The Tafsir of Surah Al ’Alaq

Tafsir is the endeavour to elucidate, explain, or interpret the verses of the Quran in order to comprehend Allah’s will, directives, and prohibitions, etc for humanity. Surah Al-‘Alaq contains the first verses revealed to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Some Mufassir describe this incident in the following way:

Jibraeel appears before the Prophet ﷺ and commands him to “Read,” to which the Prophet ﷺ replies, “I cannot read.” Then Jibraeel presses him hard until he cannot take it any longer, and again commands, “Read!” He responds, “I cannot read.” Again, Jibraeel urges him to “Read!” to which he responds, “I cannot read.” In response, Jibraeel urges him once more, but this time Allah reveals the opening verses: “Read, in the name of your Lord, who created man from a clot: Read! “Your Lord is the most bountiful.”

These scholars interpret the word إِقرَأ to mean ‘read’ based on the Quranic testification that the Prophet ﷺ was Al-Umiiyee, the illiterate one. When Jibraeel commands him to read, the Prophet ﷺ himself affirms he cannot read. His nature as Al-Umiiyee is one of the proofs of the Quran, the one who cannot read nor write, so it is impossible he read the scriptures of others or read and wrote poetry himself.

This is not a classical interpretation of these verses nor the Ahlus-Sunnah view on the literacy of the Prophet ﷺ. The Ahlus-Sunnah do not consider him illiterate, but rather uneducated in the detail of Judeo-Christian beliefs.

The Tafsir of Surah Al ’Alaq

Prior to Revelation

The Meccan community worshipped idols and engaged in past times, wasting their lives in heedlessness. The Prophet ﷺ abstained from such worship and time wasting. He often thought, how could he revere those who cannot hear and incapable of defending themselves? How could he take pleasure in tribal conflict, usury, and alcoholism?

So to escape this corrupted community of his, he frequently retreated to quiet spots outside the city, notably the Cave Hira. The cave is up a steep mountain and completely secluded from the world. He would spend time here contemplating the direction in which his local community was moving, as well as the evil deeds and injustices they commit on a daily basis. Some scholars say he used to meditate and directly worship Allah in the cave. He ﷺ was clearly an introspective and reflective man. He was not the type to cause fitnah in his community, he was a noble, compassionate, and trustworthy man.

Imam Ahmad recorded that `A’ishah said: The first thing that began happening with the Messenger of Allah from the revelation was dreams that he would see in his sleep that would come true. He would not see any dream except that it would come true just like the clearness of the daybreak in the morning. Then seclusion became beloved to him. So, he used to go to the cave of Hira’ and devote himself to worship there for a number of nights, and he would bring provisions for that. Then he would return to Khadijah and replenish his provisions for a similar number of nights.


When he was 40, an Angel appeared to him in the cave one night, Jibraeel, and he said:


This is an Arabic word in the command form, based on the root قَرَأَ, to mean: proclaim, recite, deliver, preach, peruse, articulate, recite loudly. The word does not mean ‘read‘.

Imagine being alone in a cave without any book or reading material, someone tells you to read. Your initial response will be “What should I read?” Similarly, the earlier scholars said, when Jibraeel arrived, he was not asking the Prophet ﷺ to read a passage from a book, to which the Prophet ﷺ said, “I cannot read.” But was commanding him to “Proclaim!” To proclaim and externalise how he felt about the absence of tawhid in his community, to proclaim what was in his heart and all his pondering. The Prophet ﷺ said, “I am not a proclaimer,” meaning I am not a preacher, I am not someone who proclaims to others; rather, I am someone who stays to himself; I withdraw from the tumultuous community in order to reflect. Then, Jibraeel presses him very tightly, so much so, he his ribs seems like they will break. This was to rouse him and induce a sensation of attentiveness, as a precursor to receiving revelation.

