فَبِأَىِّ ءَالَآءِ رَبِّكُمَا تُكَذِّبَانِ
Then which of your Lord’s favors will you (both) deny?
Shaykh Amin read it out loud, translated it and then proceeded to answer it in English:
“We don’t deny any of Your favors, Ya Rabbi,” he said. I thought to myself, “That’s interesting. The Shaykh answered the question.”
Verse 16 had the second instance of that ayah. Shaykh Amin once again read it out loud and again, he answered it: “We don’t deny any of Your favors, Ya Rabbi,” he said. This time, I confess that in the deepest recesses of my mind, I oh-so-shamelessly thought to myself, “Okay, this is sort of stupid.”
Verse 18. He did it again. “We don’t deny any of Your favors, Ya Rabbi,” he said. And I thought, “Hmm. Maybe I’m the stupid one. I better start listening closer.”
I only said this to myself because the one thing I have come to learn from attending these Tafsir sessions, the first of which I attended twenty-two years ago, is that nothing is accidental or haphazard in the mind of a mufassir. Not one thing. So I started listening… very closely.
The Shaykh did this for every single instance of فَبِأَىِّ ءَالَآءِ رَبِّكُمَا تُكَذِّبَانِ. “We don’t deny any of Your favors, Ya Rabbi,” he would say in response.
You may already have some idea as to why the Shaykh was doing this. I had a faint idea myself. But then, it is one thing to talk about how good a brand of ice cream is, and quite another to eat it. So, bear with me.
Through sessions 1, 2 and 3, which happened today, we waded through the earthly elements in the creation of man, the thaqalān that are mankind and jinnkind, the travels of Ibn Batuta, insights into the industry of mariners, the perpetual supplication of all creation to Allah, moods in the Arabic language, the hard-to-reach meaning of the word Sultān in the classical lughah, and much, much more, each worthy of analysis and reflection by those way more qualified than I. And each time the refrain (if I may loosely call it that) was articulated, the Shaykh said, “We don’t deny any of Your favors, Ya Rabbi.” It had now reached the point that I started to move my lips in sync with his response, much like one does when one hears their favorite song and knows exactly when to come in.
“We don’t deny any of Your favors, Ya Rabbi.”
Finally, the explanation arrived today. It came, as always, when least expected. It was delivered with the trademark nonchalance of the Shaykh, as if he were reminding you to add a pinch of salt to the stew, but it’s okay if you don’t do it. It came upon me like a wave I was waiting for, the one that does not just cool my ankles, but washes the space between my toes clean, so much so that no sand remains, and I can now walk away from the shore, a little.
Shaykh Amin said, and I quote him verbatim.
“Being intimidated is a favor also. That you’re left in awe. It prevents you from being stupid.”
Stupid? He was talking to me now. This was the nugget I was seeking. I understand I may be belaboring the obvious, so I have nothing but apologies to offer to those of you who think so, but for those who find therapy when they stare into the air, stay with me. I have more.
Consider the scenario of a parent who is speaking to their child curled up in their lap. “I bought you that toy. I got you that candy bar. I took you on the carousel. Round we spun. We had such fun. You know I gave you everything you asked for, right? So when I say go to bed, you have to go to bed.”
The child does not bother answering the rhetorical question, “You know I gave you everything you asked for, right?” That is because of the tone of the conversation and the fiber of the relationship at play.
Now, consider the scenario of a King, a sovereign, who is speaking to a soldier from the ranks. Not a general, but a First Lieutenant or maybe a Captain at most. The king is in his chamber, and his servant soldier is in his presence, keenly aware of all the king’s favors upon him.. The king’s back is to his servant. He is looking out a window. And he speaks as such. “I gave you your family, your home, your livelihood, your very rank. Which of my favors will you deny?”
That is a rhetorical question. It needs no answer. The silence of the servant is answer enough. The king will resume his speech shortly. But the one act that would humble the servant more and raise his Lord even more in stature would be to answer although it is not needed, to show one’s haplessness before the master, to expose one’s sillinesses, to be not cool but rather the bumbling servant.
“I don’t deny any of your favors, my Lord.” is not speaking out of turn. It is embracing the apparent silliness with such profundity that it serves to add to the rhetorical dialog. Where the king says, “I am your Lord,” the servant replies, “I am your servant.”
Anyone who has grown up in the east has experienced this dynamic between “maalik” and “khaadim” – master and servant. The rest will have to take my word for it.
Of the two scenarios presented above, the former has a jamāli tone, while the latter has a jalāli tone. (This is also from session 3.) Surah Al-Rahman is predominantly jamāli but has its jalāli qualities.
“It is (also) part of His Rahmaniyyah that the criminal will be found guilty and the sinner will be punished.”
In the oft-repeated refrain and Shaykh Amin’s reply to it, is a testament to the traditional art of tafsīr. The adab of a mufassir is built into his tafsīr. The purpose of the surah is to humble the reader. We must realize through the reading that each of us – a speck of humanity, shameless sinner, ungrateful servant, basking in worldly comforts we know we don’t deserve – each of us must be humble..
In being intimidated by فَبِأَىِّ ءَالَآءِ رَبِّكُمَا تُكَذِّبَانِ is all the rahmah we need. What better way to manifest that khashyah than unfailingly reply:
“We don’t deny any of Your favors, Ya Rabbi.”
The shuyukh of guidance saw (see) themselves as in perpetual need of Allah’s assistance. Their humility is not fake. But maybe WE should fake it till we make it in the absence of any other plan to save our souls.
May Allah cover our sins and guide us back home to Him where the journey ends and whence life begins.