The Story of the Prophet Zakarīyā in the Qur’an

An analysis of its composition (naẓm) with reference to linguistic aspects

[Note: My thinking in regard to naẓm has moved on somewhat since writing this in 2009 and is reflected in the methodology of my PhD thesis (forthcoming). I have left this essay as it was however. Also, please mentally insert the appropriate prayers for peace after the prophets mentioned.]

This essay deals with the story of Zakariya in the Qur’ān from the perspective of identifying how it is integrated into the composition (naẓm) of individual sūrahs. It will be argued that some of the theoretical apparatus used by the Qur’ānic scholar Amīn Aḥsan Iṣlāḥī, in particular his understanding of the link between the central theme of a sūrah (ʿamūd in his terminology) and its naẓm, will allow us a better appreciation of the different uses of the story within the scripture. As a result, it will become clear that such a story is not told for its own sake, but to highlight key Qur’anic themes and arguments, such as: the concept of a chain of prophecy; the contrast of the humble prophetic response to revelation with the scoffing of those that disbelieve in it; and the heartfelt plea to God, which He answers to relieve his righteous servants’ afflictions. There is also a deeper level to these narratives, as it will be seen that they have an important relationship to the Prophet Muḥammad’s situation while he was receiving revelation, representing both a comfort to his community in their difficulties and at times a radical polemic against his oppressors in Makkah.

We shall begin by assessing some of the Islamic disciplines in which the Qur’ānic narratives of previous prophets have been presented and problematising some aspects therein. Thereafter, we will look at to what extent Iṣlāḥī’s conception of naẓm in the Qur’ān can be a useful addition to our own approach to the subject, before giving a provisional introduction to the main features of the Zakariya narrative, which will also argue that it not only includes that of the Prophet Yaḥyā, but also must be treated in conjunction with that of Maryam and ʿĪsā. The remainder of the essay will focus on the various relevant passages in the context of the sūrahs in which they occur, concentrating on their composition, as well as highlighting important linguistic aspects to deepen the study.

The Qur’ānic passages that directly present the story of the Prophets Zakarīya and Yahyā, or at least mention them by name are as follows: Q3:37-41, Q 6:85, Q19:2-15 and Q21:89-90.

This material, which on the surface consisting of historical narrative, has classically been studied in two main ways in the Islamic sciences –as part of the genre of literature known as qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā’[1]and within comprehensive tafsīrs. Both usually bring additional material, including hadīth from the Prophet Muḥammad and that derived from the ‘ahl al-kitāb, referred to, sometimes derogatively, as ‘isrā’īlīyāt, in order to give more details of the lives of the figures mentioned, as well as to clarify ‘difficult’ expressions or allusions within the text. The principal formal difference between the two types of text is that authors of qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā will usually gather together all of the Qur’ānic verses that mention a particular prophet, while these are often, barring a limited amount of cross-referencing, treated atomistically within tafsīr. There is, however, a serious problem that is difficult to address within the framework of both of these approaches, relating to the fact that, in the Qur’ān, these stories ‘are not biographies, nor even histories of prophethood, but accounts of specific moments or events which are meant to give lessons.’[2] While the former is able to put across the whole range of Qur’ānic data about a particular prophet, it severs the connection between these narrations and their context within each sūrah. The latter commentary retains the scriptural placement of each set of ayāt, but may neither significantly link these to other related occurrences and information, nor to the principal theme of the sūrah as a whole. Thus there is a danger that, as a result of either of these methods, the full import of the prophetic narrative’s lesson is not expressed. This situation has, in fact, been implicitly recognised by modern writers in a genre that has been called qiṣaṣ al-qur’ān, which in relating these stories, focuses almost exclusively on the scripture’s structure, overall coherence and the moral purpose of that which is cited.[3]

It is possible to situate this last development as a tendency within Qur’ānic studies to look for greater coherence[4] both within individual ṣūrahs and the text as a whole. Although in the modern period this has certainly gained stimulus from the charge of Western scholars that the Qur’ān is incoherent, Mustansir Mir details a number of classical Islamic authors, dating back to the early Abbasid era, who subscribed to a conception of naẓm.[5]  He comments: ‘even this survey makes it sufficiently clear that the concept of Qur’ānic naẓm has a fairly long history. Beginning as an appendage to the issue of Qur’ānic iʿjāz, the notion of naẓm in the Qur’ān evolves to become a subject of interest in itself.’[6] Mir’s wider purpose in his book, Coherence in the Qur’ān, is to present the ideas of the scholar Ḥamīd al-Dīn al-Farāhī and their development by his student Amīn Aḥsan Iṣlāḥī, as they relate to the issue of naẓm, as he sees them as having gone beyond previous exegetes in both theory and practical application of their ideas. For our purposes, analysing the story of the Prophet Zakarīyā in the Qur’ān, there are principally two useful methodological insights that emerge from Mir’s presentation: the concept of a ṣūrah’s ʿamūd (literally pillar) and the application of naẓm to the task of hermeneutics.

The ʿamūd of a Qur’ānic ṣūrah, in the thought of al-Farāhī and Iṣlāḥī, is the master idea, or theme, under which all the different sections can be subsumed, whether they apparently discuss a different topic or not. Additionally, whilst it unifies the ṣūrah into an organic whole, the ʿamūd must itself be developed logically from the first until the very last verse.[7] It is obvious how intimately this is tied to the concept of naẓm, as it offers the possibility that sudden shifts between apparently disparate themes, a feature castigated by Richard Bell as ‘interruption of sense’[8], could be resolved within a larger structure.  The demonstration of such thematically composed landscapes is, in fact, exactly what Iṣlāḥī attempts to achieve in his multi-volume tafsīr, Tadabbur-i Qur’ān.[9]

With naẓm playing such a key role within the above perspective, it is unsurprising that it is given greater prominence as a hermeneutic principle. In his study, Mir brings out the contrast between the al-Farāhī/ Iṣlāḥī approach and that more typically used for interpreting the Qur’ān, by identifying the hierarchy of sources that are consulted by Ibn Taymiyyah, who is considered fairly representative in this regard. These are: Qur’ānic parallels[10], the Prophetic Sunnah, the sayings of the Companions and finally the sayings of the Successors – each one is only consulted if no satisfactory answer is obtained from that which is previous to it. [11] Iṣlāḥī, on the other hand, distinguishes nine different principles and divides them in two ways: as either qaṭʿī or ẓannī (definitive or speculative), a terminology borrowed from uṣūl al-fiqh, and as internal or external to the Qur’ān. The three internal principles, all of which are qaṭʿī, consist of: Qur’ānic language, naẓm and parallels; while the six external principles, all ẓannī except the first, are: Sunnah mutawātirah (continuously transmitted Prophetic practice), Ḥadīth, asbāb al-nuzūl, earlier Qur’ānic commentaries, previous scriptures and ancient Arab history.[12] It should be noted that in this theoretical model, the primary thrust of exegesis, as seen from the nature of the qaṭʿī sources, is from the linguistic coherence of the Qur’ānic text itself, along with those aspects of the Sunnah considered to be of indisputable authenticity. However, the very use of the qaṭʿīẓannī distinction ensures that a wide range of so-called speculative (and externally intertextual) evidence can be brought to bear in interpretation if it is warranted by the scriptural context. It is hoped that in what follows, these ideas can be utilised to provide a treatment of the story of the Prophet Zakarīyā which lays emphasis on its compositional and linguistic features, while making reference, where necessary, to certain aspects of extra-Qur’ānic material.

Before starting analysis of the text of the Qur’ān proper, it is useful to mention a few key facts, in order to frame the general context within which Zakarīyā’s prophetic function occurs.[13] We know that he has an important position in the Jerusalem Temple (cf. Luke 1:9, in which he goes inside to burn incense while the people pray outside) and was amongst those that threw their pens to decide who would take care of Maryam (Q3:44), a responsibility that he was evidently given (Q3:37).  He is also in the family lineage of the prophets of banī ‘isrā’īl, in fact he directly alludes to that in Q19:6 with ‘yarithnī wa yarithu min ‘āli yaʿqūb’. Finally, it is significant that the heir Zakarīyā is told he will be granted, Yaḥyā, is described as ‘muṣaddiqan bikalimatin min allāh’ (Q3:39), while a few verses later Maryam is told by angels, ‘inna allāha yubashshiruki bikalimatin minhu ismuhu al-masīḥu ʿīsā ibnu maryam’ (Q3:45). Therefore, the Qur’ānic treatment of the story of the Prophet Zakarīyā, to be properly understood, cannot be divorced from aspects of the lives of Yaḥyā, Maryam or ʿĪsā. For this reason, it is common practice in the qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā’ literature to group these figures into two pairs respectively, or in some cases, such as the work of Abū Isḥāq al-Thaʿlabī, to deal with their lives together within one chapter.[14]

Proceeding to structural and linguistic analysis, it should be remarked that of the four Qur’anic passages that mention Zakarīyā, the earliest in chronology of his story and in placement within the ʿuthmānī muṣḥāf  (though unlikely to have been first in revelation) is verses 37-41 within sūrah ‘āli ʿimrān. We have already had occasion to refer to a number of these verses in the brief overview presented above, but will now place them within the context of the sūrah’s naẓm by referring to the principle theme, or ʿamūd. This has been identified by Iṣlāḥī as faith and faith-oriented conduct, with a particular emphasis on presenting, to a Christian audience, arguments for accepting the new revelation based on previous scripture.[15] It is very interesting that after an opening that discusses the fundamentals of belief, including the concept of tauḥīd, the nature of Divine communication through revealed messages and the reality of the Hereafter, this is developed in Q3:32 by the statement ‘qul ‘aṭīʿū allāha wa al-rasūl…’, which is followed in the next verse by ‘inna allāha iṣṭafā ādama wa nūhan wa ‘āla ‘ibrāhīma wa ‘āla ʿimrāna ʿalā al-ʿālamīna dhurriyyatan baʿḍuhā min baʿḍ…’. Thus the narratives that are to follow have been situated as illustrations of a prophetic succession which has spanned the course of human history, universally adhering to the principle earlier presented in Q3:19, ‘inna al-dīna ʿinda allāhi al-‘islām’. Furthermore, these stories are specifically connected with the individuals most prominent in Christianity, while the address to ‘The People of the Book’ that follows includes both gentle invitation, such ‘taʿālau ‘ilā kalimatin sawā’in baynanā wa baynakum’ (Q3:64), as well as outright condemnation (e.g. Q3:70-1), in presenting the Qur’ānic revelation brought by Muḥammad as the genuine continuation of their prophecy.

The language in the passage Q3:37-41 demonstrates the aspect of the Qur’ānic style that has been described as containing ‘allusions heavy with meaning, of ellipses, abridgements and symbolic syntheses.’[16] To give an example: Q3:37 mentions Maryam’s acceptance by her rabb (Lord, with the connotation of Sustainer),[17] then uses the phrases ‘wa ‘anbatahā nabātan ḥasanan wa kaffalahā zakarīyā’, which are both in causative forms, indicating God’s provision of Maryam’s healthy growth through the metaphor of a plant and the concomitant custodianship of Zakarīyā. Following this, in the same ayah, is ‘kullamā dakhala ʿalayhā zakarīyā al-miḥrāba wajada ʿindahā rizq’, in which it as if our entrance into the new scene of the sanctuary of the Temple parallels that of Zakarīyā, except we are to understand that his discovery of provision with Maryam is something that has happened many times before. The use of ‘qāla’ to introduce the dialogue ending with Zakarīyā supplicating ‘hunālika’ (in that place, or there and then) particularises the event, while the content of his duʿā demonstrates its connection to Maryam’s answer, itself an expression of her absolute reliance on God.[18]

The longest passage of the Qur’ān dealing with Zakarīyā, Q19:2-15[19], starts from his supplication, excepting an extremely brief introduction, and gives an expanded treatment of the narrative found in Q3:38-41, which includes details that fit the distinct amūd and tone of sūrah maryam, as well as a significant addition – the presence of the Prophet Yaḥyā, whose life is summarised therein. It is submitted that the amūd of this sūrah is the contrast between the relationship of the prophets to the revelations of their Lord, which is one of profound spiritual communion, with the denial of the disbelievers. The key verses in this regard are Q19:58: ‘These were the prophets God blessed…When the revelations of the Lord of Mercy were recited to them, they fell to their knees and wept’, as compared to Q19:73: ‘When Our revelations are recited to them in all their clarity, the disbelievers say to the believers, ‘Which side is better situated? Which side has the better following?’’ The prophetic narratives that proceed verse 58, as well as the refutations of false beliefs that follow verse 73, can be seen as developing this naẓm.

The features of verses that highlight the above theme in regard to the Zakarīyā narrative include the description of his call to his Lord as ‘khafīyan’ (19:3) which connotes an intimacy to his worship and sets the tone of the fourth verse, in which he mentions his weakness imploringly. Of particular stylistic note is the phrase ‘wa ishtaʿala al-ra’su shayban’, in which the metaphorical application of the inflammation of fire to the greying of hair is particularly vivid.[20] Adding to the sense of urgency in the next verse is ‘wa innī khiftu al-mawāliya min warā’ī’, in which the reason behind his prayer for an heir is made manifest: fear that his kinsmen, custodians of the temple and presumably Maryam, would not live up to the task after his death.[21] It is important to mention that the fāṣilah throughout this whole passage is a manṣūb an’ usually taking the intensive form faʿīyan. This builds in intensity as Zakarīyā is informed of Yaḥyā; is told that despite his wife being barren and his age, such a feat is easy for his Lord who created him when he was nothing; and, upon asking for a sign, is commanded to not speak, but to indicate (auhā) to his people to glorify Him in the morning and evening. The next ayah shifts to a direct address to Yaḥyā, who is told: ‘khudh al-kitāb biquwwah’ (Q19:12), a clear allusion to the reception of revelation and his prophetic ministry. His good qualities are then extolled in a series of verses which conclude in the climactic ayah: ‘wa salāmun ʿalayhi yauma wulida wa yauma yamūtu wa yauma yubʿathu ḥayya’ (Q19:15).

Overall, it is apparent that the narrative is being used in a particular manner, not for its own sake, but to express a particular relationship between God and prophet, in order to give Muḥammad succour in the face of attacks by the disbelievers of Makkah.[22] There are also a number of remarkable parallels with the passage just analysed and the following verses 16-35 that deal with the story of Maryam and ʿĪsā. While there is not space here to comment on these features, it is interesting that these have apparently previously been tackled in detail by Shawkat Toorawa, in his presentation ‘Parallelism and Echoing in Sūrat Maryam’, which looked at aspects of resonance, echoing and referentiality, amongst other things.[23]

The characteristic of the Qur’ān to omit everything that is not directly relevant to the purpose of a sūrah’s naẓm is manifest in those aspects of the Zakarīyā narrative found in sūrat al-anbiyā’, which occupies only two lines (Q21:89-90). The relevant amūd here would at first seem to be dire warnings of impending eschatological judgment and even worldly destruction for disbelievers in the Qur’ān, as evidenced from the passage beginning with the opening verse (Q21:1-15). Yet this is tempered by another theme, which is encapsulated in three hauntingly beautiful ayāt to be found near the end of the sūrah: ‘wa laqad katabnā fī al-zabūri min baʿdi al-dhikri ‘anna al-‘arḍa yarithuhā ʿibādiya al-ṣāliḥūn (105) ‘inna fī hādhā labalāghan liqaumin ʿābidīn (106) wa mā ‘arsalnāka ‘illā raḥmatan lilʿālamīn (107).’ Here we can see the intermediate prophetic accounts as representing proof-texts for both God’s destruction of iniquitous nations and the favour granted to His chosen servants, particularly when they call out for assistance. Thus in this sūrah, the Zakarīyā narrative is reduced to the bare essentials of his supplication, the granting of Yaḥyā by means of the curing of his wife’s barrenness, ‘’aṣlaḥnā lahu zaujah’, and the mention of all three of them as ‘yusāriʿūna fī al-khayrāti wa yadʿūnanā raghaban wa rahaba’ (Q21:90) – both of which latter aspects are only specified in such terms here. It is also of interest that the next ayah, (Q21:91), alludes to Maryam and ʿĪsā, demonstrating again the link between these figures within Qur’ānic naẓm. The presentation of the story of Zakarīyā in this summarised way matches that of other prophets in this sūrah, including Nūḥ, Ayyūb and Yūnus (here called Dhū al-Nūn), which focuses on them being saved from distress upon calling on God. In the context of the phenomenon of the Qur’ānic revelation, we can reiterate the judgment that these ‘are related in order to reassure the Prophet Muḥammad and strengthen his heart against the accusations the disbelievers level at him in ayahs 3-5, and 112 of this sūrah.’[24]

The only other place in which Zakarīyā is mentioned in the Qur’ān is in Q6:85: ‘And Zakarīyā and Yaḥyā and ʿĪsā and ‘Ilyās, all in the ranks of the Righteous.’ While this is a very short reference, there are still a couple of comments that can be made. It comes in sūrat al-‘anʿām, the ʿamūd of which is identified by Iṣlāḥī as ‘Islam as the religion of Abraham’[25], as part of a list of prophets who followed him and were guided ‘ilā ṣirāṭin mustaqīm’ (Q6:87). While such lists occur in several places in the Qur’ān, this is the only place in which Zakarīyā and Yaḥyā feature within them and the pattern of their connection to ʿĪsā continues even here.[26] The placing of ‘Ilyās in this context is more difficult to understand, as he is usually put chronologically after Mūsā and Hārūn, but before Dāwūd by Islamic scholars.[27] One possibility, is that just as it is held by some that both Zakarīyā and Yaḥyā were martyred[28] and therefore ‘alive’ in the sense of Q3:169, so too are ʿĪsā (Q4:158) and ‘Ilyās – in the heavens and upon the earth respectively – according to a report on the authority of Makḥūl. However, this last opinion is considered spurious by Ibn Kathīr and, like this interpretation, remains extremely speculative. [29]

The argument presented throughout the foregoing analysis has been that there is not only appropriate coherence between the materials used in the Zakarīyā narratives and the overall theme of sūrahs in which they are placed, but also intricate composition in the precise tone and language adopted in every such case. Furthermore, it has been shown that this story is tightly woven into a larger thematic structure involving the so-called ‘Family of ʿImrān’ and beyond that the concept of prophetic succession itself. Above all, this demonstrates the possibility for a complementary literature that explores all of the prophetic narratives used in the Qur’ān on the basis of their thematic links and scriptural naẓm, rather than the biographical approach that has remained the standard paradigm in the genre.


Abdel Haleem, M, The Qur’anic Employment of the Story of Noah, (Journal of Qur’anic Studies, vol. 8, no. 1, April 2006)

Abdel Haleem, M, Understanding the Qur’an, (I. B. Tauris, 1999)

Asad, M, The Message of the Qur’ān, (Dar al-Andalus, 1984)

Al-Bukharī, Saḥīḥ al-Bukharī, (Dar Ibn Kathīr, 2001)

Eaton, G, Islam and the Destiny of Man, (Allen & Unwin, 1985)

Gilliot, Claude, “Language and Style of the Qurʾān.” Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān. General Editor: Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Georgetown University, Washington DC. Brill, 2009. Brill Online. School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). 26 April 2009

Ibn Kathīr, Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā’, (Dār al-fayhā’, 2001)

Jeffery, A, The Qur’ān as Scripture, (Russell F. Moore Company, 1952)

Lane, E. W, Arabic-English Lexicon, (Islamic Texts Society, 2003)

Mir, M, Coherence in the Qur’ān, (American Trust Publications, 1986)

Palmer, R., E, Hermeneutics, (Northwestern University Press, 1969)

Al-Thaʿlabī, Abū Isḥāq, ʿArā’is al-majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā’, translated by William M. Brinner as ‘Lives of the Prophets’, (Brill, 2002)

Tottoli, R, Biblical Prophets in the Qur’ān and Muslim Literature, (Curzon Press, 2002)

The Qur’ān, trans. M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Holy Bible, Authorised King James Version, (William Collins Sons & Co, 1839)

[1] Although the root q-ṣ-ṣ is used in the Qur’ān to designate these accounts (hence qaṣa in Q12:3), this is not at the level of technical terminology and other vocabulary such as hadīth and anbā’ is also used. Furthermore, it has been observed that all three of these terms in their Qur’ānic context connote the meaning of an example or lesson. Cf. Q12:111 ‘laqad kāna fī qaṣaṣihim ʿibratun li’ūlī al-‘albāb…’ [See Tottoli, R, Biblical Prophets in the Qur’ān and Muslim Literature, (Curzon Press, 2002), p. 11-12, 15-16 (n. 19)]

[2] Abdel Haleem, M, The Qur’anic Employment of the Story of Noah, (Journal of Qur’anic Studies, vol. 8, no. 1, April 2006), p. 55.

[3] Totolli, R, Biblical Prophets in the Qur’ān and Muslim Literature, p. 184.

[4] Naẓm, which most concretely refers to the stringing of pearls or beads, can have the meaning of ‘composition’ or ‘coherence’ when applied to a text. While it is generally preferable to retain naẓm as a technical term, for the sake of readability and exactness, we will, on occasion, use the most appropriate translation for the context. [See Lane, E. W, Arabic-English Lexicon, (Islamic Texts Society, 2003), v. 2 p. 3034]

[5] Mir, M, Coherence in the Qur’ān, (American Trust Publications, 1986), p. 10-24

[6] Ibid, p. 23.

[7] Ibid, p. 39.

[8] Bell, R, Commentary, i, xx, (with other examples of this perspective) in Gilliot, Claude, “Language and Style of the Qurʾān.” Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān. General Editor: Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Georgetown University, Washington DC. Brill, 2009. Brill Online. School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). 26 April 2009

[9] This work is written in Urdu and is, therefore, not accessible to the present writer. Selections translated into English by Shehzad Saleem, (Al-Mawrid, 2004) are, however, available, as is a translation of the commentary on sūrat al-fātiḥah and al-baqarah by Mohammad Saleem Kayani, (Islamic Book Trust, 2007).

[10] That one part of the Qur’ān explains another, or ‘al-qur’ān yufassiru baʿḍuhu baʿḍan’. [Quoted in Abdel Haleem, M, Understanding the Qur’an, (I. B. Tauris, 1999), p. 158.]

[11] Mir, M, Coherence in the Qur’ān, p. 28. [He notes that for Ibn Taymiyyah, appropriate knowledge of the Arabic language is taken for granted.]

[12] Mir, M, Coherence in the Qur’ān, p. 25-6.

[13] We come here to the issue of the manner in which to use Biblical texts that deal with the same story and in many cases furnish more specific details. In line with the exegetical principles put forward above and the focus of this study, it has been decided to start from the Qur’ān itself, leaving the possibility of utilising Biblical information unless unavoidable (such as Zakarīyā’s position at the Jerusalem Temple).  This is notwithstanding the fact, implicit in the Qur’ān, that it does generally expect some knowledge of these prior scriptural references as a kind of pre-understanding or ‘horizon of already granted meanings and intentions’ [Palmer, R., E, Hermeneutics, (Northwestern University Press, 1969), p. 24] – meanings which it has come to confirm or to correct. Here, we should remember the point elucidated earlier, that these stories within the Qur’ān are not primarily intended as history, but as instruction, and should, therefore, be situated first of all within a Qur’ānic framework. Nevertheless, we should note that this perspective, which does recognise prior scripture as a possible, though secondary, source for interpretation, is a far cry from what Totolli argues are ‘the typical characteristics of all contemporary Islamic literature’, in which, ‘any material which carries with it a suggestion of an influence extraneous to Islam is stringently rejected’. [Totolli, R, Biblical Prophets in the Qur’ān and Muslim Literature, p. 187.] The problematic nature of this latter approach is rendered obvious by as simple a fact as that nowhere in the Qur’ān is it mentioned that the wife of ʿImrān, who dedicates her child in Q3:35, is doing so to the Jerusalem Temple, nor that the mirāb in Q3:37 refers to the same. Arguing that such issues were clarified by the Prophet Muḥammad is beside the point, as it is an undeniable characteristic of the accounts we have of his life in the sīrah literature that, when calling people to accept his message, he would recite the Qur’ān and considered this on its own to be sufficiently clear, acknowledging thereby his listener’s previous knowledge. In fact, Totolli notes the unavoidable use of such information by the very authors who would suppress the sources that it comes from: ‘The Qur’ānic passages are discussed and explained in the terms chosen by the author, even when the references are clearly to certain extra-canonical traditions which are usually not cited.’ [p. 185] It would seem that the Islamic reaction has been primarily against the ‘isrā’īlīyāt,  which as Iṣlāḥī suggests, has credibility neither with Muslims, nor non-Muslims and should be replaced with critical study of the Bible texts themselves (Mir, M, Coherence in the Qur’ān, p. 27.) Finally, however, it is submitted that as in some cases non-Biblical versions of the same events are actually closer to the Qur’ānic account, it is best to carefully treat each piece of information from ‘previous scriptural sources’ on its own merits. This also seems to accord with the intention of the hadith narrated by ʿAbdullah b. ʿAmr that includes the provision to ‘narrate the stories of Banī ‘Isrā’īl, for there is no harm in it.’ [Sahih al-Bukhari, (Dar Ibn Kathīr, 2001), no. 3461]

[14] Al-Thaʿlabī, Abū Isḥāq, ʿArā’is al-majālis fī qia al-anbiyā, translated by William M. Brinner as ‘Lives of the Prophets’, (Brill, 2002), p. 622.

[15] Mir, M, Coherence in the Qur’ān, p. 78-9.

[16] Schuon, F, quoted in Eaton, G, Islam and the Destiny of Man, (Allen & Unwin, 1985), p. 76.

[17] It is consistently translated in this way by Muḥammad Asad in The Message of the Qur’ān, (Dar al-Andalus, 1984), in which he sacrifices ease of expression for an important shade of meaning that is largely absent from the English word ‘Lord’. Given the prevalence of this term in the Qur’ān, however, this decision is ultimately a grave loss for the impact of Asad’s translation, as ‘Sustainer’ is somewhat lacking in gravity and elegance.

[18] The issue of whether she received out-of-season fruits as a saintly miracle as is usually stated in tafsīr [cf. Al-Thaʿlabī, Abū Isḥāq, ʿArā’is al-majālis fī qia al-anbiyā, translated by William M. Brinner as ‘Lives of the Prophets’, p. 627], or received provisions from a member of the community, is not strictly relevant to the significance of her statement. [For this second opinion see Asad, M, The Message of the Qur’ān, p. 72.]

[19] It will be noticed that the first verse containing al-muqaṭṭaʿāt is not being dealt with here, due to the well-known unfathomable nature of this topic. It is possible that there is some relation to the theme of revelation, which we shall indicate is of particular significance to this sūrah, as it has been noted that all of these letters in the Qur’ān proceed a direct or alluded reference to some aspect of this phenomenon. [See Asad, M, The Message of the Qur’ān, p. 992-3.]

[20] Ibn Kathīr cites a few lines of poetry which show a similar usage, although much less concise than the Qur’ān:

‘’amā tarā ra’sī ḥākā launuhu                                      ṭurratu ṣubḥin taḥta ‘adhyāli al-dujā

 wa ishtaghala al-mubyaḍḍu fī muswaddihi             mithla ishtiāli al-nāri fī jamri al-ghaḍā

[Ibn Kathīr, Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā’, (Dār al-fayhā’, 2001), p. 511.]

[21] Asad, M, The Message of the Qur’ān, p. 457.

[22] Here the chronology of revelation, insofar as it is known, can be useful. A very famous account asserts that this sūrah was revealed prior to the so-called first ḥijrah to Abysinnia, which was undertaken because of particularly terrible treatment of the Muslims in Makkah. [See Asad, M, The Message of the Qur’ān, p. 457.]

[23] This evidently was delivered at the conference ‘Qur’an: Text, Interpretation and Translation’, SOAS 10th November 2005. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a transcript of the presentation, or a corresponding paper available.

[24] Abdel Haleem, M, The Qur’anic Employment of the Story of Noah, p. 44.

[25] Mir, M, Coherence in the Qur’ān, p. 60.

[26] Maryam is not mentioned as a prophet in the Qur’ān, so is understandably omitted from such a list.

[27] Ibn Kathīr, Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā’, p. 437-8. [He quotes a report to this effect, but admits there to be speculation in the order given.]

[28] Ibid, p. 517 and 520 respectively.

[29] Ibid, p. 438-9.


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