Jibraeel again commands the Prophet ﷺ to “Proclaim!” The Prophet ﷺ replies “I am not a proclaimer.” So Jibraeel again, for a second time, squeezes him and commands him again. The Prophet ﷺ again replies “I am not a proclaimer.” Then for a third time, Jibraeel squeezes him, but this time Allah responds. This is the first revelation of the Quran. Allah says:

اِقۡرَاۡ بِاسۡمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِىۡ خَلَقَ​ۚ‏
Proclaim in the name of your Lord who created (96:1)

خَلَقَ الۡاِنۡسَانَ مِنۡ عَلَقٍ​ۚ‏
Created man, out of a mere clot of congealed blood (96:2)

اِقۡرَاۡ وَرَبُّكَ الۡاَكۡرَمُۙ‏
Proclaim! And your Lord is Most Generous, (96:3)

الَّذِىۡ عَلَّمَ بِالۡقَلَمِۙ‏
Who taught (the use of) the pen (96:4)

عَلَّمَ الۡاِنۡسَانَ مَا لَمۡ يَعۡلَمۡؕ‏
Taught man that which he knew not. (96:5)


Proclaim in the name of your Lord who created…(96:1)

We saw the Prophet’s ﷺ response, “I am not a proclaimer!” which he repeated multiple times. This time, it is Allah who commands him, “Proclaim!” and not Jibraeel. Allah reveals, “Proclaim in the name of your Lord,” which means you may not want to proclaim, or you may assert that you are not a proclaimer, but do it for the sake of your Lord. Do it for the one who you remember so often. 

Another thing to note is that Allah has used Rabb instead of his own name. This plays an important part in the first revelation because Allah is reminding all of humanity that this revelation comes from the creator, provider, and sustainer of the universe, so pay close attention. In that society, “Allah’s” name became lip-service and only was taken when making oaths.

Ar-Rabb (الرَّبّ) is the one who owns everything and has complete authority over everything. He is the one who ensures growth and maturity of everything, the continuous existence, the Nurturer, Nourisher and Sustainer. He is the One Who aids and the One Who guides.

Created man, out of a mere clot of congealed blood (96:2)

The previous verse ended with created, and this one began with created; this is for emphasis, a reminder to the Prophet ﷺ that the one speaking is the one who created all men, and a reminder that this is from the one he is pondering about. The Prophet ﷺ used to contemplate about his community and how distant they are from Allah. This revelation is from that very Lord. So is this Lord not worthy of obedience? To further emphasise Allah’s attribute as the creator, he reminds us, that we were congealed blood.. a mere drop. A drop that consider irrelevant, and now man is arrogant?

The second reminder from the Rabb of the cosmos in using ‘Alaq is to remind man of his mercy. Allah is the one who placed all men in our mother’s womb. He caused us to exist and be known.

And finally, it gives example of Allah wondrous nature as a creator. How is it a mere drop has become a walking talking rational man?

Proclaim! And your Lord is Most Generous, (96:3) Who taught (the use of) the pen (96:4) Taught man that which he knew not. (96:5)

Then Allah says again, “Proclaim,” instructing the Prophet ﷺ to do so for Allah. For indeed Allah is most noble, generous. His generosity is such that He has taught man. Before He taught him, man was nothing and dispersed, but today he has a civilization. Adam was distinct from the angels due to his knowledge. Through the favour of your Lord, he enjoys pastures, hunting, leisure, etc.

This is the most accurate depiction of civilisation. What we observe in the world, the prosperity of individuals and nations, is due to Allah. First, he created them, so they have an inherent obligation to return thanks to him, and second, he did not let them to fend for themselves; he taught and nurtured them. He indeed has always been their Rabb. All praises return to Allah.

So إِقرَأ is to proclaim, and it is for us all proclaim Allah’s favours.

The word Qur’an is also from the root قَرَأَ, it means that which is to be recited. Again, this is not a revelation one keeps to himself or only inwardly contemplates, but it is one to be recited, articulated beautifully to enjoin goodness amongst people. It is a guidance and wisdom for man.

Tafsir of the remaining of the Surah

The remaining portions of the Surah were revealed at later times, yet it runs as a whole.

كَلَّاۤ اِنَّ الۡاِنۡسَانَ لَيَطۡغٰٓىۙ‏
No, but man does transgress all bounds,

اَنۡ رَّاٰهُ اسۡتَغۡنٰىؕ‏
In that he looks upon himself as self-sufficient.

اِنَّ اِلٰى رَبِّكَ الرُّجۡعٰىؕ‏
Verily, to your Lord is the return of all.

Allah is the Rabb, but man thinks he is in control, he provides for himself and he is self-sufficient. He is not in need of Allah. How can man transgress so far that he takes away all praise from his Lord?

Indeed, everything ultimately points to Allah. We may carry out the means and small activities, but Allah is the Rabb of everything, Rabbil Aalameen. And truly, man’s last destination is Allah. Those that wilfully violate the limits should be aware that they will be reprimanded for their transgression. We will all return to Allah.

اَرَءَيۡتَ الَّذِىۡ يَنۡهٰىؕ‏
Have you seen the one who forbids

عَبۡدًا اِذَا صَلّٰىؕ‏
A servant when he prays?

اَرَءَيۡتَ اِنۡ كَانَ عَلَى الۡهُدٰٓىۙ‏
Have you seen if he is upon guidance

اَوۡ اَمَرَ بِالتَّقۡوٰىۙ‏
Or enjoins righteousness?

اَرَءَيۡتَ اِنۡ كَذَّبَ وَتَوَلّٰىؕ‏
Have you seen whether he denies the truth and turns away from it?

اَلَمۡ يَعۡلَمۡ بِاَنَّ اللّٰهَ يَرٰىؕ‏
Does he not know that Allāh sees?

كَلَّا لَٮِٕنۡ لَّمۡ يَنۡتَهِ ۙ لَنَسۡفَعًۢا بِالنَّاصِيَةِۙ‏
No! If he does not stop, We shall drag him by his forelock–

نَاصِيَةٍ كَاذِبَةٍ خَاطِئَةٍ​ ۚ‏
his lying, sinful forelock.

The following verses were revealed in reference to an incident in which Abu Jahl prevented the Prophet ﷺ from praying to Allah at the Ka’bah.

“The Messenger of Allah was praying at the Maqam (prayer station of Ibrahim) when Abu Jahl bin Hisham passed by him and said, O Muhammad! Haven’t I prevented you from this’ He threatened the Prophet ﷺ and thus, the Messenger of Allah became angry with him and reprimanded him. Then he said, O Muhammad! What can you threaten me with By Allah, I have the most kinsmen of this valley with me in the large.’

Allah first questions Abu Jahl’s nature. Is he a believer? someone upon guidance? Does he encourage everyone to do good? Does he work to remind the community of the Rabb to whom we are fully accountable? Does he deny and turn away from the truth? Is he not aware that Allah sees!

No! Of course he doesn’t. He if the father of the ignorant, he turns all against Allah and his Prophet ﷺ. If he does not stop, he shall be dragged by the forelock, his lying sinful forelock. The significance of the forelock is that lying is managed by the prefrontal cortex, where the forelock lies.

فَلۡيَدۡعُ نَادِيَهٗ ۙ‏
Then, let him call (for help) to his council (of comrades):

سَنَدۡعُ الزَّبَانِيَةَ ۙ‏
We will call on the angels of punishment (to deal with him)!

كَلَّاؕ لَا تُطِعۡهُ وَاسۡجُدۡ وَاقۡتَرِبْ
No! Do not obey him [Prophet]: bow down in worship and draw close.

Then Allah challenges him. He is unaware that by challenging the Prophet of Allah ﷺ, he is also confronting Allah. Allah will therefore deal with him. Not only him, but all of his associates as well. Allah will summon the angels of retribution. It is possible to argue that they were the angels at Badr, but the consensus is that they will be the angels waiting at the gates of hell to drive them into it. Nevertheless, if Abu Jahl had stamped on the Messenger’s neck, Allah would have quickly seized him.

Allah then turns to the Prophet ﷺ and commands him not to obey him. I am your Rabb; he is not. Ignore him. Bow down in reverence, bow down in submission, and approach me. You will only become closer if you disregard this external threat and what others may say. Pray anywhere you choose and have no concern about them. Allah will definitely protect and assist you, and He will defend you against the people. They have neither the Lord’s guidance nor favour, so why are you worried by them? O man, prostrate and draw close!

This concludes the interpretation of Surah Al-‘Alaq. May Allah bless our efforts to comprehend the deeper meanings of the sacred verses. Allah hu Alam.

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