Indeed Allah accepted a firm covenant from the children of Israel and we raised among them twelve chieftains. God said: I shall be with you. If you attend to your prayers and pay the purifying alms, and believe In My messengers and support them and lend to Allah a generous loan, I shall forgive you your sins and admit you into gardens through which rivers flow. Anyone of you who, after this, disbelieves will have strayed from the right path.
(The Repast, “AI-Maidah”: 5;12)
This verse begins with a passage which outlines an attitude which different groups from among those who were given divine revelations in the past had taken towards the covenant they had made with Allah. In the previous passage in the surah, Allah reminds the Muslims of their covenant with Allah and tells them: Remember always the blessings Allah has bestowed on you and the covenant with which He has bound you when you said, ‘we hare heard and we obey,’ Have fear of Allah.. They were also commanded: Believers, be steadfast in your devotion to Allah, bearing witness in equity; and Remember the blessings Allah has bestowed on you when some people designed to stretch against you their hands, but He stayed their hands from you. Now in a passage of 15 verses, the surah explains what punishment befell earlier nations as a result of their violations of their covenants. This serves as a reminder to the Muslim community, pointing out that Allah’s, law never fails and admits no favouritism. It also reveals the true nature of the people of earlier revelations and their attitude to Islam. It thus enables the Muslims to see through them and to counter their wicked designs against Islam which they treacherously work out under the guise of following the teachings of their religion. In fact, they had turned their back on their faith and violated their pledges to Allah.
This passage first discusses the covenant Allah had made with the followers of Moses, when He saved them from subjugation in Egypt and their subsequent violations of this covenant. As a result, they were cursed and rejected by Allah. They were also denied His blessings and guidance. It also refers to the covenant Allah had made with those who claimed to be Christians. As a result of their violation, the seeds of enmity were sown among their different sects. Their hostility will continue until the Day of Judgement. The passage also refers to the attitude of the Jews when they cowardly refused to enter the Holy Land although Allah had promised them that they would enter it. They said to Moses: Go you alone with your Lord and fight, while we stay here in safety.
This exposition of these pledges and covenants and the attitudes of those who were given revelations towards them also reveals the distortion that had crept into the faiths of Jews and Christians as a result. Included in their covenants was a condition that they would continue to believe in the Oneness of Allah and to submit to Him, in return for all the blessings Allah had bestowed on them and the guarantees He had given them to grant them victory. They refused all that and, consequently, incurred the scourge of Allah’s curse, disunity and persecution by others.
This passage also calls on them anew to follow the divine guidance embodied in the final message from Allah which has been conveyed by Muhammad, His last messenger. It refutes their argument that it bad been a very long time since the last of their prophets had died and they had subsequently forgotten everything. A new messenger who warns and gives happy news has now been sent to all mankind. Their argument is thus refuted by undeniable evidence.
Through this new call to them, the unity of the divine faith becomes clearly apparent. Allah accepts the same covenant from all His servants, which binds them to believe in Him alone, and to believe in His messengers without making any distinction between them, and to support them, attend regularly to their prayers, pay their purifying alms and spend of their money in support of Allah’s cause. These are the terms of the covenant with Allah which lays down the essentials of true faith and outlines the proper worship and outlines the main features of the social system which is suitable to man and acceptable to Allah.
The covenant Allah had accepted from the children of Israel stated a specific condition and specified penalties for the lack of its fulfillment. After explaining the circumstances which led to the confirmation of this covenant, the surah mentions its terms, conditions and penalties. It was a covenant with the twelve chieftains of the children of Israel who represented the twelve tribes, or branches of Jacob’s (i.e. Israel’s) household. The terms of the covenant were as follows:
God said: I shall be with you. If you attend to your prayers and pay the purifying alms, and believe in My messengers and support them and lend to Allah a generous loan, I shall forgive you your sins and admit you into gardens through which rivers flow. Any one of you who, after this, disbelieves will have strayed from the right path.”
When Allah says to any group of people, “I shall be with you,” He gives them a great promise.. He who has Allah on his side suffers no opposition. Whoever and whatever stands against him is of no consequence. Moreover, whoever is with Allah will not go astray. To be with Allah is sufficient to ensure the right guidance and the proper support. Anyone who is sure to be on Allah’s side wilt never suffer worry or misery. He is reassured and blessed with unfailing happiness. He need not ask for anything better than what he already has. But Allah does not give this blessing of being with them as a special favour or a personal gift. This comes only after its conditions are fulfilled. It is indeed a contract which outlines conditions, and specifies penalties. The condition is to attend to prayer. This is more than merely offering prayers. It means that prayers should become a manifestation of a true relationship between man and his Lord. This makes prayer an educative element which purifies man’s behavior and dissuades him from committing any blatant sin or gross indecency.
Second is the payment of the purifying alms, in recognition of Allah’s favour for having given us what we nave and acknowledgement of the fact that what we may own actually belongs to Allah. Payment of zakah, or the purifying alms, is a manifestation of our obedience to Him in how to dispense with the money He has given us, and made our ownership of it conditional. Moreover, a perfect system of social security can be implemented in the society, established on faith and thus the social economy becomes free of the shackles which result from the concentration of national wealth in the hands of a small minority. This leads to a situation where the overwhelming majority of the population is unable to buy its needs while a small minority enjoys all the wealth. This leads to all sorts of social corruption which can be prevented by the system of zakah which ensures a proper distribution of wealth.
The next condition is to believe in all of Allah’s messengers without distinction. Every single one of them has been sent by Allah to preach the same message. Therefore, to deny any single one of them is to deny them all and to disbelieve in Allah who had sent them all. Moreover, believing in them must not be a mere mental exercise. To truly believe in them is to be actively involved in supporting them in order to ensure that they succeed in their mission.
Believing in the divine faith requires that the believer is always ready to do what is necessary to support his faith and to have it well established in human life. The divine faith is not confined to a set of beliefs or acts of worship. It is a practical system which organises human life in a certain fashion. Hence, it requires support by all its followers to establish and protect it. Otherwise, a believer does not fulfill his covenant with Allah.
In addition to Zakah, spending generously; to support Allah’s cause is mentioned as a loan given to Allah. It should be pointed out here that it is Allah who owns what we have, but He gracefully describes what we spend to further His cause as a loan given to Him.
These were the conditions of the covenant Allah accepted from the children of Israel. The reward for the fulfillment of these conditions was to forgive them their sins. Human beings will always err, no matter how keen they are to do what is right. Therefore, the forgiveness of sins is a great reward and a manifestation of endless grace by Allah. The reward also includes admission into heaven which is described in the Qur’an as “gardens through which rivers flow.” This is again a reward which Allah bestows on human beings out of His grace. No man can earn this reward through his own actions. Allah, however, has promised this reward to those who do their utmost to fulfill their pledges to Allah.
As for the penalty for failing to honor one’s pledges, it is specified at the end of this verse: “Any one of you who, after this, disbelieves will have strayed from the right path.” Hence, he can have no guidance and no way of return. The pledge had already been made, the guidance provided, the way shown and the penalty specified.