Quranic Reflection No. 542. Ayat 11:87 – Nabī Shu‘ayb’s dialogue with his people

قَالُوا يَا شُعَيْبُ أَصَلَاتُكَ تَأْمُرُكَ أَنْ نَتْرُكَ مَا يَعْبُدُ آبَاؤُنَا أَوْ أَنْ نَفْعَلَ فِي أَمْوَالِنَا

مَا نَشَاءُ إِنَّكَ لَأَنْتَ الْحَلِيمُ الرَّشِيدُ 

Qālū yā shu‘aybu asalātuka ta’muruka an natruka mā ya‘budu ābā’unā aw naf‘ala fī amwālinā mā nashā’u innaka la-antal-halīmur-rashīd. They said, ‘O Shu‘ayb, does your prayer enjoin you that we abandon what our fathers have been worshiping, or that we should not do with our wealth whatever we wish? You are indeed a forbearing and sensible person’.
(Sūrat Hūd, No 11, Āyat 87)

This verse is a reply of the people of Madyan to Prophet Shu‘ayb ‘alayhis-salām when he invited them to the worship of One God and to righteous ways of financial transactions. The sentence is a subtle revelation of their thought and attitude towards life on earth. They tell him that they should be free to decide who they want to worship and what they do with their wealth. They refer to his prayer and worship and say that if he wishes to get close to Allah ‘azza wajall he should do that for himself and not go beyond that. He is not responsible for them. The people pose these points in a question, in a manner that is condescending. ‘Is it your salāt that is making you talk like this?’ implying that the salāt should be for personal taqwā only, and he was making a mistake by extending
that to warning his people. ‘Allāmah Tabātabā’ī makes the following points about this verse:

1) The people of Madyan link the mission of Prophet Shu‘ayb to his salāt because they knew that saying the salāt leads a person to counter falsehood. Note that they say, ‘does your salāt enjoin you that we abandon what our fathers have been worshiping . . .’ rather than ‘does your salāt forbid you to let us worship what our fathers have been worshipping . . .’. There is a subtle difference between these which speaks a lot about the function of salāt.

2) The people say he wants them to abandon what their fathers worshipped, rather than say he wants them to abandon their gods. Their message was that it is a practice in their nation to do that, and there was no problem in following an established practice. They wanted to respect that which generations of their people had acted upon and preserve it for the future generations. It didn’t really matter if the gods were real or not.

3) The mention of ‘our’ wealth is an indication that if it belongs to us, no-one has a right to tell us how we should or should not use it. Every intelligent person knows without a doubt that when something belongs to someone, they have the right to decide how it would be used.

4) At the end they tell the Prophet that he is forbearing and sensible. They are implying that despite having these qualities, why was he stopping them from worshiping what they desire and using their wealth according to their liking.

If they really reflected on it, salāt leads a person to be more God conscious and righteous. It helps him to recognize the truth and creates an inner light in him. It keeps him away from falsehood and more aware of the consequence of good and bad deeds. One who prays regularly can see things more clearly and is thus able to guide others better. Prophet Shu‘ayb was fully aware of the truth of worshipping only One God, and he wanted to guide his people to that truth. He was also aware that possessing something does not mean there is complete freedom in using it as desired. Whatever we own is actually from Allah, and we are mere trustees for Him. We need to use it as He expects us to. Freedom without any laws or restrictions is not true freedom, because people then become slaves of their own desire and passions.

Obedience to Allah subhānahu wata‘ālā brings freedom of subjection to anyone else, and also from subjection to the lower self. This was the reality behind the message of Prophet Shu‘ayb (a). The reply of the people of Prophet Shu‘ayb is a lesson to ponder over. It shows false ways of thinking that are clouded by arrogance and stubbornness. This is how hearts that are hardened by years of heedlessness and sin resist the truth.

Source: Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān