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The surat praises God for leading numerous people to Islam. According to Tafsir ibn Kathir, this sura, like Surat ul-Zalzala, is an equivalent to one fourth of the entire Qur'an. This was the last sura to be revealed, only a few months before the Prophet's death.
Tafsir ibn Kathir quotes a hadith, which states that Muhammad said with reference to this sura:
Verily, the people have entered into the religion of God in crowds and they will also leave it in crowds.
This short surah brings the good news to Allah's Messenger concerning the advent of victory, the Conquest and peoples' collective acceptance of Allah's religion. It instructs him to turn towards his Lord in a devoted adoration and a humble request for His forgiveness. The surah also presents the nature and the righteousness of this Faith and its ideology - how high humanity ascends to an ideal and brilliant summit unattainable otherwise than by responding to the call of Islam.
Of the several traditions regarding the revelation of this surah, we quote that of Imam Ahmad which goes as follows:
Aisha said that the Messenger of Allah used to repeat very frequently, towards the end of his life, 'Exaltations and praises be to Allah, whose forgiveness I ask; I repent of my sins.' He also said, 'My Lord told me I would see a sign in my nation. He ordered me to praise Him, the Forgiving, and ask His pardon when I see this sign. Indeed, I have. When the victory granted by Allah and the Conquest come ... (transmitted by Muslim)
Ibn Katheer said in his commentary on the Qur'an:
The Conquest', it is unanimously agreed, is a reference to the conquest of Makka. The Arab tribes were awaiting the settlement of the conflict between Quraish and the Muslims, before accepting Islam, saying: 'If he, Muhammad, prevails over his people, he would indeed be a prophet.' Consequently, when that was accomplished they accepted Islam in large numbers. Not two years were to pass after the conquest of Makka when the whole Arabian Peninsula was dominated by Islam, and, all thanks to Allah, every Arab tribe had declared its belief Islam.
Al-Bukhari in his Sahih related
Amr ibn Salamah said that when Makka was conquered, every tribe hastened to declare acceptance of Islam to Allah's Messenger. They were waiting for it to take place saying, Leave them to themselves. He would indeed be a prophet if he prevailed over them.
This version is the one which agrees chronologically with the beginning of the surah in the sense that its revelation was a sign of something to follow with some instructions to the Prophet, on what he should do when this event took place.
There is, nevertheless, another fairly similar version in agreement with the one we have chosen and it is that by Ibn 'Abbas which says:
Umar used to let me join the company of elders who were present at Badr, some of whom felt uneasy and asked why I should be allowed with them when I was young. But ' Umar said to them, 'You know that he is of high standing.' One day 'Umar invited them all and invited me as well. I felt that he wanted to show them who I was so he asked them, 'What do you make of Allah's saying, ' When the victory granted by Allah and the Conquest come?' Some of them replied, 'He ordered us to praise Him and seek His forgiveness when He helps us to triumph and bestows His favours on us.' The others remained silent. Then 'Umar asked me, 'Do you agree with this view, Ibn Abbas?' I answered in the negative. 'Umar asked me again. 'What then do you say?' I replied, 'It was a sign from Allah to His Messenger indicating the approach of the end of his life meaning, when the victory from Allah and the Conquest come, you; end is near, so extol the praises of your Lord and seek His forgiveness.' 'Umar commented, 'I have known no more than what you have said. (transmitted by al Bukhari).
So it is possible that the Messenger, having witnessed his Lord's sign, realized that he had fulfilled his mission on this earth and that it was time for him to leave, which was what Ibn 'Abbas actually meant.
However, there is another account narrated by Al-Hafiz al Baihaqi also attributed to Ibn 'Abbas who according to it said
When this surah was first revealed, the Messenger of Allah called Fatimah and said, 'My death has been announced to me.' She was seen to start crying, then she smiled. She explained later, 'I cried when he told me of his approaching death. But he said to me, 'Be restrained, because you will be the first of my family to join me', so I smiled.'
According to the last tradition quoted the time of the revelation of the surah is actually fixed as coming later than the sign, that is, the Conquest and the people's collective movement into Islam. When events took place in this fashion the Messenger of Allah knew that his life would soon come to a close. But again the first account is more authentic and fits in more suitably with the outline of the beginning of the surah, especially as the Fatimah incident is related in a different form which gives more weight to what we have suggested. This other form goes as follows:
Umm Salamah, the Prophet's wife said: The Messenger of Allah called Fatimah to him sometime during the year of the Conquest and he said something to her. She cried. Then he spoke to her again and she was smiling. After he had died, I asked her about the incident and she explained 'The Messenger of Allah told me he was soon to die, so I cried. Then he told me that I would be the next most celebrated woman in Paradise after Mariam (Mary), the daughter of Imran, so I smiled.'
This narration agrees with the general meaning of the Qur'anic text and with what Imam Ahmad related which appears in the Sahih of Muslim - that is, there was a sign (in the surah) between Allah and His Messenger and when the Conquest was accomplished the latter knew that he was soon to meet his Lord, so he spoke to Fatimah in the manner described by Umm Salamah.
Let us now consider the actual text of the surah and the injunction it gives for all time: When the victory granted by Allah and the Conquest come, and you see people embracing the religion of Allah in large numbers. Then, celebrate the praises of your Lord and seek His forgiveness. He is ever disposed to mercy.
The beginning of the first verse implicitly presents a concept of what goes on in this universe: the events that take place in this life, and the actual role of the Messenger of Allah and his followers in the progress of Islam, and to what extent it depends on their efforts. "When the victory granted by Allah", denotes that it is Allah's victory and Allah is the One who brings it about in His own good time, in the form He decides and for the purpose He determines. The Prophet and his companions have nothing to do with it at all, and they obtain no personal gain from it. It suffices them that He does it through them, appoints them as its guards and entrusts it to them. This is all they acquire from the victory of Allah, the Conquest and the people's acceptance en masse of His religion.
According to this concept, the duty of the Messenger and his companions whom Allah chose and gave the privilege of being the instruments of His victory, was to turn to Him at the climax of victory in praise, expressing gratitude and seeking forgiveness. Gratitude and praise are for His being so generous as to have chosen them to be the standard bearers of His religion; for the mercy and favour He did to all humanity by making His religion victorious; and for the Conquest of Makka and the people's collective acceptance of Islam.
His forgiveness is sought for the various unrevealed, defective feelings, such as vanity, which sometimes creep into one's heart at the overwhelming moment of victory attained after a long struggle. Human beings can hardly prevent this happening and therefore Allah's forgiveness is to be sought for it. Forgiveness also has to be sought for what might have been insinuated into one's heart during the long and cruel struggle and for petulance resulting from the belatedness of victory or the effects of convulsive despair, as the Qur'an brings out elsewhere: Or think you that you will enter Paradise while yet there has not come to you the like of that which came to those who passed away before you? Affliction and adversity befell them; they were shaken as with earth quake, till the Messenger (of Allah) and those who believed along with him said: 'When will Allah's help come?' Now surely Allah's help is near. (Al-Qur'an 2:214)
It is also necessary to seek Allah's forgiveness for one's shortcomings in praising Allah and thanking Him for His favours which are perpetual and infinite. And if you were to count the favours of Allah, never will you be able to number them. (Al-Qur'an 16:18)
However much one's efforts in this respect, they are never adequate. Another touching thought is that seeking forgiveness at the moment of triumph arouses in one's mind the feeling of impotence and imperfection at a time when an attitude of self-esteem and conceit seems natural. All these factors guarantee that no tyranny will afflict the conquered. The victorious is made to realize that it is Allah who has appointed him, a man who has no power of his own and is devoid of any strength, for a pre determined purpose; consequently the triumph and the conquest as well as the religion are all His, to Whom all things ultimately return.
This is the lofty, dignified ideal the Qur'an exhorts people to toil towards and attain, an ideal in which man's exaltation is in neglecting his own pride and where his soul's freedom is in his subservience to Allah. The goal set is the total release of human souls from their egoistic shackles, their only ambition being to attain Allah's pleasure. Along with this release there must be exerted a striving which helps man to flourish in the world, promote human civilisation and provide a rightly-guided, unblemished, constructive, just leadership devoted to Allah.
In contrast, man's efforts to liberate himself while in the grip of egoism, shackled by his zest for worldly things, or overpowered by his cravings, turn out to be absolutely in vain unless he sets himself free from self and lets his loyalty to Allah override everything else, particularly at the moment of triumph and the collecting of booty.
Such a standard of behaviour, which Allah wants humanity to aspire towards and to attain, was the characteristic feature of the Prophets at all times.
So it was the case with Prophet Yussuf (Joseph), when all he wanted was achieved and his dream came true:
and he placed his parents high on the throne of dignity and they fell down prostrate before him. He said: 'Father! This is the fulfillment of my dream of old. My Lord has made it come true. He has been gracious to me. He has released me from prison and has brought you from the desert after Satan had stirred-up strife between me and my brothers. My Lord is gracious with all that He plans to do. He is full of knowledge and wisdom. (Al-Qur'an 12:100)
Then, at that moment of climax, Yussuf took himself away from the jubilations and from the embracing arms to turn towards his Lord, praising him with a pure feeling of gratitude: My Lord! You have given me something of sovereignty and power and have taught me something of the interpretation of visions. Creator of the heavens and the earth! You are my Protector in this world and the here after. Let me die in submission and join the righteous. (Al-Qur'an 12:101)
Thus vanished the feeling of predominance and reputation and the happiness brought by his reunion with his family, and the picture we are left with is of that individual, Yussuf, praying to Allah to help him remain submissive to Him until he dies and to let him, out of His mercy and grace, join His righteous servants. So, it was also with Prophet Sulaiman (Solomon), when he saw the Queen of Sheba's throne brought into his very reach in a flash: And when he (Sulaiman) saw it set in his presence he said: 'This is of the bounty of my Lord, that He may try me whether I give thanks or remain ungrateful. He who gives thanks does so for his own good, and he who is ungrateful ... my Lord is all sufficient and bountiful. (Al-Qur'an 27:40)
And so indeed it was with Muhammad all through his life. In the moment of triumph, as the Conquest of Makka was accomplished, he entered it on the back of his camel with his head bowed down. He forgot the joy of victory and thankfully bowed his head seeking his Lord's forgiveness, though he had just conquered Makka, the city whose people had openly and unashamedly persecuted and expelled him. This also was the practice of his companions after him.
Thus, upon belief in Allah, was that great generation of humanity raised very high, reaching an unparalleled standard of greatness, power and freedom.