Quranic Reflection No. 444. Āyat 5:41 – Active in disbelief

يَا أَيُّهَا الرَّسُولُ لَا يَحْزُنْكَ الَّذِينَ يُسَارِعُونَ فِي الْكُفْرِ مِنَ الَّذِينَ قَالُوا آمَنَّا بِأَفْوَاهِهِمْ وَلَمْ تُؤْمِنْ قُلُوبُهُمْ
Ya ayyuhar-rasūlu lā yahzunkal-ladhīna yusāri‘ūna fil-kufri minal-ladhīna qālū āmannā biafwāhihim walam tu’min qulūbihum
O Messenger! Do not grieve for those who are active in disbelief, such as those who say, ‘we believe’ with their mouths but their hearts do not believe
(Sūrat al-Mā’idah, No 5, Āyat 41)

This verse begins with a direct address to the Prophet: yā ayyuhar-rasūl. This particular address has come only twice in the Quran; in this verse and in verse 67 of al-Mā’idah where Allah ‘azza wajall tells the Prophet sallal-lāhu ‘alayhi wa-ālhi wasallam to make his announcement of the wilāyah of Imam Ali ‘alayhis salām. It emphasizes the importance of the matter notwithstanding the apprehension of the Prophet.

God then reassures the Prophet, telling him not to grieve over those who actively disbelieve. This grief was out of concern for his people. The Prophet led with love and the impurity of the souls of the people who came to him affected him, especially when they persisted in it despite his preaching. Allah subhānahu wata‘ālā tells him there is no reason to grieve for such people.

This group who says they believe but there is no faith in their hearts are described as: yusāri‘ūna fil-kufr. Literally translated it means they compete or race with one another in disbelief. It denotes the group’s immersion in disbelief and their eagerness to outdo one another. They were striving together in hastening towards an ultimate state of disbelief. Note that striving in disbelief is different from striving to disbelief. The former shows that disbelief is already present and is increasing.

Hypocrisy and disbelief are linked in this verse. Although the group said they had faith, their words and actions showed otherwise, and was the root of the disbelief in their hearts. Allah (swt) does not give the name ‘hypocrites’ to the group. Rather, God describes their qualities. This description is meant for the Prophet to realize why he does need to grieve for them. Similar situation can be found in Sūrat al-Baqarah where Allah describes the qualities and attitudes of such people without naming them ‘hypocrites,’ (See Q 2: 8 – 20) as their actions are more harmful to Muslims than their names!

The cause of revelation of verse 5:41 tells the story of a group from the people of the Book who come to the Prophet about a ruling from the Torah. They had hoped that the Prophet would give a different judgment and they would be freed from following their own Scripture. But the Prophet referred them to the ruling in the Torah and thus they turned away from him. The hypocrites also wanted the Prophet to rule according to their desires, favoring them, as was done in the days of ignorance. But the Prophet would not do that.

Let this verse remind you that hypocrisy is deadly. It is connected to disbelief and increases it. We should be cautious of people who have the quality and keep conspiring with others to outdo each other in their spiritual diseases.

Sources: ‘Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh