Small Kindness - al Ma'oun
In the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful!
Have you seen him who denies Our religion? It is he who harshly repels the orphan and does not urge others to feed the needy. Woe to those who pray but are heedless of their prayers; who put on a show of piety but refuse to give even the smallest help to others.
This surah is a Makkan revelation according to some authorities and a Makkan-Medinan one according to others (the first three verses are said to have been revealed in Makka and the rest in Medina). The latter opinion is perhaps more accurate. Yet the surah is one interwoven entity, aiming at the establishment of one of the most fundamental aspects of Faith. For this reason we are more inclined to take it as being an entirely Medinan revelation. Its subject matter is more in linewith the topics of the part of the Qur'an revealed in Medina. It is related to the phenomena of hypocrisy and false appearances which were unheard of among the Muslim community in Makka. But there is no need to reject the assertion that the surah is a Makkan, Medinan revelation, because it is possible that the last four verses were sent down in Medina and integrated with the first three on grounds of similarity of subject. Having said that, let us now consider the surah and its theme.
This surah of seven short verses tackles an important and vital issue which could very well change the common meanings normally assigned the terms "faith" or "Iman" and "disbelief" or "kufr" Moreover, it brings forth the fundamental truth intrinsic in the nature of the Islamic faith, the enormous benefit it offers to all humanity and the abundant blessings with which Allah favoured mankind when He sent them His last Message.
Islam is not a way of life built on ostentation and superficiality. The apparent aspects of the different acts of worship are, according to Islam, meaningless unless they are motivated by sincerity and devotion to Allah. Worship sincerely motivated produces effects within the individual's heart which then cause him to act righteously and which are reflected in a social behaviour which elevates man's life on this earth.
No less true is the fact that Islam is not a loose, fragmentary, disjointed system from which one can pick and choose at leisure. On the contrary, it is a complete way of life with acts of worship and rites as well as individual and collective obligations that are mutually complementary. Together they lead to a goal of which mankind is the sole beneficiary, a goal which ensures that hearts are purified, life is ennobled, and men co-operate for the common good and progress a goal wherein abounds the blessings of Allah.
A man can profess to be a Muslim, that is, he accepts this religion and all its principles, offers prayers regularly and observes other of worship, and yet be lacking in the essence of faith and sincerity of belief. In fact, he may be very far from these. For there are signs which indicate the firm establishment of these qualities in men's hearts.
As explained in the commentary on surah 103, "The Declining Day", the essence of faith once firmly rooted in the hearts and minds, will begin immediately to operate and manifest itself in men's behaviour. The surah stresses unequivocally that, if this is not the case, there is no faith.
"Have you seen him who denies Our religion? It is he who harshly repels the orphan and does not urge others to feed the needy." The surah starts with a question addressed to all who can "see", generating suspense and holding their attention in order to make them discover the target and subject of the surah. Ah! Who is this creature identified by the Qur'an as the one who denies the religion of Islam? Hence, the answer: "It is he who harshly repels the orphan and does not urge others to feed the needy." This definition of the disbelievers may sound surprising when compared with the traditional definition of faith. but this is the core of the whole matter. Indeed the one who denies the faith is he who wickedly repels the orphan, humiliating him and hurting his feelings! and who does not care for the needy or their welfare. For if the truth of Islam has in any degree touched his heart. He would commit no such acts. True belief in Islam is not a spoken word but an overall change of the individual's heart, motivating him to benevolence and goodwill for all his fellow beings that are in need of his care and protection. Allah does not want mere words from His servants but demands deeds to support the spoken words which, otherwise, are as weightless and valueless as blown ash. Nothing can be more forceful than these three verses in affirming this fact which represents most aptly the nature of Faith.
We do not intend here to indulge in a juristic discussion on the boundaries of faith and Islam. These are required in legal affairs, whereas this surah states the facts from Allah's point of view and judgement, which is quite different from the legal aspect. Next, Allah offers a practical illustration of what is meant above: "Woe to those who pray, but are heedless of their prayers." These verses contain Allah's invocation against, or a threat of destruction to those who offer prayers but are careless about them. Who exactly are such? They are those "who put on a show of piety but refuse to give even the smallest help to others," those who perform prayers but do not aptly meet their requirements. They execute the mechanical aspects and pronounce the verbal formulae of prayers but their hearts are never alive to them, nor are they nourished by praying.
The essence and purpose of prayer and its component parts (recitation, supplication and exaltation of Allah) are never present in their souls. They offer prayers only to deceive others and not out of devotion to Allah. Hence, they are inattentive when they pray. They only outwardly perform their prayers. Muslims are required to offer their prayers regularly, having in mind that their prayers are a manifestation of their servitude to Allah alone. Thus, prayer leaves no result in those who are neglectful and inattentive to it. Consequently they refuse to be kind or helpful to their fellow beings and deny the slightest charity to any of the servants of Allah.
Once again, we find ourselves presented with the fundamental truth and the nature of this religion, a Qur'anic verse threatens with destruction certain people who offer prayers precisely because they carry out meaningless movements devoid of any spirit or sense of purpose, intended for deceit and pretence, and not devoted to Allah. Since their prayers have not affected their hearts and behaviour, they are not merely useless but rather a sin for which they are liable to severe punishment.
From all these, we gather the purpose behind what Allah demands of His servants when He instructs them to believe in, and worship Him. He seeks no benefit thereof for Himself, as He is All-Affluent, but all He cares for is their own welfare and prosperity, purification of their hearts and happiness in their lives. Allah wishes human life to be elevated, happy, based on pure motives and characterised by mutual compassion, brotherhood and purity of hearts and behaviour.
To where then is humanity driving itself? Away from this abundance of mercy? Away from this wonderful and sublime path? How can mankind debase itself to living in the wilderness of a wretched and gloomy Ignorance when it beholds the sparkling light of faith before its very eyes at the cross-roads where it now stands?