Quranic Reflection No. 357 Āyat 11:73 – Surprise at God’s Decree

قَالُوا أَتَعْجَبِينَ مِنْ أَمْرِ اللَّهِ ۖ رَحْمَتُ اللَّهِ وَبَرَكَاتُهُ عَلَيْكُمْ أَهْلَ الْبَيْتِ ۚ إِنَّهُ حَمِيدٌ مَجِيدٌ
Qālū ata‘jabīna min amrillāhi rahmatullāhi wa-barkātuhu ‘alaykum ahlabayti,
innahū hamīdun majīd
They said, ‘Are you amazed at Allah’s decree? [That is] Allah’s mercy and His blessings upon you, members of the household. Indeed He is worthy of Praise, Glorious.
(Sūrat Hūd No.11, Āyat 73)

When the angels give good news to Nabī Ibrahim (a) and his wife Sarah about the birth of a son Ishāq and from him a grandson Ya’qūb, Sarah exclaims in wonder. How would it be possible when she and her husband are both so advanced in age? To understand the surprise of Sarah Allāmah Tabātabā’ī in Tafsīr al-Mīzān says that when she received the news, the vision of a baby born to old parents seemed impossible. It was also something people in society would scoff at.

The angels then talk to her in the above words. They first ask her if she is surprised at Allah’s decree. This is a negative question used to show their wonder at her. The angels ask why Sarah would be amazed at any action planned by Allah ‘azza wa-jall. Has she not witnessed the power of Allah before? Surprise that an action can occur stems from lack of knowledge of the causes of that action and thinking that it is improbable. But when Allah causes an action then there can be no surprise as He is the Originator of causes Himself.

The question that the angels ask conveys many different messages. It shows their wonder at her question. It is a message telling her not to doubt the power of the Almighty who can do all things. It is also a hopeful and reassuring statement. Do not despair that Allah can do what you have always wanted but think it is now impossible.

Then the angels talk about the mercy of Allah and His blessings on this family. It had come down on them many times in the past, as she had witnessed. Did He not save Ibrahim (a) from the fire? Made him victorious over the idol worshippers? These were the blessings of Allah on the family which would continue to come. This time it would be in the form of a child born in old age. So there was no need for surprise.

This second sentence of the verse is a reminder of the past. It could also be a Du‘ā of the angels asking that mercy of Allah and His blessings be on the family. These words are now a part of the extended greeting used by believers. Once Imam Ali (a) met some people and he greeted them. In reply they said, ‘and on you be peace, and the mercy of Allah and His blessings be on you O people of the house, and His forgiveness and His pleasure’.  Imam Ali (a) told them not to extend their greeting more than what the angels greeted Nabī Ibrahim with, referring to this verse.

The verse ends with two qualities of Allah which are the proofs of the previous sentence. Allah is Praiseworthy and Glorious. He is the cause of all actions that are good and noble. His actions deserve that His servants praise and thank Him. Majīd is someone who grants a favor even before it is deserved. How can you be surprised at Allah’s actions when He has these qualities?

This verse is a powerful reminder not to despair of Allah causing that which seems quite impossible. Even when the odds are stacked against it, if Allah wishes it can, and will, happen. Can we be surprised if it does? If the answer is yes, we need to think about the messages given by the angels in this verse.

Sources: Shaykh Tabarsī, Tafsīr Majma’ul Bayan; ‘Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh; Agha Muhsin Qarā’atī, Tafsīr Nūr.